Some questions if you are an English teacher…
Are you a native speaker teacher working in a private language school with highly motivated and talented students?
If so, congratulations – you are very lucky. But this blog post is most definitely not for you.
Do you, on the other hand, teach a group which contains a fair proportion of listless, unmotivated students in a compulsory class? Do they walk sunken-eyed into the room? Once there, do some of them (probably boys) lean their chairs against the back wall and exude an air of being too cool for school? Good – you’re in the right place.
Do you sometimes wish your students would all disappear and be replaced by a smiling bunch of gifted and enthusiastic learners? Great! Let’s do business.
Do you have moments of almost painful silence during your classes? Marvellous! We’re here to help.
Do you castigate yourself about the bad classes you have more than you congratulate yourself about the good ones? Excellent! This means you care.
Let’s talk about ways to get your sunken-eyed no-hopers interested in being in class. I have a couple of ideas – I want you to share any others you have in the comments, please. Let’s pool our ideas for the benefit of posterity (or at least the next few people who read the blog).
Ken’s ten rules for motivating the boys on the back row
I love the challenge of a group of truly unmotivated students who seem to enjoy in the aura of boredom that they create around themselves. OK, I admit (as I always have to during discussions like this) that I am not a full-time teacher. In fact, I haven’t had a real long-term (or term-long, for that matter) class of my own for nearly 20 years. My main contact with real students occurs when I’m observing classes as part of research into a new book.
After an interesting classroom observation experience a few years ago in Ukraine, where I ended up taking a class for a whole lesson with no preparation (you can read about it here http://tinyurl.com/28x4r5o), I decided to make an offer to any teacher who was kind enough to let me sit and observe what they were doing that I would teach as much of the class as they wanted me to. Actually, I tell them I’d like to see you working with your students for part of the time, but if you prefer, I can take the whole class.
Most teachers ask me to take the last part of the class, so I usually get between 15 and 20 minutes. Since I started offering this service, I’ve stood in front of about a hundred classes, mainly of teenagers. In Europe, they have almost all been state (= public in US English) school students in compulsory classes, the majority in Central and Eastern Europe. In other places, the venues have been a mixture of state/public and private education.
A lot of them were in China, where there are routinely 70+ students in a class. Chinese Senior High students appear to be naturally enthusiastic and highly motivated, so in one sense their teachers don’t need this advice. Even so, a lot of the following thoughts occurred to me while I was watching, or working with, classes in China.
Almost all of the classes I watched consisted of monolingual students studying in their own countries – which means that some of the following suggestions might not work if you have a multi-lingual group studying in an English-speaking country.
The received wisdom is that students are more motivated if they (or their parents) are paying for their lessons. In my experience, this is not true if they aren’t ‘good at English’.
So let’s start. Here are my ten ways to motivate the unmotivated.
1 Deploy your big guns
Every class is a mixed ability class, and, even with a new group, you know who the best students are, even after spending just a small amount of time with them. You know the paradox – teach to their level, and the rest are left behind; teach to the lower level, and the best students get bored.
Here’s a way round this problem. Let’s say you have thirty students in the class. Invite the top third of them, ie ten students, to a meeting with you. You are going to ask for their help.
Start by praising them – lay it on with a trowel – they are the best, they are stars, they are much better at English than you were at their age (I’m assuming a non-NEST teacher is saying this) and you want them to help you by helping the others.
Explain that at certain points of the lesson, you are going to put the class in groups of three (see point 2 for more on this). When you do this, you want your stars to spread out to all four corners of the room, and link up with two other students. They should do this without your direction, and they should link up with a different pair every time they do it.
You should do this at any time you plan to put the students in pairs or groups. Never let the same people work together – this is a recipe for staleness.
I can already hear your first objection. In a class of thirty students, there may only be three that deserve to be called stars. Well, you’re going to have to recruit another seven, and they are going to have to grow into their star status.
And they will, believe me.
2 Engineer threesomes
I have never understood the fixation with putting students in pairs. Threes are much better, especially if one of the three is one of your stars. In a monolingual class, the star should be encouraged to help the others, using their own language if necessary. This way, if the other two are both weak, they can feel a certain comfort that they are not the only dumb one in the class.
3 Get down on your knees
When a class is in pairs (but think threes from now on!) and groups, it is of course good if the teacher walks round and monitors what they are doing. Having watched good teachers all over the world do this, I’ve always been struck by how this well-meaning action can have an adverse effect.
I think it’s all to do with the physical relationship between the standing teacher and the seated students. The teacher looms over them. I realised this one day in China, when a wonderful teacher I was watching skipped enthusiastically round the class seeing how the students were getting on.
Every so often, she sensed that one of the pairs/groups needed help. So she got down on her haunches, and made sure her head was lower down than the student she was talking to.
I asked her afterwards if she had been trained to get down lower than the student in this way and she said no, she just did it once when she was listening to a student, and the student seemed more confident asking her for help. Since that accidental discovery, she continued to do it, and now felt the class were more comfortable about telling her about things they were having difficulty with.
New class, new students, new book. The students flick through the book, look at all the pictures, occasionally read a text and decide how interesting or not the material is. They will almost certainly find stuff that they already know something about.
And thereafter, if we are brutally honest, they have very little input in proceedings, at least as far as the book contents are concerned. They are passive recipients of what you and the book have to offer.
Here’s a way round this.
Make a list of 10-12 topics which are covered at some point in the book. Mainly choose ones which you think the class will probably know something about – mobile phones, Hollywood films, online dating etc – but add some which are of more minority interest – volcanoes, African wildlife, poetry etc.
Give everyone a post-it note and ask them to write down a fact about one of the topics. Emphasise that you want a fact, not an opinion. I don’t like Hollywood movies is no good.
Promise that you won’t read their note, and you won’t ask them to read it aloud. They can however read what other students have written. For some reason, they seem much happier to tell you what someone else has written than what they have written themselves. I guess this is because, if the information is ‘wrong’, someone else will get the blame.
The point is, if any of this information comes into the public domain, make absolutely no comment about the factual accuracy. It has no part to play in this process.
Then ask them to go to the Map of the Book (the contents page of the Student’s Book that students never read) and find the unit where the topic they chose is covered.
Tell them to stick their post-it on the opening page of the unit concerned. Thereafter, whenever you reach a new unit, ask anyone who wrote something for that unit to tell you what they wrote. And ask them before you do anything else. Make them feel that their input is as important as the contents of the unit. Because it is.
Note to book publishers. Take a look at the contents page of Global, by Lindsay Clandfield and others. It’s the way contents pages should look.
5 Devolve responsibility
Continuing my theme of threesomes, and bearing in mind that one of the three is a star pupil, here’s an idea for presenting new material.
Let’s imagine the book has 12 units. Tell the class that you are going to present the material in the first two units, and after that, you are going to make them responsible for introducing the material in the rest of the book.
When they have got over the shock of this information, you can divide them into, for example, ten groups of three (work the math differently if necessary, you don’t need me to tell you that). Then give each group a unit, all the way to the end of the book, if possible. Tell the students that, when you reach their unit, you want them to give a 15-minute presentation on the contents. Tell them that you are happy to talk to them about it as their big day looms (sorry – approaches).
Don’t specify what their presentation should consist of, let them find something in the unit that they want to talk about. They will probably choose some new vocabulary, or talk about the main reading text. But who knows? They may try to teach the new grammar point.
This is not an original idea of mine – a teacher in Brazil suggested it. She said that students get very engaged if they are given this kind of responsibility.
Engagement, responsibility, motivation – they are all connected.
This was where the original Part 1 ended. I was delighted to see the following twitter comment from Scott Thornbury about Part 1 of Motivating the Unmotivated:
6 Face the facts – stop sitting in rows
My OUP conference friend Mark Furr, who lives in Hawaii, started the ball rolling on this point in his comment on the first five rules.
So far, I’ve been talking about motivating students who are disaffected or disconnected. A separate and no less serious problem is when students who are quite focussed become de-motivated by what is happening in class. And the lay-out of the class could be the biggest de-motivating factor of all.
So – pause for a little rant – why oh why in the twenty-first century do we still have row of seats in classrooms?
In an earlier blog, I ranted on a bit about reading aloud in class, which I think is a total waste of time (unless you do it the way I suggested in the blog, which you can read here http://tinyurl.com/36tckhv)
I don’t think reading aloud in class is useful per se, but the activity is made even worse if the students are sitting in rows and looking at the back of each other’s heads.
Trying to understand what people in front of you are saying is a major de-motivating factor. Most students give up or just read the text anyway. Or day-dream, which is more fun but not THAT useful as a tool for acquiring language.
Mark Furr talks about the battles he’s had with authorities to be allowed to put the class in a U-shape. I imagine most of you would have the same problem if you wanted to do it. But there’s no harm in trying. And if the answer is no, then ask if you can be allowed to put the students in a circle for a few minutes each lesson.
I did an activity with a class in a state/public school of 14-year-olds in Spain once. There were 33 students in the class (I remember because I put them in four teams of eight, and asked the one who was left over to help me organise an activity).
I asked the teacher if I could clear the desks to the walls for five minutes. He looked aghast, and I could see that he imagined being reprimanded for doing it. I promised I would take full responsibility if there was any trouble with the school director.
He reluctantly agreed.
I told the pupils to clear the desks to the walls quickly and QUIETLY and put the chairs in four rows of eight. I timed it. It took one minute and 25 seconds. The activity I did took nine minutes, and then they put the desks back. A certain reluctance to get back to normal meant that the replacing of the desks took more than two minutes. :)
But it isn’t a big chunk of your time, is it?
When I returned to the same school two years later, a teacher I hadn’t met the first time said: “Are you the man who moved the desks?”
Great to be remembered for something, eh?
7 Play to their strengths
In English Teaching Theatre shows, there was always at least one point when we took one or more of the audience members on stage. ETT performers were trained to look out for suitable candidates during the pre-show warm-up, when they walked around the audience introducing themselves. They would then choose the people they had spotted earlier when it came to bringing people on stage.
You can’t imagine the number of times after shows that teachers expressed their astonishment at the performance of one of their students when they came on stage.
“You chose the one student who never says anything in class,” was a regular post-show remark.
Sometimes teachers would try to stop us taking a likely candidate onstage during the show itself. “No, not him!” I remember one teacher shouting, as I led a 14-year-old onto the stage. “He doesn’t understand anything!”
I wish teachers wouldn’t label their students that way.
The fact is that being in an ETT audience had reached these pupils in a way that their regular lessons hadn’t. This means that the regular lessons have to change if we are to reach, engage and motivate them.
There are students in your class who have all kinds of talents that could be useful to you – they may be good at music or drawing, for example. You could haul someone out whenever you need to draw a crocodile on the board (and of course one of THE advantages of an interactive white board, in my opinion, is that you can save the crocodile and use it in another class!!).
I had a Turkish class for half an hour once. They had just been doing a unit of their book on animals so I asked them all to get a piece of paper and draw an animal. I picked up the best ones to show to the rest of the class, who were suitably impressed. The artists themselves blushed with embarrassment, but were obviously pleased at the attention.
When it comes to improving their self-esteem, every little helps!
Even if they aren’t artistically or musically talented, try to use the students themselves when you’re presenting new language, or in a pre-reading task, for example. I’ve often used a reading text about Isaac Newton and the apple falling on his head. I always ask one of the boys at the back to come out and be the tree, and another to be the apple on the tree. I then seat a third student under the tree (usually a girl, to balance the activity). I tell her that she is Isaac Newton and ask her to explain why she came to be sitting under the tree when the apple fell on her head.
When all else fails, get them out of their seats!
8 Keep it simple, keep it short
The instruction says it all (and I will comply). Stop talking so much. Elicit more. Make the class do more work when you’re presenting stuff.
9 Avoid teaching grammar
I’m going to add this point, even though I worry that some teachers I have observed will see it as a criticism. Also, I’ve had reason to doubt it a bit recently.
I don’t think we should spend so much time teaching grammar. And we should definitely stop explaining grammar rules. It’s boring.
I’ve always thought there must be an alternative to teaching grammar, and observing classes where the teacher dominated the airwaves with grammar explanations confirmed it for me.
However, I did a summer school on the banks of the Danube last month, and I met a lot of teachers who seem to LOVE teaching grammar and who insisted that their students enjoy it.
At the end of the day, I think it’s all about teacher enthusiasm.
As a post-script, however (and I know this is going to land me in trouble with my publishers), I’m going to query the reliance on grammar supplements where grammar rules are explained in English. The received wisdom is that it’s somehow better to read the rules of English IN English. It isn’t. It’s actually quite useful to read grammar explanations in your own language. If you don’t agree with me, try reading some basic rules about Hungarian in Hungarian.
10 Have (a bit of) fun
If you’ve been to one of my drama workshops or on a course I’ve tutored on, you know I like to do fun stuff in class. Stuff that has students moving around and making a lot of noise. Stuff that makes them laugh.
I’m not asking you to tell jokes or be an entertainer. You don’t need to do that. If you choose the right activities, the students will entertain each other. If you don’t know of any activities that cause that to happen, there’s a good book out which I am too self-conscious to advertise here which will help.
However, a lot of teachers who attend my workshops subsequently write and tell me that they did one of my activities, it was very noisy and the teacher in the next classroom came and asked them to ‘control their students’.
I really don’t know what to say about that. But I bet the students in the English class enjoyed themselves.
That’s it – but just a final question for you to ask yourself.
Do you enjoy teaching?
If you do, then show that you do by your enthusiasm. Teacher enthusiasm is the single most important factor in student motivation.
Finally – try to smile. Even if you feel like death, smile. Even if you’re over-worked, under pressure and underpaid – it isn’t the students’ fault, so don’t glare at them.
And if they smile at you, smile back.
Scott Thornbury’s tweet comment after reading Part 2:
Yet more inspired (inspirational, even) advice from @kenwilsonlondon on motivation (except the bit about the IWB ;))