The Power of Cute

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[The importance of using puppies and kittens in class]

Patrick Fagan was walking down the street one day when he saw a homeless person selling ‘The Big Issue’. As he himself says (‘#Hooked’ – p. 40), on such occasions, he almost invariably walks past. On that day however, he did not. Not only that, he bought the issue (£ 2.50), gave the man a £10 note and told him to keep the change! Why?

The answer was simple: Bob. Bob is the lovely ginger cat you see here, and he proved just irresistible. Here is the full story (ibid – p. 41): James Bowen was a homeless drug addict who decided to kick the habit, moved into assisted housing and started selling ‘The Big Issue’. One day, he discovered that a cute ginger cat had found its way into the house. He looked after it and the cat took to following him around. James named him Bob.

James also did some busking and he discovered that with Bob by his side, people would stop to listen, they would talk to him, interact with the cat – and give more money. At some point, a friend suggested that perhaps James should write a book about himself and Bob. James did. The book sold 2 million copies in the UK alone! So successful was the book that it was made into a movie! (Check out the trailer below).

You may say: ‘OK – what does all this have to do with ELT?’ Well, don’t you want your students to be engaged? Don’t you want them to wax lyrical about your lessons? Cute attracts. Cute is memorable. Cute presses all the right buttons. There is a reason why puppies and kittens feature so prominently in ads – we love them! Cat videos generated 1.6 billion views on YouTube (and that was in 2012!); the cat channel mugumogu has 750,000 subscribers… I could go on and on…

So how can we use the power of cute in class? Here are three ideas (I am sure you can come up with many more):

  • Play this fantastic ad up to 0:34; get students to write what happens next, then play the rest of it ( https://bit.ly/3aIbXV4 ).

  • Get students to practice listening, by playing the ‘Dear Kitten’ ad. You can find the clip and a worksheet here ( https://bit.ly/2Q8NWwV ).
  • Ask students to prepare a presentation about their own pets – complete with pictures and videos.

Speaking about that last idea, one of my students is a lovely lady from Kazakhstan.  We have always had a good working relationship, but it had always been somewhat formal. Recently however, I happened to mention pets and she started telling me about her lovely puppy, Jason. That was it – she would not stop talking! Our lessons have never been the same since… 😊

The Moral: Use cute in class. Advertisers know what they are doing.

Getting People to Do Things

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[The importance of modelling in overcoming resistance]

It is a hot day. You are at some event outdoors with hundreds and hundreds of other people. The music is playing. There is a lone guy there dancing in a crazy way  all by himself. Do you join him? Watch this amazing clip:

Ok – now forget about the dancing. Has this ever happened to you? You have prepared an amazing mingling activity for your class. You give them the instructions and say ‘OK – off you go!’. And nobody moves. I am sure you know the feeling. It is even worse if you are a presenter, like I am, working with middle-aged colleagues. How do you get them to do things?

Jez Groom was facing a similar problem. As a business consultant he was running a workshop for a big company and it was important for his demonstration to get his group to do a particular activity. ‘What would this entail?’ I hear you ask. Well, nothing special – just listening to a song for 3-year olds, lying down pretending to be a sleeping little bunny when the singer goes ‘see the little bunnies sleeping’ and then jumping up and hopping around like a bunny when prompted by the lyrics. Piece of cake… 😊 Seriously: what would you say are the chances that a group of business people would do such a thing?

Groom tested this. He gave a control group a set of instructions telling them what they were supposed to do and then pressed ‘play’. Predictably, nobody moved. Yet with another group, it was a totally different story: the people dutifully lied down, and when the rousing ‘Wake up little bunnies’ came, they all started bouncing around. What was the difference? Here is the idea: Groom had told a few people in advance what was going to happen and he had got them to agree to comply unquestioningly. That was it. (Groom & Vellacott ‘Ripple’ – pp. 14-15)

There is a clear lesson for us here: people may be reluctant to do something, unless they take their lead from their peers. Here are some tips:

  • First of all, your students may not know what to do – so make sure you do not just give instructions, but you demonstrate the activity as well.
  • If you think your students might be self-conscious about doing a particular activity, tell some of them in advance and ask them to agree to be the first to do it.
  • If you want students to organise themselves in groups, tell some people in advance and get them to initiate things.
  • If you are worried people may not feel comfortable about asking questions after a talk, tell 2-3 of them to prepare some questions in advance to get the ball rolling.

Remember the crazy guy video? If he had arranged the whole thing with the first 2-3 ‘followers’, the ‘movement’ would have started sooner.

The Moral: To overcome reactance, get some people to model the desired behaviour.

How to Change People’s Attitudes

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[The importance of cognitive dissonance]

Here is a question for you: I ask you to do a boring task – say turn around some wooden pegs for no reason at all. They I offer you a reward – either $ 20 or $ 1. Are you more likely to say you enjoyed it in the former or in the latter condition?

Naturally, your answer is wrong. 😊 Watch the clip below:

But there was a reason why you got it wrong; I left out an important detail. The subjects in the study were actually asked to lie to a third person about the nature of the task. The ones who got paid $ 20 thought: ‘OK, the task was boring, but they gave me $ 20, so that’s why I lied’. With the others though, this wouldn’t work; $ 1 was a trifling sum. So why did they do it? Faced with this internal conflict, these subjects actually changed their perception of reality: ‘Oh well – I didn’t lie so much; the task was quite interesting’. This is pure magic! 😊

Think about it: most of us feel that people’s beliefs determine their actions; Cognitive Dissonance argues that in many cases it is people’s actions that shape their beliefs! (‘The Advertising Effect’ – pp. 32-33). Here are two examples:

  • We value more things we paid a lot for (‘It has cost me a fortune, so either I am stupid or this is really very valuable’)
  • We think worse of people we have wronged (‘I spoke badly about him, so either I was unfair or he really is a b****rd’)

So is there a way we can use this insight with our students? Yes, there is. We do not need to try to persuade them that something is good for them so they will do it; we only need to get them to do something and then their brain will do the rest! Here are some tips:

  • Ask students to prepare mini videos advertising the school / the teacher / the coursebook (‘If I said I liked it, it must be good’).
  • Ask students to help you with the lesson (‘If I have helped the teacher, she must be nice’).
  • Ask students to participate in a project ‘as part of an experiment’ (‘If I have spent so much time, I must be a conscientious student’).
  • Ask students to volunteer for a school initiative (‘If I have volunteered, this means I value the work we do here’).

By the way, here is one last tip: people feel that more expensive medicine is more effective (‘If I have paid so much, the pills must be potent’) – so make sure you charge quite a bit for your private lessons. 😊

The Moral: Get people to do things and they will change their attitude too.

Marginal Gains – Huge Results

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[The importance of improving the way you do things]

The year 2003 marked what has to be the most spectacular turnaround in sports history. For more than a century, the British cycling team had performed so badly, that they had not won a gold medal since 1908 or the Tour de France in 110 years! Then Dave Brailsford took over.

Brailsford introduced an interesting new strategy, which he called ‘the aggregation of  marginal gains’. This was the idea: there are a number of factors which contribute to a cyclist achieving a top performance; if we break down all of these and then make an 1% improvement in each one, the overall result should be very significant.

Following this logic, the team got together and analysed everything: the bike and its parts; the athletes’ clothes; the training, the athletes’ diet, their health, etc. They looked at every single detail and then made dozens and dozens of changes. For instance, they improved the saddles to make them more comfortable; they switched to lighter fabrics for the athletes’ clothes; they used biofeedback sensors to see how each athlete responded to the training so as to customize their work-outs; they even tried out different pillows and mattresses to ensure that the athletes got the best sleep possible.

Did all this work pay off? You bet it did. In the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the team won 60% of all the gold medals in cycling. In the London Olympics of 2012, they set seven world records. And in a stunning winning spree, they won the Tour de France five out of six times in the period between 2012 and 2017. Amazing! (‘Atomic Habits’ – pp. 14-15 [Watch the short clip below] ).

So what if we as EL teachers were to take a leaf out of Brailsford’s book? What if we were to look at how our students try to learn English and improved every single thing by 1% (or more)? Here are some ideas:

  • If our students record single words, why not show them how to record collocations?
  • If they enjoy watching TV series, why not tell them to watch them with English subtitles on?
  • If they revise by re-reading their notes, why not teach them how to quiz themselves instead?

Apart from the language benefits, getting students to change the way they practice should produce a far more important change – a change in identity: ‘I am an active language learner’. That would be a huge win.

The Moral: FiShow your students how to make ‘marginal’ changes.

Going the Extra Mile

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[How little things can result in huge reputational gains]

It is the middle of July, the Greek summer sun is bearing down on you mercilessly, so you head for your favourite bar on the beach. The barista greets you with a smile. ‘You know that weird cocktail you asked me for yesterday – the one I hadn’t heard of?’ he asks. ‘Well, I looked it up, found the ingredients and prepared it for you. Here it is. On the house’. Wow!

The world of Customer Service is full of little incidents like this one (taken from ‘The Power of Moments’ – p. 55). Imagine for instance being a CEO and flying off somewhere to receive an award in front of 2,000 people. Then at the very last moment you discover you forgot to pack a tie. The hotel manager who happens to be present simply removes his own and gives it to you. Fantastic! (‘The 12 Elements of Great Managing’ – p. 13)

And what about that employee at Nordstrom? A customer walked in saying she had bought something which she needed to give someone as a present, only they had forgotten to gift-wrap it for her. The employee immediately offered to do this for her. Nothing special here – except that the item had not been bought at Nordstrom but at Macy’s! (‘Made to Stick’ – p. 73).

Is there a lesson for us here? Indeed there is. Our students watch us all the time – and they talk about us. Whenever we do something unexpected, something special, whenever we go the extra mile, this registers immediately and can have a huge impact on our reputation.

Imagine for instance a parent calling the school saying that something has come up at home and she cannot pick up her child for at least an hour. Now imagine the teacher driving the child there on her own initiative.

Or imagine a teacher hearing about one of her students winning, say, a sports tournament and throwing a special party at the language school as a special treat.

What message would these actions send? That the teacher cares for her students not only as learners but as human beings as well. Think about how the students and the parents would see her – and what they would say about her. Think about how much more students would learn from a teacher they like. Then think about how these little things would change the teacher herself.

The Moral: YSeek out opportunities to shine.

Birds of a feather – any feather!

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[The importance of similarity in liking others]

Whenever I go into a store to buy something and I start chatting with the shop assistant, within seconds it emerges that we share at least 2-3 things in common. Now isn’t this strange?

Back in the 1990s, a young researcher by the name of Donn Byrne wanted to study how similarity affects how much we like others. He started by talking to students and finding out their attitudes and preferences on pretty much everything from religion, to politics, to films, to sports, to premarital sex. He analysed his data and distilled them down to 26 key attributes.

Next, he found some students and asked them to indicate how much they agreed with a number of statements. Some were about serious things like ‘I believe in God’, while others had to do with relatively trivial attitudes, such as ‘I dislike Westerns’. He collected the responses and then a few days later, he showed each person the responses of another individual on the same statements. (Naturally, he had made these up!) This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1-similarity-1.jpgThen he asked students how much they liked these other people on the basis of their responses.

Byrne had divided his subjects into four categories. The first group got responses which were practically identical to their own. With the second group it was the other way round. What he discovered was that similarity of views / attitudes mattered enormously. On a scale of liking from 1 – 14, the first group said they loved these other guys (rating: 13 out of 14). The second group all but hated them (rating: 4.41 out of 14). This is a huge difference.

What happened with categories three and four is much more interesting however. Subjects in group three got responses which showed that the other person had similar attitudes in important matters (e.g. religion, politics) but different ones in less important ones (e.g. sports, films). With group four, it was the other way round. Now, you would expect that people in group three would really like these other people, while people in group four would dislike them, right?

Wrong! Incredibly, what Byrne found was that quantity trumps quality! In other words, it does not matter whether we share similar views on important matters, so long as we {“type”:”block”,”srcClientIds”:[“df5e4e5d-9285-435c-a4b2-7cae0b216280″],”srcRootClientId”:””}have many trivial things in common. Put another way, it does not matter if we disagree in politics, as long as we share the same name, zodiac sign and shoe-size! (Byrne 1997).

And this is the moral here: do you want your students / your colleagues / your boss / parents etc. to like you? The easiest way to achieve this is to discover as many things as you can that you share in common – however trivial (‘Yes! I too add pepper to my coffee!’). Take a leaf out of the shop assistants’ book.

The Moral: Find and stress similarities between yourself and others.

The Art of Being Selfish

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[The unexpected link between happiness and altruism]

Try this with your students: ask them to write down a list of things that would make them happier, then put their pens down. Professor Tali Sharot did that with her students, then she smiled and said: ‘I bet none of you listed ‘being kinder’ between ‘earning double what I do now’ and ‘more travelling’. Brilliant! – Read on… 😊

Imagine you are a university student in Vancouver, Canada. One day at the campus, a nice young guy approaches you and gives you an envelope. ‘Here’ he says ‘This is for you’. This actually happened to quite a few people on that particular day. Inside the envelope was some money (either a $ 20 bill or a $ 5 bill) along with a little note asking people to spend this money by buying something for themselves until the evening. Others got a different message; once again they got some money (either $ 20 or $ 5) but this time the note asked them to spend it on buying something for someone else. Later that day, these people were contacted by phone. Sure enough, they had spent the money as they had been asked. The big question was: how were they feeling? To find out, read on or – better still – watch this short clip:

OK – here is what they found: i) the people who had spent money on doing something for others, were much happier at the end of the day;  ii) significantly, it was the act of altruism that mattered – not how much money they had spent.

I remember watching this clip again and again and thinking to myself ‘Wow! This is amazing! Why can’t we use this in class? Students will be using the L2 and they should end up feeling quite a bit happier into the bargain! Here are two ideas:

i)      Get students in groups and ask them to brainstorm little things they could do to make someone happier (e.g. write a little ‘Thank you’ note to their mother [or to your teacher! 😊 ] or do the shopping for the old lady next door.

ii)    Ask students to choose one of the ideas, actually do it and then write a little paragraph about what it was and how the other person felt. You can put these up on the wall (or on a Padlet wall) and students can try to guess who it was that did what.

The possibilities are endless! And while you are at it, you might want to share the following Dalai Lama quote with your students ‘If you would like to be selfish, do it in a clever way […] work for the welfare of others’. Respect.

The Moral: Get students to do things for others – and talk about it in English.

OK – What Happens Next?

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[The power of investment]

Watching football at the pub with the lads is a favourite male pastime in the UK – but James Lang and his friends thought they’d make the whole thing somewhat more exciting. Every Thursday, they would pick three matches and try to predict who the winner was going to be. The guy with the best crystal ball won a beer from each of the others. Then Lang noticed something interesting: he could remember these games a lot better than the others (‘Small Teaching’ – p. 42).

Why does this happen? Lang gives us two answers:  i) increased attention and ii) emotional engagement. If this is the case, then this is something we could certainly use in class. But has it been tested? Well, consider the following study (‘Stumbling on Happiness’ – p. 116): researchers got two groups of children together. They told the first group that they would ask them some general knowledge questions (e.g.  ‘What is the longest river in the world?’) and then they would give them a reward for their participation – either a chocolate bar, or the answers to the questions. Guess which reward the kids went for… 😊

With the second group though, they did things differently: they asked them the  questions first and only then did they offer them the choice of reward. To everyone’s amazement, this time the children actually eschewed the chocolate in favour of the answers! This is completely counter-intuitive; before the study, the researchers had asked teachers and psychologists to predict what children would choose, and everyone had said they would choose the chocolate in both conditions.

The moral: Getting students to invest in an activity by getting them to guess/predict something is a sure way to motivate them. So how can we do this? We could get them…

… to guess the answers to the questions before giving them a text;

… to complete half-sentences before playing an audio/video track;

… to guess what certain numbers might refer to, etc. etc.

Or you could just get them to predict how a story continues. Take these three ads for instance. You ask students: ‘Why has this happened? What is going to happen next?

  • A boy is standing in front of his mother’s mirror carefully applying lipstick on his lips….
  • A mother is taking her little daughter to school when she is stopped for speeding. Her daughter writes something on a piece of cardboard and shows it to the policeman…
  • A man is playing with his daughter in the garden. In the garden next to theirs, a wedding party are posing for photos. Suddenly, the girl runs up to them…

When the students have written a few lines about how each story unfolds, you play them the clip below. Enjoy!  😊

The Moral: To generate motivation, get students guessing!

What can Put-Pocketing Teach us?

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[How demonstrations trump explanations]

A crowded place is a pick-pocket’s paradise. How do you get people to take better care of their belongings? Well, the obvious thing to do is to put up a sign: ‘Beware: Pickpockets Operate in this Area’. What happens when you see this of course is that you automatically tap your pocket to make sure your wallet is still there – which sends just the right message to any pickpocket who may be around! 😊

What to do? The Ogilvy team came up with a brilliant idea: why not employ former thieves and magicians to actually put things inside people’s pockets? And what they put in was a leaflet with a message saying that they too could have their stuff stolen and directing them to a site where they could get more info about what they could do. The results: for every 100 leaflets dropped, 93 people visited the site. Amazing! (Groom & Vellacott ‘Ripple’ – p. 38) Watch this clip:

So what can we, as teachers, learn from this? Well, I have often noticed for instance that when I give my students tips on how to write essays, their eyes glaze over. Sure, they can repeat back the information (‘Yes, yes, we know all this’), but I can tell it has not actually registered. So what I sometimes do, is I get them to read an essay telling them how great it is, and of course they agree. Then I start taking it to pieces by pointing out all kinds of structural and linguistic mistakes which they have failed to notice…  Now the message really sinks in! 😊

But the worst offenders are of course colleagues. I often encounter this attitude at PD events. ‘We are qualified, we are experienced – we know all this stuff’. So what I do then is I challenge them. I give them a short story which describes a lesson and I get them to see whether they can spot all the little things the teacher did well as well as the moments when he slipped up. And I am going to do the same with you now.

This particular story was shared more than a thousand times when it was posted on the British Council Facebook wall. It contains 14 interesting moments – both good and bad. You read the story, you make your notes and you compare them to the commentary underneath. If you get more than 10, you are really good. Enjoy! 😊

The Moral: A good demo can really drive your message home.

One Up on Nature

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[Exploiting supernormal stimuli]

How could a beer bottle lead to the near extinction of the Australian jewel beetle? If you are thinking toxic chemicals or the destruction of the beetle’s habitat, you are on the wrong track. The answer is that the beer bottle was just too sexy! You simply have to watch this amazing 3-min clip:

So, there you have it: the perfect example of a ‘Supernormal Stimulus’: the bottle was just as orange as the female jewel beetle, but it was much bigger and it had many more dimples. Supernormal stimuli are things which trigger certain responses in the way that natural stimuli do – only much more so. Here are three examples:

·       We have evolved to find ripe fruit deliciously sweet, but fruit cannot compete against cheesecake which (in the words of Steven Pinker) ‘packs a sensory wallop’.

·      Men have evolved to find pretty women sexually attractive, but even top models cannot compete against the digitally enhanced images we are exposed  to today.

·       We have evolved to crave belonging and acceptance, but no social circle can compete against the social media which can deliver more pats on the back in the form of ‘likes’ in a single day than some people would normally get in a lifetime.

OK – so what does all this have to do with EL teaching? Well, in her excellent book ‘Supernormal Stimuli’ (p. 159) Deidre Barrett mentions one more type which is of particular interest to us: ‘humans were rewarded by nature for seeking novel, challenging problems and attacking them […] the intellectual curiosity generates its own ‘supernormal stimuli’ – problems more intriguing than real life’.

Think about sudoku puzzles or crosswords; these do not exist in nature and they can be extremely addictive. Of course, sudoku puzzles will not help you improve your English, but crosswords most certainly would. Here are three more ideas (answers below):

·       Logical puzzles: e.g. ‘A baseball bat and a ball, together cost $ 1.10; the bat costs $ 1 more than the ball. How much does each of them cost?’

·       Lateral thinking puzzles: e.g. ‘There are a carrot, a pile of pebbles, and a pipe lying together in the middle of a field. Why are they there?’

·       Riddles: e.g. ‘If I have three, I have three; if I have two, I have two, but if I have one, I have none. What is it?’

So this is the moral: use puzzles in class. Students simply love them – and the same is true for teachers. I often finish a presentation with some rapid-fire questions like the following: ‘How many times can you take 4 from 33?’ And my absolute favourite: ‘What do you sit on, sleep on and brush your teeth with?’ Enjoy! 😊

The Moral: For top motivation, use puzzles and riddles in class.

[ Answers: $ 1.05 and $ 0.05  / They are what is left of a snowman / Choices / All the months naturally! / a chair, a bed and a toothbrush of course! 😊 ]

How to Make your Lessons Memorable

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[The power of emotions]

‘My mother was feeling cold… so now I’m wearing a sweater’. I came across this tweet ages ago, yet I still remember it. Why? Because of its powerful emotional content. So what is so special about emotions? Actually, there are a number of things.

Nature has crafted two ways for us to process reality: there is the rational route and the emotional route. Then nature said: ‘You can think and debate about trivial things all you want; I will see to it that you have the right responses about the important things’. Thus it is that we do not get to choose whether we feel fear – or love – or jealousy. Feelings are nature’s way of telling us ‘something really important is going on here’ (‘The Influential Mind’ – p. 40).

There is another thing too. Nature wants us to remember these things – precisely because they are important. This is something that advertisers have always known of course. In his book ‘Brainfluence’ Roger Dooley (p. 241) quotes an interesting study: an analysis of 1400 ads showed that those with an emotional content were about twice as effective as those appealing to reason. Researchers attribute this to the fact that the former are processed subconsciously – that is, instantly, and that they are more powerfully encoded – in other words, they are more memorable.

Now if you reflect on language learning, I think you will agree with me that it is for the most part a cognitive exercise. No wonder most lessons are forgettable. So how can we introduce emotions in class? Well, there are a number of ways; for example, we could…

 …use a song, instead of the listening track in the coursebook;

 …play an emotional scene from a film, instead of that video interview;

…get students to bring in class and talk about an object that is really special to them.

Or you can use my favourite way: play an emotional ad in class. For instance, you can get students to predict how this story continues:

‘There is this group of old men in their 80s – they have been friends since their teens. Then they hear that one of them has died. So they meet at the funeral. They sit around the table, sad, silent, thinking about all the health problems they have. Then one of them comes up with a crazy idea…’  You get students to write 3-4 lines about what happens next. Then you play the following clip. Chances are they will remember this lesson.

The Moral: To make an experience memorable – just add emotion.

What can we Learn from Customer Service?

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[Considering the ‘experience’ aspect of the lesson]

I remember when I first started reading ‘The 10 Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences’ by Matt Watkinson. It was like the scales had at last fallen from my eyes! It suddenly dawned on me that what our students are actually buying is the total learning experience of which the learning aspect is only a small part. Think: is food and cost the only thing you consider when going to a restaurant?

So what are these 10 Principles? And can they help us craft better lessons? Here is the full list. The principles are Watkinson’s (pp. 35-36) – the comments are mine.

Great customer experiences…

…reflect the customers’ identity. Think about how our learners think of themselves. For instance, it would be a mistake to stress a native-like accent if your learners are ‘Greek – and proud of it’.

…satisfy our higher objectives. Your students may be asking for Grammar, when actually they need communication skills. ‘People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole!’

…leave nothing to chance. So pay attention to detail. Seating arrangements. Lighting. Temperature. Decoration. Background music. Your own appearance. Every single thing matters.

…set and then meet expectations. Tell students what your aims are. ‘By the end of the lesson, you’ll be able to manage a short interaction on the phone’. Set goals – and then make sure you deliver.

…are effortless. Sure, we want students to push themselves when it comes to practicing, but the rest of the experience should be smooth. Routines help. It also helps if everything is ready and readily available – both in class and online.

…are stress-free. Confusion and uncertainty are the two enemies here. Give clear instructions – and check them. Inform students about assignments and exams – and make sure they get feedback and results as soon as possible.

…indulge the senses. Sure, a school is not a restaurant, but what about soft background music? And what about smell? Nightclub patrons danced longer in a scented nightclub – and later reported they liked the music more!

…are socially engaging. This single aspect can completely transform the lesson. Think: do your students really interact with each other at a personal level? Do the students feel as part of a group? Would they want to go out together after class?

…put the customer in control. How much autonomy do students have? Are they given choices? Do they get to work on projects where they get to organise themselves and take all the decisions?

…consider the emotions. If you want your lessons to be memorable think about the emotional aspect. A poem or a song perhaps; a film clip; a moving ad or a story. It need not be long: ‘For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn’ (E. Hemingway).

Of course, for EL teachers not all of these elements are equally important. Now go through the list and see if you can identify the ones that really matter. Oh – and read that book too.

The Moral: Look at the lesson from the ‘customer experience’ angle.

It’s Like Magic!

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[The importance of spill-over effects]

Q: How do you make chocolate taste sweeter? A: You make the blocks round! (Rory Sutherland – Psychology of Digital Marketing [27:00]). This is a perfect example of a spill-over effect. Here we clearly have a case of mental association, but what is interesting for me is how a certain quality (shape) colours our perception of another, completely unrelated one (taste). Here are some more examples. Try guessing the answers before looking at the key:

  1. How can you make wine taste better?
  2. How can you increase the effectiveness of painkillers?
  3. How can you enhance the flavour of restaurant food?
  4. How can you reduce the ‘pain of paying’?
  5. How can you make someone appear taller?
  6. How can you make someone warm up towards a stranger?

OK – time is up! Here are the answers:  1) pour it from a heavier bottle;   2) increase the price of the pills;  3) use calligraphic font in the menu;  4) get people to pay by credit card;  5) tell people s/he is a University Professor;  6) give them a hot cup of coffee to hold before introducing them to that person.

It’s like magic, isn’t it? Well, you may be surprised to hear that Psychology has revealed a number of similar effects that can be useful to us teachers. Once again, let us see whether you can get the ‘right’ answers:

  1. How can you make an activity more interesting?
  2. How can you make a session more memorable?
  3. How can you improve the students’ evaluation of the lesson?

Naturally, there are a number of ways of getting these results, but here are some possible answers – did you get any?:  1) use game mechanics: teams – scoreboards – time pressure etc. (gamification!);  2) include an emotional element (e.g. a story, a song or an ad);  3) make sure you end with a bang (e.g. a joke, a quote or a fun activity).

‘Ah’ you might ask ‘but how can I get the students to like the whole course?’ Well, there are answers to this question too – at least three of them:  i) be likeable;  ii) be interesting or, if you cannot manage these…. iii) be beautiful. 😊

The Moral: Use spill-over effects to enhance your lessons.

The Valley of Disappointment

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[The importance of persevering in building learning habits]

In his excellent book ‘Atomic Habits’ James Clear makes some very interesting points about the nature of progress (pp. 20-23).

In most cases, when we are learning something, progress is much slower at the beginning (when we are building the foundations of learning as it were) and it gradually accelerates as we continue. Think about learning words for instance; initially, you have few other lexical items in the L2 to peg the new ones on to. Later however, you can link new vocabulary to all kinds of synonyms, opposites, similar words, collocations etc.

If one were to present this diagrammatically, the line you would get would be one curving upwards – it is exactly the same line as if your English keeps getting better at the rate of, say, 1% every week. And yet when we study, most of us expect our progress to be linear (‘I have put in so much effort – I expect to see some results’).

Look at this excellent diagram (James Clear ‘Atomic Habits’ – p. 22). Notice the grey area. Clear calls this ‘the valley of disappointment’ and it represents the period of frustration when we keep working at something and the results seem meager at best. This can go on for months and months. But notice what happens then: beyond a certain point, we experience a period of progress which just seems explosive and it is way beyond our expectations.

I have seen this time and again with my students: they study and study and complain about how poor their English is and then they travel to the UK and when they come back they are ecstatic ‘After the first few hours I started talking and talking so freely and easily and I just couldn’t believe it was me!’

So this is the moral here: choose a few learning habits and stick with them. Keep reading a few pages of that reader every day. Keep singing along to songs. Keep watching your favourite series with English subtitles. All this work is bound to pay off and when it does, you will be amazed.

The Moral: Stick with your habits even if you cannot see any progress.

A Lesson from Marathon Runners

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[The importance of setting short-term goals]

On average, people who decide to take part in a marathon race, cover the distance of 42.2 km in around four and a half hours. Some are faster, some are slower, so if we were to create a graph of everyone’s performance, we would expect a normal distribution – something resembling a bell curve.

Yet this is not what we find. Have a look at the image below. You will notice that many runners somehow cluster just before the 3:30-hour mark, the 4:00-hour mark etc. How does this happen? The answer is that runners push themselves just that little bit harder towards the end, so they can tell themselves (and all their friends!) that they ran the marathon in less than three and a half ours, or less than four hours and so on.

So how do they manage that? Apparently, there are experienced athletes who have timed themselves repeatedly and run at such a pace that they know they are going to finish in a little less than 3:30 hours or 4:00 hours etc. These people are called pace-setters and they ran with big placards on their back, displaying their respective times. Ordinary runners who know their limits more or less, simply run behind the right pace-setter and so they do not have to worry about constantly checking their time. In this way, in the New York City Marathon, while 500 people finish with a time of 3:59, only 390 finish with a time of 4:01 (Adam Alter ‘Irresistible’ – pp. 95-97). Still not convinced? Here is what another study found. Watch this clip:

There is a big lesson for us here: whatever you do, when you set yourself a short-term goal you push yourself just that little bit harder. Why not use this insight when practicing your English? ‘I am going to try to remember the words from yesterday’s lesson, and I want to recall at least 15 out of 20’ or ‘I am going to record myself giving a mini-monologue about my job and I am going to speak without hesitation for at least 40 seconds’. This little tweak may well mean you perform 10% better than you would without a goal. It’s well worth it, don’t you think?

The Moral: Before doing an activity, set yourself a short-term goal.

Cleansing Cow

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[The importance of lesson-opening rituals]

You know how when you visit some posh restaurants, they sometimes give you an acidic sorbet to ‘cleanse your palate’ – the better to appreciate the food later? OK – just keep this in mind.

Now imagine you have just walked into Denis Martin’s modernist restaurant in Switzerland. You sit at your table and the first thing you notice is a small cylinder with a cow on top of it. What is this?

Denis Martin had noticed that diners (businessmen for the most part) often failed to appreciate the dishes he so lovingly prepared because they were too preoccupied with work or other thoughts. Could there be a way of ‘cleansing their minds’ before the first course arrived?

So he came up with this strange object and placed one on every table. People just don’t know what to make of it – is it some kind of salt-cellar perhaps? At some point, someone picks up the object to look underneath, whereupon the cow lets out a doleful ‘Mooooo’. Before long, everybody else does the same and the room is full of giggling diners. And this is the cue for the staff – out come the hors d’ oeuvres. The cow is in fact a ‘mind-cleanser’! What a brilliant idea! (Charles Spence ‘Gastrophysics’ – pp. xiv-xv)

So, could we not learn something from Denis Martin? Do our students really appreciate the texts we find, the activities we organise, the time and effort we invest into putting together our lesson plans? Why not start the lesson by clearing their minds with a little story? Or an interesting ad? Or a joke?

The Moral: Start by cleansing your students’ mental palate.

Some Tips for Presenters

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Watch this 2-min clip. What feedback would you give the presenter? (I hope you like the joke at the very end by the way [I wish I could take credit for it, but in fact I have pinched it from J. J. Wilson…  🙂 ]).

Interestingly enough, researcher N. Ambady has conducted research showing that one could predict what kind of rating a lecturer would get during the student evaluations at the end of a course by having a group of student rate a silent video of the same lecturer giving a talk before the course started.

Then Ambady wondered how short that clip would have to be for the assessment to still be an accurate predictor of the final evaluation.The answer was incredible: it was 5 seconds! (Ambady, N & Rosenthal, R. 1993) When I read about this I reflected on how right Ambady was. I cannot say I am an expert on the subject but I have given quite a few presentations myself and I have attended many more. Alas, very often almost as soon as a talk starts one finds oneself thinking ‘Ooops… This is going to be painful…’ 🙂

So I thought I would come up with a list of DOs and DON’Ts for presenters – and I have asked colleagues to contribute ideas as well. The list turned out to be a longish one, and I am sure that even old hands could find a few ideas here that perhaps they hadn’t thought of (e.g. 2, 5, 15, 21, 27, 29). Enjoy.

DO…

  1. …check the seating arrangements. Is it easy for people to get in and out? Can people interact? Can they see the screen?
  2. …remove the back seats! You do not want five empty rows at the front. If there are no seats, people have no choice. You can add chairs as more people come in.
  3. …find out about your audience. Why are they there? What do they want? Will they be able to follow you? Are they keen to participate?
  4. …go through your checklist to make sure everything is ok. (What do you mean you haven’t got one?)
  5. …have someone introduce you – and sing your praises. Research shows this is much better than you saying a few things about yourself.
  6. …start with something attention-catching (a joke – something weird – a story); you only have a few seconds.
  7. …give an outline of your main points at the beginning. It makes it easier for people to follow you.
  8. …segment your talk, and regularly let people know which part of the talk you are in.
  9. …include pictures in your slides. Pictures facilitate the processing of textual information.
  10. …say interesting things. Content matters. (Ask yourself: would someone still find your talk interesting if they were not an EL teacher?)
  11. …use stories and anecdotes to make your talk more interesting. Stories are our mother tongue.
  12. …use stories to convey information; stories are far more memorable than giving studies or numerical information.
  13. …move from the concrete to the general. It is easier for people to understand a principle if you have given them a concrete example first.
  14. …include some practical elements. People need to be able to answer a question like ‘What did you get out of this?’ afterwards – regardless of how brilliant the talk was.
  15. …add value to your talk through ‘social currency’. Include interesting little tit-bits of info that people can share with others (‘A glass ball will bounce higher than one made of rubber’).
  16. …add some variety in your talk (an ad / a funny video / an animation / sound effects). Variety is the spice of life. Do not show this point to your partner.
  17. …include ‘peak’ moments in your talk (a striking example; a paraprosdokian; a motivational quote etc.). This is what people will remember later (cf ‘The Peak – End Effect’).
  18. …use your body, your arms and your facial expressions to liven up your presentation.
  19. …colour your voice; you may never become Kenneth Williams but pitch fluctuations, stress and the strategic use of pausing help immensely.
  20. …talk with confidence and assurance. This means two things: i) you have to know your stuff and  ii) you need to have faith in what you are saying.
  21. …use incongruity. Weird things like the sudden appearance of a dinosaur on the slide can help wake people up.
  22. …use the power of association. Make that dinosaur a cute baby or a kitten. Advertisers have used kittens to advertise pizza. They know what they are doing.
  23. …use emotions (uplifting soundtracks, moving poems, anger-provoking pictures, etc.) Emotions help print your message in people’s memory.
  24. …interact with the audience (e.g. by eliciting information, by asking them questions, by using simple discrimination tasks, or asking them to predict something).
  25. …engage the audience somehow (e.g. by giving them an activity to try out or something to discuss with a partner). Interactive elements boost information retention.
  26. …demonstrate activities. No matter how well you explain, unless people see how something works, chances are they will get it wrong.
  27. …find your volunteers in advance. Most people are relunctant to step up and help with a demo, so find your people and rope them in early.
  28. …use the power of modelling. Whether it is responding to elicitation, or asking questions, use some ‘plants’ to get the ball rolling. See the previous point.
  29. …play with the language. Neuro your message. Participants may want to passive; active them. Bombshell your audience.
  30. …circulate among the audience (esp during the ‘interactive’ parts). This way you make the experience more immediate and you get to see how engaged people are.
  31. …summarise just before the end. Perhaps elicit some of your key points from the audience. It gives people a sense of completion.

DON’T…

  1. …stand behind the podium or talk while sitting down. If possible, move about and take your message to the audience – perhaps by moving among them.
  2. …read off a text or your notes / …overload your slides / …read off the slides.
  3. …choose titles like ‘The situated construction of divergent modalities in the quest for a fundamental positionality’.
  4. …use long, complicated sentences. Forget you are an academic for the duration of the talk (…better still: ‘Forget you are an academic’).
  5. …skip slides. It looks like you this is a shortened version of an older talk and you did not bother to remove the extra material.
  6. …be surprised by your slides. It suggests you did not rehearse enough.
  7. …stumble over your words. People assume you are playing by ear, filling things in as you go along.
  8. …try to force people to do things. If people are reluctant to ‘interact’ during the interactive part, just move on.
  9. …let the talk sag; make sure you maintain a brisk pace. Monitor activities and cut them short if people are losing interest.
  10. …go over time; even the best attendees start getting restless if you do (plus it is unfair to the organisers and the next speaker).
  11. …fade out; end with a bang (a quote – a joke, etc.) – and clearly signal to the audience where they are supposed to applaud. This helps round off the experience (see 2:00 – 2:12 in the clip above).

There is one more tip I would like to offer here: be what your audience expect. If you are a famous speaker already (someone like Jeremy Harmer, Luke Prodromou or Ken Wilson in our field) you may even ignore the tips given above if you so wish.

If you are not a celebrity, make sure you tick as many of the ‘right’ boxes as possible (in our field this basically means being male, white and a native speaker). To see just how important expectations are in shaping perceptions, just watch the short film below. Then read all about the fascinating experiment involving the amazing Dr Myron Fox…  🙂

 

References:

Ambady, N & Rosenthal, R. (1993) “Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluations from Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behaviour and Physical Attractiveness”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 431-441.

Motivation – Peak Moments

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‘A moment can be worth a thousand minutes’

A hotel with a difference:  Imagine you are in LA and you are looking for somewhere to stay. Naturally, you turn to TripAdvisor and it is there that the ‘Magic Castle’ hotel catches your eye. It is not even a proper hotel – it is a building that was converted into one. The rooms are nothing to write home about, the facilities are fine but nothing really special. And yet… this hotel has the second highest rating based on thousands and thousands of reviews! What could its secret be? Well, I do not want to spoil it for you. I would rather let the great Dan Heath describe the place to you. Just watch this clip – then ask yourself this question: ‘Could I use a similar approach to motivate my students?’ Could it be that Rory Sutherland was on to something when he talked about ‘the centrality of peripheral elements’? (Sutherland 2011 – p. 31)

How can I make my lessons memorable?:  Could we learn something from the ‘Magic Castle’ – something that could help us improve our lessons? Heath and Heath argue that in most experiences (educational ones included) we are far too preoccupied with making sure things run smoothly – that no problems occur. This is fine, but nothing to post something on Facebook about. Instead they claim, we should make an effort to include ‘peak moments’ in these experiences. The justification for this lies in the way memory works.

Look at the first picture. Imagine the curve shows the course of a lesson. What we tend to think is that our memory keeps a record of everything and when we want to evaluate it, we work out the average of each point. Research by Kahnemann however shows that this is not so. What happens is that our brain compresses the memory, keeping just some of the points. In recalling the event, the brain is disproportionally influenced by ‘peak’ moments (good or bad) and by the way the experience ends. This is called the ‘Peak – End Principle’. (See Kahneman 2011 – ch. 35: ‘Two Selves’; To watch a short clip about these studies, just click here).

So what does all this mean for our lesson? In a few words, if you want students to rave about your lessons, make sure you incorporate some ‘peak moments’ in your lessons. How can we do this?

[NB: This post is based on a plenary talk I gave in Athens in March 2018. To go through / download the slides just click below].

Four Principles – Four Activities: Heath and Heath (on whose excellent book ‘The Power of Moments’ [Heath & Heath 2017] this whole article is based) single out four elements which can lead to great, memorable moments: Elevation – Pride – Insight – Connection. In what follows I describe each one briefly and I outline one activity for each of them that we can use with our students.

Peak Moments I – Elevation:  Some moments simply stand out from the others (think about fireworks or the moment the rollercoaster plunges down). ‘Elevation’ does not have to be something which is mentally uplifting; anything that rises above the drab and mundane can come into this category. Think about a gift with a dedication; or a little child’s drawing with your name on it; or simply watching a funny stand-up comedy clip. In the words of Heath and Heath: ‘Experiences which rise above the everyday. Times to be savoured. Moments that make us feel engaged, joyful, amazed, motivated. They are peaks’. Very often these are moments we might want to share.

How can I use this in class?: Anything that can break the monotony of the usual EL class can create such a moment. A mingling activity; a competition; singing along to a song; puzzles (think: ‘MindTrap’!); using jokes in class; a funny clip (see ‘Comedy for ELT’ on YouTube) or even an activity which presents students with an unusual challenge – like the one below (on the importance of incongruity for attracting attention, see Dutton 2010 – p. 234).

Activity 1: AQBL [To download a word document with all the activities, just click on this link].

Peak Moments II – Pride:  These moments are special because of something we have done – moments that capture us at our best. Think back to when you won a race for instance, or you created something beautiful or you gave a memorable performance. Alternatively, such moments can also be ones where others recognize our contribution – special award ceremonies, graduation ceremonies, the moment when we receive a certificate or even a simple ‘Thank You’ note from one of our students for helping him/her do well at a test. Once again, these are moments that we might want to share with others.

How can I use this in class?: Any activity where you ask students to create something themselves (rather than simply manipulate language) can potentially be a source of pride for them (see ‘The IKEA Effect’ in Ariely 2010 – ch 3). Projects fall into this category, as do mini presentations, the acting out of sketches, creative writing and activities like the one below.

Activity 2: A New Kind of Animal [To download a word document with all the activities, just click on this link].

Peak Moments III – Insight:  There are moments which capture our thoughts; moments when a realization hits us – when we experience an ‘A-ha!’ moment and we come to understand something that had puzzled us before, or we become aware of something new (why this should be rewarding is explained in Leslie’s excellent book ‘Curious’ – Leslie 2014). Such moments rewrite our understanding of the world. Frequently, they are the result of actual experiences, but very often they are things that we read – poems, stories, epigrams or anecdotes which move us or change the way we see things. The effect is stronger when there is an element of incongruity, when such texts are phrased in a strange way which highlights a hidden layer of meaning.

How can I use this in class?: Thanks to technology such material can be found everywhere today. TED talks, short videos on YouTube (e.g. ‘List 25’), mini sagas, surprising facts that students can research and present are all things we can use. I particularly like the ‘Stories of Mr Keuner’ by Brecht, but I have also found that using quotes is great too (see below).

Activity 3: Quotes [To download a word document with all the activities, just click on this link].

Peak Moments I – Connection:  These are moments which are special because they create some kind of a special bond between ourselves and others. Moments when we feel we belong, when we feel a strengthening of the bond with people we care about, such as celebrations, surprise parties or special outings. However, these can also be moments when we bring people closer to us by disclosing something about ourselves (hopes – dreams – fears – experiences) or moments when we discover that we share things in common with others. Anything that might facilitate this bonding, such as collaborating with someone or simply chatting about personal matters can foster this feeling of connection. (for more ideas on the importance of bonding and ways of getting people to connect, see the excellent Brafman & Brafman 2011).

How can I use this in class?: Any ‘humanistic’ activity fits the bill here though discovering similarities is obviously better. According to Brafman and Brafman (ibid pp 36-46), the more personal/intimate the information we disclose to others, the stronger the bond we forge with them. This can be a little sensitive, so simple ‘show and tell’ activities are perhaps best – like the one below.

Activity 4: Mobile Photos [To download a word document with all the activities, just click on this link].

One Last Activity:  This is a true story. Imagine you are on board a plane. At some point the voice of a flight attendant is heard on the intercom: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a newlywed couple with us today…John and Leslie – raise your hands!’ And then he goes on to say something else…Once again I do not want to spoil this for you. Just watch this 1-min clip. Now think: Could we not use this activity in class? What about if a student is leaving? Or if a new student is joining the class? What if it is a special occasion for someone – or for the school? The possibilities are endless…. But how can we come up with such activities? Well, to paraphrase H. Schultz it pays to remember that ‘We are not in the language business teaching people; we are in the people business teaching languages’.

 

References

Ariely, D. ( 2010) The Upside of Irrationality. London HarperCollins

Brafman, O. & Brafman, R. (2011) Click. New York: Virgin Books

Dutton, K. (2010) Flipnosis: The Art of Split-second Persuasion. London: Random House

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2017) The Power of Moments. London: Bantam Press

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Allen Lane

Leslie, I. (2014) Curious. London, Quercus Publishing

Sutherland, R. (2011) The Wiki Man. London: It’s Nice That and Ogilvy Group

‘Why Rediscover America?’

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Using Commercials in the ELT Classroom

Duchamp’s Idea: The great 20th Century artist Marcel Duchamp came up with an extraordinary notion. He thought that in the past artists had to create something from scratch; yet the industrial era had churned out a multitude of objects, many of which were undoubtedly beautiful by dint of their design. So a sculptor for instance could simply peruse various items, take one out of context and present it as something original! After all, it is the thought rather than the execution that sets the artist apart! Following this logic, Duchamp produced a series of pieces which he dubbed ‘readymades’ – of which this one, the ‘fountain’, is the most famous; incredible as it may sound, in 2004, 500 art experts voted this the most influential work of Art of the 20th century!!

Taking a leaf out of Duchamp’s sketchpad: As teachers, our number one problem is how to motivate our learners. To do this we rack our brains on a daily basis, trying to come up with interesting / exciting / original ideas – ideas that will intrigue our students and motivate them to work harder. Yet there is fantastic material out there, which with minimal work on our part can become part of our arsenal as EL teachers – advertisements.

Advertisements are short, authentic and many of them have an unexpected element – indeed they often have to, otherwise they cannot attract the consumers’ attention. All we need to do as EL teachers is select some carefully and think of how we can use them to get students to practice the L2. Ads which contain language obviously lend themselves to the development of listening skills (Part I). But even commercials without language can be exploited as we can see below (Part II).

[NB: To illustrate activities I use Ads from the ‘Ads for ELT’ channel on YouTube. The reason is that in many cases I have included simple worksheets to go with the ads. You can find these by clicking on the link under the clip (on YouTube)].

Part I – Ads with Language:  These ads contain a dialogue or a narration. Once we have typed this up, we have a script and then we can use the full battery of activities normally use in classroom listening tasks such as gap-filling (a), sentence completion, word deletion or insertion of extra lexical items, summaries containing mistakes etc. However, certain ads have special features which we can use when designing activities; for instance in the fantastic ‘Ads for ELT – Genie’ the obvious question to set our students is ‘What are the girl’s 3 wishes?’  (for other ads with ‘special features’ see b – d)

Fill in the gaps:  Some commercials contain a lot of language and as it is scripted and rehearsed the delivery can often be extremely fast!  To help our students we can type up the text and leave some blank spaces for them to fill in.  A good example of such an ad is  ‘Ads for ELT – Blind Date’ – which could also form the basis for an extension task (‘What first-date tips would you give someone like Jim?’)

Spot the beep!: Other ads lend themselves to a different kind of treatment. For example, in the hilarious ‘Ads for ELT – Sex and the City’ the message is ‘censored’ as some words / expressions are deemed unacceptable! A natural first task would be to ask our students to make a note of which lexical items these are! Then they can go on to listen to the text and again change it according to what technique we have decided to use.

Spot the mistake: In the amazing ‘Ads for ELT – LA Fair’ the girls, their mother and the shop assistant make all kinds of factual (not linguistic) mistakes. Here again, the most natural task is to ask students to spot the latter. Incidentally, the idea of people making a fool of themselves through sheer ignorance is such a straightforward one that students could go on to script their own versions, record themselves and perhaps upload the clips on YouTube!

Flesh out the text: The brilliantly creative ‘Ads for ELT – E-bay Motors’ produces a funny effect by using the kind of abbreviations which are familiar from Classified Advertisements in newspapers (e.g. mls = miles) Here it makes sense to ask students to list the advantages of the new way of advertising (‘E-bay Motors’) and then you can give them the text with some gaps and get them to fill them in with the actual words – not the abbreviated forms they hear!

Part II – Ads without any Language: Being a great Ad lover, I used to get frustrated when I saw a brilliant one and I thought I could not use it in class. Not anymore. There may be no text, but the ad shows a sequence of events. This means, we can write the text ourselves!!  Then we can use most of the activities we saw above as in (a) and (b). Alternatively we can use a more ‘natural’ ways of exploiting the ads, as in (c)

Spot the difference: In the handout of this very original commercial (‘Ads for ELT – Huggies’) the story is told through the eyes of the main character. The text describes the events but I have included some inaccuracies. Students read the text, then they close their handouts and they watch the ad. After that, they look at the text again and they try to spot the mistakes. The more subtle the changes, the harder the task! This means that this activity can easily be used as H/W; students choose their favourite ad, they change some things about the way things happen and then they challenge another group to spot the differences!

Watch and select: If you are the one writing the text, there is nothing to prevent you writing more than what is in the commercial, thus getting more ‘mileage’ out of it. In ‘Ads for ELT – Harvey’ a number of household chores are shown, but we can add even more! In this way we can in a sense use the ad as a springboard for teaching vocabulary. Having done a preliminary task, students can then watch the commercial and underline the items (in this case household tasks) which are actually shown.

Describe and Rate:  We could also use ads with little or no language to give our student practice in reading.  We could write a short paragraph describing each ad and then ask students to rate it.  They can then watch it and give it a second mark which could be higher or lower depending on whether they felt the ‘concept’ was realized effectively.  Finally, the class could vote for the best one.  An excellent set of such ads which have proved extremely popular with my ss are the ‘Ads for ELT – The 3rd Conditional’.

Last words – keep it simple!:  Very often the best activities are the simplest ones. These tend to replicate real communication as it happens in the world outside the classroom. Now think about commercials – what do we normally do with them in real life? Well, we watch them and then we talk about them. So here is the best fluency activity in my repertoire: I describe to my students one of my ads I like best – the amazing ‘Ads for ELT – Art’ (see below); then I tell them to turn to the person next to them and talk about their personal favourites. Having done that, I know that if I feel like it I can just walk out of the classroom and have a cup of coffee… chances are, when I get back they will still be at it!  🙂

How to Use Comedies in Class

What is missing from ELT coursebooks? Open any coursebook you like. Chances are you will find a Unit on sports, the environment, food, celebrities – the one Unit you will not find is one on Humour (well, in 95% of coursebooks anyway…). But watch this clip for instance (see below). Is it not far superior to any ordinary ELT audio track? It is funny isn’t it, that in a field dominated by British publishing houses, you may find numerous texts on British food (!) and not a single one on the one thing British people should really be proud of: British comedy.

[NB: The examples I use all come from the ‘Comedy for ELT’ channel on YouTube. The reason is that most of the clips there are accompanied by ready-to-use handouts, which means that if you like one of the videos, you can use it with your students immediately! Here is what you do: you go on YouTube and you type ‘Comedy for ELT’. Under most of the clips, you will see a link (see the picture). You simply click on the link and you can download a handout (+ the Key, + the script). The handout typically contains a short paragraph which sets the context, a first, global task (focusing on general comprehension) and a second task which draws the students’ attention on language. Sometimes ideas are given for follow-up activities.]

What can I use this material for? Well, the fact that most of the sketches are quite short suggests that they can be used as ‘fillers’ – a fun break during the lesson and a way of recharging the students’ ‘motivational batteries’. Alternatively you may choose to structure a whole lesson around some of them.  For the most part however, I see them as one of the ingredients of a good lesson. For instance, you may choose to use such clips to…

  • … introduce some topic (‘Comedy for ELT – Mistakes’ [click here])
  • … practise topic vocabulary (‘Comedy for ELT – Technology’ [click here])
  • … demonstrate activities (‘Comedy for ELT – The ‘Yes-No’ Game’ [click here]) or
  • … practise situational / functional language (‘Comedy for ELT – Small Talk’ [see below])

How can I use comedy clips? Although this material is somewhat different than the ordinary audio tracks we use in class, there is no reason why our methodology should differ. As a rough guide, we can follow these steps:

Step 1: Set the context: This is particularly important if we want to help the students understand what is going on. We want to say a few things about the setting (time and place), we may need to explain the relationship between the speakers, explain 1-2 culturally-specific details if necessary and maybe give students an idea of what is funny about the sketch, without giving away the ‘punch-line’ which would detract from the students’ satisfaction (see this clip for instance).

Step 2: Pre-teach key vocabulary: Sometimes much of the fun of the dialogues lie in puns and double-entendres; we need to make sure that students can actually ‘get’ most of the jokes. At the same time we need to strike the right balance; if the teacher is to spend 15 min in preparing students for a clip which lasts 90 seconds, then this is clearly not cost-effective.

Step 3: Give students a global task: the normal sequence in listening tasks is first of all to get students to listen for gist. In the case of these sketches the first task is normally easier than one would expect as focusing too much on it would detract from the students’ enjoyment.  Typical activities are T/F Qs, Complete the sentence, Ordering, or Straightforward open-ended Qs.

Step 4: Get students to focus on bottom-up skills: Global listening is usually followed by listening for detail. In my experience students want to be able to understand the dialogues as fully as possible, which is why it makes sense to get them working with the script (e.g. typically filling-in gaps combined with adding, deleting or changing words). *

[A note on repetition: For the students to both enjoy the extracts and derive the maximum benefit from them, I believe it is a good idea to listen to them more than once.  In fact (unlike other material) the less challenging their task becomes through repeated listening, the more students enjoy the dialogues as they can appreciate the humour more – their increased confidence enables them to catch things they had previously missed!]

Step 5: Get students to focus on language: The language in such sketches is often extremely rich (sometimes deliberately, in order to produce a funny effect). As with most texts, I have found that it is best to get students to highlight useful language; that means  i) phrases or collocations – not words in isolation;  ii) phrases they can understand but which they would not use.

How can I follow this up? As the main aim of the listening activities is to help students to appreciate and enjoy the dialogues, you may not want to include any follow-up language or skills work so as not to spoil the whole experience for them.  However, there are a number of things teachers can do after these listening sessions.  Here are some ideas:

Role play:  students may like a particular extract so much, they may want to act it out, or, better still, record their dialogue on audio or even video tape (‘Constable Savage’ [click here]).

Parallel writing:  students may write a similar dialogue on the same or a related theme (‘Greatest Invention Yet’ [see the clilp below]).

Extension:  where a dialogue is part of a story, students may want to continue it, or simply write a paragraph ‘predicting’ what is going to happen next (‘Letters H – Miss P.’ [click here]) They can then listen to the rest of the sketch/episode to check their predictions.

What are the key ‘DOs’ and ‘DON’Ts’?

DO: …set the context; help the students understand what is going on before they start listening.
DO: …support students with unknown vocabulary / background knowledge / cultural elements etc. (see the clip below **)

DO: …‘sell’ the idea to the students; otherwise some of them might think it is just a waste of time.
DO: …link the sketches to the rest of the lesson, so that there is a sense of purpose and continuity.

DON’T: …give students the punch-line; it spoils the sketch for them as it deprives them of the pleasure of understanding it themselves.
DON’T: …play extracts which require too much explanation.
DON’T: …take unnecessary risks with ‘dangerous / taboo’ topics (e.g. sex, politics, religion) – unless you know your class really well.
DON’T: …treat comedy clips like ordinary listening material; students should see it as a ‘treat’!

Last words: This is the main idea: You ‘sacrifice’ some of your precious contact time in the hope that the motivational effect will more than make up for it. In a sense, it is a calculated ‘gamble’; If it works, you may find that the students who spent 3 minutes in class watching a Rowan Atkinson clip (like the one below!), will then go on to spend another 5 hours at home watching every similar clip they can find!  🙂

* NB: In the ‘Comedy for ELT’ series, the words which are blanked out are not random; in most cases words are deleted so that students have to understand the missing words to ‘get the joke’ or in order to focus their attention on some important preposition, collocation etc. Similarly, when a word is substituted for another, in the vast majority it is a near synonym, so that students will not have to look up the meaning of the original word.

** For instance, in order to fully appreciate the humour in this particular clip, students need to be familiar with Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ AND with the fact that builders / electricians / plumbers etc. etc. have a reputation for being unreliable (see how this is done in the handout [click here]).