Making a difficult young learner group better

Why are some young learner classes successful and others a constant struggle? We have all seen teachers who can walk into the classroom and their pupils immediately pay attention and fall silent. However, I would say that this is not the case for the majority of young learner teachers who have to work hard to keep students interested and engaged in lessons.


Why are some young learner classes successful and others a constant struggle? We have all seen teachers who can walk into the classroom and their pupils immediately pay attention and fall silent. However, I would say that this is not the case for the majority of young learner teachers who have to work hard to keep students interested and engaged in lessons.

 

The pupils in the difficult group I want to talk about were very un-cooperative. I was a coordinator and I spoke to several pupils about their behaviour and phoned some parents as well. None of this seemed to have much effect and the group continued to be problematic. After two months the teacher of this group left and a new teacher took over the group.
 
The new teacher, let’s call her Karen, managed to bring about a remarkable transformation which changed the class from a very difficult group into a highly successful one which worked very well. How did Karen manage to bring about this radical change? Part of the answer lies in the strategies below.
 
Introducing a competitive element
 
Karen divided the class into teams of three. These teams would be given points throughout the lesson and one team would win at the end of every lesson.
The teacher rewarded
  • co-operative behavior;
  • use of classroom language (“Can I have a rubber, please?” etc);
  • doing homework;
  • good organization;
  • knowledge of English.
Before Karen took over the class the previous teacher had found it difficult to start the lesson. The pupils often complained that they didn’t understand the teacher’s instructions. With the new team system, Karen said nothing but simply wrote on the board “pupil’s book page 28” and the first team with all their books open at the correct page received a point.
 
Although activities such as exercises from the pupils’ exercise books were also sometimes done on a point scoring basis, she was careful not to turn the points system into a simple contest of who was best at English. This competitive element proved very popular with the pupils and they reacted very well to it.
 
Clarity of class rules
 
During the class Karen would write on the board the name of any pupil who had misbehaved and what they had done. For example, a typical entry might read “Jordi — shouting” or “Andrea —throwing a pencil”. I would then take the pupil whose name appeared on the board outside the classroom to speak to him/her.
 
This system gave the pupils a very clear understanding of what the teacher regarded as unacceptable behavior and the behavioral limits which the pupils should respect.
 
Karen’s policy of stating exactly what the pupils had done wrong was very helpful in establishing the limits for acceptable behavior in her classroom.
 
Rewarding co-operation
 
Karen designed and gave out three certificates after every lesson. The certificates read “Well done, you are getting better!”, “___________ is a wonderful student” and “Award for trying hard”.
 
Again, these certificates did not only reward knowledge of English but also effort and co-operation with the teacher. They proved to be very popular with both the pupils and parents and, once again, had a very positive effect on the pupils’ behavior. The previous teacher had become much more focused on punishing bad behavior rather than rewarding good behavior and this seemed to create a negative atmosphere in the classroom.
 
Karen worked hard over a period of about a month and the group changed from being a problem
class into Karen’s favorite group. 
 
Conclusion
 
Obviously there are many variables involved in determining how pupils react when a teacher is standing in front of a group of young learners. The teacher’s body language, tone of voice and facial expression are all important. I believe that the key points in Karen’s strategy can be applied successfully to a wide variety of YL groups.
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