Helping people change: How do we get people to change? How do we get our students to change? Getting students to become self-directed learners can be quite a challenge. It is one thing to do things at the gym with the instructor telling you what to do and how; it is quite another to motivate yourself to pick up that skipping rope at home. What is to be done? Watch this fantastic 90-sec clip with the brilliant Dan Heath.

So there you have it. The way to get people to change, is to make it easy for them to take the steps they need to in the desired direction. We need to ‘shrink the change’. What follows is a list of 5 simple things our students can do on their own to improve their English.

[NB: The key of course is to get students to adopt these strategies and turn them into habits. I will be looking at how we can do this in the next post].

Speaking [Vocaroo]: How does one get better at speaking? Well, one way is to use the L2 to speak to as many people as possible. But what if you do not happen to have any such ‘sparring partners’ or it is 2:00 am? The solution: Vocaroo! The student simply makes some brief notes on what s/he would like to talk about (their last holiday / their friend Mary / GM foods – anything) and then they make a monologue (perhaps for 1 – 2 min depending on your level) and record themselves. NB: If they get stuck, they can switch to the L1, say what they want to say and then continue in the L2. Then they can go back, listen to themselves and look up the words/expressions they did not know. And then they do it a second time. [For a simple tutorial on how to use Vocaroo, click here].

Key idea – Self-observation: One of the reasons we often fail to make progress is that we do not know how well we are doing or where we need to improve (this is also true of teachers – see Willingham 2009 – p. 193). Talking to others in the L2 is a very good idea, but how do we get better? People think they can talk and monitor their oral performance at the same time, but this is in fact impossible. We need a way to break this up into two stages. Recording ourselves allows us to speak freely and listen to ourselves afterwards. The great thing about Vocaroo (as opposed to our mobile phone) is that the student can click on ‘Click here to save’ and save the link of the recording. They can then keep a record of their progress in speaking and/or share some of these monologues with others (teachers or friends) who can give them feedback.

Listening [ELLLO]: If students want to improve their listening skills on their own, ELLLO may well be the best site around. Here is a typical example (click here). As you can see, the listening task is based around a short dialogue (2:24). Students have a few M/C Qs to focus their attention (and they get instant feedback), and they have the script to fall back on if they experience difficulties. There is also a vocabulary challenge on the right, focusing on lexical items which appear (in context!) in the dialogue. So students can read the Qs, do the listening task and make a note of the words/expressions they would like to keep. Perfect. [For a simple tutorial on how to use ELLLO, click here].

Key idea – Goal Setting: To become independent learners, students have to learn to set themselves goals (see also Fine 2005 – p. 173). Watching DVDs with the subtitles on or off is fine, but where does one stop? And how does one focus on the language? ELLLO is perfect in this respect, because the clips are short and students have options: they can choose the right level for them, they can choose the topic and even decide to focus on particular accents or choose video instead of audio. What is important is that they set themselves a goal and then put a tick next to it once they have done the activity.

Vocabulary [Quizlet]: Quizlet is simply fantastic! It is a simple tool which works on the principle of the old card system: you write an English word on the one side and a translation on the other (e.g. cast / ρίχνω) and test yourself regularly. In fact, it is best to use these virtual cards to record collocations (e.g. cast / a vote – here is a sample set). All you need to do is prepare the cards (which takes very little time) and then study whenever you want – wherever you are! Quizlet can prepare tests automatically and it also has matching games that can make the whole learning experience lots of fun. Another great thing about Quizlet is that once you have prepared a card set, you can share it, simply by sending your friends / students a link. Amazing! [For a simple tutorial on how to use Quizlet, click here; / for a detailed look of how you can use Quizlet in class, click here].

Key idea – Perceived Progress: There is one problem with skills work: it is hard to notice the progress one is making. This is why Quizlet is so great; once students have worked through a set of cards (and taken a test) they can be sure they know these lexical items. And they know this is so, because if they go back to previous sets (assuming they revise from time to time) they can see that you still remember things. It is true, Quizlet on its own is not enough as language learning is not a process of accretion. That said, the sense of constantly increasing their vocabulary can give students the psychological boost that they need in order to persevere with the other strategies (see also Ferrier 2014 – p. 122 on ‘gamification’).

Reading [Cueprompter]: One of the great problems with reading is low reading speed. A simple tool like Cueprompter can be of great help here. Here is what you do: i) you find a text (and Qs) online; ii) you read the Qs; iii) you copy the text and paste it in the empty box in the middle (see picture); iv) you add about 10-12 blank lines before the text (you will see why later);  v) from the settings (under the box) you choose ‘wide’ promter width and a ‘small’ font. Then you click ‘Start Prompter’. You use the space bar to start and stop the text and the arrow keys to control the speed. You have to read the text fast, otherwise it will disappear! When you are done reading, you try the questions. How many can you answer? [For a simple tutorial on how to use Cueprompter, click here].

Key idea – Challenge: Studying on your own can be difficult, partly because there is nobody there to put pressure on you to try harder. The great thing about Cueprompter is that it forces you to do just that; it is like a treadmill – you set the speed yourself, but then you have to follow the belt, otherwise you will fall off! Cueprompter has a set of speeds you can choose from at the top, but a good rule of thumb is this: if you can read a text and answer most of the questions at its default speed then you are pretty good. 🙂 [NB: There is a risk that you may manage to read the text but not understand anything; that is why you should try the questions afterwards].

Writing [Penzu]: Penzu is the simplest tool out there. It is just an online diary. But unlike an ordinary diary, you cannot lose it, it is always there and you can share entries with others. In my view Penzu is ideal for goal-setting and more importantly reflection (see also Peachey: Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers – p. 4). The student simply takes a few minutes each day to make quick notes on what they did, how it went, what problems or difficulties they encountered and what they should do next (at lower levels they can do that in a mixture of L2 and L1 – click here). Quite apart from the advantages this has, it helps send a message to the student him/herself: ‘I am a self-directed learner who is in charge of their own progress’. [For a simple tutorial on how to use Penzu, click here].

Key idea – Reflection: Would it not be easier to ‘reflect orally’ using Vocaroo? Yes, but it would not be the same. There is something magical about writing. With speaking, we can ‘fumble’ and think we know / have understood something; but if we can put it in writing, then we do know it (see Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 – p. 210). Writing helps consolidate what one has learned. It involves both retrieval (which helps strengthen new knowledge) and ‘elaboration’ (personalizing the new knowledge). What is more, writing down what one intends to do the following day / week etc. makes the commitment far stronger.

The key to success : As I see it, the key to success when studying alone is habit-formation (see Duhigg 2012 – and see the next blog post!). Students need to learn to set themselves a number of small, immediately achievable goals. They have to be small so the learner gets a feeling of satisfaction from ticking them off. Once this becomes regular, the whole thing goes on auto-pilot so students do not need to expand ‘will-power’ in trying to get themselves to study – in the same way that we do not have to force ourselves to brush our teeth; we just do it automatically (Baumeister & Tierney 2012). Once a habit is formed, then we start seeing ourselves in a different light (‘Ah! I am an active learner!’) and that is a turning point. But enough for now… I would not want to spoil the next article for you… 🙂


Baumeister, R. & Tierney, J. (2012) Willpower. London: Allen Lane

Brown, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M. (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge Massachusetts. Belknap Harvard

Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit. London: Random House Books

Ferrier, A. (2014) The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press

Fine, C. (2005) A Mind of its Own. Cambridge: Icon Books

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2011) Switch. London: Random House

Peachey, Nik Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers

Willingham, D. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School?.  San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass