Imagine that you have a class of students. It doesn’t really matter what age they are, but let’s say they are all about eight years old. For the first four to eight months everyone seemed thrilled to be there. They walked in with smiles and seemed to explode with excitement every time you played an English game. Then, something changed.
You might not be sure what the problem is at first. After all, you are playing the same types of games that you did in the beginning. You can objectively say that you are a better teacher than you were when the course started. So why are they losing interest?
One reason might be that you’re not challenging your students enough. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that teaching English is a bit like being a personal trainer. One of our goals is to push our students so that they can reach their potential. Read on for strategies on how to make your classes more challenging in different parts of the lesson without going overboard.
With Your Speaking During the Class
It is extremely important for a teacher to grade their language during a lesson. There are a number of things to take into account such as pace, vocabulary, grammatical structures and colloquial language and slang. In general, the rule of thumb that I’ve always followed is to speak just one level above the students that you’re teaching.
To do this, try to use structures and vocabulary that the students have been taught in class. If you do this often, it will act as a consistent review. You’ll also notice that the students will try to use it more often. This works with very low levels and high levels as well. For example, in one of my classes we’ve just been going over the third conditional. So, in class I try to come up with a lot of ways to casually use this structure:
“Ewwww, Phung you shouldn’t have done that. Now your team is behind.”
“If I’d worn short sleeves, I wouldn’t have sweat so much today.”
With my low-level kids class, we’ve just been talking about favorites. So I’ll casually ask students about their favorite colors and animals before and after class. During class I might say:
“Team apple….mmmm, apples are my favorite fruit.”
Basically, you are challenging your students to come up to your speaking level. By acting as a positive model for the language, at a level they can handle, you are raising the standard of the class.
During Games and Activities
One essential thing to think about is the student to student interactions happening in the classroom. Many times I’ve observed classrooms in which the only goal of an activity is single word utterances. It’s important to challenge the students to use certain structures and not just yell out vocabulary words.
When planning, make sure to include what types of questions and answers you’d like the students to be using during an activity. Then, only award points if the students use the structure correctly. Being strict about what is an acceptable response is an easy way to make an activity more challenging.
If a student answers a question with a single word response, gesture that you need them to say more or refer to a structure written on the board. This will help the student feel comfortable with the language, will help them score better on exams, will make them feel more confident with the language in general and will motivate them to continue learning the language. If more is expected out of them, as long as the expectations are reasonable, the students will rise to the challenge.
With Homework and Projects
One other problem that many teachers have with challenging their students is that the focus is often too much on one particular lesson and not developing different skills. Occasionally, assigning more open and challenging homework is one way to get students to push themselves. Recently, I started assigning one of my YL classes a journal entry each week. Even though they had the language to do the assignments (introduce yourself, talk about your house, etc.) they initially had a difficult time with this. After a few weeks, I found that they were pushing themselves and trying to use language that we hadn’t directly taught in class.
In-class projects are another way to challenge your students. This is sometimes better than challenging homework as the teacher can help and monitor the students to keep them on track. Even simple projects like creating a poster and presenting it to the class often takes students out of their comfort zone and makes them use the language instead of simply responding to questions. Also, it gives them a chance to work in groups so weaker students might get a chance to work with stronger students and learn from them.
Make them Challenge Themselves!
Personally, I believe that motivation is one of the most important elements of language acquisition. Writers like Zoltán Dörnyei and Jill Hadfield have written about this topic at length, and I would greatly encourage TEFL teachers to check out their book Motivating Learning. The basic premise of the book is to get students to make realistic goals for themselves, both in the short and long-term. Once they have the goals, they come up with ways to achieve them. The teacher’s role, almost like a coach, is to push them to reach these goals.
Even children want to succeed. They may not know why they are in the classroom, but they definitely want to do well. One way to motivate them is to praise them when they do something remarkable and to make sure that their progress is visible. Try to steer them away from comparing themselves with other students in the class and instead show them how they are progressing. For example, if they got a 75% on the last test and this time they got an 80%, make a big deal of this; even if everyone else got a higher grade. This way they are challenging themselves, not comparing themselves.
For older students (teens and adults) I try to work with them individually to reach their goals. There isn’t always time in larger classes to talk to each student during class to see their motivations and help them with areas of weakness. One tool that I use to get around this is a Monthly Goal worksheet that I’ve created. I give it to the students to fill out themselves, and while they are filling it in, I suggest certain things to students whose areas for improvement I am aware of.
If you’d like to get a hold of my student goals template, you can gain free access to it by clicking on the button below.