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The EFL Classroom: Teaching more than English

Teens in Classroom Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at some different ways the language learning experience can be enriched.

More and more, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is being taught in mainstream schools around the world. As part of a larger curriculum of general education, EFL teachers have an opportunity to focus on aspects of learning beyond grammar, vocabulary, and the traditional four skills. With the aim of enriching the language learning experience, I would like to focus on some of these aspects. For the experienced EFL teacher, these will not be new, but I hope that by focussing on them here, it will encourage teachers to give them more importance in their classrooms.

Encourage questions

This may seem obvious, but it is not always easy, especially when a lot of education leads many students to become passive recipients of information.

Before beginning a lesson or a unit of work on a topic, ask students what they already know about it. Make sure they do this individually first in order to get input from everyone. Have them share their knowledge. Then, tell them the next unit is on this topic. What do they want to know? Ask each student to write 1 or 2 questions. If you can, display the questions in the classroom. In this way you can refer to them as you work through the unit.

Encouraging questions from the very beginning tells your students that you expect them to be actively involved in the work of the class. Further, it tells them that what they are learning should be meaningful and useful to them. It is the best way to learn.

Bring their world into the classroom

Think about the lives of your students, at school, at home, their neighbourhood, city, country. Now think about what you will be teaching them during the term or the school year. How can you bring their world into the classroom? Let me give you a simple example. When teaching “can” for abilities, consider involving the physical education teacher. Students can do some of the activities in the physical education class, like jumping, running, throwing, etc. Once they have done the tasks, you can use the information in the English class as students express what they can do. This can be in the form of graphs or tables, individual or class posters. The important point is that students will be learning and using the language to communicate real information. The language they learn is not simply an end in itself, but a means to communicate.

Students can make a timeline of historical events to practice the past tenses based on work in their History lessons, explain the process of an experiment from the Science class, use skills from their Art classes to create displays of their work, as well as critical thinking skills from Maths classes to organise their language learning. The key is to involve other school subjects, and the teachers of those subjects, in the students’ language learning experience.

Once you have considered the school, move on to life outside school. How can you involve family and friends? One of my favourite activities with my students was when I was teaching “used to” to teenagers. I asked each student to talk to their grandparents and bring to class 2 – 3 things that were very different now from the time their grandparents were teenagers. I then would use the information to introduce the language point, “used to”. The students were so interested in the information that the language quickly became secondary, and easy to use.


I am a big fan of stories. Someone once told me that stories may have been the first form of education, as people communicated important information around the camp fire. I have little trouble believing this. There is something about the structure of stories that makes learning easier. For this reason, stories are a great medium for language use.

Stories are everywhere: what happened on a holiday is a story, how a student begins his day is a story, what happened on the way home is a story. We tell each other stories every day. The key is the structure – beginning, middle, and end. The story develops, leading us to the end. It is by nature interesting, otherwise we wouldn’t be telling it.

When considering the topics and language you will be teaching, think about how these can be included in a story. The story may provide the basis for the language you want students to learn, or it may be the vehicle for the topic of the unit. When stories become a part of your teaching, you will naturally begin to collect them. Don’t forget local stories, stories from your students, and traditional stories of the country you live in.

Sense of achievement

Too many times education focusses on what students don’t know. Rarely do we have the opportunity to show students how much they have learned. Just as students learn the present simple, we move on to the present continuous. Just as they grasp past simple with regular verbs, we introduce them to irregular verb forms. Education focusses on what students don’t know. So, giving students a sense of achievement based on how much they have learned is important to raise students’ self-esteem and confidence in their ability to learn more.

Brief, unit-based projects can offer students the opportunity to show what they have learned, as well as give many students a second chance to learn what they have forgotten. Encourage your students to see the project as a learning opportunity: What language are they using? What mistakes are they still making? What are their weaknesses? Their strengths? How could they improve? The aim is not simply to learn more, but also to get students used to reflecting on their learning. In this way short projects can help students become better learners.

These four points may seem obvious, but it is not always easy to make them an integral part of our classes. However, as they do become a part of your lessons, you will find your students becoming more active in their learning. You will also find that learning itself will have more meaning and become more rewarding.

Image is taken from Flickr under the Creative Commons license


#qskills – Why are questions a good way to stimulate language learners? (Part 2)

Clouds in the form of a question markIn the latest of our series of posts on English for Academic Purposes, Joe McVeigh, a teacher trainer and author from the U.S., continues to explore a question-based approach to teaching English and developing critical thinking skills.

As teachers, we use many different types of questions in the classroom. We ask students questions to see if they know the answer. A question like, “Can you answer number six, please?” is one example. “What does remote mean?” might be another. These are questions that we know the answer to already. They are used to quickly gauge comprehension and to make sure students are following along.

Compare this with another type of question, such as “What did you do this weekend?” In this case, the teacher, who is asking the question doesn’t know the answer. When the student answers, some real communication has taken place. Still, the question is not going to lead to a lot of conversation.

A third type of question is more likely to stimulate student learners. This is a question like, “Why does something become popular?”  This is a question without an easy answer—and chances are that the teacher doesn’t know the answer either. To answer this question will require not only good language skills, but the ability to think in English.

Helping students answer challenging questions

While some students might enjoy this type of question and dive right in, others may need some help from the teacher. Here are some tips on working with questions with your students.

Warm ups

Students will respond better when they have an opportunity to get warmed up. Rather than starting off with a challenging question, lead them up to it gently, by asking some easier questions. For instance, if the essential question you are looking at is Why does something become popular? you can start off with some easier questions such as: What are some popular trends today? or have students look around the room at the clothing they are wearing or think about the music they listen to and answer questions about how those things became popular.

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#qskills – Why are questions a good way to stimulate language learners?

Girl raising her hand to answer a questionAs part of our series of posts on English for Academic Purposes, Jennifer Bixby, a teacher and author in the U.S., examines a question-based approach to teaching English and developing critical thinking skills.

Let’s start by changing the topic to “why are thought-provoking questions a good way to stimulate language learners?”

English Language Learners are bombarded with questions in the classroom, but most of the questions are predictable. They are questions that either the teacher or the student already knows the answer to. “Where are you from? What’s happening in this photo? What’s the main idea of this paragraph?”

These types of questions are the building blocks for language learning, especially at the lower levels, but let’s admit it – they can be a bit tiresome for all involved. Why? Because they don’t push us to think very deeply.

Thought-provoking questions are an entirely different matter, and these are the questions that intrigue me. What can I ask that will make my students pause and think before answering? Is it a question that would also make me stop and think? Is it a question that doesn’t have an easy, yes or no answer?

Take, for example, the question “Is it ever OK to lie?” Now that is a question that we might initially answer with “No,” but think about it again. It’s not so simple, right? It begs for deeper thinking, and it can lead students to think more carefully. So this question passes my stop-and-think test.

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