Imagine you walk to work every day. You look out of the window and there are a few dark clouds about. What might you do? I’d put my umbrella in my bag…just in case it decides to pour with rain when I’m half way there. Anticipating problems our learners may have is just like this. We don’t have to use the umbrella, but we feel a lot better having it at the ready, because if it does rain…we aren’t going to get soaked!
This is the second part of a post about anticipating potential problems in the classroom.
For part one (which focused on classroom management) see here. In this part, we’ll be thinking about the common difficulties learners encounter in language focused lessons (grammar, lexis / vocabulary, functions).
As usual, the main (but not the only) areas we can usefully focus on when it comes to language, are meaning, form and pronunciation. Looking at all of those, in relation to all the different bits of grammar and vocabulary we have to teach, might seem a bit scary…but the good news is, there are quite a few reasonably predictable things we can look out for. If we can anticipate the problems, we can plan a solution and make sure we can really help students with what is challenging them. Below are some of the more common problems for learners.
As you read through the problems, try and think about what strategies you might use to either prevent the problems occurring, or help solve them if they do. Then read on and see if you had any similar ideas to me.
Typical problems with meaning
Time periods and time references can cause problems and mislead students. Here are some typical examples.
|Example of language||meaning||Possible confusion|
|I’m meeting him at 8.
|Present continuous for future plan or arrangement.||Even though the name of the tense is present continuous – in this context it isn’t about the present, as students may think.|
|The train leaves at 3.||Present simple for a timetabled future event. The train is scheduled to leave at 3.||Students think because the structure is called present simple, it must be about now.|
|I wish I had more money.||Imagining about a present situation that is not possible – I don’t have any money now, but I would like to have it now.||Students think it is about imagining the past because the verb after wish is always in the past form. E.g. I wish I had, I wish I could…,I wish I knew…’ etc.|
|I have been to America.||The present perfect is used here to describe life experience – something that took place at an unspecified time in the past and is connected to now because the time period (my life) is not finished.||Because the action took place in the past, students may not understand how this structure differs from the past simple (which we use when we are referring to a specific time in the past, when the time period is finished). They may think they can say ‘I have been to America last year.’.|
Problems with modal verbs
Modal verbs (will, must, can, should etc.) are different to other verbs in that their meaning is changed by the context and often by how we say them. Modals express degrees or strength. This can cause confusion.
E.g. students may think should and must are of similar strength.
There are some words that sound very similar in two different languages, but do still have very different meanings. These are called false friends. If you are teaching a class with the same first European language, it is well worth finding out about these
E.g. embarrassed in English sounds like embarazada in Spanish, but the Spanish word means pregnant!
Solutions for problems with meaning
- Ensure the context you use to present language is as clear and unambiguous as possible so you don’t mislead students.
- Use concept checking questions, timelines and further contextualised examples to contrast and clarify (make sure to include these on your plan as they aren’t very easy to make up at the time of speaking and need preparation).
- Incorporate guided discovery tasks so students have the time to examine the language and to refer back to examples. These are particularly helpful when students get confused between two grammatical forms. For example, they could match the names of two structures to an example of each, a rule for the use of each and a timeline for each.
- Monitor and error correct during controlled practice. Use controlled practice that asks students to make a choice between two structures, rather than simply reproduce one.
Typical problems with form
Auxiliary verbs (typically have, be, do) are the helping verbs in a sentence and don’t really carry meaning – they are grammatical links that help create a particular structure. Lots of languages don’t have them, and for that reason students often have problems with them. Below are some typical problems.
Auxiliary verbs are often contracted (I have becomes I’ve etc.). Partly because of the difficulty in hearing these contractions in connected speech, learners can sometimes leave auxiliaries out.
E.g. He going to buy a new car. (Instead of He’s going to buy a car).
Using the wrong auxiliary
Not only do learners have to remember to use an auxiliary verb as well as a main verb, they need to remember to use the correct one according to the subject of the sentence. This often leads to difficulties.
E.g. She have met him. (Instead of She has / She’s met him.)
Forming questions and negatives
Related to the above point – since English uses auxiliary verbs to form negatives and questions, these can be difficult areas for students.
E.g. You know him? (Instead of Do you know him?
I not agree, or I am not agree. (Instead of I don’t agree).
With the past simple the auxiliary is used in its past form, but the main verb isn’t. Students sometimes try to change the main verb’s tense as well.
E.g. We didn’t went. (Instead of We didn’t go.)
Again, this can be related to question formation;
E.g. You are coming? (Instead of Are you coming?)
E.g. It’s a car expensive. (Instead of It’s an expensive car.)
E.g. I get up early never. (Instead of I never get up early.)
She just has told him. ( Instead of She has just told him.)
The form characteristics of modal verbs differ from other verbs.
Modal verbs do not change in the third person.
E.g. She cans… (Instead of She can…)
They don’t have past or future forms in the same way as other verbs, which presents difficulties.
E.g. I can swim when I was 7. (Instead of I could swim.)
I must do my homework yesterday. (Instead of I had to…)
I had to is the past of have to and must.
They have no -ing form and no infinitive
E.g. They should to work harder. (Instead of They should work harder.)
Solutions for problems with form
- Elicit the form from students rather than giving them it – this makes it easier to diagnose if there are any problems
- Consider using guided discovery tasks which focus on problem areas, for example students complete the form for themselves from example sentences
- Use colour to highlight different parts of structures
- Have form consolidation activities ready to use in the lesson if needed (e.g re-arranging words in a sentence, gap-filling etc.)
- Include substitution drilling to clearly establish form patterns
- Do error correction during controlled practice tasks
Since there is no real reason why, for example, certain verbs and nouns go together, learners can try to directly translate or just forget collocations.
E.g. I make my homework. (Instead of I did my homework.)
Collocation – solutions
- Encourage students to always record common collocations rather than words in isolation
- Include consolidation exercises where students must focus on the collocation, e.g. odd one out tasks.
Countable / uncountable
Nouns which are uncountable are often used a though they are countable. If you are teaching any uncountable nouns, especially abstract ones, this is something to look out for.
E.g. He gave me some good advices. (Instead of advice.)
Solutions – countable / uncountable
- Check students are aware of this by asking checking questions, such as ‘Can we count this?’ ‘Can we add an s?’
- Always mark the part of speech on written records and ensure students copy this information
- Encourage students to record words in context to reinforce parts of speech
Typical problems with pronunciation
Students sometimes find these difficult to hear, which can lead to them not pronouncing the contraction or using the full form and sounding a bit unnatural. It can also affect form – if students don’t hear the contraction they may not include the verb they didn’t hear.
E.g. I tell him. (Instead of I’ll tell him.)
I WILL tell him. (Instead of I’ll tell him.)
Word and sentences stress
It is reasonably common for learners to find it challenging to hear and to reproduce sentence stress. They may sound unnatural by placing the stress on words that should be weak.
E.g. I AM GOING TO TELL HER. (Instead of I’m GOING to TELL her.)
They may also place stress in a word on the wrong syllable, particularly in longer words.
E.g. PHOtographer (Instead of phoTOGrapher)
Sound and spelling correlation
Where words are spelled differently to how they are pronounced (quite often in English!), learners tend to say the words as the look like they would be said.
E.g. walked /ed/ (Instead of walked /t/)
decided /ed/ (Instead of decided /Id/)
asked /ed/ (Instead of asked /d/)
E.g. debt /deb/ (Instead of /det/)
E.g. enormous /mu:s/) (Instead of enormous /məs/)
Solutions for problems with form
- Listen carefully and be responsive in drilling. Apply drilling skills such as finger highlighting of contractions and back-chaining. Beat the stress using a gesture when drilling to visually highlight rhythm.
- Elicit and then highlight features of pronunciation on the board / handouts. This could be by marking the stress or weak forms, using phonemic script etc. or even getting students to do it.
- After drilling, elicit word stress, or get students to categorise words under different stress pattern visuals.
- For problem sounds, get students to look at the shape of your mouth.
Other Top tips
Do your research – get hold of a copy of Learner English by Swan and Smith. This book has all kinds of useful information about what speakers of other language find difficult and the kind of mistakes they make, based on their first language. It’s particularly helpful if you are teaching a monolingual class. Another mine of useful information about problems with language is Teaching Tenses by Rosemary Aitken.
Gain experience and reflect – each time you teach, note down the main things you noticed students had problems with / did incorrectly / were confused by etc. The next time you teach the same point you will be less taken by surprise.
Don’t introduce problems – just because you have researched the language and you know a particular element of it can be problematic for them, don’t introduce this problem if it doesn’t occur. Remember, the point of identifying problems and solutions is to be ready to react. These are POTENTIAL problems…so wait and see!