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The trifecta of learner engagement


Every teacher knows that learner engagement is paramount to any learning experience. Without engaged students, all one can hope for is a well structured lecture to a sea of inattentive ears and utterly passive students. In this article, we will explore what I call the trifecta of learner engagement: context, goals and retrials. These are theoretically sound pillars which provide clear practical routes towards more engaged learners and, thus, more successful learning experiences.

  1. Contex
    Language is context dependent. Murcia (2000) says that “we construct and maintain our positions within various social contexts by employing appropriate language forms and performing speech activities to ensure solidarity, harmony, and cooperation – or to express disagreement or displeasure, when called for”. All language we encounter is affected by the context that surrounds it. What I mean by context dependent is: if you change the context, the language one uses has to be adapted accordingly.
    Look at it from this angle; Imagine you are to report an accident to a police officer at a police station because you want to convince the policeman that the other driver (always the other driver, right?) is the one responsible for the accident. Think about what kind of language you would use. What expressions, fixed phrases, words, grammar structures come to mind? What is the register? Now, let’s change the context? Imagine you are reporting the same accident to your best friend sitting on a bar stool while sipping on your favorite drink and you want to tell him how lousy a driver the other (again, eh?) driver is. If one is to re-do the exercise of thinking about the language that will be used in this interaction, it will be clear that most of it has to be changed, and, at times, dramatically, right?
    It makes sense, then, to ensure the language we work on in class is embedded in a firm and specific context. But what is context? Looking back on the first example in the previous paragraph, we talked about “reporting a crime to a police officer at a police station to convince him that the other driver was to blame for the accident.” In this view of context we get people (the driver and the police officer) in a place (the police station) communicating with a purpose (to convince the officer of your side of the story). I believe that the acronym PPP might come in handy when thinking about a firm context to teach new language – or new uses for previously taught language.
  2. Goals
    Whenever talking about goals, a specific scene from Alice in the wonderland comes to mind. Remember when Alice was lost in the woods and found the cat? Paraphrasing their conversation Alice asks which way she should go. To which the cat replies something on the lines of ‘Where would you like to go?’, Alice says she doesn’t know and, well, the cat says that any direction would do, then. Having a clear goal in mind and, in my opinion, a clear communicative goal, is of utmost importance if a teacher aims at being effective in class. However, designing a lesson goal, or aim, might not be as intuitive as it seems. Let’s look at some examples:
    a. By the end of the lesson I will have taught the present simple.
    b. By the end of the lesson students will have learned the present simple.
    c. By the end of the lesson students will be better able to talk about routines.
    d. By the end of the lesson students will be better able to schedule a movie night with their friends.
    See how the aims progress from a teacher-centered, structure based aim to a learner-centered, communicatively focused aim? In ‘a’ the aim is entirely centered around what the teacher will do in the lesson and on a grammar structure. How engaging would it be for a student to know that that is the lesson’s aim? What about in ‘d’? This aim focuses on what the students will be better able to do, taking into account their previous knowledge, with the language. Being able to schedule a movie night with your friends is a real-life skill focused on a communicative use of the language. It’s looking at language more from a performance perspective instead of a knowledge perspective. It’s not what you know about the language you are studying, but rather what you can do with this language. Brown (2012) posits that “communicative goals are best achieved by giving due attention to language use and not just usage, to fluency and not just accuracy, to authentic language and contexts, and to students’ eventual need to apply classroom learning to heretofore unrehearsed contexts in the real world.” According to Nunan (2010) some linguists go as far as saying that explicit focus on form is unnecessary and that the ability to use language would develop automatically if students engage in meaningful tasks. It is also worth noting that sharing the aim of the lesson with students is very important and pivotal towards learner motivation. If students know the aim of the lesson, the lesson steps and activities will clearly form a scaffold towards achieving the lesson’s main aim.
  3. Retrials
    Allowing students a second chance is not only human but pedagogically effective as well. Feedback is of little use if given only at the end of the lesson and without allowing students to give the task another go. The aim is getting students to reflect on their previous performance at a task, giving them specific feedback on how to perform the task better and allowing them another shot at it. Ur (2012) writes that “in order.

To progress, students need to know what they are doing right or well, what they are doing wrong or not so well, and how they can improve.” Learners can record themselves while performing the task so that they can listen/watch and compare their progress from one attempt to another and, by seeing their progress from the first to the second try, feel intrinsically motivated to take part in similar classroom activities. In my experience, learners have seldom complained about re-doing the same task twice, mainly because there is a clear pedagogical reason for doing so. This task cycle can be highly effective to motivate learners as it will clearly show them their progress and because it adapts in real-time to learners’ needs. The feedback given by the teacher on student performance is personalized and unique, making every student feel heard and catered for. This is only possible if the teacher and the students value risk taking in class, Brown (2012) writes that “successful language learners, in their realistic appraisal of themselves as vulnerable beings yet capable of accomplishing tasks, must be willing to become ‘gamblers’ in the game of language, to attempt to produce and to interpret language that is a bit beyond their absolute certainty.”


The aim of this article was to share with you, teacher, three pillars that are, in my opinion, essential to students’ engagement and motivation. It is, by no means, an air- tight strategy, though. These are, however, key elements that have proven to be effective with my learners, in my particular context. I believe that contextualized lessons which have a clear communicative aim and allow students to try again till they have produced at their own peak performance levels are likely to motivate learners and foster student engagement in your classes. After all, who doesn’t appreciate a teacher who values attempts and believes in learners’ potential of development?


David Nunan (2010) Task-Based Language Teaching
Jack C. Richards and Willy A. Renandya (2012) Methodology in Language Teaching
Marianne Celce-Murcia and Elite Olshtain (2000) Discourse and Context in Language Teaching
Penny Ur (2012) A Course in English Language Teaching

About author

In ELT with vast experience teaching primary and secondary learners, adults, and teachers across all proficiency levels. Multi-skilled professional who works as teacher, trainer, speaker, author and editor of teaching materials, and course designer. Educational consultant at Troika, Vice-president of BRAZ-TESOL São Paulo and member of the BRAZ-TESOL national advisory board. I firmly believe in the power of teacher education and how its cascade effect can positively impact thousands of students.
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