Teaching ESL: Common Mistakes That English Teachers Make

Updated on August 1, 2016

Being a Great Teacher Is Not Easy...

Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) is not easy. Scratch that, it's real easy. Although, being a great teacher; one who educates, inspires and encourages, is incredibly difficult. Being the best ESL teacher you can be is important to feeling fulfilled in your job. In order to do so, teachers must recognize some common teaching mistakes. And fortunately, once recognized and the universe perfectly in tune, there is a solution to fixing these mistakes. This article will offer advice for those teaching English as a second language by listing some of these far-too-common teaching mistakes, and how to avoid them. The goal here is to help students learn, and to help teachers facilitate learning, rather than prevent it. So please, read on.

It's ok. Teachers make mistakes too.
It's ok. Teachers make mistakes too.

Common Mistakes That Teachers Make

TTT (Teacher Talking Time)

The title in bold speaks for itself. The more a teacher talks, the less opportunity there is for the student to talk. Especially in an ESL class, students need time to talk. More importantly, they need time to think, prepare their thoughts, translate, and decipher how to say it out loud. Embrace silence in the classroom as a good thing, and give your students time to think.

The Running Commentary

Teacher: Okay class, for this activity we are going to play a game using this marker. I would usually use a ball, but I couldn't find one, it used to be behind my desk...oh well. Taking this marker, I'm going to draw two circles, like this, maybe a little smaller, okay...

Seriously? Students don't need to, nor do they want to hear your entire thought process of past, present, and future activities out loud. For ESL learners, this can be boring, extremely hard to comprehend, and just plain unnecessary. This goes hand-in-hand with TTT. Tell the students what they need to know, then save your blabber for the break room.


Student: I went to the park.

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

Quite simply, you want the student to talk more than you. When you echo what they say, it gives them less talking time. In addition, when you echo, they start to learn that they don't need to listen to anyone but you (the teacher who repeats everything). If you catch yourself doing this, stop it.

Helpful Sentence Completion

Student: Eating fruits and vegetables is good…

Teacher: …for your health. Definitely, I try to eat at least…

When a teacher is trying to elicit a particular vocabulary from the student, he/she is eager, often too eager, to hear the correct answer. If you start predicting the words a student is going to say, and blurting out the tail end of a sentence, you are taking a chance away from the student. An ESL learner, as previously mentioned, needs time to think and produce their own words and ideas. Taking that away from them by completing the sentence for them is counter-productive, and actually pretty annoying.

Complicated and Unclear Instructions

This is a potential problem that can easily be fixed beforehand while lesson planning. Poor planning and loosely structured instructions can be very confusing to English learners. Even for a fluent English speaker like myself, instructions can be hard to grasp. Try to be as clear and concise in your instructions as possible. In this case, less is more.

Not Checking the Understanding of Instructions

"Okay class, ready… begin!" Ending your instructions with something like this will often leave you with a classroom full of whispering students, marked by looks of bewilderment. A simple way to double-check they understand is to ask a few students to repeat the instructions back to you. If the activity includes a question set, do the first question together as a class.

Teacher: Do you understand?

Student: Yes…?

Nine times out of ten, the student will answer yes, and nine times out of ten, the student doesn't understand. Why? Well, nobody likes to feel like the dullest knife in the drawer. In fact, a much better way to check and see if they understand is through example. Have them use the just learned language in a sentence, repeat the instructions, or have them explain the idea further. Try your best to never end a topic of study with "Do you understand?"

Constantly Improving

As a teacher, you will continually come across problems in the classroom. It's important to face each one, and do your best to patch- p any holes in your teaching abilities. Analyze what you can do as a teacher to fix the problem, as well as what the student can do.

These are certainly only the tip of the iceberg of problems that an ESL teacher may face, but they are the most common. Hopefully by outlining them you can start correcting them today.

What is your most common teaching mistake?

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Questions & Answers


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      • languagelearning profile image

        Alexander Martin 2 years ago from Italy

        Do any CELTA course and you will be taught to minimise TTT and maximise STT. All very well, but the science says the exact opposite. Research into language acquisition and brain lateralisation (see Asher) shows beyond any reasonable doubt that learning occurs in the right hemisphere of the brain, while speaking occurs in the left. This basically means that speaking a language is not the same as learning a language. This may be counter-intuitive, yet it makes perfect sense. An infant first listens to the language being directed at him/her before speaking it. So to truly learn a language you really need to hear (and understand) the structures being taught in various combinations (called mapping). Speaking is simply the spontaneous result of learning. In other words, maximise TTT and minimise STT. Students in the poll who disagree with this will just have to work harder because they are working against their brains.

      • profile image

        Susannah Voigt 5 years ago

        These tips were entertaining to read and not to mention a good reminder for pitfalls anyone can tumble into, no matter how long you have been at the game. However, it is ironic, and personally deeply disturbing to me that the second sentence of the article contains the typical Americanism/grammar mistake of using the adjective 'real' to modify the following adjective 'easy' when the adverb 'really' is required. Hey, we all make mistakes - but as language teachers that is not one we should be making as a habit.

      • profile image

        ivi 6 years ago

        thanks!!!! im doing a research for my thesis :) I would like to ask some questions!!

      • profile image

        mumalmehek 6 years ago

        its vvvvvvv useful knowledge for the teachers as well as like mirror

      • tmbridgeland profile image

        tmbridgeland 6 years ago from Small Town, Illinois

        I taught 15 years in Japan, and certainly made all these mistakes. Hopefully less towards the end... One of the best tools I found was to just shut up. Sometimes the student is thinking, and needs time to work things out. Just maintain a friendly expression so the student doesn't feel pressured, and wait for him to speak.

      • Paul Kuehn profile image

        Paul Richard Kuehn 6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        This is an excellent hub and I readily identify with it since I'm an EFL teacher in Thailand. You're correct about asking the students do you understand at the end of a lesson. I have gotten into this habit as well as saying, "Do you have any questions?"

      • profile image

        Rizwan Ali/Aele/ 6 years ago

        The main issue was to secure all students as much as possible as it never happened for learning and living in English Business this caused a lot bad behaviour for them,Economics need to be understood for English teachers and students that how they can make their own environment.

        Anyhow is there anyone from Cambridge or London who can put me to English family as my application pack was lost and need to collect my certificates and staff in High Commission is not in , so let me have access to Hon Marry if she is contact , s I need to collect my passport for Canada as I also lost Canadian application number , so need any one from around York who can .Seconldy let me know if anyone can send n my last TEFL/EFL certificate as British Council here is not working I rang in so many times yet no solution was online or on phone.

      • Ciel Clark profile image

        Ciel Clark 6 years ago from USA

        Most of the ESL students I've taught over the years both abroad and in the USA are conditioned to the TTT. That is a difficult habit for them to break, especially in another language.

        Thanks for the great hub!

      • englishfreestyle profile image

        englishfreestyle 6 years ago

        Great hub! Thanks for taking the time to write it.

      • talitz2550 profile image

        talitz2550 6 years ago from Thailand

        Fantastic hub! I'm an ESL teacher too and I can very much relate to everything you said. Being an ESL teacher is tough..oh let me reword... challenging yet rewarding. It's overwhelming when at the end of the day, you would just hear the students talking or kidding around with friends in English. :) Well done! Keep it up!

      • Sophie's soap box profile image

        Sophie's soap box 6 years ago from Australia

        This is a fantastic summary of common mistakes ESL teachers make! I love the one about not using Do you understand? One of the Golden Rules in ESL is to never ask this!! I always revert to concept checking questions or instruction checking questions. For example, for the sentence: If I won a million dollars, I would buy a mansion, the CCQ would be: Is this sentence in the first or the second conditional? (obviously the 2nd) Yes or no questions as well as those with choices (A, B or C) are great at identifying whether students really understand the concept you are trying to convey.

      • profile image

        Milagrosa 6 years ago

        What is the most important issue/challenge that ESL teachers face trying to get kids to learn?

      • profile image

        Matt 6 years ago

        You should simply give a nod of credit to the person you got these from, Jim Scrivener. These and others appear in his book 'Learning Teaching'. :)

      • christee123 profile image

        Christy Chesnutt 6 years ago from Washington, DC

        GREAT pointers that a lot of teachers should make note of, especially first time ESL teachers. Thank you!!

      • nawal alkathery profile image

        nawal alkathery 6 years ago

        very nice article . I did not pay much attention to some points discussed here . Thanks

      • RalphGreene profile image

        RalphGreene 6 years ago

        Wonderful hub! Thanks for sharing.

      • asmaiftikhar profile image

        asmaiftikhar 6 years ago from Pakistan

        jdaviswrites that's really a very very informative hub. and the aspects you throw light are in reality very important which are often ignored by the english teachers.Thanks a lot

      • jdaviswrites profile image

        Jeff Davis 7 years ago from California

        recommend1 - Thanks for reading and commenting...

      • recommend1 profile image

        recommend1 7 years ago

        As an ESL teacher I can relate to these pointers - they are those things that even if we learn to avoid we can find ourselves drifting back to. I have been 'at it' for 5 years now and find I need to sit myself down and do a self-check more often now than when I started!

      • jdaviswrites profile image

        Jeff Davis 7 years ago from California

        LaurelB - Thanks for reading!

      • LaurelB profile image

        LaurelB 7 years ago from Paducah, Kentucky

        Great hub!

      • jdaviswrites profile image

        Jeff Davis 7 years ago from California

        Jake - thanks. I'm glad you could use some of this information...

      • profile image

        Jake 7 years ago

        Great hub, I teach ESL in Greece and your tips will certainly come in handy :) thanks

      • jdaviswrites profile image

        Jeff Davis 7 years ago from California

        fayyazattock - So happy to hear that. Thanks for sharing...

      • fayyazattock profile image

        fayyazattock 7 years ago from attock pakistan

        great hub, i like it, going to help in the class room thanks

      • jdaviswrites profile image

        Jeff Davis 7 years ago from California

        gramarye - Thanks a million!

      • gramarye profile image

        gramarye 7 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

        Great hub. Voted up!

      • jdaviswrites profile image

        Jeff Davis 7 years ago from California

        marieryan-that could be...or it's because we are afraid of the silence. who knows, but it's something to be aware of. Thanks for the comment.

      • marieryan profile image

        Marie Ryan 7 years ago from Andalusia, Spain

        A good article! From the poll results so far I can see that overdoing the TTT is perhaps one of the greatest faults in a ESL class. Could it be because teachers may feel safe having a controlled situation in the room and 'put off' giving the control over to the students in case the activity doesn't work?

      • jdaviswrites profile image

        Jeff Davis 7 years ago from California

        teacher - I agree and know the feeling. As hard as it is, sometimes the silence can be beneficial. Thanks for the comment.

      • profile image

        teacher5159 7 years ago

        The running commentary was a very common one in my CELTA class. It seems that us teachers often feel the need to fill silence with something. Anything.

      • jdaviswrites profile image

        Jeff Davis 7 years ago from California

        MRWED - good point. I guess you can ask 'do you understand?' as long as you cross check the material. Don't just end a topic by asking that but by checking their understanding as well. Thanks for your comment.

      • profile image

        MRWED 7 years ago

        I was a math teacher and I remember using the phrase ‘do you understand?” but not just that, if they say yes I will call them and ask some questions and equation to solve if they really understand the lesson. So every time I ask them if they understand the lesson those who did get the lesson well should say “no” or else they will be called.

      • jdaviswrites profile image

        Jeff Davis 7 years ago from California

        that is the greatest!

      • ms.huntington profile image

        ms.huntington 7 years ago from Southern California

        "The Running Commentary" -- Oh my have we all been victim to that. My Biology teacher in my Sophmore year actually decided to tell us about his "first time." Blech. Waste of time. SMH

      • jdaviswrites profile image

        Jeff Davis 7 years ago from California

        kev8 - I'm glad this helps. I remember doing the same. Most of these bad habits (if you will) are easy to pick up but hard to put down...Thanks for the comment. Where in spain are you teaching?

      • kev8 profile image

        kev8 7 years ago

        Hey, great hub!Ill be walking into a classroom in about 40 minutes so Ill try watch out for the mistakes mentioned above.When I was reading it I was thinking of myself on more than one occasion.

        Im currently based in Spain and there is a lot of work here even with the economy in tatters.

      • jdaviswrites profile image

        Jeff Davis 7 years ago from California

        kosmo - yeah good deduction. although i'm only an unemployed teacher by choice. I left spain (where i was teaching) almost a year ago to come back to the states. teaching english abroad (even in europes struggling economy) is still a solid profession with plenty of work

      • Kosmo profile image

        Kelley 7 years ago from California

        So, it appears you're an out-of-work teacher. One of my best friends is one of those. Poor guy, he is up to his eyeballs in debt and has little chance of finding work - other than subbing - for years to come. Later!