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Direct vs. Indirect Engagement — DOES IT MATTER?

Dear Readers, would you help me think about something? Pretty please? 

This is something I have wondered about many times, and I would love to hear what others think about it, and how they might apply their insights in their teaching. 


When I think of teaching, I think about how I can engage my students. Let’s take a moment to think about what that word means: engage. When gears engage, they are connected, interlocking, involved with each other. They are dynamic; they move and they interact. 

When I think of an engaged learner, I think of one who is caught up in what they are doing. Their mind is occupied, active, responsive to the focus of their attention. Engagement can be emotional, physical, or intellectual. But it always involves a person whose attention is being held. That is, the person doesn’t have to work to stay focused on the point of engagement. In fact, it would take a conscious effort for them to disengage. 

And just how do you get your students engaged in learning? I’m thinking especially of children, but all of this applies to older learners as well.  


But that’s not my real question. That’s just a rhetorical question. I’m still getting to the real question. Bear with me! 


So, again: How do you get your learners engaged? Perhaps the first thing that will come to some teachers’ minds is games or a some other fun activity. When learners are having fun, their minds are active, dynamic—engaged. Of course, fun is not necessarily enough to ensure learning. And while there is nothing wrong with fun for fun’s sake, we as educators should be thinking about how the fun will engender or enhance learning. 


Now let’s say your students are engaged in a game. They are having fun, and because the game is designed as a learning tool, they are also learning. But what is the focus of their engagement? 

kids engaged in game

Here I want to make a distinction between what I will call direct engagement and indirect engagement

Yes, I know that I haven’t gotten to my real question yet—I’m still working up to it. Hang in there just a bit longer. 

By direct engagement, I mean that the learners are focused on the language target itself—anything from a phonemic awareness task to a higher level communication challenge. When direct engagement is happening, the learner’s goal is the language target for the sake of the language target: e.g., “I want to learn this vocabulary because I want to know how to say this in English.”

Indirect engagement, on the other hand, would be a situation where a student is focused on a game that happens to incorporate a language target. Here, the learner’s goal is to win the game—or, in the case of a cooperative game, simply to play the game—and the language learning is the hoop they have to jump through to win or play. Let me repeat: with indirect engagement, the learner’s real goal is not language learning, but playing the game (or other activity). The language learning is incidental, peripheral—it comes in through the back door, so to speak. 


So, my question is … See? I told you I would get around to the question! … My question, my real question is this: DOES IT MATTER? 


Does it matter if the engagement is direct or indirect? Will the learning be more effective one way or the other? Why would that be? Might the learner’s attitude towards the subject be influenced by which kind of engagement happens? How so? What other differences might it make? 


If you think it does matter, and if you think direct engagement is more desirable, HOW DO YOU GET IT? How do you foster direct engagement? Do you get it by modifying the rules of a game? Do you get it by playing certain kinds of games? Do you get it through something other than games? 

These are questions I truly wonder about, and I would really like to hear your thoughts on them. Log in below and share your thoughts!

Alan Miesch

Alan Miesch

After years as a ‘professional dabbler’, Alan Miesch found himself drawn into teaching English to non-native English learners. He has experience in a wide range of milieus, both in the United States and Japan, teaching young children, teens, and adults. He is now the proprietor and sole teacher at a private English classroom in Numazu, Japan.
Alan Miesch

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3 Responses to Direct vs. Indirect Engagement — DOES IT MATTER?

  1. Recall, nor the TV or Computer worry about
    that which you are ingesting, wearing, or organizing.

  2. Hi Alan.

    I really like this question! I agree that language acquisition occurs through both direct and indirect engagement. However, I think the efficacy of either type of engagement will be at least in part dependent on the age of the learner.
    From the perspective of an early childhood educator and English teacher, it is essential that language teachers have some understanding of cognitive development, especially when working with children. The younger the child, the more important it is for the teacher to base their curriculum and activities on solid childhood development research.
    Having said that, it is commonly accepted that children, particularly young children, learn best through play. True play can be simply defined as activities initiated by the child, which are engaged in purely for enjoyment. If it is true that children learn best through this type of activity, then it follows that indirect engagement would be more effective for younger learners.
    In the 20 years that I have been working with children from infants through junior high school students, I have found this to be very true. In my experience, when an activity is fun just for fun’s sake, kindergartners absorb language naturally, easily and quickly. An improvement in language production is also more likely when children take part in these kinds of activities.
    What do you think? I would be eager to discuss this further!

  3. Thanks for your thoughts and insights, Melony. It seems to me to make good sense.
    Based on the points you make, if we are to design activities for very young learners, they should be designed with fun as the number one top priority.
    And maybe the second and third top priorities as well.
    THEN we should think about how we can populate these activities with an abundance of natural English.
    Good to keep in mind!

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