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Creating opportunities to shape the way learners learn

Wayne Trotman reviews a title that aims to help create classrooms that engage and motivate both students and teachers

Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms

Sarah Mercer and Zoltan Dörnyei

Cambridge University Press, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-108-44592-4

Years ago, while training to be a language teacher in the UK, I was given some pretty sound advice to ‘Keep the students busy’. I generally did that, but early in my ELT career overseas I began to wonder to what extent their being busy was useful engagement with tasks that led to actual language learning. Or, was the apparent engagement down to simple fear that they would be moaned at by me if they relaxed? For those who suspect the latter might be a result of their own teaching style, this title will prove more than enlightening.

The authors explain in the foreword how their work in recent years with language teachers led them to realise that an emphasis on traditional notions of motivation were insufficient to meet teachers’ pedagogical needs. By building on the principles of motivation, however, and drawing on insights from a range of fields, such as psychology and technology, this book conceptualises the teacher as instructional designers of tasks to engage learners holistically, and thus create meaningful opportunities for them to shape the way they themselves may learn.

The introduction outlines in detail the authors’ ‘dream classroom’: one buzzing with activity, with students actively involved in language related tasks, clearly focused on what they are doing and finding emotional satisfaction and academic benefit from their participation. Such engagement is felt of course to be the ‘holy grail of learning’, and for most of us perhaps largely a dream scenario that may be achieved only at the best of times. At other times, however, as the authors state on page 1: ‘ … classroom reality turns out to be less rosy, with students remaining distant, distracted and disengaged.’

Using data from a 2015 Gallup survey in the US involving 900,000 students from 3,300 schools, the authors note how only half the students were engaged, with the level of engagement decreasing as learners progressed through High School. Based on questions such as why some learners are engaged while others are not, and how the situation can be improved, this title addresses issues such as what is, and is not engagement, and why student engagement is especially important in language lessons.

"In more than twenty years of reviewing ELT titles, I do not recall reading 
a more timely one than this."

The first of the six chapters in this book looks at how learner engagement is affected by factors beyond the actual classroom context, such as the school as an institution and learners’ family settings. The following chapters are concerned with aspects of learner engagement that the teacher can affect more directly. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 consider how teachers can create foundations for student engagement, focusing in particular on factors such as learner mindsets, teacher- student rapport, and classroom dynamics and culture. Chapters 5 and 6 look at how teachers can design classroom tasks that trigger and maintain learner engagement.

Following the introductory first chapter, chapters 2 through 6 are organised into a series of principles and action points, which are all very neatly summarised and presented in diagram form. For example, in Chapter 2, with regard to facilitating learner mindsets, where the principle is to develop gritty learners, the action point is to teach learners how to learn. A section in the next chapter concerning teacher-student rapport, taking care with teacher-talk is advised in order to adopt the principle of being approachable.

The authors do point out, however, that this book is not intended to be a prescriptive recipe-style resource. It is, instead, a guiding set of ideas and principles, ‘ … for an age where teachers must work with learners who have ever-shorter attention spans and for whom visual stimuli and digital teaching are no longer a novelty or motivating per se.’

In more than twenty years of reviewing ELT titles, I do not recall reading a more timely one than this. Based on sound theory, it provides very readable practical ideas for dealing with an everyday aspect of classrooms that language teachers are increasingly confronted with. As such, it should be high on the wish list for trainers everywhere.

Wayne Trotman
Wayne Trotman
Wayne is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Celebi University in Izmir, Turkey. Wayne has been involved in language teaching both in the UK and overseas since 1981. He holds an MSc in TESOL from Aston University and a PhD in ELT and Applied Linguistics from the University of Warwick.
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