Classroom problems and solutions

classroom problems and solutions teacher in classroom

Classroom problems and solutions: There will always be problems that come up in your ESL lessons, but with forethought and flexibility, you can handle almost anything. Generally problems will fall into three groups. The first section is classroom problems and solutions with planning a lesson, such as lack of time or a need for new ideas. The second is problems with materials, such as difficulty finding or adapting materials and problems with the textbook. Finally, there can be 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 these issues can be minimized by careful preparation, a variety of ESL activities and games to supplement your main text, and good communication with your students.

1. Lesson planning problems

Prep Time

In Japan, there are schools where English teachers get all of ten minutes to find out who their students will be in the lesson and then prepare their activities. This is an extreme example, but few ESL English teachers would not like to have a bit more planning time. However, while you can’t add time to the day, you can make efficient use of the time you have.

So, keep an index of ESL activities and games arranged according to teaching points so that you can re-use activities over time and across classes.

Acquire books with collections of ESL activities and games. They spice up learning, and in an urgent situation, can 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.

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 use content from your copy.

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 they teach many subjects, network with the other teachers. Sometimes activities from other subjects can be successfully adapted to ESL and EFL classes. For example, Treasure Map, an activity that originally came from a social studies class about map reading skills, 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 online 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 other great resources.

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 for classroom problems and solutions: ESL Games and Activities for adults for the classroom and ESL Online Games for a virtual class.

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. If you don’t have a backup plan, this can be a panicky moment.

Quick language games like Rivet, Relay Race, Brainstorm and other quick listening and speaking drills need no preparation at all. These also allow you to review vocabulary and grammar from previous lessons.

Worksheets and workbooks can also give a convenient 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 from, 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 language games that can take a whole lesson while practicing key skills. Some of these games need preparation, but you can use them whenever you need once they are set up.

Video-based activities are another good choice if you have the equipment. For example, find a short video on a relevant topic, and write a set of comprehension questions in advance. This sort of lesson is excellent to leave for a fellow teacher covering your class when you can’t be there. Many fun activities involve short video clips. For example, show the pictures to one group while the other group only hears the words. Then put students 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 Fall 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 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 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 offer more guidance. If it is a language game, guide a few turns before letting students work independently.

It might be that the teacher is the problem. Maybe you are over-tired or despondent, and students pick up on this.

Finally, the point of the ESL activity may not be clear. Sometimes, students are less interested in an activity because they think it is unimportant. If you suspect this, pause and give concrete examples of what you are trying to accomplish. Having students understand what they are learning is the best way to get them 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. For ideas please see this post with mixed-ability class activities.

2. Problems with Materials

The ESL Textbook is Boring

A boring textbook is a fairly common problem, since no textbook is perfect, and every one will probably bore at least some of your students some of the time. So, this is when you start digging out alternative ESL materials and activities.

Games are a fantastic way to enliven a boring textbook. Use the text for explanation and drill, then apply and practise 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 fun ESL games like Ten Sentences And A Watermelon. 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 easy, or so out of date that it isn’t appealing.

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. 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. You may follow my teaching tips blog for the relevant age group if you sign up for my monthly newsletter on my contact page.

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 preparation time and improve your teaching. Look for books of games, worksheets, and lessons requiring minimum preparation.

3. ESL Student problems

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

Late arrivals 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. The latecomer will only be behind for a few minutes before you change topics again. Warm-up games, revision games and icebreakers are good for this 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 what you have already covered at a glance. 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 chat 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 for the student who has most consistently spoken English all week. Alternatively, create a forfeit for the student who has most frequently spoken their native language. You can track progress with a reward or penalty jar. Every time a student speaks in a language other than English, they put a ticket in the jar. At the end of the week, count up the tickets and the lowest score wins.

Give a demonstration of the challenge of using two languages. To do this, have students read a familiar passage in their language and say it in English simultaneously. The student sight-reads their native language while translating and saying the English words aloud. You can alter the exercise by having someone read the passage while another student translates out loud with as little delay as possible. This activity is based on an exercise interpreters use to learn the art of simultaneous interpretation. It 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 interfering with learning English. With lower-level students, the problem may be that they cannot ask questions in English yet. Try setting aside ten minutes in class to discuss 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.

Large classroom problems and solutions

Sometimes your classroom isn’t a good setting for practising conversation or games, or the class just seems too big. For example a lecture hall setting or large ESL class may seem daunting for group work and noise control.

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 need many small groups, since larger groups won’t be able to move their desks to sit together.

A student refuses to join in with games

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 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. Students can either read the story silently or listen to the teacher read aloud.

Students who only want to study one aspect of English

If the class is meant to be a well-rounded class, rather than specifically focused on a single skill, 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

Delicate classroom problems and solutions need extra care. 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. Keep class light-hearted but remember that topics will sometimes upset your students enough to leave the room. In this case, give them space.

Check with your principal or headteacher 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.

4. Classroom problems and solutions Resources

Good news, I have three great resources for classroom problems and solutions! Two are face-to-face classroom games books and one is for online teaching. The ESL Online Games book covers ages 6 to adult, from individual to group lessons. Get these in paperback from Amazon via my author page Shelley Ann Vernon. Alternatively, if you prefer a download, please visit my teaching resources online shop.

For online classroom problems and solutions please see my ESL Online Games book, available in paperback on Amazon, here:

For help with your classroom problems and solutions, just ask Shelley in the comments below ! I’ll be glad to ponder upon your question.

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