Motivating ESL students to speak out

Teacher Joe’s Principle 1: Positive Reinforcement

As a teacher, you should focus on your students successful attempts to use English. At first, reward ANY success however small. If students speak out loudly and clearly, but make a mistake, praise them just for speaking out or for pronouncing it well. As students improve, you can focus on the most outstanding successes. Whatever you encourage, students will continue to do. On the other hand, if you do not encourage them, they will likely become passive in class.

Teacher Joe’s Principle 2: Clear Goals and Instructions

Students need to know exactly HOW an activity is done, otherwise they will be out of control when the activity starts. If necessary, write the instructions on the blackboard or overhead projector. Or, model the activity with one of your best students so everyone can see what they need to do.

Students also need to know WHY an activity is being done. Dictations are done to train the ear, so they will be more successful in learning in the future. Pair practice is a simulation of real-life conversation, so they should not show their questions to their partner. Without understanding why, many students think an activity is not important and give up or practice half-heartedly.

Be sure to include goals and instructions in your lesson plan. That way you will be sure to remember to do them, and if you do have any problems, you will easily see how to fix them in future lessons.

Teacher Joe’s Principle 3: The Element of Surprise

Students usually know exactly what will happen in class and answer questions mechanically. By adding suprises to your lessons, students will be forced to think about meaning and will pay more careful attention. For example, you could ask students ordinary questions such as whether they like pizza, or if they like chocolate. Then ask them if they like chocolate pizza. You might ask students about their families, then ask if they are married, or if they can drive a car. Students who are answering without thinking will say “yes” automatically. In such cases, their classmates will usually laugh at their mistake, and they will realize the importance of paying attention.

Of course, laughing is good in general, so saying anything strange will improve the class atmosphere.Whenever you have a list of questions or a lot of language to cover, add something funny or strange at the end of the lesson. Add some intentional mistakes to see who will find them. In a sense, this is a kind of listening exercise. If you do this often, then some day if you really do make a mistake, you can casually tell students it was just a test!

A variation of the Surprise Principle is called the “information gap”. When students all use the same textbook, they already have the same information. But if you give only SOME students certain information, a text or picture for example, the other students must use English to find out what information they are missing. Successful pair practice and language games include “information gaps” to encourage students to discover what information they do not have.

Teacher Joe’s Principle 4: Variety is the Spice of Life

Very often when teachers find a good technique, they use it more and more and come to depend on it. After some time, students become bored doing the same things, and this wonderful technique no longer looks very good. In reality the technique is still good, but variety is required to keep students’ attention. Various activities can be organized according to how communicative they are. Start with a simple, mechanical activity, then continue with something more meaningful, and finish with a communicative activity. When students do a variety of activities, classes are not dull for either students or teachers!

Teacher Joe’s Principle 5: Competition

Competition automatically grabs students’ attention. The easiest way is to divide the class into two teams and play some kind of game. You could have the left side of the room against the right side, boys against girls, or each row against all the others. Competition can be used on an individual level as well, by giving points to students for their work. You can give points for any written work such as dictations or mini-quizzes. Students enjoy seeing their progress over time, keeping them motivated in the long term. You can also give points during the whole term, by giving points for all kinds of activities during your classes.


Apply Teacher Joe’s five principles to your teaching and see how your students change over time. Positive Reinforcement and having Clear Goals and Instructions can be used right from the beginning, in every class. Introduce Surprise, Variety and Competition to your lessons slowly, so as not to overwhelm your students. Make one or two small changes in every lesson, and pretty soon your students will call you “Super Teacher”!

by Joe DeVeto


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *