When Teaching English is Like Pulling Teeth

Published by English Evolution on

One of the great things about English language teaching is the opportunities you have as an English language teacher to travel the world and embrace different cultures in different countries. However, teaching English in Spain or any other country will always have its challenges. One of those challenges can be adapting to the teaching methods and learning culture that your students have become used to.


The general philosophy behind the British education system encourages independent thought and critical thinking. Students are encouraged to do their own research, discuss, debate and support their point of view with both empirical evidence and personal opinion. This often leads to a lively classroom environment where some great ideas are thrown up, which in turn makes teaching an engaging and enjoyable experience. This is not always the case when teaching students whose education system is more about sitting passively in front of a teacher who gives them facts and figures to memorise in order to pass exams. When you have English language students who have been brought up in this kind of education system, it can be very difficult to elicit exciting, engaging lessons and it can often feel like you are a dentist pulling away at a stubborn tooth. So how do you elicit ideas out of your students?

Students learning the English language, or any other language, often find it very difficult to express themselves the way they want to. Aside from the differences in education culture, limitations of vocabulary can greatly restrict the response you receive from your students during lessons. A lack of confidence can also render English language students mute, even if they have a good English level. Often, you will find that when you are teaching English students in Spain, no matter how much time you have put into planning an all singing all dancing lesson to get them inspired, you end up staring at a classroom full of blank faces completely devoid of any ideas.

I have delivered English lessons for upper intermediate and advanced students about subjects ranging from Brexit, the impact of the presidential elections, political corruption and the pro’s and con’s of artificial intelligence, to the science of attraction, myths and legends, the dangers of social media and the greatest inventions of mankind. Then when it has come to generating discussion and debate to activate use of hypothetical language and supporting an opinion, I have had grown adults simply shrug and say, “I don’t know” when asked what they think! So how can you avoid this frustrating scenario in your lessons?

The key to getting something back from a dull and unimaginative group of students is to give them waypoints; essentially, tell them what areas they should think about. I know this sounds crazy, but really, sometimes it’s the only way.

One of the benefits of speaking the lingua franca is that English speakers can find (if they choose to look for it) articles of interest from all over the world. This expands your field of reference, which in turn gives you a wider perspective on many subjects and global ideas. Often, your students’ field of reference will be restricted to their local or national media and Yahoo News! If you are going to elicit discussion and debate in your ESL lesson, then ensure that you have given the students direction for the discussion to focus on. For example, instruct them to consider the pro’s and con’s of a particular aspect of a subject. Give them the necessary material they need and tell them what to look for. Basically, direct them through the thought and idea process. Remember, you aren’t delivering a science, philosophy or sociology lesson, you are looking for ways to get them to use English language. Their actual opinions are less important than their ability to use the right vocabulary, grammar structures and degree of fluency required to express them.

We are here to help people use English, that is the main point of an ESL teacher’s job. Whilst facilitating engaging conversation within a group of English language students is a great way to spend an hour and a half of teaching time, the main focus of your job is to get the students to learn and use their English, and know how to use it effectively and accurately. So don’t make life a struggle, if your students have no ideas of their own, give them some. You are a teacher, not a dentist.


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