Small Changes All the Time

Chris MaresSmall Changes All the Time

by Chris Mares.


I am coming at this cold in the sense that I haven’t yet read John Fanselow’s book. But I will. However, I am a great believer in small changes. It fits in with one of my principles of teaching which I picked up from a mentor of mine, Ray Pelletier, who is both an excellent teacher of French and a miraculous chef. He once told me that as a teacher it is important to be consistent, reliable, and … wait for it – unpredictable.

I shall focus on the notion of principled unpredictability and the belief that this can positively impact student interest, engagement, and overall motivation.

For a long time, before class started I would write on the board the items I intended to cover during the class and at the end of class I would put a check next to the ones we had covered. Quite often I found that we didn’t cover everything I intended, though we thoroughly covered the goals I checked off. After a while, I sensed that some students were feeling that we weren’t achieving what I had set out to achieve. A small change I made was to not write what I intended to cover at the beginning of the class, but to write what we had covered at the end of class. I felt this was a small but positive change that helped motivate students.

There is no doubt that student motivation is vital with regard to successful learning outcomes. For this reason, as teachers, we must be mindful of this and do what we can to keep our learners engaged. One way to do this is simply to switch things up. For example, let’s say that when you correct students’ written work you highlight and correct every error. A change would be to focus on different errors. For example, only correct errors regarding prepositions, or articles, or verb tense. This draws student attention to a particular type of error and is less overwhelming and certainly less demoralizing. Another change might be to choose a random four lines, mark a box around these lines and correct all errors. Explain to students that the type of error you corrected will be similar throughout their paper. Next, have students mark another random four lines and have them try and correct their errors.

All teachers know that students, given freedom to choose, will gravitate towards the same seat and consequently end up working with the same partner or the same group. A small change that will shake things  up and create interest is to have students switch seats and form new configurations.  This can be done once a week or whenever there is a need to inject some new energy into the classroom. In order for this to work, it should be done regularly and not as a one off.

Teachers have a lot going on in their minds when teaching. Not only do we have to envisage the tasks and activities we want our students to do, we have to remember to take attendance, and think about what technology we may need. A way to mitigate this is through rotating delegation. Have one student take attendance for the week, another be your TA, another clean the board at the end of class, and another be responsible for ensuring desks are put back where they should be and that there is no trash left in the classroom. The following week have different students assume the same responsibilities.

A final area of small change with big potential big pay-off relates to our own professional growth.  In the same way that I promised myself I would read professionally for twenty minutes every day, I also made a pledge to try one new, principled activity a week with each of my classes. To do this I need to reflect on what we have done in class and why. I also have to google and ferret out an activity I haven’t done that will compliment what I am doing in class. Not only do students benefit from the surprise of a new activity, but I get to expand my repertoire.

And so we loop back to the beginning. Small changes can positively impact student engagement and motivation and also keep us, the teachers, in a state of positive mindfulness – and this is a good thing.


Motivating Students Using Character Strengths

Patrice Palmer profile pictureMotivating Students Using Character Strengths

by Patrice Palmer.


A few years ago, while conducting research for a course I was developing as a freelancer, I discovered the science of positive psychology (if you don’t know anything about it, watch this great 5-minute whiteboard video). Traditional psychology typically looks at what is wrong with us, while positive psychology looks at what is right with us. Our strengths are as important as weaknesses. I was fascinated by this evidence-based science and pondered how I could apply it to second language acquisition.

I feel that one of the most interesting areas in positive psychology is exploring character strengths (some examples include honesty, zest, love of learning, perseverance, gratitude, and curiosity). Approximately 55 scientists reviewed the best thinking on virtues and positive human qualities in the areas of theology, psychology, and philosophy from the past 2,500 years over a three-year period. The result was a compilation of 24 character strengths which are universal across religions, cultures, nations, and belief systems. I liked the idea of focusing on students’ strengths instead of their weaknesses, because after seven years as an EAP instructor I felt that with red pen in hand, my job was to point out errors or deficits in writing. And students are much more than their writing skills! I decided to use the character strengths survey with my students in hopes to motivate them more but had no idea how big the impact of taking a 10-minute survey would be.

Below I’d like to list the steps my class and I took in using character strengths in an EAP class.

  1. Pre-writing activity. First we watched the video The Science of Strengths in class. Students discussed the content in small groups exploring such questions as, “How are character strengths like super-powers? What do you think your top strengths might be?”
  2. The survey.  The character strengths survey takes about 10 minutes and is available at I set up a free teacher account on the website with a designated link for the survey for each class. In this way I could get the survey results emailed to me and I could also verify that the students did actually complete the survey.
  3. Face-to-face interviews. I set up a schedule with 10-minute time slots to talk to students about their top five character strengths and how they use them specifically as a student. I created a form for this task which they were required to complete and bring to the interview. Reflecting on the survey results before the interview and being asked questions during the interview was part of a pre-writing exercise for their writing assignment.
  4. Writing assignment. Students were required to write a 5-paragraph essay about their top three character strengths. Although the top five are considered Signature Strengths (and the ones that are most easily and often used), choosing just three made it easier for the essay format.

Small Changes, Big Results

Meeting forty students in one class requires time that we often do not have but I wanted to be able to personally connect with each student. During the interviews, I noticed two things. First, when I asked each student to tell me about their top five character strengths and how they demonstrate them as a student, they immediately came to life! Normally in my EAP classes students are very quiet, but the same learners beamed and spoke with a sense of excitement as they talked about their strengths.

The second change was in me. When I looked out at the sea of student faces after the interviews, I saw their strengths instead of thinking about their writing skills. For example, I had one student who constantly asked questions. When I learned that two of his top five strengths were curiosity and leadership, it made complete sense. In other words, instead of seeing him as annoying I now perceived him as inquisitive and asking questions that others might be afraid to ask. Another student, who had hounded me via email for two weeks about making up a missed assignment, had fairness as his top strength. He felt that my denial of his request was unfair and that made sense to me, so we talked one day after class and I changed my mind about the make-up test.

Normally I can’t say that I enjoy reading and grading forty essays, but I was actually excited about reading that particular pile of papers. Students had learned what they were good at and what was positive about themselves. Hopefully this knowledge and awareness will have a lasting effect on their success as learners and out in the labour force.

I’d like to share with you a few comments from the essays written by my students.

”In conclusion, identifying and building on your own unique character strengths can help make a better and happier person. I agree with the top three results of my VIA Character Strengths Survey (love, fairness, and kindness). Although I suppose I was aware of these traits, the survey made me stop and think about my character.  In the future I will use these character strengths to bring out the best in me and help me to achieve the goals I set for my life. After all, it’s what inside a person that counts.”

“The three character strengths of curiosity, love of learning, and leadership have aided me by providing me access to work opportunities, helping my performance in school, seek out learning opportunities, and increase the quality of my interpersonal relationships at school.”

“My top three character strengths are Love, Prudence and Teamwork. I was not surprised to discover what they turned out to be. I would not even have changed the order in which they were given. It was reassuring to know what I thought I already knew.”

Why Use Character Strengths?

There are many reasons why it could be a good idea, but I think most importantly students should learn about their strengths and reflect on how they can use them (or how they have been using them in the past) to achieve results inside and outside of school. We know that our language learners can feel frustrated in their ability to learn English, so focusing on strengths could give them confidence. It is important to remember that all character strengths have downsides if overused, so that should be discussed as well. For example, my own top character strength is Appreciation for Beauty and Excellence but its overuse results in perfectionism! Another example would be the overuse of curiosity – too much of it may mean that the person never gets anything done because they are so distracted by learning about everything around them.

Overall, using our character strengths makes us feel happier, more confident, increases our energy, lessens our stress, helps us to achieve goals and grow as individuals. What teacher doesn’t want that for his/her students!


Meeting Students’ Needs through Small Changes

Marisa PavanMeeting Students’ Needs through Small Changes

by Marisa Pavan.


The theme for this blog issue, “Small Changes, Big Results,” based on John Fanselow’s new book, has made me reflect on my teaching practice this year starting in March and the small changes I’ve made so far.

Mr Fanselow states in his book, As you and your students explore distinctive activities, you will realize that as helpful as what others tell us is, we each have to discover new ways and worlds on our own.” In order to boost my teenage students’ skills, I’ve included some adjustments suited to their needs.

There are opinions for and against the use of textbooks and in my case there is no choice but use them. I do my best to adapt the tasks presented in the textbooks we have for my students to really benefit from them.

One of the little changes I’ve introduced is intended for my students to improve reading skills. After reading and analysing a text from the book and making sure my students understand all the new vocabulary, I assign the paragraphs forming parts of it to each pair of students for them to read silently for some minutes; then they close their books and share what they remember with the whole class. When I introduced the task, my students seemed to enjoy it and felt confident because they were supposed to say anything they were able to remember and do so in pairs. In this way, the introverted ones did not feel exposed.

Another task I’ve been using to help my students practise vocabulary is dictogloss, with a small change. First I select a short text that includes recently studied vocabulary, just ten or twelve sentences. I explain the task to my students for them to know what it is they are supposed to do: while I read the text with my natural speed, in a loud voice for the whole group to hear, they should take down notes of the most important words. I explain to them that it is not a dictation and suggest writing mainly nouns and verbs, one next to the other. I tell my students they should not try to write whole sentences because they would run the risk of missing some information. Then I read the text for a second time and tell my students to include missing words in their notes. Finally, they are supposed to write their version of the short text I read using their notes and anything that would be missing. The small change I’ve introduced is the opportunity for my students to re-write the text in pairs (instead of doing so individually), which gives them confidence to write the text and at the same time provides a great opportunity to foster interaction and negotiation skills. To correct the text, sometimes I ask them to read it in a loud voice or I tell them to exchange their versions among pairs and a different pair should make comments on their peers’ text.

Usually, textbooks include articles with reading comprehension questions to check that students understand it. The small change I’ve introduced at this stage involves students underlining the answers to those questions in the text and sharing the replies orally. Apart from integrating reading and speaking skills, students need to rephrase those answers, which contributes to developing their fluency in a natural way.

Comparing teenagers in the past and those I’m teaching at present, I’ve found that some years ago, when my students received corrected vocabulary and grammar tasks, they immediately checked the mistakes they had made and investigated the lexical items or the grammar topics in a book and dictionary so as to improve themselves. On the other hand, my teenager students now receive the corrected tasks, have a quick look at the mistakes, and put the sheet in their folders without further consideration. Given this situation, I decided to introduce a small change when returning my students corrected assignments. Apart from pinpointing the error, I assign each student a task based on their mistakes. They are supposed to find out a certain grammar topic or to look up a certain word in the dictionary, analyse it, and then hand in examples containing their findings. In this way, I help them do the self-correction they need in order to improve themselves.

All in all, I’m convinced that a teacher needs common sense to discover their students’ needs and meet them in a way that contributes to their learning process.

The Power of a Simple Tweak

Naomi EpsteinThe Power of a Simple Tweak

by Naomi Epstein.


Imagine you are required to write a 120 -140 word essay. In the essay you must express your opinion on an assigned topic, not one you have chosen. Your work will be assessed on fluency, accuracy, and the ability to use rich and varied vocabulary.

Now, imagine you study English as a foreign language. Essay writing is certainly a challenging task.

NOW imagine that you are a Deaf student studying English as a foreign language. Writing such an essay well is significantly more challenging.

I always give samples of excellent essays to my Deaf and hard of hearing high-school students. Unfortunately, it has always been difficult to get the students to read an essay more than once. The point of looking at a text in depth is to really notice the vocabulary and grammar used and how they are employed to create a coherent and cohesive text. But the students don’t see that. They’ve understood the main idea after a single reading and want a new text even though they are missing so many fine details.

All this changed after I read the chapter on “Read and Look Up” in John Fanselow’s book “Small Changes in Teaching, Big Results in Learning.” I had heard of the method before but had no idea how to implement it in class. In fact, what I hadn’t understood at all before reading Fanselow’s detailed explanations and suggested activities with variations, was that reading a sentence (or two) silently, pausing, and then looking at someone before saying what was read, is not simply an exercise in memory and parroting. I was amazed to see that not only did the students learn from the experience, they reported feeling that they had learned something.

Here’s an example.

I gave one of my students, whom we’ll call R., a sample essay on whether high school students should be required to do volunteer work or not. I asked her to read to herself a sentence or two, turn over the page and say what she read while looking at me. R. has cochlear implants and her speech is fairly clear. The room was quiet and there were no other students at the time.

R. did as I asked.

She replaced some words with others as she spoke.

I was delighted!

I praised her, explaining that replacing words was wonderful and told her that I wanted us to examine together what exactly she was doing. I pulled out scrap paper and a pen and asked R. to begin again and wrote down every word she said. The situation amused R. –  she was speaking and I was the one writing furiously (note: the part about the teacher writing is not in the book but is necessary when working with Deaf students in a foreign language).

We paused after every two sentences (more or less) to compare what R. had said with the original text. We noted which words she had replaced with others and whether they meant the same as the original or not. If not, I suggested other words she could have used. For example, she said “in the beginning” instead of “at first”, which is great. When she said “the experience has donated far more to me” instead of “contributed,” we discussed the difference between the two words. We paid special attention to connecting words such as “however” and “therefore.”

Then R. read (with page turned over, remember?!) two long sentences verbatim. She hadn’t replaced a single word or omitted a single one. R. then looked at the text and asked:

” I used the words in the text. I don’t know other words to use here. Can you tell me?”

Needless to say, I was happy to oblige.



Note from the editor: Naomi has been trying out other activities from John Fanselow’s recent book, and the blog posts with her reports and reflections on how they went in her classes are available on Naomi’s own blog Visualizing Ideas.