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Motivational Teaching in the English language classroom Q&A

teenage_students_smiling_studyingNick Thorner, author of the professional development title ‘Motivational Teaching‘ in the Into The Classroom series, reviews some of the concerns raised by teachers in his recent webinar on the subject of student motivation and offers some practical advice on how to overcome them.

I really enjoyed our Motivational Teaching webinars on 26th May. They provoked quite a few questions, which I’ve enjoyed reflecting on.

Many concerns that participants had were about the language that was being used in the webinar, and in particular the use of the concept of reward. I thought this was a really challenging response from one participant:

Maybe it’s against what we’ve been learning about motivation so far but when I learnt English myself I didn’t need any motivation at all… I just did it out of pure love for the language itself. So ‘motivation’ to me is not about rewarding… 

I really know what he means. Surely, it’s that intrinsic love of learning that we need to aim for; not a compromise solution where we are coaxing students along with promises of rewards.

But I would say that the pleasure we get from language learning is itself a reward and it’s useful to see it that way because it reflects the way our brains work. Whether we are aware of it or not, the motivation to do anything at all depends on the anticipation of some gain or fulfilment, or the avoidance of some loss. If we can understand what it is about learning that makes our brains anticipate fulfilment, we can focus our students’ minds on those aspects of learning.

For example, let’s say an aspect of enjoyment comes from the moments when we successfully apply meaning where there was once incomprehension. By exposing students to unknown words well before we reveal the meaning, we will help students anticipate that moment of pleasure.

This participant wasn’t the only one that didn’t feel comfortable with the use of the word reward, as these questions demonstrate.

Does the fact of rewarding your students all time make them dependent and lazy?

Sometimes, giving students rewards might result into them becoming competitive. Will it be detrimental for their learning?

Here again, we see how ‘reward’ is often associated with extrinsic motivators, like stickers or a promise of a break. Indeed, this is its meaning when used as a countable noun. I agree extrinsic rewards shouldn’t be over-used, for the reasons given here. But we should be aware of other forms of ‘reward’ that are not given to students. For instance, collaborative learning can be socially rewarding, a sense of progress can be psychologically rewarding, and so on. To avoid the confusion, we could simply reject the term reward and use ‘motivator’ but I think our minds find a lot of things to be rewarding that aren’t often considered motivators. These include indulging the senses, showing off skills, watching things move, etc. I thought the concept of ‘reward’ captured the idea of these smaller pleasures more effectively.

But what if the student doesn’t visualise the reward?

As this question shows us, another concept which has created discussion is the idea of visualisation. What I meant by this term was not really ‘seeing rewards’ but ‘becoming aware that an experience may be rewarding’. That said, as we generally think in images, I think the idea of ‘visualising’ a rewarding experience is very useful. Jill Hadfield, for example, proposes visualisation techniques in the book Motivating Learning. It is not enough to be told something will be fun; we have to picture a rewarding experience before we will strive for it. This is the main point of the future diary activity I proposed, which (incidentally) I didn’t explain very well…

I didn’t quite get the idea of the diary – do students just describe their future??

The idea is that by really imagining a day in their future in detail, they will become aware of a range of rewarding experiences that will follow on from their current studies. To set up the task, we should get students to think of the benefits they will derive from being language users and then to imagine themselves enjoying those benefits through the Future Diary activity. The procedures are outlined in more detail in Motivational Teaching. Drawing a picture of their future selves also helps them create a positive and goal-orientated self-image, in contrast to the relatively powerless present identity that a lot of young people experience.

Many of the other questions I got from the talk focused on specific instances of motivation, in line with the point we noted at the start of the webinar: motivation problems often manifest themselves in very challenging, specific cases. Here are a selection.

It’s quite difficult to motivate students with behaviour problems. They are not really interested in language learning, they can’t stay focused and it’s quite difficult for me, though I usually prepare different enjoyable tasks. Any ideas?

I totally agree with this. In fact, I would say behaviour is essentially a motivation issue. If we don’t wish to be in a place or to do a certain activity, then poor behaviour is a logical way of dealing with it. First, it signals our displeasure, without making us lose face or appear weak (as crying might); it makes it clear that we aren’t putting in effort so that eventual failure cannot be put down to inability; and it increases the chances that the bad experience might be avoided or delayed since it will disrupt the class. I would say what they have is a motivation problem. If we can find a way of making the classroom environment rewarding for these students, I’m sure behaviour would improve. That said, we mustn’t reward bad behaviour or suggest it’s acceptable or it will spread. But once it’s subsided then engaging with the student and building their esteem is essential.

How can we help every student as they are so different?

To respond to this question, I’d like to refer to the first point below. I personally would use the word flexibility instead of eclecticism but both work.

Eclecticism is the key word – take a little bit of what works for you and your students, try not to embarrass them, praise but just for real achievement.

(Can I have) ideas to motivate students to learn / read literature classics in English?

I’m afraid I have little experience in teaching literature but I imagine one of the issues is that students see classics as dated and less relevant to their lives. There is also a sense that classic literature is ‘chosen’ by social elites or by previous generations and so by engaging with the canon of classic literature they are upholding values that they would prefer to be rebelling against! The only solution I think is to help students see the relevance of themes and characters in the classics to their lives. For example, presenting quotes and characters in the book without explaining they are from a ‘classic’, or comparing the ideas to a contemporary performance poet or similar, may help break down resistance.

How can we motivate students to be punctual?

This is a great question. I heard a radio programme just last week about how to get meetings started on time. They recommended that meetings always start at an odd time such as 11.47 rather than on the hour and that late attenders should be made to sing a song!! I’m not sure those recommendations would work for you, but I think the fundamental thing is not to allow lateness to affect your relationship with students. In other words, we shouldn’t confront the student in the instant they walk in late. But neither should we ignore it. If we have a clear set of rules, we can take the student aside after the class and explain that we are forced to take action.

To conclude, here is a good suggestion for us and another participant takes me to task on falling into the classic teacher trainer’s trap: creating ideas that are unrealistic once we’re at the chalk face!

Do you think that writing a diary daily blog in English would be a good idea for students to practise English and find it rewarding at the same time?

Yes, I do. Writing about ourselves provides a narrator’s perspective from which to examine our fears and motivations and confront them if necessary. I think committing fears and worries to paper is especially useful as it can help us work through them sequentially (writing is an act of ordering) and prevent swirls of irrational thought from hijacking our emotions.

Nick (some of your ideas) require a lot of preparation on part of the teacher, which is sci-fi in state schools

This point (brilliantly put) draws attention to the issue of time. Does motivation always require an investment of time? To some extent the answer is yes. Students will appreciate investments that teachers make as it shows we care about them. That said, we have to be realistic and some of the resources I showed were designed to showcase general principles rather than be examples of what we should produce. My hope would be that aspects of them could be borrowed and adapted with little effort. For example, a lesson map (to increase students’ control) or Sinek’s Golden Circle (to arouse a sense of purpose) could be sketched on the board rather than prepared on paper or added to homework sheets, and streaks can be recorded the register.


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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. 

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, like me, you believe 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.

For more information, read the Q&As from the webinar


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Bringing Grammar to Life

Word grammar spelt in scrabble lettersBriony Beaven is an ELT consultant, teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher. She is a NILE Associate Teacher Trainer and teaches Classroom Language to trainee teachers at the Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich. Today, she joins us to discuss bringing grammar to life in the EFL classroom ahead of her upcoming webinar, Bringing Grammar to Life.

The big problem with teaching grammar

The big problem with grammar, familiar to all English teachers, is that many ways of teaching grammar produce learners who KNOW ABOUT grammar; for example, they can tell you the rules for using the present perfect. But they often don’t KNOW HOW because when they speak or write these supposedly ‘known’ rules do not seem to be operating. In other words, the learners fail to make use of the rule they know so well in the language they actually produce. What can we do about this?

Approaches to grammar teaching

Three main ways of introducing new grammar are the deductive, the inductive and the guided discovery approaches. They all have their advantages and disadvantages and in the webinar we will consider how these might play out in your context.

In deductive grammar teaching the teacher explains or gives the rules for the target language items and then provides practice for the learners. In inductive grammar teaching the teacher provides some examples of the target language in a realistic context and lets the learners ‘notice’ the rules. The third approach, guided discovery, is a modified version of inductive teaching. In this approach the teacher provides some examples of the target language in context and supports the learners in ‘noticing’ the rules.

grammar1

Support, scaffolding, mediation

To say that you are going to ‘support’ the learners is easy. To provide genuinely useful support needs a bit more thought. In the webinar we will consider the relationship of ‘support’ to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the related concepts of ‘scaffolding’ and ‘mediation’.

In guided discovery grammar teaching we can support, for example, by ensuring that learners meet the new grammar item in a lively, engaging and lifelike context. We can also support them by questioning and monitoring while learners try to ‘notice’ the target rules. What kinds of questions are helpful to ensure learners internalise and can use grammar rules? Good concept questions and focused questions about timelines can work a kind of magic. Finally, in our efforts to support our learners, we need to take care that the rules are summarised by the teacher so that learners know if their suppositions were right or not. That is, we offer feedback, another key component of ‘support’.

grammar2

Use of the learners’ first language

For a long time we neglected a wonderful resource in the teaching of grammar in a foreign language, namely the learners’ mother tongue.

grammar3

In their L1 learners have learnt to think, to communicate, to speak and use their voice. They have acquired an intuitive understanding of grammar, become aware of some finer points of language and have acquired the skills of reading and writing. These days a number of experts suggest that if a class is monolingual we can beneficially make use of their first language. What do you think about this?

Practice

Learners can produce new grammar items only after plenty of practice. This practice needs to be engaging and lively, but also challenging and likely to lead to long-term learning. ‘Three times practice’ (Scrivener 2014) is one way to do this.

Well, all in all it seems we need to do more than ‘cover material’ if most of our learners are to ‘know how’ to use the grammar we teach them, not just ‘know about’ it. No one approach will succeed with all of the learners all of the time because different learners understand in different ways. We will need to make use of different approaches and techniques both for introducing new grammar and for practising it effectively.

Join me for my webinar where I will suggest some engaging ways to help students learn ‘how’ to use grammar to communicate successfully.

webinar_register3

References:

Butzkamm, W. 2003. We only learn language once. The role of the mother tongue in FL classrooms: death of a dogma. Language Learning Journal, 28, 29-39.

Scrivener, J. 2014. Demand-high teaching. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 3(2), 47-58.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. and Ross, G. 1976. The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving. Journal of Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 17, 89–100.


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Bottom-up decoding: reading and listening for the future

Mark Bartram, a teacher trainer and materials writer, explores different approaches for processing written and spoken text, and how they can be integrated into the English language classroom. 

Are you a top-downer or a bottom-upper? The debate as to the relative importance of these two approaches to understanding spoken or written text has been going on for decades. Most people would agree that both approaches are useful at different times and for different reasons. In this blog I will attempt to explain why the bottom-up approach should not be neglected.

First, some definitions.

Top-down processing starts from the reader or listener. It assumes that the learner brings to the text certain knowledge – of the world, of texts (including how certain types of conversation typically unfold), and of language. This knowledge is likely to be useful in understanding a text (whether written or spoken), but it often needs to be activated, and activities such as discussions, questionnaires, quizzes, brainstorms, and vocabulary-anticipation can all be used to do this.

For example, when you saw the title of this piece, you probably started thinking about what it might mean, what the arguments in the piece were likely to be, whether you wanted to read it, and so on.

So assuming you still do want to read it…

Bottom-up processing starts from the text. It assumes that by working on a combination of different aspects of the written or spoken text, the learner can increase their ability to comprehend it. These might be very “micro-” elements, such as the fact that we tend to insert a “w” sound between certain vowels; or they could be at a more “macro-” level, such as searching for synonyms within a text. The key idea here is decoding.

For example, in order to understand the second sentence of this piece (the one that starts “The debate…”), you needed to work out that the first 17 words are the subject (a complex noun phrase), that the verb comes next (“has been going on”), followed by an adverbial (though unless you are a grammar geek, you won’t have used these terms). Identifying the verb is a key aspect of decoding complex texts.

Improving the ability to decode

Most people would agree that we use a combination of the two approaches when we are processing a text. We tend to switch from one to another as is needed. But whereas it used to be thought that we revert to bottom-up processing when we are unable to use top-down (for example, if we are unable to predict the content, we have to listen to the actual words!), research suggests that in fact the reverse is true. If you are in a noisy café, and can’t “decode” what your friend is saying (bottom-up), you tend to fill in the gaps with your knowledge of the world, or your friend’s usual speech habits.

Within this framework, the idea of “comprehending a text” needs to be defined. Many activities in coursebooks are essentially asking the learners: “Did you understand this text?” – i.e. the one in front of them. This can work as an assessment or diagnostic tool, but the danger is that it does not prepare the learners for the next text. In other words, we need to train learners in transferable skills that can be used for any text in the future.

We can do this to a limited extent with top-down activities – for example, we can train learners to use prediction techniques to anticipate the content and language of a text. Furthermore, classroom research and teacher experience tell us that top-down activities such as the ones listed above can be integrated easily into lessons, are motivating and fun, and enhance the overall experience for the learner. So we should not discount top-down activities entirely.

However, common sense tells us that we are often in situations where we are less able to use top-down skills, for example, in exams, or simply when we turn on the radio at random. At this point, our ability to decode becomes key. And it is with bottom-up approaches that the training aspect comes into its own.

Vocabulary, of course, is vital. The wider your vocabulary, the more fluent your reading or listening is likely to be. However, bottom-up skills remain important because they work on aspects of the text that are useful even when the learner’s vocabulary level is high. We have all heard learners say plaintively “Well, I know all these words, but I still didn’t get what they were saying!” For this reason, reading and listening activities need to include work on decoding text.

Subsequent blog articles will explore how training in bottom-up decoding can be introduced painlessly into the classroom.


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Teach less to help young students learn more

School girls playing repetitive gameBarbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, outlines the benefits of only teaching young learners one new thing at a time by recycling, reinforcing, and building on new language.

How can you get your students to learn more English? Teach less! It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

Teachers are often pressured to teach more – more vocabulary, more grammar, more content – to satisfy parents and administrators. Moving through a coursebook quickly becomes the measure of success. However, the classes in which I see students making the greatest progress are those in which teachers introduce relatively little new language and actively recycle previously learned language, spending the majority of class time reusing both new and familiar language in new contexts.

The measure of a successful lesson isn’t how much you teach; it’s how much students can do with the language they’ve learned.

There are certainly times when you might choose to throw students into the deep end of the language pool – when asking them to work at understanding the gist of a listening or reading task, for example. But, it should be a choice that works toward your lesson goals, not the standard approach. If you need to spend most of your class with books open, explaining the language on the page, then students are unlikely to remember much for the next class. You end up teaching the same things over, and over, and over again without much feeling of progress.

In contrast, when we recycle language in class, we’re teaching students how to use the language they already know to figure out language that they don’t. It’s one of the most important abilities that skilled language users employ.

There’s no way we will ever be able to teach our students all the English they’ll ever need to know, so instead let’s teach them how to be confident in their ability to figure things out for themselves. One of the easiest ways to model this skill is to introduce new language in the context of familiar. Another way of looking at this is to make sure you maximize the value of any language your students spend the time learning. Here’s one simple example of how using familiar language to introduce new language can help students learn more effectively.

Let's Begin example unit

If you teach without recycling familiar language, this looks like a dense lesson – eight new vocabulary words and two question and answer patterns. However, actively recycling previously learned language can make the lesson more manageable. For example, students have already learned the concept of plurals, and how to add an –s to the end of words to indicate more than one item. They may need to be reminded, but they don’t need to learn it again. That reduces the vocabulary load to four new words (and their plurals). What’s this? It’s a (CD) is also a very familiar pattern. It’s the first question students learned to ask and answer in the first book of the series to which this page belongs (Let’s Begin). It was recycled in a lesson two units prior to this lesson.

Let's Begin example unit

By recycling the familiar pattern with the singular vocabulary words, it’s a small step for students to understand that the new pattern, What are these?, is the same question but for asking about more than one of something. By reducing the amount of new language to be taught, students now have more time to practice the language they’ve learned. They can use the questions and answers with vocabulary from earlier lessons, or apply their plural-making skills to topics that interest them, or personalize the language and build new skills by using the language to write about things in their own lives (e.g., This is my bedroom. These are my CDs. This is my cell phone. etc.) and then to read what classmates have written. Language becomes a tool for communicating about things students want to talk about, and because language is constantly recycled, students are unlikely to forget it.

Active recycling plays a big part in Let’s Go, so the Teacher’s Book lists what language is being recycled in each lesson, and the ‘Let’s Remember’ lesson at the start of each level highlights familiar language from the previous level that will be built upon in the new one. You can do the same sort of recycling, with the same benefits, with any coursebook or even with no coursebook at all. You simply need to keep track of the language being taught so that you know what you can recycle to help students learn new language or build new skills.

A simple guideline is to teach one new thing (new pattern or new vocabulary, but not both) in each lesson, or for longer lessons or older students, in each section of a lesson. Reducing the amount of time spent on introducing new language creates more time for students to use language:

  • to use it in games and activities that provide the repetition necessary for memory
  • to add it to their language repertoire in order to talk about new things
  • to learn to read what they can say and understand
  • to use language they can read to write about their own unique lives and experiences
  • and to use language to connect with other students in order to share their own and learn about others’ lives and experiences.

If you are interested to see how active recycling works in Let’s Go, you can download a variety of sample lessons from the Oxford Teachers’ Club Let’s Go teaching resources page.