Ten ways to motivate the unmotivated…

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).

Here goes…

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.

Having a larf with some Senior High students in Beijing...

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.

4  Engage

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:

@thornburyscott @kenwilsonlondon‘s ten tips for motivating the unmotivated http://tiny.cc/l6y0o : You won’t get better advice than this anywhere!

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.

Magritte understood the problem perfectly...

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.

The advantage of talking about Isaac Newton is that everyone seems to have heard of him...

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 ;))


54 thoughts on “Ten ways to motivate the unmotivated…

  1. Hi Kenneth,
    Thank you for this article; refreshing as always to get a point of view that is drastically opposite to the normal, linear, protectionist, depressed current in education.
    I have implemented a few of your ideas from the book Drama for ELT in undergraduate 1st year classes, and they actually worked_ got the students to talk and move out of the gloom they usually fester in.
    There is a problem about under-motivation, in this country at any rate: students have less and less centers of interest. Out of despair, I sometimes ask what they’re interested in, or even what they like about their lives, and they literally don’t know.
    I’ve tried X-Factor, computer games, terrible modern films, Britney and Shakira, and even then they have nothing to say apart from the fact that they know them. There is less and less contextualization of culture, let alone knowledge of what older generations were up to ( a lot of them don’t know The Stones or Bob Dylan, let alone what a New Wave film is).
    How can we keep going as teachers in this cultural vacuum? Sometimes I find myself talking too much in the class simply because I’m giving out basic facts and basic analysis.

    1. Hi Mikhail – which country are we talking about here?

      Anyway, sounds as if you’re doing a pretty good job of contextualising information.

      And don’t be too sad if your students don’t know the Stones or Dylan – and they will eventually discover New Wave movies if they are interested…

  2. Aloha again Ken,

    I tend to read rather than respond but could not keep my fingers off of the keyboard with this thread!

    ‘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.’

    This feature, fairly detailed explanations of English grammar, written in English, to those who do not read well in English, has always left me absolutely flabbergasted!

    Why do we continue to do this?

    I studied French both in school and at uni for something like six years and do not ever remember reading a single French-to-French grammar explanation. ( . . . yet somehow I learned enough French to travel through France alone as a student . . .)

    Also, living in Japan for six years, I studied Japanese at a number of language schools, and not once did I meet a Japanese-to-Japanese explanation of grammar. However, I DID find a number of texts with English explanations of Japanese grammar and found these very helpful.

    Finally, I would be remiss if I did not add that giving students access to lots of interesting, comprehensible input (graded readers) greatly increased motivation for many of my students. I had a mobile library that I brought to my classes and students were free to borrow books and take them home to read.

    Of course, I could write a dissertation on this one, but suffice it to say that the key here is to provide books across a number of levels, in many different genres, so students have lots of choice.

    All for now from sunny Hanalei,


    1. Thanks, Mark – as I said, we’d better keep this one under our hats, or the publishers will send the boys in dark suits and sunglasses round 😛

  3. Hi Ken, the stuff about motivation in the classroom is fascinating stuff and taking up a lot of my own thinking time at the moment. Certainly reconfiguring the furniture is important (rows of desks all facing front is so false and prone to increase anxiety) but there are so many other ways of connecting with students on a human level that I’m looking into in some depth in my own research. I’m collecting data from secondary level English language teachers (102 so far from 18 different countries) and I’ve received some heart-felt and passionate responses. The affective interpersonal side of teaching seems to be missing from so many teacher training programmes despite teachers (in my own research, anyway) considering it to be fundamental before any methodology can be applied. Is this true for your bloggers?

    1. Hi Mark, nice to see you here…

      ah … training – a murky trail. To be fair, I think training has improved enormously since I was a full-time ELT trainer, but whether or not all training courses give the same amount of time and thought to interpersonal matters is a moot point.

      All I would say is that trainers who blog and appear in tweet-land seem to be interested in affective matters. Maybe blog-world will help this spread.

      1. Cheers Ken. Good to be here. I’ve just started blogging today after much encouragement from Russell Stannard! I agree that there’s lots of acknowledgement of the importance of affect etc but not enough practical ‘how to do it’. Teachers are often left to their own devices, which for lots works fine, but for many others, some practical guidance would be immensely helpful! All the best, Mark

  4. Hi Ken,
    When I was doing “Breathing and sound practice” with my students, and when they would stand and make those sounds, I encouraged them to be more loud, and what students in one class told me was “but we’re too loud, the principal’s office is across the hall, she will hear us, and come here to see what was going on…” Well, I would actually love to see her at the door of my class at that point, because, the sight of the class and energy of the class at that point is amazing! And motivating. She would love it!
    Thanks Ken for the wonderful two posts, and excellent ideas and suggestions!

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Branka… I already know that you are a very positive person, and you see the positive side in the principal coming to your room. But what would you say if she told you to keep the noise down? This may be a big problem in some schools, and I didn’t really give enough thought to dealing with it. But I love your positive attitude.

      1. In my case, I know she wouldn’t mind, she is pretty open minded. I might not dare to do that in some new school where I wouldn’t be sure about the principal’s reaction.

  5. These comments were written after reading rules 1-5 only:

    marisapavan Says:
    August 27, 2010 at 01:44 edit
    Thanks for sharing your expertise, Ken! I’m motivated to put your sound advice into practice.

    Ken Wilson Says:
    August 27, 2010 at 11:27 edit
    Thank you Marisa! More advice (rules 6-10) coming soon.

    Annissa Says:
    August 27, 2010 at 02:59 edit
    Excellent article. Very interesting, students need to feel important and teachers need to be motivated day after day.

    p.s. Thanks Marisa por sharing this tweet.

    Ken Wilson Says:
    August 27, 2010 at 11:34 edit
    Thanks, Annissa – good point about teacher motivation. The fact is, if the atmosphere in class is better, the teacher finds it more fun and enjoyable, too. Everyone wins!

    Mark Furr Says:
    August 27, 2010 at 04:21 edit
    Aloha Ken,

    “Once there, do they lean their chairs against the back wall and exude an air of being too cool for school? Good – you’re in the right place.”

    I had loads of this when I walked into my first uni classes in Japan. However, in my first year (of many) teaching at Japanese universities, I discovered that physically removing the possibility for students to migrate to the back wall worked wonders. I simply arranged all of my classes so that everyone sat in a big circle or we arranged a U shape.

    In this way, everyone had a front row seat. When the rooms were not conducive to arranging things for our theatre in the round, I simply raised hell with the admin until they gave me another room. I remember one term meeting a class either outside or in the uni halls until we were granted a change of venue!

    Don’t know why this came to mind here, but I think that making sure that everyone is in a position physically close to the action helps students to focus (and it allows the evil teacher to keep an eye out for secret gaming or texting on the cell phone as well!).

    Aloha from Hanalei,

    Mark Furr

    Ken Wilson Says:
    August 27, 2010 at 11:30 edit
    Mark! You have predicted one of the 6-10 rules – which is to somehow stop this ‘All I can see is the back of the heads of the people in front’ syndrome (I’m working on a snappier title). International House London, and I’m sure lots of other places, insisted on the U shape for the chairs in the classroom. Working with any other arrangement is an ordeal for the teacher and very de-motivating for the students.

    Betty C. Says:
    August 29, 2010 at 07:31 edit
    I totally agree with controlling the physical space of the room — I get in early, get the room set up to facilitate a U or something similar, and force students to sit up front. There is some moaning at the beginning of the year, but pretty soon the students do the desk-moving themselves.

    Ken Wilson Says:
    August 29, 2010 at 13:03 edit
    Hi Betty – i have a desk-moving story in the second part of this blog – watch this space

    Cecilia Coelho Says:
    August 27, 2010 at 05:33 edit
    I really enjoyed the post and the ideas Ken! And I’m with you on the “trios are better than pairs” idea. Thanks for sharing – and caring : )

    Ken Wilson Says:
    August 27, 2010 at 11:32 edit
    Thanks, Cecilia.

    Sharing and caring – it’s nice to share, and when we stop caring, it’s time to stop teaching, eh?

    Give my regards to the sharks on Boa Viagem beach.


  6. Hi Ken!

    After enjoying the first part of the post so much I was not surprised the second part was equally interesting and thought-provoking. Most of your suggestions are easily (?) applied in any classroom – with the exception of the chairs in rows. And that one, fortunately, I don’t have to worry about since the classrooms in the BNC I work at in Recife has the chairs arranged in a U-shaped way.

    I loved the “Engage” bit – will try it in my groups. Sounds like a really great way to involve students with the content, since we have the textbooks to follow. I have actually printed the “Play to Their Strengths” to post on our Teacher’s board – with your permission of course! – because it touches an issue that really annoys me. In the beginning of every semester most teachers find out who were their classes’ teachers of the previous semester, and, with the list of students at hand, gets “inside intel” about them: who’s good, who has an attitude problem, who is a trouble-maker, who’s weak and so on. I personally dislike this practice, because as you said, it labels the students by the previous teacher’s eyes. You can’t do that! you don’t know what kind of rapport the student had with that teacher, you don’t know if the student had a tough semester for any personal reason, etc etc… So, maybe reading that will make those teachers reflect a bit before doing that. I’m not preaching we never talk to the previous teacher, but do try to make up your own “perception” of each student before doing that – and maybe only resource to that if you have a doubt or think something from the previous semester might help you in any way. (sorry about the ranting – this really gets on my nerves)

    I know my comment is probably already too long, but there’s one thing I can’t leave out of it: what you wrote about teaching grammar. I agree with you when you say we should definitely stop teaching grammar rules. even though some students seem to only feel they’re learning English if you teach boring grammar rules (and they ask for it) I tell them that unless they want to become an English teacher, they have no use for that. They need to know how to use the grammar, how to communicate accurately, not to know how to form this or that verb tense. They don’t need to know the names. BUT, grammar practice, presented as grammar practice has proved effective and necessary in my practice. Maybe it’s the setting, the cultural factors, the audiolingual “inheritance”… And I have to admit that as a language student I find myself enjoying grammar lessons and practice. but then again, it might be because I am a language teacher 😉

    But above everything, your last piece of advice is the most important one in my opinion. Having fun in class, enjoying what you do and showing that when you do it is usually contagious. And everybody learns better and without noticing – more naturally – when having fun. And we’re not talking about being funny!

    Bottom line…thanks for a wonderful post Ken! And the sharks from Boa Viagem send their regards! 😉

    1. Cecilia,

      thanks for the wonderful comment – don’t EVER think your comments are too long. As far as I’m concerned, the discussions which follow my blog posts are the most important part.

      The whole grammar issue is not black and white – there are students who feel ‘safe’ when the lesson is grammar-oriented, and not just the ones like you who go on to become English teachers. But I still think that examining the glue that ties all these things together may be something they can do in their own time – which is why I think the explanations should be written in their own language.

      I think I did a talk at the BNC in Recife a couple of years ago, and hope to come back in 2011. Keep up the good work, and don’t stop commenting on my blog – especially if you DISagree with something I say. 😛

      1. both of you are great models for me and this is why ı am hooked on reading your blogs even ıf ıt is 3 at night…dear ken,believe that ı was on the back row in my school years..noone motivated me esp.in math..so ı could not be a doctor but now ı clearly see that you are the doctors who have excellent teaching recipes on their own…thank you…

      2. Burcu,

        if you mean that Cecilia is a model for you, then you have made a wise decision. The big advantage Ceci has over me is that she is a working teacher, constantly seeking to improve her work, and able to put into practice any ideas that she finds interesting. She’s a role model for me, too! 🙂

  7. Ken … I really enjoyed reading this post. Even though I do not have the pleasure of teaching to a group of ‘listless, unmotivated students in a compulsory class’, I do have the task of training and coaching corporate managers – who can sometimes appear listless and unmotivated 🙂

    Many thanks for sharing these lessons!!!


    1. Thanks, Mihirini!

      I have absolutely no experience of corporate training, but friends who do that kind of work tell me that they would rather have a bunch of skinhead teenagers with pierced body parts any day! 😛

  8. Some great tips here Ken, especially the last one. I’ve observed many technically proficient teachers who can’t really engage their learners because they just don’t look as though they want to be there…while at the same time I’ve seen teachers who struggle with the basic techniques yet can keep a class involved and on side by just looking like they want to be there and showing an interest in the students.

    Simple things like greeting students as they come in the class, chatting to them about what they’ve been up to, remembering their names (and god there are so many teachers who can’t be bothered to do this simple thing, and I mean in small classes, it’s understandable if you have a class of 70), remembering a pop group or a TV show that a student said they liked. In my experience these small things (or the lack of them) can often be the difference between a motivated and an unmotivated class.

    Just as an aside Ken, I saw you do a workshop at the IH DoS conference ooh, maybe ten years ago or maybe even more. I remember you showed various drama techniques that I’ve shown to more teachers than I can remember. You gave a handout of the rather wonderful activity ‘Doctors and Nurses’ and that has been copied (with your name and attribution printed at the bottom of course :-)) hundreds and hundreds of times in many countries across the globe during my work as a teacher trainer. Never had the chance to say thanks for the workshop so thought I’d do it here…

    1. Ah – so YOU’RE the source of all these Doctors & Nurses handouts that turn up when I’m doing drama workshops. 😛

      There is something so completely ridiculous and wonderful and fulfilling about Doctors and Nurses, that no teacher has ever asked ‘Why would i want to do this in class?’ at the end of it. Maybe they were too exhausted.

      I have to give credit where credit’s due – I’m sure a lot of drama experts – Maley, Rinvolucri etc – have a similar activity to this, but the first person I saw do something like this was Jane Revell, who I am still in touch with and who is a co-author on a couple of writing projects.

  9. Great advice, Ken! If you don’t mind, I’ll give an edited (for length) version to all my CELTA course participants in future.

    The section that I liked most? “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.”

    I think it’s very unfortunate that so many teachers seem not to enjoy teaching. It’s unfortunate for them and even more unfortunate for their students.

    I made myself a promise many years ago: The day I no longer enjoy teaching is the day that I’ll stop teaching and look for something else to do. Luckily, that day hasn’t arrived yet! But then I’ve only been teaching for 40+ years.


    1. Jeff,

      you’re most welcome to use edited versions of the material – and send the teachers to the blog if they want to read the rest! 😛

  10. Ken,
    Great post! and very thought-provoking. Thanks for reminding one more time that some simple truths can have a great impact on learning process.
    I particularly like U-shape seating arrangement,” teacher down on his knees” and having a bit of fun in class.
    I taught Beginner students in corporate environment, still I managed to make a group of like 10 adults aged 30-45 stand in a circle with me singing “If you’re happy and you know it” =) I didn’t see any sour face while we were doing the activity, and I’m sure after a hard day at work that was both positive and relaxing part of a lesson.
    Likewise, nobody ever told me that getting down to your knees was a right thing to do when a student has difficulties understanding something. I used to do that, again in my corporate classes, just because it seemed right to me. Plus a U-shaped classroom gave more freedom of movement for both learners and myself.

    1. Thank you for those words of support… I particularly like the ‘no one ever told me…’ part. The fact is real educators have an instinct of how to deal with their classes… and you are clearly one of the chosen ones. 🙂

  11. hi,
    thank you for the tips. as a teacher of 24 years, I feel rejuvenated after reading your tips particularly on your advice not to teach grammar. Your tips are refreshing! I totally agree with you that it’s more effective to explain the grammar rules in the first language, in my case the Malay Language. Just the other day I taught my students the past perfect and explaining the rules in Malay definitely help the students (which is a weak class by the way). Frankly, I avoid teaching grammar directly. I prefer to teach vocabulary and hope that somehow my students will pick up the grammar indirectly. thanks again ken!

  12. What wonderful tips! These are useful when teaching anything (and helping your own children with learning!)

    1. Thanks, Sarah – especially nice to see a comment from someone from outside the English teaching bubble (although it’s a really nice bubble to be in) 😛

  13. Great practical tips. I especially like the comment about groups of 3. It’s so easy to get into the pairs-rut. Groups of 3 is common sense … when you think about it. 2 students good, 3 studentsbetter.

    There’s a sub-theory of self-determination theory known as cognitive evaluation theory (CET) and it suggests that intrinsic motivation comes from three innate psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness (social interaction). If we make sure we meet these needs in our classrooms, we can’t go far wrong. And, of course, Web 2.0 is probably so popular in education because it’s all about these needs.

    On a slightly different note, kneeling rather than bending over when you’re monitoring is esp important for t-shirt-wearing female teachers. I learned this the hard way when I was a lot younger and teaching a class of all male students …

  14. Easy and amazing tips Ken,

    I feel like finding words to define feelings that have always been there staring at me. Grammar, for example, I’ve always felt there was something wrong with spending half of a class (sometimes more) explaining rules when all they needed was conversation practice, although I had to explain to some students why we were not “studying” grammar. Also some of them told the coordinator they did not know what to study (for the remedial test) because they had not seen anything. I think it is still going to take some time for us to change the idea that we have to teach grammar rules.

    I think engaging and devolving responsibility are two great ways to value what they have to offer and start working with collaboration. I’ll try it next term.

    I can’t imagine language classes with desks in rows, thanks God, here, we changed that some time ago, now, I think there shouldn’t be a desk for the teacher in front of the class. I only sit there in the begining of the class, and then move to an empty student desk, from where I organize everything and only go to the front when I need to use the notebook, the projector or write on the board. From my experience, students like and feel more comfortable when their teachers sit together with them or in the same level.

    Understanding that teachers’ problems are not the students’ fault is something really important. I remember one of my friends, and then the principal of the school I work, saying that he knew I liked what I was doing because everytime he passed in front of my classroom I was smiling. That is something I try to tell the teachers here, that even if you teach grammar rules, if you smile, students will feel more confident and respected. That’s one of the most important aspects for me in teaching, showing you care for your students, learning is a result.
    Thanks for sharing your ideas and experiences!

  15. Thanks for the positive comments, Lu and for moving the discussion along even more …

    I should have mentioned that the ‘don’t teach grammar (so much)’ idea also worries some teachers, and I think you have identified why it worries students even more – what are they supposed to study before the exam? I’ll pause to sigh at the fact that the exam seems to be the strongest motivation factor for the students, and move on to say – AFTER the contextualised presentation, OF COURSE students need some form practice – and this is why I make my comment about the explanations in grammar reference material being in the student’s own language – it becomes a really useful revision resource that way.

    You sound like a lovely teacher – your students must enjoy being with you. 😛

    PS – Luciana has some lovely stuff on her blog – http://teacherluciana10.edublogs.org/

  16. Hi again Ken,

    And thanks for the compliments.
    I totally agree with you about tests, too and I had an interesting experience with that last semester with upper-intermediate students. We created a wiki page ( http://master1pl.pbworks.com/ )in which I posted forums and they were supposed to discuss.

    At the end of the bimester, those who had had good participation in terms of arguments, use of contents we were studying would not need to do the test, and surprise, some of them preferred to do the test, and I also felt that the ones who did not need the test were insecure about how I was evaluting their production. Also they asked me to correct the grammar mistakes, which I sometimes did. As I told, I think it’s quite cultural and it is going to take some time to change it.

    About my blog, I really have to go back to writing, thanks for inspiring me!!

  17. Hi Ken!
    Thanks for the tips. The school year begins in January here in Guatemala. I can`t wait to put your ideas into practice. I teach teens.


  18. Hi Ken,

    I’ve just watched your training video on this topic via the British Council website. Nice one! I’m teaching multi-lingual classes in Malaysia. I hope to put some of your suggestions into practice next week as we start a new term.

    All the best!


  19. Thanks a lot for your fruitful experience. I’d like to add something else.What about sharing Ss their interests and relate them to our teaching ?. I tried this with my Ss and it worked fantastically.

  20. I went to a Catholic school pre-school through 8th grade. Our skirts were expensive, by the time I hit 8th grade my skirt was a little short. I always wore bicycle shorts under them, but the skirts were short! We got very good at a cross legged bend the knees almost squat to drink from the drinking fountain.

    How is this relevant?

    I use that same squat now when I work with students! I find that kneeling gets cumbersome moving from group to group, bending over can give that awkward booty in another student’s face or, as another teacher pointed out, a view of your chest.

    If you don’t have a method already I encourage you to get one. It really does help!

    Thanks so much, Ken! So many of these are things that I know but often get pushed to the back in the midst of life and chaos. The reminder is deeply appreciated.

  21. Hi Ken

    I know this is a very, very late reply to your blog but I seriously need help with my High School classes so I’ve been googling tips and advice on techniques and and activities to do with my classes. Let me tell you ,y story first. I have recently moved to Korea to teach nglish as a secounf language. The students I teach are unmotivated, bored and even sleep in my class. I have tried games, movies, songs and nothing seems to help. I tried speaking to them (sonly some understands me) and asked them how come they have this attitude. Their reply: “I don’t like English.” Apparently these kids don’t see the need to learn English as most of them are expected and want to seek employment after school and do not see how English will benefit them.

    Your tips on how to motivate them are fantastic and I will be using these rules, however I need concrete activities to teach them English, even if its just the basics. Where do you think I can source some activities to use in the classroom. I’m a foreigner (South African) who has recently graduated. This is my first time teaching professionally and I’ve been placed at an awkward situation. I have tried to see the silver lining by thinking that there must be a way to get them interested at least. I know there is. And I want to be the one who gets them interested.

  22. Hi Ken,

    I enjoyed your thought-provoking post and am seeking some advice if you can provide it. I teach in a hazırlık (university IEP) in Turkey where students and teachers have very little autonomy. I love #5 (and the rest of your suggestions) but I don’t know how they would work in my teaching environment.

    I had a grad school professor who regularly assigned student groups to present the content of her courses. I would love to get my students involved in this way, but whereas she tied the presentations to a grade, I am unable to do this because the graded assignments for my courses are all predetermined; I’m not authorized to add or delete any.

    Since I can’t give a grade for presenting the course content (which is also predetermined by my program), my students in the lower classes, who are the most demotivated ones at all, almost certainly won’t do it. That is, the 3 or 4 motivated ones will, and the other 15 will sit there and sleep or play on their cell phones. They regularly refuse to participate in class or even do simple activities in their course books. The only time most of them show initiative is when they know they are being graded, which includes showing up for exams or class on time.

    Thus, with the tight controls on grades and content, it is more difficult than in some other teaching environments to implement #5 and other suggestions for increasing student motivation. What would you do in my situation?


    Aaron in Ankara

    1. Hi Aaron. There really are some classroom situations which seem impervious to change. The system seems all wrong, as you describe it. But the largely unmotivated class sounds familiar. My advice would be to give them an ultimatum – do you want to take part, or not? If not, sit at the back, play with your phones and we can forget that you’re here. In my experience, this is usually another of a kick in the backside to make them realise they are wasting their – and your – time.

  23. good evening, how are you doing great Ken, yes you are great, I was really impressionate about your fantastic presentations at the British council conference in algeria on 8th and 9th May thanks to you and the for the british council for this chance to meet with other teachers of English and get some marvellous ideas about our tiring but good job.

  24. Hello Ken, I found your article full of great ideas. I work in a private university in a small city in Colombia where 97% of the students are only really interested in the grades they get and not how they get there, as they are obliged to study between 5 and 10 semesters of English in all degree programs or they won’t graduate. It’s hard work motivating the students in this situation, but I’m always looking for new ideas.

  25. Hi. I’m not a teacher but a student. I thank you for understanding us, students, especially the “not so fast-learner” students. As I read this, it makes me think that you’re a great teacher that students want to have. We may be lazy sometimes & lose interest in our subjects but believe us we also want to learn. There are just times that we are not comfortable in what we are doing. Thanks again. Hoping that other teachers will read this. Keep up the good work! God bless.

  26. Hi! I stumbled upon your article here as I am a college professor for an undergraduate class that I am struggling with. The class is relatively small (12 students) and it is a lab course in the medical field. I do most of the above tools and I have one particular class that seems to have no leaders! I literally had no student turn in a project this week – and it was given weeks ago, I answered multiple questions related to the project, and a few of the topics have had smaller assignments already completed and turned in – so now they just had to do a “big picture” assignment. I will assign a portion of the day’s lecture to each person (easy material – informal presentation – but worth a small participation grade. And the ENTIRE class will come in with nothing. I am seeing this as a lack of leadership at all, therefore no students to bring the class up. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Amy,

      sorry I didn’t see your comment until now. I don’t use this blog any more and I’m only here because I’m installing stuff on a new Macbook.

      I’m not sure I understand what it is you want my advice about. If you email me at kenwrite@btinternet.com with more details, I can maybe help.

      Best, Ken

  27. Ken,
    I know a young boy in my neighborhood who has been good in sport and studies since childhood….a nice, decent boy of 23 years now. After completing B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering almost 2 years ago, he is not interested now in job, or any attachment, rather aiming for higher studies (may be simply buying time). But the fact is he has withdrawn from going out, meeting friends, answering phones and replying to emails. He is spending times mostly in reading books, watching TV, and stays inside. We are all worried how to motivate this guy

  28. Ken,
    I know a young boy in my neighborhood who has been good in sport and studies since childhood….a nice, decent boy of 23 years now. After completing B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering almost 2 years ago, he is not interested now in job, or any attachment, rather aiming for higher studies (may be simply buying time). But the fact is he has withdrawn from going out, meeting friends, answering phones and replying to emails. He is spending times mostly in reading books, watching TV, and stays inside. We are all worried how to motivate this guy. Do you have any suggestion?

    1. It sounds as if he needs professional help. A lot of young people seem to lose motivation when they finish studies. It’s a problem that can be solved with expert counselling.

  29. Hi, Ken! Thank you for the article – it was an interesting and fun read!
    However, I still have a question about this. I am currently teaching a group of 4 girls, which are apprentices at a firm. Their English is fairly good (but plenty of room for improvement) and, so, they seem to have an attitude that they don’t need the classes. I’ve tried doing group works, such as, assessment center activities, interviews, listening to TED talks, reading articles, role plays, discussions on various provoking topics, like, getting more women into leading positions – nothing really works. They eventually do what I ask them to do and they do an ok job but their attitude is just inappropriate. First, they always try to do the tasks as quick as possible and giving short answers to avoid long discussions. Second, they take about 5 minutes to start reading a text after I would tell them because they need to discuss their weekend plans or show their new manicure to each other. And after I tell them ‘Girls, please focus’, I would get a ‘yeah, we’re reading, chill’ in return. I talked to the supervisor about this and he said that if they ever do anything disrespectful I should immediately stop the lesson and come to him. The problem is, they never cross the line for me to actually do that. They do the work, their English is fairly good, they don’t argue with me or say anything that’s over the line (I wouldn’t make a scene just because a student who’s native language is not English said ‘chill’ and I personally found that disrespectful).
    I guess one reason for this is that we are all of more or less the same age (21) and they don’t find the lessons useful. Generally, I don’t think that my teaching strategies and topics were poorly selected or delivered because I have no problems to motivate the other 8 groups that I have. It really seems that with this one free discussions and assuming that they’re going to get engaged naturally from the start will not work. For now, I’m just looking for a way how to keep them constantly occupied so they wouldn’t have time to chat. But, I really hope that you might have some advice for me.

  30. I have to encounter a class of 50 odd teenagers and often end up teaching only the first two rows. My challenge is fixed furniture and more than 30 students who are indifferent. Besides the space is a great problem, the U shape will not succeed. Finally it is myself who is the sole entertainer. Do you get the picture?

  31. Dear Ken,
    Thank you for your enlightening ideas. They seem to be useful to many of my students groups, from kids to pre-teens, adapting one thing or another. I was feeling hopeless at teaching a large chit-chat pre-teen group. One of the major problems seemed to be the seating arrangements. The stars and trios will work fine and the idea of giving them responsibility for presenting something in a unit of the book is wonderful. I’ll keep you posted.

  32. Dear Ken,
    A few months ago, looking for ways on how to motivate my students I came across your informative video on youtube on motivating the unmotivated which was very helpful. I have a question which is not really related to motivation. I would like to know if I can send you an email and ask my questions or can I ask them here, though irrelevant to the subject?

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