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How to Keep Students Engaged for the Whole Lesson

Henry Stephens

A lesson is far longer than the average adult concentration span, which is about twenty minutes without a break. As such we risk losing students if they are not kept interested and engaged. There are few things worse than being confronted by a bored and exhausted class, where glazed eyes keep flitting towards the clock… How can we avoid this even beginning to happen? The answer lies in the variation we bring to our classes and the security students feel.

What is ‘security’ for students? First of all there’s the classroom. This is the ingredient over which we probably have least control. Students will concentrate better for the whole class if they are comfortable. There’s not much we can do about decor and furnishings, but it’s a good idea before class starts to think about opening windows, adjusting lighting, or (where possible) heating. During class, it’s best to listen to the consensus and act accordingly.

There are few things worse than being confronted by a bored and exhausted class, where glazed eyes keep flitting towards the clock… How can we avoid this even beginning to happen?

Students won’t stay engaged if they are asking ‘why am I doing this?’ It’s true students don’t always want to be involved in deciding what to cover, but even so, it’s best to be transparent about objectives. At the start of class, some teachers like to write up what will happen on the whiteboard. When the class is over they can return to this and ask students what they have covered and why.

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Language learners often become anxious. Looming tests, competitiveness, embarrassing mistakes, seeking approval from teacher, speaking in public, can all mount-up to an overwhelming experience. It can mean people switch off. Here, realistic planning is important. If material is incomprehensible to students, they will probably turn their attention to anything more engaging. Taking time for ‘atmospherics’ also helps. Finding out how people are feeling and putting them at ease initially helps us to adjust what happens later.

Now let’s look at what the teacher does during the lesson, and how to achieve variety. The teacher might be talking for part of the lesson, but we can’t expect students to listen for very long. Interaction in class can vary enormously, and of course it’s best to avoid a monologue!

One thing teachers often do is ask questions. Sometimes we want students to display their knowledge: “what is the past participle of…?” certainly this has its place. We can nominate learners by name, to check their understanding, and keep them on their toes! But sometimes it’s worth asking more genuine questions – maybe to arouse interest in the topic of a text, for example. Such authentic interaction helps maintain attention.

We can also achieve variety via the role we take, and by switching: having periods in the class when we are dramatic and mysterious, or regimental (for drills), serious and business-like, careful and nurturing, or jovial and conversational.

What about learners and what they do? They’ll have different tastes and learning styles for sure. Some may like movement: using the board themselves, moving between groups, running dictations, moving outside of the classroom and using different spaces in the school or outside. Some may find they remember what they see, like words and phrases written in the board. Some may dive into activities, while others prefer to move slowly and carefully. We can’t please everyone all the time, but it’s important to accommodate these different ways of learning.

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I’ve often been advised that when energy levels are flagging it’s best to take action rapidly, and change direction. I once observed a lesson where this was done brilliantly: teacher suddenly snapped the book shut, asked the students to stand up, and instructed them to stand opposite each other, placing their hands so as to mirror each other – but not touch. He instructed them to slowly copy each other in movement. This class sat down again after two or three minutes completely refreshed. It probably wouldn’t work for me… but if you feel you can carry off drama or yoga exercises like this, why not risk it when things need livening up?

Finally, it’s important not to dwell too much on one skill. As well as speaking and listening, when students read and write in the same lesson, it helps keep their attention. Of course, there’s nothing wrong, and often a lot right, when students are engaged silently in class, working quietly by themselves.

Perhaps keeping our students attention throughout the lesson is a matter of putting ourselves in their shoes. Making sure we vary what we do, and what they do, trying to make everyone feel comfortable, is important. But this should always be in the context of credible aims and reinforced by a sense of progression. Taken together, that will mean students come to class wanting to give us their full attention.

About the author

Henry has been working in teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) since 2001. Henry is married with one young son, and he lives in Harrow, London. In his spare time he enjoys playing the piano and practicing his Spanish whenever possible.