4 poor communication skills (and what to do about them)

Communication skills Pearson English

Rachael Roberts is a teacher, teacher trainer and ELT author. She is also a qualified life coach with a mission to help teachers, educational managers and freelancers make lasting changes in their lives and work. 

In the first article of our Career Skills series, Rachael explains some common communication problems that language learners have – and some easy-to-implement ways to help them improve. Your students will find the lessons in this article helpful in a language learning context and in their everyday lives.

How to help your students improve their general listening, speaking and understanding


Do your students ever display poor communication skills? 

Most teachers will answer with a resounding ‘yes’. In fact, communication skills do not always come naturally to many people. Let’s take a look at some of the most common and egregious errors people make when speaking and listening to each other. I’ll also give you some useful ways to help your students improve. 

1. They don’t even stop to breathe!

If you find one student doing a LOT of talking, it’s probably because no-one else can get a word in edgeways. It can be tempting to assume that this is because the chatty student thinks their ideas are better than anyone else’s, but, in fact, it is often a sign of nerves. 

Look more carefully and see if they appear breathless or anxious. Whatever the reason, this kind of student may benefit from a more structured approach where students are given time to prepare what they are going to say, and everyone is expected to contribute equally. Or make it into a kind of game where students have to make sure that they speak for 50% of the time each, as would be expected in an exam situation. 

2. They aren’t really paying attention to each other

Whether your students are looking at their phones, staring out of the window or can’t wait to interrupt each other, poor listeners make poor communicators. Deal with this by always requiring the listener in any pair to do something specific. For example, tell them that they will need to summarise what their partner said, or they have to think of three questions to ask their partner at the end.

In real life communication we usually have a reason to listen, so make sure you give them one. Otherwise, they may assume that only the teacher needs to pay attention when another student is talking. 

3. They ramble and it’s difficult to follow what they’re saying

Students my ramble because they are unconfident about the target language. It’s fine for students to have to struggle a bit to communicate, but it’s sensible to set tasks which are achievable, or they may give up.

It could also be that they would benefit from more rehearsal and practice. Being able to speak fluently ‘off the cuff’ is very challenging, particularly in front of an audience. Try giving students time to plan what they are going to say first. They shouldn’t be reading off the page, but the act of writing it first can help a lot with confidence and fluency. 

Repetition is also invaluable in building fluency. Try doing speaking tasks more than once, and see how the quality and quantity improves each time. You can ring the changes by swapping partners or changing the format from pairs to small groups to whole class. 

4. They don’t treat others’ feelings with respect

This can show itself in different ways. Maybe your students just completely ignore the feelings the other person is demonstrating or telling them about. Or maybe they dismiss them in other ways, ‘Oh, exactly the same thing happened to me! I was just walking along…’  

You can model better ways to respond yourself. For example, “It sounds as if you feel quite angry about that?”, “That must have been really difficult.’ 

This teaches students the kind of phrases they can use to validate, empathise and talk about emotions. 

If you can deal with these problems your students will be well on the way to becoming master communicators. 

Do you students struggle with communication skills? Have you tried any of Rachael’s ideas? Let us know in the comments!


Help your learners get ahead with our free online webinars 

Communication skills webinars

Join our series of free online webinars that will provide you with the knowledge and practical ideas on integrating career skills into your regular classroom routine.

Rachael will guide you through some of the “soft skills” that will make your teenage students valued employees and colleagues. 

Everyone that attends will receive a certificate of attendance.

How do I sign up? 

Discover the different sessions and dates below and choose the time which suits your timetable. Click on REGISTER to reserve your place. 

CAREER SKILLS: Communication skills 11th February 9:00 AM 4:00 PM
CAREER SKILLS: Planning, prioritizing and organizing skills 18th February 9:00 AM 4:00 PM
CAREER SKILLS: Decision-making skills 25th February 9:00 AM 4:00 PM
CAREER SKILLS: Leadership skills 3rd March 9:00 AM 4:00 PM
CAREER SKILLS: Teamwork skills 17th March 9:00 AM 4:00 PM

Discover more new trends and ideas in ELT on our Experiences page.

In this article