‘If They Can Do It – So Can We!’

Here is your task: You are an advertiser and you have been asked to re-launch a product (Shreddies – a square-shaped breakfast cereal) for a particular market. Please bear in mind that a) the product has been around for donkey’s years and everyone knows it b) you have not changed the product in any way! Quite a tall order, right? In fact, Hunter Sommerville, the guy who was charged with designing the box, was at his wit’s end – if ever there was a ‘mission impossible’ this was it! And then an idea struck him – perhaps if he rotated the picture by 45 degrees?!?

Tweaking 3 New Diamond Shreddies!!:  The creative team had been racking their brains all day but to no avail. In desperation they turned to Sommerville: ‘Any suggestions?’ So he told them. According to his account there was a momentary silence; then everybody burst out laughing!  (Leslie 2011) The idea was so preposterous, it might just work! They designed their whole campaign around it! ‘New Shreddies’ – ‘now in a delicious diamond shape!!’ 🙂 In a parody of ‘real-life’ interviews, they had some people come to the studio and taste the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Shreddies – that is exactly the same product with a different orientation! 🙂 – who naturally declared that the new ones were ‘crunchier’ with one of them proclaiming they produced ‘a 3D effect’!  Bizarre or not, the acid test in advertising is simple: ‘Does it work?’ In this case it did. Sales soared!! [You simply must watch this; here is the video].

Why did it work so well?:  I think the reason why this commercial was so successful is because the claim it appears to be making (that a Shreddie will taste differently if you tilt it by 45 degrees!) is so ridiculous that it momentarily deactivates what Kahneman calls ‘System 2’ – our apparatus for conscious, deliberate thought (Kahneman 2011). Apparently, our default mechanism is to initially believe everything we hear! (Chabris & Simons 2010) Immediately afterwards, the defence/disbelief mechanism kicks in (‘Hang on, what is this??) In this case however, while System 2 is preoccupied with these bizarre claims, the script writer slips in a couple of messages ‘it is more interesting’ / ‘it is crunchier’ etc. The advertisers will get you yet!  🙂 *

Applications in the field of ELT:  What can all this mean for us in ELT? Here is the basic idea: Repetition leads to boredom – and attention flags quickly with boring tasks (Medina 2008). Alas, in many teaching situations we are compelled to use a certain suite of activities, either because of face validity (they look the same as the ones in the exam) or because the coursebook / syllabus / DOS says so. Yet this does not mean we cannot ‘tweak’ them a little! Remember: the smallest change can make a difference!  If advertisers can do it, so can we! I have chosen to give three examples here, though of course the possibilities are endless. [NB: Whereas the change in the Shreddies cereals was cosmetic, the changes in these activities do create ‘educational added value’ as you will see!]

Listening – ‘You Bet!’:  In many exam-oriented tasks a L or R text is followed by M/C Qs which are in the right order. The simplest way to transform this activity is to get students in pairs to read each Q and predict which is the right answer (say B). Depending on how certain they are, they can bet from 1 to 10 points on it (e.g. 6 points on B). If the answer is indeed B, they double their points (6 x 2) while if it is not, they lose them. The winner is the pair with the most points at the end. To make it even more motivating, it is best if you get the students to look at the Qs one by one and then you get the students to listen to (or read) the text bit-by-bit. Then the process can be repeated for the next Q. Quite apart from the motivational value of this game and the fact that it requires no preparation, it also encourages students to look at the Qs carefully and make predictions – a crucial exam-prep skill!

Tweaking 2Dictation – ‘Grammar Up!’:  Some people feel that dictation is, well… just dictation and there is little we can do about it. Not so. This is dictation, but with a difference!  Students listen to a ‘bare bones’ form of the text – the text with some words as well as some grammatical morphemes missing. Once they have taken down every word, students work in pairs to ‘reconstruct’ the original text as it should have been (E.g. “Sun – rise – east – set  – west” in all probability is “The Sun rises in the east and sets in the west”). They then compare their version with that of a teacher. What I love about this activity is that it is so much more active for the learners than standard dictation. Students really have to invest in this task and in the process they have to make choices about Grammar for instance (‘Should it be Past Simple or Present Perfect?’) but they also have to think about collocation and colligation. [Idea found in Thornbury 2001]. **

Reading – ‘Hidden Message’:  Having given our students a text to skim for gist or scan for specific info, we may want them to look at it in greater detail. How can we do this? A fantastic way is to ‘hide a message’ inside the text which the students then have to find! Essentially, this is an adaptation of the former FCE UoE Part 4 task, where students had to spot the ‘extra’ words – only here the words actually form a message! There are two features I love about this activity: a) You can adjust the level of difficulty by choosing where to place the new words and b) the message can be ‘tailor-made’ for each class! (E.g. ‘Research has shown that varying guys activities can be a useful switch way of increasing off students’ motivation; variety prevents your boredom and leads to better cell phones results in the long run’) [I have to thank my good friend Michael Robbs for sharing this activity with me some years back!] **

Tweaking 4Vocabulary – ‘Funny Definitions Bingo’:  [Adapted from Watcyn – Jones 1993] All students know how to play ‘Bingo’. Each student is given a different set of words. The teacher calls out words at random from her list (which includes all the words she has given to students). The latter cross out the words they hear. The first one to cross out all his/her words calls out ‘Bingo’ and is the winner. This is fine for lower levels. At higher levels, it is too easy, so the teacher can try variations such as calling out an antonym of the word or a definition. However, we can give this old activity a new twist by providing funny definitions instead! (e.g. ‘A banker provided by nature’ [ = father! ] or ‘Future tense of marriage’ [ = divorce! ] 🙂 ) [NB: The definitions should not be too difficult or the activity slows down too much. A quick pace is a crucial element in games! (Lee 1979)] **

Last words – What is Art? The human brain is wired to reject monotony.  Experts agree that variety is the key to motivation (e.g. Dornyei 2001). Yet partly as a result of a heavy workload, partly because of the uniformity of coursebooks, we often switch to autopilot and find ourselves using an ever-diminishing repertoire of techniques in our lessons. We must fight this at all costs. And it helps if we think of ourselves as artists. To (half-)quote Paul Klee: ‘Art is making what is familiar – strange!’ Brilliant!

* This was demonstrated in a fascinating study: a door-to-door salesman went around selling packs of X-mas cards. In the control condition he would say for instance ‘They cost £ 1.25 each – it’s a bargain!’ but in the experimental one this was changed to ‘They are only 125 p each – it’s a bargain!’ While the prospective buyer was trying to figure out why the price was mentioned in pence rather than pounds, the other bit about it being ‘a bargain’ slipped past the ‘defenses’ unnoticed! Sales doubled! Brilliant!!   (Goldstein, Marticn & Cialdini 2007)

** To try out these activities with your students, click here to get a sample handout.


Chabris, C. & Simons, D. “The Invisible Gorilla” Harper Collins 2010.

Dornyei, Z. “Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom” Cambridge 2001.

Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion”  Profile Books 2007.

Kahneman, D. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Allen Lane 2011.

Lee, W. R. “Language Teaching Games & Contests” Oxford 1979.

Leslie, I. “Born Liars” Quercus 2011.

Medina, J. “Brain Rules” Pear Press 2008.

Sutherland, R. “Life Lessons from an Ad Man” YouTube.

Thornbury, S. “Uncovering Grammar” Macmillan Heinemann 2001.

Watcyn – Jones, P. “Vocabulary Games and Activities” Penguin Books 1993.