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Point of View: No more funny business?

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Teachers Sarah Priestley and Tom Flaherty call on those working in the ELT industry to re-consider the role of ‘fun’ in the classroom

Dear ELT colleagues,

A quick Google search will return millions of hits for ‘fun’ activities in English language teaching, including, among many others, how to inject ‘fun’ into grammar practice.

What do we mean by ‘fun’, though? How is it put to use in the profession?

More importantly, is fun being used as a smokescreen to detract away from other issues in ELT?

In this open letter, we’d like to examine why we make things ‘fun’ in the classroom, and question the status quo these claims seems to have.

Claim #1: Fun creates a positive, motivating atmosphere that’s conducive to learning.
Is this open letter suggesting that ‘fun’ should be abolished from the ELT classroom? No, far from it – a plethora of research supports the notion that fun learning equals effective learning.

What this letter is hoping to start is a conversation that encourages language teachers to objectively analyse both materials and activities that they use in the classroom. For example, just because an activity is deemed fun by an anonymous bod online, does that necessarily make it effective?
If we consider the plethora of materials that flow from certain online ELT websites, you could be forgiven for believing that ‘fun’ is becoming an increasingly common benchmark from which to measure lesson success. In a highly subjective profession, what constitutes a ‘successful’ lesson? More importantly, though, what is ‘fun’, and are there a set of objective criteria that can be followed?

Fun is often perceived as an enjoyable experience that is not particularly taxing. We take the view, though, that learning can be fun because it is challenging, rather in spite of it.

Indeed, as the academic Terry Barrett says: ‘Fun without hardness is frivolity; hardness is drudgery.’ In ELT, where does the pendulum mostly swing? It’s clear that a lot depends on how fun is used, and how subsequent activities are designed and used. With this in mind, are running dictations the best use of ‘fun’ in the classroom?

Claim #2: The coursebook is dull so I like to add some fun activities to liven things up.

Ultimately, more effort needs to be directed towards training teachers to become more aware of their learners’ needs, providing them with the skills needed to create activities that are relevant, meaningful and challenging.

It may well be that the coursebook is not to your liking and includes run-of-the-mill ELT topics and language items for the teacher and class to analyse and faithfully reproduce.

After all, no coursebook is ever perfect and will require some judicious adaptation and use to suit the individual needs of your class.

But we’d also urge you to consider what your fun activities are bringing to the learning process.

Will the first conditional dominoes game off the internet really add something of value to the lesson? What exactly will students get out of playing it? Could that preparation and class time be perhaps better spent?

And looking at the bigger picture, how does the inclusion of these fun activities connect back to your students’ needs and their learning objectives?

Claim #3: Young learners get easily distracted and lose interest quickly, so using fun games and activities will ensure I keep their attention and interest.

It’s true that young learners do not choose to be in the classroom, and it’s a decision that is mostly likely imposed on them by their parents.

Managing a class of young learners can be challenging for many different reasons but the solution may not lie in the use of fun team games, points systems or a favourite class game.

In fact, this can lead to students only wanting more of these types of activities and little else. What about assuming that they can cope quite happily without the classic EFL fun and games?

What about using challenging lesson content that appeals to their world and interests? For example, look to science, the arts and the natural world for content that will draw them in.

If your young learners are genuinely interested in the subject matter of the lesson, and this is coupled with clear expectations of classroom behaviour and consistent follow-up from the teacher, then there is the right atmosphere for learning to take place.

A Call for Action

Our Call for Action is to everybody working in ELT: teachers, trainers, bloggers, global institutions, hosts of teaching material websites, managers, publishers, material writers, and more.

We ask you to discuss this open letter and our questions, not just with those that you work with, but with your students, too.

Challenge them to reconsider their notions of fun and to examine it through a more critical lens. Remember, learning is not fun in spite of being challenging, but because it is challenging.

Thank you for reading and do get in touch with your thoughts.

Regards,

Sarah Priestley & Tom Flaherty


Sarah Priestley is a teacher and trainer at the British Council in Milan and Tom Flaherty is a freelance EFL teacher, trainer and member of Serveis Lingüístics de Barcelona.