Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Thursday, March 25, 2004

A Guide For Beginning Teachers

by AJ Hoge & Kristin Dodds

Jet-lagged and confused, I arrived at school early Monday morning- two days after landing in Korea. I was greeted by my Korean supervisor, who took my hand and led me to a small classroom. “This is your class”, she said and pointed to twelve wide-eyed kindergarten students. “Great!”, I said. The kids were adorable and I was enthusiastic. I had never taught before but I was excited about the adventure of living in Korea and teaching English. “So when do I start to actually teach?”, I asked. “Uh.... now. Class starts in five minutes.”, she said.

My smile disappeared. I began to panic. My eyes darted from child to child and my mind raced. “But, but... what do I do?”, I said. “No problem. You are a native speaker, just teach naturally”, was my supervisor’s response. She gave a quick nod and walked away. I turned back towards the children-- terrified.

Most untrained teachers are bewildered by the same questions I had at that moment: How, exactly, do you teach conversation “naturally”? Are there any organized techniques for teaching natural conversation, and if so, how do you learn them? All of this boils down to the most basic question of all: “What do I do?”

At that time, I had no idea. Like me, many new teachers are excited to live abroad. They imagine exotic locations, new food, interesting cultures, new friends, and great adventures. They are excited by moving to a new country. They are full of curiosity and enthusiasm, but like me, they have no idea how to do their job: teach “natural conversational English”. Most teachers get no help from administrators. Most administrators take the “sink or swim” approach I encountered in Korea. Many teachers sink, and become negative towards the country and the job.

Most program directors are surprised by the problems they have with teachers. New employees begin as positive, happy, cooperative people-- but in a few months they become angry, negative, and difficult. Problems between teachers and administrators grow more difficult every month. Teachers suffer. Administrators suffer. The students suffer.

This does not have to happen. With a bit of training, a little knowledge and a few resources, teachers do well. Over the past three decades, many techniques have been developed for teaching natural language. These techniques are well researched, easy to use, and popular with students. I call these approaches “effortless language approaches” because they require almost no effort from students, and are very easy for teachers to learn. These techniques have higher student satisfaction and retention rates than traditional methods.

Effortless language approaches are techniques for teaching conversational language. Effortless techniques completely eliminate the pattern drills, textbooks, dialogues, listen & repeat, and grammar-translation activities used in traditional classrooms.

Instead, these techniques use physical response, storytelling, relaxation methods, a silent period, and authentic materials to imitate natural language learning. These techniques are perfect for the program whose mission is to teach “natural language”.

Physical Response

The first important trait of effortless techniques is an emphasis on physical response. Dr. James Asher, of San Jose State University, is the pioneer of this technique, which he calls “Total Physical Response”(TPR). TPR helps students quickly and effortlessly acquire large chunks of language. Dr. Asher gives the following example, “Think of a small child’s first ‘conversation’ with a parent. For example, the parent is saying “Look at daddy. Look at daddy”. The infant’s face turns in the direction of the voice and daddy exclaims, “She’s looking at me! She’s looking at me!” We call this a “language-body conversation” because the parent speaks and the infant answers with a physical response such as looking, smiling, laughing, turning, walking, reaching, holding, sitting, and so forth. These “conversations” continue for many many months before a child utters anything more intelligible than “mommy” or “daddy”. Once the child has learned enough of the language, speaking appears spontaneously.”

TPR techniques imitate this early form of communication. Teachers start new students with extremely simple, one word commands such as “sit”, “stand”, “go”. The teacher first models the expected response, then directs students to follow- first as a group, then individually. Students progress much faster than infants, so the complexity of commands increases rapidly. At the end of a four month TPR program, basic level students will respond quickly to commands such as, “When I lift my left hand, pick up the red book, take it to the back of the room, put it under the desk in the left corner, wait five seconds, turn around twice and return to your seat”.

According to an extensive research, the power of TPR is in combining physical actions with verbal language. Like riding a bicycle, students who acquire vocabulary through TPR remember it for a long time. Studies show that TPR students remember vocabulary for a much longer time than students in traditional programs. “TPR is a tool that enables students to internalize (and remember) a huge volume of the target language with high-speed”, notes Dr. Asher, “it is superior to translation. Translation does not help most students because there is no long-term understanding. When students translate, there is short-term comprehension which is erased the moment the student leaves the classroom, if not sooner.”

One key to using TPR successfully is to never use it alone. TPR is a very powerful technique, but it is most effective when followed by games, songs, stories, or demonstrations.

Of course, students must eventually move beyond commands in order to master more complex language. TPR Storytelling (TPRS), developed by Blaine Ray, a language teacher in the California public school system, addresses this need. Like TPR, TPRSuses physical involvement. Teachers tell short stories to students, who act out the events as they are told. As the teacher tells the story, he directs students to play characters... and demonstrates the appropriate actions. The teacher also uses questions, drawings and props to help students understand the language. No translations are used. After a short time, students take the place of the teacher and tell their own stories.

Ray explains the advantages of using stories to teach language, “Stories are interesting- so interesting that students want to listen and understand just to know what is going on.... [and] since students care a lot about their own lives, we continually tell stories about them. Also, a story allows for the full range of language structures and vocabulary choice. A story may be told in any tense and from various points of view.”

Another approach to storytelling is used at the AUA Language School in Bangkok, Thailand. David Long, Director of AUA’s Thai Department, prefers the term “happening” to “story”, A “happening” is a natural and meaningful language experience. It could be a story or a demonstration. Andrew Cohen, a student at AUA, explains, “A typical ‘language lesson’ at AUA might be making a Thai dessert or learning to cut hair. We aren’t memorizing artificial sentences or dialogues. AUA involves you in experiential learning, so the language you get is meaningful and memorable. The teacher gives an interesting demonstration and narrates what they are doing. They point out the important actions, give directions, ask questions, and answer questions from the class. The focus is always on meaning, not on memorizing rules.”

In this situation, the language is learned unconsciously-- which is exactly what happens with small children. “The ideal class”, according to David Long,, “is one in which the student is so interested and absorbed in what’s going on that they completely forget that the class is being conducted in another language.”


Researchers agree that anxiety and stress prevent students from learning a language quickly. Dr. Stephen Krashen notes that anxiety acts as a filter- it blocks language input. Anxious students are distracted, tense, and timid. They are scared of making mistakes and are scared of participation. Many traditional techniques increase student anxiety. Calling on students individually or correcting errors directly does more harm than good.

A technique called Suggestopedia was developed by Dr. Georgi Lazanov to address the problem of anxiety. Suggestopedia uses art, music, and lighting to create a relaxing and interesting classroom environment. Teachers play soothing classical music (at a low volume) during the class. They decorate their rooms with colorful artwork. They paint their walls with bright colors and use soft lighting instead of flourescent lights. Classes usually begin with a brief relaxation exercise. For example, the teacher might dim the lights, play classical music, and read a mini-story while students close their eyes and relax.

Soothing music, pleasant lighting, and colorful artwork relaxes students. In this relaxed state, they learn and remember language more easily. Relaxed students also enjoy class more and are more likely to return. It is important for teachers and administrators to pay careful atttention to creating a relaxing and visually interesting environment.

Listen First and The Silent Period

Perhaps the biggest difference between traditional programs and effortless programs is the “silent period”. “The silent period” refers to the first year of a baby’s life, when it is listening, understanding, and physically responding to language, but is not speaking. All effortless language programs use a silent period, which varies from a 10 hours in some programs to hundreds in others. More important than a specific number of hours is the idea of letting students speak when they feel comfortable. Dr. Ashley Hastings, a leading developer of Intensive English Programs in the United States, says a “listen first” approach is best, “We do not require students to perform when they are not ready and willing to do so. Speaking is always voluntary; hence, it is genuine speaking, in contrast to the embarrassed, strained output that passes for speaking in some methods. We never make our students feel awkward or self-conscious by putting them on the spot.”

During the silent period, students listen and respond to teachers, but they do not need to speak the target language. The mystery, according to AUA’s Long, is that practising speech does not necessarily improve speaking, “All of the evidence we have gathered during the past several decades shows that those students who remain silent, refusing to ‘force speaking’, excel, whereas those students who force it set limits on their ability to learn and use the language.” Long speaks from experience, as he was one of AUA’s first students. He is now fluent in Thai and loves the technique.

AUA’s very long silent period is unique-- but not practical for most programs. However, a listen first approach is excellent advice for most programs. My worst mistake in Korea was trying to force students to speak. This made them very nervous and increased their shyness. It is much better to let students speak when they are ready and willing. For small children this is not a problem! Older children, teens, and adults, however, are are often terrified of making a mistake. By using a listen first approach, you ease their anxiety and let them speak when they feel comfortable. Eventually they will relax. The important thing to remember is: if they are comprehending- they are learning.

Authentic Materials

The emphasis on “real-life” includes the materials used in effortless language approaches. These techniques do not use the textbooks, dictionaries, and workbooks used in most schools, instead they use “authentic materials”. Dr. Hastings explains that, “We do not use exercises, drills, or any kind of artificial task that has no purpose other than language practice. What do we mean by ‘authentic materials’? We mean materials that were created for the use and enjoyment of people who are not studying a foreign language. A movie such as Shakespeare in Love is authentic. A newspaper such as USA Today is authentic.”

Dr. Hastings likes to use movies, and has developed a technique called the “Focal Skills Movie Technique”. “It uses authentic movies to bring a huge variety of meaning into the class. By narrating at the appropriate level of complexity, the teacher creates a rich stream of language that is directly related to what the students are seeing and hearing.” The Focal Skills Movie Technique is now used in Intensive English Programs at both the University of Wisconsin and the University of Dallas. It works as follows:

Teachers show a videotape of a popular movie. It is shown scene by scene. First the teacher plays the scene at normal speed. Next, he rewinds and plays it again. This time the volume is turned down while the teacher narrates the action, using language that is at the students’ level. For low level students, the teacher might only point to objects and actions on the screen and and say the word(s) for them. At advanced levels, the teacher might talk about plot elements, foreshadowing, motives, and cinematic techniques. Whatever the level, the instructor pauses each scene often to point things out, paraphrase what is going on, ask questions, and let students respond. The scene is then rewound and played a third time at normal speed. Using this technique, a typical movie takes about ten hours to watch.

Both universities are getting excellent results with the Movie Technique. Research shows that students in Focal Skills classes learn English faster than students in traditional Intensive English Programs, as measured by improvements on TOEFL scores. Dr. Hastings says that “a number of studies have found that Focal Skills students gain about 35% more English ability in a semester than other English students.” The movie technique is a great technique for teachers. It is easy to use and is adaptable to any age or skill level. Cartoons and children’s movies are useful for young learners, while adult students will enjoy a variety of action films, romances, dramas, and comedies.

The keys to using the technique successfully are: a) choose movies with clear action and simple plots (advanced students may be able to handle more complex themes), b) Narrate every scene at the students’ level. Pause often, rewind, and point to what you are talking about, c) Keep the scenes short, no more than ninety seconds per scene, d) Ask questions and respond to questions. Involve the students.

Of course, movies are not the only authentic material. Children’s books and comic books are also excellent tools for teaching beginning readers, whatever their age. These materials are more interesting than textbooks and are very easy to find. I have used Dr. Suess books with adults of all ages and they love them! At higher levels, comic books, teen romances, and newspapers all provide natural reading material that is very interesting. Teachers can also use a version of the movie technique with comic books and picture books by asking questions and talking about the pictures.

A Little Goes A Long Way

How do you get started with an Effortless Language program? First, investigate the resources and links in this article. Read the information on the websites to get an idea of what is available. Next, invest a little money. I recommend the books Learning Another Language Through Action by James Asher, TPR In the First Year by Francis Cabello, and Fluency Through TPR Storytelling by Blaine Ray, to start. These books teach the basic steps in the techniques. Also consider the Look I Can Talk Series by Blaine Ray (for adults) or the TPR Storytelling for English Series (for kids) by Todd McKay if your school does not have a full curriculum. Be honest about your curriculum. A monthly theme and a few coloring books is not a curriculum. If you have the money, there are many more books available on the websites.

In addition to these books, collect authentic materials. Useful items include movies on tape or DVD, newspaper subscriptions (such as USA Today), Children’s books, comic books, children and teen romance books, the Goosebumps books, hobby books, props, and souvenirs. I once used baseball cards as props for a class on the Major League playoffs. The class was a huge success and lasted an entire week.

Overwhelmed teachers are no fun. They are drained by the demands of teaching. They are too tired and too angry to enjoy their new country. These teachers burnout and cause a lot of trouble for administrators. They break their contracts. They argue and complain. They are negative and unhappy. For many examples, read the teachers’ forums on Dave’s ESL Cafe (www.daveseslcafe.com). These are filled with miserable teachers who hate their jobs and hate the countries they live in.

On the other hand, a trained, knowledgeable, and happy teacher makes everyone happy. When teaching is fun and effective, teachers enjoy their jobs and their new country. They are more positive. The are more helpful. They make the administrator’s job easier.

A little training, a little preparation and a few resources will help everyone: teachers, administrators, and students.

Benefits of Effortless Language Programs

* Students learn vocabulary & grammar faster and remember it longer.
* Average TOEFL score improvements are 35% higher than with traditional programs.
* Higher student retention. Students like the techniques more and stay in the program longer.
* Lower stress and anxiety.
* More fun and interesting.
* Easy (for teachers) to learn the techniques.
* More effective than traditional programs and less work for students.
* Inexpensive: No expensive textbooks, workbooks, or tapes.
* Supported by academic research (peer-reviewed, non-commercial).

Recommended Resources:

Learning Another Language Through Actions
by James Asher
This classic book explains TPR techniques in detail. Includes over one hundred TPR lessons.

Instructor’s Notebook: How To Apply TPR For Best Results
by Ramiro Garcia
Another excellent book on the nuts and bolts of using TPR in the classroom.

TPR In The First Year
by Francis Cabello
A collection of lesson plans. An excellent resource that saves a lot of time.

Fluency Through TPR Storytelling
by Blaine Ray & Contee Seely
The best teachers’ guide to using TPR Storytelling. Explains, step by step, how to use TPR Storytelling to teach natural conversational language.

The Look I Can Talk Series:
by Blaine Ray
The Look I Can Talk books provide a complete curriculum of TPRS stories and mini-stories for High School and adult age students. These are an excellent resource for teachers who do not have the time or inclination to develop their own stories. These books do NOT teach the TPRS technique itself, so Fluency Through TPR Storytelling is necessary is also necessary.

Look I Can Talk! (Level One)
& Mini-Stories for Look I Can Talk

Look I Can Talk More (Level Two)
& Mini-Stories for Look I Can Talk More

Look I’m Still Talking! (Level Three)
& Mini-stories for Look I’m Still Talking

TPR Storytelling for English Series:
by Todd McKay
This is a TPRS curriculum similar to Look I Can Talk, but for elementary and middle-school children.

Teacher’s Guidebook
Student Book Year 1
Student Book Year 2
Student Book Year 3

Teaching English Through Actions
by Berty Segal
A TPR lesson plan book for use with kindergarten.


Includes articles on TPR and an extensive catalogue of TPR books and games.

TPR Storytelling:
Order TPR Storytelling materials on Blaine Ray’s web site, or on the TPR-World web site.

AUA’s Automatic Language Growth:
Good explanation of the silent period and language acquisition theory.

Focal Skills Techniques:
Contains information about the Focal Skills Movie Technique and the use of authentic materials

Amazon ships internationally. All of the books recommended in this article can be found at Amazon.

SD Krashen
Krashen is the leading expert on natural language acquisition research and theory. This site gives good background information, but does not provide detailed information about specific teaching techniques.

Dave’s ESL Cafe
Tons of information for TESOL: jobs, forums, lesson plans, ect. Read the teachers’ forums to see just how miserable life can be when unprepared and overworked!