Happiness and ELT


Activities with a Smile 🙂

[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 [4], 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

Wiseman, R. (2010) 59 Seconds. London: Pan Books

Wiseman, R. (2012). Rip it up. London: Macmillan

How to Turn Learning Strategies into Habits



Habits everywhere:  Do you brush your teeth? Of course you do. Do you think about it though? I am sure the answer here is ‘No’. Brushing our teeth is something we do no matter what, something that does take a few minutes (esp if you do it regularly – or if you happen to have an unusually large number of teeth 🙂 ) but which is nevertheless completely effortless. It is a habit. Apparently, a great part of our everyday lives – more than 40% – consists of such routines. Would it not be great if we could help our students establish habits which would actually help them improve their English? Can you imagine how much progress our students would make if they did these things on a daily basis?

EL Learning Habits: This article is about how we can help create habits. Naturally, as teachers we would like our learners to form habits which help them improve their English. Not all strategies are equally good candidates however. In the text below I have included five simple things any learner can try to do habitually. For more ideas on Learning Strategies, click here.

How to form a habit: Charles Duhigg has studied habits extensively and his excellent book ‘The Power of Habit’ (Duhigg 2012) offers great insights into the nature of these routines and on how we can make use of them. Here are some of them:

The habit cycle: A habit consists of three parts: the cue, the routine and the reward. The cue is what ‘presses the button’ for us to perform a particular behaviour; the routine is the behaviour itself; the reward is what we get out of this. This is usually a feeling of satisfaction or pleasure or release or excitement – depending on the nature of the routine. For instance, after my morning coffee, I sit down in front of my computer and solve 3-4 chess puzzles. The cue is the coffee; the routine is the puzzles and the reward is the little shots of dopamine I get every time I successfully solve one. (To watch a 2-min clip on this, click here).

Why is the cue important? The cue is what triggers our behaviour. It can be an event (the alarm going off) or a place we find ourselves in (the staffroom) or an action that we perform (eating). Each of these can trigger a habit – e.g. going for a 10 minute jog (after the alarm), or making a coffee (upon entering the staffoom) or brushing our teeth (after eating). The cue is very important if we want to establish a constructive habit because ideally we want to engage in this behaviour without thinking (on the importance of action triggers see Heath & Heath 2011 – p. 209). The presence of the cue helps make things automatic.

Why is the reward important? Well, it is true of course that ‘virtue is its own reward’ – going for a run triggers the release of endorphins and brushing your teeth leaves your mouth feeling fresh. However, in the initial stages of habit formation we need to give ourselves an additional incentive – just as some parents do when teaching their kids dental hygiene. It is a good thing if that reward is something concrete. For instance, I always found it hard to transfer notes from the books I read to Excel sheets on my computer. Now I have decided to make at least 10 entries every morning. And then I reward myself with a quick game of online chess. It works like a charm.

Do we really need rewards? Some people feel that once they have performed the routine, they do not need the reward; this is a mistake. It is true the reward will not help them on that day, but it will link the routine with a pleasurable feeling; this will make it more likely they will stick to their habit on days when their motivation might flag. Others might feel that the risk here is that we might detract from the intrinsic pleasure of the routine if we come to expect a reward at the end. This is a valid concern generally, but it does not apply here; the reward is not for the action we perform – we reward ourselves for sticking to a habit we want to form! (For an amazing 3-minute story about the power of rewarding ourselves, click here).

What about the routine? This is a crucial point: in establishing a habit it is vital that we start small. As small as possible. Many people go wrong here; in their desire to see quick progress they set themselves impossible tasks. It is very hard to go from doing no exercise at all to jogging 20 min a day; it is much easier to tell yourself that you are going to go down the stairs rather than use the lift, or walk to the next bus stop rather than to the one closest to where you live. What matters initially is that we stick to the habit; once we have done so we can then go on to do more and more. (To watch a 70-second clip on this, click here).

How should I plan my habit? Research shows that you are much more likely to stick to your habit if you plan meticulously in advance. You need to be clear about details. For instance, let us say you decide to go jogging every morning. You need to decide in advance: i) What clothes are you going to wear? (T-shirt, short, sneakers)  ii) Where are you going to jog? (round the block)  iii ) How long are you going to jog for? (5 min). These ‘implementation intentions’ are crucial (see also Halpern 2016 – p. 144);  i) they send a message to yourself that you mean business and  ii) they make it far easier to execute your plan when the time comes. (To watch a 40-second clip on this, click here).

Does it matter if I miss a day?: In establishing a habit, consistency is key. Missing your routine for a day does not matter so much; missing two days in a row however can be serious. Missing it for three days can be disastrous. Research shows that the chances of sticking to your habit go down by 5% in the first case, but then the figure jumps to 55% in the case of two days and more than 90% if you fail to follow your programme three days running. (To watch a 30-second clip on this, click here).

How can I reduce the risk of giving up? An excellent way of making sure we stick to our habit is to make contingency plans. What happens if for whatever reason I cannot go jogging for 5 minutes because it is pouring with rain outside? No problems: we can have a Plan B that we can fall back on. In this case, we could say that instead of jogging, we could use the skipping-rope for 3 minutes, or, if we cannot do that, perhaps do 3 sets of sit-ups and 3 sets of push-ups. It does not matter if the amount of exercise we get is the same; what matters is that we are sending a signal to ourselves that we are serious about our commitment. (To watch a 70-second clip on this, click here).

How long does it take to consolidate a habit? According to some research, it takes about 66 days. This may sound a lot, but remember that this initial small investment of consistent effort (as the routine is small initially) should pay huge dividends over the following months and even years. With habits one should think long-term. Once we are pretty confident that the habit has been established, we can then increase the routine – e.g. from 5 minutes of jogging to 10 minutes plus some push-ups. The possibilities are endless. (To watch an 1-min clip on this, click here).

[OK – now you have read all this, you may want to watch this short video (from which most of the others were taken). It offers a nice summary of all the above].

Last Words – Why habits? There are two reasons why I believe the creation of learning habits is very promising:  i) once a habit is formed, it requires almost no will-power to keep it up. You simply do things on auto-pilot. This means that for a relatively small initial investment of effort, the yields over large periods of time can be huge;  ii) the habit changes your self-perception. You start thinking of yourself differently – you give yourself a new identity (‘I am an exerciser’ / ‘I am a serious learner of English’ / ‘I am a dieter’). The big idea is that this changed self-image can then trigger additional changes leading to a virtuous circle. Here is a 60-second clip in which Brian Wansik with a fantastic example. Enjoy.  🙂

* To go to a site with logic and lateral thinking puzzles, click here.

** To see an example of such a song click here.




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

Halpern, D. (2016) Inside the Nudge Unit. London: WH Allen

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

YouTube – ‘The Power of Habit’ [Animation]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxy8dDSHHaw

YouTube – ‘How to Build Habits and Execute Effortlessly’ [Animation]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LdhudFvJuE&t=69s

YouTube – Dan Ariely ‘The Secret to Kicking Procrastination: Reward Yourself’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbEa1P4sqd8

YouTube – Brian Wansink ‘From Mindless Eating to Mindlessly Eating Well’ TEDx: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Ogsmh_czeY&t=4s

‘Five Simple and Easy Learning Strategies’



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


Motivating Learners [An Integrated Skills Lesson]


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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.

10 Additional Tips on Classroom Management and Motivation [3]



An annotated lesson: This made-up story is again meant to be an exercise. The idea is that you read through it and try to see whether you agree with the teacher’s decisions / practices. There are at least 10 interesting points in this short narrative. Can you spot them? If you agree with what John did, can you say why? If you think he has made a mistake, why do you think so? What should he have done instead? [NB: This is not meant to be a model lesson nor is John a model teacher; rather it is a collection of interesting moments from a lesson which help illustrate some good and some not so good practices relating to Classroom Management and Student Motivation].

[This is the third post on the topic; to see the first one, click here. To read the second one, click here].

John’s story: John walked leisurely towards his classroom. He was early. He glanced into the staffroom and there was Agnes, the DOS. ‘Is anything wrong?’ he asked her. ‘You don’t look your usual happy self…’ ‘It’s Mark’ Agnes replied. ‘He just called in sick and had 3 hours to teach later today….’ ‘Hang on; I know his schedule – that’s 17:00man-woman-work to 20:00, right? I could stand in for him’ said John. ‘Oh, John’ said Agnes ‘You are an angel!’. ‘That’s what colleagues are for’ replied John smiling.

‘Hi everyone’ John boomed as he walked in. Everyone smiled and said ‘Hi’ – they liked John. ‘Wow Mary!’ John exclaimed ‘Nice tan!’ Mary smiled coyly. ‘And Paul – you’ve been working out, haven’t you? Well done! You look fit and you’ve lost weight too!’ Paul flexed his muscles striking a body-builder pose. Everyone laughed.

‘Excuse me sir’ said Catherine. ‘There was something I wanted to ask you about. Now that I’ve got my B2 certificate, do you think I should take the C1 exam as well, or should I skip it and go straight for the C2 test?’ ‘Well’ John said ‘There is no point in taking the C1, is there? Since you are going to take the C2 exam, why bother?’ ‘OK – thank you sir’ Catherine replied.

‘OK everyone!’ said John. ‘If you remember, for today you had to prepare to give a 60-sec mini presentation each. You have to describe to the class one learning strategy you use to improve your English and try to persuade us that it is effective. At the end, we will all vote secretly on which two were the most effective. As I have promised, the winner will get this amazing reader (John held up a book) OK – who would like to go first?’ [ …. ]

‘Right’ said John after everyone had finished. ‘Some great ideas there – well done. Now as homework, I would like you to do two things: I would like you to read an article of mine on ‘5 Effective ELT Strategies’. That’s based on a presentation I gave some time ago. I want you to read it and I want each of you to write a commentstudent-typing-a-response  about which of these strategies you think might work best for you’. John looked at Helen and Rose and winked at them; they winked back. John had given them two model answers and they had already posted them there.

‘But you know’ John continued ‘learning English is not just about conscious study. Your English improves every day – without you realising it. Think about the clips you watch on YouTube or the songs you listen to. Now, with the person next to you, I want you to make a list of 5 such ways in which your English gets better daily’. [ …. ]

‘OK – lots of good points here…. Now – another thing I wanted us to do today, was to have a debate. You know how the government are thinking about lowering the voting age to 17? Well, here is the idea – why not make it 15? In pairs, I would like you to debate this. But first – make notes of the arguments you are going to use. OK – you have 3 min to prepare’. [ …. ]

‘Good. I feel this has been a very productive lesson. Well done everyone. Now if you remember, last time we said that it is a good idea if we think back to the lesson later and try to recall what we did and evaluate what went well and what didn’t and whether there is one or more mental notes we need to make. So what I would like you to do when you get home is to make an entry into your journal. A short paragraph of 8-10 lines should be ok’.

The bell rang. ‘OK – class dismissed’ John said ‘but not before you have tidied up first!’ ‘Aren’t you forgetting something, sir?’ Catherine asked. ‘You said earlier that if we did well, you were going to teach us some essential ‘Survival English’ phrases in case we ever found ourselves in the US’.  ‘Ah, yes’ John said. ‘Watch this….’ *

Comments: There are a number of interesting points in this story. Some are obvious, some are less so and some are counterintuitive. All of them are research-based:

‘…I could stand in for him….’…: A very good idea. When we do things for others, they are bound to reciprocate in the future and this mutual assistance helps build stronger relationships between people. It is actually better if we do not wait to be asked and we offer to help of our own accord. And it goes without saying that help should be offered unconditionally. People will reciprocate in their own time (Cialdini 2001 – ch. 2).

‘…Wow Mary! – Nice tan!….’…: A mountain of research has shown that we like people who pay us compliments – even if we do not actually believe these to be true. Genuine compliments is one of the best and fastest ways to get closer to someone and make them feel good (Yeung 2011 – pp. 177-179). A good compliment means that at the very least you care enough about someone to have noticed something about them.

‘…There is no point … is there? ….’…: A mistake in my opinion. I am not saying that students should necessarily sit every exam there is, but it is important that they have a sense of progress; this acts as a reward. These rewards have to be frequent and piecemeal rather than rare and large As teachers, we need to make sure they can see they are getting closer to their objective. It is crucial for motivation (Levine 2006 – pp. 116-118).

‘…You have to describe one learning strategy ….’…: Excellent! Research has shown that there is a big difference between studying something for yourself and studying something so you can explain it to others; in the latter case, we activate different parts of our brain and as a result knowledge sinks in deeper! (Lieberman 2013 – p. 289) Do not take my word for it; just watch this fantastic short clip with Professor M. Lieberman (click here).

‘…the winner will get this amazing reader….’…: A big mistake. Numerous studies have shown that contingent rewards (‘Do this and you’ll get that’) are actually demotivating in the long run. Essentially, students start thinking (subconsciously) ‘If I have to be bribed to do this, then it is clearly not such an enjoyable activity’ (Pink 2010 – p. 8). On the other hand there is nothing wrong with offering a ‘surprise reward’ (‘Wow! This is an excellent story! Here is a sticker’).

 ‘…I would like you to read an article of mine….’…: This may look like showing off, but anything that sends students the message ‘Your teacher knows what s/he is doing’ can help enormously in increasing compliance and minimising discipline problems (Cialdini 2001 – ch. 6). Clearly, if students can see that the teacher writes articles for other colleagues or is a regular presenter in conferences they will trust him/her more. Hiding your credentials out of a sense of modesty is counterproductive.

‘…John had given them two model answers….’…: This is brilliant! There are many times when people want to do things, but they just do not want to be the first (e.g. asking Qs at a Conference, volunteering for an activity, or contributing ideas in an online forum). In such cases you need 1-2 people to act as catalysts by demonstrating the desired behaviour (you may need to recruit them in advance). The results can be amazing! (Ross & Nisbett 2011 – p. 223). Watch this clip. Then watch it again (from Ferrrier 2014 – p. 143).

‘…Think about the clips you watch on YouTube….’…: Another excellent idea! Apparently, simply making people aware of what they normally do can help them change the way they see themselves and hence their behaviour (Heath & Heath 2011 – p. 125). The idea is that telling people about the massive exposure they get to English these days, may well encourage them to seek this exposure and do this more deliberately and hence more effectively.

‘…I would like you to debate this….’…: A very interesting moment. Some colleagues are averse to debates preferring instead consensus-building activities. Research however shows that debates can be extremely effective at stimulating interest (Heath & Heath 2008 – p. 85). The reason seems to be arousal; heightened arousal feels good (which is why we go on rollercoaster rides). This excitement generated by debates, games etc. can spill over to the lesson and increase motivation (see Lewis 2013 – p. 27).

 ‘…a short paragraph should be ok….’…: A slip. While the idea of getting students to reflect is great, this is apparently the first or second time they will be doing this. A paragraph may be too much. When you want to change people, it makes sense to start small (Wiseman 2012 – pp 187-189). Once they get into the habit of doing something, they start seeing themselves in a different light (‘Oh! I’m a reflective learner!’). Then they can go on to write more.

The takeaways – 10 Tips:

Here are the 10 takeaways. Once again though – before reading them, see whether you can recall some of them. What are the principles? How would you have phrased them as tips for a colleague?

Reciprocity: Do little things for other people. What you do has to be unconditional and it is best if you offer to help yourself. Reciprocity strengthens our bonds with others.

Compliments: Pay people genuine compliments. Compliments oil the wheels of social interaction and lead to closer relationships.

The gain factor: Make sure that students can see the progress they are making. People need ‘milestones’. Regularly. Forget milestones – make that ‘inch-pebbles’ (Heath & Heath 2011 – p. 136).

Peer teaching: Get students to teach each other things;  i) they learn even more themselves and  ii) they come to see themselves in a different light.

Rewards: Avoid using contingent rewards as an incentive. They often undermine intrinsic motivation. (That said, it is ok to give the occasional ‘surprise’ prize).

Authority: Make sure your students know how good you are (qualifications, testimonials of expertise etc.). They are more likely to be disciplined and they will learn more.

Modelling: Sometimes you need someone to model the desired behaviour to ‘get the ball rolling’. Get students, colleagues or friends to provide this model.

The placebo effect: Make students aware of how much exposure they get to English through their daily activities; this can make them think of themselves as ‘active learner’.

Arousal: Use high-arousal activities (e.g. debates, competitions etc.) in class. They both motivate students and their excitement often spills over to the content.

Starting small: To get people to do something new, start small. Once they have taken the first small step, this will change the way they perceive themselves and they will do more.

Last words: I know I have said that before, but I will say it again: it is incredible how much better language teachers we can become by learning from looking for ideas beyond ELT. Many colleagues think that to improve as EL teachers, they need to learn more about the language, or linguistics, or methodology; I think this is only true up to a point. Once we can do our job competently enough, we need to look elsewhere. To paraphrase Howard Schultz (founder and CEO of Starbucks) “We are not in the Language business teaching people; we are in the People business teaching language” – that is quite a shift in focus.

[ * I know you are dying to watch that clip on ‘Survival English’. Here it is… 🙂 ]


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

Cialdini, R. (2001) Influence – Science and Practice. Massachusetts, Allyn & Bacon.

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

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2008) Made to Stick. London: Random House.

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

Levine, R. (2006) The Power of Persuasion. Oxford: Oneworld.

Lewis, D. (2013) The Brain Sell. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Lieberman, M. (2013) Social. Oxford, Oxford University Press

Martin, S., Goldstein, N., & Cialdini, R. (2014) The Small Big. London: Profile Books.

Pink, D. (2010) Drive. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.

Ross, L. & Nisbett, R. (2011) The Person and the Situation. London: Pinter & Martin.

Wiseman, R. (2012). Rip it up. London: Macmillan.

Yeung, R. (2011) i is for Influence. London: Macmillan.


How to Use Comedies in Class

What is missing from ELT coursebooks? Open any coursebook you like. Chances are you will find a Unit on sports, the environment, food, celebrities – the one Unit you will not find is one on Humour (well, in 95% of coursebooks anyway…). But watch the clip 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. (‘Yes, yes’ I can hear you say ‘Never mind how good this stuff is – What matters to me as a busy teacher is this: can I use it?’ Well, now you can – and very easily too. See the note at the end. *)


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

… introduce some topic (‘Comedy for ELT – Mistakes’ [click here] )

… practise topic vocabulary (‘Comedy for ELT – Technology’ [click here])

… demonstrate activities (‘Comedy for ELT – The ‘Yes-No’ Game’ [click here]) or

… practise situational / functional language (‘Comedy for ELT – Small Talk’ [see the clip 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 (see the handout of the clip 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 this clip ***)

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 video (like the one below), will then go on to spend another 5 hours at home watching every similar clip they can find!  🙂



* So how can you use it? You go on YouTube. 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). comedy-for-elt-relationships-1The 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.

** NB: 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.

*** 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]).

10 More Tips on Classroom Management and Motivation [2]



Another annotated lesson: This made-up story is again meant to be an exercise (to see the previous one, just click here). The idea is that you read through it and try to see whether you agree with the teacher’s decisions / practices. There are at least 10 interesting points in this short narrative. Can you spot them? If you agree with what Alex did, can you say why? If you think he has made a mistake, why do you think so? What should he have done instead? [NB: This is not meant to be a model lesson nor is Alex a model teacher; rather it is a collection of interesting moments from a lesson which help illustrate some good and some not so good practices relating to Classroom Management and Student Motivation].

Alex’s story: Alex felt really happy working in this school. Everything was neat and tidy, the boards were always clean, the equipment was always in working order and there were all kinds of posters on the wall – some with interesting or funny quotes, tidy-schoolothers containing useful language. When Alex walked into the classroom the class were busy chatting to each other as usual. He looked around and coughed so the students would notice he was there.

‘Thank you, sir!’ piped up little Andrew as Alex walked into the classroom. Alex smiled and winked at him. Last time he had surreptitiously slipped a little ‘Happy Birthday’ card between the pages of Andrew’s book. ‘Hey! Did you get your IELTS results, Mark?’ Alex asked. ‘Yes, sir’ said Mark ‘Amazingly I got a 7.5! I never expected such a high mark!’. ‘Well, of course you did well’ said Alex ‘Don’t forget, we had prepared thoroughly – esp for Task 1 which was your weak point. Well done’.

Alex turned to Peter ‘Hey Peter! Don’t forget you’ve promised to show me how to use Moviemaker after the lesson’ he said. ‘I mean – what’s the point of having teenage students if they don’t teach you all this new-fangled technology stuff?’  Peter smiled. ‘Right-o sir!’ he said. ‘Are we going to do another crossword like we did yesterday?’ he asked. ‘Of course we are’ said Alex. ‘I know you love them…’

‘OK – before that however, we are going to read a text about some amazing animals. This lesson has been voted by former students as the second most interesting ever! OK – listen to these statements and with the person next to you try to complete them in a plausible way’ Alex read aloud: ‘1. There is a snake that can ………; 2. There is a plant that can eat ………; 3. There is a lizard that defends itself by ….……’.  *

The class discussed the statements in pairs and wrote down what they thought was the right answer. Then Alex gave them the text so they could check their predictions. ‘Amazing, or what?’ asked Alex. ‘OK – as homework, I would like you to search the net and next time you come I want each of you to give a mini presentation on a really special animal’.

‘OK – can someone give us a demo? Just a mini-monologue on one of the animals you’ve just read about. About 30-40 seconds. Paul – what about you? I know you like presentations’. ‘I don’t know’ said Paul sounding uncertain ‘I haven’t practiced it…’ ‘Oh, monologuecome on’ said Alex ‘It’s not a test; ok – just stand here at the front. I’ll help you if there are any words you don’t know…’

‘All right’ said Alex, when Paul had finished. ‘Thank you Paul. It wasn’t bad considering it was the first time…. OK everyone. Remember: next time you can talk about whichever animal you want to, but I want you to practice. In fact, I would like you to record yourselves before the next lesson. You can use Vocaroo – just Google it – it’s dead easy to use; you click on the red button and record your voice. Then you can send me the link of the recording by e-mail’.

The bell rang. ‘OK – class dismissed. Before you go however, I want all pieces of paper in the waste-paper basket and the desks all lined up exactly as you found them when you came in’ said Alex. The class started tidying up ‘Sir, sir – you promised you would tell us a joke!’ said Mark. ‘Did I? Oh, all right then….’ said Alex. ‘Have I told you the one with the castaway? Well, there was this guy and he was on a flight to New York. And when they started showing the film on the plane, he had seen it on TV and he was so disgusted, he got up and walked out. Now – as soon as he lands in the water….’

[* Answers: 1. There is a snake that can fly; 2. There is a plant that can eat mice; 3. There is a lizard that defends itself by squirting blood! ]

Comments: There are a number of interesting points in this story. Some are obvious, some are less so and some are counterintuitive. All of them are research-based:

‘…Everything was neat and tidy,….’…: The physical environment we operate in has a huge impact on the way we behave. Countless studies have shown that people tend to be well-behaved in an orderly environment, cheat more in dim places and be less productive in an untidy room. By changing the physical environment we can send happy-birthday-2the right (implicit) messages to our students: ‘This is a place of work’ (Martin, Goldstein & Cialdini 2014 – p. 28).

‘…a little ‘Happy Birthday’ card….’…: Very good. Little touches like that signal to students that the teacher sees them as individuals – not just as learners or members of a group and students appreciate that (see also Watkinson 2013 – p. 160). You might say ‘OK – isn’t this a cheap trick just to increase our popularity?’ Actually no, because it also impacts on students’ performance, but there is another reason too – acting like this changes you in the long run (see the last point).

‘…we had prepared thoroughly….’…: A slip. Our brain has the tendency to mull over things it cannot explain. Once it finds a reasonable / plausible explanation, it just files away the experience. This is good – if the experience is bad. It helps us achieve ‘closure’ and move on. But when the experience is a happy one, why stop thinking about it? ‘Explaining’ can mean ‘explaining away’. It is good for bad things – and vice versa (Wilson 2011 – p. 60).

‘…Don’t forget you’ve promised….’…: This is called ‘the Franklin Principle’. We assume that the more we do for others, the more they will like us; this is not wrong, but there is a much better way – getting them to do things for us! It’s pure Cognitive Dissonance: ‘Either i) this is a great guy and I’m doing the right thing helping him or ii) I am stupid’. What do you think our brain would rather believe?:-) (click here for a short video on this – see also Lieberman 2013 – p. 266).

‘…This lesson has been voted….’…: Excellent! It is very important to ‘sell’ what we are going to do to our students. How can we do that? Well, we can explain the rationale behind a task etc., but research has shown there is another, more persuasive way: telling students that other students like it. The ‘others like it, ergo it is good’ is one of the most powerful heuristic our lazy brain uses. Why not exploit it? (Berger 2016 – chapter 1).

‘…The class discussed the statements….’…: Very good! All too often, when we have something interesting to share with our class we just go right ahead. But wait! Why not tease them a little first? Studies have shown that interest and motivation soar when we make students curious about what is coming next. Getting them to predict content can be as effective as it is simple. And this also works with mundane material! (Heath & Heath 2008 – p. 80) Watch this clip.

‘…Amazing, or what?….’…: Brilliant! Methodology aside, content does matter – a lot! According to Berger (2013 – ch.. 1) when we come across something interesting – funny – weird etc., we tend to share it as it translates into ‘social currency’ (it makes us look good). Students will go home and chances are they will share this with their friends – and they will look up information on other bizarre animals on the web, which means additional exposure to the L2!.

‘…Paul – what about you? ….’…: This is a mistake though. Studies have shown that being watched by others can stimulate us to great efforts and we can perform very well provided that the task is easy or we have rehearsed it really well. Conversely, if the task is hard or we have not practiced it, feeling others watching us can cause us to fumble and perform poorly, which may in turn undermine our confidence (Ariely 2010 – p. 44).

‘…it’s dead easy to use’…: Another mistake – and a common one too. Just because we know how to do something does not mean others do too. Such misjudgments happen all the time – esp when we are giving instructions or explaining something (Heath & Heath 2008 – p. 80). It is very hard to put ourselves into the learners’

shoes, but we should try. We need to explain demonstrate and then check understanding. Watch this amazing clip (click here).

‘…Before you go however,….’…: Excellent. This is a little thing, which can easily become a routine. But in helping keep the class tidy, the students are also sending a message – to themselves. It is Cognitive Dissonance again: ‘Why am I doing this? Nobody is forcing me. If I am doing this, it must be because the class / the course / learning English is important’. The way we act, gradually changes the way we think about things (see Cialdini 2201 – pp. 63-71).

The takeaways – 10 Tips:

Here are the 10 takeaways. Once again though – before reading them, see whether you can recall some of them. What are the principles? How would you have phrased them as tips for a colleague?

presentSurroundings matter: Make sure the learning environment sends the right message to the students (‘We take learning seriously and we expect you to learn’).

‘You are special!’: Try to make your students feel special; little things such as remembering special days or their interests can go a long way.

Explaining away: If a student has had a setback, find a plausible innocuous explanation so that they stop thinking about it. But if it is something positive, do not explain it away.

The Franklin principle: Get students to do things for you (and help you with class work etc). Cognitive dissonance means they will like you more.

Social proof: Telling students that their peers like something / do something regularly is far more effective than trying to persuade your class to do it. Use Social Proof!

Tease – then tell: Instead of directly giving students information, engage their curiosity by means of Qs / incomplete sentences / guessing games. Motivation will soar.

Social currency: Use interesting materials – things that your students will want to share with others (e.g. urprising facts, witty quotes, jokes, interesting clips etc.).spotlight

The spotlight effect: Performing in public can energise people, and boost their confidence and motivation – but for this to happen they need to be well prepared for the task.

The curse of knowledge: Do not assume that people have understood what you said or what they have to do. Check understanding and instructions.

Actions into beliefs: Get students to do ‘the right thing’; we assume that beliefs lead to actions but very often it is the other way round.

Last words: Alex is of course a fictional person, but if he existed I would advise him to go home and write a few things about the lesson in his diary. What went well? What difficulties were there? What could have been done better? What opportunities were missed? Of course, when something is fresh in our minds, we think we will easily remember it, but of course this is not the case. The faintest pencil can beat the best memory any day. Even Alex forgot he had promised his class a joke. But I didn’t; it was on my notes. Here it is. Enjoy! 🙂 ).



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

Berger, J. (2013) Contagious. London: Simon & Schuster

Berger, J. (2016) Invisible Influence. London: Simon & Schuster

Cialdini, R. (2001) Influence – Science and Practice. Massachusetts, Allyn & Bacon

Epley, N. (2014) Mindwise. London: Allen Lane

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2008) Made to Stick. London: Random House

Lieberman, M. (2013) Social. Oxford, Oxford University Press

Martin, S., Goldstein, N., & Cialdini, R. (2014) The Small Big. London: Profile Books

Watkinson, M. (2013) The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences. London: Financial Times Publishing

Wilson, T. (2011) Redirect. London: Penguin Books


Teaching Mixed Ability Classes


6 Ideas – 6 Tasks

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.

Different Tasks

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? *

Self Adjusting

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).

Collaborative 1

Collaborative 2

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!).

Different Roles

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).

Low Threshold

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? **

Different level

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 Lift

[ * 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. ]

[ ** The word I tried to hide was ‘Billboards’. ]

‘How to Study: 6 Key Principles’

Research Findings on Studying Effectively

Six Key Principles: As teachers, our job is to help students study English more effectively. And generally, we are good at it. We know which language forms they should study first, which vocabulary items they should focus on, etc. But what about studying in general? Do we know how we learn? How we retain information? How we remember, how we forget and how we should study in order to maximize the former and minimize the latter?


What follows is a story. Peter is an imaginary student who has some things to study and goes about it systematically. What do you think about his choices? Would you have studied this material in the same way? There are at least 6 interesting points in the narrative. See whether you can spot them. It helps if you make brief notes on a piece of paper. Then you can read the comments under the story.

[NB 1 – Two Key Books: The 6 Principles described here are all based on research I read about in two fantastic books: ‘Make it Stick’ (by Brown, Roediger & McDaniel) and ‘Why don’t Students Like School’ (by D. Willingham). These are the best two books I have read in the last decade. I believe they are a must for every educator].

[NB 2 – In class: If you would like to use this text as an activity in class, to help raise your students’ awareness of these principles, click here to download a Word document. The task is the same.]

Peter’s Story: Peter sat down to plan his studying schedule for the day. There were two main things: Grammar and Vocabulary. He thought he would spend 2 hours on each of these. He would start with vocabulary; he would study from 10:00 to 12:00, then take a 30-min break and then he would study Grammar from 12:30 to 14:30. He always liked to finish with something before starting something else.

Planning 2

The vocabulary he had to study was adjectives related to personality. Peter’s teacher always told him and his classmates that words are best learned in context. He had given them a cloze passage (a text with gaps) along with the Key (click here to see the passage). In this way they could see how the words were actually used. Before looking at the Key (the full passage) Peter thought he would give the gapped text a try – just for fun. He knew the words were difficult, but still he thought it would be fun.

The text was very interesting. As he had predicted the vocabulary was quite demanding. He used the Key and copied out the missing words onto a separate sheet of paper. Next to each of them he wrote a brief explanation and an approximate translation in the L1. He also went back to the text and highlighted a number of unknown words which had not been deleted in the cloze passage. He looked them up in the dictionary. He did not have to study these, but he felt they would be useful nevertheless.

After he had been studying for an hour or so, he felt tired. He thought he would change his plan a little. He would rest for 15 min, then he would go off to do some shopping for his mother and afterwards he would come back and study vocabulary for another hour. Then he could have lunch, rest a little and perhaps play a little on the computer. Later he could study Grammar for an hour, then go to the gym, come back and finish his studying for the day.

When he started studying again, he thought he would do some revision. He went back to his notes and read the words and the short explanations / translations carefully. Then he went back to the passage. He read through the text and whenever he got to a gap, he looked through his notes to see which word would fit best. He was pleased to discover he did quite well. There were only a few words he did not get right.

Then he thought he would take things a little further. He wanted to see whether he could use some of the new vocabulary; the fact that the lexical items all had to do with the same topic did help a lot. He imagined he was talking to a friend, trying to describe to her what the character in the passage was like. He did not look at the passage, but he tried to use some of the adjectives in it; he also tried to explain what he meant by paraphrasing and using examples. He recorded himself so he could see how well he had done.

Boy Studying

Afterwards, he thought he would organise the new vocabulary in his mind somehow. He looked at his notes and tried to group these words around certain themes, such as ‘Work’ – ‘Ambition’ – ‘Money’ etc. He felt this was helpful – it was like sorting out the new knowledge into separate ‘folders’ in his mind. In this way he believed it would be easier to remember the words later and they would be easier to retrieve too if he had to talk / write about this topic.

When he had finished studying for the day, he thought back to what he had done. He found it useful to try to glean lessons from each day’s work and try to draw up guidelines for himself – for future use. Some things had worked well while others had not. Perhaps he should allocate his time differently. He felt looking up words took up too much time, while organising the words in groups was faster and more fun. He thought aloud and recorded himself. In this way he could return to the recording later and listen to these instructions to himself.

Comments: Peter has made a number of interesting decisions here – not all of which are sound. The following comments are all based on research:

‘…He thought he would spend 2 hours on each…’ [Principle 1 – Interleaving]: Surprisingly, this is a mistake. Received wisdom is ‘Study the same thing over and over again, till you know it perfectly’. This is apparently wrong. After initially focusing on something so you can understand it properly, it pays to mix up your practice sessions. This ‘feels’ harder, but it pays great dividends in the long run. For instance, Peter here has to study Grammar and Vocabulary; instead of spending 2 hours on each, it would be a lot better if he spent, say,  30 min on Grammar and 30 on Vocabulary, then have a break and then repeat this four times. Every time Peter returns to Grammar (or Voc) studying will feel harder because things will not be ‘fresh’ on his mind; however retention will be better in the long run (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 – ch. 3).

‘…He thought he would give the gapped-text a try…’ [Principle 2 – Generation]: An excellent idea. Before getting input on how to solve a problem or how to do something it pays to try doing it first. This prepares the mind to receive new knowledge. For instance, before teaching your students how to write an e-mail, you may want to get them to write one. When they then see how an e-mail should be written, the differences will be much more noticeable to them. Similarly, before showing them how best to deliver a presentation, it makes sense to get them to try giving one without any instructions. Their uncertainty and possible frustration means they will pay closer attention when you actually show them how it is properly done. In this case, every time Peter comes across a gap he had been unable to fill, his mind will go ‘A-ha! So that’s the word!’ (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 – p. 4).

Planning 1

‘…He thought he would change his plan a little…’ [Principle 3 – Spacing]: This second plan is a lot better. Peter’s initial schedule was based on the idea of ‘massed practice’. Massed practice (cramming, studying for hours etc.) does not work. We think we are doing well, because it is all fresh in our mind, but this is just an illusion. Instead, it is much better to space out our practice (perhaps a few min at a time). This ‘feels’ harder, but it aids long-term retention and makes retrieval easier. Constantly going over the same material without allowing time for some ‘forgetting’ to set in, gives one an illusion of mastery, which is of course dispelled if we have to retrieve the same material after some time has elapsed. This paradoxical idea can be summed up in 3 words ‘Forget (in order) to Remember’! Spaced out practice feels frustrating, but it pays off long-term (Willingham 2009 – p. 119).

 ‘…He looked through his notes to see which word…’ [Principle 4 – Retrieval]: This is a mistake though. Traditional revision (i.e. re-studying, re-reading) does not work. What does work is forcing ourselves to retrieve information we have acquired. For instance, re-reading our vocabulary notes as Peter does here, is not of much help; trying to complete a gap-filled passage from memory on the other hand, is. The principle is the same whether we are trying to learn the causes of WW I, the principles behind rook endings in chess or key points we need to remember in lesson planning. Apparently, low-stakes testing is the best friend of learning! Quizzes, tests and attempts to actively recall information not only help reveal gaps in our knowledge, but they also help consolidate what we already know. It is the extra effort that does it; if it is not effortful, chances are it is superficial (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 – ch. 2).

 ‘…He imagined he was talking to a friend…’ [Principle 5 – Elaboration]: A brilliant idea! Peter uses a strategy called ‘Elaboration’. Elaboration involves  i) trying to relate new info to what you already know (e.g. ‘gregarious’ is similar to ‘sociable’ ) ii) explaining it to someone in your own words (e.g. trying to define a new word – ‘gregarious is someone who likes being with other people’)  iii) trying to relate new info to life outside class (e.g. ‘my friend John is gregarious’). Elaboration allows us to internalise the new material by incorporating it into our existing schemata through the creation of meaningful connections which make sense to us (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 – p. 207). Notice that Peter does not try to recreate the text; rather, he is trying to maximize the connections of the new material with his existing vocabulary. The more connections he can make, the more pathways will be created through which he will be able to retrieve the new items in the future.

‘…He thought aloud and recorded himself…’ [Principle 6 – Reflection]: Another excellent idea – though wrongly executed. Good students do what they have to do; better students go a step further: they think about what they have learned and how. We can encourage this by getting our students to ask themselves Qs like the following: ‘What did I learn today?’ / ‘What do I still need to learn?’ / ‘What went well?’ / ‘Which strategies do I like?’ / ‘What could I do differently next time?’ Reflection encourages active learning. It helps students become independent learners and it allows them to explore their preferences and personalize their learning routines by figuring out what learning methods they feel most comfortable with (Willingham 2009 – ch. 9). But the way Peter does it is sub-optimal; writing is much better; i) it is concrete – it forces us to put our meaning into words and  ii) it is easier to go through our notes afterwards (writing is ‘random access’).

6 Principles – 6 Takeaways

Here is a brief summary of the 6 principles mentioned above:

Interleaving: Mix up your practice. Alternate between different subjects.

Generation: Before you get the input, try solving the problem (doing the task) first.

Spacing: Avoid massed practice; allow long(ish) intervals between study periods.

Retrieval: Trying to retrieve information unaided is better than re-reading / studying notes.

Elaboration: Try to use new info and integrate it into what you already know.

Reflection: Think back to what you did, assess it and plan ahead.


Last words – What about us?: OK – you think all this has to do with learners, don’t you? This is exactly what I thought too. And then I got to page 240 in the BRM book. In it, the writers describe what happens during a typical weekend symposium for doctors: ‘…out of respect for participants’ busy schedules [this kind of training is usually] set at a hotel or resort, and structured around meals and PowerPoint lectures…’

Does this ring any bells? No? What about the last Professional Development event you attended? Any resemblance is ‘purely coincidental’ – and we are supposed to be teachers; we are supposed to be showing our learners how to learn. Yet as the writers point out, ‘the strategies of retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving are nowhere to be seen’! Organisers keep on doing the same thing year after year because that is how things were always done. But now we know better.




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

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


Preparation Time – Zero!



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.

Tool and Site

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].

Gap 1

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.

Gap 2

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.

Link: Slideshare: ‘Prep Time – Zero’: http://www.slideshare.net/nickmi1234/preparation-time-zero

Link: Quizlet: Flashcard set: ‘Coffee Benefits’: https://quizlet.com/_1ri2ga

Link: BNE: ‘Coffee’ http://www.breakingnewsenglish.com/1511/151119-coffee.html


14 Tips on Classroom Management and Motivation [1]


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An annotated lesson: This made-up story is meant to be an exercise. A chance for you to test yourself. Just read through it and try to see whether you agree with the teacher’s decisions / practices. There are at least 14 interesting points in this short narrative. Can you spot them? If you agree with what John did, can you say why? If you think he has made a mistake, why do you think so? What should he have done instead? [NB: This is not meant to be a model lesson nor is John a model teacher; rather it is a collection of interesting moments from a lesson which help illustrate some good and some not so good practices relating to Classroom Management and Student Motivation].


John’s story: John walked confidently into the classroom. He was feeling great. He was really looking forward to this lesson. As soon as he went in he noticed that Peter was absent. ‘Where is Peter?’ he asked his friend Mark. ‘Oh, he’s just sent me a message’ said Mark ‘He is on his way’. ‘I really like Peter’ said John ‘He is always so cheerful – he brightens up the classroom.’

Then John turned to the class. ‘Hello everybody’, he said. ‘OK – as you have seen, I have written on the board what we are going to do today. Now – have you all got your H/W? Great. I’m so glad you are not like last year’s C2 group… I’m telling you – it was a good day when half of them did anything….’

‘OK – as I recall, you had to write an ad for an imaginary product. Hope you came up with some funny ideas… Right – what are you doing there mate? (John turned to Paul who was busily messaging someone – Paul put it away) OK you collect your friends’ H/W and put everything on my desk – now!’ John said smilingly. Paul stood to attention and saluted ‘Yes, sir!’ he said with a grin and promptly did so.

‘Right’ said John ‘we are going to work on a mini presentation, because it’s one of the best ways to develop your speaking skills. OK – I want you to work in groups. Group A – Group B – Group C’. (John showed the students which group each of them belonged to). ‘Group A: Imagine someone asks you for advice on how they can practice their Listening skills on their own. Make a note of as many strategies as you can; Group B: do the same thing for Reading skills; Group C: do the same thing for Speaking skills. Off you go’.

SecretsJohn went around monitoring the groups as they worked, helping with language as necessary. At some point he noticed that Mary in Group B was chatting to her friend Kate in the L1, so he moved closer to their table. On the way he noticed that Mark in Group A was trying to get the others to divide up the work. ‘Well done Mark’ he commented. ‘You have great organizational skills’. Mark smiled.

The people in Group C seemed to have finished their list and they were already rehearsing. ‘Wow!’ John said looking at their list ‘who came up with all these points?’ ‘Jane’ said her friend Helen. ‘Jane, you are one of the brightest students I’ve ever had! Well done!’ Jane beamed.

‘OK’ he said. ‘ This is the idea. We’ll take turns. One member from each group will stand up and give some tips to the rest of the class. You have to give as many tips as you can and explain why these ideas are good. Time limit: 2 min. Members of the other groups – you have to make notes of the main points’. John checked his instructions and then gave them a demonstration.

‘OK’ John said ‘Who would like to start? What about you Paul?’ John knew Paul was a little shy. He patted him on the shoulder ‘I know you can do it’ he said.

When they had finished, John told the class: ‘OK – so today we have looked at different strategies which people can use to improve their English. What would you like to do as H/W?’ The class came up with lots of ideas – they eventually settled on a mini presentation with ideas for Writing Skills development. ‘OK’ he said. ‘Make a note of this. Now – how long is the presentation going to be? By when will you have finished it? Do you think you should write it down or work from notes? What if there are words  / phrases you don’t know? Please make notes now’.

‘OK – John said. That’s it for today. Don’t forget you are sitting a mock test on Friday. But I’m sure you are all going to do very well. Well, at least I hope you are going to do better than Greg – a guy from last year’s group. “I don’t think I deserved zero on this test!” He once told me; “I agree” I said “but that’s the lowest mark I could give you!” ’ The students laughed and left – they knew John had made this up; he always liked to end the lesson with a little joke….

Comments: There are a number of interesting points in this story. Some are obvious, some are less so and some are counterintuitive. All of them are research-based:

‘…he brightens up the classroom.’…: Positive gossiping is a great idea for getting people to like you. Peter is certainly going to hear about this and research shows that we feel closer to people who like us. Not only that, but through ‘spontaneous trait transference’ people tend to associate with us the positive qualities we attribute to others! (Wiseman 2010 – p. 57).

‘…I have written on the board.’…: According to Willingham (2009 – p. 65) most items in Teacher Evaluation Forms are redundant. There are essentially two dimensions: i) how likeable the teacher is and  ii) how organized the lesson is. By putting up the main ideas on the board, John has shown students that he knows what he is doing and has given them a sense of purpose.

‘…it was a good day … did anything’…: This is a blunder though. Numerous studies have shown that our actions are influenced more by what others (esp our peers) do and much less by what we should do. By saying such a thing, essentially John is telling the class that it is standard practice not to do H/W. He has just shot himself in the foot! (Levitt & Dubner 2014 – p. 116).

‘…what are you doing there mate?’…: Ooops another mistake; one of omission this time. John is trying to establish camaraderie by being informal (a good idea) but he fails to use the student’s name. Research shows that using people’s first names is Messaging 2astonishingly effective in attracting their attention and inducing compliance (Martin, Goldstein & Cialdini 2014 – pp. 34-35).

‘…put everything on my desk’…: A missed opportunity. The task sounds great – surely students have come up with some creative ideas. Why not put them up on the wall for all to see? Ariely and others have discovered that when we work on something and other people do not get to see it, this is seriously demotivating (Ariely 2010 – pp. 63-74). Never mind what Maslow says about ‘self actualisation’; we want our work to be appreciated. (Watch this clip).

‘…because … speaking skills’…: It sounds funny, but when asking people to do something (provided it is a minor thing), using the word ‘because’ makes the request appear purposeful and greatly increases compliance. People simply assume that you have a reason for saying such a thing – even if the reason you give is a silly one (‘I need to use the Xerox machine because I need to make some copies’). ‘Because’ works like magic! (Levine 2006, p. 149).

‘…someone asks you for advice … on their own’…: This is pure ju-jitsu. Incredibly, studies have shown that when arguing in favour or against something, we tend to be influenced by what we ourselves say – even if someone has asked us to do so! (Sommers 2013 – p. 157). Never mind language practice in class; John is hoping that by arguing in favour of these strategies, the students will come to adopt them themselves!

Approach…so he moved closer to their table…: Mere physical proximity is a very powerful tool for maintaining discipline in class. Simply moving closer to the source of (anticipated) disturbance is often enough to deal with any misbehaviours. This was clearly demonstrated in the classic ‘obedience to authority’ study by Milgram. When the researcher was close to the ‘teacher’ compliance rates were much higher (Wren 1999 – p. 7).

…‘You have great organizational skills’…: This is very good practice. The idea is to catch your students doing something good, praise them and give them a positive personality label (‘You are so considerate / helpful / organised etc.’). People are vain creatures. When someone gives us such a label we like it and then we try to live up to it. The label acts like a self-fulfilling prophecy! (Abelson, Frey & Gregg 2004 – p. 169).

‘…one of the brightest students I’ve ever had…’: But this is a mistake – and a very common one too. Dweck has carried out numerous studies which demonstrate that praising intelligence leads to a ‘fixed mindset’ (‘You are either intelligent or not – so there is no point trying’). Instead, we should focus on praising effort and try to encourage a ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck 2007 – Watch this clip).

… He patted him on the shoulder…: This detail is easy to miss and yet touching is extremely potent. Psychologist N. Gueguen has conducted a great many experiments which show that lightly touching someone on the upper arm greatly increases compliance (Yeung 2011 – pp. 68-69). Not only that – as Dunbar notes, touching also generates positive feelings at a subconscious level (Dunbar 2010 – p. 63).

‘…What would you like to do as H/W?’ …: The idea here is to get students to come up with the suggestion that the teacher would like to make. Actually, it is not that difficult; in this case for instance, the H/W follows naturally from the course of the lesson. What is important is that we tend to value ideas a lot more when we feel we have come up with them ourselves (Ariely 2010 – ch. 4. Watch this clip).

‘…how long is this going to be? [etc] …’: Excellent. Setting goals is great, but there Planningis no guarantee people are going to follow through. Scientists have discovered however that adding details to intentions helps enormously (Duhigg 2012 – p. 143). Getting people to think about how they are going to implement their plans makes the latter more salient in their minds and ‘smooths the path’ by making them aware of obstacles which might have caused them to give up.

… to end the lesson with a little joke …: This is extremely important. Some fascinating studies by D. Kahneman (2011 – ch. 35) have shown that when evaluating a past event, we do not work out some kind of ‘average rating’; instead our memory retrieves two salient points: ‘peak’ moments (good or bad) and how the experience ended. Rather than ‘fading out’, John chooses to end his lesson with a bang. And it is this that will colour the students’ memory of the whole experience. (Watch this clip).

The takeaways – 14 Tips:

Here are the 14 takeaways. But wait – before reading them, can you recall at least 8? How would you phrase the tips in your own words? [Reflection helps with retention – enormously! (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel, 2014 – p. 59)]

Positive gossiping: Say nice things about your students behind their back. Their classmates are bound to tell them and they will like you more.

A sense of purpose: Show students that you have prepared for your lesson and you know what you are doing. They will respect you more and they will learn more.

Social proof: Do not advertise undesirable behaviour (e.g. ‘People are always turning up late’). You are encouraging your students to do the same thing.

First names: Learn and use your students’ first names. We know it is important, but it is even more important than we think.

Making H/W public: Make students’ H/W public (esp if it is something creative). They will work harder and it is hugely motivating.

The magic word: …is not ‘please’ – it’s ‘because’! Use it often; i) your rationale may not be obvious and ii) the use of ‘because’ increases compliance rates.

PresentationSelf-persuasion: Get students to argue in favour of desirable behaviours. They may think this is just practice, but in fact they will be influencing themselves!

Proximity: When you sense there is (or there might be) discipline problems in class, just move closer to the source of the trouble. It can be very effective.

Labelling: Catch your students doing something good and then label them positively. The label often acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fixed mindsets: Avoid praising students for being intelligent. It leads to a ‘fixed mindset’ and it stops students from trying to get better.

Touching: Touch your students lightly. It can make them more amenable. (NB: I said touch them – not frisk them!)

The NIH bias: (NIH = ‘Not Invented Here’) If you want people to do something, get them to come up with the idea themselves.

Goal-setting: Get students to set goals for themselves and then get them to plan when, where and how they will accomplish them.

The peak-end effect: Make sure there is at least one memorable point during the lesson and if possible end on a high note. Do not just ‘fade out’.

DessertLast words: I hope you found this exercise interesting. The idea is that the challenge plus the fact that these principles are woven together into a story will make all these points more memorable. Alas, I cannot take any credit for the idea; I pinched it (I’m sorry – I ‘creatively assimilated’ it) from Chabris & Simons 2010 – p. 229. I would be very interested in feedback as this is the first article of this kind I have written. Whatever you do, remember the last point. Save something nice for the end. It’s like dessert. Speaking of desserts, here is mine (just click here).



Abelson, R., Frey, K. & Gregg, A. (2004) Experiments With People. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

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

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

Chabris, C. & Simons, D. (2010) The Invisible Gorilla. London: Harper Collins

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

Dunbar, R. (2010) How Many Friends does One Person Need? London: Faber & Faber 2010

Dweck, C. (2007) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books

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

Levine, R. (2006) The Power of Persuasion. Oxford: Oneworld

Levitt, S. & Dubner, S. (2014) Think Like a Freak.  London: Allen Lane

Martin, S., Goldstein, N., & Cialdini, R. (2014) The Small Big. London: Profile Books

Sommers, S. (2013) Situations Matter. New York NY: Riverhead Books

Yeung, R. (2011) i is for Influence. London: Macmillan

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

Wiseman, R. (2010) 59 Seconds. London: Pan Books

Wren, K. (1999) Social Influences. London: Routledge

Teaching Teenagers: 5 Principles – 5 Tasks

How to Teach Teenagers and Live to Tell the Tale

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!’) Teens_-_SExThere 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

Vocabulary Revision Strategies

10 Simple Activities for Students of All Levels

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

The Activities

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.

Books B

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).

Grouping 1B

Grouping 2B

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).

Pairing 1B

Pairing 2B

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!

Brainstorming 1B

Brainstomring 2B

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].

Boats B

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).

Linking B

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!

Focusing 2B

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).

Recalling B

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).

Associating 2B

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).

Anchoring B

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).

Using 1B

Using 2B

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.

Expanding 2B

Expanding 3B

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


A Different Approach to Teaching Writing

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.

Brainstorming 1

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’).

Topic Sentences

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! 🙂

Advertising – Creativity – Motivation

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)

Creativity - Advertising - Motivation

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


Identity and Change

‘Don’t Mess with Texas!’

The problem: The year: 1986. The place: Texas. Texas had a problem. The problem was litter. Litter was everywhere. It was not for lack of funds; the state was spending around $ 25 m a year on cleanup and that figure kept rising by an astonishing 15% per year. It was not for lack of effort; the authorities had tried all the standard approaches. There were signs which read ‘Please don’t litter’ and trash cans emblazoned with the pun ‘Please pitch in’. Nothing worked. It was clear that what was needed was somebody who would try a totally different approach – someone who would employ lateral thinking. Fortunately, such a person did exist and fortunately for Texas, they employed him. His name was Dan Syrek.

The ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’ Campaign: One of the reasons why previous attempts had failed was that what works in one occasion may not work in another. For instance, some of the environmental campaigns in the past had focused on people’s love for cuddly little animals such as owls (slogan: ‘Give a Hoot; don’t Pollute!’ [click here to watch]) or on people’s feelings of guilt (e.g. the famous ‘crying Indian’ ad [see video above]). But these approaches assume that people do care a little in the first place. What if they don’t?

The target audience: When Syrek and co started working on the problem, they quickly identified the main culprit. Not all sections of the population littered equally; by far the main offenders were male / macho / 18-35 pick-up driving guys whose main interests were sports and country music. Syrek even carried a picture of such a stereotypical yob with him – they called him ‘Bubba’. You can immediately see why the crying Indian cut no ice with such a person and as for the cuddly owls… 🙂

Carrots and sticks: What would we do if we were faced with such a problem? I think instinctively most of us would reach for the carrots and the sticks! But you cannot offer rewards to people for refraining from an action and in this case the sticks would perhaps backfire. One of the main distinguishing features of ‘Bubba’ was that he was anti-authority. Threatening him with fines or other sanctions would likely trigger a desire in him to break the rules even more (cf the notion of ‘Psychological Reactance’ – Cialdini 2001).

The Idea – ‘Texanness’: Instead of threatening these young men, Syrek and his team chose instead to take them on board! One of the most noticeable things about Bubba was that he was Texan and proud of it! So that was the idea: they took this element and latched something on to it – essentially ‘Texans do not litter cause they love their state!’ A whole series of commercials were created for the campaign. They all shared a number of features: a) They were direct (Bubba is not that sophisticated…) b) They used celebrities – but not just any celebrities; they were all people who were recognizably Texan.  c) They stressed two elements: ‘Texans don’t litter’ and ‘Texans care about whether others do’. d) They were clearly ‘macho’.

The Campaign: In one of the ads, two huge Dallas Cowboys players are seen collecting litter by the side of the road. One of them turns to the other and says ‘I’ve got a message for the guy who threw this out of the window’ – the camera shows us a beer can – ‘Only I kinda need to see him to deliver it…’ and he crushes the can with his fist – wow! 🙂  [click here to watch] In another ad, a baseball pitcher famous for his split-fingered fastball picks up some litter and hurls into a rubbish bin which blows up spectacularly – amazing! 🙂  [see below].

The Results: The success of the campaign was startling! Within months almost 3 out of 4 people could recall the message. A year later, littering had declined by almost 30%. Within 5 years, visible littering had dropped by a staggering 72% and an emergency fund of $ 1m which had been earmarked to enforce litter laws with punitive measures was scrapped as unnecessary…(Case Study described in Heath & Heath 2008 – pp 195-199)

Applications in the field of ELT:  While this Case Study does not offer us immediately transferrable lessons, there are many key principles we have clear implications for classroom management:

Emotion trumps reason: Notice that the campaign did not try to persuade people with arguments or statistics. The notion that to change people you need to persuade them is very common – and very wrong. In fact, in most cases people know what is ‘right’ (e.g. smoking, drinking etc.). What is needed to sway them is an emotional appeal. In a famous study, people were approached and asked for donations on behalf of a charity; half of them were given statistical info about the extent of famine in Africa – the other half were given a story about Rokia, a poor 7-year-old African girl. People in the second condition gave 76% more (Yeung 2011).

Know thy ‘enemy’: One of the reasons the campaign was so successful was that it was not addressed to all and sundry. It is amazing how clear Syrek was about the person he wanted to reach: male – young – anti-authority. In this way he was able to ‘tailor’ the message to the recipient. Similarly, we cannot adopt an ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when teaching our students. To be able to motivate them we need a careful needs analysis particularly in ESP (e.g. Robinson 1991 – Ch 2) and Teaching 1-to-1 (e.g. Osborne 2005, Ch 3). But even this is not enough; to see what really makes our students tick we need to get close to them and interact with them ourselves!

Focus on identity: Haidt (2012) points out that we all have a ‘hivish’ tendency; a tendency – indeed a need – to belong to something larger than ourselves (the ‘hive’). Stimulated by this feeling, people can be astonishingly altruistic and – more to the point – they can change very quickly! The ‘hive’ can be almost anything; it can be one’s nation, one’s place of origin (Texas!), a football club (‘Barcelona’!) or one’s school house (‘Gryffindor’!). The last example is a very interesting one; if one can harness this the results can be spectacular!

Remodel that identity: What the campaign essentially did was to ‘tag’ an extra feature to the ‘Texan identity’. There is no reason why Texans should care about the environment, but the ads managed to create that link by using role models (in this case athletes and folk singers) who shared this identity (Texan celebrities). Tim Murphey (2012) talks of NPRM (Near-Peer Role Models) and their potential in shaping student behaviour. By getting older (and perhaps successful) students to give mini talks in our classes or even just showing them examples of successful projects they have been involved in, we can go a long way towards motivating our learners.

Don’t destroy your message: It is vital to note that one thing Syrek and his team avoided was saying that the root cause of the problem was that everyone was littering. Saying something like ‘The reason why we are here today is that nobody bothers to be environmentally-conscious’ would have been a blunder; in fact it would be telling every Bubba in Texas – ‘Everyone is doing it – why should you be any different?’ (Godstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007) Telling students ‘I hope you are not like the other group who never look at their books until their teacher tells them to the next day’ encourages them to do just that.

Avoid dissonance: Notice that Syrek’s team did not bother to address the apparent clash between their message (‘Texans obviously would not pollute Texas!’) and Bubba’s previous behaviour. They simply ignored the latter! Subconsciously, the campaign worked like this: ‘Do you love Texas?’ – ‘Yes, I do!’ – ‘So help us keep it clean!’ (It goes without saying that you would not dream of polluting yourself!) According to Fine (2005) our vain brain routinely ‘rewrites’ our memories so Bubba conveniently forgot what his previous practices were!! It is often the same with unruly students; if you give them an ‘assistant Teacher’ role, you may find that they take to it with gusto, conveniently forgetting what their behaviour was only a few days previously!

George the pastor: OK – here is a final ad from the campaign: George Foreman was a boxer – and not just any boxer; he was one of the all-time greats. A world champion, he lost to legendary Muhammad Ali but he made a comeback 20 years later and won the title again at the age of 45! What is not so well known about him is that he was also an ordained Baptist minister. In this amazing commercial from the same campaign he is seen preaching, telling the congregation what to do ‘if your brother does so-and-so’. Then suddenly he says ‘But if he ever, ever messes with Texas…’ (the choir stop in puzzlement) ‘…pray for him brother; pray for him!’ 🙂  Excellent!!

[This article first appeared in the NL of the IATEFL ‘Global Issues’ SIG].


Cialdini, R. “Influence – Science and Practice”, Allyn & Bacon 2001

Fine, C. “A Mind of its Own”  Icon Books 2005

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

Haidt, J. “The Righteous Mind” Allen Lane 2012

Heath, C. & Heath, D. “Made to Stick” Random House 2008

Murphey, T. “Teaching in Pursuit of WoW!” Abax 2012

Osborne, P. “Teaching English One-toOne” Modern English Publishing 2005

Robinson, P. “ESP Today” Prentice Hall 1991

Yeung, R. “i is for Influence” Macmillan 2012

Psychology and ELT – ‘The Uncollection’

‘Take a note – any note!’

 Church in trouble:  ‘Ask not what thy God can do for you; ask what thou canst do for thy God’. But surely God doesn’t need our help? Well, perhaps not, but his vicars on Earth sometimes do. Such was the situation Reverend Steel found himself in. St John’s was a Victorian-era church and badly in need of maintenance. Reverend Steel had tried everything – charity appeals, fundraisers, the lot. Yet he was still far from having collected the funds he needed. And the bills kept mounting. Things sure looked gloomy. And then he had an inspiration. Yes, that was it! The answer was in the Bible – Matthew, Chapter 24:14-30. The parable of the talents! If that didn’t do it, nothing would. In any case, it was worth a try…

CS Uncollection 5 Hard times call for extraordinary measures:  It was an ordinary November Sunday in Kirkheaton.  The weather was bracing, the sky was overcast and the faithful had gathered for Sunday mass. As everyone knows, it is the custom that at some point during such services a collection box or a collection tray is passed around and the congregation are asked to make a contribution – bills after all need to be paid. Only that particular Sunday in November 2012 things were different.

The plate was indeed passed around as it had always been. Only this time there would be no contributions. This time the church was giving money away! The tray was full of crisp, £ 10 notes. Not quite believing their ears, the people present heard their priest actually encouraging them to take a note each! Tentatively, hesitantly and looking around to check that they had not misunderstood anything, the people did as they were bid.

Then from the pulpit, Reverend Steel reminded his flock of the parable of the talents.  And he told them all about the man who was going on a journey and who called his servants and ‘entrusted to them his property’. And how when he came back he asked them what they had done with it. So Reverent Steel urged his parishioners to do as the servants had done. They were to go away, use this money in any way they saw fit, and then perhaps in the future they could bring back what money they had made…

…So how did it go? Six months after that memorable event, a BBC crew who had covered the original story, went back to see what had happened. To say they were stunned would be putting it mildly. After their initial shock, the congregation had risen to the occasion. A parishioner had used the money to make some cakes and then held a cake sale; some children had used the money to buy seeds which they had planted and then sold the produce at a profit; others had bought things on e-bay and then re-sold them at a higher price. The result of all these efforts was that Reverend Steel was left with twenty times the original sum he had given away! His initial investment of £ 550 had yielded £ 10,000! Brilliant! 🙂  (The story appears in Martin, Goldstein & Cialdini 2014 – pp. 158-163) 1

CS Uncollection 4

Applications in the field of ELT:  So what can we learn from Reverend Steel? There are three important principles here:

Reciprocity: The Moral: ‘If you do something for others, they feel duty bound to return the favour’. This is hardly surprising, but there are two things which are less clearly understood: a) the urge to reciprocate is so strong, that we do this even if we do not particularly like the other person and  b) people often return the favour with interest – ‘you scratch my back, I’ll give you a body massage!’ (Regan 1971) And people like you more. So, if you want your students (or your teachers, if you are a DOS) to do things for you, make sure you do something for them first! NB: For the mechanism to be triggered, what you offer has to be offered without any strings attached; ‘Take the money now – it’s yours. In the future, IF you want…’

Incongruity: Can you imagine the effect that ‘the uncollection’ had on the congregation? I am sure people were completely dumbfounded! Incongruity (jolting people by violating their expectations) is seriously underused – perhaps because we think of it as a cheap trick. But it is much more than that. Dutton considers it one of the 5 key elements in instant persuasion 2 (Dutton 2010 – p. 215). Incongruity helps people notice things; when they notice things, they remember them better; the message that follows a surprising event / statement is more likely to be persuasive; and as an additional bonus, people are more likely to share the experience with their friends – so your message travels further (Berger 2014 – p. 42). The Moral: ‘To make things memorable and improve your standing with your students / staff, surprise them!’

Personal investment: The most devilish part in Reverent Steel’s otherwise laudable ploy was this phrase: ‘use it in any way you see fit’. Notice he did not say ‘return it’. The idea is that people had to do something with this money – something for the church. So you can imagine people going ‘Hmmm… What can one do with £ 10?’ But this is just the thing; the moment you start thinking about it you have moved from being a passive supporter to being an active one. The moment you make those cakes to sell, you have changed your self-perception and this is likely to go far beyond a mere £ 10 and extend far into the future. 3 The Moral: ‘If you want your students / staff to change and become more active, get them to do / invest / sacrifice something’ 4.

CS Uncollection 6

Final words:  Real life is unfolding all around us. And it is full of lessons. It pays to go around with open eyes and ears so you make a mental note whenever you come across something interesting. The hard bit of course is applying those lessons. Sometimes however the ideas are directly transferrable. Take the ‘uncollection’ for instance. Why can’t we do the same at the next TESOL Greece Convention? Instead of selling raffle tickets to people, they could get some AND receive a € 10 note for each of them!  Then they could spend the next few weeks thinking how they could raise money for TESOL Greece! Yes – the more I think about the idea, the more I like it. I think I’ll have 5 of these tickets myself! 🙂

If you are interested in reading more about the story, just click here

2 The 5 key elements are: Simplicity (Keep it simple); Perceived self-interest (What’s in it for me?); Incogruity (Wow! What’s going on here?!); Confidence (If I say so – that’s it!); Empathy (I know how you are feeling…) = SPICE! (Dutton 2010 – p. 215).

Perhaps the best known study on this is the one where some people innocently agreed to put up a 3″ x 3″ sticker on their window which read ‘Drive Carefully’. A few weeks later, a staggering 76% of them agreed to put up a huge, ugly sign with the same message on their lawn! (Freedman et al. 1966)

4  The mechanism is that of Cognitive Dissonance (Festinger 1957). Subconsciously, our brain thinks: ‘Oh, I have just spent 5 hours trying to find something to buy and re-sell on e-bay so that I can give the money to the church. Either I am stupid, or I really do care about this old building. (Which of the two explanations do you think our brain will go for?)


Berger, J. “Contagious” Simon & Schuster 2013

Dutton, K. “Flipnosis” Random House 2010

Festinger, L. (1957). “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance”. California: Stanford University Press.

Freedman J. L. & Fraser S. C. (1966) ‘Compliance without pressure: the foot-in-the-door technique’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4, 195-203

Martin, S., Goldstein, N., & Cialdini, R. “The Small Big”  Profile Books 2014

Regan, R. T. (1971). “Effects of a favor and liking on compliance”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 7: 627–639

Communication: Creativity and Lateral Thinking

CS Troy Library: ‘Burn the Books!’

Endangered Species: Once upon a time there was a little library. It was full of books and people loved it. Children spent many a happy hour browsing for little gems among its shelves. Alas, as often happens in fairy tales, things changed and the local authorities found themselves in dire financial straits. If the library was to be saved, the people would have to agree to a 0.7% rise in local taxes. August the 2nd was scheduled as the voting day. The fate of the little library hang in the balance…

An uphill struggle: Things looked bleak. As soon as the date was announced, the ‘Tea Party’ movement, a vociferous and well-funded group, started campaigning in favour of a ‘No’ vote to the proposed tax rise. These people were well organised and it was soon evident that the focus had shifted from whether the library should be saved to something very different – whether one was for or against taxes. The answer to this is of course a no-brainer…

The campaign: Faced with imminent disaster, the supporters of the ‘Yes’ movement realised that a normal campaign would be doomed. It was time for something different. Something drastic. Something spectacular. Could lateral thinking be the answer? Then one of them had a brainwave: ‘Why not go to the opposite extreme? Never mind the library – let us burn those books!’ (I won’t spoil it for you – just watch the video [Case Study mentioned in Ferrier 2013 – p. 101]).

The lessons: So what are the lessons to be gleaned from this amazing case? To me, there are at least 3 things worth noting:

  • Framing: How an issue is framed can often determine what stand people take (Freedman 2013 – ch 27). It is all about playing to your strengths. Attention is a commodity in short supply and if your cause is right it is vital not to allow people to be distracted by irrelevant issues (e.g. Immigration scare-mongering as opposed to who is responsible for the plight of the economy).
  • Emotion: Arousing emotions is a great motivator. Anger is particularly potent (in Berger’s words ‘Make them mad – not sad!’ [Berger 2013 – p. 117]). In this respect the ‘book burning’ idea was a stroke of genius as it clearly evokes images of Nazis burning books in Hitler’s evil regime. It was this visceral anger that motivated people to act – by posting comments, raising the issue in public forums etc.
  • Incongruity: To cut down on processing effort, our brain does not notice everything. It normally operates on autopilot, until something strikes it as strange, weird or out of place. Then it switches to high alert and things start to register properly. Here, the element of incongruity was used twice; first with the ‘Book Burning Party’ and then once again when the whole story came out. Amazing! Moral: to attract attention, break a pattern! (Heath & Heath 2008 – p. 64)

The role of the media: Notice that a key component of the success of this (counter-) campaign was the media. The whole thing went viral and when the true identity of the ‘whackos’ was revealed, this led to a second wave of media coverage. Why was it so successful? The campaign ticks three items in Berger’s list of virality ingredients: ‘Public’ (it was very visible); ‘Triggers’ (whenever people saw books or a fireplace they were reminded of it) and ‘Emotion’. In Berger’s words – ‘When we care, we share’ (ibid – ch 3).


Berger, J. (2013) Contagious. London: Simon & Schuster.
Ferrier, A. (2014) The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press.
Freedman, L. (2013) Strategy. New York, Oxford University Press.
Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2008) Made to Stick. London: Random House.

‘Gamification: Hotel 626’


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Learning from the experts:  How do you frighten the life out of teenagers? Here is a recipe: you take the demon child from ‘The Exorcist’, the scary corridor shots from ‘The Shining’ and a number of killer psychopaths from ‘Scream’, you mix them all together and, hey presto, you have got ‘Hotel 626’! Why would you want to scare teenagers senseless? Why, to sell stuff of course! Amazingly, ‘Hotel 626’ – an interactive video game – was designed for promotional purposes! But it is nothing like the infomercials we watch on TV. While the ingredients are familiar, the cooking method employed and the spices used simply blew my mind away! No wonder it won the most prestigious marketing award, the Cyber Lion, in 2009. As I mostly teach teenagers I can just imagine them glued to the screen, hearts pounding, totally absorbed – totally focused and I ask myself: ‘Can we not design equally effective materials?’ To get an idea of what the game is like, just watch the short clip below.

‘Hotel 626’ – The Game:  You need to check into the hotel. Significantly, the game asks for permission to use your webcam and your mobile phone number – as well as access to your Facebook friends. Then the action starts and you wake up inside the hotel of your worst nightmares. The lighting is dim and ominous creaks suggest that staying put is not an option. You can hear your shallow breath and your heart pounding. Your task is ‘simple’ – you have to stay alive and get out.  To do this you run down the corridors blindly searching for an exit. While looking around you find yourself in the room of a serial killer – and find your own picture among his would-be victims! Then you get a phone call – on your real mobile phone! A creepy voice gives you some instructions. There are a number of things you have to do and you have to make sure you do them right, or else…

You need to take a picture of a dangerous psychopath and lull a demon baby to sleep (creepy doesn’t even begin to describe it!). At some point you find yourself in a small room with a maniac wielding a chainsaw. You barricade yourself inside a closet but it’s only a matter of time before he gets you. All is not lost however – you can send a message to your friends and ask them to help you. If they agree, they need to scream into their microphones and hit as many keys on their keyboard as they can in order to distract him – in the confusion, you might just escape. In another twist of the plot, players find themselves presented with a dilemma: they see two pictures of real Facebook friends of theirs and they have to choose who is going to live and who is not long for this world… If you manage to avoid being devoured or hacked to pieces you eventually get to a door. The door is locked. If only you could find a way to open it… (Game description in Lewis 2013 – p. 214)

Applications in the field of ELT:  This game proved to be hugely addictive with teenagers. As Tom Chatfield says, the power of video games to motivate and transfix players is awesome 1 (TED talk – 0:30). So, what can we learn from this? What are the key elements that we can perhaps transfer to our teaching?

Tailoring: To make the game more attractive, the designers have ‘tailored’ it to teenagers’ preferences and lifestyle. Notice the genre (horror!), the medium (a computer on-line game) and the use of the social media. If we are teaching teenagers and we want them to read, it might make sense for us to give them stories like ‘The Baskerville Hound’ (Doyle) or ‘The Black Cat’ (Poe) rather than ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (Dickens). Computer-based adventures (e.g. ‘Cluefinders’ – see below) are more likely to appeal to them than board games. And of course, if we can incorporate the use of the social media in classroom work, students are more likely to be motivated as it is in our interests to break down the distinction between ‘classroom’ (boring) and real life (exciting). 2

The importance of story lines: It is one thing for people to have to solve problems, it’s quite another if these problems are embedded in a story-line and are part of an overall objective. Hotel 626 does have this of course, which is why it is so gripping, but the principle can be used in an educational context as well. One of the best applications of this principle I have seen is the ‘Cluefinders’ series produced by The Learning Company. Each adventure follows a group of children as they collect clues in order to solve a mystery, recover a lost treasure or save someone. Intended for American children, these games use a variety of tasks to teach 7 to 10-year-olds elements of Geography, Arithmetic, Reading Skills and Vocabulary.  As all the interactions are in English, I have used these with my students and they loved them! 3

Hotel 626 aInteractivity: By ‘interactivity’ I do not simply mean that the subject does something but that the action changes as a result of what they do. Having control over what happens is a huge motivator (Gilbert 2006 – p. 21). In RPGs like Hotel 626 it’s the player who decides what happens next. Alas, most of what happens in class is far from interactive. Even if the students do things, it is usually the coursebook or the teacher who decides how things will unfold. A notable exception is the ‘Survivor’ game which I came across in a resource book (Anderson 2004 – p. 54). Students have to survive on a desert island and they have to take decisions at different stages. Depending on what they decide they move to different locations where they are confronted with a new problem. It is essentially very similar to a ‘Cluefinders’ adventure only it does not employ technology. Despite that it has proved enormously popular with my students.

The social element: According to Lieberman (2013) the number one priority for humans is to establish and maintain strong bonds with their social group. This is even more so with teenagers. Given this fact, it is amazing that in the field of Education the ‘social’ element is often considered to be the enemy of learning (Lieberman – RSA talk [18:05] – click here). Advertisers and game designers are of course miles ahead. In WoW for instance, people get to go on missions with their friends (Gottschall 2012 – Chapter 9) while in the hugely successful ‘Farmville’, you have to water your crops at regular intervals, or they will die. How can you do that when for whatever reason you are busy? Why, you rely on your friends of course. You text them and ask them to water them for you! (McRaney 2013 – p. 225). Notice how cleverly this is done in ‘Hotel 626’ – remember how you can save yourself from that maniac? (See also Chatfield’s TED talk – 12:25).

Hotel 626 bPersonalisation: The other noteworthy element about ‘Hotel 626’ is how it has been made to feel real by incorporating elements from your everyday life. Notice little details like the pictures of yourself you see in the maniac’s lair, the appearance of your Facebook friends in the game and the brilliant touch of the phonecall you get on your actual mobile phone! As Fine (2005) points out, we cannot help ourselves; as human beings we are the centre of our universe and everything that has to do with ourselves is far more likely to motivate us than most elements which simply have to do with the outside reality or other people. It follows then that any learning activity which involves personalization, whether it is relating adjectives of personality to our relatives and friends or giving a talk about our actual hobbies or making a Brainshark slide presentation with the pictures of our last holiday is likely to increase motivation.

Arousal: A final noteworthy point is that of arousal. Notice how in the game the player is always in a state of high alertness. Make no mistake – this is one of the main reasons behind the attraction of games like WoW or even blitz chess! There are two reasons why one might consider using high-arousal activities in class. The first one is that high arousal often means you remember things better (see below!). So, activities like wall-dictation for instance, where students have to run back and forth, or high-intensity time-pressure competitive games like ‘Just a Minute’ can pay great dividends in terms of information retention. But there is another reason as well; high arousal activities (e.g. riding a roller-coaster) involve the secretion of chemicals that make us feel good. Incredibly, this has a spill-over effect (Saloway, Yale Courses, Lecture 9) 4. To put it simply, your students may come to like English lessons, partly because they feel good after such an activity!

What was being advertised?:  You will never guess… Never in a million years. The answer is:… Doritos chips! Incredibly, neither the logo nor the product itself appear during the entire game. Except in the last scene that is, when players come to a dead end. There is only one way out, but the door is locked. As demons, madmen etc are hot on the player’s heels they have to think of something – fast! For the opening mechanism to be activated, the frantic teenager has to hold a code or marker up to a webcam. Fortunately that code is printed on a bag of Doritos chips which happens to be lying around… Under such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the brand name is indelibly etched on the player’s memory! Did the idea work? Well, when the game was first launched, 2 million bags of the target flavours were sold within 3 weeks…

1 Tom Chatfield’s short TED talk offers very interesting lessons for Educators – and the lessons do not just have to do with video games. Notice how ‘Hotel 626’ makes use of points 4 (Instant Feedback), 5 (Uncertainty) and 7 (Other People). To watch the talk, just click here.

2 Tailoring goes far beyond the classroom. During the first gulf war, the US troops suffered a disproportionate number of eye injuries from shrapnel etc. When the army looked into it, they discovered soldiers hated wearing their goggles because they thought they were ugly. Solution: they designed cooler goggles (Hallinan 2009 – p. 214)

3 To get an idea of what the tasks look like, just click here. You can see a number of tasks at 15:31, 18:30, 1:04:30, 1:14:55 etc.

4 For the phenomenon of misattribution, see Salovery P., Yale Courses: Introduction to Psychology (PSYC 110). Lecture 9 – 43:55. To watch the talk, just click here.

[This article first appeared in the IATEFL ‘Learning Technologies’ SIG NL]



Anderson, J. “Teamwork” Delta Publishing 2004

Chatfield, T. “7 Ways Video Games Engage the Brain” TED Talk, YouTube 2010.

Fine, C. “A Mind of its Own”  Icon Books 2005

Gilbert, D. “Stumbling on Happiness” Harper Perennial 2007

Gottschall, J. “The Storytelling Animal” Houghton Mifflin 2012

Hallinan, J. “Why We Make Mistakes” Broadway 2009

Hotel 626 trailer: “Psychology and ELT – Technology and Motivation” YouTube 2014

Lewis, D. “The Brain Sell” Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2013

Lieberman, M. “Social” Oxford 2013

Lieberman, M. “Making Social a Superpower in the Classroom” RSA Talks, YouTube 2013

McRaney, D. “You can Beat your Brain” Oneworld 2013

Saloway, P. Yale Courses “Introduction to Psychology” Lecture 9, YouTube 2008

Psychology and ELT – Story-Generating Activities

‘Getting learners to do what comes naturally to them’

Geometric Thriller: Look at the screen below. What do you see inside the frame? Well, clearly, there is an open box and three geometric shapes: a large triangle, a smaller one and a small circle. What happens however if these shapes start moving about? Will you still see them as small, 2D objects moving about on a screen? If so, you are a rare person indeed! But do not take my word for it; just click on play and watch the 90 second film for yourself. Chances are, what you are going to see is a story – perhaps like this one 1. In the original study (Heider & Simmel 1944) what 33 out of the 34 subjects saw was a true thriller! But how does this happen?

Gazzaniga’s Experiments: In a series of fascinating experiments, Michael Gazzaniga discovered ‘the interpreter’ – a neural circuit which helps to organise a person’s experience into a meaningful whole. Gazzaniga worked with split-brain patients. These people had undergone operations which had severed the corpus callosum which links the two brain hemispheres. Researchers had pictures briefly flashed in front of either the left or the right eye (this information is conveyed to the right or left hemisphere respectively).

Stories 4In one case, the patient was shown a chicken claw (L hemisphere) and was asked to pick a picture with his R hand. He chose that of a chicken. When asked why, he correctly pointed out the link between the claw and the bird. Then he was shown a snowy scene (R hemisphere) and once again was asked to pick a picture. He picked that of a shovel. When asked why however, his R brain could not reply, because the verbal functions are mostly located in the other hemisphere! Here comes the interesting bit: the L hemisphere (which controls language) had no idea why the subject had picked the shovel, but it made up an explanation nevertheless on the basis of the information it had!! The patient said ‘Well… you need a shovel to clean out the chicken coop!’ Amazing!!

Time and again the researchers got the same results; when they flashed a card which read ‘Walk’ to the R hemisphere, the patient got up and started walking. When asked why, he did not know of course but ‘the interpreter’ in the L hemisphere made up a reason just the same – ‘I’m going to get a Coke!’ (studies described in McRaney 2012, p. 19).

Implications for ELT: So here is the idea: it appears that this ‘interpreter’ – the module which ‘connects the dots’ into a coherent whole is part of the ‘standard equipment’ of the human brain. Not only that; because such an ability was so useful to us, nature has fitted us with a reward mechanism, so we get a neuro-chemical reward every time we manage to do so (Ramachandran & Hirstein 1999). It follows therefore that activities which use a range of stimuli to encourage learners to come up with stories should be both pleasurable and ones which come naturally to them. Here are six examples:

Warm-up activities 1: Many of the texts we give our students to read are in fact stories. To get our students interested and prepare them for reading by activating their mental schemata we can select a few key words and get the students in pairs to come up with their own version of what happened. That will provide them with the motivation to read the text in order to see how accurate their predictions were. This is a very versatile activity and requires very little preparation.

Warm-up activities 2: This is a more sophisticated version of the above, particularly suitable for listening texts. Using simple editing tools (e.g. ‘Audacity’), we can cut some sentences from the text and get students to listen to them in random order (alternatively we can just type them up and give them to the students). Then they have to work together to sequence them and once again speculate about what might have happened in the story (e.g. Vince 1992, p. 44).

Ambiguous stories: In this activity, students are given a set of pictures, where the sequence is not obvious. Students have to decide on a plausible order and write up the story. They can then read their story aloud and their partner / their classmates can arrange the pictures in the right order as the story unfolds. Alternatively each student can come up with his/her own version and compare it with that of their classmates (Ur 1988, p. 219).

Creative story writing 1: In this fantastic activity, students are given ideas for the beginning and the end of a story (e.g. Beginning: ‘A hiking holiday’ – ending: ‘A first prize’) and many words / phrases in-between some of which are connected together in a grid. Students can  choose different ‘routes’ (e.g. ‘A hiking holiday’ – ‘an accident’ – ‘a wedding’ – ‘something found’ etc. etc. … – ‘a first prize’) and in the end they can again compare their version to that of their classmates (Grellet, 1996, p. 120)

Stories 9aCreative story writing 2: This is a more interactive version of the above. Students are told they are going to write fairy tales. They work in pairs. Each student is given a picture of an object (e.g. a ring). They have to write 2-3 sentences and try to include the object somehow. Then they swap stories with the person next to them. Their partner has to continue the story while including a new object. After 2-3 sentences the process is repeated, until in the end students are given some time to finish off the story any way they like.

Sounds into story: Although this idea is an old one, it still has great novelty value as it is very different from all the others. Students listen to a sequence of sounds (e.g. an engine starting, a cat meowing, a window smashing, etc.) They then have to try to figure out what happened and write down the story (if you want to try this with your class, just click here). There are many variations of this idea (e.g. Maley & Duff 1975) and nowadays of course sound effects are readily downloadable, which means that teachers can easily create their own sequences.

From Thrillers to Romance: OK – here is something else you can use with your students  (‘Watch this ad, then write the story!’) As Berger (2013 – p. 115) explains, Google wanted to show people how easy it is to use their engine to find just about everything. So in this beautiful ad we follow a young American who travels to Paris in order to study. Upon getting there, he looks for a café nearby… and then his whole life changes. The ad is short, sweet and hugely popular (7.5 m hits and counting!). Like a treasure hunt, the carefully selected clues lead the viewer to effortlessly reconstruct what happened. The ad cost next to nothing and yet it was voted best Super Bowl commercial for 2010.  That speaks volumes about the power of stories….

1 “The small triangle and the small circle (the couple) enter the screen together and the big triangle (the villain) storms out of his house. The big triangle violently butts the little guy (small triangle) out of the way and herds the protesting heroine (small circle) back into his house. The big triangle then chases the circle back and forth trying to work her into a corner. The scene reeks of sexual menace…” (Gottschall 2012 – p. 106)


Berger, J. “Contagious” Simon & Schuster 2013

Boyd, B. “On the Origin of Stories” Harvard University Press 2010

Gottschall, J. “The Storytelling Animal” Houghton Mifflin 2012

Grellet, F. “Writing for Advanced Learners of English” Cambridge 1996

Heider, F. & Simmel, M. “An Experimental Study of Apparent Behaviour” American Journal of Psychology 57 (1944): 243-259

Maley, A. & Duff A. “Sounds Interesting” Cambridge 1975

McRaney, D. “You are not so Smart” Oneworld 2012

Ramachandran and Hirstein ‘The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience’ Journal of Consciousness Studies 1999

Ur, P. “Grammar Practice Activities” Cambridge 1988

Vince, M. “Highlight Intermediate” Heinemann 1992