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Challenges in Teaching ESL Students

Updated on August 12, 2012
Some students need to move around while they are learning.
Some students need to move around while they are learning. | Source

There are a number of challenges teaching English language learners. The most obvious is the potential communication barrier, assuming the teacher does not speak the student's native language. There are also differences in learning styles and simply differences between individuals in a given class.

Some of these are easier to deal with than others, but all should be recognized as a potential issue in the ESL classroom.

Communication Barriers in the ESL Classroom

Even in a homogenous class, if the teacher does not speak the students' language(s), there will be a breakdown in communication at some point. There are ways to decrease the frequency of these breakdowns, at least to a certain degree.

  1. Show don't (just) tell. By adding gestures, body language, images, and judicious use of the white board, you can greatly increase your students' comprehension.
  2. Establish routines. The more routines you have, the better, in all aspects of your lesson. For example: begin and end class with a song, and teach the students to take out their books or start packing when they hear the song; clap three times when you want students to stop and pay attention to you; always follow x activity/ subject with y, then they won't waste time at the end of x before taking out the books and materials for y.
  3. Teach your students Classroom English first. Better yet, teach them classroom English, and have large, colorful posters around the room to remind them of things they may need to say to you or others. Questions such as, "May I go to the bathroom?" and "May I borrow your eraser?" are frequently forgotten, despite being used nearly every lesson by some students.

Focusing your first lesson or two on classroom English and establishing routines can really get your semester off to a good start.

If you ever wonder what class is like for your beginner students, have a friend or colleague give you some simple instructions in a foreign language. It will take only a couple of sentences for you to see what your entire class is like for some language learners.

Stating instructions the same way each time, while acting them out and writing them on the board can really make a difference your students, as can having well-established routines.


Individual Differences

Unless you are teaching clones, you will have as many personalities as you have students. This can definitely liven up your class, but it also creates challenges. Some differences you should consider, or at least be aware of, include:

  • past language learning experiences
  • expected/ preferred teaching styles and learning styles
  • preferred ways of interacting (extroverts or introverts)
  • working and learning speeds
  • ability to remember
  • attention span/ ability to focus and boredom thresholds
  • interests, beliefs
  • levels
  • intellect, skills, aptitudes
  • moods
  • motivation (or lack of), also, reasons for learning English
  • etc etc etc


Multiple Intelligences

This is a major learner difference. Different students absorb information in different ways. Various experts have divided students into various groups, but I prefer Howard Garner's Multiple Intelligences, which categorizes learners as:

  • linguistic-- people who are good with language, such as writers.
  • visual/ spatial-- people who are able to accurately use the mind's eye, such as artists.
  • musical-- people who are sensitive to sounds, such as musicians.
  • logical/ mathmatical-- people who are good with math and/ or puzzles, such as scientists.
  • bodily/ kinesthetic-- people who are athletic or good with their hands, such as surgeons.
  • intrapersonal-- people who are good at self-reflection, such as philosophers.
  • interpersonal-- people who interact well with others, such as counselors.

This is a broad overview, but an awareness of multiple intelligences can help a teacher employ a variety of activities over the course of a week, in order to appeal to different students' learning styles.

Learner Needs and Wants Analysis

You may be wondering how you can address all of the wants and needs of your students as individuals in a class. The truth is, you can't meet all of the wants and needs of your students all of the time, but you can take them into account when developing your syllabus and your daily lesson plans.

In order to find out what your students need, you should observe them. Give them a task which requires speaking, writing, and working together. This will let you know something about your students' strengths and weaknesses as well as how well they work with others.

If you feel your students will take a survey seriously and answer honestly, it can be a very useful tool to discover what your students enjoy and what they expect to get out of the course.

What do you find to be the biggest challenges in your classroom and how do you deal with them?

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