The ABC of ELT

What Are Students Looking at? and Is It a Problem?

One of the things that I have found myself wonder about recently, is what the students are looking at when they aren’t “paying attention” To me during a class? Usually it’s a source of annoyance for me as it is almost inevitably a sign that they won’t have got the instruction or noticed the important details of an item of language. But now I’m really starting to wonder if this is (always) actually an issue.

So here are a few things that I’ve identified draw the students eyes.

The board?

This is especially true of an interactive whiteboard. Students will often look at the slide behind me. Sometimes, this is my own fault by putting up a new slide as I set an instruction or something. In a situation like this, I’m sure I too would look at the board as there is something new. Perhaps this means that I should add a slide which doesn’t distract too much, and consider what I want the students to see as I mention these items.

Sometimes I think this could be a distraction preventing students from focusing on an instruction. But other times its not really an issue at all. Of course, with an electronic whiteboard, it can be hidden or turned off.

Their books?

This is probably the most common example that I see from students. It usually occurs in one of two ways. The students look at “the activity” in the book as I describe the instructions or it occurs after an activity. The (usually quicker/brighter) student will look ahead at a future activity on the page. There are some potential traps here.

  • The students might read the instructions on the page not the task actually being set.
  • The task might not be in their book and they may do the wrong task.
  • The might miss an instruction or guideline from the teacher to help with an anticipated problem (such as pre-teaching lexis before reading)
  • The student might have got something wrong and not realised it.
  • They will complete a future task even quicker than other students leading to further issues with timing.

This is very understandable though. Why wouldn’t you want to look at the task as it’s being explained. It’s a natural reaction even if it can lead to issues.

Their sketches?

Some students like to sketch in their books, especially young learners. This may be their way of processing the information via sketchnoting, but this isn’t the case if the images aren’t connected to the lesson. If their sketches aren’t connected to the lesson, then it’s probable that the students aren’t interested in the topic or the information being delivered.

As such, maybe we can encourage more on topic sketching and see benefits from absorbing information in a couple of formats.

Other students

Of course, students may be looking at other students as well, after all, they have friends and are interested in their friends reaction. Again this is pretty natural, language is social and with young learners, they don’t “put up with boring activities” (Read.C 2003), as such maybe we need to use this desire to connect with their classmates and see it as an opportunity.

It’s impossible to look at the teacher all the time.

I don’t think anyone can really look at the teacher the whole time, after all it feels awkward to maintain eye contact for too long. I’d probably feel really awkward if my students looked at me the whole time. At the same time, I still recognize that I can make changes to my teaching that would help avoid some of these distractions or at least ensure that instructions have gone across correctly.


Read, C. Is Younger better?, English teaching professional 28 July 2003

About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

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