Troubleshooting FAQ


How can I grab students’ attention better?

“It’s not my job to entertain students.” Remove the “not” from that sentence and it’s entirely correct. Finding entertaining and engaging ways to communicate your message is critical for effective lessons. Here are some suggestions to keep ears alert and eyes on you:

  • Appear excited about what you’re doing. You don’t have to channel Richard Simmons, but pretend what you’re saying is interesting. Fluctuating your tone and emphasizing points with your hands is a good start, so is explicitly stating the topic is fun. If you’re doing a class on hypotheticals, tell your students 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!” If they ask ‘Really?’ tell them ‘No! But I’d like it to be!’ and carry on. A little bit of humor can do wonders for harvesting interest.
  • 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.
  • Find more opportunities for your students to talk and interact with each other. It can be a game, an activity, or a discussion on a given topic, but give as many chances as possible for students to interchangeably use their productive (speaking and writing) and receptive skills (listening and reading).
  • Use more media. If you have internet access, Youtube and TED Talks are fast, free, fun, and informative. Use Power Point or Prezi; play music or video clips to illustrate a language point; put on a cartoon short; grab some magazines or movie posters. Print up a relevant blog post for discussion.
  • Use less media. Assign videos to watch for homework and play highlights in class to leave more room for student interaction.
  • Mix up your style. Ensure you’re familiar with the various approaches out there and don’t fall in love with any one. Present heavy-hitters include the communicative approach and task-based learning. The former is great for encouraging interaction, but bad for pronunciation (it offers nothing for it); the latter is excellent at grabbing learners’ attention while holding classes which are relevant. If you haven’t employed it, do.
  • 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 your learners. 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.

Class Helper
Students who don’t want to participate may want to be your assistant even less, at least at first. Get the student, in the kindest way possible, to come and help you write notes on the board. Be patient as the student struggles and be sure to call them your ‘excellent student volunteer.’ After a few minutes, thank them for their efforts and have the class give your excellent assistant a round of applause. Circle back and reference the student’s board work (positively) when suitable.

This works well on high school students.

The points system
Try a check or points system where they can win a lesson centered on music or a movie of their choice after earning a certain number of points. For instance, if a class does well (find a reason to start it off), let them know they’ve earned a check for doing X. Inform them of how many more they need to go to earn the class of their choice.

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.

If you do it pleasantly, this works at pretty much any level.

Bonus tips
Realistically, you won’t have 100% success in 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 talking to each other as much as possible. Less talk from you equals more time for interaction.

Keep it positive. 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 get control of my class?

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

  1. If this is routine or it continues beyond a reasonable time, it may be time to rearrange the seating. Students are much less rambunctious around those they don’t normally sit with.
  2. Try calling out individual students and flatly telling them you’re about to start. Make eye contact when you’re talking and show no fear!
  3. Teach your students 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.
  4. Use a bell. This cuts through sound well and is not only annoying, but makes it hard to talk over.
  5. If you’re dealing with high school students or younger, get everyone 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?

You tried asking a relevant question to see if the students are following, but the room is silent except for a little shoe shuffling or maybe a cough. Try continuing down the wrong path to see if someone notices something is off or offering absurd answers to your own questions. 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?

This is a tough one because life is so much better when everyone is participating and enjoying themselves. If you’ve tried various forms of encouragement and tried talking to the student about it, but they still are giving you attitude, then it’s probably out of your realm as an ESL teacher. They could be going through something outside of class, so if you’re in a public school, talk to the student’s home room teacher or, if you have one, get your co-teacher to look into it. If the student is being disruptive and won’t stop, you can always send them out of class and talk to your supervisor about it after. If you’re in a private school, get your manager to talk to the student or the student’s parents. And try to remember not to take it too personally; most people don’t like being forced to do things, especially when it means learning a language they aren’t interested in.


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.

You have two friends here, homework and review. Strategically timed homework gets students thinking about content outside of class, while review keeps information in their working memory. 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.


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

If you’re in a traditional classroom, 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. Otherwise, make use of technology and put lesson materials on presentation slides or online.