I’ve just finished working on a CELTA course in Strasbourg, and one of the things some trainees had trouble with was getting and maintaining the attention of their students. Here are some of the questions I asked them and tips I gave in feedback after the lessons.
Do they know what signal you will give them when you want them to pay attention?
If you tell the students what signal to expect before the activity, they are more likely to notice. For example, you could tell them that you will:
- Clap your hands.
- Say ‘stop’.
- Press a buzzer.
- Ring a bell.
- Switch the light off and on again.
- Use a call and response signal, for example: Teacher: ‘Macaroni cheese.’ Students: ‘Everybody freeze!’ (Thanks Rose!)
- Put your hand up and wait for them to put theirs up too.
- Countdown from 5, starting quietly, and getting louder as you reach 1. (Particularly good for speaking activities.)
- When the background music finishes playing, the activity ends.
- Stand in a particular place.
It’s good to get into routines with this, and always use the same signal for the same kind of activity. For example, I normally put my hand up to signal the end of a pair discussion.
Did you give everyone time to respond?
After you’ve given the signal to pay attention, make sure that you pause for a few seconds to let them stop before you start speaking. Wait for attention from everybody – don’t just start with the next instructions or feedback, as you’ll only end up repeating it!
Try praising students who are paying attention, rather than picking out those who aren’t, especially with young learners: ‘Thank you, Sandy.’ rather than ‘Sandy, stop talking please!’
Is the signal visible/audible to everyone?
If you’re giving an audio signal, make sure it is loud enough. If you’re speaking, you don’t need to shout, but do project your voice over the volume.
If you’re giving a visual signal, make sure all students can see you.
Are they deeply involved in the activity they are doing? Are they ready to finish?
Monitor closely to find out how students are progressing with the activity. If they’ve only done half of the activity, they are unlikely to want to stop when you try to get their attention.
If you know that timing will be a problem before you start, try to change how you set up the activity. For example, tell the students to do as many questions as they can in 3 minutes, rather than making them finish the exercise. Getting them to check in pairs can help them to fill in the gaps in their answers.
Have short extension tasks available for students who finish very quickly, preferably ones that don’t require too much extra input from you! For example, ask students to:
- Read a sentence from the exercise, remember it, turn over your paper, write it from memory, then check whether you’ve got it right.
- Change the sentences so they’re true for you.
- Turn over the paper and remember as many of the words from the exercise as possible, either speaking or writing them. Then look and check.
- Start saying the sentences/words to practise pronunciation.
- Decide what was the most interesting thing your partner said, ready to report it to the class.
Is there a valid reason for them to need to pay attention to you or the other students who are talking? (i.e. Why should they care?)
For example, some teachers interrupt speaking activities to get everybody’s attention to try to elicit a single word from the group that one student asked for. This is unnecessary, as you could just give them the word without stopping all of the other conversations.
During feedback stages, students might pay attention at the beginning, but drift off if the stage gets too long or boring. Think of how to keep feedback concise, and try to give them a real reason to listen to the other students.
How long have you required their attention for? Can they maintain focus for that long?
It’s difficult to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time without drifting off and losing attention. Vary the activities and the interaction in the lesson, so that students aren’t just listening to you for long periods of time. Give them clear things to do and keep them active.
Do you truly believe that you have the right to their attention at this point in the lesson?
This may sound quite odd, but I’ve noticed that a lot of teachers feel like they’re being rude when they interrupt students, especially if the students are older than them, and/or if they’re inexperienced teachers. I think if you don’t believe that you need students’ attention right now, then there is less conviction in your voice, and they are less likely to listen to you.
What would you add to the list?