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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

The golden rules of TESOL

Language Point Trinity CertTESOL. The golden rules of TESOL

No matter how long you have been teaching, there are a few basic routines which apply to any language education situation. Initial training courses try to instil these routines in new teachers, but with experience, the realities of the classroom can take over. Without the constant observation and feedback from tutors, the basics of the job can slip.

Experienced teachers cut corners for many reasons: to save time, to meet the needs of the curriculum or timetable, or simply because certain teacher behaviours can feel redundant. However, the following routines and strategies make for more purposeful, efficient teaching, so should not be forgotten. That is why they are golden roles that all language teachers should follow. Have any of these golden rules disappeared from your teaching…?

1. Language needs to be contextualised

All language used in and out of the classroom happens in context. So much of what we do and say in communication relies on the situation where it is spoken, that without a clear context or topic to work from, meanings are not easily understood or learnt.

The first step of any language class should be to clearly set the context which students will be working within as they study. A context could be a situation, a topic, a communicative function (complaining, agreeing and disagreeing, talking about possibility, etc.) to root the language being studied.

A clear context acts as a ‘landing pad’ for new language, preparing the way for new words, phrases and grammar to be retained by the brain, so make sure that every lesson you teach starts with a clear purpose for using the language you are teaching, and your students will be able to perform to a higher standard when they come to use it themselves.

This is probably the biggest golden rule of TESOL. No matter how it is presented, ’Meaning before form’, ‘Meaning, Pronunciation, Form’, or ‘Concept, Oral, Written’ (COW) all focus on the same procedure for presenting new language.

Meanings, or concepts, should be presented through non-linguistic cues (pictures, gestures or video) before the words relating to those concepts are given to students. This is because concepts (ideas, not words) can be more widely understood than words and phrases (the language that students are in the classroom to learn). For example, everyone knows what a giraffe is, but not everyone knows the English word for it. Present a picture of a giraffe, and all students will understand the concept. This means that when the word is given, all students know exactly what it means.

By contrast, showing or saying a word and asking ‘what does this word mean?’ presents the new, potentially unknown item to students, setting them up for a situation where they don’t know something, rather than an image that they do recognise. This can set students up for failure from the beginning of a class, putting them on the back foot from the start.

3. Drill for pronunciation, not understanding

Between the presentation of concept and the display of the written word, another golden rule is to present the oral (spoken) form of the word before it is written for students. Drilling (students repeating words after the teacher) is more than just a ‘repeat after me’ exercise. It focuses students on the specific sound qualities in a word or phrase, and gives an opportunity to the teacher to correct any issues with pronunciation.

Many teachers make the mistake of thinking that if students can say a word correctly, that they have ‘learnt’ the word. This is a false assumption, as a successful drilling stage, where students repeat new words accurately after the teacher, is not evidence of understanding. It just shows that they can pronounce the word correctly. For example, with practice I could read a text out loud in German more or less authentically, but as I don’t speak German, I do not claim to be able to understand any of it in terms of meaning. This is why point 2), above, is so important to establish concept before pronunciation and form are dealt with.

4. Check concepts and instructions carefully

Much as we would like to believe it, students do not typically learn a new piece of language just because the teacher has taken time to present it. You can elicit new words or grammar from pictures, drill them and have students write them down, but until you have returned to the words again and checked their meaning, you do not have strong evidence that students are retaining the concepts you teach accurately.

How many times have you told a class of students what to do in an activity and set them off to do it, only to find out after the time is up that half the class did something completely different from what you instructed? Giving instructions to students effectively takes more than just telling students what to do, and asking them to get on with it.

After each of these situations (presenting new language and giving task instructions), the best and only way to confirm whether students have understood is to ask checking questions. A checking question is a simple, yes-no question (or a closed question with two possible given answers), which students can answer easily to confirm what they have or have not understood. Checking questions about concepts could take the following forms:


‘Is this a positive word or a negative word?’

‘Can you eat it?’

‘Do you see this thing every day?’


‘Did this happen in the present or the past?’

‘Is this the main clause or the subordinate clause?’

‘Do we need to use a comma here?’

Instruction checking questions:

‘Do you ned to take notes?’

‘Do you need to look at the sentences?’

‘Can you use your dictionaries?’

A quick 3 minutes asking around the class to check that students can answer these questions correctly gives you direct evidence that students understand tricky aspects of meaning, and that they know what they are doing in the activities that you set them.

5. Ask, don’t tell. Demonstrate, don’t explain

Finally, a note on the way that teachers talk to students: Most academic subjects (maths, history, geography, etc.) are knowledge-based. This means that it I the teacher’s job to provide the information that students need to learn information about the subject, in order to show how much they know in their later exams.

Language, by contrast, involves application of the language knowledge that student develop as they learn. This means that it is not enough to simply explain grammar rules and tell students about the language they are learning. In skills-based teaching, it is the teacher’s job to get students demonstrating that they can do different things with the language they are learning. This means that the more that you explain, talk and tell, the less students can show and therefore the less their skills will develop. The best way to do this is to frame the majority of your teacher language as questions.

Teacher questions require attention so that they can be answered, so getting students into the routine of answering questions (rather than listening passively to your explanations) will keep them on their toes and ready to respond, which is perhaps the most important skill that can be developed for effective communication.

The final and most important issue with explanations in the language classroom is that explanations are by definition more complex than the word or phrase being explained. Try this yourself: try explaining a simple, beginner-level word like ‘apple’ specifically enough fo someone to understand what you are describing, but without using the word ‘apple’. You will find yourself using words and grammar structures way above the level of student that is likely to ned to be taught the word ‘apple’. Explanations involve long, complex teacher talk, which typically makes students switch off and stop listening, especially if they have trouble understanding what is being said. In my opinion, explaining has no place in the language classroom at any level, and can almost always be replaced with questions, examples and demonstrations leading to the specific concepts that you are teaching.

In summary, here is a list of golden dos and don’ts for the student-centred language classroom:

DO use contexts to introduce new language

DON’T present language for the sake of language, just because it’s on the test

DO present meaning before pronunciation, before form

DON’T write words on the whiteboard and ask ‘do you know this word?’

DO listen carefully to student forms when you drill

DON’T assume that drilling teaches meaning

DO check meaning and task instructions using simple checking questions

DON’T ask ‘do you understand?’

DO give examples, demonstrate and ask chains of questions


Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our CertTESOL FAQ and CertPT FAQ pages for details.

Our TESOL Refresher course is designed to give you the confidence that you need to walk into your classroom and start teaching using tried-and-tested lesson structures and teaching routines, as well as the language knowledge that you gain on the course. The next TESOL Refresher starts on May 9th, 2022, and courses will run monthly for the rest of the year. See our course page or contact us for more information, or use the online application form to apply.



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