ESL Teaching Tips to Solve Common Classroom Problems

There 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.


ESL Lesson Planning Problems


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.


  • Keep files of ESL activities and games arranged according to teaching points, so that you can re-use activities over time and across classes.
  • Acquire 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.
  • Get to know your textbook well. Most textbooks follow a pattern, and the better you know it, the easier it is to plan with it.
  • If 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 English book.


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?


  • If 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.
  • Where 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.
  • ESL Activity and game collections in books and ESL trade journals are another great resource.
  • Finally, 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 your own.


Great teaching resource ESL Games and Activities for adults


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.


  • Quick 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.
  • Worksheets 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.
  • Keep 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 classes.


Unexpected Substitutions


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 you won't.


  • Again, 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.
  • ESL 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.
  • Video 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.


  • One 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.
  • Another 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.
  • Finally, 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. 


Problems with Materials


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.

  • Games 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.
  • Create 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 textbook exercise.
  • Jigsaw 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.

  • The 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 easy.
  • Use 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.


Finding Materials


Money and location can both limit your access to materials. There are ways around both these problems, however.


Talk 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.


Focus 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.


When 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 minimum preparation.


ESL Students


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?


  • Take 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.
  • Once 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 easier.
  • Encourage 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.


  • If 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.
  • Use a lot of pair-work and then the late student will have a partner to explain things.
  • Prepare 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 class.


  • Place time limits on game turns to prevent boredom.
  • In a class with ESL students of multiple languages, make up groups where at least one student doesn't share the others' native language.
  • Have 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 score wins.
  • Give 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.

    This 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 time.

    Discuss the activity with students and point out that when they are chatting in their native language, they are actively interfering with learning English. With 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 too big.


  • Paper 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 hall settings.
  • Very 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.  Clearly demonstrate the purpose of the game and show through the demonstration that it is a more effective way of learning.  For 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 or writing.


  • If 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.
  • Demonstrate 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 this. 


Traumatized Students


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.


  • Use 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.
  • ESL 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.
  • Check 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: Book of Games and Activities for teens and adults.