6 Mistakes Not to Make as an ESL Teacher

By Armando Pannacci

Teaching English as a second language is easily the most enjoyable and rewarding career that I’ve had, but many lessons have been learned along the way that have shaped how I teach today. Much like our students, we learn from our mistakes, though it’s a much more painless process if we can learn from the mistakes of others. So, to help you in your quest to be the best teacher you can be, here’s a quick guide on the more common mistakes that new ESL teachers make and how you can avoid making them yourself. 

1. Running Out of Activities 

One of the worst mistakes you can make as an ESL teacher, and easily one of the more common ones made, is running out of activities for students to do during a lesson. Whether the activity is simply listening to you why you’re talking, watching the video, or completing work at their desks, students should constantly be engaged with something to do. 

One of the first things you’ll learn as an ESL teacher is that downtime is your worst enemy. All students, regardless of age, should be engaged with something at all times, but this is especially true when it comes to young learners. 

When children have nothing to do, even if it’s two or three minutes of downtime where you’re trying to put together an activity for them, their natural reaction is to start a conversation with their friends. With ESL learners, this conversation is normally done in their native language and rarely involves a topic or subject that’s related to the lesson. So this scenario does not normally lead to the strengthening of English conversational skills. 

Additionally, when you have a large group of students all turning around to talk to their friends, chaos quickly ensues, and the classroom becomes loud with a chorus of voices. This can make it difficult for you to quickly regain control of the classroom and put the attention back on you.  

It’s important to have improvisation skills when teaching because lessons don’t always go according to plan. But not all teachers can quickly improvise in a given circumstance, so you should always have readily prepared backup activities on hand in case an activity doesn’t go according to plan or students finish a task more quickly than expected. 

2. Ignoring the Culture 

As an ESL teacher, it’s inevitable that you’ll run into scenarios where having cultural awareness can either pay off or help you to avoid misunderstandings or problems within the classroom. What’s acceptable in your culture may not be acceptable in your students’ culture, so it’s important to have a basic understanding acceptable and considered norms in the society where you’re teaching. 

For example, in many Asian cultures, it’s considered aggressive or rude to directly point at people, and while this may not cause issues with younger students who are still learning the norms of their own culture, it may offend adult students or might make them feel uncomfortable. 

Not only can a lack of cultural awareness lead to scenarios where you may offend students by saying or doing something that’s considered inoffensive in Western culture, but it can also cause you to miss opportunities where you can use cultural knowledge to enhance your lessons. As a teacher, you should be looking for any opportunity to make your lessons more relevant to students, and one of the best ways to do that is to sometimes incorporate facets of their culture into a lesson. 

If students are struggling to understand a concept when it’s presented to them in a certain way, you can reword or rephrase things in a way that’s more relevant to their way of life. For instance, a student may not grasp the concept of holidays, or even the English word holiday, until you use one of their own national holidays or celebrations as an example.

3. Restricting Use of the L1 

One of the things I saw on my first day as a teacher at a school with an ESL program was other teachers banning the local native language (L1) within the classrooms and only allowing English (L2) to be used. I then adopted this policy and used it in my own classroom for a very long time until I realized all of the negative impacts that this rule can have on students and the learning process. 

While it’s important to encourage your students to speak English at every opportunity, monolingual policies, such as the act of banning the use of their L1 in the classroom, can make them feel uncomfortable and can hinder their ability to express concepts to other students.  

It’s crucial that your students feel welcomed and comfortable in your classroom, and if one is struggling to grasp the meaning of a vocabulary word or concept, other students can then use the L1 to find equivalent examples. While pairing words with images is often the best way to convey the meaning of new words to students, in some cases, especially with older students, you may need to teach about abstract concepts that can’t be explained with the use of images. 

4. Letting Extroverts Dominate 

Within my first year as an ESL teacher, one of the lessons I learned was not to allow extroverted students to dominate classroom discussion or activities. You’re always going to have students in your class who want to participate more than others, such as by raising their hands to answer questions or coming up to the board to demonstrate knowledge. 

It’s always a good idea to encourage this and that you recognize and commend students who are excelling or at least making an effort to pay attention and engage with your lessons. However, you don’t want the students to dominate so much in the classroom that it discourages other students or otherwise prevents them from engaging in the same way. Therefore, it’s important that you set up a system that allows and encourages all students to participate in activities and Q & A sessions. 

Instead of asking students to raise their hands to answer questions or calling upon them (which may make some feel uncomfortable), consider putting students into groups or pairs when it’s feasible to do so, where they work together to answer questions and take turns answering. 

This not only allows slow responders an opportunity to answer questions but also promotes student-to-student scaffolding in which the more knowledgeable students or those that are quicker learners help transfer information to those who may be struggling.

5. Warming Up with Humor 

Many ESL teachers, including myself, remember what it was like to have overly strict or serious teachers in primary school. These memories are often what motivates many of us to want to teach or to teach in a way that is fun for students, because we want to be better teachers than those who made us dread going to class. It’s always important that you make your lessons fun, engaging, and interesting for your students, but at the same time, you are not in class to act as an entertainer or clown. 

I learned this lesson the hard way early on by attempting to relate to my students with humor, and I tried to use it to grab their attention before starting lessons or when I felt they were either not listening to me or becoming bored. Starting out a lesson with humor that’s not related to the lesson, such as telling jokes or otherwise acting funny, starts the lesson off on the wrong foot and students will then see you as “the funny teacher,” which can be one of the worst things an ESL teacher can be pegged as when working with younger learners. 

Once your students have mentally assigned you this role, you will have a very difficult time managing your classroom, and your students will not pay attention to you when you attempt to switch back into a non-humorous role to teach a lesson. 

Incorporating humor into the lesson in small bits or anecdotes here and there can be very helpful to keep students engaged, but too much can have a detrimental effect. So as a general rule, it’s a good idea to balance the line between being overly strict and being too comedic. Be fun and friendly, but also firm. 

6. Wasting Time on At-Home Tasks 

When teaching ESL, you must never forget why your students are in your class, which is to learn English from someone who already speaks it. Students are not in your class to complete worksheets or read pages from a book.

While it’s important to incorporate some reading and writing here and there within the classroom so you can provide live feedback to students as the activity is happening (but never interrupt your students while they’re reading), you don’t want to spend all of your time or even most of it with these types of activities. 

If your students are young learners, their parents expect them to walk out of a class with some type of demonstrable knowledge of English, and speaking skills are normally the first skills they expect to see. Your adult students have the same expectations for their own learning process, so you should spend as much time in class as possible working with your students to improve their speaking and listening skills. 

Dedicating 10 minutes or so within a class to a reading or writing activity is perfectly fine and even a good idea, especially when it comes to reading aloud, but you should never dedicate more time than this unless you’re having students take an assessment that needs to be completed in class, such as a quiz or exam. The bulk of your students’ reading and writing activities, such as worksheets or reading stories and then answering written questions about them, should be completed at home as homework with feedback provided after students return to class. 

In Conclusion, Remain Objective at All Times 

While these mistakes are some of the more common ones many new ESL teachers make, there are still many unforeseen scenarios you’ll encounter. Mistakes are inevitable, even for the most skilled teachers. The important thing is that you remain objective when it comes to your teaching practice, and you should always be on the lookout for other methods or techniques that may be making things more difficult for you and your students when examined more closely. 

Written by Armando Pannacci for TEFL.NET June 2022
Arm is a Canadian ESL teacher with over ten years' experience teaching English in Thailand, Korea and Canada. He has a bachelor's of social work degree and received his certificate in TESOL from TESOL Canada.

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