A is for Attention

22 08 2010

High alert! Classroom in Palestine

Three news stories last week –  all of which dealt with the pervasive role of technology in our lives –  touched on the issue of attention and its role in learning. A front page story in The New York Times reported on a trip into the wilderness undertaken by five academics, the purpose of which, according to psychologist David Strayer, was to study “what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory, and learning are affected”. Strayer added: “Attention is the holy grail. Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.”

Then there was the publicity associated with a new book, Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers, documenting one family’s retreat from an over-reliance on information technology. The book’s blurb reads:

Journalist Powers bemoans the reigning dogma of digital maximalism that requires us to divide our attention between ever more e-mails, text messages, cellphone calls, video streams, and blinking banners, resulting, he argues, in lowered productivity and a distracted life devoid of meaning and depth.

Finally (and more directly relevant to education), The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a move on the part of a handful of teachers to “unplug” their classrooms. One of the teachers was quoted as saying, “Banishing the gear improved the course.  …The students seemed more involved in the discussion than when I allowed them to go online… They were more attentive, and we were able to go into a little more depth.”


While it might be premature to talk about a backlash against so-called ‘ed tech’, there does seem to be a growing awareness as to its limitations, even its risks, especially with regard to its impact on attention.  This is not to deny the enormous benefits that accrue from the use of technological aids outside the classroom – indeed, the capacity of video games, for example, to focus attention, often over a considerable period of time, is well documented, and it’s not impossible to imagine learners (of the right disposition) making exponential gains solely through gaming (assuming the games themselves have been designed to incorporate second language learning opportunities).

Nevertheless, in terms of the quality of classroom life, the proliferation of digitial gadgetry may be having negative consequences on learning, specifically in the way that multiple information channels conspire to divert, disperse or otherwise interfere with, focal attention. We’ve known this ever since the first mobile phone rang in one of our classes.  Nowadays the presence of technology may be less obtrusive, but is no less distracting. As long ago (relatively speaking) as 1998, Linda Stone, formerly of Apple, coined the term ‘continuous partial attention’ (CPA)  to characterise the kind of restless digital flitting that results from the need to stay constantly informed and in touch. Translated to a classroom context, CPA would hardly seem conducive to learning.

Why not? Because – as the psychologist above said – everything that you remember and forget depends on attention. The more dispersed the attention, the less likelihood of remembering, while the more heightened the attention, the better the remembering, and hence the better the learning.  This is as true for language learning as for any other kind of learning.  As psycholinguists Nick Ellis and Peter Robinson put it: “What is attended is learned, and so attention controls the acquisition of language itself” (2008, p. 3). Likewise, Dick Schmidt (2001) argues that only through the exercise of attention is input converted to intake: “Unattended stimuli persist in immediate short-term memory for only a few seconds at best, and attention is the necesary and sufficient condition for long-term memory storage to occur” (p. 16).  The rest is noise.

Indeed, from a cognitivist perspective, teaching might well be defined as the ‘management of attention for pedagogical purposes’. Managing attention means both drawing attention to the subject at hand, and drawing attention away from whatever might be a distraction.  In the case of the latter, this might mean eliminating competing stimuli by shutting down peripheral channels.  In other words, by unplugging the classroom.

Whether or not you’re prepared to go that far, here are some tips for maximising learners’ attention:

  • make sure all heads are up before transitioning to a new stage or activity
  • ensure your own attention is well distributed, and embraces all students equally, including those on the fringes
  • use ‘theatrical’ techniques (e.g. eye-contact, gesture, changes in voice pitch and voice quality) to highlight key lesson content
  • make the learning objectives explicit
  • draw connections across stages, and from one lesson to another
  • use examples from the learners’ own lives, using their names (Juana always takes the bus to school)
  • use the board sparingly and judiciously – too much boardwork obscures the key lesson content
  • drill key items in the lesson – not because this promotes accuracy, or forms good habits, but because it serves to make important lesson content more salient
  • eliminate distractions: ensure books are closed and technological aids are switched off during teacher-focused presentation stages, or when learners are supposed to be interacting face-to-face in pairs/groups
  • negotiate the use of aids and technology, such as dictionaries, laptops, etc, so that learners must ask permission to use them, or use them only at designated stages
  • reduce interference from stimulus overload. e.g. unnecessary visual effects in Powerpoints, background ‘muzak’ during silent reading, etc.
  • encourage (younger) learners to show understanding by nodding affirmatively during teacher-fronted presentation/explanation stages. (This idea comes from the ‘SLANT’ technique developed in a group of US charter schools – kids have to Sit up, Listen, Ask Questions, Nod, and Track the speaker with their eyes).

Notice that I’ve not said anything about maintaining a high activity turnover (so as not to over-tax attention spans, for example) nor about activities having to be fun. This is because an emphasis on activity for activity’s sake may be counterproductive, in that it serves to divert attention onto the activity itself, and not onto the language that mediates the activity.


Ellis, N.C. and Robinson, P. 2008. An introduction to Cognitive Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition, and Language Instruction. In Ellis, N.C. and Robinson, P. (eds.) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Routledge.

Schmidt, R. 2001. Attention. In Robinson, P. (ed.) Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



51 responses

22 08 2010
Stephen Krashen

Attention to form or meaning?
Comprehensible input does not entail attention to language, but attention to the message, the meaning.
Attention can’t possibly be necessary for acquisition of form. There is too much to attend to. The systems are too complex.
In addition to the massive evidence in support of comprehensible input, please see:
Truscott, J. (1998). Noticing in second language acquisition: A critical review. Second Language Research 14(2), 103-135.
PS: You knew I would comment.

22 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Stephen (yes, I was kind of expecting you to lob the ball back!)

I go along with the view that implicit learning (where the attention is soley on meaning) is possible, but that it is inefficient – look at the fairly miserable results for incidental learning of vocabulary, where readers may need 16 or more exposures to a word before it is retained and available for use (Nation, 1990, p. 44). For more efficient learning, I follow Schmidt, Doughty and Williams, and co, and argue that conscious attention to form, including mapping both meaning and form, are recommended. In that sense, I concur with Nick Ellis (2001) both when he says “language is learned in the course of using language, and the best predictor of language facility will simply be time-on-task” and when he says “there are ways of speeding learners L1 or L2 acquisition from a given amount of language exposure, to increase the quality of the learning… These ways, which include grammatical consciousness-raising or input processing, as well as corrective feedback and recasts, promote the acquisition of sophisticated grammatical proficiency. There is some benefit in a focus on form in L2 instruction” (pp 63-64).

This doesn’t mean paying conscious attention to rules as such, but simply noticing form-meaning mappings. Schmidt (2001) quotes VanPatten (1994) to make this same point:

Bob Smith is a learner of Spanish, a language that actively distinguishes between subjunctive and indicative mood… He begins to notice subjunctive forms in others’ speech. He attends to it. Soon, he begins to use it in his own speech, perhaps in reduced contexts, but none the less he is beginning to use it. If you ask him for a rule it might make one up. But in actuality, he doesn’t have a rule. All he knows is that he has begun to attend to the subjunctive and the context in which it occurs and it has somehow begun to enter his linguistic system… Bob did not need to come up with a conscious rule; he only needed to pay attention.

(This was the point of my final comment – that learners need to direct attention, not just to the activity, but to “the language that mediates the activity”).

PS: You knew I would disagree!

22 08 2010
Stephen Krashen

Implicit more efficient in terms of vocabulary words learned per unit of time. See articles at benikomason.net. See also my 1989 paper in Modern Language Journal. In general comprehensible input is faster. That’s what all the method comparison papers conclude. See my reviews in Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use (2003), in which I discuss some of the research you mention, as well as previous books, available at http://www.sdkrashen.com.

22 08 2010

Could I be tedious and ask for an example of what you mean by ‘mapping’?

22 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

form-function mapping: Basic to SLA, a process that involves correlating external form and internal function. Saville-Troike, M. 2006. Introducing Second Language Acquisition. CUP.

“It is the task of the language learner to discover the specific relationship between the linguistic forms of a given language and their communicative functions” (Pienemann, M. in Doughty, C., and Long, M. eds. 2003. The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition).

22 08 2010
Graham Stanley

Very interesting post, Scott. I’ve just been following up the articles you link to. You might want to check out Nicholas Carr’s book, ‘The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember’ which covers similar ground.

However, as you well know, I think there’s plenty of room for edtech in the classroom – in fact, I’m not happy teaching in a classroom where I don’t have instant access to the Internet, for example, and think the possibility of bringing real world examples of language and experiences into the room has the potential to enrichen the learning. It should, however, be used sparingly, and only when it does serve a real pedagogical purpose.

I do agree though, that there’s an inherent danger in classroom edtech, especially when teaching young learners and teenagers – i.e. the temptation for a lazy teacher short of ideas and more concerned about keeping the learners busy and or quiet to turn to Youtube.

This judicial use of edtech is something that any teacher who chooses to teach in a ‘connected classroom’ should keep in the forefront of their mind.

22 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Graham.

It seems to me that the danger is less in the teacher’s irresponsible use of the technology, than in the learners’ – which, as I say to Sue below – is very hard to control. And, even if the students aren’t idling checking their email or re-configuring their Facebook profile, the thought that they MIGHT be would drive me, as a teacher, to distraction!

22 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

As a footnote to the above, you might be interested in this video clip, in which an educator (Howard Rheingold) grapples with the notion that learners now feel “entitled” to check their email, tweet, google, text, etc – and that the classroom is a “marketplace” in which different attentional foci must compete. If this is the case, what price learning?


23 08 2010
Graham Stanley

Thanks for this link, Scott. I think this may be the case in the university context, and perhaps in U.S schools (anywhere else?), but I’m not so sure about schools elsewhere, where in most cases learners usually aren’t allowed to use the powerful handheld computers (i.e. their mobile phones) that many of them own.

At university, I’m in favour of this – if what a lecturer/tutor is saying is interesting, then the students may well be using the back-channel to comment upon this. If they are half-bored by the lecture, then I think it’s only fair to let them divide their attention between what is being said in the room and the conversations happening online.

23 08 2010

At the university level, the question of attention has become much more relevant since so many students began studying what they thought they should do instead of what they would do if considerations of post-degree employment were not an issue.

In other words, the proportion of what I think would be called instrinsically motivated students has dropped, probably quite dramatically, and a lot of students are doing ‘cod liver oil’ degrees, taken because someone says it will be good for them.

This is clearly likely to affect the quality of attention in some ESP classrooms. If half of my Business Admin students would not have chosen to study this subject in the best of all possible worlds and really are quite turned off by their degree, it’s probably not surprising that I have considerable difficulty holding their attention in their English for Business class.

22 08 2010
Sue Lyon-Jones


You make some excellent points here, but as someone who has a foot planted firmly in both the dogme and teaching with technology camps, I would venture to suggest that all the tips for maximising learners attention you’ve listed here could equally be applied in a lesson which incorporated “ed tech”.

It seems to me that a teacher who views using technology in lessons in terms of “allowing students to go online” is probably not using it very effectively.

Whatever method of teaching or tool you choose to apply, surely the key to maximising learners’ attention is to give them something relevant and interesting to do?

As with all lesson activities, clear instructions need to be given at the beginning of online tasks and if students begin to lose their focus, then it is the teachers job to nudge them back on track. In my experience, learners can get just as easily distracted during unplugged activities if a teacher takes their eye off the ball!

I’d actually go as far as to say that technology can lead to increased language retention, if it is used effectively and learners are given the opportunity to consolidate what they have learnt between lessons with online activities for self-study.


22 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Sue, for your comment.

I take your point about technology having the capacity to marshall and maintain attention for the purposes of learning – and I think that it can do this very effectively both outside and inside the classroom, but in both cases it requires a measure of discipline, either self generated or teacher imposed, so that its (enormous) capacity for diversion is kept in check. One way of doing this might be to re-think the classroom layout, so that learners are working around a central ‘hub’, allowing the teacher to circulate freely around the ‘circumference’, but such an arrangement would disallow any teacher-focused boardwork stages, which some teachers (rightly or wrongly) might find disempowering.

And I agree, that – in theory, at least – if the task is sufficiently engaging and purposeful, then the learners are less likely to ‘stray’. But, again, in the real world (where continuous partial attention is the norm rather than the exception) this is a tall order.

25 08 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Here! Here! Here!

And to Scott’s: if the task is sufficiently engaging and purposeful, then the learners are less likely to ‘stray’. But, again, in the real world (where continuous partial attention is the norm rather than the exception) this is a tall order.

Hmmm… why would this be any different from non-tech (with a blackboard and chalk, with a paper and pen) to ed-tech?

It’s the teacher and the teaching that counts, not the tool 🙂

or… didn’t you pass notes and doodle too when you were bored at school?

25 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Karenne -but see Steph’s comment below about the *speed* of these kinds of exchanges now, and how they can propagate rapidly through multiple channels (SMS, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube etc etc) – faster and more diffusely than the poor teacher can either follow or control. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter if this off-task hyper-activity was being mediated in English (or whatever the target language is) – but is it??

26 08 2010
Karenne Sylvester

I had a student who checked on his emails during class last year, so I did the following

a cross-eyed slant of the eye, the annoyed teacher face “you do know you shouldn’t, don’t you, you’re not a teenager that I have to tell off, now are you…”

That didn’t help so the very next time it happened we had a public repeat discussion about why there are links on the side-bar to other websites and global English learning blogs i.e. when they have finished a task earlier than other students, there are really fun and interesting sites they can visit (there’s a list of these linked from my blogs) and also, after class, a private discussion with the student in question about the importance of being present in the room.

The fact is that all students, no matter what age, will get distracted/ try to get away with “naughty” behaviour. We’ve been doing this sort of thing since the age when we figured out how to sneak into the cookie jar and tell our parents that we weren’t…

As teachers we probably need to face up to the reality that our students come into our classrooms with their own personal lives and agendas and often, they do have much more pressing and interesting things going on than whether or not they should learn the present-perfect finally (a structured table they have now seen – yawn – be they 16 or be they 36 – a hundred times by now and it’s still not sinking in).

In the old days the “poor teacher” had very little influence over someone who was daydreaming, scribbling out a note to the boyfriend, throwing out spitballs… however the “good teachers” didn’t have these issues in their classrooms.

Perhaps the good/bad teacher debate needs re-examining?

The second thing we know is that a deep level of concentration and attention occurs when a student is highly motivated to do what he is doing – from general life observation, let’s briefly look at the focused attention and the complex understanding of plot/characters and events involved occurs when the students are playing with computer games like World of Warcraft or as adults, twiddling about on Twitter.

They can concentrate.

But let me not give anyone the impression that I condone or agree with multi-tasking, task switching etc – we do one thing or we do another but we don’t do both well.)

My point is that intelligence will not disappear because students have gone online as it didn’t disappear when we moved from stone to parchment Oooh, the speed of thought and shared text back then – it makes the mind boggle, really.

Intelligence shape-shifts.

Today, what’s going on in the classroom, what’s being provided by the teacher has to be as and or if not even more exciting than “outside life”. As it always had to.

That is the job of an excellent teacher, isn’t it – to captivate his audience so that learning is not a separate classroom objective, it is the by-product of the being in the room.

And that occurs, can I quote you..? when the teacher has set up a scenario which encourages the students to pay attention.

“Attention – learners need to be paying attention, i.e. they need to be on the alert – interested, involved and curious – if they are going to notice features of the target skill.” p41 How to teach speaking.

🙂 Karenne

**p.s. after just getting off the phone with one of my tele-students who I’ve never actually met face2face, I thought a little about my parting words given that I won’t be talking to her for 3 weeks (I’ll be on vacation) and how much of what we say to our students in order to help them focus is really about applying psychological pressure (scorn me if you like, we could also label it emotional intelligence)… but anyway I said to her

“don’t forget that you will make me a very happy teacher if I get back from holiday and I look into our Ning and I see that you’ve been learning English all by yourself (writing blog posts/participating in the discussion forums/watching videos)… that would be really great, because it’s really important to me to know you’re still learning…

now, truth is I didn’t refer to her doing work by herself while I’m gone once or even twice -but throughout our conversation, I’d mentioned how happy I was with her work so far, how much I admired her progress, I drew her attention to her google-doc (record of language that emerges in our conversations), we talked about which words she knew she now knew; how many mistakes I wasn’t having to type up today (and wow!) and how all f this progress had to be kept up so that she wouldn’t forget her English again.. to keep logging in, to keep working…

Before I taught students online, I taught offline… I’m willing to bet I was just as annoying and pushy 🙂 with my students when I was only getting them to keep flashcards or journals. So the point of my p.s. being, that of course, whether it’s online or offline, it’s the teacher and the teacher principally which drives or inspires “motivation”)…

22 08 2010

Thanks for those definitions Scott.

23 08 2010
Andrew Pickles

Hi Scott,

A really interesting post in addition to the very engaging series. I think that the tension between technology and teacher is something that is currently growing exponentially. In my own setting in the last five years we have moved from principally pen, paper and white board based instruction through to the current classroom where each student sits behind a PC that is always broadband connected with mobile phone at their side and a teacher who uses IWBs only (trad. whiteboards ripped out!) alongside their own internet PC.

In response to your post and discussion I have a couple of questions –

1. If a student is not concentrating on the lesson because they would rather scan ebay, check emails, twitter etc. and the teacher is giving a good, engaging lesson then is that the teacher’s problem? If a student doesn’t want to learn then on their own heads be it?

2. If we insist on unplugging for certain segments of the class does that equate to the student paying attention? If plugged in but actively using multi-channel learning (sticking vocab into learning software, finding examples in context, downloading recording for pronunciation etc.) this has to be better…neither can be guaranteed of course but don’t we need to trust sts at a certain point?

3. If dogme (which I really like) insists (prefers?) no props and a natural learning environment then isn’t the enforced absense of props we naturally use everyday (laptops, mobiles etc.) a breach of the principle as much as wheeling in a hundred-weight of gap-fill photocopies on transforming passive to active and back again?

4. Tech. helps overcome practical problems – e.g. commenting and discussing. In a class of 20 sts then a 45 minute lesson where they all get to comment or discuss something as a class is a practical difficulty. Doesn’t using twitter or alternatives make this a lot easier and by allowing sts to instantly engage increase the chances of transfer from input to intake?

Sorry for rambling questions – what I really love about technology is this, I get to put questions to leaders in the field and read (almost) real time discussions between people like yourself and Stephen Krashen – surreal!

all the best


23 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Andrew, and welcome to the ‘long conversation’.

Without wishing to get it into a prolonged (and potentially heated!)discussion about the merits or not of educational technology (perhaps that’s another post?) I’d just like to underscore the point made in my original post: that the claims that are made for educational technologies have to be weighed against their possible side effects, one of which is the danger of learners going ‘off task’. Of course, as you point out, this is a problem in any classroom, plugged or unplugged, smart or dumb. But the recent flurry of news items and books about technology-induced attention ‘deficit’ give one pause for thought. What are the pedagogical implications of creating the ‘porous classroom’ (as someone called it), i.e. one in which learners can access the world outside the classroom using the available technologies? On the face of it, this would seem to be a wonderful thing. As Peter Strevens said many many years ago: “Language is not a sterile subject to be confined to the classroom. One of two things must be done: either life must be brought to the classroom or the class must be taken to life.” What better way of taking the class to life than by means of Web 2.0? (And – as you point out – this is entirely consistent with a dogme philosophy: mobile phones, laptops etc are as authentically a part of classroom life as pen and paper used to be).

However, I’m not sure that pedagogy has kept pace with technology. For a start, the management issues are complex. Focusing and sustaining the attention that is (supposedly) a necessary condition for second language acquisition is a problem at the best of times, but increases exponentially the more ‘channels’ there are that are open. And I don’t think it’s enough to say “if a student doesn’t want to learn, then on their heads be it”. Like it or not, many teachers are accountable to stakeholders other than the immediate students – parents, employers etc – and are expected to have the requisite skills to deal with lack of motivation and even resistance. Besides, students who have opted to go off-task are potentially disruptive and are likely to affect the overall dynamic of the classroom adversely. I suspect most teachers would find such a situation intolerable – not because it threatens their own authority, but because it undermines the collaborative and consensual classroom ecology on which effective learning depends.

Part of the problem, of course, is that teacher training has not kept pace with the changes, both with the concept of the porous classroom, but also with the different kinds of interactive possibilities that you mention in your point 4. But the advocates of educational technology also share some of the blame, in my opinion, due to their often uncritical endorsement of technological innovations in the absence of any coherent theory of learning – a theory, that for example, might assess the worth of a tool in terms of its impact on learners’ attention.

23 08 2010

In response to your point no. 1, Andrerw, I tend to agree with you in the case of university students. They must take full responsibility for their own learning. But surely (younger) school students need more control/guidance?

23 08 2010
Andrew Pickles

Hi Glennie,

Thanks for reply. Yes, absolutely agree with you not least because I think as a child part of learning is learning to learn and so need more guidance which should then diminish as they get older, move into tertiary education etc. I just wonder sometimes if we don’t spend too long worrying about adult learners engaging with the lessons when, as adults, they also carry a responsibilty to respond to the learning/teaching process!

all the best,


23 08 2010
Andrew Pickles

‘I don’t think it’s enough to say “if a student doesn’t want to learn, then on their heads be it”. ‘ – no, you’re probably right and it was meant slightly flippantly – it is of course easier to dismiss the uninterested student from the safety of the public sector…and of course the potential for disruption is a consideration.

Having over the last couple of years read yourself, Michael Lewis, Willis, Allwright and others I have come to the conclusion that over-focus on course books and bizarrely inauthentic exercises has obscured the primary purpose of language teaching which, shockingly, is to teach language – or better to get sts to learn a language. This goal became overgrown with too many methods, exercise types and ‘entertaining’ activities. A reassessment that got sts and teachers to look at the language itself and how best to learn it instead of being distracted by pretty pictures and mechanical gap-fills has emerged. Perhaps technology currently has the same problem, we have become so distracted by the bells and whistles that we don’t stop to check the fundamentals.

Maybe the answer is that teachers are responsible for also providing the space within which learning can take place by providing the right input, monitoring intake, affording a physical environment conducive to these activities that promotes engagement, attention and quiet away from distractions, i.e. the space to pay attention…but, that the teacher is also responsible for using technology to continue the sts learning away from the classroom through twitter, blogs, webquests etc. – or maybe that’s just too utopian for words!

thanks again and all the best


23 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks again, Andrew. I think you capture an important distinction between what the classroom is good for, and what the world outside the classroom can offer, in terms of language learning affordances. Technology has increased the potential of extra-curricular learning exponentially. All the more reason, perhaps, to negotiate a classroom environment that is relatively Spartan – an uncluttered forum for language-mediated social interaction. There’s a not a lot of point, after all, in having learners do in the classroom the kind of things they can do as well, if not better, outside it – like watching YouTube, or chatting online, or sharing a wiki, or googling for images, or tweeting etc. If anything, technology has liberated the classroom, restoring to it its original function as a communal space for guided, focused, collaborative learning.

23 08 2010

There is on-going research in the world of psychology into the area of mirror neurons. This would probably be a fascinating area to study in connection with 2nd language acquisition and attention.

Here is an extract from the Association for psychological science on-line journal.

“Mirror neurons, it seems, are of the utmost importance in human mind, and on the tip of the collective psychological tongue.

“It’s going to make a big change,” says neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, University of California, Los Angeles, of the discovery’s impact on psychology. “Psychological studies started with the idea that a solitary mind looks at the world in a detached way. Mirror neurons tell us we’re literally in the minds of other people.”

Multitasking Mental Cells
The striking implication of mirror neurons is that the same brain region that controls action also supports perception, writes Günther Knoblich, Rutgers University, in the June 2006 Current Directions in Psychological Science. If observing behavior occurs in the same area as actually behaving, then social interaction would seem to play a large role in cognition. It explains, for example, why spectators at a boxing match sometimes jab at the air and why seeing a violent blow to the head makes them recoil physically. The poet John Donne was on the right track: We are not islands, unto ourselves.

This social link between perception and action can be traced back to William James, says Knoblich. James explained that performing a movement required first having a mental picture of that movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, psychologists like APS Fellow Anthony Greenwald and Wolfgang Prinz extended this ideomotor principle, demonstrating that seeing and doing branch off the same tree.”

For the full article follow this link:


23 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Steph, for that. It has long been suspected that attention to, but not necessarily participation in, communicative interaction triggers acquisitional processes, and this may be explained by the presence of the mirror neurons you mention. A while back, Dick Allwright reported on a learner who seldom participated vocally in class discussions and other speaking activities, but made more progress than many of her more active peers, as measured in the end-of-course test of speaking. Allwright concluded that – for some students at least – “language acquisition is a spectator sport” (I’ve long since lost the citation for this quote). One assumes, though, that the level of attention was set fairly high for this particular student. Again, a good case for setting up speaking tasks that are likely to engage the learners because of their contingency and relevance (see previous thread: C is for Communicative).

25 08 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

Hi Steph, interesting aspect! Mirror neurons are a fascinating concept, but then it’s only a neurological metaphor for something that’s been around for a long time. Maybe the first to systematically exploit this notion was Jakob Levy Moreno, who developed psychodrama, the original form of group psychotherapy, in the 1920ies.

Without being therapeutic, many of the principles and methods we use in PDL are inspired by psychodrama, namely doubling and mirroring (here it is!). The connecting idea is that learners train in feeling, acting, and eventually speaking like another person, who could be a trainer or another participant. A large proportion of our course days consists of methods that have mirroring or doubling somehow woven into them.

So, in that sense, it is a fascinating idea to look at the potential of individual and group empathy in language learning. We, as PDL trainers, have been doing this for 30 years. Neuroscientists are welcome to come and have a look at the mirror neurons!

Let me add to the point of this thread: When you are IN a mirror exercise, it’s almost impossible not to be attentive. In fact it’s very hard even when you are just watching / listening. We often observe that others in the group instinctively assume the protagonist’s posture, mirror her gestures, move their lips silently to the language they hear and process, even when they haven’t been asked to do so.

My guess is that empathy is one of the most powerful agents of attention we can possibly find, and mirror neuron research seems to support that claim. In our courses, we always manage to maintain a high attention level throughout a whole day. But then we have small groups of adults.

25 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

“In our courses, we always manage to maintain a high attention level throughout a whole day. But then we have small groups of adults.”

I don’t imagine they’re texting or tweeting, either!

26 08 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

“I don’t imagine they’re texting or tweeting, either!”

Certainly not! Perhaps this is a cultural issue, perhaps those gadgets are not as universally accepted in Germany as elsewhere. That’s why I find part of this discussion a little surreal. I just can’t picture a classroom where mobiles are not banned. It’s just self-evident, for both kids and adults. I never even need to mention this.

24 08 2010
English Raven

I’m with Graham in terms of wanting access to the Internet in all of my classes (even if I don’t always utilise it), and I’m also all for students using their available mobile technology for task-based and project elements of the lessons I run. I’ve also found that technology has been great for enhancing attention (for example, being able to play and replay Reuters news articles, or create a colour chart sorting out a language point, or highlighting elements in texts, or even doing audiolingual drills!).

Teaching in Korea, where mobile phones have for a long time been like an added appendage to students’ bodies, I’ve had interesting experiences with the ‘distraction’ issue. At a university I taught at, students would become visibly uncomfortable about not being able to check or respond to text messages. My policy was, if I catch you looking at or sending a text in the middle of a lesson stage where mobiles were not specifically called for, I want you to (a) tell me what we were all just talking about (and hence prove you can cope with attending to both tasks), or (b) tell me what you were looking up or referring to that can be added usefully to this part of our lesson, or (failing a/b) (c) call up the person you were texting and have a conversation in English that we can all listen to and benefit from! (c) was the most often called for action in the end, and it did help to trim back the occurences of texting (which was always to friends about stuff completely unrelated to the class).

The important things I learned from this were that it is important not to respond angrily to this sort of behaviour, and actually try to utilise it if/when it happens (and if it fits the lesson). I also had to bear in mind that these young university students had recently been in high school classes of up to 40 students where most teachers (working in a transmission style of teaching) didn’t know or didn’t actually care that the learners were texting, whispering to each other or – this was frightfully common – actually fast asleep with their heads on the desks! Changing that attitude to classroom-based instruction doesn’t happen immediately or easily in many cases.

In addition to that, I’ve often reflected on my right to pull up students who text or use their gadgets in ways that don’t actually disrupt others in the class. Am I permitted to take offence at the students who daydream or look around in class while pretending to pay attention? Most importantly, if my students are driven to ‘gadget’ (as I call it), perhaps I need to look at myself and the what/how of my teaching. If my lessons are stimulating and attention-grabbing enough, there should technically be less risk of students ‘gadgeting’ in ways that aren’t conducive to the lesson.

Funnily enough, in the company Bizenglish courses I taught in Korea, there was constant reference to gadgets, but the learners were almost always quite disciplined about it. In most every case, the learners were looking up something that added to their understanding of what we were discussing or learning, and in many cases they were able to come up with interesting facts and supplementary information that made for excellent input into the lesson stage at hand. Sometimes there would even be a phone call to someone in another department to check a development of some sort that related to what we were discussing (and my students took great pride in doing this all in English – putting their colleagues on the spot!). These learners had immaculate manners and high motivation, and no doubt had learned some discipline from constant work meetings and projects as well (I guess). But in that case, free-for-all access to mobile gadgets was obviously helping the class and I embraced it.

Based on all that, I don’t have any hard and fast rules. It really does come down to how well I am managing to attract and maintain students’ attention with my material or technique (first and foremost) and what the students are doing with this peripheral access to information and friends, what this brings to the immediate learning environment, and how it can make lessons evolve.

(Just out of interest, the vast majority of my online TOEFL students are deadset against the use of smartphones in university lectures and tutorials! http://www.voxopop.com/topic/0c14fe66-0537-4a0e-8c6c-c6388cc79764 – which actually surprised me!)


– Jason

24 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jason – your experience in Korea is salutary, and seems to portend the direction that the rest of the world is heading. Will teachers be adequate to the challenge of ‘continuous partial attention’ on an epidemic scale? Your strategies for dealing with in-class texting offer some pointers. Next time I catch Jeremy Harmer tweeting in one of my talks, I’ll know what to do! 😉

25 08 2010
Vicki Hollett

We send a teacher for coffee with the students at break times. It keeps the conversations English and when I think about it, some really interesting conversations have often developed in breaks. But I noticed today that everyone was attending to their blackberries, iphones and ipads. It passed through my mind that it was haphazard communication and I felt we weren’t ‘together’.
Thanks for this posting Scott. I’ll raise the issue with my students tomorrow when I take them off for a coffee break. I can understand the need to check in with work and family. And if it’s what they want to do, I’ll be fine with that. But I think they should consider what they might be missing.

25 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Vicki. It seems to be the characteristic posture of the time: heads down, busily working the thumbs. Not conducive to sociability, let alone classroom learning. This is one reason why I’m coming round to the idea of interactive whiteboards -at least they encourage heads-up.

In the old days, of course, students would smoke during the break. Less good for the health, but more convivial!

25 08 2010
Peter Travis

A fascinating discussion and valid points on both sides. I absolutely agree that technology used effectively in class can enhance the learning process. I’ve been away from the classroom for a few years now but remember feeling cheated when I had one of the rooms without Internet access in one form or another.

However, I really do believe we need saving from ourselves sometimes.

When I’m busy working on one project or another I have to create my own boundaries with regards the use of Twitter, Facebook and general web browsing in order to attend to the job in hand. Yes, the job often entails going online but in the process I often have to battle with my curiosity to check updates on one platform or another. There are times when the Internet goes down I eventually recover from the initial panic to find I’m being quite productive!

We create boundaries about the use of Facebook for our eldest daughter at home for several reasons, one being the need to ‘attend’ to family time. More often than not the result of this attention to ‘us’ is all of us having some fun or a nice chat together.

So, in class? Perhaps I shouldn’t speak for others who may well have more ability to multi-task productively. But imagining my previous life as a student in my German class, I would certainly enjoy being ‘saved’ from these online distractions. (They will all be there to use after the lesson for educational and social purposes). By all means use a technology if it helps me learn a particular thing more effectively but I think I’d like the default position to be interacting with the people around me.

Thanks for the chance to comment!

25 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Peter. I read your comment as I was about to post a new one of my own, but it chimes nicely with yours so I’ll add it as a ‘reply’.

Catching up with my mail since I’ve been away, I’m reading the latest issue of Granta (111) which, coincidentally, has a hard-hitting attack on technology by one Hal Crowther, in which – among a lot else – he says:

Worse news is that the American mind is emulating its body — it’s turning to suet. A few years ago the educational benefits of the new technology were hyped hysterically, with futurists and investors predicting an intellectual renaissance anchored by computers. The reality seems to be just the opposite. Though the educational potential of the Internet is limitless, it is becoming apparent that wired students use technology less to learn than to distract themselves from learning, and to take advantage of toxic shortcuts like research-paper databases and essay-writing websites. Teachers report that electronic cheating is pandemic.

“Less to learn than to distract themselves from learning”. Hmm.

Later in the article he adds:

Doubts are spreading, but perhaps too late. In the spring of 2007, Liverpool High School in a upstate New York made national news when it abandoned its laptop program as a failed experiment, and went back to books . ‘After seven years there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,’ said Mark Lawson, president of the Liverpool school board. While their test scores stagnated, Liverpool students used their laptops to cheat on exams, message friends, hack into local businesses, update Facebook profiles and download pornography. ‘The teachers were telling us that when there is a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the machine gets in the way,’ Lawson concluded. ‘It’s a distraction to the educational process.’

25 08 2010
English Raven

This is interesting, Scott. I am torn on the issue in a few ways…

Perhaps increasing partial attention is a natural part of our evolution. Even before the advent of Internet and mobile phones, most of us were already dividing our attention and focus in more ways at any given time than people were say 50 or 100 years ago. As a species we appear to be very effective when it comes to cluttering ourselves with more concerns and distractions. Perhaps the challenge is to learn to handle this fragmenting process and cope more efficiently and effectively within an increasingly multi-task mode – the people who end up getting ahead in life tend to be the ones who can demonstrate this capacity.

On the other hand, when considering things like mobile phones and portable wifi access, I cannot help but think of why classrooms were originally set up the way they were with walls and doors that can be closed, creating a private space where Ts and Ss can dedicate their attention to the task of learning the language without peripheral distractions or interruptions. Its not like Ss used to get up at random moments to go out to the public phone in the foyer to call or take a call from a friend who wanted to tell them about an awful incident of a nasty old lady getting caught on camera tossing a kitten into a wheelie bin…

Not sure. Perhaps the answer (or a reasonable range of explanations and solutions) can be found somewhere between the two extremes.

I wonder if anyone has ever thought to check the attentional strengths of the Amish, and their relative success with learning foreign languages?


– Jason

25 08 2010
Andrew Pickles

Hi Jason

Don’t know about the Amish but do know a couple of first class language learners. One, a native English speaker, speaks Russian, Serbo-Croat, Mandarin and Cantonese to interpreter level and to a lesser extent also German. The second, also a native English speaker, speaks French and Spanish to interpreter level (interprets in Geneva for the UN) and also speaks fluent Korean.

The reason I mention them is that they have learnt languages that include completely new orthographic and tonal systems as well as being tremendously culturally distinct from English. Having asked both of them how they learnt the language they gave fairly similar answers.

1. Not sure just did,

when pressed further,

2. low tech, paper flash cards for vocab.,

3. extensive and intensive reading,

4. cassette based pronunciation drills

5. conversation partners

6. quiet and regular repetition and reflection.

I think I also read somewhere that you too had learnt Swedish (?) and had benefitted greatly from taking time to write and reflect alone on what you had learnt.

The benefit often suggested for extensive use of electronicalia (invent a word a day!) in class and elsewhere is that of being instantly able to access information so that the need to carry that information around in your head (Old Skool) no longer really applies. I don’t want to get into other subjects but in Language learning/teaching I’m not sure that applies, if I want to chat to my neighbour in German (I live in Germany I don’t just pick a language a day 😉 I can’t get him/her to wait while I look everything up on google translator – or at least not if I want to be able to talk to them again.

I guess my convoluted point here is that technology can’t help you all the time and with every subject there is a limit to when and where you can deploy technology, simply knowing where to look up the answer is not always enough. Also, from my, admittedly hopelessly unscientific, survey of two people, good language learners need space away from distractions to acquire and deapen their language. Which means that perhaps edtech should be more circumspect than it currently is.

I hope that sort of makes sense and I would be really interested to know what you think,

all the best


25 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Andrew. Of course, the day will come when technological innovations will make the whole language learning enterprise entirely redundant (in a Brave New World sort of scenario) because state-of-the art speech-recogntion and translation software installed in our portable mini-computers (i.e. mobile phones) will enable us to communicate with anyone anywhere anyhow. This will free us from all those burdensome years of memorizing vocab and rehearsing verb conjugations, thereby allowing us to devote our time to much more useful pursuits – such as playing videogames!

Meanwhile, the students fiddle while no one learns…

25 08 2010
Karenne Sylvester


Meanwhile, the students fiddle while no one learns…

and I thought the problem was the “turn to page 25, textbook lot”

25 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Torn on the issue is good, Jason. Denying that there IS an issue is not so good. 😉

25 08 2010
Alan Tait

Some readers might be familiar with Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. While I don’t think it’s directly relevant to the classroom (he isn’t writing for teachers), I’ve found it’s a useful metaphor for classroom management: let there be very distinct sections during the lesson, marked by very clear boundaries – changes in seating, use of media, interaction, teacher role etc.

I think that can get us out of the techie/luddite dilemma.

PS @ Andrew Pickles – does all the hardware make it harder to move people and furniture around the room?

25 08 2010

Relating things back to communication – this term I’ve introduced the age old “weekly journal” into my English IGCSE group. I went out myself and bought them all nice blue notebooks. On the first day I told them that I wanted to see their journals once a week. What they write in their journal is completely up to them. They can write about what they did at the weekend – the view out of the window, or more personal stuff. The only stipulation was that it must be at least a paragraph.

The idea behind it was to have them pay attention to something in order to process it and then write it with pen and paper which is somewhat alien to many teenagers these days. Free writing with a pen and paper – taking the time to consider what they’re going to write! (Not texting!) But then I also give their entries due attention and respond to them with some thought on the level of meaning rather than form.

I’m now into week 3 – and it has been amazing. They are (to varying degrees) actually communicating something of their thoughts, feelings and opinions about things. With one or two it has already become a two way “dialogue” as I reply and respond to their thoughts/worries etc. Real communication – and attention to what they are saying.

I seldom use computers in this English class – simply because the the very few times I’ve tried to, the temptation to quickly check facebook – or just show this on Youtube is too overwhelming. At first I tried to work with this in the “dogme” sense of following the ideas and language that emerged from the youtube clip – but I found that the speed with which they clicked from one thing to another – rendered any in-depth exploration or sustained discussion almost impossible.

25 08 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Blogging works so much better than a blue notebook… if you’re addicted to this colour you could of course, choose to have a blue blog…

Let’s list a couple reasons why
You don’t have to carry it with you
You can not lose it
You probably won’t spill coffee on it
You can search through it easily
You can add photos of those great events that are done on the weekend
You can find out what other things your classmates have been up to.

I wonder why people who are afraid of technology simply fail to recognize that people do just fine talking with a laptop/screen in front of them as they do not… I wonder what the “brain-fail” is in not connecting the dots between a piece of paper and pen versus a keyboard and computer.


25 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Steph. Hmm. I love the sound of the ‘nice blue notebooks’ – I can practically smell them!

I hope you’e going to write this experiment up somewhere -which reminds me, I enjoyed reading the interview in the latest ETAS Journal.

25 08 2010
Karenne Sylvester

oh… but I will add moleskin blue notebooks do smell divine.

26 08 2010

Hi Karenne – I very openly admit to being someone who seems to always have difficulties with tech – I want tech to work for me (honestly). This weekend I’m giving a workshop for ETAS and will do a power point. I have a Macbook and love it. But spent 30 mins fiddling about this morning trying to get the beamer to work with the computer. That sort of thing happens all the time with me – 10 mins gone with fiddling – but I am asking for help. Confessed to Illya our techie in ETAS that I’m baffled by twitter. I signed up – but just get the feeling I’m talking to myself!! I don’t shun tech – it just never seems to work for me.

Those nice blue notebooks – I don’t know, it’s something about turning the page, individual handwriting styles….of course on a practical level, they all have to write (in pen, on paper) for their IGCSE’s – so they need to get used to it, if for no other reason than to be able to cope in the exam.

Scott – glad you enjoyed the Journal – we certainly enjoyed putting the feature together.

27 08 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Hi ya Steph,

What about getting Illya to help you out with the beamer or perhaps your students? My students taught me and I remember the first few times when I was in a different classroom and I connected the beamer to computer, it was really difficult for me too (and I was so scared everything would fail and I’d look an idiot) but it’s really just a psychological hump to get over (sorry, I do mean this in the kindest way and based on my own experience).

Sometimes there is an order to the turning on computer/connecting the two : turning on the beamer after all’s connected (with older models) and then of course, knowing the right function key to get screen on wall -as these differ from Mac to PC and I don’t have a Mac so not sure what it is on yours. But as soon as you have that routine down pat, it’ll be as easy as turning on the gas stove to cook something. Little more than a series of known steps.

What I’m trying to say is it is perfectly natural to “fail” – not only is right, it teaches you. You encourage your students to make mistakes daily (right 🙂 so that you have the opportunity to correct their English, it’s 100% okay to fail at tech, but not to give up.

The journals are lovely – the point I was trying to make is that if the paper based journals as opposed to online journals (blogs) are only “your” preferred method then that might not work in the long run – some students may not like their own handwriting…

No one has to use tech, not at all, and I’m no evangelist, it’s just that we have to pay attention to the way the world is moving and if our students are at the center of our focus and the reason for being in the classroom then what the student feels to be more ‘natural’ is important (if your students don’t want tech, toss the computer, really – why bother) my point mainly is that we very much need to pay full attention that we do not wind up imprisoning them to a world made up of our own need for comfort, because we “know” best.

With regard to Twitter, the biggest tip I can give you is to “give” first.

Pretty much that goes for everything in social media. Find some like minded souls – that’s your principle objective, really – not to follow the big wigs… ;-)) you’re there to develop as a teaching professional and a human in the midst of a dynamic change towards a new “era” in communication.

Make a twitterlist or a group on your tweetdeck, for say 10 – 30 people you like the look of and then read their conversations regularly. When one of them says something that you find interesting then hit the reply button and say whatever it is that pops into your mind. You don’t have to flatter people or be too friendly, you can even say “hey, I don’t agree with that because..” Point is to treat it like a conversation: with bounce.

Keep doing that until you have a nice little circle that you know you can always rely on for a quick chat and whenever you see a good article in the press or a nice youtube video that would work for one of their classes – tweet it out.

Keep reaching out for people who have nice faces to grow your own community and especially pay attention to those who respond to you – in time you’ll be able to grow a PLN (professional learning network) and then whenever you sign in – you’ll have people you can rely on to help you in your own professional development as you help them in theirs!!! Hope useful.

Take care,

11 09 2010

Thanks Karenne for all your tips – and for explaining to me how twitter works in such detail. (only just read your reply now) We just had our SIG day today in Zurich and I got into an interesting discussion with Pete Sharma about twitter, another post perhaps.

26 08 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Yikes, I just noticed this one:

negotiate the use of aids and technology, such as dictionaries, laptops, etc, so that learners must ask permission to use them, or use them only at designated stages

How awful! Scott!

Sage on stage stuff… No! No! This is not critical pedagogy (said humbly but in shocked disagreement) I personally believe that students need to, themselves, be the ones who make such a decision.

8 09 2010

Why is it not critical pedagogy? Because it appears to invest some authority in the teacher – the authority in the room on language and effective ways of learning it?

I would have thought that requiring negotiation of something that is seen as a right would provoke a lot of discussion and would therefore allow the issue to be examined from more than one perspective – which seems pretty critical to me!

Individual students should always be the ones who make decisions about their actions, but when people are acting socially, the responsibility to the group and to the group’s aims will inevitably supercede the wishes of the individual. As A. S. Neil argued, freedom does not mean license.

It strikes me as (wilfully) disingenuous to suggest that the electronic media is as innocent as the Old Skool ways of passing notes or doodling. This is not yet proven and there is a growing body of research which is suggesting that it is not correct. This research argues that the increased exposure to digital media is affecting the structure of our brains and causing certain skills to atrophy. Now, this could be the same as Socrates’s views on writing: “[it] destroys memory [and] weakens the mind, relieving it of…work that makes it strong. [It] is an inhuman thing,” but the point I strive to make is that we should be critical about the use of digital and electronic technology in the classroom because there IS research which suggests that it is NOT the same as paper and pen.

I agree with you (in other places) that technology is here and is essential to the modern worker within an industrialised society; I agree with you that the potential of technology is mind-blowing; and since I downloaded the most recent software for our SmartBoards, I have been finding a number of ways of using technology to enhance my teaching – so I don’t want to come across as a technophobe; I’m not.

But I do like to think of myself as being a critical thinker (in some regards; in others I am led by my own ignorance, I have to admit). And it makes me shudder to read ringing endorsements of the new technologies that dismiss out of hand any questioning voices. [btw this is not meant to imply that you are a ringing endorser…]

28 08 2010

Cultural factors are maybe relevant to this discussion.

For example, at university level, my experience of German students is that they tend to have a lot of self-discipline and engage deeply with their education in such a way that they are not easily distracted in class. They would doubtless use mobiles and laptops in a disciplined way, though that might be too disciplined for those who favour students feeling free to go on-line whenever they feel appropriate.

Spanish students tend to be less self-disciplined and, at least by the time they get to university, are often quite alienated from the educational process. Levels of engagement are shallower and students more easily distracted. So fewer problems here probably if you want your students to access the web at will! But Spaniards are incredibly social animals who just adore chatting about nothing in particular. So no guarantees that when they look down at a screen in class they will be looking at sites of particular relevance to the lesson.

So does our attitude to technology in class need to be adjusted depending on the culture in which we are teaching?

29 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Glennie. There is also a ‘classroom culture’ (nested within the larger social and political culture) which plays a part, I think. I had a class of trainee teachers a couple of years back, virtually all of whom ended up bringing their laptops to class. It was clear that – some of them, at least some of the time – were indulging in off-task activities. Coincidentally or not, the dynamic of the class was not that great either. The ‘classroom culture’ was not that conducive to high engagement and collaboration. I didn’t enjoy it greatly.

I taught the same course with another group this summer. From the outset it was understood that laptops wouldn’t be used in class, except when requested by me (for a session on corpus linguistics). This wasn’t a top-down decision, just something to do with the class culture, which seemed to recognise that the style of instruction (lots of pair and group work, along with open class discussion, PLUS I made the powerpoints immediately available after class, so there was no real need to take notes), and the classroom dynamic (VERY attentive and collaborative) – all made the idea of using laptops (or anything else for that matter) redundant. On the whole, this was a much more plesasant teaching experience.

In future, I will attempt to establish a similar culture – but – as Karenne implies above – it’s probably better that it emerges naturally.

29 08 2010

Thanks for the reply Scott

Interesting that you make that point about sts not having to take notes, presumably on laptops.

I read something somewhere about the value of students taking notes from the board or Powerpoint in class using pen and paper. The idea was that the actual act made a significant intial contribution in the struggle to aid recall.

It’s going to be harder and harder to persuade sts to do it, though.

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