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Involving emotions in the secondary classroom: why and how?

Dirk Lagerwaard

Dirk Lagerwaard is a tutor on our Teaching Young Learner courses. He is Doctor in Translation and Language Sciences from the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain. He teaches English as a foreign language at a secondary school in Barcelona and is as an associate professor on the MA in Teacher Training for Secondary Education and Baccalaureate, Professional Training and Language Learning at the Blanquerna – Ramon Llull University in Barcelona, Spain.

“To speak is to be human, and to learn how to speak a language is to find new ways in which to express that same humanity” (Di Pietro, 1987).

From the moment I started teaching at my secondary school in Spain, enabling students to express themselves in English has always been my goal. However, with classes of thirty lively students to teach, a coursebook to cover, a curriculum to follow and many lessons to prepare, this is often hard to achieve.

As a result, we often end up teaching the curriculum instead of our students; and only look for ways to make our students pass their exams instead of also working on their communicative development.

I came to see in my teaching context how secondary students after studying English for many years were able to pass their exams, but could not express themselves as they wanted. How can we turn this around? How can we make sure we communicatively develop our students, and still cover the textbook and the curriculum? 

Involving emotions in the classroom: Why?

After years of reflecting on my practice in the secondary classroom, I recommend you to be flexible with your coursebook, and involve your students’ emotions to turn this situation around.

For decades, teachers and coursebook writers have tried to make the learning process meaningful for students to encourage use of the English language. This has been attempted by creating real-life contexts, or providing exercises that are related to the students’ personal interests.

However, what may be meaningful for one student, does not necessarily make it meaningful for others, and therefore does not often lead to engagement of an entire class during speaking or writing activities.

By including students’ emotions through personal response – and evaluative tasks – instead of only carrying out and correcting the coursebook’s closed questions – we create activities that “challenge students to go beyond themselves towards goals that have personal significance to them” (Stetsenko, 2017).

As a result, I realized I could not only cover the coursebook and the curriculum; I also paved the way for students to learn how to express themselves in English on their terms.

Involving emotions in the classroom: How?

The following lesson plans can be applied with many students, different levels, and all kind of readings. As lessons at a secondary school normally take around fifty minutes, the proposal has been divided into two lessons; one includes a personal response task, the other an evaluative task. 

Lesson 1: Personal Response Task

  1. Draw a circle on the board, in which you mix the letters of a new word. Students guess the word and are allowed to shout it out. Repeat this three times, until there are four new words on the board.
  2. In pairs (or groups), students discuss if they know the meaning of the four words. After this, in open class feedback, elicit the meaning. If all students don’t know what a word means, provide an example, through which they can guess it. Students write down the definitions of the new words in their notebooks. 
  3. Instead of carrying out a reading for gist, explain that these four words appear in a text from the coursebook they are about to read. What do they think the text is going to be about? (Personal response task) Each student writes down their own idea in which they need to include the new vocabulary. As it is impossible to correct thirty students, monitor to see if students make similar mistakes, and write these ones down in your notebook to let students reflect at the end of the lesson on their personal language use. 
  4. After every student has created their own idea, they share it in pairs.
  5. Students share their ideas in open class feedback; as they have practiced in pairs before, you can even involve the shy students in the discussion. Depending on the students’ answers, you can create a common prediction, or write three to five different ideas on the board. 
  6. Instead of a reading for gist from the book, students check if their prediction matches the text. Students have now created their own purpose to read the text.  
  7. Once everybody is done reading, they share their answers again in pairs before checking the answer in open class feedback.
  8. Now you let your students read for specific information with the exercises from the coursebook. As they are already emotionally engaged, this should not lead to any problems.
  9. Students share their answers in pairs, and are then corrected in open class feedback.
  10. To finish the lesson, write three common mistakes you have heard/ read during the personal response task on the board. Students try to correct the sentences individually first, and then explain in pairs the reasons behind their corrections. Finally, analyse the sentences together through dialogic teaching (Blog March, 2019).

 Lesson 2:  Evaluative Task

  1. Students interview. Think about who students could possibly “interview” from last lesson’s text: the author, the main-character, etc. Ask students what two questions they would ask if they could interview this person. (Evaluative task). Each student writes down two questions based on what they have read, and include the learned vocabulary from last lesson to revise it. Once again, instead of correcting thirty students, monitor around to write down the common mistakes for the end of the lesson. 
  2. Students work in pairs. One plays the role of the interviewer, the other plays the interviewee. The goal is to talk for at least one minute, after that students take turns and change pairs. Students need to improvise to the questions they are being asked, and the interviewer has to anticipate to what the other person says. As a result, we can see their understanding of the text through their conversation, how they are using the new vocabulary and how they improvise in English. Encourage students to continue the conversation when they are stuck, and don’t correct them on-the-spot.
  3. Mistakes on the board. As students carry out the activity, write down the common mistakes on the board, which are to be corrected individually, justified in pairs, and reasoned about in open class through dialogic teaching. 

From affordances to creative reconstruction

By providing opportunities for personal response and evaluative tasks like these, natural language use will emerge, which is where students often make mistakes. These creations are based on their ideas about how they think the English language works.

These affordances – emerging learning opportunities – are probably the most important part of the lesson. Because only when we understand our students’ thinking, we can help them to creatively reconstruct their ideas about the language through reflective learning and dialogic teaching.

By creating these deeper understandings and fostering opportunities to put these into practice by letting them act upon their emotions, we can enable them to find their own voice in English.

Because as teachers, we should never forget that eventually “language learning is about gaining the freedom to create” (Duff & Lantolf, 2000).


  • Di Pietro (1987). Strategic Interaction. Learning languages through scenarios. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Dunn, W. & Lantolf, J.P. (1998). ‘Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and Krashen’s i+1: Incommensurable constructs; incommensurable theories’. Language Learning 48: 411-442.
  • Stetsenko, A. (2017) The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education. New York: Cambridge University Press.

If you would like to receive expert training from Dirk and advance your career by taking a teacher development course in Teaching Young Learners, apply here or get in touch for more information.

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