Making English REAL (and engaging) for non-English majors

Most of us have probably been there: a required class of non-English majors. People whose major has no particular need for English. Students who have no particular love of English.
In this particular class, we started with a Find Someone Who from their textbook. They stood up and moved around, asking questions trying to find someone who could say, “yes” for each item.  One read, “Find someone who likes English.”  29 students.  1 said yes. 28 said no!
OK. I get it. English has never been a real language for you guys. It was never a tool to communicate your ideas. It has always been a test – and maybe one you never felt good at.  How can I create success?

In this case, it wasn’t difficult. The students were elementary education and child development (early childhood) majors. I started bringing in kid’s songs in English.  We’d spend the first 10 minutes of class learning things they’ll be able to use as elementary school or kindergarten teachers. Most of the class we are using a coursebook (English Firsthand Success – OK, I’m biased). But doing warm-up songs, fingerplays, big book stories, etc. was enough to turn things around.

Using big books in class
"Karuta" - a famous Japanese game"Twister"Using big books in class
I was connecting English to their own interests and their lives. I started with one student who liked English. Four months later, nine of the students volunteered to come in on a holiday to teach English games and songs to elementary school children at a university event called “summer college.”  By second semester of last year, over half of the class was volunteering (on their own time) to teach English classes at our university’s kindergarten/children’s forest learning center.

Their attitude toward English totally turned around, simply because I was able to connect English to their interests. They engaged. That makes the class more interesting for them. And a whole lot more fun for me to teach.

If it could work for my el.ed./early childhood majors, how about others?

I created a web page called, Warm-ups and tasks for non-English majors. So far I have about 40 links to websites and other resources you can use to make your English classes relevant to students who might otherwise not find English interesting. The majors included up to now are:

  • General English
  • Business
  • Elementary education / Child development
  • Food and nutrition
  • Japanese literature/ culture
  • Intercultural studies
  • Psychology
  • Physical education
  • Physical sciences
Plus a few ideas for people teaching other majors.

Please feel free to explore the site and use it with your students.

If you have suggestions for other majors/links, please let me know (my contact information is on the site).

I hope this helps you connect with your students and helps them connect with English.

Thanks to Curtis Kelly, Phil Macasland, Megumi Yoshieda, and Dave Hopkins for suggestion sites. Thanks to Harumi Kimura who organizes English classes in my universities General Studies Dept. for encouraging this.

A version of this article appeared at

About Marc Helgesen

Marc Helgesen is an author of over 180 articles, books and textbooks including Pearson’s popular English Firsthand series.  He is professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women's University, Sendai. He has been an invited speaker at conference on 5 continents. His research interests include Positive Psychology in ELT, Brain Science in ELT and Extensive Reading.

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