Tips to Solve Common Classroom Problems
will always be problems that come up in your ESL lessons, but with a
little forethought and flexibility, you can handle almost anything.
Generally problems will fall into three groups: problems with planning
a lesson, such as lack of time, or a need for new ideas; problems with
materials, such as difficulty in finding or adapting materials, and
problems with the textbook; and finally, problems with classroom
management, where the ESL students are uncooperative or inattentive, or
perhaps you have more than one level to deal with in the classroom. All
of these problems can be minimized by careful preparation, the use of a
variety of ESL activities and games to supplement your main text, and
good communication with your students.
Prep Time –
There are schools in Japan where English teachers get all of ten
minutes to find out who their students are going to be in the lesson,
and then prepare their activities. This is an extreme example, but
there are few ESL English teachers who would not like to have a bit
more planning time. While you can't add time to the day, you can make
efficient use of the time you have.
files of ESL activities and games arranged according to teaching
points, so that you can re-use activities over time and across classes.
useful books with collections of ESL activities and games that can
quickly be pulled out and used. They spice up the lessons, and in an
urgent situation can be used to engage ESL students while you do a
little last minute arranging of the rest of your lesson.
to know your textbook well. Most textbooks follow a pattern, and the
better you know it, the easier it is to plan with it.
you don't have a set textbook in your school, you might consider buying
one for yourself to help plan lessons. Even if the students don't have
the text, you can write out exercises on the board from your own
Finding Fresh Ideas
– Keeping a file of language games for re-use is great, but it's just
as important to find fresh ideas and ESL activities to keep classes
fun. But where can we find ideas?
teaching resource English
Language Games Digital Book for adults with 163 games and
you are in a public school where other subjects are taught, network
with the other teachers. Sometimes activities used in other subjects
can be successfully adapted to ESL and EFL classes. Treasure Map, an
activity that originally came from a social studies class about map
reading skills, for instance, is a great way to practice prepositions
and speaking fluency in a language class.
you don't have many other teachers to brainstorm with, you might be
able to get on the Internet and join bulletin boards and blogs about
ESL lessons and games with other English teachers to trade ideas.
Activity and game collections in books and ESL trade journals are
another great resource.
you might consider going through the local toy store or walking around
a playground and checking out what kind of games are popular. Many of
them might give you a jump off point for creating ESL activities of
Finishing a Lesson Early
– Every now and then a lesson will go faster than you thought it would,
leaving you with ten or fifteen minutes to fill. This can be a panicky
moment if you don't have a backup plan.
language games like Rivet, Relay Race, Brainstorm and all sorts of
quick listening and speaking drills can be used with no preparation at
all. These also allow you to review what you've just taught or
vocabulary and grammar from previous lessons.
and workbooks on the topic you've just taught can also give a nice
ten-minute language review if you have extra time at the end of class.
It's always good to go in with one or two ESL activities more than you
think you will need.
a list of weak topics and teaching points that your students might need
to review. Keep one or two ESL activities or games at the ready to
address these topics, and then when you have a lesson run short, pull
them out for a mini-lesson. This is especially helpful with exam-prep
– Occasionally a colleague will become ill or have an emergency and you
will have to cover an ESL class that would otherwise be left without a
teacher. Sometimes you'll have a lesson plan to work form, sometimes
make good use of the textbook. Often, you can just pick up where the
last lesson left off, or you can go back and review.
games are a perfect solution for this kind of situation. Charades,
Jeopardy, and Murder Mystery are just a few of the language games that
can take a whole lesson while practicing key skills. Some of these
games need to be previously prepared, but once they are set up, you can
use them whenever you need them.
based activities are another good choice if you have the equipment. A
short video on a relevant topic, with a set of comprehension questions
can be prepared in advance for this sort of situation. It's also worth
preparing this sort of lesson to leave for a fellow teacher covering
your own class on a day when you've had to leave. Many fun activites
can be done with short video clips, such as showing the pictures to one
group while the other group only hears the words and then putting the
students together in pairs to work out what happened. You can show
several clips and let the students match the title to the clip and
explain why. Students can make up beginnings and endings to clips, and
so it goes on.
ESL Activities that are
Falling Flat – Probably the worst feeling in the world is
watching an activity you've selected fall flat with your students. It
happens to the best English teachers, and how you handle it is what
makes the difference between success and failure for the overall
lesson. How you handle it will depend on exactly what is going wrong.
possibility is that the students don't understand the language point of
the activity. In this case, call a pause and review the grammar point,
then start the activity again. Or you may be going too fast for the
students and they need more practice before they can successfully
perform the ESL activity.
possibility is that students understand the language point, but don't
understand the activity. In this case, step in and guide the students
through the activity. If it is a language game, guide a few turns, and
then let the students work independently.
it is possible that the point of the ESL activity is not clear.
Sometimes, students are less interested in an activity because they
think it is unimportant. Pause the activity and give concrete examples
of what you are trying to accomplish. This is the best way to get
students to cooperate in any ESL game or activity.
Mixed Levels In Class
– You will probably never have a class where all the students are on
the same language level in all skills.
The ESL Textbook is
Boring – This is a fairly common problem, since
no textbook is perfect and every textbook will probably bore at least
some of your students some of the time. This is when you start digging
out alternative ESL materials and activities.
are a fantastic way to enliven a boring textbook. Explanation and
initial drill can be taken from the text, while application and
practice can be handled through an ESL game like Sentence Relays, where
teams with identical vocabulary words each send a member to the board
to make a sentence with the word. In one game you can cover both the
lesson's vocabulary and grammar points.
new ESL activities from the textbook materials. You can use the
lesson's reading as a basis for Madlibs, or really fun ESL games like
Ten Sentences And A Watermelon. o Partner work often enlivens a boring
reading allows groups to read different parts of the lesson and then
teach their part to the rest of the class. It is often more interesting
to cover dry material this way.
ESL Textbooks That
Aren't a Good Fit – Sometimes you will have an ESL
textbook that is just too hard or too easy, or simply so out of date
that it isn't appealing to students.
best thing to do in this case is to use the text as a basis for
creating your own ESL materials. You may have to limit vocabulary, or
supplement it depending on whether the text is too difficult or too
ESL game and activity books that need no materials, or failing that,
use the board and let students make their own worksheets by copying
from the board. Another great tip is to have students make up
worksheets for homework, you check them for errors and then let
students fill in each other's worksheets. This saves making lots of
photocopies, which can be such a waste of paper.
– Money and location can both limit your access to materials. There are
ways around both these problems, however.
to other ESL teachers and find out what they are doing. This is
probably the single most helpful thing you can do. Don't limit yourself
to other English teachers. Content classes often have materials and
realia that are wonderful for ESL and EFL lessons. o Join a blog on ESL
teaching tips and share with teachers there.
Here is a teaching tips blog:
on ESL games and activities where the students create the materials as
part of the game. Usually all you need in this case are pencils, paper,
and occasionally cardstock.
you find a good book of games and ESL activities, grab it because it
will save you so much time with your preparation and improve your
teaching. Look for books of games, worksheets, and lessons requiring
Students Look Bored Or
Don't Seem Motivated – Activities that fall flat were
discussed above, but sometimes it isn't the ESL activity that is the
problem. Sometimes it's the students' attitude. It's important to find
out why the students are in class. Did they want to come, or were they
required to come by their boss or some standard regulation? Do they
have specific worries?
some time to interview the students individually. You can do this as
part of an assessment early in the course. While checking on the
students' conversational English, you can quiz them what their reasons
are for taking the class. If individual interviews are not an option do
a survey instead.
you know a student's motivation, you can make
an effort to include ESL activities that support this motivation. A few
appealing activities may make the less appealing ones go down a bit
creativity and thinking outside the box with role-plays, drawing games
like "describe someone who…" and Pick-A-Card conversation starters.
Students can arrive late
– This can be really disruptive if you aren't prepared.
you know that your students have unstable schedules then you can plan
your ESL lessons with a couple of clear breaks. This means that you
would work on one topic for twenty minutes, and then switch. That way
the student that arrives late is only going to be behind for a few
minutes before you change topics again. Warm-up games, revision games
and icebreakers are good for this kind of situation.
a lot of pair-work and then the late student will have a partner to
your lesson plan on chart paper and post it in the room at the
beginning of each lesson. Any late students will be able to see at a
glance what you have already covered. This is especially helpful with
advanced students, but even beginners can find it useful to locate the
correct textbook page or worksheet that they should have out.
Students Don't Listen,
or Keep Speaking Among Themselves in Their Native Language
– This always happens to an extent, but you can't let it take over the
time limits on game turns to prevent boredom.
a class with ESL
students of multiple languages, make up groups where at least one
student doesn't share the others' native language.
a prize at the end of the week for the student who has most
consistently spoken English in class, or create a forfeit for the
student who has most frequently spoken his or her native language. You
can track with "penalty" jar. Every time a student tries to conduct an
activity in a language other than English, they have to put a ticket in
the jar. At the end of the week count up the tickets and the lowest
a little demonstration on how difficult it is to try to use two
languages at once. Have students read a familiar passage in their
language and try to say it in English at the same time. What this means
is that the student is sight-reading in his native language while
translating the meaning into English and saying the English words out
loud. In a speaking class you can alter the exercise by having someone
read the passage out loud to the translating student as they try to say
the words in English with as little delay as possible.
activity is based on an exercise interpreters use when trying to learn
the art of simultaneous interpretation. This is extremely challenging
and demonstrates how hard it can be to use two languages at the same
Discuss the activity with students and point out that when they
are chatting in their native language, they are actively interfering
with learning English.
lower level students, the problem may be that they are not able to
ask their questions in English yet. Try setting aside ten minutes in
class for discussion of the material in their home language. If they
know they will have time later in the class, they may not be so
disruptive during the rest of the lesson.
Lecture Hall Setting And
Large ESL Classes – Sometimes your classroom isn't a good
setting for practising conversation or games, or the class just seems
and pencil games like word searches and partner role-plays that only
need two people and can be done at their seats are best for lecture
large ESL classes need to be broken up, so look for ways to make groups
or otherwise divide the class. If you are in a lecture hall, you may
have to have lots of small groups, since larger groups won't be able to
move their desks to sit together.
A student refuses to
join in with games because they seem silly – There will
always be students who think games are beneath them.
demonstrate the purpose of the game and show through the demonstration
that it is a more effective way of learning.
example, Picture Summary is an ESL game that improves listening and
reading comprehension by encouraging students to go beyond the meaning
of individual words and instead picture the story as it happens. Read a
short story two times, and ask students to summarize it. They will
probably be fairly brief in their summary. Then read a different
passage. The first time students just listen, but the second time ask
them to draw what is happening. When they write the summary of this
story, it will be a lot more detailed. This can be done with reading
silently or listening to the teacher read aloud.
Students who only want
to study one aspect of English - conversation or reading
the class is meant to be a well rounded class, rather than specifically
a class focused on a single skill, then try using games and activities
that integrate more than one skill at a time, like shopping games,
sentence relays, and role-plays.
to the student that most uses of English integrate all the skills you
are studying in class. Role-plays and videos can provide evidence of
– If you have students who have been recently traumatized due to war or
political upheavals in their home countries, it is best to steer clear
of any games that rely on personal information.
stories with characters instead of having students talk about
themselves for language areas like family terms, description or a
person, or discussions of homes and possessions.
games based on grammar and trivia are also usually emotionally neutral.
o Keep class light hearted, but remember that at times topics will come
up that may cause your students to become upset enough to leave the
room. In this case, you just need to give them space.
with your principal or head teacher to see if there is a social worker
or counselor on staff and consult with this person on the best way to
handle students with traumatic backgrounds.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Shelley Vernon promotes learning through English language games and
activities. Go to: Digital
Book of 163 Games and Activities