By Ste Sharpe

14 February 2019 - 16:46

'Learners work in their teams to think of and write one word that starts with that letter for each category. For example, B would be Brazil, beautiful, broccoli, bring.' Photo ©

ImageParty used under licence and adapted from the original

Ste Sharpe has been mentoring newly-qualified teachers of English for seven years. This is his advice for building rapport with adult and teenage learners, for teachers who are new to the classroom, or experienced teachers. 

When newly qualified teachers start their first teaching job, there is a lot to take in: understanding new administrative procedures and lesson material, lesson planning, working in front of a group of learners who have high expectations, and possibly living in a new place.

Rapport is ‘the relationship that the learners have with the teachers and vice versa…a class where there is a positive, enjoyable and respectful relationship between teacher and learners and between learners themselves’, according to Jeremy Harmer in The Practice of English Language Teaching (2007) Pearson Longman.

In my experience, building rapport with learners can be a challenge. Teachers sometimes feel like an actor on stage who has forgotten their lines.

Here are my favourite ways to build rapport with learners more quickly and effectively.

Learn the names of everyone in the class

At the beginning of the course, I always have the paper register at hand to help me, or I have learners write their names on a piece of paper or card and leave it in front of them on the table. 

You can ask learners to introduce themselves by saying an adjective that begins with the first letter of their first name, plus their name. Then the next learner repeats the previous learner's name.

For example:

Learner 1: I'm brilliant Brahim.

Learner 2: He's brilliant Brahim and I'm dashing Don.

Learner 3: He's brilliant Brahim. He's dashing Don and I'm nice Natalie.

Encourage learners to use positive adjectives, so they can continue to use them throughout the course.

Learners can also use the letters in their first names, and you can display them on the wall. For example, a student named Dora might be:
Daring Organised Reliable Amazing. 

Show an interest in learners' lives outside of the classroom

I frequently ask learners questions like: 

How was your day today?

What did you do at the weekend?

These are 'guided questions', or questions about specific topics. For example: 

Have you seen the latest Marvel film?

What did you think of it? 

Planning five minutes at the beginning of each lesson to have a conversation using guided questions can help to make learners feel comfortable, and gives them the chance to learn more about each other and you. 

Make eye contact with learners

If you’re a tall person like me, crouching down to the seated learners’ level to talk to them means you’re less overpowering and not looking down on them. This is especially true when teaching young learners, who are sometimes at knee-height for me!

At the start of a course, include a ‘get to know you’ activity

These activities are a great way for learners to practise their speaking skills and get to know each other, while allowing you to assess their spoken English. 

Here are two examples: 

  • Find someone who

Learners ask each other questions to find someone who matches a description. For example, someone who went to bed late last night, or someone who can speak three languages. You can create a list before the class begins. At the beginning of the activity, write the list on the board, dictate it or distribute it on paper. 

To make the game more challenging, give learners part of the question:

Can/speak three languages 

and ask them to formulate the full question: 

Can you speak three languages? 

Learners walk around the room and ask each other questions, then write down the name of the learner when they say yes. At the end of the activity, learners can talk about their findings in groups to find out more about each other. For example:

Rim can speak three languages.

Kat has visited more than 20 countries.

  • One-minute topics

First, prepare a list of topics for learners to talk about, or ask your learners to prepare a list.

Next, ask learners to work in pairs. They can decide who is A and B. Say one of the topics aloud for everyone to hear (e.g. hobbies). Learner A has to talk for one minute without stopping about their hobbies, while Learner B listens.

At the end of that minute, Learner B then has one minute to ask follow-up questions.

When this minute is over, the teacher says another topic and learners repeat the same process, with Learner B talking for one minute first. 

Allow learners to ask you questions about your life and teaching experience

Have learners work in pairs or small groups to write three questions to ask you. When they have all finished, each pair/group asks you a question. You only answer if the question is grammatically correct. Learners need to listen carefully, as they cannot repeat a question that has already been asked. 

Some teachers prefer learners not to know about their private life, and some work in countries where revealing aspects of their private life might be unsafe. If this is a concern, you can write a list of topics which you will answer (e.g. hobbies, food and drink, films, books, travel, past work experience).

You can also show pictures which represent parts of your life. For example:

  • images that represent countries you've worked/lived in
  • pictures of your favourite food or food that you can cook
  • numbers which represent number of countries visited, number of siblings or how many pairs of shoes you own.

Learners then work in groups to guess how these are related to you. They can ask you questions to find out if their guesses are correct.

In my experience, showing a bit of your life outside of the classroom goes a long way to building rapport.

Respect your learners

Carl Rogers, an American psychologist, says that ‘respect (a positive, non-judgmental regard for other people), empathy (being able to see things from the other person’s perspective) and authenticity (being oneself without hiding behind job titles, roles or masks)' are important when building rapport in the classroom. 

If you respect learners, they will usually respect you back. If you see that a learner has difficulty with a task through what they’re saying or the way they behave, speak to them in a calm manner and give them your full attention.

Try to be yourself in class. We’re human and make mistakes from time to time.

Vary activities to increase energy and motivation in the classroom

Adult learners may feel tired and anxious after a long day at work and in traffic. A simple, fun activity – such as a competitive vocabulary game – at the beginning of a lesson can make a lot of difference.

  • Scattegories

This is a great way to revise vocabulary and add a competitive element to an activity.

First, put learners in groups with a piece of paper and pen and ask them to think of a team name.

Next, draw four columns on the board and write four categories for each column. For example: country; adjective; food/drink; verb. You can add more columns if you like and even ask the learners to decide on the categories.

Then, write one letter of the alphabet on the board. Learners work in their teams to think of and write one word that starts with that letter for each category. For example, B would be Brazil, beautiful, broccoli, bring.

The first team to hold up their paper with the correct information wins a point. Continue this with other letters of the alphabet.

  • Last learner standing

This is another fun way to revise vocabulary. It's fast-paced and boosts energy levels in the class.

First, find a ball or make one with scrap pieces of paper scrunched together.

Next, ask learners to stand in a circle. Think of a topic (e.g. food). Then, throw the ball to a learner, who has to catch it and say a word related to the topic. They have five seconds to say a word and then throw the ball to another learner. If they don't say a word within the time limit, or repeat a word already said, they have to sit down.

The last learner standing is the winner.

To make it more challenging, before a learner throws the ball, they have to say what the new topic is.

  • Bingo

This is a classic game that provides listening practice.

First, provide learners with a 3x3 or 4x4 grid (they can also create these by themselves).

Then, write words on the board related to a topic, like clothes or food. Make sure you write more words than the number of squares on the grids.

Next, learners choose any words from the board and write them in the squares on their grids.

When everyone is ready, you read a word from the board aloud at random, repeating the word twice. Make sure you write the words you say on a piece of paper to check later.

If learners hear a word that is on their grid, they cross it out.

When learners have crossed out all their words, they shout out 'Bingo!'. Ask them to read the words back to you to check they are correct.

Some variations on Bingo:

  • use words which have a particular sound to help with recognising them. For example, words with /ɪə/ (here) and /aɪ/ (my) sounds
  • say the words in sentences to make it more challenging to hear the words
  • use numbers (the traditional way to play the game!)

Praise learners as much as possible

Positive reinforcement and showing a little excitement boost motivation levels. Jill Hadfield said in Classroom Dynamics (1993) Oxford University Press that ‘a positive group atmosphere can have a beneficial effect on the morale, motivation and self-image of its members, and thus significantly affect their learning.’

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