[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.
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’.
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
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! 🙂
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])
… 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]).
[NB 1: This article is based on a presentation I gave at the TESOL Greece Conference in 2015. The content of this article is somewhat different, but if you would prefer to skip the text and watch the presentation ‘live’ instead, just click on the video below].
[NB 2: Here are the slides for the new version of this presentation]:
Twice the juice from half the fruit: The idea first occurred to me as I was reading the excellent ‘59 Seconds’ by Professor Wiseman. In the chapter on ‘Happiness’ he quoted numerous studies and what struck me immediately was that almost all of them had to do with language! In one of them people would be asked to share experiences, in another they were encouraged to write down their reflections, while in a third they might be asked to construct a detailed plan about achieving a future objective. From this point on, it was easy to take the next logical step. In our classes we often ask students to talk about various topics, to write summaries or to plan essays. Would it not be better if we asked them to do something which would yield the same benefits in terms of language learning, but which would also make them happier? (OK – that’s still the whole fruit, but we certainly get twice the juice! 🙂 )
The Basics: The following statement came as a shock to me the first time I encountered it: ‘Nature does not want you to be happy; it wants you to be successful!’ (Nettle 2005 – p. 14). The big question is not so much what Happiness is, but what it is for! Happiness is the incentive nature offers us in order to keep us doing things which somehow help with the ultimate evolutionary goals, survival and reproduction. Happiness is the big, fat carrot that nature holds in front of us in order to keep us moving in a certain direction (‘If you get that promotion, you’ll be eternally happy’ etc.) But of course, nature lies to us. Just watch the clip below.
And it makes sense; if upon having achieved our goal we ‘rested on our laurels’ that would do nothing to promote our genes’ agenda. For this reason, nature has pre-installed another mechanism inside us. It’s called ‘habituation’ We adapt to things. Research shows that people who win huge amounts in the lottery are ecstatic for the first few months and a year later they are back to normal. It is the same with people who have serious accidents (Ariely 2010 – p. 170).
The Moral:By focusing ahead we may forget to be happy in the present, but we can choose to go against our predispositions.
An Activity: ‘Count Your Blessings’ (adapted from Emmons & Mc Cullough 2003): Individually, students make a note of three things for which they feel they should be grateful (e.g. Health / Work / Security / Loving parents etc.). Then they work in pairs. They take it in turs to share with their partner why they feel they ought to be grateful for this particular thing (e.g. ‘Health’). Their partner has to ask them one question (e.g. ‘Have you ever had an accident?’) Then they swap roles.
The Social Dimension: As we saw above, nature wants us to be successful. For humans a precondition for being successful has always been to be part of a group. This is why we feel well when we are with others, when we socialise and spend time with family and friends. This urge to be with others is so strong that if for whatever reason we spend long periods of time alone, we become moody and lose our appetite to do all kinds of things – it’s like a vitamin deficiency. Things get even worse if we feel excluded / ignored / left out. In the ancestral environment this would have meant certain death and the pain of social exclusion is felt very keenly. Professor Lieberman has conducted research on this and he has found that this mechanism can be triggered even by seemingly insignificant incidents (Lieberman 2013 – p. 58). What is more, the pain of social exclusion is very real pain – in fact, it registers in the same centre of the brain as physical pain. In this video, Professor Liberman describes a study in which his subjects were asked to play a game called ‘Cyberball’. The game is simplicity itself – all you need to do is toss the ball to one of two other players. But after some time, they stop tossing the ball back. You never get it again. Here is Professor Lieberman talking about this study:
The Moral:Any activity which fosters stronger bonds between people is likely to make us happier.
An activity: ‘My Wonderful Classmates’ (adapted from Chaplin & John 2007): Students are divided into groups. Each group chooses one of their classmates (not one of the group) and together they come up with a ‘plateful of praise’ – a number of reasons why they like / value / respect this particular person. Then they present this to him/her. It is incredible how much warmth this activity generates. [NB: The teacher needs to make sure that nobody is excluded].
Goal Setting: What is the thing that you dread most and you tend to put off? Is it going to the gym? Is it marking essays or tests? Well, here is the great Dan Heath with a solution:
Now think back to what he said; do you remember that bit about ‘bursts of pleasure’? Why does this happen? (And it does!) The answer that if we are to be successful, we have to pursue goals; nature keeps promising huge rewards at the end, but it also gives us a foretaste of what that ‘carrot’ is going to be like in advance so as to keep us going! This has been proved experimentally; in an amazing study, a number of seriously depressed people were divided into 4 groups: one got anti-depressants, another placebos, another got CBT (sessions with Psychologists) and a fourth was engaged in ‘Behavioural Activation’ (setting goals and striving to achieve them). Amazingly, after a few months, the last group not only did better than the third, it did just as well as the first! (Wiseman 2012 – p. 169)
The Moral:Nature rewards us for making progress towards our goals.
For best effects, it is important that the goals are: i) small; ii) detailed – concrete; iii) feasible and iv) to be achieved within a specific time frame (in the near future).
An activity: ‘Goal Setting’ (see Service & Gallagher 2017 – Appendix 1): Students make notes about one thing they would like to achieve (e.g. lose weight) and then set themselves a small, concrete goal (‘I’ll join a gym’) and make notes about the details (which gym, when, etc.). Then they share this with a partner. The role of the partner is to help them make the steps as concrete as possible and to anticipate problems (e.g. ‘What if it is too expensive?’) help with finding solutions / alternatives, and get the first student to make his/her commitment as firm as possible.
Helping Others: We clearly feel happy when we do something for ourselves (duh!) and we also feel happy when we help others (see the second point). But are we happier in the former or in the latter situation? There have been countless studies on this. Here is Professor Michael Norton describing one such experiment, remarkable for its elegant simplicity:
So – paradoxically perhaps, helping others makes us happier! But there is another point here. In a fantastic study, subjects were invited in the lab where they were told they would play a game where participants are invited to share some money with someone else * . Before that however, they were asked to complete a task on a computer. The computer was programmed to crash at some point. In one condition, subjects were simply told to reboot and complete the task; in another somebody actually came and helped them restart the computer, and then left. Then everybody played the sharing game. Amazingly, the group who had been helped in the first task were more generous, despite the fact that the person they were generous towards was not the person who had helped them! (DeSteno & Valdesolo 2011 – p. 161) Kindness creates a ripple effect; it spreads to others!
The Moral: Doing things for others makes us happier – and this has a knock-on effect!
An activity: ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ (see Sharot 2011 – p. 87): In pairs, students come up with as many things they can do to make others happier as possible (e.g. Call a sick friend at home / Give someone an ‘I like you’ card / Say ‘Thank you’ to someone for something they did for you in the past etc.). Another idea, would be to get students to come up with things they can do for the community (e.g. Help at a soup kitchen / Collect clothes for a particular person or group / Donate old books to a school library etc.).
The role of Laughter: Naturally we laugh or smile when we are happy, but could it also be the other way round? Could it be that smiling can make us feel happier? In famous study, some subjects were asked to do a task while holding a pencil between their teeth (forcing them to smile) while others were told to hold the pencil between their nose and upper lip (thus forcing them to frown). Amazingly, the former group then reported feeling happier than the latter! (Kahnemann 2011 – p. 54) In a curious reversal, the ‘effect’ can produce the ‘cause’! Corroborating evidence comes from India: noticing the positive effects of laughter, Dr M. Kataria got people in groups to tell each other jokes so as to exploit the beneficial effects of laughter; when he later dispensed with the jokes and asked his group to simply laugh (!) the effects persisted! (Wiseman 2012 – p. 40) And that is not all; R. Dunbar has conducted studies which show that laugher is inherently a social activity (if one laughs on their own, that can be worrying! J ). According to Dunbar, grooming (the standard way of bonding in primates) becomes impractical as teams increase in size and he suggests that laughter may well have evolved as a way of strengthening social bonds in large groups (Dunbar 2012 – pp. 43-44).
The Moral:Humour makes us happier and helps foster group cohesion.
An activity: Well, a number of activities spring to mind (sharing jokes, acting out funny sketches etc.) but for me the simplest way is to show students funny clips. There are numerous advantages in this: i) the language is authentic; ii) students develop listening skills; iii) students can share these with friends; iv) if they like them, students can seek them out at home. Here is a little gem (to get a handout, + the Key, + the script, just click on the link under the clip on YouTube, or just click here).
Last words – Added Value: In today’s competitive environment, I believe we stand a much better chance of doing well if we can offer our students something else – over and above meeting their primary needs for improving their English. That something could be interesting content – from literature to general knowledge – all of which can translate into ‘social currency’ (knowledge that reflects positively on the individual – see Berger 2013, ch 1); it could be teaching them things or skills which could help them do better in their personal or professional life (click here to see an example); or it could even be teaching them ‘self-help’ methods which could for instance help them develop good habits (click here to see an example). Teaching them some (research-based) ways to make themselves happier falls into this last category. And imagine the impact on motivation if students regularly left your class thinking ‘I don’t know how, but I always feel happier after my English lesson…’ 🙂
Ariely, D. ( 2010) The Upside of Irrationality. London HarperCollins
Berger, J. (2013) Contagious. London: Simon & Schuster
Chaplin, L. N. & John D. R. (2007) “Growing up in a Material World: Age Differences in Materialism in Children and Adolescents” Journal of Consumer Research 34 , pp 480-494
DeSteno & Valdesolo (2011) Out of Character. New York: Three Rivers Press
Dunbar, R (2012) The Science of Love and Betrayal. London: Faber and Faber
Emmons, R. A. & Mc Cullough, M. E. (2003) Counting Blseeings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84, pp 377-389
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Allen Lane
Lieberman, M. (2013) Social. Oxford, Oxford University Press
Nettle, D. (2005) Happiness. New York: Oxford University Press
Service, O. & Gallagher, R. (2017) Think Small. London: Michael O’Mara Books
Sharot, T. (2012) The Optimism Bias. London: Robinson
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
The situation is simple and one in which I am sure we have all found ourselves in on many an occasion. I have a coursebook. I am supposed to do Unit 5 today. There is a text in it on page 78. How do I use it? How can I make the most of it? How can I help students learn from the language in the text? Are there any activities I can attach to it? [I do realise of course that this is not the right way to think about things and we should be starting with the learning objectives etc. etc. but let us skip this issue for the time being.] What follows is a lesson plans in 10 simple steps. I believe this concrete example can provide a useful model of how we can ‘tweak’ standard activities and supplement our coursebook.
[NB: This article is based on a (hugely popular) presentation. You can find all the slides below. If you would like to use this lesson with your students, you will also need a handout. Just click here].
Step 1 – Stimulating the students’ curiosity: Ideally, I would like to get my students curious about the text, but how? According to G. Lowenstein, curiosity is the ‘gap’ between what I know is out there and my own knowledge. If I can see something or nothing – I’m not curious; if I can see the vague outline of a shape, then I am! So the key is to give students some idea of the text – and get them to use their imagination to ‘join the dots’. So what we can do is set the context (very briefly), then give students some key words from the text and get them to make up a little story about the content of the text.
Step 2 – Getting students to invest: Now we can take things further. To maximize interest, we need to get the student to invest by making some concrete predictions about the text. The more they commit themselves, the more interested they will be. One way of doing this is by selecting some sentences from the text (or writing some ourselves), cutting them in half and then giving students only the first part. They will have to use their imagination to complete them. Notice that this gives them some additional information about the text and this makes them even more curious. In addition, it also activates their mental schemata – which makes subsequent processing easier.
Step 3 – Fast reading: One of the skills we want to develop in our students is the ability to read fast, to read for gist without focusing on every word. For this I have found that ‘Cueprompter’ is an excellent tool, but we can just give students the text and tell them they only have 60 seconds to read it in. The aim is to check whether their predictions were right – to see how these sentences should be completed in the light of the information in the text. This gives students a nice focus task – a purpose for reading. Speed is of the essence here – you will see why in the next paragraph.
Step 4 – Slow reading: Now we want our students to read the text more carefully – but how can we get them to do that? The answer is the amazing activity ‘Hidden Message’. It is very easy to prepare. You type (or copy) your text. Then you write a sentence which is your ‘Message’ to your students. Then you take the words of this sentence and insert them into the text! When students do the fast reading task, they do not usually notice these extra words, even though they may feel the text contains some mistakes. Then when you tell them they have to re-read the text to find out what the message is, they are completely shocked! They just love this task! *
Step 5 – Creative writing: Now comes another surprise. At this point you reveal to the students that you have not actually given them the full text. Although it looks like the story is over, this is not the case. So they have to work together to write a few lines in order to complete it. What happened after Ann left school? Notice three things: i) the writing flows naturally from the previous activity ii) the students have already read the text twice, so they have a very clear idea of the context, the characters, etc. it is easier to complete something than to write something from scratch; and iii) the task is small and fast – it does not feel onerous (perceptions matter!).
Step 6 – Focus on Language: Now that students are familiar with the text, it is a good idea to focus their attention on language. How should we do that? Whenever I ask my students to highlight useful language, they invariably focus on i) single words… ii) …which they do not know. This is where the teacher comes in; we need to explain to students that ii) …perhaps they do not need to know these words (they may be too rare) and i) it is best to focus on whole phrases / collocations. What I normally ask my students to do is to highlight expressions which they can understand, but which they would not be able to use.
Step 7 – Vocabulary Revision: OK – this step is for the next lesson. How can we get students to revise vocabulary? One very simple way is to delete some words from the text and then project the passage on the board and get the students to fill in the gaps – without showing them the missing items. This has three advantages: i) students get to see these items in context (again); ii) students realise that very often there are a number of words that could be used (which helps combat the misconception of the ‘one correct answer’ which tests perpetuate) ** and iii) (crucially) it forces students to retrieve the missing items; retrieval is effortful but it is the key to retention.
Step 8 – Speaking – A personal response: Having finished with the reading, it is vital that we ask ourselves ‘Is there another activity which follows naturally from the text?’ In this case, students could perhaps act out the scene between Anne and Emma Pye. However, there is something better which makes use of the students’ personal experience. Students can imagine a novice teacher like Anne asking them for tips on what to do and not to do. Students have strong views about what they like and they dislike about their teachers and their practices and this would be an excellent opportunity for any teacher not only to get students talking, but also to gain insights into what values/traits they consider important in a teacher.
Step 9 – Homework: There are two problems with H/W: i) we often leave it till the very end (when students are packing their things – as though it was an afterthought) and ii) we often fail to support students enough. Look at the slide with the e-mail however. It contains ‘tips’ given by another teacher (notice how this links it to the previous step). However, these tips are clearly ridiculous. Apart from the humorous effect, this task is a much improved version of H/W: i) students have a model (which means they know exactly what they have to do) and ii) students have the ideas – either from the previous activity or simply by reversing this ludicrous advice. Excellent! 🙂
Step 10 – Recap and ‘dessert’: OK – there are a number of points worth remembering here. For me, the key factor is the students’ own contribution, as can be seen in Steps 2, 5 and 8. The more students invest, the more likely they are to enjoy the session and to benefit from it. The teacher’s role is to ensure that students’ curiosity is aroused (Step 1) and perhaps to introduce an element of incongruity (Step 4) and humour (Step 9) so as to make the lesson more enjoyable. It also helps if the teacher has something funny / interesting for ‘dessert’ as it were. When I do this with teachers, the most common tip they come up with in Step 8 is ‘Get out of the job while you still can’. So I show them this video clip… Enjoy. 🙂
* NB: i) You can ‘customise’ the message to make it more fun for a particular group: [ e.g. ‘Guys I hope you are going to do better in the next test!’ 🙂 ] ii) You can produce easy or hard versions by inserting the words in the right or in the wrong order; in the latter case the students have to spot them AND reorder them (this is excellent for Mixed-Ability classes) iii) You can make the task harder or easier depending on where you put the extra words (e.g. the word ‘being’ is harder to spot in the first phrase than in the second: ‘Just last year she was being a student’ vs ‘Just last being year she was a student’).
** NB: In fact, it is even better if you delete whole phrases (2-3 or more words). This is even more effective in getting students to realise that there are many correct ways of saying the same thing and it provides a good opportunity for vocabulary expansion. For instance, in the first sentence, if you leave out one word (‘Anne felt nervous as she …………. the classroom’) the options you have are ‘entered’ / ‘walked into’ etc.; however, if you leave out the last three words (‘Anne felt nervous as she ……. ……. …….’) then there are more possibilities such as ‘greeted her class’ or ‘was about to start her first lesson’ etc.
Eternal Punishment: This is not generally known, but in Dante’s ‘Inferno’ there is a special place for teachers who have led a sinful life; it is a classroom where they are condemned to teach Mixed Ability Classes (MAC) for all eternity. As this is somewhere between the 8th and 9th level, that gives one some idea of how most colleagues feel about having to teach such groups… 🙂
The problem – and 6 solutions: A lot of fine distinctions are made about what we mean by ‘Mixed Ability’ but for most teachers what matters is the difference in level. This can be a huge headache for teachers; if the material or task chosen is too hard, weak students may not be able to follow; if it is too easy, the strong students will finish early and have nothing to do. To deal with this problem I would like to look at 6 simple ideas and 6 practical activities which I have found immensely helpful with my students.
[NB: This article is based on a presentation I gave some time ago. To see/download the slides, just click here]
We can give students different tasks: There is no reason why all students should have to do the same thing. One solution would be to use the same reading or listening text for instance, but give the stronger students a more challenging task.
Task 1 – Same text, different task: A quick look through a text or the transcript of a dialogue / listening task should give us an idea of what we can ask our students to do. The idea is simple: we can ask the weak students to do something simple, and the strong ones to do that plus something else. For instance (depending on the text) we could perhaps ask weak students to write down the names of the people talking and the strong ones to write down their names and nationalities. In the case of this listening activity (click here to listen to the track), we could ask the weak students to write down the numbers they hear and the strong ones to write down the numbers and what they refer to.
We can give students self-adjusting activities: Another idea would be to give students activities which are ‘self-adjusting’. This means that they can be performed by students at different levels of linguistic competence; the main task can be performed by everyone – it is the level of sophistication of the language that changes.
Task 2 – A story and 3 lies: Students work in pairs. Student 1 thinks of a true story about him/herself. Then s/he tells this story to Student 2, but they have to include 3 lies in their narrative. Student 2 has to listen carefully and try to identify the lies. Then they swap roles (NB: To ensure there is no cheating, before the first student starts talking, s/he makes a note of the 3 lies on a piece of paper so s/he can show them to his/her partner afterwards). Here is a short demo (click here to listen to the story). Can you spot the 3 lies? *
We can use collaborative tasks: In this case a strong and a weak student have to perform a task together. Each of them has some kind of information to contribute, but naturally, for the stronger student to convey his/her information, they require higher linguistic skills.
Task 3 – Spot the differences: In this task, the weak student is given a passage describing a picture in some detail; the stronger student is given the picture itself (see the slides below). There are some differences between the description and the actual picture. The two students have to memorise their information (the passage and the picture respectively) and then they take it in turns to share it with their partner as best they can. They have to do so without looking at their picture / text. Then they work together to discover all the differences (again without looking at the passage or the picture).
We can give students different roles: Here once again we pair up a strong student with a weak student, but their roles are different. In the task below, the weaker student’s role is linguistically easier but it is actually more important than that of his/her partner.
Task 4 – Running dictation: The teacher puts up a short text on the board with blue-tac (it’s best to put up many copies, so that students do not jostle each other). On the teacher’s signal, the weaker student in each pair runs up to the board and tries to memorise as much of the text as s/he can; then s/he runs back and tell his/her partner what to write; then s/he runs back to the board for more, etc. The first pair to finish are the winners (but the teacher needs to check that they’ve got the spelling right!).
We can set a low threshold level: In this case we give the whole class the same, open-ended task. By setting a deliberately low level we can ensure that weaker students can feel they have done well, while stronger students can go on and do better.
Task 5 – ‘At least….’: The key phrase here is ‘at least’. For instance, if it is a vocabulary revision activity, you can tell students ‘Write down at least 5 means of transport’. If it is a reading text, the task can be something like ‘Find at least 4 reasons why the writer thinks zoos are a bad idea’. In a cloze passage it can be ‘You have to fill in at least 8 out of the 20 gaps’ or (as is the case in this revision task) ‘Answer at least 20 questions’. (Click here to see a sample vocabulary quiz).
Pitching the task at different levels: In this last activity (one of my favourites) again we have a stronger student paired up with a weaker one. Their task is the same, but the level of difficulty is higher for the stronger student.
Task 6 – Hide the word: Each student is given a list of words, but those of the strong students are more difficult. Students speak in turns. Student A writes one of his/her words on a slip of paper. Then s/he has to speak for 30 seconds and s/he has to use this word at least once. (In fact s/he has to try to ‘conceal’ the word s/he has chosen in what s/he says). The other student makes a note of all the ‘suspicious-sounding’ words their partner uses and then tries to guess the ‘hidden word’. S/he has 3 guesses. If s/he guesses right at the first go, s/he scores 3 point – or two or one if they are unsuccessful initially. Here is a short demo. Which is the word I have tried to hide? **
The classroom as a lift: Undoubtedly mixed ability classes are a challenge but of course this is rarely the teacher’s fault – we just need to do our job as best we can. I remember reading a metaphor somewhere about seeing the classroom as a lift; everybody gets in but it does not matter if people get off on different floors; what does matter is that the lift goes up! 🙂
[ * The 3 lies: Andrew was not dyslexic / Andrew liked a sitcom (‘Friends’) not documentaries / Andrew was moved to a higher stream; his marks were not changed. ]
A lesson plan for all levels – in 10 ½ simple steps
Preparation: Some fascinating recent studies have shown that on average teachers spend about 30 min preparing for each of their classes. Meanwhile other studies (conducted on planet Earth this time) show that such a time allocation may actually be unrealistic. This post is for teachers who live on planet Earth and who know that there are times when one may have to enter a classroom having only had a couple of minutes to prepare (not that such a thing has ever happened to me… 🙂 ). It is in situations like these that one needs a simple, straightforward and easy to implement ‘reusable lesson plan’.
[NB: This lesson plan is based on a presentation I gave some time ago. The slides will help you follow the various steps. To download the slides, click here].
What you will need: To run this lesson properly you need to have a computer, a data projector, speakers and an ordinary internet connection. The students do not need to have any electronic devices. You will need to access a site (Breaking News English – BNE) and a tool (Quizlet). Both of them are extremely easy to use. If I can use them, so can my grandmother.
What is Breaking News English? BNE is a site started by Sean Branville and visited by thousands of teachers every day. Sean takes topical news stories, rewrites them and posts the text along with a large number of activities that a teacher can use immediately. All the tasks are on the same page – along with the key. [NB: The stories come in different levels, carefully graded for language and task difficulty, so this sequence can be used with students at almost any level].
What is Quizlet? Quizlet is a fantastic tool, based on the tried and tested ‘card system’ students used in the past in order to learn vocabulary. The idea is that you prepare a set of (digital) cards that you can then use to revise wherever you are, whenever you want. But the software allows you to do a lot more than the simple recall activity people can do with the traditional version. [NB: Importantly, you can also share your sets, which means that you can send your students the sets you would like them to study and they can share sets with each other].
Step 1: Pre-listening: [To follow the various steps on the BNE site, just click here]. The idea here is to activate your students’ mental schemata. So you choose a few key words from the text and you get students to predict what the text might be about. You then scroll down where it says ‘Before Reading / Listening’ and get them to look at the T/F Qs. It is important that you get students to predict the answers first (which incidentally is a useful exam skill). Generally speaking, having some idea of what is to follow helps students perform better and boosts their confidence.
Step 2: BNE – Listening: BNE allows you to listen to a recording of the text. Before that though, you need to give your students a focus task. In this case it is the T/F Qs they have just looked at. Then you play the recording and students can check their predictions. [NB: BNE also has a M/C activity for the listening part – this task may offer extra face validity for some exam classes].
Step 3: BNE – Reading + Noticing: To get students to focus on the text in greater detail, you can then get them to look at the 10 Comprehension Qs (further down). They should be able to answer some of them. Then you can show the class the text for a short time (say 1 min since they have already listened to it) and ask them to answer the remaining Qs as well. But for students to really benefit from the language of the text, they have to focus on it and start ‘noticing’ things (see Lewis 1997). Simply making mental notes is not much good however; they need to put pen to paper. At this point it is crucial to stress two things: i) words on their own are of little use; we need to focus on phrases/collocations instead; ii) instead of looking at unknown words/phrases, it makes more sense to focus on the ones we can understand but would be unable to use.
Step 4: Quizlet – Flashcards: Once we have identified what language we would like to keep, we switch to Quizlet and we prepare a set of cards (just click here). Instead of doing it in the traditional way however (word /translation, e.g. ‘cast’/‘ρίχνω’) I have found it is far better to record collocations (e.g. ‘cast’/‘anchor’ or ‘insist on’/‘participating’). In most cases this combination of words is self-explanatory. Then the students work with the cards in the traditional way. They can look at one side and try to recall what is on the other. There is a shuffling option, which means that you do not always look at the cards in the same sequence. You can also mark the cards that you find difficult. The software then brings them up again and again so that you get to study them more.
Step 5: BNE – Gap-filling 1: At this stage we can go back to BNE and do the ‘Gap-Fill’ activity. However, we can make the task a lot more productive by covering the words on the right. Recognising the missing item is one thing – retrieving it is another. As Brown, Roediger & McDaniel point out (2014 – ch. 2) the need for retrieval makes the task more effortful and far more useful for learning purposes. The more effortful the exercise is, the more likely the words are to be retained in long-term memory. [NB: This skipping back and forth between Quizlet and BNE is intentional; switching helps maintain the students’ attention].
Step 6: Quizlet – Scatter: That done, we can switch back to Quizlet. The ‘Scatter’ game is essentially a matching task. The software presents you with your card entries in random order. You have to match the word on the one side of your cards with that on the other to make the collocation disappear, but there are two little elements that make the task interesting: i) you have to drag the words (as opposed to just linking them) and ii) there is the time element! You can do it in class as a contest between 2 groups – the one with the lowest time wins. [NB: It is important to ask students to read the collocations aloud while they match them, as this helps with retention].
Step 7: BNE – Gap-filling 2: Returning to BNE, students can be asked to do the ‘Listen and fill in the gaps’ task. It is best not to use the listening track. You simply ask students to fill in the gaps from memory – perhaps working in pairs. Crucially, you tell them that they need not worry about recalling the original text; the idea is simply to complete the text so that it makes sense. In this case for instance, we can fill the second gap by writing ‘than those’ or ‘than people who’ or ‘compared to those who’ etc. This is important as it helps students move away from the language of the text and focus on meaning.
Step 8: Quizlet – Test: Going back to Quizlet, if we click on the ‘Test’ button, the software will automatically prepare a test based on our card set (isn’t technology amazing? 🙂 ) The activities are simple and at the end of the test the students get instant feedback and a grade so they can track their progress. The test can be done in seconds. [NB: The software generates a new test each time, so it makes sense to compare your performance with earlier tries if you want to return to the set after a few days/weeks].
Step 8.5: BNE – Crossword: OK – this is the ‘half- step’. 🙂 Back to BNE. If at this stage students are tired, you can give them a welcome break by clicking on the ‘Crossword’ option. Amazingly, when you do so, the software automatically prepares a crossword puzzle based on words from the text. In my experience students love crosswords and of course the activity does help consolidate the new knowledge and provides new links between the words and the definitions.
Step 9: BNE – Monologue: This is the most demanding (and the most useful) part of the lesson. In pairs, students take it in turns to present the ideas in the text orally to their partner using a basic framework to aid their memory (see the slide below). The point is not for them to reproduce the text verbatim, but rather to convey the general meaning. It is important that we encourage them to expand, amplify and give their own examples. Brown, Roediger & McDaniel (2014 – p. 207) call this strategy ‘Elaboration’; it helps integrate new material into what students already know.
Step 10: Quizlet – Game (Gravity): This can be your students’ reward for all their hard work. They will love this one! J It is a typical arcade game. The idea is that you have to protect the planet from incoming asteroids (without calling on Bruce Willis). Each of the rocks has a word on it and you have to quickly type the other part of the phrase / collocation in order to neutralize the asteroid. You can do it as a whole-class activity on the screen and have the whole class screaming out the phrases – it is huge fun!
Advantages: There are a number of reasons why this ‘reusable lesson’ is one of my favourites: i) time: it requires minimal preparation (the Quizlet set can even be prepared in class!); ii) progression: the tasks follow a natural sequence (e.g. from receptive to productive skills) iii) speed: it is fast – many of the steps require very little time; iv) variety: the range of tasks means the students get bored; v) challenge: many of the tasks are designed so that students want to do them again and again; vi) levels: this lesson can be used with students of all levels (BNE offers 7); finally (and most importantly) vii) learner independence: learners can use BNE and Quizlet on their own – they are very effective learning strategies.
Last words – Technology is our friend: It is amazing how much effort the judicious use of some simple technological tools can save the usually overburdened teacher – and how much it can help energise the often demotivated learners. But then technology has always been our friend. Ever since the good old days of the Audiolingual method (Ah, those were the days… 🙂 ). The idea was simplicity itself: you insert the tape into the cassette player. You press the play button. You listen. You repeat. You’ve learned the language (as long as you ignore what the second woman is saying…). Just watch this clip. Enjoy. 🙂
Brown, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M. (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge Massachusetts. Belknap Harvard.
Lewis, M. (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
Have you got insurance?: When I tell colleagues I mostly teach teenagers, they tend to respond with health warnings: ‘Teaching teens can… …seriously damage your health’ or ‘…try your patience’ or ‘…drive you nuts’ or ‘…shake your nerves and rattle your brains’ – the list is endless. But I have found they are not that bad really – especially in small doses! What few would deny is that they are quite distinct as a group. In any case, although I personally prefer to teach adults, I have found that time and again the universe conspires to force me to teach teens (which only goes to show that Coelho did not get it quite right…. 🙂 ) In all these years of teaching, I have always dreamed of eventually writing the ELTON-winning ‘Teen Teacher’s Survival Guide’, but so far I have only managed to come up with 5 principles. Still, they have stood me in good stead, so here they are for what they are worth…
1. Teenagers are obsessed with their peer group: One often comes across the misconception that teenagers do not care about anybody, but in fact they do – their own peer group. It seems that at this stage they become sharply aware of differences between the others (often referred to as ‘old fogies’ 🙂 ) and their own cohort. They want to distance themselves from the former, but with the latter they conform massively (Cialdini 2001 – p. 123) The idea here is this: Any activity / text / discussion that has to do with teenagers or touches upon cross-generational problems or issues such as discipline – rights – obligations etc. is likely to arouse their interest as it is close to their reality. Interestingly, I have discovered that teenagers quite like laughing at themselves and this classic sketch with the iconic ‘Kevin the Teenager’ always goes down well. [See the video below; if you would like a handout to use in class, just click here].
2. Teenagers love songs: This is almost self-evident, but the big question is ‘Which songs should we choose?’ As I see it, the perfect song should meet 4 criteria: a) it should contain lots of language (surprisingly, many songs rely on a strong refrain and there is very little else – e.g. the very nice ‘Counting Stars’); b) the delivery should be clear (alas – that rules out Bob Dylan! 🙂 ); c) the music should be non-intrusive (ballads are great in this respect); and d) there should be no long musical interludes (students may switch off). But there is one more thing to take into account: content. Not everything will do. ‘Lady in Black’ by the Uriah Heep is one of my favourites – notice how it ticks all the boxes. And the content is plain and simple: a straightforward anti-war song that anybody can understand. [See the video below; if you would like a handout to use in class, just click here].
3. Competitions give teens the ‘high’ they crave: Teenagers love high arousal activities – hence their love of extreme sports etc (Brizendine 2010 – ch.2). Competitions are therefore an obvious choice. In a presentation on teaching teenagers a few years ago, the speaker advocated the use of Trivia Quizzes as shown in the first slide.
In groups, students decide on what they think is the correct answer and score points accordingly. But wait – can we not do even better? Why not get the students to come up with the questions themselves? That would generate even more language and increase the students’ investment. Here is another idea: why not use the ‘Boy – Girl’ dynamic? We could divide the class into boys-only and girls-only groups. The former could try to come up with Qs that most boys could answer easily, but which would be hard for girls and vice-versa. I have tried it with the teens I teach and they loved it! The second slide shows some of the Qs the boys wrote…
4. Teenagers’ interests have one thing in common: I remember once attending a talk on teaching teenagers and the following Q appeared in one of the slides (the correct answer is of course ‘All 4 of them!’) There is no doubt that the issue of sex and relationships is number 1 for most teens most of the time. And while teen boys often withdraw and ‘disappear into adolescence’, this topic is guaranteed to bring them out of their cave (Brizendine 2007 – p. 66). One way to exploit the boy-girl dynamic, differences in upbringing, different biological agendas and the teenagers’ fascination with dating is to get them in same-sex groups to write tips – for the opposite sex. The task is this: ‘[Think about all the things that annoy you when you go out on a date] Imagine you are going out with a girl for the first time today. What advice would you like her [male] best friend to give her?’ The results can be hilarious. Here are a couple of tips from my male teenage students:
5. Facebook is the teen’s natural habitat: By FB I mean the social media in general of course. Anything that has to do with that particular biosphere, its flora and fauna, its ‘dos and don’ts’ is likely to motivate teenage learners. It is something they know, something the feel comfortable with and something on which they have far more expertise than we do. The following YouTube clip is simply perfect for teaching purposes. Students love the way it has been made to look like it was shot in the 1950s and it is ideal for listening comprehension practice as the delivery is so smooth. The best thing about it however is its potential for further discussion / projects. Two tasks suggest themselves: ‘What should Alice and Timmy have done in these situations?’ and ‘What are the top 10 rules for using FB in your opinion?’ [See the video below; if you would like a handout to use in class, just click here].
Final words: There are a couple of other things that I have discovered over the years. The first one is that it pays to take risks (remember Mr Keating in ‘The Dead Poets’ Society?’). Many teens love PARSNIPs and they should not have to go to the grocer’s to find them. The other thing is that it helps if you ‘teach from the front’ (as in ‘lead from the front’). That means being somehow familiar with teen culture. You don’t have to be one of them, but it helps if you have heard of WoW or Jaqueline Wilson or the latest heart-throb. Failure to do your H/W might mean prolonged exposure to your students’ sclera as they roll their eyes… I was talking about these two points with a colleague the other day and she volunteered a third one: ‘Well’ she said ‘it also helps if you are a man’. ‘A man?!?’ I asked ‘Why?’ ‘Because unlike us, you never grow up!’ she replied with a grin. 🙂 Hmmmmm….
[First published in the IATEFL Young Learners and Teenagers SIG]
Brizendine, L. “The Female Brain” Bantam Books 2007
Brizendine, L. “The Male Brain” Bantam Books 2010
Cialdini, R. “Influence – Science and Practice”, Allyn & Bacon 2001
Madylus, O. “Film, TV and Music” Cambridge University Press 2009
Which is the safest place to hide information? The CIA archives or a student’s vocabulary notebook? I would go for the latter, as the former will be opened eventually, some 50 years from now. 🙂
Yet although we all recognise the importance of vocabulary revision, very few of our students do it. Why? I believe it is partly that we as teachers are always trying to ‘cover new ground’ and partly that our students do not know how to go about it.
Take 1 minute to think about the following 2 questions.
How do your students record unknown words in their notebooks?
Do they revise them? And if so, how?
Now compare your answers with those at the end of the article – any similarities? *
[Materials: This sequence of activities is based on a presentation I gave some time ago (see below). To download the slides, just click here. To download a handout for the students to use, click here].
Why Vocabulary Revision Strategies? “Vocabulary cannot be taught – it has to be learned” (Rivers in Thornbury, 2002). The implications of this are enormous. Because of the importance of vocabulary and the sheer amount of lexical items to be learned we cannot rely on a process of accretion whereby we ‘feed’ learners a few words at a time and hope for the best. By exposing them to a range of strategies we can achieve one or more of the following:
Increase learners’ awareness of how they learn/remember words
Encourage good learning habits
Help them discover the learning style that suits them best
Make them more independent
Encourage them to become active learners
What follows is a sequence of 10 activities which can be used as one lesson (of approximately 90 minutes) in class or in 1-1 teaching and at all levels, (though you might want to use slightly different words! **). The main point however is not the words themselves but rather the activities which the students can subsequently use when revising on their own.
In the interests of clarity and ease, students are given a list of 50 words that fall ‘neatly’ into categories and lend themselves to manipulation by means of the other activities that we are going to look at below. In ‘real life’ that would be a list of words that the students have encountered in previous lessons.
Activity 1: Grouping. [Students look at a list of words (see the first page here) and try to divide them into 5 categories. While doing that, they have to find a suitable name for the category. They then place the words ‘around’ the ‘headword’ like in a mind-map] (Idea taken from Gairns & Redman, 1986).
Comments: This is the only activity which might take some time, but it is well worth it, as it forms the basis for all the others. It also addresses an important problem found in almost all students’ notebooks: the words are listed there at random. This is inevitable during the lesson, but students should later go back and reorganize them (Thornbury, 2002). “Words are like books” (H. Puchta, TESOL Convention 2001): in the same way that if you have 1,000 books it is difficult to find the one you want unless you put them on different shelves, sorting words in groups facilitates both retention and retrieval (Nation, 2001).
Activity 2: Pairing. [Now you can give students the second page of this worksheet. Students try to find a ‘partner’ for the words in a particular group (this works best for adjectives or verbs – e.g. cunning / a cunning fox, or cast / to cast a vote)]
Comments: How many times have your students come up with something like x ‘We wrote a test today’ x or x ‘He put me a bad mark’ x? (the latter accompanied by various expletives!). This is partly due to MTI (mother tongue interference) but also in part due to the students’ habit of recording words in isolation (e.g. vote = ψήφος / hence why not x ‘throw a vote’ x or x ‘drop a vote’ x ?). This activity aims to drive home the importance of collocation, in other words to show students that a word is virtually useless for productive purposes unless they know what other words it goes with. In addition, knowledge of typical collocations reduces the students’ cognitive load in production (Lewis, 2000).
Activity 3: Brainstorming. [Students look at the words in a particular group, and try to recall others belonging to the same category] (Thornbury, 2002).
Comments: On the face of it, this may look both unnecessary and counterproductive. ‘It is hard enough getting students to learn these fifty words without introducing any new ones!’ one might say. Yet this is not so for three reasons: a) The activity forces students to do something active by tapping the vocabulary already at their command. b) By trying to think of words in the same field students subconsciously start making links between these and the new ones (Chamot, Barnhardt, El-Dinary, Robbins 1999). c) Unless you have done this activity it is difficult to do the next one!
Activity 4: Linking. [Students literally ‘link’ two or more words in a category by finding some feature they have in common or some other way in which they are connected semantically – but they have to say what the connection is].
Comments: “Words are like boats” (H. Puchta, TESOL Convention 2001) – they tend to drift away when you are not looking (which in the case of my students is 99% of the time!). If you want to make sure your boat stays put, you cast an anchor or tie it somewhere. With words, the ‘ropes’ are the links with other words. The greater the number of links, the less likely you are to forget them and the easier it will be for you to retrieve them later. Manipulating words in groups provides memory links and ‘maps’ the new words onto the students’ already existing knowledge (Chamot, Barnhardt, El-Dinary, Robbins 1999).
Activity 5: Focusing. [Students simply look at the words and highlight the ones they do not recall, or the ones they might find the most difficult to retrieve or use] (Mc Carthy & O’Dell, 1994).
Comments: When students do actually look at the vocabulary in their notebooks, they do so indiscriminately and if asked to revise the words they have recorded they will study them for much the same reason that Hillary climbed Everest – because they are there! Yet not all of them are equally useful or equally unfamiliar to students. Hence, it makes sense for us to encourage them to select what they focus on. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of the good student is that s/he is selective (Chamot, Barnhardt, El-Dinary, Robbins 1999) and such students know that the highlighter is one of their strongest weapons!
Activity 6: Recalling. [Students look at all 10 words in a particular category for about 1 minute. They then have to write them down without looking at them. After that, they compare the two lists and focus their attention on the ones they have forgotten]. (Mc Carthy & O’Dell, 1994)
Comments: Compare this with the students’ standard practice of just looking at words and trying to memorise them. All too often, their eyes travel down the page but there is no guarantee that the brain takes in the information. In this case though learners can check how effective their attempts at memorization have been and can also focus later on the words they have not managed to recall. If they do this 4-5 times (with increasing time intervals between each revision period (Gairns & Redman, 1986) their chances of retaining them are much higher (Mc Carthy & O’Dell, 1994).
Activity 7: Associating. [Students choose a category and they try to associate each word in it with some abstract/general notion, e.g. ‘Good/Bad’ or ‘Past/Present/Future’ – but once again they need to say why].
Comments: This activity achieves 3 aims: Firstly, it creates a different kind of link; one between a word and a ‘notion’ this time. Secondly, it raises the students’ awareness of the need to record not only the meaning but the connotations of a word as this may be particularly important sometimes (compare for instance the words ‘slim’ and ‘skinny’). Finally, it shows students that the way to learn vocabulary is very often a personal one, as different people might classify the same word differently (Ellis & Sinclair, 1989).
Activity 8: Anchoring. [Students choose some of the more difficult words and deliberately set out to create ‘links’ with other related lexical items by findings superordinate and subordinate words, usual collocations, examples of the term etc.]
Comments: This activity is based on the ‘Depth of Processing’ hypothesis (see Craik & Lockhart 1972). The idea behind the creation of this mini-network is that the more semantic links one forges between a lexical item and other words / expressions (the more ‘ropes’ you tie your ‘boat’ with – see H. Puchta’s metaphor above), the more likely this item is to be remembered and the more avenues we will have of accessing it, hence the easier it will be to retrieve (Willingham 2009).
Activity 9: Using. [Similar to ‘Linking’, only here students have to link two or more words by making a sentence containing them or by combining them to produce a short text]. (Mc Carthy & O’Dell, 1994).
Comments: The purpose of this activity is not only to correct mistakes that students may make in production, but rather to print the words in their minds. It kills two birds with one stone; a) it creates yet another link between 2 words and b) according to the ‘depth of processing’ hypothesis students are more likely to remember a lexical item if they are actively engaged with it rather than if they just look at it and try to remember it (Thornbury, 2002).
Activity 10: Expanding. [Students look at one of the groups and ask themselves ‘Are there any words related to this group which I do not know in English?’ They then write them down in the L1 and either ask the teacher to translate them, or look them up in a dictionary].
Comments: This is perhaps the most ambitious activity of all. Students use the L1 to discover gaps in their knowledge of the L2 (Atkinson, 1993). However, the main aim is to make students active – to make them take responsibility for their own learning. Instead of passively recording the words they come across in a text or generally during the lesson, instead of waiting for the words to come to them, they are now asked to go out and find them for themselves.
Two additional points
What about context? Well, it is true that lexical items are best presented in context (Lewis, 2000). The advantages are that students can see them being used naturally and in a natural context and so they can get much more information about them. However, here we are talking about revision. The assumption is that the words first appeared in a text and were subsequently recorded by students. When entering vocabulary in your notebook, you cannot keep the whole text. Moreover, there has been research which shows that words can be retained even outside the context of a sentence (Nation, 2001).
Doesn’t all this imply too great an emphasis on explicit learning? It is true that many have suggested that words are best acquired and we should let exposure to the language do its work. In fact the debate between the merits of implicit vs explicit teaching has been raging for some time and there is a whole spectrum of approaches from an extreme emphasis on acquisition (Krashen) to a focus on intense conscious learning (Craik & Lockhart – both in Carter & Nunan, 2001). As is often the case, the truth may well lie somewhere in between, so it makes sense to make our learners aware of both ways. Besides, different learners have different learning styles and it is for them to choose the one that suits them best (Ellis & Sinclair, 1989).
Last words – and a treat…
Two final points – honest! Firstly, although each of these activities is short and fast, ten courses in one sitting can cause serious indigestion to even the most highly-motivated students, so break them up – make sure you insert some other, fun activities before returning to the vocabulary strategies. Secondly, do not expect instant results. Strategic training takes a long time and it is mostly adults who are likely to take some of these techniques on board right from the start.
…And as a reward to you for having managed to read up to this point and seeing as we are on the subject of words here is a little treat – something on the importance of synonyms. Synonyms are great, as they can help you get your message across. If one of them doesn’t work, another one is bound to, right? 🙂
[* (1) In my experience, most of them simply make lists of the ‘cast = ρίχνω’ type. (2) No. If they do, they simply read the word pairs or, at best, they cover the translations and try to remember them and then reverse the procedure. – surely we can help them do better than that?]
[** Here are 4 more sets of words that you can use with your students at levels C2 – C1 – B2 and B1 if you want to see how these activities work (just click here). Of course it is best if you use words that your students have already encountered. These are meant to be revision strategies.]
[*** If you would like to use this video clip in class, you can click here to download a worksheet].
Atkinson, D. “Teaching Monolingual Classes” Longman 1993
Carter, R. & Nunan, D. “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages” C.U.P. 2001
Chamot, A.U., Barnhardt, S., El-Dinary, P.B., Robbins, J. “The Learning Strategies Handbook” Longman 1999
Craik, F.; Lockhart R.S. (1972). “Levels of processing: A framework for memory research”. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior 11 (6): 671–84
Ellis, G. & Sinclair, B. “Learning to Learn English” C.U.P. 1989
Gairns R. & Redman S. “Working with Words” C.U.P. 1986
Lewis, M. “Teaching Collocation”, LTP 2000
Mc Carthy, M. & O’Dell, F. “English Vocabulary in Use”, C.U.P. 1994
Nation, I.S.P. “Learning Vocabulary in Another Language”, C.U.P. 2001
Richards, J. & Renandya, W. (eds.) “Methodology in Language Teaching”, C.U.P. 2002
Thornbury, S. “How to Teach Vocabulary”, Longman 2002
Willingham, D. “Why Don’t Students Like School?” San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass 2009
How do our students feel about writing?: It has been said that fear of public speaking has been ranked higher than fear of death and that our loathing of cockroaches exceeds our aversion towards anything else, yet in my experience our students’ feelings towards Writing rival both the above in intensity! 🙂
Why do our students feel like that?: That’s an easy one – the answer is two-pronged: a) in most classroom tasks our students lack a reason to write. Yet the very same students who whinge about writing a paragraph will happily spend 3-4 hours a day chatting with their friends on Facebook! b) Very often our students do not know how to go about producing a long piece of writing. Their favourite approach is to sit down, look at the topic…and start writing. This of course means that they are trying to plan, order their ideas, put them on paper and edit their text – all at the same time! No wonder it seems like hard work!
A different approach: In this article I would like to propose a slightly different approach to teaching writing. Its key elements are two: a) We can start by giving our students a scaffolding – something on which to build. By this I mean a text written by another student. In this way they can see what is expected of them. b) Then we can get our students to improve this text bit-by-bit so that they do not feel overwhelmed. I will be demonstrating this approach by means of a specific example.
[NB: This article is based on a presentation of mine. To download the complete set of slides, just click here]
A typical writing task: This task is a real one, taken from a public exam (The Pearson PTE General – Level 3 [B2]): ‘A friend of yours is interested in following a Portfolio Career. Write an e-mail to him/her explaining the advantages and disadvantages of such a career and giving them your opinion’.
Here is a sample piece of writing by a (not so good) B2-level student:
Step 1 – Brainstorming: Before showing studentss the text above it is a good idea to get them thinking around the topic. A quick brainstorming session is enough. In this case it should be on the pluses and drawbacks of a Portfolio Career. Then you give the students a list of ideas (the 4 which are mentioned in the text, plus some extra ones) and you ask them to identify the former (this is in order to give them a focus to their reading). Students then read the text and they are ready for the next steps.
Step 2 – Analysis: Once they have looked at the ideas expressed in the text, it is time to look at the text itself from the Examiner’s point of view. This is a good opportunity for you to check that students know what is expected of them (e.g. in terms of length, relevance, format etc.) Then you give them the marks this particular piece of writing has received so they can see how accurate their assessment was. (NB: It is vital that you have chosen a less-than-perfect text so that it is easy for students to see in what ways it can be improved).
Step 3 – Coherence: You then focus on different aspects of the text. For instance, while this particular text is generally understandable, cohesion is not so good and this in turn affects coherence. So you point out to the students what the problems are and you get them to suggest improvements (e.g. repetition in line 2 / the word ‘but’ in § 5 / the lack of a connector like ‘All in all’ in § 7 etc.)
Step 4 – Topic Sentences: Although this text is an e-mail, it still makes sense for the students to clearly state the main point of each § in the first sentence. So you ask students to tell you what is wrong with the Topic Sentences here (e.g. the TS in § 3, 4 and 5 are unclear, while in § 5 the TS is actually the second sentence) and you get them to rewrite/improve them (e.g. in § 5 the TS could be ‘On the other hand, people with a portfolio career do not have regular work’).
Step 5 – Development: It is not enough to state an idea – one also needs to ‘flesh it out’. In § 6 for instance, there is no development whatsoever! So you get the students to write 2-3 sentences explaining/supporting this idea (e.g. ‘People in a regular job tend to have colleagues who may become friends. A portfolio career on the other hand often means working from home where you hardly meet anybody’). [NB: Q: What if your students cannot come up with any ideas? A: You give them the ideas yourself (in note form) so all your students need to do is expand them!]
Step 6 – Editing: Having produced a piece of writing, one needs to proofread it and correct any mistakes one may have inadvertently made. So you ask students to look at, say § 7 and try to rewrite it using correct language. (e.g. ‘I would advise you to look for a full-time job and forget about a portfolio career. Having a proper job means having more work’).
Step 7 – Rephrasing: Very often when trying to correct mistakes, students find that the text constrains them so that they make as few alterations as possible. In such cases it is important that we encourage them to completely change the original. A good case in point is § 4 which you could ask students to rephrase (e.g. ‘In addition, not having a regular job means you have more freedom. As you have no fixed schedule, you have the flexibility to plan your day any way you want’).
Step 8 – Language Enrichment: Being accurate is one thing – using advanced language is quite another. Our students’ default tendency is to ‘play it safe’ by using high frequency, simpler vocabulary and grammar, rather than take risks with less familiar structures/expressions. To counter this, we can ask them to ‘upgrade’ the language of a part of the text – say § 3. As they may not be able to come up with much, it makes sense for the teacher to give them some expressions in advance (e.g. ‘acquire knowledge’ / ‘gain experience’ / ‘steady job’ / ‘switch to another career’ / ‘alternative’ / ‘develop skills’ / ‘discover your strengths’ etc.) Students study these for 1-2 minutes and then they put them away and rewrite the § trying to incorporate some of the new language into the text.
Step 9 – The Beginning: Finally, it makes sense to use this text as an opportunity to raise students’ awareness of conventions relating to how we begin/end letters and e-mails. In this case, the beginning is a bit too blunt. The writer gets straight down to business without any reference to previous e-mails or to the sender. It would be far more appropriate to have a personal remark there or something about how difficult such life choices might be.
Step 10 – The Ending: The ending is similarly unsatisfactory. Once again we would expect some remark like ‘I hope I have been of some help’ or ‘Do let me know what you decide to do’. In both the last steps, the students are encouraged to think of issues of sociolinguistic appropriacy and to consider the recipient of the text.
A much improved version: If the class work on this text diligently, the final version can be a far cry from the original. Here is an example of what it might look like:
Why use this approach? In my opinion using this structured approach has a number of advantages: a) students start with a complete text so they do not feel the need to produce something from scratch; b) students know what they are supposed to be doing at each stage; c) students only produce 2-3 sentences at most each time so the task does not seem onerous; d) students get to hear alternative versions so they break free from the ‘single correct answer/way’ mentality; e) students implement essentially a process approach and they get practice in all the stages of writing; f) the teacher can use each stage as an opportunity to provide students with input about writing in general and the specific genre in particular.
A final tip: Methodological issues aside, you also need to take into account the age range and interests of your class before selecting a topic. Whatever you choose, unless you passionately hate your studentss don’t give them a text on Portfolio Careers! 🙂
An ad with a twist: Here is a task for you (and your students). This is an ordinary car advertisement. What are the features that make the car stand out according to the speaker? (Just click to watch the video below). OK – now confess: you did not expect the ending, did you? The casual viewer will just smile to him/herself and watch something else. But I would like to argue here that there is much more to this ad than meets the eye. What does this phenomenon (‘Change Blindness’) have to do with the car? Did the advertisers use this device simply to intrigue us? I do not think so. Read on.
‘The Strike and the Hit’: In his fantastic book ‘Great Customer Experiences’ M. Watkinson mentions an interesting distinction made by the great samurai and duelist Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi said that when you aim a blow at someone and you injure them, this is a ‘strike’; but if you injure them by accident during the duel, this is a ‘hit’. Watkinson claims that this distinction is also relevant when looking at many big companies: the products they design are the result of a long process or research and purposeful development and they are often very good (a ‘strike’); however, when it comes to the customer experience, most companies do not deliberately set out to deliver something good, so when they do, that is a ‘hit’ (as in ‘hit and miss’ – Watkinson 2013, p. xi)
Musashi and ELT: I believe something similar is true in the field of ELT: when it comes to designing lessons or coaching our students about the best way to study, we are good. This is our domain and we know what we are doing (a ‘strike’). When it comes to using Psychology in class however, it is a different matter. Experienced teachers do have an intuitive ‘sense’ of what might work best on many occasions, but I believe that even they would have some difficulty articulating the principles on which their practice is based. If something goes well, it is a ‘hit’. And I believe that with less experienced teachers, the ‘misses’ may well outnumber the ‘hits’. So this is the idea: why not learn from the experts? Why not see what advertising can teach us?
5 Ads – 5 Principles. In what follows I am going to look at 5 advertisements / campaigns and try to isolate the one key principle which I believe the advertisers exploited in order to achieve the effect they desired. In each case I will also recommend a specific activity which shows how we can make use of the same principle in the classroom.
Key Element Number 1 – Social Currency: So what about that Skoda commercial? In his great book ‘Contagious’, (2013) J. Berger looks at the elements which make something ‘go viral’. His studies have identified 6 such key traits and one of these is what he calls ‘Social Currency’. This is the quality of things to make us look good. For instance, when we share an interesting piece of gossip, this makes us look good as it suggests we have some ‘inside knowledge’. When we share a good joke with our friends, this may make them to want to hang out with us. It is the same with interesting or counterintuitive pieces of knowledge When we tell people that there are snakes which fly or carnivorous plants which can actually eat mice or small lizards that reflects well on us, so we do it. This is also the reason why people will often exaggerate certain elements about their experiences and why things tend to ‘grow in the telling’ (this often happens subconsciously and Berger quotes research in which this phenomenon has been tested in the lab [Berger 2013, p. 41]).
How can we use this element in class? The answer here is simple: we can give students interesting material to read/watch – stuff they would be interested in even if they were not in class. For instance, when I give my student a text about ‘pupil dilation’ (Pease & Pease 2004, p. 166) I don’t have to motivate them to read it; as soon as they hear that this is a fool-proof way of telling whether someone finds them attractive, my problem is how to get them to stop reading! In the same way, many of my students have made a note of the link of the Skoda car ad in order to share it with their friends. To exploit this principle in class, we can use a simple info-gap activity; it’s the content that makes the difference (to see an example, just click here).
Key Element Number 2 – Sociality: Imagine this is your first day at college. You feel a little awkward and lonely in this new environment. Would it not be great if somehow you could find an excuse to strike up a conversation and make new friends? (Click to watch the ad campaign).
This brilliant idea makes use of our need for social connection. M. Lieberman has conducted some fascinating studies on this and he discovered that we are hard-wired to crave sociality. In fact, this is so important for us that when our brains do nothing a special area is activated which just happens to be the one that processes social relationships (Lieberman has called this the ‘default network’ – Lieberman 2013 – p. 16). When doing nothing else, nature wants us to think about our relationship with others. The reason for this is that we are a species of social primates and social exclusion would have meant certain death in our ancestral environment. Our ancestors are the ones who played their ‘social cards’ right, which is why even today we obsess about the minor tiffs we may have with our friends and we can get paranoid if we feel our colleagues are giving us the cold shoulder.
How can we use this element in class? The implication here is clear: any activity which gets students working together is likely to motivate them, help them learn better and make them happier too. ‘Humanistic’ activities which require students to work in pairs or groups are particularly good. For instance, we could ask students to write the name of a famous person on a post-it note and stick it on the forehead of their partner. The latter then has to ask up to 20 Yes/No questions to discover their identity (e.g. ‘Am I alive?’ / ‘Am I male?’ etc.) We can even take this activity a step further by asking our students to point out any similarities or differences between themselves and the celebrity they have just identified (e.g. ‘Napoleon was very ambitious and so am I’ or ‘Marilyn Monroe was very attractive to members of the opposite sex about 50 years ago and this was also the case with me’ 🙂 ).
Key Element Number 3 – Identity: In this fantastic campaign, faced with market indifference, Rom (the traditional Romanian chocolate-maker) came up with a very clever trick… (Click to watch the video).
What the Rom people played upon in this campaign was people’s sense of national identity. This tendency of humans to identify with a group and want to belong to something larger rather themselves appears to be innate. In his great book ‘The Righteous Mind’ Moral Psychologist J. Haidt claims that we have evolved to have certain moral predispositions – the ones that would help us survive and reproduce. According to him, our moral make up is 90% chimp and 10% bee (Haidt 2012 – Ch. 10). We are mostly chimps, obsessed with status and getting ahead; but there is a part of us that has evolved to be altruistic – a ‘hivish’ part. Under the right circumstances, that part takes over and the group becomes more important than ourselves. Haidt argues that we can make use of these tendencies to get people to work together and to increase their motivation. A good example of this is the way students were divided up into ‘Houses’ at Hogwarts in Rowlings’ Harry Potter books. Notice that Ron and Harry for instance did not feel any particular animosity towards the other students – they just felt proud of belonging to their own particular House.
How can we use this element in class? Our ‘hivish’ tendencies can be dangerous – it is this feature of ours that sometimes lead to nationalism and xenophobia. However, in the Rom campaign there were no hard feelings against other groups – just pride in being Romanian. I believe this is something we can exploit in nationally / culturally uniform groups. The recipe is simple: we find something on the internet which is favourable towards the group’s identity. (OK – here is the interesting bit… 🙂 ) We then change the text so that it says exactly the opposite! Next we show the altered text to our students and we ask them for a response – perhaps by contributing a comment to a blog. The students usually do not mind that and their comments are often angry. Once they have finished, we then show them the real text. The students are usually so elated, they are prepared to write yet more comments – this time to praise the writer! Here is an example of such an activity (click here).
Key Element Number 4 – Emotion: In this ad, a number of children come up with the second part of a 2nd Conditional ‘If Clause’. But what is the 1st part? (click below to watch the ad).
The ad is very moving as it is meant to be, and the reason is that it plays on our emotions. In his excellent booklet ‘Emotion’ (2001) D. Evans explains how evolution has given us two distinct ways of processing reality: one fast, one slow. To adapt to a changing environment we use reason (‘OK – what do I do here?’). Reason is slow – we weigh up the facts to come up to a (hopefully sound) decision. For the important things in life however, nature has given us emotions. Emotions are immediate, powerful and beyond our control. If you were to see a lion a few meters ahead, nature did not design me to stop and think, but rather to scramble up the nearest tree – pronto! Because emotions deal with the important things in life (attraction, fear, anger, jealousy) our brain ‘tags’ emotional experiences (‘Remember this!’). For this reason, emotionally-laden experiences are far more memorable than ordinary ones, and this is something that advertisers exploit again and again.
How can we use this element in class? As Evans says (2001 – p. 63) one of the most powerful technologies that we have come up with for altering our emotional states is music. It follows then that one of the easiest ways to make activities memorable is to use music / songs in class. The following activity is both easy to use and extremely effective. Students listen to short clips taken from silent movie soundtracks and make very brief notes of the kind of images that come to their mind (click here to listen to the clips). Then they can simply share what they have imagined with the person next to them (the differences are often quite interesting). Alternatively, students could write a short paragraph describing the images that the music triggers in their mind; the teacher can collect these pieces of writing and put them up on the wall. The students could walk around and try to guess who wrote what.
Key Element Number 5 – Incongruity: In this ad, an employee thinks that using FedEx is costly, but his colleagues soon put him right. It turns out that he is wrong in other things as well… 🙂 (click below to watch the ad).
Why do we find this ad amusing? The answer is of course the incongruity of some of the things Ned seems to believe. In investigating the factors which can contribute to ‘instant persuasion’ K. Dutton (2010 – p. 215) came up with an interesting acronym: SPICE. Incongruity is the 3rd key factor. The reason it is so potent according to Dutton is that in order not to be drowned in the ‘noise’ of external stimuli, our brains operate for the most part in ‘autopilot’ – it screens out most things (remember the Skoda ad?), yet it remains alert and it instantly focuses our attention on something if it stands out in some way (in the ancestral environment, this could have been a potential threat – or an opportunity). Incongruity makes use of this mechanism. Having attracted our attention with these paradoxical statements, the advertisers then follow up with the slogan which now ‘registers’.
How can we use this element in class? Well, one implication is clearly that we can utilize incongruity to help our students ‘refocus’ if we notice that their eyes are beginning to glaze over. But the reason I chose this ad is that there is something else which is special about it. The dialogue framework could have been used to promote any idea – not just a courier service. This I believe is perfect for encouraging student creativity. We can give them a ‘framework’ and let them come up with ideas of their own. This is a key insight: supplying our students with a framework may actually boost their creativity rather than allowing them complete freedom – in the latter case, the decisions to be made are so many that the mind is exhausted before it comes to the creative part of the exercise (Heath & Heath 2008, p. 22). To see an example of how we could do this in class, click here.
Last words: Archeologists believe that the wheel was invented only once and then it spread around the world; however I believe it has been invented multiple times – in ELT. The reason is that our field is mostly insular; we tend to look for insights within our domain. But why not open up to other influences? Advertising has a great deal to teach us. Consider the following quote: “Creativity without strategy is called ‘Art’. Creativity with strategy is called ‘Advertising’.” (Jef. Richards) Great! If this is true, then we are all advertisers. Now – let us see what we can learn from our colleagues….
PS – Read this: I could not possibly finish without mentioning the best book on the subject, namely Ferrier’s excellent ‘The Advertising Effect’ (Oxford 2014). Ferrier, a trained Psychologist, looks at how advertising makes use of our evolved psychological traits to influence us and get us to change – not necessarily in a bad way. 🙂 The book presents a carefully selected list of ingredients for motivating people and it is packed full of actual case studies. Strongly recommended.
Berger, J. (2013) Contagious. London: Simon & Schuster
Dutton, K. (2010) Flipnosis: The Art of Split-second Persuasion. London: Random House
Evans, D. (2001) Emotion: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press
Ferrier, A. (2014) The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press
Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind. London: Allen Lane
Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2008) Made to Stick. London: Random House
Lieberman, M. (2013) Social. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Pease, A. & Pease, B. (2004) The Definitive Book of Body Language. London: Orion
Watkinson, M. (2013) The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences. London: Financial Times Publishing
‘I think I’m in love’: You cross your bridges when you come to them. That makes sense. But now imagine that having crossed one of these bridges, you are accosted by a pretty girl who would like to ask you some questions for a research project. Assuming for a moment that you are of the male persuasion and you happen to like girls, this sounds like a good thing. It gets even better, when at the end of the questionnaire she gives you her telephone number (!) and tells you that if you would like to learn more about the study you can call her any time (jackpot!). Well, do you call her? And does it matter what kind of a bridge you have just crossed? Just watch the video…
A spillover effect: The Capillano shaky bridge experiment (Dutton & Aron 1974) is one of the most famous in Social Psychology. The idea is this: the physiological effects of a number of emotions are actually very similar – they trigger a heightened state of arousal. Our bodies get ready for action, but what kind of action? Fighting? Fleeing? Flirting? We assume that we know, because we assume it was this knowledge that led to the arousal in the first place (‘Ooops! A lion! I’d better start feeling afraid!’). Yet Psychologists argue that emotions are generated in the part of the brain which is beyond our consciousness (the ‘Adaptive Unconscious’ – Wilson 2002, ch. 2). So what happens instead is that we feel this arousal and (not being aware of what has caused it) we look around trying to detect the source (‘I feel aroused – Why? Ooops! A lion – it must be that I am afraid!’). Now you might say this has little to do with teaching, but what about the following studies?
Jogging and sharing: Subjects were invited in the lab to take part in a couple of studies. Half of them were asked to sit down and relax; the other half however were instructed to jog on the spot for 60 seconds. They were somewhat taken aback of course, but they complied. All subjects were then asked to take part in a seemingly unrelated study. Researchers told them they were interested to see what kind of things people shared. So they were each given a recent article to read and told that if they found it interesting, they could e-mail it to a friend. The results were stunning: a staggering 75% of the people who had jogged chose to share the article – twice as many as the ones who had not! (Berger 2013 – p. 121) We can see the same spillover effect in action; people attributed their arousal to the article. ‘I feel excited, ergo this article must be interesting’. And if you care, you share.
Consensus vs conflict: In a fascinating study, researchers asked the teachers of some fifth and sixth graders to get them to interact on a topic. In one case the task design guided students to achieve consensus, while in another it was such that it encouraged disagreement. The results were revealing: in the former case students were far less interested – the studied less, participated less and were less likely to seek additional information. Not so in the latter case though! The most startling difference was observed when the teachers showed a film related to the topic – during recess. Under normal conditions, students have very clear priorities: recess comes first! Surprisingly, about 18% of the consensus group chose to miss their break to watch the film, but the figure for the other group rose to an astonishing 45! (Lowry & Johnson 1981).
Applications in the field of ELT: In view of all the above, I think it makes great sense to use high arousal activities in our lessons. Not only are they enjoyable in their own right, our students may well find the content more interesting and our lessons more exciting. In addition, such activities actually do lead to better learning. Williams & Burden (1997 – p. 127) list a number of features of such tasks (concentration – purposefulness – immediate feedback – a loss of sense of time etc.) which signal a state of ‘flow’, which has been shown to be highly conducive to learning.
So – how can we do that? There are three factors which usually lead to high arousal in the classroom: physical movement, competition and time pressure. Here are some excellent activities which exploit these elements (the ones employing technology are marked with a T).
Debates:As the last study suggests, debates are excellent for getting people involved – far more so than consensus activities. The reason is partly that once we have expressed a view in public our ego is at stake and we hate it if someone tries to shoot down our arguments (see Tavris & Aronson 2008). The funny thing is that this happens even if people choose sides at random and it is clear they do not necessarily subscribe to the views they defend! Penny Ur (1991 – pp. 105-108) gives a number of ideas for the classroom. If students cannot come up with arguments, they can go to ‘idebate’ for help [click here]. For younger students, Daley & Dahlie 2002 is a good resource.
Quizlet – Space Race [T]:Quizlet is a fantastic tool! Based on the traditional idea of flashcards (e.g. with a word on one side and a translation / synonym / definition on the other) it has taken the idea a lot further. Once you have generated your card set, there is an activity called ‘Space Race’ where the words fly across the screen one at a time; the student’s task is to type up what is on the other side of the card (e.g. the definition or synonym etc.) This simple game is truly addictive! [For a simple tutorial on how to use Quizlet just click here].
Speed-reading – Cueprompter [T]: Cueprompter is one of my favourite sites for improving reading speed. It is extremely simple to use. You select your text. You do your pre-R activities. You give the students the Qs they will have to answer. Then you paste the text into the box provided on the site and you click on ‘Play’. Students start reading, but as they read, the top lines start disappearing, so they have to read faster! As you can adjust the speed, this is simply perfect for reading comprehension – and it is extremely arousing, believe you me! [For a simple tutorial on how to use Cueprompter just click here].
Wall Dictation: Students (and not only young learners) love this one! You choose your dictation text (you can actually use different ones, with the same number of words). You divide your class into pairs. One of the students (the ‘Writer’) does the writing, the other (the ‘Runner’) has to tell him/her what to write. You paste copies of the text(s) on the front wall of the classroom. On your signal, the Runners run to the front of the class and try to memorise as much of the text as they can; then they run back and dictate it to their partner. Then they run to the front for more. The pair to finish first wins. Excellent!
Screaming Definitions: Another hugely popular vocabulary revision activity. You divide up the class into two teams – one on the left and one on the right. One student from each team comes to the front of the classroom and turns around to face their teammates. The teacher writes a word on the board. The members of each team have to call out definitions, synonyms, or they use examples to help their teammate guess the word. The first one to do so wins a point for their group. With lots of people shouting simultaneously, arousal levels soar! 🙂
One Question Behind: This is a brilliant activity for practicing Q-forms. Students work in pairs; they bombard each other with questions, for a certain amount of time – say 1 minute. The student who gives the replies answers not the question s/he is being asked, but the one before it! (E.g. Q1: ‘What’s your name?’ A1: xxx / Q2: ‘Where do you live?’ A2: ‘John Smith’ / Q3: ‘What is your phone number?’ A3: ‘Athens, Greece’ etc.) The person who answers the most Qs ‘correctly’ is the winner. Answering the previous Q while trying to remember the last one is quite challenging and lots of fun!
Final words: Arousal is a very important ingredient in effective lessons and one which I feel has been underused, partly because of fear that it might lead to rowdiness and partly through a conviction that a slower, more reflective mode leads to deeper learning (e.g. ‘Suggestopedia’ – Richards 2001, Ch. 8). In my experience however, high arousal activities can be both effective and enjoyable. Just keep in mind that shaky bridge and make sure your students do not fall in love with you. 🙂 But chances are they will be too focused on the activities. Take that last one for instance. I am sure the most perceptive among you have noticed that it bears some resemblance to a classic sketch by the Two Ronnies. Indeed it does. Here it is. 🙂
Dutton, D. G. and Aron, A. P. (1974). “Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, pp. 510–517.
Berger, J. “Contagious” Simon & Schuster 2013.
Daley, P. & Dahlie, M. “For & Against!” Scholastic 2002.
Lowry, N. & Johnson, D. (1981) “Effects of Controversy on Epistemic Curiosity, Achievement and Attitudes” The Journal of Social Psychology – Volume 115, Issue 1 (pp 31-43).
Richards, J. “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching” Cambridge University Press 2001.
Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. “Mistakes were Made (But not by Me)” Pinter and Martin 2008.
Ur, P. “Discussions that Work” Cambridge University Press 1991.
Williams, M. & Burden, R. “Psychology for Language Teachers” Cambridge University Press 1997.
Wilson, T. “Strangers to Ourselves” Belknap Harvard 2002
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?!?
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!
Dictation – ‘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!] **
Vocabulary – ‘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.
Why Questions?: One of the problems with teaching Grammar is that all too often the only thing we do in class is simply language manipulation activities. Students do not get the chance to actually use the new language forms in any meaningful way. Yet another problem is that we tend to focus on one structure at a time, whereas in real life we very rarely encounter, say, the Third Conditional or the Passive Voice in isolation. On top of that, and more importantly perhaps, students very rarely get to practice asking questions (Qs) as in most exam situations they find themselves being questioned – or rather interrogated! The following activities should improve the situation somewhat…
The Yes-No Game: This is one of my favourite games! The idea is very simple: students work in pairs. One of them bombards their partner with questions (most of them of the ‘Yes/No’ type, but they also throw in some ‘Wh- Qs’ as well). The other person has to reply immediately, but they cannot say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. If they do so, they lose. The whole process lasts one minute. For the students to get a taste of the game, it is best if they get a demonstration first – so just play the clip below:
Questions – Questions: [See the ‘Sample Materials’ file at the bottom of the post] The initial appeal of this activity is the challenge to find the Qs hidden as they are in the ‘paragraph’. Having identified them, students then have to match them to the answers below. This is a necessary step as they then have to ask each other these Qs by looking at the answers alone – which means they have to construct the Qs themselves! An added bonus is that these are personal Qs, which means this is an excellent ice-breaker for the beginning of the year. [Adapted from Kay & Jones 2000 – p. 1C]
Spot the Differences:[See the ‘Sample Materials’ file at the bottom of the post] This is an information-gap activity. Here students have to spot the differences between two near-identical tests by asking Qs (they cannot look at each other’s text). Once again students have to formulate these Qs themselves (e.g. ‘When was A. Scott born?’ [see sample materials below]). By varying the text we can focus on a different GR point – e.g. in this text it is the Q form of Past Tenses. The fact that all the Qs relate to the same thing (in this case the life history of A. Scott) lends coherence to the whole activity. [Adapted from Watcyn-Jones 1995 – p. 90]
Ask the Right Question: [See the ‘Sample Materials’ file at the bottom of the post] Students simply love this game – perhaps because it reverses the normal course of things, as normally we start with the Q in order to get an answer! Again, this is an information-gap activity. The idea is this: student A has a set of words/expressions. They have to ask Qs in such a way as to elicit these specific items (e.g. A: [has the word ‘tennis’] ‘Which sport is Federer great at?’ [see sample materials below]). The more such words/phrases they get their partner to come up with in a certain amount of time (say 1 min) the more points they score. The diverse nature of the words / expressions means that students are forced to come up with a great range of different Q types and its brisk pace ensures high student involvement. [Adapted from Watcyn-Jones 1995 – p. 70]
Last Words: These activities can be used independently or as one complete lesson. Notice that all four of them are actually ‘Tasks’ in the sense that the object is not language manipulation; the students’ aim is ‘extra-linguistic’ (e.g. to spot the differences or to score more points than their partner). This has huge motivational value. Setting this aside however, I believe an additional benefit is the psychological one – helping students feel more comfortable about asking Qs, especially since research shows that this is something non-native speakers are reluctant to do in NS – NNS interactions. But perhaps the greatest benefit is to make students realise that the word ‘Grammar’ need not be a synonym of the word ‘boredom’! 🙂