Problems and solutions on TEFL

Do you have any problems in teaching your students English? Are you satisfied with the current system of teaching English in your school or country? If you have or feel any problems you want to share with other teachers, please click here and send your problems by mail. I would also appreciate it if other teachers would find the solutions to the problems. I will add them to this page later. When you send, please don't forget to give me your name, mail address and the name of the city, the state/province and the country you live in.

I'm a high school English teacher here in Japan. My way of teaching English drastically changed after I came back to Japan from my two-year study at graduate school in America. I majored in MATEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) at San Francisco State University more than ten years ago and that opened my eyes to the communicative way of teaching English. However, since then I've still had only a few colleagues I can share the teaching method with because in Japan a lot of high school teachers are not so interested in teaching communicative skills and they are trying to teach English with much stress on reading comprehension (or rather translation) and grammar. I sometimes feel some of them may not be able to teach communicative skills and that I'm somewhat isolated from other teachers! I need someone who can share the teaching method with me. [Hiroyuki Yukita: Aomori, Aomori, JAPAN]

The problem you are faced with is equally prevalent in my country despite the fact that we, here in Pakistan, study English as a second language; whereas an average Japanese, according to my knowledge, learns English as a foreign language. Most of our English language teachers at school and college level hardly pay attention to helping the students develop communicative skills. The whole emphasis is on reading and composition. I think this sorry state of affairs is due to lack of teacher training in English language teaching skills. I have also just completed my MA TEFL from Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad. I also experience the same sort of isolation and dissociation from the rest of our teaching community. I particularly feel detached from those who hold no degree or even certificate in TEFL methodology.

Our students, however, are very much inclined to learn all the four language skills, that is, listening, speaking, reading and writing. The situation is particularly bad in government institutions. So finding no way out, most of those who wish and need to refine their spoken skill join private tuition centres and academies. [Shahid Qazi : PAKISTAN]

You are right in saying that English is taught as a foreign language in Japan, where students only have a chance to use English in class. So the main purpose of studying English seems to pass the entrance exams to high schools and universities and of teaching English is, needless to say, to have them pass such exams. Since the teachersf performances are evaluated mostly based on the results of the mock exams and/or how many students get into national or public universities, not on how well students show their communicative competence in class, many of them teach English in a way that the students get higher scores on the exams, which mainly evaluate their reading comprehension, grammar, translation and part of writing. You also said the training of the language teachers is a problem. The same thing can be said about our teachers. Many Japanese English teachers are not so confident in teaching English in a target language, so they tend to teach the language in their own language, and that gives the students few chances to expose themselves to listening to and speaking English.

Last year the new Course of Study was put into effect for high school freshmen in Japan. Now Ifm teaching so that the students can learn the four language skills combined. Luckily, I teach with my coworkers, who are very cooperative to me in teaching English. My students, or I should say most students, want to learn English with various skills. I do feel they are really interested in learning to express themselves in both spoken and written English. So the biggest problem with teaching English in Japan is probably English teachers themselves.[Hiroyuki Yukita: Aomori, Aomori, JAPAN]

One of the problems is students find it difficult to speak the language because they don't see the needs to do so. Furthermore, why bother wasting so much time thinking of the words, grammar rules and what-have-you if they can converse in their own mother tongue? So I think the biggest problem to teach spoken English is the environment. [Hm: MALAYSIA]

Most of the materials to teach English with in Brazil are British or American and are not suitable to our students. As a trial to solve this, many British and American textbook writers are starting to take our reality into consideration. They are already preparing materials specially for Brazilian students, or at least for Latin American students.

Another problem is the big number of students in the regular classrooms. The law says that the classrooms cannot have more than 30 students, but this does not always happen. We need more schools and consequently, more classrooms, so we can have 25 students at the most in each classroom. [Maria Cristina Pereira: Sao Jose dos Campos, Sao Paulo, BRAZIL]

One way of making sure that materials are relevant to the students is to make them yourself, or adapt the excellent materials available on so many sites here. I know it needs commitment, time, a computer and a colour printer, but "if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well!" [Mary: JERSEY CHANNEL ISLANDS]

The biggest problem in teaching monolingual classes is getting students to use English communicatively. My students all know that I speak Polish, so even in talking with me they rarely try to use their English unless I really force them to. In a high school environment, I often find myself struggling with motivational problems. Giving marks often has to be brandished like a club to get them to perform. Also, I'm always dealing with very mixed groups in terms of motivation and ability. To what level should one teach when in a group of 15 students there are maybe three or four who follow everything, learn what they're supposed to and want to go further, most of them sort of follow along, and there are three or four who don't understand anything, don't want to learn, and would rather be somewhere else? [Thomas Topham: Myslenice, POLAND]

It seems to me a problem that MOST of your students sort of follow along. Why do you think they are not so interested in learning English? Don't you sometimes think what you teach them is too difficult or boring to follow along? Do you have any specific goal to which you'll have to lead your students? You have to improve their English a lot enough to have them prepare for the college entrance exam, for example? If you don't, why don't you ask them what they want to learn and teach part of that in a way you want to have them improve their skills. I think WHAT you teach students is more important than HOW you teach them and that we always should be careful about WHAT to teach in the first place. [Hiroyuki Yukita: Aomori, Aomori, JAPAN]

The decline in the standard of ESL proficiency among the pupils is the problem. Formerly, before and a few years after independence from the Brits, English was the medium of instruction in schools at all levels. Other subjects - maths, science, geography, and even physical education - were taught in English. When the government rightly restored Bahasa Melayu (Malay language) as the first official language after independence, the situation changed. English is now taught only as a subject. Other subjects use Bahasa Melayu.

Secondly, pupils do not see the need to study English and many of them see the need to use Bahasa Melayu more than English. A Chinese pupil would be more likely to use Malay than English to communicate with an Indian or a Kadazan, Iban, Sikh. The same goes to the others.

Thirdly, it does not require a passing grade in English in both primary and secondary levels for pupils to be promoted. [Mohd Marzuki Maulud: Malacca, MALAYSIA]

I give English classes to secondary students in Mexico City. The problem I see here is that the programs give the students a lot of grammar and writing but very little conversation, so when the students try to say something in English they can't although they know a lot of rules and vocabulary. They are not used to speaking here. I want to know techniques or methods on this matter. What can I do to make the students more enthusiastic in learning the language? [Lourdes Sola Barrera: Col. San Francisco Contreras, MEXICO]

I just have a statement about the problem of teaching grammar in the ESL classroom. Many times teachers refer to grammar books while students are expected to follow along. I think a better way to liven up the grammar discussion is to write sample sentences on the blackboard so that everyone can see the example and ask specific questions about it. Grammar is boring only when the student has to learn it on their own. [Chi Bich Le: New Mexico, USA]

I think one of our biggest problems is the number of students per class - about 35 - which makes it practically impossible to have proper conversation classes. Also, teenagers aren't very interested in learning and they only do it because they have to. So in order to motivate them I sometimes give them a pop song, with a handout to fill in the spaces as they listen. Another activity which they enjoy doing is watching films. So once or twice a year I show them a film divided in segments with backup material with a glossary for new vocabulary acquisition, true or false statements and cloze exercises, for example. [Claudia de Barros Pereira: Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, BRAZIL]

I teach English at an adult language school in Taiwan. I've been teaching here (the largest chain of language centers for adults in Taiwan) for nearly two years, and have found that regardless of your English proficiency and qualification (I'm a Taiwanese-American who had lived in the States for over twenty years with a TESL degree), if you don't look Caucasian some students will never attend your classes, and some will even question the CORRECTNESS of your English. I am interested to know if other teachers have noticed the same phenomenon. [Richard Chen: TAIWAN]

I read your problem very interestingly as I myself too would act the same way as your students. I guess that will probably depend on whether you are a native speaker of English who was born in an English speaking country and had been in the country since then for a long time, say, until the end of high school. We would never question the correctness of your English if you were like that. However, if you were not, we at first would be skeptical of your English. But that would last only for a couple of days. If we come to be sure that your English is almost perfect, we don't care about your English correctness and we feel more comfortable with you. The important thing is, I think, how you assure your students by interacting with them as much as possible. Once they come to understand your character, they will never care whether you were born in an English speaking country or not. Good luck! [Hiroyuki Yukita: Aomori, Aomori, JAPAN]

I am researching the problems of teaching reading to students whose native language does not use the Latin alphabet. Many students in Israel, after three years of English instruction, are still non-readers. Most of them, consequently, know no English. I feel that the system of teaching young learners here is at fault, with an emphasis on stressing aural/oral skills first. This does not seem to be effective in classes of 35-40 pupils whose behaviour tends to be rather disruptive. [Jennifer Byk: ISRAEL]

I have retired from business in the US and my wife and I are living and working in Chihuahua, Mexico. My wife who has degrees in both accounting and businesseducation is the director of English at the school where we work, and I simply (attempt to) teach English. The Mexican government mandates the teaching of English and the students, generally speaking, could care less. Another, if not a bigger problem is, most of the English teaching materials available in Mexico are from publishers in England. Mayber it's better than I give it credit for, but I find it next to useless. Nothing in it relates to these students in Chihuahua. Another problem is that the educationalphilosophy here is "The more books you go through, the more English you know." At the end of two years you are using books that are about three levels above your maximum capability. I would love to hear from anyone that can offer sound advice, especially from teachers in Mexico that are enjoying any appreciable measure of success. [Jack D. Eoff: Chihuahua, MEXICO]

I was an AET for the JET programme from 1993-1996. I worked at the two middle schools (Nishi and Higashi) in Iwase-machi, Ibaraki-ken.

"How can I help the students improve their speaking ability if they refuse to talk?"

I asked myself again and again and again. I found the biggest barrier to speaking English for Japanese students is the fear of making mistakes. Many times when I said "Hello." to students outside of class, they looked at the floor without responding. Japanese students would rather remain silent than risk a verbal error.

I often explained to my students in Japanese that unless mistakes are made, they will not be able to identify their strong points and weak points in communication. I also added that when I first arrived in Japan, I had the same fear of speaking Japanese. After trying to speak however, I realized that small verbal mistakes are soon forgotten and by considering those mistakes, I learned how to speak correctly.

I now work in Korea as an English teacher trainer and am not surprised to find that most of the trainees face the same problem with their students. To encourage my trainees, I share my experience in Japan and inform them that I am making mistakes again in another language: Korean. [Jim Corbett: SOUTH KOREA]

I think you should have been more patient to them. You sound as if you tried making them speak for a short period of time. However, Japanese people are generally poor at speaking English and so are students, especially when they speak with native speakers of English face to face. I don't think all the students refuse to talk. Of course, there are some who are not interested in speaking English, though.

It's difficult to expect students to change their attitudes toward speaking English for a short time, but with your constant and patient approach to them, I suppose they will come to lower their affective filters and respond to you before long. Don't give up. Don't be too eager for success. [Hiroyuki Yukita: Aomori, Aomori, JAPAN]

I have been an English teacher for one and a half year. Not having many experiences, I always find teaching students how to speak the language is not an easy thing. I am in charge of a class of Grade 8, 44 students altogether. Some of them are unwilling to speak even in class, not to mention after class. I think that's not the fault of the students. It's because of the lack of teaching activities in class. But how would I find the activities and arrange them properly? [Jackie Shao: Shanghai Peng Pu No.5 Middle School, Shanghai, CHINA]

I'm not quite sure how you actually teach English to your eighth grade students, but it seems to me, like you mentioned, you haven't done a lot of activities in class but you have mostly given lecture-type lessons. Like in Japan, English is a foreign language in China where the language is rarely used in daily lives. So it might be an idea you would try to give your students as many activities as possible, but only interesting ones, during the lesson so that they can enjoy learning the language and feel more interested in learning it. That way they'll have more positive attitude toward learning the language. Small group activities and/or pair work do help students enjoy learning. They are really excited in such activities during class. You might try them.

However, I think it's not WHAT activities you would give but HOW you would give them that counts. Even if you give some activities that you think might be interesting, they would often not actually as interesting as you expected if you were not so sure about how you would give them and what things your students should be learning from them. In a nutshell, you have to consider yourself carefully how you could give interesting lessons. If you could do this, I suppose any activities you use would be interesting and rewarding to your students. Good luck! [Hiroyuki Yukita: Aomori, Aomori, JAPAN]

Questions and answers on the usage of English

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