Making a difficult young learner group better

Why are some young learner classes successful and others a constant struggle?

Kevin Thomson

We have all seen teachers who can walk into the classroom and their pupils immediately pay attention and fall silent. However, I would say that this is not the case for the majority of young learner teachers who have to work hard to keep students interested and engaged in lessons. I would like to explore in this article some possible strategies which could be used when a teacher is faced with a challenging group of young learners.

My experience of working with YL groups is mainly in the setting of after-school English lessons in Barcelona, Spain. One interesting experience I had several years ago was to see a group "turn around" in terms of discipline problems in a fairly short period of time. I believe that there are some lessons to be learnt from this experience.


The pupils in the difficult group I want to talk about were very un-cooperative. I, as co-ordinator, spoke to several pupils about their behaviour and phoned some parents as well. None of this seemed to have much effect and the group continued to be problematic. After two months the teacher of this group left and a new teacher took over the group. The new teacher - let's call her Karen - managed to bring about a remarkable transformation which saw the class change from a very difficult group into a highly successful one which worked very well. How did Karen manage to bring about this radical change? Part of the answer lies in the strategies below.

Introducing a competitive element

Karen divided the class into teams of three. These teams would be given points throughout the lesson and one team would win at the end of every lesson. The teacher rewarded co-operative behaviour, use of classroom language ('Can I have a rubber, please?' etc), doing homework and good organisation as well as knowledge of English. Before Karen took over the class the previous teacher had found it difficult to start the lesson. The pupils often complained that they didn't understand the teacher's instructions. With the new team system, Karen said nothing but simply wrote on the board 'pupil's book page 28' and the first team with all their books open at the correct page received a point. Although activities such as exercises from the pupils' exercise books were also sometimes done on a point scoring basis, she was careful not to turn the points system into a simple contest of who was best at English. This competitive element proved very popular with the pupils and they reacted very well to it.

The previous teacher had not used the idea of turning many classroom activities into a game and a pattern had emerged whereby the teacher would give instructions and the pupils would not cooperate or pretend they didn't understand. Lessons with the previous teacher were characterised by constant conflict and struggle. Karen's introduction of a competitive element seemed to create a new dynamic where having fun playing games replaced 'having fun' creating conflict with the teacher.

Clarity of class rules

Karen introduced a system whereby I, as co-ordinator, would knock on the door and enter the classroom when there was five minutes of the lesson left. During the class Karen would write on the board the name of any pupil who had misbehaved and what they had done. For example, a typical entry might read 'Jordi - shouting" or 'Andrea - throwing a pencil'. I would then take the pupil whose name appeared on the board outside the classroom to speak to him/her. This system gave the pupils a very clear understanding of what the teacher regarded as unacceptable behaviour and the behavioural limits which the pupils should respect.

It was clear that the pupils did not like having their names written on the board throughout the lesson until the moment I knocked on the door. This approach had a very positive effect on the pupils' behaviour and within a few weeks there were fewer and fewer names on the board each day. I believe that the previous teacher did not make the class rules so clear and the pupils exploited this vagueness. For example, with the previous teacher I sometimes had to speak to pupils who had misbehaved because, in the words of the previous teacher, they 'had been disruptive' or 'were not cooperating'. Karen's policy of stating exactly what the pupils had done wrong was very helpful in establishing the limits for acceptable behaviour in her classroom.

Rewarding co-operation

Karen designed and gave out three certificates after every lesson. Certificates such as these are widely available free on the internet. An internet search for 'Free school certificates' will produce a great variety of certificates that you can print or adapt for your own pupils. Karen's certificates read 'Well done, you are getting better!', '................. is a wonderful student.' and 'Award for trying hard".

Again, these certificates did not only reward knowledge of English but also effort and co-operation with the teacher. They proved to be very popular with both the pupils and parents and, once again, had a very positive effect on the pupils' behaviour. The previous teacher had become much more focussed on punishing bad behaviour rather than rewarding good behaviour and this seemed to create a negative atmosphere in the classroom.

Karen worked hard over a period of about a month and the group changed from being a problem class into Karen's favourite group. One of the pupils who had displayed very challenging behaviour at the beginning of the school year became something of a star pupil in terms of his behaviour and progress. This particular pupil certainly liked Karen's approach a great deal.


Obviously there are many variables involved in determining how pupils react when a teacher is standing in front of a group of young learners. The teacher's body language, tone of voice and facial expression are all important. In my experience, some strategies seem to work with some groups but not with others. However, I believe that the key points in Karen's strategy can be applied successfully to a wide variety of young learner groups allowing teachers and pupils alike to enjoy and take advantage of the time they spend together a little more.


Submitted by Rania Jabr on Wed, 01/21/2009 - 07:42


Class contracts work best;, believe it or not. I spend time with them explaining what a contract is. Then we brainstorm what should go in it, explaining that the top half includes the part of the role of the students and the second part is the role of the teacher. Focus is on the fact that it is a two-way street. You would be amazed at what they come up with. We finalize the content and I make copies for all. We sign and date the contracts and I keep them with me for safe keeping. Believe me it works! Somehow young students feel all grown up and "responsible" for their own learning. As an aside, I also make use of this opportunity to teach a few vocabulary items along the way. Rania

Submitted by mo_bohacova on Tue, 02/24/2009 - 19:42


Our children's esl program uses 'The Star Store.'  Students earn stars marked on a chart.  We have 90 min. lessons divided by a short break so students have the opportunity to earn a star for the first and second half.  Each month we have 'Star Store' where the kids can buy small items with the stars they've earned.  Parents donate most of the items (note pads, colored pencils, key chains, toys from Happy Meals, etc.)

Submitted by Kevin Thomson on Tue, 03/10/2009 - 10:06


Dear Rania and Mo,

 Thank you for the comments.

 Student contracts seem like a very good idea and we use different types in the school where I work. I have seen whole class or individual contracts used and I agree that these normally have a very positive effect on students' behaviour.

 I really like "The Star Store" idea! Apart from the reward for cooperating with the teacher, getting parents to donate small prizes must help parents feel involved with what is going on in the classroom.

 Best wishes,

 Kevin Thomson

Submitted by shailey on Thu, 07/16/2009 - 06:56


Thanks for these valuable tips. Yes, we do come across such types of situations being a trainer. Coping with young Learners is sometimes fun and sometimes is a challenge. With these tips and strategies I believe teaching

would be more effective. 

Submitted by monsoon on Wed, 08/19/2009 - 13:51


These fascinating methods to regulate pupils enhances their competitive consciousness and improves their  interest in learning as well. Methods are summarized through experience and expressed by specific behavioural ways.

Submitted by Bruno Levy on Sun, 11/17/2013 - 23:03


Thanks for sharing these valuable tips. At the school where I work, the Merit-Demerit system is used to either punish or reward a student. It has worked well, but it is always good to integrate other things to innovate and make things more interesting.

Submitted by Becky Webb on Mon, 06/09/2014 - 22:09


I love these ideas, especially diving the class into 'teams' and rewarding them for simple things in the classroom and giving them another reason to complete homework. As a newly qualified teacher I think the most daunting thing is dealing with difficult students and still remaining professional. You've given me some great ideas to work with when the problems do start.

Submitted by cmigailo on Sun, 01/17/2016 - 08:18


Thank you Kevin...I teach to small YL classes but I have the problems you mention as well. I think competition and rewarding are always the best ways to get attention from my students. If only any subject teacher would adopt some of these tips in Italian primary and secondary schools, I think children and teens would be much more motivated. Happy new teaching year!

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