Interview with Marc Helgesen

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Kim Bradford Watts and Amanda O'Brien

Kim Bradford-Watts and Amanda O'Brien interview Marc Helgesen, co-author of the popular English Firsthand series, on his beliefs about the use of activities in the language classroom.

TLT: What role do you see activities playing within the EFL curriculum?

Marc: To a large degree, activities—organized around a sequence of functions/grammar points/vocabulary areas, etc.—ARE the curriculum. Activities are what the learners do and that is how they learn. One of the biggest changes we have seen in ELT over the past couple of decades has been the growing importance of activities in coursebooks and classes. In the past, textbooks were largely for presentation of language, and teachers had to come up with their own activities for student practice. Now books are full of practice activities (that certainly doesn't make them all equally useful or interesting but there are a lot more). An exception, of course, is a lot of the Monkasho-approved books, which are still very long on presentation and short on practice. And, as a result, teachers have to spend way too much time coming up with practice activities.

TLT: How often should we use activities?

Marc: Almost constantly. Of course, there does need to be presentation—but that can and should be active. Students need to be engaged with the tasks. And students need time to reflect, consolidate and just think about what they are learning. But if that is organized (even as simple as "Let's have one minute for thinking time. Think about what we did today. What do you want to remember? How will you remember it?"), it makes it an activity.

TLT: How long should we use activities?

Marc: Until we die. (Just joking [sort of.]) Actually, I think it is important to stop activities before interest has waned. But that presents a classroom management problem, because better students often do the task faster than weaker students (or sometimes slower since the better students go into more depth). Anyway, it is important that we don't cut off activities too quickly, or some students—the weaker ones who need the most practice—are the ones who don't get it.

My solution for that is to provide a couple of "Finished? Your choice." activities. These are often extra activities from the Teacher's Manual, or from books of photocopiable activities. I make a few extra tasks. When learners are finished with the main task, they can decide (on their own, or in pairs/groups) what they will do next.

TLT: What kinds of activities do you think are best?

Marc: I think variety is very important, so I like to try lots of different activities. On the whole, I do think that personalized activities are more likely to engage students. And things that are a bit challenging. I sometimes hear from teachers, "My students are not motivated so I can't do anything challenging." My experience is the opposite—motivated students will do anything. Less motivated learners are the ones you need to challenge. It is also important to make sure they have a way of accessing the language they need to do the tasks. It is easy to forget about that in Japan since so many students are false beginners, but the quickest way to make an activity fail is by not providing language support—we must make sure they can access the vocabulary and forms they need.

I also think it is important that activities fit into a syllabus—there should be a reason beyond "it is fun" for doing a task. And the students should know the reasons. This doesn't mean things can't be a little weird (some great tasks are). Just yesterday I had students physically balancing their weight against a partner's body weight while doing a speaking activity. Strange, yes. But we talked about the reason and it made sense to them.

A word on trying new activities: In my own classes, I trust the baseball rule: 3 strikes and you're out. I assume a new activity won't go so well the first time. I'm not sure of it, so the students aren't either. But I don't give up after one failure learning experience. The second time it usually goes a bit better. By the third time, it usually works. If not, then I can throw it out and try something else.

TLT: What kinds of activities do you think should be avoided?

Marc: I'm hesitant to suggest any kind of a blanket rule, like avoid X. Situations, students, and teaching/learning philosophies differ so much. I will say that in my own classes I tend to avoid competition in favor of cooperative tasks. It isn't so much a philosophical thing as practical: In most cases, competition awards speed, and that tends to lead to short and shallower answers—the opposite of what I like to encourage. Actually, I often give my students a minute or two of silent "thinking time" before a task to plan what they want to say so they can go deeper.

TLT: What roles are we aiming for in using activities?

Marc: In the past, people talked about P→ P→ P language teaching. It meant Presentation → controlled Practice (drills) → more open Production. At that time, activities were for practice and, especially, production. We now recognize that language learning just isn't that simple. It is not linear. We don't master one bit before we go on to the next. In essence we are at dozens of different levels of "Ps" at the same time. So that means the activities are often part of presentation—especially in task-based language learning when we are aiming for noticing language forms.

Also, learning is very, very active. So "activities" certainly are a key to that.

TLT: Do you have a favourite activity or activity type that you like using with low-level learners? How about with intermediate level learners?

Marc: I like variety, so it is hard to come up with just one. I do think it is important to look at the senses. We all (barring a handicap) have the five senses: visual, auditory, kinesthetic (feeling and movement), olfactory (smell), and gustatory (taste). They are all strong and important, but the first three are the ones we can work most with in the classroom. Language classes tend to be heavy on visual and auditory input, so I consciously look for ways to include kinesthetic activities in my classes. The balance is important.

Kid's activities often involve movement. Why do activities for adults so rarely include it? Do we expect university students to sit still all day? I know I can't. So on my webpage there is a handout of physical activities. Because of their nature, they are the kinds of things that aren't likely to make it into a textbook. The URL is (which is a long URL. An easier way to get there is to go to and search helgesen physical). Enjoy.

Looking at activities at a basic level, I would say information gaps are essential: A has some information that B needs. B asks to get it. I bring them up, even though they are well known, to emphasize that info gaps are a starting point, not a goal. We need to move beyond information gaps to experience and opinions gaps or we really haven't accomplished much. Personalizing the task—making sure the learners are adding their own information or ideas—is a good way to make sure this happens.

At an intermediate level, I like working with innervoice (imagining what characters are thinking) and with guided visualization—some people call them guided journeys—basically it is a matter of the students closing their eyes while the teacher asks some questions. Students imagine the story and then talk about it. I know some people figure this is a bit weird. True, but a lot of what we do in the classroom is weird (if you don't believe me, next time you are in a restaurant, turn to the people at the next table and say, "Listen and repeat"). Once we realize that what we do is often a bit unusual, we realize that a guided journey is really just a matter of the teacher asking questions—nothing usual about that—and the students closing their eyes to make imagining easier. (You can find more specifics on innervoice and guided visualization by doing a search for my name and each topic.)

TLT: What criteria do you use for judging the usefulness of an activity?

Marc: Chuck Sandy (co-author of Passages with Jack Richards) talks about "take away" value. Students need to know why they are doing something and feel that they are taking away some learning that is of value. I think it is important that activities do that.

And the activities need to be efficient. By that I mean you get a lot of practice for the time invested. If it takes 10 minutes to set up an activity that finishes in two minutes, it probably isn't a good use of time. An example that Penny Ur points out is hangman—it is easy to do, but there really isn't much language going on.

Both these ideas mean, I think, that we have to be clear what we are working on. If I'm designing a reading class and students spend most of their time speaking or writing, I am probably off goal. We need to focus on what we are trying to teach.

TLT: What should be avoided in designing activities?

Marc: One of the easiest ways to make an activity not work is with long, complex instructions. I try to write short (7 words or less) instructions in the imperative mood (i.e., orders). For example, don't write, "This is a pairwork so find a partner. Decide who is A and who is B and look at pages xx and yy. Ask your partner the questions and listen to her answers…etc". Instead, write:

A, look at this page. B, Look at page XX.
A, ask the questions. Write B's answers.

It is also, for reasons of motivation, useful to make sure the learners see the task as worth doing. One way to check is to ask ourselves: If they were doing this in their first language, would it be interesting and worth doing?

TLT: What should be implemented in designing activities?

Marc: I think all the ideas we've been talking about fit into this. One thing I would add: pilot the material and modify it. Activities sort of need to be "grown." You can't anticipate everything. Make it. Teach it. Ask colleagues to try it as well. Play with it. It will get better.

TLT: How do you expect research to shape activity design in the future?

Marc: I think the question is backwards: What goes on in the classroom should inform research just as much as research informs the classroom. Unfortunately, I find a lot of materials—especially commercially published materials—are usually well behind the times in terms of activities that reflect what we know about language learning/acquisition. Publishers are often going for the broadest sales possible (fair enough—but if they do it by going for the lowest common denominator, they are insulting us as teachers and our students).

I recall an editor proudly referring to a best selling text once by saying "If you are a communicative teacher, this a communicative book. If you are traditional, this is a traditional book. It is what ever you want it to be." My reaction was, "Sounds like a book without a belief system—a book without a soul." A best-seller, but certainly not state-of-the-art.

I think it is up to us as teachers to incorporate new ideas into our classes and our materials—and to demand them from publishers by the text choices we make.

TLT: Do you have any special theories on activity development/use/research?

Marc: One of the most interesting things going on is language planning research. It is really influencing my own writing and teaching. It gets a lot deeper than this, but for starters, just building in a minute or two for learners to look over a page and think about what they want to say can increase fluency, complexity and sometimes accuracy. Anything by Peter Skehan, Pauline Foster, Martin Bygate, or Rod Ellis would be a good place to start. Researching Pedagogic Tasks (2001, Longman) is useful but not always the easiest read. Challenge and Change in Language Teaching (Jane and Dave Willis. Was Heinemann, now Macmillan) has been around a while but is probably more accessible.

I am personally not very keen on most of the "how to write a book" literature. A lot of it leans toward formulae—and I find formula-written books pretty unsatisfying to teach.

TLT: What reading or websites would you recommend for teachers wanting to learn more about the role of activities in the EFL classroom?

Marc: The above for theoretical things. To get started with materials development, you might want to join MATSDA, the MATerialS Development Association which is a SIG of IATEFL. Their web site is There is also the ETJ-activities list. A lot of Japan-based people exchange ideas on it. You can join by going to www.eltnewscom/ETJ/. It is free. Be sure to check the "classroom activities E-mail group" list when you join. If you are already an ETJ member, send an e-mail to saying you want to join the activities list. Material Development in Language Teaching by Brian Tomlinson (Cambridge) is very good, too. That book and the MATSDA organization are aimed at people who want to publish. Of course, not everyone does. But just looking at your own activities and thinking of ways that will make them easier for other teachers will probably improve them.

Last bit of advice: play, experiment, experience. Approach activities with a sense of wonder and fun. If you do, the learners probably will, too.

TLT: Thank you very much for sharing with us your insights into how activities fit into the curriculum. I am sure that our readers will be inspired to try out some of your activities, create their own, or learn more about the usefulness of activities in the curriculum.