How can you make teaching useful for reluctant young learners? #ELTChat summary 04/12/2012

A PLN for ELT Professionals

How can you make teaching useful for reluctant young learners? #ELTChat summary 04/12/2012

Summary contributed by Tamas Lorincz – @tamaslorincz  on Twitter and is reproduced here from his blog with his kind permission. 

What to do with Demotivated Young Learners


I have always wanted to write one of these summaries for the selfish reason that I was certain that this is the best way to have a really good grasp of the width and depth of the conversation. 140-character, abbreviations-ridden tweets fired at an amazing speed always left me feeling somewhat slow. I spend a lot of time lurking and trying to keep up with the conversation, and then formulate  a couple of tweets, which, once posted, make little sense even to me, and are way out of context. But without further ado, here’s my (not so brief) summary of the chat, I hope you’ll like it.

The first topic of discussion on Wednesday, 5th December 2012 was:

How can you make teaching useful for reluctant young learners?

The participants

Click here to see the complete list of participants and follow them

For the more visually inclined:

Th 50 most frequently used words in this chat. Created with worlde.

Who are we talking about?

The conversation started off with a little bit of clarification of what we actually mean by young learners. This seems to be a pretty confusing concept. In the end Bob’s suggestion carried the day and most tweets differentiated between VYLs, YLs, and Teens. I also liked the terminology used by Carolyn ‘pre-literacy’, Early (literate in L1, but acquiring L2) up to about 11, then the rest are ‘YL’s.

Jo Hart expressed succinctly why this is such an important question:

Adolescent (teens) learners are so different from VYL, YL on one side &
adults on other – 
teens maybe have characteristics from both

In this summary I will have a look at five main areas I could identify which were covered in the chat:

  1. General observations
  2. Useful resources
  3. Tips, hints, ideas
  4. Intriguing questions, issues, concerns


1.       General observations

Marisa started off with a widely accepted statement:
We can do a lot of damage by not knowing how YLs & VYLs tick! To which Bob added: ‘Give me a 9-yr-old & I’ll screw him up for good’! and this was the sentiment reinforced again by Marisa, who expressed most succinctly what was on our minds throughout the conversation, raising a very important issue about teacher preparation courses.

I think YL teachers need to know MORE than Ts of adult ELT learners – much 
more #ELTchat but sadly most elt courses do not equip.


Relationships and the atmosphere

A positive, safe learning environment is very important, where mistakes are seen as part of learning.
It was also agreed that teaching YL is never only about the language, Marisaobserved: Teaching YLs also involves teaching them to think to whichDavid added Critical thinking v. important!

Control and compare

Sophia made a very important point Controlling and comparing is just soul-crushing  – if the teacher spends the time trying to contol students and evaluate them by comparing them, both sides will suffer.

Affective relationship

Marisa referred to an earlier research of hers “on YLs and what kind of Ts they like – most factors are AFFECTIVE”, while it was generally agreed that liking the teacher is an important factor in any teacher-student relationships it is doubly true with younger learners.

Another interesting conversation unfolded around the topic of comfort and routine, while it was accepted that children need routine and structure, participants emphasised the importance of variations and flexibility within them to avoid boredom and repetitiveness.

Marisa reminded us that it’s also important to know “what they CAN or CANNOT do at their stage of cognitive development”. Language acquisition is very different according to the brain stage of the child.

Attitudes to errors and general behaviour

Sophia also noted that this was a very fragile age for self-esteem, and developing (or at least not damaging) children’s self image is an important role a teacher has to play.

 2. Shared resources and materials

Jerry: My What Students Want page, another page on Motivating/EngagingStudents

@brigidwheel: Using IPads / iPhones in ESL

JessicaFiona Mauchline‘s webinar on teaching teens.Best to get YLs involved in the learning process. Feed their curiousity.

MarisaAn earlier post about the cognitive benefits of different games for YLs
Wikipedia entry on Child development stages

Sue@DAFCampaign (Disabled Access Friendly) has some gr8 resources for YL’s to challenge them & get them to think

Jo BuddenLearnEnglish Teens tries to cover topics of interest to 13-17 yr olds. This blog post got them commenting!

CarolynLearnEnglish Kids also has great games to play online. Toy shop is popular

Sophia: I thought this post on badges was really interesting.
I mentioned classdojo earlier – it’s a positive and negative points based behaviour management system.

English247: Day 5 of our #ESL #Xmas Calendar. Click here for today’s free English activity!

3. Tips and ideas

Perhaps the most useful part of all these conversations is when professionals share their practical tips and ideas to deal with certain aspects of the issue in question.

Here’s a selection of a few of them:

 At the beginning of the course – student input is key

It’s probably easier said than done but the teacher’s task is to set up a natural context for students and help them achieve, they will learn almost anything

Start with something you know they’ll all be into then adapt as you get to know them is a sensible suggestion, which then leads to the teacher responding to the class they are teaching,  and dealing with emergent language dogme style.

At the beginning of the lesson

Encouraging students to identify their own objectives and then giving the teacher regular updates on how they are progressing with attaining them will keep students focused on their goals and put their achievements into perspective.

Inviting students to vote on the different topics/tasks they would complete during the lesson is also highly motivational for young learners.

 During the lesson

  • At that age they love to talk about themselves so personalising all lesson stages really works.
  • It was also observed that organising the lesson into 5 minute stages or slots was important because of short attention span with the addition that in case they enjoy a certain task or kind of activity, this rule can be bended and students can be given more time.
  • YLs learn by doing, a song, a game a small project – language is a means, not the end. Yitzha uses songs, gestures, drama play to get them to talk and they are enthusiastic.
  • When you know your students better, grouping them according to their likes and dislikes could also work very well.
  • Then the question of topics came up. It was generally agreed that topics should be relevant and interesting for the students but it was emphasised that something is not interesting because the teacher thinks the students would find it interesting. This was brought up as an example where many teachers and coursebooks fail (clichés like pop music and technology don’t always work) as they assume what students (are) like.
  • Marisa’s suggestion of a questionnaire or survey on topics of interestmight help.
  • It was also an interesting point to ponder whether familiarity with a topic was enough. They don’t necessarily have to like it. A well-chosen blog post can get them thinking/ commenting. (Eg:
  • A very similar argument developed around using technology(computers, mobiles, VokiVoicethreadAnimoto were mentioned), teachers can’t go in with the assumption that students will love every piece of technology they bring to class. Skype was brought up as an excellent tool for cross-cultural communication, and even more interestingly perhaps, as a tool to “encourage virtual teen romance”. –Carolyn can tell you more about this ;-)

Other great suggestions

–       6-9 year-olds like to take turns of being the teacher’s assistant
–       wee ones try class cuddly to take home and ‘show’ toy where they live. But make sure every kid gets a chance
–       team names – slogans-raps – chants – rhymes-logos-badges– also help build solidarity & group cohesion
–       changing the same activity and doing it a different way
–       giving students a sense of achievement (eg: learning a song and then teaching it to your family)
–       things like “teacher is a tape recorder” or storytelling when the teacher has “lost” her voice

Corrections and feedback

One of the areas we felt students can be left disappointed and demotivated is the way their mistakes are corrected and the kind of feedback they get.

“Lashings and Lashings of” positive reinforcement was one of the winners of the day as well as positive phrasing and positive feedback and avoiding saying “don’t do this” and replacing it with try to do this instead. It was also suggested that praise leads YLs to correct themselves as they compare their language with a model

Some suggestions to avoid letting students down by inappropriate feedback or correction:
–       Anonymization idea: After written work, post sentences with mistakes as teacher on class blog, invite corrections.
–       Another is betting on sentence correction in teams or noughts & crosses with sentences
–       Correct language usage and errors on separate slips, students decide which is which & put in correct column
–       You can make peer feedback a game = more motivating.
–       Using TPR to bring class’ attention back with YLs

4.    Intriguing questions, issues, concerns

Demotivated students

As the topic was reluctant learners it was interesting to see what people had to say about reluctant young learners, there seemed to be an overall agreement that teachers should have the knowledge and means to avoid students getting demotivated.

The immediate reaction of many of us was somewhat dismissive:
“YLs can start from pre-school where all play and say really – I don’t see how they can be
reluctant to do that.”

But then a variety of scenarios were presented where students might not be all that enthusiastic about learning English:
–       not every kid wants to be in an English class after a day in school
–       forced to take English lessons
–       few contact hours
–       the reluctant ones were reluctant to learn in general focusing on the reluctant ones it’s easy to ignore the ones who want to be there

And then there were suggestions straight away:
–       If there is no intrinsic motivation, TASK motivation can engage
–       Sometimes with reluctant students its best to focus on the ones who want to learn


It was fairly quickly established that the concept of rewards and students’ attitude to it is culturally determined. This is important for teachers to remember especially when engaging with kids from a different culture before introducing a reward scheme in the classroom.

Yitzah’s children respond well when “they feel like everyone wins, they feel better and braver. “ Because, as she put it, “it’s part of the Indonesian culture.”

There were a few great suggestions and consderations in this topic as well:
–       avoid punishment – be proactive not reactive in terms of discipline
–       giving points for motivation – works as long as you’re fair. And although it starts out as extrinsic motivation, it hopefully becomes intrinsic later on
–       awarding silly prizes – ‘No homework Pass’ work well for school kids – although you end up with a black market for them
–       using a stamp. they would count how many stamps they had over the year and work to get more (students don’t know how many stamps the others have, they would want more stamps for their own sense of achievement not as competition)
–       rewards are based on effort, not on knowledge. Everyone can get them if they try …

Competition and/or collaboration?

The conversation was started off with this question from @teflgeek: anyone else find that YLs tend to prefer competitive activities to collaborative

–       YLs like to win. They don’t necessarily need someone else to lose

–       Competitions can be a bit tricky because when they lose, they might not want to try again (Yitza mentioned this as a cultural phenomenon but I wonder if this is not one of the big challenges we all face when we have competitions with Young learners.)

–       competition definitely motivating but ‘not winning’ can backfire if not handled well
–       you can increase collaboration by getting teams to win
–       develop ‘healthy competition’ in class, with teams, etc. They seem to want to get a lot more involved
–       when I have games in class, I make sure everyone gets a chance to win, or even have a draw, that works better
–       that can make them even more reluctant though if they know no-one will ‘win’
–       Making activities competitive doesnt have to mean teams based on gender, but it does increase motivation
–       Collaboration is good but competitive will probably stand them in better stead when they are out in the real world
–       I would argue that competitiveness must be balanced against collaboration; YLs are naturally self-centred and need training
–       8-10 like collaborative whereas the older ones seem to become more competitive
–       12-14 who are very competitive in teams
–       Collaborative activities are helpful for young learners to develop positive attitudes among themselves.

Attitudes to mistakes

Again the treatment of mistakes is a crucial issue when teaching anyone but especially young learners. One of the ways young learners can be made reluctant even downright hostile is to expose their weaknesses and mistakes. It was noted that YLs/Teens can sometimes be more sensitive about making mistakes.

To which the remedy seems to be non-judgemental classroom, where students don;t feel fear and anxiety (“this means NO TESTING for VYL’s”). However, it was also a great point that as students feel safe in class, correcting mistakes is seen as part of the learning process.


Any good conversation about education must look at the role parents play in an issue in this conversation four aspects were mentioned briefly:
–       Parents can be the ones who force students to attend language classes after school, thus creating a very difficult situation for the student and the teacher.
–       Parents’ attitude to using technology (or the availability of technology at home) can be a divisive issue.
–       Parent’s (lack of) interest in what happens in class.
–       Parent’s who don’t speak English and their child becomes the mediator, teacher, spokesperson for the family

Whole Brain Teaching

“Has anyone ever tried whole brain teaching with kids?” came the question at one stage during the conversation.
Those who know as little as I do about whole brain teaching will find thiscollection of pins on pinterest very useful:
It was also mentioned that teaching YLs is always teaching the whole child
Sophia shared this video, adding that she saw some good things in it but found it very controlling. This led to the discussion about control routine comfort mentioned above.


There was a brief discussion about gender differences, too, when discussing attitudes and the kinds of activities YLs like.
–       Girls are better at quiet, focused activities that require sitting in one spot
–       Hard to focus for long periods on one thing. Possibly more for boys than girls.
–       A good way to motivate YLs is competition: boys v. girls
–       Teen males can be very competitive, especially if teen girls are present and “egg them on”
–       “Boys vs girls” can be a bad start in life :-D

L1 acquisition

Parallels with first language acquisition were also briefly touched upon. Here are some of the interesting thoughts from this discussion.
–       Parents do a wonderful job a teaching a child their language – many great lessons there – esp being DELIGHTED whn YLS talk
–       Watch adults with early vocalizers. No correction, loads of scaffolding tons of praise
–       We cannot replicate L1 acquisition in terms on QUANTITY of input but may other aspects of it
–       L1 acquisition occurs in a safe environment with rich, varied, simplified and supportive language input by parents
–       It’s easier when both parents are constantly speaking the target language


There is no conversation without some stories people would share. I thought I would record some of these as well.
–       Yes – I had lots of black buttons for not sitting in my seat, too much talking etc etc. Didn’t stop me, even now =) (Carolyn)
–       LOVE being a tape recorder. had to replace my buttons when they wore out!!! (Carolyn)
–       But I do have 2 young learners of my own who are not really willing to speak French in the bath every day. (Sophia)

To be discussed

Some of the questions that could perhaps be explored at another date in more detail or have already been discussed in previous ELTChat sessions.

  • How does age alter motivation, and where would you say the ‘age motivation boundaries’ are?
  • Are there certain things that are harder to get YL’s to do? Writing, Reading etc?
  • Isn’t it strange how far off the mark topics in coursebooks often are!
  • Teens don’t like to read doesn’t match the multi-sensory input they are used to.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this (somewhat long) summary. I definitely had a great time going though and contemplating the tweets. Hope to see you at the next ELTChat, don’t forget to vote, recommend topics, share your experiences and “bring another teacher”.



About the author (in his own words)

I’ve been an English Teacher for almost 20 years now. One might think I have learnt something along the way. Well, I’m not quite sure. I have taught English in Hungary, trained teachers in the Middle East, worked for a publishing company in the UK. I lived in Iraqi Kurdistan for 9 fantastic months. Worked at one of the most exciting airlines in the world in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. I taught in a secondary school and mentored a brilliant group of fantastic English teachers in Sharjah, UAE. In 2010 I came back to Hungary with my wonderful wife and my 4-month-old daughter. Since then we have lived in a small town in 34 kms from Budapest.