Category Archives: *Motivating ESL Students and Teachers

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

• If You Want To Really Motivate Your ESL Students, This Will Do It.

Cover Motivation Purpose Shot

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 is 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.

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• Shaping a Student’s Behavior: A Solution-Focused Approach

Situation: Rob, an ESL student, had developed a reputation. During the past two terms, he tended to come to his classes late every day and turn in assignment late or didn’t do them. The quality of his work was so poor that he failed his Level 3 Writing course twice and was about to start his third time in it. It was the beginning of a new term, and as a program coordinator, I was asked for advice by Rob’s new Writing teacher about how to work with him.

In their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath discussed an interesting approach that could help teachers redirect their ESL students like Rob. The approach is called Solutions-Focused Therapy (SFT).

 I decided to try this approach with Rob when I met with him after his class. In SFT, there is an assumption that there is an exception to every problem. In Rob’s case, we assume that there was an exception to his coming to class late and doing poor work. The exception would be a class in which he had come on time and performed well. Once we can identify that class (the exception to the present problem pattern), we can analyze it like a game film of a sporting event. We can replay it to see where things were working well. What was happening? How did he behave? How did he feel?

In my meeting with Rob, we had a conversation something like this:

Me: Tell me about a class that you’ve had when you usually came on time.
Rob: I always went to Ms. Sandy’s class on time.
Me: What do you think was different about Ms. Sandy’s class?
Rob: She’s nice.
Me (Trying to get more specifics.):What did she do that was nice?
Rob: She always said hi to me when I came to class. Other teachers kind of ignored me when I arrived.
Me: That is nice. Did she do anything else that you liked?
Rob: After she told us our assignments, she often came to my desk and asked me if I understood it and if I needed any help.
Me: Did you tell her if you were confused?
Rob: Yes. And sometimes she gave me a different assignment to help me.  I liked that.
Me: What did you do differently in her class from your other classes recently?
Rob: I always came to class on time. And I think I understood the assignments better and did them.
Me: How did you do in her class?
Rob: I think I did well. I passed it.
Me: Do you think that you could do the same thing that you did in Ms. Sandy’s class in your Level 3 class this term?
Rob: I think maybe I can come on time. And I can ask for help if I don’t understand.

The follow up

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• Helping Our Students Who Feel Invisible

triads

In the documentary, Becoming, about Michele Obama, Michele is asked about feeling invisible. Her description made me think more about how many of our ESL/International students probably feel invisible in classes, on campus and in society, and how we can help them.

My personal experiences with feeling invisible are quite trivial compared to what some of our students experience, but a recent episodes gave me a bit of a taste of how it feels.

I was talking to a colleague (we’ll say his name was Ben) outside the library when a young woman whom I didn’t know walked up to us with a smile on her face. The two of them obviously knew each other and started talking animatedly, without Ben introducing us. After a couple of minutes, they walked off together across campus.

That experience had little effect on me other than feeling a tad off balance or slightly irritated momentarily. But for International and minority students, being treated as invisible can be quite disheartening.

One young man described it this way, “The problem is that to many people, I am simply invisible. Nobody says ‘hello’ to me. Nobody nods to me. Nobody recognizes me as a person with something to say. Nobody listens to me. People make assumptions about me on the basis of my color and where I come from…But I am a person and have something to say — both as an individual and on the basis of my distinctive experience.”

In our classrooms, we can see the students who are probably feeling invisible. They are the ones who are not greeted by others who look past them and start talking to more familiar friends. Or the ones overlooked when their classmates are told to find a partner for an activity. Or the ones who sit silently seemingly unnoticed in group discussions.

How to help our ESL students feel visible.

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• Avoiding Writing-Teacher Burnout: Save Your Time And Energy With This Effective Method For Giving Specific Feedback.

Many teachers mistakenly believe that spending their precious time and energy writing long comments at the end of students’ papers is what Writing teachers should do.  As one instructor wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “I am an English professor, and responding to student writing is what we English professors do…For 25 years, I have diligently, thoughtfully, and fastidiously written comments on my students’ essays. In my neatest hand, I’ve inscribed a running commentary down the margin of page after page, and at an essay’s conclusion I’ve summarized my thoughts in a paragraph or more.”

This instructor decided to stop writing comments on her students’ paper after she came to this realization: “Most students seemed to spend little time taking in my comments on their papers. They quickly skimmed, looking for the grade, and then shoved the papers into their bags.” Her solution: Instead of writing comments, she decided to meet in her office to discuss her students’ papers one-on-one.

For most ESL Writing instructors, meeting with students in their offices is not a realistic option. At the same time, writing long comments at the end of papers is often a waste of time and energy, just as that professor discovered.

It seems that there are two approaches to giving feedback to each student

General Feedback Approach

Part of problem with giving general feedback at the end of an essay is that the comments tend to be so generalized that there is little for students to apply to future writing assignments.  For example, here is what one teacher wrote:

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