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Category Archives: motivation

>By Dick Tibbetts – University of Macau, Macau, China

Make sure the learners know the language learning objective(s) of the game but there is a bigger problem here that may negate even this approach.

The problem is that the institution does not really value spoken English and does not value the teacher of spoken English. Consequently, the learners don’t either. You therefore need to use motivating forces from outside the educational institution and this is not easy. Games fit the bill but in this environment even the fun of the game can work against you.

You want the learner to directly experience the benefits of being able to speak English. If there are none for these learners. If there are none and you are teaching the branch of ESP known as ENPP, English for No Particular Purpose then you are on a limb. You might get some hooked on chatting to visiting foreigners, if there are any, and you might get some to engage in voice chat on the web, if they have the equipment. Some might be motivated by interesting discussions and some by the status of starring in a debate, though the latter can only benefit a few. I have, on occasion, offered money to the best student for a task completion, praised the winner to the skies and then, with an innocent smile, admit I lied about the money. It got enthusiastic participation and a big laugh but you can only wave your 100 Yuan about once.

In short there is no one answer to the problem. Varied activities, some games, some tasks, some hard study work, some activities that relate to the world outside seems to be the best approach to hook as many differently motivations as possible.

[Photo: Students playing the “Alibi” game. “Where were you last night at 9:00?”]


>By Daniel T. Parker

This probably won’t work for every class, but I recently rediscovered a solution to a problem I have about not getting questions from my college students.

No matter how many times I ask for questions during a lesson, I rarely receive any questions, even when I can tell that one or several students are puzzled by something. I understand that part of it is shyness concerning asking a question in front of their classmates.

Usually, I hold my classes right up until the “ten-til” mark, but a couple of weeks ago, I finished my prepared lesson about 15 minutes early. Instead of engaging the students in small talk or time-killing, I just said, ah, go on and get out of here, enjoy the extra time.

Wham. I was surrounded by five students wanting to ask questions. Since I hadn’t waited until the “ten-til” mark to dismiss, they now had time to ask their questions AND get to their next class.

I remembered this having happened before, so I’ve tried a little experiment this week. I’ve been planning to end my classes 15 or 20 minutes early. In my conversation classes, all but one of my classes (and it was the night-time class) saw students coming up not to ask questions, but just to have conversation (hooray!). In both of my composition classes so far this week, I’ve ended up fielding several questions each time, and actually staying in class longer than I would have if I’d dismissed at my regular time.

Again, it probably won’t work for highschool/middleschool classes, or maybe not even with every college class, but it seems to be getting the job done — now, at least — for me.

>Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

At the university where I teach in Beijing, I asked a student in private why he chose to major in English, since he apparently doesn’t enjoy learning English. He said it wasn’t his choice. His score on the English portion of the university entrance exam just happened to be higher than his score on the other sections, so he had to either major in English or not attend university. So even though he’d rather be doing something more math/science related, here he is, stuck in my English class. Similar stories for quite a few others in my classes. At Chinese universities, there’s no changing your major a dozen or more times like I did in the US.

The best solution I’ve come up with so far has been to incorporate the topics these students are interested in into the English class somehow.

Creating a communicative classroom environment is naturally more difficult than staying in lecture mode. It might help to look at it as a choice: You can lecture directly from the textbook if you want, or you can encourage student participation if you want. Any teacher will need some compelling reasons to make the extra effort to elicit student communication.

For some it is a labor of love: we genuinely care about our students and their prospects for the future, and are convinced that our efforts to teach them English will be appreciated somewhere down the line. For some it’s about career: we love the challenge of developing our teaching skills to meet with an extreme environment, providing a modern education without the cushy layer of teaching resources available in the West. Whatever motivates you (and there are more answers than just those two), remind yourself of it when times get tough. And be sure to pat yourself on the back at each minor success along the road…’cause no one else will do it for you.

Try asking the whole class to write down their suggestions for topics they’d like to cover or activities they’d like to do? Sometimes students are too shy to raise their hand or approach you, but will give you their opinion in writing when asked.

Last term, I was constrained to a certain textbook which neither I nor my students really liked (Oral Workshop: Discussion). To give my students some say in what they learned, I allowed them to vote on which chapter we should do the next week. Of course they chose the chapters they thought would be the most interesting. Complaints rarely surfaced, but when they did, I reminded them that they chose that chapter. (One student told me that she hadn’t chosen the chapter; she was in the minority when the vote was taken. I told her to blame her classmates, not me. I’m just an impartial election observer.) Another idea is to have your students give oral presentations about topics of their choice.

>By Wu Jun

As to the question of “what is English”, I will tell you what most Chinese think it is. It is something that you have to learn in order to go to college. Pass the CET to be eligible for graduation, and pass many other English tests to get promotion if you work in government or government-sponsored institute. English is something that is disliked by some Chinese people who have to learn it although they can’t perceive any occasion where they can use it.

How to increase vocabulary and how to pass a certain tests are the most frequently asked questions. From this we can learn what English is in their mind.

>By Bob Sasseen

I have been concerned about student passivity, which was a much bigger problem than I expected, no doubt in part due to my own limitations. I wrote this parable to explain to the students and others how it hurt their learning and made me feel as a teacher. I told them it mostly wasn’t their fault and they shouldn’t feel too bad about it, but that if they could work on it, that would help their next teacher and their own learning a lot.

(In the parable, the tests the doctor runs are analogous to the kinds of objective feedback a teacher can get from observing students’ speaking and writing, giving exams, etc. That can go far, but it’s a lot easier to understand the students’ problems if they ask questions when they don’t understand, etc. Fortunately, in teaching there’s nothing really analogous to the patient dying, but it was useful to dramatize the problem and illustrate how if they can describe their difficulties it will help the teacher help them learn much better.)

The Doctor

Once upon a time there was a doctor from a big city who went to a faraway village. He wanted to help the people there, to cure their illnesses and to improve their health. He set up a small hospital, and soon patients from the village started to arrive.

When the first patient entered his office, the doctor asked, “What are your symptoms?” But to his surprise, the patient said nothing. The doctor thought perhaps the patient didn’t understand the question, so he asked “Where does it hurt?” Strangely, the patient still didn’t answer. The doctor said, “Please tell me about your sickness.” To his astonishment, the patient still refused to speak.

The doctor couldn’t see anything wrong with the patient; she wasn’t bleeding, limping, holding her head, or showing any other obvious signs of what the problem could be. So he performed some tests. He tested her reflexes, but they were normal. He took her temperature; it was a little bit high, but not a lot. He took a blood sample and analyzed it. There were a few abnormal features, but nothing that clearly indicated what the problem might be. The doctor was extremely frustrated. He felt that if only the patient would talk to him and describe what she was feeling, he could certainly figure out what the illness was and how to cure it. But with only the inconclusive test results to go on, all he could do was give the patient some antibiotic medicine and tell her to come back if the illness got worse.

A second patient came in. This patient didn’t say anything either, but the doctor knew she must be ill or she wouldn’t have come to see the doctor. Again, he performed some tests, but the results were inconclusive, so he had to make an educated guess about what the problem might be, gave her some medicine, and sent her home.

Almost every patient who came to see him behaved the same way. Sometimes the doctor could figure out the illness from the tests, and sometimes he guessed right, and the patient recovered. Sometimes, even if he couldn’t figure out the problem, the patient got better on her own. But often the patient continued to have the same problem, and it often got worse. Some patients even died.

When a patient died, he performed an autopsy, examining the dead body to figure out why the patient died, and he usually found the cause. Then he knew that this patient must have experienced dizziness and headache, while that one must have experienced pain in her chest and ringing in her ears. If only those patients had been willing to tell me what they were feeling, what problems they were having, the doctor thought to himself, it would have been obvious what their illness was, and I could have cured it easily. What a terrible waste.

The doctor was very frustrated and unhappy. He had come to cure people and improve their health, but because of their mysterious refusal to speak, he was able to do little to help them. He tried everything he could think of, but it was no use. The villagers, too, were frustrated and unhappy. They had had such high hopes that the doctor could help them. But they continued to fall ill, and some of them died.

Feeling very sad, the doctor left the village and returned home to the city. Now and then he would think about his experiences in the village, but he never understood why the people there were unable to tell him about their problems.

>By Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery

A teacher says:

Last week I tried what I though would be the ultimate shame. After listening to the pre-lesson babble I asked them – If your parents had been in this room for the last 5 minutes, what would they think? 30 blank looks.

Do your students know that you expect them to speak only English in the classroom, even before and after the lesson? A lot of Chinese students think of English as just another subject, like chemistry, and their chemistry teacher doesn’t require them to speak about acids and phosphates before or after the lecture.

One thing that has recently helped in my classroom is to be very explicit about the English-only rule. “This room is for English only. If you are in this room, you will speak only English. It doesn’t matter if I am teaching or not. It doesn’t matter if it is time for a break or not. The Chinese language stays outside the door of this classroom.” Any students who “need” to speak Chinese during breaks conduct their conversations in the hall. When I hear pre- or post-lesson Chinese in the classroom, I tap the offenders on the shoulder, and ask them to take it outside. Sometimes they go in the hall, sometimes they switch to English.

During class, I use the participation points method. Participation is 25% of my students’ grade. This is enough that those who care about their grade are very motivated to participate. When the students come in at the beginning of class, I hand each of them a tiny piece of paper. They write their name and student number on
it. Whenever anyone asks a good question or gives a good answer, I take their paper. When I hear someone speak Chinese, I give them their paper back. At the end of class, I spend a few moments putting participation points in my grade book for everyone whose paper I have.

I wear shoes with soft soles, so I can move silently around the classroom during group and pair work. All I need to do is clear my throat to startle back into English those students who have drifted into Chinese.

I think you just have to keep experimenting to find what motivates your students, as well as what works with your teaching style. For example, one foreign teacher I know gives a piece of candy to each student when he/she participates. I thought that might not work so well with university students, but his students have told me they love it.

>by Pete Marchetto

A couple of thoughts on this one. A few students have told me that they had good intentions when it came to English-only dorms and classroom time but that it broke down after a day or two. Only the most motivated of students will manage day in, day out and they will usually succumb to peer-group pressure and give up when most of
their fellows do. They set their ambitions too high and then give up altogether.

I think the best thing in convincing the students of English-only is to give them the analogy of, say, learning how to play tennis. For an hour or two a week you, the pro., are there to show them how to hold the racket, swing it and hit the ball. But if they put the racket down for the rest of the week until they see the pro. again they won’t improve. That ain’t the way to learn tennis and it ain’t the way to learn English.

The next thing I do is tell them a true story. (If you have no such true experience tell them this one or lie). At my last post one of the students complained she didn’t like speaking English with her classmates because they laughed at her. The irony was – as I pointed out to her and all her classmates – she was the best of ’em when it came to English. She rounded her vowels properly instead of mumbling them into some convenient quasi-Chinese approximation and was careful with her difficult consonants – even if that did mean a glimpse of tongue for ‘th’ – and consequently, of course, she looked and sounded ridiculous to her fellows in much the same way we did when we were at school and got the knack of pronouncing Frrrrrench properly. I’m coming to the conclusion that a large proportion of pronunciation problems come from the embarrassment of saying things correctly – it sounds so odd to the Chinese ear.

Also, it is good to do is convince the students they don’t need to be given a topic or an exercise in order to speak English. I’ve had many students tell me they can’t express everyday thoughts unless in Chinese – even some teachers have told me that – but I’ve yet to have any university student (or teacher) want to express something to me and fail. Again, point that out to them. They are so unused to using the language in anything besides a formal exercise they genuinely believe a lot of the time that that is all they CAN use it for.

Many are concerned that errors made in the course of speaking, if not corrected, will become entrenched. For that one I ask them to think of a local three year old speaking Chinese. Do they really think that three year old will be making the same oft-repeated mistakes at the age of ten? And do they think the best thing that three year old can do to improve his or her Chinese is to stop talking it until he or she has learned more rules of Chinese grammar?

What I do, having gone through all that, is set them the task of speaking English only for one hour a day when they are together, Monday through to Friday; the same hour each day. They don’t have to say anything in that hour if they don’t want to… but if they want to ask to borrow a pen or draw attention to something happening outside the window then they must do it in English. I also give the monitors the task of seeing to it that THEY arrange the hour this is to be done and that they enforce it. (This is best done of course if the students spend a lot of study time in the classroom – otherwise you will have to find someone else to be ‘in charge’ or assign dorm-leaders if dormitory hours are chosen). I give my monitors permission to punch anyone who speaks Chinese though sadly this form of enforcement is rarely taken as seriously as I’d like it to be.

Another possibility I’ve toyed with – but not used – is an English-only space; say a computer room or television room which the students like to be in. (A TV room might be difficult as it will be difficult to break out of watching Chinese programmes to
comment in English and then switch back again). The price of being in there is they must converse in English. If the worst comes to the worst then select a room they have to go to every day; the dining hall perhaps, or you could take advantage of a mass break-out of food-poisoning and allocate the lavatory.

At my college all this is all easily done, admittedly; the students are used to taking orders AS orders and are highly motivated. However, at any university it’s worth while convincing the students that the best resource they have for learning oral English is each other. When students complain to me that the college doesn’t provide them with an English-speaking environment I tell them it’s their job to create it for themselves. And should it happen – which thankfully it hasn’t yet – that students at the end of a semester complain to me their English under my tuition hasn’t improved as much as they’d hoped then I can always blame THEM for
not following my directions. Even if you can’t convince them to do it, at least you’ve covered your own butt…

>By Dick Tibbets – University of Macau

One teacher described his feelings about his class:

“I was very frustrated by the (to me) astonishing passivity of my students. The difference between what they were learning and could have been learning had they been more active was so great. And their (apparent) lack of motivation drained mine greatly.

“I had seen a little discussion on this list and in books about the passivity of many Asian students, and I thought I was prepared for it, but its degree and perviousness to my efforts was a great surprise.”

Bob’s suggestion that teachers coming to China should be advised of the passivity of students is a pretty good idea. It can still get us teachers where it hurts even after years. One of my colleagues with 15 years in Macau, teaches business studies and has a number of exchange students from europe in one of her classes. The Europeans are starting to express resentment and frustration at the slow pace of the class.

They have a much better command of English than their Chinese classmates and are also willing to chance their arm. Responses have to be dragged out of the Chinese students and it takes ages to get a response for even the most basic question.

I’m lucky. I’d taught learners from over 70 countries before I came here so I was aware of ‘the Asian classroom’ problem and had a context to place it in.

As to what to do about it, it depends on the age and level of the students and on other factors including luck.

I do a lot of cajoling and wheedling. And I’m quite prepared to make sarky remarks about how well their Cantonese is coming on when I hear the wrong language in group work.

I run around a lot to monitor group work and keep them at it. Groupwork tasks need a conclusion but they also have to have an element of development to take up the slack.

I make it clear at the start that I demand respect as their teacher and that that respect must be shown by deeds not sirs. I explain why I want them to do things and I try and show how this has helped them learn. My weaker students have been learning English the Chinese way for 12+ years without much success so they aren’t unwilling to try it my way, they just find it unfamiliar.

I use humour and wordplay at whatever level seems appropriate. Anything to get them to realise they are learning a language not a subject.

It works.

For some students.

>By Katherine Lea – IEN English, Beijing

Right now I have a new class of post graduate students who wish to study overseas for their second degrees. As with a previous class last semester the motivation of these students is HIGH HIGH HIGH. When I ask them to discuss the issues, they discuss them, when I ask them to use the grammar in a conversation they do it willingly.

What’s the difference you ask? I have only taught at private colleges in China and in the last year I have primarily taught post graduate students who wish to study overseas. Their motivation is themselves because they NEED English to succeed in their goals.

I do a lot of goal setting at the beginning of the course and keep in mind each students goal. If they start to slip I remind them of the light at the end of the tunnel – THEIR GOAL – and they start working again.

For many Chinese students they don’t know WHY they NEED to learn English. When they figure out their real goals (not just passing a test) they do get motivated and won’t be passive.

So if you really want a rewarding experience find these students and you will have a wonderful time.

>By Molly Merson

Teaching writing is not one of my favorite things to do. Especially because of all the extra hours you get to put in correcting essays. But I’ve found some tricks that make it more fun for students and easier for me.

1. To instigate journal writing, put a quote on the board, something interesting that can apply to their lives. For me, today’s quote was “Words once spoken can never be recalled.” Have them chat for a bit with their partner or in groups about a time they said something to someone that they regret, and if that person were there now what would they say to him/her. I usually have them begin journal stuff in class and have 4 pages due a week. As they do something else, partner work maybe, I walk around and check that they’ve written in their journals. you have to be careful becaue sometimes they’ll cheat, so read stuff but not too in depth.

2. Two fun exercises:

a. Take them outside in the garden right now and have them write about what their five senses experience, plus what thoughts they have. Explain that a good writer can sense everything going on around her. Later in the term when it gets colder take them back out and have them do the same. Then return their original essays and have them write a comparison/contrast essay from it.

b. Something I came up with when i was faced with a restless class: Students get into groups of four and bring a pen and paper and a piece of chalk with them. Go outside and have them find a “secret” place and write an X and a message for another group. Then have them write directions how to get to that place. Then they switch papers with another group and try to find the other group’s secret message.

3. Movies: movies are great for spurring writing topics. I have shown the Muppet Movie and had them write about a journey they took to follow their dreams to an unknown place. I’m doing Edward Scissorhands next. The best is to give them lots of background info, like some movie reviews, vocab, quotes, simple plot questions, and “bigger questions”. The bigger questions can be about the themes in the movie, and these can easily become writing topics. Try to use DVD’s with English subtitles so they can understand everything.

As for writing in class, I definitely take the time to do that. It’s best if they write something for homework and then bring it to class to exchange with their partner for corrections. Then they rewrite it before they give it to you. Believe me it saves a lot of headaches from poor grammar overload.

New words are good in the form of scrambles etc and then have them write something with these new words. Also reading something to the class and give them a few key words and have them reconstruct the passage adding some before and after stuff works well.