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Preventing Disengagement in Language Learning

World language educators can appreciate the challenge and frustration that underlies the oft-spoken reminder to learners, “I can’t learn the language for you.” We often repeat these words as a mantra when faced with poor student engagement and general lack of ownership for learning. And while we can’t be held fully responsible for student motivation to learn a language, we can plan for instruction with an eye toward orchestrating a learning environment that engages learners.


Engagement is a highly desirable learner state in language learning. Learners benefit from having teachers who cultivate engagement both inside and outside of the classroom. Research on the construct ranges from the characterization of engagement as a variable along a continuum of learning (Schlechty, 2011) to the validation of an assessment tool checklist (Waggett, Johnston, & Jones, 2017) used to identify the level of engagement of a particular task or activity. This educator likes to think of teaching with an “engagement mindset” as an approach to prevent disengagement.


As is the case with any change in instructional practice, efforts to engage learners should be thoughtfully explored and tested (proactive), not be rushed or afterthoughts of instructional design of lessons (reactive). Cultivating an engagement mindset doesn’t require a total paradigm shift, but rather an awareness of how best to leverage tools and practices in meaningful, authentic ways. Teaching with an engagement mindset involves knowing how to leverage the affordances of technologies we select in support of language learning. Technology, both hardware and software, when thoughtfully integrated, can not only help us to address the modes of communication (interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational), but can do so in a way that engages the learner. It isn’t “technology for technology’s sake.” Perhaps the best way to avoid this common pitfall is to ensure alignment of the technology or engagement tool with instruction built upon learning objectives. In so doing, we are less likely to become slaves to a particular technology, and instead are more likely to leverage the affordances of that technology. If the technology does not support the requirements of the task toward achieving one or more learning goals, then it is not an appropriate choice. It may also fail to engage learners if it interferes with their ability to complete the task.


Once proper alignment has been established, integration should be guided by how the technology supports authentic, communicative language learning. For example, students access the website for Carrefour, a well-known French hypermarket, to shop for a meal. Working in pairs, they must buy enough groceries to prepare a four-person dinner with a budget of 200 €. Then they must create and share their itemized shopping list and the meal menu. It is easy to see how such a task has the potential to provide for a meaningful, engaging learning experience as students decide on the meal courses and negotiate the purchase of food items to remain within their budget (interpretive and presentational communication). The teacher serves as an additional resource in this scenario to monitor and scaffold learning.


Before learners enter the classroom, we must conduct a rehearsal of the task, completing the task ourselves to experience how instructional design using technology engages the learner. For example, what if the technology is engaging, but does not support attainment of learning objectives? What if the technology is unreliable and fails to reproduce the same conditions or results upon repeated use? We must also bear in mind that if the role of technology is to provide access to web-based content, will learners be exposed to content that is age-appropriate? In most K–12 environments, site-based filters address issues of inappropriate content, but what about content that might be beyond the students’ current reading level?


The last step to ensure a technology will appropriately engage the learner is to model how the technology works and communicate expectations for its use. For example, imagine asking students to use Flipgrid to create a video self-introduction for an exchange student who will arrive next month. In this instance (presentational communication), technology serves as a vehicle in support of production, in contrast to the previous example, where one technology provides access to authentic content and another is used for student output (interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational communication). In both examples, teachers must first demonstrate and/or provide a model of how the technology works. Don’t assume that all learners will inherently know how to use the technology the first time you introduce it.


Engaging learners through technology or any other strategy requires thoughtful planning. This includes knowing your learners, i.e., how they learn and what excites them about learning. Keep in mind that engagement occurs along a continuum, ranging from the highly engaged learner who embraces their responsibility to learn the language for themselves to the rebellious learner who doesn’t care about learning and may even provide resistance to your efforts (Schlechty, 2011). We have the opportunity to engage learners both inside and outside of the classroom. Whether technology is involved or not, don’t miss out on an opportunity to engage them in ways that promote ownership of their efforts as language learners.


By Bobby Hobgood

Watch the recording of Bobby Hobgood’s webinar, Preventing Disengagement in Language Learning.



Schlechty, P. (2011). Engaging Students. New York, New York: Jossey-Bass.

Waggett, R. J., Johnston, P., & Jones, L. B. (2017). Beyond simple participation: providing a reliable informal assessment tool of student engagement for teachers. Education, 137(4), 393+


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