I’ve recently been reflecting on the idea of fun and serious being learning preferences. It was prompted by watching a recording of a webinar on the covert syllabus, delivered by Jill Hadfield (available to IATEFL members on the webinar page). This took me back to my teaching a few years back, when if a class wasn’t going as well as I liked my automatic solution would be to make it more fun. I’d often look for new games, or ways to make the class fun. I’d start with a new warmer, quite often a competitive activity recycling previously learnt vocabulary. ‘Fun’ and ‘recycling’ are still buzzwords in ELT. I was definitely doing the right thing.
However, for a couple of classes this didn’t always work. But where was I going wrong? I couldn’t see why some learners were less engaged. Probably they just didn’t like learning English. If only they had more intrinsic motivation everything would be fine. One particular teenage class seemed to be a case of hit and miss. Sometimes I managed to really engage them. I particularly remember a couple of classes which I left feeling I’d done a great job. One was based around telling an anecdote about my life and the other was about the US elections. The ‘problematic’ students weren’t problematic. Other lessons had a variety of dynamics and teachers’ room favourites: running dictations, find someone whos, competitive games, etc. These lessons didn’t seem to work as well. It’s clear to me now; students don’t always want fun, serious can work better.
So why is that? I’ve developed in teaching environments where fun is lauded. It’s a kids class, make it fun. Exams, have something fun before you get into the serious stuff. These are things I’ve heard and seen in action, as well as doing myself. I mentioned running dictations as one of those fun activities, and tried to think why we do them instead of similar alternatives, such as dictogloss. I learnt on my initial training course that running dictations are a fun way of practising all four skills without ever questioning it. Now I think ‘what type of speaking/listening/reading/writing are we actually doing?’ Not an authentic one as far as I can see anyway. Whereas dictogloss requires learners to be much more engaged in the language. However, I can’t remember a single occasion someone in a school I worked in actually said this. But think about it, how often do you see running dictations in published materials?
So my advice: keep the fun but make sure it really adds value to the lesson. Make sure there’s a bit of serious too. Try getting opinions on a current topic as well as fun recycling game every now and again. What serious activities do you do to engage your learners?