Sustainable learning


2, 4, 6, 7 :(

Thinking is something that we do without, well, thinking.  Sometimes we do it too much and unfortunately sometimes too little.  The same can be true in the EFL classroom.  It is easy to blame students for this short fall.  However, it may be better to point the finger of blame at our educational institutions and curricula.

Recently I taught my beginner students how to spell English numbers from one  to ten.  On their weekly quiz they had a question like this:

1) Write the next word

one, three, five,            .

Answer: seven.

Most of my students wrote six.  I was slightly dismayed.  I thought the pattern of 1, 3, 5, 7 would be easy enough to spot. However, in my class I had taught my students how to say and spell the words, but not how to think and use them in different contexts.  I had neglected to add a critical thinking element to my class.

On one level my ego was tarnished.  On another level I learned a very valuable lesson.

Take your students as you find them.

If your students come from a country where  critical thinking is integrated into their school and/or university curricula, you are very lucky.  More often than not, they do not, or they are still developing these skills.

So…teach them how to think.

For example, if students have been taught to memorise facts or information in a sequence (such as numbers one to ten), you need to teach them how to go beyond this in your class and manipulate their knowledge.  Extend this idea to foreign languages.  Students can learn how to say a sentence and repeat it.  However, if they understand the components of the sentence, they can make their own sentences effectively and derive great pleasure from creating new utterances.

If this happens, you can dance a little jig and pat yourself on the back.  You will have moved on from teaching a list of language items.  You will have taught students how to feel the language and use it in novel contexts.  When students can do so, they will be inspired.  You will be proud.  So, teach them how to think and you will teach them more than a foreign language.  You will allow them to bring it to life.

Teaching students to think in English teaches them to live in English.

This post was inspired by *Tessa Woodward’s “Thinking in the EFL class”.  She offers some great suggestions to add thought-provoking routines into the EFL classroom.  A real gem of a book!

(c) Helbling Languages 2011

* Woodward, T (2011) Thinking in the EFL Class Helbling Languages.



How to help beginner Arabic speakers learn English

In Arabic, as far as my beginners Arabic CDs have so far taken me, there is no difference between the English:



I’m a

In Arabic, they all correspond to /ɑːnə/.  I’m not going to write it in Arabic script because I can’t.

As such, as Arabic speakers grapple with learning English, they are confronted with a constant choice where in Arabic they don’t need to choose.

I currently teach many beginner Arabic speaking students in a multi-lingual classroom.  I have presented the three options (above) from the beginning of the course and it seems that students are assimilating them much faster once the options are pointed out explicitly.  We chant together in class “I, I’m, I’m a” (with emphasis on the shwa) in class and then select the correct one depending on the target language of our class.

Job?  Students choose “I’m a” = /aɪmə/.  You can present the IPA to reinforce it as a language chunk.

Present simple verbs?  Students choose number 1 “I” =  /aɪ/

Adjectives or present continuous?  Students choose I’m

The same technique can work with different subject pronouns.

You                 He                 She

You’re            He’s             She’s

You’re a        He’s a           She’s a

I think in the past we have been tempted to gradually introduce these items so that students don’t get overwhelmed.  I see the usefulness of this opinion.  However, I suggest that students react better to having a choice rather than guessing about options that are hidden from them by coursebooks (the old “not until Unit 5!” chestnut).




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Students go at their own pace – down a long and winding road…

Isn’t it strange that students don’t seem to learn what we teach them?  We might be said to spend a lot of time and effort moving through a list of items on the syllabus, focusing on lesson aims and deflecting questions which are ‘off the topic’ until the end of the class (if they are reached at all).  But maybe it is these questions which should be the focus of the class rather than the topic which may indeed be quite distant and out of touch with students.

There seems to be some truth in the suggestion that ESL students learn in a similar way to infants discovering the world for the first time.  They look at things in awe and try to work them out, based on their current knowledge of the world.

If you think about many interactions with babies in English (and probably in other languages), the concept of an object or person being “here” and in view and “gone” is very common.

“Where’s the ball?  Where is it?


“Yes!  Here it is!”

“Where’s the ball?  Where is it?”


“Yes!  It’s gone!”

In contrast, if we look at our teaching resources, and the list-like progression of many ESL syllabi, you could be forgiven for considering if it is all a little bit ‘upside down‘.

Let’s take “gone” for example.  Conceptually it is quite straightforward.  Something or someone is either here or not here.  But this is just one word, and may be frowned upon in a language classroom.  “Use a full sentence!” you might hear.  However, babies manage to say “gone” and their parents don’t mind.  In fact, they’re quite ecstatic.  “She said a word!”

However, if we analyse the desirable sentence, “he has gone (home/to work)”, we may latch on to the fact that it involves the infamous present perfect.

O oh!  It doesn’t exist in many of our students language.  So, don’t introduce it until late elementary or pre-intermediate classes.  They won’t get it!  They won’t be able to use it!

Babies “get it”, albeit in a simplified form.  This kind of linguistic hiding of language in the classroom could be said to slow students down and even confuse them later on when the item appears magically from no where.

Instead, have we decided that students should first use verbs without auxiliaries?  The ‘useful’ though often contextually void present simple, used to talk about “habitual actions” according to some textbooks, is the place to start.  However, in practice it is used to talk about pretty much anything, habitual or not, just as long as this grammar sounds good to us.

I always get up at 6:30.     [Habit]

I understand.                        [Now]

I’m getting up.                      [Now]

Information about when you get up and brush your teeth is an endlessly fascinating topic if you think about it.  I mean, wow, you mean you get up at 8am, and then you brush your teeth.  Wait wait, back up the truck!  After getting up, you brush your teeth, oh and then you shower.  Fascinating!  Thank you for sharing these monotonous details of your life.  Simply amazing!

Why don’t we instead take a look at our fascinating students – if we’re in a multi-lingual, – they’re often from quite diverse backgrounds.  I want to know the following:

  • What languages do you speak?
  • What food do you have in your country?
  • Which religions do you have?
  • Which language do you speak  at home?  At work?  At school?

What do you notice?  If we look at the above, we can take these two verbs and mould the vocabulary that students already have around them, and learn something useful and insightful in the mean time.  I suggest that we forget about brushing our teeth, and find out more about our creative and interesting students.

Similarly, we should look at the environments in which are students are interacting.  There are no toys, unlike the example of children learning above.  But maybe there are colleagues, other students, subjects and degrees to be studied.  Let’s look at this content, which is immediately relevant and accessible.

Maybe this way, students can guide us more about what they need to learn, then just maybe they can learn more of what we teach.  Fingers crossed anyway!