Challenges of Teaching YLs


What comes to mind when someone mentions teaching Young Learners? Perhaps it’s children running around the classroom? Or teenagers sitting in silence with faces like thunder? Whatever it is, it’s safe to say that many teachers find the prospect daunting and may avoid teaching younger students for fear of something unexpected happening in class. But what are the main challenges of teaching YLs and how do we go about overcoming these?

Before we go on to answer this question, we have to mention that no class is perfect and without its unique challenges. Whilst we will assess how to overcome some of the challenges that come with teaching students under the age of 18, we know from first-hand experience that these don’t always work and some days you’ll feel like you’re fighting a losing battle. However, all is not lost! YLs adapt well to new situations and your effort with them will not be in vain.

Ok, so let’s get down to business. Why is teaching YLs so different to teaching adults? Here are the main challenges teacher often face with this age group and some possible reasons for these challenges.


“They don’t concentrate”

Our younger students have lots on their mind and so many emotions to contend with, that it can be especially hard for them when it comes to concentrating. Not only are children and teenagers’ bodies changing at an alarming rate, but they also have to work out how to balance their studies and social life at the same time.

“They are always talking”

Children and teenagers, in general, love to talk and to communicate. There are always so many things for them to talk about: school, friends, exams, parents and even the food in the canteen. Some students have a filter in terms of knowing when to stop and others are still to develop that particular skill.

“They don’t try to speak in English”

For our younger students, they just want to communicate their ideas in the quickest way possible and this is often not through English. You may notice the contrast with adults, who would rather speak less but accurately and YLs, who just want to tell you everything about their day, but switch between their L1 and English to fill in any gaps in knowledge.

“They can’t sit on their chairs”

YLs need to move around, especially those who are of Primary School age. When they are sitting on chairs in classrooms for up to 8 hours a day, you can understand why they might find it tricky to stay on their chairs for the whole lesson. Children have a lot of energy to expend, and this is something which can affect how active or otherwise they are in class.

“They don’t take English learning seriously”

For many of our YLs, the only reason they are learning English is because their parents tell them to, or because they have to pass their exams. For older learners, there is a much more immediate need to learn English and this motivation is what drives them in class.

“They don’t listen to me”

When you’ve got loads of your classmates around you saying loads of things you really want to hear, then it might not be easy to switch your attention to the teacher unless there is a very good reason for you to do so.

“They aren’t nice to each other”

Friendship is a big part of your life when you are young and so is comparing yourself to your peers, both in studies and in life outside of the classroom. This can mean that sometimes they say things to each other in the heat of the moment to make themselves feel better in that situation and to try and demonstrate their developing personality.

“They are easily distracted”

When you are young, your brain is wired to pick up on everything around you and to learn from what you see and hear. Not only does this make it harder to concentrate on one thing, but it also makes it much easier to become distracted by the smallest of things in the classroom setting.

Overcoming the challenges

We’ve just read about what teachers often cite as the challenges of teaching YLs, and the possible reasons for these. But how, you may ask, do we go about working around these so that our younger students can get the most out of their classes, whilst feeling comfortable and trying now to overload them with pressure?

Here are our top ten tips for dealing with the challenges faced when teaching YLs:

1. Treat them as individuals

As each student grows older and develops, so does their individual character and soon you’ll start to understand what they’re about. We don’t want to make them supress this character and demonstration of individuality, so we must react to each student as an individual as opposed to just one of a homogenous group of students.

2. Don’t lose control

When teaching YLs, it’s important not to lose control no matter how much they may push you. If you lose control then you have little to no chance of getting it back in the lesson and being able to teach the students anything.

3. Keep an eye on activity length

With YLs, it’s essential to think about activity length when you are planning your lessons. Don’t fill your lesson with lots of long activities that will ultimately lead to ss losing concentration and becoming more easily distracted. Likewise, too many short activities could mean that ss have a bit of an energy overload and it could be harder to get them to settle.

4. Use visual cues for behaviour

Instead of having to make your voice louder to be heard over the noisy ss, use a visual cue to show ss what their behaviour is like at different points of the lesson. This could be something as simple as traffic lights, or a little more creative with a scale including images or photos.

5. Remind students of objectives

With all the work they have to do, YLs can sometimes lose sight of their language learning goals. This could be something as simple as reminding them of the exam they want to take at the end of the year or something that they need to improve. A little nudge in the right direction could help a lot.

6. Get students out of their seats

When you sit down for a long time, your whole body (including your mind) becomes tired, and you find it hard to think straight, especially if you’ve had a long day. Get ss out of their seats at points throughout the lesson to get that blood pumping around again.

7. Monitor to keep students on task

Monitoring is one of the most useful teaching techniques with YLs to solve many classroom management issues. Walk around the classroom as ss are working to check if they are on task and observe the language they are producing. Just breaking the barrier by being closer to ss will make them work a little harder knowing you are looking at what they are doing.

8. Respond to students in English

When ss say something in their L1, don’t ignore them or what they say, but respond in English and encourage them to continue the conversation in the L2. Doing this means that ss feel heard, and you motivate them to express themselves in English as much as possible.

9. Cut students some slack

Students might have had a tough day or week, just like you, so sometimes we need to give them a break. Maybe they’ve just failed a Maths exam, or they’ve had an argument with their parents- issues like these can have a big impact on how ss are in class. So, if you see they are struggling, it’s best to go easy on them.

10. Praise positive behaviour and improvement

Make sure your interaction with students is not just to reprimand the bad behaviour but to focus on the positive and the progress that ss have made. Classes should not be a constant stream of criticism from the teacher, and you need to be especially aware of this with YLs.

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