Teaching ESL: What to do when you don't know the answer

Teaching ESL: What to do when you don't know the answer

As ESL teachers, we’ve all been there: one student raises their hand with what you expect will be a simple grammar question, and next thing you know you can feel your face getting redder and redder as you struggle to find an answer. You’re stumped!

However it should go without saying that your TEFL certification doesn’t mean you’re now expected to be a living and breathing ESL textbook. Teachers are still human and it’s okay to let your students know so by not having the answers every single time.

But we know it doesn’t make the situation any less uncomfortable. So how are you supposed to handle it when it does happen?

Well, firstly—and most importantly—don’t make up a reason. Feeling embarrassed is not a good reason to send your students off with false information, because if they don’t know it’s false right now, many of them will go home and Google the answer and that could make for an even more embarrassing follow-up lesson.

Saying “just because” is almost as bad. This is really unhelpful, and as a TEFL teacher, your main job is to support your students in their English language learning process. They asked the question because they genuinely don’t know the answer, and it’s better to overcome your embarrassment and look for the correct answer for your students. They’ll appreciate this much more.

One good way to handle ESL questions that stump you is to take the opportunity to emphasize with your students. They’ll be happy to know that  English can be difficult for everyone, even native speakers. You can try something like, “English can be tough, huh? The answer is X but I’ll have to find out the exact rule for you and get back to you.”

Acknowledging what a good question it is and making the student feel proud for asking such a good question is another good strategy to diffuse the situation. Something like, “Great question, I’m stumped and that doesn’t happen often. Good for you!” asserts that it’s not often you’re unable to answer questions. It also makes your student feel like they’re not alone in not knowing the answer.

Your coworkers can also be a huge help. You’ll find that every teacher at your school will have their own specializations and they can all be a great resource for different questions. Some teachers will have all the answers when it comes to pronunciation, others will know everything about verb tenses, and you might find one that seems to be a walking dictionary. Find the time to connect with them individually when you get a question from a student that you think they’ll have the answer to.

Finally, if you’d really just like the time to consider the question more privately, you can always say something like, “Great question, let’s cover it next lesson since we’re running out of time today.” Then you’ll have some time to consider the question on your own.

Just remember to keep calm and carry on, as the saying goes. As ESL teachers, the most we can do is try our best to answer our students’ questions about English. But don’t let your fear of being stumped prevent you from asking your students if they have any questions for you. This is a key ingredient in the language learning process.

And for one final thought: although being stumped by a student’s question will initially feel unnerving, eventually, the more you teach, the more excited you’ll be by new and interesting questions. It’s a good opportunity to teach yourself something new and further your own understanding of the English language.

So how do you handle this situation? What resources do you use? Let us know in the comments section below!

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