Why Your EFL Students Aren’t Improving, and Why It’s Your Fault

So, your EFL students aren’t making any progress, you’re a good chunk of your way into the course and you’re just about ready to tear your own hair out, or theirs, in frustration. Maybe you’re even considering throwing the towel in altogether. Cutting your losses and moving to Mexico, certain that EFL teaching was never for you.

Well, hold fire with that trigger-happy resignation finger, all is not lost.

This is a frustration that many before you have faced, and you won’t be the last to do so. EFL teachers frequently burn out, give up, or simply plod along with the same ineffective methods year after year. Don’t be one of them!

There are a few ways that you might be inadvertently contributing to a lack of student progress. Read through my list to identify where you might be going wrong, let’s get your EFL career and their exam results back on track!

  1. You’ve lost your mojo

Teaching EFL can be overwhelmingly frustrating, using the same tired old textbooks and materials course after course. You know exactly what’s on the next page, exactly the jokes you’ll tell and the anecdotes you’ll share to aid learner experience during the next unit. You even know the answers to all the listening activities without so much as glancing at the teacher’s book.

First, well done you! This takes quite some memory, and a lot of solid teaching hours over the years.

But because of this vast knowledge, you’ve become bored, and are praying for a shake-up.

What effect is this having on your learners?

They can sense it; they see the tired look in your eyes and the lack of any real enthusiasm for the material. As such, they are less motivated to pay attention and do the work to the best of their ability. A catastrophe for their learning and ultimate results.

How do I fix it?

How about taking a break from the textbook occasionally? Even the most rigid of course structures allow for some freelancing. A change, as they say, is every bit as good as a rest. Bring a new game, activity, or worksheet to class one day and see how the students respond to your interest in it. Pick something that helps you to communicate the target language in a different way to achieve the same result.

By meandering away from and back to the textbook, you’re providing dynamic and enjoyable classes not just for learners, but also for yourself. With the added benefit of demonstrating that you don’t need to use the set books as a crutch. You are capable of innovating and creating new things for your students to learn from.

This doesn’t even have to mean more work for you. Collaborate with colleagues and the huge asset that is the internet to find things that reignite your passion for teaching.

  1. You aren’t encouraging independent learning

Learning a new language is a heavy undertaking. As anybody who has ever accepted the challenge will know, it’s so much more than classroom learning and takes a huge amount of dedication. Despite this, most of these people will also admit to sometimes allowing their studies to fall by the wayside. Neglecting their new language in favour of other pursuits.

Many EFL teachers make the mistake of not backing up classroom learning, thinking that it’s not their responsibility.

What effect is this having on your learners?

They come to class, they learn some English, they go home. The End.

Without constant encouragement, this is the story that is doomed to repeat itself forever more. It might not be your job to dedicate endless extra hours to helping them improve outside the classroom as well as in it. But make no mistake, it is your job to stay on top of them about it. Adults, teenagers and children alike.

How do I fix it?

There are many resources for English learners on the internet, with more being developed all the time. You need to make sure that you are communicating these things to your learners, while espousing the benefits of doing activities for themselves at home. If not, they will continue to think that practising for themselves is unnecessary and boring, putting all the responsibility on you for their learning.

Instead of putting all this pressure on you, and the 3 hours a week that you have with them, give it back to them and provide learners with the push they need to become responsible for their own improvement. It’s going to help you out in the long run.

Suggest things they might look at online, make book and TV series recommendations and discuss them in class. Encourage listening practice with websites such as LyricsTraining or free podcasts. There are so many things to help you out as a teacher, make sure that you pass them on to your classes.

  1. You’re too obsessed with exam success

In these troubled times, with overwhelming pressure from an increasingly competitive labour market, learners are almost shoved towards taking official exams and getting qualifications in order to demonstrate their skills to the world. This is no bad thing of course, having the structure of an exam and the urgency that comes with it helps people to focus and to continue improving.

How does this affect your learners?

We must be wary of concentrating too heavily on passing exams. The beauty of a learning a language is being able to speak it and developing skills that go beyond simply passing a test.

You will often find that learners who are too fixed on passing lose their passion, if they had any in the first place, for natural communication in English. As such, they are demotivated and can’t see any improvement.

How do I fix it?

Stop and smell the flowers occasionally!

Don’t spend a huge chunk of every lesson hammering on about exam technique.

Encourage activities and exercises that make them feel good about their language skills and make them want to practise all day long!

Got any other suggestions for improving learning? Let me know!

5 thoughts on “Why Your EFL Students Aren’t Improving, and Why It’s Your Fault

  1. This is a hard to swallow pill, but a necessary one. I’ve been teaching ESL/EFL for ten years now. Sometimes I feel like I’ve burnt out. Sometimes I wonder if I’m even doing anything at all and helping my kids progress. It happens to those of use who’ve been teaching for a while. Thank you for writing this and I wanted to share it on my own ESL blog!


  2. I have been teaching for over 20 years, you are right you learn every day. I’m currently in Hong Kong teaching English as well and possibly coming the end of my classroom side of teaching, working on apps and resources, might be useful if you need some, they are free. just like our students we need to learn and improve as well, great to here someone motivated to do that


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