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The Limitations of ESL Lessons: Why They Aren't the Complete Solution


Have you recently signed up for English as a Second Language (ESL) lessons with a new teacher, or are you perhaps considering it? If so, deciding to work on your English probably feels good because you have had trouble communicating in English, and you don’t know what to do about it. It’s frustrating and maybe even embarrassing at times, so you are eager to improve and feel more confident in your speaking abilities. 


As a U.S. immigrant, no matter if you have been here for a short time or a long time, you haven't seen much improvement in your English. You thought you could learn English just by living in the U.S., but now you are realizing that it’s not enough. 


So, what is the answer? You find an ESL teacher and hope they will help you speak better. (I know this because many students contact me at this point in their journey.)



Hopefully, things go well and you start to see progress! You feel relieved because you are on the right track. Other times, you just don’t see the progress you expected… and when this happens, it can be hard to figure out why. You might start reflecting on what it takes to become fluent in a language. You might ask yourself… “Am I mentally prepared to get better?” Or you might think, “I have no idea how to get better at speaking.”


I’ve met many students at this point, so you're not alone. And this is why I'm writing this blog - to share some truths about ESL lessons. In my 10 years of teaching, I have learned that if you work with a teacher while doing many immersion activities, you will see progress. But if you are not active in your lessons, and you never speak outside of these lessons, it is challenging to progress.


The limitations of ESL lessons


The most significant misconception is the belief that your teacher alone is responsible for your language learning journey. In reality, to get better, you need to study, practice, and USE English in your daily life. While many students are good at studying, they often forget the most crucial part - using English outside of class. Learning a language isn't just about lessons; it's also about using it in real life.


Other important truths about ESL Lessons


Another misconception is that taking classes will make you fluent. You need to practice a lot outside of formal lessons too. You must talk, practice, ask questions, be curious, and put yourself in new English-speaking situations (sometimes scary ones, eek!)


And finally, many people think there is a “right” way to learn a language. There are certainly researched methods; however, I think it’s equally important that the method you choose is sustainable for you and matches how you like to learn. I always advise prospective students to find a teacher and class that suits them best. That's what matters most.


So, are you starting to wonder if ESL lessons are even worth it? 


I wish I could yell, “YES!” Lessons are the answer to your problems. Unfortunately, there is a caveat. I’ve only seen lessons help students who are in the right mindset. After spending countless hours teaching ESL, I've begun to see a recurring pattern among the students who achieve fluency. So I’ve mapped out five steps for you to begin when you start with a new teacher. Don’t wait to start these things because I’m confident that they will make a huge difference in your progress.


1. Set realistic goals and expectations



As you begin your journey with your new ESL teacher, I encourage you to reflect on your expectations. Are they realistic? Are you hoping to achieve fluency in just 30 days? There's a wild marketing scheme circulating in the language world that claims mastery of a language within short time frames. Of course, the idea sounds great—who wouldn't want to achieve fluency in a month? But if it were that simple, wouldn't everyone speak multiple languages? Don’t get confused by the marketing strategies out there. Fluency is a gradual process that requires patience and consistency.


2. Be a flexible learner


It is also important to be flexible and willing to change your learning methods as you go. For example, you might need to work with different teachers along your journey. Or you might need to change your method many times as your language needs change. At some points, you will feel like you are getting worse. On other days, you might feel impressed with your speaking skills. This is all part of the journey, so developing a growth mindset around learning and a long-term view will help you stay motivated. 


3.  Be VERY active in class


Why? Because we, as humans, learn by doing things - not just by observing.  So if you find yourself sitting quietly in a lesson, waiting to see what the teacher will talk about, this is a clue that you aren’t being active. Alternatively, here are some actionable steps to become a more active learner and to take responsibility for your learning.


  • Bring real-life experiences into the classroom discussions. Write down expressions you hear and don’t understand, and then bring them to your teacher to practice.

  • Take ownership of your learning by actively participating in the process. Suggest topics that interest you or propose ideas on how you’d like to spend lesson time.

  • Treat your lesson as practice for real life. Imagine you are in a real conversation and ask questions accordingly. Formulating questions can be grammatically challenging, and lessons provide the perfect opportunity to practice this.

  • Swap the teacher and student role so that you can be in control of starting conversations, continuing them, and even changing topics. Can you imagine how much control you would have in English if you practiced this skill?


4. Make a plan to immerse yourself (the most important part!)



Simply attending classes and listening to the teacher for one hour per week won’t make you proficient in English, and neither will spending all your time on Duolingo. If you only do these things, I’m sure that you will be left wondering why you can't speak. Instead, try one of the following (or all of them!)


  • Join a local library's 'ESL Conversation group' for extra practice.

  • Enroll in a non-credit class at a community college related to a hobby or interest. Alternatively, find any class conducted in English.

  • Start a new hobby that involves English to establish an English-speaking community.

  • Find a language exchange partner to split your time evenly between speaking both languages.

  • Volunteer once or twice a week to interact with others and practice English. (This idea comes from my student who started doing this on her own at a thrift store and shared her experiences with me each week!)

5. Build your confidence little by little


Lastly, work on building confidence. How? See my blog post here. And before I wrap up this post, I’d like to share, from my experience, what I think an ESL teacher can help you with - and what they can’t do for you. Having clarity around this will help you to get the most out of your lessons.


What your ESL teacher CAN do for you


  • Coach and motivate you: A teacher can support and encourage you throughout your language-learning journey.

  • Provide effective study methods: They can offer guidance on how to study effectively.

  • Correct grammar and pronunciation: Your teacher should be able to help you improve your communication skills by correcting grammar and pronunciation errors. 

  • Introduce new expressions and local language nuances: They can introduce you to new expressions and local language nuances to help you speak naturally.

  • Create a real-world classroom environment: They can provide you with materials that simulate real-world English usage to help you speak about topics that you will encounter daily.


What your ESL teacher CAN'T do for you


  • Do the work for you: Language learning requires consistent effort AND immersion. 

  • Be solely responsible for your learning methods: A teacher can guide you and give suggestions, but you are responsible for how you follow through.

  • Help you improve if you aren’t speaking or you are passively listening in lessons: You have to actively engage in class and participate in activities to maximize learning. If you find yourself sitting in a lesson, waiting for your teacher to “teach you something”, as if you are sitting in a big college lecture, then you might need to reflect on how to speak more.

  • Give you enough standalone practice to reach fluency and be your only point of contact: You need to combine immersion with your lessons to get the results you want.

  • Be your only perspective for understanding English-speaking culture: Seek diverse sources for a comprehensive view. Sometimes we all make the mistake of thinking one person is representative of their culture, but I think we must consider our stereotypes so that we can understand language more deeply

In conclusion, becoming proficient in English involves more than simply attending ESL lessons. It requires setting achievable goals, actively engaging, and surrounding yourself with English. I hope you feel mentally ready for your lessons and are eager to get started after reading this blog. I invite you to share your own experiences and language-learning strategies in the comment section below!

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Hi, I'm Chiara!

I'm an English teacher and swing dancer from California. I cherish my home for its diversity and the fresh ocean air. I'm passionate about helping learners like you overcome your fears and doubts to speak English in real life. I offer one-on-one guidance, speaking programs, and valuable content through my blog posts. 

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