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Oct 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Applying Mindfulness in ESL to Address Student Focus

Leigh Morgan is an Academic English teacher at UTS Insearch in Sydney, Australia. She has a Graduate Diploma in Learning and Teaching and the International Diploma of Language Teaching Management (IDLTM). In 2011 she won the regional Owner-Manager of the Year Award from the Australian Institute of Management while she was the principal of a college in Queensland.

This action research project looked at the effects of applying Mindfulness in ESL to address student focus. In the classroom, students often seem to be distracted. Students could be described as being ‘off task’. Rather than concentrating on the present activity, they might be more focused on messages on their phones or talking to their friends.

In his book Driven to Distraction at Work, Dr Edward Hallowell (2015) describes the feeling of a lack of focus caused by “the tsunami of distractions, interruptions, and sudden changes that buffet you all the time.” Numerous strategies have been suggested to help students focus. One of the strategies that has been popular with primary school teachers and high school teachers lately is Mindfulness. The action research question was ‘Do the listening scores of EFL students improve after a short focus activity?’

Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin have done research showing that mindfulness activities create beneficial changes in the way the brain functions (Davidson and Kabat-Zinn 2003). In 2016 the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) offered Mindfulness: Theory and Practice for Schools (Ramos 2016). That course offers educators a number of useful resources, including the audio tracks in the Smiling Mind series. These resources have been developed by Monash University in Melbourne especially for students (Hassed 2014). A Deakin University study of 1,853 students who used the Smiling Mind resources showed greater levels of engagement with school (Deakin University 2015).

My project went through three cycles of testing. Students in the final cycle did four listening activities which were IELTS Listening Part 4 Practice Tests. The tests all contained questions requiring three words or less, and the first test also contained Match the Heading questions. The research compared the listening scores of students after the focus activity with scores when the students had not done the focus activity. This followed the recommendation of Professor Lovegrove in the book Mindfulness and Education (Ditrich et al. 2017) which mentions the value of comparing outcomes to a “placebo control condition.”

Survey comments and verbal feedback collected from participants in FFE and 3B courses showed that the students are aware that they become distracted in class and they want the teacher to provide a structured environment in which they can focus. During the action research project, after the teacher stated ‘you don’t need your phone for the next activity’ the students in the classes were compliant and put away their phones.

The first time that students participated in a focus activity the listening scores did not improve. Evidence suggests that focus is a skill that needs to be practiced and therefore these activities could help students over a longer period of repetition. The University of Wisconsin (Davidson and Kabat-Zinn 2003) found that students demonstrated benefits after participating in an eight-week course.

Teachers can play Smiling Mind resources such as Mindfully Back to School to introduce the concept of focus training to students. The question then arises: should we offer Mindfulness for Academic Success courses at English Language Centres? If we look at the feedback, the results suggest that the take-up would be low; however, the enthusiastic students who requested further practice to improve their focus were invited to participate in Mindfulness for Academic Success at the main campus of UTS. This is a longer course which is offered each term at UTS by Academic Support Services and it is popular with both international and local students.



Chang, A. & Read, J., (2006) ‘, TESOL Quarterly, vol 40, no.2, pp. 375-397.

Cox, J., (2017) Mindfulness for staff, University of Sydney, Sydney.

Davidson, R. and Kabat-Zinn, J., (2003) Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation, University of Wisconsin, Psychosomatic Medicine Volume 65 Issue 4, 564-570.

Ditritch, T., Wiles, R. & Lovegrove, B., (2017) Mindfulness in Education, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Deakin University, (2017) Establishing an evidence base for the Smiling Mind Education Program, Deakin University, Melbourne.

Hallowell, E., (2015) Driven to Distraction at Work, Harvard Business School Press, Boston.

Hassed, C., (2014) Smiling Mind, Monash University, Melbourne, viewed on 16 November 2017, <>.

Ramos, C., (2016) Mindfulness for Teachers, Nan Tien Institute, Wollongong.


Please check the English Language course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

  • Applying Mindfulness in ESL to Address Student Focus
    Leigh Morgan, Australia

  • Remembering Manus
    Judith Reen, Australia