Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Homemade Materials Issue – Barb

Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!   – Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Course Director

Turns out, the same principles that are good for Mother Earth are also an excellent way to teach.  I don’t mean simply giving milk cartons, bottle caps, or plastic bottles a new life as classroom resources, although anything that keeps items out of landfills has got to be a good thing. I mean that we should apply these three principles to all that we do in class.

Reduce the amount of new language in lessons

Reuse language, games and activities

Recycle familiar language with new


Reduce! It isn’t how much you teach, it’s how much students can do with the language they learn.

In workshops, I often meet teachers who are pressured by administrators (who are pressured by parents) to teach as much as possible in each class, to move as quickly as possible through each coursebook. The classes in which I see students making the greatest progress are those in which the teachers introduce relatively little new language in each class, recycle previously learned language in order to introduce the new, and then spend the majority of class time reusing both new and familiar language in new contexts.

There are certainly times when you will choose to throw students into the deep end of the language pool – when asking them to work at understanding the gist of a listening or reading task, for example. But, it should be a choice that works toward your lesson goals, not the standard approach. If you need to spend most of your class explaining the language on your coursebook page, then students are unlikely to remember much for the next class, and you end up teaching the same things over, and over, and over again without much feeling of progress.


Reuse! Once students have learned something, you can re-use without having to re-teach

Once students have learned new language, they ought to be able to use it (although they may need to be reminded that they do already know the language). The increases the amount of time available for practice, and learners, especially young learners, need to use language repeatedly, in new contexts, in order to really “own” it. The same is true of activities. If you repurpose a game students are already familiar with, your students can spend more time playing with language and less time learning the rules.

My students enjoy a game with cubes made out of recycled milk cartons. They first learn to play in kindergarten, and because the game becomes more sophisticated as their language grows, it continues to be a favorite throughout elementary and even secondary school. We begin with three cubes for phonics practice, with all six vowels and 12 consonants of their choosing. A turn consists of three chances to toss the cubes, the goal being to form a word. After each toss, students can keep any of the letters rolled, so if they’ve rolled an A and a T, for example, they might keep those letters and roll the final cube, hoping for a B, C, or H. If students make a word they get a point. If they haven’t made a word after three tosses, the next student takes a turn.

When students begin working on word order in sentences, and collocations with verbs, vowels are replaced with verbs, and students now have three tosses to form a sentence. Laughing at sentences like I am cake (and not accepting them as point worthy sentences) means that students are deepening their understanding of language and how it works.

When students are ready for longer, more complicated sentences, we increase the number of cubes to five and work with a mix of nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and the conjunction and. Students make a list of words that fit each of these categories (searching through their coursebook, browsing through other games and picture cards, and asking for translations). From those, they choose which words to include in their game and write them on the cube sides. My students, at least, prefer the words that have the greatest potential to make silly sentences. They have the same three tosses, but now the goal is to make a sentence that is exactly five words long. While having a lot of fun, students are also discovering that there is more than one correct way to form a sentence, depending on the luck of the toss: Funny rabbits and elephants dance, Funny and furry elephants dance, Funny rabbits dance and sing. They also discover the value of conjunctions more clearly than I could probably explain otherwise.


Recycle! Students can use what they know to figure out what they don’t

There’s no way we will ever be able to teach our students everything they need to know of the English language, so let’s instead teach them how to use what they do know to figure out what they don’t. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to introduce new language in the context of familiar. Another way of looking at this is to make sure you maximize the value of any language your students spend the time learning. Here’s one simple example of how teachers mixing familiar and new language can actually help students learn more by teaching less in each lesson.


It’s green.  
It’s windy. Familiar pattern, new adjectives
It’s sunny today. Brenda is eating green grapes. Familiar language, new context (reading)
It was sunny yesterday. Familiar adjectives, new pattern
It’s going to be cool. Familiar adjectives, new pattern
The dolphin was amazing. Familiar pattern, new adjectives.


A simple guideline is to teach one new thing (new pattern or new vocabulary, but not both) in each lesson, or for longer lessons or older students, in each section of a lesson.  Reducing the amount of time spent on introducing new language creates more time for students to use language – to use it in games and activities that provide the repetition necessary for memory, to add it to their language repertoire in order to talk about new things, to learn to read what they can say and understand, to use language they can read to write about their own unique lives and experiences, and to use language to connect with other students in order to share their own and learn about others’ lives and experiences.

By making efforts to reduce the new language load, to reuse both language and resources, to recycle language in ways that support learning we can make the most effective use of limited class time and set our students on an empowering course to becoming language users rather than just language learners.

For more reading:

Lexical Scaffolding in Immersion Class Discourse (PDF)

Scaffolding English Language Learner’s Reading Performance


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Published by

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara has taught both English and ESL in the United States, and EFL in Japan for more than 25 years. She earned her BA from Western Oregon University and her Masters in TESOL from Northern Arizona University. Barbara has conducted workshops throughout Asia, the U.S. and Latin America, and is co-author of the best-selling young learners Let's Go series (Oxford University Press). She is also a founding member of the JALT Teaching Children special interest group. Her motto is "Always try new things," so these days, when she's not teaching, writing, or giving workshops, you'll often find Barbara online exploring the potential of social media for professional development. If you'd like to explore with her, you can usually find Barbara on her award winning blog, Teaching Village.

30 thoughts on “Homemade Materials Issue – Barb”

  1. Thank you, Barbara, for a really inspiring piece! Your concepts of teaching “little and often” plus the focus on recycling language (and objects) are very dear to my heart. The activity is great and I particularly like the value of having an open-ended activity, suitable for all abilities, as well as one that involves lots of fun. Since my kids usually work in pairs, they can help each other with this game. I look forward to trying it out with my kids tomorrow! GRACIAS.

  2. What sound and useful advice! I was delighted to read your recommendation about changing the content but not the rules of the game. I’m a big advocate of games that the language being practiced is not printed on the game itself ( I use a lot of flashcards). In this way the familiar and beloved games can be used to practice many different things.
    Hurrah for recycling vocabulary!
    Great post!
    Naomi Epstein

    1. Thanks, Naomi! I am really glad that you suggested this topic for us. I really like your idea of creating games without language being printed on the game boards. When I do training workshops, one of the points I always make is that you can re-use the games in coursebooks, too, by changing the language or changing the rules. We should never feel locked into one way of doing anything 🙂

  3. I always love the way you start with a simple game and finally present us with the profoundness of the teaching practice, Barbara! You reminded me of how important it is for every game to be correlated with learning goals and target at producing L2 as much as possible.

    I can’t wait to make my own cubes and let the vocabulary learning adventure begin! Thank you for the abundance of useful ideas, Barb!

    Christina 🙂

    1. Wow, thanks, Christina! I don’t feel particularly profound, but I’m glad you enjoyed what I had to say. I think it may be because most of my students only have 1 hour of contact time with English each week, so I really have to make sure that every bit of language counts! I hope your students enjoy the cube game. Please let me know how it works for you 🙂

  4. Great advice on not trying to introduce too much in one class and making sure there’s time for practising what students’ already know. It chimes nicely with Paul Nation’s Four Strands. Thanks.

    1. I’m a great admirer of Paul’s Four Strands, too. I think that if students have time to practice what they’ve learned, and to use it in new contexts, they will not only show the greatest progress, but they will also be better equipped to deal with occasions when they encounter unfamiliar language.

  5. Great read as always, Barbara! Looking at the same thing from another point of view – reduce, reuse and recycle the language itself! The tools are so simple and useful at the same time. I usually make different flashcards to teach phonics/letters/vocabulary/grammar and never throw away any boxes for that reason. I think using cubes, especially made by the students, would be a very useful tool and real enjoyment. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    1. I rarely throw anything away, either! Once I started using language the students understood to introduce phonics, they started reading so much more quickly than when I had to teach the meaning of the word PLUS the target sound. Students learn so many words that can be re-purposed to teach new skills — reading and writing, especially. It’s just common sense to build on what they know, I think.

  6. I always have this feeling that students don’t link what they have learnt to use it in new contexts and situations. In grammar for example, I explain that an “ ed” should be put at the end of regular verbs and there is a difference between “was” used for singular forms and “were” for plural .The next session I ask students to write a little paragraph about what they did yesterday. When they read out their tasks I discover that the previously taught structures are not correctly used. And this thing happens also in reading when I pre -teach three or four vocabulary items and make sure that they really know the meaning, pronunciation and spelling. The thing is learners never or rarely use these items in speaking or writing something .I don’t know why they are not able to use “the new language”. They seem unable to “own” it as you have mentioned, or may be the process of owning it is so long and tedious!

    Thanks for this insightful article Barbara!!

  7. Thank you Barbara for the practical tips you mentioned in the post. I totally agree with you that “it isn’t how much you teach, it’s how much students can do with the language they learn”. We always argue that focus should be on the learner and teaching should be learner-centered, but what is really at stake is how to implement these principles and ideas. The examples you presented about how to “reduce, recycle, and reuse” the language are really inspiring and motivating. I personally use some activities with cards not cubes but I don’t repurpose them and I don’t think I reduce the amount of new language. Thanks for drawing our attention to such interesting points!

  8. Dear Barbara,
    thank you for these pieces of advice you are giving although for some of us who have been in the teaching profession for quite a long time these are familiar things. Still, it’s not always up to us, especially in Greece, to decide how much we will teach. There is a coursebook we have to follow at least in State Junior High schools and do our best to do as much as possible. It’s been only lately that things seem to have started changing.
    Then, using the same game or activity to practice both simpler and more complex language structures can be really convenient provided that the students don’t get bored with the same things.
    Finally, recycling of already taught items in new environments (contexts) is a ‘must’ in the teaching-learning process.

  9. Dear Barbara, I really like and appreciate your idea of reducing, reusing and recycling. I agree with you that there are teachers who think they must introduce tons of new words, no matter what is going to remain in their students’ memories. If we don’t do something with these words; play, sing, write, present, anything, it’s not going to stay in our heads. We must use one word in many different contexts to make it really alive and meaningful. Introducing a new word is only a beginning for keeping this word in our memory. When our students start to use this word on their own in their situation and choice then we will be sure they learned the word.

  10. Barbara,
    Giving little input to students has rewards since they are able reuse language in relation to
    to their own experiences. Mastering the use of whatever they learned before, made real producers out of them. Feeling confident boosts their creativity.

    They become more creative as they themselves search for new words they want to know to tell about their concerns. The advantage is their effort to autonomous learning thanks to your fruitful educational vision.

  11. Thank you Barbara for this invaluable post. I have applied those in my classes but the post raised my awareness of the importance. I often try to connect the new language to the students lives and experiences. That gives them inspiration and interest to learn it. In most sessions there is some time allocated to communicative activities to review and reuse the language they have learned before.

  12. Thank you, Barbara for explaining this concept of teaching language so simply yet in depth. I think that games are extremely useful in teaching and the idea of using recycled materials is great.

  13. Your presentation today on iTDi was great – very informative and fun to be a part of. There are so many good ideas here. I especially like the cubes and the way they are adapted and extended as students proceed – I’ll be creating my own when I have time before classes start again in September. I also use “Asmodee – story cubes” as a tool with some of my students to get their imaginations going. The post is very interesting, and I hope to put some of these ideas into practice soon. Thank you!

  14. Hi, Barbara! I loved this post, and I am sharing it with my colleagues, right away. I usually follow the path you set here: reduce the amount of new input, per class, and have the students reuse it, by drawing cartoons, making graphic organizers, or just during class discussions.
    However, most of the times I kind of feel guilty, because we are not working at the same pace the other students are; and even though we get there eventually, there is always the risks of being called upon it.

  15. “It isn’t how much you teach, it’s how much students can do with the language they learn.” This sentence says it all. Thank you, Barbara for the great post.

  16. Hello Barbara,
    I attended your webinar at the #iTDiMOOC. I think that we should do what is best for our students. Administrators do not deal with students every day, it is us. In order for pupils to learn, we need to follow your advice about Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling.
    Greetings from Bolivia.

  17. Thank you for the inspiring ideas both in this post and in the session at the iTDiMOOC. I adore those cubes – so simple but with wow effect!

  18. Thank you Barbara for sharing these insightful tips. I totally agree with the principle of “it isn’t how much you teach, it’s how much students can do with the language they learn”. However, we cannot apply it all the time because we as teachers are required to follow ministrial guidelines and cover all the overloaded syllabus in order to prepare students for a final national exam.

  19. Reading your article and watching your presentation on itdi summer school has made me a feel a whole better about what I do in the classroom. I’ve spent 9 years feelng guilty about never getting to the end of the course book and hoping no parents turn up on my classroom doorstep demanding to know why! I tend to dip in and out and choose what suits each class, supplementing the book with my own materials and other mutimedia to reuse and recycle vocabulary and structures. I prefer to take things slowly and ensure that students have had plenty of practice rather than steaming on ahead regardless. I think it’s important not to be ruled by the book and trust your own instincts! Thanks for relieving the guilt…

  20. What an interesting article. I completely agree that we need to reduce, reuse and recyle in the classroom. What a catchy title. I think too many times we are worried about time constraints and try to stick to our lesson plans or finish everything but in reality this is not always possible. If I see students don’t get something I end up spending more time explaining something to them. If they don’t understand the basics it becomes very difficult to build on it later. I also like to reuse games and activities that students like and that I feel are effective in reaching my goals. If only our administrators and parents could read your article it would give them more understaning.

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