7 Things ESL Students Struggle with (and How to Help)

By Altiné Moumouni
Top seven nightmares for English learners
how to spell banana

Have you ever heard of the saying, “without a goal, you can’t score?” The same applies when teaching ESL. How can you help your students if you don’t know what they are struggling with in learning English?

Understanding your students’ main struggles will help you effectively plan your vocabulary and grammar lessons, keep your classes focused, and reduce your teacher talking time

Here are the top 7 things ESL learners struggle with and how you can successfully help them.

1 Vocabulary

One of the reasons most ESL students appear shy and don’t want to engage in a dialogue is because of their limited vocabulary

You can help by encouraging them to create their own glossary. For example, anytime your students come across new words have them write them down. In addition, you can: 

  • Help them develop a list of keywords related to the subject they are studying. For me, I teach math, so I taught my students how to effectively read math exercises.
  • Encourage your students to write new words in their native language and explain what they mean.
  • The key is to push them to learn new words and build up their vocabulary. 

2 Pronunciation

Pronunciation is among the things most ESL students struggle with. And as an ESL teacher, helping your students improve their ESL pronunciation is extremely important. 

For example, many English learners have trouble pronouncing words with R and L.

Additionally, the differences between American, Australian, British, and Canadian also make pronunciations challenging for most ESL students. 

  • I would suggest you start by teaching your students the phonetic alphabet. I am currently learning Mandarin, and I found that learning the phonetics of a language helps tremendously. 
  • Encourage your students to use tools like Google Translate because they can see how to pronounce any words. 
  • Offer your students as many possibilities as you can for them to practice with you and other native speakers. 

3 Prepositions

Most ESL students find the logic behind using prepositions painful. It is challenging for them to know which preposition goes with which verb in which context.

Here is how you can help your students learn prepositions: 

  • Test your students’ understanding by getting them to use specific prepositions in their own original sentences. 
  • Ask your students to search for prepositions in a textbookcatalog, or magazine, especially ones with lots of pictures. And you can say something that they should have a chance of finding in them, for instance, you can say “find a man on a horse.”
  • Play a prepositions guessing game with your students. For instance, you can suggest sentences with missing words and prepositions or multiple choices.
    • Teacher Altiné is sitting on / under the table. 
    • I often put milk on the _______, / I often put milk in the _______. 
  • Check out this interesting article on tips for teaching prepositions for more ideas.

4 Spelling 

With the different spelling of words between American and British, it is tough for ESL students to spell a word confidently. All these differences make teaching spelling to ESL students challenging for most ESL teachers.

Here are a few tips to effectively teach spelling to your students: 

  • Use mnemonics to help your students remember the spelling of words.
  • Focus on helping your students understand words that sound similar
  • Ask your students to make a list of words they find challenging and work with them to understand how to use these words.
  • Use spelling quizzes.

5 Tenses

Learning tenses might be natural for native speakers but most ESL students find them very difficult. 

Here are a few tips on how to effectively help your students become familiar with using tenses: 

  • Give your students a quick overview of the whole system of tenses. You can draw a grid on the board identifying all the tenses you will be teaching. It will help your students understand the relationship between the tenses. 
  • Discuss the tenses within that time frame with each other. For instance, you can describe the similarities and differences among “eat,” “am eating,” and “have eaten.” 
  • At the end of your lessons, incorporate frequent reviews to reinforce and check your students’ understanding. 

6 Commas

Teaching how to use commas properly might seem unnecessary to most ESL teachers, but ESL students struggle with how and when to use commas. 

Often, ESL students put commas where they are unnecessary similar to how they use them in their native language.

  • The most efficient way to teach ESL students how to use commas is by encouraging them to write more. 
  • Ask your students to write essays weekly as part of their homework. 

7 Double consonants

Double consonants are also among the things ESL students struggle with. 

  • As a general rule, if the vowel (a, e, i, o, u) has the short sound in the word, the following consonant is double.
  • For instance: ladder, pattern, latter, fatter, batter, better, bitter. (This isn’t a complete list of words with double consonants.) Rule breakers: water.
Written by Altiné Moumouni for Teflnet November 2021
Altiné is from Toronto, Canada, and currently teaches mathematics at a high school in Guangzhou, China. He has a master's degree in International Economics and Finance from Ryerson University in Canada and is passionate about helping people worldwide through his blogs. He writes about TEFL Teaching and Health and Fitness. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, running, traveling, and anything that allows him to experience the beauty of nature. You can find him at altinify.com.
© Teflnet

5 Comments

  • Alex Case says:

    PS “water” doesn’t break the rule given above, as it has a long vowel sound

  • Alex Case says:

    I have found what Linda mentions with Thai and Vietnamese learners, who can tend to “swallow” the end of words (whereas others such as Japanese and Italians tend to add extra sounds at the end).

    It’s obviously not easy to fix, but the best way to model is to build the word up from the end, as in “s”, “ds”, “nds”, “ands” then “hands”. If particular sounds tend to be missing, you could also do minimal pairs like “pass” vs “past”. If consonant clusters are the problem, I’ll be writing about that over on TN’s sister site EnglishClub.com soonish.

  • Altiné Moumouni says:

    Linda, what is the native language of your ESL students? I found a paper discussing a Cantonese ESL learner’s pronunciation of English final consonants. Hopefully, it will be helpful:
    https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07908310608668769

  • Linda Berg says:

    We have noticed that many of our ESL students do not pronounce the final consonant in words they use. Is there any research on this area? I have heard adult language learners do the same thing. Spelling and understanding become a problem because of dropping the final sound.
    Any suggestions?

  • Kim Dammers says:

    I find that pronunciation is not much of a problem for children around 6~10.

    Phrasal verbs (and basic, nonfigurative idioms in general) are a real problem for EFL learners. There are so many of them, and they are not obvious to the learner.

    For pronunciation, most of the big-name online dictionaries have audio clips. Forvo is a great resource for hearing various native speakers pronouncing words.

    The author’s list and my comments are experience based; does anyone know of any research-based lists? Also, what is difficult depends on the L1 to a degree

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