3 Smart (and Easy) Strategies to Increase Student Engagement

Have you ever wondered if your class is boring?

Recently, I’ve been wondering that a lot.

In the summer, I became a master’s university student. Since then, I’ve realized sitting in class listening to a lecture for an hour or two sucks the life force out of me and leaves me desperate for a glass of moscato.

All the facts from the day’s lecture, by the time I get home, are left scattered like trash on the city streets I walked, while rubbing my tired head, back to my apartment from university. In fact, I realized, this is exactly how I feel after PD.

It’s not that I don’t love learning.

I do love learning.

But my attention span is limited.

A wise colleague said to me, “The attention span in minutes of your students is their age. Their age is 15 years old? That’s their attention span.”

Now I say, “Amen.”


We all know how our students feel, sitting in the classroom listening for far too long.

Here’s what I’ve been doing since I started university to make my class more interesting. These are the techniques that are seeing good results in terms of both engagement and student learning:


 In the past, I would spend most of my 50 minute class talking. In my head, the reasons for doing so went something like this:

“I need to teach these kids as much as I can.” “I need to use as much class time as I can for learning.”“These kids need to hear proper English because they aren’t hearing it at home.”

While well-intentioned, I was wrong.

Yes, students need to hear my advice and new information, but then immediately after that, they must practice or apply what they have heard.

Without application, the knowledge heard could be useless.

I once attended a great PD filled with exciting ideas. The man leading it wore a funky tie and showed us how he walked around his classroom on his hands and knees. He was so funny! I was inspired!

And then I went back to school. I  faced a mound of essays to mark. I needed to reply to  a few emails. After that, I coached. By the time I went home that night, I had no time to practice the PD ideas.

I couldn’t even remember them!

Can you relate?

To prevent the “PD effect” from affecting your students, give them ample time to apply what they’ve just learned from you in class immediately.

Now I set a timer. I have 15 minutes to speak.

After that, it’s time for students to apply knowledge.

“Being a student is easy. Learning requires actual work.”
— William Crawford


In the past, I delivered my lesson in “I do” (I model the skill), “we do” (work through a model together), and “you do” (now you do it yourself) segments. While there’s plenty of research to say direct instruction of new skills is effective, the “you do” and “we do” sections can be boring.

Now, to make the individual and whole-class practice more exciting, I’ve made it a game. It’s as simple as putting up the practice on the board (e.g. We practiced with make sentences more concise; I put five wordy sentences on the board; the students were asked to apply the techniques they learned to cut them down) and turning on the music.

I play Jeopardy theme song music or the final countdown music on repeat while my students work through the problems in pairs or in groups. The first students to come to my desk and show me the correct answer are the winners of English Jeopardy, and I give them a lollipop each.

I was surprised at how such little changes: a few lollipops, some Jeopardy music, and the same old questions could get my students up and frantic to finish their practice correctly.

For practice alone, however, I still require students to do homework to ensure they have mastered the skill on their own.


For many of us, the best learning takes place in conversation or debate with friends, neighbours, and coworkers.

Why isn’t school more like a conversation?

To encourage more discussion and debate in your English class, try any of the following:

Accountable side-talk: After presenting a new concept, have students turn to their seat neighbour and discuss an aspect of the idea. Keep them accountable for discussion by calling on students randomly to “share the results of your group discussion” so the onus is not solely on them if they fail to answer correctly. The discussion points allow students to rest from your voice.

Put your hands up if you agree…: “When someone has just shared his or her answer, ask the class to put up their hands if they agree with the answer. If there is a divided classroom, spark a debate by asking one of the students who kept his or her hand down why he or she disagreed.

Stand up if…: When presenting a new concept or working through a problem, get students to vote by standing. Ask for volunteers among standing students to defend their position. Next, get the other students to form a rebuttal.

Sticky Notes: After your lesson, have students write a few sentences to summarize what they learned and write a question anonymously. Have them put the sticky note on the whiteboard at the front of the class before they leave. Choose the best questions to start a discussion or debate the next day.

Which writing is better?: When teaching a new writing skill, such as providing detail, begin with a debate. In this example, you would  write two short pieces on the same topic on your PowerPoint,  one with plenty of detail, and the other one lacking detail. Ask for volunteers to read the two samples of writing and then give them time to consider on their own which one is better, and why. Then, spark a debate.

Controversial (But Good) Writing: When teaching writing to teenagers, it pays to be controversial and spark debate. For example, when teaching narratives, we read Malcolm X’s narrative essay, “My First Conk,” in which he describes how he tried to remake himself into a more Caucasian-looking black man. The reading sparks emotions and debate in the class, and it hooks them into personal narrative writing.

In case you were wondering, these techniques are backed by research: check out the information about direct instruction, competition, and class discussion (with more techniques/ideas) by clicking the hyperlinks.

Here’s to a great week in your highly-engaging English class!

To your success and work-life balance,

Patricia Sacawa