Dear English Teacher,

I have been working on this blog for the last hour and a half now. I have started it over and over. I just deleted nearly a thousand words.

In essence, I am in search of help. We all find the same difficulties in motivating our students to speak. I am finding it particularly hard to motivate fairly learned students to push beyond that two sentence threshold in which we find something akin to this:

My favorite sport is football. I like football because it is fun and I can play with my friends. Football is fun, that’s why football is my favorite sport.

This circular speaking happens at various complexity and length, but it happens with every student I have (except the two who have spent significant time abroad).

How can we motivate our students TO WANT TO expand out of their comfort zone? Which is where proper scaffolding can really take place. They have appropriate knowledge and vocab to do so, but so rarely show any desire to want to.

Thanks for reading, and please! any advice or shared experience greatly appreciated.


7 thoughts on “Dear English Teacher,

  1. How about games like ‘just a minute’ where the longer Ss speak for the more points they get and they also lose points for repetition. My Ss love this game and it really motivates them to speak for as long as they can.
    Debating gets them speaking a lot too, especially if it is a competition and the losing team is the team who can’t make any more points.
    I think any kind of competition / game is the best motivator!

    • Hey Gemma,

      That’s a great shout. I’ve thought about just a minute but have been leery due to size of classes. Have you found classes respectful enough to the speakers? Or maybe found a way to involve the class in judging/listening?

      I like competitive things as well, but find a lot of options tend toward the quick shout rather than reasoned answer. I think I need to do some preteaching to successfully debate. Will let ya know how it goes. Any pointers for preteaching debate?

      Thanks for the advice and support!

  2. Hey John! Sorry for taking so long to comment on your blog. I really like the approach you are taking by using your blog to share your thoughts and request help. I think this is the true value of blogging. It’s about inspiration and support.

    I like the suggestions Gemma put forward. “Just a minute” reminds me of the 3, 2, 1 activity Mike talked about at his workshop in Daegu.

    As for preteaching debate, and increasing participation, it might be helpful to help them brainstorm a topic they feel passionate about. Do a survey. Then once you have the topic get them to create a list of pros and cons. The list will help them feel prepared. At this point you can fill in any gaps they need filling. Also, this could be done throughout a semester, building up the idea of competition. Maybe watch a short clip from the movie “The Debators” and create a listening activity around that. (I’m just throwing out random stuff here.) Bring there attention to the type of language you might use in a debate: counterarguments, how to politely disagree, conceding…

    Maybe part of the reason they don’t feel a desire to speak is because they don’t feel the need to hear or listen to what is being said. Maybe they don’t feel like they’re really being heard. How can you help them feel that what they are saying is being valued? How can they feel importance behind their words? I see the debate project as something you build up to throughout a semester. Maybe the anticipation, the building of language skills, and the desire to make a point is something that will get them out of that rut.

    Of course, this is just my interpretation. 🙂 Good luck!

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts Josette. It is super motivating that you and others find it helpful. I often times (tbf pretty much all the time) think this is just a venue for me to spit out drivel. I know it is helpful having that outlet tho, for i know myself and I’d never do it purely for myself. Without a slight kick in the rump from all my motivators out there I’d be adrift as I was before. Thank you!

      I very much liked your advice and think it might be possible to implement with some of my high level classes. However, it seems I have some serious work ahead, for I gave four speaking tests today that never made it past “how are you” because even that confused the students too much. YIKES!

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  4. Hello Sir,

    I realize I might be a few months late and a few thousand won short here but I will feel better about myself if I manage to comment here.
    (We already talked about the “Your English is fine” posts and I hopefully managed too clarify my thoughts there).

    Part of the reason I might have hesitated to respond is because I was not so clear on your context but I hope I might be able to offer something. Please don’t feel the need to respond in any case.

    Perhaps you already found plenty of answers…this blog post gives a hint of that:

    I also noticed (just now) that Gemma and Josette gave some great ideas.
    (As you know I am a big fan of the 3-2-1 thing)
    (nice article on this topic here:
    (fluency + accuracy in the title)

    Your question, “How can we motivate our students TO WANT TO expand out of their comfort zone?” is a really powerful one. I can’t say that I have anything resembling a panacea but I also wonder if connecting to students goals and thoughts about learning the language might be important. I also think that examining your desire might be helpful here as well. Where does this belief that students should be pushing themselves out of their comfort zone from from? How does it fit into their current school culture? How does it fit into the rest of their English classes?

    What else?

    I have had some degree of success with speaking games where students have to toss a ball (actually usually a crumbled up piece of paper) back and forth after adding additional details to a story. If circular reasoning is the enemy then answers that are circular could be penalized/not allowed.

    I found that focusing on key phrases (chunks) used for introducing reasons and examples can also be helpful. This is to say that perhaps students have had pletny of time on grammar and vocab but maybe not on the conversation strategies required to handle a conversation.

    Thanks for the interesting post(s)!

    Best of luck with everything in 2013 though I am sure you won’t need it!

    • Hi Mike,

      A long overdue reply on an overdue comment. 😉

      Firstly I would like to thank you for your kind words and sharing that article. Everything you offer up is immensely helpful, and I will always appreciate whatever you have to share.

      As you have seen with my projects later in the year I have taken up wholeheartedly your suggestion to connect learners with language through how and why it might be important to them. You are spot on with that and it’s a oversight that I allowed to go on for far too long.

      I like your suggestion of an ever more detailed story. I have tried something similar during my camps and seen great success. Never had a chance to try with a full class. The numbers might prove unmanageable.

      Thanks again for taking the time to reply. It means a lot to me to know I have such a fantastic supportive network of excellent educators.


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