Common Challenges for English Language Learners

English Language Learners (ELLs) face many challenges while studying a new language. It takes a great deal of personal motivation and determination to overcome these challenges. As an instructor, it is beneficial to recognize common challenges and have strategies in place to support and encourage your learners.

Below we briefly cover three common challenges for ELLs. There are many more, so be sure to check out the resources listed at the bottom of this post for more information.

“When you choose to work with ESL students, you will be confronted with many different needs and challenges. You will also experience the satisfaction of helping people gain the skills and information they need to meet their personal goals.” – Teaching adults : an ESL resource book

Mother tongue influence

The students’ mother tongues (also referred to as L1) will influence how they think about other languages. We all tend to think in our first language, but this commonly leads to literal translations from the mother tongue to English. This can result in unusual sentence structure, poor pronunciation or the wrong word order. Some ways to help overcome literal translations is practicing more conversation exercises, completing writing activities like short essays and using visual aids in the classroom.

Low confidence

Many learners may lack the confidence to practice speaking their new language. Students must gain the courage to take chances and make mistakes, or their progress will be hindered. As the instructor, you can help support the learners and encourage confidence by making the classroom a safe space for learning. A good way to do this is to show vulnerability yourself. Ask the students about their native language(s) and have them teach you some words or phrases. This can serve to instill pride in their mother tongue and allow you to show them how you react to your mistakes and keep trying.

“The best way to get students to get over a fear of speaking is to address it head on. Explain that making mistakes is a normal part of language learning. In fact, it’s welcomed! How are they ever meant to know what they can do if they don’t try?” – Carley Spence

Background knowledge

Having background, or prior, knowledge of a subject is essential for understanding the lesson and materials. It can be challenging to access ELLs’ background knowledge and build new knowledge from it. Place names, cultural activities, holidays or pop culture may be specific to Canada and not recognized by students. Determine what background knowledge is needed for the lesson and ensure the necessary vocabulary is taught in advance. Tap into the students’ background knowledge by asking questions about the topic or using a graphic organizer.

“It is critical to avoid making assumptions about what background knowledge students do or don’t have. Not only is this important for instruction, but it is critical for creating a welcoming classroom environment in which students feel respected.” – Lydia Breiseth

No single approach will meet the needs of all students. You will need to tailor your approach and materials to the individual students. Check out the resources below for more information on common challenges.


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