7 Ways to Boost Energy & Connect with Students from Ken Wilson

Day 1 of IATEFL, Manchester — Ken Wilson didn’t accept our “Good morning” since it was, admittedly, devoid of energy. We sounded a bit like a car trying to start so he kept at us until we sounded sufficiently alive. It was a welcome change from the typical presenters who just get up and induce an audience-wide coma within moments — and a perfect example of how to connect with students.

His absurdly long list of publications is all the more impressive when you realize he is a closet comedian and exceptional story-teller. His impersonations literally had laughter rolling out of us.  Should you ever be so lucky as to see him speak, don’t walk over.  Rush. If you’re lucky, he’ll tell a story and do an accent.

During his session today, he offered 7 free things that English teachers can do to grab their students’ attention, make lesson content more meaningful, and just generally ensure that everyone is enjoying themselves.

Here are the sound-bytes from his session and practical strategies you can implement today.

Why These “Connection” Techniques Matter:

  • In our screen-rich, device-ridden lives, students nowadays are connection-starved.
  • Now more than ever, you as an English teacher need to make sure your students are actually paying attention at the beginning of class.

The Seven Strategies:

– 1 – Develop voices (yours and your students).
As an English teacher, you should speak from your “stomach voice” — deep in your belly (which is different from shouting) so that everyone can hear you. AND guide students to make sounds loud enough that extra oxygen is physically pulled into your students’ sleepy bodies. Do his quick warmer technique (called “Sound of the Day”) where you choose any sound (Ken chose “urrrr”) and get the whole class of students to add different emotions to that sound. “Say it like you’re happy!” and we all “urrrr-ed” in happiness. “Say it like you’re bored!” and we all “urrr-ed” flatly. “Say it like your surprised!” and we “urrr-ed” with wonder.

– 2 – Talk about yourself.
Find a way to connect personally to topics as they come up in the text books or lesson materials. “If you’ve been to Bilbao, and the text book listening is about some museum in Bilbao, talk about your trip!” Ken encouraged.

– 3 – Switch on your phone.
Find something amusing to share. Get students to share random photos (“Find a picture of an animal on your phone! Tell your partner the story — what was happening?”). Ken himself has a curious habit of taking selfies of half of his own face, where the viewer peers over his shoulder and sees some kind of weird scene that he has captured in his daily adventures. When he asked us to talk with a partner about what we think had been happening in that image, it was undeniable that these kinds of photos can open curiosity loops that would hold most (if not all) of your students’ attention.

– 4 – Find out what your students know.

Get them to connect with the course material.

Ken has an ingenious tip for getting students to connect with those irrelevant ELT text books — not the ones he writes of course, the other ones ;-)

We have to stop using celebrities in ELT material. If you see a book with a celebrity, don’t buy it!Ken Wilson
When using a new text book…

  1. Before class, write up a list of the themes and topics that are presented in the table of contents / “book map” at the front of the book. Do this on a powerpoint slide or just write it out on the board. You’ll probably have 8-10 topics (like one for each reading passage in a chapter).
  2. In class, show students this list. (Example: Hollywood // volcanoes // Formula 1 Racing // Bethany Hamilton // etc. etc.)
  3. Ask them, “Do you know anything about any of these topics?”
  4. Make students write out 1 fact that is likely true for any of the topics on the list.
  5. Students share with a partner what they know.
  6. Do a group share: “What did your partner tell you?” Get students to respond. Now they’ve admitted they’re connected in some way. Don’t correct anyone at this stage.
  7. Hand out post-it notes en mass. Get students to sticky-note the relevant units that have something to do with a fact that they know.
  8. Later when you reach that unit as a class, ask the students, “Do you remember what we said that one day?” This will activate their memory and renew their connection quite quickly — so that they have a lower affective barrier.

– 5 – Teach unplugged. 

Unplugged teaching is also known as “dogme” which was coined by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings. It’s basically a super flexible, materials-light, conversation-driven style of teaching that focuses on “emergent language” which comes up naturally during the course of the lesson.

The spontaneity and potential for playfulness with this hooks students’ attention. Ken says, “ABANDON THE PLAN! FOLLOW THE TRAIL! SEE WHAT HAPPENS!”

– 6 –  Do something unexpected.
Ken was running out of time so he skipped over this. Was that expected or unexpected? Not sure either way but… To be continued…

– 7 –  Be memorable — in the best way.

There are three types of teachers: teachers who you remember because they inspire you, teachers who frighten you and teachers you don’t remember.  Be the first type.