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#EFLproblems – Motivating Young Learners

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Japanese girlWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. In this week’s blog, Verissimo Toste responds to Sylwia’s blog comment about motivating young learners.

I’m interested in the idea of participation points for the class. How does it work? Is it a motivation for the whole class? Are there any awards? I’m asking because I mainly have a problem with involving students in the lesson, especially the weaker ones. They fell behind with grammar and vocabulary and they became discouraged. They are also very lazy.”

Sylwia brought up an interesting issue: involving young learners in the lesson, or more specifically “the weaker ones”. According to Sylwia, these weaker learners “fell behind with grammar and vocabulary and they became discouraged.”

The first point I would like to bring up here is that success motivates, and equally, failure demotivates. If a learners’s previous experience with English has been negative, it is natural that they will give up. So, an important objective for the teacher of young learners is to make everyone feel successful. This is not as difficult as it may seem. Here are some ideas:

1. Focus on what has been learned

Praise learners for their achievements. When teaching colours, for example, focus on the colours each child has learned, not on the ones they still don’t know. Don’t compare them to one another. Relate to each learner individually. Focus on what each learner has achieved and the improvements they have made.

2. Make your classroom safe and supportive

Strive to make your classroom a place your learners enjoy being in. Equally, make your lessons a time your learners look forward to. Encourage them to enjoy the songs they sing, the games they play, the projects they share with each other. Make your lessons fun and have fun with them. When an activity is on the verge of being too difficult or uninteresting, step back. Save it for another time. Children do not learn when they feel stressed or when they don’t like what they are meant to learn.

3.  Children like learning

This is an important point, so I will repeat it: children like learning. It is what they do all day, every day. Children learn what they need to learn. Your learners will enjoy learning a new song. If you ask them to teach that song to their parents, you create a need for them to learn the lyrics. You also create a situation in which they are motivated to learn the song in order to teach someone else. This may create a need for reading the lyrics, or to memorise the song well enough for when they arrive home. Notice how, in this situation, you have also created a need to play the song more than one time, as your learners will need to know it well in order to teach it.

4. Children are natural language learners

Everyone has learned a language. There is no language in the world that is too difficult for a child to learn as their mother tongue. So, children are natural language learners. They will make the effort to learn the new words you are teaching, or some new language structure. They simply need to feel safe, to enjoy it, and to believe they can do it.

Now, more specifically, what can a teacher do to involve all of their learners in the lesson?

5. Personalise the learning

Whatever language you are teaching, see how your learners can use it to talk about themselves and their world. When teaching words associated with the house, relate it to their houses. When teaching abilities with “can”, or possessions with “have got”, relate it to their abilities and their possessions. Young learners like to talk about themselves. When they see English as a way to talk about their interests, they will become more motivated and will make a greater effort.

6. Each according to their ability

As your learners are learning the language, relate to each according to their ability. Antonio may tell you a lot of things he has got and, in this way, use most of the language you have been teaching. Ana, however, may only tell you about a few things. In both cases, praise them for what they have done. This will encourage Ana to continue learning. She will notice how others communicate more and be encouraged to learn more. Remember, success leads to success. If Ana feels successful, she will continue to make an effort.

7. Praise them! Reward them!

Establish a system for rewarding your learners for their efforts. Rewards should be based on effort and not knowledge. Make sure that everyone is able to get the reward if they try. For example, in my classes I create an honour board called, “I Am Special”. Let’s imagine I am teaching likes and dislikes, with the vocabulary related to food. The first week anyone who can name 5 different food items without looking at the book gets their name on the board. Two weeks later it might be those who can tell me 3 food items they like and three they don’t like.

8. Give them the opportunity to succeed.

Give your learners a second and third opportunity to succeed. Maria may not be able to name 5 food items the first week, but during the second week she is able to. That’s when you put her name on the honour board. Eventually, you may see everyone’s name on the board. Great! Congratulate the class on how well they are doing – all of them!

9. Establish routines

Establish a routine in class. This will help communicate to your learners what is expected of them. How should they enter the classroom? What is the first thing they should do as they come in? What do you want to see on their desks? What do you not want to see? Do they put away their books? Establish some definitions for working together, raising hands, etc.

10. Use project work

Finally, since Sylwia mentioned weaker learners and the idea of mixed ability, I always recommend that teachers use project work for these situations. I mentioned that personalising learning helps motivate children to learn. Using project work can give learners a basis to use the English they are learning. For example, when learning “can” for abilities, learners can make a poster of what they can do. Using images will reinforce learning. The project gives everyone an opportunity to show what they have learned. Making it personal and sharing the information with others in the class will engage them in their learning and make the language real.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about getting young learners involved, so please comment on this post.

Please keep your challenges coming. You can let us know by commenting on this post, on Twitter using the hashtag #EFLproblems, or on our Facebook page. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.

Here are the topics for the next two blogs:

04 December 2013: Learning English beyond the exams
18 December 2013: Written self-correction for younger learners

Author: OUP Professional Development

The Professional Development Team has 65+ years of teaching and training experience between us. We regularly attend and speak at local, national, regional and international conferences as well as running workshops and seminars and delivering webinars to teachers all over the world. We take part in social media channels such as facebook and twitter and do our best to stay up-to-speed with current trends and discussions through various media (blogs, new publishing etc.) and by talking to and working with other educators (teachers, trainers, authors etc.).

8 thoughts on “#EFLproblems – Motivating Young Learners

  1. Thank you for this inspiring article. Teaching mixed ability classes needs hard work but the result is priceless. I find tjis article really helpful in setting up classroom activities which suit all students’ needs.

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  7. reaaly i enjoy some ideas about motivating young learners and i expect more thanks alot

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