I am from India. I have been assigned to teach English for an academic outreach program for high school students in rural areas, mostly children of illiterate farmers. We have a 40 minutes session per week with 4 months to go. They have had English as a subject for almost 3 years but from the gathered information, their vocabulary seems to be poor and so is their grammar. Our aim is to equip them with essential tools that would enable them to understand the material and also enable them to translate their ideas to English. My co-instructor has the opinion of stressing on their school curriculum. We have a rough plan:

  1. Teach useful and frequently used words.

  2. Teach mnemonic tools to memorize the vocabulary.

  3. Ask students to speak on a subject and correct grammar afterwards.

The 3rd point received a lot of criticism taking into account of their shyness but I personally feel it a good exercise. There is also a general opinion that mnemonic tools would render any help in writing essay on a random topic. What would be an effective way to teach English language to students who have a little exposure to the language? Considering the limited time, how can we teach them to express their ideas in English?


I was only able to contribute for roughly 2 months since I had to move to another country. The group of students were a broad mix with varying levels of proficiency. Some were at an intermediate level whereas some were absolute beginners. I cannot say for sure that the sessions were a success but I could feel honest enthusiasm on all of their faces, increasing session by session. Funny thing, help came from all over the IIT; students volunteering, researchers giving small talks, even the dean of sciences asking his PA to assist us whenever needed :). I thank all of you for your contribution to our humble effort.

  • I wonder how much you expect (or perhaps more realistically, the outreach program expects) from the children, given that the class is only about 12 hours in total (if I understand you correctly). I can't speak for others, but I've spent roughly about 40 hours on Japanese (5-10 hours just about to remember hiragana characters, which is the most basic alphabet set in the language), and I'd say that virtually I cannot speak Japanese. Nov 10, 2014 at 7:08
  • Considering that they had some exposure to the language we expect them to recognize some common words like I, bus, house, stop etc. but they were not able to construct a meaningful sentence out of them. We aim to make them confident enough to express their thoughts in English at least in writing.
    – Sathyam
    Nov 10, 2014 at 7:50
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    What would be an effective way to teach English language to students who have a little exposure on the language? I really wonder what kind of answers you expect you might get. I don't think teaching high school students a new language is easy, and there are no little tricks or potions or magic words that will make everyone fluent in just a few short months. It's like anything else: the more they work at it, and the more they want to learn it, the more they will learn. Motiviation and practice will have more effect on how quickly they learn than any particular teaaching method.
    – J.R.
    Nov 10, 2014 at 18:27
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    @Jasper, thejus Never, ever get your students to read text aloud - unless there is some ulterior motive for which them reading aloud is a hidden prop. It's completely useless, a total waste of time, teachers who do this should be shot in fornt of their student, and then eaten at a class barbecue. NEVER do this, no matter what your teachers did with you at at school. NEEEEEEVVVVVEEEEEERRRRRRRRRR! Sorry, Jasper - I know for sure that that was well intentioned and well meaning advice, but there's a host of reasons why we shouldn't do that :) Nov 12, 2014 at 0:55
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    @Araucaria Yes absolutely! I have added a small update paragraph at the end of the question.
    – Sathyam
    Jan 25, 2017 at 14:41

4 Answers 4


You need to do the following things:

  • Create a strong context for the language you are teaching. Make it meaningful and important for them before you teach it.
  • Make sure your students get controlled and also free practice of the target language.
  • Build your syllabus around functions, and - as you have already mentioned - skills for independent and future learning. You only have 16 40-minute lessons lessons - don't try and teach a comprehensive grammar syllabus - it's a waste of time in this time frame. Give them 16 functions/situations and the grammar/vocab needed to be able to carry them out/negotiate them.
  • Train yourself up with non-intrusive correction techniques - hand signals, gesture, echoing, mouth movements. Never bother to correct stuff if your students aren't going to repeat it.
  • Don't tell your students things, ask them questions.
  • Make your classroom a rehearsal room for real life.
  • Your 11 hours of teaching amount to a puny input. The greatest and most important thing you can do in this time frame is to give your students an enduring enthusiasm for the language and for learning and to make them positive about what they can do, and what they could achieve. It is proven by research that it's virtually impossible to stop a motivated and enthusiastic student from learning language. Make sure this is what they are when you leave. You'll have set them up for life.

[You will of course want to plan your syllabus before you start. However, when you actually meet your students, you'll need to do a fresh needs analysis based on their strengths, weaknesses and learning aims during your fist couple of lessons. You'll then need to adjust your syllabus accordingly].

Good luck!

  • 1
    Your last bullet point may be the most important. If I only had a small amount of time to teach anyone any topic, I would do my best to make them feel excited about the topic and confident that they could someday master it. 4 months is such a short amount of time, and these children are already in high school, so if they leave the class feeling that English is boring or too difficult, they will avoid it in the future. They will need to study on their own or in college for a few more years before they get good at it, so do your best to make that seem appealing.
    – Keiki
    Jun 26, 2015 at 21:59
  • @Keiki I agree. If I could only give one bullet point, it would be that. The rest, in comparison, is all fluff :) Jun 26, 2015 at 23:18

If they can understand very basic English then you could try giving them basic English books. Very basic English books (with grammar etc) help a lot especially with translations in native language.

They could also try listening to good radio (like BBC) if they could get a hold of some radio set in their area.

Third I'd say that starting with 'tenses' (present, past and future) and then building up from that helps a lot. Only memorizing vocabulary without understanding any context doesn't help much. So starting with the grammar is the best option I'd say while memorizing very 'basic' vocabulary of course. At least that's how I learned English.

  • Probably there would be a few students who have BBC and even if they do, English is one among 6 major subjects. I wouldn't wish to comment about your mentioned methods without testing but I am doubtful if we could reach our aim taking into consideration of the limited time.
    – Sathyam
    Nov 10, 2014 at 8:18
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    @ThejusMahajan Ah, I see. Then teaching with the help of very basic English books (with grammar) should do in the limited time. At least they would have books to practice later too.
    – user6200
    Nov 10, 2014 at 8:20

I think you are wise to encourage the students to practice speaking in English. In order to make the speaking a positive experience, I encourage you to have the students read things that have already been grammar-checked.

In some of the early lessons, you could take part of the lesson to have the students read humorous stories written in basic English. Some of the Dr. Seuss stories might be appropriate. For some of the middle lessons, you could have them sing popular songs, or read excerpts from Kipling's children's stories. You could bring in an English-language newspaper, and have each student read (and maybe explain) the lead paragraph of a newspaper article. These have the advantage that you can check the grammar ahead of time, and the students will not accidentally practice incorrect grammar. For the later lessons, you might want to have each student write out a short speech. You could check the grammar, and then have the students read their speeches out loud.

I grew up in a town with many Punjabi immigrants.

Some of the Indian children were either born in the United States, or immigrated at an early age (e.g., before they were 9 years old). These children fluently read, spoke, and wrote in English. They were no more shy than any of the other children I grew up with. They also spoke multiple Indian languages, such as Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu. Because the elementary schools' ESL programs were designed for immigrants from Portugal and Latin America, the Indian children were essentially "immersed" in English-language classes. (ESL stands for English as a Second Language.) Some of these students (especially girls) went on to become school teachers.

Other Indians arrived as teenagers. They comprised a large fraction of the high school's ESL program. These students were very shy in English, and seemed more comfortable speaking Punjabi. The ESL teachers served as coaches for the cross-country, track, and soccer teams. (There was a boys' cross-country team. There were both boys' and girls' track and soccer teams.) The ESL teachers encouraged the ESL students to "go out for" the sports teams. All of the coaching was done in English, and the teams did quite well.

After I graduated, the school's foreign language department began offering a "Punjabi for Native Speakers" class. This class helps the Punjabi students satisfy the foreign language requirements for graduating from both high school and college.

  • I think hat Dr Seuss is really good for learning to read, but basically rubbish for learning languages ... But it is great for learning to read after you can speak. In fact it's great for anyone who can already speak English at all :) And if you don't like Dr Seuss - Well ... then you need a head transplant ... :) Nov 10, 2014 at 22:43

Honestly I can't judge the situation. But I think about the question how children with three years English, a relatively small vocabulary and probably modest knowledge of grammar should be able to talk or write about any topic. Is such an aim realistic?

  • Our aim was to equip them with necessary vocabulary and grammar to translate their ideas in to English language. From my personal experience, it in indeed a realistic aim and I can safely say that at least 60% of students now can translate their ideas relatively well into English even with their limited vocabulary and grammar. I cannot say for sure that they would be able to write in 'any' topic which is not at all our concern in any case.
    – Sathyam
    Jun 27, 2015 at 13:41

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