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).