Jumping around like a monkey and trying to motivate the unmotivateable

The title is I must admit a bit harsh (does the word unmotivateable exist?), but in a way describes the context I found myself in the other day.

From a language instructor background, I’m used to ‘jumping around like a monkey’.

Most language instructors try hard to get the attention of their students, trying to get them involved in class activities, with the goal that by the end of the class they will have taken another step in their language learning. When I see a student yawn, I feel the need to access my ‘teaching strategy file’ in that upper stratum we call the brain!

The other day, I was facing a group of BA English students. I had been placed within a ‘lecturing environment’ where as one of the students told me, “teacher we are used to listening, not speaking. We just take notes.”

Tasked with having to teach modals (I was teaching grammar of course) I was faced with a bleary-eyed group of young to mature adult males.It was also late afternoon – 5.30 pm to be exact.

After a few minutes, I realised that my students were not only having difficulty with the concept, they did not seem to understand what I was saying!! When I asked them a question, all I got was silence.

What now I thought as I rubbed my chin and raised one eyebrow (in a James Bond like fashion of course).

Eureka!! (I thought)

I offered to let all of my students go home if they each wrote a sentence for the words must, might, may and could.

I wrote the words on the white board, drew four columns and made my board markers available to anyone who was brave enough to come to the front and take a risk. “Even if you make a mistake, I’ll be happy, the point is to try!!”

I waited a few minutes. Two to three students (the best ones as expected) wrote four sentences each, followed by immediate feedback from yours truly. They then all went home.

After what then seemed quite a few minutes, one or two of the students came forward and started writing. They could look at their grammar book, but they had to use different vocabulary.

The students ‘I think’ had observed the other students writing, looked at what they had written, as well as my feedback, and were beginning to pick up a pattern.

Slowly but surely, some of the more shy students started coming to the front. In a way they had no choice, as the class was becoming empty as more and more of the students started leaving. I gave individual feedback and made sure all the students were watching and at the same time was rallying them to “have a go”.

The class ended at about the same time it normally would.

I was beginning to wonder. Do I have to offer them a chance to go home early in every class to get them to actually learn something or even motivate them? Remember, this was an unusually difficult situation?

And is lecturing really the right way to be teaching a second language? Obviously I can’t use this strategy all of the time.

What would you have done?

23 thoughts on “Jumping around like a monkey and trying to motivate the unmotivateable

  1. I think you did great. Getting the students interactive with the lessons could turn a “yawn” into focus for most of them. I think you are on the right track.

  2. maybe you MIGHT 🙂 suggest they do some research themselves, send them to http://www.lingleonline.com and have them select a news article published today that they were interested in reading about, find the modals used, explain the usage or create some example sentences from the same context.

      • Those of us who are truly keen on getting through to each and every student in our different classrooms are faced with the problem of the unmotivated students, and YES, they do exist. I often play monkey, as well, especially for those late afternoon classes where I use a faster pace to imply a sense of urgency that arouses/awakens Ss who are likely to be dozy at this time of the day. Every now and then I play songs (‘Yesterday’ for the simple past, ‘I believe I can fly’ for modals and so on…), or show pictures and videos that I connect to the lesson. While this is certain to keep most Ss at the edge of their seats eager to participate, I still get a student, or more, who just insists on zoning out no matter how hard I try!

  3. Well brother, Let me introduce myself. I am a qualified EFL Instructor. I have got MA TESOL, MA Applied Linguistics, MA Education and PhD(IP). I have read all above and I am not happy with your way of teaching and I wonder that your qualifications and experience is really doubtful. You are not a language teacher at all. My advise is to leave this profession and stop making fun of your learners.

    Your students are yawning in your class, not paying attention, not reply to your questions, you are allowing them to leave one by one and so on. It shows that you are not qualified to teach. Brother, you must do following immediately, if still you got a desire to purse career as EFL teacher.
    1. Develop a strong rapport with your learners.(it seems they don’t like you and your orthodox teaching style, parden).
    2. You must be able to use ICT skills and how you can make your lesson really enthusiastic so as to attract and focus your learners.
    3. You must explore your learners learning styles (if by chance you ever come across this term). Then it would be much easy to prepare you tasks and activities accordingly.
    4. If your students claimed that they are used to listening, then try to integrate two skills in an activity which could make the topic more interesting. Then you don’t need to behave like a monkey lol.
    5. You must explore previous knowledge of your learners. Try using brainstorming techniques. Teach, practice and assess. Use multimedia if necessary.
    6. Always differentiate between high ability and low ability learners in your class.

    I got some more suggestions, if you are interested.

    In my opinion “If the learners fail to comprehend or understand, then it is the teacher who failed to teach.”

    In my 15 years of teaching career in UK and saudia, I never had such a situation in which I behaved like a monkey. So please pay some attention to your learners background, their culture and learning styles, and then prepare you lessons accordingly.

    Yours well wisher,


    • Nice way to motivate a frustrated, at wits end teacher, NRQ. Congrats. In fact, most teachers do leave teaching after less than one year here. And that is a loss to the system, and a relief to those teachers.

      Lets deconstruct your points one by one:
      1. rapport: Maslow – physiological > social needs; 530, hungry, tired; seriously – rapport?
      2. ICT – what if his class has no technology? are you one of those techie boosters who thinks that tech is a panacea?
      3. learning styles – which one maps onto no goals, entitlement, and half the time not present?
      4. integrate activities – if the curriculum is highly restricted, with daily content mandates, it is difficult on some days to be creative
      5. previous knowledge of modals? BS takes about 10 minutes; uh oh – no one knows; and then what?
      6. high ability/low ability: that is an admin prerogative

      Reactions like the one shown by NRQ are problematic, IMO. On any given Sunday, fingers are pointed immediately at the teacher for any problems that occur. If the class is boring, maybe the teacher is boring: really? maybe the students should exercise some discipline and goto bed at a decent hour instead of teacher having to act like their mother? Maybe the admin needs to reflect upon the utility of the textbook and determine its relevance if any to the assessment protocols – ie how useful is the content domain of “modals” to students?

      Lets turn this comment around (you should quit teaching): is that an acceptable thing to say to students? your english is not good, you have no language learning ability, you should quit being a student in my class. If that is not ok to say to a student, why is ok to say to a colleague?

      • I, too, am a fully qualified and highly experienced ESL teacher, and I completely agree with the notion that it isn’t the teacher’s sole job to motivate students. In truth, no real motivation ever comes from outside ourselves; even the dangling carrot is motivating only if the horse is motivated to eat it! The teacher’s job is to bring high-quality instruction; the student’s job is to bring their willingness to learn. I have not yet discovered a good solution to the problem of “unmotivateable” students, and engaging their interest and curiosity is a very effective strategy if we can manage it. But I think the demand for a real solution needs to be directed toward students–the ones who can actually effect change–more than at ourselves.

  4. AAK
    Dear Brother
    Questions coming to me are baffling………………..Your preparation for classroom transaction…………..Your in depth knowledge of your learners………………..Your motivation power.What you have tried.you should have introspected and then conclusions could have been drawn by yourself.When we teachers first of all become LEARNERS ourselves,then only we could be the masters of that thing.So my suggestion would be (be a learner ).
    Irshad Ahmad.

  5. I think what you did was good. Here is how I do it differently. I ask my students to write on a piece of paper. Then I collect the paper and transfer the writing to the board. If one student has many mistakes I correct some of them but not all. I try and make all the writing have about the same number of mistakes however, each student has his strong areas and his weak areas so there are always different aspects which need to be corrected. No one knows who wrote what so there is no shame and because everyone has errors (even if they are only punctuation). Everyone is able to learn something. I give the students back their papers so they can see what I have already corrected. Then, as a class, we go over each writing example and correct the errors. I recently learned this technique from a colleague and I like it very much.

  6. In desperation you pulled out the idea of letting students go when the work had been done. Stronger students left early. Weaker students stayed back longer and saw several models before they came forward. Not something you can do every lesson, but a good motivator as a one-off. It also sets up a scenario where the students are never sure what you might do next. It all sounds good to me!

    Another more drab option is to tell them that it MAY be on the exam, so it is worth their while mastering it. As a long-term strategy, I wonder if taking them out of their comfort zone a little with fast moving games and competitions might motivate – run and write, jeopardy and so on.

    The late afternoon class usually needs an injection of energy. And of course the teacher needs the same injection at that time of day! Games based on powerpoints can be useful.

    These kinds of challenges keep teaching interesting. No day is ever the same as the last. Good luck with it.


  7. As a former ESL teacher, I often encountered young adult students who were more used to taking notes than answering questions in class. In order to break the ice, I often transitioned from whole class activities to small group activities and back again. For example, I found a fun way to teach modals by doing this. I first gave my students a short article to read about a family that was overspending its monthly budget. The article included detailed (and easy to read) lists of the family’s expenses and income. I then asked the students to discuss the article in small groups and recommend how the family could best improve its financial situation. The students were told to choose among a set of modals (e.g., “should,” “could,” “would,” “must,” etc.) in giving their advice. Finally, I asked students in each group to share with the class their advice for the family. As I wrote their ideas on the board, I was also able to discuss the pros and cons of the different modals they had used. It was also particularly helpful that one of the students happened to be an accountant!

  8. I disagree with all those people who say that English Instructor’s sole responsibility is to instruct only….If the students are not motivated …if they are not made aware of the importance of the learning process going on and finally if their interest is not invoked, how can we expect that our learning process is going to be successful….however we need to make language classes more innovative and creative as compared to traditional classes where just the lecture is delivered and job is considered to be over…we should try to bring interesting activities in the class so that the students might not be overburdened and learning might become a fun to them

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