Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Attention, please!

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?

EU Parliament, with flags of all of the current EU nations flying in front of it

The EU Parliament in Strasbourg, which I visited during the course

Comments on: "Attention, please!" (14)

  1. Good tips Sandy!

    For all learners under the age of about 18, I use The Llama of Silence. On day 1 I train them to respond to my signal of standing at the front of the class with my hand in the shape of a llama. They must do the sign back to me and stop talking. By joking, and explaining how powerful the llama is, and how they really shouldn’t mess with the llama, they soon get into it.
    And it IS powerful! I bumped into an ex-student (an 18-year-old Saudi guy) this week in Cambridge, and the first thing he did was grin and show me the llama sign.

    Any sign that saves your voice and gets the class to be quiet works perfectly. https://thekeyboardhero.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/awkwardllama.jpg?w=1020&h=680

    I’m also a big advocate of CLASS CLASS YES YES. The teacher says ‘class class’ and the learners respond with ‘yes yes’. This call-and-response is positive and can be varied for tone (shout it when you want to build energy, whisper it when you’re calming them down) and the number of repetitions. Again, good with YL.

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    • Great ideas! Thanks Keir

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    • Hi Keir

      Thank you for the post! I am using llama a lot in my classes/sessions, too. Do you (or anyone reading the comments) happen to know the original source and/or authors of this idea?

      Seems to be working in many countries/cultures around the globe!

      Thank you for the post Sandy!
      Zhenya

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    • Well…is it really necessary to teach children and teenagers to be quiet? You are an authority to them and they should know that they have to be quiet when it is necessary (without any tricks/methods).

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      • If only it were that simple!
        This is also a case of getting their attention when you’ve set up some sort of group work, and you want to indicate that it’s time to move on to the next stage.

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  2. I loved that article!

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  3. I’d recommend using a timer instead of clock to time activities. This way, you can fully concentrate on monitoring (because you won’t have to check the time) and have a sound signal at the end of the activity. I used it when I was giving demo lessons for the CELTA course in St Petersburg, and trainees absolutely loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Charles du Parc said:

    I think you should have one signature method you use on all occasions when you want the attention of the whole class. I just use ‘OK’ in a slighty raised tone of voice ; I may have to do it a couple of times and in big classes the sts who have heard tell the others to be quiet.

    I also have a balistic method if the above doesn’t work. I get a big book and slam it down on the desk; I would be worried if I had to use this more than a couple of times in the school year but with large teenage classes (15 and more) it is occasionally necessary.

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    • I agree that the routine really helps!
      I remember a science teacher at school who used to slap a metre rule against the cupboard to get our attention if we were being particularly loud. It generally made me jump out of my skin! But he only ever had to do it a couple of times in the year, as you say.

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  5. […] Supplement can help you get the students’ attention. I’ve written a post with tips on getting and maintaining student attention. These tips from Fernando Guarany could also help improve your confidence as a teacher, as will […]

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  6. I saw teachers at IH tapping on the board with their markers. I thought that might have been an IH thing – but seeing as it’s missing from your list, maybe it was a centre-specific practice. It’s never worked for me. I use a bell but I also use onscreen timers and they go off with a tring or a buzz letting learners know that’s it’s time to stop what they’re doing.

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    • I’ve never seen that, but some of the trainees on this course did knock on the desk when it was time to finish. Pretty hard to hear sometimes though, especially as the students weren’t expecting it!

      Liked by 1 person

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