BELTA Day 2018: Boosting learners’ engagement

06/05/2018 - 22:51

Joyce Geyskens is a graduate of the Teacher Training program at Thomas More Mechelen. Presently, she is studying Journalism at KULeuven. As a previous BELTA Day delegate and volunteer, Joyce came back to BELTA Day 2018 to write an article about an English-speaking event. Here is her take on BELTA Day 2018. More reactions about BELTA Day 2018 are coming soon!

A beautiful sunny day in Brussels was the perfect backdrop for another enlightening BELTA Day. Under the motto of ‘Sharing is Caring’ no less than twenty speakers attended the conference and gave the attending delegates inspiration, information and tools to enhance their teaching.

Teachers often struggle with having to find learning materials and classroom activities that keep their learners engaged. Materials and activities have to be fun and exciting and at the same time students need to learn what you want them to learn. Often teachers are discouraged because they feel like they are not creative enough to come up with activities that are entertaining, effective and informative at the same time. Three speakers at BELTA Day gave inspiring talks and proved that you don’t have to be a creative genius to teach your students in an enjoyable and exciting classroom environment if you know which tools to use: poetry, films and games can all be used to create unique learning experiences.

A matter of communication

Reading a poem together, analysing the content, looking at the structure of the poem and discussing how the poem makes you feel. Been there, done that, right? Using poetry in the classroom is often seen as a boring, old-school way of teaching, but is it really? During his 40-minute talk Joost Swaenepoel convinced the jam-packed room of the communicative possibilities of poetry.

Reading poems by some of the greatest British poets, sounds great to an English teacher, but maybe not that great to an EFL-learner. Thus, the trick to introducing poetry in the classroom is to select relevant, creative and interesting poems that appeal to – often young – EFL-learners. Learners can relate more easily to themes such as global warming, school and food and will thus be more able to put themselves in the situation and feel the way the writer or character is feeling.

The use of relevant poetry in the classroom can improve learners’ speaking, spoken interaction and writing skills depending on which activity you introduce. For example, allowing pupils to recite, practise and act out the poem in groups allows them to become more confident and proficient speakers. On top of that learners get more speaking chances in smaller groups which increases their spoken interaction. Using a poetry carousel, in which the learner has to perform the same piece of poetry a few times in a short period of time gives the learner a chance to improve with each performance; seeing as the audience changes every few minutes, the learner can practise plenty of times without getting the feeling that the activity is too repetitive. Writing skills can also be improved by using poetry: asking learners to complete the poem with another stanza or asking them to come up with an alternative ending helps to provide them with creative writing opportunities.

Poetry in the classroom is, compared to many of the great British poets, not dead. It can be used in many different ways and allows the teacher to be creative. For those who aren’t bitten by the creativity-bug there is no need to panic. Joost Swaenepoel has created an excellent Dropbox folder with relevant, usable poetry and some suggestions on which poems are usable in poetry carrousels.

Link to Dropbox folder.

Windows to a different time, place or culture

Films are often seen as ‘the easy way out’: they babysit learners when the teacher did not prepare anything and wants the learners to be calm and quiet during class. Films are, however, far more useful in the classroom and their babysitting days are over.

Most teachers are aware of the beneficial impact that using films in the EFL-classroom has on learners’ receptive and productive language skills, but according to Ruzbeh Babaee the benefits of using films go a lot further, especially for raising cultural awareness. He believes films can be seen as the classroom’s windows to the outside world, seeing as they show learners what happens in different times, places and cultures.

Language courses are the ideal place to look at deep culture and to make learners more aware of trends, current topics and problems in society, such as environment, gender, race, immigration, health and family. Today’s language courses and textbooks, however, mainly focus on surface culture, such as stereotypical characteristics, food, typical holidays and festivals.

By using films, language teachers would be able to introduce certain topics into their classrooms, promote critical thinking and allow room for discussion, which is important seeing as learners often don’t have any other place to discuss certain topics. One hurdle to overcome is time: films usually last quite a long time and take up a lot of the lesson. Mr. Babaee, however, has thought of this. He sees a valid alternative in short films and in using film fragments of longer films to get learners to think about important topics in society. Some of his favourites are ‘Juno’, to talk about teenage pregnancy and ‘In a Heartbeat’, which centres around gay love and how it’s often frowned upon. One of my personal favourites is ‘Inside Out’, because it deals with sadness and depression in young people, which is often not discussed.

Authentic learning experiences without moving an inch

Every year hundreds of EFL-learners travel abroad to English-speaking countries to be surrounded by the language and to improve their language skills in an authentic environment. Traveling, however, is not cheap and consequentially, not everyone can enjoy this experience. Hani Malouf seems to have found a solution; during his talk, he suggests authentic learning experiences not in real life, but in the virtual town of Velawood, where English is the go-to language.

In Velawood language learners can experience the language, without having to travel far. By turning on the computer – inside or outside the classroom – learners are transported to a different world, with its own characters and storyline, where they learn a new language one step at a time. Learning, however, is not the same as playing a game. Learning needs to be effective and it has to fulfil the criteria listed in curricula. To do so, Velawood uses the same structure as traditional lessons – presentation, practice, production – and allows learners to practise as much as they want. Learners and their teachers are also able keep up with their progress.

Not everyone is keen on using this type of game in the classroom, which is understandable, but young people have grown up in a multimedia society. They are familiar with technology, such as smartphones and tablets and they often associate fun and happiness with making use of technological gadgets. They are passionate about games, films and online content and that type of passion is exactly what every teacher wants to spark in their learners when it comes to the English language. Therefore, introducing a dash of technology in the classroom might not be a bad thing.

To engage is to be inspired

Boosting learners’ engagement can be done in many ways. Using poetry, films and games in the classroom are only a few examples of how it can be done. In other BELTA-sessions circle activities, reading circles, reading portfolios and silent videos were the focal point. No matter which teaching style you prefer, engaging learners always starts with you being inspired…inspired to do better, inspired to relate to your learners and inspired by colleagues who share their experiences with you. So thank you to all the speakers at BELTA Day: thanks for sharing, thanks for caring!