A Philosophy of ESL Teaching and Learning

By Howard Mayo
A comprehensive ESL philosophy relative to what is needed on the road toward “successful” teaching and learning

All is not yet known about how to successfully teach ESL all the time. Why? Because what appears to be successful classroom teaching and learning is fleeting and intermittent given the progressive and recessive nature of Second Language acquisition. And it’s too presumptuous to think that we cannot know more. However, there are teaching methods and approaches and learning strategies and processes that appear to work—at least at the moment of instruction but only after practice, study and time. Even if we follow the same student from pre-beginning to fluency, we can never know exactly how we successfully contributed to his or her learning progress at any point in time along the way. The students’ scholarly contribution muddles the teacher’s contribution. SLA research proved that a student’s test on Monday would result in a score of 70%. On Wednesday, it would generate a 75%. The following week, 66%—all on the exact same test. Who was responsible for this? Did the student study and learn with the teacher as a guide? If so, what particular guidance led to the difference in scores? Nonetheless, on the road to success, I believe that the teacher and the student can only do their best and aspire to do better.

I also believe that an instructor must understand the character and nature of language, language learning and language teaching. Language is the sonic and scripted release of a complex linguistic system of verbal and nonverbal communication. To teach is to impart knowledge, inspire, encourage and motivate. Of course, what the learner ultimately does depends on the learner. In a classroom setting, teachers direct the movie, but some elements of mastery are unseen. And there is no one size fits all method, approach, technique, teaching and learning style and process. Teaching is more individual strategy, beliefs, circumstances, and practical experiences rather than methodology—which we can certainly draw upon. Nevertheless, we must use what is known and discover and learn what can be known about teaching and learning.

My ESL philosophy relative to what is needed on the road toward “successful” teaching and learning is: a valid and reliable ESL testing program with testing even in the midst of a teaching activity; a working knowledge of teacher and student roles; (for the teacher: to be a responsible, well-prepared, flexible, efficient, effective, empathetic, enthusiastic and organized leader, test designer, administrator, consultant, conductor, counselor, demonstrator, director, developer, originator, guide, helper, presenter, planner, performer, manager, entertainer, linguistic example provider and linguistic form and function model; for the learner: practice regularly, stay focused, stay motivated and stay awake; speak aloud, speak English to people regularly, repeat, reflect and review, carry cue cards, remember an example sentence using that new word rather than just listing the word on its own, use English test results as a study tool, frequently read silently and aloud after skimming and scanning and/or synthesizing and analyzing; write profusely, use English to English dictionaries, focus while actively listening for a specific purpose such as the main idea, emotional states and sequences; transcribe what is heard, make a commitment, set short and long term goals, set an agenda and have fun).

Furthermore on the road to success is:

  • the use of intensive vs. non-intensive instruction (the former being favored for optimal learning);
  • considerate error correction resulting in new discoveries;
  • commitment to learner centered activities;
  • commitment to assisting and advising students on their individual learning strategies;
  • promotion and integration of students’ critical thinking skills;
  • the use of eclectic teaching approaches, methods and techniques where applicable, but knowing that eclecticism is an interactive knowledge and belief system derived from practical experience and teaching philosophies and principles;
  • consideration of students’ age and influences that the mother tongue brings to the classroom;
  • creating when appropriate opportunities for learning activities that introduce students to linguistic products through social contexts as opposed to introducing products taught in isolation and focusing on learning outcomes that can be measured;
  • attention to what learners can do rather than on what they know by having them demonstrate their understanding;
  • developing interactive activities that show evidence of learning—at least for the moment (“evidence” includes: briefly giving examples of what was introduced or reviewed, restating and/or paraphrasing a paragraph or sentence(s), talk about/use another purpose/meaning of a newly introduced or reviewed linguistic item, and communicate the learned object to others by answering relevant questions);
  • teaching students less about English, using only sporadic teacher talk, and more about teaching students how to use English;
  • employing task based instruction where learners are busy being active and interactive and focusing more on meaning than on form;
  • creating learner activities that involve active listening for a specific purpose;
  • allowing for any student literacy issues;
  • building students’ linguistic foundations and activating their prior linguistic/world knowledge to new knowledge;
  • using blended learning classroom activities through online technology;
  • adequate pacing of the lesson(s);
  • early recognition that some learners are more proficient in some skill areas and not in others;
  • possession of effective class management skills;
  • intuitively knowing early approximately what a learner’s language proficiencies are;
  • taking a personal interest in their individual abilities;
  • allowing opportunities for all students to participate;
  • recognition of, and a working knowledge of, different learning styles i.e.. visual, audio;
  • setting curricular and class specific teaching and learning goals and objectives while being mindful of all the pertinent linguistic and communicative competencies that need to be taught and reviewed to meet such goals and objectives;
  • knowing the relevant political and administrative “constraints” to teaching and learning;
  • realizing the importance of teacher self-reflection and learner review and recycling;
  • keeping abreast of the latest, proven SLA theoretical principles and practices of teaching and learning;
  • finding one’s particular teaching “niche” in a particular class;
  • and finally, promotion of positive motivational attitudes and behavior of students.

The above perceptions, experiences and concepts will evolve as they are born of my philosophic belief about how to understand the teaching process as I facilitate, stimulate and foster learning English as a second (or additional) language today.

Written by Howard Mayo for Teflnet April 2018
Possession of a Master’s degree in education (TESOL). Over twenty years of experience as an ESL educator. Member of TESOL International; eleven years of experience as an EFL educator overseas.
© Teflnet


  • howard mayo says:

    Thank so much for your comments Mr. Brown.

  • Robert Brown says:

    An excellent ESL teaching philosophy! You have surely covered a lot of ground, and your views are very helpful for new as well as seasoned teachers.
    I knew most of what was stated but a refresher to what I know was refreshing!
    If you dont mind, I am going to copy your philosophy and place it near my desk as a reminder of what ESL teaching is about. Good work.

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