Want to succeed as an ESL teacher? 16 tips to increase motivation and engagement from your ESL students (A webinar presentation by Carl Cameron-Day)

Carl Cameron-Day, a very experienced (and affable) TEFL teacher, based in Northern Ireland, has hosted many webinars on EFL/ESL teaching topics (see Tefl.org). You can find them posted on YouTube and Facebook. Recently Carl discussed how motivating students to learn and to engage with your lessons (and each other) can present a challenge.

How to encourage motivation and engagement may be especially challenging when you teach “young learners” (YL) and when adult learners (AL) have such busy lives that attending class (and preparing homework) can be tough

Carl suggested numerous strategies for EFL/ESL teachers and tutors. Here are a sample:

  1. Adopt a friendly teaching personality, even on your worst days (e.g. when you’re sleep-deprived, sick, etc.): Only the most ungracious and tactless student can resist the power of a friendly teacher/facilitator. Aim to be magnanimous!

2. All education involves at least some degree of suffering on the part of the student. So, when students are struggling, reassure them that if they keep trying, what you’re teaching will soon make sense.

3. Learn your students’ names as quickly as possible. You may need to use signs initially or nametags but make the effort to match faces to names.

4. Treat students individually and not according to stereotypes you may have heard about their cultures. Ask why they’re taking your course, and what music, food, pop culture, etc. they like.

5. Show students that they’re improving, by doing group vocabulary or grammar
“progress tests,” about every four weeks. You can also encourage students to make portfolios out of their marked exercises and projects; the portfolios provide a record of their efforts, in which they can take pride.

6. Explain how to use English in the real world—for instance, what words would you use if you went on holiday to New York City or to London, UK?

7. Use topics for conversation practice that are appropriate to the age of your students: For instance, what have the Kardashians done lately?

8. Think about different learning styles among students and use coloured images, pictures, YouTube videos and a wide variety of teaching activities (e.g., games, music, TedTalks, etc.)

9.Think about the bad teachers you had in life and do the opposite: smile, laugh, use humour, including having a laugh at yourself. Avoid being too serious.

10. Learn how to praise students without sounding like a sycophant.

11. Move students around in the room (or breakout rooms, on Zoom), so that every 10 minutes or so they must often work with someone new.

12. When giving “bad news,” remember to use a “bad news sandwich.” Preface and conclude bad news with good news, so the criticism doesn’t sound too harsh.

13. Male students often like to compete, so you can assign them words to define and use in sentences—“the first one with correct answers gets to choose the music for the class break.” By competing against their peers, some students are motivated to learn better. 

14. If your students know the grammar rules but are not applying them when they speak, then choose an activity that requires accuracy. For instance, you can search for online grammar and vocabulary games, where only one answer can be correct.

15. Be confident as a teacher, even if you do not feel that way. Remember the education and training that you have. Send yourself positive thoughts about how prepared you are to teach new learners of English.

16. You can create a Facebook group for each class and encourage its students to meet and practice their English with each other, in that group.

And now it’s your turn:

To facilitators/teachers: What ESL teaching tips or strategies do you use in a classroom?  

To students: What activities do you enjoy most in class?