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Motivating Young ESL Learners: Part One
Teacher Trainees from Hong Kong Share Insights

Lida Baker, of UCLA's American Language Center, posted these remarks about ways to engage the interests of young ESL learners, in a discussion on the TESL-L listserv. She gave ESL MiniConference permission to reprint her comments in the following article.

This summer I have had the privilege of coordinating a program for a group of teacher trainees from Hong Kong who are spending six weeks in the US, polishing their language skills and experiencing English language instruction in an English-speaking country.

Their program includes a methodology component and many hours of observing classes, both in our IEP and in public schools here in Los Angeles. One question that we have been struggling to address all along is this: What can an EFL teacher do to motivate young students to speak English in class? Apparently in Hong Kong it is common to have 40 children in one class with just one teacher and no aide; there is far too little time for English language instruction, given the demands of the curriculum; learning is very much exam driven; and consequently parents do little to support progressive or innovative teaching.

Nevertheless, we have come up with the following list of ideas for motivating students in these difficult circumstances, and I'd like to ask other teachers working in similar conditions to write in and share what they do to motivate their EFL students.

1. As much as possible, use materials and teaching contexts that are relevant to the students' ages and life experiences.

2. Do not punish or shame students for making errors. Try to create a classroom environment where errors are accepted, even welcomed. Encourage risk-taking and reward effort.

3. Incorporate movement, sound, color, visuals, and realia whenever possible.

4. Work hard to match the learning materials and tasks to students' abilities.

5. Use a system of rewards.

6. Use your voice and body effectively. (Note: We spent a lot of time on this. Most of the HK trainees have very soft voices and a restrained demeanor. In contrast, the American teachers they saw tended to be loud and very active in the classroom. The trainees were able to see how a strong voice is an essential tool for keeping students alert and for maintaining order.)

7. Use yourself as a role model of a successful English language learner. After all, you learned English under the same circumstances as your students. If you could do it, so can they!

Any other ideas? (See Maria Spelleri's answer)

Story by Lida Baker
American Language Center, UCLA Extension
Los Angeles, California

2002 ESL MiniConference Online