How To Use Competition to Motivate Your TEFL Students

Today we have a guest contribution from Victoria Hughes, which is perhaps the best name for a blog we have come across! Victoria has been a TEFL teacher for 5 years and has lived in Poland, China and Turkey. She writes about job hunting, lesson planning and the joys and frustrations of teaching. We hope you that if you enjoy this post that you comment below.

Enter Victoria

I was watching the inspiring “Dead Poets Society” the other day, and I was struck by something the teacher, John Keating, says. “For me, sport is a chance for us to have other human beings push us to excel.”

Motivating students to work hard is at least half the battle in getting them to achieve anything. Even the most dedicated students can get burnt out from time to time, and one of our responsibilities as teachers is to help push them to excel. Competition introduces a sense of external urgency and drama. It can make bored students more enthusiastic. It can motivate students to work harder and do better.

However, there are definite pitfalls to using competition. When it is taken too seriously it adds to the pressure felt by the students and can actually make them less motivated instead of more. Extrinsic motivation and rewards can, over time, decrease students’ intrinsic interest in or enthusiasm for a subject.

So how should we use competition in the classroom?

Creating the Right Atmosphere

Competition works best when it is fun and lighthearted, so creating the right atmosphere in your classroom is vital. Work with your class to agree on a set of clear rules for how they should behave. Some examples might be:

  • No cheating (obviously!)
  • No insulting or mocking the other team
  • No gloating about a win
  • Congratulations*

*Polite applause or shaking hands with the other team are required at the end of a game

Encourage team work and collaboration during the games. Change the members of each team from game to game or from lesson to lesson so that the students get the opportunity to work with everyone and resentments do not develop.

It’s inevitable that some members of the team will be weaker than others. Teach the students that they will get more out of their team-mates by encouraging them than by getting frustrated with them. Competition can teach students to work better in a team, but only if they get guidance and gentle correction.

The teacher should emphasize fun and learning above winning when establishing and playing any game. You can add to the fun by encouraging students to pick funny team names, rewarding them with silly medals

Choosing the Best Games

Competitive games work best when the students have already mastered a skill, not when they are still learning it. Competition can help make them faster, smoother or more accurate but it can’t teach them how to do something new. More controlled practice is needed for that. Never play highly competitive games when introducing a new subject – they are best saved for reviewing old material or consolidating things that have been learned recently.

Any game needs a well-defined goal for students to aim for. The fastest or the most are common goals, for example “Which team can solve this list of scrambled sentences first?” or “Which team can list the most irregular verbs in 3 minutes?”

Any game with points for each correct answer works too.

If you are going to be judging the winner (for example, a poster competition where you choose the best poster at the end) then be sure your students have a clear idea of what you will be looking for. If you explain to them that interesting writing, well-chosen pictures and a clear message are the goals, then they are less likely to complain or debate your decision if they lose. It also makes the game fairer if everyone is on the same page from the beginning.

In general it is best to stick to shorter competitions as these are usually more fun. Longer projects that are competitive can seem more serious and eventually become a burden instead of enjoyable. It can be as simple as splitting your class into teams and playing Taboo to review vocabulary.

Make sure when you group the students that each team has a mixed level of abilities. If the best students always work together and always win then the rest will be discouraged.

The best games are ones where every student has to participate at least once. A game like Constantinople does this well.

(If you don’t know the game: write ‘Constantinople’ in block capitals down the side of the board. Split the class into two teams and have them stand in two lines. One person from each team runs forward and writes a word beginning with C, then hands the pen off to the next in line to write a word beginning with O, and so on. The fastest team wins.)

Games where the students all brainstorm together can mean that the quietest or slowest students do not participate enough.


When praising students, put the emphasis on how hard they have worked or how much they have improved, rather than on winning or losing. If you are rewarding students then make sure to reward participation also. For example, if I am rewarding my students with stickers then I will give one sticker to every student who played well and did their best and then an extra one to the winning team.

It isn’t necessary or even desirable to give out rewards for every game – most of the time the satisfaction of winning and peer recognition is enough to motivate students. Where you do give out rewards, these do not have to be material. I often let the winning team choose what activity we will do for the last ten minutes of a lesson, or choose an English song for the class to listen to.

I balance these by also rewarding the whole class for times when they work hard, by not giving out homework one week or having a movie day.

Never use the result of a competition to grade your students, or let it contribute to their grade. Doing so will make the students focus too heavily on the outcomes of competitions and their grade instead of on the actual process of learning.

Use Competition Sparingly!

Even if you do everything else right, competition should still be used sparingly. Dialogue between students and the exploring of new ideas is an essential part of learning, and it cannot happen in a competitive atmosphere. Students should be given time for reflection and creativity.

Collaborative activities that are not competitive can also help students learn to work as a team, and build an atmosphere of camaraderie in the classroom.

Above all, teach your students to win and lose graciously. That is a lesson that will help them through life as much as any amount of English.

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Posted in Blog, How To Teach English, Lesson Plans & Activities.

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