Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Getting Your EFL Students Interested


I don’t often quote Noam Chomsky, but I will here. Nine tenths of the challenge in teaching English is getting your students interested. (Possibly I’m misquoting him here. I can’t for the like of me track down the original quotation, in spite of combing the internet.) But the words are very, very true.

Student disinterest can be an all-pervasive, contagious influence in your class. You walk into the class with a bright and cheery “Hello everybody,” to be met with a mumbled “Hello” from three of your twelve students. The others are engaged in activities far more compelling. Some are talking on their phones, some sending text messages, some gossiping in their own language, some listening to Albert’s long and involved joke. You try again. “How are you?” This time only one responds. Albert, it seems, is nearing his punch-line. Oh shit, you think. Today’s unit is Worldwide Charities. How in the hell am I going to stir up even a glimmer of interest in that dry topic? Good question.

You could, I suppose, forget covering the unit, and instead introduce some topic that’s more likely to elicit a spark of interest. But what topic fits that description? Our Home Town? No, did it last week. Interesting People I Know? No, done that to death. People I Hate? Maybe…. What Annoys Me Most About My Parents? Possibly, though there’s always the chance that a certain percentage of the class will refuse to say one derogatory word on the subject, claiming that their parents are the most wonderful parents in the world. (“Yes, I know, I know, but couldn’t you just conjure up one little thing for the sake of getting the discussion rolling?”)

OK, let’s suppose that you’ve decided to bite the bullet and go with the Charities unit. Now, rule number one: Don’t have them open their text books. If some of the keener ones have already done so, tell them to shut their books. Confronting your students with two dense pages of reading text about the Red Cross, Medicines Sans Frontieres, and Live Aid is a sure-fire way of getting them to slip into the ‘Ahh, who gives a shit?’ mode. The texts are just too dry, too dense, and too riddled with unfamiliar words for them to be bothered getting their heads around. Far more interesting to make a phone call, send a text message, or listen to Albert’s next joke.

Rule number two. Personalize. Now, how do you personalize a charity for a group of students living in a country completely devoid of charities? With great difficulty, I must admit, but let’s give it a go. “Now, you are a pop-singer, Albert. A very famous, popular pop singer. Every girl in the country is in love with you. How would that feel? And how much money would you expect to be paid to sing just one concert? And Jane. You’re a doctor. You just graduated. How long does a doctor have to study in this country? And how much money do you think doctors earn in a year? Anybody know? OK, Albert and Jane, I’ve got a question for you. A very important, very personal question, so you must answer truthfully. Albert, I’m inviting you to sing in a concert that I’m organizing, but I’m not going to pay you for it. Not even a cent. How about it? And Jane, instead of starting your doctor’s practice and earning $XXX,000 in the first year, I’m inviting you to go to Africa for a year, to work for nothing. How about it?” And so it goes. It might be 20 to 30 minutes before they open their text books and start reading, but if it has succeeded in arousing the class’s interest, it will have been time well spent.

Next, keep the pace brisk. Break the lesson up into chunks interspersed with bits and pieces of light relief. Play “We Are The World” and get them to sing along. Do your doctor joke: “Doctor, when I poke myself here, it hurts. When I poke myself here, and here, and here, it hurts. What’s wrong with me?” “You’ve got a broken finger.”

Next, keep up your cheery, enthused demeanor. Let enthusiasm exude from your every pore. Whatever you do, don’t let it show that the unit is every bit as boring for you as it is for them.

Finally, if you think the unit is just too limited in interest to hold their attention for two hours, drop it after an hour and a bit, and do something else. There’s no law etched in concrete saying we must cover every word of every unit. For a book like Straightforward, that would be tantamount to turning your students off learning English forevermore.

Like I said, it’s difficult to arouse students’ interest and sustain it. Good luck.


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (soon to be available on Amazon) is my take on the English teaching game world-wide. From applying for a job, living overseas, work permits, management and mismanagement, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher.

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