Student Motivation: Engaging students with the topic

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I was at a meeting of EFL Teachers one time when I lived in Japan where, at the end of the session, we were broken into groups to discuss our own context and then workshop any challenges we faced.

In my group, we hit the problem of engagement. One of the other teachers whose name I forget now, let’s call her Yoshimura-Sensei, was saying she had trouble getting students involved in the lesson. There was something very striking in her description of the problem that I’ll come back to at the end of this post, but for the moment let me outline the gist of my response to her.

We’d been put into groups with a simple exercise involving picture cards. My picture was of a kabuki performance (a traditional type of Japanese theatre). This is a paraphrase of what I suggested:

Okay, let’s say the lesson is about kabuki or rakugo… one of the textbooks I use, for example, has a text about rakugo. So I’d find some pictures… not spending too long, of course! (For copyright free images, try Wikipedia or Flikr Creative Commons or StockExchange or Morgue File).

And I’d bring them into class and whack them up on the board. “What’s this? What can you see? You’ve got 10 seconds each to tell your partner…” (Where, of course, I’d give them about 30 seconds each in reality!)

Feedback. Should be pretty obvious.

Okay, next… I’d write the following question on the board: “Have you ever been to a live kabuki performance?” (and in a monolingual context just get a translation, in a multilingual context do some concept-checking)

Sidenote: This level of language is clearly NOT going to work in a multilingual context at low levels… BUT… you aren’t likely to have the same degree of motivation issues that junior high and high school teachers have in monolingual settings. Nevertheless, you will encounter problems like that from time to time in the average EFL college in Australia or England or the US or wherever… so you need to come up with a simpler question. For example “Do you like kabuki?” or “Do you know kabuki?” “Do you like live theatre?” etc.

Then… “Okay, in groups of 3 (or 4), you’ve got 3 or 4 minutes to answer the question and tell your group what you know, if anything, about kabuki…. Go.


The next step would depend on the actual nature of the text I was leading into and what kind of lesson I wanted to do. But the basic thrust would be along these lines:

  • find the main theme of the text (In relation to kabuki, for this example. So… What particular thing about kabuki is it talking about? Is it a general overview? Does it discuss particular aspects? Does it contrast kabuki with rakugo and noh and other forms of Japanese theatre? Etcetera.)
  • Think of how to frame the text is such a way that the students could make some preliminary prediction questions. And then get them to do so! An example might go something like this:Okay, we’re going to read / listen to something about kabuki. It’s a general overview of kabuki and the history of kabuki (I’d be saying this in Japanese, obviously! But in a multilingual setting, I would just make it really, really simple if I were at low levels and concept check… and make it as simple as needs be at higher levels… and concept-check)… So, um, what kind of things would you expect it to cover? Make a list of at least 5 things in your group.Feedback ALL answers to the board.
  • Let’s say it’s a reading task. Give them a time-limited first read-through to determine whether or not the text covered the points they suggested and/or answered their questions. They can just tick or cross.
  • This covers the main points, probably. Not necessarily. But probably. Then it’s just a matter of setting my own questions (in addition to any they didn’t find the answer for in the first read-through + partner-check) and setting a more generous time-limit (as well as allowing dictionaries this time) for the second, more detailed read-through.

By this time, you’re well into the lesson and you’ve probably got the vast majority of students engaged with it – without their even realising it! It would only be the most hardcore “I hate [insert foreign language]!” students who would still be snoozing or goofing off.

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Sidenote: When I say “…without their even realising it“, I don’t mean that literally. Of course they know they’re doing the lesson. The point is that they’re just that little bit more motivated to find the answers to their own prediction questions. And they’ve been given a chance to personally express themselves at the outset, even if it is just “Don’t know nuffin bout it” (which can be turned to your advantage at the prediction questions stage by getting them to write what they’d like to know about it, or even what, for example, their grandparents would expect or want them to know about it, etc. You get the idea, right? The “Don’t know nuffin” should never be accepted as a checkmate. It’s not. It’s just a cocky Queen to K-1 with no knight in the wings. You can still rook.

So, as I said to Yoshimura-Sensei, I think a lot of teachers are probably worried about or scared of doing this sort of thing at the beginning of the lesson because it seems like “a waste of time”; they “have the textbook to get through” and blah blah blah…

The way I look at it is this:

I’d rather spend 10 minutes at the start of the lesson engaging the majority of the class and “getting them on board” for the remaining 40 minutes than spend 50 minutes pulling teeth.

This is a simple way to engage them: Ask them about the topic and get them to share their experiences with it—briefly (because you will want to hold off on some of that for the “Respond to the text” phase of the lesson).

The more you do this, the more they get in the habit of doing it. And the more they realise, “Hey, this [foreign language] thing maybe ain’t as dull or difficult as I’d thought. Maybe I can do it…”

This is not a change that’s going to happen in a week. Or two. Or even three. But after a couple of months, your classes will mostly come around to this point of view, I think.

Not ONLY from doing this particular exercise at the start of the class, naturally, but by integrating this attitude into everything you do and the way you actually manage your classroom.

A perfect example of this is Yoshimura-Sensei’s comment that I said I’d return to.

She was explaining her predicament and in doing so she described the way she stands at the front of the room and watches the chaos unfold. I can’t remember exactly how she described it now, but I recall thinking (not in a nasty way either, that) “Hmm… I’m not surprised the students don’t feel engaged with the lesson if you’re demarcating the ‘teacher space’ and the ’student space’ and not crossing that bridge. You’re setting up a ‘Right, I’m going to tell you what to do and you’re just going to do it’ kind of context, which no one likes to be part of…”

Something as simple as setting up the lesson very, very quickly by engaging them with some prompts (doesn’t need to be pictures; could be a video excerpt or a piece of music or a real-live object (I won’t use the “R” word here!)) and then asking them to respond to it and offer their own ideas… and then mingling around for that 3 or 4 minutes and listening and/or commenting on what they’re discussing and then getting their feedback and allowing comments… and THEN taking “centre stage” for the 5 minutes it might take you to roll out the main focus of the lesson…

… this sort of thing is going to work wonders, I think.

But I could be wrong. What do you think? And what do you do to engage and motivate your students?


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6 Responses to “Student Motivation: Engaging students with the topic”

  1. Sharon Sharon says:

    That was a great post. I will have to bookmark this site so I can read more later.

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  2. Archie Archie says:

    Thank you for your suggestions! i am teaching next month so i am getting prepared to give my students the best lessons i can, and i know that with your great help it will be sure.

    Greeting from mexico! God bless you!

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    •  Leslie says:

      Heya, Archie!

      Thanks for the kind words and good luck with your teaching. You know where to reach me if you have any questions.

      All the best,

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  3. prasant prasant says:

    Thanks! to share your interesting way to make the class interesting and energetic.I am an English language teacher in India so I can understand it's need in teaching

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    •  Leslie says:

      Hi, Prasant

      Glad it was useful and I hope I can be of more assistance in the future.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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