MAKING A MISTAKE in an ESL lesson – how to follow through


(Photo credit:

I think most teachers, no matter how experienced they are, couldn’t say that every lesson they deliver these days is a perfect lesson. It can never be perfect because, well we as human’s aren’t perfect and those who we teach aren’t perfect either. So for any new teacher, the thought of making a mistake in the classroom in terms of delivering a lesson, can be seen as completely dreadful and the amount of self-destruction that goes down about it is way too much.

So here I want to address few common errors and what I have found it a way around it.

If you are a native speaking teacher and you are teaching students in a foreign land, chances are they are very happy about having you for a start. This will put you at a real advantage. However, if you are a non-native teacher, there are added stresses which I will talk about later.

Common errors (that may feel disastrous):

  1. Teaching a completely different lesson than planned
  2. Making spelling errors on the board and in the student’s books
  3. Giving incorrect grammatical information
  4. Not being clear in instructions
  5. Not being clear in delivering the format of the concept
  6. Not letting the students speak or ask questions
  7. Assuming the students understood everything because they are sitting there silently nodding their heads

The worst thing you can do is:


The best things you can do are:

  1. Teaching a completely different lesson than planned:
  • When you realise you are doing it, don’t stop midway, continue until the end but keep it short and let the students know that this is important either ‘revision’ or a ‘set up’ for later. They won’t know the difference, and so long as they learned something, they will appreciate it.


  1. Making spelling errors on the board:

After realizing your spelling mistake, ask the students if there is anything on the board that should be changed or corrected?

  • If you aren’t sure yourself of what the spelling is, get the students to check for themselves on their ‘google’ dictionary, they will enjoy that.


  1. Giving incorrect grammatical information:

As with the spelling errors, it can be checked by the student. If the lesson has finished, you do have the right the next day to go back over it and explain that yesterday it was done like this, but really this is the way to do it….   Some students will catch you out and you can say, ‘well you didn’t correct me! I was waiting for someone to correct me!’   Keep it light and move on.


  1. Not being clear with instructions:

Happens alllllllllllllll the time. We forget to use those ‘instruction check questions’. Something to remember is to give instructions that can have yes or no answers. E.g. Work on page 25 on you own. Then follow up the instruction with a question. E.g. Do you work with your partner? They will say “No on our own!” Good.  It’s a great habit to get into and easy to do.

The other thing is that if clearly everyone is confused you do have the right to stop the class and draw everyone back again to clarify the instructions, then throw in the ICQ!


  1. Not being clear in delivering the format of the concept

Same as for the instructions. Ask a follow up question this time called a ‘concept question check’ or CCQ and you will be able see what they got and didn’t. If they are completely unclear about it, you may need to start all over again, so good to use those CCQs every step of the way. The students will thank you for it because often they don’t see it as the teachers fault, they may think it is their own fault. So when you use the CCQs they see it as you the teacher caring that they the student got it right.


  1. Not letting the students speak or ask questions

This may be something you don’t realise until after the fact, and also, the students may not tell you. Depending on which kind of culture you are teaching, will depend on how open they will be to letting you know. However self-awareness here is important. If your throat is hoarse at the end of the lesson….too much teacher talk! If you are remembering only what you said to the students and not what they said, the probability is that they didn’t say anything much.


A great way to follow up is to make the following day a really speaking intensive day where the students are doing role plays, and questions and answers. That wy they will see that the too much teacher talk day was there for areason….to set up the big student talking session the next day.


  1. Assuming the students are understanding everything because they are sitting there nodding their heads:

The first mistake a teacher can make is asking the students if they ‘understand’. It might sound strange from an outsider, but most students will always say yes. This doesn’t help the teacher at all. The teacher needs to learn new cues and indicators on how to assess the level of understanding. For some a simple weekly revision test helps to see where they are at, but on a daily basis simple CCQ’s as mentioned above can do it, plus spending 10 minutes of the next lesson reviewing a few points from the previous day. The students don’t necessarily know that you are doing this because you thought they knew it, they will just see it as part of the lesson. They know that learning concepts is not linear and needs reviewing and revising regularly, so if you find they didn’t understand anything from the day before, don’t be afraid to go over it again, and this time give new clarity.

For Native English Teachers:

If you are a native speaker it can be an advantage and disadvantage. The advantage is that the student may already respect you enough to know that everyone makes mistakes and they are happy enough to be with you anyway. The disadvantage is that they may think as a native you should know everything, and they probably paid a lot more money for you than a non-native so are disappointed that you are making mistakes.

For the Non Native English Teachers:

If you are a non native English speaker there will be advantages and disadvantages too. The advantage is that the student may see you as like them and that like them, you make mistakes too. The disadvantage could be that they could criticize you for making mistakes because you aren’t a native, which by the way is extremely unfair, but people are people.

I think the most important thing to take from all this is that we all make mistakes and how we manage to follow through from them is the key to creating an ongoing positive atmosphere in the class.

5 thoughts on “MAKING A MISTAKE in an ESL lesson – how to follow through

  1. Reblogged this on The TEFL blog and commented:
    A great Post that every New Teacher Should Read!!!
    (And also a great reminded for those of us who are no-so “new”… it would have saved me a few near heart-attacks in the early years.)

  2. Great stuff, once again.

    When I was getting my TEFL certification in Prague, the main teacher that I had (there were three) was such a maniac about being absolutely PERFECT about everything, that he basically ruined one of my entire demonstration lessons.

    I was handing the print-outs to the students as I was explaining the exercise, rather than explaining FIRST and THEN handing it out (something which was absolutely sacrilegious in his eyes.)

    He ended up waving his hands in the air and and silently mouthing something which I could not understand. It caused such a disruption that everyone in the room noticed HIM, not my “mistake”. And due to his behavior, it seemed like an emergency, so I paused the class, and asked him what the problem was… He said nothing, put his face in his hands, and pretended that he wasn’t there, even though everyone was looking at him.

    All the students then turned to me with looks on their faces like, “what’s his problem?” and I was left to try to salvage the class while the “teacher” sat in the back shaking his head and very loudly writing pages and pages of notes. After the lesson, he told me that I was “borderline failing”… (after the second demo lesson.)

    Happily, after almost ten years of experience, I can say that that guy did not really know what it is really like in an actual classroom.

    I guess my point is… it is NEVER as bad as you think.

    So if you have a “crotchety little old man” (or whatever) sitting in the back of the classroom of your mind, taking notes on your performance… Get Rid Of Him!!!

    I have become friends with many of my students after the courses ended and many have told me time and again that they never noticed any “mistakes”, and if they did, they were never a reflection on me as a teacher.

    Thanks Aiyasha for more great advice.

    P.S. Against the advice of that same “little old man”… never tell a student who is asking you a question about something which you are un-sure of… “That is not really the focus of our class today”… The only time that I ever used that (in my first year) the whole class looked at me like I was a fraud and a jerk. 😀

    Have An Excellent Day!


    • Thanks again for your in depth comment. I think everyone has some ‘little old man’ sitting in the back of their mind criticizing everything, thankfully I have forgotten about mine and as you recommended, everyone should.
      In terms of the advice about ‘that’s not the focus of the class today’, I think if the whole class is asking, for sure some time does need to be spent on it, however often the concept is too difficult to fully understand at that level because you have to master other concepts before you can grasp that one, e.g. someone who has just learned present simple asking you to explain the past perfect.
      But definitely you need to pick you moments!
      Thanks again.

  3. Pingback: MAKING A MISTAKE in an ESL lesson – how to follow through — AIYSHAH’S ENGLISH PAGE | Alpha ELT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s