One problem for ESL teachers is that we can become complacent and start to take shortcuts. One day, part way through my career, I realized that this was happening to me.
I was teaching a TESL methods course to American university students who wanted to teach ESL. During one class, a student asked me what to do if some students aren’t doing the assignments or not doing them seriously. I told them that the most important motivator is to always introduce an assignment with an explanation of its purpose and how this assignment will help them in the short- or long-term future. WAIT! I suddenly realized that I had become lax in doing that in my own ESL classes.
For a dozen years, I had had the good fortune of teaching at colleges in Asia. For the most part, the students there were diligent about doing whatever I assigned without question. I soon fell in the habit of just tell them what the assignment was when I introduced it.
For example, in a Writing class, I might say, “We are going to do some practice with dramatic introductions. Look at pages 17-19. There are eight introductions. Two of them are dramatic. After you read each, you will identify which are dramatic.”
Or for a grammar exercise, I might say, “We are going to practice the most common places to use commas in sentence. Look at page 194. Let’s do the first exercise together.”
Or for a conversation activity, I would say, “Today, you will work with a partner and give directions to each other to find places on a map.”
Explaining the big picture purpose of an exercise: how it will help them in future.
Trigger warning: This approach won’t work if the assignment is just something to keep students busy, or if it’s being assigned just because the curriculum/other teachers/program director said to assign it. In other words, in order to explain the purpose, the teacher actually needs to clearly know the reason and should be able to describe it in language that students can understand.
When we talk about the future, we can explain how the exercise will …
- help them develop a specific skill.
- help them get a good grade on their next test, essay, project, etc.
- help them pass this class.
- help them do well/impress their instructor at the next level.
- help them when they take college classes.
- help them when talking to native-speakers (e.g. classmates, peers, teachers, salespeople, neighbors, etc.)
Examples of explaining purpose of exercises.
An added benefit from explaining the purpose is that teachers need to ask themselves why they are assigning every exercise. Hearing the purpose for each assignment, students will gain confidence that their teachers know what they are doing.
For postings and handouts about these exercises, see:
2 I’ll post the map activity in the future. For an activity that practices similar techniques, see Another Conversation Activity: Listen to Partner and Ask Questions to Complete Information-Gap Chart
For more about motivating students, see