Ten Common Mistakes ESL Teachers Make in the Classroom (And How to Fix Them)

Nobody is perfect. That’s the truth. It’s the same for doctors, lawyers, parents, students, and teachers. Nobody likes making mistakes. Big or small, mistakes can kill self-esteem, loom over our heads like some grim reaper created out of our own idiocy. In a classroom, teachers often make mistakes early on in their careers; veteran teachers make mistakes, too.


What mistakes do ESL teachers make?

ESL teachers tend to frequently make mistakes throughout their first year. The inadequate training of some programs, lack of preparation, and general inexperience all contribute to these mistakes. They’re fairly common, so don’t feel bad. I made numerous mistakes my first year teaching, and I still make mistakes from time to time.

Here are ten common mistakes ESL teachers make (taken from both BusyTeacher, and ABCfrog).


1. Too much “Teacher Talk Time” – This is a very common mistake teachers make. The teacher might start explaining some concept, then begins to ramble on and on about useless stuff. The students don’t get a chance to practice what they should be learning.

How you can fix it: Silence is golden. Remember that old phrase? It really does help in the classroom. Too much talking serves no real purpose and only makes you crunch for time later on. After briefly explaining a topic and giving a few examples, give the students a chance to practice and come up with examples on their own. Depending on the lesson, group and/or pair work can be excellent ways to help students develop their skills. mistakes-english-teachers

2. Communicating at inappropriate levels – Education is full of its own jargon. Eduspeak (as I like to call it) can really sound like some secret code or a foreign language altogether. There are so many technical terms in grammar, phonics, as well as types of methods and assessments used. Teachers may not know how to simplify terms down to a level for students to understand. Not only that, but native speakers may frequently talk too fast for the students to comprehend. Remember, ESL students are learning English as a second language.

How you can fix this: Speak slowly. It may be difficult at first, but it is necessary. Use simple terms and definitions to start, and as your students begin to further develop their comprehension and speaking skills, slowly work in more complex words. Focus on the target vocabulary and phrases during lessons. Textbooks often use lots of technical terms which confuse students. As your students begin to speak more fluently, you can also speak more naturally. When students can follow a quicker-paced conversation, it helps them develop become more fluent, natural-sounding speakers.

3. Completing your students’ sentences for them – Are you a mind reader? or just an eager beaver? Either one is not good for teachers. It’s annoying when adults do it to each other, so why should teachers do it for their students?

“But I want to help my students,” you might say. Don’t do it. ESL students need time to come up with an answer on their own. There’s a good chance that they know what they want to say, but they just don’t know the English vocabulary they need.

How you can fix this: Let them answer it with what they know – no matter how broken it may sound. After they finish the sentence, ask other students for their answers and help them find better solutions.

4. Inadequate preparation for class –  There are few things more embarrassing than being unprepared for a class (next to splitting your pants while you bend over, or ripping a loud fart in front of your students). Lesson planning sucks, there’s no getting around that, but it is vital to having a successful class. If you are unprepared for teaching your lesson, whether you don’t know the subject material well enough, or don’t the necessary materials on hand, it will be obvious.

How you can fix this: Take some time to think about what you are going to teach and how you are going to teach it. Think of the vocabulary you will cover. What games will you use? Take out all the materials you are going to use in the class and lay them out in order so that you are not searching through drawers  in the middle of the class. Make sure you have extra games on hand in case one activity bombs or you run out of time.

5. Speaking the students’ native language – While this may seem tempting, don’t do it. You may think if you can explain to your students in their native language, they will understand better. That may be true, but you are there to teach English, not practice your language skills! Even if you are taking classes to learn the language of whatever country you’re teaching in, it’s best to not speak it in the classroom. The students need to get used to hearing English spoken the entire time.

How you can fix this: Everything can be explained in English. From games to grammar, you can simplify your language down to basic terms and explanations. For games and other activities, demonstrate more and talk less. Encourage students to talk more and ask questions, rather than constantly talk to them.

Don|27t-be-afraid-to-make-mistakes.-Be-afraid-of-not-learning-from-them.-status6. Not checking for understanding“The direct object of the subject comes after the verb and receives the action of the subject. For this exercise you are to find and circle the direct object in each sentence. Ready? Let’s begin!”

If you were an ESL student hearing those instructions, would you understand what your task would be? I probably wouldn’t, and I doubt many ESL students do. Hopefully the teacher defined the terms subject, verb, and direct object, and gave examples of each. Too often teachers explain concepts without going back to see if their students understood. Many students are often too shy to ask questions in front of their peers, and may just keep silent and/or nod their heads. Teachers may mistake this action as implicit comprehension, when they have no idea what was just said. I’ve made this mistake numerous times in the past.

How you can fix this: After explaining the target grammar or other content, give some examples and supplement that with one or two exercises for the students to complete. Break things up into small chunks that are easy to comprehend. Call on a couple of students to come to the front and share their answers, or complete a problem on the whiteboard. One of the best ways to ensure your students understand the material, is to have them repeat it after you. Using a call-and-response technique gives students the opportunity to speak and build memory retention skills.teacher-effectiveness

7. Lacking proper classroom management – This is a tough thing to get down for many teachers, old and new. Many teachers hope to be someone their students can trust, something every teacher wants. The problem here lies with how the teacher manage the classroom. Many new teachers like to start off as the “cool guy” or “nice girl” or what have you, and end up unable to enforce a strict discipline policy later on.

How you can fix this: How does that saying go again? “Don’t smile until Christmas,” well that is exactly what you should do.  I don’t mean be angry and uncaring for the first four or five months of the school year; I mean you should start off strict. Be “the hard ass” teacher that won’t let students get away with even the smallest things. You need to make sure your students respect you first. It’s better to be strict first and lighten up later on. I found that our the hard way a few years ago. I started off as the “cool, nice teacher” and when I tried to be strict, I wasn’t taken seriously and my students were out of control. When I began at the school I am now, I was super strict. Within the first month my class’s overall behavior was much improved and I could actually teach instead of spending half the class correcting behavior.

 8. You echo their answers – Have you ever done this?

Student: I went to the park.

Teacher: Good! You went to the park. Okay great. You went to the park.

There is no reason to echo your students’ answers. They don’t learn anything new or beneficial from it. It just wastes time. You want your students to talk more than you.

How you can fix this:  After your student answers a question, prompt him or her to add more information. Try this instead:

Student: I went to the park.

Teacher: How interesting! Tell me, what did you do at the park?

Student: I played soccer with my friends. I walked my dog. I played on the playground.

Basically, you want to give your students as much time to talk as they can (within the time you have). If the student is unable to give more information, then call on another student. Don’t ask for volunteers, call on a specific student – one who may be somewhat shy or not paying attention.index

9. Racing through the material – In order for ESL students to truly learn and comprehend vocabulary, grammar, or whatever content their lesson is over, they need multiple exposures to it. Oftentimes new ESL teachers don’t spend enough time covering a specific topic or set of vocabulary words. They cover the material in one to two lessons and move on to the next unit. They may not assess their students at the end of the lesson or unit to check for comprehension, and the students are left with inadequate skill development.

How you can fix this: S-l-o-w d-o-w-n. You are in control of the class, and the pacing of the content, not the textbook (or parents/admins). You should teach for understanding, and ensure your students can use what they’ve learned successfully before moving on to the next topic. After finishing a unit, give them an assessment (a quiz or test) to make sure they (and you) have achieved what you hoped. You shouldn’t worry about finishing the textbook. If you aren’t able to finish the textbook, pick up from that spot the next quarter (or semester).

10. Focusing on the activity instead of the students’ needs – This a mistake I often made in the past. It’s easy to get caught up in the game or activity you have planned instead of looking at what the students need for them to learn. The students’ learning needs must come first. Games, activities, worksheets and group projects are excellent ways to get students involved in class, but those things might not always be in the students’ best interest.

How you can fix this: The goal of English classes is to help your students learn English, not pass the time as quickly as possible. Make sure you are focusing on games, activities and stories that are giving your students the English exposure they need. There are many great chants, games and books that are appropriate for the ability of your students. Spend the time to find or develop activities that will facilitate your students’ learning.



I am an ESL teacher with over 7 years of experience. I teach kindergarten and elementary students in South Korea. I have taught middle school and adult ELLs in the past, too. My goal as a teacher is to help my students develop and achieve fluency in English, but also in other areas of their lives. I try to educate the whole child.