Right On Time: How to Ensure Punctuality

Right On Time
How to Ensure Punctuality

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 20,481 views

Of all the habits we try to foster in our students, punctuality ranks highly for being relatively easy to encourage, but broad-ranging in its positive effects.

If we consider how most societies view late people - as lazy, disrespectful, disengaged, etc - then working with our students to inculcate punctuality seems a no-brainer, particularly for those students about to enter the much less forgiving environment of the workplace.

How To Emphasize Timeliness

  1. 1

    Late People Disturb the Flow of Your Class

    In ESL, for example, the opening minutes of the lesson are spent on important warm-up and review exercises; if the student is very late, they risk wandering into the middle of the Presentation section, in which the teacher is explaining and giving examples of today’s material. This is not a good time for an interruption, as the students need to be fully focused on the new target language.

  2. 2

    Lateness Is an Almost Universal Symbol of Disrespect

    The specter of the mindset which appears to say, “I can’t be bothered to follow your simple schedule” is a destructive one. It erodes respect for the teacher, which is hard to build and can be quickly degraded.

  3. 3

    Late People Are Missing Out

    Beyond the symbolism and annoyance of lateness, there is the practical issue that the late student won’t have taken part in the opening exercises, and has therefore missed out on valuable review and practice time.

  4. 4

    Punctuality Connects to a Disciplined Lifestyle

    At the risk of sounding as though I was born forty years late, I’ve noticed, mainly with teenagers, that a lack of punctuality is often proved to be emblematic of other issues which do harm to their learning: drinking, drug use, very late nights, skipping meals, etc. Those who have good timekeeping also seem to be on the ball when it comes to homework, getting to bed on time, and generally ‘having their life together’. Whether these are ‘chicken and egg’ questions, I’m not sure, but I often see a link between getting to class on time and leading an ordered, productive life.

How To React to Lateness

  1. There are a number of possible ways to react, and this depends on your personality, how long you’ve known the class, how late the student is, and whether this is a pattern or a one-off occurrence.

  2. 1

    Simply Usher the Student in Quietly

    Don’t make a big deal of it when they arrive; you might speak with them at break time, or during a practice period when you can do so one-to-one.

  3. 2

    Make Light of It

    A stunned glance at the student, then the wall clock, then your watch, and finally back to the student gives the awkward moment a little comedy while still underlining that you know they are late. Tapping your watch, along with a sad shake of the head, gets the point across well. A sarcastic comment such as, “Oh wow, you’re super early for the nine o’clock class!” (when, in truth, they’re very late for the eight o’clock) is also funny and just that little bit embarrassing. I find that a carefully-selected smattering of humiliation is a powerful encouragement to those who bend the class rules.

  4. 3

    Congratulate the Chronically Late

    I had a student who, for the life of him, could not drag himself to school for 8am. I had to accept that, whatever I did in terms of sanction of encouragement, he just wasn’t going to make it. Instead, and accepting that teenaged neurochemistry is in a pitiful state at this early hour, I worked with him to bring his arrival time as close as possible to 8am. If he arrived only ten minutes late, he was applauded; only five minutes late, I would ‘kow-tow’ to him in homage. This student fell very much into that category described so well in the Serenity Prayer: ‘those things I cannot change’.

How To Act Against Lateness

  1. Yes, but here, as in every aspect of classroom discipline, I would encourage a compassionate approach and an even hand. Sanctions which have anger as their origin seldom achieve success; address the problem, not simply how it makes you feel.

  2. 1

    Body Language

    In all honesty, for me the most effective way to combat lateness has been to demonstrate that I’m frustrated at the interruption and unimpressed by this display of ill-discipline. A raised eyebrow and a stern look can achieve much more than a three-minute harangue. Rare is the time that I fail to receive an apologetic face in reply. The point has been made and we can move on.

  3. 2

    Punctuality or Performance

    My favorite classroom sanction is to require the student to sing or dance before they can sit down. For a small minority, this is a priceless opportunity to show off, but for everyone else, it is a terrifying moment. I allow the students to sing in their own language, or in English, allowing others with the same first language to join in once they’ve started off the song. The whole thing should take thirty seconds, and I rarely have impose this sanction twice upon the same student.

  4. 3

    Throw A Curve Ball

    Before the late student can sit down, they must answer a knotty grammar question, something I call ‘Grammacrobatics’, e.g. “Let’s have a question in the third conditional, with a passive structure.” This puts the student uncomfortably on the spot and builds in useful grammar review. (The question might be, “If you hadn’t been stopped for speeding on the way to school, would you have been on time?”)

  5. 4


    The threat of lowering a student’s grade is often more than enough to get them to school on time. I build attendance and classroom behavior into my assessment system, and make this plain on day one, so my students have an extra incentive both to be on time and to follow our other class rules.

  6. 5

    Extra Homework

    I don’t believe that homework should be a punishment - it is an additional practice opportunity, not an unwelcome imposition upon the students’ free time - but extra practice sentences or research might encourage latecomers to change their ways.

Finally, if you do find yourself imposing sanctions on your late students, and then, for whatever reason, show up late yourself, be prepared to sing, dance, or speak in a second language, just to show that the Rule Of Law applies in your classroom. The students will respect you for it, and it’s a hilarious way to begin the day’s work.

Punctuality speaks of a seriousness of purpose, and a professional attitude towards the language learning process.

I hope these ideas help every one of your students to be in their seats on time, so that you can get each class off to a positive start.

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