The MUMBLER – the ESL teacher’s headache STUDENT


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I can see some teachers faces right now as they have read that heading. How many times do we go into a classroom with a lovely group of students, deliver a great lesson then when it comes to the speaking part, you can’t hear a word they are saying.

What is actually happening here?

  1. The student is not speaking in full sentences
  2. The student is not using the correct pronunciation
  3. The student understands the question but only in their own language, and so is unsure of what they want to say in English
  4. The student is just too shy of their own voice

Sometimes I think I’m going deaf, then I have to check myself and realise what is going on here. Sometimes it is just one person in the class and sometimes it is the whole class…..ugh….(you can hear my exhaustion) now that is hard work in one way but also easier to deal with in others.

Firstly – a good (non-teacher) friend of mine once said “I could never be a teacher as I have no patience”. I always thought that was a strange statement, because patience to me was not a high level quality associated with teaching more than any other job, to me patience was something that had to be associated with any profession. That was until….I hit the …mumbler.

When a person doesn’t understand something in class, I don’t believe it is patience that teaches them, it is having a number of different strategies up your sleeve to get them on the page, and also experience to know when to stop and how far to go with them and not lose any sleep over them.

To me however, the plight of the mumbler is the one that really gets my patience because it really does require a lot of persistence on the part of the teacher to get that person to speak clearly.

When we ask a student to speak, that’s actually what we are asking for – speaking and all that goes with it e.g. clarity, fluency etc, however we are not necessarily demanding the right answer but at least a clear answer, and for them to mumble makes the teacher feel frustrated because the teacher really doesn’t know what the problem is and asking the student to repeat can actually make the person worse. How many times have we heard a mumbler repeat the same mumbled message and no one is any wiser.

So how to deal with this?

  1. Patience (my friend was right)
  2. Ask the student to repeat it only twice
  3. Ask the student to write their word or sentence
  4. Ask the student to write the sentence on the board
  5. Ask the class to listen…they may understand him better than you as they may all be mumblers and so their ears are tuned better into it
  6. Take the time to talk about fluency and pronunciation and find some interesting fluency games.

One thing to remember though is that often it is an innocent mistake. The person may be a mumbler even in their own language. It is their way of developing fluency, to speak freely with English without effort or need for correction is their dream, and this is exactly what they are attempting to do here too – errors and all. So we mustn’t let our frustrations get the better of us, and always turn it into a learning opportunity.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “The MUMBLER – the ESL teacher’s headache STUDENT

  1. Pingback: The MUMBLER (reblog) | So, You Think You Can Teach ESL?

  2. I work with kindergarteners and preschoolers, so they all pretty much start off as “mumblers”. (They’re just learning how language works in their own language, after all!) For the three-year-olds, I don’t worry too much about clarity or understanding them. I prefer to focus on having them understand me, hearing the cadences of the language, being able to point to something when I name it, etc. By four years old, I start focusing more on their pronounciation, although we still focus more on individual vocabulary words than on speaking in sentences. In kindergarten I do become more strict (and since most of the class has learned to speak clearly by now, at least in their native language, the “mumblers” become more apparent. Nine times out of ten (well, perhaps eight times out of ten; let’s not exaggerate here) my kids mumble because they haven’t been paying attention. Often just getting down to their level, making eye contact, saying the phrase clearly, and having them repeat it can solve the problem (always assuming you know which phrase they were wanting to use in the first place!). This can be time-consuming if the mumblers are half the class! In other situations, it can be because the student is still struggling to pronounce their own language. Thankfully, I am fluent in their native language, so I know which students have trouble there. Speech therapy exercises, when you can squeeze them into your class, work wonders for those mumblers, both in English and in their native language! And some sounds and concepts are just naturally harder for students to pronounce (short u, short i, and “th” are especially difficult for Spanish learners, for example) and there, it’s just a matter of teaching the material over and over, teaching it a hundred different ways if you need to, and practice, practice, practice! Since I work with little kids, I love using games to work on their English. They think they’re just playing around, and it gets even the most distracted kids to pay attention, if only for a moment!

    • Thanks, great insight into the kindergarteners! I can imagine they are a bit like sponges so soak up a new language in quite a different way to adults.
      Thanks for your valuable input!

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