Struggling ESL Students

Struggling ESL Students

Struggling ESL students will be something that every teacher faces, and it is important that you help them in the right way. If you are lucky enough to have an ESL class that is all at the same level, enjoy it!

IMAG3535Chances are, though, that you will have a few students in your class who struggle with some of the basics that they are expected to know at their level.

Especially if you have a larger class, it can be easy for these students to end up getting left behind completely. After all, what teacher has the time to stop class on a regular basis to review basic grammar concepts that 95% of the class already understands?

But leaving your struggling students in the dark not only hurts their academic progress and self-esteem, it also hurts your ability to teach your class, and your reputation as a teacher. You can do a lot more than you think to keep these struggling students up to speed while still keeping the rest of the class engaged.

Figure out why he is struggling

There are a lot of reasons why students might be struggling in your class. What in particular is he having difficulty with, and what is the underlying reason? Does it just seem like he’s struggling because his pronunciation is unintelligible?

Maybe he understands everything perfectly but is too shy and intimidated to ever speak out, or is too afraid of getting a wrong answer? Or maybe he tends to rush through words and needs some coaching to slow down and listen more, or has a speech impediment or learning disorder that you aren’t aware of.

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Perhaps he feels that learning English is pointless for him, or that he can’t do it because he is too far behind. There are always underlying reasons for why a student is struggling, and the more you can understand those reasons, the better you can help that student.

Plan activities that she can still participate in and understand

This takes a little more planning and effort on your part but it’s worth it. It might mean printing out some pictures for a matching game instead of just using words, or it might mean having a fill-in-the-blank section on your worksheets instead of just telling them to write a sentence.

I’m not arguing that you dumb down your class for one or two students; just consider, when planning activities and worksheets, if they will be able to participate at all, or if they will be left completely helpless.

You’re doing yourself, the struggling student, and the rest of the class a huge favor because students who are completely lost are the ones who tend to cause disruptions.

Giving them a way to participate, even in a more limited way, lets them feel like part of the class, prevents a lot of behavioral problems, and puts them in a position to grasp some of the lessons when they would otherwise have been totally in the dark.

Don’t single him out

If a student is having a hard time and getting low grades in English class, chances are it’s doing enough damage to their self-esteem in and of itself. The last thing they need is to be singled out in front of the whole class for their lack in certain areas of English.

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So, as much as you can, avoid stopping class to go over grammar that only they are getting wrong, or correcting them frequently in front of the whole class. Instead, make your correction individually or in small group settings, and find some time to go over grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary that they are struggling with one-on-one.

Celebrate her strong points

It might be hard to see when you have a student who sits in the very back of the class and never says a single word, but remember every single student in your class has their own unique talents, strengths, and interests.

Find out what those are. For example, I once had a struggling, and very disruptive student, who I found out was a very talented athlete and absolutely loved anything to do with sports.

It had never occurred to him that he could do his writing assignments, journal prompts, and reports on his favorite sports and athletes, but once he started doing that, his behavior and his writing improved drastically.

If you nurture a student’s talents and interests, they can come to see the English language as a forum for expressing those things, they are more likely to take an interest in it.

Pair him with stronger students

Having a peer mentor is a great way for a struggling student to feel like they are a part of the class and to get one-on-one help in a very non-intimidating way. If you have a number of struggling students, this might mean restructuring your class so there is much more partner work involved.

You might also allow some students to work alone, and assign others to pairs.  Remember, too, that you are ultimately helping the stronger students. They say that you don’t fully understand something until you can teach it, so if you are putting them in a mentor/tutor role to their struggling classmates, you are giving them the chance to really hone their knowledge of English.

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You know your students best, so make sure that you are picking peer mentors who you trust to help struggling students, and not give them a hard time.

Talk to the Parents

As intimidating as it can be, having a conversation with the parents is crucial. Parents want to believe that their children are all perfectly behaved geniuses, and it can be difficult to hear anything to the contrary.

But in the long run, a little dose of reality might be what the parents and their child need. Ask your administrative staff to help facilitate a meeting and translate if needed. While discussing the problem, a good rule to stick to is the “sandwich” rule, or the “oreo” rule: sandwich your negative comments in between two positives.

For example, “Sam’s comprehension has improved so much this year – I’m amazed how well he understands what I am saying, usually the first time he hears it.  He’s been having a hard time with reading and spelling, though, and I’m worried he will fall behind if we don’t do something. He’s such a smart boy and understands so well, I don’t want to see him held back in the long run by this small thing.”

Then offer some practical solutions: private tutoring, or switching him to a class that better suits his level. Not all parents are willing to admit that their child might be struggling, and some are unfortunately quick to blame the teacher or the school, but many more will be willing to listen to what you are saying if it is presented the right way.

Are you an ESL teacher? Chances are you have come across ESL students that are struggling at times? We want to hear about your experiences and how you dealt with it in the comments section below. 


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