Sustainable learning


Less is more

Less is more.  We want our students to learn as much as possible.  So it’s natural that we want to teach them a lot in a lesson.  However, it’s better to teach them a little.  Make sure it is at the appropriate level.  That way, they will learn what we teach.  Then we can teach them more.  We will teach them a lot.  We will achieve our goal.  However, we won’t overwhelm them.  For vocabulary, choose 7 words.  It seems to be a magic number.  Teach them well.  Teach them with useful grammar.  Less is more.



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).





Student learning styles and your own!


Did you know that we all have different learning styles?  To be honest, I had no idea.  Or to be more accurate, I knew there were different learning styles, but I expected there were so many different kinds that there wasn’t much point trying to get my head around them.

However, I recently attended a training workshop which helped us teachers work out which learning style suited us.  The session was based on Neil Fleming’s VAK (later expanded to VARK) approach to learning styles.  As such, our session focused on only three different learning styles: Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic.*  We did a survey which led to some statistics (always a little skeptical of such things) which would help us identify our stronger learning styles.  For interest’s sake, I’ll disclose that I was strongly in favour of both Visual and Auditory, whereas Kinaesthetic was almost non-existent.


If you find out how you learn, I think it will help you to better understand how your students learn.  I have noticed a couple of students in my classes who have been having trouble learning English at a beginner level.  One of them is a keen basketball player and an un-keen language learner (it would seem).  The other seems to be constantly distracted, checking messages on a mobile phone and wanting to get up and walk around the room.

I guess this screams “kinaesthetic” learners.  The problem as such may have been more from my preference for visual and auditory activities in class, whereas they needed to get moving and do something!

I learned that I need to include some more kinaesthetic activities in my class to balance the learning preferences amongst my students.  I would suggest taking some time to speak with individual students who seem to be having difficulties.  You may be able to gain some insight into why based on the VAK learning styles.

For more information, check out:

On this website you can  also complete an online questionnaire to find out YOUR learning style.

* – you can spell kinaesthetic with or without “a” which as a visual learner I find a little frustrating.  The “a” is redundant if you ask me and look at the pronunciation /ˌkɪniːsˈθetɪk/.  Hmmm does this suggest that I’m an auditory learner too?


Are you afraid of the big bad wolf?

Are you afraid of the IPA?

Does it give you butterflies in your stomach just thinking about it?  Don’t be scared, like anything, if you are familiar with what it is exactly, you can use it.  I promise!

Firstly, what is the IPA?  It stands for International Phonetic Alphabet.  But what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?  Good question.  Let’s take the key word:


Ok, sorry that was sneaky.  I’ll admit it.  But how did you do?  Can you read it?  That’s right, ‘phonetic’.  Let’s compare them side by side.

(1) /fəˈnetɪk/

(2) phonetic

So what do you notice?  (1) Well, the first one tells us exactly how to say the word (leaving aside the question of dialectal accent variation for a moment).  It gives us all the vowel sounds.  This is usually the tricky bit for students.  It also shows us which part of the word sounds stronger.  Is it the first or the second part (syllable)?  If you look a bit closer, you’ll see that there is a small apostrophe after the /əˈ/ symbol.  The key is that, after the apostrophe, you say the next consonant and vowel stronger than the other parts of the word.  This softens the pronunciation of the rest of the word, but gives important linguistic information to English speakers.

Try to move it around.  If you say /ˈfonətɪk/ you might be understood as saying phoner tech.  What is that?  An on-call internet technician?  This is troublesome for many of our students.  Some are tempted to go straight for the written version of English (maybe it’s all they have access to) and to pronounce each letter as they see it.

(2) The second one tells us how the word was possibly said a very long time ago when French and English were fighting for top spot in world politics.  It takes us on a historical journey.  Fascinating though it is, its main purpose these days is to write.  Not speak.  It’s not a good system in my opinion.  But it’s an old system and it’s the one we’ve got.  From a student’s perspective, what can we do?  As an educator, we need to tell them to close their books for a while, tell them to close their eyes and let them listen to the language rather than seeing it.

A piece of advice.

As  educators we also need to develop some confidence in guiding our students with these hieroglyphics.  Start working on the /ə/ sound, it’s commonly called a schwa, but don’t worry too much about that, a student will rarely need to know that.  Try to locate it in relation to the apostrophe.  You may notice that more often than not, the stressed syllable does not contain an /ə/ sound.  If students can work on this sound first, it could help them to soften their pronunciation and improve their word stress awareness at the same time.

How can you find out?

Go to the dictionary before your class.  Just write down the phonetics for key vocabulary items in your class.  Start with just one or two.  Five or six if you’re feeling brave.

If in doubt, check out an online dictionary.  You can also click and listen to the word.  If you’re like me, if you think about the pronunciation too much, you might change it.  Here are a few useful free dictionary sites:

/ ɡʊd lʌk /  !

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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!

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English Unlimited – nice one!

English Unlimited is a wonderful new addition to the ESL classroom from Cambridge University Press.  There are already a few reviews on the interweb which talk about the features of the book.   As such, I’ll focus on some of my own perceptions.


If you look at the vocabulary in each unit, it seems to be the building block, around which the grammar is fitted.  In this vain, I have been hearing the catch phrase of “lexical approach” being bandied around our office.  It’s true.  This book is not a list of grammar points for students to learn one after the other, though there certainly is enough focus on grammar.  Rather, students are presented with corpus informed lexical items to help them sound more natural.  This appears to be a shift from other coursebooks on the market, which give students nice manageable amounts of grammar in quite controlled contexts.  However, I have had some higher level students complain that they know a lot of grammar, but are “vocab poor” at this stage of their language development.  I would suggest that English Unlimited avoids this eventuality, by providing more useful lexical input along the way.

I guess this post is overwhelmingly positive at this stage.  If I was to find a criticism, I would say that some of these lexical items are hard to explain in class.  They include many subtleties which enhance a speakers meaning.  I would suggest that this may be just the point.  As teachers we are often tempted to spend our time explaining everything to students.  Certainly as students approach the pre-intermediate level of their learning, we should be encouraged to explain less, and let the students’ minds do the work.  Again, I think English Unlimited gives us another push in the right direction to let students think about it for themselves.


Teaching approaches, such as listening for overall understanding and specific details, are implemented effortlessly using this series.  I would suggest that this is of great benefit to new teachers, who are still grappling with these techniques.  English Unlimited offers a guided approach for such teachers.  In fact, this is quite important with the listening texts.  If students attempt to understand the entire dialogues word for word, they may be demotivated.  They are certainly constructed in a way that they allow students to refine their listening skills, rather than attempting to understand completely what they hear.


In addition, the listening tracks contain some great examples of World English.  The authors have stepped into the proverbial “traffic” and used a collection of both native and non-native speakers.  Admittedly, the students find it tough and times to understand on first hearing.  However, I think the exposure to more accents is a brilliant opportunity for them.

Has anyone else used this coursebook?  I’d be keen to hear some other experiences!

Happy teaching 😀

Image Copyright: Cambridge University Press