A smiley teacher motivating young students

The Top 5 Ways to Motivate the Youngest ESL Learners

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Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, Ma-TESOL; M.S. SpEd

I once heard that capturing the attention of a classroom full of grade schoolers is like herding cats. As any elementary school teacher will attest, motivating students at this age takes equal parts creativity and enthusiasm, along with a solid game plan.

Add to that grade schoolers who may also be anxious, shy, and lack self-confidence—traits common among ESL learners. How will you hold their attention and motivate them to participate in the learning process?

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We’ve assembled some of the top ways to bring enthusiasm and excitement into your ESL classroom, so you can be sure your students are interested, motivated, and ready to learn:

  1. Get excited…so your students will, too.

    You can’t motivate your students if you lack energy, excitement, and a smile on your face. Often times, being a good ESL teacher is also about being a good actor. That means that even when you’re feeling less than enthusiastic, you’ll need to bring your ‘A’ game.

    Sure, you’re a teacher, but you’re also your students’ biggest advocate and cheerleader, so you can be sure that your students are looking to you as the source of their motivation. Channel your inner comedian, have fun, and give them all a smile that lets them know you believe in them.

  1. Use pop culture references your students can relate to.

    The language barrier can be a source of apprehension and intimidation for your students. It’s therefore more important than ever to find ways to connect with them. And one of the easiest ways to connect with the youngest learners is through pop culture references.

    Using popular television shows (SpongeBob SquarePants anyone?), books, movies, and game and toy trends (even if fidget spinners drive you crazy) as a reference can be the fastest way to bridge the chasm between languages. When children can relate the learning process to something that interests them, you’ve got them hooked, so don’t hesitate to get creative and start throwing around pop culture references that will grab their attention and give them a laugh.

  1. Use digital tools to keep things interesting.

    Even the most eager and excited teachers need a little backup now and then. If you want a surefire way to motivate your ESL learners, pull out the big guns: videos, computers, iPads, smart boards, etc. When woven into your lesson plans, audio visual materials can be a fantastic way to break up the monotony of a lesson and refocus your students.

    And there’s no shortage of websites, apps, and videos designed specifically for ESL students to get the party started. Some of our favorites websites include Starfall (www.starfall.com), LearnEnglish Kids (learnenglishkidsbritishcouncil.org), and BusyTeacher.org.

    Some of the apps we love include: FluentU (iOS and Android), Learn English (Android), and EF English First High Flyers Vocab Game for Learning English (iOS).

  1. Show them you’re interested in their culture and language, too.

    Your ESL classroom doesn’t have to be all America, all the time. Take an interest in your students’ culture and language. Switch the script and ask them to teach you a few phrases in their native language. Help them make a presentation that features interesting things about their culture, like the food, clothing, traditions, and history that they can share with the class.

    If you create a classroom environment that encourages meaningful cultural exchanges, motivation is sure to follow.

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  1. Find more opportunities for cooperative learning.

    Sometimes putting down the textbook and breaking free from the standard, run-of-the-mill learning environment is the best thing you can do to motivate your students.

    Stories, songs, and games all do the trick, although you can get even more bang for your buck if you pair your ESL students with the classroom’s non-ESL students for these activities.

    Participating in activities with their peers provides plenty of opportunities for your students to become comfortable practicing their English skills in a non-threatening setting. Be sure to make these interactions meaningful by pairing your students with other students who display patience and natural leadership qualities.