Challenges in Large ESL Classes

classroom-with-popleA challenge is a difficulty that stimulates the person who faces it. A large class is more difficult to define. This could be from six to sixteen students, even more. The challenges faced in any EFL or ESL classroom should serve as a stimulus in the ongoing effort to become a better informant and educator. Some of the most common challenges are those involving classroom discipline, differing proficiency levels and unclear objectives.


Controlling the student behavior is probably the first task any teacher should take into consideration. A good start is for the teacher not to allow students to address him by his first name. In many cultures there is a formal way of treating teachers that does not necessarily stand out in English. This can be overcomed by asking the students to address the teacher by a title such as Mr or Miss and the teacher’s last name. This marks a distance between the expert (the teacher) and the learner.

Students need to be aware of the “rules of the game” in the classroom, and will need to be reminded of these rules consistently. A list of simple rules should be highlighted, perhaps even posted on the wall. An example of such a list would be:

  • Students will arrive to class on time.
  • Students will bring books and study materials to each class.
  • Students will participate in all activities in the class.
  • Students will be respectful to classmates and the teacher.
  • Students will help classmates who have difficulty.

With these rules established, a “three strike you’re out” or soccer-like yellow card system can be used to highlight when students fail to follow these rules. Consequences of breaking the rules three times in any time period (class hour, week or month) can range from doing extra exercises, to visiting the director’s office or speaking with parents to explain why the student has been flagged as troublesome.

Teachers must be strict about their rules, whether they be those listed above or other, more personal rules, like “English is the only language used in class” or “Students must raise their hands to speak”.


It is nearly impossible to have a class in which all of the members will be at the same level of proficiency. Even in beginner level classes, individual students will learn more quickly or more laboriously than their mates. This reality must not be lamented, but rather taken advantage of.

In the first place, you should try to discover common denominators. These are usually linked to pronunciation, improvisation of conversations, impromptu and fluid sentence construction. Using these common denominators as a basis for the class work will keep all students within the framework of a particular level.

In the second place, the load on the teacher can be lightened by pairing up quicker students with those who have more difficulty, creating a tutor-like relationship. The brighter students will feel satisfied with the confidence demonstrated by the teacher in their control of the task, while the students who need more help might just understand better when the material is explained in the words of their peers.


Finally, the objectives of the class should be clearly outlined and understood by the teacher and the students.

“In this course we will be studying the following sentence structures and memorizing the following vocabulary and finally taking an exam to show how well the information has stuck.” 

Too often a teacher will simply plan classes following the text book provided by the school. Every once in a while, the teacher will paste up an exam that will attempt to demonstrate that the material has been learned by each student. Students will either pass or fail this exam, and the next unit in the book will be taught, the next exam prepared and taken and passed or failed.

Clear, obtainable objectives should be brought to light from the beginning of the course.

“In this course we will study the following sentence structures and put them to use in short, improvised and prepared conversations.” 

Of these two objective statements, this latter is more stimulating, combines the drab work of learning structures with the more entertaining work of preparing short dialogues, perhaps in a theatrical context, perhaps recorded or video-taped for later evaluation by the students and the teacher.

Evaluation of the original objectives and their evolution during the course is also important and you ought to include it in the classroom work. Make your students active participants in the development of the course.

These are only three of the myriad, stimulating difficulties you may find in the ESL or EFL classroom. Identifying the challenges and being creative in finding the solution to the problems, making the students an active part of the process, can make the course experience rich and satisfying for all participants.

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