Tips And Tricks For “Problem Students”, The Sequel

Read Tips and Tricks for Problem Students – Part One first.

The student who won’t talk

This is a problem because most native speaker teachers are – at least to some extent – there to get students to use the language and specifically to speak. Many tasks and activities require students to speak and in fact depend on their willingness to do so.

Is this student quiet because that’s their personality? Because they are not up to the level or don’t feel confident? Is something in the class making them feel uncomfortable?

The solution depends on the reason: pairwork should probably be part of the class anyway, and may be especially useful for those who are nervous about speaking in front of the group. If the problem is something in the class, see what you can do to alleviate it. I had one very aware student actually write on a feedback form “Please don’t ever make me work with Adam again”, along with a smiley. Problem solved – if only all students were this politely vocal about similar issues!

As a formerly quiet student myself, I think that putting that person on the spot in front of the group more often is unlikely to make them feel more comfortable, but sometimes it is a normal part of the class. When it’s necessary, giving appropriate prep time can help. Not everyone will grow to like or be good at speaking in front of a group, and it seems a little unfair to those without extroverted personalities to make that a main component of success in the course. Speaking doesn’t have to include a large audience.

If the whole group seems quiet, I try to evaluate if the tasks I’m giving them are appropriate for their level, if the instructions I’ve given are good enough, and if the subject matter is interesting or relevant enough. They might also all just need a coffee; I have fortunately reached a point where I realize their mood may have little to do with the tasks of my choosing and so on.

I do put more thought into the questions I ask, and try to compose them so people who don’t know a lot about the topic, or who feel adverse to sharing their own opinion, can answer most easily. For example, “How were your answers the same or different?” and “What reasons do people give for having opinion x?” are easier than “Why do you disagree?” or “What’s your opinion on x?” . Roleplays also allow people who are shy about sharing their own opinions, likes, and dislikes to speak more freely as “someone else.”

Problematic office dynamic

Do you teach a group where the secretary and executive director of the same company are in a small group together, and the secretary speaks much better English? Is the director used to having what he wants and people listening till he’s done speaking? In a regular class of virtual strangers this might be easier to address, but in an office setting I’ve felt mostly a guest. After I leave, they have to work together, give each other raises or performance evaluations or whatever.

I would make an effort not to make an issue out of it and subtly pair them appropriately, or chose activities which require more balanced interaction and make it harder for one person to dominate. Competitive activities might be a no-go. It is a little counter intuitive but it has also occurred to me that if I play dumb about their positions, I may be able to get away with a little bit more. I think it’s fair to say though that at times you just need to accept that you can do your best but are not in a position to change the way co-workers interact.

A final note

Even the idea of “putting yourself in your student’s shoes” will lead to different answers for different teachers, and probably for different cultures. Sometimes techniques I came across in my CELTA were not techniques that I would appreciate as a learner. That doesn’t mean that they don’t work,or that learners should always feel 100% relaxed in the classroom – to me it just means that cookie-cutter solutions are rare.

Last but not least, if you’re studying the second conditional, you could always give them a series of hypothetical situations an throw in one based on the problem in that class. I doubt I’d really do this, but it would be interesting to hear what students think … and to see if they realized that situation was the one in their class.

Do you have any tips for dealing with “problem students” that I haven’t mentioned here?