Why Your ESL Students are Not Asking Questions in the Classroom

Why your students are not asking questions:

Cultural Factors

Culture plays a key role in how international students interact in the classroom. In the United States, teachers strive to create a learning environment that fosters communication. Depending on cultural norms, students from different countries may come from an environment where asking questions is discouraged. According to eduPass, an online platform for international students, teaching styles in the United States can be strikingly different from what English Learners may expect.


At their worst, classrooms can be viewed as places of criticism and judgment. You never want your students to feel like they are unable to ask questions. Even with support from a teacher or tutor, the thought of public speaking can cause some people to freeze under pressure.

They are shy.

Shy students may avoid group discussions or interactions because it makes them uncomfortable. To minimize discomfort, ESL Students may avoid eye contact and shelve their concerns. It is usually harder to encourage participation, making sharing in the classroom difficult. This is most common for children, but can also affect adults.

Waiting for someone else to ask their question.

All of us fall victim to not wanting to be the first person to ask questions, especially ESL students. As a loophole, your student may pressure others into asking their question. In return, they can avoid any negative perceptions while getting the answer to their question. This action coincides more with being vulnerable than scared. It’s a tactic for them to get what they want without having to ask for it.

English is hard.

English can be one of the hardest languages to learn. According to the Excel English Institute, pronunciation, spelling, slang, and colloquialisms are what make learning English challenging. If a student can’t figure out a way to ask their question, they checkout. Your students may view their efforts as pointless and give up.

Free Image, Pexels

How to Help


You first want to talk with your student. Come prepared and ready to listen. It is important to jot down some talking points followed by questions. For example:

  • “Some of the take-home assignments you submitted were incomplete. Are you struggling with anything?”
  • “It seems like you’re spending a lot of time on this one exercise. Do you need help?”
  • “I noticed that you are not asking as many questions lately. How do you feel about everything we have been learning?”

Identify the roadblock.

Next, we want to isolate the problem. It is important to practice active listening here. What may be boggling your student could be what you suspected or something unexpected. Maybe your student is confused about idioms in a reading passage. Or, they are struggling to read through some of their dialogue exercises. You will want to be precise in understanding what they are struggling with.

Create a Plan.

We don’t want our students to resort back to silence. Here’s an outline of how to create more interaction.

  • Schedule Weekly 1:1's.

Follow-up Framework.

Following up is pointless without a plan. A simple framework can be as follows:

  • Review learning objectives.
  • Benchmark progress.
  • Answer new questions.
  • Set new goals.
  • Schedule follow-up.


Be patient when helping your students. What may be easy for you can be stressful and intimidating for someone else. It is important to reiterate that you are there to further your student’s learning and that you have their best interests in mind.



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