10 tips for teaching conversational English to young adults – revisited.

Hello everyone, be it old or new readers,

I wrote the original (link) of this following text 3 years ago. At the time, I had been teaching ESL to Vietnamese adults for 6 months and relying heavily on the internet and the generosity of strangers for my lesson plans. Those and games and activities were easy to come by, but tips and tricks were a bit harder to find so it made me want to write this text to give back to the community of online teachers.

It’s now been 4 years since I took my very first steps into Vietnam, crossing a small river from China with my backpacks, my only intention to buy a motorbike and drive from Hanoi to Saigon.

I am about to re-read this text I haven’t looked at since I posted it. I’m going to leave it as posted, but add commentary in italics, to let you know if I still agree with beginner Étienne.

Also, I now realize that this text is heavily geared towards Vietnamese students in particular, and of the pre-intermediate level.

Without further delay, I hope you enjoy.

SEPTEMBER 30, 2015

Hey fellow teachers, be it experienced or aspiring. I’ve been teaching conversational English to young adults for a while now, and I thought I’d give a few tips, that I wish someone had given me in the past. Those are beginner tips, nothing too advanced (so for you guys who have experience, don’t waste time writing comments like “yeah I figured that out pretty quickly *thanks*”.

If you’re curious, I teach conversational English to Vietnamese adults that are usually aged 20-30. I’ve had a few teenagers mixed in the classroom as well, as young as 15 years old, and a few students older than the average, all the way up to 40 (50). Yes, I love teaching adults.

Still holds true, I prefer teaching adults. In fact I’ve managed to almost completely avoid teaching children and teenagers for the last 3 years.

1- Get proper training

No matter if you teach grammar to children or how to book a hotel room to adults, the fact is still the same: you’re teaching, and you will shape how your students speak English. Unless you have a university degree or are really confident in your abilities, or have managed to get experience teaching without any credentials, I strongly suggest you get a TESOL or a CELTA. Why? Because they will get you prepared for a lot of things you haven’t foreseen. I personally have a TESOL and yes, it was expensive and yes, it was a lot of work, but it was worth it.

Not to mention that it will be a hundred times easier to find work.

Still holds true. In fact, I think I would still keep it as #1 advice for a few reasons. Unprofessional teachers, uncaring humans, or passionate people who can’t differentiate between your and you’re, for starters, soil the reputation of the dedicated teachers and Westerners in general.

The most important skill I got out of my TESOL personally, is effective lesson planning.

2- Keep in mind what they want to learn 

I’m saying this because sometimes I’ve planned a lesson that, in my mind, was cool and fun and would get everyone involved, only to start my lesson and realize that to my students, what I have prepared is not useful at all. No matter how much talking you will do to show the merits of your lesson, there is a high chance that they will just not “get it” and you’ll have to think of something different on the fly.

This also still holds true. I’ll always remember, we had a young American teacher join our team. He was friendly, handsome, patient, and a “native speaker” as they call them here. The students loved him, but his attendance numbers were dropping rapidly. One evening, he came out of the class frustrated and annoyed. I asked him what was wrong. He confessed that he was getting angry at the students’ poor participation and low energy. I asked to see his lesson plan and it all came clear to me: he was teaching them vocabulary on planes. Wing, turbine, fuselage…

His lesson plan was the best and clearest I’d ever seen. However, the target audience was totally wrong. These were people who needed to learn how to order food, or to give directions, how to book an appointment. They were not aircraft engineers.

3- Simple words and better pronunciation

This is something I actually tell my students on the first day of lessons, and I strongly believe in it. It’s better to have a vocabulary that can get your idea across and words that you can pronounce correctly – it’s better to be understood – than to try to use long and smart-sounding words – and be misunderstood.

My students love to use “furthermore” and “moreover”. I let them use it, but explain to them that I’ve never heard these words being used in every day talk – only in presentations and videos or on paper.

Okay, I wouldn’t say I still completely stand by that. Having an extensive vocabulary is good, but I’d say it’s better to master simple words’ pronunciation before you move on to 4 or 5 syllables words. I also advise to speak slowly and exaggerate sounds in the classroom to develop mouth and tongue muscles.

There’s this one student I’ve run into twice – at two different English centers – who has great pronunciation, but he speaks so fast that no one can understand him. I told him numerous times to slow down (what’s the point of talking if no one understands you) but he said “he couldn’t”. He took an IELTS test and got a 3.5 – which normally means you can barely hold a conversation. Instead of being an eye-opener, it just made him more arrogant.

Some people refuse to be helped.

4- You are a teacher, and a life coach 

This is something I had not foreseen at all but that makes so much sense. Normally, you’ll be a little bit older than most of them and living abroad, will have had more life experiences than them. I mean, I’ve had about 10 different jobs in my life, and a whole lot more job interviews. My experience teaching young Vietnamese adults is this: most of them have focused their whole life on studying and never had a job until they graduated. I’ve ended up modifying my “Work and Careers” lessons to a more simple and useful “How to have a good a interview” and “Business vocabulary” lessons. Ultimately, having them practice how to answer interview questions in the classroom will be more useful than teaching them a hundred different profession names. It’s also a good ice-breaker so I like to do it early in the course.

I’ve also taken the liberty (with their consent) to do lessons on the dating culture of westerners (I had a class with only women and they were very interested!) and even a sexual education class – they seldom learn about it at school, while we get it at the age of what, 12? I’ve never seen them write down so many notes.

I’ve also corrected C.V.s, given post-break up advice, tips on travelling and outside of the classroom I also became a confident and inadvertently, a motivational speaker. Sort of a big brother, if you will. It’s kind of cool.

Ah, finally something I can disagree with. The big brother position doesn’t come naturally to most people. I’d like to generalize and add that most American teachers I’ve met tended to be very serious and uptight in class, and valued their time and privacy very highly.

Not everyone likes to help, or coach, or give advice, and that’s okay.

Another angle is that your students might take advantage of you when they see your generosity. 2 years ago, a lovely student invited me for a coffee and to “catch up”. I didn’t have a lot of friends at the time so I accepted her invitation. Lo and behold, when I showed up she hurriedly pulled her laptop out of her bag and asked me to correct her CV and cover letter. I was a bit angry but did it anyways. 

The big brother position can also be abused by teachers. This position of power is not something that many people have experienced before and  can handle effectively. I’ve personally seen teachers monologue an entire 90-minute lesson on life advice, telling people that money isn’t important, that drugs should be legal and even use their teacher prestige to manipulate female students into their beds.

I find this most of this very, very culturally insensitive, if not completely wrong. Telling people that money doesn’t make you happy, when they have been sharing a bed with their siblings their whole life and can barely afford anything else than instant noodles day-in, day-out… Talking for an entire 90 minutes when all the students want to do is talk…

5- You should make them want to talk

A lot of your students will be shy. Cripplingly shy. It’s your job to make them feel at ease. There’s several ways to do this: for class discussions, divide the class into small groups of 3-4 and let them talk with themselves. Sometimes a big group is too intimidating. If you have a rebel in the class (yes, it happens with adults, in almost every classroom I’ve had) who refuses to participate or thinks they found the loophole in your activities by being lazy or cheating, they’re actually easy to trick into becoming the best in the class. Sometimes students are just super polite and don’t want to interrupt anyone, but simply asking them what their thoughts are on a certain subject will get the windmill going.

My favorite formulae (that I don’t do every classroom so that my lessons don’t become predictable and boring) is a warm-up game followed by vocabulary words, and then a one-on-one activity to get them to use these words, concluded with a group discussion. It rarely goes exactly that way (see next tip: adapt) but if for example one day I decided to skip the one-on-one, I’ll try to have it on the next lesson.

Here’s another place where I’ve changed a bit. For example, I rarely open the class with games anymore, as most students seemed to think that it was a grace period for them to be late.

To make students feel more comfortable, it’s simple:

Pair work. Pair work. Pairwork. Pairwork Pair work Pair work Pairwork Pairwork. Pairwork Pairwork. Pairwork ?Pairwork! Pair work Pair work. Pairwork x 1000000.

Also, pair work. It’s incredible.

If your class isn’t talking, there’s a few factors that could be at fault. Your topic is boring/too difficult. Your activity is boring/too complex. You’re talking way too much. You’re not waiting long enough for people to answer you, to formulate their sentences in their head. You haven’t done any ice-breaking activities prior. You keep correcting every single mistake.

A comfortable classroom can be set up by making everyone introduce each other early on. Letting them talk and make mistakes early on and gradually increasing the amount of correction you offer. Small things like smiling, laughing, relaxing your shoulders a bit, bringing snacks to class, talking about things off-topic for a few minutes.

Also, pair work.

Pair work.

6- Adapt 

This list isn’t in order of importance, but this tip is easily in the top 3. Not all classrooms are the same. A lesson you gave in a classroom that was super popular and fun might be a total disaster in another class. There’s a few reasons. The rapport you built with them, the group mentality (if the rebel has a lot of influence), the general English level of the students, if you teach them in the day or in the evening… I noticed that my morning students are usually the hardest-working and generally up to almost anything, while the last evening class usually needs some convincing just to get up from their chair… and forget about giving homework (yes, sometimes I give homework).

Maybe it’s because I myself am tired at this time and they can feel it. Maybe it’s because I’ve let the rebel get away with too much (I hate being a bossy teacher). Maybe it’s because they’ve had a long day and they don’t want to think too much, they just want to practice something easy. There’s a lot of reasons and of course no way to really know why a rocking lesson stunk the very same day, with the very same delivery.

Sometimes, your subject will just not be interesting to them – even it’s the most useful one you’ll give. When you see them struggling to stay away from their phones or hiding their yawns, time to scratch that lesson plan and do something different. My go-to game is Taboo. It’s perfect for English learners and you can find printable cards easily on the internet.

Finally something I can disagree with! Let’s start from the top.

First of all, it’s still true that the exact same lesson can go from awesome time to cringe fest in the same day. The reasons I listed above all hold true, except the morning and evening classes. At this moment, I’m trying my earnest to avoid morning classes – even private students. The part about them being hard-working was a unique occurrence.

About handling rebels, I’m not mister nice guy anymore. I’m still settling into my teacher personae, but I’m finding out when seriousness is needed, and when friendliness is helpful. As for the class rebels (I now call them saboteurs), I have zero patience with them and find that handling them properly from the very start will make a better experience for everyone from then on.

As for scratching the entire lesson plan, I would now advise to give a short 10-15 minute break and play a high-energy game before going back to the lesson or find a way to modify the main activity on the fly instead of scratching the whole thing.

Adapting is still important but should be done at home while revising your lesson plan and not right there and then in the classroom.

7- Don’t talk so much

Sometimes you’re trying to get your point across. Sometimes you’re trying to motivate them. Sometimes they’re just curious and they keep asking questions, they want to know more. Sometimes they’re just happy to be listening to you (okay, they’re still practicing their listening skills) but one tip that stuck with me from my TESOL training is this: If they’re talking, you’re teaching. My ideal lesson would have me talk no more than 30 minutes, out of 90. That’s including vocabulary and rules of games explanation – but not the warm-up or when I’m participating in the games.

30 out of 90 minutes is somewhat optimistic. The golden ratio seems to be 60-40, 40 being your talk time, but this depends on many factors, the first one being the class level. I find that for early classes, I tend to start at 70% of talk time for the first week to get them accustomed to my voice and letting them get accustomed to the classroom. Two months later, I’ll be hitting that 40% goal, but usually it’s by hosting role-playing scenarios or having them do presentations.

Also, the “If they’re talking you’re teaching” adage I now find false for the reason that a lot of times they’re not even focusing on using the right grammar or the brand-new vocabulary, or actually just chit-chatting in their own language.

8- Decide for them

Sometimes you just don’t have a choice: you have to pick the topic or make the teams for them. After a month of teaching a class 3 times a week it can be hard to find interesting subjects or something to talk about that will captivate everyone, but no matter how many times you ask them what they want to talk about, they will keep silent. I don’t know if it’s out of respect for me or because literally anything will do.

Same thing for volunteers, it’s quite hard to get someone to break the ice, especially the first 2-3 weeks. I have my “magic marker”, which is just a normal marker that I spin on the floor, and whoever it points goes first. I like to just drop the marker on the floor without spinning it to point directly at the rebel.

A little twist I like to do is give the marker to the person who just spoke, and tell them that they get to pick who’s next – they usually pick the rebel or the clown of the class.

By the 3rd week usually I have given them enough motivation and positive criticism that their confidence is boosted and they want to go first. Usually.

Ah, past Étienne. So optimistic. I now absolutely 100% decide for them.

For lessons, even if they’re private students and hired me to teach them English for a specific purpose, I’ll design everything myself. If you let them decide, they soon think that you don’t know what you’re doing. Worse, they think that they know what teaching’s like – and that it’s easy. I had a spectacular failure with my last private group, more than a year ago, where a girl decided for the rest of the group that from now on every class would be a presentation – only to never prepare herself and make everyone else angry. The tight relationship that took 2 months to establish was destroyed in 2 sessions and I gave up on the contract shortly after.

In fact, for the 25-lesson course that my workplace sells, I have my own list of lessons that I go through. I don’t ask the students what they want to study at all. I just alternate the lesson order from time to time or make up new ones to adjust to the class level, but I’m now 100% in control.

AS for presentations, I still like to ask for volunteers but it’s mostly to identify my leaders and saboteurs. I usually use the “magic marker” and let the student that finished pick the next presenter.

As for group-making, I very rarely let them choose their team.


I think that this is the most important piece of advice I can give anyone. Be prepared. Have a lesson plan ready. Don’t – I repeat – do not try to wing it. First of all, the students will see right away. Second, they deserve your professionalism and nothing else. I don’t prepare massive lesson plans detailed to the single word and the tiny second, but I do have a list of words I want them to learn, rules for my games, what time I should start any steps, things like that. I also leave myself a place to take notes like what they asked me, what took so long, what didn’t work so well this time around and why.

Of course, adapting works in synergy with being prepared. Maybe your lesson plan is in fact boring. Maybe someone will ask you a good question that gets everyone involved – this is a teacher’s wet dream. Dump your lesson plan on the desk, sit with them and engage every one. Ride that wave as long as you can.

Also, if this happens, it just means you have leftover material for your next class, so less to prepare.

Hmm, there’s a big flaw here, and it’s that I’m assuming that you are as alone now as I was back then. I mean, no support from the school or center – no book, no curriculum, no advice, no printer – nothing.

However, be prepared still holds true. I’ve seen a lot of teachers being handed their lesson plans and schedules days or weeks prior to the actual class but they still showed up barely 15 minutes early to the center and tried to read the whole thing on the spot. Results: boring lessons by an unprepared, not confident teacher… and students complaints.

Read the lesson plan beforehand, whether it’s yours or someone else’s. Practice the game by yourself. Make sure all your material is printed and ready.

As for dumping your entire lesson plan, don’t. Judge how much the class is invested in the new conversation, but remember that you have a plan, and you’re in charge. A 2 to 5 minute tangent is acceptable, but you have to remain at the steering wheel. Promise them to get back to it at the end of the class, if there’s time.

10- Learn about their culture and language

My students loooooove it when I say a few words in their own language: không sao, đúng rồi, tiếp tục, trời ơiiiiii. I get bursts of laughter, the ones that are starting to doze off start paying attention again, and it just shows that you’re in the same boat as them – you’re learning as well.

Remain a student all your life.




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