IATEFL 2012: When do students feel a sense of progress?

Just seen Stephen Shelley (here he is – scroll down to the very bottom) talking about “magic moments”, i.e. those moments when students feel a sense of progress.  Here are a few moments summarised from that talk…

He’s reporting on some research done in east Asia – various countries, various contexts.  His was intermediate adults in Hong Kong.

One query raised when he’s presented this research in the past: a sense of progress?  Surely the progress – not just the sense of it – is the important thing!

Four reasons why students start and continue studying: S.T.I.R. (sense of progress, teaching style, individual attention and relevant course content).

Another speaker at IATEFL this week has already focused on long-term feelings of progress; Stephen focused in his research on sudden “a-ha!” moments.  He did three focus groups, questionnaires to 100 students, plus brief 1-2-1 interviews with 10 students.

The results of the research:

Students reported that they felt a sense of progress when they realised they were able to do something or accomplish something outside class.

Stephen looked at 6 such events the students had mentioned, and also 6 events inside the classroom, just to balance the research a bit.

What do you think were the two ‘magic moments’ students ranked highest as factors in their sense of progress?

1. Understanding better what an English-speaker is saying

2. Understanding more of something I read (e.g. newspaper article, website)

3. Speaking with more confidence and less hesitation in English

4. Successfully achieving something in English (e.g. ordering food, asking for directions)

5. Understanding what I hear on TV or in a movie

…drumroll please…

The first and the third were the highest-ranked!

Did you guess?

Ways to promote speaking and listening for later use OUTSIDE the classroom:

– needs analyses

– role-play and drama

– authentic listening (radio, TV, Skype…)

Some examples:

– Teachers can isolate a one-minute clip from a programme, play it to the class, let them take notes, then they write questions about it which they can ask the rest of the class.  This might not work great the first time, but after a few goes it works quite well.

– With Skype, wherever you are in the world, you can contact 0800 numbers in the UK for free!  So students (even those abroad) can ring one up and have some telephone practice, e.g. book a room in a hotel, then call back and cancel.

(He doesn’t really explain the first two ways to promote speaking/listening mentioned above…)

OK, here we go again – which of these factors gives the greatest sense of progress?

A. hearing a positive comment from the teacher

B. getting a good score in test

C. understanding more words in a reading

D. speaking in longer sentences

E. making fewer mistakes

F. getting a positive comment about a piece of my writing from a teacher

…drumroll please…

Turns out C & D were the highest-ranked by students!

How’d you do?  My partner and I came bottom of the class!  We thought B and E… they were lowest ranked.  Wow.

So if this is what will help them feel a sense of progress, how can we help students understand words in a reading?

– extensive reading

– courses based around texts

– encourage students to read the free English newspaper (if possible, get the people who make these papers to deliver them to your school!)

And if students want to speak in longer sentences, how can we help them do this?

– timed pair- and group-work (some students are reluctant to keep going, so make it competitive/purposeful, e.g. if you want to stop talking that’s fine, but you have to fill in the rest of the time by dancing! or whatever) 😀

– focus on longer turns with visual feedback (e.g. every time they say something particularly long, give them a bit of – fake! – money, like Monopoly money)

My verdict: an interesting talk overall.  Too short, really!  I’d like to have heard some more suggestions like this.


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Great blog and a great article. I really wish I could have heard this speaker. This is a topic I’ve been giving lots of thought too lately in regards to my private ESL students ,who are quite advanced, but still seeking to improve. Perhaps I need to focus more on their "sense" of perceived improvement rather than on measurable progress I feel they’re making or not. Funny enough, I guess C & D, but I think that’s due to my feelings about learning the Korean language – when I can understand more and speak longer sentences, I feel encouraged to keep learning! ^^

  2. Laura Patsko

    Hi Jennifer,Glad you found it helpful! I really enjoyed the talk, too. There have been so many interesting and thought-provoking sessions this week, I only regret missing the ones I couldn’t attend (because I was in another!). If that makes sense! :PAll the best from Glasgow…Laura

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