By Johanna Stirling

23 January 2014 - 16:46

'It can sometimes be difficult to keep students' attention.' Photo (c) The thing with students is ... they’re human! Photo (c)
'It can sometimes be difficult to keep students' attention.' Photo ©

monocat, licensed under CC BY-SA-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Following her recent presentation in our seminar series for English language teachers in the UK (video below), Johanna Stirling offers ways to deal with human 'weaknesses' in teaching situations.

Have you ever gone into class with a wonderful lesson plan and then the lesson has been a complete flop? Perhaps you spent hours thinking about the best way to teach, creating your own materials personalised for your learners and planning every detail. You walk into class thinking you’re really going to engage their interest with this and by the end of the lesson they’ll all be using the present perfect / intoning question tags appropriately / communicating with a class in Alaska, or whatever. But the learners just won’t play the game. Maybe they look at you blankly when you ask them about language learnt yesterday, or they haven’t done the vital preparatory homework, or they just look ... well ... bored.

What’s gone wrong? Students! Your class would have been perfect if it wasn’t for them! The problem with students is that they’re human. And the problem with humans is that they are not perfect. Even - dare I say it? – teacher-humans. The faults we criticise our students for may actually be the very same as ours: 'What a terrible day! My boss was annoyed because I hadn’t finished writing the reports and then my lazy students hadn’t done their homework.'

Here are a few common human traits to look out for and some suggestions for dealing with them:


Most learners (and teachers) have good intentions. They really want to do what needs doing, but just not at the moment. But the moment never comes! The hardest part of a job is usually getting started. There have been suggestions that once you’ve started something, the mind nags at you to finish, whereas if you haven’t started, it’s easier to forget. So why not get learners to start their homework in class, then it might be easier to get on with it at home. Or if you have some reluctant writers, show them the excellent web tool Dr Wicked’s Write or Die. They set themselves a target in terms of time and number of words and start writing on the Write or Die screen. If they pause, the page background becomes an angry red and if they still don’t get on with their writing, it gobbles up all the vowels in what they’ve written! That’s motivation!


Like other humans, students can be pretty forgetful. They may forget to do their homework, to bring something needed for class or just forget what they ‘learnt’ yesterday. Why? Maybe because they weren’t really concentrating in the class. We all zone out sometimes, but aim for maximum focus by watching out for learners who look distracted and gently bring their attention back. Or give them all something to do to keep them on-task. Mini-whiteboards are great for this. You can usually buy them cheaply or just laminate a piece of white paper for each student. They all write the answers to questions that you ask - they could be factual answers, opinions or pictures. Everyone is involved and, as a bonus, you can see who needs more help. Another reason they may not remember what we teach is that nobody has ever taught them how to learn or they’re not bothering to apply strategies. When students learn something new (vocabulary, spelling, grammar, etc.) ask 'How are you going to remember this?' Prompt them to link new information to what they already know.

Working in groups

Humans can be a rather contradictory species. There is often a strong urge to be part of a group, to be accepted, not to be the weird one! But at the same time a class is made up of individuals who want to be able to express their own thoughts, ideas and personality. The degree of these two desires varies and is also influenced by culture, but doesn’t everyone want to be respected for who they are? One of my favourite activities allows students to really ‘bond’ with other members of the group, while being able to express themselves on subjects that really matter to them. Each learner thinks of a topic that they would like to answer questions about. It could be a hobby, an interest, an experience, a place, an aspect of their country (in a multi-national group), etc. Students write down each person’s name and topic and then they write one question they’d really like to ask that person about the topic. They stand up and mingle to ask and answer the questions. The only problem with this lesson is that it’s hard to get students to stop talking! Everyone is talking about a chosen subject and everyone is asking questions they want to know the answer to. And how often can you say that about a class?

What about you? What common human traits do you find can interfere with learning? How do you deal with them?

Sign up to our seminars for English language teachers in the UK and watch Johanna's presentation on YouTube.

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