Instructional Challenges ESL Students Face in the Classroom

Michael T. Coleman
Michael T. Coleman
Elementary school principal; M.A. in K-12 Educational Leadership
A young girl holds up a whiteboard with magnet letters spelling out “Learn English.”

Instructional Challenges ESL Students Face

Every student in every classroom different; they are all unique and learn in various ways. Additionally, there are different learning challenges and barriers for students that may get in the way of students succeeding in classes.

If they are native-English speaking, they are being taught in their first language. English language learners (ESL) immediately face a challenge that native-English speakers do not in U.S. schools; they come to the United States knowing zero English to communicate, as well as likely not having the academic English language needed to be successful in schools. English learners are extremely bright, just like their English-speaking classmates. However, they have to work much harder to be successful.

There are many instructional challenges English language learners and their ESL teachers face. The most obvious is that they do not speak English fluently. English learners may have been top of their class in their home country, and all of a sudden find themselves completely lost and defeated in their classes simply because they do not speak the language of instruction. This can be extremely difficult for these students.

Another instructional challenge is that teachers may not know what background knowledge these students are coming into their classes. This can be very problematic when a teacher assumes that all of their students know something about the topic: for example, the American government. A student who just moved here from a different country may not know anything about the United States, especially its government. Teachers should challenge themselves to find out as much as possible about the education the English learners in their classrooms have received before introducing new topics.

Additionally, some English language learners may not be literate in their first language. Good-hearted teachers may want to translate content into a student’s first language, but that child may not be able to read that either. Not having literacy in the first language will greatly impact learning and interacting with the second language. Having this data at the start will help schools ensure that English language learners are getting the proper support right from the beginning.

Finally, leaving some of your family and friends behind and moving to a new country is very overwhelming. Then, starting school and not being able to communicate can be devastating. English language learners may shut down completely, which is a valid response. It simply needs to be recognized by the teachers, who then need to work with that student to help them adjust to their new surroundings.

How Best to Help ESL Students in the Classroom

Welcoming Classroom Community

The atmosphere of a classroom is significant for all students, native-speakers and non-English speakers. Teachers who can create a welcoming, safe, and supportive classroom will see their English language learners begin to open up and begin to interact with the English language and content. This starts with learning how to pronounce your English language learners’ names correctly; have them stay after class the first day to welcome them and make sure that you are saying their name correctly. This will mean a lot to that child.

Know the English Learner’s Language Level

English language learners have to be screened when they enter a new school district. Ask the English language development teacher for the child’s score to understand their abilities in reading better, writing, listening, and speaking. It is also beneficial to work with the ELD teacher to find tips on how best to instruct your ESL students.

Ways for English Language Learners to Be Successful

When planning your lessons, be sure to think about your English language learners’ language abilities and how to include them in the class. If you are doing small groups, make sure you assign them a task they can do. If you ask for volunteers, be sure that you provide enough wait time to understand the question before picking someone else.


English language learners, especially low-proficiency learners, thrive on routines. Although they may not understand what you are saying, if they have to come into your class every day, get their notebook, and copy the bell-ringer, they will be able to do it and feel proud of themselves for knowing what to do.

In addition, create activities that are not complicated. Reading directions and figuring out where to get started can be very challenging; however, if you do similar exercises in class, the English language learners will know what to do no matter the proficiency level.

English Language Learner Strategies

  • Use as many visuals as possible
  • Break up long passages into smaller chunks with visual supports
  • Use simplified language
  • Give alternative assignments
  • Look at your assignments and see if you can break the question or directions down
  • Have newer English learners focus on key vocabulary
  • Allow that student to stay after class to verbally give you the answers rather than a long writing assignment

If a student can show you mastery of a topic in five questions rather than 15, allow English learners to do that. The amount of time an English language learner takes to read a question is much longer than a native-English speaker. If they are better in their verbal skills, allow that student to stay after class to verbally give you the answers rather than a long writing assignment. There are many ways to help your English language learners find success.

Your English Language Learners’ Interests

The more you learn about them, the more you can make real-life connections for them. Then, they will be interested in learning more about the topic and the English that goes along with it.

Any teacher can overcome instructional barriers for their English language learners by reaching out to their students, make the connection, and letting their students know they are there to support them.

graduate program favicon

Looking for a graduate program?