Are your English classes boring? Do your students slump into class and do the bare minimum without ever showing excitement? Worried those repetitive worksheets aren’t helping your students improve?

It’s common for EFL/ESL practitioners to feel like their classes aren’t interesting. Especially new teachers, or those who have been taught to give lessons according to a certain formula.

And sometimes it seems like having fun, or providing excitement isn’t “real” teaching. Sure, you can play games with kids, but when it comes to “proper” learning, it’s time to knuckle down and get your heads in a textbook.

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Not true. Of course, goofing around and hoping students somehow learn English by osmosis won’t work, but there are several simple and effective methods and principles you can apply straight away to create powerfu and engaging learning that’s just as effective, if not more so, than traditional bookwork.

That’s what this article is all about. Whether you’re teaching big classrooms in primary schools or online classes with adults on the other side of the world, my aim is to help you fill those lessons with unforgettable learning.

I’ve been teaching English as a Foreign Language since 2015, during which time I’ve taught in a state primary school, a language academy and given countless dynamic private classes with students of all ages.

What makes an EFL/ESL class interesting?

The first thing that comes to mind when imagining an engaging and exciting English class is playing games, singing, dancing, laughing, all those good things. And they’re great, especially for children.

But this is a superficial perspective. Just doing those activities doesn’t mean students are actually learning, or really engaged in English. They’re interested in the activities, but not the content.

What really matters is the underlying relationship students have with the language.

I’ve made the mistake in the past of getting students to play a game in which they need to use English, but not motivating them in the right way to internalise the English itself. The students ended up finding as many shortcuts as possible to play the game without using English at all.

Our aim is to make students intrinsically motivated to learn English.

Intrinsic motivation, as described by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci in their work on Self-Determination Theory, is “activities done ‘for their own sake,’ or for their inherent interest and enjoyment.”

This contrasts with extrinsic motivation which comes in many forms, ranging from:

  • Fear of consequences of not doing the activity
  • The promise of rewards
  • Social gains (praise, attention, appreciation)
  • A sense of personal achievement

Realistically, it’s very difficult to get every single student motivated intrinsically, but let’s aim high.

As Ryan and Deci say, there are three key factors leading to intrinsic motivation.

  1. Autonomy
  2. Competence
  3. Relatedness

Autonomy is the student’s sense of control over their direction and learning: the choices they’re allowed and the extent to which they can express their own feelings and identity.

Competence refers to how students feel about their progress. If everything is too easy, they don’t feel forward momentum. If it’s too hard, it’s frustrating.

Relatedness is how connected students are to other people in their learning environment and how relevant their learning is to their lives.

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Making students sit down and do hard, boring worksheets about a topic they care little about, on their own in a competition against the rest of the class fails in all three factors.

  • Autonomy fails because they have no choice in the activity or the way in which they do it.
  • Competence fails because it’s too hard, and they may feel others are doing better.
  • Relatedness fails because they’re working against classmates and have no connection to the material.

Even games can be demotivating. If they’re games you do over and over again that students are tired of, they find really easy, or lead to arguments over the rules, you’re failing all three factors again.

  • Autonomy fails because students would rather play a different game.
  • Competence fails because they already know all the language required – it’s too easy.
  • Relatedness fails because they bicker with classmates.

So how do we ensure students get all three of these things? Well, let’s look at each in turn.

How to give EFL/ESL students autonomy

Giving students autonomy means handing over a little control. It means considering students’ wishes and needs, allowing them choices and direction in their own learning.

Let them choose some of the activities in class or at home. Allow them to complete activities in a way that suits them best, and ask them for feedback on things they liked and disliked about the lessons.

Now, if alarm bells are ringing in your head at the sound of gifting all the power to your big class of rowdy eight-year-olds who would turn your lessons into complete chaos given half a chance, then don’t worry. I’m not suggesting you completely hand over the reins.

You can’t sacrifice behaviour management. If you’re wary of losing control, take small steps and introduce things that don’t erode your authority. For example:

  • If you have two activities planned which don’t need to be sequential, give your students choice over which one they do first.
  • Allow students to personalise (within the bounds of reason and good taste) any of their own materials like exercise books.
  • Give students choices between different homework tasks, so those who like worksheets can do them, while those who would rather record a presentation can do that instead.

To have high autonomy, students need to feel they’re in control over their own behaviour. They’re doing the activity because they want to, not because you’re making them.

How to create Competence in your EFL/ESL class

The feeling of competence comes when students see their own progress. If things are too easy, they get bored because they’re not improving, while if it’s too hard, they don’t see how they can get better.

So, the first thing to get right is the difficulty level. Pitching work at the right level is helped by a strong Needs Analysis and good pre-assessment techniques.

A Needs Analysis is a process that helps you determine the strengths, weaknesses, preferences, goals and interests of your students. It sets the framework for planning lessons of a suitable challenge.

For more on how to do a Needs Analysis, read my article: Needs Analysis for Private EFL/ESL Lessons: 12 step guide.

At a smaller scale, pre-assessment tasks are great for figuring out how students handle specific language functions. Elicitation and activities that start easy and get harder are good ways of determining their level.

Once you’ve established where they are, you can take them to the next level up. They’re pushing into their “Zone of Proximal Development” – the sweet spot where they learn new things that aren’t too hard.

Image by Chuck Underwood from Pixabay

If you have a large class, students will have varying abilities. Differentiating activities is where you provide the same activity with two or three different difficulty levels. That means you can target students of different abilities within the same session.

Bonus tip: Once students complete the task which is appropriate for their level, challenge them to try the next one up, giving them autonomy to seek improvement, and potentially speed their learning along.

The second key aspect to creating a sense of competence is giving quality feedback.

In EFL/ESL, feedback is usually thought of as corrections to writing tasks, but it goes much further than that. It includes correcting and praising oral communication, marking exercises, and points/rewards in games for completing a task successfully.

The best kind of feedback is immediate and emotive. Think of video games where you pick up coins or stars and get a pleasing little jingle. That’s addictive.

Compare that to writing corrections handed back to a student two weeks after the assignment deadline. Your students don’t care anymore, if they can even remember.

Obviously we can’t make the classroom into a giant video game, but we can learn something from those feedback mechanisms.

Giving immediate supportive feedback when students succeed and gentle negative feedback when they fail allows students to feel their progress – they enjoy turning those negatives into positives. You can make sounds or use your hands (thumbs up, thumbs down), or even both.

When marking exercises, do it all together and create that kind of immediate feedback with some cheers and smiles, or sad faces and sounds.

How to make Relatedness a key part of your EFL/ESL classes

There are two aspects to relatedness in learning. The first is the state of the social environment, and the second is how the learned information fits into the students’ worldview.

First, social dynamics. Classes where students feel uncomfortable expressing themselves or have social tension inhibit intrinsic motivation. You can’t enjoy the experience of learning English if you’re socially stressed.

Social issues are tricky to resolve, and that’s not what this article is about, but here are a couple of key things to avoid causing problems:

  • Favour collaboration over competition. Working together brings people closer, competition pushes them apart and creates tension.
  • Encourage students to take risks without fear of mockery or social rejection when making mistakes. This is the number one cause of inhibition I see inclasses, especially with adults and teens. Never mock students, and shut down anyone who does.

The second aspect of relatedness is how the learned information fits in with students’ worldviews.

If students learn about things they can immediately see a use for, or find an interest in, they’re motivated to learn it. Students learning the details of the present continuous vs. present simple will struggle to get engaged unless it has a clear, direct application.

Arbitrary vocab lists and abstract exercises that seems to have no purpose beyond drilling some random language function do not create relatedness.

Learning practical English that immediately helps students engage with work, hobbies they enjoy, social media and culture is much more powerful.

Applying these principles to your classes

In the following sections, we’ll look at different activities in your classes and how you can adapt them to create intrinsic motivation.


  • Use collaboration instead of competition. Competition is okay every now and then, but frame it as friendly and don’t award prizes for the winning team.
  • Set games in a context that interests students. If it’s a game to write as many words as possible in a category, and your students enjoy a certain sport, let’s say swimming, treat the game like they’re doing that sport, and the more words they get, the faster they go in the swimming race.
  • Don’t repeat games too often, and use variations suited for your students’ abilities.
  • If you’re using general games at the end of class, let your students choose what game to play. They may even suggest a game they’ve learned elsewhere.

If you’re looking for game inspiration, I’ve got lots of articles on this website with games for different levels: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced, as well as no-prep games and vocab games.

Grammar exercises, worksheets, textbook questions and listening tasks.

  • Make sure students are aware of the purpose of doing these tasks. You can even get them to suggest why they might be useful. If nobody (including you) has a good answer… why are you doing them?
  • Differentiate where possible if you have a larger group. This doesn’t always mean preparing separate sets of questions, but it might mean setting some students questions at the start of the exercise which are easier, while more advanced students can skip to the later ones.
  • If you can, use examples and questions that relate to students’ interests and goals rather than the usual generic language you get in textbooks.
  • Give immediate and emotive feedback so students can experience their progress. This might mean doing one question at a time, or creating a fun way of marking together.
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Reading and writing tasks

  • Let students pick what they read and write about, as long as it allows them to practice the target language functions.
  • Try to avoid boring, generic reading comprehension questions and have students think critically, perhaps discussing in groups or pairs.
  • Give feedback on writing tasks as quickly as possible.

For more on how to assess EFL/ESL writing, read my article: Best Method for Correcting EFL/ESL Writing: 9 Step Guide.

Speaking activities

  • Create a supportive environment where students are encouraged to take risks, free from mockery or punishment.
  • Avoid forcing students to repeat exact sentences again and again. Drilling is important, but after a while students get frustrated when they can’t express themselves.
  • Provide helpful feedback, ideally non-verbal, while students are speaking, but don’t overwhelm them by correcting every mistake. Aim for a maximum of one correction per sentence.

Activities and techniques to create interest

Beyond modifying your current lessons to make students more interested in your classes, there are some activities and techniques you can introduce.

Role play

When allowed to be spontaneous and creative, students love getting into role=play situations. They have autonomy to take scenarios wherever they want, feel competent at trying new language and get relatedness from fun interactions with classmates and playing through real-life, relevant situations.

I love role plays, and my students do too.

To find out more about why role plays are great, read my article: Why All EFL/ESL Teachers Should Use Role Play Activities.

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Collaborative beat-the-clock or high-score games

A great way to create a healthy team ethic and get students experiencing their progression is to do very short activities once every session and try to get students to beat their scores.

For example, the Alphabet Race game. In it, students say letters of the alphabet, one at a time, as quickly as possible. You record the time taken. The next time you play it, they can try to beat their own time.


While we’ve been aiming for intrinsic motivation, sometimes you can tap into a little extrinsic motivation to get students to do things that they’ll never find interesting, like drilling vocab or irregular verbs.

Gamification is using game-elements in the classroom, for example scoring points.

The best way to do this is with a class points score which everyone contributes to, and which doesn’t have tangible rewards at the end. You get a scorecard and fill it up with points, so students can visibly see their progress over time.

Gamification has to be handled carefully or it can backfire. For a detailed guide, check out my post: Gamification in EFL/ESL: Guide to motivating students.

Group writing tasks

So often writing assignments are a lonely affair with feedback so removed from the act of writing, it loses all meaning and relevance.

Instead, you can get your students to write things together. Choose one student to lead the writing. They write a sentence, then turn to their classmates (do it in groups if you have a large class) for feedback and improvements. They take those suggestions and improve the sentence.

You can also help in this process, giving quick and immediate feedback. Students work together and, if you give them space to write freely, they can express themselves and direct their own learning.

Conclusion: Bring the interest and energy

In this article, we’ve covered principles and practical steps to making your classes more interesting and motivating. You have the tools to go ahead and engage your students.

But there’s one final ingredient that may be more important than any of the things we’ve mentioned so far. That ingredient is you.

As a teacher, you set the tone for the class. Your actions, your body language, and your way of speaking affects students, whether they know it or not.

If you don’t bring excitement and interest and come to every class expecting it to be boring, your students will follow suit.

In contrast, if you’re passionate, engaged and committed (no, you don’t have to dance and sing with glee all the time) with a clear determination to make your classes the best they can possibly be, your students will see this and get on board.

That’s how you get students engaged, and that’s how you make powerful, enjoyable learning a reality.

If you’re looking for more games and activities, check out my other lists:
9 EFL/ESL Speaking Games & Activities Perfect for Beginners
9 EFL/ESL Games & Activities for Intermediate Learners
9 EFL/ESL Games and Activities for Advanced Learners
9 High Energy EFL/ESL Games for Boosting Vocabulary
9 Engaging Homework Ideas for EFL/ESL: No worksheets!
9 Exciting EFL/ESL Activities for Writing & Spelling
9 Fun EFL/ESL Games & Ideas With Standard Playing Cards
9 EFL/ESL Games With No Materials or Preparation Needed
9 EFL/ESL 5 Minute Games Every Teacher Needs to Know
9 Superb EFL/ESL Games & Activities Using Just Pen & Paper
9 Classy EFL/ESL Games & Activities for Adults (+ tips)
9 Confidence-Boosting EFL/ESL Speaking Games for All Levels
9 Exciting Flashcard Games for EFL/ESL Classes

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