Stickiness – What makes what you do stick?

stickinessI’m putting together an online presentation for some Brazilian teachers and I’ll be talking about “Stickiness”. I thought it would be worthwhile to air my own thoughts specifically about what makes our teaching “stick”. In other words, how to make what we do transfer into the heads and the production/fluency of the learner (now or over time).

I think at bottom, this metaphor is what drives most teachers. It drives a lot of schools and administrators that’s for sure. Progress, success, results….. I also think it is something students desperately want. However, the pickle is that both time and the differing needs of students make it very hard to make things sticky for everyone of your students.

Here though, are my top 5 things teachers can do to make language stick (and let’s be clear, sometimes you can do all these and still fail through no fault of your own).

1. A Warm, Comforting, Social Environment

Krashen’s concept of an “affective filter” gave this a name but teachers at all times and places have always been aware about how important it is to “relax” students. Anxiety, tension really does inhibit unconscious acquisition of language – the best way to learn English long term. A great teacher can relate personally to his/her students, relax them and make them willing to take risks. Risk taking is the most important characteristic we should promote and form in students – research supports this. The only way to do this is to create a safe, nurturing environment.

2. Local and Culturally relevant content

Context is queen with language teaching (content – the words/language are still king).  You can’t teach a student what a rutabaga is unless you can provide context, words won’t suffice. The BEST context is the student’s own world and neighborhood – their life. Use local maps, celebrities, songs and issues. It works! Here’s a talk where I expound on CST (Culturally Specific Content) for the Korean context.

3. Consistent Monitoring and Feedback of Student Achievement

Motivation is the pink elephant in any classroom. We have to deal with it and one way is to give students lots of success and especially feedback. They need to be monitored and self monitor their learning through structured feedback and testing. No, I’m not advocating those big standard tests – rather more authentic assessments (quizzes, reflection, repetition, journals, projects).  We have to realize that small but consistent feedback in the way of quizzes, really motivates but also helps students learn language. See this NYTs article for an interesting take on this.
4. Purpose: Linking class activity to real goals and actions

The classroom is a test tube of sorts. It is where we test our language. But it is only half of what makes a fluent speaker. The real test is the real world. Nowadays, it is much easier for teachers to link the trials of the classroom to the big test of the real world.  Multi-media, web 2.0 tools, bringing in people from the community, projects etc… – any way to make what the students do in the classroom “meaningful” and “real” is crucial. Students will get motivated and learn better if they know what they are doing is more than just “killing time” or “getting a mark”. Language is a skill, let our students know it isn’t just a video car game and put them in the real car!

5. Differentiation and flexibility through an enacted curriculum

When I teach curriculum development courses – I drill into my students the importance of having an “enacted curriculum”. Not one set in stone as the textbook pretends. One with a plan but a plan that you can alter and shift. It has to be so. If your students don’t know many basic verbs – you can’t march on through a unit on modals! But teachers do, believe me, they do…..  Let’s be honest and try to make the classroom an organic place where the teacher is contantly assessing student’s needs and adjusting for their levels and differing learning styles. One size won’t fit all.  These issues are in part why I’m such a big fan of SDL, self directed learning.


One additional thing I would mention is the need to focus on “verbs”. Verbs are the fly paper of language. Get your students mastering many verbs and all the other functional and concrete vocabulary will “stick”.

I’m sure you have your own thoughts – please leave a comment and tell us what you’d put on the list.

If you like this post – you’ll probably enjoy: TEFL Non-stick teaching

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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