It’s 7:30 am on a Saturday, and I’m about to start teaching an ESL class. As I enter the classroom, I notice that my students are sleepy and mentally absent. I take a deep breath, and all I can think is, “What do I do now?”
Nearly every TEFL teacher has found themselves in this situation: a class of students who are indifferent to what is happening in the lesson no matter how hard you worked on that lesson plan. Student engagement is an ideal we all strive to foster, but we know there is no single way to achieve it, whether we are teaching online or offline.
Every class is different, with its strengths, dynamics, expectations, and outcomes. Luckily, we can use the following techniques to support engagement without feeling like we are trying too hard.
Set the tone
The warmer plays a vital role in setting the tone for any type of lesson. A short warm-up task provides an opportunity to learn about students’ interests and respond positively to create connections. Everyone likes talking about things they are passionate about, so why not give students the chance to connect with us and each other through their interests?
Create a positive environment
I have learnt that this goes beyond simply smiling and nodding. A positive learning environment is an environment where each of my students feels accepted, comfortable, valued, and confident enough to express themselves. Being responsive to what students say is key to achieving that, and as a teacher, I always try to remember I have to set the tone. So when a student speaks, I wait for them to finish; when they share an opinion, I thank them; and when they express their emotions, I am there to foster connections with other classmates. This is arguably easier in an online environment, where connections can be built and reinforced by use of non-verbal reactions on camera between students.
Positive comments need to be specific and correspond to the outcome we are commenting on to be meaningful. “Great job” sounds good, but “I liked how well-structured your argument was” sounds even better and provides a clear direction for other students working towards a positive outcome.
Even during input stages where students are listening, they need not be passive. I like to elicit responses by encouraging them to give me a thumbs-up if they like something or raise their hand if they have a question. In an online classroom, learners may use emoticons or a chat pod to respond in a similar way.
Vary interaction patterns
Variety is the mother of engagement if done right, but offering different interaction patterns may be challenging in some settings. Some simple strategies that I tend to use are: varying the interaction patterns during a lesson to include a balance between individual, pair and group work, varying student pairing or groupings so they can work with different classmates on tasks, and encouraging students to nominate a classmate during whole-class activities to encourage turn-taking, whether remotely or in person.
Making time for students to reflect and self-assess after activities or at the end of the lesson can prompt them to interact with the lesson content on a more personal level. For example, I may ask them to show how confident they feel about the target language on a scale of 1-10 or summarise three things they will take away from the lesson. Both online and offline, including short reflective tasks helps highlight any issues with the language and reinforce student-student connections.
While no single strategy will work in the same way in every ESL classroom, making an effort will nevertheless be seen, appreciated, and hopefully imitated by students. Indeed, modelling the behaviour I want to see in my students (like trying my best) has proven to be the best way to connect and set expectations in each lesson.
Do you have a favourite strategy that you use to engage your students?
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