Overcoming 2 of the Most Common ESL Teaching Challenges


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Some ESL teachers are lucky enough to work at schools or in centers that have adequate facilities, which is fantastic for both learners and educators alike! These student-centered learning environments tend to prioritize small class sizes, offer their teachers a variety of teaching resources and western support, and utilize (functional) modern technologies.

Unfortunately, as far too many ESL teachers know, not all educational institutions are like this. For students in developing countries where the ESL industry is booming, these expensive private schools and language centers are often financially far out of reach for most learners.

Many teachers often have to rely on their own ingenuity to produce effective and engaging lessons. Factors such as large class sizes, no provided lesson plans, long class periods, no teacher’s book (and maybe no workbook either!), as well as unreliable or no technology can all create complications in the classroom. If you’ve experienced any of these issues at your school, then you understand the struggle.

Here are some tips and tricks for overcoming some of the most common ESL teaching challenges. I’ve had to learn along the way, and you will too. I hope you will find some of these solutions encouraging and useful, and be able to adapt them to your own classroom dilemmas.

#1: The Technology Isn’t Working

Okay, admittedly, you are one of the luckier teachers if you have tech at all! I have been thrown into my share of classrooms that offered nothing other than a blackboard, a few pieces of chalk, and 50+ screaming children. If this is your situation, this information probably will not save you.

Imagine the first scenario: you’re teaching a listening and speaking class, and have a set of pre-recorded audio files. The students are meant to listen to the audio files, and then expected to complete several tasks in the WB. You press play only to find that the audio in your classroom isn’t working. Oh no!

No sweat. This is a great chance to have your students come up and demonstrate their speaking abilities. Usually, the dialogues will be written out in the WB somewhere (either in the unit directly, or in the back of the book). Your students may be a little nervous at first, but let them have fun with it. If nobody is eager to volunteer, start by picking 2 of your stronger students and go from there. You might even catch your students laughing as their male classmates take on the roles of Sally and Sheila deliberating over which handbag to buy.

Gently correct pronunciation as you go, taking care not to embarrass your students. You want them to want to participate in the activity after all. It may not be perfect, but it works!–this has become my ESL teaching mantra.

Now, imagine scenario two: you spent an hour putting together a beautiful powerpoint presentation to go along with your lesson, but the overhead projector isn’t working. A teacher’s nightmare.

I always bring my own backup tech (whether it be a tablet, laptop, or smartphone), and save all my lessons on Google Drive so that I can access them on another device in a pinch. I won’t be able to project the lesson, but I will be able to use my powerpoint as notes and board the target language where necessary. If there’s a lot of material to get through, I’ll elicit it from my stronger students and have them board the work for me. Then we can continue to review as a class, correcting where necessary.

The key to malfunctioning tech is not to panic! Make your students do as much of the work as possible. They may make a few mistakes, but this is natural and actually integral to the learning process. This will not only make your job easier, but is also the foundation of a student-centered learning environment. It’s a win-win!

#2: My Class Is Too Big

If you teach large class sizes, then you understand the challenge of keeping all of your students engaged simultaneously. You can easily spot the students who are outgoing–they sit in the front, and you might have difficulty getting them not to answer every question.

Having strong students in your class is great for when you need a role model, but how do you reach those shy, quiet students in the back who may be just as eager to learn?

One of the biggest dilemmas we face as ESL educators is balancing the differences in abilities amongst our students. Many of our students who are eager to learn may not appear so because they are too embarrassed to share their ideas and answers in front of the class.

You may be thinking: “okay…but what if some of my students really just don’t care?”

As it often goes with adolescents, they may in-fact be completely disinterested in the subject. Lucky you–it’s your job as an educator to get them excited.

Regardless of the foundational reasons behind why your students aren’t participating, I’ve developed some tactics for getting your entire class engaged. It probably isn’t surprising that these strategies generally involve games, because who doesn’t love a good game? Definitely not a University student who’s been sitting in finance lectures all day.

The Amazing Maze Game

I came up with the title for this game as a tongue-twister for my students, which sets a positive, light mood for the game from the get-go. This game is ideal for lessons involving giving directions but also works well as an ice-breaker for intermediate level students to get them comfortable working with each other.

Here’s the set up: have your students help to arrange the chairs and tables in the room so that it resembles a maze-like structure. Physically divide the students in half, so that 50% are on one side of the room and 50% are on the other. This is to create space for the game itself and allow your students to watch the action!

Now ask for two volunteers, or call on two of your stronger students. Explain to them that one is student A, and will be giving directions. The other is student B, and will be receiving directions. But there’s a catch! Student B must wear a blindfold (a hooded-jacket will also work). You can choose to project or board useful phrases for giving directions if the material is new to your students. Now hide a chocolate bar (or other prize) and give a loud “ready, set, go!” and watch as the hilarity ensues. My students absolutely love this game and watching as their friends crash into tables and chairs in pursuit of the chocolate bar.

After the first set of the students are finished, allow them to nominate the next two students. The first pair of students then gets to hide the chocolate bar, and the new students must give and follow directions. The game can go on for as long as you want. Not everyone will get the chance to go, but everyone will enjoy the show.

Modified Running Dictation

Most ESL instructors know the game running dictation–a quick Google search is your best friend if you don’t, as it’s a fantastic go-to game.

Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to implement running dictation in large groups of students. If you don’t have access to a printer at school, it might even seem impossible. Fear not! Here is the procedure for a smooth-running dictation (see what I did there?) in which all of the necessary material is produced by the students.

Group your students into pairs, and tell them that they will need one piece of paper for each pair. Now tell them to write a short story of no more than three sentences. You can use whatever subject area you are working on, or let them write freely. Circulate the classroom, helping your students to write stories that are grammatically and syntactically correct.

Now divide the room so that half of the teams are on one side, and half of the teams are on the other. Giving your students a minute to pick a fun team name will add to the competitive nature of the game. Collect the short stories from one team, and place them on the far side of the room from the opposite team. Now do the same for the other team, and let running dictation commence! Keep in mind that with large class sizes, this single activity can take a substantial amount of time.

This game enforces teamwork between students who usually would not speak to each other, and the students genuinely enjoy the competition. It also inherently enforces the use of English instead of their L1, as the dictations are in English. Using student-generated content also ensures that the level of the dictations will not be too difficult for your students.

Overcoming the limitations of your school or center’s resources can be incredibly frustrating, but with practice and patience, you can create a stimulating learning environment for all of your students. You will have your up and down days, as all teachers do, but in the end it is a rewarding process. Facing adversity in the classroom will lead you to become a flexible teacher who can work under difficult conditions, which is a true testament to your ESL teaching abilities and personal creativity.

These are just a few on-the-spot solutions that I have invented to solve unique classroom problems (more ESL teaching tips here). Hopefully, this guide can aid you with some of your own classroom dilemmas and help to get some of your own creative teaching ideas going!

This post was written by Julia, an English teacher from the USA with a passion for (far)off-the-beaten-track travel. She left America in pursuit of a career that could fund her thirst for adventure, and found so much more! Within the past year, she has lived in Thailand, traveled through various parts of Southeast Asia, and now permanently resides in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she works as an English Lecturer at a University. She loves that her job gives her the creative freedom to help her students learn English in a fun and positive environment, fast-tracking them to their future global career goals. In the process of her journey, she has also been able to reach many of her own personal travel goals. She aims to help other ESL teachers and create a network of like-minded, wanderlust-driven, globally-minded educators who can create a positive impact on the lives of students all over the world. You can read more about her advice and adventures on her blog http://travelingteacher.net .


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