The Top Five Assumptions About English Language Learners and How to Challenge Them

Written by: TEFL Toolkit



Time to read 7 min

Many years ago, having completed my Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA), I managed to secure my first-ever English teaching position. Knowing I would be teaching without the pressure of being observed by my CELTA trainers, I almost skipped to my classroom full of energy, excitement, and highly motivated. I had many pre-existing assumptions about English Language Learners from my education.

In this blog, I will look at several assumptions we make as teachers about English Language Learners that we should be challenging. I’ll share some of the teaching strategies and activities I employ to overcome these issues. Here are the top five assumptions I made about TEFL students:

  • ‘Uninterested Learners’ hate learning English
  • All teaching strategies will work with all students
  • ‘The Quiet Learner’ is just shy
  • ‘The Super-Confident Learner’ is always an accurate speaker
  • Students Exposed to English frequently are always great speakers

Assumption 1: ‘The Uninterested Learners’ hate learning English

As soon as I entered my classroom for the first time, one of my initial assumptions was immediately shattered. I had assumed that most English language learners were motivated and interested. Amidst the friendly and polite smiles and hellos, I couldn’t help but notice a student slumped in the corner with an ‘end of the world’ expression on his face. I recognised that posture and expression instantly…he just didn’t want to be there at all! I have encountered this kind of student many times. He or she will often describe their feelings about learning English by using phrases such as: ‘I must study’, ‘I can’t speak’ and ‘I hate English’. I have found that most do not hate English. It’s just that they have not been encouraged to engage in the right way. With such students, our role is to create positive experiences to replace negative ones. To do this, we must overcome another common assumption...

Assumption 2: All teaching strategies will work with all students

This is a huge learning point. We need to remember we are dealing with individuals rather than a collective group with different interests and abilities. It is all about trying to find out what sparks everyone's interest and what will motivate them to engage and learn.  

Strategies to identify how your students learn

To find out their motivations, I take the time to find out as much as I can about them and use other students in the class.

‘All About You activity’ 
A simple activity I use is a class mingling exercise called ‘All about you’. Ask students to talk to each other for 1 minute. At the end of the time, they must write down one word that sums up the person they have been talking to. The word is then pinned to that person’s back. After numerous rotations between students, you start to build up a picture of each learner’s personality and interests.  

An adaptation of this activity, at the end of the minute, is to ask students to write down two things they have in common with the person they have been speaking to. This mingling activity is also useful because it can help you identify which students have a good rapport with any of their peers who seem less engaged or interested. Knowing this, you can potentially pair them up for future activities. If you are stuck for ideas, there are loads of great ESOL mingling activities in our Fifty Bright Ideas card pack.

Lesson Plan Considerations when discovering student learning methods and personalities

I always aim to create a warm, fun, and enjoyable environment for learners. I accept that not all students will be interested in every topic I cover. However, when lesson planning, try to think about the following:

What elements of this topic would help engage all students? 

For example, if the topic were ‘birds’, maybe I would have a trivia quiz as a warm-up activity using some interesting facts I have found on Google. How high can penguins jump? (up to 2 meters); What’s special about the sword-billed hummingbird? (its bill is longer than its body).

How can I adapt the activity to increase energy levels and make it more fun and engaging?

Instead of a bird trivia quiz, I might stick facts about birds around the classroom and have the learners move around and read them.

Flamingos can only eat when their head is upside-down; A chicken with red earlobes will produce brown eggs, and a chicken with white earlobes will produce white eggs; A duck’s quack doesn’t echo, and no one knows why.

How can I use different kinds of groupings for activities so that students always work with someone new?

For example, maybe first of all I would get them to decide on answers individually; then get them in pairs to discuss and agree on their answers; finally, put pairs together and ask them to come to a group consensus.  

Assumption 3: ‘The Quiet Learner’ is just shy

On my travels, I have encountered both individuals and classes who fall into this category. Often, we may assume such students are quiet or shy because they struggle with their language skills. 

However, many learners are worried about making mistakes or are concerned about what other students will think. Putting these students in a situation where they have to speak in front of the class is their worst nightmare and they can ‘freeze’.   

Strategies to support quiet learners

  • Think of ways in which you can minimise any embarrassment - for example, encouraging other students to help out, or starting simple and gradually increasing the complexity of the task. The key is to make them feel a little ‘uncomfortably comfortable’. It is a case of pushing a little at a time and building their confidence, slowly working towards a goal of enabling them to speak in front of others. 
  • Think carefully about groupings for speaking activities - Use pair work or individual mingling activities, where learners feel less exposed. If they are going to speak in front of others, build this slowly with short and pacey activities.   
  • Mix it up - Sometimes, I have allowed students to present from the back of the class with the whiteboard being the focus for other students. Shouting Dictation is another great idea that is covered in another TEFL Toolkit blog - Top 4 Ideas for ESOL Speaking Activities.

Assumption 4: ‘The Super-Confident Learner’ is always an accurate speaker

It is a teacher’s dream when you have students eager to talk. However, it can be a test when they make too many grammatical errors – particularly if they are unaware that they are doing it.

Why does this happen? It is not always because they have a poor understanding of grammar and structures – often, it can be because they see fluency as more important than accuracy or they are nervous and speak faster than normal.

Strategies for supporting super confident learners

  • Always encourage fluency, but try to stress the importance of balancing accuracy with fluency and when you are setting up activities, make sure they know where the balance lies. 
  • Play ‘The Coin Game.’ To encourage a focus on fluency, an activity I have used many times is something I call ‘the coin game’. The student has 5 coins on the table at the start of the lesson but every time they make a mistake, you slowly move one of the coins away from them. They must self-correct themselves before the coin reaches the edge of the table. The aim for them is to keep as many coins as they can on their table.
  • The Correction Police.  Another strategy is to make such students the Correction Police. They listen to other students and listen for any mistakes. When an error is spotted, give the student a chance to self-correct, helping out, if necessary.

It may seem strange to put someone who has poor accuracy in this position, but it does allow them to ‘tune in’ and focus on communication mistakes, to make them more conscious when speaking.

Assumption 5: Students Exposed to English frequently are always great speakers

I call this type of student ‘the Immersed in English student’. Many students these days play apps/games and watch TV in English. We often assume that these students will be fantastic communicators because they are in an environment where they constantly listen to English. It is very true that they probably have a great vocabulary and listening comprehension but how often do you talk to your TV?  

Strategies for ‘the Immersed in English student’

These students benefit hugely from communicative classes and activities – and you will often find they improve very quickly!   

  • Free-Speaking activities. I use a lot of free-speaking activities where this kind of learner is not tied to a single topic or language point. It may not be necessary, because they will have a wide range of knowledge already. 
  • Speed dating’ activities. For this activity, I set up two rows of chairs facing each other. I use our Discuss This cards, which have lots of great topics, and I put one on the floor between the pair of chairs. After a minute the students on the left row move up and the right move down. This is so they speak to someone different each time.

Challenging your Assumptions of English Language Learners

In conclusion, we work with a whole host of learners and each one is an individual. We need to be careful not to make too many assumptions about English Language learners until we delve a little deeper and try to find out a bit more using some of the strategies mentioned above.