Category Archives: Motivating ESL students and teachers

These posting include techniques for motivating ESL students and perspectives for motivating teachers.

Most Important Tool for Classroom Management (Case two and Caveat)

Classroom management

“David, Please report to the Director’s office as soon as your class finishes.  He needs to talk to you.”  A program assistant handed me a note with those sentences on it.  Gulp!

In the early 1980s, my wife and I, without much thought, accepted teaching positions on the Greek island of Lesbos.  It was a Greek island, so what could possible go wrong?

It was a prep school that high school students attended in the late afternoons/evenings after high school to study English.  Shortly after arriving, we met one of the teachers whom we were replacing.  He told us that the school had a lot of discipline problems because many of the students didn’t want to be there.  He said that the teacher-turnover was quite high as a result.  In fact, a couple of teacher had just disappeared a few months earlier.

On the first day of class, as we walked down the hallway, we could see students literally chasing each other around the class rooms and jumping on the desks.  My first class was with 16 tenth-grade students.  Although most of the students paid little attention to me but instead continued to chat as I started the lesson, there were three female students sitting in the front row appearing eager to begin.  Those three became the focus of my attention.  Gradually, most of the others started to engage in the lesson, while a couple slept or doodled or looked out the window.

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Most Important Tool for Classroom Management (First Case)


African classroom

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

This “tool” has since helped me remain calm in many stressful teaching situations.  Without this, I probably would have changed careers many years ago.  I discovered this tool during my first month of teaching ESL when I was in Africa in the Peace Corps.

Here is what happened that first time in Africa.  One day early in the term, I was conducting a lesson in a class of 35 students.  Sitting in the front row were two popular students, Kato (the class president) and his best friend, Abdula.  They were have a good time privately whispering and laughing while I was explaining the lesson.  I could tell the other students had noticed them, so I knew I had to do something before the other students would start talking and I’d lose control of the class.  Because Kato and Abdula were popular, I knew that I could alienate the other students if I didn’t handle this situation delicately.  I could feel my stomach churning and blood pressure rising.   Probably many teachers would have the same initial inclination that I had which would be to just tell them to stop talking.  But what if I did that, and they continued talking?  Then what could I do?   I decided to not say anything right then and to think about it after class.

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Effective Approach to a Student Cheating (from Outside Research)


Imagine this situation: During a quiz, you notice a student glancing at another student’s paper.  You feel that you need to take some action.

Surprisingly, there was a social psychology study conducted in a hospital setting that can help us know an effective way to approach this student.

For many of us, our first inclination is to confront the student tell him that if he continues to cheat, he will fail the quiz.  However, in his book The Originals, Adam Grant shows that explaining how someone’s behavior will negatively affect him or her is less effective than describing how their action will affect other people.

In the “hospital” study, to encourage doctors and nurses to wash their hands more often the researchers posted one of two signs near the soap dispensers in patients’ rooms.   One said, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.”  The other said, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” (Emphasis added.)  Over the next two weeks, a member of the hospital unit covertly counted the number of times the staff members washed their hands and a researcher measure the amount of soap used.

Interestingly, the first sign (“…prevents you…”) had no effect.  The second sign (“…prevents patients…”) had a significant impact on hand washing; it resulted in a 10% increase in hand-washing and 45% more soap usage.

How we can apply this study to ESL students who cheat on a test

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Saving Mental Energy: Give Two Grades on Essays


(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.) Essay Evaluation Form

Imagine that you read Mari’s essay in which she developed her ideas exactly the way that you had hoped she would.  But her grammar was very weak and even caused some confusion.  You are torn about what grade to give her.  You know that her grammar skills are not strong enough to succeed at the next level, so you don’t want to mislead her.  But you also don’t want to discourage her since her content was so good.

What grade should you give Mari?

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Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills

editing with codes

Learning to be a self-editor

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

Some student’s reactions to this technique that teachers use to mark their assignments:

“I like this technique because it helps me apply what I learn to future writing.”
“This technique makes correcting essays like a puzzle.  It’s actually fun.”
“I’m not stressed when I see red marks.  I know that it’s going to be an interesting challenge.”

Because this technique gives students a chance to discover their grammar errors, we have found students have greatly improved their self-editing skills.  And self-editing skills will be of great value to them as move beyond ESL courses.

Here is a description of the technique along with a handout exercise that will introduce students to it.

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A True Story to Motivate Students to Read More


Reading while eating

Reading every chance you get.

An international student, Emily, was really struggling with the grammar in her writing assignments.  Even though she worked with a tutor, she was continuously making basic mistakes.  In the fall, the program reluctantly promoted her to my higher-level Writing course.  I found her to be the third lowest of 17 students in the class in being able to apply grammatical accuracy to written work.  Ten weeks later, she was the second best.  I was totally amazed!

At the end of the Fall term, she passed my class and then took English Comp (English 101) during the Winter term.  She got an A.

I had a chance to talk to her about her remarkable turn-around.  What she did is not beyond what other students can do.  After that opportunity that I had to talk to her, every term, I share with all my students her story.  Here is the PowerPoint that I use to do this in case you’d like to tell your students about how a peer of theirs was able to improve the grammar in her writing in a relatively short time.  True story about improving grammar in writing thru reading

I’ll summarize what she had done below.

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For Large-Class Conversation Instructors, You Can “See” if Students are Using Techniques

Pair Conversation

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

You,the conversation teacher, are happy because the noise level in the room is high.  That means that the 12 pairs of students (24 total) are engaged in the conversation activity.   At the start of the next class, you want to give them feedback on their performance today, especially because you want to give positive comments to those who are very active.  There are also a couple of pairs who need some “re-direction.”

Needless to say, you’re not going to be able to give each student specific feedback specifically on what they said because you can’t actually hear them above all the talking.  But you can actually see whether or not they are using conversational techniques.  (See previous posts of two important techniques Conversation magic: Two most important conversation techniques (Part 1) and Conversation magic: Two most important techniques. (Part 2)

Even if you can’t hear them, you can see if they are engaging in a natural conversation; it looks like ping-pong, in which they are reacting to each other, asking follow-up questions and giving understanding responses.  You can also see if they are more like bowling, in which one monologs for a while while the other “zones out,” then the other monologs.  You can see if someone is dominating and if someone is very passive.  Interestingly, you can even see if they have switch from English to their native language; often when they do this, their voices lower and their faces aren’t as animated perhaps to “hide” from the instructor.

If you suspect that a pair isn’t using natural conversation techniques or isn’t speaking in English, there are things that you can do.

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