Teaching Children ESL/EFL – Learning from our Mistakes

We can often learn as much from our mistakes as we can from our successes – to improve our teaching.

Teaching children ESL/EFL can be challenging and often unpredictable! It’s important that we learn how to use our ‘mistakes’ as wonderful learning opportunities, rather than beating ourselves up when things don’t go according to plan. Ellie Romero writes.


“There is no failure, only feedback!”

You may already be familiar with this famous quote from NLP practitioner, Robert Allen. I must confess, whilst in the midst of a tragic lesson (which had taken me a considerable number of hours to prepare), to thinking this quote was a load of rubbish! It certainly felt like a huge failure when my class of young ESL/EFL learners were rolling around the floor, play fighting and ignoring my pleas to ‘Look! Listen! Sit up now, please!’ We’ve all been there at some point!

However, over time I’ve come to realise this is a very good quote to treasure – not only to comfort ourselves when things don’t go as well as we’d hoped, but also to remind ourselves to look for the ‘feedback’ element. In analysing where things went wrong, we can learn to develop and improve our teaching.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Thomas Edison

With every school term, we’re learning just as much as our students are. We’re learning not only from more formal methods, such as training courses and research, but also from quietly reflecting on our own experiences / challenges and from those around us.

I recently asked five colleagues to share their advice on something they’ve learnt (whilst teaching ESL/EFL to children) – through trial and error. I hope their wise words will benefit other teachers. Whether newly qualified or highly experienced, there’s always something new for us to learn.


“Basic classroom rules are essential.”

When I was a new teacher, I didn’t really have a clue about the basics of managing a class of loud, unruly children! At one point I remember trying to enthusiastically drill some vocabulary, and realising only four of my twelve students were actually sat in their chairs, vaguely listening to me. Three were gathered round the bin chatting – with pencils being sharpened to within an inch of their lives. Two had gone to the toilet. One was rummaging in her bag for a snack. The final two were under the table reclaiming an escaped rubber! At the end of that day I nearly gave up on my fledgling career.

Instead of giving up, I set some basic rules, including:

  • you can only go to the toilet before or after the class
  • I have the only sharpener and if you need it you can ask for it (in English!)
  • no food or drinks in class
  • if you sit still and listen when I’m teaching something new, you will win a point for your team.

It seems so obvious now – but when you’re first starting out, it’s these little things that can catch you out and ruin a lesson. Children really do thrive in an organised class, with fair rules – and teaching becomes much more fun and enjoyable.

Charlie, ESL Teacher, Greece


When teaching ESL/EFL to children, you quickly learn that basic classroom rules are essential!

“Focus on making sure children enjoy the classes and have fun.”

The biggest lesson I learnt, early in my teaching career, was from a fellow ESL teacher with 30+ years of experience. I was so worried that my classes weren’t learning anything – especially after holiday breaks, when they had forgotten everything completely. My colleague gently pointed out that they’re very young, and we only teach them for two hours a week, so there’s a limit to what we can achieve.

She advised that our job with the young learners is to make learning English the best, most exciting thing ever! This is setting them up for enthusiasm and success in their future English learning, when the lessons will probably become more formal and more challenging.

Obviously, I still try to teach English to the children, but I’ve found new ways to make it more entertaining. I started using more games, action songs, and fun activities. The children and I now have a lot more fun – and, naturally, they learn far more than before when I was so uptight and focused on results!

Sarah, ESL Primary Teacher, Spain


“Always plan more activities than you think you’ll need.”

In the early days of my teaching, there were several times when I still had 15 minutes of the class to go, and I had literally nothing up my sleeve. When you’re new to teaching children ESL/EFL, you don’t have the same bank of experience to draw on and that extra 15 minutes can feel like the longest 15 minutes of your life!

Over time, you learn how to pace a class better and you have more songs, games and time-fillers in your head – but as a new teacher, it pays to have more lesson content than you think you’ll need. If you don’t use it all, you’ll have content for the next class already prepared! It’s a win-win situation.

Susana, ESL Teacher, Italy


“Don’t keep reinventing the wheel!”

In my first term teaching children ESL/EFL, I’d be up late most nights and over the weekends, preparing materials for my classes. The school I worked in didn’t have many resources, so I had to create my own. The preparation often took longer than the actual classes, and was all extra time that I wasn’t being paid for.

A colleague suggested that I look at a couple of websites, where ESL/EFL teachers share their creations. I could simply download and print many of the materials I was spending hours making myself. It saved me hours of time and meant that my family actually got to see me at weekends!

I realised it wasn’t ‘cheating’ to use other people’s resources – it was common sense to share ideas with other teachers and not keep reinventing the wheel! My four favourite sites are:

Pepe, ESL & Spanish Teacher, Spain

Unit 1 – Food
Save yourself a lot of preparation time by using resources already available, from other ESL/EFL teachers.

“Get the children involved in teaching each other.”

I had a group of especially boisterous 7-year-old boys, who were a nightmare for the first few weeks. They’re the only class I felt I’d have to admit defeat over. However, quite by accident (I can’t confess to it being a well-planned or thought-out move!) I handed the flashcards to the child on my left, as I jumped up to attend to one of the more ‘boisterous’ boys who was attempting to climb out the window! As I swiftly returned to the group, window-jumper safely in tow, I was amazed to see that every single child was focused on the flashcards and the child ‘in charge’ was drilling the vocabulary beautifully.

From that day on, I’ve involved the children in all my classes in their own learning.

It’s worked wonders on classroom discipline, to let the children be part of my ‘teaching team’ rather than passive learners. It’s also really boosted the confidence of some of the shy group members. For example, I choose a child to hold and reveal the flashcards for teaching vocabulary / come to the board to draw or write answers / share a storybook / lead an action song / hand out books, etc. The class knows I’ll only select students that are being well-behaved, sitting up nicely, and paying attention – so the discipline side of things deals with itself!

Christina, TEFL Teacher, Spain


Involve the children in their own learning – they love being part of your ‘teaching team’.


It’s important to remember that when something doesn’t work out in a lesson, that rather than beating ourselves up about it, we can use the ‘failure’ as a wonderful learning opportunity. We can reflect on what went wrong, why it went wrong and what we can do differently next time – making it a positive experience.

What would you go back and tell yourself, when you were first venturing out into the world of ESL/EFL teaching? Which ‘failures’ have you learnt the most from in your teaching career, and what would you recommend to help other teachers?

Share this page

This entry was posted in News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *