Steven Herder

Using English outside of class – Steven Herder

How can we encourage students to use English outside of class?

There are three different ways to interpret this question:

  1. What are the techniques we can use to encourage students to use English outside of class?
  2. How can we encourage students rather than force them to use English outside of class?
  3. Use English does not simply mean study more, but what does it really mean?

I will address the question from a little bit of all three perspectives.

I think that anyone can force students to use English outside the classroom by assigning homework activities, but I question how much learning actually takes place. In fact, I hear students complaining all the time about having to do something in English outside of class that doesn’t make sense to them (nor to me quite often).

As for techniques that work on me, the most effective way to get me to check something out online, on TV or in a book is to be passionate or enthusiastic about it. I’m totally susceptible to clicking on things that buzz; like on Facebook – if something has many likes, you’ll go check it out as well. Humans are just programmed like that and we, as teachers, have an opportunity to promote ideas to a captive audience every single class.

So… I know the power of enthusiasm about subject matter, and I know that forcing students to do things isn’t very effective, and I don’t particularly want to pile on more homework. OK, this naturally leads me to share the things that interest me, and that I know will both touch my students and be within their reach linguistically.

Another wickedly powerful tool in being able to encourage students successfully is to become a meaningful person in their lives. One of my heroes, Curtis Kelly, first introduced me to this powerful message through the bonobo apes (watch specifically from 13:00) and the secret to their language acquisition skills, which I believe makes perfect sense for my students and me as well. I have seen that students sometimes try something just to please me but often end up pleasing themselves as well. That’s a win-win situation.

I want students to use English outside of class to reach their own goals. I try to show students that English can connect them to a great big world beyond the classroom. And so, I share music, videos, websites and ideas that teach us something about the human condition (making sure students can “get it” with a bit of effort).

Here are just a few videos I’ve shared recently with students:




Children full of life

Christian the lion

Lost Generation


Published by

Steven Herder

Steven has been teaching within the Japanese EFL context since 1989. Having over 20 years teaching experience at the elementary and secondary school level, he is currently an associate professor in the International Studies department at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts. He is also extremely active in professional development within the ELT community. He co-founded MASH Collaboration in 2007, an online community devoted to professional development through collaboration. He is an avid user of Skype and can often be heard saying, “Collaboration creates just the right amount of tension to get lots done.” He also spends time editing numerous articles, academic volumes and proceedings, and leading teacher training seminars for various companies throughout Japan. Steven works from the perspective that, “being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to learning”.

20 thoughts on “Using English outside of class – Steven Herder”

  1. Hi Steven,

    Really thought provoking post. Thank you. I think students have so much going on in their lives that they are constantly asking themselves, how is this going to help me? How can I use this? In a way, it’s a question of personal relevance, but it’s also an issue of results. If I ask my students to use their vocabulary cards and quiz 3 other students each day between classes for one week, they are going to see how spending a few minutes outside of class doing vocab work improves their reading comprehension and boosts their cloze test scores. In the same way, if a student goes to see an amazing viral video you point out and that helps them join in group discussions or even gives them something interesting to talk about with friends, that value becomes pretty clear to them as well. English outside of the classroom is competing for our students’ limited time. If students can imagine the benefits, there’s that much more of a chance that they’ll put our suggestions in action.


  2. Thanks, Kevin. “Thought provoking” was even more than I was hoping for! LOL

    I’m glad you’re using vocabulary cards as most of the experts agree they work the best. Just as an aside, I once tried to figure out a way to decorate the classroom (or halls) with used/mastered word cards on rings hanging from the ceiling. Sadly, I couldn’t figure out a way to make it work visually.

    Your idea of “relevance” hits the nail on the head. And as you referenced “competing for the students’ limited time” I felt my head nodding in agreement. I had forgotten that when I was writing the post.

    It’s a pleasure to have you adding to this discussion and I hope you’ll stick around and chime in whenever you like.



  3. Hello teacher,
    I am an English literature student from Jordan.
    I totally agree with you when you said that a teacher should become a meaningful person in his students lives, you have a great techniques which i hope all teachers can understand and apply .
    since I am a foreigner student and of course my goal is to develop my spoken English I would like to ask you about what is the best way to improve my English ? I write my diaries in English but i feel that practicing English with someone else would be a better way.

    Thank you for your time and have a great day full of happiness 🙂

  4. Hi Nisreen Issa,

    Wow, it’s great to have students reading our blog. Keep reading blogs and making comments like this one because it is motivating and fun to actually USE your English. I know I’m very impressed with your comments as well as your English.

    Both Scott and Anna had great ideas in their posts on this same question, so please go read them.

    Also, if you want to communicate more with me, go watch some of the You Tube videos I suggested and tell me and everyone else what you think about them.

    Maybe some other students reading this blog would like to practice chatting or talking with you, too.

    Good luck.


  5. Hi Steven,

    First thing to be said – I really enjoy your style and the way you put things, very kind, gentle, yet direct and convincing and not too pushy. Makes your posts a wonderful read!

    Becoming a meaningful person for students..that is a wickedly powerful tool, not at everyone’s disposal I guess, and I also wonder how far that could reach. Whatever doubts I may have here (normally I hope I manage with this point rather well, but I can recall times of trouble with some students..we do have to be extremely broad-minded, right?!), I’m with you. Once you’re standing confidently on this thin and shaky line and have the trust and respect of your students, chances go up you’ll succeed sharing around your enthusiasm and tapping into their personal interest spheres from the English angle (and it won’t look too imposing).

    Many thanks for the links you provide – in my watching list now. I cannot but share an idea here which I”ve been using for a month and it has already proved a brilliant one for me. We created a Google spreadsheet with my students, with 3 separate sheets for the three groups I have. Each Monday we start a lesson with 2-min presentations they make based on videos they’ve watched in English (the links to these videos are posted by them in the spreadsheet for me and everybody to check). There’s no limit to video length or content, as soon as it’s not offensive, does not contain rude language or ideas. It’s a brilliant way to open up a world of students and also learn lots of new things and websites. We are learning a lot together!
    Hope this could be useful for other teachers!

    Thank you for your inspiring post!


  6. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the compliment, but I really came to tell a story.

    Many years ago, not long after the Russo-Japanese War, I was teaching at Kansai Gaidai. Students who wanted to study English outside of class either joined the ESS (English Speaking Society) or IGC (International Guide Club) clubs. However, there were about 15 students who could join neither, since they were working nights to pay their way through college, so they formed a circle on their own. They would meet at lunchtime and dine together, sometimes in my office, and they were not allowed to speak any Japanese during this period. So, they just had 30 minutes or so a day of English immersion, and no teachers.

    It worked. Some of the top students in our department came out of that club and I felt their members did as well as, or even better than, the ESS or IGC members. It was my first encounter with “extensive” anything, an approach we are now finding has deep and resounding effects.

    Since then, I’ve tried to get other students to do the same thing, but sadly, without success.

  7. Good story, Curtis.

    And good for you in supporting their original idea, and even opening up your office for them to use (lucky students).

    I have often been surprised in the past that students feel that talking to one another is somehow less valuable than talking with a teacher or a native speaker. I guess as I’ve learned to better explain the difference between fluency and accuracy, more students understand the need for a balance between the two. For the fluency practice, I encourage students to talk to their dog, the mirror or even to their smartphone recorder. They need hundreds and hundreds of hours experience with output (speaking or writing) in order to make palpable gains. Slowly, they’ve come to believe me that they need “extensive” practice, as in sports or any other skill in order to make the improvements that so many students want.

    As for your last line about other students not taking you up on your suggestion, I’ve been doing the same thing regarding Skype. I just keep sharing ideas, and hope that a few of them stick. Whenever I hear that one does, I feel a little bit of success.

  8. Hi Steve. Isn’t this the secret of SLA?

    I teach mainly young EFL learners. For sure, the students who try to use English outside the classroom do the most improvement. Obviously, motivation is the key here.

    I feel that homework is an important tool for more English exposure. However, homework can be fun. At my English conversation school, I assign sketchbook activities for homework. Depending on the theme, students draw and make sentences. The sketchbooks become personalized and a source of accomplishment. 

    For even more outside exposure, I made a YouTube channel for my students to review in class activities at home. I did this to get their parents involved as well. Sadly, not many watch, but I’m not giving up. Here is the link, give it a look and any feedback would be very appreciated.

    Mark in Gifu

      1. Hi Mark,

        Great to hear from you.

        I like you approach to homework, and I admire your energy teaching kids.

        Your YouTube channel sounds like a great idea whether parents watch it or not. The link you provided took me to my favorites videos. Can you give me the name of one video and then I can search for it?



  9. Thanks Steve,

    Interesting and not easy!  I’d like to make three points in relation to using English outside of class, yet still on campus as a way to encourage students to use English:

    1.  Since 2005 when I worked at Gunma Womens University, I’ve been involved in setting up and facilitating English salons and lounges, to encourage just what we are talking about: using English in a natural way outside of class.  My first research into this examined native speaker teachers who were part of discussions and whether they were ‘teaching’ or ‘talking’.  Unsurprisingly, the teachers I observed were unable to take off their teacher hat and engage in natural conversation during these lunchtime and evening sessions.  Their discourse was stilted, teachery and domineering.  As you mentioned, there is not enough emphasis on  the value of interactions between NNS.    NS who engage with ss in these kind of environments can sometimes do more harm than good!

    2.  With regard to these ‘lounges’ that are often set up on campus, we feel not enough research has been done on the environment of these spaces.  Clair Taylor and I looked at how to create an optimal environment for encouraging interactions outside of class in L2 on campus and came up with evidence-based suggestions for everything from lighting to furniture.   Educational institutions often want to create an ‘international’ atmosphere on campus to encourage learners to use English, but not enough thought goes into creating and maintaining such space from an educational/socio-cultural point of view.

    3. The idea of being ‘forced’….we’ve been walking this tightrope at my university for about three years. If you’re interested, check out a paper by my colleagues ‘Stamp of Approval’ on how using a stamp card helps motivate students to engage with English outside of class. We encourage the students to use the English lounge, Quizlet flashcards, EnglishCentral, and Graded Readers. A number of teachers have come together in a collaborative attempt to increase learner autonomy and use of English outside class with varying results.  

    I strongly believe that when working in an educational institution, you need the culture of the institution and all stakeholders involved to share the same vision in order to support such initiatives. The environment we create for our students outside the classroom, yet still on the campus, can have a massive impact on whether or not students will use English outside of class. The power of these valuable spaces should not be underestimated. 

    Thanks again!

  10. Sarah,

    Hey DQ – You’ve made my day!

    So very nice of you to share your thoughts with me and all of our readers. It’s also excellent that you and Clair did your research on this subject – I found The Stamp of Approval: Motivating Students towards Independent Learning and the excellent team of authors who wrote it on Michael Stout’s page.

    There is one point that I still wrestle with, as it sounds that you do as well: Can we force the students to do things outside of class and trust/gamble that they will appreciate it down the road, and thank us for the push? I’m pretty sure that there is no clear answer to that question, and that it depends on a number of factors.

    I would really love to hear from anyone who has a clear sense about this one way or the other…

    Sarah – Thanks, again, and I hope we have a chance to hang out again someday…

    Steven (TT)

  11. Hello Steve,
    Thanks for posting on this topic. Finding a way to help students use English outside of the classroom is vital, especially in Japanese learning contexts where students often have just one 90-minute lesson a week.
    Sarah has already told you a little about what’s happening at Toyo Gakuen University. Thanks for posting a link to our paper. We have a follow-up paper coming out soon in Learning Learning, the JALT Learner Development SIG’s publication
    As Sarah said, we have struggled with the issue of whether to force students to use English outside of the classroom or not. I was one of the teachers that initially made doing the tasks on our stamp card optional – almost none of my students did the tasks when it was optional. Once I made it compulsory, almost all of my students did at least some of the tasks, and some did substantially more than I required. I remember my Dad recommending I take Economics in my 1st year at uni. It was a class that I would have avoided because it involved math. I only took the introductory classes, and I struggled with the math, but I’m very glad by Dad suggested that I take it because I learned a lot. Maybe some of our students similarly need the first little nudge to get them going. We won’t know for sure until we survey our 2nd and 3rd year students and find out if they are still using the tools we introduced to them, or even found some of their own. I’m confident that some will have.
    The research project that I’m working on with iTDi Associate Mari Yamauchi also involves encouraging students to use English outside of the classroom. We’ve been having some success with blogs and Twitter, but we are not finished our research.
    I think you know that I do my best to become a meaningful person in my students’ lives. I agree with you and Curtis that doing this is extremely important. I think it’s essential really, but not sufficient perhaps.

    1. I know that you, Michael, have always gone way beyond the call of duty to make English interesting and available to your students. In fact, I have repeatedly said how I marvel at your ability to keep up. It is inspiring for anyone who follows you on Twitter (@mickstout) or Facebook (hint, hint, everyone).

      Yes, I may ultimately agree that being a significant, meaningful person in a student’s life is not sufficient. I guess I hope that it is enough for some students, but recognize that others need the nudge of “Do it… or else” or “Do it… or lose points on your final grade”. I can live with that as long as I continue to try to tailor my approach based on the individual needs of the student (I know, I know – in very large classes this may be impossible, but we try…)

      I hope you’ll come back next week when we discuss large classes, Michael. I always appreciate your perspective.

  12. Hello Steven!

    Thank you very much for this clear-cut message: teachers should encourage but not force learners to speak English. I can’t agree more!

    I’ve just come back from E-merging Forum-2 Day One in Moscow, where some teachers expressed their frustration about not being able to make their students read and appreciate the fiction books they (the teachers) liked. This is the example of forcing students to do what the teachers think is right and interesting regardless of the learners real interests and preferences. Not surprisingly, that those teachers failed bitterly to achieve their goals.

    This example made me come up with the following motto for teachers:

    Guide, don’t impose;
    Encourage, don’t force.

    1. Hi Alexandra,

      Nice observation. Hearing ideas from others teachers often helps me to see things that I might not see on my own. Your observation is a great example.

      I saw your other posts on this week’s topic and it is a real pleasure to have you collaborating here with us.

      Thanks for coming back again and sharing.


  13. You all say about using technology, you don’t think some under developing countries where access to technology is impossible. Road and street are full of mud, Tvs, cars, ipod as you said, internet, wbesite and everything are beyond of their reach. you are so lucky that you can teach in some developing countries. Giving your opinion suppose not restricted only to better off countries, but think about how your ideas are implementable for poor countries

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