Whether you’re a newbie or novice teacher, walking into an ESL class full of young learners can be a daunting experience. Not only can these little munchkins not speak your language but most of them can’t sit still in a seat for 5 minutes, either!

I used to dread my classes with young elementary school students during my first few months of teaching English in Korea. There were so many days that I would wonder how such tiny little cuties could cause me so much grief! After class, I would be straight on the internet looking for miracle solutions that would help me control my students and get them to be quiet and sit still for a minute. However, over time, I came to learn that there was no miracle solution that would help me control them.  Instead, I had to learn to go with their behaviour- not against it and find ways to keep them motivated to learn.

The thing is, one of the most difficult things with ESL students is energy and motivation- but young learners? They have heaps of the stuff but a very strange way of showing it. It’s up to you to use that energy to your benefit and keep them engaged for the length of your lesson.

To save you hours spent traversing multiple tabs on google to find a solution, I’m going to teach you what I learned for myself. Here are some of my favourite ways to motivate young learners.

Have a Rewards System

No matter how old we are, we all love to get rewarded for our work and know that we’re doing a good job. We love games, we love competitions and (secretly) we all love beating our peers! My students in Korea loved getting one up on each other- actually, they were pretty brutal about it! So, I used this to my advantage.

I turned all of my lessons into mini-games with rewards for accuracy, effort and respectful behaviour.

Every time I wanted to reward a student, I’d give them a star. At the end of the month, the student with the most stars would get a small prize. I don’t like to give out candy, so the prize would usually be a cute (but inexpensive) piece of stationery.

Keep your Lessons Fun and Varied

If you want to keep your students motivated to learn English, you need to have lessons that are memorable and fun. Young learners tend to have short attention spans so if you give them 30 minutes of straight grammar work, they’re not going to be too fond of you!

Instead, switch up your lessons. Maybe warm up with a song, do a little bit of writing, move on to a speaking activity and end your class with a game to test their understanding. If you follow a structure with various short and fun activities, you’ll do a much better job of keeping your students engaged through your lesson. Especially if you’re teaching your students in an afterschool setting when they’re both tired and hyper at the same time.

Make Your Activities Group Centric

If your idea of an effective ESL classroom is a silent one, then you really need to change your mindset. When your students finally get the chance to practice their English in a real-life situation what are they going to be doing? They won’t be sitting writing sentences; they’ll be talking and communicating. You know, with other human beings!

For that reasons, try to make your activities group centric or at least pair based. Not only is this a much more immersive way to learn a new language, it’s a lot more useful for their needs, too. It will help them get over their fear of speaking English aloud at a young age and help them develop conversation skills, too.

Here are a few good ones: 6 Favourite ESL Games and Activities to Use in Your Classroom

Make Time to Discover their Interests

As a teacher, you’ll soon realise that every class is different. You can do the same activity with two classes and the outcome will probably not be the same. Some will absolutely love it and others won’t quite share the same enthusiasm!

You need to get to know your students and understand what characters you have in your class. What activities do they love? What’s effective for them? Some students might enjoy doing role play activities while others might prefer learning in a more systematic way. It’s up to you to discover this and use it to your advantage.

Never Revert to Their Language

If you’re an English teacher in a country that’s language you can’t speak, you’re at an advantage in the classroom. Many teachers find it easier to use their students’ language in certain situations, but this can promote a reluctance to learn English. If you’re likeable in the classroom and only speak to your students in English, they’ll have more motivation to keep learning- at least because they can communicate with you.

Learn more about reducing L1 interference here.

Don’t Get Hung up on Mistakes

Learning another language is a huge challenge but the biggest barrier of all is getting over the fear of making mistakes. If you continually correct your students on their English every single time they speak aloud, they’re going to develop a fear of using English in front of their peers.

Instead, let your students talk freely. And even if they don’t use perfect grammar, refrain from correcting them! If there are recurring mistakes, correct them all together at the end of the class and review them again at the beginning of the next lesson.

It takes years to develop perfect English but if you shoot your students down at the first hurdle, they’re never going to have the will to get that far. The most important thing is to allow them to play with the language. When we were learning our native language freely as babies, we definitely made mistakes, but we weren’t chastised for them.

Make sure your students know that they’re doing a great job and continually ensure that you’re harbouring a safe and positive environment for your students to explore the English language!

I hope these tips will let you have better classes with more enthusiastic students. Motivating young learners is simple really; make learning English a fun and positive experience for them and make sure they know they’re doing a great job. If you do this, you’ll have happier students, better results and much less stressful teaching experience.

Have any tips on how to motivate young learners? Share them in the comments so we can all learn from one another!

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About the Author

Hailing from Scotland, Nicole is an eternal expat addicted to travelling and eating spicy food. After spending 3 years teaching English in South Korea, she’s now on an indefinite journey through Latin America. She spends most of her days hunting out the best coffee and strongest WiFi but will never turn down the offer to hike a volcano or find a hidden beach. You can follow her blog, Wee Gypsy Girl, where she writes about all her international adventures! Visit her blog for a great read. Visit her Instagram or Facebook Page to connect.

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