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Teaching House Nomads Blog | May 21, 2019

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How to Teach Students Never to Give Up

How to Teach Students Never to Give Up
Barry O'Leary

Learning English is not easy for everyone. Some people can pick it up easier than the flu on a stuffy train carriage, while others take an eternity to get to grips with the complex grammar, frustrating pronunciation, and vast variety of vocabulary. I’ve seen plenty of students crash and burn over the years, so how can we teach students never to give up?

Where there’s a will there’s a way.

Teaching English is a hard job. Even when you’ve got the solid foundation of a CELTA under your belt, there’s a lot you have to manage. Not only are we responsible for creating fun and interesting lessons, correcting our students’ mistakes, and keeping them engaged and paying attention in class, but we are also a key source for their motivation. And without motivation, and a desire to improve and learn, the chances of grasping English is pretty slim.

It’s our job to inspire students, but what’s the best way?

A short inspiring story

Let me tell you a brief story about Jesus. He’s an example I use with all my struggling classes.

I taught him way back when he was six (now he’s eighteen, which makes me feel like an old fart). Back then he would jump about the class causing havoc and not really pay attention, but he was young and having fun. We clicked straight away, perhaps because I actually let him run about causing havoc.

Anyway, over the years it became clear Jesus struggled with English. He would try his sort of best, but English was hard for him. When he failed the B1, twice, he was close to throwing in the towel.

Impossible is nothing.

So we had a chat. I’d noticed he’d become quieter in class, probably going deeper into his shell. He told me it was a mix of lack of confidence and laziness. So I told him to be more autonomous in class and at home, ask more questions, and really get in the teacher’s face. I explained that it was hard for us teachers to really know if he understood something or not, only he did really.

It was amazing how our little chat helped. He turned it around and passed the B1, B2, and is now on for the C1. I’d like to think I made a difference. I know his mum thought I did as she brought in some cakes for everyone and a new bag for me!

This doesn’t always work though, so besides having a heart-to-heart with all our students, how else can we motivate them?

Always positive, never negative

Students rarely get feedback at school, apart from their exam results. Even adult students working may experience a lack of feedback too.

It’s easy to motivate young learners as most of the time they just want to please the teachers, but the older the students get, the more difficult it may become to inspire them.

Keep your students thinking positive.

As teachers we tend to hold back the naughty students after class and have a go at them, which normally just gets their defences up and creates tension. Something I’ve been trying this year is keeping them back and praising them on something positive they’ve done. Whether it’s just that they did more speaking in class or completed an exercise well. Even if they were a pain for most of the class, by focusing on the positive aspects, they will improve next class.

Sometimes I even keep back the kids that are doing well and tell them how great they have done. It only takes a minute, and once word gets back to the other students I normally find that the general level of the class rises.

Tracking progress

Lately I’ve become obsessed with tracking everything. My workouts, diet, and time writing. Why? It makes me feel good to see I’ve been improving (most of the time).

If we can track something, then we can try our best to improve it.

Students need this focus too. If we can supply them with ways to record their progress, then it can help enormously.

A few ideas I’ve been doing this year are:

  • Recording more vocabulary and revising it each class.
  • Keeping a list of songs students have listened to and noting down new words from the lyrics.
  • Encouraging students to make a list of series or films they have watched in English and also to write a review.
  • Reviewing books they have read.

When students look back over at their progress, they will be more inspired to keep going and take it to the next level.

Displaying students’ work

I’m not usually a massive fan of decorating my class with students’ work. I actually still have posters up by kids from about five years ago (they were my favourites though).

After a useful training session at the start of term, I’ve begun to see how putting up students’ work on display really keeps a class motivated. It also exposes other students to more English as they tend to read anything new in class.

I find that projects work best. This year I’ve done a ‘Best Writing’ wall, a phonetics graffiti project, and several film and book reviews in the class.

The more students see their results, the more motivated they’ll be and less inclined to give up.

Display your students’ work.

Reiterating the value of English

Without boring the hell out of your students and becoming a preacher for the benefits of English, keeping students focused on the uses of English for their lives can be crucial.

In Spain, everyone knows the importance of English. You can’t get a degree without minimum B1 level, and to get the best jobs you’re talking at least B2.

Most students know this, but they easily forget. They have so much work to do they just get bogged down in school and exams or at the office. It can be stressful fitting in extra English classes, but reminding them now and then why they are actually there doesn’t hurt.

I use the topic of travelling and living abroad a lot. I’m lucky because I’ve been able to travel the world thanks to English, and when I tell students anecdotes of my trips they ‘seem’ more motivated.

If students have an intrinsic motivation to travel to an English speaking country, then they’ll be more up for continuing. By doing classes about travelling and finding real life examples of how learning English has helped people, you can inspire your students further.

Motivational peer talks

It’s always best to get encouragement from someone who’s done it.

Another idea I had this year was student peer motivation. This is where I get older students to speak to the younger students. This year we did a project where all the B1 students from last year spoke to the students doing it this year.

The class had to prepare some questions about the exam and how they passed, as well as a couple of ‘funny’ random questions, and then we did a group interview session.

It worked really well because the experienced students were able to brag a little about what they had done, and the new students could listen to someone who wasn’t a teacher.

I did another one last summer where a B2 student told students what happened after doing the B1 and exactly what it takes to get there.

By sharing ideas and experiences we can greatly increase students’ morale.

Acknowledging it may not be the right time

If all else fails, a break is as good as a change, or something like that. Learning English takes time and effort, and not everyone can get it on the first attempt. People have lives outside the classroom, and fitting in extra classes can be tough. There’s nothing wrong with leaving English to the side for a while as someone matures, making it easier to come back later with a fresh outlook and greater chances of success.

So, to sum up, we can make a difference and motivate our students. By getting students to become more autonomous, tracking their progress, displaying their work, connecting them to peers and having clear obtainable goals, we can make sure they never give up learning English.

Photo Credits (CC BY 2.0): Ben MullinsZach DischnerCarbonNYC [in SF!]VinothChandar, misskprimary

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