Plenary: Do students really want fun in the ELT classroom?
This is the transcript of my plenary ‘Do students really want fun in the ELT classroom?’, which I gave on Saturday 12 May 2018 at InnovateELT. It was just a microphone and me in the Oxford TEFL school garden so there are no slides or graphics to accompany it. A special thanks to all those who tweeted and chatted with me afterwards about it. If you’re short of time then the TL;DR version is in the final paragraph. Feel free to leave your thoughts or questions in the comment box at the end. Enjoy!
FUN. It’s made up of 3 letters and has 1 syllable. It’s what this wonderful conference is all about. Fun is also something that has been on my mind a lot when it comes to teaching and lesson planning so in the next 10 minutes I’d like to share my views on it. And I’ll do this by unpicking what I think are 2 common assumptions associated with it and ELT. I hope I give you some thoughts and questions to think about.
The word fun sounds harmless enough in most everyday contexts, like when you talk about a weekend away or last night’s garden party here at Innovate. But applied in the context of education I have some doubts.
First of all, what hits me is that fun seems to be strongly associated with ELT. It’s everywhere and you don’t have to look very hard to find it. Take a simple Google search, which I did last month. Typing in ‘online EFL grammar activities’ I got 305.000 hits. Typing in ‘fun’ into the same search and I got over 2 million hits. Now, that’s quite a difference! And if you click again you’ll find a whole host of blog posts, all vying for our attention with the word ‘fun’.
Let me read out a couple to you so you get an idea of what I’m talking about. To whet your appetite, how about ‘15 fun ways to practice Reported Speech’? To be fair, I’m not sure I can think of 1 fun way of practising Reported Speech so hats off to somebody that can come up with 15! And if it’s not Reported Speech you’re after, but fun with the Present Perfect, 2nd conditional, mixed conditionals, extreme adjectives, I can point you in the right direction afterwards. Just give me a nod at the table with the vermut after I finish.
Or how about this tweet by Onestopenglish I saw on Twitter 3 weeks ago : ‘Are exams fun? Probably not to most people! However, we think students can still enjoy the journey towards taking an exam with ‘Fun with IELTS’, a series of activities you’ll find at @onestopenglish website.’
It’s not only blog posts or tweets but also at conferences. For example, at Italy Tesol last year there was a session called ‘Fun activities to encourage fluency in the classroom.’ And in the Czech Republic this year ‘Making it fun for teens’ and ‘Making testing more fun.’ These are very typical examples I’ve read out and are the tiniest drop in the ocean of online ELT lesson materials and conference talks at our disposal. Now, I am sure that all the bloggers, teachers, speakers & websites hosting and sharing lesson plans and ideas are doing so with the absolute best intentions. I really do believe this to be the case. And I don’t want to bash those who share materials and speak at events. But I do want to question the use and frequency of the word fun.
It’s as if one of the ELT 10 commandments is ‘Thou shalt have fun in the classroom.’ Not only do we witness it in online materials and conferences but also in training courses, INSET sessions, methodology books. Fun in ELT can come in all shapes and guises. It can be a fun dominoes activity to practice a discrete language item plucked from a text, a board game from the back of the teacher’s book to practice the pre-selected target language, a song for your tired teens on a Friday afternoon. If you’re a YL teacher, like me, then no greater fun can be had than with poster-making! I could probably do a whole plenary on how I feel about poster-making but I’m starting to digress so let’s get back to the point of this one.
If I were a fairly new teacher, I’d think this was the norm, desirable, a goal even. And for many years I did, in fact, plan lessons with the question ‘How can I make this activity/text/lesson more fun?’ in my head, without considering why or even if it’s needed. More recently, I’ve been questioning the prevalence & unprecedented levels of fun that I am supposed to be creating in my classroom. Actually, as an experienced teacher, I now don’t think it’s necessary and I’d go further here ; it’s not only unnecessary, but can be ineffective and distracting for learning. Let me explain why by looking at 2 common assumptions that seem to float around the seas of ELT and education, in general. In my opinion, they help explain why ELT seems to emphasise fun so much.
Assumption #1 is what I feel is a commonly-held belief amongst teachers and material writers ; that our students need to have fun in order to learn. This assumption forms the backbone of a lot of material and activity-design in ELT. For example, the classic 90’s ELT resource book ‘Writing Games’ , by Hadfield, says ‘Students who are having fun are usually motivated so they will find writing more interesting and more enjoyable and will begin to improve as a result.’ Fast forward to 2015 and in the teacher’s book to the CUP Elementary level coursebook ‘Empower’ it states ‘Many learners find practice activities that involve an element of fun motivating.’ Time and time again, the underlying belief is that only by making our lesson fun will students be engaged and therefore will any learning take place. But do students really need to have fun in order to learn? I’d say a definite NO. You may have materials or an activity that claim to be fun but that doesn’t necessarily mean that learning will happen. There may be a lot of noise, speaking, laughter, students physically moving and doing things, looking engaged for a good 10 or 15 minutes but are they learning anything meaningful and of value? That is the big question.
Many of the fun activities seem to serve the purpose of offering to, as the staffroom staple ‘Intermediate Grammar Games’ says, ‘lighten the load of grammar learning’ and ‘light relief at the end of a lesson which has focussed on grammar or after a session doing more traditional, perhaps written, grammar exercises’. But how and why did we arrive in that state at the end of the lesson where we all need light relief? Isn’t this the pressing issue? What happened in class to end up in such a state? Many of these fun activities are based on the school of teaching ALL THE GRAMMARS, and the PPP model, where the final P is that fun activity. We all know that there’s more to life than PPP but not if you look at many ELT materials and resources.
Instead of thinking that students need to have fun to learn and that’s what should drive our planning and teaching I’d like you to consider the opposite ; that the driving force needs to be the learning and pedagogy that underpins it. It’s OK when our students struggle, stumble, but with our guidance they can make progress. Students feeling and knowing that they are getting better at English – that’s the engagement and enjoyment my students and I seek.
Now, before you reach into your conference bags for a piece of yesterday’s tortilla or a croissant from the breakfast table to hurl at me … I’m not saying that enjoyment should not occur in the classroom. But I am saying that fun is not my main priority when I plan and teach. I’m not an Edutainer. I’m a knowledgeable and well-trained, experienced teacher. By ELT emphasising fun I think it undermines our professionalism and also distorts the image of what language learning and teaching should look like.
Instead of looking online or in photocopiable materials for so-called fun activities that promise to motivate your students, how about looking at our students for lesson content? How about using their stories, experiences and opinions? These can all be a springboard into our materials, feedback and language focus. Input that directly ties into what our students are trying to communicate through language that emerges in class. I don’t think I am saying anything new or revolutionary here but I do think we sometimes forget about this and in the throes of lesson planning and the need to find original, exciting and fun stuff to do we can lose sight of the people sat in front of us. Yet that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it?
Onto assumption #2 now, which is as follows ; Students appreciate and want fun activities in the classroom. After all, language learning can be jolly hard work, as many of you know. Many of our students, young and old, come to class very tired, after a long day in the office or at school. We think that they will appreciate some fun in the lessons. I think we often worry that if something is hard our students will switch off or feel frustrated so to counteract this we make the experience more palatable and dress it up, by factoring in plenty of fun into the lessons.
I’ve been teaching for more years than I care to remember and the thing is that I’ve never once had an adult student ask for more fun in class. I get feedback from my students at various stages of all courses. What they do want is to be corrected more often in class, they want more 1:1 speaking time with me. Many want more class time spent on developing listening skills and they all want to know if they are making progress. But no, they’ve never once asked me for more fun or a more engaging lesson.
To get a wider view last month I talked to my colleague, who was Head of Adult Customer Care at my school for 15 years and has talked to hundreds of potential and current students. I asked Fiona a very open-ended question about what our students in Milan are looking for. Progress and progress fast is the number 1 thing. When there is student dissatisfaction in our school students have often questioned why they are playing games and have said that although the teachers are trying hard to make the lesson fun, they are there to learn and they’re not big kids. Interestingly, what my colleague Fiona hears time and time again is that they really enjoy the challenge of learning, but not the fun part. So why is fun foregrounded so much in ELT?
I’d like to point out that fun can be absolutely fine as a by-product to learning in the classroom but let’s not be hasty and mistake fun and engagement for learning. Again, I think this comes back to what I said before. It can be easy to hone in on the student engagement and enjoyment of a lesson, after all that’s what is visible to the teacher or an observer, but what actual depth and quality of learning is going on?
Yes, there are ELT bloggers and materials writers out there who do produce quality stuff but I did wince at the point in Dorothy Zemach’s IATEFL plenary last month when she said there are ‘Plenty of good free materials online.’ I beg to differ. I think it’s a very mixed bag with a lot questionable fun thrown in there. And who is training teachers to be good at critically evaluating what they find online or in published materials?
So, to wrap up here are my final thoughts. I don’t believe fun is necessary for learning to happen. I don’t think students value fun particularly but they do value making progress. Motivation can and should come from the learners and their needs, wants, stories and their language. Fun can occur incidentally in the classroom, and I welcome that, but let’s keep our eyes on the pedagogy of the what and why we do something. Please do come and talk to me about what I’ve said, I’d love to hear what you think. You may or may not agree with me and we can always chat about me walking on fire if you prefer. I think fun and ELT is an area of discussion that is well overdue so thank you, Innovate, for having me here today. Let’s open up the debate and question and examine it. Let the learning, pedagogy and students knowing they are getting better be the driving force of delight and enjoyment in the classroom. Not a fun-filled activity to practice Reported Speech. Thank you Innovate!
FOSTER, T. & GAIRNS, REDMAN & RIMMER (2015). Empower Elementary Teacher’s book. Cambridge University Press.
HADFIELD, C. &HADFIELD, J. (1990) Writing games. Nelson ELT.
HADFIELD, J. 2003. Intermediate Grammar Games. Longman.
Cracking post (plenary). You know how I feel about it (and that I agree) and fun is possible but , like you say, why is it the driving force? Cheers! Was hoping it’d be up!
I love it when my CELTA trainees say to the students “Ok now we’re going to have some fun” and I hear the unspoken vibe from the war weary TP students, “Wanna bet?” Fun and enjoyment aren’t synonymous. For me it is achievement, a sense of which is the vital ingredient to any successful lesson. This might be gained through fun. and enjoyment or simply by hard graft which was neither particularly fun nor particularly enjoyable. But either way, the students leave the class wanting to come back for more.