Working on language learner pain-points through a coaching approach

This week’s guest post by the lovely Gabriella Kovács briefly discusses the basics of language coaching and gives you some ideas about how it works… and a very practical takeaway activity to use in your next lesson.

Something to identify is whether you are a coach coaching learners, or a language professional (teacher, trainer) using coaching elements, techniques and tools to add dimension to your classes. 
When you coach, you coach, when you teach, you may make use of specific coaching elements, but that is not coaching: that is teaching with a coaching approach.  In my experience of the past few years, the latter is basically what most language professionals need, this is what learning about LC can provide.

Language coaching is a process focusing on learner needs, interests, motivation and goals.  By identifying – with the learner – what and why they wish to achieve concerning their language learning and language usage goals, the missing pieces of the puzzle fall into place nicely.  By asking questions, guiding with empathy and positivity there will be space for the learner to come to terms with who they really are as language learners, language users and will increase their commitment to taking steps to reach their goals.

The definition goes: A conversation-based process with a purpose to map and create optimal language acquisition or language usage-related goals. The framework is based on strategies utilising intrinsic motivation and developing learning awareness, where both parties are equal partners.  It is important that clients (learners) claim ownership of their own development. (Source: Gabriella Kovács ACC)

Learners may feel stuck or demotivated, keep postponing exams, cannot significantly make progress, do not seem to find time to study the language, believe they are not good at learning languages etc.

For some, working on these issues might take one session, for others 3-6, it really is not about time. I have had clients collaborating with me for one session and leave happily, while others I support for months and work in true partnership with them, covering themes related to their workplace communication issues, exam preparation etc. 

Key questions to ask when beginning a coaching process might be:

In what way(s) is your goal supporting other aspects of your life?

Do you have an ideal type of teaching or lesson in mind you would feel comfortable with?

If you had 15 minutes a day to learn, what would you do in that time?

I work with adults in the corporate world and blend coaching with communication training. Many times I go in with 3-4 coaching tools and a handout and we discuss what is going on for the learner. I provide the attention all learners should be receiving – and they strive.

Let me present an activity I often use with learners when identifying motivation, learning preferences, strategy issues for them. 

  1. Print and cut about 6-10 quotes and place them on the table in front of the learner/s. (If you have a class, then get them into pairs or groups of maximum 3-4.)
  2. Go through the quotes and make sure learners understand the meanings of the words and phrases. Make this as short as possible. (Don’t interpret the meaning of the quotes themselves to them.)
  3. Ask learners to choose 2 quotes that resonate with how they are feeling in connection to their learning challenges right now, why that quote is important for them at present.  Let them explain to you or their partner/group. 
  4. Finally get them to highlight and share some interesting ideas.  Let them reflect on the activity: Why was this activity valuable for you?
  5. You can even collect their reflections and summaries on post-its and put them on the wall.

This is a precious activity as it needs very little preparation, will support learning awareness and deepen understanding of aspects of learning/teaching learners may not have thought of before. It may take 10 minutes, it may take 30 minutes… Be prepared for a fruitful conversation indeed!

These are my favourite quotes, but there are many, many more out there!

  • Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  – From the book Narcotics Anonymous
  • If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much. Lewis Carroll
  • Nothing is impossible… the word itself says I’m possible! Audrey Hepburn
  • The journey is the reward.  – Chinese proverb
  • People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing, that’s why we recommend it daily.  – Zig Ziglar
  • When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps. – Confucius
  • Problems are only opportunities in work clothes. Henry Kaiser
  • Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure. – Confucius
  • I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. – Einstein
  • Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.- Xun Kuang
  • A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. –  Thomas Carruthers
  • That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way. – Doris Lessing

Hope you enjoyed reading this and found it useful. 

Australian-born Gabriella Kovács ACC, an internationally certified language coach, business communication trainer (B.Ed., M.A.), mentor and teacher trainer. She is behind the idea of founding an organisation to support all professionals interested in language coaching, which has manifested in ILCA (International Language Coaching Association).

Her mission is to add dimension and depth to ongoing language learning practices and create a more holistic, person-centred approach for language professionals. She provides webinars, f2f and online trainings, publishes articles and works with her clients.

The Age-old Question: Why Are Games Important In The ESL Classroom?

This week’s guest post comes from the delightful Hal, from Hal and Steve English talking about the importance of games in the classroom.

There is a learning window, that is, a limit to how long students can maintain the focus required for language learning to occur. Games, aka activities, act as a way to expand that window of time in which language learning can occur. That being said, it may be true that teachers with little or no experience may use games in the classroom as a crutch for their inability to maintain that initial learning window as long as is necessary or desirable. However, what is entirely untrue, is that experienced and veteran teachers do not use games in the classroom. To the contrary, the only difference lies in maximizing the efficiency in how and to what degree they will employ those very same games and their understanding of why games are important. As they are especially useful in foreign language learning, let’s examine why games are important in the classroom within the context of ESL students and ESL teachers. As an ESL teacher you’ll know that there are aspects that are particularly important for you when you are at work in the classroom: effective or emotional aspects, creating an effective learning environment, cognitive aspects, and adaptability.

1. Affective Or Emotional Aspects

We’ve all dealt with this central issue. The student’s moods dictate their willingness to learn as well as how engaged they are in the learning process. ESL games in the classroom will help you trek through the emotional swamp of a classroom of youngsters by providing motivation, creating fun in the classroom, promoting spontaneous communication between the ESL students, and creating an environment in which the ESL students can speak and think in a free and creative manner.


Your ESL students require structure in the classroom, but at the same time, they can feel desperate to break away from the routine of language learning. Simply put, their motivation may not be aligned with yours, but rather in escaping it. That’s where ESL games in the classrooms come in. As an ESL teacher, one of your main roles is to align your student’s motivations with your task of language acquisition. ESL games motivate students to participate in the language learning task which you are trying to accomplish. Which brings me to my next point, one of the main reasons ESL games are so motivating in the classroom, besides being a break from their dreaded language learning routine, are the elements of fun they create.


Simply put, when students are having fun, you typically find that they are the most amenable to language learning. Let’s be frank – language learning is an exceedingly difficult task which can frustrate you as well as the students. The constant effort required to understand, produce and manipulate the target language can be completely overwhelming and hard to maintain. When you employ ESL games in the classroom which contain elements of fun it allows your students to feel that they are ‘taking a break’ from the difficult task of language learning to have some fun. As they are having fun, they are practicing their language skills and furthering your goal of language acquisition.

Communication & Creating An Effective Learning Environment

ESL games in the classroom also create an environment which fosters opportunities for the free-willing style of communication which ESL students require to communicate their emotions and connect emotionally to their peers. This is also why student-focused learning is so important. ESL students may feel limited in how and when they can communicate with you – their teacher. However, when you employ ESL games in the classroom ESL students are better able to practice what they have learned with their peers around them who are operating within the same framework as them. The learning environment which is created when students are autonomously and spontaneously producing and communicating the target language beyond your direction is one of the most recognizable instances of effective language learning. If you’ve ever witnessed it occur, you know it’s a sight to behold! Sit back, watch the language learning proliferate, give guidance, and take notice of what specific issues might be popping up for each of your students

2. Cognitive

Most ESL teachers know that ESL games in the classroom are an effective tool for reviewing the target language being learned, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s dive a little deeper.


Esl games in the classroom not only review what you’ve been teaching your ESL students but also reinforce it (which can be all the difference when it comes to long-term retention). ESL games provide a task-oriented vehicle through which your students can use the language you have taught them to achieve their own communicative goals. In short, they end up reinforcing what you have taught them by internalizing it. You’ll be delighted to see your students not only regurgitating what you have taught them in a literal sense but also negotiating their way into communicating their own desired needs and results in the target language.


So let’s get back to the aforementioned notion of using ESL games for review. Using ESL games in the classroom as a tool for review is a given for most ESL teachers. However, what is more important to examine, is that there is a limit to how much new information learners can retain within a given time. ESL games are a key element which allows you to not only simply review, but to freely navigate around those limits of language learning, and review what your ESL students have already learned for the varying and sometimes dynamic amounts of time required as well as extend that learning into something new.


I have taught countless ESL students with a commanding understanding and repertoire of English grammar rules. However, I guess a fair amount of you who may be reading along here maybe be able to guess what I am going to say next. They can’t speak. At all. Grammar must be understood more intimately than as a set of rules or principles and must be familiar in a communicative sense. By using ESL games to learn the ESL teachers allows for one of the most important things to take place in language learning – for their students to bridge that which can be perceived as a daunting chasm between innumerable grammar rules and exceptions to those grammar rules and the simple task of communicating precisely and freely. In short, ESL games to learn are excellent tools for focusing on grammar communicatively.

3. Adaptability

Let’s not only be frank here but practical as well. Adaptability is a key aspect in the classroom, and your classes can fly or fall depending on how well you can adapt the ESL learning task or target language to your ESL students and how well you can adapt to the myriad of other factors you are facing in that particular day or class. ESL games to learn are adaptable in most every way including age, level, and interest. They also require little effort or prep time once have you developed them so that you can focus on adapting them in the ways that are needed for each class or student you encounter over time.

Easily Adjustable

Any ESL teacher out their knows that the ESL job market differences from teaching in your native country and framework in several ways. One of those differences is that you may be teaching ESL adults one year and ESL kindy students the next. As an ESL teacher, you have to be ready to adapt to the current market and status of language learning occurring wherever in the wide wide world you may be teaching. Nearly all ESL games can be adapted in some way or manner to fit the level, age, or interests you may be teaching at the time. For instance, flashcards, which are the cornerstone of a large percentage of ESL games to learn are completely adaptable regardless of age. The same ESL flashcards which you may be using for teaching ESL kindy can be quite useful for ESL adult beginner students you might also be teaching.

Little Or No Prep

Once you have invested the time of creating an ESL game to learn resource you’ll find that you’ve freed up some time for yourself in future classes as well which will require the same target language as you cycle through the school years or alternate classes. As ESL teachers start to gain full command of our their time they are better able to employ ESL games to learn to maximize language acquisition. Furthermore, this frees up the ESL teacher to adapt their ESL game to learn resource to whichever of the four aspects of language they wish to focus or expand on whether it be speaking, reading, writing, or listening.

Hal of Halandsteve english here 🙂  I moved from the southern U.S to Korea 8 years ago to teach english.  Making changes within the classroom didn’t seem to be significant enough, so I branched out of the classroom into materials and methodology along the way. These days I feel much more in my element! Feel free to contact me at

A free sample of our work 🙂

The Mind, Brain, and Education Science and ELT

Another guest post – thank you to the wonderful André Hedlund for sharing his thoughts on the relationships between neuroscience and language learning and for debunking some all-too-prevalent neuromyths.

I grew up thinking that if I wanted to learn another language and become proficient, I’d have to start at a very young age. And to be fair I did. Not because of what I wanted, of course. My parents pushed me and I believe I must’ve been 6 or 7 when I had my first English class. My dad was fluent, like most Swedes, but my mom wasn’t. She only knew it was important for me to start early. Paradoxically, Swedish was not important at all, at least in my parents’ minds. Even worse, if I tried to learn it while learning English and if my dad insisted on only talking in Swedish to me at home, that meant that I wouldn’t learn any language well, including Portuguese, my mother tongue, and that was a horrible thing to consider.

The story above illustrates what the average population thinks about language learning. When I say average here I’m actually including educated people too. It’s just something we hear from teachers, “specialists”, pedagogues, other parents. Now I’m sitting in a café in possibly one of the most multilingual countries in Europe,  Switzerland, and the sad part of this story is that I could be at least as good as my cousin who’s in her early twenties, has been raised in a multilingual home and is fluent in Portuguese, French, Italian, German, and English. My aunt, her mom, is Brazilian and didn’t know any better. She only wanted to make sure her daughter grew up with a Brazilian sense of identity and could talk to her family when she traveled to Brazil. Her dad just spoke the language that was the most natural to him: Swiss German. The others she learned at school.

My Swedish would be thriving if it were not for this false claim about how our brains work when it comes to language learning, a neuromyth as commonly referred to. Neuromyths about language acquisition and learning, and basically everything else, are widespread. “Kids are going to get confused if the foreign language is predominant at home”, “You’re too old to learn a second language”, “That new school has created a revolutionary method that makes you fluent in six months”, “I don’t have the talent to learn languages”, “Native-speaker teachers are way better”. Many of these ideas could be debunked if we just stopped and looked at what research says about language learning. 

Speaking of research, the great news is that we now have an exciting new science that looks at the contributions of neuroscience, psychology, and education, summarizes them into practical concepts and allows educators, teachers, parents, school owners, and policymakers to inform their decisions on sound scientific evidence. It is called the science of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE). Tokuhama-Espinosa (2014) stresses the fact that MBE is a transdisciplinary approach that does not prioritize any one parent field (neuroscience, psychology, or education) over the others. That is important because many of the neuromyths stated above came to existence because of claims based only on neuroscience or only on psychology as I describe ahead.

One of the common neuromyths is that it is impossible, or at least nearly impossible, to learn a second language after the so-called critical period. Many authors have contributed to this notion, particularly Penfield (1959), Lenneberg (1967), and Krashen (1973), influenced by studies in animal models in the 50s and 60s about other functions and critical periods (see Hubel & Wiesel, 1959) which seemed to be confirmed with the case of feral children and L1, such as Genie (Curtiss, 1977). Nevertheless, when language is considered in its entirety, not only phonologically, with an obsessive focus on near-native accent, we could easily say that research shows that anyone can learn a second language to proficiency after the so-called critical period or periods. That’s the thing, different authors propose different critical periods for different aspects of language (see Kuhl et al. 2014; Hartshorne et al. 2018). But we now have plenty of evidence to support the idea that the brain is highly plastic and that we can learn at any age (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Science supports the notion that what really matters is how far you go and not how early you started (Abutalebi, 2008; Andrews et al 2013).

We also know that children and adults benefit from bilingualism (and multilingualism) (Marian & Shook, 2012). Some of the cognitive gains are improved learning, better reasoning and mathematical skills, improved school performance, and protection against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia (delaying the early symptoms by 5 years!).

Research on how long it takes to learn English as a second or foreign language varies greatly but it does not differ significantly from the recommended amount of hours by the Common Europen Framework of Reference (CEFR). Hakuta et al. (2000) studied foreign kids in two districts in California and it took them 3 to 5 years to be orally proficient and 4 to 7 to be academically proficient in English. A technical report by Pearson (click here) suggests that fast learners will enter the B2 level after 760 hours of study, which is more than what CEFR suggests ( around 500-600 hours). 

Whichever the reference when we’re discussing second language learning, we can safely assume that learning a language from scratch in 6 months would require something like 100 hours a month (around 5 hours a day from Monday to Friday) and assume that students can handle the enormous amount of information they’d be exposed to, allowing their brains to consolidate memory, which requires time and space. It may as well be possible, but not quite likely, particularly in an English as a Foreign Language context where students are only exposed to L2 in class. That’s why we need to be highly suspicious of methods that promise such incredible outcomes. Nevertheless, as I said, it could be possible. In fact, I could talk about memorization techniques used by memory athletes and go on about this, but I’ll save that for a future post because it’s not the reality for most of us.

Finally, the research we have available on how effective native-speaker teachers are and how they are viewed by students suggests that both native and non-native teachers can be equally effective and preferred by the students, which means that what really matters is teaching qualification and effort to cater to students’ needs (Mossu, 2006; Mullock, 2010; Chun, 2014; Wang & Jenkins, 2016).

All these discoveries came from serious research and they have real implications in ELT. The wrong, or partially wrong, ideas being spread for ages may contribute to stigmatization, exclusion, reduced motivation, capitalization on methods that actually do not work and the like. That’s where MBE is handy: to fight against neuromyths and inform everyone about how we actually learn. Let’s just say that if my mom and dad had known about these things that MBE is trying to promote back in the day when I was growing up, I’d have learned Swedish and probably be quite fluent nowadays. Who knows, I might even have gotten better grades at school because of the cognitive gains. Well, I suppose we’ll never know now and I’ll have to keep talking to my half-siblings in English.

My final message to those of you who are in education, ELT or any area that involves learning: learn about MBE and help debunk some of the neuromyths. Start from Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa’s wonderful book Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. That’s a great starting point. If we all learn more about how the brain actually works and follow the new developments of neuroscience, particularly how they can be applied in educational settings, everyone wins. 

Andrews, E., Frigau, L., Voyvodic-Casabo, C., Voyvodic, J., & Wright, J. (2013). Multilingualism and fMRI: Longitudinal Study of Second Language Acquisition. Brain sciences, 3(2), 849-76. doi:10.3390/brainsci3020849

Abutalebi J (2008) Neural aspects of second language representation and language control. Acta Psychol 128: 466–478.

Chun, S. Y. (2014). EFL learners’ beliefs about native and non-native English-speaking teachers: perceived strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 35(6), 563–579.

Curtiss, S. (1977). Genie: A psycholinguistic study of a modern-day “wild child”. New York: Academic Press

Hakuta, K., Butler, Y. G., & Witt, D. (2000). How Long Does It Take English Learners To Attain Proficiency?.

Hartshorne, Tenenbaum, & Pinker. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition:Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition, 177, 263-277.

Hubel, D., & Wiesel, T. (1959). Receptive fields of single neurones in the cat’s striate cortex. The Journal of Physiology, 148, 574-91.

Krashen, S. (1973). Lateralization, language learning, and the critical period. Language Learning, 23, 63–74.

Kuhl PK, Ramírez RR, Bosseler A, Lin JF, Imada T. (2014). Infants’ brain activity in response to speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Aug 2014, 111 (31) 11238-11245; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1410963111

Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). The biological foundations of language. Hospital Practice, 2(12), 59-67.

10 Free Courses Starting This Week…

Foundations of Virtual Instruction

Ignite Your Everyday Creativity

Teach English Now! Technology Enhanced Teaching

Teaching Tips for Tricky English Grammar

Young People and their Mental Health

Foundations of Teaching for Learning: Curriculum

Foundations of Teaching for Learning: Planning for Teaching and Learning

Writing for Young Readers: Opening the Treasure Chest

Teach English Now! Teaching Language Online

Foundations of Teaching for Learning: Introduction to Student Assessment