Motivating ESL Students with Ping-Pong Balls

I couldn’t possibly tell you what my students like the most, there are too many of them and it’s constantly changing anyway. But, what I can tell you is that it definitely isn’t learning (well maybe some). As much as I’d like to believe that my students wouldn’t want to be anywhere else other than my class, it’s just not true. I’m 100% sure they’d rather be running around outside, playing games and causing trouble, even the good ones. 

So, knowing this, I made a deal with my students. The deal is, if they can fill up a shoe box with ping pong balls, I’ll reward them with a free class, where they can do whatever they like. I’ve never seen a method work so well in an ESL class. 

So it’s pretty easy to set up. First you need a truck load of ping-pong balls. I have 4 classes, each with 40+ students, and one box takes about 35 balls to fill, so just to be safe I got 150 ping-pong balls (it was only about 10 pounds for that many). 

Next you need a box. The way I did it was to get 4 small shoe boxes and cut a hole in the top. Then I gave one to each class and issued a challenge, the class that makes the most beautiful box will get a 10 ball prize! So the next day, I had some pretty good looking boxes.

Now comes the motivating part. You can’t just give out balls willy nilly, if you do that you’ll be having free classes every week! You need a system where the main prize is a ball. 

So, I give out a ‘Great’ stamp in homework books, 2 of these gets you a ball. I also give out a stamp in class when you raise your hand and answer a question that says ‘Good job!’, 5 of these gets you a ball. 

Both of these methods get the students moving and trying harder, but there’s a few ways they loose balls too. The first way is, if the class has more than 3 people not hand in homework, they loose a ball. The second way is if I count to three and the class hasn’t stopped talking, they loose a ball. The final way is for general misbehaving that I think is bad enough to loose a ball, being rude, cursing, fighting etc. 

Ok, so how is it fair that the god students get rewards for the bad students, and the bad students get punishments for the good? Well, it’s not. So after about a month of this system, I noticed that the same students were ruining it for everyone, which seemed unfair. So I introduced the naughty board. Now, instead of loosing a ball, if you break a rule you get 1 time out. 1 time out = 5 minutes off your free class taken away, 2 times outs = 15 minutes, and 3 is the whole free class. So that stopped the naughty ones being naughty, because generally they want to have a free class more than anyone! 

Now comes the tricky part, controlling the good students. I love that some students always have their hand up, and want to answer questions, I really do, but when this is the case, they end up single handedly earning free classes for the whole class, and that defeats the point. So, each time you earn a free class, I review the books. Then I will note down new targets for people earning a lot of balls. For example, if they constantly answer questions in class, now they must get 10 stamps instead of 5. And next time 15 instead of 10 and so on. In this way, you can encourage the good students to encourage their classmates to answer questions, as it’s a quicker way to get the balls. It surprised me when this actually happened, I was just hoping to slow down the rate of free classes, but this is much better. The same applies to homework. Good students now want to spend time helping others as it earns them an extra ball, also if I see this kind of selfless act, I reward with an extra ball. 

So there are endless possibilities with this reward system. Make it your own and develop it as required. There are now 2 or 3 other teachers in my ESL school using the same system, because it really works. Give it a try and reap the rewards! 

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