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Teaching ESL: 7 Common Mistakes That English Teachers Make

Jeff is a writer and artist who has written on education, travel, and modern culture.

Teaching English as a second language is a challenging but very rewarding career.

Teaching English as a second language is a challenging but very rewarding career.

How to Be a Great ESL Teacher

Teaching English as a second language isn't easy. Scratch that. Being a mediocre teacher isn't hard. But being a great teacher—one who educates, inspires, and encourages—is much more difficult.

Being the best ESL teacher you can be is important to feeling fulfilled in your job. In order to do so, it's important to recognize some common teaching mistakes. The good news is that once you recognize these mistakes, you can learn how to avoid them. Your students will learn more from you, and you'll feel more satisfied with your work. Win-win!

By learning how to facilitate rather than hinder learning, you will become a better ESL teacher, and your students will thank you for it.

Common Mistakes That Teachers Make

Let's dive into it! Here are the top seven mistakes that ESL teachers make.

1. Too Much Teacher Talking Time

This one is pretty self-explanatory; the more a teacher talks, the less opportunity there is for the student to talk. Especially in an ESL class, students need time to practice speaking. 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.

This mistake is so common it even has an acronym in the ESL world—we call it TTT (teacher talking time), whereas our goal is to increase STT (student talking time).

2. 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, 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, hard to comprehend, and just plain unnecessary. This goes hand-in-hand with the first mistake, too much teacher talking time. Tell the students what they need to know, and save your stream-of-consciousness for the break room.

3. The Echo Chamber

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.

If the activity includes a question set, I recommend doing the first question together as a class.

If the activity includes a question set, I recommend doing the first question together as a class.

4. Unhelpful Sentence Completion

Student: "Eating fruits and vegetables is good…"

Teacher: "…for your health! Definitely, I try to eat at least three servings a day."

When a teacher is trying to elicit a particular vocabulary from the student, he/she can sometimes be 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 learning opportunity away from the student. ESL learners need time to think and produce their own words and ideas. Taking that away from them by completing their sentence is counter-productive.

5. Giving Complicated and/or Unclear Instructions

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

6. Not Checking the Understanding of Instructions

Teacher: "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 that they understand is to ask a few students to repeat the instructions back to you. If the activity includes a question set, I recommend doing the first question together as a class.

7. The Dreaded "Do You Understand?"

Teacher: "Do you understand?"

Student: "Yes…?"

Nine times out of ten, if you ask "do you understand," the student will answer yes—but nine times out of ten they won't!

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 an example. Have them use the just-learned vocabulary or grammar 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?"

Improving Your Skills

As a teacher, you will always encounter new challenges in the classroom. It's important to face each one, and do your best to patch 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.

The mistakes outlined above represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of problems that an ESL teacher may face, but they are the most common. Hopefully by recognizing these mistakes you can start correcting them today.

Resources for ESL Teachers


Alexander Martin from Italy on November 22, 2015:

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.

Susannah Voigt on June 08, 2012:

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.

ivi on April 24, 2012:

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

mumalmehek on April 18, 2012:

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

tmbridgeland from Small Town, Illinois on April 17, 2012:

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 Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on March 23, 2012:

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?"

Rizwan Ali/Aele/ on March 10, 2012:

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 from USA on March 07, 2012:

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 on February 26, 2012:

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

talitz2550 from Thailand on January 13, 2012:

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 from Australia on January 04, 2012:

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.

Milagrosa on December 04, 2011:

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

Matt on November 07, 2011:

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'. :)

Christy Chesnutt from Washington, DC on October 23, 2011:

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

nawal alkathery on October 10, 2011:

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

RalphGreene on September 09, 2011:

Wonderful hub! Thanks for sharing.

asmaiftikhar from Pakistan on August 19, 2011:

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

Jeff Davis (author) from California on April 05, 2011:

recommend1 - Thanks for reading and commenting...

recommend1 on March 27, 2011:

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!

Jeff Davis (author) from California on March 11, 2011:

LaurelB - Thanks for reading!

LaurelB from Paducah, Kentucky on March 11, 2011:

Great hub!

Jeff Davis (author) from California on February 18, 2011:

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

Jake on February 18, 2011:

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

Jeff Davis (author) from California on February 02, 2011:

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

fayyazattock from attock pakistan on February 02, 2011:

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

Jeff Davis (author) from California on January 03, 2011:

gramarye - Thanks a million!

gramarye from Adelaide - Australia on January 02, 2011:

Great hub. Voted up!

Jeff Davis (author) from California on December 11, 2010:

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.

Marie Ryan from Andalusia, Spain on December 09, 2010:

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?

Jeff Davis (author) from California on November 27, 2010:

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

teacher5159 on November 11, 2010:

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.

Jeff Davis (author) from California on October 14, 2010:

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.

MRWED on October 13, 2010:

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.

Jeff Davis (author) from California on June 08, 2010:

that is the greatest!

ms.huntington from Southern California on June 07, 2010:

"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

Jeff Davis (author) from California on June 02, 2010:

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 on June 02, 2010:

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.

Jeff Davis (author) from California on May 29, 2010:

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

Kelley Marks from Sacramento, California on May 29, 2010:

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!