Back in the Classroom (and super happy!)

This is how I feel today, even though it’s actually raining outside here.

lifelong learning post photo at salinas

Today I re-begin my life as an ESL teacher. After leaving Montreal, I took a Quebec camping trip, visited my family in Wisconsin and South Dakota, spent time temp-living in northern Argentina, and then settled in Vancouver. I was lucky to find work early on in my search (I actually only interviewed for one job and took it) and really enjoy the job I landed. I like the people I work with, my bosses are very willing to work around schedules and quite generous with letting us try samples and fun foodstuffs. That said, I was definitely missing the classroom (and libraries, too. Don’t think I’ll ever not miss them, even if I opt for work outside of them.).

Through a bit of luck, good timing, connections (they don’t hurt, huh?), and flexible employers, I am happily starting as an ESL teacher with the same company I worked for in Montreal. I’ve spent the last couple nights reviewing my teacher portfolio and notes, reading some of the materials my boss has sent me, and generally flip-flopping between elated and nervous.

Now, I just need to find that crochet pouch and those teacher shoes…

ESL teacher's toolkit

Happy Monday everyone! And I really mean that this Monday!

How To Learn A Foreign Language While Teaching Your Own

I am lucky enough to–and/or naive enough to have moved to and now– live in a francophone  province before actually learning French. The thing is, as many immigrants find out….even with a job and new friends in a new country, it can be difficult to have frequent access to locals. At my job, however,

I am fortunate to have daily, hour-long conversations with francophone Quebecois.

It’s great, really. People are forced to talk with me, and unless we happen to be specifically teaching a lesson on small talk, we can skip the small talk. It’s awesome.

There’s only one problem: we have to speak in English the whole time.

Although I found a job that requires only English (knowing no French would still make it difficult when navigating office buildings, asking admin assistant for help, etc.), I intend to leave Québec being as close as possible to bilingue. Come hell or high water. Therefore,

even when speaking 99.99 percent English, I still make a point to improve my French.

And you can do the same. How is this possible? I’m glad you asked. Read on, friends, read on.

First, I think it is probably obvious, but I want to state that you never let your interest in the native language of your learners become the focus of the class. Sure, I could weasel out a few minutes of French before the class started if I wanted, but I don’t want to get my students into the habit of speaking with me in French and I want them to get their money’s worth. They are paying. I’m not. While I certainly do not object to enjoying your work and letting it enrich your life, I will draw the line at me using their time to explicitly teach me French. (Though I think some students are more amused at the idea of me trying to speak than they are at themselves learning English).

1. Decide How To Answer the Inevitable Question: Do You Speak French?

Why, yes, I do speak a bit.
Why, yes, I do speak a bit.

Of course learners are curious about this. I know that I was always oober curious to know more about my French instructors. As an instructor, you’re going to need to decide how to field questions about your level in other languages.

I have taken a couple approaches with my classes. The first session I taught, I followed some advice from a well-meaning individual and let a couple classes believe that I spoke little to no French so that they would not rely on direct translations in class. This was okay, although in both cases, the cat was let out of the bag when they overheard me in the elevator with someone who had addressed me in French or someone asked when we needed the conference room.

Since then, I’ve been more forthcoming, letting students know that I understand their struggles and am going through a similar process. This also allows me to more freely express interest in their culture and identify with students. To prevent falling back on asking for direct translations, I simply set a clear standard of “immersion” early on in the sessions. I vote for option two.

2. Pick up some cultural knowledge…

…which you then use to learn after class.

Even in my business-centered English courses, we take a bit of time to discuss personal interests, what students did on the weekends, etc. And even the most intrinsically-motivated, practical executive could tire of practicing the passive voice in relation to expense reports. So, take a break from your scheduled material when need be and ask, “When was your favorite movie made?” to practice passive voice. When a movie, singer, comedian, or celebrity that I don’t know is mentioned, I make a note. (And hells to the no, you aren’t going to recognize the name of every comedian from Quebec…) One student even loaned me a significant chunk of his DVD collection.

In my experience, once I let students know that I was also interested in learning their language and learning more about their culture, the recommendations, the anecdotes, and the tips just keep coming. This makes the conversation flow more easily, which is good for their learning, too, not just yours.

I scrawl down comments during class of things I want to YouTube, Netflix, (yes, I’m attempting to use that as a verb), or Wikipedia after class. This includes local recipes. It is important to note that the focus of the class needs to remain on the students and not devolve into a sort of tell-me-more-about-things-I-want-to-know-about session. Let learners express themselves. If they want to relate every grammar exercise to hockey (not my personal interest, but this is not completely unexpected here), let them.  Even hockey talk can turn into a recommendation of solid films like Maurice Richard and Les Boys.

I’ve literally spent tens, maybe even hundreds, of hours listening or reading French based off of the discussions I’ve had in my classes. Not all has been great, but most has been good, and all of it has been practice.

3. Notice repeated mistakes…

…and try to understand why your students are making them.

If you hear someone make a mistake in class, you should address it. Go ahead and do that. But if you’re a good teacher, you’ve probably already taken note of the most common mistakes for language learners. For example, it won’t take long before you catch a francophone learner saying, “I take a coffee and a muffin for breakfast,” or “Are you sure this is the good answer?”

There is a reason that those who speak the same first language make similar mistakes.

They are working with their frame of reference. Usually, you can bet that these reoccurring mistakes will teach you something important. So, if you, like I, are surrounded by people who speak the language you want to, take notes on their mistakes in English.

Yes, in French, you take (not have) your meals and answers can be good or bad (not right or wrong). You’ll also learn oodles about false cognates this way. If you’re teaching francophones, you’ll never forget that actuellement and actually are simply not the same thing.

4. Listen for expressions that don’t quite make sense…

…and back-translate them.

blind as a bat, aveugle comme une taupe

Sometimes expressions seem to come out of left-field. Wait, what?! Why is someone “putting a rabbit” on someone else when we were talking about making appointments? Why do you keep killing bears and selling them when we were talking about investments? 

Obviously, I ask for clarification in class, offer up the English expression when it’s apparent, and don’t use class time to ask much about the expression in French. But you can bet that I am quietly taking a note. I’ll translate it directly and enter it into one of my favorite websites, There, you can see these expressions used in context and find some approximate translations. Often, the direct translation simply doesn’t work in these cases.

Ahhh! Poser un lapin à quelqu’un ! Ahhh! Ne vends pas la peau d’ours avant de l’avoir tué.

5. Accept information/advice students provide…

…and use it!

mosaiculture woman bird
Mosaiculture exhibition recommended to me by a student

Like number one, learners are more than happy to help you out by giving you advice. I’ve been in Montréal a year and a half, and I know my neighborhood and the neighborhood I work in quite well. Beyond that, there’s still a lot of the city proper (not to mention the metropolitan area and province) left for me to explore. Sometimes learners bring me brochures about events they think I’d like or business cards for restaurants I should try. You bet I like a heads up on interesting events where I must force myself to speak with strangers get to push myself outside of my language comfort zone.

Sometimes learners even bring me informational booklets about their company history (maybe not the most riveting literature out there, but it comes in handy in class discussions). Occasionally, learners have brought in articles from newspapers or magazines they like (sometimes entire issues of old magazines) to give or recommend. Not everything peaks my interest, but hey, if it’s in French, I’ll read it. It also shows that you’re appreciative of the learner’s gesture. It’s nice to know they made they effort to bring something to you, simply because they thought you’d be interested.


See, it is possible to pick up some French while teaching strictly in English. Just be sure to put it into practice after class.

Do any other ESL teachers, or ex-ESL teachers, have any other tips on how to learn the local language while teaching in English? Have you tried any of the suggestions listed above? Which of them helps the most?

Gift Guide for ESL/EFL Instructors

This guide is meant for people who buy gifts someone in their life (spouse, sister, close friend, child, etc.) who happens to be a language teacher. If you’re a student or parent of a student looking to give a small gift of appreciation to the language instructor at your school or institution, check out a different list for more appropriate suggestions or look for the gifts followed by ($).

Tablet of his/her choice ($$$)


I’m partial to the trusty ol’ iPad myself. Because that’s what I own. I use it in every single class. For listening exercises. For verifying spelling (yes, I teach English, but that doesn’t mean I don’t forget how to spell things now and again). For storing digital copies of teachers’ books.

A few free applications I use often in class include Paper (for anything from simply writing new vocabulary words or playing pictionary-like games), Voice Record for making and sharing audio clips in class, and the ever-worthy Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Of course, the Kindle Fire, the Google Nexus, and any other popular tablet can probably get the job done as well.

Traveling Teacher’s Kit ($)

ESL teacher's toolkit

Instruction books or gift certificate to a bookstore ($$)

For English instructors who are starting to build an EFL/ESL collection, I recommend checking to see if they’ve already got the following books (click on images to go to book descriptions and source):

azar grammar bookenglish idiomsOP picture dictionary

For anyone in Montreal, these books (and hundreds more!) can be found at the Librairie Michel Fortin. Sometimes when I go in, I think I may never come out.

Games that will work in any language or focus on words ($$)

If the person you are buying for is not in a permanent location, remember that you may wish to buy smaller games. I’ve had a great time playing  Spot It in three different languages using the same exact game. It’s portable and adaptable.

spot it (Source)

I’m also a fan of taking a break to use MadLibs or Apples to Apples during class. Both are great for introducing new vocabulary and coaxing students into talking.

Witty mugs (reusable to-go coffee mugs) or totes with puns or language expressions ($) 

I could definitely see myself carrying my books in this:

bag_ipa_tote_bag Source

What?! That’s hil-ar-i-ous!

The options are plentiful. Language teachers are lucky to be able to get away with using almost any fun activity in class, as long as everyone is speaking in the target language, it’s useful. Ask the person you want to buy for what she is lacking in class or what types of activities work best in her classes, and she’ll probably freely offer up some item that could be purchased as a gift. She probably won’t even have a hunch that you’re asking for gift-choosing purposes.

Happy shopping!

FYI: I receive no money from affiliate links or for any of these recommendations.

The ESL Teacher’s Toolkit

ESL teacher's toolkit

ESL teacher's toolkit

With Christmas and the holiday break quickly approaching, I thought someone out there might be thinking about what items they should consider when restocking their teaching supplies or could buy for that special ESL/EFL teacher he or she knows. Obviously, this list could apply to a teacher or any language, so if you know an on-the-go Spanish or Mandarin teacher, I am certain they would be appreciate of the same items. Below is a list of my must-haves when teaching.

A super cool (or granny) bag/pouch

crocheted drawstring pouch
My ESL toolkit primarily fits into a crocheted drawstring pouch. I confess, it was actually a mistake project, but it ended up being extremely handy for this reason. If your ESL teacher of choice only teaches within the same classroom, then this may or may not be important for them. For me, however, it is essential for organization, because I teach each class in a different building in different areas of the city. It measures approximately seven inches long and has a diameter of at least three inches. Obviously, the options here are limitless. Having something homemade is often a conversation starter with my students, but choose this part of the kit based on your/the teacher’s interests and tastes.

3×5 colored index cards
Think flash cards. Impromptu activities. In-class games. Why is colored better than white in this case? You can sort adjectives, adverbs, nouns, and verbs in a hurry. Or any other categories you may need to separate. I’ve cut all mine up, so I have no photo for you. I need to replenish my stock before the new sessions start in January.

Scissors (small enough to fit into said pouch)

small scissors
Don’t try carrying around a regular-sized pair in your daily tote bag, or you’ll end up like me. Now I’ve got a tote to patch and winter coat that needs sewing. These are handy when you need to hand out small pieces of scrap paper, threaten students who refuse to speak in English in English class or cut those note cards into smaller flash cards.

Quality pens 


No-one wants to waste his or her time digging through a bag to find a pen that works in the middle of class. I typically keep one black pen and one blue pen at all times. I stay clear of red pens for corrections, so instead just opt for the color the student didn’t use on his or her paper.

Dry-erase markers in various colors


Since I move from classroom to classroom (and building to building), I cannot be sure that a) there will be markers, or b) that these markers haven’t dried out. Truth be told, not every room has a white board, but they are standard in most places I teach. Obviously, we don’t need a rainbow here. But we do need at least three colors, so that corrections can be distinguished from the original sentence, or the object pronouns stand out in different colors, etc.

A Stylus (or a pen with a stylus) for iPad if your teacher is tech savvy


This was a gift from one of my students this session (they had given these out to every person in her department and had some extras laying around). She simply couldn’t believe I had been using my finger to write on the iPad. I shrugged at first, but quickly converted to her point of view. It’s so much handier for iPad use and does look much more professional to use in class. She’s warned me that my pen is not the highest quality, so mother/father/husband, I’m in the market for another one next time you’re looking to send something this way. 😀

A highlighter
One or two solid highlighters will do the job here. It’s nice to write the word Master on one of your verb chart copies, so you don’t lose the original, to highlight the great sentences students [hopefully] write, or to highlight the main points in your lesson plan.

A die

a die
You know that old board game you haven’t played in years and aren’t intending to play? Save the die. Not only will you wow your students by telling them that “die” is the singular form of “dice,” but this can be used to spice up almost any activity. If you want to save some paper/note cards, but still add an element of chance to your [boring] grammar exercises, have your students roll that die. Also, that way, none of your students can claim that you keep giving him or her the hard ones. This is my secret weapon, and my students have even asked to use it a few times when I wasn’t planning on it.

Like I said, I’ve got to keep things light since I spend a lot of time walking/bussing between classrooms. I always have my iPad, the course book (usually a digital version on the iPad), and a folder with the class handouts with me as well.  While I’d love to be able to carry around more games, movies, and random aids, I simply do not have a Mary Poppins bag at my disposal. I’d love to hear advice from other language teachers and tutors, though.

What other items are must-haves in a language teacher’s toolkit?

Review of Verb Tenses


Verb tenses are only one part of grammar, but when I ask students what grammar points they think they need to review, they almost always say verb tenses. I have looked for “the perfect” verb chart, with construction, usage, examples, and key words all included, but did not find a free, available version online.

My verb chart is not 100% complete, but am sharing it as a review tool for any ESL learners who are interested. I did say this was review week, after all! Teachers and educators, feel free to use for any educational purposes. I am still working on it and looking for feedback. Specifically, if you know of any helpful key words/signal words, please let me know.

Please click the link below to access the file (you can save it once the PDF is open):

I’m extremely curious to know what you think. I welcome all suggestions and comments about the chart.

Happy verb review for ESL learners!

Getting into the “Swing of Things” | ESL Expressions

swing of things esl expression

Happy Monday!

Because we have started or will soon be starting our regular routines (end of summer), I wanted to share an expression about habits and routine.

Swing can be a noun, the type of playground equipment used in the picture above. Swing is also a verb, or the action or moving back and forth on the swing.

When we get into the swing of things, this means we are adjusting or adapting to a routine. You could also say that you are getting used to a routine (check out the post on used to). The action or the routine is becoming a habit.

If this is an old routine (back to school), you can say you are “getting back into the swing of things.”

This week’s post will be about reviewing, or getting back into the swing of things when studying English. Have a great week!