Student engagement. Sometimes it seems like a complete guessing game! Even the most complex and well-planned activity can fall flat in a classroom of ESL students. It’s extremely frustrating for a teacher to not know how to engage their learners and make language learning come alive.
One of the biggest struggles with adult ESL is the incredibly diverse students that you’ll encounter in the same classroom. However, it’s also one of my favorite things about teaching these types of classrooms. Diversity can spark some really great discussion, but it can also make speaking tasks seem like pulling teeth.
I’ve had students who were 19 and students who were 85….in the same class.
I’ve had students from Pennsylvania and students from Somalia...in the same class.
I’ve had students with extensive college education and students who never passed the 5th grade...in the same class.
I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. Reaching and engaging all of your diverse learners is an extremely difficult task, and when you throw in the language barrier it can feel almost impossible. So, how do you engage all of these different people? How do you touch their interests and find ways to make language learning personalized to their preferences, learning styles, intelligences, experiences, etc?
Today I want to present to you 4 ways that you can make any ESL activity more engaging for your adult language learners. They're universal, meaning you can use them with any and all language tasks, projects, or activities that you already have in place. Plus, they take little-to-no effort to implement into your classroom routines, all they require is that you take a moment to be intentional about making more engaging activities.
More Prep Time = More Engagement
Implementing a time for your students to prepare can turn an otherwise quiet classroom into one that is booming with discussion! Depending upon your activity, have your students spend a few minutes preparing with a partner or individually. It’s an excellent opportunity for them to organize their thoughts before having to speak in front of the whole class or more extensively with other students.
Prep time can be as simple as jotting down a few ideas, finding the words to express opinions, or just thinking of a story to share. In the case of preparing with a partner, your students will even have an opportunity to practice saying what they’re planning out loud, which takes away some of the pressure of a speaking activity.
Another great way to use prep time is to allow students to not only practice and brainstorm together, but to offer feedback to one another. Receiving affirmation and positive feedback, or even suggestions for improvement, from a peer can boost your students’ confidence while they prepare to speak in front of a larger group!
More Waiting in Silence = More Engagement
This is probably the hardest thing for me to do while teaching, and I imagine the same is true for other teachers, especially those who are new to the teaching profession! Practice being okay with silence in the classroom. So often teachers (myself included) ask a question, and rush to get an answer or fill the silence that follows with their own answer. In order to get the most engagement from your students you've got to wait it out.
Not every student thinks out loud. In fact, I don’t even think out loud, so why do I expect my students to have an answer immediately, and in their second language? Some of your students will need time to quietly process their answer or organize their thoughts before responding, and that's okay.
After asking a question, wait for some of the quieter or more self-reflective students to think and then share before moving on. If you don’t provide a sufficient wait time, you’ll only receive a response from your students who think out loud, which means you’ll miss out on what your other students have to share!
A Safe Environment = An Engaged Class
Creating a safe environment is so integral for student engagement. Speaking in a second language is scary enough, but if you don’t have good relationships and a comfortable environment, it can be downright terrifying.
The best way to create a safe environment for your students to learn English in is to build relationships with them. The type of relationship you have with your students will depend largely on your personality and teaching environment; however, I’ve found that taking the role of a more informal facilitator has worked really well for small classes of adult learners. It allows me to joke and relate with them, while also maintaining the respect necessary for teaching well.
In addition to your own relationship with your students, make sure that you’re encouraging positive interactions among students. Stress that everyone is here to learn English and make mistakes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Come up with a quick list of 'respect rules' to guide your students' in their interactions. Consider how language errors will be addressed and how disagreements will be handled, and take the opportunity to teach the language necessary to speak respectfully to one another!
Distributed Responsibility = More Engagement
If you’re having trouble providing opportunities for your more reserved students to participate (or for your more outgoing students to practice listening), try distributing responsibilities during an activity. Set up your activities so that each of your students are collaborating and communicating with one another in a specific way. You can assign roles, have students choose roles, or draw them out of a hat.
There are so many different roles that you can assign to your students that will allow them to try something outside of their norm. Assigning roles gives an opportunity for all of yours students to participate and will prevent one or two students from monopolizing the activity. When doing a group project, debate, or collaborative speaking activity assign different students to be the spokesperson, note-taker, leader, summarizer, researcher, time-keeper, editor, or reporter.
The most important thing for any classroom issue, including student engagement, is respect, and learning how to interact and respect adult students can be difficult if you've been used to working with children and teenagers. Give yourself some grace because you'll make mistakes, but always remember that your adult learners are fully-functioning, autonomous adults. They have their own lives, their own pasts, and their own futures. You're simply stepping in to help them improve their language skills. As long as you're intentional about understanding your learners' preferences, backgrounds, and interests you can create activities that will engage every learner!
I Want to Hear From You!
Which of the 4 tips above do you struggle with the most?
What steps are you planning on taking to make your activities more engaging?
What are your tips for making engaging activities?