Every teacher has experienced a disinterested group of students. It is one of the toughest challenges for new teachers, who have usually been trained to expect ideal classroom conditions that rarely happen in real life. Even for seasoned teachers, motivating a group of students can be an issue sometimes. If you are in this situation, here are 5 engaging techniques you may try before giving up and losing your own interest and motivation in teaching.
1. Personalize the lessons.
Tom’s dog bit Mary. Mary was bitten by Tom’s dog. There are infinite example sentences to illustrate grammar or vocabulary points to be found online, in textbooks or dictionaries. All of them have something in common: they are dull, lack context and include with general names that belong to no one. The latest ideas about education talk about turning the focus of the classroom to the student, instead of the teacher, but we keep using the very same boring examples year after year. Wouldn’t it be much more fun to find our own names written in the examples? And wouldn’t it stand out if there was a context to them? Transform your students and yourself into the protagonists of your own lessons, and change the names in the sentences. Even better, why don’t you write your own examples using what you know about your students? If you know that your student Graciela has a dog and that her bestfriend in class is Carla, change the example to Graciela’s dog bit Carla. You will be amazed at how much do the learners enjoy this little trick. You can choose to stick to real events of the students’ lives or you can choose to make up a whole story that will develop during the course. No matter how bored and disinterested they seemed before, personalizing the lessons will motivate your learners to pay attention to your explanations. An extra benefit of this technique is that they will more eager to read aloud the sentences and dialogues that speak about themselves.
2. Demonstrate first.
Sometimes in a class we will try to get the students to do a task, but they are unable to do it no matter how at length you explain it. This happens especially in beginners’ levels, where learners have a very limited grasp of the language and their listening comprehension is still being developed. But it also happens in intermediate and advanced levels, when the task is something they have never done before or when it is more complex than what they are used to. The best solution for this issue is to do it yourself first. Just as we would use an example sentence to illustrate a point, we should do the task once or twice before asking the students to do it own their own. Are you listening to a song and you want them to fill out the gaps on the handout? Do the first word before asking them to do the rest. Are you planning of having them describe a house in pairs, one talking while the other is drawing? Ask them to describe you the school first, and draw it on the blackboard – or viceversa. This technique will never fail you. Moreover, the students will be grateful to have a model to follow, especially if they are beginners, or at the start of a new level with more complex tasks.
3. Move your hands: gestures.
Just like doing a task first complements the comprehension of the learner, gestures add an extra layer to guide him or her through the meaning of what the teacher says. Gestures are also extremely helpful to correct the students instantly without having to speak over them or interrupt them. Again, this is a technique especially useful for beginners, but students of any level will appreciate it. However, this in-class gestures are not the same as the ones we make when talking to friends in our mothertongue. These are specific gestures that signal a specific grammatical meaning. As such, they have to be shown very clearly within the lesson and always pinpointed to their meaning. An example: You are trying to explain your students the Past Simple. The gesture chosen is pointing with your hand to what’s behind your head, over your shoulders. Every time you utter a Past Simple within a sentence, you make the same gesture. Immediately the students will match the tense with the gesture and understand you are talking about the past, the time behind you. Use this gesture repeatedly in the next lessons, until it is very clear in their mind that whenever you make it, you are talking about the past. Slowly you can stop making that specific gesture – because they are expected to have learnt the Past Simple already, or because you are moving on to another point and you are using a new gesture. Now you have a tool to give immediate correction to your group whenever they are supposed to use the Past Simple but forget to do it. You won’t have to interrupt their speaking, but rather move your hand towards the wall behind you and they will self-correct themselves.
4. Plan, plan and plan some more.
This is one of the main mistakes beginner and amateur teachers tend to make. There is no way around it: not planning the lessons in detail leads to careless teaching and, therefore, careless students. We must keep in mind that teaching isn’t limited to the class period. Before it there must be time for planning, organizing and gathering material for the lesson, as well as there is time later for checking assignments. Improvising lessons is the best way to ensure the students do not learn and lose their motivation to learn. Teachers should have a clear general goal for the entire course. This can be improving the students’ level from A1 to A2, or having them pass an standardized test. Teachers also need particular goals for every lesson. These can be improving general reading skills, widening vocabulary about travel, recognizing pronoun references in long texts, understanding descriptive text structure and being able to write a short review of a tourist location. Being clear about the goals of every lesson will make them confident that they are actually profiting from the course, consequently increasing their engagement. They will also be more keen on completing the assignments, since they know that these have a point in their skills’ development. Moreover, if you have everything planned in detail, no unpredictable incident will prevent you from teaching a great class.
5. Real life tasks.
How many times have we asked the students to write a postcard to a friend or a complaint letter to a company? What about essays on movies or on city/countryside dichotomies? They are as bored as you are about these tasks. Nobody (almost) writes postcards anymore – now we comment on Instagram or Facebook. Nobody writes a complaint letter – we navigate our Amazon account until we find the right menu. Or we call Customer Service, where an outsourced call center operator speaks with an accent. Teaching a language using the real life situations they are more likely to encounter is the best way to keep them engaged. For this reason, it is very important to get to know your students and what goes on in their lives. Imagine you have a group of undergrad students. Wouldn’t it be useful to them to learn how to set up a Linkedin Profile, apart from the typical resume and cover letter writing lesson? Likewise, you could make them write book reviews in actual websites like Goodreads or Medium. Learners would then get feedback not only from you or their classmates, but from the wider world of readers. In addition, many students do very well in the classroom, but are completely helpless when faced with real language use. Assigning them real life tasks will prevent this as well.