“I think I can, I think I can”: Cultivating Students’ Self-Efficacy

Yes, we can!

As a child, every time I complained that I couldn’t do something, my father would respond with this quote accredited to Henry Ford:

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right”

It used to annoy me greatly, but now as I’ve come to read quite a bit of research on self-efficacy, this quote has become a comforting source of strength.

Albert Bandera defines perceived self-efficacy as “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives” (1994). In other words, self-efficacy is believing you are capable of doing something successfully. Self-efficacy is a key concept in education as it relates to so many other important concepts like effort, tenacity and achievement (Bandura, 1986; Mills, Pajares, and Herron, 2007) as well as strategy use, attributions, anxiety and goals (Mercer, 2012). Very importantly, learners who hold higher self-efficacy beliefs seem to sustain greater levels of motivation which in turn influences achievement (Hseih, 2012). (See previous post about how different concepts interact).

All of this means that Henry Ford’s quote has been supported by empirical evidence! If you believe you are capable of achieving something, even if it is difficult, you will preserve in spite of mistakes and failures, you will take advantage of the opportunities you come across, you may even design your behaviour and environment to help you reach your goal, and most likely, you will eventually succeed (or die trying). Conversely, if you don’t believe you can do something, you will likely give up after a few failed attempts. (See this post for a real example of how this works.)

So if self-efficacy is key to developing resilience, motivation and achievement, how can we help our students cultivate it? Let’s first look at where it comes from and then I’ll make some suggestions for classroom activities to promote positive self-efficacy beliefs.

Self-Efficacy has five different sources (Bandera, 1994; Williams, 1995)

  1. Mastery Experiences– actually achieving successes in the face of obstacles. These mastery experiences can be large or small, but it is important they aren’t just “easy” successes, as it is important to gain experience coping with and managing the inevitable setbacks.
  2. Vicarious Experiences-seeing someone like you (a peer perhaps) work hard and successfully accomplish the goal.
  3. Social Persuasion– this includes positive encouragement from others; i.e. “You can do it!” or “I believe in you!”. However, Bandura warns against empty or false encouragement, as this can in fact lower the other person’s self-efficacy if they do indeed fail. He suggests that good self-efficacy builders craft situations where the learner is suitably challenged and unlikely to experience an overwhelming failure.
  4. Emotional and Physiological States– your current mood or if learning something physical, your muscle aches and pains, can affect your belief in your capacity to do something. If you’re in a good mood, you are more likely to think you are capable of accomplishing your goal and vice versa. Importantly, it is not ACTUALLY the emotions you experience or your aches that influence your self-efficacy, but how you interpret and evaluate them. You may experience frustration and think “I’m frustrated because I’m an idiot which means I’ll never get this!” and consequently give up, or think “I’m frustrated because I keep making the same mistake again and again. How can I avoid this mistake? Maybe I just need to take a break and come back to it.”
  5. Imagined Experiences– if you imagine, or visualize, yourself succeeding, you can also improve your self-efficacy beliefs, just not as strongly as if you actually experience success.

Cultivating Self-Efficacy in the classroom

Mastery Experiences

Successes, whether big or small, can have a huge impact on a learner’s trajectory (if you haven’t already, read about my student María’s small win with big gains here). Tests, quizzes and exams can be stressful and overemphasized in education, but they can also be powerful motivators if they allow students to reflect on their accomplishments. For example, I sometimes give vocabulary quizzes where I dictate ten vocabulary words in the learner’s L1 and then they translate them to English. They then report to me, a partner or write privately in their notebooks how many words they knew. The following lesson, one of the students becomes the teacher and dictates ten words for the class and so on. Not the most communicative activity, but great for boosting confidence.

I’ve also given students timed-tests for irregular verbs. (Here’s a version in Word: irreg verbs timed test). I give them three minutes to fill in as many verbs as they know and tally up their points. The next lesson, I give them EXACTLY the same test and they see how many more they can do. It’s a wonderful feeling to walk into a class before it starts and see the students quiz each other in preparation for the timed-test! There are no points for this activity, no marks, no grades-they just want to succeed for their own sake!

Sometimes, however, these tiny victories don’t get noticed. Taking time to reflect can help make them more salient. Having students keep record sheets of marks can be a great way to do this. Training students to self-evaluate using can do statements can also be powerful. However, these techniques can be a little too structured and don’t allow for a lot of reflection about why the student succeeded or failed or how she can improve the next time. Here are some more open-ended ways to do that.

After every progress test or exam we do, I ask students to answer some feedback questions. They can write the answers in English or Spanish and their answers can be as long or short as they want. I ask them questions like these:

Metacognitive Questions

I often get responses like this:

Enrique responses

An even more in depth way to do this is by asking the students to write you a letter. After my students know their midcourse exam marks in January, they write me a letter explaining their efforts so far, what they think they’ve done well and what they’d like to concentrate on for the following term. Here is an example of a letter I recieved last year:




The aim of these letters is to help my students develop their own metacognition and sense of self-efficacy as well as to give me some feedback about the course. The added bonus is that many of the letters are positive, which boosts my own self-efficacy and sense of accomplishment!

Vicarious Experiences

We believe we can achieve something if someone like us has achieved it, and many, many people have learned other languages! Unfortunately, due to the dominance of native-speaker teachers in my own context, many students may become discouraged because they will never speak the language as well as their teacher-role model. Well, we can quite simply change the role model!

In my centre, we have created an event where small groups of students prepare and give a short talk to class in a lower level about what the course entails. For example, a pair of students who have just done their B2 exam give a talk to a class of students who are in a PRE-B2 course.  These “expert” students explain the course demands and structure and talk about what they’ve done to succeed in the level.  The expert students pass down their tricks and strategies while the novice students meet peers who have actually accomplished the same goals.

Experts Prompts
Prompts for the Expert Learners to prepare their presentations for the Novice Learners

While the previous activity is quite intensive and can require a lot of time and organization, you can also do something similar by having higher-level students record short passages to be used as listening comprehension activities for lower level students. Having a higher-level peer come in as a guest speaker is another easy way to do this. Additionally, a YouTube video of a celebrity from your students’ country speaking English inspire their own beliefs in themselves (Thanks to a suggestion from Chris Roland, I’ve used interviews with Rafa Nadal for this purpose). Similarly, save copies of good-writing tasks that you can use as examples instead of relying on the ones from the course book.

I also get students to share their strategies with one another and ask one another for advice. For example while practising functional language for giving and making suggestions, my students did a mingling activity based on this slide:

Peer suggestions

After getting suggestions from their peers, they wrote down one new strategy they wanted to try at home and reported back the following week.

Social Persuasion

Teacher encouragement can obviously be very powerful as can setting students up for success. Verbal encouragement should focus on elements within the student’s control or at the very least, link accomplishments to effort. The typical teacher phrase: “The test isn’t hard if you study” can be a great start. I like to give my students a little pep-talk after a revision class praising them for all the hard work that they’ve done and the progress I’ve seen them make. I like to give them concrete examples if possible but end the talk with something like “all I ask that you do your best and give it your all!” I also write extensive responses to the letters they write me where I highlight my impressions of the effort they’ve put it and how much they’ve accomplished because of it.

My response to a student’s letter she wrote at the beginning of the school year.

But what about actually setting students up for success, especially in mixed-ability groups with an imposed syllabus? Well, first of all, scaffolding and giving clear instructions is a start. Doing pre-assessment activities to see what they already know is also a great technique. I also think it is very important to give them clear expectations and examples of what success looks like. For example, when asking my students to do a writing activity, I give them a list of grammar and vocabulary I’d like them to include. This way they know what is expected of them and they can start to internalise the strategy of trying out new language in their writing. I also have them write a second-draft so that they can improve and measure their improvement (see this post for some examples).

Emotional and Physiological States

The times when our students are exhausted, stressed or just apathetic can cause some of our biggest challenges as teachers. Experiencing moments like these are inevitable from time to time, but in terms of self-efficacy they are only problematic if the student interprets them as evidence that she is incapable of doing something. Teaching emotional self-regulation merits its own post, so I’ll just talk about some ways to reframe one very common emotion, frustration, in order to maintain self-efficacy.


All of us experience frustration from time to time when we are struggling to achieve something, so students need to be told this is completely normal. If a student is overcome with frustration (think beginner adult doing a listening activity) it may be a good idea to have the student take a quick break before coming back to the activity. Give the student support options if possible (eg. Follow along with the transcript in the book or allow her to stop the track when she wants to) and remind the student that language learning takes time. I know it seems a bit cliché, but as we’ve seen above, an encouraging word can be very helpful. I have motivational quotes hung up around my classroom: things like “Mistakes are proof you’re trying” and the classic Michael Jordan quote: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” I point them out if necessary, or to lighten the mood with some jokes about how cliché it all is. On that point, having a laugh can really break through this feeling and using humour can ease the tension. Nevertheless, I do feel that it is important to encourage the learner to eventually return to the activity and that shes does achieve some success with it, even if it requires a lot of teacher or peer support.

Imagined Experiences

Finally, I’d like to share what I think is my favourite language learning strategy. When learning languages, I like to invent imaginary situations where I need to use the language and have a conversation with myself. For example, I’m currently just beginning to learn German so this morning while making coffee I invented that I was meeting my German friend’s boyfriend for the first time and that I had to introduce myself. I “role-played” the whole little dialogue out loud in the kitchen and thought about the questions he would ask me, how he would ask for clarification, how I would ask him to repeat, how I would respond, what questions I would ask him, etc. Yes, I had an entire 5-minute conversation with an imaginary German in my kitchen!  But you know what, I was able to clarify what language I didn’t know (for example I didn’t know how to say “nice to meet you”), predict the kinds of questions I might hear, I practiced my fluency, paid attention to my pronunciation and intonation, and I went back to self-correct when I knew I made a mistake. In doing all of this, I got one step closer to automatizing the language that I know and I feel more confident that I would have the coping skills necessary if I were in a similar situation. Having imaginary successes can help you feel more competent as well as make you more competent by helping you predict difficulties or notice gaps in your current knowledge.

This seems very awkward and embarrassing for many students, but it works! It’s just like preparing for a job interview or a big presentation. I tell my students to just imagine telling me about something that interests them. What questions would I ask you? What would I want to know? Or with teenagers, I tell them to imagine they’re meeting a famous celebrity who wants to know about their life. Imagining successes can help lead to actual success.

Take Away

  • Craft situations where students can experience success
  • Have students reflect in order to make small successes salient
  • Use peer role models
  • Praise students’ actions and effort not ability or talent
  • Encourage students’ effort
  • Set students up for success by giving an example of what success “looks like”
  • Help students re-frame negative emotions like frustration
  • Encourage students to imagine successful situations using the language

If you want to  read more, this site has a lot of excellent information about cultivating self-efficacy.

If you’ve managed to read this far (what a long post-I appreciate the effort!) please leave me a comment! I’ve outlined a possibe future post about ways for teachers to cultivate their own self-efficacy in order to protect against burnout. Would you be interested in reading about that?



Bandura, A. (1986). The explanatory and predictive scope of self-efficacy theory, Journal of social and clinical psychology [online] 4:359-373. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1521/jscp.1986.4.3.359 [Accessed 13 February, 2016].

Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).

Hsieh, P. (2012). Attribution: Looking Back and Ahead at the ‘Why? Theory. In S. Ryan, M. Williams, and S. Mercer (Eds.), Psychology for language learning, pp. 90-102. Houndsmills: Palgrave MacMillan.

Mercer, S (2012). Self-concept: Situating the Self. In S. Ryan, M. Williams, and S. Mercer (Eds.), Psychology for language learning, pp. 10-15. Houndsmills:Palgrave Macmillan.

Mills, N., Pajares, F., and Herron, C. (2007). Self-efficacy of college intermediate french students: Relation to achievement and motivation, Language learning [online] 57:417-442. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2007.00421.x [Accessed 13

Williams, S. L. (1995). Self-efficacy, anxiety, and phobic disorders. In J. E. Maddux, (Ed.), Self-efficacy, adaptation, and adjustment: Theory, research and application (pp. 69-107). New York: Plenum.


Start as you mean to go on: Setting effective “rules” with teenage classes


When I first started teaching (over 10 years ago) I had the goal of making my lessons the most entertaining and “fun” as possible. I made sure to include games, songs, and videos  in every lesson. The thing is, as students came to expect “fun”, they became desensitized to it which meant I had to constantly outdo myself and come up with more elaborate, more exciting games. One of the most demoralizing teaching moments often comes halfway through a painstakingly planned lesson, packed with “entertaining” activities, when a student asks “Teacher, are we going to play a game today?”

At the 2018 Innovate ELT conference, Sarah Priestley questioned the importance of fun in ELT in her plenary titled DO STUDENTS REALLY WANT FUN IN THE ELT CLASSROOM? It seems that other teachers are also starting to examine the status “fun” has in our industry, and are realising that actual learning should not only be the main objective of our lessons, but that learning itself is enjoyable.

I thought about the insights I gleaned from studying expert language learners (read about the virtuous cycle of language learner development and the variables that make good language learners). These students loved much more than their “fun” English classes, they loved learning English. They loved it so much that they modified their environments and behaviours in a way that enabled them to reach C2 levels of English without spending years in an English speaking country.

My vision for teaching

So, with this in mind, I reflected on the goals or vision I had for teaching my students. If before my mission was to create fun lessons, now I aim to encourage my students to become expert language learners: if they love learning English so much that they watch tv, listen to music, talk to tourists on holiday, read in English, etc. they will succeed whether or not I manage to clearly explain the difference between present perfect and past simple. If they are good language learners, they will truly succeed in spite of their teachers and their English classes.

First Day Activities

I’m a big believer in “start as you mean to go on” and therefore I find that the very first day of a course is extremely important. I usually use a similar plan for first day lessons which includes some “getting to know you” activities and icebreakers followed by a “rule setting” activity for classroom management purposes. Now with my new vision in mind, I slightly modified this plan. I still start with ice-breakers but then we do a short true/false quiz on what makes a good language learner. If I want my students to be good language learners, they need to know what that looks like.

We do the quiz in pairs using mini-whiteboards (we don’t keep score or anything). The quiz has questions like:

GLL quiz slide screen shot

And gives simplified responses like:

Answer GLL screen shot

While many of the responses are rather obvious, the activity often opens some dialogue and the students boast about using certain behaviours. It is a wonderful way to set the intention for the course.

Setting Class “Rules”

After this quiz, we then proceed to establish our “rules”. For many years I’ve done rule setting by practising modal verbs. Students brainstorm endings to statements like these:

In English class we have to/should/can/mustn’t, etc.

Then we vote as a class on the most important statements in each category and this becomes our list of rules that we stick on a poster.

I still use this format, but I’ve changed the focus. Now, instead of in English class we have to…the sentence stem has become Good Language Leaners have to, should, shouldn’t and mustn’t. In a way, it is a summary of the quiz, but it is also how I transparently communicate the vision I have for the class to my students.

After setting up my courses in this way for the past four or so years, I’ve found some clear advantages. First of all, by directly expressing that I assume that all of my students can become or are good language learners, they start the course feeling capable of success.

Secondly, statements like “In English class we must” connote that the learners must do as they’re told, because as young teenagers, this is what is expected of them. These kind of statements rob students of any sense of “why” the rule exists. There is little ownership of the norms, even if they do “come up” with them. However, statements like “Good Language Learners must”  help clarify why certain behaviours are desirable. For example, “Good Language Learners have to speak in English in class” is clearly related to the fact that Good Language Learners use every opportunity they have to practise the language. This rule has not been dictated by me, the authority-figure adult, but by students who truly understand why a rule like this is in place.

Furthermore, by setting rules in this way, the onus of responsibility is on the students themselves. If they want to succeed, they should follow the rules, not for the sake of the rules or to impress their teacher, but for themselves. These kind of rules seem to empower the students and make it much easier for me to enforce! Of course, as the group leader (and the authority-wielding adult) it is my responsibility to guide them back on track, and challenge behaviours that aren’t in line with our vision, but it is much easier to do this if the students clearly see that I have their best interest at heart and I’m not just trying to “control” them.

Advantages of setting rules with a focus on what makes a Good Language Learner

In conclusion, here are the benefits I’ve experienced since using this procedure on the first day:

  • Students understand my vision for the course and often buy into it
  • Students assume they are capable of achieving this vision
  • Students truly understand why certain rules are in place
  • Students “own” the rules
  • The onus of responsibility is ultimately on the students themselves to comply with the rules

This relatively small change to how I start a course on the first day has made a huge difference in terms of how the rest of the course continues and what my students accomplish. Ironically, most of my students are now perfectly able to stay engaged throughout the lesson, even without games. I now plan classes soley based on the “learning potential” of each activity and though I still get the “Are we going to play a game today?” question once in a while, it doesn’t frustrate me like before.

I’d love to hear from you! How do you set rules at the beginning of the course? Do you have a vision or goal for your classes? What do you think about “fun” in ELT?

Ecosystem of Language Learning Variables

Have you ever had a student who, despite working extremely hard, struggles with even the simplest aspects of language learning? A student who, regardless of the time he spends and the support he gets from teachers, parents and classmates, just doesn’t get it? I’m sure you’ve also had students on the other end of the spectrum who don’t lift a finger and yet easily use the language with fluency, accuracy and complexity? Why these differences? Is there something the stronger student is doing that the weaker student can learn and apply? How can we, as teachers, support the weaker student who is already doing more than we’ve asked him to do?

“The Holy Grail” of Individual Differences

These questions were first raised in the 1970s with Jane Rubin’s landmark study “What the Good Language Learner can teach us”. The paper looks into strategies employed by successful language learners with the assumption that teachers can train weaker students to adopt these behaviours and thereby achieve success. Furthermore, her paper opened up a field of study into the Good Language Learner, prompting hundreds of studies whose aim was to find out what makes good language learners different. Researchers looked into aptitude, motivation, strategies, age, beliefs and even personality. All of these studies were an attempt to find what Dewaele (2012) calls “The Holy Grail” of the good language learner.

Overall, we can summarise the results of many of these studies by saying that a small but significant effect was found on language learning outcomes. That means, each of these factors (and others I haven’t mentioned), do influence language learning, but only slightly. The “Holy Grail” was never found.

More recently however, researchers have started to realise that all of these factors influence one another and they change over time and depend on the context the learner is in. These factors (called individual differences) seem to operate as a Complex Dynamic System, meaning that each of them interacts with the others over time, making it impossible to clearly predict outcomes in a linear fashion.

Individual Differences as a Complex Dynamic System

Thinking about a learner in terms of an ecosystem of interacting variables (de Bot, 2008) helps me to understand why each of my students differs in their abilities and achievements. What are these variables? I like to organise them into five categories: biological, cognitive, psychological, behavioural and experiential. A visual representation would be that of a web, where all these variables intersect, looking something like this:

Web Ecosystem
Ecosystem of Learner Variables (There are more variables and connections than I’ve drawn!)


All of these variables interact with one another, creating a unique ecosystem that changes over time and depends on the context, influencing the learning outcomes of each individual learner.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine I have a student called Carmen. Her mother is a doctor and her father is an engineer who have both graduated university (socio-economic factors). Carmen, her parents, teachers and society at large all assume she too will attend university and therefore will need at least a B1 in English in order to graduate (contextual factors). Her parents send her to a language academy and put her in a bilingual school (learning environments) and they do a bit of travelling requiring English for communication (uses for the language). Carmen enjoys using her English when she travels and also knows that English will be important for her future, so she is quite motivated to master the language (motivation). This motivation propels her to work hard and she practises English every chance she gets (cognitive strategies, agency) which may allow her to overcome her limited language learning aptitude (cognitive factors).

Carmen Ecosystem
Carmen’s Ecosystem showing how different variables interact with one another

This is a very simplified and idealised example of how these factors can interact. However, it is often far more complicated than this. Carmen may perform differently on certain tasks, on certain skills, when working with certain classmates, with a specific teacher, at different points in the course, depending on her mood, even at different points in a lesson. There are so many variables, interactions and changes that we can’t predict if Carmen will be successful or not.


So what’s the takeaway for teachers? I’d say the main suggestion is something that most teachers try to do anyway…view and treat their students holistically and humanly. Teachers can meaningfully impact their learners’ systems by encouraging them to be the best language learners they can possibly be! Hold students to high expectations, train them to use effective strategies, create a low anxiety environment, plan engaging lessons with a variety of interactions and activities, encourage positive group dynamics, explain growth mindset and help cultivate each student’s sense of self-efficacy. Though you may not be able to predict or control the outcomes of the system, best practices can snowball into a force that mitigates elements that cannot be changed (like socio-economic factors or biological factors). What you do and how you connect with students can make all the difference.


De Bot, K. (2008). Introduction: Second language development as a dynamic process, The Modern Language Journal [online] 92:166-178. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2008.00712.x  [Accessed 13 July, 2015].

Dewaele, J.M. (2012). Learner internal psychological factors. In Herschensohn, Julia & Young-Scholten, Martha (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. pp. 159-79. New York: Cambridge University Press.



Time Management for EFL Teachers Part 3: Marking


As I mentioned in a previous post, I have a weekly routine for spending my non-contact teaching hours. I generally plan my Monday/Wednesday classes on Sunday nights, do the photocopying and preparation for those groups on Monday and Tuesday.  That means I’m ready to go on Wednesday and Thursday in terms of lesson prep, so I dedicate those days to marking students’ work. Here I’m talking mostly about marking written texts as we correct progress tests and workbook-style homework in class as a group. I may collect it once in a while, but I don’t correct it myself.

I’ve found that by organizing marking into my routine, the pile seems less depressing. I force myself to get it all done in the time I’ve blocked off, going class by class. However, I know a lot of teachers who like to mark in shorter bursts throughout the day or week, so the dread doesn’t build up. Obviously, the pile is smaller if you remember not to assign all your groups long writing tasks at the same time.

Marking written work can take a lot of time and energy and students don’t always appreciate the feedback (see this article about the efficacy of written feedback), so the following tips are focussed on optimizing written feedback in a way that is time efficient and produces meaningful feedback for learning.

Types of Feedback

I once had a French teacher who created a common mistakes profile for each individual student based on his or her written work. He classified the types of errors and then tallied them up for each student; producing a bar graph he returned with his written feedback. (I always made mistakes with adjective agreement and noun gender!) I get dizzy thinking about the amount of time he must have spent marking his students’ work, and as a learner, I’m not sure it was very effective.

Marking schemes

Many teachers employ marking codes or correct all of their students’ mistakes on every composition, which can be very helpful at times, but requires a lot of time and thought on the part of the teacher. Varying the type of feedback you give to students can help them take full advantage of the task and provide you with some flexibility in terms of time management.

Instead of using a complex marking scheme or writing the corrections, on a first draft I often just underline errors and tick good stretches of language (including vocabulary, discourse markers and complex language). If I don’t understand a stretch of text, I just write a question mark in the margin. The students then re-draft their text and that’s when I’ll explicitly correct their mistakes. This makes the feedback more accessible (because they will have thought about it in order to write a second draft) and it saves me time.

Written feedback
An example of how I mark. I did directly offer help to this student (A2 level) with some higher level words or structures (UFO for example). I always have students write their text again, and they usually do their best to correct their errors.

Other times, I won’t correct any language at all, but will use a marking rubric like the one for Cambridge main suite exams. Because I’m marking on content, communicative achievement, organization and language, I’m reading the text as a whole and giving learners valuable feedback about their entire text. Not having to stop and start can make marking go quicker.

Rubric for writing marking
Example of a writing rubric I use for A2-B1 teenagers. As they get more confident, I often ask them to sef-evaluate their first draft and so I only give them written feedback on their second draft.

Peer and Self-Correction

Explicitly explaining marking criteria to students in class can be helpful in other ways. For example, students can do a self-evaluation of their composition, which you can simply accept or debate. Once in a while, they can peer edit (or mark) based on the same criteria you use-giving you a “marking-free” day. The class time invested training your learners to mark themselves, perhaps by providing examples and doing some practice together, will empower them to make the most of peer and self correction. These two types of feedback can maximize students’ learning while minimizing your non-contact teaching time and energy.

Group writing

Texts produced by groups in the class can be both very effective for improving their writing and reduce your marking time. When writing a discursive essay, each group could write one paragraph and then the class self-evaluates the whole product. Using Camscanner to scan the text and then project it on the whiteboard for the students to correct in class together can be both effective and efficient.

Assigning writing

Students often feel the same about writing as we do about marking all of it! Sometimes, assigning short texts can be just as effective. With B2 level students, I like to teach them to effectively outline and plan their texts so sometimes the writing homework is just to write up the plan with chunks or small stretches of language that they’d use. Other times, after working with a strong text in class, I have them write only the conclusion for homework, or I give them a weak text and their homework is to improve it. Of course what you assign depends on the objectives for the lesson, the group and the individual learners, but sometimes assigning a shorter text is a win-win situation as well as best practice.

outline essay
Example of a plan for a B2 First essay. They write vocabulary, chunks of language and linkers. Takes less time and it can be very effective at helping them organise their thoughts and language without having to write it all out.


Tips for marking

  • Schedule time for it-either in a block or a few texts here and there
  • Don’t assign writing to all your groups at the same time
  • Use a simplified marking scheme
  • Use a rubric to give feedback on more than just language errors
  • Train learners to peer and self-correct
  • Try group writing once in a while and mark it as a class
  • Sometimes shorter texts can be just as effective for learning as longer assignments

How do you cut down on marking time?

Time Management for EFL Teachers Part 2: Lesson planning and preparation

In a previous post, I talked about making the most of your working hours. In this post I’m going to talk about one of the most time consuming tasks of an EFL teacher-lesson planning and preparation.

Lesson Planning

In her post on the British Council’s Teaching English Blog, Katherine Bilsborough gives some excellent tips about how to make lesson planning time more efficient. She writes her lesson plan on a post it, because in her words:

If the plan doesn’t fit, then I’m being over ambitious, I’ll fail and feel bad.

I don’t think I’m at that level of efficiency yet, but I’m not sure I’m so far off either. I still like to keep my lesson plans together in a notebook and clearly write out my objectives for the lesson. I find this helps keep me on track and keeps me from spending far too much time planning and preparing a five-minute activity.

I also tend to teach similar levels year after year, and can easily draw on what I’ve done before. I usually spend my time modifying or adapting existing lessons to a particular group, but of course that’s because I already have something to work with.

In general, it takes me around 15 minutes to plan a 90-minute lesson. By plan I mean think about the objectives for the lesson and write down what I’d like to do. Then I make of list of what materials I need to prepare or find for the lesson. Preparation for me usually includes making powerpoints, photocopying, modifying a transcript, or cutting something up (parts of a text, cue cards, a photo). Preparation can take a long time, and if I don’t have time to prepare something, then I change the plan (eg. I’ll just use the course book as is, employ the students to make materials, do something as a dictation instead of typing it out for a powerpoint). It’s not always perfect, but it is often “good enough.” However, making materials can be worth it, and in the next section I’ll outline some ways that I use to make this process the most time-efficient possible.



Lesson Preparation

I wish someone had told me during my pre-service course how much time I would dedicate to cutting up little bits of paper and making photocopies! Because I want to be at work as little time as is necessary, I try to maximize my efficiency in this area.

Do all of your prep work in the same block of time

As I mentioned in my previous post, I plan my classes for the week on Sunday evenings and then make a “to prepare” list, including making Power Points, photocopies and cutting things up. On Monday and Tuesday, I work through this list before classes. I then organize all of the photocopies and cards, etc. into an accordion folder for each group.

Organize your files

As I use a projector or IWB in almost all of my lessons, I have accumulated hundreds of digital files that I can simply modify to suit different levels, course books, and ages. However, in order to do so, they must be organized effectively!

In Dropbox, I “double save” digital files which means I save a digital resource in at least two different folders: a folder per coursebook unit (eg. PET Unit 4) and a folder per skill focus (eg. Grammar Activities-Conditionals).  That means that if I’ve made a wonderful powerpoint to teach or practise, say conditionals for B1 students, I can easily find that same powerpoint and modify it for a B2 level group without having to look for it in the unit folders.

A screen shot of my “grammar activities” files. I save digital materials in at least two places: once in a folder for the specific unit of the coursebook and once in a grammar or skills folder. This means when I’m teaching, say conditionals, to a new group or level, I can easily draw on materials I already have available and just modify or adapt them for the specific lesson.

Share your files with your colleagues! A shared Google Drive or Dropbox can halve your prep time!

Bits of card

What about all of those little cards and bits of paper you’ve cut up? Photocopying a ready-made communicative activity from a resource like Reward can seem like a huge timesaver, until you find yourself photocopying and cutting up the same activity year after year! Why not save and organise those resources?

I try not to prepare activities I am only going to use once, and I aim to get as much mileage as possible out of anything I’ve decided to take the time to photocopy, cut up and laminate. I store these reusable activities in Tupperware containers by level (B1, B2, etc.) but you could organise them by skill focus or grammar structure.

I love having these resources on hand and I use them as fast finisher activities, warmers and coolers even once we’ve moved on from the focus of the activity, recycling the grammar point or skill focus. It saves time and promotes better learning for my students.


Bits of card
Save your bits of card to use again!  I organise by level (eg. B1, B2, etc) and just pull them out when I need them.

Enlist Students

Of course, students can participate in the creation of these materials. My students make a lot of our classroom materials, which saves time and gets them involved. They make vocabulary cards, they make domino and taboo games, they make gap fill songs, they make vocabulary quizzes for one another, and they make sentence transformations, little ones even make flashcards. Students are often more engaged when using their own creations and you save in preparation time.

Class Copies

I once worked for an academy that had class photocopies of any worksheet imaginable and the idea was that the students wrote their answers in their notebooks. A real time saver for the teachers!

I don’t use many worksheets these days, but I do have a class set of different gap fill songs that we use throughout the year. The beautiful thing about this is that the students add to my collection every year (a homework activity for them) and all I do is make a class set of photocopies! The students write answers to the gaps in their notebooks, and the class set goes back into the folder. The music stays current, I do very little photocopying and the students get really involved! You could do the same with progress tests or vocabulary quizzes, even those that past students have made!

Tips for efficient planning and preparation

  • Preparation often takes much longer than planning. If you don’t have time to prep, change your plan!
  • Keep digitial files oraganised for quick retrieval
  • Only photocopy and cut up materials you will use again and again. Keep them organised!
  • Get students to help with preparation of some materials
  • Consider making a class-set of photocopies to reuse in your centre (have students write answers in their notebooks)

I’d love to hear from you!

Are you an efficient planner? What are your secrets? How long does it take you to plan and prepare a lesson?

Time Management for EFL Teachers Part 1: Making the most of your working hours

As we all know, in order to effectively inspire and engage our learners, teachers must spend quite a bit of time outside of the classroom planning and preparing lessons as well as marking work and providing useful feedback. Long hours spent planning, preparing, marking and completing admin duties can leave teachers drained before they even enter the classroom, and this exhaustion can even make us feel unable to put in the necessary energy to manage our classrooms well and truly inspire our learners to engage with the language and material in the way we had envisioned in our plans. All of this can lead to burn out and demotivation, affecting not only the quality of our work, but our mental and physical health as well.

Managing your class time is important, but so is managing your time outside of the classroom. In this series of posts, I’ll outline some ways I’ve cultivated over the years to manage my time and avoid total burnout. The first post is about making the most of your working hours, the second is more specifically about lesson preparation, the third is about marking and the final post is a general post about avoiding burnout.

Working Hours

We all have different personal and professional responsibilities that demand our time and attention-private lessons, children, hobbies, appointments, friends, families, pets, houses and errands can all eat into our non-contact teaching time (or better said, it is our non-contact teaching time that can eat into these other activities!). It is important to find a routine that works for you MOST of the time, and try to stick to it.

For example, I try to get into work as late as I reasonably can because I find I am more productive in the morning at home. I like to plan my classes on Sunday evenings, and prepare my resources on Monday and Tuesday mornings. This means that when I get to work, all I have to do is make some photocopies and set up my activities for the day. I dedicate Wednesdays and Thursdays before class to correcting my students’ work and tweaking any lessons that need modification. This reduces my stress levels and gives me time for a nice coffee with my colleagues before classes start. Clearly, I work a lot of hours between Sunday and Tuesday, but then Wednesday through Friday mornings (when I don’t have as much productive energy) are basically free.

However, many of my colleagues like to keep work at work, and come in early every day to do all of their planning, preparation and marking. The benefits of their system include: they don’t take work home with them, they can plan lessons based on the students’ grasp of the lesson before, and they don’t have to lug around books and students’ work.

No matter what kind of routine you make for yourself, make it a habit. Block off the time you need beforehand and consider it “working hours” (even if it is Sunday night). Where possible, let other people know (partners, friends) that this is part of the job you’re being paid to do.

person hands woman pen
Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

On very important side note here, I don’t have children, though many of my colleagues do and find it very challenging to stick to preparing during unreliable nap times or having to squeeze all their lesson planning into unreasonable chunks of time when children are being cared by someone else and the teacher is running on minimal sleep. Not to mention unexpected events like a child staying home from school due to illness or a school holiday that doesn’t coincide with the teacher’s. Although I do not have any first-hand experience with this, I think it is important that teachers in this situation look at their available time VERY realistically and adjust their own expectations accordingly. In my experience, the teachers I’ve worked with who are in this situation are extremely competent and experienced, and in trying to do everything perfectly, they cause themselves undue stress and anxiety. Perhaps the key here is to manage your own expectations of yourself. What can you realistically do? It’s ok if you need to rely a little more on the course book than usual, or if you need to lean on your experience to “wing” certain parts of a lesson (perhaps try out a bit of Dogme-style teaching?). Know that all you can do is your best in any situation and having children changes your situation. If you do what you can, it’s enough! Don’t be afraid to ask for help from colleagues or trusted supervisors-we all want you to succeed and will do what we can.

Course Planning

At the beginning of the term (usually in summer and while invigilating midcourse exams) I like to plan out when I want to introduce certain syllabus requirements. The template I use is very simple-I use a table with the week number in rows and columns which include skills plus pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. I use my course book and the syllabus to come up with a working plan that I can modify throughout the term. I staple this plan into my planning notebook and reference it each time I plan. Because I have already done the long-term thinking, I can just concentrate on the activities in each lesson, easily recycling what we have covered in the past and priming students for what we will cover in the future.

Here you can download a copy of the template that I use:

Term Plan

Other teachers I know use post it notes in their course books to plan out the term, and yet others may just set page number goals.

There are other excellent examples out there from much more experienced and organised teachers. On her blog Teresa Bestwick shares a wonderful example of how she organises her to do lists into weekly agendas and Sandy Millan shares her talk from IATEFL in 2016 explaining how she manages to do it all. Experiment, don’t be afraid to modify what you’re already doing to find something that works for you!

In my experience, the time I invest making a long-term plan is worth it. It means that my day-to-day planning is not only more time efficient, but also more effective.

Class Routines

Finally, taking the time to think through an effective classroom routine is not only beneficial for students, but for you as a planner! If you always start or end a lesson with the same kinds of activities, when you are planning, all you have to do is slot in the activities you will be doing for the lesson. For example, this year I’m teaching mostly B1 teenagers and our routine looks something like this:

Agenda on board
This is an example of the agenda I write on the board for each lesson. Most of it is just “routine” with different activities slotted in.

Focus on Form (F.O.F.) 

We start the lesson with a very boring (settler) activity when the students come into class. It is usually some kind of grammar or vocabulary exercise that they have already done! They write their answers in their notebooks and then individual students write their answers on the board and the class checks if they are correct. This allows me to take attendance and gets them ready for English class.


We spent around 5-10 minutes on a different aspect of pron every lesson. Sometimes we focus on an individual sound, sometimes on an element of connected speech, sometimes on the words each individual has trouble with.


We play different games with our vocabulary cards for a few minutes. Taboo, Pictionary, charades, etc.


We compare our homework or read through our compositions to check we’ve met the requirements. This may bring up questions that can be addressed in the next activity.

Review of previous lesson

We talk about what we did in the previous lesson and maybe do some revision of anything we weren’t too sure of, do a communicative activity, task or play a revision game. Very often, I choose to recycle activities, which not only saves time, but allows for valuable consolidation.

Meat of the Lesson

After doing all of these recycling and revision activities, we get into the “meat” of the lesson.

Cool Down

After writing down their homework, we often do a quick game or cooler activity before setting the students on their way.

With this routine, I spend most of my time making sure the “meat” of the lesson is the best it can possibly be because all I have to do is slot in the other activities from the arsenal I’ve built up over the years.

Tips for making the most of your working hours: 

  • Block off routine preparation time in your agenda and try to stick to it. Think of this time as “working hours.”
  • Experiment with what times and places are most efficient for you, eg. at home before going into work, in your classroom or staffroom, every day, once a week
  • Spend time doing some long-term planning to make your day-to-day planning more efficient and recycling more effective
  • Routines aren’t just for young learner classes! Slotting in different activities allows you to spend most of your time and energy on the “meat” of the lesson, which is the most important anyway.


I’d love to hear from you!

Have you tried any of these things? How do they work for you?

How do you make the most of your working hours? What “gets in the way”?

The Virtuous Cycle of Language Learner Development

A few years ago I had a 12-year-old student named María. She was in a pre-B1 course and had been a student at our academy from the time she was 6.

Despite always communicating in English, María often seemed distracted. She was that typical student who is always looking around for her pencil, shoves loose papers into her folder, and who spends hours decorating a piece of writing instead of using that time and energy to actually produce the text that she had been assigned.

Then on a random Monday afternoon, at the beginning of a lesson, something amazing happened. She was doing a fast-finisher drill involving B1 sentence transformations. This activity involves orally or mentally completing a sentence transformation, then checking with the answer on the other side of the card. I encourage the students to work through them like flashcards, putting the ones they know in one pile and the cards they don’t know in another pile. The idea is that eventually they have all of their cards in the “correct” pile. I had made a big deal about the sentence transformations saying that they would be doing them a lot in the following year when preparing for their B1 exam, but of course I knew that we had already studied the grammar that was on the cards and that they were capable of getting most of them correct.

sentence trans cards
B1 Sentence Transformation Cards

Anyway, Maria and the other students were working away on this activity, when she suddenly called me over, shouting excitedly “Teacher! Teacher! Come!” I approached, and to my surprise she told me “Teacher! I’ve got all of these right!” She proceeded to demonstrate how well she knew the answers and put several cards in the “correct” pile. With a genuine smile spread all across my face, I praised her effort and told her how impressed I was. Although I had wanted to cut off that activity just before she called me, I let the activity go on until she had successfully completed all of the cards.

After that moment, María’s behaviour totally changed. She started putting her hand up, she started volunteering, she started fully participating, she started correcting her partners’ errors while doing pair work. She was not afraid to make mistakes and visibly tried to learn from them. María became a totally different student.

In her midcourse exam, María had scored a 49%. However, she scored a 78% on a much more difficult end of course exam. Despite a shaky start, she ended up doing quite well in the following course as well.

While it would be ill-advised to attribute all of this success to one specific event, I can’t help but link her achievements to that one moment where she realized her own competence. I started thinking about the C2 level students I had interviewed a few years before while doing research for my MA TESOL dissertation.

In my interviews with these expert language learners, all of them were able to identify one specific moment in time when they realised they were good at English. For one student it was forgetting to put the subtitles on a Harry Potter film, and getting through it without a problem. For another it was when the older students in his class wanted to copy his work because they had deemed him “the smart one”. Whereas for another, it was being assigned an authentic novel in English while his classmates were given readers. For these learners, brief yet memorable experiences of competence boosted their motivation and led them to interact much more with the language, mostly because they liked it or at least liked the feeling of accomplishment. That is to say that these learners were propelled to learn by their intrinsic motivation, or “doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable” (Ryan and Deci, 2000:55)

Because they liked English, they found ways to practise it outside of class. They read books in English, went to extra English classes, watched television in English, and begged their parents to send them abroad if only for a few weeks. One student even hung around outside the gates to the university in an attempt to make friends with students from abroad. Of course, all this extra practice did wonders for their level of English, which in turn did wonders for their intrinsic motivation. One tiny moment may have unleashed a chain of events that resulted in a relatively successful journey towards excellent English. I’ve called this feedback loop the Virtuous Cycle of Language Learner Development. They experienced competence, which sparked their intrinsic motivation, which in turn led them to engage more with the language, increasing their competence and autonomy, continuing the cycle.

Virtuous cycle
Virtuous Cycle of Language Learner Developmet

According to Cognitive Evaluation Theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000), intrinsic motivation is sparked when one experiences competence and autonomy together. This doesn’t sound too surprising. Generally, we like things we’re good at. We also tend to do more of the things we like, and therefore we get better at them. This in turn maintains that sense of competence and autonomy and increases our engagement even more. Furthermore, our brains may even be programmed for this cycle to take place.

According to Schumann’s Stimulus Appraisal theory

we assess stimuli by making appraisals across five categories-whether the situations is novel or pleasant, whether it contributes to one’s goals or needs, whether we have the coping potential to deal with its consequences and how our engagement within a situation may affect our self and social image (Mates and Joaquin, 2013:421).


Positive appraisals in one or more of the categories produce a release of dopamine, providing a sensation of reward, which may lead the learner to further seek out similar situations (Schumann and Wood,1997; Mates and Joaquin, 2013).

A quest for that dopamine rush can hook learners into this virtuous cycle which may be key for language learners in foreign language contexts where real-life language use is limited. These students need to design their environments in order to interact as much as possible with the language (Muñoz, 2014), and in order to really do that, you have to want to.

Getting students “hooked-into” this virtuous cycle has become one of my main goals as a language teacher. I know I can only teach them so much, but if I can spark their intrinsic motivation and get them engaging more with the language, they will learn so much more than I could ever hope to teach them in three hours a week.




Mates, A.W. and Joaquin, A.D.L. (2013). Affect and the brain. In J. Herschensohn & M. Young–Scholten (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of second language acquisition, pp.417-435. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Muñoz, C. (2014). Starting age and other influential factors: Insights from learner interviews, Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching [online] 3:465-484. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.14746/ssllt.2014.4.3.5 [Accessed 1 July, 2015].


Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology [online] 25:54-67. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1999.1020 [Accessed 23 January, 2016].


Schummann, J. and Wood, L. (1997) The Neurobiology of Motivation. In Schumann, J., Crowell, S., Jones, N., Lee, N., Schuchert, S., Wood, Lee (Eds.)The Neurobiology of Learning: Perspectives form Second Language Acquisition, pp. 23-42. New York: Routledge.