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Where’s the fun in that?

This is the transcript (and slightly longer version) of the plenary I gave on May 17th 2019 at the 5th InnovateELT conference.  This year’s theme is Back to the Future and in this talk I look back on the last 12 months of fun and where we might go. Feel free to leave a comment in the box below and thanks for reading.

First of all, happy 5th birthday InnovateELT and thank you for inviting me back here to speak again.  Last year I had a lot of fun here, hearing speakers and attendees discuss what fun, delight and challenge means to them.  I also gave my own take on Fun in ELT and this evening I’d like to share a few thoughts I’ve had from the 2018 conference and also over the last year.  

Before I get into all that let me explain what exactly I mean by ‘fun’ because I think it’s important to clarify this. A dictionary definition of ‘fun’ will mention enjoyment, pleasure, something light-hearted or silly, something done purely for amusement.  So there are various interpretations of ‘fun’.  After looking through ELT websites and teacher resource packs I’d say that most of what I’ve seen under the guise of ‘fun’ tends to be games and activities promising to breathe life, enjoyment and engagement into your lesson.  This could be anything from a speaking activity to develop students’ oral fluency skills to a board game to practice a particular area of grammar, 2nd conditional dominoes, or hangman, which always seems to get a mention.

To be honest, a lot of what is promoted as a fun activity in my opinion really isn’t fun or enjoyable when you take a closer look.  A few months ago a tweet by Cambridge English caught my eye because it’s typical of how a lot of ELT activities are framed.  It said ‘Language learning doesn’t have to be hard work, try our fun activities at this link’.  Already, I’m starting to feel uneasy at the brash and bold statement here that language learning doesn’t have to be hard work. This is dishonest, I feel, as anyone who has learnt a language will testify.  And I imagine that many, if not all of you, here tonight will know the time and effort it takes to learn a language. Anyway, putting aside this tiresome clickbait, off I go to the Cambridge English website, in the pursuit of fun.

What I find is a selection of quiz-style questions on different areas of grammar, like narrative tenses, possessives, relative clauses.  Here’s a sample :

Q:  Do you like coffee? And 3 options to pick from for the answer.  

Yes, I do.  Yes, I’d. Yes, I like.   

If you get the answer wrong a nice screaming red screen and thumbs down says that answer is incorrect. Naturally, you have soothing green and a thumbs up when the law of probability works in your favour and you get the answer right.  I actually needed a very strong coffee after having a look at their other fun activities.

You see, there is no explanation as to why your answer is wrong or indeed right.  There’s no hint of a question or clue, no link at the end of the quiz to a self-study section to read up on this area of grammar.  Where is the fun in that?  As a learner, you’ve grabbed my attention with the lure of fun AND learning English, it’s free, it’s online so I can do it when and where I want. But the reality is a dead end of clicking and frustration at not knowing why I am getting the answer wrong or where I could go for further help.  I can’t see any pleasure or enjoyment to be gained from this.  Nor can I see how this will help promote language learning and learners making progress.

Back to the classroom, where breathing life and enjoyment into learning English is something I wholeheartedly embrace. But my point last year was asking us to consider where this enjoyment and fulfillment can come from. Does it come from an activity that’s been photocopied, cut up, and provides manipulation of a particular grammatical item or set of words?  Or could pleasure stem from the teacher seizing on the stories and needs of their students and students’ pleasure and satisfaction derived from making progress with their English?

For example, doing a simple resource-free speaking activity in class (like last week when my adults talked about an experience they’ve had of living away from home) and then repeating it later, after the teacher and students have worked together on language noticed by the teacher.  This language, good or bad, could be analysed, clarified, corrected, upgraded and have a pronunciation focus thrown in there for good measure, too. I suppose this sums up what I try to do in class a lot of the time: get students talking, fill in and together clarify some gaps of their knowledge and ideally repeat the speaking activity a 2nd time.  

I think this loose 3-step framework can allow the teacher to see what the students already know and can do and identify where they need help.  The students also have another go at the speaking task, perhaps with the language focus in mind, and may try to use it.  The language focus comes directly from the students mouth, so to speak, not unit 5 of your Intermediate coursebook, which, if memory serves me right, is usually ‘Will versus Going to”.  

My students, young and old, come to class and want to feel like they are being listened to, in all senses of the word.  My adults expect me to be attentive to their needs, to listen to what they are trying to say and identify what they need help on and this 3-step framework, I think, allows for that.

Something interesting that has come up often in online conversations since last year, and I’d bet in many staffrooms around the world, is that when it comes to YLs then the general consensus is that fun is OK.  A teacher told me that their trainer on the YL ext to CELTA course a few years ago repeatedly stressed the need to make things more fun. This mantra was repeated over and over again.  Another teacher told me how in feedback to a formal lesson observation with a YL class the observer pointed out that there weren’t enough fun activities in the lesson and that this was seen as an issue.  

Like many ELT teachers when I started teaching I didn’t have any in-depth formal training or background in YLs.  Rather naively, I used to believe that I needed to include plenty of fun activities to keep my primary and teen learners interested and on task.  You name it, I cut it up, stuck it up, jigsawed it, board gamed it, colour photocopied it, posterfied it, until my school had no stationery supplies left.  Well, not quite but you get the picture. Now, don’t get me wrong, I quite like a craft activity with primary classes but let’s not lose sight over the learning that is to be taking place in the classroom as we laminate, cut and chop all that paper up. And also let’s not lose sight over the time and resources used.  What’s the cost of it all?   We need to encourage trainee teachers to critically and carefully analyse activities and materials for their learning outcomes and what learning value they add. Otherwise, teachers may risk lessons being more style than substance.

I think it’s fair to say that many YL teachers across the age ranges think about and sometimes even worry about managing the behaviour of YLs.  I know I have done.  As a teacher with many primary classes (which in Italy is aged 6 to 11), over the years I’ve experimented with different techniques and tools for managing behaviour; giving out stickers, class behaviour charts on the wall, the online tool Classdojo, happy & sad faces on the board.  And then a few years ago things changed.  Firstly, I found that too much precious class time was being eaten up with Classdojo and, if I was really honest, very often I realised that my learners were only really doing activities and behaving well for the points and winning, not because it was the right thing to do. In other words, these rewards were very appealing to my primary students’ extrinsic motivation.  “Teacher, will we get points for this?” was a very common refrain I heard in class.  At the same time, there were the grumbles and disappointed faces from those who weren’t given a sticker or didn’t hear the Classdojo ting as their score went up on the big screen.

The thing is that with YLs there’s no pulling the wool over their eyes.  They have sussed out your careful seating plan. They have sussed out that everybody will eventually get a point or sticker because that’s what Sarah does, sooner or later.  So I felt it was all becoming rather meaningless, time-consuming and half-way through the year I decided to ditch Classdojo. Instead, I reset the classes with 4 basic but fair rules and consistently insisted on them being adhered to.  And despite the initial bemusement from my primary classes about not having points and not hearing things, we all got on with what we were there for, teaching and learning.

If you do use stickers, reward charts or Classdojo with your YLs and it works for you and your class then fine, please continue.  I don’t know the context you work in or your learners and far be it for me to tell you what to do with a group of learners I’ve never met.  But I do feel that popular techniques and tools for managing YL behaviour often don’t really address the issue of poor behaviour long-term and can teach children to only behave appropriately for something in return.  Where’s the fun in that?       

The other change I went through was that my school recently introduced in-house produced materials for primary-aged learners.  Although there is some focus on language it’s not as prescriptive as many standard published materials are and so there’s more freedom for teachers to focus on the group of learners sat in front of them and their language needs.    Real-world topics that my primary learners often might study in their mainstream school are used, with reading texts, songs and a series of smaller activities which then culminate in an end-of-module task.  This year we’ve worked on science experiments, recycling, countries and continents, sea animals. All things that are anchored in the child’s world.

I’ve just completed a module with 9 and 10-year-olds on the subject of Art.  Art is something they study at school, learning about different techniques and famous artists it’s a topic that is already appealing and engaging to my primary learners. In our lessons we examined and described different types of art, described paintings, read and wrote reviews about works of art.  The end of module task was to choose and present a work of art for their school corridor. The language that cropped up throughout the module was light years away from the standard fare primary learners are often served in Italian mainstream schools.  It may look challenging and complex for 10-year-olds but the beauty of teaching primary learners is that they don’t question the chunk you’ve put on the board, they just get on and use it.

After looking at each other’s proposals for the school corridor art project we discussed together what my class had enjoyed about this module and this is what my 10-year-olds said:

I liked comparing different paintings.

Now I can go to an art gallery and understand a guide.

Now I can talk to friends about a painting.

I liked reading the comments about the different pictures.

I liked saying what I think about art.

I think these comments highlight very clearly my primary learners’ satisfaction and pleasure they gained, their strong intrinsic motivation and their sense of what they can now do in English.  Primary YL lesson content that appeals to their world, that genuinely interests them and is challenging, is to my mind what we should be aiming for. Not a series of fun-based activities, loosely tied together through a common topic, which lead nowhere and challenge nobody. I think we are doing YLs, in general, a huge disservice by thinking that they only want and can only cope with the classic fun-filled ELT games. In my experience, YLs of all ages relish challenging material and lessons, if it’s scaffolded in an appropriate way. The behavioural issues will often improve if the content is strong if YLs feel a sense of achievement and high behavioural expectations are put into place.

You might be thinking that this is all fairly obvious stuff and doesn’t really need saying.  That nobody puts fun before learning.  My conversations in the last year or so suggest that many people are pleased that I spoke up about fun, that this theme had been long overdue.  Whether you agree with me or not, you could talk to colleagues in your staffroom about fun, to your co-trainers and trainees, or with a teacher association you belong to.

Let me leave you with some final thoughts. Fun means different things to different people and cultures and, in past conversations, people have said that when they say ‘fun’ they actually mean something like engaging, creative or motivating. I am certainly not the Fun Police, which was a funny phrase that caught my eye last year here. I’d really like ELT to consider the misleading connotations ‘fun’ can have. Could ELT use words like challenging, interesting, fulfilling and enjoyable instead?  I’d like to repeat what I said last year; that fun as a by-product to learning is fine but I believe it shouldn’t be the driving force to planning and teaching.

I like the way John Fanselow encourages teachers to see things in different ways and he challenges us to “do the opposite” in his book ‘Breaking Rules’.  So, why not put down the photocopiable resource pack and bits of paper? Why not do the opposite and let the language and materials come from your students?  You could quietly unplug the photocopier at work and encourage others to unplug their teaching, as fellow plenary speaker Scott Thornbury has advocated.  Challenge and push your Young Learners of any age.  Really listen to your students. Finally, as a teacher experiment and do something different, the opposite of what you normally do. After all, if you don’t, then where is the fun in that?

Thank you for listening and enjoy the rest of the conference!   



Fanselow, J. (1987).  Breaking Rules-Generating and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching. White Plains, NY. Longman.

Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged – Dogme in English Language Teaching.  Delta publishing, UK.

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