To keep your students engaged at all time in your lesson is a second language teacher true challenge, but the benefits are numerous for who succeeds ! But first, let’s try a definition of what I mean by engagement.
Engagement, a definition
For me, a student is truly engaged when he is using one of the four language skills. If Ruben is speaking in Spanish, describing his weekend to Martin, he’s engaged. If Tamara is reading a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story, she’s engaged. If Taylor is writing a letter to her Argentinian pen pal, she’s engaged. And if Martin is truly listening to Ruben’s weekend, he’s also engaged.
Of course, a second language class is no immersion, and the students in our groups are not always tackling with the target language non-stop. A Spanish teacher is likely to use English (or another language of instruction) to clear a detail about the use of Pretérito Perfecto verb tense, to tell his class about a coming oral presentation or to feedback on the last formative assessment… So, how to keep the students engaged?
I remember my English class in primary school. I was born and raised in French in Québec, Canada, so I had to learn English at school. My teacher was a tall, scary man with a thin moustache that gave him a strange ressemblance with a large feline. He was a native French speaker, like all the other teachers in my school. He taught English like it was any other subject: using French to tell us how to use English. His lessons were boring, but I almost didn’t have to use English through them. Was I engaged? Huh, not really!
In a nutshell: How to keep them engaged?
Over the years, I discovered that my students were most engaged when they had fun, when they were challenged and when they were inquiring about something.
I also noticed that keeping my activities relatively short, and changing often, helped me to keep my class attention. Over a 40 minutes period, I can do 4 or 5 activities and witness full engagement from my students.
Finally, using the four language skills greatly help to keep them active and interested. Switching from a speaking to a writing activity, then from a listening to reading really helps to keep a good pace and keep things varied in class.
On the other hand, I felt like I lost my students when I gave them long speeches, told them how to do things or gave them mindless activities to perform. Really, every time I reminded myself of my old feline moustache English teacher!
It can be hard work keeping your students truly engaged, but there is a lot to gain from it! Let’s have a look.
Top three benefits of engagement
1. More retention from the students
With some variations, I’ve heard this saying a thousand times in my teaching life: “Children are like sponges when I comes to languages”. While this is not always necessarily true of each kid, the saying really comes to life when students are fully engaged in a lesson. Just like in an immersion situation, the retention is much greater if the students are curious about the work at hand, engaged in their own learning process and having fun while doing it. If they enjoy what they are doing, there is nothing they cannot do language-wise.
2. Less discipline problems
Ever since I reoriented my teaching practice to maximise student engagement, I immediately noticed something groundbreaking: I stopped having discipline problems in class. At all. With shorter but engaging activities, less talking time from the teacher, more room to practice the four language skills, plenty of feedback and an easy going atmosphere in the classroom, one thing is certain: your discipline issues will entirely disappear. Learn to know the strengths of your students (even the not-so-interested-in-foreign-languages boys sitting in the back – actually, they shouldn’t be sitting in the back… but let’s come back to this later) and your language class will be rolling in an instant.
3. Less work for the teacher
Don’t take this the wrong way, but the teacher should be the one person in the classroom with the less work. Teaching languages should be more about animation, like a workshop leader does it. You should provide a starting line, and accompany your student throughout the path, giving them relevant feedback and support along the way. It’s not being lazy to think that you should be doing less work than your students. You’ll be planning and feedback more, that’s for sure, but in the end, it will be more than worth it! And you’ll have more fun teaching!
There are more and more advantages of engaged students in the language class. Don’t hesitate to drop a line to share stories on how you do it!