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


Using English outside of class – Scott Thornbury

Scott ThornburyThere were two young Catalans at my gym who would while away their time on the exercise bicycles and rowing machines speaking English to each other. It was dreadful, highly accented and very unidiomatic English – but English, hours of it.

What prompted them? And what sustained them in what was obviously harder work than the cycling or the rowing?

I have no way of knowing, but I couldn’t but admire both their initiative and their stamina.

How can we get our students to do the same or similar?  How can we encourage them – not just to read, write, and listen to English outside the class – but to speak it?

One possible route is offered by technology.

I have a friend who studied Turkish at university and keeps it ‘alive’ by doing online chats, using Skype, with Turkish speakers. There are a number of agencies that provide this service, putting people in touch with one another for a modest fee. Some of these services work on a reciprocal basis: you speak to me for half an hour in Spanish and I’ll speak to you for half an hour in English. (Just google something like ‘language exchange’).

But your students might be too young – or too shy – to engage in conversation with total strangers. An alternative might be to ‘buddy them up’ – like my friends at the gym – and encourage them to review and repeat, at home, and by means of their phones, some of the speaking activities they’ve done in class. In fact, you can design speaking activities for class work that prepare students for their cell phone chat later that evening. Good activities are role-playing interviews with sports stars or pop singers about, for example, their daily routine; role-playing a shopping encounter (e.g. where nothing is the right size or colour) or a job interview; playing guessing games (‘I’m an animal: you have to guess what sort of animal I am by asking yes/no questions), and so on.

Even five minutes of this is better than nothing and it costs them the price of a local phone call.

Using English outside of class – Vladimira Michalkova

Encouraging learners to use English outside of class is like getting students to do the sort of good homework that I described in my previous post: homework that grows naturally out of the lesson, doesn’t feel like homework, and often isn’t even called homework. The idea is to get students using English on their own in their own way and as this needs to be encouraged, the teacher should not correct or evaluate such effort — unless students ask for it.  Instead, such individual effort needs to be nurtured, encouraged, and praised.

Encouraging students to begin doing this kind of good homework starts with a positive, open and friendly class atmosphere where the teacher has true and authentic conversations with students, really listens to what they’re saying, and is not afraid to go beyond “the teaching purpose” of an activity or lesson.  From there, encouraging the students to use the language outside the class needs to be built on what they discovered in the classroom and not from the teacher’s intention to get them to practice, revise or repeat what was taught that day.

During lessons we often get into topics they really enjoy talking about and want to know more about.  I use such situations and keep them interested by suggesting some further reading, video or source of information. This often leads us to TED talks, documentaries or even intriguing commercials they watch at home. I just ask them to note their reactions and reflections and keep me posted.

Additionally, as experienced learners ourselves we know what works and thus can provide our students with situations where they can naturally use the language.  There are many things we can do very naturally ranging from giving students a simple “how about we all switch our mobile phone to English for a week” kind of challenge, to keeping the conversations we have with them outside of class and the email communications we have with them entirely in English from the beginning.  This is what I do.  After some time, they all start replying in English too, as long as I respect their individual style and pace.

So, talk to your students, listen to them, praise their efforts and do it all naturally, as if it is all just a part of everyday life – which it is – and where you respect them as individuals. Yet, be clear that the classroom is not a magical bubble where they receive knowledge but a place to meet, encourage and help each other. What matters after all is what they decide to do after that.

“Many an opportunity is lost because a man is out looking for four-leaf clovers” 

Using English outside of class – Tamas Lorincz

Practicing any language outside the classroom has never been easier. I have used this comic graph before but it is worth repeating it here.  Most students need little encouragement to use English outside the classroom. They just need to be reminded of the opportunities that are out there, and to echo the message of my previous post on this blog, to get meaningful homework tasks.

My methods for learning English

As the graph quite humorously and succinctly suggests, we need to harness the amazing power of learning outside the classroom. Song lyrics, rather than being vulgar and meaningless representations of a world we as teachers do not inhabit, provide a wealth of practical language.  Similarly, not all computer games are virtual terrorist training camps, and we should definitely not eschew these for a round of pointless time wasted playing Hangman.

Blocking the use of social networks at schools under the guise of student protection is counterproductive.  Instead, we should help them to learn the rules of safe engagement, and exploit social media for all the learning opportunities it provides.  Showing films that students enjoy and trying to find value in what they watch  will also help them to learn. It’s time to be less judgemental and a bit more accepting, so that we can have better communication with the new generations than our parents and teachers used to have with us.

What English is there in an average central European teenager’s life these days, and how can teachers take advantage of this?

The typical teenager will:

–  Wake up to music, 90 percent of which is in English. Task: Describe the kind of music you like waking up to.

– Check Facebook. Half of the posts from their friends are cartoons, videos or music, with the occasional article, all in English. Task: Choose the best video or comic your friends have posted this week and choose the group top list.

– Go to school by public transport, and listen to music during the journey. Task: Talk about the soundtrack to your daily journey, and why you choose this music.

– Have English classes, in a group of 15-36 others. They get input that’s irrelevant, uninteresting, not engaging, and alien to their everyday life.

– Finish school for the day and listen to more music,  and share videos and jokes with friends – again, mostly in English.

In my opinion, the time they spend in class is the least significant contributor to most students’ language learning. Of course, there are great schools and great teachers who use classrooms as a workshop and language learning as a 24/7 activity rather than something they have to take sole responsibility for. Letting English out of the cage and the world into the classroom is the way.

There is English all around our students these days.  We should acknowledge and actually embrace the value this has for both the students and us as teachers.

I remember my teacher’s face when I told her I had spent the weekend translating Iron Maiden lyrics, only to realise that it was the adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner ( I was translating. There is value in whatever our kids do in English and we should encourage them to do more and more until they find something to fall in love with. Once we manage to achieve this, there will be no stopping them from exploring and experimenting with their English and the English lesson will become a source of inspiration for further investigation and a synthesis of learning.

Using English outside of class – Vicky Loras

Our students are with us every week for a number of hours – some of us have them for a good number of hours, some of us for a limited number of hours. It is great to use that time as much as possible for the development of their English language skills, especially speaking. But what happens when they leave class? How can they use English outside the classroom?

We certainly do not want them to restrict themselves to using English only in class. We want them to get as much practice as possible. Especially these days, with the advent of technology, there is a multitude of ways to help them practice their English:

  • In this world of smart phones and tablets, there are literally thousands of applications which can be used by students. For younger ages, there are English word games with instant feedback. For older students, there are listening and pronunciation apps that can help them tremendously.
  • For those who have limited access to technology, books are a great way of developing language skills. Very often, I take my young students to the library and let them wander through the books and pick up the ones they like. With older students, I have taken them to kiosks to look at English magazines on any topic that interests them, or even a visit to a library or bookstore could help. We can help find the kind of book they want with recommendations.
  • Writing with pen pals – there are so many ways to do that: either the good old-fashioned way, with letter writing (that I really love and is even more personal) or via safe chat rooms. That way they can practice their English with people worldwide.

There are so many ways to help our students use English when they are not in class – it is up to us to show them and motivate them to take their learning even further!