6 ESL Problems Teachers Face and How to Fix Them

As teachers, we put on our professional grade (emotional) armor and we charge into the day ready to conquer the world.

We slay learning objectives on a daily basis while delicately balancing students’ self-esteem on our steed of knowledge.

We’re heroes and we’re not afraid to admit it.

But, sometimes, we give in to the pressure of how hard our job really is and we’re tempted to give up.

At one time you might have been tempted to say, “Oh woe is me! I’m a poor, misunderstood ESL teacher and I’ve got so many problems!”

Well, while it’s easy for us ESL teachers to feel overwhelmed by the problems we face in our classrooms (and outside of them!), keep in mind that whatever problem you may be facing, others have shared and dealt with it as well.

Sometimes you don’t feel like you’re prepared, or there’s a particular student who doesn’t allow you to teach.

The issues I talk about in this post are pretty common ones like these, and the logical and easy-to-assert techniques here might be useful in dealing with any other personal problem in the classroom.

With just a bit of effort on your part, you’ll not only come close to “solving” these ESL headaches, but you’ll nip them in the bud before they turn into serious problems.

6 ESL Problems Teachers Face and How to Fix Them

1. Lots of Hours, Little Time to Plan

There’s no way to get around it. You’re a teacher and you’ll have to plan your classes.

The number of hours you spend planning classes will probably depend on a number of factors like administrative requirements, lead teacher expectations, student objectives and your own level of experience.

While less experienced ESL teachers may find themselves dedicating a lot of extra time to class preparation, just know that even old hats (like myself!) have to dedicate some time to meditating on what will be done in the upcoming class or classes.

To keep out-of-class time spent on preparation under control, here are some ways to take control of how you prepare your classes.

Solution #1: Set the standard by identifying your teaching style and planning accordingly

Well before you take on any ESL class assignment, it would be best if you identify your own personal style of teaching and develop a lesson plan template that fits that style.

Haven’t figured out what your style is? No problem! Teaching styles are pretty personal things, sometimes learned during training, sometimes developed from personal experience.

In any case, browsing through basic preparation templates and expanding on one you find that fits you best will have you on the right track to identifying and perfecting that style.

Let’s say you’re a obsessive-planning-freak teacher like me. For over 30 years, I used the same preparation template as a teacher. I started with a monthly calendar with a nice big square space representing each day of class.

I began by establishing the basic components of my classes, no matter what:

  • Warm up
  • Class theme (or objective)
  • Materials
  • Activity
  • Closing

So, each square space in the calendar representing each class was subdivided into five cells that I had to fill in with specific information.

  • I usually began by filling in all of the objectives for an entire block of time, say a quarter, or a month. I covered big blocks of linear time so that the work done would cover a good piece of the future.
  • I then chose warm up activities that meshed with the learning objectives from a long list I’d prepared and experimented with over the years.
  • I followed this with the activity I wanted to do and the materials I would need, either props, realia or the text being used
  • I then filed this class plan away, pulling it out the morning of each class and looking it over, using it as a guide.

This kind of standard template represented the first decision I always had to make: how would I structure my classes? This was a decision made, and stuck to, throughout the school year.

Solution #2: Advanced preparation

You’ve probably heard by now that adage, “Failure to plan is planning to fail.” And though you might get tired of hearing that in every teacher workshop, the sooner you realize that it’s truth, the better.

The preparation I described above was always done after I was assigned a class and well before the actual first day of class. When classes begin, who knows if you’ll get the time you need.

Of course, there would be unfilled slots in the standard template. Some of those slots were intentional; I didn’t always know if the class would be able to follow the rhythm I was planning until I was able to gauge their needs.

In any case, I dedicated hours to a general marathon session of planning. By doing this, I continued slicing away at the many decisions we, as teachers, have to face while planning class:

  • What student/parent/administration expectations will I need to fulfill?
  • What will I need to research or learn before beginning the class routine?

Spend the hours in a concentrated fashion before that first class. You’ll find that you’ll be making fewer last-minute decisions. You’ll also look prepared to your students, which will be a big plus in classroom management no matter what age group or proficiency level you’re working with.

Solution #3: Over-prepare

You’ve probably heard this before. If you have a 50 minute class, prepare for a two-hour class instead.

This doesn’t mean that you prepare twice as many exercises or role plays. It does mean that you should have more than enough additional material or activities related to the lesson objectives.

You won’t get to all of your planned activities in a particular class. That’s okay! If you’re overly prepared, you’ll simply have a healthy excess and won’t have to resort to “get started on your homework” or (even worse!) slipping a video in the player to fill in a fifteen-minute lack of ESL activity.

Keep detailed records of your materials and preparations. You’ll find yourself going back to older class plans and repeating the more successful things you’ve done. You may even feel challenged to improve upon those activities that were a flop the first time around.

2. A Grab-bag of Levels

This will happen to you.

You’ll have a class that’s been arranged based on students’ availability rather than by level.

Solution #1: Face the music

The first thing you’ll have to do is face the music. There will be very little you can do about a misplaced student (or students) in your class.

In the majority of these cases, though the individuals may have taken a level test and been evaluated, Pedro may have sports activities just when the class that’s better for him meets, while Michico may have to catch a certain bus home and can’t attend the class that might be more appropriate for her level.

While you may be able to get a grossly misplaced student shifted to another class, most of your students will be subject to their personal schedules and won’t have the flexibility to change.

So, stop complaining and start working with the multilevels in your classroom as if it were a challenge!

Solution #2: Pair and conquer!

The most appropriate way of dealing with level disparity is to pair students up.

The first thought that comes to mind is to put a more English-proficient student with a less proficient one. Students are sometimes more open to a peer explaining something when they aren’t quite getting what the teacher is saying.

Supervise this kind of “tutoring” though, to ensure that the more proficient student gives their partner lots of opportunity to participate in the learning process.

On the other hand, you can sub-divide your class into proficient pairs or trios and less proficient pairs or trios. This may seem like double the work, as if you’re teaching two classes in one; however, don’t give the students different work to do.

Especially with role play activities, the students with higher proficiency can model an activity, showing the others what to do. This gives the students with lower proficiency a chance to see the activities in action and observe.

Solution #3: Find the common denominator

If you’ve got a student or two who doesn’t seem to have any particular problem with their English, get them out of your class!

In general, all students of all levels will have some particular problems with their English. That’s usually why they were placed in an ESL class in the first place.

  • Figure out what these challenges are in your students
  • Make a comprehensive list of the problems
  • Identify the problems shared by all of your students, despite their individual levels

An excellent example of this is pronunciation. Almost all of your students will struggle with the seemingly complex pronunciation of English. Some may pronounce the sounds of the language better than others, but almost all of them will have difficulty with either a particular phoneme or just the coherent and fluid stringing together of sounds.

Early on, I found that by basing my entire teaching style on pronunciation, that is, teaching everything through the improvement of the pronunciation of complete thoughts in English, I always had that common denominator.

My warm-ups were almost always a combination of vocal work with a bit of physical stretching and loosening up. Grammar was taught through how it was spit out, not how it was graphed on the whiteboard. New expressions or troublesome phrasal verbs and idioms were taught as tongue twisters or put into silly songs.

Putting the emphasis on the shared common difficulty of pronouncing English meant that everyone was on the same playing field: some played a bit better, some struggled a bit more, but making this a team effort reduced proficiency diversity stress in the class.

Solution #4: Use resources that cater to different levels

One final idea is to give students opportunities to learn at their own pace. You can do this by allotting some class time to individualized study and, to avoid the logistic nightmare of planning 30 different activities for 30 different students, use technology to your advantage.

3. Acting Up or Acting Out

Kids will be rowdy. Adults may simply have had a bad day. Sometimes students just act up because it’s really windy, nasty weather outside.

Yet, you have to keep your class in order or nothing will get done. In some cases, bad behavior can cost you your job, so it’s best to be prepared and be pro-active to keep a well-ordered and peaceful learning environment in your classroom.

Solution #1: Rules, rules, rules

My list of rules was pretty simple:

  • Come to class on time.
  • Bring all materials you need in your backpack (pens, pencils, erasers, notebook, textbook).
  • If there is homework, do it.
  • Always participate in class activities.
  • Respect your teacher and fellow classmates.

Make your own list of what you expect from your students in terms of classroom behavior. Share it with your students in the very first class. Make sure they understand that you will enforce these rules, then make sure you do enforce them throughout the term.

You won’t need to include the obvious “raise your hand before speaking,” but you may want to highlight the importance of punctuality (adults are often the worst at showing up ten minutes after class has begun, kids have less control of when and where they arrive!). In any case, keep the rules few and general, don’t get too specific.

Solution #2: Stay positive!

While breaking the rules is the behavior that usually gets our attention and needs to be dealt with in some fashion, rewarding students for sticking to the rules can nip future problems in the bud.

Everyone (in general!) likes to hear a kind word.

  • Thank your students for being on time.
  • Notice when they have all their materials laid out and ready and tell them.
  • Avoid singling out a particular student; be general in your praise.

This positive reinforcement demonstrates to the students that you remember that there are rules to be followed. Though you don’t review them every class, they’re still present. You’ll need to be the first one to follow them: don’t ever start class late or forget your stuff in the teachers’ lounge!

If you regularly reinforce in this fashion, you won’t need to post the rules on the wall or have the students sign a “behavior contract.” Students will want to follow your rules because they’re receiving satisfying feedback from you, the teacher.

Solution #3: Let the punishment fit the crime

If you’re unfamiliar with the comedy-opera “The Mikado,” take a look at the fun link I included. The characters know a thing or two about harsh punishments! This song there demonstrates clearly the spirit of how to deal with rules that have been broken:

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime
The punishment fit the crime
And let each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment, of innocent merriment….

What this means is that you’ll need to meditate on how to constructively deal with particular discipline problems you find in class.

Let’s look at some examples of possible consequences of common classroom ailments:

The crime: Juan always forgets to bring his pencil case to class.

The punishment: Give Juan a big pink crayon to take notes with.

The crime: María always forgets to bring a notebook.

The punishment: Give her a sheet of recycled paper (an old photocopy with one blank side) and remind her that she’ll need to copy all those notes into her notebook for the next class.

The crime: Jorge is always speaking out of turn or joking around with his colleagues.

The punishment: This is a tough one, usually attention-seeking in nature. If you call Jorge in line, you’re giving him your attention. If you ignore him and continue as if he weren’t disrupting, he’ll probably try harder.

Yet, the best thing you can do with Jorge is just that, ignore the unwanted behavior—but don’t stop there! Make sure you observe him closely (though slyly!) and give him your full attention when he’s behaving appropriately.

Put your creative thinking cap on and list all the behavior problems you’ve had or can expect to have and create a suitable, ironic “punishment.” These you can list on a poster, so students know what to expect when the rules are broken; on the other hand, have a few tricks up your sleeve to surprise them.

Any of these “punishments” should have a time limit, say five or ten minutes. After Juan has struggled with taking notes with the crayon, lend him a pencil and remind him of rule number two.

In addition, you should avoid embarrassing or humiliating any particular student with an ironic punishment. You’re not putting a dunce cap on a kid in the corner, you’re trying to help your students discriminate between acceptable and not acceptable behavior and highlighting that both have consequences.

A final note: avoid, at all costs, using ESL activities or exercises as a punishment. You certainly don’t want your students to associate writing an essay or giving an oral presentation in front of class as a discipline device: it’s challenging enough for them to do this type of thing within the context of class without it being perceived as a possible punishment.

Solution #4: Controlling “Clever Trevor”

Clever Trevor doesn’t mean to be a smarty-pants. He usually can’t help it. He often knows the answer before anyone else and loves the attention he gets when he’s able to show off that knowledge. It would be wrong to stifle this enthusiasm, yet you have to give everyone a chance to get the answer right.

Here’s a quick trick. When doing question/answer activities,

  • give each student five poker chips or playing cards.
  • every student has to try to answer five questions.
  • no one can answer more than five.
  • have about ten less questions than all the chips you’ve given out.
  • each time someone answers a question, make them “pay” you with a chip.
  • the student with the least chips at the end of the session “wins.”

Trevor may “win” the game the first couple of times, but encourage other students to rise to the challenge by raising their hands even if they aren’t sure of the answer. You can adapt this technique to other types of activities where Trevor dominates the class.

4. The “Method” Cramping Creativity

You may find yourself in a situation where there’s an established “method” expected from you. Administrators may expect you to teach following a syllabus handed down from above, or you may be asked to use some form of the Audio Lingual or Natural method.

Many franchised academies have ready-made methods or techniques that they use as marketing material to sell their classes. Other institutions may have curriculum in place that they expect their teachers to follow. What to do with the frustration of having to follow someone else’s ways when you have so many ideas of your own?

Solution #1: Experience the “method” fully

No matter how much experience you have as an ESL teacher, you can always learn something from an imposed method. If a method is getting under your skin, step back a moment and ask yourself exactly what it is about the method that rubs you the wrong way.

It will often be that pebble in your shoe that you need to investigate and understand better. Play with the particular technique and experiment with its efficacy with your students. Turn the “method” into a game.

If, for example, you’ve been asked to use a particular repetitive drilling exercise technique in all of your classes, don’t resist, turn the drill into a game of dodge ball:

  • Line your students up on opposite sides of the room.
  • Have them toss the drill back and forth from one team to the other (use a bean bag, soft ball or rubber chicken as a prop).
  • Someone doesn’t get the response right? They sit on the floor, they’re out!
  • Once everyone is sitting, start over again.

In all cases, take special note of how you were able to turn something that originally made you question your job choice into something that you can use. Note what works and what doesn’t.

Make any part of the “method” into a game, with rules, points, chips, rewards, laughter and applause. Being creative and having fun with the method will help take the edge off the feeling of imposition.

Solution #2: Out-expert the experts

One problem that most “methods” share is that they tend to be considered (by those who use them!) to be the best, perhaps the only way to teach ESL successfully. Well, if that were true, we’d have found the “method” and everyone would be using it across the globe. Since that’s not true, though, there seem to be as many “methods” as there are leaves on a tree.

On the positive side, most “methods” are based upon some type of linguistic theory and investigation. You can take advantage of this and educate yourself on the sources of the method you’ve been asked to use.

Google all the academic information you can find, take notes, make yourself some slide-shows. Pretend that you have to teach the method to new teachers.

The more you know about the theory behind what you’ve been asked to implement, the more you’ll be respected by those who seem to be imposing it upon you. You might even get a promotion to teacher trainer!

That aside, knowing all there is to know about the “method” will give you much more leeway when you feel you need to buck it a bit in order to be effective in class. Become an expert!

Solution #3: A slice of fun

In most instances where a method has been established, it’s been used to convince the students that they should be taking classes there and not somewhere else with a different method. This means that besides a probable belief that the method works, student satisfaction is also an important part of the equation.

This means that once you’ve become an expert at the method, you can often drift away by offering your students some kind of rewarding activity in the last minutes of a class.

You might want to do a sing-along every third Friday or a quick game of 20 questions once a month. As long as you keep up-to-date with the objectives of the “method,” you’ll probably find little objection from the administration, especially when your students evaluate your class with five stars or smiley faces.

5. No English in Class

For some reason I’ve never understood, teachers seem to expect their students to use English all the time in the classroom. Teachers don’t want to recognize that an ESL class is far, far away from a natural language usage environment. And when that “English Only” monster raises its ugly head, do stand aside.

Before you get all ruffled because students are not fluently chatting away all the time in English in your class, consider the following thoughts. They can certainly lessen your own frustration and will probably help encourage students to use English more and more.

Solution #1: Establish that L1 use is okay!

For many, this is almost a heresy. And yet, students at early levels will end up using their L1 (first language) anyway; it’s the only means of communication they have!

Avoid prohibiting L1 use in the classroom. Tell a kid, “No!” and it’s often the thing they most want to do! Instead, allow students to ask you or their classmates for clarification in their native language.

Of course, if you don’t speak their native language well, you’ll have to be prepared to do some creative mime work. But don’t insist on explaining something over and again in English if you can quickly bring about understanding in the student’s native language.

When the question comes up of what to do when students don’t use English in ESL class, a lot of the suggestions made by teachers involve some kind of restriction or punishment. These punishments range from the already mentioned use of ESL activity (writing, reciting) as a deterrent, to actually “fining” students for not using English.

Simply using punishment can lead you to overlooking the underlying reasons that your students aren’t using English. For example:

  • Proficiency is so low that there isn’t enough English known to use.
  • The class has lost energy or drive and bored students begin to chat among themselves.
  • Students haven’t understood what is expected of them in a particular activity.
  • Cultural interference may be a cause for not using English.

…and the list goes on.

Instead of whipping out the “go to jail, don’t pass go” card, try to discover why English isn’t being used and include materials and activities that will deal directly with those causes:

  • Low proficiency — Create dozens of simple role plays and practice in pairs until they have been learned by heart.
  • Low energy — That’s your call. You’re the one planning the class, so keep the energy up by alternating short blocks of activity instead of drumming through one single theme for half an hour.
  • Low understanding — Take advantage of Trevor and have him help you to clearly explain what you expect in the activity or exercise.
  • Cultural interference — Learn about the culture and respect unwritten rules. Gently encourage your students to pretend that they are loud, brash American tourists (we kind of have a reputation when traveling abroad!) instead of themselves.

Solution #2: Sing out the question

Again, classrooms are “artificial” language environments. When students are chatting away in L1 about the latest gossip at school or work, that’s distracting and inappropriate. It also means you’ve not planned every minute of your class—they’re often taking advantage of an empty slot in your class plan.

On the other hand, there are numerous pat utterances that your students will need to learn and use, and that you should insist they learn and use.

One of the most effective ways to get these repetitive phrases into their language habits is to offer them simple, silly songs.

Take a tune like “This is the way we brush our teeth” and change the lyrics:

  • “Can I borrow a pencil please, pencil please, pencil please?”
  • “Can I go to the restroom please, restroom please…?”
  • “Would you repeat the question please…?”

Make up your own tune. Bring your guitar to class and teach your students the classroom language in song. Then, when a student doesn’t use the appropriate English class language, make them all smile, picking up the guitar and breaking into song, singing that phrase or sentence or question that the student seemed to have forgotten.

6. …And the Parents!

If you’re teaching younger students, you’ll probably have at least one, and probably several, meetings with parents. Those meetings may be called by either party and are often the fruit of some issue that needs to be resolved concerning the son or daughter in your class.

You needn’t fear these meetings, but you must always keep in mind that different cultures have different views on how to raise and treat their children. While your upbringing may have been a pure corn-fed, Midwestern work ethic, other cultures have attitudes about parenting that you may not understand at first. To get started, you should inform yourself on how, in general, kids are raised in the culture you’re teaching.

Solution #1: Be understanding, but be understood

While it’s important to enter a parent/teacher meeting with a sense of understanding, it’s even more important that your message is understood. There are two possible scenarios here:

  • You speak the parents’ native language fluently enough to get your point across.
  • You either don’t speak the language at all or can barely buy a kilo of tomatoes at the local market in that language.

In the second case, you’ll want to take a qualified interpreter into the meeting with you. This can be a work colleague or an administrator at your work place who is bilingual. You should avoid using the student as an interpreter, especially if the subject matter is delicate.

Solution #2: Start the meeting off on the right foot

Whatever list of “complaints” you may have, you simply must start off the meeting by telling the parents at least three things you’ve noticed in their child that are complimentary.

Brainstorm a list of compliments, like:

  • Always on time
  • Does neat work on exercises
  • Makes a conscious effort to participate
  • Is helpful and supportive of classmates

Then you can frame your concerns to the parents.

Solution #3: Be concerned, not complaining

Don’t complain. Should I repeat that? Do not complain.

Put yourself in the parents’ shoes. How would you feel if a teacher told you that your son, little Juan, is a badly behaved monster who doesn’t take part in class, is always disruptive and you just can’t seem to control him and you’re going bald from pulling at your hair?

Consider any problem you have with a student a motive for concern. The behavior is usually a symptom of an underlying problem that may have nothing to do with you or the ESL class itself.

You’re not trying to pry or get to the source of a personal problem that may be producing Juan’s poor behavior; however, you’re communicating to the parents that Juan is important to you, his improvement is also important and that you’re willing to work together with the parents to weed out the actual problem and help Juan behave better.

Try to draw the parents into your concern and mark common goals and strategies to help the child get over the rough patch and move on to something better. You’ll get much more cooperation from parents when you indicate your concern than if you simply complain about how much the behavior bothers you personally.

Solution #4: Breath deeply, but be prepared

Whatever the theme of the parent/teacher conference, make sure you’ve rehearsed what you’re going to say beforehand. Sketch out a script for yourself, with possible responses from the parents and probable answers you’ll give. Don’t stray from your script.

Make sure you have on hand “evidence” that backs up your concerns. This can be quiz scores or test results, homework turned in or even recordings you’ve made of oral activities. (Don’t record classes to protect yourself! Parents can rightly “flip out” when they find out you’ve been recording class!) When doubts arise, you can demonstrate the source of your concern by showing the parents these tangible proofs.


There’s simply no job on earth that doesn’t come with problems. Teaching ESL is no different.

While we all may enter the field with a vocational attitude and several hours of personal preparation or training, there will be challenges we have to meet, choices we have to make. The more decisions you make ahead of time, the less stressful it’ll be and the less improvisational your solutions will seem.

By being aware of the “problems” that stem specifically from teaching ESL and preparing for their appearance with pro-active meditation, you can minimize the impact these ESL problems can have both on your students and yourselves.

Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into Teacher Training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.

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