Level it up – how to add challenge to your lessons

I believe it’s fair to say that one of the most important elements that contribute to the success of a lesson is certainly the amount of challenge learners are posed with. And when we think about challenge in a broad sense, we should certainly take into account the sources of language learners will be exposed to, what the target language to be worked with is, how student-centered the lesson has been designed to be, what we expect learners to produce, and motivated and engaged they are in the lesson.

When looking at Krashen’s Input Hypothesis (1977) for language acquisition, he stated that it’s important learners be exposed to language that is just above their level (i+1). This very piece of information can be extremely helpful when selecting the texts (spoken or written) to be used in the lesson, as exposing learners to language that is all familiar to them would not pose any challenge at all, and language that is too complex for them may lead to demotivation and frustration.

With regard to motivation, Dornyei (1988) comes to say that, “(…) high motivation can make up for considerable deficiencies both in one’s language aptitude and learning conditions”. Challenging lessons most likely contribute to keeping learners motivated to learn a foreign language, whereas lack of challenge can easily bore learners and jeopardize their learning experience.

Some of the types of activities that can promote challenge and keep learners cognitively engaged in the lesson include the use of critical thinking skills. Developing students’ critical thinking is of paramount importance when we look at 21st century learning and how we, as educators, should prepare learners for the job market. Some examples of how to develop critical thinking (and I borrow these ideas from Lindsay Clandfield) are listed below:

–          when asking learners to describe a picture, you may want to ask them to look at the same image from different points of view (e.g. a picture of a bustling city from the perspective of someone late for work, someone who has just moved to the city from the countryside, a street vendor etc);

–          helping learners develop language awareness by analyzing, for instance, a text in the active voice and how the perspective changes when it’s written in the passive voice;

–          having a list of words and proposing an odd-word-out activity in which learners come up with the criteria to eliminate one of the words.

Another interesting activity I have tried and that has been quite effective involved showing learners a video containing news reports with no sound, asking them to tell a peer what they had seen in the video, and then playing it with the sound on for them to compare their lexical choices they had made and the narrator’s.

All in all, the best way for you to promote challenge to your learners is knowing how much they can cope with in the first place, and then making sure all of them have active roles throughout the lesson.




Catarina Pontes

Catarina Pontes is a senior consultant for Troika. She is an ICELT main course tutor, and Cambridge Assessment English Team Leader . A DELTA holder, and currently doing her MA with NILE, she is also a conference speaker and has published articles on ELT and EFL. She is the co-author of "Getting into Teacher Education - a Handbook", and is currently the coordinator of IATEFL's Pron SIG.

  • Renato degasperi
    Posted at 08:37h, 30 junho Responder

    Hello, Catarina
    I confess this is one of my difficulties. Something I’ve noticed recently is the more they have to think , create something etc, the more they enjoy the lesson. They really love being challenged.

    • Catarina Pontes
      Catarina Pontes
      Posted at 08:36h, 02 julho Responder

      Thanks for your comment, Renato!
      I absolutely agree with you – learners love being challenged!

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