WHAT’S IT GOT TO DO WITH ME? THE ROLE OF RELEVANCE IN LEARNER ENGAGEMENT

by Jade Blue

MAKING LESSONS MEANINGFUL FOR LEARNERS IS ONE OF THE KEY ELEMENTS OF SUCCESSFUL LEARNING, AND RELEVANCE IS A VITAL CONTRIBUTOR TO LEARNER ENGAGEMENT. IF WE FEEL THAT WHAT WE ARE LEARNING IS RELEVANT TO OUR LIVES, WE BECOME EMOTIONALLY INVESTED IN THE LESSON AND THE CONTENT, AND ARE MORE MOTIVATED TO ENGAGE. THIS ARTICLE EXPLORES WAYS TO INCREASE THE RELEVANCE OF YOUR ACTIVITIES TO, IN TURN, BOOST YOUR LEARNERS’ ENGAGEMENT DURING CLASS TIME.

For learning to be successful, learners need a personal connection to the material, and to perceive its usefulness in the real-world.  

‘Students need a personal connection to the material, whether it’s through engaging them emotionally or connecting the new information with previously acquired knowledge. Without that, students may not only disengage and quickly forget, but they may also lose the motivation to try’ (Willis, 2007). 

As teachers, therefore, our job is to help learners see the relevance in content they may not find inherently interesting. Here are some practical tips and activities to help make learning more relevant to your learners, and increase their engagement with the material and lessons:

Get to know your learners
Learners are more than just students — they’re people, with diverse personalities, interests, passions and ideas. Make a point of getting to know your learners as people. Find out about their interests, ambitions and beliefs. Write a welcome letter or email to each of your learners, asking them questions about themselves and their lives. Invite them to respond for homework, and continue the correspondence over the course of a few weeks to find out more about their interests.  

Hold regular discussions to find out what your learners think and believe about different topics. Encourage them to share their views and ideas in speaking tasks and virtual discussion environments. Try using Backchannelchat (backchannelchat.com), or host classroom debates in discussion platforms such as Kialo Edu (kialo-edu.com).

Invite learners to contribute their own materials to the course. If learners have read, listened to or watched something interesting outside of the classroom, encourage them to bring it to class and share it. Allow opportunities for learners to use online environments to source articles, podcasts and video content they feel is interesting and relevant to them. Encourage them to use sites like Padlet (padlet.com) or Bulb (bulbapp.com) to build up their own digital portfolio of content. Explore the language available in the material that learners bring to class, and use the content as a starting point for discussion.  

Tailor your lessons
Once you’ve got to know your learners as people, you can select content which is more relevant and interesting for them. But even in courses which are tied to a specific syllabus or coursebook, you can adapt material and create opportunities for learners to personalise the content to suit their own interests and contexts.  

Encourage learners to make connections between the material and their own lives. For example, ask them to draw or make notes about how the content relates to them personally. Use questions such as ‘what would you do in this situation?’, ‘how is this situation similar or different to your own experiences?’, or ‘what beliefs do you have that relate to this?’

Use open-ended tasks and projects, so that rather than being restricted in the written or spoken output they have to produce, learners have flexibility in how they respond to a task and what they create.

When practising target language, provide learners with sentence heads to complete in a way that is true for them. Ask what situations in their own lives they might use new language. Encourage them to practise new phrases and expressions as if talking to someone they know, such as a family member, their boss, or neighbour. Explore how language, intonation and register changes in different contexts, and support learners in identifying ways of saying things that are likely to be useful for them personally.

Give learners opportunities to plan and design lessons. Allow them to choose from a choice of topics or suggest new topics. ‘When students are involved in designing the lesson, they better understand the goal of the lesson and become more emotionally invested in and attached to the learning outcomes’ (Immordino-Yang, 2010). Ask learners to suggest situations in which they might need to speak English and choose what they want to learn. Identify useful language functions for the contexts that learners have suggested. Offer a choice of material and activities for learners to learn and practise the language, such as role plays, classroom games, or digital content such as articles, podcasts or videos.

Encourage learners to make connections between the material and their own lives.

Fotografía de Monika Kozub.

Make a point of getting to know your learners as people. Find out about their interests, ambitions and beliefs.

Show the value
Learners will feel that learning content is more relevant to them if the value, utility, purpose and meaning in a task are explicitly stated and explained. Help to foster learner engagement by being explicit about why you’ve chosen specific content.

Share the aim of a task on the whiteboard so that learners understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Elicit from learners how the task content relates to previously learned language or topics you’ve discussed in class. Use a whiteboard or a virtual whiteboard for learners to brainstorm language related to the topic. This will help them make connections to what they already know.

Make time for learners to reflect on activities and tasks and ask learners to describe how and why the language and topic may be useful for them personally in real-world situations. Encourage learners to keep a paper or digital portfolio of language that is especially useful for them, categorising or grouping phrases and expressions according to the different contexts in which they might use them. Give learners time to draw pictures or using a digital comic strip maker, such as Storyboardthat (storyboardthat.com), to create visual scenarios of themselves using the language.

By gaining a greater understanding of who our learners are as people, we maximise the chances of motivating and engaging them in the classroom. We can link lesson content to their interests, be flexible in how we respond in the classroom and adapt pre-prepared lesson plans to make the content more meaningful and relevant.  

REFERENCES

Immordino-Yang, M,H. (2010). The Role of Emotion and Skilled Intuition in Learning. Mind, Brain & Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom. Washington: Solution Tree.

Willis, J. (2007). Teachable Moments Build Relational Memories. Kappa Delta Pi Record 43.3.

Jade Blue, Cambridge University Press - The World of Better Learning blog. Jade is an English language teacher, trainer, researcher and materials developer. Her primary research interests focus on learner-generated visuals in ELT, learner autonomy, and integrating life skills into classroom practice. She works closely with the Language Research team at Cambridge University Press & Assessment, and regularly creates academic training content for major ELT publishers; and has authored a wide range of ELT articles, Teacher Guides and Research Guides, as well as writing frontmatter for several teacher’s books.

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