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Understanding Disaffected Learners in ESL Classrooms


Have you heard of someone saying this statement, “Learners aren’t learning because teachers aren’t teaching”. Well, this can be a truth but it is not so all the time. There are cases where ESL teachers would do their best to teach weak and defiant learners; they teach, coach, reteach, motivate, persuade, motivate again and again, love, teach and reteach the same weak and unmotivated learners who scholars term as disaffected learners. Disaffected learners can also be smart or potential A learners who disconnect themselves from lessons for certain reasons, however, this write-up focuses solely on weak and defiant learners.

Disaffection in education is not a new phenomenon (Moustakim, 2010). As teachers we should have a clear understanding of disaffection for a better execution of our lessons. With our clear understanding of disaffection, we will be able to understand why some of our learners refuse to engage in learning.


The so called disaffected learners have been labelled variously as ‘disengaged’, ‘disconnected’, ‘dislocated’, ‘disappeared’ and ‘status zero’ among a range of other negative labels, often starting with the prefix ‘dis’, suggesting deficiency of some sort (Moustaqim, 2010). Disaffection itself is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon that is influenced by numerous interrelating factors, and can be manifested in various ways including disengagement from mainstream activities, disruptive or antisocial behaviour, and involvement in petty crime. Disaffection is currently being identified as a particular problem within schools, where it is seen to be characterised by increased levels of disruptive behaviour, truancy, and exclusions, as well as falling academic standards and non-participation (Holroyd and Armour, 2003).


Holroyd and Armour (2003) perceive the root causes of disaffection are numerous and interrelated. From your point of view, what do you think could be the primary factors that cause Malaysian pupils to be disaffected? Surely, the answers vary as the causes of disaffection depend on a host of factors which are influenced by and interrelated with other issues.

Based on my experience of teaching English for 25 years, I would say the main cause of disaffection is the learners' inability to follow the English lessons. This is simply due to their very poor proficiency of English. They practically do not understand most of the English words that they hear or read in the classroom. The level of English for PT3 English or SPM 1119 is too high for them. Learners who are extremely weak would disconnect themselves from the lesson.

The second crucial cause of disaffection, I would say, those affected learners possess low self-esteem. They have zero or little confidence that they will achieve success especially in English examination. This is not surprising as most of the disaffected learners have never passed the English language papers since Form 1. Most of them have numerous experiences failing the English Language paper since primary school. Therefore, they “shut down” during most of the English lessons and do not even want to attempt answering questions either during lessons or in examinations.

I believe learners’ inability to see the need to learn English is the third main cause of disaffection. Most of the disaffected learners do not see the reason for them to learn and master English. They just cannot connect their future with at least a pass in the English Language subject. When they have such a mindset, they will always refuse to engage in any serious learning.

Besides the three primary reasons mentioned above, there is a host of other reasons which I believe only affect some of the disaffected ESL learners. Among them are curriculum content, employment, peer influence, broken families, drug abuse, involvement in crime and poor relationship with their teachers.


Heathcote-Elliott and Walters (2000: 6) have suggested that the causal factors can be viewed as falling into three broad domains; cognitive, behavioural and affective, and that 'it is the interaction between these factors and other variables (e.g. personality, behavioural dispositions) which are at the roots of severe disaffection'.

Cognitive Domain

  • Lack of goals and aspirations

  • Low expectations

Behavioural Domain

  • Avoidance (e.g. truancy at school)

  • Confrontation (violent and aggressive acts)

  • Criminal / deviant activity

  • Prolonged engagement in high risk activities (e.g illicit drug use)

Affective Domain

  • Feelings of estrangement and alienation

  • Feelings of disempowerment

  • Low self-esteem

Heathcote-Elliott and Walters (2000) argued that disaffection occurs in a staged progression along a continuum starting from the affective domain, with the pupil feeling lost and lacking in self-esteem. This sense of estrangement is then expressed in resistant behaviour, such as truancy and confrontation, which in their view can escalate to criminality and high risk taking. In the absence of remedial intervention, according to Heathcote-Elliott and Walters, the affective and behavioural abnormality culminate in cognitive deficits, expressed in low expectations and general lack of goals and aspirations.


Heathcote-Elliott and Walters (2000) have conceptualised a 'continuum of disaffection' reflecting levels varying between active and passive and mild and severe. Passive disaffection is characterised by under-achievement and withdrawal and active disaffection by complete disconnection from schooling through truancy and exclusion, largely as a result of aggressive behaviour.

In Malaysian context, I would say mild or passive disaffection is evident among learners who remain in class but refuse to do the task assigned by the teacher. Even if they complete their task such as copying an essay, the task is meaningless to them; the essay is copied blindly. Passive disaffected learners are also the ones who keep quiet all the time or simply look outside the window throughout the English lesson. They portray clear non-participation throughout the lesson as well as constant procrastination in completing the task assigned to them.

On the other hand, severe or active disaffection is clearly seen among learners who purposely play truant on the day they have English lessons. It is either they are absent on the day they have English lesson or they come to school but would disappear during English lessons. Personally, I believe another common symptom of active disaffection is regular request of permission to go to the toilet during each English lesson. Moreover, their habit to sleep in class is another indicator of their total disconnection from the lesson. Sometimes, severe or active disaffection can also be seen through disaffected learners’ disruptive behaviours. They would create troubles to stop teaching and learning from taking place. Some of them may argue with the teacher, make loud noise, disturb their classmates or even start a fight in class. I am positive chit-chatting when the teacher is teaching is another common evidence of severe disaffection. The moment disaffected learners are deeply engaged in their conversation, they have achieved complete disconnection from the lesson that is taking place.


Some ESL teachers are unlucky as they have to deal with a few classes of disaffected learners. Teaching mild disaffected learners alone is frustrating and maddening, what more if most of their learners are severely disaffected. Some ESL teachers describe going to those classrooms is like going to a battlefield. They have no choice but to equip themselves with all sorts of “weapons”, “bullets” and strategies in order to win the “war”.

I know, some individuals may disagree when certain ESL classrooms are described as battlefields. They will insist on teachers to be positive all the time and treat their learners as best as they could. Personally, I truly understand how it feels to teach a class full of disaffected learners. I have taught a few classes of disaffected ESL learners, however, I DO NOT consider myself unlucky. I am the one who want to teach disaffected learners. I admit, it is such a demanding task to even ensure the class is 100% quiet throughout the lesson. At times, teaching is like a secondary task because priority must be given to maintaining the order and discipline in class first. There will always be disaffected learners, either mild or severe, who manage to catch my attention that I have to stop teaching for a while to attend to them. Most of the time, tasks, heavily or partially guided, can be completed such as essay writing, answering comprehension questions or filling in the blanks. However, how much the disaffected learners understand remains a big and serious question. No doubt, explanation is given again and again, however, when I test them what they have understood, some disaffected learners will surely disappoint me with their feedback. There are a lot more to tell about my struggles but I think I shall end here. Well, I am not being pessimistic here. I am merely sharing the realities of my “battlefields”. Only those who have been there would know and truly understand.


Disaffection in ESL classrooms is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon that is influenced by numerous interrelating factors, and can be manifested in various ways including disengagement from classroom activities, disruptive or antisocial behaviours. We need to understand that disaffection is not solely caused by what happens in the classroom but it has its roots in wider social factors.

ESL teachers who are assigned to teach a classroom full of disaffected learners need to understand the issues at stake well. Based on my experience, obviously it is not easy handling disaffected learners but nothing is impossible. For sure, it takes some time to change and mould disaffected learners. It could be three, six or nine months, depending on the severity of their disaffection. It also depends on the maturity of the learners; upper form learners change faster than the lower form learners.

Most disaffected ESL learners do not only lack in English Language proficiency but they also lack a lot in motivation, direction and persistence. It is the duty of ESL teachers to take up the challenge to motivate, guide, coach, train and retrain them step by step, phase by phase. Teachers’ supportive role in the classroom is extremely crucial to ensure learners’ participation in learning. It is teachers' responsibility to guide, coach, support and assist them as much as possible especially in the early stage of learning (Phase 1).

The ESL teachers should also reinforce and appreciate the positive progress or changes of their disaffected learners. Publicly and personally, highlight each progress made by the learners. Learners should be given opportunities to make decisions and plan activities according to their interests and needs. Moreover, ESL teachers must try to establish a good rapport with disaffected learners. A strong teacher-learner relationship will surely have a positive effect on their active participation and motivation.

If disaffected learners are motivated to learn (even though they are still very weak), their disruptive behaviours will gradually reduce. Some will try to participate actively in activities. High motivation and engagement are necessary for the success of learning. Success does not necessarily refer to passing the English test or exam but it can simply mean learners’ ability to complete the task given to them or just pay attention well during the English lesson. More and more success, memorable and meaningful moments can be carved when we are able to handle our disaffected learners. Let us do our best to turn the “battlefield” into “garden of knowledge”. Yes, we can! It is possible, nothing is impossible. In shaa Allah.


Heathcote-Elliott, C., & Walters, N. (2000). Combating Social Exclusion Occasional Paper 9: ESF Objective 3 Disaffected Youth. Retrieved 09/04/03, 2003, from the World Wide Web:

Holroyd, R.A and Armour, K.M. (2003). Re-engaging disaffected youth through physical activity programs. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University

Mohamed Moustakim. (2010). Power and Resistance in the Classroom:

Teachers’ and Pupils’ Narratives on Disaffection. Unpublished thesis submitted to the University of Exeter for the degree of Doctor of Education.

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