Tag Archives: TOEFL

Failing at your own business–Private ESL classes


An artist’s rendition of me–Teacher on the go!

I’ve written about teaching English before (See Saturday classes) but I thought I’d expand this topic a bit today. Teaching English as a Second Language isn’t easy. It requires an incredible amount of on-the-spot invention, an excellent command of English grammar and lots of patience. It also helps if the teacher is able to explain some things in the student’s native language.

I use my moto to travel to most of my private classes. I’ve found that parents like that they can leave their kids at home with a “babysitter” and I’m not stuck babysitting after the class hour is up. I can just leave the kids there. Some adults prefer to have class in their home, others would rather meet at the school saying they have too many distractions at home. In the less formal home environment, there’s also a better chance of tea and crumpets (or fruit and juice) during class.

Cancellations tend to be a problem, though. I count on the money from private classes for our day to day living expenses. When a student cancels, that’s less money for tortillas the next day. I’ve made it my policy if a students is a no-show or cancels 3 times, I offer the time slot to someone else.

To reduce the probability of cancellations, it’s important to keep the classes interesting. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some of my tricks of the trade.


Nearly every class I have taught at the adult level has been what I would call beginner level. I have found that even if the student claims to know some English, it’s usually a lot less than they think. There have been a few exceptions, like students who have lived in the U.S. for a lengthy period of time, but they are easy to identify in the first few minutes of class. The text I recommend for adult beginners is Ingles para Latinos (Spanish Edition). Not only is the text in Spanish but it has Spanish-language pronunciation guides for the English vocabulary. I also really like the introductory section in the level 1 book. It addresses the number 1 obstacle to language learning–fear. The text is designed with the idea that the ESL student is already living or planning to live in the US, thus the vocabulary and short grammar lessons are practical rather than theoretical. I’m not as crazy about Ingles Para Latinos Level 2 , but it does go more in-depth with English grammar structures.

As any language teacher can tell you, mastering the four components of language fluency is essential to be truly fluent in the language. The four aspects of language domination are reading, writing (which includes grammar), speaking and listening.

Once my students have finished the beginner books, I ask them which component they would like to work on next. Here are my recommendations for texts in each aspect.


I have found the Chicken Soup for the Soul series to be a good intermediate level reading book. The stories are short, the vocabulary common and the topics are interesting. I have used the Chicken Soup For The Woman’s Soul successfully in a small group setting. The readings worked well as an introduction for speaking topics.

I have also used Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul: Stories of Life, Love and Learning (Chicken Soup for the Soul) in a small group setting for younger students.

Another excellent resource is The Scholastic Read-Aloud Anthology: 35 Short, Riveting Read-Alouds That Build Comprehension, Listening, and Higher-Level Thinking Skills—and Keep Kids on the Edge of Their Seats. The topics are varied and the stories short. There are a few discussion questions at the end of each story that encourage student reactions and further discussion of the topics.

I have also used children’s books with pre-teens. These classes are usually one-on-one with an emphasis on pronunciation and comprehension. The most successful series I’ve used are The Boxcar ChildrenCaptain Underpants Series and Judy Blume’s Fudge Box Set


Sometimes a student wishes to work on their grammar skills, usually as preparation for some sort of standardized test. My favorite text to use in these classes is Gramatica De La Lengua Inglesa : A Complete English Grammar Workbook for Spanish Speakers. Again the text is in Spanish and the book concentrates on the most problematic grammar points for Spanish speakers, things that just don’t translate well.


Listening skills are the hardest to practice in the area where I live. There aren’t many native English speakers in the area. And although I always recommend watching English language movies without subtitles and listening to music to improve auditory understanding, sometimes students want a class to improve their listening comprehension. Learning to Listen: International Version (No.1) is a good choice for those who are preparing for the TOEIC exam. It has actual conversations about everyday sort of activities with a variety of accented English speakers. My second recommendation is Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems and Drawings of Shel Silverstein (25th Anniversary Edition Book & CD). I’ve designed a cloze procedure text to accompany the readings. Students find these activities more challenging, but highly entertaining.

Speaking/Idiomatic expressions                                                                                                                          
As I am an American, my accent is American as well. Although that’s not quite good enough for some people, I do teach American English to those who wish it. Speak English Like an American is an interesting text set up in a sort of telenovela (soap opera) style using common idiomatic American expressions as the drama of Bob and his family unfolds. It’s funny and engaging. There is an audio CD to go with the readings. The idiomatic expressions are defined in Spanish afterward and there are practice activities for the expressions. I’ve used this text both in small group and individual classes.

American culture is often confusing for the ESL student and thus I also teach an American Customs class using 101 American Customs : Understanding Language and Culture Through Common Practices and 101 American Superstitions : Understanding Language and Culture through Superstitions. The origin of each strange cultural phenomenon is briefly explained in these books and it’s easy to transition to a discussion comparing superstitions and customs between the US and the student’s native country.

Exam Preparation

On occasion I have students search me out for intensive exam preparation.

The most common exam given here is the TOEFL.  This is believed to be the ultimate exam for English Proficiency in Mexico, although that’s not its designed intent. Any TOEFL preparation guide will do, but that one I use is Barron’s Practice Exercises for the Toefl. Most students have difficulty with the grammar section and this book breaks it down into types of errors to look for. It also helps the students become more familiar with the test format, as it is NOT at all like Mexican school exams.

Gaining in popularity is the TOEIC exam.  I had my first experience with this when I completed the preparation course for a student (See Failing at your own business–University courses). It’s more of a business English exam, and the vocabulary used is often new to the average English student. Again, any preparation guide would help, but I use the Barron’s TOEIC Practice Exams . The Learning to Listen: International Version makes a nice complement for this.

The IELTS is the exam used by UNAM admissions and I have had students specifically request a preparation class designed with this exam in mind. The exam is British based, designed for the UK and other subjugated nations, like Australia and New Zealand, so it was a little bit of a learning process for me as well. I ordered the Barron’s IELTS as a guide to teach this class.

I have also been requested as a teacher for the U.S. Citizenship exam. Materials are easily downloadable from USCIS here. In order to be fully prepared for this exam, students must be fluent in English and be able to answer the questions about US history, government and culture. Sometimes this requires quite a bit of explanation on the part of the teacher, but it’s often a fun class to teach. All my students who have taken their exams after our preparation class have passed and gone on to become US citizens. Yeah me!

I also teach ESL privately to children in addition to my job at the Kinder (See Kindergarten Event) and the Elementary school (See Elementary Event). I like to start with students who can already read in Spanish, so my students tend to at least 5 years old. I have compiled my own books for these classes and hope to soon have them available to download. It depends on when my illustrator, who is a bit of a free spirit, gets her part done. Right now I’ve done books about the alphabet, short vowels, beginning and ending consonant blends, homophones, homographs, and homonyms. I’m currently working on books for long vowels and kindergarten activities with a thematic approach.


Here are some recommendations from my treasure trove of teaching materials:

501 English Verbs: Fully Conjugated in All the Tenses in a New Easy-to-Learn Format, Alphabetically Arranged  This is an excellent writing resource for students.

An English/Spanish Dictionary. Not all dictionaries are created equal. The most common dictionary available in my area is the Larousse Pocket Spanish – English / Ingles – Espanol Dictionary , however, I recommend Vox Compact Spanish and English Dictionary. It’s just more complete, in my opinion. Then there’s that whole American English vs. British English thing.

Oxford Picture Dictionary English-Spanish: Bilingual Dictionary for Spanish speaking teenage and adult students of English . This is a nice way to work with vocabulary organized by themes.

Scholastic Children’s Dictionary This is sort of like a mini-encyclopedia with full-color illustrations rather than a traditional dictionary.

Scholastic Children’s Thesaurus Using the same adjective over and over again gets WAY boring.

Manila folder games. These are great and can be found on any subject, not just language arts. Here’s one set I use. File Folder Games Book Reading & Math: Grade 1

Card Games.  I use these for kids a little bit older instead of the manila folder games.
10 Reading Comprehension Card Games: Easy-to-Play, Reproducible Card and Board Games That Boost Kids’ Reading Skills—and Help Them Succeed on Tests

Puzzles. Melissa and Doug have all sorts of durable wooden puzzles for preschool and up. It makes vocabulary practice dynamic and fun. Here’s one I have.Melissa & Doug Wooden USA Map Puzzle

Even with all these things at my fingertips, there’s no predicting which students will continue and which give up. I have some regular, long-term students, but I also have a high turn-over rate, especially at the end of the school year. I’m not too fussed over that though because I have a waiting list. As one of the very few native speakers in the area, and having a BS in education to boot, I’m in demand!




Filed under Education, Teaching

Failing at your own business–University courses

A University education is not all it's cracked up to be.

A University education is not all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m pretty famous around here. People recognize me all the time. Some people know me because my involvement with my making La Yacata a better place campaigns. (See The Beginning of the Revolution) But most people remember me from one of the 4 schools I’ve worked in over the years. (See Learning and Teaching) Those people that remember me often recommend me to other people, who then remember me on down the line when someone else they know would benefit from my skills.

That’s how I came to be involved in University courses. The parent of one of the students I taught, recommended me to his sister who was studying for her master’s degree in Queretaro. Now, I’m the go-to girl when it comes to English dilemmas.

Here’s what I offer for those higher learners in need of English assistance.

I offer a TOEFL preparation course. I charge 50 pesos per hour and another 50 pesos for a copy of the TOEFL book exercises. Students do better if they answer the questions on their own time and then we go over the correct answers together. I explain grammar points that they are having problems with and offer suggestions on how to best eliminate incorrect answers. I also offer a separate listening course for motivated students. Unfortunately, it seems quite a number of students are looking for TOEFL miracles three days before the exam. I do what I can, but stress that three weeks before the exam would make for a better preparation.

Other students need some help with their actual courses. A good number of the University level business courses have a textbook entirely in English. Most of the students are not up to that level of English reading, so they come to me to see what I can do to get them through the course.

I offer a summary service. I will read the chapter, unit, essay, study, or textbook and write a summary of the material, highlighting important facts. I charge 50 pesos per hour, not per page. My summary is in English. I have had students that want me to write it in Spanish, but I really don’t think my Spanish is up to scratch. I tell them to plug my summary into an on-line translator if they can’t manage it. I expect there are people out there who are busy translating these textbooks, etc, and making bootlegged copies to sell. I’ve lost a client or two after they found a Spanish version someplace. I’m ok with that. It’s a huge time commitment. I’d rather do about anything else than spend hours hunched over the computer. But the money is good.

Most recently, I’ve broadened my offerings to include on-line courses. A former student of mine recommended me to a co-worker. The co-worker called me in mid-March and asked if I could help prepare her for the TOEIC exam that she was going to take on Saturday. It was Thursday night. I told her that I did not have any time slots available for her. I don’t do emergency English classes. She went ahead and took the test, failing miserably. After Spring break, she called me again and wanted to meet. I told her that I was not familiar with the TOEIC test, but that I did have an available time on Saturday afternoon.

After blah-blahing for about 20 minutes about the aggravation of having to take the exam to qualify for her diploma, asked me if I would do the on-line English course for her. Here’s the low-down. She would get 700 points towards her TOEIC exam for completing the on-line course that cost 1,500 pesos per month. She had 3 months to complete the course before retaking the TOEIC exam. She would only need to score 200 points on the actual exam to pass and receive her Licenciatura in Business. The exam was the final requirement, otherwise, she would lose out the thousands of pesos she had already shelled out for the application and thesis requirements.

I said I would, with the understanding that I would charge 50 pesos per hour. She asked me to make a few errors so that it looked as if she were taking the course. She gave me the password and the go-ahead and I went ahead.

This was no measly ESL course. It was a bona fide Business English advanced level course with a few grammar activities thrown in for good measure. The course had 10 parts. Each part had 4 Units. Each Unit had 5 activities. Some of the activities were two-parters, essays or on-line research activities.

How many were going to St. Ives?

In addition, she wanted me to create a study guide so that she could be better prepared to earn those 200 points when the time came. When I sent the first week’s study guide, she was put-out that it wasn’t in Spanish. Nothing doing. I wouldn’t have time for that and told her so.

It took 10 weeks for me to complete the course. I worked every spare minute of internet access on it. I averaged 10-12 hours per week. Some weeks she would come and tell me to “echale ganas” and get it done as quickly as possible. Other weeks she would caress the money in her hand at pay up time and tell me it was “bien ganado” a little resentfully. One week I had class cancellations and logged 20 hours of course time, which amounted be 1000 pesos of hard-earned cash. I think she died a little death when I sent her that bill. She certainly delayed long enough, not stopping by with the cash until Thursday of the following week.

Saturday of week 9, she sent a frantic text message asking when I would have the course finished because she needed money to buy some textbook or other and it would cost $1300. I told her it would be done when it was done, by Wednesday at the latest. She wanted to know how many hours I would be working on the course. She also wanted a perfect score on the course now–no more intentional errors. She would get the full 700 points with a 100%, otherwise, she would get fewer points for the course and have to earn more with the actual exam.

I was feeling not only a little pressured but also a bit annoyed and suspicious. I redid the less than perfect activities and sent my hours when I finished the course, but not the final 3 essays. If she decided not to pay me for the work I’d done, I’d, at least, have the last laugh.

She didn’t appear until the following Thursday. She thanked me for my work, complained again about having to do the course in the first place, and told me if she ever needed another course done, she’d come to me. She also paid me! WHOOPEE! I sent the missing essays the next morning, officially ending our business relationship.

I was so relieved to be done with this project. I earned over 5000 pesos during this 10-week period, all of which I spent gleefully on various and sundry goods. Now, I have a baseline price to give prospective clients that want me to complete this course for them. I also cut and paste the exercises from the course and offer Business English and TOEIC preparation courses on Saturday afternoons. (See Failing at your own business–Saturday classes). I can’t wait to see what other opportunity presents itself!




Filed under Education, Employment, Teaching