Challenges in teaching English language learners in the EFL classroom

Written by: TEFL Toolkit



Time to read 6 min

TEFL is a very rewarding profession but that doesn’t mean it comes without challenges. Meeting these challenges is how we learn and grow as teachers - from developing our classroom management techniques to adapting materials for English language learners. Sometimes it’s useful to have a bit of help and advice along the way, so we’ve picked some common issues, and here are our top tips and approaches for teaching English as a Second Language (ESL).

Students speaking a lot of off-topic L1 in class

The best way of dealing with this depends on your teaching context. For example, whether you are teaching a multi-lingual class, or if all your students share a common L1. A common tip with mixed language classes is to arrange students in small groups so that they must speak in English for everyone to understand. This not only encourages the use of the target language but also makes the communication authentic. With single nationality classes, you might want to use a points-based system to reward good usage of English or build from very controlled-practice activities, with targeted phrases and tightly controlled tasks.

Remember that not all L1 usage is negative, and it can have a useful function in classes of every level. Lower level groups in particular will find it hard to have full lessons completely in English at the beginning. However, with proper scaffolding for activities and the development of classroom social English, you can gradually build up to that. Start with designated periods of time that are ‘English only’; you will be giving them the framework they need to stay in English for more extended periods.

Even higher-level groups may have a need for L1 prep time, particularly if they are dealing with difficult concepts that they might not usually discuss in their own language. It can also be a good use of time in the lesson so that you can focus on the main task.

Repeated errors

Error correction isn’t just about telling a student something is wrong, it should be about giving them the tools to correct themselves - and to remember the correct form in the future. For written work, it’s useful to develop a correction code which allows students to go through and rewrite their own work before you correct it together.

In speaking, it is important to use a mixture of correction styles, depending on the activity and the lesson aim, such as immediate and delayed corrections, and these should be chosen to benefit and not obstruct the lesson.

Keeping track of a class’s errors can help you identify areas that need a new approach or additional time spent on them. You can even make them the focus of a future lesson activity.

Dealing with large TEFL classes

Different teaching contexts have different class size expectations, but wherever you are, you can be called upon to teach a class that is larger than normal and out of your comfort zone.

The best techniques for this are simple classroom management tools such as considering your room layout and how you can manage groupings; establishing clear class rules and sticking to them fairly, and calling on students equally to answer questions and participate.

Learn everyone’s names as quickly as possible and make sure to use them to avoid students thinking they can blend into the background and stop paying attention.

Think about the balance between whole class and smaller group work to provide good opportunities for speaking practice and the development of fluency. Organise the space so that it is easy for you to circulate and monitor language use and provide feedback opportunities from groups so that you can pick up on and correct any errors.

Stale lessons and/or limited resources

Experienced TEFL teachers gather tried and tested lessons that they know work, but these can become stale for both the teacher and the students. The first time we teach a lesson is often the best – we are sharper and more focused, and maybe even a little excited ourselves to see what the response will be.

The good news is that it doesn’t take much to reinvigorate solid lessons – you don’t need to change the whole thing; just pick a few different low-resource activities for each age group and level you teach, and then you can mix and match with very little additional preparation. Try our Fifty Bright Ideas for a selection of fun, innovative activities for all ages and levels. The other great thing about teaching lessons you know well is that you can really focus on the delivery and use the opportunity to concentrate on a particular aspect of your teaching and really hone your skills in this area.

Mobile devices in the classroom

It is important to discuss and agree to rules on mobile devices in the classroom, that everyone should stick to, including the teacher! Different techniques can include asking everyone to put their phone on airplane mode at the start of the lesson or putting devices face down on the desk. Whatever the rules, they should be enforced consistently.

During longer lessons that might include a five-minute comfort break, allow students to use this time to check their phones.

Some groups may benefit from lessons that include more technology, such as short research tasks, watching videos or listening to podcasts. Try to embrace the technology and incorporate it into your resourcing and planning.

Frequent latecomers

You may not be able to stop students from being late, but you can take steps to stop them from disrupting your lessons. The temptation is to speak with each latecomer individually when they arrive, but the ideal is to get them seated and on task as quickly as possible. If you need to speak to them about their lateness, do it quietly at a point where it won’t embarrass them or impact other students’ learning.

Try starting your lesson with a settling activity, starting the main activities later. Plan how you will group any latecomers so you can sit them down quickly, then get the other students to explain what they are doing; break down activities into sections so it is easier for them to catch up. Plan flexibly so you can reorder activities as necessary if lots of people are late. If there is repeated lateness from a particular student, or if there are multiple latecomers, this is something that you should investigate and address more systematically. Remember there may be legitimate reasons associated with individual circumstances. You could also vary the starting activities so students don’t know what they will miss.

Finally, try checking any homework later in the lesson if your frequent latecomers are also frequently without their homework!

Not Doing Homework

It can be frustrating when students aren’t engaging with the homework you set, especially if you feel they are limiting their own progress as a result but is important to consider the reasons it isn’t getting done. Do they not find it useful, or do they simply not have time?

If it is a persistent problem, try assigning homework as preparation for the next class rather than as a continuation of the previous one. For example, watching a video, reading an article or listening to a podcast to contribute to a discussion. Give students a task associated with such types of homework so they can evidence that the work has been done. For example, some simple comprehension questions, summary-giving or note-taking.

If students have a lot on, try to give flexible tasks so that those with limited time that week can still do some of the work.

Lack of attention

Attention sometimes wanders in class, whether from a lack of interest in the topics or materials, incorrect levels, or a familiarity with the format. Trying new activities and games can help keep lessons lively and students engaged, but it isn’t the only answer.

Try dividing the main activity into shorter stages and include a task part way through that gets students up and moving around. Ideally, ensure activities appeal to a wide variety of different learning styles so that even if they dislike one part, they are still engaged with the task as a whole.

If you have a lesson that is particularly sedentary, consider a movement break for the whole class, or give specific jobs for students who need to move more frequently. Let students who fidget at their desks play with a small piece of Blue Tac or an elastic band while they work, rather than letting them find something that is noisier and distracting. Just be careful giving Blue Tac to young students - and make sure they know it isn’t edible!

Whatever challenges you and your students face in the classroom, it is important to keep things positive. Too harsh a focus on any one difficulty can cause significant disruption to learning, but building a positive environment will allow you to work on resolving things to the benefit of everyone.