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Tips to Motivate Middle School & High School Language Learners

written by: tracedreyer • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 1/5/2012

Teaching English as a second language to young learners is no mean feat. How do you keep Pre -Teens motivated? Here are some easy-to-apply principles to help your students assimilate what they need to know communicate it.

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    Are you working with 11 to 14 year olds (pre-teens) in a language learning setting? This is a very special age and can be a great time to learn a second language. As a teacher you can maximize the learners' stage of development to their own advantage.

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    Challenge Your Students

    At this age, intellectual capacity is beginning to bloom. Therefore, challenge your pre-teen and teen learner intellectually by making them reconsider all preconceived notions. Play devil’s advocate, make them look at issues from different perspectives.

    One especially effective tactic is to make them think that you are drifting off the “subject” and get them to talk about cross curricular material. This makes them feel like they are in control, and it gets them to look into other areas of knowledge from a novel perspective—the perspective of a whole other language and culture.

    Meanwhile, keep them producing—orally and in written form—in English. I tend to bring up topics in a matter-of-fact way, and let the learners take over the conversation. When it gets really good, I start putting their ideas on the board, particularly if there are pro and con arguments, or “sides.” Then a few minutes before the end of the period I have them copy down their main ideas and use it as material to write a composition. Believe me, they complain to high heaven, but the results are much more lively and revealing of their competencies.

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    Promote Self-Expression

    Another very effective way to do this is to tap into that aspect of pre-teenage personality that wants to shout: “Hey world this is me”– Promote Self-expression: speaking, drawing, writing, singing and anything else they can come up with. It may or may not be appropriate to exhibit the learner's work, it is best to have them give you permission first.

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    Use Media, but Always with a Clear Purpose

    As for using multimedia for motivation, use when appropiate and with caution. It is easy to have the impression that one is motivating with images, audio, video, slide-show, music. Nevertheless, motivation is not the only issue. Use these tools as a means towards a definite end, not just as gimmicks. The overall goal is to get them thinking and producing in the target language.

    Productive skills presuppose a higher degree of proficiency in receptive skills. Whenever I show a movie, use a slideshow or even do a reading, I try to tie it into an issue that touches the learners lives, and get them to produce based on that. With older learners, who have to assimilate authors and that kind of information, I try to personalize it as much as possible, and find “issues” in the material that can get the students involved in discussion and promote a certain amount of tension. Pre-teens will always be more negaged if the information is challenging them.

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    A Clear, Practical Purpose

    For a pre-teen, learning a language is best through the "experience" approach. In terms of making an effort and spending their time on something, if pre-teens cannot see a real practical end, they tend not to invest themselves. Classwork, and homework needs to be set up to get to the final product in stages, and these need to lead to a clear goal like writing a letter that might actually be sent to the recipient, or creating a script for a video they are going to shoot themselves. This gives a sense of meaning to the activities and puts the students in a mindset that their work has a practical purpose above and beyond getting a grade.

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    Get to Know Your Class

    The most important bit of advice I could give you is get to know your class and individual students. When you find out what is interesting to them you'll know what material to use to motiviate them! If you have any further ideas I'd love to hear them. Let me know in the comments.


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