3 Key Questions at the Starting Gate

Term starts like an avalanche, and it can be a fight not to be buried: new colleagues; new students; new groups; new challenges; maybe even a new workplace and city (ciao from the Eternal City, where I’ll be starting a new role at IH Rome shortly).

So set against this roaring background noise, what are the things we really need to hear from our students at the start of term? Here are three key questions (I’ll be brief – there’s plenty of things to be busy with at this time of year!):

1. Why here, not elsewhere?

“WHY?” is the most important question when we’re setting out, and is important in the next two questions too. Why are you here and not studying digitally? As I wrote in an article for IH Journal: ‘although there are several cheaper and more time-efficient alternatives to physically attending a classroom to learn English, offering learners what they can’t get elsewhere is paramount to the survival of traditional classroom teaching’. Listening to and understanding this ‘why?’ can help to inform lesson content.

2. What do you want to DO with the language?

Most students have previous experiences studying English, but what are they looking for that they don’t already possess? Once you understand this, you can help students achieve these aims.

Goal setting is important, as is setting up daily micro-habits to work towards them, making regular check-ups and adjusting targets accordingly. I presented on SMART goal setting at the beginning of the year; for further details and free downloadable worksheets for classroom use, click here.


3. Who do you want to BE with the language?

L2 identity is a relatively new one for me, since Gianni Licata‘s excellent talk at the IH Italy Dare to Differ conference in February. Like the variation between Gianni’s Italian-speaking and English-speaking personas, the language we’re operating in conditions our character and how we interact with the world.

So the key question for students is who their model L2 speaker is: Queen Elizabeth II or Beyonce? Crocodile Dundee or Bill Clinton? Their hopes, expectations and fears as a person and a learner should be analysed, and the teacher should help them become who they want to be by offering vocabulary and suggestions on how they can fulfill their ambition, checking up with regular reflections on progress.

Ask the right questions, get meaningful answers, act on them!


3 thoughts on “3 Key Questions at the Starting Gate

  1. Thanks for this positive impetus to start the year. My students were asked the first two questions and some gave insightful responses, rather than the drab “to improve my English”:

    1. My previous teacher (and the Dos) challenged me to see if I could cope in a C1 class – that’s my constant drive and motivation;
    2. My family live in London and after 12th form (last year of school) I’d like to move there to study, live and work – in a multicultural environment, fitting in fully and having no employment disadvantages as a non-native speaker. Fluency;
    3. I have an active gaming profile and want to improve as English is the international gaming language. I need fluency to interact with native and non-native speakers of English from all around the world.

    Each student was encouraged to remind themselves of their goal each lesson and I challenged myself that if our classroom is not helping students achieve their goals then something isn’t right.

    I wasn’t sure how to utilise the 3rd question and was wondering if you’ve any good ideas to tease out their L2 identity – or perhaps this is for a month or two down the line.

    WHY – possibly the most important word in ELT…and in life!


    1. Thanks Al, and congratulations on your new venture at Al’s Action English (excellent pun on ‘all action’ – was this intentional?): https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCud_LV2adVKcLpO8slPVYxQ. I’ll certainly be using your clear explanations in my lessons this year, and treating my students to your dulcet Northern Irish tones. I’m learning Italian partly through short tutorials on YouTube much like yours; accessible and direct, perfect for the 21st Century hustle and bustle. Keep it up!

      I’m glad that you’ve focused your students on goals straight from the off. As you know, coming back to WHY is a key motivator to continue when the initial adrenaline wears off (and it gets cold and dark in Latvia, in your case!). The third question has more to do with who they look up to as a model of the English speaker they would like to be. In the case of your example number 3. above, there might be a gamer whose English level he/she would like to emulate. It’s an extension on WHY they are learning – is there a person who is already performing your dream level who you could measure your progress against? What do they do that you admire?

      My Italian L2 identity would be Gianluigi Buffon, for example – he speaks clearly and calmly with a range of vocabulary, gesticulating when necessary to add meaning (important in Italian!) without flailing wildly. In this case, I can find videos of Buffon speaking on a regular basis, comparing my progress to this ‘ideal’, noting what he does and putting it into practice.


      1. Thanks for the clarity regarding your third Key Question! I’ll try to implement this in the coming weeks and keep you posted. I reckon a lot of this boils down to building bridges within the classroom – getting to know our students better, what they’re interested in and want to communicate about and WHY – everything comes back to this!

        Gigi Buffon – I wonder if he’ll win that elusive Champions League trophy with PSG!

        I genuinely hadn’t noticed the pun…

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s