How we help our students to learn more by teaching them less

Nick Robinson recently posted that ‘content is no longer king’ – and he’s right! ELT coursebooks tend to result in content-driven courses and teaching. But by switching our focus away from content and towards the overall learning experience, we’ve been able to slash our syllabus by 40% and, in doing so, improve the relevance and quality of learning without adding to teachers’ workload.

Why it’s vital to focus on the user experience of learning

We have access to more free resources as teachers and learners on the Internet than we could ever hope to index. But how does this impact on the syllabuses we teach to and user experience (UX) in the classroom? Some students have no choice but to be in a classroom (schoolchildren). Others choose to be there, but may not be entirely enthusiastic about it (university students). Some may be highly motivated with intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to learn (refugees or immigrants). The spectrum is wide. You will know best where your own students lie on it. In corporate training there may be many conflicting commitments competing for attention. If classes are not perceived as useful and positive in terms of the experience, watch attendance figures drop through the floor.

However a student arrives in the classroom, the quality of learning will depend heavily on how they perceive the experience. Engaged students obviously learn better. If you empower students to take ownership of the process of learning itself you will see their perceptions becoming more positive.

The problem with coursebooks

Coursebooks as we have known them have a limited shelf-life. The publishers won’t like me saying this, but they’re on their way out. They tend to make courses content driven. I’d prefer courses to be driven by the desired outcome: actually learning English. To achieve that outcome we need to focus more on process and experience. Unless you are teaching to prepare students for a specific exam like Cambridge Advanced, TOEFL, or IELTS, for example, most coursebooks are not structured adequately for the way people want to study now. Relaxing on the sofa with the iPad is more appealing than sitting at a desk and opening a book and we need a flexible approach to class content and dynamics which is more in line with students’ experiences outside the classroom.

So how do we get flexible?

The first thing to do is check the syllabus. We checked ours last year and decided to axe 40% of it. Why? It was too crowded. There was not enough space to breathe. Teachers complained they were spending all their time just trying to ‘get through’ the syllabus and complying with formal evaluation. So we slashed it. Now 40% of class time and online study is dedicated to ‘informal learning’. When I say informal I do not mean unstructured. I do mean following the interests of the group. I do mean using media your students find motivating and enjoyable. I do mean stimulating creativity.

But…. if I have to create 40% of the programme that’s loads of extra work!

Yes and no! Yes, you will have to think about it, and so will your students. But this is the whole point. Instead of simply following a prescribed learning path which may or may not be appropriate for your group, the idea is to reflect and adapt to the interests and specific needs of your group. Whoever you teach, wherever you teach, the objective is hardly ever simply to pass an exam – it’s to acquire language skills, and hopefully a love for learning. And remember, it’s not you that has to create the 40% on your own. The point is to involve the group in the process. Engagement is the key here.

Start the conversation early

Group dynamics are established in the first few sessions. It’s never too late to change, but it’s so much easier if we set things up right from the start. So, from the beginning ask your students to reflect on what they want as ‘desired outcomes’ from their course. If they’re studying for an exam, one desired outcome will be to pass, of course. But surely life is richer than that? In the corporate sector our programmes are designed to develop communication skills for the working environment: emailing, presenting, phone calls, meetings, social English etc. Fine. But even actuaries are human beings who cook, dance and go to exhibitions. So we should tap into that. Maybe the syllabus requires you to work on language and structures for presenting. Once you’ve done the hard yards, go off-piste. For example, you could ask your students to research a subject (perhaps a hobby or something topical) themselves online and explore the oratory skills (or errors) of speakers on TED Talks. Later, they present the topic in class with peer and self-evaluation. If you hand over control to your students you often get some very pleasant surprises. They find the stuff, they bring it into the classroom. They share what they’ve discovered for themselves. Some may be happy to record their work as audio or video. Then they can share it! Hopefully it will provide moments of fun, relaxation and laughter, not to mention a spirit of collaboration and peer support. These are very positive contributions to a student’s experience and in the end give you better results, hopefully even in formal exams.

Sharing is easy

It’s never been easier to share your work. Encourage students to set up groups using tools they are familiar with. This could be What’s App, Facebook, or Google Apps. Whatever medium suits your group best. You may be working with an online LMS which incorporates group discussion and document sharing, but if not it’s easy to improvise. Edmodo is hardly new, but check it out if it is to you. It’s an example of a completely free way to get your students to cooperate and share their learning experiences. No coursebook required!

You can follow me on twitter @JamesHoyle1
Your students can find loads of free stuff on . If they want to follow us on Facebook they’ll get new activities popping up on their wall. Keep it free, share it.


James HoyleJames Hoyle is Director of Go English, a corporate language training company based in Barcelona, Spain. Go English has a team of around 150 freelance teachers. James founded Go English in 2001 and has lived through the changes technology has brought to the sector, implementing a Blended Learning methodology. Go English has offices in Barcelona & Madrid.

7 thoughts on “How we help our students to learn more by teaching them less”

  1. This is a very interesting post and I certainly agree that by reducing the scope of the syllabus, teachers will not be under so much pressure to cover everything in class. However, how did you decide what got cut from your syllabus? What process did you go through in order to determine what should stay and what was removed?
    Also, I don’t necessarily agree that a cut of 40% in the syllabus is representative of a 40% saving of time in the classroom. Presumably the time saved depends on the nature of the cuts made – some grammar points, for example, will take longer to teach than others.
    Finally, how did you evaluate your new, streamlined syllabus? How did you compare the situation before and after the changes were made in order to determine whether the cuts had a positive effect on the learners?

    • Hi Derek, thanks for your comments – they are very well observed. In a short article it is difficult to go into fine detail – you are right that deciding what to cut is no simple matter – and one relies on feedback from students and teachers to see if the cuts made have been effective or not in achieving desired outcomes. I perhaps over simplified in the article, as we have introduced a feedback loop into our planning to revise content, evaluation and updates on an annual basis. The point is not to overcrowd the syllabus and to leave some breathing space. In practice we are finding that just cutting the syllabus is not enough – you have to provide structure for informal learning too: both for students and teachers.

  2. I hope your ‘informal learning’ was filled with conversation, interest and pleasure! It’s a great idea to allow the students to steer at least some of their in classroom learning. Empowering students can create space for them to learn to express what they want to be able to talk about in the language they are learning. Thanks for an interesting and insightful article.

  3. You said you axed 40% of the content. Did you just stop teaching this content or did you stretch it over more hours? And if completely eliminated, what is it about the content you cut that made it unsuitable for what you see as your goals? Oh, and I wonder, what processes do you now focus on that you didn’t before?

    • Hi Mike, from conducting feedback from teachers and students we found our course content was too dense. We didn’t cut subject items in terms of grammar and lexis to be covered, we reduced the volume of content. We have a team responsible for didactic materials both for online delivery and for face-to.face classes, and it was their responsibility to edit the materials. The number of study hours did not change (108 per year) – the idea is to allow teachers to have time to focus on students particular needs – that may mean practising within a context suitable to the needs of the group – those in the financial sector have different needs to those in the tourism sector, for example. The aim is to be able to provide space within the syllabus to guide students to adapt good informal learning habits which aid language acquisition within the context they actually use the language or where thier own interests lie. One size does not fit all.

  4. Thanks James. Sorry, but I still wonder what exactly you mean (again sorry- I admit to be being very literal). You say that the number of discrete items you study has not changed (grammar, lexis) and that your total instructional hours are the same. Yet, you have cut 40% of the content. I am wondering if you reduced the time spent practicing what was on the syllabus? Or did you reduce the content that was not connected to your syllabus giving that time over to the teachers?

    By the way I am also conflicted over much the same things….I love free form teaching at least 25% of the time but as a materials designer I love the direct method, given what can be attained with extremely goal orientated, rigorous, planned instruction (especially at lower levels). Teaching is more fun when you have a certain freedom but a tight curriculum (using the direct teaching philosophy) also has its advantages.

    • HI Mike, again your points are very relevant. To be perfectly honest, we found the materials we had created were too dense, too long, too involved, so teachers were feeding back that they were getting bogged down – so we edited our material and found we were able to reduce the volume by a very significant amount making the exercises tighter and more focused. Some activities were cut completely as we felt there was repetition. I totally agree that a well organised, tight syllabus is essential and especially important with the lower levels. Glad to hear you battle with the same issues as a materials writer. Our experience this year is the ‘free’ area of the syllabus does need a certain structure to work properly, which falls upon the course designers and writers as much as the teachers. Training, we realise, is a critical issue. Theory and practice can diverge if training is not right.


Leave a comment