A reader question from Katrina about how to get her low level middle school students to participate in class when the last thing they want to do is speak English. This is a tough one and I’d appreciate some feedback from the readers (I’ll leave the comments open). But, here are 5 tips for engaging apathetic students that I hope will be helpful.
Choose Activities Carefully
The best ones are those where it’s almost easier to speak English than it is their first language. Some examples of good ones are ESL board games and surveys for ESL students. The survey one is particularly good because it gets students up and about, moving around the class. Anything that you can do to get students out of their seats is a good thing.
Mix It Up
Mixing things up is perfect to keep your students on their toes. Surprise them by introducing new activities into the classroom as well as interesting, relevant topics. Make them go with a new partner or group every once in a while.
Give some Incentive
Implement a reward system of some kind with a prize that actually has some value such as a pizza party or a gift certificate to a popular store. It may cost you a bit of money, but it’ll be worth it in the end when students are actually participating. Putting students into groups can be helpful so they can kind of police each other!
Don’t Expect Miracles
If students are very low level and apathetic, don’t be too hard on yourself. Do your best but realize that if a student is 14 or 15 years old and absolutely refuses to participate in your class, there isn’t much you can do. Avoid the power struggles and test of wills that you’re not going to win. If one or two students at the back of the class are sleeping, but not disturbing anyone else, don’t worry too much about it.
Praise even Small Things
If students in middle school are quite low level, they probably haven’t had much or any positive feedback about their language skills in years. Praise even small, simple things and make encouragement your #1 priority. As my boss in Korea once told me, my goal was to make my students hate English a little less. I think I accomplished that through using these 5 things that I’ve mentioned.
Even more advice for teaching low-level students: 39 No-Prep/Low-Prep ESL Speaking Activities: For Teenagers and Adults