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  2.1 What is successful language learning?


In today’s lecture, we’re going to paint a broad picture of effective English language teaching and learning.

We are going to answer the following questions:

  • How can teachers help students learn successfully using a model called ESA: engage, study, activate?
  • What can teachers do to engage students?
  • What are some effective study activities?
  • How can teachers help students activate their learning?

ESA Model

The ESA model—which involves equally teacher and learners—is based on the ideas of Jeremy Harmer from his influential book, How to Teach English.

In a nutshell, this teaching/learning model is based on these three principles: learners need to be motivated, exposed to meaningful language, and provided chances to use the language.

I will illustrate these three principles using examples from my own teaching with second-language learners. I will present different materials and activities dealing with the story “The 39 Steps.”

Finally, using ESA, we will describe what Harmer calls the “Boomerang procedure,” which varies the straightforward sequence of the model.


In the language classroom, for students to learn it makes good pedagogical sense to engage them. You need to “arouse the students’ interest, thus involving their emotions” (Harmer 25).

In my experience, even before you get students interested, you first have to catch their attention. When I started second language teaching in high school many years ago, I was lucky to have a brilliant pedagogue as school principal. He would often remind teachers about the importance of being enthusiastic and engaging ourselves in our subject matter. You can’t expect learners to be interested if you are not passionate about what you’re teaching. I have never forgotten that sound advice.

Bloom's Taxonomy

As you can see in the chart below showing Bloom’s Taxonomy: The Affective Domain, the very first level is “receiving phenomena.” Learners need to be aware, show willingness to hear, and be attentive. In my very first meeting with new second-language learners at the beginning of a new term, I always demonstrate and practice “receiving.” How so?

First, I tell learners my name. Then I mention something interesting about myself, such as how I like to do triathlons—a combination of swimming, running, and biking. This always catches their attention, even if they are not particularly interested in sports.

I then ask students to say their name and something memorable about themselves. This is not only stimulating but also challenging for learners. By the end of this exercise, an added bonus is that I’m usually able to remember about 80% of the students’ names.

Notice in Bloom’s Taxonomy, it is at the second level: “response to phenomena” that learners can be expected to participate actively in the class.

Bloom”s Taxonomy: The Affective Domain

Useful activities and materials

Here are some useful activities and materials to engage students’ interest (Harmer 25):

  • Stimulating pictures
  • Games
  • Music
  • Discussions
  • Dramatic stories, and
  • Amusing anecdotes

The 39 Steps: activity

For example, in each new term I take learners to see a live play. But before talking about the live play students will be attending, I show a stimulating picture. Recently I took students to see “The 39 Steps.” I showed this picture and asked students to guess what they think the play is about, who the man is, what the menacing hand suggests, and what the title means.

By the way, I shared these interesting fun facts with students. “The 39 Steps” was originally a spy novel written in 1915 by John Buchan. Alfred Hitchcock made it into a suspense film in 1935. Later, it was brought to the Broadway stage as a thriller/romance/comedy in 2005 and won numerous awards.

In addition, since students usually have their cell phones handy, I asked them to work in pairs and to Google the term “The 39 Steps.” I gave them 8 to 10 minutes to take notes and then share what they found with the class.

When students saw how excited I was about this story, they participated well in the activity.

Study Activity: 3 parts

In study activities, students focus on language or information and how it is constructed. For higher-level students, these activities can range from the study and practice of new vocabulary to an analysis of how a writer achieves an effect.

There are different ways to do study activities: the teacher can explain or demonstrate a particular point or students can work alone, in pairs, or small groups to discover language for themselves.

Let’s look at this three-part language activity I used with learners before they attended the play “The 39 Steps.”

In the first part of the activity, I had students watch the first 15 minutes of Hitchcock’s 1935 movie that is available on YouTube. Interestingly, one student commented to me after seeing the live play that viewing the opening of the film was extremely helpful in understanding the complicated plot.

In the second part of the activity, I referred learners to the synopsis of Act 1 that was in the Teacher Guide (See below). Initially, I asked learners—working in pairs—to define the verbs that are underlined in the first paragraph.

These verbs include: rings out, turns out, trailed, lurking, seek, on the run, and clear.

Then I asked them to define any other verbs in the text that they did not understand.

In part three of the activity, I asked learners to write down in their own words the principal events in Act 1. I instructed them to use either the simple present or the present progressive tense in rewriting the plot.

Here’s an example of what I asked students to write:

  1. Richard Hannay is attending a play in London.
  2. Someone shoots a gun in the theater.
  3. A lady called Annabella goes home with him.

Act 1

After heading to a London theatre to find some excitement, a man named Richard Hannay is watching a performance by a man with a photographic memory named “Mr. Memory”, when an unexpected gunshot rings out. As the audience clears out, a woman named Annabella follows him home, and that’s when the real excitement begins. She turns out to be a spy on a dangerous mission, trailed by assassins who want her dead. Aware of danger lurking outside, she warns Richard about a dark figure at the head of an international espionage ring and “The 39 Steps,” which she does not explain. Her plan is to seek help from a professor in Scotland at a place called Alt-Na-Shellach the next day, but before Richard can get more details, she is killed, sending Richard on the run in an effort to clear his name and save Britain from its enemies.

Exiting his building cleverly disguised as a milkman, he hops a train to Scotland, with the law hot on his trail. When police begin to search the compartments, he masks his identity by kissing a female passenger. Although this buys him some time, the woman (named Pamela) isn’t buying his story, and she quickly turns him in. Luckily, he is able to jump from the train, and eludes capture.

Later that night, with Alt-Na-Shellach in the distance and the cold reality of the Scottish moors setting in, Richard convinces a poor old farmer named Crofter to offer him some shelter. However, tension arises when Margaret, the man’s beautiful young wife, finds herself attracted to her guest, and he to her. Feeling threatened, Crofter calls the police in the middle of the night, but Margaret wakes Richard to warn him. He then pays the farmer for his silence and steals a few kisses from Margaret before slipping out with Crofter’s best Sunday coat on his back.

After eluding the police, he is welcomed at Alt-Na-Shellach by the professor and his wife. However, the amiable pair is not what they seem. Richard realizes too late that the professor is missing part of his little finger and is the spy Annabella warned him about. Before he can act, the professor shoots him in the chest and leaves him for dead. Lucky for him, the hymnbook in Crofter’s coat pocket stops the bullet and saves his life. (Cleve 4-5)

Activate exercise: 2 parts

In this phase of the ESA model, students get to use language as freely and meaningfully as they can. This gives learners practice in creating language in “a kind of rehearsal for the real world” (Harmer 26).

Here are some worthwhile activate exercises:

  • Sharing
  • Role-plays
  • Debates
  • Discussions
  • Story and poem writing
  • Writing in groups

According to Harmer, these three elements need to be present in most lessons or teaching sequences. Once students have been engaged in learning about language or acquiring information and they have studied a text for example, learners should be given the opportunity to use the language, even for a short period of time.

Here’s an example of a two-part activate exercise—focusing on vocabulary building—I did with students after they went to see the live play “The 39 Steps.” In class, I wrote the following schema on the chalkboard.

In the first part of the activity, learners worked in small groups. For each of the eight points, I asked them to write down at least two adjectives (powerful descriptive words) to describe features of the script, quality of the acting, costumes, use of props, accompanying music, use of special effects as well as their positive or negative appreciation of the play as a whole.

I encouraged learners to use their cellphones to check for synonyms at the website Here the words the first group came up with.

In the second part of the activity—sharing information—I asked individual students from each group to give examples illustrating the descriptive word. For example, I asked the student to say what was “complicated” about the script or what was “innovative” about the props.

This activate exercise was as interesting to me as it was to the students.

Let’s summarize how I used the ESA model in different teaching sequences using the story “The 39 Steps.”

I ended this series of lessons on “The 39 Steps” with a 15-point multiple-choice online quiz using the learning platform Moodle.

“Boomerang” procedure

From time to time, teachers may want to vary the straightforward ESA model by using what Harmer calls the “Boomerang” procedure (28). He gives an example using a series of exercises for upper-intermediate to advanced learners dealing with a job interview.

1. Engage: The teacher and students talk about issues dealing with job interviews. The teacher asks learners what they think interviewers want to know and what makes a good interviewee. Students participate in a discussion.

2. Activate: The teacher presents an interview situation in which students are going to participate in a role-play. Working in pairs, students could plan out the kinds of questions they are going to ask and the kind of answers that they might give. Selected pairs of students perform the role play while the teacher notes down any mistakes and difficulties the students have.

3 Study: After the role-play is over, the teacher highlights any grammar and vocabulary mistakes they made. The teacher may ask learners themselves to correct the problems they themselves had or correct the mistakes by himself or herself.

4 Activate: In a later lesson, students role-play another job interview using what they learned in the previous lesson.


In this lecture, we looked at the three elements of successful second-language teaching and learning based on the ESA model:

  • Engage
  • Study
  • Activate

First, the teacher engages students’ interest in the lesson. Second, students study some aspect of language or information. Third, teachers activate student learning by getting them to use language in meaningful ways.

I described a variety of material I used for the “The 39 Steps,” including video and text. I illustrated how I used the ESA model integrating different kinds of speaking, listening, reading, and writing activities.

In the next lecture, I will look at the five main features of effective writing: focus, organization, support, style, and correct language.