Engaging and Reengaging Students

The class is nearing its end. You begin to assign homework. A student blinks in surprise and says, “Wow! It’s time to go already?” You smile.

Have you experienced this scene yourself? I hope so. A teacher must treasure a student’s comment on how quickly a lesson passed. (Assuming the student wasn’t sleeping and just woke up!) Such a comment reflects your success at stimulating interest in the subject, setting a good pace, and seamlessly moving from one step in your lesson plan to the next.  Even for classes of a relatively short duration, it’s essential that you capture and hold your students’ attention. It’s not about them focusing on you but rather the subject. It’s about getting them interested in the lesson and keeping them on task.  How do you like to engage your students at the start of a lesson? How do you maintain their interest and focus? How do you reengage students when you sense that their attention is already directed elsewhere? Let’s answer the first question today. We can answer the other two questions in the following entries.


  • Tell a short but memorable anecdote that serves to introduce the topic. Is there a funny story that explains the coffee stain on your shirt? Share it. It could provide a series of events that allows you to contextualize use of the simple past and past progressive tenses, which happen to be the lesson topic.


  • Show a powerful photo that serves to introduce the topic. The main shot on the front page of a newspaper could be the springboard for your conversation class on personal finance, technology, or health and fitness. The same could be done with a photo of a historic event: the first moon landing, the invention of the washing machine, the New York City fire department in the early 1900s…


  • Take a fun survey that contextualizes the language feature to be targeted in the lesson. Are you going to teach them some common prefixes or suffixes? Perhaps you might ask them about how they react to happy news, if they overreact to bad news, and if they interact with their neighbors. Let them complete the survey, discuss it as a class, and then lead into your main presentation.


  • Jump straight into an exercise that is either an identifying task or a problem-solving task. This allows you to see who much the students already know about the topic, and demands their active participation.


  • Elicit interesting information from the students that can be used to create model statements for the class to study. You may be teaching a grammar lesson on quantifiers such as a couple of, a few, few, a good number of, etc. Have students state how many people they trust their secrets with, how many people they send birthday cards to, how many people they call on the phone each day, etc. Select some of their statements as models to be studied: Julia trusts only a couple of friends with her secrets. Lucas sends birthday cards to many friends. Ann calls few people on the phone.


  • Engage students in dialogue so that you can model the target language feature(s) of the lesson. Let’s say you’re teaching a conversation class. Have them take turns completing the statement: I think people would be surprised to know that I…  As you hear each statement, react with a different expression of surprise: Really! You don’t say! My goodness! Is that a fact? Etc.  Then ask the students if they noted your responses. Point out the different ways to express surprise. Tell them in this lesson they’ll learn how to express different degrees of surprise and doubt in conversation.


  • Get the students to relate to a problem and present the topic as a solution. Students need to know the value of the information and skills you wish to pass on to them. Let’s say, for example, that your name is Leah /ˈli ə/. Complain how people sometimes call you Leah /ˈleɪ ə/. Ask them if any of them have experienced something similar. Do they have difficult name to pronounce? Do they have a neighbor, landlord, or acquaintance with a difficult name to pronounce? Now get back to the problem people have with the name Leah. It’s a matter of saying the correct vowel sound. To assure accuracy in their own communication, today’s lesson will focus on contrasting vowel sounds…

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