5 Tips for Engaging Apathetic Students | Teaching ESL Speaking

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Engaging Apathetic Students

5 Tips for Engaging Apathetic Students

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. I’ll start with this: It’s not easy! Engaging very apathetic students to speak in another language is a thankless job.

However, there are a few strategies you can try. If they work, great. If they don’t, don’t worry too much about it. As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” If your students truly don’t care about learning English, there often isn’t that much you can do.

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 first way to engage students who don’t want to speak English is to choose your ESL activities wisely.

The best ESL activities and games 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.

Check out some ESL board games:

Mix It Up

Mixing things up is perfect to keep your students on their toes. Surprise your students by introducing new activities into the classroom. Use something like this book: 101 ESL Activities: For Kids (6-13) to keep things fresh all semester long.

You can also use interesting, relevant topics. Keep an eye on current events in the country where you teach and stray from the textbook if possible every once in a while.

You can also mix up groups and partners in your class to keep things fun. For example, if I meet with a class twice a week, the students can choose their partner on Tuesday, but then I assign a random partner on Thursday.

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! For children, never have individual rewards. Group ones are far, far more effective and behaviour in your class will be much better.

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. Let them be.

Another option is to talk with them after class one day. Keep it real, and explain how it feels when they’re sleeping in your class. Or, find out if they have a valid reason for being so tired apart from video games!

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.

Learn How to Teach

One of the problems with unmotivated students is not actually the students. Sometimes, inexperienced teachers struggle when they’re first starting out because they don’t really know what they’re doing. The result? Students who know that you don’t really know what you’re doing!

I have to confess, I was this person until I started to take professional development far more seriously.

If you want to get the basics under your belt, you may want to consider an Online TEFL Course.

Want to Mix It Up a Bit?

101 ESL Activities: For Kids (6-13)
List Price: $15.99
Price: $15.99
Price Disclaimer

Fresh, new activities is one of the keys to happy, engaged students who are speaking English. Seriously, nobody wants to do the same old thing every single class.

One way you can do this is by searching around on the Internet for something to use in your class. However, it’s often a total waste of time because you have to wade through tons of crap to find one good ESL activity or game you can actually use.

A better option is to check out this book over on Amazon: 101 ESL Activities: For Kids (6-13)It’ll make your life easier, guaranteed. There are dozens of top-quality activities for kids in a variety of levels and skills.

You can check it out for yourself over on Amazon, but only if you want some more ESL awesome in your life:


Engaging Apathetic Students: Have your Say!

What are your top tips for engaging apathetic students? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts with us.

One Comment

  1. HI Jackie

    I really love your quirky sense of humor and pragmatic approach! Thanks for the hands-on tips and advice. I’m off to teach EFL to Japanese university students and I believe low response levels and perceived (although possibly not true) low motivation is what’s waiting for me. I’m planning to use lots of your ideas from your wealth of experience teaching at university level in South Korea. Thanks very much for your continuous supply of valuable resources!

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