Have you ever found yourself in front of a class thinking, “wow, they really do not want to be here today?”
I have. More than once. It was a bit discouraging at first, but in the end it pushed me to get more creative with my approach.
There’s so much more to being an English teacher than grammar and vocabulary lessons (although those have their place, too!).
You’re there to inspire a love of languages. You’re there to build confidence. You’re there to open doors to bright futures. You’re there to make English fun!
But in order to achieve any of that, learners have to want to be there. They must be engaged and hungry for more.
So, how can you keep them motivated?
In this post, we’ll show you three versatile, super motivational ESL activities that you can adapt to your classroom. No matter your class size or level, these should give you a solid foundation for ramping up the excitement in your English teaching and getting your students hooked on language.
Keys to Motivating English Language Learners
- Be repetitive, but not boring. Learning language through repetition isn’t only effective, but it also comes naturally to us. It works when learning your first language so it just makes sense to bring the same strategy into the classroom.
What didn’t happen when learning your first language, however, was having the same staged conversations and doing the same activities every day. The key to repetition in language classrooms is to repeat the same concepts, structures, vocabulary, etc. in a variety of contexts and through a variety of activities.
- Give their work purpose. People are more motivated to keep going and do their best work when it has meaning and purpose. If the only purpose of students’ work is for you to correct it and give it back, well… what’s the point?
With little ones, it may be as simple as presenting final work to parents or using models they make in future classes.
As students get older, there are tons of real-life applications you can connect to their work to reach a wider audience, as we’ll demonstrate in the activities below.
- Let them own it. Set goals for the activity, give them some guidelines, maybe a little inspiration, but then let them run with it! Encourage students to personalize their work.
Not only will they be more motivated and engaged in the process, but it’ll also make their work much more memorable.
- Bring English into the real world. The ultimate goal of a language class is communication. The ability and confidence to use what was learned in the classroom in real situations with other English speakers is the only test that really matters.
The more practical lessons are, the better they’ll serve learners in the future and the more value they’ll see in them now. Enter the FluentU teaching program!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Bring Your Lessons to Life: 3 Motivational English Teaching Activities
So, without further ado, I’d like to share the three activities I came up with over the last few years that were hands-down the most fun, engaging and motivating activities in my classroom.
If you’re not into the dance-fitness craze Zumba, you probably know someone who is. It’s easy to see why so many people love it, since you get to work out while shaking and shimmying to fun music! When I first brought Zumba into my classroom last year, I didn’t expect it to become part of the class routine, but the kids absolutely loved it.
Many Zumba songs are packed with directional (left/right) and movement (jump/turn/twist) vocabulary. The modern music and fun dance moves keep kids motivated to master the songs themselves, and doing the movements along with the music reinforces the new words.
I found that it’s super easy to do a song or two (okay, sometimes three) at the end of every lesson. It got them up and moving and gave them something to look forward to! (If you’ve got a group that needs a little energy boost before class, that would work too.)
There are tons of Zumba videos on YouTube, but I especially recommend using GoNoodle–especially with young kids–because it adds an extra level of motivation to this already fun activity.
When you set up a class on a (free!) GoNoodle account, your students get to choose a character to represent them (they own it!).
Their characters grow and evolve as they complete activities, which keeps them coming back for more. Kids are super motivated to “get to the next level” so they can watch their funny little character transform.
Bonus: describing the physical appearance of their character/comparing it to its previous look (taller, stronger, etc.) is a great way to sneak in some extra vocabulary and grammar practice.
2. Collaborative Storywriting
What started out as a relatively improvised activity to “get away from the book” for a couple days turned out to be a weeks-long project in my classroom! It really pulled together everything my class had been learning and gave them the opportunity to practice all four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
It also helped me manage a group of mixed abilities, pushing my strongest students further while giving me some one-on-one time to help others that needed it. And most importantly–they loved it and wanted to keep going!
So what did this magically motivating activity consist of?
The general idea was to write a story in English collaboratively as a class. First, we had to come up with characters and the general plot. My students were quite young (seven- to eight-years-old) and needed a little inspiration from me to get their ideas flowing.
I did push them in the right direction when necessary to make sure it would all come together in the end and also be something they could handle in English.
Note: I did this project with small classes of six to eight students. In larger classes, however, it could be adapted into a multiple-group project rather than the entire class.
Here are a few tips:
- Suggest they stick to topics and settings they’re familiar with in English and have some base of vocabulary to pull from (in my case: sports, hobbies, travel).
- Help them develop the idea so that there would be a number of characters (one for each of them to own or base off themselves)…
- …who are working toward a common goal (winning a competition, finding a treasure, solving a mystery). This way you can make a repetitive story with each character performing an action.
Once you’ve agreed on an idea, you can start writing together.
As you guide the story creation process, keep in mind the language skills you’d like them to put to the test. For example, with younger students, simply suggest what tense they write in. With older students, give them a challenge! Conditionals? Idioms? Presenting this as part of the project may help inspire an exciting storyline.
With the story set up, I wrote out each line on the whiteboard as they dictated to me, editing as a group as we went. Depending on the group size, this could get chaotic, but what worked for me was asking them questions one-by-one to get everyone contributing, while also keeping them focused around the main idea.
For example, asking one student “so after [previous action], what does [character] do?”
Before the next class period, prepare the pages of your class book by typing the lines of each page at the top or bottom of horizontal, blank pages. Now it’s time for them to illustrate their book!
I loved the teamwork this part of the project brought out of them. As they each “owned” a character, they designed it and would draw it for their classmates where and how they needed it to complete their pages. The introduction and conclusion of the story (and the cover) gave those students who are always done first something extra to work on.
Finally, take photos of each individual page and upload them to whatever video-editing program you use. Arrange the pages on the timeline and have students record a voiceover reading of their book (speaking practice!). Listening to themselves on the recording motivated them to work on their pronunciation skills, asking for a re-do to read it perfectly.
Story videos can be sent to parents, shared with other classes or even uploaded to YouTube.
So, to recap: a wider audience giving the project purpose; a repetitive but engaging storyline; characters and illustrations owned by students; a real book that they want to read in every class from now until the end of the year… This project ticks all the boxes.
3. Classroom Video Production
Similar to the story project, the video project can be broken up over a number of days and adapted for any group size, age or language level to put all of their English skills into practice. And you can get really creative with this one–documentaries, interviews, cooking shows, infomercials, news reports—the possibilities are endless.
Start brainstorming ideas as a group, again suggesting topics that suit their English level and experience. The first class can be sent writing scripts and work in groups and pairs to rehearse and make sure it all flows together.
Improving upon their first draft of a script is a great opportunity to really fine-tune writing skills. Make specific suggestions of how they could integrate what you’ve been learning lately in class into the language they’ve chosen.
Another hands-on project can be thrown in here as well, for example if you choose to produce a cooking show. Students get to choose the recipe, learn new vocabulary when writing ingredients and instructions and actually get to cook! Don’t worry if you don’t have access to a kitchen, there are plenty of simple smoothie or no-bake dessert recipes that you can make work in your classroom with just a few things from home.
Again, when recording, play back all takes to the students. They’ll hear where they can improve and give it another go on their own! There’s no better way to practice pronunciation skills.
Depending on the age level, you can also get them involved in the video-editing process. I use iMovie and there are tons of pre-made templates for news intros and other special effects. Let them get creative–adding texts, effects, credits and more! The more opportunities you find to give them input and ownership over the project, the more motivating it’ll be.
Watching the final product together will surely be the highlight of the activity, as it should be! It’ll be days of work and fine-tuning their English skills to produce something they’re proud of and excited to share because it’s 100 percent theirs.
So there you have it. Three tried-and-tested activities that are guaranteed to boost energy in your class and keep learners motivated in their English lessons.