Teaching Trouble

Teaching Trouble FAQ


How can I grab students’ attention better?

To do list:

Fluctuate your tone, gesticulate, and act excited. Not Richard Simmons excited, but pretend what you’re saying is interesting. If you’re doing a class on hypotheticals, tell them it’s going to be exciting because they can talk about the imaginary world they’d prefer to be in. If it’s going to be a dull topic, tell them it’s going to be exciting anyway. If they ask ‘Really?’ tell them ‘No! But I’d like it to be!’ and carry on.

Break up your speech. Your students might be tuning you out because they can’t understand you. Speaking slowly isn’t the best answer, it’s boring. So instead break up your sentences into meaningful parts, placing stress on key words and details.

Use various forms of media. Sing if you can; use Power Point; play music or video clips to illustrate a language point; put on a cartoon short; grab some magazines or movie posters. If you have internet access, Youtube is great tool that’s fast and free. Anything to break a routine will often help.

Move around while speaking. If you are constantly standing in one place, you’re making it hard to be interesting. Hearing the same source from the same angle gets dull for listeners. Standing in the same place while teaching gets dull for speakers. Let the students hear you from different angles and get your blood pumping by pacing a bit or walking along aisles between desks.

Use examples and names that interest them. Instead of always using Bob and Jenny, use popular celebrities from their country. If you don’t know any, get them to tell you what names they’d like to use. This gets students invested in what’s going on.

Speak resolutely. People respond well when given clear, definitive instructions and explanations, and students aren’t much different.

Talk less.


My kids aren’t responsive. What should I do?

The following quick fixes are excellent for injecting energy or persuading students to get involved in class. Modify them to suit your needs as you see fit.

Enchanting chants
Write something simple on the board and have the students read it all together. ‘Yes’ is a perfect word to start with. Put a period at the end and ask them to read it again. Next, write ‘Yes!’ below ‘Yes.’ and ask them to read it. Tease them if it sounds the same. ‘Same thing? Really?’ By this time, you should be getting at least a couple of students saying they are different. Try again: ‘What’s this?’ and point to one, then point to the other for them to say. Last, write ‘Yes?’ below and ask them to read it. By now, most students are probably following. Start from the first “Yes” and work down to the third. Mix up the order and steadily increase the speed.

This works well on large classes and secondary school students.

Opinion builders
If students are reluctant to give their opinions about something, get them in the mood by writing the following on the board: adore; can’t stand; don’t mind. Tell them this is a speed game and their job is to answer as fast as possible. Ask if they know another word for love (cough and nudge towards ‘adore’ if necessary). Do the same for can’t stand (hate). Next ask what they’d say if they don’t adore or hate something, but you’re in between them (don’t mind). After they know the terms, put some nouns on the board that everyone will respond to similarly. Ask how they feel about those things and fill out a full sentence as an example: I adore Australians; I can’t stand Math exams; I don’t mind walking around, etc. Now you’re ready to test them. Point out individual students and throw random nouns at them. After you’ve gone through a few students, get them to include ‘because.’ Remind them to go as fast as they can, even if they don’t really feel that way (pattern recognition is what you’re looking for).

This works well on all levels.

Assistant for a day
Students who don’t want to participate may want to be your assistant even less. In an amicable way, get them to come up to the front of class and do your writing for you. Be patient as the student struggles and be sure to call them your ‘excellent student volunteer,’ not the ‘bad kid who messed up and is being punished.’ Five to ten minutes is usually more than enough. When you get them to sit down again, thank them and have the class give your excellent assistant a round of applause for their work.

This works well on high school students.

The points system
Try a points system where they can win a lesson centered on music or movies with a certain number of points. You can also do an inverted points system where they have to work the points off to avoid doing a certain number of things. For example, at the beginning of a boys class, you might give them each 10 points, each point representing a pushup. Answers should take off a few points at a time or all at once.

This works well on secondary school students.

Take that!
Take away something that each student owns (cell phones, a shoe, etc.) and give them chances to win it back through participation. Take things they are sure to want back or you’ll end up with a desk drawer full of junk. For larger classes, simply use a set number of responses for them to get their stuff back.

This works well in smaller classes and post secondary school students.

Bonus tips
Realistically, you won’t have 100% success rate with grabbing your students’ attention, but you can still try. Ensure you’re creating an environment conducive to students expressing themselves. If you’re talking too much, they will tune you out. Give them chances to constantly respond to what you say and get them practicing as much as possible. Less talk from you equals more time for interaction.

Also, remember to use positive language. Instead of saying ‘No, wrong!’ when a student answers incorrectly, say something like, ‘Not exactly,’ especially if it’s waaay off base, but the student is trying. Smiles go a long way too. Getting them feel like they’re free to make mistakes is vital for language learning.


How can I calm the whole class down?

Especially after the bell, your students might be more interested in chatting than acknowledging class has begun. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Show them you’re in control by singling out individual students and assertively telling them to be quiet. Don’t remove your stare until they do and make sure other students see what you are doing. Students usually quiet down when they see a classmate getting scolded.
  2. Teach them about the hand rule. When you raise your hand at any point in class, they are to stop talking  and raise theirs. Eye-level is fine; you’re not trying to look like you’re asking a question. Remove the expression from your face and go one by one, looking individual students in the eye. This works well with school-aged children and younger.
  3. Use a bell. This cuts through sound well and is not only annoying, but makes it hard to talk over.
  4. Get them all to stand up. Tell them they can sit down once they are all calm and paying attention. How you get them to sit down again is up to you: wait until they’re all quiet, find individual students who are following instructions and allow them to sit, or get them to answer questions for the right to sit.


How can I tell if they don’t understand me or if they just don’t want to respond?

Try offering absurd answers. If you’re doing a dialog about shopping for shirts and your students won’t respond when you ask them what it’s about, ask them if it’s about monkeys in Africa. No? How about aliens sucking the brains out of young children? If they answer ‘No,’ then they understand you. If they answer ‘Yes,’ they understand you and are pulling your leg. If you’re still hearing crickets after a couple of absurd answers, they probably have no idea what you’re talking about. Slow down, give examples, or go back and start over.


This kid has a bad attitude and never does anything. What are my options?

If you’ve tried encouragement, tried rewards and punishments, and they still are giving you attitude then it’s probably out of your realm as an ESL teacher. Talk to the student’s home room teacher or get your co-teacher to handle it if you have one. If the student is being disruptive and won’t stop, you can always send them out of class. And try to remember not to take it too personally.


My kids do other things like use cell phones or listen to mp3 players in class.

This is the best-case scenario for teachers teaching space cadets. Take it away and tell them clearly they can get it back by paying attention, participating and answering questions about the lesson after class is over. But if not, you’ll keep whatever it is for a week. When you’re finished the lesson, check to see the student has finished any handouts you may have given. Follow up by asking key questions about the lesson. This is very effective and the cadet might learn more in that class than they ever have before.

Extra tip: put a post-it note on anything you take from students to avoid future problems.


Students forget everything I tell them after class is over. There just isn’t enough time with me to be effective.

Review! Do two reviews each class: one at the beginning to go over last lesson’s material, and one at the end for the current lesson’s material. It should only take a couple of minutes to ask questions that cover the key points you want them to learn. Additionally, do a full class review after finishing 3-5 classes. Reviews can be anything from a fun trivia challenge to a little quiz that you can mark together as a class.


My students leave everything at home. How can I ensure they keep materials for next class?

Have each student keep their materials in a folder that they can store in an English box at the back of class. This way everyone has ready access to their notes and there is no excuse for misplacing handouts or throwing them out. You can also make an activity out of decorating the English box with expressions and graphics created by the students.

Extra tip: talk to the person in charge of the room about why there’s a new box cluttering it up, otherwise it may end up in the garbage.