Do You Ever….

How I've been feeling (photo by Kalexanderson - CC through Flickr)

feel discouraged, as a teacher? I’m going to take a risk here and say you have.

As a teacher I sometimes feel like I am not doing my job. Like the students aren’t really learning, no matter how hard I work.

I have a couple of challenges this semester. For the past 6 or 7 years, I have mostly taught teens – or young adults at proficiency level. And we all know how fast most of them pick up language, especially because of the amount of exposure to English they get these days (with movies, music, games,internet, etc). But this semester I have been given (relatively) elementary groups of adults. Wow! That shook me up. Don’t get me wrong – I have taught as far as level 1 – real beginners – in my teaching career. But I guess I got too used to what I had been given lately.

I had forgotten how much more support adults at beginner levels need. How much more support, cheering up and and teaching they require. How much slower they move. I had forgotten how much they struggle at being exposed to authentic language – such as me speaking normally, without measuring my words. Their anxiety and issues had slipped off my mind.

One of the groups (that I am teaching and fit such description) I currently has has been struggling (still) with the simple present tense. I have spent the first 2 weeks of class reviewing it (2h30m a week), but I am not sure I see much improvement. I changed approaches, tried different activities… and I am not sure I have been effective.

I have created a site for the class, with extra resources and news so the ones that have to miss class (lots of them travel for work) can keep up with what we are doing. I have prepared activities. And still, I am not sure they are “getting”it. I feel somewhat frustrated.

More than anything, I feel bad, because I have been feeding them a lot of “grammar McNuggets” – grammar exercises, drills and so on. After the third class of teaching the Simple Present (which they should have learned/seen in their first year) I feel bad because that’s not how I think learning should take place, but it seems it’s the way they prefer, that they feel they are learning – even if I don’t really agree.

If my goal as a teacher (and the career I have chosen, my passion) is to help my students learn, what to do when you don’t feel learning is really taking place – or at least not at the rate you would expect? How do you know they are learning, if your classes and hard work are being effective?


43 comments on “Do You Ever….

  1. I can say that I’m definitely out-of-practice with very low levels myself. I remember never seeing an advanced group of speakers until my 2nd or 3rd year of teaching though. Anyways, I digress…

    When I’m feeling like the group isn’t progressing as swiftly as I’d like because they either aren’t demonstrating a productive ability with concepts during class or still seem to be confused, I find that the one-on-one time that comes through my office hours help me see a specific students’ understanding much better than asking them one or two questions in a group class. I don’t love one-on-one and don’t have time to do it with all my 33 students, but for those that do, I can then see if they’re learning and if I’m being effective.

    • Hi Ty,

      I can definitively see how 1-2-1 would be beneficial, but unfortunately, that is not a possibility for me – I don’t really have “office hours”. So what I have been trying to do is pair up stronger stundets in the class and monitor weaker students more closely (last class, since we had an odd number of students, I did pair work with the weakest), because I think this way I can better help them. Let it be clear that even throughout my chat with the one student – teachers develop those “special”abilities I’m afraid – so I kept noticing most of the other pairs’ mistakes and helping them with those.

      But still, learning is yet to be noticed :-)


  2. Karl says:

    When in your situation I remind myself that what the learners actually learn is very often, maybe always is different to my lesson objectives and my expectations. We can’t dictate what they take in. I also recently read an article thatclaims it is natural for learners to make these mistakes (like present simple 3rd person) and no matter how often you try to drill it in to their heads they will only retain it when they are themselves ready. For me I would simply focus on having fun, keep encouraging and praising them and keep giving them examples of accurate and interesting language, maybe language discovery & some peer / group correction tasks….then let nature do the rest. Good luck and keep smiling and stay positive.

    • Hi Karl,

      Thanks so much for you comment. Do you have a link to that article? Or a reference? I have been trying to focus on having fun, but the students’ expectations are high.I sure focus on having fun and trying to let them unstress, lower their affective filters. It just takes some adjusting to the speed of learning, I take :-)

      • Karl says:

        Thanks for your reply. I hope since you posted this reply the learners have made a step forward and you are feeling more positive & encouraged. It will be tough (as I read sooo much!) but will try and dig out tis article out and send it to you. I have got a level A1 / A2 starting tomorrow morning. My first low level class for a loooong time. Should be fun ;-)

  3. Boglarka Kovacs says:

    Hello Cecilia :)

    I think you can be reassured that IF you are putting so much effort into your work then it IS working or at least it will sooner or later. Remember that we teachers are also human being who need positive feedback so try to find ways in which you can give yourself feedback. Also, observe your students a bit closer, their reactions and sources of struggle and if you reflect on these, it might help you adjust your teaching methids if needed. I am sure you are doing a great job, seeing all the effort you are making! Keep up with the good work and cheer up! :)

    • Hi Boglarka,

      The thing is, they ARE giving me positive feedback. They seem interested in what we do in class, they do their homework. They laugh and join in during class. I’m just unsure abour=t how much they are really learning from it.

      Thank you so much for your support and feedback. :-)

  4. larousse54 says:

    Hi, Cecilia.
    Yes, definitely, I too have these times, where I’m sure I’m not effective as a teacher, whereas my students think they are learning.
    One of the things that really has helped me is Total Physical Response. First, your students think it is weird, but within a few lessons, they show without much effort, that without all kind of grammar learning, they learn.
    You might already know it, but if you don’t here is a link
    Keep up the good work

    Dico Krommenhoek,
    Rotterdam, the Netherlands

    • Hi larousse54 (couldn’t really find out your name :-)),

      Unfortunately TPR was one of the things 90% of the students referred to as activities they did not enjoy in class. I still add a few TPR activities in class (especially because this one particular class is early in the morning) justifying different students have different ways of learning, but I’m afraid the result is not entirely positive. Brazilian adult students have a somewhat negative response to TPR… Who knows why, but they feel it’s kids play.

      Thanks for the ideas and feedback! :)

  5. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Ceci,
    Sorry to hear that you’re feeling discouraged. I had a simlar problem last year – after spending over a year teaching students from Intermediate upwards (mostly Advanced) I had an Elementary group, and it took me a cople of weeks to adjust – I taught them 20 hours a week, so that was quite a long time!
    I have to say that although Grammar McNuggets are not ideal, at some levels and for some parts of the language that is really what is necessary, although I would say that focussing on the present simple for more time won’t necessarily be useful. Maybe you need to teach them some more verbs or other basic vocab, then come back to the present simple when they have been unconsciously exposed to it more. Their brains will also have had more time to absorb and process the information you have already given them.
    I also think that tenses come alive for students when they are compared to other tenses. For example, when they start to learn the present continuous or the past simple and can see that there is more than one way to express things, they might see the point of the present simple more.
    Hope that helps!

    • Hi Sandy!

      I was soooo glad to read your comments!!!! Even though Grammar McNuggets are not ideal, it does seem to work with them, it does seem to give them more confidence – maybe for their learning experience, mostly audiolingual???

      I understand (or I think I do) the extra time they need to process things… Am going to start comparing Present Simple and Continuous this week, so let’s test that theory – which I also belive in, for noticing different uses meanings seems to be more effective. I’ll tell you how it works!

      Thanks for your help and feedback! :)

  6. Chiew says:

    Boy, haven’t we all?
    I suppose patience and understanding is what we need. Not everyone learns at the same pace, and the older you are, the less confidence you have, at least in learning something new. You feel useless; you’re afraid the others might laugh at you.

    Having a teacher like you, I’m sure they will learn, sooner or later; just don’t give up! Go with their pace. Be water, honey!

    You know, students don’t always know what they need, so perhaps you could give them a balance of what they want and what you think they need – that’ll keep both parties happy…hopefully!

    Adults are worse than babies, so encourage them! Pamper them!

    We are with you, Ceci!

    • Chiew, if this post has given me anything, it is surely the feeling that I am NOT alone :-).

      You’re sure about one essential thing when teaching adults: patience. Being so used to teens, I have to adjust myself to the different pace adult students usually have due to fossilization mostly.

      I am water (my mantra right now :-)))

      Thanks for the support, Chiew!!!! I really appreciate it. more than you can imagine!

  7. Stavroula says:

    Hello Cecilia.
    I experience the same feelings really often, you are not alone. What I have noticed about adults is that their learning process is very slow but ultimately they get the hang of grammar.
    Personally, I spend a lot of time planning my lessons according to the students’ position, department and everyday communication. What I mean is that I always “personalise” the grammar points and design activities that simulate the spontaneous use of English grammar in their daily lives. It works ok in my cases.

    • Hi Stavroula,

      Personalisation is key, I agree with you. Each adult group has a different pace, different learning styles. Geez, every adult student seems to have a different one! The problem is doing such personalised work with somewhat “large” groups. I just feel adults need more (and very intense) personalised work.

      Thanks for your support and comment! :)

  8. I was reading about an Arctic explorer the other day who said that if he woke up in the morning and thought about how far he had to trudge that day through the ice and snow he would never have been able to get out of bed. Instead he simply concentrated on the first step and the second step and so on.

    I know totally how you feel here; and when I’m in the same situation I always break it down to the moment. That is, I don’t look at where I would like to see the students in six months or a year’s time (e.g. speaking fluently with correct use of all tenses or able to converse about business strategy with native speakers) but instead look at just getting them through the lesson and finding some very close, very simple goal for them.

    To complete Exercise A well. Or perhaps to tell me what they saw on tv last night.

    I find that learning does take place even when you think I think it isn’t. After a bunch of lessons where I thought nothing had happened I’ll suddenly realise that we’re discussing something quite advanced with the class without realising that I’d travelled the journey to get there!

    Some people might think it’s a plod, but yes, just like my favourite Arctic explorer it’s just a matter of taking one step at a time without looking at the goal!

    • Hi.

      Focusing on the first step is what I’ve been doing… Much like other “addictions”, one step at a time… So breaking it down to getting them through to the lesson, had become my goal. I hope I realise learning has been taking place even if I thought otherwise.

      Thanks for your feedback / support :-)

  9. Sue Annan says:

    I wanted to shout with delight this week when my elementary adults had a real conversation. Not always accurate, by any stretch of the imagination, but able to use the language to DO something. BUT- it has taken a long time to get there.And there were plenty of Grammar McNuggets along the way. What I did was give them lots of vocabulary first. Then functions, such as telling the time, talking about ability with’Can/can’t/, familiarising them with the sounds of the language- and then I worried about the form. It helped them take ownership of enough language to use, without following a syllabus that dictated present simple, then……
    IF you can abandon the book and find out what they can do, it might help give them confidence too.

    • Accuracy is way out of our minds in such situations, isn’t it, Sue? I’ve been abandoning the book so far, and focusing on functions… and I yearn to screaming with delight…will keep you posted.

      Thanks for your support, Sue!!!!!!!!!

  10. Hi, Cecilia. The last semester of your Teacher Development Course at CTJ includes a Supervised Teaching Practice module in which the student-teachers pair up and teach a group of true beginners for two months. They are all adults just like the ones you described. I had the pleasure to be the Supervisor of the course last year and, thus, observe the work of my 8 student-teachers in 4 different groups. I sympathize with your post because I noticed the same anxiety in some of them. What’s worse, some want to focus on the nitty gritty aspects of the language at the expense of developing automaticity. They want to learn about English and not English itself. Sometimes I think it’s a way of protecting their language egos from the “embarassment” they feel not being able to string words together and make sense. What I saw was that the most successful classes were the ones with a lot of scaffolding and a lot of opportunities of practice of the same content in different ways, starting from very controlled (such as drilling and then practicing the dialogues in pairs) and progressing until the students came up with their own dialogues. Also, I noticed that it’s best not to linger on each teaching point, but rather, go back to previously learned materials, the so-called spiraling. Too much focus on grammar rules didn’t work because it’s not that they don’t know that there’s an “s”in third person singular – it’s that they aren’t developmentally ready to use this automatically in unplanned speech. So I guess you can relax a bit about the grammar and give them opportunities to use the language. I think drilling is crucial, and adults really like it because they get to practice the language without being in the spotlight. But, of course, we need to go beyond that and use more communicative activities. Of course, contexts are different, students are different, but I hope I’ve helped somehow.
    Take care,

    • Hi Isabella,

      Thanks for your suggestions – they are very helpful. I do see what you are saying, and I am no stranger to that – I feel they would benefit much more from more opportunities to practice and realise how much they already know, what they can already do and by lots of scaffolding to find their way to discoveries, language and learning. But this specific group (and I have another one of about the same level where the situation is different) is a unique one. They are very insecure about their own abilities, so right now I am working on building their self-confidence and making them relax a bit, lower their emotional filters.

      Let’s see if I have chosen the right path! :-) Thanks for helping out!


  11. Carolyn says:

    I agree with many of your supporters comments. I will add that with my low level adults i really have to convince them to use the grammar outside of the classroom. Tons of motivation and pep talks before and after and of course asking them how and where they used it. These little errors like the ‘s’ on simple present, article use, and prepositions are made even by very advanced students. It’s okay if your low level ones make them too. Sometimes i find a day or two of constant correction on that grammar point can bring their mind on their language production. Good luck sweetie, you are never alone.

    • Thanks for the support and sharing your experience (and strategies), Carolyn :-) I think I’ll try that day of constant correction soon. Right now I’ve been trying to focus on communication and avoid too much correction, trying to make them feel better about their own production enough so that I don’t have to “squeeze” it out of them. And I try to tell them about how the little mistakes are made by everyone – even native speakers!

      It feels good to hear I am not alone.


  12. Ceci,
    I can’t add to the excellent advice you have been given but we’ve ALL been there – I wouldn’t believe anyone who says otherwise.
    Sometimes you have to move on to other topics even when you aren’t satisfied with the mastery of the first ones and then try to incorporate it later.
    You HAVE made progress with them, even if it isn’t as much as you wish it would be, people progress compared to themselves.
    All the best!

    • Hi Naomi,

      I really have been getting some good advice – including your! – on how I can handle that. More than the advice, I deeply appreciate the support. Even though I’d rather no teacher went through the same, it’s good to know we are not alone. It feels better. And yes, I already knkew it – but it’s always good to be reminded of it! :-)

      My biggest struggle with moving to other topics is not what I feel about their level of mastery – quite the opposite, I keep telling them learning is about moving on and experimenting, going back and forth, that learning is a continuous process, not moments. They are the ones who have been ruthless about their own skills and ability to produce. There’s a bit of being influenced by a more insecure – and yet a leader – student. So I am focusing on these (there are two of them) ones first, because I know they are an influence to the others, so I just have to turn them into a positive one! :-)

      Thanks, as always, Naomi!

  13. sabridv says:

    Hi Ceci! Last year I started teaching a group of adults that were real beginners. They have had practically no exposure to English before since they were from very poor neighbourhoods. I was teaching at a public school (as I was telling you the other day at your house, WOW how crazy this sounds LOL). The first class I was totally afraid, I dind´t know what to do, since it´s been a long time since the last time i taught such lower levels. However, it was a wonderful experience. I re-read a lot of Jason Renshaw´s post about teaching beginners and I started making them speak from the very beginning in English. I spent most of my class time with more informal kind of teaching, a lot of exposure, and teaching the grammar that came up in the class. Once we got to the book it was very easy for them to understand what was taught there since they have had a lot of exposure before. I think I have talked about this experience during my presentation at the Reform symposium. I don´t know if I have been clear enough, because I´m at the rodoviaria of Fortaleza waiting for my bus to Jericocoara. I haven´t had much sleep. Lots of kisses and hugs and just relax and let learning take place. You will be amazed at how fast beginners learn and incorporate things once you let them go at their own pace and take into account their interests.

    • Hi Sabri!

      I know, it sounds weird reading you, knowing you were right here on my sofa a bit after a week ago (I hope you enjoyed carnival in Recife/Olinda!)!!! I remember us talking about our teaching beginners experience… My biggest problem is that they are beginners but they have been studying for a little time, so they’re very resistant to my attempts at having them communicate and produce language, to get them to speak. But I am resilient. ;-) And I’ll show them learning is a process, and that they are doing it!
      Beijo! Enjoy Jericoaquara! (little green with envy here!)


  14. Hi, Cecilia.
    I face these challenges too.I sometimes didn’t recieve the feedback I wish from my students,But we should understand that students haven’t the same abilities.Learning language needs long time so we are in need of patience.Good luck

    • Hi Saeed,

      Thank you for your feedback and good luck wishes :-). I do get feedback from them – though not exactly the one I wish for. They want more grammar and less activities where they are asked to produce freely and communicating (they don’t feel they have the language for that yet – they couldn’t be more wrong!). Respecting each student’s pace is a core belief for me.

  15. LouiseAlix says:

    Been there, done that, recognise the frustration ;-( ! I agree with Karl, above, with regards to the time and order in which people learn certain things (see Spada + Lightbown for more info and to perhaps lower your own frustration levels!). I also notice Dico above talking about TPR – this can, indeed help many people and can in fact be ‘extended’ to include TPRS (ttp:// == am not dead keen on this site, find the Dutch one more informative but the above site is at least in English). And what’s perhaps even better with regards to integrating grammar (McNuggets) into natural speech is using AIM which works fantastically well as a a physical reminder (
    If they’re up to some simple reading, and to lighten up your own day a bit, how about throwing in the odd Roger McGough poem or even this one (my personal favourite!): which, though written in the past tense, may give them some ‘a ha’ moments?
    Good luck, keep your chin up – they WILL get there!

    • Hi Louise :-)

      I’m doing the Delta, so Lightbown and Spada are my buddies ;-)) Thanks for the advice and links – have already used some reading into the lesson plans!

      Thanks for the help and support!!


  16. Kathy Fagan says:

    I sympathize with you! I have some adult beginners who just don’t seem to progress. They say that there’s a silent period at the beginning of learning where learners are mostly taking it in and not putting it out so much. That kind of internal progress is hard (impossible?) to see, so just keep surrounding them with stuff to take in and give them chances to talk. I wish I had made a recording of each new student in their first week or do. Not only would it be easier for me to see their progress after three months, but I could show them too. I plan to try this in the future.

    Spesking of scaffolding, here’s an activity that worked really well for building self-confidence in my groups. Students brainstormed (with prompting and picture dictionaries) a list of 12 classroom items on the board. Each student then wrote the name of an item twice on two index cards and cut them in half to make four cards. Collect the first deck and then have learners make another deck (same words are ok). Demonstrate the dialog “Maria, do you have a pencil?” “yes I do.” “please give me the pencil.” (also “no I don’t.”) then write these on the board with a blank for name and pencil. Break the class into two groups and let them play Go Fish using the prompts. For the second or third round, erase the board. My students started using this language for real communication after this. They didn’t always get the articles right (or use them at all, ha ha) but it was still 3 or 4 steps forward, hooray! They also began addressing each other by name, which is important for community-building. If the cards survive, they can be used again in the future for different activities to recycle.

    I also identify with the case of the students who focus on learning ABOUT English rather than learning to use it. The idea of protecting a language ego is interesting food for thought, thanks!

    • Hi Kathy,

      Yes, I am aware of the silence period… I just expected them to be over that, considering the time they have been learning. I have been trying to surround them with things that motivate them to speak, but they refuse it. They want to learn ABOUT English – as you said – instead of how to use it. I try to make them aware that their need is to communicate – knowing the language as they expect to is only important if they wish to become English teachers. But I am afraid they don’t seem to get it…

      Thanks for all the great tips!


  17. Victoria says:

    Hi, Cecilia!
    I understand you completely. It seems that in this case, if you are realizing that there are grammar points that they “should” master from the previous course but they don’t, it would be a great move to have them tested. Once you get a diagnosis test you’ll be able to face “the enemy” (the missing grammar points/communication points from last year.)
    That would be my advise. Get them a test and after you have a glance of the group, the key word will be DIFFERENTIATION. You’ll be able to group them by students needs.
    Don’t feel frustrated. It’s not you. Beginner adults are not an easy teaching target. Just remember the last time you taught them, if you survived that time you’ll survive this time, too!
    Love from Montevideo,

    • Hi Victoria!

      It’s not as much that I am realising that there are grammar points they should master but rather them thinking that! Coincidentaly I did have them tested today :-).Am looking forward to getting the results!

      Thanks for the support. It matters.
      Love from Brazil :)


  18. Ceri Jones says:

    Hi Ceci :)

    A really timely post for me … I SO understand what you’re saying. I’m still struggling with my bete noire this year – speaking classes with mixed level teens who I only see for one hour every two weeks (!) … I have peaks and troughs … moments (but only moments!) when things go well, when I can see and measure response and enthusiasm (though not necessarily progress!) … and then dark clouds close around again when the dynamic falls apart, the contributions are monosyllabic and moody, the general chit chat in Spanish about the oh-so-important details of their minute-by-minute teenage lives drowns out the focus on English.

    I always blame myself – we do that don’t we? You’d think we’d have grown past that, but I guess it’s part and parcel of caring. I guess if we lost that we’d have lost the right to call ourselves teachers even? But it’s still hard. And I don’t know about you, but it’s one of the things that saps my energy more than anything else. More than late nights and long hours.

    As for beginner adults … I bet it takes some getting used to after high level teens (almost literally a world apart!) … and they do need more time and patience and guidance … and possibly lower expectations (I think that’s something I need to remind myself about with my present struggle) … but the rewards can be great. And sometimes come in very small packets :) … an aha moment, a simple joke made or understood, a personal story shared …. but then you know that too :)

    There’s so much great advice in all the comments above I really have nothing to add … just to empathise!

    • OMG, Ceri! Mixed conversation level AND you only see them once every two weeks?!??! I feel your pain! And yes, we do always blame ourselves… “What could I be doing differently?” “How can I reach them?” and “What am I doing wrong? ” are constants… And for having grown that – well, after almost 20 years being a teacher I still feel butterflies every first class… go figure!

      But you’re right on the spot (as usual) when you say it saps my challenges and motivates me to find ways, to overcome it… It sure has been quite a learning experience, trying to tap back on my previous experiences teaching beginner adults – many of my teens are beginning teens as well, but it is sooooooo different!

      Thanks for your two cents… Am still waiting for that aha moment ;-) Thanks for the sympathy.. it makes a difference!

  19. Hi Debbie!

    On 1:2:1 it feels easier, I have to say… there’s something about having an audience (other than the teacher) that has a big effect on the students… But you’re right on when you say most of them come out and say: “I need rules and grammar”. And yes, they overestimate their progress… I think they are waaay too hard on themselves. But I think it’s the result of an accuracy-based learning experience, an exaggerated focus on it.

    Not giving up – EVER!!!!!!!!!! Thanks for the support and comment! :)

  20. Hi Karl,

    Yes, since I posted this I have felt some progress and improvement on my students. Besides that, I felt the building of our rapport and them feeling comfortable with me – which, IMHO means a lot with adult students especially! We’ve moved on to present progressive with success… let’s see how it goes on the next class!!!!

    Hoping you find that link! Thanks for the reply! :-)

  21. Karl says:

    Great news to hear about the progress. Keep it going! I completed my first elementary class for a long time on Monday! It was a big reality check and really made me take notice & realize how I have to adjust my expectations, style, language, patience, input, more or less everything compared to more advanced learners. One of the biggest challenges I noticed with my lower level group is that they really need to learn how to learn a language and how the little things are sooo important such as priase and encouragement. It really is a case of back to basics.
    I have been looking for this article. Thus far no joy..sorry. Will continue my search!


    • Hi Karl,

      Thanks for the link to your blog post – interesting stuff! Loved your ten tips and I think if I were to write a similar post we’d share many of them (especially the first one – be genuine and be yourself).

      I wish you the best of luck on the new elementary class – and the search! Let me know how both go!


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