Motivating Boys in English (by guest Blogger Ian Knightley)

english blog pic

Students come in all shapes and sizes: high flyers, hard-workers and some are just plain crazy! It’s this variety that can make teaching such an enriching and infuriating career path to follow. In my five years as an English teacher at a large comprehensive, the challenge of trying to motivate disaffected boys has undoubtedly been one of the biggest I have faced.

In my experience, when this issue is raised, suggestions for success and explanations for disengagement tend to follow along predictable lines:

a) Give them texts they’ll enjoy – ones about cars, computers and football
b) get them out of their seat; boys need to be active
c) boys don’t like learning – school’s not cool.

While I would not suggest that these comments are entirely lacking in substance, as somebody who sat in English lessons and was enthralled by poetry, prose and drama, I can’t help but find such rhetoric misguided, hard to swallow and to a degree, patronising.

Perhaps first I should clarify – I was by no means a model pupil; although I was reasonably bright, I did not enjoy many lessons and whiled away hours staring outside of windows. I can also clearly remember that awful feeling when I just couldn’t “get” something; exertion was rapidly usurped by frustration and frustration by resignation, a feeling I still experience when someone throws a simultaneous equation within a double decker’s length of me! So, the question remains: how do we motivate boys? How did my teacher motivate me? At the risk of adding my own sweeping statement to those listed above, he recognised one of the fundamental characteristics of many boys:

  • they like to be seen to succeed, especially if they can do so without looking like they’re trying to.


My teacher was a particularly crafty bugger. Time and time again, he would water our egos, snatching a book from a desk and reading aloud a ‘FANTASTIC’ (ordinary) short story or an ‘INSIGHTFUL’ (average) attempt at analysis. He would wave away our pretend protestations, allowing us to feel like we were doing well and more importantly look like we were doing well without appearing to be trying.

**Nothing is more motivational than recognition and success. **

Of course, this alone is not enough – some teaching must take place, some progress must be made.

  • But corrections would be made under the guise of suggestions and mistakes would be pointed out with subtlety and tact, not in bright, red scrawl.

Red Pen

The notion that sticking “laddish” texts in front of boys, sitting back and waiting for their enthusiasm to erupt is, in my view, one of the worse so-called solutions. For one, this is entirely impractical; the curriculum requires an understanding of a range of texts – like it or not, you’re going to have to learn Shakespeare along with a smattering of soppy poems. I tend to favour a very honest approach to this: it’s worth X% of your GCSE and if you don’t try, you can’t do well; although remember, you must first earn the right to be “honest”.

  • Where possible, frame units that you know won’t go down well with those that will – it can’t all be fun but it has to be sometimes – surround the thorn with roses – consideration of this should occur more frequently when planning specifications (why must all classes follow the same specifications?).

Secondly, pigeonholing boys within the narrow parameters of cars, computers and football, at every available opportunity, only serves to heighten their disinterest in/dislike of many texts that they have to study; you are effectively reinforcing a stereotype and conditioning them to believe that there are some texts they are supposed to like and some that they aren’t. What could be less motivating than someone making you read a text full of a plot, characters and themes that you believe you shouldn’t be interested in, in front of a room full of your peers who KNOW you shouldn’t be interested?

  • The establishment of an environment within which it’s OK to be interested is as important as creating the motivation to learn itself.

The problem is, it’s equally as difficult to achieve. I have found that presenting my own love of literature unapologetically has, on occasions, led to success. I want all my classes, whether boys, girls or both, to realise how much I love my subject and how much I want them to love it too. Even the most apathetic group of boys have found my love of Wilfred Owen a source of amusement, if not contagious and that’s a start, eh?


The busy start of term..

Whether you are a parent or a teacher, the last weekend in August marks the start or end of your freedom but those first few days offer a hectic similarity to us all as we readjust to the early mornings and return to the loss of our evenings and weekends to planning, preparation and marking. The countdown to half term begins the moment you step across the threshold and pick up your timetable for the weeks and months ahead. Still, the process of educating and entertaining our charges keeps us going and quickly the arrival of over 300 new personalities serves to reawaken the passion and move on from a relaxing 6 weeks.

The transition period for some young people is a tricky one. Routine is absolutely essential as they try to get used to approximately 15 slight variations of the school rules and have to get to grips with how they will transport the hoard of new books and PE kit in their newly purchased undersized ruck sacks.

The early days do serve as stressful times for the newbies and as teachers it’s important that as we start to set and establish classroom routines and discipline rules in our way, we remember that a collection of nervous faces look at you judging how ‘safe’ they will feel in your class. Hopefully some are not weighing up what they can get away with but a confident approach in the first lesson combined with a nice mix of  assertive humour you will have the kids eating out of your hands.

As you start to see the production of work try and look out for the following traits you may wish to raise with your Head of Department/SENCo as potential areas that may need attention.

  1. The grip the student uses with the pen/pencil. You are looking for a classic tripod grip between thumb and first two fingers. The child doesn’t need to stop and shake their hand from fatigue associated with a tight grip.
  2. The speed at which the student writes. This could be due to poor processing speeds, poor spelling or because of attention issues (which could be temporary and dealt with via a swift prompt and refocus)
  3. Do all students complete tests in the time you have allowed. If not, it could be because of a couple of reasons. Potentially there are processing difficulties which could be alleviated with the application of 25% extra time.  Alternatively a student with an average processing ability may not have yet developed the skills to plan and organise their writing efficiently and some strategic coaching may be all that is needed.
  4. Watch out for spelling errors.

Any of the above observations should be raised with the SENCo who is likely to look into transition data as potential additional evidence to build a picture of need.

Lots to think about but the new term wouldn’t be the new term  without a reminder of the job we trained to do and the reward it offers on a daily basis.

Watch out for next week where my first guest blog post will be uploaded. Keep a close eye.

Enjoy your first half term everyone.

Working with Students with SEN in the classroom. Some examples of good practice that you, as a parent, could expect to see.

Teaching children with any degree of special educational need is not meant to be a daunting prospect. There are no magic formulas for immediate success but there are a range of things we as teachers can do to make learning for our students something that doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Our job as a teacher is to inspire, educate and motivate and what follows are just a few simple changes that could take place in every lesson.

  • Copying from the board.

    If copying from the board is not a learning activity then it shouldn’t be done. All students would benefit from the information on printed sheets to highlight key points from discussion. Make sure that the most important learning objective is isolated. You probably don’t want your students to get better at copying if correctly labeling apparatus on a diagram is the focus. 

  • Giving instructions.

    When giving instructions, make sure that the volume of instruction is kept to a minimum for each task to assist students who may have poor auditory and short term memory. If instructions exceed 3, they really would be better written down and displayed. This way it is clear what has to be done and when.

  •  Checking understanding.

    After issuing general instructions to the whole class, ask individuals questions to check understanding. Although this may seem obvious, do not ask ‘do you understand what you have to do’? Students will more often than not say yes just to get you off their backs. Get the students to explain what they will do first, and then what next to see that they have comprehended the task and are about to implement the correct strategy. 

  • Setting homework.

    Homework should always be a planned activity and not an afterthought. If it’s planned it can be given at any point in the lesson. The earlier homework is set the more time that students have to make sure it is noted correctly. Leaving homework until after the bell or in the closing few minutes of a lesson is likely to result in it not being done or being done incorrectly.

  • Making progress.

    Make it very clear to each student what constitutes progress for them. Getting one more mark on a test than last time is progress. Students should not be under the impression that they are expected to perform at the same pace and level as the rest of the pupils in the class.

Useful sites for the Holidays.

Just a quick one guys in case you haven’t come across these before. For some time now we have been using in class as a motivational reward for working hard and is a great site for combining a mixture of rapid recall mental math and enjoyable multiplayer, league based games. Certainly something to encourage during the summer holidays for keeping the brain ticking over.


Similarly is great as not only can the kids challenge themselves across a multitude of subjects but for each question they get correct, 10 grains of rice are donated to end world hunger through the World Food Programme.



Vlog 2 – Understanding the Brain and how it affects learning.

Here you go, my second video blog talking about the Triune Brain and how different parts of the brain control our emotions and how we engage in learning. Understanding this will help you to appreciate that some ‘stroppy teenagers’ may come with a story you may need to appreciate and understand. 


Charting progress to boost self confidence and esteem.

It is sometimes difficult to convince a child or young person that they really are doing well and making progress in school. Being able to appreciate the ‘bigger picture’ is a concept that is hard to grasp and the only way to truly convince young people they are doing well is to find a way to illustrate this clearly. There are many ways that you can demonstrate progress in a child friendly way. On a simple level we can relate this to saving money using a piggy bank whereby progress is clearly seen by a gradual increase in coins deposited.


Progress stops being made if coins are not continued to be added or regression occurs if money is taken out. The bottom line here is that progress shown in this way is very tangible and visual and can be used as a motivator.

The same principle can be applied to illustrating progress in social, emotional and academic areas of school. Adding sweets to a jar or colouring bars of a totaliser each time a positive behaviour is observed can offer more frequent rewards and avoid issues of delayed gratification. Academically progress can be shown equally as well. The image below demonstrates this.


So long as results are collected and plotted it is easy to show progress over time. Take the first bar chart for example. This was something I used with an A Level group who were preparing for their AS examination. Preparing for an exam involves practice using past examination papers and mark schemes. The graph shows progress over 7 past papers that were sat, marked and re-sat in the period leading up to the exam. As the results were plotted on the graph, students could see how much more success they were achieving and how at the point leading in to the exam they were achieving 78-80% correct. Having used so many past papers, they also confidentially recognised the format of 95% of the questions answered on the day of the exam and stress levels were greatly reduced.

The line graph illustrates an improvement in reading speeds collected over time using as shown in my blog post about improving reading speed. Any graphic showing an upward trend will be pleasing to see from all angles and can be used to reassure and motivate young people.

If you found this article useful please leave a comment or share with others via your social networks.

A quick tip to improve reading skills.

Few people realise that many young people (and old!) do not have a reading age that is in line with our chronological age (the age you are today). Reading comprehension (the extent to which you understand what you read) is vital for ensuring young people are able to access lesson materials. One skill that may affect the ability to understand text is the speed at which a young person is able to read. The more efficient the reader, the more fluent and therefore the better the level of understanding is likely to be compared to someone who reads slowly.

‘But how do I know how fast my child reads and how do can speed be improved’? I hear you ask.. This is easy. Check out . It’s a free online speed reading tool and is one of the best finds I have stumbled across. It’s great for many reasons but more so because it’s free. Here is what the tool looks like. Simple design and simple to use. Just click Spreed and off you go. But be careful! This tool is set to a default of 300 words per minute which is fast. If you click on the settings tab at the bottom right, you can change this to start with something less swift. Maybe start at 80 wpm and keep increasing until you feel out of your comfort zone. When it becomes easier, simply increase the speed some more.

spreeder 1
 The beauty of this tool is that you can also copy and paste your own text into the box so that you can ensure that what is used to practise with is either of interest or of relevance. It therefore means that this tool can be used for any age and ability (added bonus!!) If this is done regularly reading speed will improve over time and comprehension will too.

spreeder 2


Such a simple way to make a big impact. Keep a record of the young person’s achievements using a chart or graph and let them see their progress grow and grow as the weeks pass.

Happy Spreeding!



A place to engage in all things learning/education related. Teacher of 15 years Toby Eager shares his experiences to help make better informed choices and decisions about learning. I don't guarantee that my advice will solve all problems but feel free to comment particularly if you do find any advice of use.


Most Influential Blog on Education in the UK


A place to engage in all things learning/education related. Teacher of 15 years Toby Eager shares his experiences to help make better informed choices and decisions about learning. I don't guarantee that my advice will solve all problems but feel free to comment particularly if you do find any advice of use.

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