Learning a new language, especially as an adult, is a unique experience. There aren’t too many other instances in life that can reduce your ability to communicate to that of an infant. The language learning process is, in reality, rife with anxiety, frustration, and never-ending opportunities to humble yourself. So how do we create a classroom environment and relationship with students that makes them eager to come to class, make mistakes, ask questions, and reveal their weaknesses? The answer is that we’ve got to build great rapport with our learners. How exactly do you do that with a person that doesn’t speak much English?
1. Establish common ground.
One of the easiest ways to establish common ground with an ELL (English language learner) is to reveal that you are also a language learner! Sharing with them that you are in the same boat, just headed towards a different destination, can help students expect more empathy. By reminding them that you are also learning new vocabulary, pronunciation rules, and grammar (and sharing with them how challenging it can be at times), you are opening the door to a more comfortable relationship with the messy parts of language learning. This also makes you more approachable– everyone inherently knows that learning a language, especially as an adult, is challenging. Hearing first hand that you’re actually in that process right now, though? That’s a huge step in demystifying you to your students, and making you (and the target language) more approachable.
Another important way to establish common ground is to take some time when you first meet students to learn more about them. Not only their needs for English learning but also who they are, what they do, what their hobbies or interests are, what their favorite music is, etc. Welcoming people to a course with an opportunity to share about themselves creates opportunities to find commonalities and makes everyone feel more human and easier to interact with. Remember, sharing more information about yourself and your interests doesn’t require a long conversation. If you’re working with a lower-level student, simply prepare a little collage of your family and favorite things
2. Address all students by name.
Another habit to adopt in your rapport-building efforts is to always address each student by name. If your students have names with pronunciations you aren’t familiar with, spend some time in the first few lessons making sure you’re pronouncing them correctly. Being addressed by your name, especially with the correct pronunciation, is a powerful message that you, as an individual, matter in the classroom context. It makes each of your exchanges more personal, and thus, more meaningful, and it’s an easy habit to establish. On the flip side, NOT using your students’ names is basically the number one way to make sure you never build any meaningful rapport with them. If you’re worried about pronunciation, make that clear to students from the get-go and ask them for corrections until you get it right further demonstrating the fact that everyone’s there to learn. Make notes and practice as well, so you can feel confident as you call on students to interact in class.
3. Offer enthusiastic, specific praise.
The importance of encouraging students when they’ve done something well can’t be overstated. Just saying “nice” or “good job” doesn’t really motivate students– these phrases almost serve as connectors that help to confirm someone’s turn has been taken and that it’s time to move on. However, imagine if you praised someone for their perfect pronunciation of a new vocabulary word, or how they’ve created a grammatically perfect sentence using this new verb tense. That specific detail is much more meaningful to students and much more motivating. A student that leaves class glowing with pride over a specific remark is much more likely to believe in their own progress and growth, and they’re going to be more motivated to return to the next class, and the next one.
4. Encourage mistakes and highlight effort.
Just as important as encouraging students with specific, enthusiastic praise, it’s essential to encourage mistakes and effort. When a student pipes up with something to share but the answer isn’t quite right, an enthusiastic response to the effort is key– this helps students know that the right behavior in class is to participate and to take risks. Then, as you highlight the error, it’s important to emphasize the value of the error. Errors are the lifeblood of an English class– they show the teacher where a student needs extra instruction, highlight the parts of the target language that haven’t yet been mastered, and give the teacher insight into what’s going on in the student’s mind. Imagine if you had to go back to high school to take a class again in your least favorite subject– you know, the one where you often felt lost, never wanted to be called on, and watched the clock tick down the minutes until you could leave. Now imagine that every time you tried an answer in that class, you got specific feedback about what you’ve done well and how, despite getting it wrong, the mistake you’ve made is common, easy to fix, or represents a great learning opportunity for the class. Imagine that the teacher, rather than simply correcting the error, starts that interaction with “ohhhh, almost! That’s an interesting answer. Let’s look at it more closely”, and then goes on to actually show the error and the correction in a clear way. Imagine knowing that every time you participate in class, you’re going to be recognized. When you get things right, you’re going to be praised and when you get something wrong, you’re going to be thanked for the learning moment and then have the confusion clarified. Doesn’t that sound like a better learning environment for approaching a subject you find challenging? That’s the environment we want to provide for our students. Building this environment for your students is essential to establishing a rapport that makes them feel safe to ask basic questions and test drive the new target language they’re picking up.
5. Remember the little things.
When your students share tidbits about their personal or professional lives, listen up! It’s helpful to make little notes about your students when you experience these sharing moments. Knowing that a teacher remembered something about their hobby, their favorite actor, or an upcoming meeting they had to prepare for reinforces to students that their teacher is invested in them. Knowing that your teacher is invested in you and sees you as an individual, rather than just another name on a roster, is a gamechanger. It invites students to step up to the plate in class, because they’ve got someone pitching to them that cares about their success. Connecting students’ identities to their experience in English class is a great way to help students feel seen, appreciated, and respected. With just a few notes you make about a student in the first few classes, and then throughout the course whenever something interesting comes up, you can recall little details about a student that boosts your rapport instantly!
6. Show empathy.
Language learners are brave. They show up to class knowing that they’re going to very likely make mistakes, misunderstand something, and sound a little silly. And they show up anyway! Isn’t that brave? When you teach day in and day out, it’s easy to lose sight of the feat that language learning really is. Don’t forget to show a little extra patience and understanding to your students when you come across target language that’s especially challenging for them– or any other time that they might be having a rough class. Remember that your students are whole people outside of your class. They have babies at home that might keep them up at night, they have a boss, they have family challenges and budget concerns. They get headaches, they have bad days, and they get sick. Making space to recognize when a student is making a great effort despite other stress and frustration they’re feeling at the time goes a really long way in terms of strengthening your student-teacher relationship. Taking a break, having a review class rather than covering brand new content, or simply spending some time in class to chat is a great way to show empathy to students when they’re facing frustration in the learning process.
7. Create an inside joke.
A great EFL course has plenty of laughter that keeps things interesting. Taking a common error, a fun phrase, or something else that stands out in your interaction with students and turning it into an inside joke is a great way to make your entire class feel like the “in” group. Who doesn’t love being on the understanding side of an inside joke? Literally no one! We all want to feel like we’re part of a group with a common understanding. If we can reinforce that feeling with humor, even better. Throwing out an inside joke every once in a while helps your students feel at home in your classroom environment. It says “this is a place where I belong, and where we understand each other and enjoy our time together”. That’s essentially what we’re looking for in all of our relationships!
8. Respond to the learner’s needs.
Responding to the needs of your students sounds kind of vague… isn’t that what we’re doing when we teach? Think of it specifically in terms of what each student needs in each of the phases or activities of your lesson. Let’s say you have three students in class together. The most advanced might be after more pronunciation correction, and might be motivated by getting extra vocabulary out of each class. The lowest-level student of the bunch gets nervous about responding to open-ended questions. Knowing these things about your students, you might decide that you model an answer first for an open-ended question activity, and then allow the other students to respond before the lowest-level student. You can also make sure you’ve given them the necessary scaffolding (let’s say in this case it’s a sentence frame to get their answer started). When the highest-level student takes their turn, provide a little extra feedback on their pronunciation, and suggest one or two synonyms or antonyms. Managing students’ needs in each of the activities of your lesson is a great way to make each student feel like they’ve gotten what they needed out of class, even when those needs can vary from that of others. Students recognize when you’re taking these actions for them, and they appreciate it. When you approach learning as one-size-fits-all and this-is-my-style-so-get-used-to-it, students lose motivation. When you flip the script and flex for their needs, you show them that they’ve got a partner in learning that’s going to facilitate their trip up the ladder!
9. Make your examples and exchanges relevant.
Students love fun examples that engage them in an activity (and these examples you create yourself are prime opportunities to slip in one of those inside jokes we talked about). Whether it’s using your students’ names in an example, talking about their jobs or companies or hobbies, etc., personalizing parts of a lesson shows that you understand and appreciate their own context for using English. Seeing your teacher make an effort to make the material more relevant or applicable to your needs or interests is powerful. It’s yet another demonstration of the interest the teacher has in the student’s growth!
Rapport takes time and effort to build. In a class where students may be reluctant to participate, rapport is absolutely essential in convincing your students to take risks, guess, ask, and experiment. This process can feel messy, embarrassing, and intimidating. Knowing your teacher cares about you, is here to help, and wants you to enjoy yourself is a necessary boost to bring the best out of students and make real, deep learning possible. Take these suggestions into account as you plan your next classes. Which tips are you going to try first?