How to encourage your learners to make mistakes

By Neil Millington

How often do you share stories with your students about your life? I know some teachers that are really good at telling interesting stories about their travels or adventures. I also know other teachers that would rather keep the student teacher relationship as professional as possible, and prefer to share little about their personal lives and concentrate on teaching.

Personally, I like to share interesting stories about things that I’ve done. Whenever I have talked about a place that I’ve been to, or something I did when I was younger, it really seems to engage my learners. Indeed, the research in the field of language learning motivation suggests that engaging with your students in this way is great motivational strategy, and developing personal relationships with your students can really help improve their motivation.

Personalized stories are a great way to developing relationships with students and motivating them. As long as the story is interesting, relevant and told using language that can be easily understood, it is worth telling. I use photos and pictures to bring the story to life. I also practice the story in my head several times so I get it just right. Using lots of gestures and being an animated story teller is more likely to engage the students.

Getting the material

The only issue is that I’m a busy teacher. These days I don’t do a great deal of exciting stuff away from the classroom and the family! A few years ago, I attended a seminar at which the teacher showed a video of a different teacher telling a story. It was a very funny story with a great moral behind it, so I took his idea and adapted it as my own person story. I told it to one of my classes as if it had happened to me and they loved it. It had a real impact on the class too.

The gist of the story is that I make a silly mistake, but there are no negative consequences. In fact, only positive things happen to me. The first reason that my classes have enjoyed this story over the years is that it shows them that it’s okay to make mistakes in class. In fact, it will help them if they try. Secondly, it shows them that I’m a real person who makes mistakes. Granted, I didn’t make this mistake, but I make mistakes every day! I am no different to any other person!

I thought that I’d share this story with you so please feel free to adapt it to make it your own story. I get audible gasps when I tell it and a lot of laughs. I hope you try it and it has the same impact on your classes!

Here is the story. Feel free to amend details to suit your context.

The Osaka Trip

“A few months ago I took a trip to Osaka. Unfortunately, I didn’t go there on holiday. I went there on a business trip. I went to a conference for English teachers. It was a good trip but it was very tiring. After the conference finished, I made my way back to Osaka train station.

By the time I got to the station, I was very tired and very hungry. At the station there was a shop selling lunch boxes, so I went in to get something to eat. They had cheap lunch boxes and expensive lunch boxes. Which do you think I bought? That’s right, I bought a cheap lunch box. After that, I made my way to my platform and found my train.

I got on the train and found my seat. There was no one sitting in the seat next to me so I settled down ready for the long journey ahead. Now I was feeling really hungry and tired. I wondered whether I should eat my lunch box or take a nap. I decided I would enjoy my lunch box more after a nap. I put the lunch box in the hat rack above my head.

As I was sitting down, a young business man approached me. Like me, he looked tired, and he also had a lunch box. He asked if the seat next to me was free and I said it was. In a few minutes, I was fast asleep. I slept for about 40 minutes and when I awoke, the business man was no longer there. I was extremely hungry. Then I remembered my lunch box.

I looked on the seat next me and I saw a lunch box. I was so hungry I opened it up and started to eat. I was very surprised to see how nice it looked. It looked more like an expensive lunch box than a cheap one. After a minute or two of eating, the business man returned. He had an astonished look on his face. He asked me why I was eating his lunch box. Then it hit me! I had put my lunch box above my head.

This really wasn’t my lunch box. I apologised many times and offered him my lunch box. Also, I bought him a drink to say sorry. We then spent the next few hours chatting away and we got along really well. We even exchanged numbers and now we occasionally meet up for drinks. We have become quite good friends.

Why did I tell you this story?”