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Motivational Teaching in the English language classroom

Nick Thorner, author of the professional development title ‘Motivational Teaching‘ in the Into The Classroom series, explores some of the issues that cause low motivation among students and methods to overcome them. You can join Nick for his upcoming webinar ‘Motivational Teaching: Engaging young people in learning behaviour’ on 26th May.

Few issues in education are as troubling as low student motivation. It leaves countless individuals unable to achieve their potential, and many teachers feeling demoralised. But perhaps more serious than low motivation is the lack of understanding we have of its causes, which can be complex and deep-seated. If we can’t understand our students’ lack of commitment, it’s difficult to identify strategies to deal with it and easy to blame individuals. And if students themselves feel puzzled by their apathy, they can become very frustrated. The effect can be a classroom atmosphere of resentment and mistrust.

That’s why I believe we cannot deal with the issue of low learner motivation unless we explore its causes. So we’ll begin our discussion by looking into some of the latest research on the psychology of motivation, and understand how our brains respond to the prospects of rewards, sanctions, and perceived threats. This will then lead us towards three clear approaches for raising motivation.

  1. Increasing task commitment

How often have you set students’ homework in the dying moments of lessons as they pack away their things? All too often, time pressure leaves us setting learning tasks quickly, without much thought to learner motivation. Yet there is so much we can do to help students increase their  commitment to tasks, for example:

  • Explain the reasons for the task to help students value it more.
  • Discuss stages of the task in the lesson so learners can visualise doing it.
  • Get students to decide when they’ll do the task to make procrastination less likely.

The image below shows what a task designed with motivation in mind might look like on paper. We’ll be explaining some of the other features shown below in the webinar. Presenting tasks in this way may seem a lot of work, but getting learners to engage fully with one task can help improve their self-image as learners more generally and build motivation.

  1. Breaking down barriers

No matter how attractive we try to make learning experiences, there is often deep resistance to learning on the part of our students. It’s important that we understand the psychological barriers that can stand in the way of engagement with learning behaviour. These can include:

  • low expectations of learning outcomes
  • negative associations connected with study
  • images of themselves that don’t sit comfortably with study

These psychological barriers are often firmly entrenched, but we can slowly wear them down in the way we speak with students and through exercises that help students connect learning with their own personal values and ambitions. An example might be producing a real vlog that they can post online, or doing visualisation exercises to help them imagine the life they might enjoy as proficient users of English.

  1. Creating reward-rich experiences

Finally, we all know that if we make lessons fun and interesting we can help motivate our learners. This is because memories of enjoyable learning experiences help students to predict rewarding outcomes. But labels like fun and interesting are a little too vague to be useful: in fact, there are lots of specific ways to make learning seem rewarding. So, we’ll finish our discussion by considering how we can fill learning experiences with psychological rewards, from novelty and sensory stimulation to play and revelation, and see why techniques like back-chaining can transform classroom experiences.

I hope you can join my webinar and leave it believing that motivational teaching is not about following general principles, but about practical day-to-day steps we can take as teachers. And by increasing our understanding of the factors that lie behind motivation, we can start discussing it honestly with students and create trusting classroom relationships.


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Giving children more agency in class: A Q&A session with Annamaria Pinter

shutterstock_309235367Annamaria Pinter is Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick. She has published widely in the area of Young Learners ELT. She is the author of Teaching Young Language Learners (2017, second edition). Earlier this month, she delivered a webinar on ‘Giving children more agency in class’, and today we bring you the question and answer section of the session.

What do you think about the use of the mother tongue versus the use of the L2 in activities where children work in groups and actively explore something, analyse data or discuss ideas?

My general advice would be that the most important first step is that everyone should be engaged and enthusiastic about participation whatever language they are using. Then, in any one situation the teacher can judge what might be realistic for the children to say and manage in L2 and what has to be handled in the L1 or indeed bilingually or using various languages that learners speak in multilingual classrooms. It is often possible for the teacher to translate into English something that a child may have said in L1 and even more importantly, children may also be able to help each other with re-phrasing things in English. No matter what the situation is, however, it is good to insist that the final product (such as a poster, a newspaper magazine page, a recorded presentation, a questionnaire or any other product) should be in English. It is good to display these products by uploading them to a secure website or simply putting them up on the wall because making these available to external audiences this will help motivate children to work hard on their English.

How can I allow children to choose learning content within a restrictive curriculum?

This is difficult. With serious restrictions, teachers can only make very small changes.  It may be possible for some teachers to look at content and learning outcomes and see if the children can at least have some limited agency by choosing tasks (albeit very similar ones) or by being invited to design an extra task in each unit, or simply choosing the order in which they would like to tackle units in the book. If no freedom or agency is given to the teacher in a very restrictive curriculum, then it is hard to implement the ideas from the webinar. Still, some teachers in India were able to do extra work with the children outside classrooms and some allocated only a limited amount of time to research project work every week after covering the content of the book. Children were motivated to get the book out of the way to be able to progress to the ‘real projects’.

What do we do if we feel that the children’s ideas or input is not relevant or useful?

In my experience this is very rare and an important lesson for us teachers is that whenever children say or suggest something that seems unusual or at first sight irrelevant, it should never be just dismissed as such. It should always be explored further so that we can gain a better understanding of the original idea or point. It may well be relevant but in a different way compared to what we would have anticipated. In my experience children really appreciate this gesture of respecting ALL their responses.

What does this mean for the teacher’s role?

Teachers generally report that this is a more satisfying way of working, they feel alive and more enthusiastic about their jobs and the children’s motivation and intensive engagement seem infectious. In many ways when children take more control and teachers become ‘learners’, there is less pressure on the teacher to get everything right alone, but it is important to remember that teachers are also role models. If children are researchers and expected to work hard and enthusiastically, teachers must be doing the same!!

If you missed the webinar and want to catch up, feel free to visit our Webinar Library, for this session and previous recordings.


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Teaching resources for English Language Day

shutterstock_574059034Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

April 23rd is an important day in the UK. First, it is St George’s Day. St George is the Patron Saint of England, most famous in this country for killing a dragon to protect a princess. Second, it is William Shakespeare’s birthday. He was too busy writing plays and poetry to bother with dragons.
Finally, it is also English Language Day when we celebrate this global language.

So here is a downloadable quiz you can use with your students to mark the day. It looks at a variety of different aspects of the language – favourite bits of English, hated bits of English, metaphors for English grammar, facts, tongue twisters, strange features of pronunciation, etc. It’s a cornucopia (one of our favourite words!) of fun… a smorgasbord (another favourite) of delight!

Many of the questions have no right or wrong answers, but rather they encourage the students to give their opinions, or use their imaginations. For this reason, it’s probably best to use this quiz as a group work activity, to allow students to discuss their ideas and share their opinions. You could also ask students to do it as homework, and then to discuss their answers when they return to class.

Some of the questions ask the students to give their opinions on the English language. This can give you very interesting information on what motivates your students, but it’s true that not all teachers – or indeed all students – will feel comfortable with these being shared in the classroom. So decide if you feel they are relevant first. It’s in word format so you can alter it so suit your class. You’ll also find a suggested answer sheet too.

Have fun, and Happy English Language Day!

English Language Day Quiz & Answer sheet


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Easter resources for your EFL classroom

shutterstock_377717329Spring has arrived here in Oxford, and Easter is on the horizon – it’s a perfect time of year to bring some seasonal activities and worksheets into your language learning classroom. Our former contributors Vanessa Esteves, Julietta Schoenmann, and Christopher Graham have come up with a range of Easter-themed lessons for young learners and secondary level learners through to adult learners that we hope you’ll enjoy.

Young Learner Resources:

Lesson plan

Easter Card Template

Secondary Resources:

Lesson plan

Handout

Adult Resources:

Lesson plan

Text

Handout


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Giving children more agency in class

shutterstock_336098690Annamaria Pinter is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics in the University of Warwick and she is the author of Teaching Young language Learners (2nd edition, 2017). To find out more about Annamaria Pinter’s work, you can download sample material from ‘Teaching Young Language Learners’.

Agency and Structure

In all situations of life, at work, at home, on holiday or on a shopping trip, we can exercise some choice or ‘agency’ about what we wish to do. At the same time, however, we are usually constrained by systems around us. For example, when driving home from work, the route we take is our decision, but our choices will be constrained by systems such as the traffic, the layout of the road system or by how much time we can devote to the journey.

In schools too, children as well as teachers, can exercise some agency but they are also controlled by the systems in place. Children are told when they can sit down and stand up, when they can leave the classroom, how long each break is and when it is their turn to answer a question. In fact, children traditionally have very little agency because teachers and adults control almost all the aspects of their lives.

This control is because schools are highly structured organisations and look like pyramids. In a pyramid or ‘coercive’ structure there is inequality of power and those at the top impose their order.   Less structured or ‘normative’ organisations look more like networks where there is less hierarchy and engagement is more voluntary.

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Children taking more control

In this webinar I will be exploring what teachers can do to move away from classrooms that look like pyramids to classrooms that function more like networks of learners. I will be suggesting that when teachers are ready to give over some agency and control, children are very much capable of making informed choices for themselves about their learning and taking responsibility for their actions. More agency in learning comes with higher levels of motivation, self-awareness and a sense of accomplishment.

I will be sharing some real classroom examples from a variety of contexts and countries where children have been encouraged to take more control. Some examples indicate how giving children just a little more agency than usual can make a big difference.

I will be taking examples that illustrate how some children may become interested in exploring their own classrooms and their learning and given the agency and the opportunity, they can become co-researcher or researchers. In doing so, we will look at the differences are between academic research in universities, teachers’ research undertaken in classrooms and children’s research.

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Small changes can lead to big outcomes

It is important to acknowledge that different teachers may want to offer more or less agency to their learners depending on their circumstances and there are no rules to follow. Encouraging children to become researchers is not a feasible goal for everyone and certainly not every child will be interested in this. Giving children more agency in some classrooms might just mean offering some opportunities of choice between different activities or regularly encouraging children to recommend materials and ideas to the teacher. Many teachers are constrained heavily regarding how much agency they can offer in their classrooms but even a small first step can eventually go a long way!

If you are interested in exploring these ideas in more detail and you would like to see the practical examples please join us on 20/21 April 2017.

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Further reading

Pinter A and S Zandian 2014 I don’t ever want to leave this room- researching with children ELT Journal  68/1: 64-74.

Kellett M 2010 Rethinking Children and Research London: Continuum