Teaching unmotivated students

<b> Forum for ESL/EFL teachers working with secondary school students </b>

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Qiuming Hu
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Dear Louise Blair

Post by Qiuming Hu » Fri Apr 06, 2007 3:25 am

I can profoundly understand your mood ! :(
I used to be a Chinese English teacher in a private middle school in Beijing. My experiences are the same as yours. The students were not interested in English study, or I can say that they were not interested in any subjects. At that time, I was so puzzled !
And I have tried a lot of suggestions as above. but I found that they were of little use for my students.
Now I am a postgraguate student in CNU. I hope I can get more good suggestions and I will learn from all friends in this forum.

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There ARE some highly-motivated students

Post by hlhelene109 » Tue May 08, 2007 12:39 pm

:) According to what I've heard about English learning in Japan, I have to say that although difficult there's still hope for Japanese students to get motivated in English. The task is difficult because I think English teaching and learning in Japan is test-oriented, mostly the same situation as here in China. In China most students won't sleep in English class because they must be attentive for the sake of all kinds of English examinations. The results of these exams are vital for their future and further education. I'm not so clear about the education and test system in Japan, so maybe students (and their parents) there find English not so important that they sleep in class?
On the other hand, I say there's still hope for Japanese students to get motivated in learning English because I've gained some experiences in China, and I think it can also be helpful in Japan. One way is to help students make English penpals with students from other countries. When I was a grade one student in senior high school, I'd got a chance to write English letters to a Japanese student since our schools were in kinda fraternal relationship. Today we have more convenient means of communication--the Internet, thus, I think making English penpals is a good way for students to get motivated in learning English. The other way is to try hard to build kinda safe and natural enviornment for students to use English. Practice makes perfect and application of what they've learnt will certainly promote their interest in acquiring more English. Organize an after-class English learning society or take the students to an English camp. Put the students in kinda pure English enviornment and they will gain the interest gradually :D

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Post by Allan » Fri May 25, 2007 2:30 am

In Japanese private highschool, kids know that they cannot fail. They know that at the end of private JHS they are guaranteed a place in the affiliated private SHS. They know that they cannot fail SHS. They know they are guaranteed a place a the affiliated university. They know that it is virually impossible to not graduate university once they are in it. Japan does not place much value on learning anything, only on passing tests (students can pass with 30% and if they get below that, are given the answers, and made to write the exact same thing again, and again until they get that magic 30%). Employers train new employees how to do their job (but not very well, and not WHY they are doing it- why that particular function is needed, nor do many even really seem to think about it). People don't even know what job they will be doing when they are hired. These kids' parents are paying for their kids to float through life, never learning anything that they don't feel like (including common decency and treating teachers and other students the way they would want to be treated by others).

These kids have no motivation to learn anything, if they don't want to (and they are teenagers, so they really don't want to- leading the foreigner to be virtually forced into being a gaijin clown for these kids' entertainment, in order to get them to do anything at all). They don't even have to show up to school in order to graduate. All that is required is for their parents to continue to pay the school.

The kids can disrupt the classes however they see fit, because teachers cannot discipline the kids. And so the boys (it is almost always boys, and it's a high percentage of them) refuse to take part in any activity and ignore anything that isn't said them directly and individually. Teachers cannot go from one student to the next and deliver the same class up to forty times in order to get the kids to understand.

The Japanese teachers themselves totally ignore the foreign staff because the foreigners are considered temporary and outsiders in the school (but then they talk about the foreigners in the staffroom as if the foreigner wasn't sitting at a desk across the room from them, even if they've been told over and over that the foreigner actually understands pretty much everthing that is said). This kind of attitude towards the foreigners is readily apparent to the students and they pick up their cue on how to treat the foreign teacher's class from it, which is part of why they are so disruptive in Native English speakers' classes, but silent drones in Japanese teachers' classes (The teacher lectures, the students are 'filled with knowledge' :roll: ).

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Post by Machjo » Thu Jun 28, 2007 5:58 pm

Here is my perspective:

I used to teach only English, and have since moved away to other languages, with much more succes. I still teach English sometimes, and have found effective (though possibly unconventional and even pushing the teacher's own comfort zone) ways to break the resistance to English in the classroom, but teaching other languages is just much easier since all the students are willing participants.

Now as for how to break the resistance:
1. why the resistance in the first place

I can now speak and read a fair bit of Chinese, and have found that one of the reasons for the resistance (you need to understand the source to find the remedy) is outright hostilty towards English on the part of parents and academics alike.

I've talked to parents who'd told me that English was a waste of their child's time. Another said her husband had a business in Russia, so why was her son learning English (not a criticism against me personally since she understood that I have no say on government policy on this matter).

I've had university professors complain of their students' poor Chinese grammar and blamed it on too much emphasis on English (I'm not saying I agree or disagree, but it's clear that if their using English as a scapegoat for their mother tongue, you have hostility towards it). And some university students have complained to me that they feel English will have no use to them in their future career (again, I'm not arguing it's validity, merely that it's a common attitude among many, especially in university towns that are sometimes overpopulated with unemployed English majors of others who are losing theri English in jobs that make no use of it). On the other hand, English professors will emphasize its imporance. Clearly a showdown is coming.

On Chinese BBS's the debate is heating up too (if you can read Chinese, I recomend them). Some highschool may have been exposed to the growing debate already, and this needs to be addressed.

2. Solutions:

Last year I'd conducted an experimental project in collaboration with the Chinese history teacher. We had 3x40 minute lessons per week for English class for a 2-month long project covering an overview of the history of international communication from various angles. She'd presented a similar lesson prior to mine so as to prepare the students.

Week 1: The growth of English. This covered the start of the Industrial revolution to the present day; needless to say, it often covered the period of colonial expansion of the British Empire and later US economic, military and political strength. The Chinese history teacher would cover it the previous week so that when it was my turn in English, the students could understand it. I used historical maps to help, and taught much vocabulary relating to geography, country names, and words like army, navy, etc.

Week 2: The growth of planned auxiliary languages since the collapse of Latin, going from the 'philosophical languages' of the renaissance to modern times, including Volapuk, Esperanto, Interlingua, Ido, Latino Sine Flexione, etc. In this class the words taught related primarily to the names of many planned languages and natural languages, along with some grammar words (accusative, nominative, etc.), auxilary language, neutral, logical, etc. I'd discuss some of the rules of some of these languages, and the students were fascinated with how easy some of these languages seemed to be to learn. Two good students even ended up learning Esperanto on their own time out of curiosity.

Week 3: The history of ASE's (Artificially Simplified Englishes), such as Basic English, VOA Special English, Easy English, etc, and their purposes. I'd provided some texts from the Atlantic Charter, an address from Winston Churchill to parliament, and the story of the tower of Babel in Ogden's Basic English. Basic English was designed for general communication, Easy English for missionary work, VOA for radio, etc. so appropriate vocab was taught.

Week 4: Language policy today. The UN and its six official languages. The five languages printed on the RMB, the languages of the EU, intro to Quebec's language charter and UN Human rights declaration section on the right to communicate, translated into Ogden's basic English on parallel page to make it easier for the students. Main vocab: language names, and phrases such as language rights, language equality, etc.

Week 5: Discuss students' ideas of the growth of English, write a short simple essay on English.

Week 6: Review planned languages, Students write simple essay on the advantages or disadvantages of a planned auxiliary.

Week 7: Review ASE's, Students write a simple essay on an ASE.

Week 8: Write a simple essay on how to solve international communication. Many students liked the idea of a planned language. Some liked English. Few liked the ASE's (but I still think you ought to teach the ASE's since while students ditn't like the idea of ASE's as auxiliary languages, they still liked them as means to learn standard English),

After this, however, it seemed that the barrier was broken. I'm teaching that same group again this year, and most, while they still discuss the language issue quite passionately, sometimes do it in English with me, and still love English despite their sometimes disagreements with it. Heck, if it makes them speak English, then it's a success.

I must say though that while the history teacher, the students and I loved those eight weeks, the Chinese English teacher felt quite uncomfortable with it. Afterwards though, now that she's seen how it's broken down many barriers, she's enthusiatically planning to do an encore for her next students this comming September.

Like I said, it might push a teacher's comfort zone, but the teacher is there for the students, not to feel comfortable even if it does mean having to pull some skeletons of history and language inequality etc. out of the bag.

I'd basically approached it this way: I was very honest with my students that I do indeed have an advantage being a native speaker of English, and they appreciated the frank honesty. And the fact that I do speak other languages too, including their own. But even if you don't know Chinese, I think it could still work.

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Post by fluffyhamster » Sun Jul 01, 2007 7:53 am

While you were at all that, Machjo, did you mention the 'defining vocabularies', and definitions themselves, in EFL learner dictionaries? :D Anyway, it sounds very interesting, the project that you did. :P

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Post by Machjo » Sun Jul 01, 2007 1:01 pm

fluffyhamster wrote:While you were at all that, Machjo, did you mention the 'defining vocabularies', and definitions themselves, in EFL learner dictionaries? :D Anyway, it sounds very interesting, the project that you did. :P
I'm not too sure what yuo mean, sorry.

I'd prepared a vocabulary and grammar sheet for them every week, anticipating the words they'd need. the words were placed in the order in which they were most likely to appear during the lesson. And they each had a Chinese tranlsation.

There were familiar with the subject already from the previous history lesson, so all they'd have to do would be to fill in the blanks in theie mind for the words they don't understand. the sheets helped them there.

Some of the selected texts, such as the Atlantic Charter, the Tower of Babel, and Churchill's address all had parallel paraphrasing in Ogden's Basic English, which served a double purpose of helping the students to understand the text and to expose them to Ogden's Basic English so as to help them understand more about that form of English and how it worked.

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Post by trubadour » Sat Mar 22, 2008 5:40 pm

Machjo wrote: ... an address from Winston Churchill to parliament, and the story of the tower of Babel in Ogden's Basic English.
Yours is a fascinating post and example to many, I'm sure. I, my self, have no knowledge of those moments quoted above. Please enlighten me.

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Create curiousity- ask a question on the attenance sheet!

Post by Eric18 » Mon Aug 18, 2008 2:50 am

What makes you smile? What's your favorite song? What's your favorite color? How do you prepare for a test? How do you relax? Do you have a favorite English word?

Can you turn a bureaucratic requirement into a communication tool to express
personal ideas and build classroom community? Absolutely.

Taking attendance remains a vital part of our teaching duties. Some schools even require student signatures to prevent fraud and inflated student numbers or covering for weak students. When faced with this situation years ago, I started adding simple questions to the attendance sheets. What's your favorite month? What's your favorite sports team? What are you grateful for?

Students appreciate the opportunity to express their ideas and perceptions, and learn more about their classmates. The questions also help build a better classroom atmosphere and provide ice-breakers for students to talk with each other during break. Finally, this extra line turns a boring procedure into an educational tool that works for administrators, teachers,
and students.

As an old American TV commercial used to say, "try it - you'll like it."

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Re: unmotivated students

Post by shang_quanmei » Tue Dec 02, 2008 10:12 am

I am an English teacher in a vocational high school in China. Most of my students are like yours, some even worse. So I always feel confused about how to deal with these lazy and unmotivated students. Thay have no interest in English language learning. Some even consider it a waste of time to attend English class in which they don't want anything.

So how to deal with them?

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Why do they need to learn English?

Post by Eric18 » Tue Dec 02, 2008 3:00 pm

May I be a heretic?

Immigrants need to learn the language of their new homeland. Business professionals selling, buying, and working with international audiences often need English. Artists and intellectuals find joy, possibility, and new concepts in English - and can reach a global audience in English. Scholars enjoy learning languages, and English remains a significant international language.

But do your students need English? How will it improve their lives outside of class? Will speaking English lead to better, more interesting jobs? Will it expand their chances of a satisfying personal life? Motivation matters.

Or is English just one more required course in a long, sometimes boring curriculum? Are the students lazy and unmotivated because they feel trapped in social situation beyond the classroom? Do they perceive English to be part of an impossible dream beyond their reach, sometimes leading to bitterness and resentment? Teachers can create small classroom communities, but our students live in larger communities outside of our control.

Personally, I'm quite excited about Obama's election as U.S. president for a number of reasons. As an educator who has worked in inner city high schools full of "lazy" and "unmotivated" students, I saw first hand the demoralizing effect of well-intentioned academic courses on poor, underprepared students. Obama shows that education can liberate and America remains an open society - even to historically oppressed groups.

Let me share an example. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is a great play, but can feel very pointless if you have never seen a play, can't really read beyond a few hundred words, and suspect all your leaders will be assassinated like Dr. King. I had to teach, according to district policy, Julius Caesar for two weeks to students who could barely write a paragraph in 10th grade. All students were given a districtwide, standardized English literature exam - and my school has a very, very low pass rate.

What could I do? We discussed the idea of "hero" and "great men", and observed how many died far too young like Dr. King. That lead to a broader discussion to the impact of violence on their lives. Then we turned to the actual play. Sort of.

The students could not read the play. I decided to show two film versions of Julius Caesar, review the films, discuss characters and motives, and focus on key symbols and quotations so students could pass the standardized exam questions on the great play. I consider my students success on those standardized exams among the highlights of my teaching career.

Yet I left that school as soon as I could after a single year. The school atmosphere was too depressing, sometimes too violent, and the students too "lazy" and "unmotivated." I took a teaching assignment in Santa Monica-Malibu School District, a much wealthy and healthy teaching environment.

"Do what you can where you are with what you have," advised President Theodore Roosevelt.
And know when it's time to teach in a better school with more motivated students!

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Teaching disruptive, unmotivated and lazy teenagers

Post by rabableo » Fri Dec 04, 2009 5:27 pm

" the students too "lazy" and "unmotivated.""

I have been looking all over this website to find someone with a problem similar to mine and this is the only one that came close.

I teach English Language to two classes of 15-17 yr old boys who will be taking their O level exams this year (2010). The school is located in a small town and most of its "clients" (as the management likes to call the parents) are illiterate, ignorant and rich shopkeepers and owners of small family businesses. Their children study here because it is an expensive and well reputed school: "Oh yes, my boy goes to the best school in town", meaning "I have a lot of money".

My problem is that these boys are highly unmotivated, undisciplined and uncooperative. They think they dont need to study English because:

1. The school tests/exams dont mean anything anymore as they only have O level exams to take now.
2. English is easy. (God knows what that means!)
3. They dont need practice.
4. They would rather spend time studying "more important" subjects like Mathematics and science subjects.

They are also very rude, ill mannered and arrogant. Sometimes, it becomes very hard for me to regard them as children who are here to learn and I begin to feel like Im dealing with roadside loafers who pass vulgar comments at the people who pass by.

I have always been a teacher with an immensely good rapport with her students. In my seven years of teaching, there has rarely been a student who I could not get round.

What should I do? I feel like quitting everyday but I need this job!

Sally Olsen
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Post by Sally Olsen » Sat Dec 05, 2009 12:56 pm

You probably should quit for your mental health which will effect your physical health soon. That is not worth any amount of money. There are schools out there that would love to have a motivated teacher who turned students around. Don't mention that you have been briefly employed in this school though to tarnish your reputation.

Send our resumes and call on all your network to help you find a better job.

It is only December if you started in September though. It takes a longer time to get through to students like this - I gave myself a goal of 6 months in Mongolia before I would give up and by then things did change around. It is hard work to change people's minds but if you really love your subject and your pupils deep down as they are worth while human beings, each and every one of them, you will find ways to break through.

Divide and conquer is the old rule that still works. Spend time with each student to get to know them before and after the class. It doesn't have to be a long conversation - just walking down the hall with one to the next class or standing out on the playground during break instead of going to the teacher's lounge or a few afternoons of watching them play whatever the popular sport is or an evening of hanging out at the local sports facility or teen age hangout.

i find it amazing that when the students know that you know where they live, it somehow changes the relationship to something more personal and for the better.

It wouldn't hurt to get to know some of the parents either. I bet you will find some interesting stories of their struggle to become "rich". It sounds like you are not a parent yourself and don't know the feeling of accomplishment that it brings to have your child do better in life than you did. I think that is a universal wish.

If the school has a good reputation, it might be deserved and students might turn themselves around. I found grade 9 to almost 11 were terrible and then the students turned themselves around during grade 12. It was amazing what nice people they became. Find a couple of graduates and see if they turned out well.

Do something just for yourself that you are really good at after school and on the weekend so you can feel positive about something in your life while you wait and work for change either in the students or in your job.

Catch them being good.

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Post by rabableo » Sun Dec 06, 2009 3:37 pm

The thing is, they have exams coming up in May 2010. So, I really dont have that much time to wait for them to come around. I am trying my best though. I hope they realise that I am actually concerned about their performance deteriorating if they dont practise.

Thanks for the advice.

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Post by aniaLL » Thu Feb 17, 2011 4:48 am

I think that first it is important to determine the cause of the student’s lack of interest. The most essential factor is to prevent his her attitude from affecting the entire class. If you allow disruptions to continue, you will encourage misbehaviour in other students.
Involve unmotivated students in classroom discussions. Most of the time, these kids will not take part in activities that center around educational topics, but you can draw them out by asking them questions that cannot be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No.”
Compliment unmotivated students. It is a natural human desire to want to please the people you like, so when a student respects and admires a teacher, she he is more likely to make an effort to learn the subject matter and participate in class.

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Post by [email protected] » Mon May 21, 2012 5:51 pm

I have been teaching ESL to Chinese and Korean students for five years, and I tutored before that, in New Jersey and California. I have experienced the lack of motivation I am reading about in these posts. I've even had one Korean high school student tell me she wasn't really Korean because she hated any kind of studying! It can be frustrating and disheartening to teach students who, for whatever reason, be it their resentment of a parent's decision about their education, their struggle to learn another lnaguage, or even the usual teen angst, is not showing any effort to learn the subject you're teaching (and love!). I would have to agree with many of the posts that show that students "don't care what you know until they know that you care." This was a parenting adage I learned and lived as a mother of three. I think it applies to teaching as well.
To the end of showing that you care, I like H. Douglas Brown's (2007, p. 93 of Teaching by Principles) "Checklist of intrinsically motivating techniques." They are as follows:
1. Does the technique appeal to the general interests of your students? Is it relevant to their lives?
2. Do you present the technique in a positive, enthusiastic manner?
3. Are students clearly aware of the purpose of the technique?
4. Do students have some choice in
a. choosing some aspect of the technique?
b. determining how they go about fulfilling the goals of the
5. Does the technique encourage students to discover for themselves certain principles of rules (rather than being "told")?
6. Does it encourage students in some way to develop or use effective strategies of learning and communication?
7. Does it contribute to students' ultimate autonomy and independence (from you)?
8. Does it foster cooperative negotiation with ither students in the class? Is it truly interactive?
9. Does the technique present a "reasonable challenge"?
10. Do students receive sufficient feedback on their performance (from each other or from you)?
Again, in the end, no method will work if students feel you don't know or understand them- and that takes time. :wink:

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