Today, a prospective teacher who came in to visit my first and second grade class seemed genuinely impressed with the amount of material they’ve learned so far. They came as complete beginners, and they’ve been in my EFL classes for six hours a week for just under a year, doing the Up and Away series.

I made a comment about how one of my students really struggled with his reading compared to the rest of the class, and the visiting teacher told me that the kid was equivalent to third year students at his school. Then, he went on to ask me several detailed questions about how my students had made so much progress in a single year. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to answer everything before I had to get ready for my next class.


I had planned to email my thoughts to him directly, but then it occurred to me that others might have the same questions. Undoubtedly, some readers will have differing opinions, and that’s fine. However, if my ideas help a few teachers and a few more students, then I’m more than happy to share them.

The Main Ideas

Don’t burden beginners with a 100% English classroom

This should be self-explanatory. With only six hours a week of class time, complete beginners need support via their first language. The goal isn’t to minimize the amount of Chinese they use in class; it’s to maximize the amount of English they use. This makes a huge difference and it’s worth it, even though it requires a teacher with more language skills.

Motivate the students

In many ways, motivation is the single most important factor in teaching. Every great teacher I’ve studied has been a master at it. If your students aren’t at least trying do to whatever class activities you give them, then the rest is a loss. Personally, I’ve gotten the best results from using a multi-pronged approach. If the kids don’t do what they should be doing, there are consequences. On the other hand, when they go the extra mile, there are rewards. Quick 1 minute motivational speeches here and there also go a long way.

Teach Phonics.. thoroughly

Teaching phonics takes time. There’s no doubt about that. Just getting students to the point where they can hear the difference between the various long and short vowel sounds, the “ar”, “er/ir/ur”, “or/ore/oar”, “air/are”, “ear/eer”, “ire/ier”, “ure”, and “ow/ou” sounds can easily take a couple of months. The “ng” sounds (i.e. “rang” v.s. “rain”) are a nightmare for many Taiwanese people. And after that, it takes dozens of phonics rules before students can reliably sound out most English words they see or spell out words they hear.

This time is well spent, though. Teaching phonics will help students improve their listening skills, will improve their pronunciation, and it will help them read unfamiliar words. Without implementing a serious phonics curriculum, it’s difficult to use Dr. Seuss books or other books for English speaking children. With good phonics, though, the kids learn a lot reading them and they love them.

Don’t make the students memorize huge spelling lists

Unfortunately, an obsession with spelling runs rampant through east Asian EFL. Worse still, it takes a lot of time to get eight year-olds to be able to accurately spell a list of twenty words. Rather than making an effort to do so, I just keep teaching them more material. Comprehension is necessary before I’ll go on. Perfect spelling isn’t.

Maybe while the students are on the Level 2 Up & Away book, they have problems spelling half or even two thirds of the words in the book, but a few months later, they’ll already be on book 4 and they’ll find they can spell quite a few more of the words from book 2. As their phonics skills improve, their mistakes become more and more like those of native speakers (e.g. misspelling “meal” as “meel” rather than as “mil”), and as they read more their mistakes become less frequent.

Get the students reading actual stories ASAP

I can’t emphasize enough how important reading is. It’s the single easiest way for kids to get more English input. It reinforces all the grammar and vocabulary they’ve learned, and they usually enjoy it, too.

Keep notes

If you notice most of your students have the same problem, then it’s probably your fault, not theirs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s related to grammar, pronunciation, reading skills, or even classroom behavior. If the majority of the class has the problem then it’s your job as a teacher to find a way to fix it.

Periodically reviewing your notes and looking for things to improve makes all the difference in the long run.

Related Posts:
Dr. Seuss Is My Friend
The Hardest Week at School Yet
1st & 2nd Grader Spelling Drill
Language Skills and ESL Teachers