Almost every book, TV show or movie has a ‘boring bit’ which you might feel you can safely skip over.
The action seems to ebb for a while, or perhaps there’s a long section of back story or description, and you’re just waiting for the next car chase or shoot-out to begin. In ESL classes, it’s very easy to let the pace drop, and with it our students’ attention levels. Not every section of the class can be taken at break-neck speed, and some variation is inevitable, but it’s important to keep everyone engaged, and to provide a learning environment in which fresh challenges and points of interest arrive often and quickly.
Here are some hints for keeping a good measure of energy in your classroom, and for ensuring your students are motivated to listen, practice and learn.
Stay Tuned with these 7 Tips to Maintain a Good Pace in ESL Classes
Stay on Your Feet
You might only have to picture the difference in your mind to know what I mean; in one classroom, a teacher sits behind their desk for most of the class, and in the other, the teacher is up and about, close to their students, moving around the class to monitor progress. Which seems like the more engaging and energetic style?
Write a Thorough Lesson Plan
The importance of good planning can’t be overstated. It defines the structure of your class, acts a guide as to its content, and details your methodology for ‘delivering’ the class and facilitating practice. Even very experienced teachers depend on their plan; I’ve been in classrooms since just before the Millennium, and you wouldn’t catch me without my trusty plan-book, open on my desk.
The virtues of having a solid plan extend to the pace of the class, too. If you’ve confident what comes next, you can quickly move on without embarrassing head-scratching or uncertainty. Good plans also include the amount of time you’ve allotted for a given task, so you know when things are running over; this may be because the exercise legitimately requires extra time (which is always fine) but if you’re well over, consider why this might be, and if the students have actually already gotten what they need from that work. A good hint here is the energy level of the class…
Keep Your ‘Energy Radar’ Switched On
Student body language and behavior will tell you all you need to know about their level of engagement. Think of the classic image of the bored, un-engaged student - head down, sleepy, or maybe staring out of the window, or (worse still) fractiously distracting their classmates in the search for some diversion and entertainment. Keep a close eye out for these behaviors. In the 21st century, we must add to the list our students’ tendency to reach for their cellphones when bored. I encourage a zero-cellphone policy, though not everyone agrees; for me, our jobs as teachers become easier and more enjoyable when we’re not fighting our students’ digital habituations.
Practice the ‘Slow Movements’ of Your Classes
The most common time for attention to drop is when the students are in ‘receive’ mode, during presentation. You’re speaking to them, without necessarily requiring a response.
Firstly, go ahead and require that response; your presentation will be a lot more engaging and successful if you do.
Secondly, practice your presentation so that it’s pared down to the minimum required to successfully convey the information and enable the beginnings of student practice. Give as many examples as are needed, but no more. And when you need to check whether the students understand, I urge you not to fall into that classic teaching trap, of asking ‘Do you understand?’ Ninety-eight percent of the time, unless you’re working with assiduous little angels who are committed to their own personal development above all else, they will lie to you. Ask good check questions instead.
Get Professional Feedback
It can be cringingly uncomfortable, but the advice offered by an experienced fellow teacher can revitalize your teaching and iron out problems before they become life-long habits. I believe that all schools should have peer observation, however weird this can sometimes be, and that feedback can and should be given compassionately and with an eye to genuinely improving teaching through problem-solving.
Get Student Feedback
You might dismiss this idea on the grounds that our students are ill-equipped to judge our methods and style. But I would assert the opposite; they’re spending much of their waking lives in classrooms, and are developing a nuanced view of the learning process. I put time into reading evaluations written by my students; the school where I work has a weekly process for this, and the results are always enlightening. Sure, there will be poorly thought-through and negative comments, even unfair castigations of you as a professional. It’s been interesting to note that the only students who’ve been whole-heartedly negative about me were those from whom I had confiscated a cellphone. For the most part, I find that they actually want something quite specific, and I can build those things into my planning.
Keep moving, keep listening, and ensure that, once a pair or group has finished the task, there is something else ready for them to begin straight away. Un-engaged students become bored, and bored students create problems. Keep an ear open for whether the target language is really being used, and if not, jump in and pose some more check questions. Here’s an example from my classroom in Boston:
Fang: OK, in the picture, can you see Robert? Liu: Yes, there (pointing). Fang: (Refers to whiteboard questions). What might he do for a living? Liu: Maybe he is a cooker. Teacher: (Monitoring from a few feet away) One more time, there, Liu? Liu: A cooker. Maybe he is a cooker. Teacher: Is that what we call someone who cooks food? Fang: Chef? Teacher: Sure, if he’s very experienced and respected. Fang: Oh, OK. (Makes a note) Teacher: So, what might he do for a living, Liu? Liu: Maybe he is a chef. Teacher: ‘Maybe’? There’s a better way… Remember? (Points to the whiteboard examples of modal verbs} Liu: Oh, sorry… He might be a chef. Teacher: Nice! Could he be a firefighter? Liu: (Looks back to the picture). I think no. Teacher: So, it’s impossible? (Gestures to the board again) Liu: Ah… He can’t be a firefighter. Teacher: (High-fives Liu) Good work!
Your own presence, standing nearby and ready to offer help, is one of the best motivators for your students, and an easy and useful way to keep the energy levels up.
Being well organized and practicing your content will also help keep things moving along. Finally, seek guidance from fellow professionals as to your classroom atmosphere and the pace of your class.