Giving Children Control over your Lessons

Think for a moment about how much control you have over your life. You decide who you socialize with, who you marry, where you work, what clothes you wear, how much TV you watch and where you live. Now think about how it feels when you lose control over a part of your life. Losing your job might make you feel angry. If you couldn’t leave your house during a Covid lockdown, you might feel anxious. Or if your TV breaks and you can’t choose what to watch, you might feel frustrated. Thankfully, losing control over part of our lives is usually an anomaly, not the norm.

Children usually have little control over their lives. They can’t choose their families, where they go to school, or where they live. In many schools, students can’t choose what clothes they wear, which subjects they study, or what they do in class. This lack of control can make children feel anxious, angry and frustrated. And those emotions are the source of a lot of negative behavior at home and at school. Disrupting classes, arguing with teachers and refusing to work are all ways students can take back control.

As a teacher, you can’t give your students control over their lives, but you can give students more control in your classes. The more control you give your students, the less control they will try to take. Offering students choices over small things in class can allow you to keep better control over your lessons.

As well as encouraging more positive behaviour, giving students more control helps students to become more responsible, motivated, and autonomous.

How to give choices

For choices to be effective they need to be tailored to the age of the students. The choices you give your students should be:

  • limited. For younger children, two or three choices is more than enough. Offering too many choices results in confusion instead of empowerment.

  • practical. Only offer choices to things which you can agree to. Don’t give students the opportunity to ‘call your bluff’.

  • meaningful for the students. Things which seem trivial to you can be important to young learners. Younger children might have preferences about what colour crayon to use. Older children might care about who they work with.

Let’s now look at some different ways of structuring choices for children.

Individual 50/50

In many classroom activities, you can let individual students choose between two options. For young students, this could include:

  • what to colour

  • which worksheet to complete

  • whether to use a pen or a pencil

For the youngest lowest level students, you could ask them to point to what they want. You could also teach, “This please”.

Individual Single Choice

Older students can make more complex selections. For example, you could say to your students:

  • “do at least five of the questions on page ten.”

  • “score out/remove one of the questions on page twelve that you don’t want to answer.”

  • “choose a book to read quietly before we start class.”

  • “bring an English book to class to read during reading time.”

Each of these allows students to make a choice from one of many options.

Whole class vote

Some classroom choices will impact the whole class. For decisions like these, encourage the whole class to vote. Classes can vote on:

  • decisions about the classroom environment. For example, “Are you hot? Put your hands up if you want the windows open.”

  • classroom procedures. “For the last activity today, who wants to sing a song? Put up your hands. Who wants to play a game? Put up your hands.”

  • materials. Older students could choose between two or three texts to read and then discuss.

What to learn

How do you decide what to teach your students? You probably look at:

  • your coursebook

  • assessments your students will need to pass

  • the syllabus or curriculum for your school

All of these are great sources of information, but they miss out the most important people in the learning process: the learners. Giving learners some choice over what they learn helps to:

  • give learners more control, which leads to better behavior.

  • make learning more relevant. Only the students themselves know what they want to talk about. We can find out by asking.

  • encourage responsibility. If you want your students to be responsible for their own learning, start by asking what they want to learn.

Check with your manager before replacing any coursebook content with ideas from the students. Alternatively, add to the curriculum. You might think, “I barely have enough time to get through my coursebook as it is!” But you’ll be able to cover much more with well-behaved and motivated students.

Elicit what they already know

One of the most common times students misbehave is when they’re being taught something which is too easy or which they’ve been taught before. Before introducing new vocabulary, ask “What do you already know about this topic?” or “What ______ do you know in English?” (e.g. “What animals do you know in English?”) Generate a list of vocabulary that students already know. Ask students to show you how confident they are at using these words by holding up fingers (1 = not confident, 5 = very confident). Then spend more time on new words and words that students are less confident using.

What’s missing?

Students need vocabulary which is meaningful for them. It’s impossible for coursebook writers to predict this accurately for your students. So it’s only natural that the vocabulary in your coursebook won’t meet all of your students’ needs.

To overcome this challenge, give students control over the vocabulary they learn. After teaching new vocabulary to students, ask them if they know any words which are missing. If you just taught foods, ask students if they have a favorite food that’s not in the book. If you just taught the names of pets in English (like dog, cat, rabbit, etc.), ask students if they have any pets which aren’t in the coursebook. There’s no point in learning to say “I have a pet dog” if you really have a pet hamster. You don’t need all students to memorize this extra vocabulary, only those who need it.

Does it match?

Lots of ideas from coursebooks are written for a global market. Winter has heavy snow. Families live in houses with gardens. Children eat burgers and pizza. But the lives of students in many places don’t match these settings. If students only learn vocabulary from their coursebook, English class becomes about mimicking a coursebook rather than about self-expression. There’s no point in learning to say, “I like winter because I like making snowmen” if you like in a tropical climate.

To solve this problem, ask your class, “What does ______ look like in our city?” If it’s food, ask, “What else do we eat here?” Seasons: “What’s winter like here?” Festivals: “What festivals do we have here?” Students can add to lists of vocabulary for concepts which match their local setting.

Translation survey

This activity helps uncover what students want to say for a given topic. First, put students in pairs. Tell them one person in each pair can’t speak English, only their mother tongue. Their partner can speak both English and the mother tongue. They are the translator. A third student can only speak English.

Students then survey each other about the topic of the lesson. If learning about

  • foods, students could ask what they normally eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

  • rooms in a house, learners ask what rooms they have in their houses.

  • pets, students ask each other about what pets they have (or want to have)

  • toys, ask students to find out which toys are most popular in class.

In each case, the translator translates what their partner says. Inevitably, there will be some words which students don’t know how to say.

After the survey, ask the students which words they had trouble translating. Pick the most common and teach students how to say these in English. You can also do this activity later in a unit, after students have mastered most of the language in the coursebook.

Find the gaps

Most teachers put tasks (or freer practice activities) toward the end of their lessons. But putting tasks at the beginning of a class (or a unit) is a great way to find out what students already can and can’t do. 

If you’re teaching clothes, ask a student to describe someone else in class. Everyone else listens and guesses who they are describing. You’ll know the gaps when you hear “She’s wearing a, erm, eh, blue, eh, thing…” Teach the language that the learners struggle with.

If you’re teaching animals, ask learners about their pets; if it’s descriptions, ask them to talk about a friend. You’ll quickly learn what your students already know and what they don’t.

How to learn

We can also give students some control over the activities we do in class. Most teachers do activities they think their students will enjoy. One of the best ways to find out which activities students enjoy is to ask them. In this section we’ll look at how to learn more about students’ preferences and let students be part of the decision-making process in class. Giving students control over these decisions will result in better behavior and more motivation.

Choice of activity

Allow your students to choose one activity per class. Give students limited options and ask them to vote. Students could choose between a game and a song, a colouring/craft activity, or between watching a cartoon and a picture book read aloud. Voting can also encourage negotiation. You may find your students ask, “Can we play the other game next time?”

Choice of activity can be used as a reward at the end of class. If you have a winning ‘team’ or if the whole class has a certain number of points, they can choose the final activity of the class or which song to sing at the end of the lesson.

Choice over resources

Give students choices over what resources they use. For example:

  • if students just learned about pets, give them a choice of colouring and labeling a cat or a dog.

  • if they need to write, ask them what colour pencil or crayon they want.

  • if students are doing a colouring exercise, let them choose what to colour (“Do you want to colour a cat or a dog?”).

  • if students have to draw something, ask them if they want to draw in landscape or portrait.

Who to work with

Another important way to offer choice is to let students choose who they work with. This is especially important with older children and has other benefits: some friends produce higher quality work when they work together. However, some friends tend to go off topic when they work together.

Another way to offer this choice is to ask students to mingle, then call out a number. Students have to form groups with this number of people. Each round the students who get left out can form their own group. Play this for a few rounds, then call out the size of group you need for the next activity. Once students are in groups this size, tell them to stay in this group for the next activity.

Difficulty level

Students can decide on the difficulty level of an individual activity. Give students choice over materials by offering worksheets at different levels. Let students choose if they want a task which is level 1, level 2, level 3, etc. Explain to students that the goal is to find something that’s right for them. Encourage learners to reflect afterwards if they chose something which was too easy, too hard or just right.

Ordering of tasks

If students need to do different tasks in a lesson, make a list and tell them to complete the tasks items in any order. For example, students might need to

  • revise vocabulary with a partner.

  • read a text (which includes the new vocabulary) and answer some comprehension questions.

  • write their own sentences using the new vocabulary.

Allow learners to select their own sequence and then reflect on how it felt to do the activities in the order they chose.

Which questions to answer

If your students often act up when doing work in their coursebooks, give them a choice over what questions they answer. Students could be told to

  • answer a number of questions (e.g. “Do at least five questions on page ten.”) This allows students to answer the questions they want to answer first.

  • cross out questions they don’t like (e.g. “Cross out two questions you don’t want to answer.”). This gives students control over what they don’t do.

  • do the questions out of order. This may seem like a small choice, but younger learners may appreciate being able to start at a different question number from usual.

Output options

If you do class projects with your older children, give choices for the final project. Each option should encourage students to use what they learned. Some learners might prefer doing something artistic, others might prefer writing. Some might want to work in a group, others might prefer working alone. You could ask students to choose between making a:

  • poster (with artwork and writing)

  • short-written story

  • story, in cartoon form (with direct speech)

  • role play, performed with a partner (which could also be filmed or performed for the class).

Start by offering fewer options and gradually build up to more choices.

Choice of homework

In many schools, children dislike getting homework. To get more ‘buy in’ for homework, give students a choice of assignment. For example, if your class has just learned about farm animals, for homework, students could:

  • draw a picture of their favorite animal and write a sentence to describe it.

  • colour in a picture of a farm and write the names of the animals underneath.

  • do a ‘read and colour’ activity, colouring animals according to a ‘key’ (e.g. pig = green, cow = blue, etc.).

  • take home graded reading on this topic and read it.

  • teach their parents farm animals using a mini flashcard game from class.

  • do nothing. In some schools, you may not need to assign any homework, in which case offer the option of ‘no homework’.

The same homework assignment can take different students more or less time to finish. Take this into account by telling students how long they should work on an assignment for (instead of how many words to write or questions to answer).

Reflecting on choices

To encourage students to make better choices in the future, you can ask them to think about their choices. For example, if the students chose their own homework, ask if they liked their homework or not (and why)? Or, if you give students a choice of difficulty of materials to use, ask them if the materials they chose were too easy, too difficult, or just right. 

About the Author

Ross Thorburn

Ross Thorburn is a teacher trainer, materials writer and consultant based in Shanghai. Ross started his career in language teaching in 2006. He holds a Trinity DipTESOL, a Trinity FTCL TESOL, an IDLTM from the University of Queensland and a Master’s Degree in Language Education from NILE. Ross is also a keen researcher and has published research articles on teacher training, teacher motivation, task-based learning and young learners. In 2020, Ross published his first book, Inside Online Language Teaching. He also is the host of the TEFL Training Institute podcast.

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