Many teachers, new and experienced, can struggle to engage students. Constant distractions such as technology, talking, or daydreaming can divert students’ attention away from the tasks at hand. Teachers are then forced to spend extra class time re-engaging and refocusing students’ attention. Teachers are fortunate though. According to research, “Student engagement is malleable, and teachers have the ability to design contexts and tasks that encourage or discourage student engagement” (Parsons, Nuland, & Parsons, 2014, p. 25). When it comes to engaging students, teachers have a lot of power. Setting up a classroom environment that fosters unity and a sense of belonging for each learner is a critical component of continued learner engagement. It is also crucial to design tasks that are not only authentic and collaborative, but also offer choice (2014). By taking the steps necessary to ensure that learners are engaged, teachers overcome another hurdle in the classroom: they are able to better support student success and nurture academic achievement (Skinner & Pitzer, 2012).
In our Teacher’s Corner this month, we offer four strategies, with examples, that promote learner engagement in the classroom. Try one of these strategies with your students and then adapt another to fit your students’ specific needs.
Engaging learners can be fun, and though it takes time, the outcomes are almost always positive. If you are looking for more ideas or additional strategies, you can review some of the resources listed here.
- AE Webinar 4.2: Strategies for Engaging Young Leaners
- AE Webinar: Making Learning Fun: Interactive Strategies to Student Motivation and Engagement in your Classroom
- AE Webinar 2.3: Tips and Tools to Strengthen Participation and Engagement in Online Learning Contexts
Parsons, S. A., Richey Nuland, L., & Ward Parsons, A. (2014). The ABCs of student engagement. Phi Delta Kappan, 95(8), 23-27.
Skinner, E.A. & Pitzer, J.R. (2012). Developmental dynamics of student engagement, coping, and everyday resilience. In S.L. Christenson, A.L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), The handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 21-44). New York, NY: Springer Science.
Teachers help set the tone and culture of their classes. When teachers create an environment where students feel welcomed and included, students are more motivated and likely to engage (Shernoff, 2013). There are a number of techniques and strategies teachers can use to build a strong classroom community for any age or level of learner. One strategy is building stronger student to student relationships. In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, we offer three suggestions to promote student-student relationships. You can use these in your own classrooms as you work toward greater student engagement.
List of possible questions for Question of the Day (Appendix A)
While lesson planning, ask yourself, “How will I support, develop, and enhance our classroom community today?”
Meet & Greet (Icebreakers)
Objective: Students will begin to develop relationships with fellow classmates and the teacher.
Meet & Greet activities are usually done on the first day of class as a way for the teacher and students to learn more about each other. Some teachers spend the whole class getting to know students on the first day with intricate icebreakers. These icebreakers and Meet & Greet activities get students talking and support both teacher-student relationships and student-student relationships. Supporting and developing strong teacher-student and student-student relationships are vital to creating and maintaining a strong classroom community. The more students and teachers know about each other, the more accountable they feel to the classroom community. Here’s an icebreaker that engages learners and prompts discussion.
- Put students into groups of 3-4. On the first day of class, simply group them according to where they sit. For example, walk to three students sitting next to one another and tell them they are now a group.
- Ask each student to write down a number between 1 and 10.
- Tell students to share the number they wrote with their group.
- Explain that first, students should introduce themselves by name. Then, students will use their numbers as a guide for how many things they will share about themselves with the group. For example, a student who wrote 7 will have to tell the group 7 things about himself.
- Give groups time to talk beyond what they share. This might mean using almost 10 minutes to complete this activity. Remember, you want students to spend time talking with one another.
a. As the teacher, circulate and listen as a way to silently meet students. Make notes about students’ names and what they share in order to get to know them.
- At the end of the activity, tell the groups to exchange contact information. They can share phone numbers, email, social media names, or additional contact information.
a. Explain that they should reach out to their classmates if they have a question about homework, want to study together, etc. This way, students support one another’s success in the classroom.
- After students have exchanged information, ask them to write down their name and the things they shared with their group. Students then submit this to you, so you have information about each student.
a. Collect the information sheets.
b. If you choose, ask each student to introduce someone in his/her group to the rest of the class. As students introduce classmates, make notes on the student information sheets so that you can use the information to learn more about your students.
Question of the Day (QOD)
- Before class, write a question on the board that will serve as the QOD. The QOD can be funny, personal, or fun, but it should be something that generates discussion. It is best to choose something that is unrelated to class as it gives students a chance to develop personal relationships. For example, you could write a Would you rather question on the board such as: Would you rather be able to speak all human languages or speak all animal languages? See Appendix A for more suggestions.
- Once students arrive, ask them to find a person they have not met and discuss the QOD.
a. As the teacher, you might need to facilitate partners. Encourage students to stand and walk to the other side of the room to find someone new.
b. Students introduce themselves to each other and then answer the QOD.
- After a few minutes, ask students to return to their seats.
- Check in with students and ask if anyone wants to share a response.
a. Try to encourage but not force answers. The purpose is for students to meet each other.
Depending on how often you meet with students, you could do this short activity every day for one to four weeks. For example, if your class meets daily and is small, you may want to consider doing this activity each day for one week. Bigger classes that meet once a week might want to do this activity for one month.
- Tell students that it is time to mingle. Ask everyone to stand.
- Ask students to walk around the room discussing the lesson just learned.
a. Offer one open-ended question that prompts discussion such as: What was difficult about today’s lesson? What did you learn today? What is one question you still have?b. Encourage students to talk to one or multiple classmates.c. Remind students to introduce themselves if they don’t know their classmate.d. Explain that they must walk around the room to find someone. This encourages relationship building between students. It also gets them away from solely communicating with the classmates that sit close to them.
After a few minutes, feel free to bring the group back together to share. An alternative is to allow students to review this way until class ends.
Shernoff, David J. (2013). Optimal Learning Environments to Promote Student Engagement. Retrieved from http://www.eblib.com
Possible questions for Question of the Day
- What do you want to be when you grow up?
- What is your favorite thing to eat for breakfast?
- If you could have any superpower, what superpower would you choose?
- Would you rather live in a world without lies or live in a world where you have all the power?
- Would you rather taste color or smell sound?
- Which animal best describes you?
- If you could choose to be any animal, what would you choose?
- Would you rather have your grandmother sing at your high school graduation or have your grandfather rap at your wedding?
- Tell me about one of the most important people in your life.
- Would you rather watch your favorite sport or play your favorite sport?
- Where would you most like to travel?
- If you had to eat one food for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
- If you could meet anyone, whom would you want to meet?
- What is your favorite part of everyday? What do you do during that time?
- What is a song that makes you happy?
- What is your favorite holiday?
- Tell me about your best friend.
- Would you rather spend the day inside while it rains or outside in the sunshine?
High-beginner and above
- Reading text (any text used in a previous lesson appropriate to learner level and age)
- Clock with secondhand
- Prepare enough copies of the text if it is not in students’ books
- Plan for students to work in pairs; make a list of students who will work together paired by reading ability. For example, put strong readers with strong readers.
- Write these rules on the board:
One student reads.
One student is the timekeeper.
The reader reads silently for 1 minute. The timekeeper stops the reader after one minute of reading.
The reader underlines the last word he/she read.
The reader reads again for 1 minute starting from the beginning of the text. The timekeeper stops the reader after one minute of reading.
The reader underlines the last word they read.
The reader counts the words read and writes down the number of words read the first time. The reader counts the words read the second time and writes down the number of words. The reader compares the two numbers.
The timekeeper and reader switch roles.
Repeat steps 3-7
- Tell students that they are going to see how fast they can read silently.
- Put students in the pairs planned before class.
- Give students a copy of the text they will read or ask them to take out the text if it is something they have in their books or folders.
- Review the rules on the board with the students.
a. Modeling this activity can be useful.b. Ask the class to be the timekeeper and you are the reader. Tell students that when the secondhand hits 12, they should say “go” and when it hits 12 the second time, they should shout “stop.”c. Read silently for one minute.d. When the class shouts “stop,” stop reading and show them how you mark the last word.e. Show students how to count the words that you read and write the number on the board.f. Tell students that they will each do this 2 times.
- As the students engage in the activity, circulate to ensure that they are on task and completing the activity correctly.
- When they finish, tell them that they will do this regularly in order to track their progress in reading.
An alternative to this activity is to have students track their progress reading aloud. The words per minute will likely be less than the words per minute for silent reading, but it also gives the students a chance to track their own progress.
Parsons, S. A., Richey Nuland, L., & Ward Parsons, A. (2014). The ABCs of student engagement. Phi Delta Kappan, 95(8), 23-27.
Maintaining students’ attention during class is an important part of supporting student engagement. One strategy that keeps learners focused and teachers informed about progress is integrating comprehension checks and metacognitive checks. Metacognition focuses on a person’s self-awareness of his or her own progress through tasks and activities. Another definition from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary is “metacognition is an awareness or analysis of one’s own learning or thinking processes” (metacognition, n.d.). For example, a student working on pronunciation of the sound b might be asked to explain what their mouth is doing as they say the sound b. The student might be then asked to explain what the mouth should be doing to correctly pronounce that sound. In doing so, a student gains a level of awareness about his/her own progress.
In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, we offer simple ways for teachers to check in with learners on their progress and evaluate learner understanding. The metacognitive checks give students a chance to evaluate their own learning as the learning occurs. Both metacognitive and comprehension checks give teachers a chance to assess how learners are feeling while completing a task and where teachers can best offer support. Both types of checks can occur at any time during a lesson, and both require learners to be ready to give feedback; therefore, together they prove useful in promoting learner engagement.
- Take time before class to identify moments in a planned lesson when you want to check in with students. Some examples of places for checks might include: after giving directions, while students are finishing a task, or while students are working through an activity.
- Remember to have other assessments in place. Check-ins are wonderful tools in a teacher’s toolbox, but depend entirely on students to self-report their progress. Students might be swayed to respond similarly to their peers in an effort to feel included. Use these checks as they are intended: to promote learner engagement and to offer small insights into learner progress.
- Prepare students to engage in check-ins regularly. Once students have practiced these strategies once or twice, they will be ready and eager to practice them throughout the year.
Thumbs up/Thumbs down
When to use: Use this strategy for comprehension checks when giving directions, seeing how much more time is needed to finish a task, or how students feel an activity is going.
Thumbs up/thumbs down is an easy way to check in with students during a lesson. This strategy works well with young learners who are often eager to show their involvement. During group work or individual work time, teachers can pause to check student understanding. Students either give a thumbs up if they feel they are doing well or a thumbs down to indicate that they are having difficulty. For example, while giving directions and explaining an activity, you can periodically stop to ask for a thumbs up/thumbs down to see if students are listening to and following the directions. The teacher might first say, “Everyone is going to take a colored piece of paper out of the bucket. All of the students with the same colored paper will be in one group. If you have a blue piece of paper, all students with blue paper will meet in the blue corner. Thumbs up or thumbs down?” All students give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to show that they understand what is being asked. This offers the teacher a chance to quickly scan the room to see which students are following and which ones aren’t. If necessary, the teacher can pause and offer another example to reiterate the instructions before moving on.
Scale of 1-5
When to use: Use this strategy when students are working individually or in small groups to check progress.
The scale of 1-5 check prompts students to share their progress. This strategy can give teachers insight into the level and comfort at which students feel they are progressing. As students work individually or in a group, ask them to hold up the number of fingers that match how they think they are doing. For example, if students are engaged in an individual reading task, once a few minutes have passed, you can ask, “On a scale of 1 to5 how easy is this story to read? One means that this is a difficult story and 5 means this is an easy story.” Teachers can then make a note to see who has held up 1-3 fingers and who has held up 4-5 fingers. Those students who held up 1-3 fingers might need extra help. After the teacher checks with the students who find the story difficult, the teacher can ask the other students how they feel about the story and why it seems easy. The scale of 1-5 serves as a starting point for teachers to hear from students about their own progress and to make adjustments and adaptations to further support learners.
When to use: Use any time teachers want to see and hear from all learners.
Placards are great additions to students’ materials and are easily made on pieces of paper. They are small signs that students can hold up showing their responses to questions and comprehension checks from teachers. One student might make a couple of placards. One piece of paper might have YES written on one side and NO written on the other. The yes/no placard can be used to check in during a lesson or review lesson content.
Another piece of paper could have AGREE written on one side and DISAGREE written on the other side. Teachers can use the cards to check progress or review content. (Example question: Do verbs come before the subject in a sentence?) The agree/disagree placards can also be used to check metacognition. (Example prompts: I completed the task quickly; I got the results I expected). These are some examples of questions that target learner understanding and give teachers insight on student’s feelings on progress.
The comprehension checks shared in this article are by no means exhaustive. Try to create additional ways to check learner comprehension using the materials, resources, and needs of your students as a guide. Check out some of American English’s additional resources for designing comprehension checks and integrating metacognitive learning strategies.
Collaborative learning plays an important role in maintaining learner engagement. Collaborative activities are structured to facilitate learning through peer-to-peer interaction, which results in greater on-task engagement and motivation. When structuring collaborative tasks, English language teachers must consider how learners will work together to accomplish a task or complete an activity.
In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, we borrow from a common collaborative activity called Think-Pair-Share and ask students to interview a partner about an important person in their life. This collaborative activity promotes learner engagement in a number of ways.
Intermediate and above
- Spoken Fluency
- Writing Summaries
During this activity students will be able to:
- Practice asking and answering questions, including follow-up questions and questions of clarification.
- Write a one-paragraph summary of an interview with a classmate.
- Suggested interview questions (Appendix A)
- Prepare copies of Appendix A for all students, or write the suggested interview questions on the board for all students to see.
- Plan a strategy for pairing students. One option is to allow students to choose a partner. However, if allowing students to pick a partner would be problematic for some learners, prepare a list of partners in advance.
- Explain the activity to students. You might say, “Today you will talk about a person that is important in your life. Working with a partner, you will describe an important person in your life and answer questions about this person. When you finish talking with your partner, you will switch roles. You will then interview your partner about someone important in his/her life. When finished, you will write a paragraph that describes who your partner discussed.”
- Tell students to spend 1-2 minutes quietly thinking about someone who is important in their lives.
- Turn the students’ attention to the suggested interview questions and review as a group.
a. Remind students that the questions are a guide to the discussion. Students can use the list of questions or create some of their own questions.
b. Ask the class what questions they would add to the list. Write these additional questions on the board or have students add them to their printed copy.
- Once the questions have been reviewed as a class, put students into pairs either using a prescribed list or letting them choose partners.
- After students find their partner, tell them that for the next 5-7 minutes they will discuss one student’s important person. The partner that is describing an important person will answer questions and give additional information about this person. The student listening will take notes and ask additional questions to learn more.
a. When the time is up, tell them to switch roles and repeat the task.
- After students have completed their discussions, they will write a one-paragraph summary about what they discussed.
a. Give students a guideline for the paragraphs depending on their level. For example, intermediate students may write 3-4 sentences, and more advanced students may write 8-10 sentences.
This activity provides an opportunity for students to connect and share some personal information with classmates. It also gives teachers a chance to know more about each student. If you want more information about similar projects, check out American Teens Talk from American English. This series invites American teens to talk about some of the issues and challenges they face as teenagers in the United States.
Suggested Interview Questions
- Who is an important person in your life?
- Why is this person important?
- What is your relationship with this person?
- Tell me about a special memory or experience you have had with this person.
- Describe some of this person’s characteristics or qualities.
- How and when did you meet this person?
- What does this person do to inspire you?
- How old is he/she?
- What is his/her job?
- How is he/she connected to you?
- When you see this person now, what do you talk about or do together?