Teacher Strategies to Gain and Sustain Student Attention

Master's Thesis 2011 33 Pages

Pedagogy - The Teacher, Educational Leadership



1. Introduction

2. Context

3. Theoretical Framework
3.1 Strategies to gain students’ attention at the beginning of the lesson.
3.2 Strategies to maintain students’ attention.

4. Focus of the observation.

5. Methodology.

6. Analysis and discussion.

7. Conclusions.

8. References.

9. Annexes.
9.1 Transcript 1.
9.2. Transcript 2.


The strategies to gain and sustain student attention have been studied by many experts, convinced that without the involvement of the students the teaching cannon be effective.

The objective of this small-scale research is to explore the task implemented in a language school for adults in order to understand what strategies adopted by the teacher contribute to students’ involvement.

The analysis of the data obtained from the video recording, complemented by the feedback from the students and other teachers shows that the observed teacher uses successfully many different strategies to gain and maintain students’ attention, such as setting a positive mental set, employing clarity, encouragingness and using attention- getters.

Key words: gain student attention, sustain student involvement, positive mental set, encouragingness, group focus, activity flow, effective monitoring


Les estratègies per a guanyar i mantenir l’atenció dels estudiants han estat estudiades per molts experts, convençuts que l’ensenyament no pot ser efectiu sense la implicació dels estudiants

L’objectiu d’aquesta investigació a petita escala és analitzar la tasca implementada a una escola d’idiomes per tal d’entendre quines estratègies adoptades pel professor contribueixen al desenvolupament del alumne.

L’anàlisi de les dades obtingudes de les gravacions de vídeo, complementades per l’opinió dels estudiants i d’altres professors, mostra que el professor observat empra

amb èxit moltes estratègies diferents per tal de guanyar i mantenir l’atenció dels estudiants, com ara crear una disposició mental positiva, comunicar amb llenguatge clar i instruccions precises, fer servir estratègies encoratjadores i tècniques per a captat l’atenció.

Paraules clau: guanyar l’atenció dels estudiants, mantenir la participació dels estudiants, disposició mental positiva, encoratjament, fixar l’objectiu en el grup, flux d’activitat, control efectiu.

Sobre la autora

Soy tutora y profesora de inglés, español y polaco como lenguas extranjeras. He

estudiado la filología hispánica en la Universidad de Varsovia (Polonia) y Master en Formación de Profesorado en la Universidad Autónoma de Bellaterra (España). Me apasionan diferentes culturas y lenguas. Disfruto diseñando actividades que motiven a mis alumnos y experimentando con diferentes estrategias de enseñanza de lenguas extranjeras.


This paper is a small scale research on the teaching and learning of English as a foreign language focused on teacher-led interaction. It aims to highlight the most important findings on verbal and non-verbal strategies to gain and maintain student attention during the instruction. Due to the complexity of the chosen subject, I have decided not to analyze classroom interaction patterns and teacher’s questions.

As far as I am concerned the topic is very relevant because eliciting and sustaining

student involvement is essential to guarantee effective teaching. Moreover, I chose this topic because during my practicum I observed that some teachers failed to sustain student engagement while others had an outstanding facility to keep the class attentive. Furthermore, during my internship I sometimes failed to keep the attention of the whole class. Thus, I hope that this research will help me understand how I can maintain student involvement and prevent the class from going off-task. For that reason I find this research project very useful for my future professional improvement.

This Master Dissertation is based on the work carried out during my internship in EOI (Official Language School) in Santa Barbara. In order to elaborate it I analysed two fragment of a recording of one of the tasks I implemented at the beginning of my internship. Moreover, this analysis is supported by the corresponding specialist literature related to the topic.

The paper is organized in six sections: objective of the paper and the context, theoretical framework, focus of the observation, methodological framework, analysis and interpretation of the transcripts and conclusions.


EOI Santa Barbara is a language school for adults and teenagers over 15 years old. The video vignette analysed for the empirical study was recorded in an English language lesson with a level 4 group of 25 students (18-40 years old).

This is the first time the student-teacher teaches in this group.

The activity carried out is a guessing game which lets the students discover some information about the teacher-trainee. It is implemented at the beginning of the lesson, just after commenting homework by the other teacher. It is a teacher-fronted activity in which the students have to ask questions to understand the information underlying the words and numbers written on the board. These words and numbers are answers to concrete questions, and the role of the students is to formulate the right question for each answer.


As I have mentioned before, this small scale research aims to summarise the most important findings regarding both verbal and paralinguistic strategies to gain and sustain student attention. It is organized in two sections: the first one focuses on the beginning of the lesson; and the other one, on the body of the lesson.


According to Burden (2003), a successful lesson beginning can greatly contribute to a meaningful learning experience for students” (p. 166). For that reason, first we are going to focus on that part of the lesson.

Here below are three basic rules to secure students’ attention and reduce destructions at the beginning of the lesson (Jones & Jones, 2001, as described in Burden, 2003)

- Select a “cue” for getting students’ attention.

There ought to be a constant explicit signal that tells the students that the lesson is beginning. The kind of cue depends on the preferences of each teacher. This could be a verbal cue, for example a phrase: “Pay attention now”(Kyriacou, 1998) or else a non verbal signal, for instance ringing a bell or chimes, raising a hand or just standing silent in a certain location (Burden, 2003). After giving a signal it is recommendable to pause briefly to take effect.

- Do not begin until all students are paying attention.

It is very important to make sure that everybody is paying attention to the teacher before starting the lesson. If the teacher starts the class when some students are not listening to him, others are likely to do the same. Moreover, he or she gives a poor role model since “it indicates that it is all right to talk while others are talking” (Burden, 2003, p.168) Also, beginning the lesson without having full attention of all the pupils leads to repeating the same instructions and thus wasting time.

- Remove distractions:

Some students are very easily distracted by any stimuli. For that reason, before actually starting the lesson the teacher should eliminate these possible distractions by closing the door, making students remove unnecessary materials from the tops of their desks or adjusting the blinds. According to Burden (2003), in order to avoid distractions at the beginning of the lesson it is also recommendable to keep the students busy since the very beginning, even while the attendance is taken. It can an opening activity with instructions posted on the board.

Another famous researcher, Chris Kyriacou (1998), emphasises the importance of punctuality and establishing “a positive mental set” in order to ensure student attention at the opening of the lesson.

- Punctuality.

In order to start lessons punctually the teacher should come to class first, have enough time to get everything ready and greet students as they arrive. Ideally, students get to class on time as well. Unfortunately, sometimes tardiness is unavoidable. However, the teacher can use some strategies to reduce the number of latecomers and encourage students to be punctual. In order to reduce lateness is to establish clear rules and consequences related to this problem. These rules should be developed and accepted by the teacher and the pupils.

- A positive mental set.

This could be achieved by adequate verbal and non-verbal communication. The teacher should stand centre-stage, at the front of the room, speak clearly, keep an eye contact and scan the room (Kyriacou, 1998). Moreover, he or she must appear relaxed, self assured and confident in order to establish his authority and thus, exercise managerial control. It is also important to check if everybody is prepared for the start of the lesson. According to Kyriacou (1998), sometimes the teacher can start the lesson without waiting for the students to pay attention and they should settle down quickly As I had mentioned before, Burden (2003) does not share this opinion1. Another possibility is to encourage students to settle down by saying e.g. “Hurry up now, I can still see bags on desks”. Also, the teacher should make sure that he or she is prepared for the start of the lesson, if all the supplies needed are at hand and working. A state of readiness of the teacher will have a positive influence on the mental set of pupils.

Moreover, Kyrioacou (1998) emphasises the importance of conveying “a sense of curiosity and excitement, and a sense of purposefulness about what is to follow” ( p.50) and thus elicit and sustain students’ attention. He mentions two techniques to achieve it: establishing a link with a previous work or posing a question such as: “Can anybody tell me what natural disasters are?”

- Routine

Another important aspect to mention when talking about the beginning of the lesson is the importance of a routine. Using consequently the same clue and the same procedure to gain students attention help start the class smoothly and lets the teacher relax the formality of the start as pupils will quickly respond.(Kyriacou, 1998).


Once the lesson has begun, the teacher’s main task is to maintain students’ attention, interest and involvement in the activities which are at the same time educationally effective. This is a real challenge which makes lesson management skills so sophisticated Kyriacou, 1998). Being aware that without the students’ involvement the effective learning is not possible, some teachers concentrate so much on keeping students engaged that they forget about the quality of learning.

In order to understand how to engage students during the instruction it is helpful to analyse the concepts for conducting interaction elaborated by Kounin2. He was one of the first classroom management theorist convinced that discipline and instruction are not separate entities and that organization and planning are the keys to engaging students. In the 60s and the 70s Kounin and his colleagues(Kounin, 1970,; Kounin and Gump, 1974; Kounin and Obradovic, 1968, as described in Burden, 2003) made a series of studies which led to the development of some new ideas regarding management of group activities.

Keeping good activity flow

“Activity flow” is the main concept that emerged from the mentioned research. is called It is understood as “the degree to which a lesson proceeds smoothly, without digressions, diversions and interruptions”( Emmer et al., 1889, p.124). According to this approach, the lesson with a good flow will sustain students’ attention and will not give them opportunities for deviance because the cues for students will be directed towards appropriate behaviours. When the lesson is jerky, with frequent interruptions, the pupils will be likely to “go off-task”, their attention caught by external cues. According to Kounin (as described in Burden, 2003), activity flow is maintained through three classes of teacher’s behaviours: appropriate reaction to misbehaviour, movement management and group focus.

- Appropriate reaction to misbehaviour

Within this type of behaviour two related concepts are relevant: whiteness and overlapping. Withitness is the teacher’s ability to notice what is happening in the classroom( Burden, 2003). Moreover, it is “the degree to which the teacher corrects misbehaviour before it intensifies or spreads”(as quoted by Emmer et al., 1989, p.124) This notion is closely related to effective monitoring3. The teacher who is not very “with it” will fail to target the right student or intervene on time, before the problem escalates. Overlapping is another important concept related to reaction to misbehaviour. This notion refers to the teacher’s ability to deal with more than one thing at a time without spoiling the flow of the lesson. To sum up, adequate withitness and overlapping skills, the lesson is not likely to be interrupted by students’ misbehaviour or any external factors, thus the flow of the lesson is correct and the pupils are involved in the task.

- Movement management

Two concepts are related to movement management: momentum and smoothness.

Momentum refers to pacing of the lesson. If the pace of activities is too fast, students will get tired or find that they are missing important ideas. On the other hand, if the pace is too slow, students’ attention will wander, they can get bored what could lead to disruptive behaviour. Therefore, teacher has to be able to recognize how long to dwell on each particular point in order to maintain an adequate pace of the lesson.

It ’ s important to be able to identify what causes delays and minimize them in order to keep the lesson moving at a right pace.

Smoothness4 is another important concept to bear in mind within “movement management”. A lesson with a smooth start as well as the transition between the activities will keep students’ attention while the one that is jerky will be distracting . Kounin (as described in Emmer et al., 1989) classified possible ways in which the teacher may diverge from a smooth lesson in four categories: dangles, flip-flops, thrusts and stimulus-bounds. A dangle takes place when a teacher leaves the task or topic “dangling” to do a different thing and may or may not come back to that task or topic. A flip-flop is similar to a dangle, but the teacher inserts a left-over material from a previous lesson. A thrust occurs when the teacher intrudes with some seemingly irrelevant information while the students are doing an activity. For example, while pupils are writing an essay the teachers interrupts to remind them the deadline for the last assignment. Unlike thrust, a stimulus-bound is not related to the lesson or the instruction at all. It occurs, for example, when a teacher spots a bird on the windowsill and points it out to the students or comments to class one of the pupils’ new haircut.

- Group focus

Group focus is also necessary to maintain the activity flow in classroom instruction. Teaching groups requires skills to keep the whole class involved and attentive while individuals are performing. Group alerting means ability to sustain attention of the whole class during the performance of individuals. Students must know that they need to pay attention while an individual is speaking. This can be reached by creating suspense. If the students know that they might be called on next to comment on what their peer has said they will be likely to pay attention. Moreover, it is possible to use a visual aid, display or an attention-getting strategy. (Burden, 2003). Accountability is another technique to maintain group focus. It consists in letting students know that their work will be observed and assessed. It does not have to be done by grading. The teacher can simply ask the students who know the answer to raise a hand and then call a few randomly. It is also possible to make the students show their work or write the answers.

Higher participation formats is another concept which, contributes to maintain group focus. His research proved that lessons in which pupils are expected to solve problems, write answers, manipulate material or read instead of answering the teacher’s questions have a higher rate of participation.5


Physical attention getters are stimulus that attracts our senses, e.g. pictures, music,

videos. Provocative attention-getters involve element of surprise, being unpredictable or playing the devil’s advocate while emotional ones involve the learners emotionally. There are also emphatic attention-getters, which cue students to a particular issue, e.g. by saying: You should pay careful attention now. The next fragment is very important”.

Adequate classroom arrangement.

The students should be seated facing the speaker (the teacher, a student or a guest). Moreover, a seating arrangement should not discriminate against any students. It is recommendable to move around the room, change seating arrangement frequently and let high and low-achieving students sit together to enhance on-task behaviour of all the class.

Variety of instructional media and methods.

”Monotony breeds inattentiveness”. The class that shows unmistakeable signs of boredom and understimulation may actually be bored and understimulated.” (Perrot 1982: 93-101, as quoted by Wringe, 1995, p.17)

In order to avoid dull routine, the teacher should use different instructional approaches, materials and resources.


Encouragingness is a term introduced by Kyriacou (1997), which embraces the following three aspects:

- Providing enjoyment and stimulation. It is recommendable to use authentic materials which “are likely to be more interesting and intellectually more stimulating than many past offerings”( Wringe, 1995, p.18) . Thus, they will be receive d by students with interest and pleasure. Moreover, the lesson should be suited to student’s abilities, in other words, it should follow the rule of cognitive matching (Kyriacou, 1998).

- Using humour. As the research by prof. Avner Ziv shows ( Ziv, 1998, as described by Burden, 2003), humour, both in pictorial and verbal forms, is useful as a device for gaining and maintaining attention and interest and at the same time increases students’ achievement.

- Showing enthusiasm. It is a very important factor in maintaining student

attention and it is related to higher student achievement (Good & Brophy, 2000, as described by Burden, 2002). In order to engage the learners and help them gain confidence necessary for active participation, the students have to recognize that the teacher “knows what he is doing and why, and second, that is genuinely interested in getting on with it” (Knowles, 1983, p.100).Both verbal and non- verbal communication are equally important in showing enthusiasm. In fact, anthropologies who study human communication agree that in face-to-face communication, both “modalities are interrelated, interdependent, and are used simultaneously” (Cazden et al., 1972, p. 7).

Reinforcing students’ effort.

According to professor Paul Burden (Burden, 2003), encouraging statements contribute to create a positive learning environment and consequently, improve students’ motivation and engagement.

Using questions effectively.

Don’t call on students in prearranged format, instead, use unpredictability and variety6

Using active listening skills.

It is necessary to use nonverbal skills to make the students feel that you are really interested in what they are saying. “Nonverbal expressions of showing interest may include nodding, moving towards the student, leaning forward, maintaining eye contact with the student, and showing interest in your facial expression” (Burden, 2003, p.16- 17).


1 While according to Burden (2003) the teacher should never start the class without having attention of all the class.

2 J. Kounin, author of Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms

3 We will talk about effective monitoring later on

4 This notion is described by Kyriacou (1998) and Burden (2003)

5 The teacher should choose an adequate technique for the task, depending on its characteristics. Some tasks lend themselves to one kind of group focus (Emmer et al., 1989, p.127)

6 We are not going to focus on this topic in this paper.


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teacher strategies gain sustain student attention




Title: Teacher Strategies to Gain and Sustain Student Attention