Picture what your perfect ESL classroom would be like.
My perfect classroom is learner-centered, a place where students develop the communication skills that will enable them to become increasingly more autonomous and less dependent on you. It has six to eight well-behaved students sitting around one big, long table in a bright room with plenty of space for them and for me to walk around in. But ESL classrooms are not perfect. Instead of dreaming about the kind of classroom we’d love to have, let’s focus on the one we do have and how to make it truly learner-centered. Here are some of the classroom challenges you’ll likely face and how to overcome them.
7 Classroom Challenges and 7 Simple Solutions
The first day of school, you walk into your classroom and see three to four long rows of desks. This may be a classic classroom seating arrangement, but it’s the worst kind to have for ESL classes. ESL activities center on interactions between pairs and groups of students. If possible, move the desks to form a circle or semicircle. Or group them together in clusters of three to four desks. Make sure students who are working together in pairs or groups are facing each other.
You may have plenty of ideas for amazing, engaging activities, but you must make sure you have plenty of time to carry them out. Do you have an hour and a half with your students? Or 40 minutes? Does it make sense to start a game you know you won’t have time to finish? Consider first how much time you have for each class. Next, consider the goal, or what you hope your students will achieve by the end of the class. Plan activities that will help them achieve this goal, but try to envision a time limit for each. If you’re planning a drilling session you might not want to take more than five minutes for it. Also, you might want to consider giving your class a time limit (you have 10 minutes for this discussion). But it’s also important to be flexible. If your class is having a very productive discussion, you might want to give them a few more minutes to wrap it up instead of ending it abruptly.
High Noise Levels
Young learners are notorious for being particularly rambunctious and loud, but a big class of adult learners talking at the same time can also send the noise level through the roof. How can you manage the noise levels when you have students working together in smaller groups? Here’s where the seating arrangement comes in. Have students form small clusters with their desks where they’re all facing each other. Encourage them to speak softly. Or have groups scattered throughout the classroom in small clusters on the floor.
ESL students come in different shapes and sizes, and may be very different personality-wise. There is always the eager beaver, raising his/her hand and trying to answer every question. Then there’s the quiet one who sits in the back and doesn’t say a thing unless you ask him/her a direct question. But what happens when you divide your class into smaller groups or pairs? The eager beavers will dominate the conversation with their enthusiasm, opinions and thoughts, while the shy ones will simply sit back and let them. Put the eager beavers all in one group and allow them to compete to dominate the conversation. Give shy students the chance to work with different partners. Assign special roles to the eager beavers; they can be "helpers" or "facilitators" with each group. Teach them expressions like, “That’s interesting. Why do you think that?” and encourage them to get answers from their classmates instead of always providing them themselves.
In an ideal ESL classroom, all students have the same language background and are on the same level. But we all know that this is not necessarily so. Student placement is not an exact science, and more often than not, we have students who are a bit more advanced or some that are behind their classmates. If you slow down, the stronger students may get bored, but if you quicken the pace, your weakest students may not be able to follow along. There is no exact science to managing students of different levels, either, but you need to be aware of what each student's strengths and weaknesses are. Even your less fluent student is better at something, like listening, for example. Divide the class based on these strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, you'll want to have stronger students modeling the right answers for the weaker ones. In other cases, it's better to have students with similar levels together in the same group.
The larger the class, the less each student gets to make individual contributions. So, if you like to have drilling sessions, you must realize that each student may get to answer only once, if at all. That’s not a whole lot of talking time for someone who needs to work on their English communication skills. By dividing the class into groups, you increase each student’s talking time exponentially.
But what happens if you have a class with only four students? What happens when half the class is absent, and you’re left with only a pair of students? The smaller the size of the class, the more it is dependent on you. Try to avoid participating in the discussions and activities, and role plays. Instead, encourage them with feedback. They won’t have you to rely on in the real world!
Classrooms in which all of the students speak the same mother tongue pose a special challenge. They tend to speak more of their native language amongst themselves and less English. Some ESL teachers might not agree, but my way to handle monolingual classes is by enforcing the “English only” rule. The challenge is particularly difficult if you have lots of smaller groups, and you are certain they are not speaking English all the time. Some creative ways to handle this is offering incentives or rewards, or using gamification as a way of helping them achieve their goal of speaking as much English as they can.
ESL teachers face challenges on a daily basis. And each group of students brings its own distinct set of characteristics. Accepting these challenges and meeting them head on is the first step. The second step is finding a creative solution that will help your students develop the skills they need to succeed.
What challenges do you face daily?
Share them in the comments below!