To Interest Students in English Class: A Common Challenge
Khagendra Raj Dhakal, MEd (TESOL)
Asst. Dean / ELT Specialist
Faculty of Applied Arts
King Mongkut’s University of Technology North Bangkok
Let’s recall when we sat for an uninteresting lesson for hours. I bet you remember a few moments that you spent just yawning in the class. Even a knowledgeable teacher can fall apart to having the students attentive during the class if the lesson doesn’t click them. A teacher’s hard preparation can be less effective when it fails to incorporate what enthuse students in the lesson. This is really true in terms of English teaching in many cases if not all.
So what creates the joy of learning in English class is a common challenge to all English teachers. Does this require a language teacher to have some extra talents? I think it’s more about a vision of a teacher that can take away the classroom stress by designing interesting activities. It takes a lot of planning and work but can pay off well in the end. A meaningful learner friendly activity can create an environment where students face some challenge, make decisions on their work, explore the solutions, don’t get penalized for making mistakes, and enjoy doing the task. Often time teachers have given up teaching profession just getting frustrated from a non cooperative class despite strong efforts from them. Pity those teachers who gave up instead of analyzing what it took to pique the students’ interests.
The key point here is a teacher should know the students and should prepare the lesson that fits them. By considering the students’ language level, age, background, and aptitude, a language teacher can contextualize the lesson in a way that becomes more important to their lives. In the worst case, students do not even understand the 10 % of classroom language due to the limited knowledge of the target language. Expecting such students’ active participation in the lecture that is not connected to real life can be unrealistic. Simple techniques like making eye contacts, calling the students by their names, praising their small effort, grouping them differently can sustain the students’ interest to the lesson. Unless you create the environment that challenges students to be part of your lesson, there is very little or no learning even though factors like culture and loyalty to teachers can make them ideally present in your class.
Let me share an activity that interested students which I used for undergraduate class recently in Thailand. The lesson for the day was about ‘A City Square’ and students were supposed to learn the use of ‘Prepositions of Place’. I started the lesson by asking my students what they can see in the nearest city center (Siam Square) in Bangkok. They kept telling different things including movie theater, post office, mail box, book store, coffee shop, park, gym, ice-cream shop, ATM, drug store, newspaper shop, hotel, clinic, library etc. I elicited their answers making a list on a side of the white board. Then I asked the students to draw a rough map on the board spotting the elicited places. I urged everyone to participate to complete the overall map of the Siam Square which they love to visit frequently. Some students took the lead by sketching the different roads in the Siam Square and rest continued to complete the map by spotting all the places on the map. Students seemed excited while contributing to the map sketching activity. They completed the map in the best possible ways they could as I saw them advising their friends to spot certain places properly to make the map look better.
The activity didn’t end there. I further extended it into a game. Students were divided into 3 groups each having 7 members and played the Hide and Seek out of that map. In this game, each group sends a representative (in rotation) to the front of the class to hide himself/herself in one of the places on the map and informs the place to the teacher so that teacher can play the role of the judge. While a hiding student represents one group, the rest two groups go on guessing for 5 times taking the turns. To ease the game, I introduced some sample structures on the board. For example: Are you beside…? Are you near…? Are you next to …? Are you on …? Are you between…? Are you across from…? Are you on the corner of…? Are you behind…? They keep guessing using the questions based on the sampled structures. The hider usually said ‘No I am not’ or ‘Yes I am’ in the response. When students were not sure about which preposition fits better to describe a certain place, they sought my help. The successful group who could locate the hider was awarded with a point. This process went on for 7 rounds. I facilitated the game and scored on the board. The higher scorer group was announced as the winner of the game.
This activity illustrates that presentation and practice stages of the lesson should be interesting. The most important thing during this lesson was students enjoyed the game and learned to describe the places using appropriate prepositions at the same time. The presentation stage should be as short as possible just to introduce the vocabulary and target language while the production stage can relatively be longer. If the students like the activity they work hard to please the teacher spontaneously and practice stage of the lesson becomes more live. I observed both groups cheering their groups during the game. Considering the available time and the students’ interest to the activity, you can vary the length of the practice stage of your lesson.
Production stage is another critical phase to keep students interested in the target language lesson. I have heard a lot of colleagues complaining about the students not being responsive in the last part of the language lesson. Again there may not be any magical wand to keep them interested but offering an opportunity to experiment the language they learned in the practice stage can help it going. You can assign a different game or fun activity during the production stage. Students appreciate the variety in activities just as the fashion lovers do in the dress selection. For the production stage of the lesson discussed above, I assigned a ‘pair talk’. Students worked in pairs and asked each other about the location of the different places on their university campus. By taking turns they conversed like: Student A asked where is the coffee shop in our university? And Student B replied it’s between the 7/Eleven store and the university clinic. Every one was engaged in the conversation using the earlier learned language skills in a fun way. I just went around and observed their talk. The class was really noisy which I love to see.
At the end of the lesson, I asked the location of a few popular places in Bangkok to the individual students to trail their understanding of the lesson. More than 98% students answered correctly that showed to me that this was an effective lesson. A few students committed some errors in the sentence construction level but still they placed the preposition (included in the lesson) appropriately. Such learning experience was taken very differently by the students than dictating pages long rules of using preposition of place with some paper pencil exercise to practice. As researches support, there could be higher chances that students could apply this sort of learning experiences in new situation and the activities that have touched them deep inside can stay longer in the mind.
The underlying point here is activities conducted in the classroom should be meaningful. The activity that students don’t consider important for them will definitely end up being a burden, thus creates the frustration in learning. This is applicable to language class in a sense language learning is a purposeful act. A Chinese girl who wants to set up a teashop at China Town in NYC may want to learn how to communicate to the customers. If you put her in a situation where she has to talk to the customer in the class, she will definitely put her effort to the best of her capacity. On the other hand, if you gave her a role of a traffic police to deal with a motorcycle rider on the street, she may not put the effort as she did for the former role. Though both situations are student centric the latter one can’t interest her as the former does.
Another thing a teacher can do to interest language students is designing activities that require critical thinking. As a teacher you can pose a controversial issue that is somehow directly related to your students. It helps the students dig out the issues going beyond the cold hard facts. Such activities can give a ground to practice and develop the language and critical thinking skills. Not long ago, I experimented this concept in Grade 9 English class in an international school in Bangkok. Age wise they were critical, generation wise ultra modern, and background wise diverse. So, it was always a challenge to me especially to keep them going throughout the session. The language items I was supposed to deal with, a lot of times used to be already familiar concept, thus my conventional attempts could no way interested them. At times I was frustrated too. However, I didn’t give up but kept contemplating. Consequently, I came up with a new idea of organizing a debate in the class to enhance the same language skills. I divided the class into two groups and allowed them to debate on ‘homework in language learning’ in a parliamentary style. Apparently, the class went live with strong logics from both sides on the given topic. Even the class ended, students were busy discussing on the feedback of the debate they had. Young students gave me a lot of compliments also for assigning such tasks and requested to continue such in the following classes.
This activity was far more effective than my power point presentations which I used to spend hours to prepare. At the same time this new idea made my work easier, it was just mere an idea that worked effectively. The students today can’t be satisfied by anybody who just stands in front of them in the name of a teacher; understanding them is essential. It gave me a lesson that students of the 21st century are far more different to the students of the past. Even a gap of ten years is producing two distinct generations of learners. A language teacher with the mindset of the 20th century or earlier can blame the new generations for being ‘hard headed’ but may not review his/her teaching approach; carrying a grandfather’s time prescriptive grammar book, s/he enters the class and bores the students to death and boasts with his sophisticated knowledge in the subject matter. Just the knowledge of the subject matter alone may not make one a language teacher in this changed context. A language teacher now requires sound vision of teaching, capacity to understand the learners, knowledge of the new technologies and skills to adapt them all in the lesson.
In my journey of teaching English, I was fortunate to meet students from different backgrounds from Non-native to Native English speakers, the list of countries that my students have come from span four different continents. I dealt with such diverse body of students in different level and contexts from international school to the university settings. There was a time an American parent approached me in the school and raised a question that how come his daughter failed an English test I gave. I had no words to reply him but her answer paper to show. There was another time my students evaluated me as the best teacher of the year as I could understand them better. While dealing with varieties of English courses with such diverse body of students, I have realized that each student I met was a different personality with different talents. However there was one common thing I observed in all of them was everyone loves fun. So this magic of fun can be integrated in language class to interest the learners successfully.
Just to interest students into the lesson is not everything about the greater transformation in teaching that has taken place recently, but it’s one of the major components for sure. Changing oneself to adapt to such transformation in language teaching context is a harder thing to do. In the classroom there are really two sets of learners. The students who learn how to use English better from their teachers, and the teacher who accepts that learning how to be a good teacher sometimes involves how the students react to you. Now I am teaching in a university where the interaction to students gives me new insights to change myself to be more understanding teacher in every new lesson. This way, it took me over a decade to realize that I have a lot more things to learn to be a successful teacher. Nowadays, I try to consider the silent voices within my students as my guidelines to figure out what activity fits them better. I must credit my delightful students for my present outlook on teaching English as they really taught me to think this way. So, here I would like to urge all fellow English teachers to review on how they define their role once and see if they are also taking so long to transform like myself to understand their students.