One of the tougher variables to account for when seeking out the best avenues to learning is motivation.

Motivation is talked about everywhere. Conference abstracts promise new ways of motivating students. Publishers sell their textbooks with new and improved tasks or culturally relevant material. Teaching offices are filled with lamentations regards the lack of motivation in the classroom along with plenty of prescriptive advice from colleagues.

Students need to be, at least partially, intrinsically motivated to successfully learn languages.

This post will argue, however, that motivation alone will not do the trick. Motivation, like a delicate flower, will bloom and wither away or be crushed without the appropriate care (or input). I myself have attempted to learn a number of languages and had all sorts of intrinsic motivation to do so. Each time ended with a whimper and frustration.

In my own failed attempt to learn language, I often lacked direction, which (by the way) is where a good teacher comes in really handy. Who knew?

I also lacked any way of interpreting the contextual nuances of the language I was attempting to learn. As any teacher knows all too well, Google translate is not yet meet the standards of the Babel Fish that helped Arthur Dent navigate the galaxy with his trusty towel.

As Google translate proves, understanding the nuts and bolts of a language (vocabulary and grammar) does not bring forth useful or often even understandable communication.

Considering that linguistic knowledge alone is insufficient, what is a teacher to do? To begin, it is critical to understand grammar as more than mere form. Diane Larsen-Freeman has a very useful article titled ‘Teaching Grammar’ in which she describes how linguistic grammar can be taught via a three dimensional understanding of grammar as: form, meaning and use.  Rather than merely focusing students on grammatical form, Larsen-Freeman advises that students be exposed to the meaning and social contexts in which different grammatical elements are utilized.

This idea of a semiotic understanding of language was developed by Michael Halliday’s. Halliday’s systemic functional linguistic (SFL) model of language sees language as a system. By seeing language as ‘a meaning-making system through which we interactively shape and interpret our world and ourselves’, (Derewianka & Jones, 2012) the systemic functional model demands far more of learners than merely becoming acquainted with the pieces of a language.

Context is critical. In order to understand linguistic context an interlocutor needs to understand the channel of communication (mode), who is involved and how that affects linguistic choice (tenor), and what is happening in the interaction and how the external environment may be playing into it (field) ((Derewianka & Jones, 2012). Considering the fact that mode, tenor and field are constantly shifting in the real world, how might a language learner possibly begin to account for the seemingly infinite variables that may affect their choices?

I believe that this complexity is exactly what feeds learner motivation. Teachers need to help learners lean into the challenge. Learners need an appropriate guide that can help dissect and analyze linguistic encounters. By not shying away from the complexity and assisting my learners in disassembling the language they encounter, I have found engagement in the language learning process far easier to cultivate and maintain.

Engagement = Motivation * Context 2


In an ESL world, finding meaningful interactions and experiences for students is a bit easier. The EFL world, however, is a far different story. EFL students learn English as an abstract concept. Teachers, parents, school administrators and governments impose English on them. Often this occurs without students ever really understanding why they are learning the language. The amount of times I have been forced to ask some variant of “Why do you want to learn English” and heard the canned response (almost verbatim – across two continents and multiple age groups) “because English is a global language that I need to blah blah blah” is depressing.

If students don’t know why they are learning, how will they maintain whatever motivation they have? If learners are working with decontextualized and meaningless linguistic knowledge how can they be expected to engage and succeed in the difficult and complex process of language learning?

One of the most difficult tasks (especially) for a native speaking English teacher in the EFL world who does not speak the learners L1) is communicating effectively and gathering enough input from the learners to know how to connect their language learning with their lives outside the classroom. If I do not know the how or why or what about the English speaking world my students are interested in, how can I expect them to stay engaged with such a process as mentally taxing as language learning?

In an excellent interview titled “How Teachers Can See Students’ Identities as Learning Strengths“, Dr. Christopher Emdim talks about his idea of ‘reality pedagogy’. He states that, “the fundamental principle of co-teaching in reality pedagogy is that the neoindigenous student is the expert on the best way to deliver information to others who are part of their culture.” Reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my friend Alex Grevett (who has a wonderful blog that can be found here) and his 2012 presentation entitled “Make Your Students the Experts“. In other words, hand over the classroom to the learners and let them use the language being worked with to explain and/or discuss matters of personal interest to them and their lives.

Mind Map 2.0

Another way of working with meaningfulness and context is to think about content. What will the learners need the language for in their immediate and daily lives? What are their goals and interests that might lead to motivating them to learn now for the future?

The picture to the left is the result of a conceptualization exercise I did prior to beginning a course. I took what I knew (generally) about the students I had worked with at my school in the past. I then envisaged a window. I pictured myself as one of my students. How might they see the English world.

Home became a metaphor for the comfort students feel in their own language and culture. The window to the ‘English World’ outside became a passage through which they had to navigate the multiple stakeholder demands of their education, as well as an indicator of the skills they would need to successfully immigrate to ‘the English World’ on the other side of the window.

The ‘English World’ included everything I knew that interested my former students about the English World outside. At the moment, I teach only male students, so football and cars are always dominant and popular themes. Twitter is a large and ever present influence in their daily lives. As is TV and movies, travel, future employment, family obligations, etc.

By completing this exercise I had a platform from which I could draw meaningful content. I also had a good idea of how much more I wanted/needed to know about my students!

Knowing what pupils are interested in is critical to making the language presented to students meaningful, thus providing a reason to be motivated to learn it. Further, being aware of the contextual scenarios students will or might encounter provides the necessary information to help pupils develop pragmatic understanding (i.e. what are the appropriate [or less-than-appropriate] linguistic choices available to them when confronted with such scenarios).

When students are provided with content that is meaningful and the contextual understanding necessary to make informed choices, their engagement with their learning is usually more sustainable.






Teaching, Coaching, and ESL

a terrible thought

It began after one of those difficult days in the classroom. I was again brought to the realization that the kids had not been able to retain the fantastical knowledge i bestowed upon them a week prior. I began to wonder what I am actually doing here at this middle school. I thought, “hey John, you’re a dedicated, empathetic individual. You love this teaching thing, but maybe this is not teaching. Maybe I am not the teacher I thought I was.” That thought brought me down even further. I tried to banish it from my mind, but it kept popping up.

I kept thinking, how on Earth can I be expected to properly teach my kids with one 45 minute segment a week!?!

I struggled for a few days until serendipity struck and the great Alex Walsh (@alexswalsh) posted a tweet on twitter. It went something like, “Wondering if I am a teacher or a coach, hope I am a coach”.

“HEY!,” I thought, “DUH! that’s just it. I AM NOT A TEACHER! I am a coach!”

Immediately the weight personal expectation was lifted from my shoulders. I was able to view what i do from a different prism. It reinvigorated what I do, and how I do it.

The more I have thought about the distinction between teacher and coach the more applicable I find it to the ESL classroom.

Now, I’d like to say right here, that I by no means am trying to imply we ESL teachers do not teach. On the contrary! We do much more! A teacher gives information to a student. A coach helps the student use said information. A coach guides the student through the process of acquiring a new skill. A coach finds exciting, new, fun, interesting, intriguing methods to drill those skills.

A good coach finds ways to mask the drilled repetition of skills learners need to attain mastery. Anyone who has played under a bad coach knows just how quickly a sport you love can become a tedious, onerous task.

A good coach remembers that new skills need to be integrated with old ones.

A good coach knows their learners strengths and weakness and finds ways to challenge them in their weaker areas.

A good coach knows when to push and when to empathize.

A good coach realizes that the pathway to mastery is not straight, but winding.

With these realizations I no longer worry about HOW MUCH, of what I bestow, my students remember. I concentrate on what they CAN DO. I help them remember what they could do before, and find drills that will pique their interest. This, in turn, keeps them motivated through the practice necessary to cement the new skills being practiced. I concentrate on feedback. By raising awareness of where they are lacking and making sure to acknowledge their achievements, motivation remains.This process also creates the necessary bond and space for learners to feel confident to branch out into the skills they are not yet comfortable with.

My paycheck may say teacher, but I know I am a coach. What are you?

Dogme with large middle school class, good idea? Part 2

In part 1 I discussed dogme in an English language classroom full of middle school students and how one might be successful in implementing it. Due to my verbosiness I found that it would probably serve my argument better to split my findings into multiple posts. So without further ado…

Dogme, how to do it in your class.

Number 2: Your students

Dogme as a teaching method focuses on the teacher and his or her students. The material needed for a rich and successful learning environment stems directly from the knowledge and experience of those in the classroom. It demands a teacher release some control over the classroom. It also demands students take more charge of their learning than in a traditional classroom. All this can seem pretty scary and downright nonsensical to someone who teaches large groups of prepubescent teenagers. Allow me to assure that, done incorrectly, this most certainly will prove to be so. However, if the teacher is consistent in what he expects of the students, clear about the goals of the class, and has enabled success by setting an open, safe space for students to step outside their comfort zone, success with dogme will follow. As will laughter, learning, and a whole gambit of other great things all teachers want to give their students.

So, how to create that safe space for students to step out on a limb? How can we connect with students who have a different L1? When their basic, minimal English is far better than your attempts at saying hello in their language?

Everyone knows that “knowing your students” is important, but there is little out there on how to actually go about it when in a situation like the one described above. Indeed, there is not always a lot of discussion about how important or why its important. I’ll leave those questions for the greater community at large to answer. Here I would like to share some personal experiences of what has worked for me and how I have gone about making that connection with my students.

To begin, here’s what not to do. Do not sit in your office every minute you do not have to be in class. Do not set yourself up as “the man with the answers that must be listened to”. Do not disregard students interests because you find them banal or without merit. All in all, do not be an aloof stranger that only makes demands of your students when seen in the classroom. All of these mistakes were made to a greater or lesser degree in my first year of teaching. Certainly not out of malicious intent, more a general ignorance. I sat myself in my office the first semester because I wasn’t sure of how to act at my new job in a new school and new culture. I was not sure what was expected of me and what leniency there was.

I hate K-pop. In fact, i truly dislike almost all pop of any sort or another. However, that does not mean that it cannot be used for the benefit of students learning. Judgement is not part of a teachers necessary repertoire.

OK, so don’t sit in your office, great, but what the hell should you do instead? Following are a few things I have done that, while small, have proven invaluable to connecting with my students and helping them learn about me outside of the teacher-student relationship.

1) Walk around! I go for a walk every day at lunch. Sometimes i get a bunch of “hi teacher”, sometimes students come up to me wanting to ask questions or talk about something for a minute before they can run away giggling with their friends that they just talked to John teacher. I smile and chat for as long as they want to. It’s important to remember what middle school is like. Gossip runs around faster than a nasty flu bug. The minute you spend speaking to Minsu about your family, hometown, likes, whatever, is a minute immediately amplified and spread throughout the school. Because of this I have a new friend. He is in the red class (I do not teach the red class, they are the lowest level students). During speaking tests red class students struggle to understand the questions much less answer. We rarely say anything aside from hello, but every time he sees me he gets a big smile and winks while he points a finger at me, and I do the same. Will he suddenly love English and want to improve his score to be in my class, probably not…but it couldn’t hurt.

2) Go to class early. Most of my students struggle to find their way to class on time even after the 10 minute break. However, a fair few do, and they feel much more comfortable talking to you one on one when your walking around smiling before class starts rather than in front of 30 of their peers during class. The kids want to play catch with me and my mini soccer balls. They ask me what we’re doing today. They ask to see the picture of my nephew again. I never correct language, just model, and goof around with them.

3) Show the kids you care. Don’t run out of school as soon as the bell rings, if you can help it. Especially here in Korea, students will be milling around school before and after school.

3b) Learn their names. OK, not every name. We all know that that is not always possible, but learn at least one or two for every class. The response I have gotten to this most often is, “teacher! what’s my name? why don’t you know my name?” To which I respond, Min Su talks to me in the hallway everyday. I have lots of students, but I see him and talk to him everyday. To which they respond, “My name is ______ and I want you to remember me!” And so I say, talk to me everyday and I will! And then I make a concerted effort to do so! I see kids in the hallway, they say, “Hi John teacher! and I say “good morning Hyeong Seok student!” We both laugh. Little has been shared in the way of language, but that student now feels infinitely more comfortable with me.

4) Find common ground. After my first semester I was determined to change tact and get involved with these kids. So one day i brought my football boots to school and a change of clothes and joined the boys for a lunchtime football game. Within five minutes every student in school (it seemed) was either in the stands watching or hanging out of the myriad windows “oooooing” and “ahhhhhing” anytime the ball came with 10 meters of me. I did not teach the third grad last year and none of them even acknowledged me before that day. After it, I was accosted in the third grade hallway anytime i ventured through there. The girls enjoy hearing about my family and loved my ambiguous answer to the question “teacher, do you have a girlfriend?”. My answer, by the way, was a wry smile and a maybe. (PS, that facade came crashing down this year when a student couple caught me and my girlfriend out for a walk on the beach. A fact that spread so fast from that Sunday night that I had three questions from students before the end of first period on Monday). All in all, find ways to share bits of your life that you are comfortable sharing. They eat it up like you would not believe!

5) This could be considered 3c as it shows students you care, but It’s a little less general so I gave it it’s own point. Create something that will bring the students to you. Last year I started a daily trivia quiz as a last desperate attempt to get students to voluntarily come see me. I gave out a piece of candy for students who did come. Within two days I had to make it a competition because I could not afford to keep buying candy at the rate I would have needed to! This semester I introduced John’s Pizza Party Question of the Day. I put a question up everyday and students who came to answer were given a check mark for that day. The top ten students in the two grades I taught were then invited to a pizza party at the end of the semester. This, by the way, was a HUGE boon in helping me to learn names and faces of my students as well as an additional helpful factor in getting to know them and making them comfortable with me. At the end of semester the top 10 in each class each had over 35 days of answers. I asked about 60. Two students came every single day school was in session. It may not seem like much, but that one minute a day helped. Within the semester I saw improvement (not extraordinary improvement, but improvement nonetheless) among almost all of my kids.

Recap. Don’t be aloof. Do get involved. Don’t judge. Do show you care. Don’t forget children are children regardless of where they are from. Do remember to play and smile and enjoy the little things. Don’t constrain your relationship to the classroom. Do share yourself (not everything, but the best part is you don’t have to. You get to choose what to share. It makes you human to them and the students will love you for it).

So there are 5 things I have done and found incredible amounts of success with. What have you done that works? I know there are more! Join in the conversation and help the community at large!

***Seeing as how I managed to make this post even longer that part 1 I will cut it off here. I hope this has given you some things to think about…..things I would love to hear about! wink wink nudge nudge!!!

Watch this space for

Dogme in large middle school classrooms, good idea? Part 3


Dogme with large middle school classes, good idea? Part 1

Through my first year of teaching I tried everything I could think of and then some. I was inexperienced, but full of vim and vigor and damned determined not to submit to failure and start playing hangman (which, as I’ve learned recently does not always have to be a total waste of time).

Every week I spent time mulling over activities and games I could to use when teaching the small part of the book’s chapter I was assigned. Every week I changed my approach. I wanted to be new and exciting and interesting. I thought that’s what the kids would want and they’d respond to it. I also had my heart set on doing Dogme style classes.

While learning the art of TESOL at the University of Maine I was shown the benefits of Dogme. Problem is, I learned and practiced that method with ideal class sizes and highly motivated students (who had to learn English in order to enter the University). Needless to say things are a bit different in a middle school in Korea.

I worked as valiantly as possible, but more often than not (which is generous… really it was pretty much every class) my lessons failed, I ended up doing most of the talking, and it was impossible to elicit even the most basic of answers from the class.

What can we do when we have large class sizes, unmotivated students and minimal time in class every week?!?!?! (ie. I get 45 minutes a week with a little more than 600 students)

Is Dogme a good idea? Most definitely yes! Is it the only method that can achieve the goals of interest, learning and all the good stuff? Most certainly not.

How to do it in your class


I spent so much of my time the first year worrying about what I was going to do the next week I forgot to analyze my class and see what, if anything, actually worked, and then build on that.

Students learning language NEED consistency, especially at the lower levels of learning. When they know what to expect they can focus of what you’re actually doing and saying instead of trying to figure out what you will want from them. And you know what? It is NOT boring. My students have responded opposite to how I expected them to. They are engaged. My lowest level students will hang in there with me longer because they have a clue. Students begin to use their own creativity to spice up the activities we do.

OK, here are some specifics. I wanted to have an activity where EVERYONE had to speak, at least once in my class, every class. I realized that I had a co-teacher that could be utilized and did so. I begin my class with something of review.


-What is your favorite __________

-I get upset when ________

-What do you find __________

-If I were you I would _________

-If it were ________ then I would ________

-Over summer vacation ______________

Any chunk of language can be made to work. I spend five minutes reteaching if necessary and then brainstorm with the kids about how we could use said chunk of language. When enough answers are out there I choose a student to read aloud in front of class. This used to cause the student chosen to shake their head vigorously and sink in their chair in horror. However, with all the examples present even the lowest level student feels comfortable to read verbatim what is on the board. I’ll choose a few students this way and encourage them to change their sentence from the previous one. After a couple students read aloud I have boys get up and make a circle and the girls get up and make a circle. Then with my handy mini soccer balls (I give one to the other teacher) I join a circle. I begin by asking a question and throwing the ball. They answer. Ask. Throw. And so on until the circle is finished. Then back to their seats.

Now, what have I accomplished? I have had everyone in class speak. I have reviewed and recycled previously learned material. They have gotten up and moved around. They have had a chance to express themselves, be creative, and be heard. And I have 35 more minutes to teach students who are geared up and ready to go.

It takes about ten minutes. However, the first time I did it, it took nearly 30 minutes. Yikes! I had to teach what a circle was. I had to teach that this wasn’t play time. I had to teach that this was speaking AND listening time. But, the next week was a little better. And the next? Better. Now, students know how class will start. They know it will start with something they have already learned. They know they will HAVE to speak (and so listen just that little bit better). They know that I will lead them to the finish line and that they can do it.

Bonus? I get to know my students and their abilities just that little bit better and I get away from the teacher talks you listen atmosphere that dominates some classrooms. Also, students now know what is expected when I ask them to get up and move around. I have seen a marked improvement in participation and effort when doing other Dogme activities in class.

Now I know most of us have textbooks, and demands from our overlords at school. Every time I hear a presentation about, or tell someone about, Dogme the first thing I hear is, “that won’t work in my classroom.”

I would like you to remember one thing, consistency. With consistency I believe this method could work in almost any classroom. And think! The beauty of Dogme is it’s fantastic malleability! No computers, no worksheets, no PPT needed! Just you and students and creativity!

—- In my next post I will discuss —-

How to do it in your class

NUMBER 2 – Your students.

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.