This is the transcript of my plenary ‘Do students really want fun in the ELT classroom?’, that I gave on Saturday 12th May 2018 at InnovateELT. It was just a microphone and me in the Oxford TEFL school garden so there are no slides or graphics to accompany it. A special thanks to all those who tweeted and chatted with me afterwards about it. If you’re short of time then the TL;DR version is in the final paragraph. Feel free to leave your thoughts or questions in the comments below. Enjoy!

FUN. It’s made up of three letters and has one syllable. It’s what this wonderful conference is all about. Fun is also something that has been on my mind a lot when it comes to teaching and lesson planning so in the next 10 minutes I’d like to share my views on it. And I’ll do this by unpicking what I think are two common assumptions associated with it and ELT. I hope I give you some questions to think about.

The word fun sounds harmless enough in most everyday contexts, like when you talk about a weekend away or last night’s garden party here at Innovate. But, applied in the context of education, I have some doubts.

First of all, what hits me is that fun seems to be strongly associated with ELT. It’s everywhere and you don’t have to look very hard to find it. Take a simple Google search, which I did last month. Typing in ‘online EFL grammar activities’ I got 305,000 hits. Typing in ‘fun’ into the same search and I got over two million hits. Now, that’s quite a difference! And if you click again you’ll find a whole host of blog posts, all vying for our attention with the word ‘fun’.

Let me read out a couple to you so you get an idea of what I’m talking about. To whet your appetite, how about ‘15 fun ways to practice Reported Speech’? To be fair, I’m not sure I can think of one fun way of practising Reported Speech so hats off to somebody that can come up with 15! And if it’s not Reported Speech you’re after, but fun with the Present Perfect, 2nd conditional, mixed conditionals, extreme adjectives, I can point you in the right direction afterwards. Just give me a nod at the table with the vermut after I finish.

Or how about this tweet by Onestopenglish I saw on Twitter three weeks ago:

Are exams fun? Probably not to most people! However, we think students can still enjoy the journey towards taking an exam so we’ve created ‘Fun with IELTS’ a series of activities to take some of the stress out of exam classes. Here is the first one: https://t.co/WxjeBqjaX2

— Onestopenglish (@onestopenglish) April 4, 2018

It’s not only blog posts or tweets but also at conferences. For example, at Italy TESOL last year there was a session called ‘Fun activities to encourage fluency in the classroom.’ And in the Czech Republic this year ‘Making it fun for teens’ and ‘Making testing more fun.’ These are very typical examples I’ve read out and are the tiniest drop in the ocean of online ELT lesson materials and conference talks at our disposal. Now, I am sure that all the bloggers, teachers, speakers & websites hosting and sharing lesson plans and ideas are doing so with the absolute best intentions. I really do believe this to be the case. And I don’t want to bash those who share materials and speak at events. But I do want to question the use and frequency of the word fun.

It’s as if one of the ELT 10 commandments is ‘Thou shalt have fun in the classroom.’ Not only do we witness it in online materials and conferences but also in training courses, INSET sessions, methodology books. Fun in ELT can come in all shapes and guises. It can be a fun dominoes activity to practice a discrete language item plucked from a text, a board game from the back of the teacher’s book to practice the pre-selected target language, a song for your tired teens on a Friday afternoon. If you’re a YL teacher, like me, then no greater fun can be had than with poster-making! I could probably do a whole plenary on how I feel about poster-making but I’m starting to digress so let’s get back to the point of this one.

If I were a fairly new teacher, I’d think this was the norm, desirable, a goal even. And for many years I did, in fact, plan lessons with the question ‘How can I make this activity/text/lesson more fun?’ in my head, without considering why or even if it’s needed. More recently, I’ve been questioning the prevalence and unprecedented levels of fun that I am supposed to be creating in my classroom. Actually, as an experienced teacher, I now don’t think it’s necessary and I’d go further here ; it’s not only unnecessary, but can be ineffective and distracting for learning. Let me explain why by looking at two common assumptions that seem to float around the seas of ELT and education, in general. In my opinion, they help explain why ELT seems to emphasise fun so much.

Assumption #1 is what I feel is a commonly-held belief amongst teachers and material writers; that our students need to have fun in order to learn. This assumption forms the backbone of a lot of material and activity-design in ELT. For example, the classic 90’s ELT resource book Writing Games, by Hadfield, says ‘Students who are having fun are usually motivated so they will find writing more interesting and more enjoyable and will begin to improve as a result.’ Fast forward to 2015 and in the teacher’s book to the CUP Elementary level course book Empower it states ‘Many learners find practice activities that involve an element of fun motivating.’ Time and time again, the underlying belief is that only by making our lesson fun will students be engaged and therefore will any learning take place. But do students really need to have fun in order to learn? I’d say a definite NO. You may have materials or an activity that claim to be fun but that doesn’t necessarily mean that learning will happen. There may be a lot of noise, speaking, laughter, students physically moving and doing things, looking engaged for a good 10 or 15 minutes but are they learning anything meaningful and of value? That is the big question.

Many of the fun activities seem to serve the purpose of offering to, as the staffroom staple Intermediate Grammar Games says, ‘lighten the load of grammar learning’ and ‘light relief at the end of a lesson which has focussed on grammar or after a session doing more traditional, perhaps written, grammar exercises’. But how and why did we arrive in that state at the end of the lesson where we all need light relief? Isn’t this the pressing issue? What happened in that class to end up in such a state? Many of these fun activities are based on the school of teaching all the grammar, and the PPP model, where the final P is that fun activity. We all know that there’s more to life than PPP but not if you look at many ELT materials and resources.

Instead of thinking that students need to have fun to learn and that that’s what should drive our planning and teaching, I’d like you to consider the opposite; that the driving force needs to be the learning and pedagogy that underpins it. It’s OK when our students struggle or stumble, but with our guidance they can make progress. Students feeling and knowing that they are getting better at English – that’s the engagement and enjoyment my students and I seek.

Now, before you reach into your conference bags for a piece of yesterday’s tortilla or a croissant from the breakfast table to hurl at me … I’m not saying that enjoyment should not occur in the classroom. But I am saying that fun is not my main priority when I plan and teach. I’m not an Edutainer. I’m a knowledgeable and well-trained, experienced teacher. By ELT emphasising fun I think it undermines our professionalism and distorts the image of what language learning and teaching should look like.

Instead of looking online or in photocopiable materials for so-called ‘fun’ activities that promise to motivate your students, how about looking at our students for lesson content? How about using their stories, experiences and opinions? These can all be a springboard into our materials, feedback and language focus. Input that directly ties into what our students are trying to communicate through language that emerges in class. I don’t think I am saying anything new or revolutionary here, but I do think we sometimes forget about this in the throes of lesson planning and the need to find original, exciting and fun stuff to do we can lose sight of the people sat in front of us.

Onto assumption #2 now, which is as follows: Students appreciate and want fun activities in the classroom. After all, language learning can be jolly hard work, as many of you know. Many of our students, young and old, come to class very tired, after a long day in the office or at school. We think that they will appreciate some fun in the lessons. I think we often worry that if something is hard our students will switch off or feel frustrated so to counteract this we make the experience more palatable and dress it up, by factoring in plenty of fun into the lessons.

I’ve been teaching for more years than I care to remember and the thing is, I’ve never once had an adult student ask for more fun in class. I get feedback from my students at various stages of all courses. What they do want is to be corrected more often in class, they want more 1:1 speaking time with me. Many want more class time spent on developing listening skills and they all want to know if they are making progress. But no, they’ve never once asked me for more fun or a more engaging lesson.

To get a wider view last month I talked to my colleague, who was Head of Adult Customer Care at my school for 15 years and has talked to hundreds of potential and current students. I asked Fiona a very open-ended question about what our students in Milan are looking for. Progress and progress fast is the Number 1 thing. When there is student dissatisfaction in our school, students have often questioned why they are playing games and have said that, although the teachers are trying hard to make the lesson fun, they are there to learn and they’re not big kids. Interestingly, what my colleague Fiona hears time and time again is that they really enjoy the challenge of learning, but not the fun part. So why is fun foregrounded so much in ELT?

I’d like to point out that fun can be absolutely fine as a by-product to learning in the classroom, but let’s not be hasty and mistake fun and engagement for learning. Again, I think this comes back to what I said before. It can be easy to hone in on the student engagement and enjoyment of a lesson, after all that’s what is visible to the teacher or an observer, but what actual depth and quality of learning is going on?

Yes, there are ELT bloggers and materials writers out there who do produce quality stuff, but I did wince at the point in Dorothy Zemach’s IATEFL plenary last month when she said there are ‘Plenty of good free materials online.’ I beg to differ. I think it’s a very mixed bag with a lot questionable fun thrown in there. And who is training teachers to be good at critically evaluating what they find online or in published materials?

So, to wrap up here are my final thoughts. I don’t believe fun is necessary for learning to happen. I don’t think students value fun particularly but they do value making progress. Motivation can and should come from the learners and their needs, wants, stories and their language. Fun can occur incidentally in the classroom, and I welcome that, but let’s keep our eyes on the pedagogy of the What and Why we do something. I think fun and ELT is an area of discussion that is well overdue so thank you, Innovate, for having me here today. Let’s open up the debate and question and examine it. Let the learning, pedagogy and students knowing they are getting better be the driving force of delight and enjoyment in the classroom. Not a fun-filled activity to practice Reported Speech. Thank you Innovate!

References

FOSTER, T. & GAIRNS, REDMAN & RIMMER (2015). Empower Elementary Teacher’s book. Cambridge University Press.

HADFIELD, C. &HADFIELD, J. (1990) Writing games. Nelson ELT.

HADFIELD, J. 2003. Intermediate Grammar Games. Longman.

https://www.tefl.net/elt/ideas/games/reported-speech/

https://tesolitaly.org/new/conventions/convention-2017/

http://www.asociacejs.cz/en/conference-of-the-association-of-language-schools/conference-programme.html

https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/sausage-law-how-textbooks-are-made

21 Comments

  1. Thank you for your useful deconstruction of some terms and ideas that should be reevaluated! I’m also enjoying reading the conversation here. I agree that “fun” and “motivating” are not the same animal. Making room in our lesson plans for syllabus-goal-meeting activities which are intrinsically motivating is important. However, those activites don’t always look like what many people consider “fun” or “entertaining”.

    OTOH, I feel that as David Crystal (and many others) point out, “playing with language” is a valuable part of the way people develop as first language learners. It seems that using language for the purpose of play can be for some learners an important way to improve and discover the “feeling and knowing that they are getting better at English”. I’ve noticed Ss growing in confidence through these activities even though there was no conscious focus on “improving one’s skills” in that activity. Perhaps students who are by nature interactive learners or puzzle solvers outside the classroom may value these experiences more than learners favoring other intelligences.

    I very much appreciated the thought-provoking challenges in the transcript of your plenary!

    1. Hi Charles and thanks for reading and commenting. I agree with your point re.the importance of ss playing with language and I think this is time well spent, both in and out of the classroom. Scott Thornbury also mentioned this idea last year at the Innovate conference – the ludic element to language learning. Personalising, experimenting and manipulating the language, if you like.
      I’ll be continuing this theme of fun and ELT this May so watch this space!

  2. Thank you Sarah for making it clear – conclusively one hopes – that ELT professionals should not be expected to entertain learners with fun and potentially extraneous activities, but instead, should engage them intellectually and linguistically. Sadly, ELT materials often seem to trivialize – and as you rightly pointed out – distort language learning.
    As an avid language learner, I do not recollect seeing any fun tasks (or celebrity photos for that matter) being contemplated in any of the latest textbooks I have used to study other foreign languages. Indeed, a random comparison with some of the topics presented in B1/B2 textbooks to learners of other languages can easily prove Sarah’s assumptions and debunk the myth that language learning is something that one can breeze through perhaps by playing broken telephone or rolling some dice.

    • Dutch learners (Nederlands op niveau) are asked to deal with topics ranging from social integration in the Netherlands to Dutch culture and history.
    • Swedish learners (Rivstart B1+B2) are completely immersed in anything Swedish, from poetry and inter-Scandinavian mutual intelligibility to popular folklore, Vikings, Swedish regions and Swedish cinema.
    • Brazilian Portuguese learners (Corso di brasiliano 2 Hoepli) are – once again – expected to learn various language structures through topics relating to Brazilian culture.
    • Indonesian learners (A course in conversational Indonesian) are presented with a textbook chock-full of authentic Indonesian dialogues and lexis, speaking practice, role-play and translation exercises.

    While it is true that the word ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ may appear on online activities also for languages other than English, it seems to me that this is predominantly so in the ELT industry. Unfortunately, this may do a disservice to serious language learners wishing to be challenged both intellectually and culturally. Let us hope then that Sarah’s forethoughtful article will make some hit their funny bone on something more substantial.

    1. Hi Thomas and nice to see you here, as well as in our staffroom! Thanks for the examples of textbooks for other languages. I’d also be interested to see what the teacher book looks like, if there are any supplementary/photocopiable materials and what they consist of, too. In the last few weeks I’ve also been wondering if other textbooks or teaching materials in main stream education, be it languages or otherwise, push the fun thing, like it’s done in ELT. Law with laughter, anyone 🙂

  3. This really got me thinking, especially as someone who called their website called englishshouldbefun.com

    It’s certainly true that plenty of ‘fun’ activities have little learning value. Articulate (or Taboo) is fun, but students usually stop forming sentences when they play. I really don’t see the point in Hangman. I’ve had a lot of fun doing grammar and error auctions, but it takes 20-30 minutes to cover perhaps 20 sentences. Not very productive.

    On the other hand, kids’ attitude to simple gap fill tasks changes dramatically when it’s part of a well thought through game. Doing 50 present perfect / past simple gap fill sentences on paper wouldn’t engage a lot of teens. However, assign the same sentences through Kahoot, Quizlet or Quizalize and their attitude changes completely.

    You are right to point out that a lot of ‘fun’ tasks are basically gimmicks, and that we should be looking to the people in the room for interesting and engaging content. Perhaps it’s just because I lack imagination myself, but I think students can have just as much fun describing the rooms in their own homes and comparing with their neighbours, than doing a ‘fun’ task like designing their dream home and making a poster about it! Students seem to really enjoy talking about the simplest things in their lives – how best to treat a cold, what they wear in different types of weather, how long they have had various possessions – so there’s no need to dress up the ‘practice’ part of PPP with something wacky and creative to make it ‘fun’.

    So do students want ‘fun’? I guess that depends how you define it. Do students want to enjoy their lessons? Absolutely.

    1. Hi Ben and thanks for your comment. Don’t know if you’re on Twitter but if you look me up you’ll currently see a long thread I’m in, discussing online quizzes, incl. those you mention. They have their place & I totally get that these types of quizzes can engage students & make the lesson more enjoyable. Personally, I just can’t be bothered to faff with school wifi and make the quizzes – I’m lazy, I admit! I imagine if I made some quizzes a few times I’d probably get quicker at it but … I dunno…

      I’d say that in general most people like nothing better than to talk about themselves so yes, speaking tasks that relate to their own lives will be relevant, personal and engaging. Tho’ the flip side is that some students may not always want to be so open and share stuff that’s going on in their private lives. I guess as a teacher we know our students and should check/be aware of what they feel comfortable with discussing. I think creative tasks can work and there’s a time and a place for them, as well.

      It’s funny how hangman is pretty much always mentioned in any ELT discussion about fun 😉 I’ve noticed this a lot over the last few months! RIP hangman.

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