8 first lesson problems for young learners

Pearson Languages
Children in a classroom with their hands up

The first class with a new group of young learners can be a nerve-wracking experience for teachers old and new. Many of us spend the night before thinking about how to make a positive start to the year, with a mixture of nerves, excitement, and a desire to get started. However, sometimes things don’t always go as expected, and it is important to set a few ground rules in those early lessons to ensure a positive classroom experience for all, throughout the academic year.

Let’s look at a few common problems that can come up, and how best to deal with them at the start of the school year.

1. Students are not ready to start the class

How the first few minutes of the class are spent can greatly influence how the lesson goes. Students can be slow to get out their equipment and this can cause a lot of time wasting. To discourage this, start lessons with a timed challenge.

  1. Tell students what you want them to do when they come into class, e.g. sit down, take out their books and pencil cases, sit quietly ready for the lesson to start.
  2. Time how long it takes for everyone to do this and make a note. Each day do the same.
  3. Challenge students to do this faster every day. You could provide a goal and offer a prize at the end of the trimester if they reach it, e.g. be ready in less than a minute every day.

2. Students speak their first language (L1) in class

One of primary teachers' most common classroom management issues is getting them to speak English. However, young learners may need to speak their mother tongue occasionally, and a complete ban on L1 is often not the best solution. But how can we encourage students to use English wherever possible?

Tell students they have to ask permission to speak in L1, if they really need to.

  • 3 word rule — tell students that they can use a maximum of three words in L1 if they don’t know them in English.
  • Write ENGLISH on the board in large letters. Each time someone speaks in L1, erase a letter. Tell students each letter represents time (e.g. 1 minute) to play a game or do another fun activity at the end of the lesson. If the whole word remains they can choose a game.

3. Students don’t get on with each other

It is only natural that students will want to sit with their friends, but it is important that students learn to work with different people. Most students will react reasonably if asked to work with someone new, but occasionally conflicts can arise. To help avoid uncomfortable situations, do team building activities, such as those below, at the beginning of the school year, and do them again whenever you feel that they would be beneficial:

  • Give students an icebreaker activity such as 'find a friend bingo' to help students find out more about each other.
  • Help students learn more about each other by finding out what they have in common.
  • Balloon race. Have two or more teams with an equal number of students stand in lines. Give each team a balloon to pass to the next student without using their hands. The first team to pass the balloon to the end of the line wins.
  • Team letter/word building. Call out a letter of the alphabet and have pairs of students form it with their bodies, lying on the floor. When students can do this easily, call out short words, e.g. cat, and have the pairs join up (e.g. three pairs = group of six) and form the letters to make the word.

4. Students don’t know what to do

When the instructions are given in English, there will inevitably be a few students who don’t understand what they have to do. It is essential to give clear, concise instructions and to model the activity before you ask students to start. To check students know what to do and clarify any problems:

  • Have one or more students demonstrate using an example.
  • Have one student explain the task in L1.
  • Monitor the task closely in the first few minutes and check individual students are on the right track.

5. A student refuses to participate/do the task

This is a frequent problem that can have many different causes. In the first few lessons, this may simply be shyness, but it is important to identify the cause early to devise an effective strategy. A few other causes might include:

  • Lack of language required to respond or do the task. Provide differentiation tasks or scaffolding to help students with a lower level complete the task or have them respond in a non-oral way.
  • Low self-confidence in their ability to speak English. Again, differentiation and scaffolding can help here. Have students work in small groups or pairs first, before being asked to speak in front of the whole class.
  • Lack of interest or engagement in the topic. If students aren’t interested, they won’t have anything to say. Adapt the topic or task, or just move on.
  • External issues e.g. a bad day, a fight with a friend, physical problems (tiredness/hunger/thirst). Talk to the student privately to find out if they are experiencing any problems. Allow them to 'pass' on a task if necessary, and give them something less challenging to do.

It is important not to force students to do something they don’t want to do, as this will cause a negative atmosphere and can affect the whole class. Ultimately, if a student skips one or two tasks, it won’t affect their achievement in the long run.

6. Students ask for repeated restroom/water breaks

It only takes one student to ask to go to the restroom before the whole class suddenly needs to go! This can cause disruption and stops the flow of the lesson. To avoid this, make sure you have rules in place concerning restroom breaks:

  • Make sure students know to go to the restroom before the lesson.
  • Have students bring in their own water bottles. You can provide a space for them to keep their bottles (label them with student names) in the classroom and have students fill them daily at the drinking fountain or faucet.
  • Find out if anyone has any special requirements that may require going to the restroom.
  • Provide 'brain breaks' at strategic points in the lesson when you see students becoming restless.

7. Students don’t have the required materials

  • Provide parents with a list of materials students will need on the first day.
  • If special materials are required in a lesson, give students a note to take home or post a message on the school platform several days before.
  • Don’t blame the student - whether they have a good reason or not for turning up to class empty-handed, making a child feel guilty will not help.
  • Write a note for parents explaining why bringing materials to class is important.

8. Students are not listening/talking

Getting their attention can be challenging if you have a boisterous class. Set up a signal you will use when you want them to pay attention to you. When they hear or see the signal, students should stop what they are doing and look at you. Some common signals are:

  • Raising your hand - When students see you raise your hand, they should raise their hands and stop talking. Wait until everyone is sitting in silence with their hands raised. This works well with older children and teenagers.
  • Call and response attention-getters - These are short phrases that prompt students to respond in a certain way, for example: Teacher: "1 2 3, eyes on me!" Students: "1 2 3, eyes on you!". Introduce a new attention-getter every few weeks to keep it fun. You can even have your students think up their own phrases to use.
  • Countdowns - Tell students what you want them to do and count backwards from ten to zero, e.g. "When I get to zero, I need you all to be quiet and look at me. 10, 9, 8 …"
  • Keep your voice low and speak calmly - This will encourage students to stop talking and bring down excitement levels.
  • A short song or clapping rhythm - With younger children, it is effective to use music or songs for transitions between lesson stages so they know what to do at each stage. For primary-aged children, clap out a rhythm and have them repeat it. Start with a simple rhythm, then gradually make it longer, faster, or more complex.

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    Benefits of using tablets in the primary classroom

    By Jacqueline Martin

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    Interactive whiteboards, PCs and laptops are common in many schools worldwide, but have you ever considered using tablets in your young learners' classes? 

    Tablets can be used for many things. Online research, watching and creating videos, playing games, and digital storytelling are just a few examples. Of course, there's also the added environmental benefit of going paper-free.

    In this post, we're going to explore some of the reasons why using tablets can be beneficial in the young learner's classroom and what to consider before you do so.

    What are the benefits of using tablets in class?

    1. Facilitating engagement

    With good direction from the teacher, tablets can emulate natural social interaction and interactivity. They can also offer problem-solving activities, set achievable goals and provide instant feedback.

    Moreover, when young learners are truly engaged in an activity, it may be perceived as effortless - and they learn and use their second language (L2) without even realizing it. 

    2. Introducing authenticity and autonomy

    In terms of content, tablets allow us to bring the real world into the classroom at the tap of a screen. We can provide learners with authentic materials via level-and-age-appropriate videos and real-life communication. As well as interaction with other teachers and learners through teams or by using a secure app such as Stars private messaging

    Tablets also promote learner autonomy. They are easy to use, allowing us to take a step back and let our students work at their own pace, being on stand-by as a facilitator when students require help or a little push in the right direction.

    3. Promoting creativity, communication and inclusion

    Nearly all tablets have a webcam and voice recorder, which means that learner-generated content can be created easily - even without dedicated software. 

    You can have your students make their own vlogs (video diaries), ebooks, comics, cartoons and movie trailers. All you need to do is to install apps such as Book Creator or this series of apps specifically designed for very young learners from Duck Duck Moose. While these apps have been created for 'fluent-speaker' classrooms, they can easily be adapted to an ELT context.

    Tablets also promote communication. This can help improve students' L2 oral skills at any level, when the teacher is there to support and guide them.

    One of the greatest advantages of a tablet as opposed to a computer is that anyone can use one and they are much more portable. 

    For students with special educational needs, tablets can be an essential learning tool and they can also be used by students with low-level motor skills, such as very young learners. Similarly, tablets can work really well with multi-level classes, as they allow you to offer differentiated materials, activities and support where necessary.

    4. Enabling online assessment 

    Tablets can also facilitate interactive online exams or help measure progress. Tests such as 'English Benchmark - Young Learners' are designed with primary learners in mind, to be taken anytime, anywhere. Its game-like format engages students and takes the fear out of being assessed. It also provides instant feedback to the teacher with informative reports and advice for future study. 

    5. Building relationships with caregivers

    Finally, as with any online content, tablets allow you to connect with our learners outside the classroom. You can quickly send links to classwork and feedback to the children's caregivers, fostering a positive relationship and a greater interest in their child's progress and learning. 

    Tips for using tablets in class

    Before implementing the use of tablets in your classroom, there are some things you should consider. Here are some useful tips that will help you gain the maximum benefit from tablets.

    Usability:

    • Decide what you are going to use the tablets for and when. Are you going to allow students to use the tablets for all parts of the lesson or only for specific activities? This may depend on the number of tablets you have available.
    • Use technology to improve an activity or design new activities that would not be possible without the tech, rather than using it to carry on as normal. Think about when a tablet will help learners do something they wouldn't be able to do without one, e.g., make a video or create and share a piece of writing with the whole class.
    • Think about using tablets for creation rather than consumption. Your students can (and probably do) spend a fair amount of time consuming videos in their free time. Whether they do this in English or not is another story, but in the classroom, students should use the language as much as possible (see the next point).
    • Use the tablets for collaborative tasks that require social interaction and communication. It's unlikely that you will have one tablet per student. Make the most of this limitation by having students work in pairs or small groups. Students can use their own devices individually outside the classroom.
    • Try to incorporate tablets into regular classroom activities and interactions. Avoid making them a "reward" or just for "games". Even if games are part of your planned tablet usage, make it clear that students are playing them in order to learn English. Encourage students to think of the tablet as a tool to help them on their learning journey.

    General tips

    • Try out any apps or widgets before asking students to use them. If necessary, make or find a step-by-step tutorial to help students use an app. There's nothing worse than having a class of twenty-five students all raising their hands at the same time because they don't know where to start.
    • Have clear rules and guidelines for tablet use. Educate students about using the equipment responsibly. Do this before you hand out tablets the first time.
    • Provide students and parents with a list of recommended apps to continue their home learning. Whether you have a class set of tablets or are using BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), many students will have access to a tablet or mobile phone at home, which they can use for further practice. Students will likely be motivated to continue playing games at home and may wish to show their parents and friends any content they've created in class.

    Practicalities

    • Consider the hardware and technical requirements. Do you need a Wi-Fi connection? How many devices will you have? Which apps and programs do you want to use? 
    • Ensure the features and apps you plan to use suit the age group you're teaching. Do some research, and if possible, choose apps designed for educators, avoiding freebie apps that may contain advertising. Block any websites you think unsuitable and install a search engine with child-friendly filters.
    • Set the language of the devices to English. Even if your students are very young, they'll pick up useful language and will be more inclined to use English as they are using the tablet.
    • Decide where you will keep the tablets and how they will be maintained. How often and where will they be charged? 
    • Think about how you can flexibly set up your classroom to incorporate collaborative tablet use. Move tables together to make group work easier. Create workstations or even have cushions or bean bags in a corner of the classroom.

    Using tablets to assess student progress with Benchmark

    With the right software, tablets can allow us to conduct formative assessments through immediate feedback and learning analytics. 

    We have developed our own English-language test for children aged 6 to 13 in an app designed specifically for tablet use. This fun, game-like test is highly motivating and assesses all four skills in a relaxed environment, removing the stress of traditional exams. It also allows you to see where each learner needs more improvement, providing recommendations on what to teach next and suggested activities in selected Pearson courseware.

    Find out more information about the English Benchmark test.

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    Unconscious bias in the workplace: Overcoming DEI barriers through language learning

    By Pearson Languages

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    Unconscious bias: it's a quiet murmur in the corridors of our workplaces that can grow into a loud echo, shaping decisions and team dynamics in ways that may go unnoticed. In our collective quest for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), recognizing and tackling these biases is not just important—it's essential.

    By embarking on this path, we create workplaces where everyone feels valued and heard. If you're an HR professional, a leader, or a diversity consultant, it’s essential to always keep this in mind in every aspect of the workplace. Today, let's explore how language learning can be a valuable ally in breaking down the barriers created by unconscious bias.

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    Encouraging cultural sensitivity in the classroom

    By Pearson Languages

    Reading time: 7.5 minutes

    In today's classrooms and schools, cultural sensitivity isn't just a nice to have; it's an essential component of effective language teaching. As educators, understanding and valuing the diverse cultures that learners bring into our schools and classrooms can bridge gaps and foster inclusive learning environments.

    But why is cultural sensitivity so important, and how can we practically incorporate it into our teaching? In this post, we explore ways to help language teachers cultivate a more culturally aware and inclusive classroom.

    Why is cultural sensitivity important in language education

    Teaching languages, including English, involves a significant cultural component; therefore, we must proceed with mindfulness and respect. Recognizing and honoring the cultural backgrounds of our students lays the groundwork for nurturing a safe space where everybody feels seen, heard, and respected. This isn't just about avoiding misunderstandings or conflicts; it's about enriching the educational experience for all.

    Language encompasses more than just vocabulary and grammar; it is a conduit of culture, identity, and worldviews. As an educator, you possess the wonderful opportunity to nurture and encourage your students, allowing each voice to soar individually while harmoniously contributing to a greater collective comprehension.

    Students are better prepared for the workplace

    Embracing cultural diversity within the classroom arms students with a set of skills that are invaluable in the workplace. An example can be found in 'Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire' by Bruce Nussbaum. Nussbaum explores how creativity emerges at the intersection of different cultures and experiences.

    In a business context, this creativity is the driving force behind innovation and problem-solving. Students who have learned to navigate cultural nuances are adept at thinking outside the box, making them valuable assets in any professional environment.

    They are more likely to approach challenges with an open mind and collaborate effectively with a diverse team, recognizing that each unique background contributes to a richer, more comprehensive perspective on work and the world.

    It improves social skills

    Incorporating cultural sensitivity into language education isn't just about creating a respectful classroom; it directly enhances students' social skills.

    Numerous studies suggest that culturally diverse classrooms are breeding grounds for advanced social skills. One theory that explores this concept is Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), which illustrates how intercultural encounters can foster individuals' cognitive growth and emotional resilience.

    Bennett states that through various stages of cultural awareness, people develop from mere tolerance of difference to integration of diverse cultural viewpoints into their own life experiences.

    Students can develop empathy and stronger communication abilities by understanding and appreciating cultural nuances. This knowledge empowers them to engage thoughtfully and effectively with peers from diverse backgrounds, fostering a sense of global citizenship.

    Students have better emotional intelligence

    Robert J. Sternberg's 'Cultural Intelligence and Successful Intelligence' highlights a significant research study that supports the idea that exposure to cultural diversity can enhance empathetic development. According to Sternberg, when individuals are exposed to a variety of cultures, it broadens their emotional experiences and perspectives.

    By interacting with individuals from different backgrounds, students' own emotional intelligence can be greatly enhanced. This is because learning to understand and respect diverse emotional expressions and communication styles sharpens one's ability to read and respond to the feelings of others.

    Moreover, it fosters emotional maturity, as individuals learn to navigate and appreciate the subtleties of human emotion in a multicultural world. Through such enriching exchanges, students in culturally diverse settings develop a more refined sense of empathy, becoming well-equipped to engage with others in a considerate, informed, and emotionally intelligent manner.

    It helps their language learning

    Understanding a culture deeply enriches the language acquisition process for students. When they step into the shoes of those who live and breathe the language they're learning, it becomes more than just memorizing vocabulary and grasping grammatical structures.

    Students begin to notice the subtleties in conversation tones, the unspoken expressions that only those privy to the culture can interpret, and the implicit rules of language etiquette.

    This discernment can be the distinguishing factor between being a functional speaker and a captivating storyteller in their new language. As students immerse themselves in cultural practices, whether through music, film, or literature, they are not just learning a language—they are learning to convey emotions and ideas just as a fluent speaker would.

    It helps with classroom friendships

    This new understanding helps to peel away the layers of hesitation. Engaging in activities that celebrate diversity becomes an exciting exploration, paving the way for students to break out of their shells. They're encouraged to be curious, ask questions, and share about themselves, fostering an environment where every student is a teacher and a learner in their own right.

    As the classroom transforms into a supportive space for cultural exchange, students are encouraged to reach out and connect with peers they might not have approached before. With every shared story and every collaborative project, the bonds of friendship are forged, transcending former barriers and weaving a tightly-knit community that thrives on the unique contributions of each member.

    Embracing diversity in your language classroom

    Wondering how to transform your language classroom into a crucible of cultural sensitivity? Here are a few simple yet significant changes you can start with today.

    Get to know your students

    Make an effort to learn about your students' cultural backgrounds. This gesture speaks volumes about your respect for their identity. Use icebreakers or activities that invite students from diverse backgrounds to share their traditions and norms.

    This doesn't just apply to major cultural differences but also the nuanced aspects of diversity within a seemingly homogenous group of students. This research can also help you plan activities and whether they are appropriate for all students in your classes.

    Fostering a community of belonging

    Imagine stepping into a class where every student feels a sense of belonging and acceptance. This is the power of embedding diversity and equity into your teaching methods. This can be done by:

    • Recognizing holidays from around the world.
    • Sharing stories from varied cultures.
    • Encouraging students to express themselves in ways that honor their heritage.

    These strategies are just a few ways to instill acceptance and belonging in your own classroom environment whilst learning a new language.

    Incorporate multicultural content

    Select texts, examples, and materials that reflect a range of cultures and experiences. Familiarity breeds comfort, but newness breeds growth. Ensure your curriculum and classroom materials reflect a world beyond the traditional English-speaking countries.

    By doing so, you're offering students windows into different worlds and mirrors to see themselves reflected in the learning material.

    Representation is also incredibly important in promoting diversity and inclusivity in education. We can create a more inclusive and equitable society by using materials, programs and stories that feature varied representation.

    This not only ensures that everyone's voices and life experiences are heard and valued, but also helps to challenge stereotypes and foster understanding among different communities.

    Foster open discussions

    Encourage open discussion in the classroom around cultural norms, expressions, and idioms. When students understand the context behind language, they gain a deeper appreciation and avoid missteps that could inadvertently offend.

    Use mistakes as learning opportunities

    When cultural insensitivities do arise, it is important to approach them as teachable moments. Take the opportunity to guide learners with a warm and understanding attitude, providing them with the necessary knowledge, resources and context to foster a more inclusive and respectful classroom environment.

    Reflect on biases

    Be aware and proactive about addressing stereotypes and biases present in class discussions. Challenge your own preconceptions and lead by example. Creating brave spaces for learning helps students feel comfortable asking questions and making mistakes, which is where true growth happens.

    Nurture empathy and understanding

    Teach language learning as a journey of empathy. Language is not only about speaking to someone but also feeling with them. Encourage students to step into the shoes of others, fostering a spirit and culture of empathy that transcends cultural boundaries.

    Respect linguistic diversity

    Encourage your students to express themselves in English with pride in their respective accents. Support them in understanding that clarity and communication are the goals, not trying to remove their accent or identity. By doing so, we not only bolster their confidence but also teach the wonderful lesson of inclusivity.

    Practical activities

    Implementing activities and lessons that bring cultural awareness into the forefront can transform your language classroom into a vibrant community of curious minds and hearts. Here are some examples of activities you a teacher could do:

    • A simple yet effective activity is a 'cultural artifact show and tell,' where students are invited to share an item of cultural significance to them and tell its story. This encourages sharing and deep listening, shedding light on the diverse cultural backgrounds represented in the room.
    • Cultural exchange workshops, possibly with guest speakers, can offer students firsthand insight into various aspects of different cultures. These workshops can revolve around traditional dance, music, games, or cooking demonstrations, allowing students to immerse themselves in and appreciate the richness of various other cultures.
    • Having international cuisine days, where students prepare and share dishes from different countries, can be a delightful way to stimulate the senses while emphasizing the importance of cultural traditions tied to food. It's a tasty opportunity for students to express themselves and learn the stories behind international cuisines.
    • Crafting sessions for cultural storytelling allows for the narratives of different cultures to be told through the enchanting medium of stories. Storytelling connects students to diverse societies through emotional and moral threads. The storytelling could be done in the target language you're teaching.
    • A book and film club can open doors to different worlds. Curating a list of international authors and filmmakers for the club enhances language skills and cultural understanding by engaging with diverse narratives and viewpoints.

    The list isn't exhaustive, but there may be other ways to introduce cultural sensitivity into your class, any kind of activity that showcases and introduces cultures or traditions to others in an interesting manner.

    Conclusion

    In conclusion, cultural sensitivity can transform our language classrooms and schools into hives of connection and understanding. It takes awareness, intention, and a nurturing heart—qualities that you, as an educator, already possess. Remember, every small step you take has an impact on the young minds you shape and the interconnected world they will navigate.

    Embrace diversity, teach with sensitivity, and watch as your classroom becomes a microcosm of the world we all share—a world of vibrant cultures, languages, and stories waiting to be told and heard. By incorporating diverse narratives and viewpoints from others into our teaching, we can enhance our students' language skills and deepen their cultural understanding.

    So let's continue to strive for a more inclusive and empathetic learning environment, one that celebrates differences and fosters empathy and compassion among all learners.

    Keep developing your understanding

    To dive deeper into creating inclusive learning experiences, explore our free course on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, designed for teachers. To help empower educators to foster classrooms where diversity is celebrated, inclusion is the norm, and everyone feels they belong.

    Craft brave spaces, build a sense of belonging, and instill that all-important appreciation and acceptance of others. Request free course access today.

    On the topic of diversity and inclusion in the classroom, make sure to read our other posts, 'The Importance of diversity and inclusion in your curriculum' and 'Ways to bring cultural diversity into your classroom'.

    We also provide other professional development programs and qualifications for educators; you can check them out here: