One of my most engaging learning experiences is also one of my most successful: learning to ride a bicycle. Unlike some of my subject classes in secondary school, learning to ride a bicycle was never boring. In fact, it was quite the opposite: the experience was stimulating. All of my senses were engaged – the sight of the pavement ahead of me, the sound of my father’s encouragement, the physical sensations of my legs moving and my hands gripping the handlebars, and the internal sense of balance I was beginning to master on this new machine as the air rushed over the surface of my skin.
A study at the University of Munich in 2014 revealed a cycle in which boredom resulted in poorer test results, and poor test results led to higher levels of boredom, and so on (Jason, 2017). Research shows that we are more motivated to engage in learning tasks when our senses are stimulated. If we want learners to do well academically, we need to keep stimulation high, and prevent them from becoming bored. In a stimulating classroom environment, learners are able to participate in new and varied ways, and are encouraged to ask questions, explore and experiment with the language and content being taught.
“If the student is not interested in the topic being taught and nothing is done to stimulate and build an interest, then learning will not take place.”
So, how can we as teachers develop more stimulating classroom environments to keep our learners engaged? Making use of visuals, music, video, hands-on learning and deeper thinking activities in our classrooms all help to stimulate our learners’ senses. What’s more, combining text, image and audio in multimodal formats has been shown to be more effective for supporting comprehension and reinforcing information than providing text and image separately (Christodoulou, 2020). Digital materials are particularly adept at presenting tasks in a multimodal way, and afford greater flexibility in the combination of media – audio, image, video, text – used in the presentation and practice of language. Whether in face to face or online classrooms, there is an enormous variety of resources, techniques and activities we can integrate into our lessons to stimulate learners and maximise the potential for engagement. And consequently, academic success. Here are a few ideas to try with your class:
- After a reading or listening text, ask learners to work together in pairs to draw a picture to illustrate the text.
- Set learners homework of taking photos connected to a specific topic to bring to the next lesson. Alternatively, encourage them to share photos they already have on their phones, eg when talking about family and friends, or holidays.
- Use multimodal digital resources such as Storybird for learners to create their own illustrated picture books, or Voki for them to produce animated presentations.
- Use posters in the classroom to display new language or use as reminders of how to approach different tasks (eg ‘things to remember when presenting’). Where possible, have learners work together to create these posters themselves.
Music and video
- Play background music while learners are carrying out a task. Background music can help improve concentration and reduce feelings of anxiety. Experiment with different types of background music for different tasks. Intersperse music and sound with periods of silence to allow reflection and avoid overwhelming learners’ senses.
- Use songs to introduce topics, explore language and practice listening comprehension. Tefltunes has a wide range of song-based lessons and activities to choose from.
- Music videos provide contextual cues, such as gesture and intonation, that aren’t available in written texts and so can support learners’ comprehension of language. Try the interactive music video site Lyricstraining with your learners to practice listening comprehension.
- The combination of visual and audio in film, along with the authentic and varied language it exposes learners to, makes it an invaluable learning resource. Film English has a wonderful range of film-based lesson plans to try with your learners.
- Use small wooden clocks such as cuisenaire rods for learners to tell stories or construct a ‘map’ of their bedroom, house, or town.
- Bring real objects into the classroom, eg when teaching vocabulary, and encourage learners to do likewise.
- Create opportunities for learners to create work rather than just observe. Eg by producing comic strips, making short videos, or constructing new designs from craft materials.
- Make learning more stimulating and memorable by pairing movement with language to teach words or phrases connected with actions and feelings (eg ‘to run’, or ‘frightened’), the continuous aspect (eg ‘I was brushing my teeth’) and classroom language (eg ‘open your books’).
Promoting deeper thinking
Integrating activities into lessons that require learners to think and ask and answer questions helps to stimulate their minds and encourage them to take an interest.
- In writing and speaking tasks, ask learners to share what they already know about the subject and to distinguish between facts and opinions in their knowledge of the subject.
- In reading and listening tasks, ask learners to consider what the author or speaker’s emotions might be, and what they can read or hear in the text that tells them this. Encourage them to consider what alternative perspectives might be.
- When learners encounter new vocabulary, encourage them to think about other contexts in which the word or phrase might be used, what synonyms they can think of and how these might differ in meaning or register, and whether the word or phrase has positive or negative connotations .
- When teaching grammatical structures, ask learners how one structure differs from another, and to make visual representations of the structure.
Christodoulou, D. (2020). Teachers vs Tech: The Case for an Ed Tech Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jason, Z. (2017). Bored out of their minds. Harvard ED. Magazine. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/17/01/bored-out-their-minds
Pitcher, R. (2014). The importance of a creative and stimulating classroom environment. Education HQ. https://educationhq.com/news/the-importance-of-a-creative-and-stimulating-classroom-environment-11635/
Something else that plays a key role in learner engagement alongside stimulation, is curiosity. Read Jade’s article about how to keep your class curious here.