How to Engage Millennials in ESL/EFL Class


How to Engage Millennials with Games

How to Engage Millennials with Games

The biggest challenge a business English teacher faces today is how to motivate and engage Millennials: the segment of the population born between 1980 and 2000.   Especially young men and boys in a classroom setting. Wouldn’t you agree?

In fact, I find it’s getting harder every year to keep the attention of these young men and to engage them.

It’s true that they are still the same ‘boys’ of yesterday with different ways of learning compared to girls.  You know, the fact that boys calculate to do ‘just enough’ to get by and procrastinate until the last minute?

Unlike girls who generally seek the teacher’s approval, boys seek each other’s approval.   Hence, the clowning and joking which is so distracting for the whole class.

And yet,  there seems to be more involved here than just the normal gender-based differences between boys and girls.

I watched a fascinating sociology video called ‘The Secret Power of Time’ where Professor Philip Zimbardo speaks about how our individual perspectives of time affect our work, health and well-being. How time influences who we are as a person, how we view relationships and how we act in the world.

If you fast forward to around the 5-minute mark, he speaks about how education today is failing our boys.  He explains that boys’ brains appear to have been rewired by years of playing fast-paced, interactive computer games so their attention spans are super short and their expectations for entertainment high.

Expecting them to sit still and be spoon fed information is way outdated.   Teachers are no longer looked up to as the source of all information.  These guys can learn whatever they need on the internet.

After watching this video,   I knew in my heart that we teachers have to adapt our classroom and teaching methods so more boys will succeed.   And in the process, make learning more fun for girls too.


Here’s my ‘biggest challenge’ story and what I learned from a class of 24 ‘boys’

I taught Technical English and then TOEIC preparation at a technical university outside of Paris for five years.  My classes were made up of mostly young men aged 18 to 21.

Their technical curriculum was heavy on math, science and technology and very light in English.  The university used a coefficient system whereby all the core subjects (math, science, technology) carried a much heavier co-efficient than say English or French.

So grades were not a motivating factor for maintaining discipline in class or motivating the students to excel.

A few years later (around 2014) technical universities in France began requiring a TOEIC score of 750 in order to graduate.  This got the young men’s attention, but most of them still struggled to keep seated and to concentrate.  Especially since the classes were held for three hours one time per week right after lunch. Ugh!

Each year I was having more and more difficulty.  By my fifth year of teaching business English for technical students, I was faced with a group of students who were the most difficult to motivate.  I tried everything I knew to incite their curiosity and to get and keep their attention, but nothing worked.

  • The first day of class, I pulled out one of my most popular business articles from the press and walked around the class of 22 boys and 2 girls asking each one to read in turn a paragraph out loud. That was a disaster. They ridiculed each other’s accents and I lost their respect.
  • The next week, I tried a PowerPoint slide show to teach grammar points thinking using more technology and more masculine visuals (sports cars or action heroes) rather than whiteboard scribbles would attract their attention.  I wasn’t able to get the attention of the entire class at one time.  There were always pockets of boys making good natured jokes and laughing. I couldn’t even teach the lesson.
  • Now we’re up to the third class and I’m desperate. So I tried using a TV series as a carrot, ‘If we finish the lesson early, we’ll have time for an episode of ‘Breaking Bad’.  They didn’t take the bait.  They can stream video whenever they want from their phones.

What was I going to do?  I felt like crying and running to the head of the department  like a little girl who needs Daddy to come in and regain order.  That was not a solution.  Luckily I had a two-week break before the next lesson to get a grip.


That night, I went online and searched ‘How to teach boys’.  I found articles and videos which helped me to formulate a classroom management strategy.   See below for the list of resources. 


N°1 I learned that boys love competition and teamwork. That they generally learn through doing-thinking-talking.  I read that they like movement and are generally more active than girls and definitely louder.  Teachers must be ready to accept a very high noise level.

Boys are also more concerned with performance.   It’s true, some boys are naturally interested in learning the material, but the article said almost all boys will engage when there is a competitive spirit.  He went on to say that “the more you mimic a game show format the more the boys will be engaged”.  Teaching Boys” by Andrew Fuller


Ok, I got it.   I’ll organize four teams of six. 

  • I’ll design a grammar or vocabulary game that would be pretty much self-explanatory since they won’t sit quietly enough for even an introduction to the lesson.
  • They can learn the lesson together with the stronger team members helping out the slower guys.
  • I will circulate around the four teams keeping them on task, explaining difficult points or giving hints, and especially encouraging them to help each other to succeed.
  • I will make a set of flashcards from the lesson and I will time each team to see who is the fastest.  M&Ms for the winning team.

N°2 I learned that computer game designers cleverly use certain principles of engagement to captivate boys.

  • Make success challenging but attainable by breaking it down into stages.  Ok, I must design my games with stages of difficulty.
  • Make success more likely than failure.  I have to monitor that each team member has understood that stage of the game before moving on to the next. I’ve got to design the game so that even the lowest level student can learn the lesson well enough to have a respectable score when timed at the end.  I wouldn’t want any boy to feel humiliated.  I read that when boys feel humiliated in front of their peers,  they will never try to do anything again for the teacher.
  • Give players the opportunity to try again.  As I walk around the room, I  will encourage the boys to ‘time’ each other with the stopwatch app on their telephones. I had read that boys love to aim for a set ‘target’. The author gave the example of when a boy throws away paper in the bin, they wad up the paper like a basketball and take a shot. I will tell them the target score to aim for.  “ Try to read all the flashcards in less than 2 minutes.”

N°3 I learned that boys need rules and boundaries and that they respect fair play.  Ok, each boy will choose his team at random by drawing a number from a sack.  I didn’t want clicks to form.  I wanted the strongest students to circulate from team to team.  This would make it more ‘fair play’.  No cheating allowed when drawing the number either.


So during those two long weeks of soul-searching (“What had I done wrong?”) and searching for inspiration on the internet, I laid out a game plan in my head.


  • Organize the teams ‘fairly’. I decided the four team colors would be pink, blue, yellow and green.  I had a big pack of colored photocopy paper I could use to print a color-coded game for each team. For forming teams, I numbered  24 small white cards like this:  Pink-1, Pink-2 … Pink-6;  Blue-1, Blue-2 …Blue-6; and the same for the Yellow and Green teams.   I put the plasticized cards into a zip-lock baggie, ready for the boys to draw their number.
  • Create a grammar or vocabulary game, in stages.  I have this great little phrasal verb book called “Oxford Learner’s Pocket Phrasal Verbs and Idioms”.  It has texts by subject with phrasal verbs incorporated and then on the opposite page a definition or synonym for each of the phrasal verbs.   I chose a business subject ‘Better Job Performance: How to work efficiently’ with phrasal verbs such as ‘to set aside time’, ‘to put off doing something’, ‘to be snowed under’.

Here’s my Phrasal Verb Game in Four Stages

Vocabulary Game Stage 1:  Match the phrasal verbs to their definition.

  • On one A4 sheet of colored paper, I put the text at the top with the phrasal verbs in bold.   Below the text, I made a table with the 13 definitions and 13 blank cells.

    This is the board game for stage 1 wwhere student match the phrasal verb to the definition

    This is the board game for stage 1 where student match the phrasal verb to the definition

  • On another page of A4 colored paper, I duplicated the same table and filled in the blank boxes with the corresponding phrasal verb.  This can be printed as an answer sheet, but the goal is to cut up the boxes with the phrasal verbs as cards.

    Cut out the phrasal verbs to be used as cards on the board game.

    Cut out the phrasal verbs to be used as cards on the board game.

  • Boys love to manipulate when learning.  The students will decide as a team which phrasal verb card goes with which definition.  Hopefully, they will do this in English and the stronger students will help out the slower ones.

Vocabulary Game Stage 2: Match the preposition to the expressions.  Phrasal verbs have two components: a verb and a preposition and sometimes even a third component:  an object.

  • On an A4 sheet of paper, I created a table with three columns and 13 rows.  I typed in 13 short expressions dividing the expressions into two parts with the position for the preposition in the middle.   The middle column will be left blank for the preposition cards.

    Stage 2 provide the missing preposition

    Stage 2 provide the missing preposition

  • On another A4 sheet of paper, I made a table for the preposition flashcards.  I made the table with five columns and three rows.  I made sure that the size of each cell corresponded to the blank middle column of the board game.  I then typed in the 13 prepositions.
  • The flashcards are in the table just below.  I made the table of flash cards with the same 13 expressions leaving a ‘blank’ space for the preposition.  These will be the flashcards used in Stage 4.
    Print this page then cut it up into prepositions for the board game in Stage 2 and for flash cards for Stage 4

    Print this page then cut it up into propositions for the board game in Stage 2 and for flash cards for Stage 4


Vocabulary Game Stage 3: Crossword puzzle where they provide the verb.   So the students have practiced the prepositions, now they will practice supplying the verb.

  • Using the same 13 expressions, I created a crossword puzzle where the students must provide the verb.

    Crossword puzzle to reinforce the verbs.

    Crossword puzzle to reinforce the verbs.

Vocabulary Game Stage 4: Flashcards with 13 expressions: student supplies preposition.  Ok now the students practice the 13 flashcards and use their stopwatch app on their cell phones to time each other.

  • Announce that there will be a ‘delegate’ chosen at random to represent his team in the ‘stopwatch time off’. Explain that maybe it would be the slowest guy on the team who would be ‘timed’ or maybe the fastest.
  • Not knowing who would be chosen to be ‘timed’ would encourage all the team members to be supportive of each other and to help those who had more difficulty learning the lesson. There are M&Ms at stake and the prestige of winning.


At the beginning of the class:

  • walk around the room and ask each boy to draw his number.
  • Designate a ‘color’ to a grouping of tables in each corner of the room.  “Yellow team over here.  Blue team over there”.
  • After writing down each boy’s color and number beside their name in the class roll, pick up their numbered card.
  • Pass out Stage 1 and explain the concept of team members helping each other to win M&Ms.

During each stage of the vocabulary game

  • Circulate around the class dropping by each team to encourage participation and observe if each student is understanding the lesson.
  • Give out the subsequent stage when you’re confident the entire team is succeeding (or almost).

Final Official Stopwatch ‘Timing’:

  • When you feel that just about everyone on the team has had ample time to practice the flash cards and be timed, find the six numbered cards for each team (for example Pink 1-6) and let one person on the team chose the representative. This is where it’s important to write down the team color and number for each student.  That way there’s no arguing when for example P-5 is chosen.
  • Very important to abide by the rules yourself if I you want to keep their respect.  So when a slow guy is chosen at random to be the representative, he might ask to be replaced by a stronger team member.  Stand by the rules and repeat ‘No substitutions.’
  • Let each representative practice a little longer, then announce the official timing. Write on the board the time recorded for each team.  Telling the next team the ‘time to beat’ increases concentration and fun.
  • Pass out the M&Ms to the winners.

Prepare a quiz for the next class

Boys generally don’t learn for the sake of learning.  There clearly has to be a reason to learn the material.  So I found that giving a short quiz at the beginning of every class covering the material from the week before was motivating.  I was surprised that the boys wanted to know their score immediately, so I graded the quiz in front of them.  They even helped me to calculate their marks.

For creating the multiple choice quiz I used the website  I typed in the phrasal verb and looked for an example of a short sentence with a business context.

Use the website Lynguée to find typical business texts using the phrasal verb.

Use the website Lynguée to find typical business texts using the phrasal verb.


I even kept marks for ‘participation in class’ by giving the winning team a grade of ‘five’ for the day, the next fastest team got a ‘four’ for participation and so on.  That way, I had two grades per session for the final semester grade.  Boys like to be ranked according to results, not solely on the ‘feelings’ of the teacher.


I use this ‘team style’ classroom management as often as possible.  The feedback I get from my female, as well as male students, is always positive.  No matter what the age.  The class is more active, teaming up at random gets students to change seats and partners and invariably the winning team shares the M&Ms  with everyone.  A five-pack of M&Ms costs me around $2.50.  That’s a cheap price to pay for almost certain student engagement.


Hope this was helpful.  I’d love to hear your comments and your stories about motivating students.


Download Templates for Phrasal Verb Game:


Internet Resources:


Article  “Teaching Boys” by Andrew Fuller

Article   “Interesting Factoids: Tips to keep in mind when teaching boys”.  SDE Self Development for Educators

Video: sociology  ‘The Secret Power of Time’

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6 Responses

  1. Great ideas Ellen! I’m teaching toeic at polytech next year (lots of boys) so this will be really useful.

    • Ellen Dubois Ellen Dubois says:

      Thanks Catherine. I’ll be posting more games soon, but ‘team’ classroom management is really adaptable once you’ve got the idea for your game. I’ve taught linking words, word families, pronouns…. for TOEIC prep using this method.

  2. Rob Whyte says:

    Really great ideas. Back to basics mixed with an understand of human nature. Thanks for the article.

    • Ellen Dubois Ellen Dubois says:

      Thanks for the encouragement Rob. I just visited your ESL writing site and your idea of using silent videos as prompts for writing assignments is very interesting. Good luck with your work.

  1. June 22, 2016

    […] is a follow up to my last blog “How to engage Millennials in ESL/EFL class” where I   explained in detail how these games were designed with teaching a large class […]

  2. October 24, 2016

    […] Divide your students into color coded groups which match the colored paper you’ve used to print your game boards.  (See this previous post of mine for instructions on forming groups and choosing  a person to represent the group in the final stop watch game. […]

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