Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Whole Brain Teaching and English as a Second Language (ESL) Students

Whole Brain Teaching and English as a Second Language (ESL) Students
Whole Brain Teaching is designed to engage every member of a class, gaining and keeping their attention throughout a whole lesson. The techniques used in Whole Brain Teaching help students stay engaged and make learning fun for everyone. They prevent some students from disrupting the learning of others. All these things are important in any type of classroom, not just in standard K-12 classes in standard school subjects. They are just as important in an ESL classroom. More and more ESL teachers are learning about and using Whole Brain Teaching in their classrooms, whether they are teaching groups of immigrant children, or working overseas.

Common ESL Teaching Problems
In an ESL classroom, using standard teaching methods, it can be easy for students to become disengaged. The teaching language is English, not their first language, so they can have a greater tendency to get distracted. For the teacher, knowing whether ESL students are hearing and understanding what they are being taught can be challenging. Even well-behaved students may not be taking much in during lessons and it may be difficult for the teacher to pick this up. Some ESL students can become very dependent on the teacher, as they look to them for answers all the time, rather than engaging their own brains. Learning new vocabulary and grammar can seem like a very linear task, and it can be difficult to find ways to teach them that keeps students engaged.
All of these issues – and others – can be addressed by the use of Whole Brain Teaching in ESL classrooms.

Using Whole Brain Teaching with ESL Classes
More and more ESL teachers are realizing the benefits of using Whole Brain Teaching with their classes. Whole Brain Teaching can be particularly effective with ESL groups, as it helps keep the whole class engaged at all times, and helps make sure they keep speaking in English, rather than being tempted to slip back into their first language. The techniques used in Whole Brain Teaching are backed up by solid research into cognitive function and brain structure, but they are also incredibly simple.

The first technique – the Class-Yes technique – is designed to get the attention of the whole class, quickly, by getting their brains ready to listen and engage with learning. It uses very simple English words that even beginner ESL classes will be able to learn and understand quickly. Class-Yes gets students thinking actively and ready to hear what the teacher is saying.
The Teach-OK technique is a fantastic way to help ESL classes learn and remember new material. Students are paired up and teach each other information that the teacher has given them. In an ESL class, they could be asked to practice new words on a particular theme. The teacher remains in control of what is being taught, but the students are learning from each other, reducing dependence on the teacher. This partly mimics the way we learn our first language: we pick it up from speaking to those around us. As the students teach each other in pairs, the teacher can walk around the class and check their understanding: students cannot hide lack of knowledge with this technique. When using Teach-Ok teachers also ask their students to mimic their gestures and tone of voice. With ESL, this can help teach students gain understanding of the subtleties of language and pronunciation. For example, the difference between ‘read’ and read’.

The SuperSpeed reading technique can be used very effectively with ESL classes, to help them improve their reading. It could be especially useful with students whose first language is not written in Roman script, as it will help them identify letters and words more quickly. Students work in pairs, one a stronger and one a weaker reader. They are given a list of the 100 or 1000 (depending on their reading level) most commonly used sight words – words that are not phonetic and must be sight read, but that make up half of the words students will ever read. They are then asked to read out the words as fast as possible, and try to beat their own times each lesson. SuperSpeed can also be adapted to help students learn new vocabulary, teaching them to read everything from ‘dog’ to ‘reclining couch’.

Whole Brain Teaching can be used with students of all ages, including adults. These three techniques are just a snapshot; there are many more. If you are an ESL teacher looking to find new ways to engage students, you can download videos, ebooks and information on all the techniques from wholebrainteaching.com. You can also chat to other ESL teachers in the forums and find out how they use Whole Brain Teaching with their classes.


  1. Thank you for this post! I'm going to be in a 4th grade ESL classroom this upcoming year, and I've seen so many things posted about WBT, and am intrigued by it. I love that you laid it out and defended its use here especially with ESL students. You've just encouraged me to dive deeper in my research of WBT and find ways to begin incorporating it into my classroom next year. THANK YOU! :)

    Maestra Bilingue

  2. No problem. Glad you enjoyed it. Good luck for the upcoming year.

  3. could you share a lesson plan to show how this works?