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Teaching Students How to "Take" a Lesson

Here is a video of the presentation I gave at the 2012 JALT Hokkaido Conference at Hokkai Gakuen University in Sapporo. Apologies for the occasional focus problems. I have posted a video of the slideshow below the main video. The notes for the presentation follow the videos.

The expression “take a lesson” suggests that the person who does the “taking” is an active participant in the learning process. It is interesting that in Japanese, the equivalent expression would be jyugyo o ukeru. Ukeru is a verb that denotes passivity and conveys the idea of receiving something or having something done to you. In fact, the same verb is used to describe the process of undergoing an operation in a hospital!

Of course, it would be wrong to say that all Westerners are active, independent learners and that all Asian students are passive, dependent learners, although these traits can certainly be seen in the different teaching philosophies that prevail in Asia and in the West.

Leaving aside the question of differing educational philosophies, I would argue that one of the things that holds back all language learners is their failure to understand that languages are something that you have to “take,” and not something that someone else can “give” you. This means that no matter how good your teacher is at his or her job, there is nothing he or she can do that will result in you being able to speak a foreign language. That goal is something that can only be achieved through your own effort and hard work.

A couple of years ago, I went hiking with a Japanese friend in Nagano Prefecture. When we looked at the map, we thought that the top part of the mountain was going to be really steep. When we got up there, however, we found that it was not too bad at all. When I realised this, I said to my friend:

It’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be.

My friend was a keen and quick learner of English, and she immediately noticed this as being a structure that was new to her. “What did you just say?” she asked. When I repeated the sentence, she said, “I see,” and then asked me if her translation of the meaning was correct. I told her that it was. The words she said next were ones that every language learner should be repeating constantly in every class:

So can you say…?

Using this question, she continued to “play” with the new structure, testing it out in new sentences, changing words around, and mixing it with other language that she already knew. As she did this, I remember thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if all our students did this!”

Afterwards, I started thinking about why they don’t, and it dawned on me that apart from cultural differences, the main reason that most students don’t ask questions like this is that they don’t know how to. To address this, I decided to create a framework to teach my own students how to ask the same kinds of things my friend had asked me on the mountain. The framework is quite simple, consisting of six “experiments” for learners to try with new language as they meet it.

1. Reverse the Polarity

If the language you meet is being used in an affirmative sentence, try making it negative, and vice versa. In my friend’s case, this meant asking:

So can you say, “It’s as bad as I thought it was going to be?”

Yes, you can.

2. Say the Opposite

When you hear a sentence or phrase that expresses a particular meaning, try to express the opposite meaning. In some cases, this will mean using different language. In my friend’s case, it led to the creation of the sentence:

It’s worse than I thought it was going to be.

3. Make a Question

Making questions in European languages (including English) is generally much more complicated than it is in Asian languages. When you hear a positive or negative sentence, you should try to make both a “Yes/No” question, and also, where possible, a “Wh” question. In my friend’s case, the “Y/N” question was:

Was it as bad as you (had) thought it was going to be?

There is no obvious “Wh” question that exactly matches my original sentence, but it is still worth thinking about what might be possible. In this case, the most natural question would probably be:

How bad was it?

4. Change the Tense

Tenses are notoriously difficult for Asian learners of English, so lots of practice is required. If you meet new language that is being used in the present tense, you should try to change it to past and future tenses.

It wasn’t as bad as I (had) thought it was going to be.
It probably won’t be as bad as you think it’s going to be.

That second sentence is tricky, and I would be surprised if even a very advanced learner were able to produce it immediately. This just goes to show what a useful exercise playing around with tenses can be.

5. Change Key Words

Changing key words in the sentence is really just what used to be called “substitution.” This can be a really useful exercise, too. Prompted by me, my friend came up with:

It didn’t cost as much as I thought it was going to cost.

Other examples might have been things like:

It didn’t take as long as I thought it was going to take.


There weren’t as many people there as we thought there were going to be.

6. Combine it with Other Language

In some ways, learning a language is a bit like joining the dots in one of those pictures that we all drew when we were young. Grammar and vocabulary are taught in discrete “dots” because that is how our education system is set up, not because that is an accurate reflection of how languages are learned. Personally, I have nothing against teaching English in dots, but this only works if learners then try to connect those dots in their brain in order to see the big picture. If, for example, my friend had been learning reported speech recently, she might have asked me:

So can you say, “He told me that it wasn’t as bad as he thought it was going to be”?

To which I would have replied, “Indeed you can!”

The Power of “No”

One reason why Japanese students tend not to ask questions is that they worry about making mistakes. For many, it might be embarrassing to ask the teacher “Can you say…?” only to be told “No, you can’t.” This is a shame, as in many cases, a “no” answer can tell us much more about a piece of language than a “yes” answer. This is because a “no” answer clarifies the boundaries of its range of use. For example, imagine that a student has just met the phrase “there’s no point” in a sentence like “There’s no point in calling him now because he will be asleep.” Following the framework described above, this student might ask, “Can I say ‘There is a point in calling him now?'” to which the answer would, of course, be “No, you can’t.”

As we all know, that answer reveals possibly the most important fact about this piece of language, which is that it is generally only used in negative sentences. If the same student had asked, “Can I say, ‘There’s no point in going there now?'” he would have received an affirmative answer, but that would not have told him anywhere near as much about how this piece of language is used.

Teachers can help students get over this fear of “No” in several ways. One way is to demonstrate how “No” can be just as useful an answer as “Yes” using the “20 questions” game. Another is to make sure that you respond positively to questions even when the answer is “No.”

Student: Can you say “There is a point…?”
Teacher: That’s a very good question. No, you can’t.

Of course, learners will not be able to do any of this unless they actually notice new language in the first place. I think that we can use the hunter/gatherer metaphor to describe our students: most of them tend to be gatherers, willing only to stockpile what is given out by the teacher, whereas we want them to become “hunters,” constantly open to and actively seeking new language.

I have been trying out the ideas described above in my university classes for two semesters now with very positive results. Using my book “An A-Z of Common English Errors for Japanese Learners” (although any grammar book would do), I get the students working in groups to answer the questions in the workbook, discuss their reasoning with their classmates, and then come up with a list of questions to ask me about the point they have been studying. There is no problem with keeping them on task because I have told them that there will be a big test at the end of the semester on everything that we have covered. I have found that students enjoy working in groups to solve the puzzles, and with a bit of pushing from me, they are getting better and better at engaging with the new language as they learn it. It is also very motivating for me to know that I am going to face engaged, pro-active learners when I walk into the classroom!

To conclude, here is a concise list of my framework for generating questions or “playing” with language:

1. Reverse the polarity
2. Say the opposite
3. Make a question
4. Change the tense
5. Change key words
6. Use it with other language

Please let me know if you have any suggestions for additions to the list.

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  1. Biwa on Sunday November 4th, 2012 at 08:57 AM

    Hi David,
    Thanks David. Your ideas always give me clues to teach young children, too. I’m very impressed you always sort things out in a very systematic way.
    For young children, I use handmade cards which I call SVO/SVC cards. I invite the children to make simple sentences like “I buy a book””I make a hotdog”. Then I show them you can change the subjects like “You””We””They” and then to “He/She/Mr.Brown/My father” which needs an “s” after the verbs. After the children get used to those, I mix some “?/⇒/⇐” cards and encourage them to make questions/future tenses/past tenses. The good thing about using cards is that even the shyest child can easily try those exercises, and of course, most children love playing cards so it’s easy to organize the class. Also, it’s easy(also costless!) to add cards like adjectives/adverbs to make the sentences longer or fancier. I know it’s a kind of old-fashioned way, but I think those simplest things are most flexible, and the children just love creating games and making rules by themselves. I’d love to share ideas with others who also teach children.

  2. David Barker on Monday November 5th, 2012 at 01:25 PM

    Thanks Biwa. I hope some other teachers will post their ideas here too.

  3. Fumie on Thursday November 8th, 2012 at 09:43 AM

    Hi David,

    Can I join here? I’m JTE at an elementary school. Teacher’s blog is difficult for me but it’s useful for my job. These approaches must be effective for learners to improve the languages, although most elementary students can’t do them yet. Your ideas are for more advanced-level learners I think. Maybe for me.
    I want to introduce some games which students like.
    1) Stereo Game: Get several volunteer students come front of the classroom. Suppose the theme expression is “I like~.” After I said “ready go” each volunteer students say “I like ~.”(They say their favorites something) at the same time. And the rest of the class guess who said what he/she likes.
    2) Time Bomb Game: I set the timer for 2minutes or so, or preferably use the sound “tick tack tick tack…. bomb!” Encourage all students to say “I like ~.” in turns. And the students who is saying “I like~.” when the timer go off, he/she is out. I let the students to draw penalty cards like; make a funny face, mimic Doraemon’s voice and etc.

    Hi Biwa,

    I like your idea of using cards. For elementary students changing subjects is confusing but they can change the nouns; like “Do you have a (blue T-shirt → read cap?) Thank you for sharing great idea.

  4. David Barker on Thursday November 8th, 2012 at 10:40 AM

    Hi Fumie,

    Welcome to the Blog for Teachers. I hope you will find some things here that will be useful for you.

  5. Biwa on Thursday November 8th, 2012 at 10:27 PM

    Hi Fumie,

    Thanks for sharing your ideas! I think a time-bomb-game is another good idea to get those shy students to talk, too.

  6. David Clayton on Friday November 9th, 2012 at 05:28 PM

    Hi David,

    Another great article. It often seems to me that as teachers we should do more to teach students how to teach themselves (if that makes sense). If we see our students for just an hour or two each week, the effect we can have on their language learning is obviously limited. If we can encourage students to be enquiring and experimental like your friend, I am sure they will benefit greatly.

    I will be using this to base my study advice on from now. (You know a Japanese version would be really useful too…;-))


  7. David Barker on Friday November 9th, 2012 at 05:38 PM

    Thanks David. Glad you liked it. I was actually working on this in my class today. The students are getting the idea slowly, but it really does take a long time.

    The way I feel about it is that it’s not a case of “It would be nice if our students could think like this” but more “If they can’t learn to think like this, everything else we do is a waste of time anyway.” As you say, the amount of time we spend with them is minimal, so what we should really be focussing on is teaching them how to learn English rather than trying to teach them English.

    I’ll get working on a Japanese version of the article next week.

  8. Biwa on Sunday November 11th, 2012 at 09:31 AM

    Hi David & David,

    I just tried putting David’s concise list into Japanese for myself. How about these?

    (“Playing with the language”~How to make the most of what you’ve learned~)

    1. 肯定文から否定文にしてみる
    2. 反意文にしてみる
    3. 疑問文にしてみる
    4. 時制を変えてみる
    5. キーワードを入れ替えてみる
    6. 既習表現と合わせてみる

    In Japanese, we often pick up the initial letters for each process and combine them together to make an easy word/phrase to express the process. That will be easier for the students to remeber and actually make them “play”. If I try it in English, it would be like “R(everse)””O(pposite)””Q(uestion)””T(ense)””K(eyword)””O(ther)”=”ROQTKO” which will make no sense at all. I tried it in Japanese, but it’s also difficult. So, I’d rather use signs/icons for my young students because they’re very techy and understand these in seconds.
    1. 〇☓
    2. ⇕
    3. ? or Wh-?
    4. ⇔
    5. ↘_↗
    6. +

  9. Biwa on Wednesday November 14th, 2012 at 02:54 PM

    Hi David,

    By the way, where can I find the article about the “20 questions” game you’ve mentioned?

  10. David Clayton on Monday November 19th, 2012 at 04:48 PM

    Hi David,

    A couple of thoughts occurred to me this weekend. The first might be similar to your point five, but one of the first things I do when I encounter a new kanji (after checking form, meaning and reading)is to look for example sentences containing it, and look for common collocations. By hunting down these collocations I know I will remember the kanji more effectively because I have more context. And as a bonus, I get 3 or 4 times more potential ways to use the new word. If I record the collocations and review them (I don’t do this consistently enough to my shame) I see rapid gains in my active vocabulary.
    The second might be an entirely personal quirk, but I find that I remember new language much more effectively if I ask someone about its usage than if I just research it myself. I remember the situation (location, time, interlocutors) I was in when I asked the question, as well as the answer. Thus in addition to finding out all the useful stuff that your friend did by quizzing you about the new language, I think she was reinforcing it in her mind just by going through the process. Perhaps emphasising this point might help Japanese students overcome any shyness they feel about asking the teacher or others questions.


  11. David Barker on Monday November 19th, 2012 at 04:54 PM

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for those suggestions. You may well have a point about reinforcing new language by going through the process of asking about it. I guess that if we make it clear that asking the questions (as opposed to getting the answers) is in itself part of the learning process, students might be more willing to do it.

  12. Biwa on Wednesday November 21st, 2012 at 10:07 PM

    Hi David,

    Thanks for posting the new video. Not to mention the copious content, but also perfect for my listening practice. The word “reckon”(I hope this is the word you were talking about!) was completely new to me.
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