The Life of the Mind: Extensive Reading for Language Learners

“He so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight to daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his mind.” (Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes)


Language Learner Literature

In April 2017 I hosted the Language Learner Literature Awards (known–by me anyway–as the Lalalas) for the Extensive Reading Foundation of IATEFL*. These awards are given to the best adaptations or original works of literature for students.

This year, the winners ranged from a Sherlock Holmes story miraculously made comprehensible for Beginners to an original tale about a Native Canadian girl who goes to live in a tree to stop loggers from cutting down the forest. My favourite winner was Vera the Alien Hunter, for Very Young Learners. It’s about a girl who hunts aliens while being mentored by a blue alien cat called Luca. OK, it wasn’t Dostoyevsky, but it was a whole lot of fun to read.

During a conversation before the ceremony began, someone mentioned that extensive reading is an endangered species. Does anyone, including language learners, read extensively these days? Many parents would attest that their teenage children read nothing longer than 140 characters. The current President of the United States, according to his biographer, has rarely finished a book in his life. Investigative journalism and extended essays, in all bar a few periodicals such as The New Yorker and Atlantic magazine, are being given less and less room in newspapers around the globe.

Extensive Reading Works

Extensive reading (ER) is hugely beneficial for language learners. It has a number of names with silly acronyms – Positive Outcomes While Enjoying Reading (POWER); Free Voluntary Reading (FEVER); and Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) – but there’s plenty of research that tells us it’s a serious business: big readers are big winners in terms of second language acquisition.

Stephen Krashen has long argued the benefits of extensive reading. He emphasises the gains students make in vocabulary, writing and spelling. In a 2007 meta-study of the research, Krashen concluded that “in-school self-selected reading works.” Nation (1997), Day & Bamford (1998), Elley (2001), and Waring (2006) all concur.

The wise owl Alan Maley identifies seven benefits of ER: learner autonomy, comprehensible input, general language competence, general knowledge, vocabulary growth, improved writing, and motivation to read more.


Why don’t schools have ER programs?

Bearing in mind the effectiveness of ER, why isn’t it used more in language schools? The main reasons are cost, time, and the attitudes of teachers and students.

Cost: Schools need to put aside money and space for books, and many decision-makers, not seeing the immediate benefits, choose to spend the money elsewhere.

Time: Teachers never have enough time to cover everything on the syllabus, so unstructured activities such as ER get dropped.

Attitudes of teachers: There’s a feeling that learning needs to be measurable, i.e. testable. For school decision-makers, it’s difficult to quantify the benefits of ER, so ER becomes an optional extra.

Attitudes of students: Students tend to be grounded in internet culture, which encourages short reading experiences. It can be tough to convince them of the value of spending days reading the same book when exam results aren’t riding on it.

How can schools implement an ER program?

Here are some suggestions:

1. There should be a wide selection of books available in a variety of genres and at different levels, including graphic novels and comic books.

2. Students are free to choose what they want to read, with no obligation to finish anything.

3. There are no comprehension questions, tests, or progress checks.

4. The goal is to enjoy reading the book.

5. The students read alone and in silence or, if timetabling doesn’t allow this, at home.

6. The teacher models the process as co-reader, reading and periodically reporting back what he/she read.

7. All pedagogical activities are to enhance the reading experience and not to focus on language. So story maps, time lines, student illustrations, reading logs, journals, mock trials, Readers’ Theater (reading and dramatizing a script based on a story), literature discussion circles, etc., are optional.

Pleasure and Privilege

Extensive reading is a privilege. As Gavin McLean, Business Development Director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at National Geographic Learning, put it during his acceptance speech at IATEFL:

“We think of reading for pleasure and we think that it is something that all parents do with their kids, but in many parts of the world, it doesn’t happen at all. And the work that we do in developing English language teaching readers is so crucial in building up the confidence of children and parents, to get that sense of reading as not just an activity for learning, but for social interaction and a joint enterprise that can benefit both generations.”

*You can see watch the ceremony here:

Catching leaves in a storm: Low level students and authentic material


Image by AlvaradoFrazier

I was recently asked to deliver a workshop on helping low level students to cope with authentic listening material and DVD clips. In my scramble to say something intelligent, I’ve come up with a few principles, some time-honored, others I think I just made up.

Choose carefully

One argument for using authentic material in the classroom is that it’s motivating for students. But there’s nothing more demotivating than listening to something and understanding nothing. The selection of the material is the starting point, and you have to get it right.

Authentic material, by definition, is not graded for learners. In many cases, this material is in a coursebook, so the writer has already chosen it. But if you, the teacher, are choosing the material, you need a mental checklist to decide what’s usable at low levels.

The checklist includes factors related to content and factors related to delivery. Content: familiarity of context, cultural accessibility, engagement. Delivery: clarity of recording, speed and grammatical complexity of speech, range and level of vocabulary, number of speakers, and difficulty of accents.

Provide scaffolding

Lots of pre-listening/viewing support is essential. Use anything and everything to activate the students’ schemata: pictures, realia, key words, questioning. What is the topic and what do we know about it already? What vocabulary is connected to the topic? How is the speakers’ task achieved in the students’ native language and culture?

If appropriate, do a dictation of the first two sentences or first thirty seconds of the recording. This attunes students to the vocabulary and topic, and is less pressurized as the teacher can slow down her speech, repeat what she said, and give time for students to check.

For genuine Beginners in a monolingual class, I believe it’s sometimes appropriate to do some pre-listening work in L1, i.e. a very short preamble about the recording.


Where possible, make the material personally relevant to the students before listening/watching. If the recording is about travel, get students to mark on a map all the places they’ve been and brainstorm words connected with travel. If they are about to listen to someone describing her home town, get the students to say what they like about their home town first.

This is a form of priming. It gets the students ready to hear certain words in a certain context using a predictable discourse structure (predictable because they have just done it themselves).

‘Low demand’ first task

You can’t grade the material, so grade the task. Even Beginners watching or listening to authentic material will be able to understand something. “What is his name?” “Where is she from?”

For Elementary students: “What is the relationship between the speakers?” “What does X want?” “Where are the speakers?”

For the first task, don’t ask students to use more than one skill. If they are listening, let them listen. Dealing with incoming speech signals is a tremendous challenge for low level students. Don’t ask them to listen and write answers to comprehension questions at the same time. The writing should be done later in the sequence.

Productive second task

Try to get students doing something with what they heard/watched. Productive responses can be very simple: students write a large Yes on a piece of paper and a large No on the other side. They hold up the paper in response to the teacher’s questions. For example, pause the recording and ask, “are they in a restaurant?” “Yes!” “Is the woman happy?” “No!”

Use variants of Total Physical Response. Students raise their hand when they hear a name. Students follow instructions. Students mime actions.


Long passages – more than one minute – can be demanding for low level students. They are more likely to lose the thread of the conversation because they are dealing with more language. One solution is to ‘chunk’ long passages: the teacher uses the pause button to divide the recording into manageable sections, stopping to check comprehension of each section.

Use transcripts

One of the main difficulties of English is the lack of correlation between how words are written and how they are spoken. Going to becomes gonna. Want to becomes wanna. After the first couple of tasks, let students listen and read the transcript at the same time. They’ll see how written words are pronounced and where speakers speed up and slow down, and they’ll perceive pronunciation features such as elision and assimilation.

Students collaborate

Many minds know more than one mind. Although the receptive skills – listening and reading – take place, by definition, in our minds, students can collaborate in order to piece together what they “received.”

One activity: put students into groups. Give each group a large sheet of paper. They write down everything they understood about the recording/DVD clip, even if it’s just isolated words. Together, the students begin to reconstruct the material. They listen/watch again and add more words and ideas.


Plan a sequence that makes a verbal task into a visual one, then a visual task into a kinesthetic one.

Imagine you ask the students to compare what they understood. After doing that, ask them to present it graphically: a sketch or line drawing. Then ask them to act out the scene. This won’t work for all authentic materials, but it will allow certain students a ‘way in,’ a method to access and understand the material by interacting with it in a different mode.

Be a cheerleader!

Last but not least … provide lots of encouragement. It’s easy to get demoralized when you’re listening to a foreign language at full speed. Trying to catch words is like trying to catch leaves in a storm. That’s why every little success matters, and should be quietly celebrated.


Will robots replace teachers?

On the 90th anniversary of Fritz Lang’s dystopian film Metropolis – one of the earliest to include a robot – we ponder the role of robots in education.

In 2004, IBM executive Charles Lickel was eating in a restaurant when he noticed his fellow-diners abandoning their meals and heading towards the bar. Why the desperate scramble? They were rushing to watch Jeopardy!, a long-running and addictive quiz show. Seven years later, after Lickel had repeatedly fought for it, IBM built a machine called Watson to compete in Jeopardy!. It was to be a grand test of computing capabilities: a machine that could answer general knowledge questions about any subject at any time in history. Watson at first had some problems. When asked a question about 19th century British literature, the computer came up with the Pet Shop Boys – an English pop group – instead of Oliver Twist. But after much tweaking by its programmers, it eventually beat its human competitors.

The struggle between man and machine is nothing new. Back in the 15th century there were complaints that Gutenberg’s printing press would make monks lazy (part of their job was to copy manuscripts by hand). In 16th century England, William Lee presented his newly-invented knitting machine to Queen Elizabeth I in order to get a patent. She was so worried that hand-knitters would lose their jobs that she refused.

Half a millennium later, the world of work has changed drastically because of automation. Fritz Lang’s vision of workers slaving away in cavernous factories, as seen in Metropolis, has largely come true in developing countries. But has the world of education changed, too?

If you look at pictures of classrooms around the world over the last 150 years, the surprising thing is how little they have changed. There’s a teacher at the front with some kind of screen or board on which he or she writes. There are children in rows or clusters. Only in a few societies – notably in South Korea – has the paradigm occasionally been challenged by replacing the teacher.

In 2011, news came out of South Korea that the country was piloting a robot-teacher program for Elementary students. The robots, called Engkey, were controlled by remote teachers in the Philippines. The program helped to make up for the shortage of English teachers in the country, and while the robots were apparently motivating for the children, the idea was not to replace real teachers.


Engkey. Image from

The fact is, automatons – by which I mean robots and any form of artificial intelligence – are extraordinarily good at some tasks and extraordinarily bad at others. When the parameters of the task are limited, such as knowing the finite possibilities of a chess match or doing calculus, automatons are brilliant. (In 1997, IBM’s machine, Deep Blue, beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who promptly accused IBM of cheating.) But other simple-sounding tasks are beyond them. While trying to build robots to do housework, inventors realized the biggest problem was teaching the robots to walk. In fact, most household chores are tricky for robots. In 2010, a team of UC Berkeley researchers built a robot that could fold towels. Unfortunately, each towel took 24 minutes to fold – fine if you have all week to do the laundry.

Ask any educator if robots will ever replace teachers and they’ll say no. Teachers have multiple roles: guides, mentors, facilitators. They do the soft skills – motivating students, explaining nuances of language, and building rapport – that machines can’t do. Most importantly, robots can’t inspire us.

Tucker Balch, associate professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says, “I don’t think a robot will ever be better than a person. Teaching is probably the most challenging role for artificial intelligence. It is a creative role and to teach well you really have to understand the person you’re teaching.”

Similarly, Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera, identifies three reasons why human teachers are essential: creating content, answering tough questions and providing inspiration.

Replacement of human teachers, then, seems unlikely. Having said that, what teacher wouldn’t appreciate a robot to help with the menial tasks machines excel in – checking attendance, grading homework, cleaning the board? Or perhaps our model should be a movie robot, but not the one from Metropolis, which ended up getting burned at the stake. In Star Wars, C-3P0 was designed by Anakin Skywalker as a translation machine, “fluent in over six million forms of communication.” Now that might be useful in a language classroom.

Translanguaging: q&a

The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel










The concept of translanguaging was mentioned at a friend’s Ph.D dissertation defense the other day. Here’s some information about it.


Q: What an ugly word. Was it really necessary to turn language into a verb?

A: Not really. But you know what English is like: infinitely flexible.


What is translanguaging?

The phenomenon of people using more than one language in conversation, adding phrases from their other languages.


Isn’t that code-switching?

Kind of. Some people use the terms interchangeably. But there are differences.


What are the differences?

Code switching is a part of translanguaging, but translanguaging goes further. It is used naturally by students to help one another understand concepts and to make meaning. Translanguaging also involves deliberate pedagogical strategies to get students using all of their languages, their whole linguistic repertoire.



Why do that?

It strengthens both languages. And it values and affirms the first language instead of demoting it to a secondary status, behind English.


Where did the idea come from?

From a Welsh teacher/scholar called Cen Williams. He devised a special methodology to make sure Welsh children developed their Welsh language skills as well as English. The input would be in one language and the output in the other. For example, his students read a text in Welsh and wrote about it in English.


What’s the premise behind translanguaging?

Bilinguals don’t have a separate L1 and L2; they have a fluid linguistic repertoire. One’s language identity is dynamic. At different times of life, your L1 may become weaker than your L2. There’s a continuum of bilingualism that defies the categories we place people into: ‘monolingual,’ ‘bilingual,’ ‘English Language Learner.’


But why call it translanguaging?

What we’re doing here is seeing language as action – as something we do – which is why it becomes a verb, rather than a series of discrete structures to be learned in linear fashion. The prefix trans means move across. Bilinguals and language students are ‘moving across languages.’


Who ‘does’ translanguaging?

Everyone who uses more than one language in their daily life. In fact, a majority of the world’s population uses more than one language for work or social purposes. They move back and forth in their different languages. Watch these videos:




Isn’t code-switching employed when people don’t know enough vocabulary in their second language?
It’s not only a lack of vocabulary that prompts code-switching. When people code-switch, they do so systematically and for many purposes. For example: emphasizing a point; establishing membership of a multilingual community; expressing a concept that has no equivalent in the other language or is better expressed in one language.


Can you give me an example of a concept that has no equivalent in the other language?  

Sure. I’ll give you three. The German word Schadenfreude refers to pleasure at witnessing another person’s misfortune. Wabi-sabi describes a Japanese worldview based on acceptance that nothing lasts forever and nothing is perfect. The Portuguese word saudades implies a feeling of longing that goes beyond missing something or someone. None of these words has a direct English translation.


Can you give an example of a concept that is better expressed in one language than another?

Sometimes it’s just a practical consideration. The Spanish word consuegra means your son-in-law’s mother. It’s far easier to say consuegra than the whole phrase in English.


Why might teachers introduce translanguaging to their classrooms?

If, say, a new student enters your classroom with a very low level of English, you want to involve that student and not leave them in a corner doing nothing. Finding ways to use their first language can help. It’s about adapting instruction to include everyone. Translanguaging also helps to raise metalinguistic awareness (knowledge of how language works) and highlights cross-linguistic similarities. The idea is to use all the linguistic resources possessed by the students.











How can translanguaging be practiced in a bilingual classroom?

Lots of ways. The teacher uses systematic methods to combine languages. Read a text in one language and write about it in another. Listen to a text in one language and discuss questions in another. There’s a school in the U.S. that puts on an end-of-term theater production using the different languages spoken by the students.


Any other examples?

A teacher called Camilla Leyba has a Rap Monday. She plays rap songs in English and Spanish and gets the students to translate the lyrics both ways using Google Translate, ipads, dictionaries, and any other resources they can find, including one another. Then they compare and contrast the songs. Later, they either write an essay or give a presentation in English, which they subsequently re-do in Spanish.


And if I want to find out more?

Look at the work of Dr.s Ofelia García and Li Wei. They’re the leading lights of translanguaging. Garcia has talks and articles on the web.


Thank you. You’ve been most helpful.

You’re welcome!

Citizen Science and The Maker Movement: New Ways in Education

Imagine a school in which the students built robots to help in the home; designed working models of wild habitats; used 3D printers to make prosthetic arms for war victims. Now that would be a real education, right?

In the current educational climate, which mixes a DIY ethic with social and ecological awareness, two phenomena are just beginning to impact learning environments: Citizen Science and the Maker Movement.

Citizen Science

Citizen Science

In the arena of science, there’s too much work to be done by too few scientists. For decades, experts have been delegating tasks to amateurs. Citizen Science is all about crowdsourced data collection. It involves enthusiastic amateurs going out and observing the natural world, using fit-for-purpose tools, and reporting their findings to a central database. The type of things they study include the weather, plant life, and animals. An example: every year, of the 19,000 species of animal newly named, amateurs are responsible for 60%.

The projects are as varied as nature itself. Eighth-grade schoolchildren observe the sky each morning and send their observations to NASA. A group of retirees goes on fossil hunts across dried-out ocean beds and logs their findings on a paleontology database. In the Congo, pygmies use specially designed smartphones (pictures instead of words) to gather data about poaching and deforestation.

Citizen Science is bound up with democracy and understanding the environments we live in. It may just help to make the world a better place.

The Maker Movement

Maker Movement

The Maker Movement is all about DIY. Groups get together in Maker Spaces or Fabrication Labs and just build stuff. Most of the ‘stuff’ is simple: nine-year-old Caine Munro’s game arcade made entirely of cardboard, or the marshmallow cannon that 14-year-old Joey Hudy demonstrated to President Obama in the White House.

But for a few privileged students, the building blocks are now 3-D printers, robotics hardware and microprocessors. At the annual Maker Faire in San Francisco, recent projects include a flight simulator based on Battlestar Galactica and a wheelchair-controlled DJ station.

In  mainstream schools, particularly on the west coast of the U.S.A., where teachers have brought the Maker Movement to their classrooms, it’s been observed that the projects bring together different academic disciplines: science, mathematics, art, and geography.

There’s even a variation called the Un-maker Movement. This involves taking things apart in order to find out how they work. Cassette recorders, old telephones, first generation computers – you name it, it can be sliced and diced.

Citizen Science, the Maker Movement and Language Learning

The type of education I’m talking about goes by a number of names: hands-on education, learning-by-doing, inquiry-based learning. But can it benefit language learners? And if so, how?

box kiteIn 1979, James B. Herbolich described a task-based lesson in which his engineering students at the University of Kuwait designed and made box kites. Using English only, they also wrote a manual on how to operate the kites. The idea of projects in language learning is that students become so engaged that they barely register that they’re using English as a medium of communication.

Citizen Science and The Maker Movement, quite apart from their potential to produce useful data and objects, have much the same promise. I see these as avenues that all teachers would do well to explore, to find out if making and observing stuff might just help their students become more engaged with the world and with what they’re learning.

Simple projects

bookThe projects don’t have to be complex. Some years ago my adult class of CAE students made a book of assorted writings and illustrations. They did almost all the work themselves, from design to editing to printing. As for the contents, each genre of the CAE exam was represented (essays, fiction, brochures, etc.). So they practised their writing, and at the end of the course they had a memento of their time at the school. I look back and realize that was my first Maker moment.

Since then I’ve seen colleagues working with students to script and film soap operas, interview community members about their town, put on English language plays, write museum guides, and document environmental changes beside a local river.

My advice? Start small and see where the journey takes you.

A Christmas wish list for English Language Teaching

Christmas blog post








I asked an assortment of teachers, teacher trainers, materials writers, methodology writers, bloggers, Directors of Studies, and school owners to make one Christmas wish for English Language Teaching, to be carried over into 2015. Here’s what they said:  


“My wish for 2015 is that a natural desire to measure every facet of language learning and its outcomes should be tempered by reminding ourselves that learning language is a deeply human activity; it is about communication and a good classroom should be a place of laughter and joy (as well as seriousness).”

Jeremy Harmer, lecturer, author


“My ELT New Year’s wish for 2015 is that the profession becomes more truly valued both by schools, who should recognize and reward the dedication and professionalism of their teachers, and by the big corporations who should recognize and reward the expertise and creativity of their authors and that in the rush to digital, the knowledge and experience of the last 50 years in ELT should be valued and not be lost in a return to audio-lingual behaviourist teaching methodology.”

Jill Hadfield, lecturer, author


“My Christmas wish is for constant dialogue and not inconsistent decisions to be what shapes education. For pupils to have a voice, for teachers to speak their intuitions, for parents to feel like they’re a more than spectators of the schooling system.”

Divya Madhavan, lecturer


“My wish for 2015 would be for more open dialogue within the ELT community, especially on topics such as EdTech and the future of publishing. I worry sometimes that too many of these important conversations happen where they can’t be seen or joined by the wider teaching community.”

Nick Robinson, author, editor, agent


“My Christmas ELT wish is for institutions to stop focussing so exclusively on standardised curricula and measurable outcomes, so teachers have more freedom and flexibility to allow for learning which may be difficult to measure or interpret. I wish we would stop overemphasising the value of technology in education and underemphasising the value of genuine human interaction in the classroom and beyond. Oh, and I’d also ask for most teachers to be paid a little bit more and to work a few hours less.”

Antonia Clare, author


“Happy Christmas to all those that way inclined and all the best for 2015. Here’s hoping we see a year in which grandstanding rhetorical whizzes cease denigrating the incredible work of many everyday teachers; we move back towards language teachers being involved in discussions about basics like . . . um . . . language and teaching . . . and the all-powerful PPP paradigm finally does the decent thing and slinks off to die in a cave somewhere.”

Hugh Dellar, teacher trainer, author


“My Christmas wish is about publishers. I’d like to see a more measured, thoughtful and sensible approach to edtech and the future of educational publishing than what we have seen so far.”

Lindsay Clandfield, teacher trainer, author


“My wish for 2015 is to have fewer ELT extremes and more moderate views that allow us to be more open-minded about the positive aspects of so many, methods, approaches, styles and even fads. I hope for a more inclusive and holistic view of teaching and learning, one where we can draw from whatever can enhance learning and make it even more effective!”
Vicky Saumell, coordinator, author


“My Christmas wish for the ELT profession as a whole would be for it to be thought of again more as a profession and less as an industry. I’d love to work on books again, rather than products, and work with people who have a passion for educating and a love of the English language, rather than a need to create a certain volume of a product to go into the marketplace.”

Diane Hall, author


“What I’d like for Christmas would be for the Gates Foundation to apologise for all the damage they have done to education, both in the US and worldwide, and to donate (to, say, AFT) an equivalent amount to what they have already spent in their mission to privatize and digitalize a fundamental human right.”

Philip Kerr, teacher trainer, author


“In 2015 I hope we’re brave enough to take a close, hard, honest look at some of the dogmas that remain relatively unchallenged in our profession, such as the principled use of translation in monolingual classes.”

Luiz Otávio Barros, teacher trainer, author


“I’m particularly interested in the application of technology in the English language classroom. In 2015, I’d like to see less emphasis on technology per se, and more emphasis on how to use it appropriately and effectively to help students learn. That means asking (and answering) the question ‘How does this help my students learn/acquire English?’, rather than ‘How can I use this cool tool with my students?’. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the teaching (and learning).”

Nicky Hockly, Director of Pedagogy, author


“I’d like more academic rigour in the ELT profession. With the digitalization of knowledge everything tends to get dumbed down and anybody can become an expert. As buzzwords, terms like ‘personalization’, ‘visual literacy’ and ‘critical thinking’ get simplified and co-opted by people and companies with different agendas – at best they become hollow and lose any meaning. It would be great to see more input which tackled topics from well-researched angles such as Philip Kerr’s blog on adaptive learning.”

Ben Goldstein, lecturer, author


“I would like all teachers not to be afraid or feel bad about making mistakes. We should also continue to develop professionally and learn constantly. No matter how many years we have been in the profession, we are always learning and that is the beauty of it!”

Vicky Loras, teacher, school owner


“In 2015, I’d like to see ELT publishers return to really listening to teachers instead of telling them what they think they need.”

Allen Ascher, author


“I would like 2015 to be the year when we start to cut back on the seemingly-endless list of ‘responsibilities’ that English teachers are supposed to have. It would be nice to get back to some good old teaching English. Also, perhaps it will be the year when Russ Mayne convinces the profession that it should turn its back on pseudoscience.”

Jamie Keddie, teacher trainer, author


“I’d like to see more creativity inside the classroom from students and teachers, and also classrooms that are more inclusive where students have the opportunity to learn, share, play and live the school environment happily. So, wishing you all a wonderful 2015.”

Priscila Mateini, teacher, teacher trainer


“Please, Santa, could you persuade one of the leading publishers to commission a book from an  author with charisma and a delightful, lucidly argued, crystal clear and witty writing style with a carefully market researched title whose sub-title would be something like: “Why obsession with “grammar” is detrimental to the effectiveness of the joint enterprise of consenting learners and facilitators (teachers)  of English as a foreign/second/other language to become enjoyably and motivatingly proficient in the language for whatever reasons they need it.”

Dennis Newson, teacher trainer


My thanks to all the contributors, and a merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all followers of this blog and clients of Reallyenglish. See you in 2015.


Language and the brain: What Neuroscience Tells us about Second Language Learning

What is the brain?

The brain is a jungle. It’s a pulsating, breathing, evolving ecosystem that teems with life. It has stand-alone features – the equivalent of trees and rivers and swamps – but everything is connected to everything else.

It’s made up of cells called neurons. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, reckons these cells are “about as complicated as New York City.” And we have 10 billion of them. Their job is to make networks. Different regions of the brain are specialized: hearing, sight, bodily sensations, etc., but these regions work together to give us our multi-sensory experience of the world.

brain and language











How does the brain learn? Ask your PET CAT.

Thanks to technological developments of the last few decades, we know more than ever about how the brain learns. Various types of scan – MRI, PET and CAT – give us access to what’s happening at the molecular level. When we learn something new, the information is transmitted along a neural pathway until it is stored temporarily in short-term memory. If the brain believes the input to be important, the input gets processed to the neurons in the amygdala (responsible for memory, emotions, decision-making, etc.) and moves to an area in the brain where we store information more permanently rather than dismiss it. It’s the difference between the Save and Delete options on your computer.

When we need to apply what we know, our neurodevelopmental functions spring into action. These consist of attention, higher order cognition, memory, language, neuromotor functions, spatial ordering, temporal sequential ordering, and social cognition. They work like little gangs to achieve tasks, so one gang helps us learn to ride a bicycle, another to do advanced algebra, another to fry an egg.

From knowledge of how learning happens, we can infer how teaching should happen. Here are a few ideas:


The brain functions in many ways simultaneously: it picks up smells and sounds and sights, etc., and refers these to other smells and sounds and sights that it encountered previously. Thus we make connections. If we smell coffee, we may recall the taste of it, or visualize a field of coffee beans in the foothills of the Andes, or remember grandma brewing a pot in her kitchen. The strength of these connections is vital to learning.

coffee beans

What does this mean for teachers? We need to relate new information to previously learned information. We do this by using techniques for recapping: quick-writes, mini-quizzes, mind-maps, or revision games such as ‘backs to the board’ or ‘ask and tell.’

We also need to present information in multiple modes: images, movement and music, as well as words. The more sensory input that accompanies the new information, the better the chance of retaining it. Mel Levine, in A Mind at a Time, recommends changing a verbal task into a visual one and then changing a visual task into a kinesthetic one.


Judy Willis, in Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning, writes “Attention is a process of selecting the most relevant information from the mass of sensory input all around us.”

Naturally, we ignore most of the stimuli around us. The brain is hardwired only to pay attention to things that help us survive. The question, then, for teachers, is how to capture students’ attention. Socrates said that all learning begins with wonder, and sure enough, we find that novelty, surprise, humor, movement, drama, color and creative use of space can help. Laughter produces endorphins and dopamine, which stimulate the brain. Movement produces epinephrine (adrenalin).








Research into memory tells us it has many different components: short term, long-term, active working memory, storage, retrieval, explicit and implicit memory. We might believe we ‘know’ something even if we only deposited it into short-term memory. This is why we can study all night for an exam, remember everything we need, and forget it all within 24 hours.

The development of long-term memory in learning requires students to be engaged, to do something with the information: create, re-order, rank, re-design, extend, manipulate in some way so that the student takes ownership of it. It means educators must embrace active learning and set challenging tasks, because the brain that does the work is the brain that learns.

It also means students need to encounter new information several times. In language learning, estimates vary as to how many times we need to process a word in order to acquire it in long-term memory (see previous post on memory). But we do know that spaced repetition is essential. To use Michael Lewis’s analogy, exposure to target language has to recur like a bouncing ball – we need to see, hear or use the new language again and again and again.

bouncing ball





Left brain, right brain

Carl Jung once wrote, “In each of us there’s another whom we do not know.” According to Roger Sperry’s theory, the left side of the brain deals with logic, order and linear analytical skills. The right side is responsible for creativity, imagination and intuition. The two sides of the brain are actually more similar than commonly thought, but the implication is that teachers should try to involve both sides of the brain to enhance learning.

Various activities use both sides. For example, ask students to measure something in class with a part of the body (“this paper is six noses long”; “this book is three fingers wide”); “walk around the classroom and touch seven things that are the colors of the rainbow, then write them down in alphabetical order”; “ask a question and throw a ball to the person you wish to answer it.” In regular education, a great teacher might use music to teach mathematics or art to teach biology, or vice versa. In language classrooms we can use anything to teach anything.

left brain right brain


In 1988, Stephen Krashen introduced a theory about what he called “the Affective Filter.” The idea is that when students are under excessive stress, a mental blockage occurs which prevents them from learning. The theory proved correct. Ten years later, researchers found – through neuroimaging – a part of the amygdala that corresponds to the affective filter.

For educators, the theory means that an ideal learning environment avoids undue stress. How to achieve this? Through building rapport with students, pitching the content and tasks at the right level, promoting a positive atmosphere through encouragement and team-building, and by engaging in ongoing dialogue about how the students are improving.

In online learning, adaptive software can play a part in reducing stress. It tracks the student’s progress and guides them along a path customized for their own particular needs. This may prove beneficial to those students who are left behind or slowed down by the pace of the class.


We started with the metaphor of the brain as a jungle. It’s difficult to navigate your way through either, and our journey to understand the brain is only just beginning. As we learn more about how the brain processes, stores, and recalls information, we’ll learn more about how to enrich our students’ learning.