Here’s how engaging lessons motivate English learners

To bring our English learners and all of our students up to proficiency, lessons need to engage and motivate students to do the hard work of practice


The children at my school, Manzanita Community School in Oakland, California, face the multiple challenges of poverty and learning English.

More than 75 percent of our students receive free or reduced lunch, and over half of the children are learning English as a second language. Our newest immigrants speak Karen (from Burma), Arabic (from Yemen and Jordan) and Nepalese. These and other unfamiliar languages present a challenge to our teaching staff.

I work with this diverse group of students during school and in a literacy and technology-based after school program called Expedition. One of our biggest challenges is how to engage students. Students who are very engaged when writing their own scripts or taking photos become listless and bored when they are faced with reading and math practice and homework. These often consist primarily of worksheets, such as 50 math addition problems on a single page.

This type of work has long been referred to in education as “drill and kill.” Unfortunately, it is all too common. I literally witnessed bright kids being turned off to school and to reading during homework time. English language learners were even more stymied by the worksheets, with many students hopelessly lost.

What if learning multiplication tables and grammar rules could be fun?

(Next page: Helping students learn English the fun way)


Luckily, a colleague introduced me to a program of online courses using songs, video, and games to engage students in a rigorous curriculum of reading and math lessons. The style of these lessons was very different from software and online-line courses I had seen before, and from the worksheets and homework students were used to.

Instead of text and multiple-choice problems, students learned through song-videos in a variety of musical styles.  Students then played interactive games, dragging and dropping to solve math problems and to sequence sounds, words and sentences. A spoken voice guided and helped students with remediation and encouragement throughout.

The style of the lessons matched what some students were used to in their home life of television, video games, and pop music. Each lesson is introduced with bright colors, characters of color, and music the kids love.  Practices incorporate racecars and other engaging games. Homework time became “drill and thrill” as students excitedly pursued their progress in math and English. Students were comfortable in this world, excited by the computers and the stimulating presentation, and most importantly were no longer bored doing the rigorous learning and practice they needed.

This school year I observed Faith, a bright-eyed second grader from Yemen, watch quietly as her classmates did their work. She came to Manzanita speaking not one word of English. While her teacher engaged the students in group work, writing, and active learning, Faith started completing the musical reading lessons working on a computer, beginning with the alphabet, phonics, and word decoding and sight words.

For several months she did not speak a word to anyone, yet smiled and listened when spoken to. Her teacher told me that without the online lessons, she would be lost every day. Faith now loves the computer, and has found Arabic translations at an online encyclopedia site. She is a very happy, eager student and now speaks English with abandon. The style of the online multimedia lessons created a welcoming, step-by-step pathway to fluency for her.

The lessons we are using to reach these students are part of the Learning Upgrade program of online courses, which recently I commented to a Kindergarten teacher that her class is getting into some advanced levels on the reading program, but I did not witness any frustration. She responded that they are being exposed to new vocabulary in the lessons, and that is helping them make learning gains.

These lessons have shown us that style and context matter for our struggling students. A successful curriculum is not just a collection of resources that happen to align to the standards. To bring our English learners and all of our students up to proficiency, lessons need to engage and motivate students to do the hard work of practice.

To have a tool like Learning Upgrade, self paced, and based on common core curriculum is one means to the goal of recognizing the unique qualities and skills of each child with differentiated instruction. After four years, I am convinced that lesson style really does matter.

Tamara Sturak is currently the Computer Instructor at Manzanita Community School in Oakland California.  She has taught computer technologies, human factors, and diversity studies in corporate, university, and K-12 settings.

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