Top 5 Strategies to Better Connect with Your Students

By Armando Pannacci

One of the greatest obstacles you’ll encounter while teaching ESL is being able to effectively connect with your students. It’s well-known that learners typically participate more and perform better in classrooms where they have connections to the teacher and can relate to the content. In the early days of my teaching career, I had to learn this lesson the hard way. I struggled to connect with my students, and it affected virtually everything. Over time, I learned the following five strategies to better relate to my students, and it paid off big time by both improving student performance and making my job easier. 

1. Build Dialogue

Creating a dialogue between yourself and your students is an excellent way to teach English while also building a connection. Through dialogue, you can teach vocabulary and grammar in a way that students can then practice amongst themselves and apply to real-life scenarios. With that said, here are some tips on how to use dialogue in this way: 

Choose Interesting Topics 
To get students talking and to foster a connection with them, you should pick topics that are relevant and interesting to them. Movies, for example, are often a safe topic that you can use to teach dialogue and sentence structures with. 
Model the Format 
Use a question-and-answer format where only some words in the sentence structure change with each student, and be sure to model this for them first so they understand how to answer or ask questions. The point here is to word things in a simple, reproducible format that every student can quickly learn by simply observing your interactions with other students. 

Question for Student #1: “What is your favorite movie?” 

Answer: “My favorite movie is Frozen.” 

Question for Student #2: “What is your favorite sport?” 

Answer: “My favorite sport is basketball.” 

In these examples, the format is kept simple so students can learn phrasing and sentence structure. Only the words “movie” and “sport” change, while the rest of the structure remains the same. This style of dialogue uses repetition, which students normally respond well to, especially younger students who struggle more with abstract concepts. 

Incorporate Personal Anecdotes 
After teaching ESL to students for most of my life, if there’s one thing I’ve learned to incorporate into every lesson, it’s anecdotes or stories related to the topic. When you tell a brief personal story related to the topic or dialogue you’re trying to teach, this adds authenticity to the lesson, brings a bit of humor or fun to the table, and shows students how the topics used for dialogues relate to real-life scenarios. 

I’ve found that my students are often entertained by quick anecdotes, such as, “One time, my friend made me watch a movie that I didn’t want to watch, and I loved it so much that it’s now my favorite movie!” Sometimes, simply opening a lesson with a quick personal story can grab students’ attention and can even lead into natural dialogue, as the students will often show interest and ask questions after you’ve shared your story with them. 

2. Show that You Care

For students to care about what you’re teaching, they also have to care about what you think about them. If a student feels that the teacher doesn’t care about them, this can have a negative effect on everything from engagement to classroom behavior. For this reason, you should always make a point to show that you not only care about your students’ academic achievements and learning progress but also their feelings and general welfare. You can do this by performing any of the following actions: 

Showing an Interest in Your Students’ Personal Lives 
it can always help your cause as a teacher to show interest in learning about your students’ personal lives, but in a mindful way. Asking about family members and pets at home is a good way to do this, though you should do so with open-ended questions like, “Who do you live with, and are there any pets at home?” 

You shouldn’t ask students specifically about their mother or father if they haven’t mentioned them first, as some students may live in single-parent homes or with other family members, which can be a sensitive topic for some. 

Engaging in Students’ Extracurricular Activities 
Through inquiry, by asking students about their personal lives and hobbies, you may discover that some students have extracurricular activities, whether they’re associated with the school or not. It’s not uncommon for students or parents to invite teachers to attend these types of activities, such as sporting events, school band concerts, or any other activities that students are involved in. 

By showing interest in these events, you may be invited, and by showing up, you will then build a stronger connection with students who will then normally work harder to perform well in your classes. 

3. Learn the Culture

As an ESL teacher, your career may take you to faraway places, and it will certainly put you in contact with students who come from different cultures. It’s therefore crucial that you make an attempt to learn about your students’ cultures and try to incorporate these into your lessons, which is a form of teaching known as culturally relevant pedagogy. If you’re unsure about how to do this, here are some examples and common scenarios: 

Integrating the Local Culture 
You can integrate local cities or familiar landmarks into a lesson for reference, such as pointing out to students how one nearby city is bigger and another is smaller in a lesson where the topic is about size and adjectives. 

Demonstrating Cultural Knowledge 
Showing your students that you’re familiar with their culture will often gain their respect and attention during lessons. As an example, while teaching in Thailand, I would often incorporate certain Thai words or gestures into a lesson, such as motioning with a traditional wai bow to students after they’ve successfully performed an activity at the blackboard. It would normally elicit a few giggles, but this is a great way to keep their attention, as those still seated at their desks will be entertained by this and will follow along to see if the student at the board is answering correctly. 

Combining Culture with Interests 
In addition to including culturally relevant topics in your lessons, you can strengthen the effect of doing so by also making sure that they are also topics your students are interested in. A good way to do this is to conduct a quick Q&A session before a lesson to gather a list of your students’ favorite local foods. If, for example, you’re teaching a grammar lesson about verbs and nouns in sentences, you can use the foods as nouns and show students how to attach verbs to them (i.e. “I enjoy tacos.”/“I prefer guacamole.”) 

4. Tailor Content to Students’ interests

When creating content, such as worksheets, quizzes, or reading materials, you should also be thinking about how to do so with relevancy in mind. It doesn’t necessarily have to be culturally relevant every time, but it’s always a good idea to use what you’ve learned about your students to present them with materials that are as relevant as possible. Here are some quick tips on how to do that: 

Create Targeted Materials 
Before creating any curriculum or materials, you should ask your students about their interests, and develop tasks around that. For instance, if your students are younger, then they’re probably interested in topics like superheroes or cartoon characters. You could create worksheets or flashcards with images of their favorite Marvel or Disney characters, and if the topic is about adjectives, for example, then you can use these characters to contrast and compare words (“Faster”, “Stronger”, etc.) 

Work Within Your Means 
When teaching ESL, you may be working for others who have more control over the materials that are to be taught and tested. If this is the case, then you should still tailor your content to your students’ interests but do so in an adaptable way. If the topic happens to be about adjectives and the students will be tested on how adjectives relate to images of animals, you’ll obviously want to make sure that you’re teaching them about adjectives and how they relate to animals. But while they may be tested on animals later, you can still use any extra time during class to reinforce what you’ve taught about animals by applying the same adjectives to things that students may find more interesting, such as characters from their favorite movies. 

5. Encourage and Celebrate

When participation is encouraged and achievements are celebrated, students naturally want to repeat this process and will continue to participate in the classroom so that they can feel good about their accomplishments. 

Don’t Neglect Anyone 
When you congratulate one student for participating or doing well, students often become encouraged by this and will follow the example. However, in some cases, students may be struggling or may feel left out if they are not receiving the same praise that others are. You should therefore focus on inclusion and make sure that every single student is receiving positive feedback. 

If a student is struggling and you don’t yet have any achievements that you can congratulate them on, you can always identify their individual strengths and point those out to them in an encouraging way. 

Always Remain Consistent 
While you’re ensuring that you keep a lot of praise on every single student, you should also be making sure that you do this consistently from time to time. Don’t simply encourage students during a single lesson and then assume that your work is done. Don’t wait until the midterm exam to congratulate them on doing well. 

Check in with your students regularly by letting them know what they’re doing right so that their motivation doesn’t fizzle out. Some students naturally have implicit motivation where they won’t always require positive feedback to stay motivated, but others thrive on explicit motivation, which is the type that you can provide to them by encouraging them every inch of the way and celebrating their successes. 

Personalization Is Key 

Relating to students by forming connections isn’t rocket science, but it does take some effort, plus a certain level of finesse. To keep your students interested and engaged, you should always be thinking of ways to personalize lessons for your students by learning about their culture, taking an interest in their hobbies, and by recognizing their strengths while encouraging them at every opportunity. 

Written by Armando Pannacci for TEFL.NET July 2022
Arm is a Canadian ESL teacher with over ten years' experience teaching English in Thailand, Korea and Canada. He has a bachelor's of social work degree and received his certificate in TESOL from TESOL Canada.


  • Benoit says:

    Great help to connect with my students.

  • Armando Pannacci says:

    glad it helped!

  • Benoit says:

    Great! I find in your comments several solutions that will help me to interest my French CP to 6th grade students .

  • The King Of Love From IRAN says:

    Thank❤️YOU❤️for sharing it with us,

  • aicha ag says:

    you’re totally right.

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