You’ve Got THAT Kid in Class? 4 Challenging Student Types and How to Work Well Together

You’ve Got THAT Kid in Class? 4 Challenging Student Types and How to Work Well Together

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 11,918 views

Have you ever found yourself asking, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Teaching the English language requires a certain set of knowledge and skills, but dealing with challenging students requires a whole other skill set. The good news is that many of these student types can end up being no problem at all if you know how to make class work for both you and them.

4  Student Types That Might Challenge You in Class: 

The I’m-just-here-for-a-vacation Student

Teaching is not only your job; it’s your passion. Perhaps that is why a I’m-just-here-for-the-vacation student can be so frustrating. These students want to travel, see the world, take a trip to the United States, and the easiest way to do it is to enroll in an ESL program. Once they get to the U.S. however, their motivation is low, their participation minimal, their homework nonexistent. How do you keep your entire class engaged and motivated when at least one among them won’t take classroom time seriously?

These students are challenging because they tend to have an influence on the other members of your class. When one person never does homework, doesn’t engage in class (if they show up), and makes no effort to learn, these attitudes can rub of on other students, especially ones who have been studying English for a length of time and might like a vacation themselves.

To help manage unengaged students, you can try these strategies.

Make class as fun as possible. Play games, use movement activities in class, and watch movies when they tie into what you are teaching. Not only will this peak the interest of your unengaged students, your other students will enjoy themselves as well.

Take fieldtrips when possible. Most travelers love to sight see, so make that a part of your class. You may not be able to take your students to the statue of liberty or other traditional sight seeing destinations, but even trips to a local playhouse will let your students experience the special places your country has to offer.

Make your lessons practical. Most likely you have preset material you have to cover in class, but tweaking it to apply to international travelers can help. For example, if you were doing a unit on travel, apply it by teaching your students how to use the public transportation in your specific city. If you are doing a unit on sports, talk about your local professional teams or even your high school teams. Go to a game outside of class time if you can. Make real connections between your course material and the world right outside your door, and you will see your students engage.

The I-need-to-understand-every-single-word Student

I will never forget one of my students, Anna, who was determined to know the exact meaning of every singe word she read. She spent so much time look words up in the dictionary that she missed the greater parts of language – things like grammar, sentence structure, and conversation. She was chained to her dictionary, and no matter how many times I tried to help her understand, she would not believe that she could read and speak English without memorizing a translation of every word she encountered.

These students are a challenge because what underlies the issue is fear. They are afraid they will not be able to function in English if they don’t know every nuance of vocabulary. Students who are overly dependent on the dictionary actually end up hurting themselves more than helping themselves. There are a few things you can do to help students stuck in the bilingual dictionary rut.

First, try limiting bilingual dictionary use. For me, I find that once students reach an intermediate level, they tend to hinder their progress more than further it. My preference is to have no bilingual dictionaries in class, but that is not always possible. In such cases, limiting dictionary use to certain activities can encourage students to develop the skills that help them acquire new vocabulary without getting a translation for every word.

You should also have English only dictionaries available in class and encourage all of your students to use them. English only dictionaries are different because their definitions force students to make connections between English words rather than between English words and those of their first language. Make sure your dictionaries have simple definitions, those that will be easier for your ESL students to understand.

If you still have students struggling with dependence on bilingual dictionaries, it’s time to do some activities with nonsense words. Students can’t look up a word’s definition if it doesn’t really exist in the English language. Give your students exercises in which they must determine a word’s meaning from context by replacing said word with X or a made-up word such as buzzing. This activity will help them develop the skill they need to guess meaning of unfamiliar words in the future.

The This-is-keeping-me-back-from-real-language-use Student

In all of my years teaching ESL, I would guess that ninety percent of my students were planning on going on to an English speaking secondary school or using English in the business place. For some students, studying English can feel like an inconvenience, something that is keeping them from the real world. The problem is that students who are not adequately fluent (not perfectly fluent) will have far more struggles after their English studies. These students are very similar to the I’m-just-here-for-a-TOEFL-score students. None of them necessarily wants to learn English. Fluency is simply a hurdle to overcome before heading out to the real world. These students just want to get through the program as quickly as possible.

The underlying struggle with these students is impatience. They feel like they are wasting their time while studying the English language and want to move on to the real stuff.

To help these students, make your class as real-life applicable as possible. Rather than having them write an essay along the lines of how I spent my summer vacation, have them write a product comparison and recommendation for their company. Instead of playing news clips for listening practice, try using recorded college lectures. (You can probably find these in your college library or online.) Choose topics and assignments that directly relate to what your students will be doing after their English program. That way students feel like they are already doing the “real stuff” even though they are still studying the language. Another tip – if you have a class that has both pre-academic and pre-business students, give them different assignments that use the same skills. There is no rule that says half of your class can’t write an interoffice memo while the other half writes an email to a professor.

Teaching is challenging, but we love it.

That is why we do it. And while most of our students are as pleasant as punch, every once in a while we end up with students who challenge us. These student’s don’t have to be the end of your happy classroom. With a few simple strategies that problem student might just become your best student of all.

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