Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Active learning: strategies and techniques

Active learning is a learner-centred process that focuses on how students learn, helping learners develop their autonomy and their ability to learn and giving them greater involvement and control over their learning. Students are encouraged to ‘think hard’, rather than passively receive information from the teacher.


How can I use it?

·        Think about skills as well as subject content.

·        Different learning outcomes need different types of task. Think about what your students particularly need to help them to achieve.

·        Ask open ended questions.

·        Make sure that all students are involved in a discussion.

·        Choose students to answer, rather than inviting them to raise their hands.

·        Give everyone more time to think about what they want to say before they answer

·        Create a positive classroom environment where it is safe to take intellectual risks.

·        Build in assessment tasks so you can check your students’ learning.


One of the main challenges with active learning is controlling the pace of the classroom. Every student in a classroom is different, and active learning activities must be differentiated thoughtfully so that each student can proceed through material at their own pace. In addition to this, active learning should provide the right amount of stimulation to keep students engaged without distracting them from the intent of the lesson.


Keeping learners actively involved in the learning process is another big challenge that teachers face and traditional teaching methods seldom help achieve that. Therefore, it is necessary to look for alternative approaches, such as active learning. Active learning aims to actively engage learners with the learning through a variety of activities such as discussions, think-pair-share, problem solving and role play, among others.

The benefits of using this approach include:

  • it helps to promote higher-order thinking skills
  • it engages learners in deep learning – detecting patterns, applying knowledge and skills to new contexts or in creative ways, and developing critical thinking
  • it helps learners to transfer knowledge better
  • it increases motivation.
  • it improves interpersonal communication.


 Strategies and techniques

Active learning works best with clear objectives. These will help you construct and facilitate activities that allow students to achieve mastery and learn how to participate in groups and in their own learning. 

Choose meaningful activities. At the planning stage, ask yourself:

    1. What is the most important thing my class should learn from the lesson/activity?
    2. What misconceptions or difficulties do they usually have (or could have)?
    3. What kind of practice will help learners prepare for the next / more advanced stage?

    Choose meaningful questions that will:

a.      Challenge learners to elaborate and provide explanations, reasons or evidence, e.g. What makes you say that? Can you give us an example? What do you mean by that?

b.      Discover alternative points of view, e.g. Can anyone give another / an alternative explanation? Can anyone add to this? Is there another way of doing/explaining this?

c.       Challenge learners’ assumptions, e.g. Is this always the case? Does this always happen in this way?

d.      Explore consequences, e.g. What would happen if …?

     Invite the class to respond by providing alternative solutions or viewpoints.

    Create an open dialogue in which students take on the role of the teacher and generate their own questions about a topic, reading section, or lesson.

    Encourage students to develop active listening skills by quizzing one another, sharing their thoughts, and taking notes.

    Keep activities short and meaningful.

    After learners have worked in pairs or groups, provide a conclusion to the activity.

    Give clear instructions and share the aims of the lesson/activity with the class.

    Ask one or more students to play the devil’s advocate and take the opposing side of a predominant argument or point of view being discussed during a lesson.

    When students have a text to read, guide them through it with active learning strategies, e.g.

a.      A scrambled list of events to put in order.

b.      A list of statements for students to agree or disagree with.

c.       A list of people and places to match with information about them.

d.      A cause-and-effect chart.

e.      A set of questions that they will answer as they read the text. Discuss the questions before they read to see what information they already have. Help them see how the questions are aligned with the text and how they should answer them.

f.      A checklist of the key points to watch for so that they can check them off as they find them while reading.

Reading resolutions for kids

 From the Scholastic webpage https://www.scholastic.com/parents/kids-activities-and-printables/printables/reading-worksheets/reading-resolutions-2016.html 

But reading isn't something that kids develop a taste for just out of the blue. A love for reading starts at home. As a parent, show your love of reading, read aloud to your children and encourage older siblings to do so too. It will show them that reading is a pleasure not a chore. 

Children who like reading and are supported as readers, develop strong reading skills. At school, take them to the school library or build a class library and let them choose what to read. Try to find some 'unstructured' class time, 15 minutes once a week for example, so that they can explore the library and read what they want. Before reading a book, have learners do a picture walk through the book and make predictions based on the title and the illustrations. 

Then, they can take the book home and finish reading it. Explain that it's OK to not finish a book if they don't like it. You also do that from time to time!

Talk frequently during the week or on the appointed 'reading day' about what’s happening in the book, try to encourage your reader to make connections to the text, and discuss the ending or encourage them to create a new one together if they're not happy with the current ending. You could also consider creating a reading response journal with open-ended sentence stems or questions for your students to complete after reading a book. This could be done in the form of blogposts that the class can read afterwards. Learners who have read the same book can then write their comments. 

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

A poem by Brian Bilston to say goodbye to 2020 once and for all!


You can learn more about Brian Bilston here https://brianbilston.com/about-brian-bilston/  

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Should we allow students to use L1 in an English class? - Part II

As a result of sharing the link to yesterday’s blogpost ‘Should we allow students to use L1 in an English class?’ on Facebook, a very enriching and thought-provoking conversation ensued, which you can read here.  Thank you, Dr Nayr Ibrahim, Phil Dexter and Peter Hasler for your kind permission to reproduce it. I hope readers will find it useful and thought-provoking. Comments are welcome.


Stephen Peter Hasler: If the teacher is up to it and the students have the same L1 on occasions it can be a huge time-saver and far more efficient than other strategies.

Annie Altamirano: Of course! It is a great resource if used judiciously. 

Phil Dexter: It’s a complex issue but definitely yes, in my view, used in positive ways that support learning. I believe it’s about more than translation. It’s about promoting conceptual thinking strategies which is, most obviously, likely to be best processed through your strongest language.

Implications here also for materials. Giving learners the authority to use language of choice, where that is appropriate, is also an issue of inclusive practises. Therefore, all language classes are multi-lingual, in some ways, whatever language learners/teachers share.

Annie Altamirano: Phil, I totally agree.

Nayr Correia Ibrahim: Interesting blog, Annie, and interesting comments, Phil. It very often depends on how confident teachers feel in managing the linguistic reality / diversity of their classrooms and their beliefs in what is the best way to teach a language. This is still very much based on the Direct Method, where everything happened in the TL and the learners’ languages are completely excluded, which was wholehearted supported by Berlitz at the beginning of the 20th century.

I think there are benefits of immersing children in a monolingual English context, but our English classrooms are artificial monolingual contexts and it very much depends on the willingness of our students to play the game. Approaching our language classrooms from a multilingual perspective, where languages are used, accepted and managed is not only inclusive, but will aid language learning by using all of the learners’ linguistic resources, when needed.

Also, learners don’t want to learn a new language through their ‘L1’ but they also don’t want it completely banned from the classroom. This brings me to the next point: I wonder if ‘using the L1’ is the right term as very often our students speak multiple languages, and their ‘L1’ or ‘L1s’ are not the same as the language of schooling or of the context they are living in. Yes, terminology is a conundrum! 😅

Annie Altamirano: Thank you, Nayr. You rightly say '... how confident teachers feel in managing the linguistic reality / diversity of their classrooms and their beliefs in what is the best way to teach a language'. In my experience, this largely depends on how they have been trained. When I was at teacher training college (the 70's) it was anathema to use Spanish in class. I was already doing some teaching and I quickly realised how misguided that was but, of course, I wouldn't dare contradict my teachers! At least, not until I attended a workshop by someone who was an authority at the time (can't remember the name) and I asked him. His reply was a combination of the comments made here. As for 'using the L1', I see and share your point. What would be more appropriate, in your opinion?

Phil Dexter: Annie Altamirano I think what you say is really the point. You were given/learnt the current ‘thinking/theory’ at the time then your actual experience contradicted that. There is definitely a ‘paradigm shift’ in how learning happens - if not entirely new- and actually it’s all about what is best in promoting positive learning. As with everything it’s not either/or.....much more about different options in what works best....  Good points Nayr

Annie Altamirano: Phil Dexter absolutely!

Nayr Correia Ibrahim: Annie, absolutely- it depends on training! You mention the 70’s...well we’re on the 21st century and training in multilingualism is still not happening!

Teachers are multilingual themselves, they have multilingual children or learners in the classroom, yet they still don’t know how to manage this amazing linguistic resource, because their education does not include understanding multilingualism and using plurilingual practices. I’ve introduced a multilingual approach, which I call, an ‘English + approach into my courses so the student teachers can see and experience what they can do with children’s languages. I hope this will make a difference to their future teaching

As for the terminology...I think it’s a matter of being specific. Gail [Ellis] and I use ‘shared classroom language in Teaching Children How to Learn (2015); the ECML /EU uses ‘language is schooling’; Hall and Cook (2013) use ‘own languages’; I use ‘children’s languages’ to designate any language they may have, which could include the language of the country or region they are living in.

Annie Altamirano: As a writer of teacher resource books, I always try to introduce opportunities for teachers to use their learners' language as a resource. Fortunately, my publisher is on the same wavelegth. I think as materials writers, we also have a responsibility here.

Nayr Correia Ibrahim: Annie,  you’ve just mentioned another issue with using children’s languages or cultures - it is very rare in published material. It’s really refreshing to hear that you can do it and your publisher is on board with the idea

Annie Altamirano: Yes, they even defended the idea when an external body objected! And I also encourage teachers to bring the children's cultures in and compare languages and features. It's so enriching! And if you have an international class, even better!



Dr Nayr Ibrahim is an experienced teacher educator and researcher in ELT and multilingualism. She is Associate Professor of English Subject Pedagogy at Nord University, Norway and previously, worked as Head of Young Learners and Bilingual Education for British Council in France. Nayr holds a PhD in trilingualism, triliteracy and identity from the University of Reading. Her publication, Teaching children how to learn, Delta Publishing, with Gail Ellis, won an award at the 2016 ESU English Language Awards in the category, Resources for Teachers. She has contributed to a project on the EU’s policy on multilingualism. She is currently working on ethical considerations and creative methodologies in researching multilingual children and giving children a voice in the language classroom.

Phil Dexter is former Senior Consultant at British Council for teacher development and inclusive education. Accredited equality, diversity and inclusion facilitator, he advocates for neurodiversity in education and the workplace. He was given an MBE for services to special educational needs and equality, diversity and inclusion.

Stephen Peter Hasler is a translator and editor and Cambridge Assessment English presenter. 


Gail Ellis, Nayr Ibrahim, Teaching children how to learn, Delta Publishing, (2015) ISBN 9783125013629

G. Hall, G. Cook, Own-language use in ELT: exploring global practices and attitudes, British Council Research Papers, (2013) Free download from the British council website: https://tinyurl.com/ya7mdqrf

European Centre for Modern Languages of the Council of Europe  https://www.ecml.at/

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Should we allow students to use L1 in an English class?

For the most part, English language teaching takes place in classrooms where learners and
teachers share the same L1. In these contexts, the L1 is often banned because an all-English-speaking environment actively encourages communication in English. L1 can also easily take over if not restricted.

Learners usually use L1 for the following reasons:

- they are afraid to experiment with the L2 /FL (the new language being learned), which is natural. That is usually because they are afraid of failure and appearing as though they are not capable. In some cultures, ‘saving face’ can have a tremendous effect on a learner's willingness to make a mistake;

- they are lost, do not understand you, and are not able to follow along with the lesson. Learners might then turn to their peers and ask them to explain in L1 what the teacher is saying or how to do a particular activity. This is an instance where, especially at lower levels, L1 can be used as a crutch to help build vital bridges, linking what learners already know in L1 to new information in L2;

- they are using L1 to perform comprehension checks. Similar to point number 2, there will be learners who use L1 for further clarity, but only for the sake of performing comprehension checks with others.


Advantages of using L1

When learning another language, translation is a natural phenomenon. Research has shown that switching between languages and translation happens instinctively to all language learners and the L1 is actually an important resource in the second language (L2) learning (Cook, 2001; Woodall, 2002).  For these reasons, teachers should try to work with this innate tendency rather than against it.

What is more, when the students’ L1 was not allowed and there were punishments for using the mother tongue, Goldstein (2003) found that students simply did not speak, used their L1 quietly and felt a sense of shame when they were punished for using their own language.

L1 can be used to provide a quick and accurate translation of an English word that might take several minutes for the teacher to explain, and even then there would be no guarantee that the explanation has been understood correctly.

With younger learners at beginner level, it is also particularly effective to use L1 to check instructions, to ensure that concepts have been understood correctly and for general classroom management (for example, to establish the general ‘rules’ for the class at the beginning of the course). Lengthy and complicated explanations beforehand can increase teacher talking time. It can also detract from the purpose, namely building accuracy and fluency.

The teacher can sometimes use the L1 to help learners provide sentences beyond their ability. Learners say a sentence in their native tongue, which the teacher translates for future use and/or reference. This proves especially beneficial with incidental language.


Disadvantages of using L1

However, a word of caution is in place here. Allowing too much use of L1 in class could lead to an excessive dependency on the students’ mother tongue (Harbord, 1992) by both teachers and students. As a result, students lose confidence in their ability to communicate in English, which can significantly reduce students’ opportunities to practice English. Students fail to realize that using English in classroom activities is essential to improve their language skills and they may end up using their mother tongue even when they are perfectly capable of expressing the same idea in English.


Strike a balance

Make principled use of the L1 in the classroom without feeling guilty about doing so, while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that are often associated with its use.

Encourage learners to draw on their knowledge of their L1 and English to develop language learning strategies, e.g. by asking learners to make comparisons between the two languages.

When looking at a phrase in context that has a particular register or degree of formality, ask learners for an equivalent in their L1 and open up discussions about appropriacy and register.

All bilinguals are aware of words and phrases that are easily mistranslated and produce funny consequences. Highlight some of these instances and encourage learners to play with the language. This will encourage creativity and heightened language awareness.



Cook, V.  (2001).  Using the First Language in the Classroom.  Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(3), 404-423.

Goldstein, T.  (2003).  Teaching and Learning in a Multilingual School.  New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Harbord, J.  (1992).  The Use of the Mother Tongue in the Classroom.  ELT Journal, 46, 350-55.

Woodall, B. R.  (2002).  Language-Switching: Using the First Language While Writing in a Second Language.  Journal of Second Language Writing, 11, 7-28.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020