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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    Plateaus in language learning often occur after initial periods of rapid progress and can be attributed to various reasons. For one, learners may have reached a comfort zone where basic communication is possible, reducing the urgency to improve further. Additionally, the complexity of advanced language structures can be overwhelming, leading to a stagnation in learning.

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    How can I overcome my language learning slump?

    Hitting a language learning plateau is like running into an invisible wall — your progress seems to halt and the motivation to push forward begins to wane. Here are some ways to overcome this common obstacle and get back on the road to fluency:

    • Reassess your goals: Take a step back and reassess your language learning objectives. Are they still relevant and challenging enough? Setting new, clear and achievable goals can provide a renewed sense of direction and purpose.
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    • Incorporate the language into daily life: Find ways to make the language a natural part of your day. Label objects around your home, think or speak to yourself in the language, or change the language settings on your phone and social media.
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    Techniques to help motivate your language learning

    One effective technique to break through a language learning plateau is the use of Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS). We've spoken about SRS before in our blog post' language learning techniques for beginners,' but be assured it is an incredibly useful technique that can't be recommended enough, especially for keeping out of a slump. This cognitive science technique involves reviewing information at increasing intervals to exploit the psychological spacing effect. As you learn new vocabulary, words or grammar rules, an SRS schedules these items for review at optimal times before you're likely to forget them.

    Here's how you can implement SRS into your language learning vocabulary practice routine:

    • Start with a flashcard app: Use an app like Anki, which is designed with SRS algorithms to help you review vocabulary and phrases at strategic intervals.

    • Create personalized content: Make your own flashcards with sentences and vocabulary that are relevant to your life. This personal connection can make the material more memorable.

    • Gradual difficulty increase: As you become more familiar with the content, increase the complexity of your flashcards. Add phrases or idioms instead of single words to challenge your comprehension.

    • Regular reviews: Be consistent with your reviews, even if it's just a few minutes each day. This regular exposure reinforces your memory and helps solidify the language in your mind.

    • Adjust according to performance: If you find certain items difficult to remember, adjust the intervals to review them more frequently. Conversely, items that you find easy can be reviewed less often.

    By incorporating SRS into your study routine, you can ensure a steady progression in your language learning journey, even when you hit a plateau. This method not only helps in retaining information but also in moving from passive recognition and pronunciation to active recall, a key step in achieving fluency.

    Boosting confidence and motivation in language learning

    Mastering vocabulary and grammar is crucial, yet overcoming the inevitable learning slumps and plateaus is equally vital to your language learning process. Motivation is a critical factor that can drive you past these plateaus, enhancing your learning journey and helping you reach your language learning aspirations. Regular speaking practice not only maintains motivation but also improves overall speaking and listening skills. These are often the first to suffer during a slump, thereby contributing to a resurgence in language skills.

    A strong correlation exists between self-confidence, motivation and language learning. Here are some key points to consider:

    • Self-confidence has been found to be associated with English achievement, speaking ability and self-efficacy.

    • High motivation in self-confident language learners also leads to purposefulness in language learning.

    • This purposefulness can result in better communication with native speakers.

    Embracing mistakes as learning opportunities

    Do you fear making mistakes when you're learning a new language? Sometimes, the fear can be its own obstacle to your learning. By embracing mistakes as learning opportunities, you can enhance your language skills by identifying areas that need improvement and boost your confidence through developing resilience against the fear of making errors. 

    Overcome the worry of language errors, avoid the trap of measuring yourself against others and engage in positive self-dialogue in the language you're learning to make slip-ups feel like a normal part of the learning curve. Tackling this apprehension is a pivotal stride on the path to language mastery.

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    Sometimes, despite our best intentions, life throws us curveballs that can disrupt our study routines and make it hard to concentrate on language learning. Whether it's a demanding job, family responsibilities, health issues, or simply the need for a mental break, it's important to recognize when to step back and recharge.

    Taking a break can be beneficial for your language learning process. It allows your brain to rest and process the information it has absorbed. This can lead to better retention and a refreshed perspective when you return to your studies. It's crucial to listen to your body and mind and not to view breaks as setbacks but as a necessary part of a sustainable learning journey.

    Remember, it's about balance. While consistency is key to language acquisition, overworking yourself can lead to burnout. A well-timed break can reignite your passion for the language and enhance your ability to focus. So, when life gets in the way, don't be too hard on yourself. Embrace the pause, take care of what's important and know that the language will be there when you're ready to return.

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    Quite often, when you meet obstacles, you might get frustrated and your concentration suffers. Maintaining concentration while studying a foreign language can be challenging but is critical for effective learning. Here are some strategies to help you stay focused:

    • Create a distraction-free environment: Find a quiet space where interruptions are minimal. Turn off notifications on your devices and consider using apps that block distracting websites during your study time.

    • Set specific study times: Schedule dedicated time slots for language study. Having a routine can help your mind get into the habit of focusing during these periods.

    • Break down study sessions: Instead of long, drawn-out study sessions, break your learning into shorter, more manageable segments. This technique, known as the Pomodoro Technique, involves studying for 25 minutes and then taking a 5-minute break.

    • Stay hydrated and well-rested: Drink plenty of water and ensure you're well-rested. Your cognitive functions, including concentration, are significantly better when you're hydrated and have had enough sleep.

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    • Use technology: Use language learning apps that allow you to study on the go, like during your commute or while waiting in line.

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    Summary

    Overcoming plateaus is crucial for progressing in fluency and keeping motivation high. Re-evaluating goals, diversifying study routines, integrating the language into everyday life, and engaging in conversations with native speakers are all effective strategies for pushing past these stagnant periods. Employing techniques like Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) can greatly enhance vocabulary retention and be an aid in overcoming learning obstacles.

    Building confidence and staying motivated are pivotal for success in language learning, with self-confidence having a strong correlation to language proficiency. Viewing mistakes as chances for growth fosters continuous improvement and builds resilience. It's also important to acknowledge when a break is needed, as it can actually improve retention and provide a fresh outlook when studies resume. A balanced approach to language learning that includes regular practice and the ability to adjust to life's interruptions is advocated for sustained achievement and pleasure in learning a new language.

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    Academics and teachers have been writing about the benefits of using games in the language classroom for many years. Wright et al (1984), Lee Su Kim (1995), Ubermann (1998), Ersoz (2000), Yong Mei and Yu-Jin (2000) and Thi Thanh Huyen and Khuat Thi Thu Nga (2003) all pretty much agreed that games provide a useful and meaningful context for language use; encourage students to interact and communicate; can both challenge and reduce anxiety (as the emphasis is on the message, not the form); provide practice in all four skills; and help students to make and sustain the significant effort involved in learning a language.

    Kim and others have also noted that games can offer a welcome break from the usual routine of the language class. Playing a game after an intensive test or with over-excited students after break time can help re-engage learners instantly in your lesson, and you'll maximize your time with them.

    Lengeling and Malarcher (1997) took the list of potential benefits of games in the classroom even further.

    Affective

    • Games lower the affective filter
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    • They promote communicative competence
    • Games are both motivating and fun

    Cognitive

    • Games reinforce learning
    • They both review and extend learning
    • Games focus on grammar in a communicative manner

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    • Games are extremely student-centered
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    • They can foster whole-class participation
    • Games promote healthy competition

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    • Games can be easily adjusted for age, level and interests
    • They utilize all four skills
    • Games require minimum preparation after the initial development stage

    It is important to bear in mind that when the above was written over 20 years ago, it was with reference mostly to more traditional games. But more recent evidence seems to indicate that the same principles apply. Some additional benefits cited by teachers I've spoken to are that:

    • Games could make language lessons less threatening for less confident pupils as their concern about getting sentence form wrong was reduced, and so their production greater.
    • Students learn more than just the language of the lesson when playing a game; they may learn instructional language through discussion or rules and sometimes negotiation skills and a lesson in cultural differences too.
    • Students can form a greater variety of emotional connections with language through playing games, for example acting out a word or seeing another student do so, or remembering a clue for a word.

    So, playing games can help students learn a language – but is just playing them enough? Some teachers like using games with less motivated classes who won't engage with straight practice activities and will willingly use key vocabulary and structures in a game, gaining much-needed practice without even realizing it. In today's language-learning context, though, is that a good thing?

    Motivating the unmotivated

    In recent years, much research has shown that students learn better when the intention or objective of the lesson is clear to them. In short, they understand what they're supposed to be learning and why and, when taking it to the next level, can assess their own learning and be actively involved in planning their next steps.

    Would knowing that the games they play are actually a way of doing some additional language practice make these students engage less? Opinion differs, and some discussion seems to center around the actual activity involved. Some games are thinly veiled group-work tasks, but other games that are at the right proficiency level (or slightly above) and take into account factors like cultural context, available time, learning topic and the classroom setting are generally considered to have a positive impact.

    Another major influence on improving motivation is the feedback a student receives, and this is something games can also support. Online games can provide richer simulated learning experiences and immediate feedback to students in a variety of ways.

    Above all, the main issue for the less motivated students is usually that they can't see why they need to learn English. Playing games not only simulates 'real' contexts but also helps them understand that they can accomplish a variety of tasks using English as a medium, which is motivational in itself.

    As teachers, there is a responsibility to explain how or why games will help students learn. This can equally motivate learners (or parents) who fear that playing games is just frivolous time-wasting. For example, informing even adult students that a simple hangman or hot seat game helps them improve spelling skills, gets their brains focused on recognizing the shape and structure of new words, and facilitates their learning of new vocabulary soon helps them see the value (Simpson 2011).

    Can games help learners acquire 21st-century skills?

    Maybe we can draw the conclusion that games can positively impact learning – but is that even enough? Today's teachers have to ensure not just that their students learn but that they acquire the skills they need for life and jobs in the 21st century. Can games help here too? This is a newer area of research, but evidence seems to indicate that games can help students learn a variety of important skills such as critical thinking skills, creativity, teamwork and good sportsmanship.

    These ideas were taken seriously by Robert Morris University Illinois, who offered an e-sports scholarship for the first time in 2014. They studied two groups of students – football players and gamers – and found that levels of competitiveness, perseverance, focus and determination were very similar. Both groups showed a similar desire to excel as part of a team. Both 'sports' required the team members to be detail-orientated, have good hand-eye coordination and have a strategic mind. The only difference was in the level of cardiovascular activity. Both groups received performance analysis and tactical advice from coaches and both subsequently made improvements.

    How many universities will start to offer these types of programs remains to be seen. Still, the idea that online competitive gaming can improve performance is being brought to the workplace too. Think about what virtual teams could learn from playing role-based collaborative games. Team members have set roles and clear and shared goals and have to work closely together to formulate an action plan to achieve them. Teamwork, skill, strategic thinking and communication are essential.

    All these are important skills for today's workplace, so maybe gaming can provide an opportunity to hone these in a lower-risk environment and improve business performance.

    These examples are clearly far from the norm, but they do seem to indicate that using gaming to support learning in the classroom is not a waste of time. When you get the right mix of gaming and learning, it develops a student's autonomous learning skills and encourages them to spend more time on task – both of which greatly impact learner outcomes.

    Need language learning game ideas for your young learners? Read our post 5 quick and easy ESL games for teaching young learners.