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April 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

New Classroom, New Strategies – Reading and Reflection

Roy Bicknell works as a freelance ELT teacher and teacher trainer in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Roy specialises in business English.                         


The classroom

Covid has brought more uncertainty into our lives and into our classrooms. This creates challenges that we might not have expected to face just a couple of years ago. For example, can we transition back to F2F teaching and in what way will it be different in the post-Covid classroom? Our view or perspective of the classroom may be undergoing a major shift.

That said, however we organise our classroom, the learning game is in one respect no different from what it was pre-Covid: we should still aim to make our students engage more and become more mindful of what they are learning. This has brought me in recent online lessons to take another look at two specific areas which are often overlooked by students: one, reading which is a skill that students tend to undervalue; two, student reflection and how this engages them in their learning.


The expectation gap

Many of my students work in the financial services sector. During recent lessons I have been using key expressions from that field to trigger discussion while we explore relevant professional areas. This is principally to familiarise students with the different contexts in which business language is used. There is another reason too: I want them to become more aware of their vocabulary range, so that they have a first understanding of what they might need to develop further.

One key expression that stimulates student talk is expectation gap. Students who work in auditing and related services are often familiar with the term. The expectation gap in auditing means the gap between what the public expects of auditors – for example, detect fraud – and what auditors actually do when performing an audit. In other words, auditors and the general public may have different perceptions of what auditing actually involves.

However, this is not the only kind of expectation gap. There is also the psychological one whenever we expect to achieve something without thinking through what we need to do to get there. Our expectation is in this case not realistic and we are using what psychologists would call magical thinking. It is something that I have been thinking about when it comes to the proficiency of my Dutch students.



I regularly ask them about their learning goals. Here are two which often come up: one, they want to have a better understanding of relevant content in their professional field; the other is that they can develop more range in their professional vocabulary. The general fluency of Dutch students is often good, which gives them a useful starting base. We could say that the goals they set themselves are realistic ones.

And yet, there is still an expectation gap with these same students as many of them underestimate the importance of developing and diversifying their professional reading. This is a crucial step in developing professional proficiency. Achieving their learning goals will depend on what they read, how much they read and how they read.

My specific goal here is to make them better readers. Therefore, I have some basic approaches to get students to read more and achieve a richer and more meaningful reading experience.

Here are two of them.


Don’t limit yourself

My key message to the students is: Don’t limit your reading. Reviewing the memos or proposals they encounter daily is of course relevant. Indeed, analysing the documents they work with and identifying key language remain an important part of their professional reading. So, classroom time needs to be spent on this. However, they should also start reading more about related topics outside the narrower scope of their office work. That is when they have the opportunity to see that same key language in different, fresh contexts.

To get them reading with a broader scope I introduced talking points from recent media articles that they were likely to relate to. They covered a wide range of topics from office life during Covid to sustainable practices in business. I then asked them to read an article, which provided more context for the talking point we had discussed. Here are three talking points we explored.

About homeworking:

Professionals value dedicated workspaces. A desk stuck in a spare room may no longer be good enough.

After Covid:

What are you looking forward to most and least once distancing is no longer required?

About intercultural communication:

How do you expect international business partners to behave at your (virtual) meetings?

The discussion around a talking point prepared the ground for the students to actively engage in reading articles on the topic at hand. Once we had done this a few times, it was relatively easy to have students search for new articles and provide their own talking points for the next online lesson.


More is better

Another key message I wanted to share with the students was: The more you read the better. That is not a cliché: we learn to read by reading. This does take time, but the pay-off is considerable: research on extensive reading indicates that learners increase their reading rate (reading gets easier) and gradually become more fluent readers.

To stimulate this idea of more is better, I would provide articles which were related in some way to what we had been discussing in class. They were asked to comment on the article through a short paragraph, which I would then give some feedback on at the next online session. I kept the feedback low-threshold as the focus was on discussing what they had read. Thus, they were getting the opportunity to review the language they used in their comments, but they were also digging deeper in their reading and noticing how relevant language worked in different contexts.

These were some suggestions how to close the expectation gap students may be experiencing during their learning. Yet more steps are needed. Reading is not the only area that doesn’t immediately get the students’ attention; there is student reflection itself which is a critical factor in how they engage in the learning experience.


Reflection is a game

Let’s take a closer look at reflection in the classroom. Much of what we teach in the classroom is game-like in nature. The classroom is in more than one respect a game-room where teacher and students play with language. Students try things out and experiment with the language they have already acquired or with new language they seek to master. This playfulness which is an integral part of classroom practice adds an element of uncertainty to the learning process. At the beginning of the lesson, teacher and students set out to explore the chosen path and the learning outcome is to a large degree not fixed. This is one reason why Jack C. Richards talks of the lesson plan as a road map: we know where we are heading but may need to take different routes during the lesson to reach our final destination.

So, classroom learning is not a routine practice but a flexible one where teacher and student react or do not react to the different actions and activities as the lesson progresses. And this is where reflection comes in. We all think in the classroom but it is how we think that matters. This can take different forms. We have the teacher who investigates a learning problem and seeks a solution, and we have students who ask the teacher about their progress and how this is being measured. These are forms of reflection that go beyond a routine ‘thinking out loud.’ Teacher and students are consciously engaging in reflecting on the actual learning situation.

It is this more deliberate thinking or reflecting which in my view adds to the quality of learning. It’s a two-way process in which the teacher reflects on what they are doing and how this is engaging students, while at the same time students become more aware of what they are learning and how they are learning.

My experience is that the transition to online teaching has not affected the nature of the learning game. With some adjustment for practical aspects, such as the dynamics of the online classroom, the idea that reflection in class improves learning still holds true. Here are two activities which work in the online classroom and which have a reflective component.



This is a mini writing activity. You explain that you will introduce the beginning of a sentence in the chatbox (or the shared whiteboard if you have one). Students are then invited to finish the statement any way they wish. The sentence fragment could be for example: ‘My priority at work is…’ Once everyone has responded, add a new work-related sentence fragment for them to complete, for example: ‘The most difficult thing I have had to do professionally is…” Again students are asked to complete the fragment. Now the student group should be focused on what has been produced in the chatbox and there is an opportunity for the teacher to give feedback on the language used, though this can also be done later in the lesson.

You now have the students’ attention. Add new sentence fragments in the chatbox, but this time they should reflect on the learning itself. Here are two examples: ‘I always learn better when I…’ and ‘The hardest thing for me to do in English is….’ What we are doing here is introducing a reflective element to the learning activity. Feedback on language can still be given but the students are being engaged to think about how they are learning.



The second activity is a simple reflective exercise which is still linked to the students’ learning. At the end of each online session, invite the students to respond to questions on the lesson itself. These can be very simple, for example:

What was the lesson mainly about?

What did you learn?

What was easy for you?

What was difficult for you?

They can respond orally but there is often more opportunity for reflection when they put their answers in the chatbox. You should give at least five to ten minutes for this activity as it often provides new information about their understanding and performance, and allows for readjustment of your learning programme. It also adds a reflective layer as the students are regularly being asked to consciously consider their learning, the dynamic of the classroom and the quality of their interaction with the teacher.

Reflective activities are a springboard: they give students more opportunity to actively engage with what and how they are in learning in the classroom. My experience is that they add a critical dimension to our teaching. Students become more critical and more thoughtful. This helps support a more independent learning practice for our students. In that sense, reflection drives and enhances the learning game.


A final word

The classroom as we know it may yet undergo significant changes in the coming years. That said, my view is that the two areas we have briefly explored here will remain critical focus points when it comes to student engagement and autonomy. I hope that these lesson ideas have provided some food for thought for your own classroom.


Please check the Pilgrims f2f courses at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Pilgrims online courses at Pilgrims website.

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