10 Tips for a Voluntary TEFL Teacher

In 2013, I went to China for the first time for four months of my gap year to volunteer as an English teacher. If you are about to do something similar, you might be having the same daunting feelings that I did. It all seemed like fun and games when you were finding ways to spend your gap year in the most rewarding way possible. But then you arrive in your host country and realise you actually need to teach these people something and you have never taught before, let alone people whose langue you don’t speak and in a country where classes have between 50-70 students. (Do not panic, when you get into the classroom it doesn’t feel like that many people.) I was having visions of what a classroom in England would turn into if it had 70 students rather than 30 and I was becoming increasingly filled with dread. But the classroom conduct is, as you can imagine, worlds apart in more ways that one and I found all the tips I have listed below manageable even with this many students.

In 2015, I went to Spain for a month to live with a family to work as their Au Pair while teaching their daughter Carlota, was was 12, English. My TEFL teaching experience went from one extreme to the other as I was teaching her one-to-one with two 2 hour classes a day, however I gained so much from doing it. It was a completely different experience to teaching in China but I used many of the same techniques, I was just able to suit them to an individual.

I am not claiming to be an expert but I have gained enough experience to pass on a few handy tips if you are about to, or are thinking of doing anything similar. Not all my classes went to plan but these experiences helped me to find something that I absolutely love doing, so I have listen the 10 most successful tips here and included any information I wish I had been known beforehand.


1) Every student or class is different.

Some will remember English through writing sentences again and again, some will be able to have conversations with you and others will feel more confident with a text book to read for themselves before discussing it with you. Don’t worry if it takes you a few days to figure out how they learn.

2) Drill pronunciation.

(You say a word or  phrase and the class repeats it.) Grammar is a major part of teaching English but pronunciation is just as important for confidence and encouraging conversation. It also helps with further reading. For example, Carlota struggled with “ou” and “ow” sounds so every day we did a little drilling of these so when she started to come across words she didn’t know with these sounds, she still knew how to pronounce them.

3) Students learning English are usually much better, or at least more confident writing than speaking.

Some of my Chinese students who I had never even heard say hello were writing pages and pages of perfect English. Similarly, Carlota read books really quickly and whenever we did a writing exercise there were few mistakes. However, this doesn’t always mean they understand – it might just mean they are good at copying or remembering. Therefore speaking activities will make a nice change for them from what they are used to and ensures they aren’t getting too comfortable. You can find so many speaking activities online.


4) Watching TV or a film is okay sometimes.

Carlota was allowed to watch TV before and after dinner and it really helped her, if we watched something in English she was hearing our grammar and pronunciation classes in context, if we watched something in Spanish then it helped with her translation as she explained it to me. In Chine we watched a lot of films in English and this encouraged them to ask questions and have me something to base class discussion on. Although my Chinese students were 17/18 due to a few cultural reasons and the language barrier between us I felt as though they were younger (which helped me as a teacher as I was only 19 myself) so Disney films went down really well as they were easy for them to keep up with in English and I don’t think many of them had seen them before.

5) Don’t be afraid to stray away form the textbook and think of your own activities.

All the classes I planned in China were inspired by TEFL ideas I found online or things I thought of myself. Quite often I used Carlota’s textbook as a starting point and made some activities based on what we were learning that week. You can find the link  for the kinds of activities I used at the bottom of this post. 

6) Learn some TEFL games.

These are such a good ice-breakers and teach students so much without them realising and a great way to start and even every class to ensure they don’t get a bit boring. I have linked the TEFL games I found most effective at the bottom of this post.

7) Be aware of cultural differences.

In China it didn’t appear rude to talk over one another and we had been told in our teacher training that the classroom would not be like English ones, such as it being normal for students to have a nap until you start the class. If I hadn’t known these things, I probably would have taken them personally. However before I concluded that I was a terrible teacher I read other people’s accounts of teaching in China and realised things such as  bluntness is common and never intentionally rude.


8) Learn a bit of the language.

I’m not saying become bilingual, I certainly am not. However learn a few key phrases;  please, thank you and hello along with things such as “where is…” and “how are you” can go a long way and are really appreciated. Also learn the phrase for “I don’t understand” so you can pick up on if they are saying that to each other without wanting to tell you.

9) Find out why common problems occur.

For example, Chinese students are often accused of being blunt or missing out half their sentences and many people I know assume they are rude. Whereas I might say, “I would like two of those please” they would say “I want two.” However in my Chinese language classes I learnt that because in China they don’t bother with tenses or any extra words as we do so they were simply translating what they would say in Chinese and knowing this helped me so much and it has completely changed my perspective. Similarly, Carlota refers to everyone as ‘it’ rather than he or she because her English teacher at school does the same, and this became so much easier to correct once I knew why.

10) Have fun and be patient

Most of all enjoy the opportunity! I feel so lucky to have been welcomed into other people’s schools and homes to simply teach English. Both Carlota’s and the Chinese classes’ eagerness to learn is something I never saw when I was at school  and it made me instantly fond of them. Through both these opportunities I have made friends for life. Both experiences weren’t always easy and it is normal to get frustrated – but be patient with them and remember they are probably having to be patient with you too.


I hope anyone thinking of, or who is about to take on a TEFL placement found this helpful. I used the internet so much for ideas and there are so many recourses that you can print out and take with you. If you are going with a company who offers teacher training and in-country guidance as I did, it is also a good idea to ask them for any tips as they will teach you about the culture before you get to your school.

You can find my other blogs about teaching and Au Pairing abroad here:
Gap year advice from China 2013
Teaching in China, Part 2
TEFL games for large classes
Being an Au Pair



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