The motivated student who can't improve his English

businessman relaxing in a deckchair with a cocktail
20 Jul Shelley Vernon 3 Comments

Tiffany is teaching English in China and she has this problem:

I am teaching a one on one ESL two hour lesson for a 35-year-old Chinese man, and I am struggling to effectively improve his English. He has been studying English for 10 years and has lived in Australia for two, but he still struggles a lot with advancing his English. If you have any insight or advice I would be very grateful.


Let's face it, most people who live for two years in a country where English is the native language, and who are motivated to learn, will be fluent by the end of their stay. I suspect that the problem lies with the student and not the English teacher. Some people put all the onus on the teacher who has to teach them, rather than them making the effort to learn.

If you have a student like this, ask yourself these questions:

We know your student is motivated, because he is taking private English lessons, but is he making any mental effort to learn?

Is he doing homework?

Is he learning vocabulary on his own?

Is he memorising (UK spelling) grammatical structures on his own?

Or does he just show up for class and think that he is going to improve because you are teaching him? He may think that it's your job to teach him, rather than his job to learn. He's done his bit by taking the lessons.

motivated student studying late at night

Try these strategies to help your student make progress.

Set homework each week. Give vocabulary lists to learn, by heart, from English to Chinese and from Chinese to English. If your student needs to learn how to write English then he should memorize the spelling too. At the start of each lesson give him a test on the vocab and keep a record of his scores, that way he can see his progress. If he hasn't learned the words...well...there you go! How does he expect to improve his English if he doesn't make the effort?


I would also give him a grammar topic to study and master each week. And give him a test so he can measure his progress.


Putting him on the spot like this in every lesson is reminding him each time that he is responsible for his own learning. You can facilitate it, but you can't learn for him.


If your student says that he does not have any time to learn vocabulary outside of class time, tell him that his progress will be limited. Perhaps you can record the vocabulary and he can play the words while travelling to work. Everyone can always find ten minutes a day for something - it's a question of motivation, organisation and priorities. The good news is that once you have learned a language, you know it, the job is done! So it is worth making the effort initially required. Sure, you can get a bit rusty if you don't use the language for a while, but as soon as you start using it again, it all comes back very quickly.


Give your student this method to learn vocabulary. This involves writing words and reviewing them daily. The physical act of writing vocabulary helps learning.


Helpful Teaching Resource

If you have my book of activities for teens and adults, take the step one and step two games to drill vocabulary and grammar. This content then goes on the list for homework. Split the lesson into drill activities for new words and grammar and fluency activities.


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More information on this student from Tiffany: He is a very dedicated student, but as he has studied for ten years he is actually very well versed in language and grammar conventions however it just does not seem to stick when he speaks. He has quite an extensive vocabulary which interestingly is more geared towards formal language but occasionally lacking in more everyday and common English. Although he tries very hard I cannot seem to improve his fluency when speaking and listening
Since he has a wide vocabulary already, have him learn ten phrases every day, the kind of thing he gets wrong when he is speaking, even though he may know it "on paper". Test him on those phrases at the next lesson. Test him, say, by asking him a question, and in the reply, he must insert the phrase.
When he makes a mistake, a typical one, that he is always making, stop him, but don't give him the correction, let him think and correct himself. Pick a few of his typical mistakes and NEVER let them pass - he has to auto-correct each time. Don't correct everything, select a few biggies. Stick to them until, eventually, he will stop making those mistakes. Then you can move on to different ones. Get him to prepare presentations on topics that he likes - and to include sentences with some of the typical errors he makes - but corrected - let him choose the topics. He should prepare a three-minute talk for every lesson, (actually you can let the talk be as long as he likes, but specify a minimum of three minutes. He should give these talks using bullet points, but NOT reading from a sheet or powerpoint. To get those ready he'll have to rehearse and...practise makes perfect! And of course, immersion is great, as much as possible. It all helps.

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