ESL Lessons Damage Learners’ Ability to Speak English

Jason West Blog

ESL lessons bad for speaking

Classroom ESL lessons damage your speaking

Most English learners are desperate for the ability to speak English but don’t realise that their traditional ESL lessons at school, and the private courses they or their parents have paid for, are actually damaging their chances of success. 95% of beginners, 70% of intermediates and 50% of advanced learners never finish their courses and consider themselves failures (The Dynamics of ESL Dropout, Watt & Roessingh 2001). This is despite all of the years of effort they have put in, as instructed by their teachers.

Teachers often tell students who are not improving to work harder, study more grammar or book a new/different course…with a teacher. This goes on and on and round and round. In the end many language learners end up afraid to speak because they have failed so many times in front of their friends in numerous classrooms. Psychologically they are damaged.

In 2011 a small research study by Liwei Hsu in Taiwan explored the subject of learned helplessness in ELT. There are a lot of studies of motivation in English learners (virtually all look at motivation as a problem) but this paper is a bit different. It asked a group of Taiwanese English learners whose teachers couldn’t understand why they had almost given up studying English what they were feeling. It classified their personality types and tried to establish if one or other personality types found it harder to keep learning English.

We think this passage from the paper is very illuminating,

“However, when participants were asked about their views on failure in general, they all agreed that the teacher’s ineffective instruction played a decisive role in their failure to learn, even though it might not be the prime source.”


“Most students thought that not being able to satisfy their sense of accomplishment from learning English was a major reason. This statement was strongly supported by students having neuroticism, openness and agreeableness traits. In the meantime, the extroverted students argued that not being able to communicate with others in English was another major reason leading to their failure to learn. The conscientious students also regarded that “not studying hard enough” was the major cause of their failure.”

And this,

“For example, quite a few participants argued that their sense of failure, in terms of learning English, came from negative experiences with their teachers. Bernaus and Gardner’s (2008) study pointed out that failure in the EFL students’ learning processes might be the result of a teacher’s use of ineffective methods, such as the traditional instructional approach.”

So, “ineffective methods” and no “sense of accomplishment” were two of the main factors in the students giving up and feeling bad about their English learning. Yet this is what goes on in almost every classroom in which English language lessons are delivered by teachers.