Every English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher knows the importance of constantly adapting to their students’ needs. Many times, this means dealing with a variety of problems in the classroom, many of which are all too common occurrences. A good ESL teacher must be able to recognise these common problems, and work to find solutions. Even a small tweak in your teaching methods can help to create a more productive and casual environment for both you and your students.
One of the challenges is the varied levels. In an ideal language classroom, all students have the same language background and are on the same level. But we all know that this is not necessarily so. Student placement is not an exact science, and more often than not, we have students who are a bit more advanced. If you slow down, the stronger students may get bored, but if you quicken the pace, your weakest students may not be able to follow along. There is no exact science to managing students of different levels, either, but you need to be aware of what each student’s strengths and weaknesses are. Even your less fluent student is better at something, like listening, for example. Divide the class based on these strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, you’ll want to have stronger students modeling the right answers for the weaker ones. In other cases, it’s better to have students with similar levels together in the same group.
Class size is another challenge language teachers face. The larger the class, the less each student gets to make individual contributions. That’s not a whole lot of talking time for someone who needs to work on their English communication skills. By dividing the class into groups, you increase each student’s talking time exponentially. While at it, put the eager beavers all in one group and allow them to compete to dominate the conversation, and give shy students the chance to work with different partners. Assign special roles to the eager beavers; they can be “helpers” or “facilitators” with each group. Teach them expressions like, “That’s interesting. Why do you think that?” and encourage them to get answers from their classmates instead of always providing them themselves.
Another challenge is the monolingual environment. Classrooms in which all of the students speak the same mother tongue pose a special challenge. They tend to speak more of their native language amongst themselves and less English. Some ESL teachers might not agree, but my way of handling monolingual classes is by enforcing the “English only” rule. The challenge is particularly difficult if you have lots of smaller groups, and you are certain they are not speaking English all the time. Some creative ways to handle this is offering incentives or rewards as a way of helping them achieve their goal of speaking as much English as they can. You can also make the language more accessible to them by providing classroom meta-language and useful phrases to help in various activities.
Time is also never enough. You may have plenty of ideas for amazing, engaging activities, but you must make sure you have plenty of time to carry them out. Consider first how much time you have for each class. Next, consider the goal, or what you hope your students will achieve by the end of the class. Plan activities that will help them achieve this goal, but try to envision a time limit for each. If you’re planning a drilling session you might not want to take more than five minutes for it. Also, you might want to consider giving your class a time limit (you have 10 minutes for this discussion). But it’s also important to be flexible. If your class is having a very productive discussion, you might want to give them a few more minutes to wrap it up instead of ending it abruptly.
Clearly, class size, limited time, monolingual environment and varied language levels hinder effective language learning. All the same, differentiated instruction, group work, immersion and proper planning can help counter these challenges.