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June 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

The Building Blocks of a Teaching Philosophy: An ESL Teacher’s Retrospective

George Loetter has been working in the ESL industry since 2010, taking on positions at a range of private and public institutes spread across Korea, China, and Japan. Currently, he is an assistant professor at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan, where he delivers courses on TOEFL, TEFL, writing, communication, and more. Email:,



If you’re a teacher, how many times have you thought about your teaching philosophy beyond when required to come up with something for a job application? In most cases, I think what people would come up with is about what is in line with the result you get if you give Chat GPT the prompt: “give me a short example of a teaching philosophy for an ESL teacher.” Give it a try. The result is quite good, if not bordering on generic fluff. Overall, it does sound like what you should say, and what people expect to hear. I suspect if you memorized what Chat GPT tells you, the interviewers would be quite impressed…unless the three people before you all did the same thing! 

As it seems we all know the expected type of answer, and such an answer would still fare well in most applications, asking about a teaching philosophy has become a bit of a nothing question, and a nothing answer – but the principle behind it remains strong. Let’s reclaim it from academia and recruitment departments and use it as the exercise in self-reflection that it should be. Do you know the guiding principles behind why you do what you do in the classroom? Forget job applications, memorizing what sounds good, or borrowed ideals – knowing why you do what you do, and writing down your teaching philosophy from time to time, is a personal exercise that I believe brings a lot of benefit to teachers in any context. It brings clarity, reignites some passion for the classroom, and instils confidence in a teacher – teaching is simply an expression of what you know to work, and your philosophy should roll off your tongue without too much thought if you’re doing what you believe in. It's hard to believe in what you’re doing if you don’t know why you’re doing it.  

With this principle in mind, I’ve been thinking about the experiences, training, and influences that have shaped my teaching philosophy. Let’s call it a personal retrospective made public, accompanied by some resources and references in case an academic happens upon it who may start to sweat if they must suffer through more than three paragraphs without a citation. Whatever you may come to think of it as you read, you can rest assured that it wasn’t written by our most popular AI companion, and no one will be memorizing and regurgitating these 5000+ words anytime soon. 


My background as a teacher and language learner

Teacher training experience

My first exposure to teaching English was through taking an online TEFL course through International TEFL Teacher Training (ITTT). It was a simple course for novice teachers, focusing on common practice, grammar and the TEFL industry. It took a communicative approach focused on stimulating student’s interest, getting them to practice the target language and then using it in various “authentic” activities – this used the framework of ESA (Engage, Study Activate), in varying order based on the type of lesson. 

After this, I completed a more intense TEFL certification from Langahead School of Language in Johannesburg, South Africa. This course was basically a carbon copy of the Cambridge CELTA, brought over to Johannesburg by a trainer from England who had started their own school. All materials were provided to students and framed in such a way that it seemed linked to the school, but I have since discovered that the content borrowed heavily from books such as The Practice of English Language Teaching by Jeremy Harmer, Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener, A Course in Language Teaching by Penny Ur, and other classics. At the school, I was able to get hands-on experience teaching students. It was very much a case of wanting to do the right thing at the right time in the right order – I went all-in on the communicative approach, using activities that got students speaking and negotiating meaning, with staples such as gap-fills, role-plays and various drills. A teaching philosophy was inherited that saw the best method as: starting with some vocabulary, using lots and lots of elicitation, allowing students to practice certain grammar points, and then doing a variety of activities that all included, by design, purposefulness, reciprocity, negotiation, synchronicity, unpredictability and heterogeneity (Harmer, 2007).

I also did a certificate in advanced grammar for English teachers through ACE, Canada. When required to make lesson plans, the usual books were once again used (this time Scott Thornbury’s How to Teach Grammar being held up as the best example) as well as a communicative approach centering around ESA. 

In all, my formal training up until this point gave me the impression that the communicative approach is the best approach, and every attempt should be made to get the student to use the language and to not be aware that they are explicitly studying grammar at any point. 

I did also go on to complete an MA in TESOL through Horizons University in France. This was probably the most enjoyable study program I’ve completed, which really helps to soften the edge of post graduate study – and I mention at as an add-on here because I feel that is with different in that it helped me to consolidate, and develop, all that had been learned (including from sources yet to be mentioned) and to formulate a proper, personal, teaching philosophy in the first place – and one not just based on academia, academics, and norms in the industry. 

Teaching experience 

My first official teaching experience involved teaching large classes of middle school children in South Korea. My immediate first impression was that I was well prepared for the job in terms of motivation, planning good lessons and running a structured class, but that the actual communicative activities learned in ideal settings did not work as well when applied to a large group of unmotivated middle schoolers in Asia. Regardless, at this point my focus was on doing a good job and following the right structures that I had been taught, without much independent thought being given to my own beliefs about how exactly a language might be learned, or whether or not the classroom environment was the right place to do this learning. I went on to teach at multiple private schools, elementary schools and high schools throughout South Korea and through this period found that not much emphasis was placed on the motivation of the learner, but rather on the teacher being responsible for making a lesson “fun”; this imbalance led to classes being more of a game show than an environment for learning (in the broader context of foreigners being placed in public schools). 

As I was a more “serious” teacher or worker, I did end up at more prestigious schools with more motivated students, teaching more intense language classes, but the focus for most learners and institutes was always around test scores. Again, communicative language activities were not as effective, and students were more open to methods that would enable them to memorize as much vocabulary as possible in a short space of time. Even with motivated students, they were not necessarily motivated to use the language. What’s more, even though stimulating, lively classes resulted in happy students and good feedback, I would notice in time that there was not much language improvement from year to year. 

This trend, of planning out curricula, teaching perfectly structured lessons and attempting to get the students to use the language in a variety of communicative activities, yet seeing no long-term progress, continued as I taught at various universities in China as well as an adult language institute back in Korea. 

Throughout these teaching experiences, one thing became clear. The students who improved the most and did the best in class did not do so because of the class and would have a good time in the classroom no matter what activity or method was used (assuming I myself had a good, humorous attitude as well). It was always the same story: they had either lived in an English-speaking country, had a passion for travel, we're deeply interested in some type of English culture and media and most importantly, were spending a lot of time with the language in their free time - by choice. The best I could do for these students was to provide answers to questions that they had formed through their own language learning, and the best I could do for other students was to teach them the ways in which the best speakers in each class managed to become that way and how they could mimic the process if they chose to do so. Without a willing language learner and user (as opposed to a willing student) even the best classes would have no long-term benefit. Therefore, my classes needed to be informative, tailored to the students in front of me (whether this meant teaching in a communicative way or explicitly teaching grammar in a traditional sense), stimulating (as opposed to “fun” - not games for the sake of games, but rather through attitude) and would always need to be combined with lessons on how to learn languages outside of the classroom. As Wenden (1985, cited by Larsen-Freeman & Andersen, 2018) says, there is just as much value in the time that a teacher spends on language training as on teaching a student the language.

Practical experience did of course continue after this, progressing into universities in Korea and Japan, but this period extends into the implementation of lessons learned so far, along with key factors learned through my own and other’s language learning experiences. It’s this phase of my experience where I made large strides away from typical ESL training techniques and began to see the visible progress in students I had been seeking. 

Self-study and language learning experience

This is an area that has been equally as important as experience in the classroom, if not even more so. Growing up in an Afrikaans family, yet speaking mostly English at home, going to English schools, having English friends, spending most of my time at an English cousin’s house, and consuming English media – my first language is English. Even so, code switching was common at home, and I would watch a daily episode of an Afrikaans sitcom or comedy with family. Even as a terrible Afrikaans language student in school (finding school incredibly boring), just doing this enabled me to pick up the language fairly well. What's more, I completed a few lessons of Pimsleur Japanese in my teens (due to an interest in Japanese culture), and the repetitive audiolingual approach taken by the software resulted in me being able to remember and produce the utterances from those lessons almost 15 years later. 

A further experience that came later would be my attempts to learn Korean. Learning the alphabet was easy, but only really “stuck” after a quick explanation on uncertain areas from a native Korean co-worker. After this, I spent many hours “studying” the language - making notes, creating flash cards, trying to remember vocabulary lists, and taking long gaps in between due to an eventual lack of motivation to continue the process. What's more, I would try to watch popular Korean TV shows, but most would completely bore me and those that I could get through, I would end up not paying much attention to the language and just focusing on the subtitles and the story. In short, I was spending a fair amount of time studying the language (but without discipline, consistency or motivation for the language) and not really using it or making progress. During this time, I did go to Korean language classes and while I didn’t enjoy the classes, there was an activity involving a long phrase to ask someone for their phone number - it was initially beyond my depth but with quick and constant repetition, my mind stopped trying to remember it and I would start to use it in dialogues (inside the class and then outside when needed), even before I understood the grammar of it. For some reason this phrase stuck easily. 

It is my own failure at language learning while trying to learn Korean, combined with potential professional opportunities, wanting to improve as a teacher and having a general interest in linguistics, that put me on the path of seeking out the most successful language learners online. I came across communities of language learners and polyglots sharing their passion for languages and different cultures and learning and teaching others how they went about the processes that led to them speaking other languages so well. From down to earth academics (who I would classify as members of the language learning community first, and academia second) such as Steven Krashen to a multitude of influential characters such as Matt from Matt vs Japan, Steve Kauffman, Luca Lampariello, Linda Botes, Benny Lewis, Olly Richards, Lydia Machova and others. The teaching of these learners greatly influenced my beliefs about language learning as well as my approach to my own students’ learning of English.

My own experience as a language learner taught me that intensive study is not essential, and that spending time learning about the language doesn’t necessarily translate to being able to use a language. However, practical daily use, repetition, and a lot of input that is linked to a genuine, relaxed interest is (such as found that a practical Korean phrase stuck after needing to use it, dabbled in Japanese and repetition found acted like glue, or picked up Afrikaans through watching TV and occasionally using the language). I have also found that a lack of autonomy and discipline leads to complete failure and erodes any method. These are lessons that have influenced my approach to teaching, and those from the polyglots mentioned above have expanded and compounded this. I now feel that a good language teacher must also have experience as a language learner and cannot help students to progress without a practical understanding of the language learning process.

In the following section, a literature review will focus not on the usual books contained in TEFL programs, but on some of the teachings that polyglots and successful independent language learners have to offer and the common threads between their methods. This will open the door to explain what I do in the classroom and why, with an explanation of each sections impact on my teaching philosophy and methodology explained as “Teacher takeaways.”


Literature, polyglots and the classroom

Consistency and interest 

An influential polyglot often mentioned among those in the language learning community is Kato Lomb, who described her language learning journey and methods in a book called “Polyglot.” Her determined nature, positive attitude, humor, and passion for languages can be felt through the words in the book and this conveys the need for a good attitude just as much as when she says that “interest driven by motivation, perseverance, and diligence plays a determining role in one success when learning a new language” (Lomb, 2008). This sentiment seems to be expressed by all successful language learners - the method and technique does not matter as much as coming back day after day and consistently learning. She did, however, have a method, which included grammar study and pouring over dictionaries, but she made a clear emphasis that this was completely secondary to her main staple of getting as much input as possible through (easy) reading. This was stimulating and motivational for her and introduces the next common concept: lots of stimulating input. 

Jumping around, constantly changing methods to find the best one and doing short bursts of what Olly Richards (n.d.) calls “binge learning” can be disastrous for motivation and long-term gains. Successful language learning requires consistent time with the language using stimulating content over the long term.

Teacher takeaway 1

This concept applies to the classroom in terms of overall curriculum design and lesson planning. In the same way that too much learning variation leads to a lack of consistency and possible failure, the same is true for teaching. I believe that a core set of activities that students can grow accustomed to should be repeated, and designed so that various language points and forms of input can be used with these same activities (such as providing students with an interesting picture and asking them to come up with a story about what happened before and after the picture). It is not necessary to make the classroom a “performance” or games room, but rather a demonstration of consistency that provides an arena for learning how to learn, practicing what has been absorbed through self-selected stimulating input and asking questions that have arisen through independent effort. 

If the emphasis is on pretend, entertainment and a lively atmosphere with constant discussion, it looks good from the outside but more extroverted students can suck the life from those who are passive, and students can spend more time getting incorrect input from other learners then more useful models that will help them to progress faster (Lomb, 2008). The communicative model is not always the ideal (nor any model) and a teacher must adjust to student needs and teach students to increase input and consistency away from the classroom, while teaching proven techniques in the classroom, as far as is possible. Of course, attempts are made to make in-class materials stimulating too, by using relevant topics, humor and areas of interest and need (which one discovers when getting to know students). 

The polyglots’ approach 

When it comes to actual techniques and methods used by successful language learners, a variety exists (as one would imagine), and I find these a good resource for activities to incorporate into classes or as a framework for modifying existing activities.

Like Lomb, another supporter of reading as much as possible is Steve Kaufmann. The key to his method is lots of input (both listening and reading) to comprehensible input and building vocabulary quickly specifically by reading, looking up words that impede meaning (not trying to memorize them through vocabulary lists, and not looking up every single word), and trusting that in time, understanding will grow (Kauffman, 2003). Kauffman also emphasizes the need to learn phrases rather than words and working on accurate pronunciation from the beginning, but on not rushing communication nor trying to practice speaking unless relaxed. A collective summary of some of the popular techniques used by polyglots to improve pronunciation is given by Benny Lewis (n.d.): mimicking (alongside lots of listening input), shadowing (speaking over dialogues, word for word), learning the IPA and spelling system quickly and speaking as soon as possible (preferably in low-stress environments with native speakers). 

The love for reading as a means to learn languages is also expressed by well-known academic and polyglot Stephen Krashen (2003) when he says that there is overwhelming evidence to support the use of (free, voluntary) reading to improve language skills and it is something that should be used more in second language classrooms. Krashen emphasizes the story element, and how any reading undertaken by enthusiastic learners will help with rapid language improvement. He also states that a high language level can be achieved even without much output, and that forcing students to speak when not ready or when stressed creates enough anxiety to hinder the ability to learn (Krashen, 2003). 

Another example of input being emphasized over output can be found when studying the techniques of “Matt vs Japan”, a highly proficient Japanese speaker whose claim to fame came from strictly adhering to the AJAT (All Japanese All the Time) method, then developing the Mass Immersion Approach (MIA), a spin-off of AJAT, and now promoting a method called Refold. The common trend in these methods is to replace all forms of media and device interaction with the L2, including constant passive immersion by listening to the language when not actively studying. The method was inspired by the input hypotheses and is an example of an extreme level of dedication applied to the theory to reach native-like fluency (which Matt now has). Input is so important that it is advisable to not speak at all until a high level of listening and reading comprehension has been reached, which will then lead to easy and natural output that very rapidly catches up with input ability (Refold, 2020). Not all learners agree with this approach, including Kauffman (Matt vs. Japan, 2019), but it does emphasize the importance of input and dedication.

Teacher takeaway 2

The takeaway from these methods and techniques in terms of the classroom environment is that first, it is necessary to create a comfortable environment where students do not feel forced, but rather supported and are willing to try to communicate, using the words they know. I try to achieve this by using humor in the classroom, having an understanding attitude and through knowledge: if a student understands the process, is making an effort to get a lot of appropriate input, sees the classroom as an arena for practice and knows that they will be supported, then it is easier for them to take part. The next important factor is to teach language within practical contexts that can be applied to the real world, while maintaining as much interest as possible and focusing on phrases rather than words. 

I do this by building classes around dialogs and stories linked to relevant topics. If given complete freedom in the teaching context, I forgo the pre-teaching of vocabulary, instead getting students to read texts on their own first and looking up words and phrases that impede meaning, as each students will be approaching a text with a different level of understanding. If something more ‘traditional” is required, the text will often have full phrases or sentences missing and students will work together to talk about different options for inserting into those areas (as there is usually more than one). Completed dialogues will also be used in various types of drilling and shadowing activities to improve intonation and pronunciation, and students will also be given an opportunity to make their own dialogues using some of the phrases from the dialogue and general themes. I also try my best to include some humor in the dialogue, but this can also be added just by having a fun and relaxing classroom atmosphere. By starting with these types of activities, students have enough guidance to not feel too stressed and gradually build towards practicing the language on their own.

In terms of getting a lot of comprehensible input (beyond texts covered in class), I encourage students to do this and provide them with various resources that they can use that include both listening and reading. There are sections throughout the semester where I teach them to use apps, websites and services such as Language Learning with Netflix, Beelingua, Ello, Wikipedia, comic book sites, blogs, audiobooks, novels and any other sources that match the requirements of having a variety of content that can be self-selected based on interest and level and involve both listening and speaking input. When introducing any resource, I make an effort to use it in class first, so that the in-class activity is a demonstration or extension of the real world. An example in-class activity using one of these resources would be to give each student time to look through question topics on Ello, choose one that interests them, listen to the responses given on the site while reading the transcript and then to pair up with other partners and share the topic, the answers they heard and their opinions on the topic. If an interesting resource can be used in at least one activity, this is ideal as students can gain exposure to it and see its language learning benefit, which will hopefully increase the likelihood that they will explore it further on their own outside of the class. 

When polyglots study 

There are those who prefer to actively study and make this an emphasis alongside their input and practice efforts, and here too there are some common methods used by those in the language learning community. The most impactful for me have come from looking at techniques used to increase repetition, review what was learned, and improve long-term retention. 

Lindie Botes can be used as an example here, as she takes extensive notes, color coding different grammar points and phrases and will create her own sentences using a grammar point that she has just learned. In this way she actively uses the language, creating her own study materials and improving understanding and retention (Botes, 2020). As many polyglots say, if they don't remember a word, it's probably because they haven't used it (Lampariello, n.d.). 

Something consistently mentioned as a tool for review and retention is a Spaced-Repetition System (SRS). This type of system will automatically space review periods apart in such a way that words are reintroduced just before they are forgotten, with the time between reviews becoming longer and longer until the word is retained. The most popular of these systems is most likely a flashcard application called Anki (East Asia Student, 2011), but manual paper-and-pen systems exist too such as the Goldlist Method and the Leitner System. 

Finally, but very important and a game changer for faster gains in fluency, is the concept of creating language islands (a term coined by Boris Shekhtman, 2003) that help learners to build some fluency on personally relevant topics and now drown in a sea of discourse they’re not yet ready for. These are monologues that a language learner creates, writing down an accurate passage around a topic they would like to express (for example, what I do for a living and why I chose this job), and then memorizing and saying these repeatedly until they are easy and natural to say. The idea here is that a learner builds up fluency in topics that allow them to express ideas and opinions that can be used as an island when practicing speaking and losing track of a conversation – they can swim to the closest island of fluency and take a breather! 

Teacher takeaway 3

One of the best things I can do for my students in the classroom is to show them some of the techniques they can use to study and remember words and phrases. Most of the time, they are very familiar with this, memorizing long lists of vocabulary, but when used effectively in a lower-stress manner (as the Goldlist Method was designed to be, or as Anki can be when used correctly), this gives them a useful tool that is new yet familiar. I have incorporate this into a classroom by getting students to go over a (preferably relevant and enjoyable) text (as mentioned in Teacher takeaway 2) and then inserting sentences from that content into their SRS system. They are then given an opportunity to review what was added in the next lesson, starting a new list with phrases that were difficult to recall. 

The idea of an SRS system can also be built into the design of the class, as different words, phrases and grammar structures can be incorporated into lessons in spaced intervals (such as reintroducing familiar phrases into new contexts every other week). 

To emphasize the use and fluency of what was learned, I get students to be active participants in creating a lesson together. As an example, students make use of topics of the day to create personal monologues, which they practice alone then take turns to say to multiple partners, first with notes and then without any assistance. At the same time, their listening partners ask them questions about what was said, and the answers to these are added to each “island”, giving students new information to add to what has already been prepared, and in effect getting students to give each other ideas and broaden each island with information that others may ask for. Another more traditionally aligned example would be asking students to form information questions and interview each other – first, we will draw some examples from the day’s story or dialogue - and I will add to what was found by giving them a list of a few interesting questions to ask each other. After this, using my sentences as an example, students will make their own information questions and cycle among each other asking and answering. A final example is asking students a personal question related to the topic for homework, which they then answer via audio messages in the class group and are required to listen and respond to each other appropriately. In this way, the classroom material is extended outside of the classroom and made more personal.



The common teaching methodology's taught when undergoing teacher training served as a framework to function as a teacher, but experience in the classroom ultimately led to the realization that no single method works best in all contexts.

My teaching experience, along with my own language learning efforts, led to the realization that the classroom is not an ideal environment to learn a language but could serve as the right context if techniques used by successful language learners are incorporated into curriculum design and lesson planning. This translates to activities that involve language in context, repetition, drilling, shadowing, a logical approach that starts with a lot of guidance and examples and moves towards students using the language themselves, and finally, incorporates external resources that promote language learning stimulation and extend outside of the classroom. On paper, many of these activities do satisfy the requirements of the communicative approach promoted by TEFL training programs regardless, but there is nuance and clear differences when they are put into practice within a language learning environment that aims to mimic what the best language learners do outside of the classroom. The classroom should be a place where learners can learn how to learn and can apply what is learned independently to improve in the language faster, more fully and in a more stimulating way than what would be possible if relying on classroom time alone. 

Ultimately, a successful language learner must take their learning into their own hands and to get the most out of a language class they should use the class as an opportunity to practice what they are already learning through immersion and to ask more in-depth questions related to areas that may be difficult to understand when studying alone but could easily be explained by a teacher. The classroom is a collaborative environment, and it is up to the teacher to train students to be co-creators and active participants of the language learning process. 

Put another way, my teaching philosophy is all about building bridges between traditional classroom methods and what works for language learners in the real world. In so doing, I’ve dropped the idea of a teacher’s “performance”, a choreographed checklist of traditional ESL maneuvers, and focused instead on teaching students what works by doing what works – by making each class a demonstration of what to do really learn a language, and how to continue the language learning journey successfully long after the class has ended.  



Botes, L. (2020). How to learn Korean grammar - my study method. Lindie Botes [YouTube Video]

East Asia Student. (2011). What is SRS learning? Spaced Repetition System. East Asia Student [blog]

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Essex, England: Longman.

Kauffman, S. (2003). The way of the linguist. Steve Kauffman (self-published), Canada. 

Krashen, S. D. (2003). Explorations in language acquisition and use: The Taipei lectures. Portsmouth, N.H: Heinemann. 

Lampariello, L. (n.d.). Forget It: How to Learn New Words for Real. Luca Lampariello Smart Language Learning [blog].

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Anderson, M. (2018). Techniques & Principles in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, B. (n.d.). Learn to sound like a native and pronounce words in any language. Fluent in 3 months [blog]

Lomb, K. (2008) Polyglot: How I Learn Languages. TESL-EJ. Berkley/Kyoto. 

Matt vs Japan. (2019). Steve Kaufmann & Matt vs. Japan Discuss Hardcore Language Learning. Matt vs Japan [YouTube Video]

Richards, O. (n.d.). Core Study Time in Your Language Routine. I will teach you a language [blog].

Refold (2020). Stage 3: Learn to Speak. Refold [online]

Shekhtman, B. (2003). How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately. Hollister, CA: MSI Press. 


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