How can ESL/EFL teachers address 5 common problems in learning English

Picture of an English dictionary

For the majority of language learners globally, English remains the most popular target language of study. In fact, according to 2019 research from the British Council, there are at least 1.5 billion English-language learners worldwide.

Given its cultural significance and key role in international business communications, English is widely acknowledged as the global “lingua franca”. That’s the term used for a language that enables the communication between people who do not share a common language.

Yet for many learners, their attempts to gain English fluency can be obstructed and undermined by a variety of challenging factors, which relate directly to their mother tongue and to the peculiarities of the English language. This blog post identifies the 5 most common problems in learning English and suggests how ESL/EFL teachers can help their students address these difficulties.


1. English Speaking and pronunciation can differ a lot from the student’s native language

The English language is full of sounds that are unusual to many non-native speakers – it can therefore be difficult to pronounce certain words properly, having not ever had to create that phonetic sound before. After all, in English, there are twelve vowels and eight diphthongs, but in Spanish, for instance, there are only five vowels and five diphthongs. 

Pronunciation can therefore be highly problematic for English learners and some sounds or sound clusters can present particular challenges. Recent research on non-native English learners indicated that Spanish students have difficulties with speaking /b/ and /v/, whilst Thai and Southeast Asian natives have problems with /r/ and /l/. 

In Teaching Foreign Language Skills, Wilga River suggests a clear route forwards for educators to respond to this challenge. “Unless the teacher understands how the student is using his speech organs in producing a native language sound and what he should be doing to reproduce the foreign language sound acceptably, he cannot help the student beyond a certain stage of earnest but inaccurate imitation.”


2. Where to place the stress?

Whilst on unusual sounds, the English language varies where the stress should be placed when speaking a particular word, nor are there any marks to indicate where stress should be applied. Most of the time, but not always, the stress in English is on the first syllable of the word. In other languages, the rules are much clearer – the French, Spanish, and Polish stress the 2nd or 3rd syllable, while the Czech, Latvian, Swiss-German, and Finnish always stress the 1st syllable.

There are also some English words, whose meaning changes significantly, depending on where the stress is applied. The word “produce” is a great example of this: PRO-duce (e.g fruit and vegetables) vs. pro-DUCE (meaning bring out or manufacture).

The best way to learn which is the right syllable to stress is unquestionably to spend time with native English speakers and to seek to fully immerse your learners in English content, culture, and language. Practice, practice, practice is the key!


3. Spelling the words that sound the same

This point brings us to challenges associated with spelling as the English language is full of different ways to spell words that sound the same. It’s clearly important to understand these homophones as the consequences of getting them wrong vary from mildly embarrassing (peace vs. piece) to downright dangerous (brake vs break).

Again, complete language immersion and continuous writing practice are the very best ways for educators to help their students become more familiar with key English vocabulary. Frequent writing tasks quickly enable learners to use the right spelling of the right word by appreciating its role and use in a particular context or sentence.


4. Taking slang into account

Not all native speakers speak the Queen’s English and there’s a wide variety of local dialects (e.g Cockney and Geordie) and local slang. Moreover, different age groups in the same region will frequently use their own words and language to describe and explain the same things.

It’s impossible to learn English slang from a textbook – they’re almost out-of-date the moment they’ve been printed. So it’s best to learn through conversation with native English speakers or other English language learners. Slang also evolves with culture – so listening to UK music and watching UK films/TV can be a great way of keeping in touch with the latest language trends.


5. Sentences are structured differently

Depending on their first language, some students may also experience challenges when creating sentences in English. Unlike other languages, English grammar always requires a subject for a complete sentence and that sentence is structured according to the SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) format. If this isn’t applied, the meaning of the sentence is changed or the sentence doesn’t make sense. The meaning of “John eats an apple” is clearly very different from “An apple eats John.”

This format will be immediately familiar to those learners, who are native speakers of a wide variety of Romance languages including Chinese, Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese. But the SVO format will be completely alien to speakers of Korean, Punjabi, and Tamil who follow an SOV (Subject-Object-Verb) format or even Arabic, which uses Verb-Subject-Object. 

It can therefore be hugely difficult for language learners to completely unlearn the structure that they’ve grown up with. If a student is accustomed to constructing sentences in a certain order, remembering to change this order when speaking English can take time and practice. 

It is important for all English language educators to keep all of the above in mind when working with their students. Not only does a good English teacher need a detailed understanding of the complexities of the English language, but they should also work hard to familiarize themselves with the language patterns and structures of their students. This will help the teacher to understand why individuals or groups of students do not grasp particular concepts and how to best tailor their teaching to support those learners.


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