Problem Areas

Language Problems Faced by EFL Students

Problem areas in language learning can include: pronunciation difficulties, issues with words that sound alike but have different meanings, lack of motivation, cultural misunderstandings and even simply forgetting what has already been learned.

There are ways to deal with and overcome all of these issues. Read on for an exploration of problem areas in EFL and some potential solutions.


False friends

Words in the target language that sound similar to words in the learner’s native language but actually mean something different are called false friends. These need to be written down and memorised.

Most importantly, they need to be put into context and used repeatedly, until the meaning is made concrete in the learner’s mind.

When a word in the English language sounds like a word in their own native language, the student assumes that the English word has the same, or similar, meaning to their own native word, but it often does not.

This is an understandable error, but one that is difficult to spot if the teacher does not have knowledge of the student’s native language.


Misunderstandings due to lots of different words being refer to a similar object, or lots of similar words being used to refer to a different object. This could also be an issue with prefixes and suffixes and confusion using idioms and collocations.

false friends - problem areas in tefl


One main problem area in TEFL is forgetting new vocabulary. Learners forget new words because they have not had a strong enough impression on the memory.

If words are learned in a random manner, with no real connections made between these new words, it is very easy for a student to forget them.

Words need to be put into a context in order for them to become meaningful and therefore memorable. This is also helpful for aiding the student to use the words among appropriate other words, that is, collocations.

Memory problems can also be helped by various techniques suggested in our language learning tips and learning vocabulary section.

Mr Forgetful

Pronunciation problems

Pronunciation is a common problem area for EFL students, often caused by the lack of sound similarity between English and the student’s native language.

Problems with pronunciation often stem from the speaker’s native language not including the same sounds as the English language. Many problem sounds are caused by the tongue not being in the right position in the speaker’s mouth.


For example, some non-native speakers have difficulty pronouncing the ‘th’ sound where the tongue is placed behind and slightly between the teeth. They might produce the ‘z’ sound instead with their tongue touching their side teeth.

Some non-native English speakers might pronounce the word ‘three’, for example, as ‘swee’ or ‘sree’ or ‘zree’ with the tongue totally behind the teeth producing an ‘s’ sound instead of the ‘th’ sound.

When this occurs it is useful to pronounce the correct sound and the incorrect sound alternately in order to highlight the difference. For example, ‘zz’ then ‘the’.

pronunciation problems1

Poor study skills
Many students develop poor study skills. These can include lack of attention paid to the lesson, relationships between words overlooked, learning without autonomy, learning for too long without a break, list learning by rote, non-contextual learning.

Explore our site for more tips on better study skills to encourage in students.

Lack of Self-Discipline
A vast amount of new vocabulary needs to be mastered by a student of a new language. This can be a daunting prospect.

Much of a student’s success with their memory comes down to their own discipline and motivation, that is, how well they learn autonomously. Encouraging good study skills can help a student to become a good independent learner.

Lack of motivation

If motivation is extrinsic motivation only (learning because they have been asked to by their boss), with no real intrinsic need or desire to learn language, then it could be difficult to motivate a student.

This problem could be overcome by trying to find areas of interest for the student to focus on, using instances of personal interest. (e.g. music) and using this area as a frame for the language use. See the motivation page for more suggestions on how to motivate students.

Lack of motivation could come from finding something extremely difficult. If a student is de-motivated by their lack of progress in a certain area, a solution would be to focus strongly on that area of difficulty.

You could provide extra tuition or work sheets, any extra help that could prove beneficial, perhaps recommend one on one tuition. Once a hurdle is overcome, the student’s motivation could well return.


Lack of progress

Lack of progress is usually due to a lack of practice. The provision of tapes for students to listen to at home would help them keep their focus on the language when away from the class room.

Another reason for lack of progress might be low confidence levels or a lack of intrinsic motivation.

Try out a good structured teaching technique, a new vocabulary teaching method or even some fun new phrases, to find the style of lesson that suits the students best. They may come on leaps and bounds with a new motivation and the right teaching approach.

motivation in TEFL


Problem areas in TEFL are often related to a lack of motivation. Demotivation can occur if the student feels they are not making progress.

Often this is due to poor ability to infer from complex reading, making the learner feel no real progress is being made. This lack of self-confidence affects the student’s learning, causing de-motivation.

Lack of practice

Students need the opportunity to practice new vocabulary or else they are likely to forget. Words in the passive vocabulary need to be used regularly in order for them to move naturally into the active vocabulary.

practice makes perfect

Social and cultural misunderstandings

Non-native English students can have very different backgrounds and upbringings from each other. This has the potential to cause friction in their interactions and could affect learning.

Cross-cultural communication can be fraught with difficulties. Teachers need to avoid or minimize the possibility of a conflict or misunderstanding within a group of participants.

In order to minimise any possible conflict, when introducing a topic, the teacher needs to say that we all know that different countries and cultures have different attitudes to many things.


It is important to stress to the class that in the lesson, no attitude is right or wrong in relation to cultural values, it is just a matter of what behaviour is normal in that particular country. We all have respect for everyone else’s lifestyles and opinions.

In practical matters, it might be useful to pair up students from similar cultural backgrounds to minimise misunderstandings. Be careful with topic selection. Ask yourself, could there be a safer, similar topic that will teach the same areas of language without stirring up as much controversy in terms of values?

cultures meet with misunderstandings

Dealing with conflict

If conflict arises it is important to point out that subtle English language skills may be too advanced for learners and anything that may come across as rude or controversial may not be intended that way.

The problem is most likely a simple misunderstanding. Learners may not know the exact words they want to use and therefore have to select a less appropriate word instead that might inadvertently cause offence.

Physical distance between students should also be considered, for example, when doing role plays or mime exercises. Some cultures are more comfortable with physical touch between strangers for example, whereas others might be made to feel uncomfortable by such close proximity.

Introducing new words

A potential problem for introducing new words to beginning students is when they do not necessarily have enough English vocabulary to able to understand definitions of new vocabulary.

This is especially problematic when the teacher is not familiar with the student’s native language as is often the case in the ESL classroom.

Some methods of approach to use in this situation include gestures, pictures and objects or realia. It might also be useful to encourage the student to use a bilingual dictionary.

bilingual dictionary

Suffixes/prefixes and similar sounding words

Words with suffixes can sometimes be problematic for students as they can often change the meaning of a word completely. For example, ‘friendly’ and ‘friendless’, ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’.

For purposes of minimising confusion, it is important for students to learn words that sound the same, but which have different meanings. For example, ‘bored’ and ‘board’, ‘tail’ or ‘tale’.

Often single words in English have different meanings. For example, the words ‘drive’, ‘pool’, ‘stroke’, ‘bottom’, ‘fence’, ‘catch’, ‘strike’ all mean more than one thing.

Another problem area when teaching EFL is words that have the same spelling and sound but different meanings. For example ‘goal’ could mean a goal scored at a football match or an ambition – an aim.

Similarly, the word ‘bottom’ could mean an informal word for the backside, or it could mean the lowest placed item in a physical or abstract list; also ‘bottoms’ often refers to the trousers of a tracksuit.


Idioms and collocations

In addition there are lots of common English idioms and collocations that can be confusing to a student. Phrasal verbs can be particularly difficult to master, these are phrases that use a verb plus a preposition.

Phrasal verbs include: ‘putting something off’, ‘coming down with a cold’, ‘feeling under the weather’, ‘striking up a conversation’ or ‘bumping into someone’; in telephone calls, for example, we talk about ‘being put through’ or ‘cutting someone off’.

What do you think?

Can you think of more problem areas in TEFL?

Have you encountered any regular problems when teaching English as a foreign language? How did you overcome them?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments box below.


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