There are few things as thrilling as flying down a ski slope or scoring a winning point.  Athletes routinely make complicated moves look effortless as they run, kick, leap and roll across their playing fields but to succeed it takes practice and a wide variety of strengths and skills.  

​Similarly, fluent language speakers make complicated grammar and pronunciation look 
effortless but they had to do many of the same things athletes did in order to succeed.  

1. You can’t play a sport or speak a language without using motor skills and muscle memory.

I used to live in Southern California and play volleyball on the beach every weekend.  When I first started playing on the beach I was a bit worried because I hand’t really touched a volleyball in about 10 years.  I had played a lot in junior high and high school but had not had as much time or opportunity since then. As soon as I was standing there with a ball heading straight for my head however, my body responded quickly to put itself in the correct position to get my head out of the way. My hands automatically went into position to bump it up so the setter could help us win a point.  I didn’t have to think at all, I just did it thanks to muscle memory. Muscle memory takes place in the brain of course, but it requires no conscious thought and doesn’t go through the decision making process. Back in high school I had spent countless hours drilling and practicing so I could play “fluently” and it was still with me now that I was back on the court. 

I don’t usually think of language as a physical activity but it absolutely is and as language teachers, we can learn a lot from sports coaches when it comes to helping our students speak fluently.  Without using our muscles we wouldn’t be able to make a single sound or write a letter.  Pronouncing a word requires a complicated set of movements involving the diaphragm, jaw, tongue and lips.  All of these muscles must work together and move in a precise order to produce sounds that will then convey meaning.  As babies we spend a lot of time exercising our vocal muscles and exploring how to make sounds until finally after well over a year, we are able to make sounds that other people respond to in the way we want them to.  Initially this may mean that the babies are teaching the parents how to understand what they are saying as in the case of my daughter who would ask for chocolate milk by loudly demanding “cha moo” and asking for granola by saying “lola”.  Eventually however, it was she who conformed to the generally accepted pronunciations for those words so that everyone could understand her.  

Language teachers rarely teach language as a physical activity however, and expect students to imitate sounds just by listening to them and while this may work for babies, it often doesn’t work for older students.  I have noticed that while I am teaching pronunciation, making a concerted effort to show my students how certain sounds are made really helps them to pronounce words more accurately.  For example, right now I am teaching Japanese students who have trouble hearing and producing the L and R sounds in English.  Almost all of them are able to hear the difference when we practice minimal pairs but pronunciation is still a challenge.  Showing them how my tongue and lip positions change really helps them.  After a few minutes of practice, most students are able to produce distinguishable L and R sounds once or twice but most of the time they slip right back to the sound that exists in Japanese that is somewhere right in the middle of those two sounds.  It is not enough to show them how to make the sounds, I need to help them build that muscle memory so they can make them quickly and easily without having to think about it.  

This can be done by playing games that require students to practice putting those muscles in the correct positions.  It is important to practice regularly if you want students to be able to consistently and naturally pronounce words accurately. Once is not enough.

2.  If you don’t warm up, you probably won’t play well and you might hurt yourself.

I love skiing, especially going down difficult black diamond slopes but I usually don’t strap on my skis and head straight for the most difficult run on the mountain.  I usually start on something a bit more gentle to get my muscles warmed up and get my body and mind up to speed.  Otherwise, I risk pulling a muscle, tearing something, or worse.  

My students don’t do very well either if I just throw them into an activity without warming them up.  Because I teach in an EFL setting, my students don’t usually spend much time speaking English outside of class so it takes them a few minutes to switch their thinking over to English.  Warm up activities really set the tone of the class and let the students know that class has started.  

Because I am busy and don’t always have time to set up elaborate warm up activities, I like to keep it simple and reuse the same activities over and over.  Students like it because they know exactly what to do and how to do it and we don’t waste valuable beginning of class time with lengthy explanations.

Here are some of my favorite warm up activities:

1. The “Cocktail” Party – Write two or three questions on the board.  I like to either ask questions relevant to that day’s topic or questions that use vocabulary they are studying. Show the students the questions, ask everyone to get up and walk around.  Play some lively music for a few seconds, then stop the music.  When the music stops, they need to talk to the person or people closest to them.  When the music starts up again, they need to say “Nice talking to you!”, “You too.” and start walking around the room again.  Repeat this 3 times so students have a chance to talk to several students.

2. The Vocabulary Swap – Give each student a slip of paper with a vocabulary word they have been studying on it.  Tell them they are responsible for being able to explain what that word means in English.  The task is to ask another student “What does _____________ mean?”  If the person knows, they say the definition.  If they don’t know they have to say “I don’t know. what does it mean?”  When they have talked about both words, they switch words and go talk to other people.  

3. 3-2-1 Fluency – Write an open-ended question on the board.  This question should be broad enough that students can talk for several minutes about it but not so broad that they don’t know what to say.  Pair students up and tell them that one person is the speaker and one person is the listener.  It is the speakers job to answer the question(s) without stopping for 3 minutes.  The listener just listens and adds encouraging sounds and body language.  If the speaker gets stuck, the listener can say “Tell me more.” or “Can you give me an example?”  When the three minutes are up, ask the speakers to move and find new listeners.  They then must try to fit the same answer into 2 minutes and then 1 minute.  Then ask the speakers and listeners to switch roles and do it all over again.

4. Group Paragraph Writing –  This activity is centered around writing instead of speaking and can be a lot of fun.  Split the class into groups of 4 and give each group one piece of paper per student with a topic written on the top.  That means that if you have 4 students in the group, they should have 4 papers with 4 different topics.  Each member of the group writes a topic sentence using the topic from their paper and a controlling idea.  Give them a limited amount of time to do this and then ask everyone to pass their paper clockwise (or counterclockwise).  They must then read the topic sentence and write the next sentence supporting and giving evidence for the  topic sentence.  Keep passing the paper the same direction until all the members of the group have had a chance to write at least one sentence on each paper.  

When they are finished, ask each group to choose their favorite paragraph to share with you.  

3.  If you don’t learn strategies, you probably won’t win the game.

As a young teacher, I didn’t used to think about strategy much.  I defined my job as explaining the ins and outs of the English language to my students, exposing them to as much of it as possible and setting up situations in which they could use their newly acquired language to communicate.  I didn’t think about helping them come up with learning strategies that would help them reach their goals.  

A strategy is a plan of action that will help you reach your goals.  When I was playing volleyball, the goal was to score more points than the other team and win the game.  In order to do that, we needed to learn different ways of rotating so each player was using their strengths for as much of the game as possible.  We also needed to come up with ways of supporting each other when the pressure was high so we could focus on playing and not get distracted by how many people were watching or the importance of any one point.  

Just as athletes need to learn winning strategies, so do language learners if they want to “win the game” and become fluent.  Some strategies I have found helpful to my students are:

  • Using what research has shown about memory to help students learn vocabulary faster and remember it longer.  For more about vocabulary strategies, check out this post.
  • By changing the way you take notes, you can use them as effective study tools and you can quiz yourself when you are studying.  I have found that Cornell Notes help students think about what they are learning in terms of overall meaning and purpose (how they would explain the content of what they are learning to someone else) as well as key points that might be important to remember.
  • At the end of each quiz I ask students to reflect on how they did, how/how much they studied, what might make it difficult for them to study in the coming week, and how they will overcome those challenges.  By taking just a few minutes to anticipate challenges, students are able to come up with their own strategies for success.  

4.  Different games have different rules.

It would be pretty funny if everyone was playing soccer (football) and a player suddenly entered, grabbed the ball with her hands and started playing volleyball instead.  This is exactly what happens though when many language learners leave the protective walls of a language classroom and try to participate in conversations out in the “real world”.  It is often not enough to teach students vocabulary and grammar, especially if they are learning English with peers who all come from the same cultural background.  

Just as athletes need to know the rules of the game they are playing, language learners need to understand the unwritten rules that govern conversations.  Wait, you might be thinking, a conversation is a conversation, surely everyone has conversations the same way.  As it turns out, this is not true.  A Japanese conversation looks very different than an American English conversation and that looks different than a British or Australian English conversation.  It is often difficult to figure out these rules just by watching, especially if you assume conversing in all languages is the same and don’t know what to look for.  

A colleague introduced me to an excellent article entitled Conversational Ball Games written by a woman who was becoming fluent in Japanese but found she was still having difficulty participating effectively in conversations.  She uses a metaphor of bowling and tennis/volleyball to explain how speaking the two different languages differs.  In Japan, people take turns speaking and don’t interrupt each other.  Everyone understands who speaks first  and who speaks next.  Each new speaker starts from the same place just as in bowling and the conversation stays on the same topic just like bowling.  In English however one person starts off the conversation with a comment or question and anyone is free to respond in any order.  Speakers are expected to respond to what the previous person said and the conversation can touch on many different topics.  

While teaching a language, it is well worth your student’s time to learn the rules of the game.  It is not easy to start playing a whole new game when you have been playing the same game your whole life, it takes practice, but it really will empower language learners.

5. Skills are refined by examining our successes and failures.

When playing a sport, feedback is clear and immediate.  The ball went over the net or it didn’t; the point was won or lost; you swam faster than your opponent or you didn’t.  What isn’t always as obvious is why.  Athletes record themselves in order to examine what they did wrong and work on improving it.  maybe they need to hold the ball at a different hight while serving it or maybe they need to change the way they are kicking their feet or holding their head in order to glide more smoothly through the water.  Whatever it is, they need to identify what went wrong and work on changing that.  

Feedback while learning a language is also often clear and immediate.  Either someone understood what you were saying or they didn’t,  You were able to understand what you were reading or you weren’t, your writing was clear and understandable or it wasn’t.  Just as when playing a sport, it is not always obvious what the problem is though.  Did the person not understand you because you weren’t speaking loud enough, were you using the wrong word or was your pronunciation and/or grammar way off?  

I have found that while teaching listening, students often think they can’t understand what they are hearing because the person is speaking “too fast”.  A lot of the time this is not the problem however.  The problem is often that the student is unfamiliar with how words sound when they are spoken.  They learned vocabulary in written form and can’t recognize it.  It could be that students are unfamiliar with how words sound when they are together.  “Put it out” for example will not sound like it is written, instead it will sound like this: Pu-di-dout.  The t sound will change to a d sound and the consonant sound at the end of the word will move over to the next word that starts with a vowel sound.  If students don’t know that this is happening, even familiar word will be incomprehensible.  It may also be that students are unfamiliar with collocations or idioms.  

Helping students identify what the problem is and then helping them find ways of fixing those problems can make all the difference between learning a language and giving up in frustration.  Just as champion chess players take time after every game to examine what happened and how they could play differently the next time, language learners should take time to examine their reading, writing, speaking and listening to see what happened and how they could do it differently the next time.  Many of my English students are also athletes and helping them understand how skills they have gained on the playing field can be used to help them learn languages is often enlightening.  I hope you had fun reading this post and got some useful tips out of it.  What teaching insights do you get from other fields?  Please leave a comment below!

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