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How to teach mixed-ability classes

How to teach mixed-ability classes

A how-to guide and framework

by Ciro Andrade

ISBN: 9781310089992

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One-sentence summary


What to do instead of lectures

How to do it in class

Some suggestions for teachers

Some advantages of this method

Further reading

common problems

One-sentence summary

Do not establish rigid deadlines or terms for students to cover content, accomplish something or take an exam.

Simply: 1) let them know what you expect of them, what are they supposed to do; 2) provide them with quality materials, and 3) accompany, encourage and help them as they travel through their learning journey.

In other words, let’s switch the focus from teaching, to learning.

«There’s no teaching. There is only learning.» ―Porter Stansberry


This short essay tries to present ways to work better with mixed ability classes.

Specifically we refer to teaching English as a Second Language, but these ideas can be adapted to other subjects easily.

These ideas are being used in my own classes these days; these are not theories, but tried and used techniques explained step-by-step.

The limitation of the methods presented basically is the number of students that can be taught. You can do it with a maximum of twelve students. With bigger classes it is difficult to maintain a personalized approach.

Rest assured, as soon as I have developed a method that can be used effectively with bigger classes, I will update this document.

UPDATE: There is an idea that could help adapt this method to bigger classes. We will review it at the end.

I ask you, kind reader, to be forgiving with the author for not following proper academic protocols, such as quoting, etc., and the limitations of the language, since English is not my native language.

You can contact me at

The diagnosis

Everyday we can see that our students:

1) Learn at different speeds. Some learn fast, some learn slowly.

2) Are of different ages. Some are young, some are older, and it shows in their different levels of maturity. Sometimes we have to mix children and teens in the same room!

3) Have different skills relating to languages. They are easy for some, difficult for others; some concentrate easily, others don’t.

4) Have different backgrounds pertaining to English. Specifically: some have learned it in school, some haven’t; some have parents who know English and encourage their children to learn it, others have had no previous exposure to it; some have had terrible English teachers at school, etc.

So it’s no wonder that our classes will always be mixed ability classes.

How does this affect the teaching process? Some students will understand our explanations and will be ready to start answering exercises, while others will show by their blank stares that they haven’t understood anything.

The latter will do terribly in tests, and will probably fail the course altogether or resort to cheating. They will try to become invisible in class. They will always be looking at their classmates’ books to verify answers. They will learn to fear making mistakes. They will not learn to speak confidently in English.

It’s no wonder they learn to hate English, if every class they are confronted with the never–ending teacher’s gibberish and prodding to do God–knows–what!

How would we feel if we were taking, say, Mandarin Chinese classes, and the test deadline would be coming up, and we weren’t catching up with the other students, who seem to be learning so fast and easily, and then the teacher asks us to answer a question we haven’t understood, so we can’t answer one word, and the teacher just gives up on us and asks another student who is so smart and we feel so dumb and left out and… You know what I mean.

Well, this is a common experience to our students.

That’s why we should learn to cater to our students. Teaching should not use a “one size fits all” approach, but aspire to be personalized.

The results obtained with a rigid methodology are not satisfactory by any standard.

Even the president of the country (Ecuador) a few months ago wondered how it was possible to study English for years in schools but fail to pass simple standardized tests, and being unable to have a conversation?

(How will they solve this in public schools with more rigid regulations and mind-numbing paperwork is beyond me, but that’s their problem.)

The answer

Get rid of deadlines and time constraints.

Do not set arbitrary time limits or deadlines or allot a specific term to cover content.

Let the students learn at their own pace. I guarantee you will be surprised by the results.

Who determined that lesson 1 should be covered in two weeks? Why not one week, or three? Had anyone made a study? Did they take into account these particular students? Of course not. It was just the whim of a planner.

Let me repeat that: planning is inherently arbitrary and since it can’t possibly know or incorporate all the “variables” ―we are talking about human beings here― it will always be wrong.

Of course, planning is not to be forbidden, but should be realistic: you can plan your own activities, but you can’t plan their learning. It will happen at their own pace. Much like a farmer who sows and waters a seed, but can’t “make” the plant grow no matter how much he tries. The plant will, and has to, grow by itself.

Since human beings and human brains are so complex and different, it is futile to expect that “learning will occur within one week of covering lesson one.” So time constraints are each and every one arbitrary, and as such can be unrealistic, unbecoming, and unfair.

With arbitrary time limits, fast learners will be forced to cover content slowly, and slow learners will be forced to make progress too fast. As a result, nobody is served well.

Allow me to use again the Mandarin Chinese example.


Easy, ain’t it? It’s something about China.

You have four weeks to be able to read that text, and answer questions (in Chinese, of course) about it!

Realistic? Feasible?

Maybe, maybe not, who knows? «Why does it have to be in four weeks?,» you may ask. «Let me take my time. If you try to force a result, I may fail at it, and be invaded with inadequacy feelings.»

So, as we mentioned earlier: in order to get better results in our teaching; in order to focus on their learning, rather than on our teaching; in order to allow our students to learn at their own pace and not pressure them unnecessarily, let’s get rid of deadlines and time constraints.

Let’s not set arbitrary time limits or deadlines or allot a specific term to cover content. Let’s allow our students to find their own times.

So, what about vacations and holidays? No problem. Attendance is interrupted those days; and when they return, students resume their learning just where they stopped it. Maybe make a review, and continue. Some students will be ready to take their final exams earlier than usual; others later. But that’s how it is; everybody learns differently and at different speeds.

Of course, we will always help, motivate and encourage them; I’m not asking to tolerate laziness. Not every student is “average”; setting “average” limits is unfair an unfitting. Let’s not make “one size fits all” classes, they are not necessary, they are a waste our efforts because they give mediocre results. We want to provide our students with bespoke classes. Let’s see how can we have them.

What to do instead of lectures

We are going to let go of exclusive lecturing (you can lecture every now and then, of course), and bring into our classrooms two improvements: 1) the teachings of Messrs. Paul Pimsleur and Alphonse Chérel, for the adequate approach, and 2) deliver the content using a modification of the tutorial method.

The method of Mr. Pimsleur

Dr. Paul Pimsleur

From Wikipedia, passim:

«His research focused on understanding the language acquisition process, especially the learning process of children, who speak a language without knowing its formal structure. The term "organic learning" was applied to that phenomenon.»

«The Pimsleur method (sometimes billed as the Pimsleur Language Learning System) is an audio-based language acquisition method developed by Paul Pimsleur that stresses active participation over rote memorization. During lessons, the listener repeats words and phrases given by native speakers and constructs new phrases by inference. As new phrases are introduced, the listener is prompted to recall older phrases. The prompts for any given phrase are gradually spaced out in ever–increasing intervals.»

«The Pimsleur method focuses on proficiency in speaking, as well as proficiency in reading. These two aspects are honed through thirty-minute lessons, which are repeated until a score of at least 80% comprehension is achieved before proceeding to the next lesson. During the lessons, students listen to native speakers of the target language as they speak phrases in both the foreign language, as well as the student’s main language. At graduated-intervals, learners are prompted to repeat a phrase after listening to the speaker. As the student progresses through the program, the interval increases, as does the size of the vocabulary.»

«Pimsleur developed his system using four principles he regarded as important to forming memory associations and language recall:

»1. Anticipation. Language courses commonly require a student to repeat after an instructor, which Pimsleur argued was not an aggressive way of learning. Pimsleur developed a "challenge and response" technique, where a student was prompted to translate a phrase into the target language.

»This technique is intended to be a more active way of learning, requiring the student to think before responding. Pimsleur held that the principle of anticipation reflected real-life conversations in which a speaker must recall a phrase quickly.»

From the company’s website,, which I encourage readers to visit: «Our brains are hard-wired to automatically process speech and “anticipate” a correct response. It’s an intricate thought process that most of us take for granted. Dr. Pimsleur’s research demonstrated that new connections are activated whenever this dynamic system is triggered. By systematically asking for understanding, pausing for a response, and then reinforcing the correct response, Pimsleur courses accelerate learning, increase understanding, and activate new neural pathways in the learner’s brain.»

We continue from Wikipedia:

«2. Graduated-interval recall. Graduated interval recall is a method of reviewing learned vocabulary at increasingly longer intervals. It is a version of retention through spaced repetition.

»For example, if a student is introduced to the word deux (French for two), then deux is tested every few seconds, then every few minutes, then every few hours, and then every few days.

»The goal of this spaced recall is to help the student move vocabulary into long-term memory. Pimsleur's 1967 memory schedule was as follows: 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, 2 years.

From the company’s website: «He documented the optimal spacing for information to move from short-term into long-term, or permanent, memory. This theory is at the base of all the Pimsleur programs.» Wikipedia:

»3. Core vocabulary. The Pimsleur method focuses on teaching commonly used words in order to build up a "core vocabulary". Word-frequency text analyses indicate that a relatively small core vocabulary accounts for the majority of words spoken in a particular language.

»For example, in English, a specific set of 2000 words composes about 80% of the total printed words. Pimsleur courses average 500 words per level (30-lessons). Some languages have up to 4 levels, while some languages only have one level.

»The Pimsleur method never teaches grammar explicitly. Instead, grammar is presented as common patterns and phrases that are repeated at intervals throughout the course. Pimsleur claimed this is how native speakers learn grammar as children.»

Adds the company: «Trying to learn too much at once substantially slows the process, and many people quickly become discouraged. Pimsleur courses deliberately limit the amount you learn at any one time, giving your brain a chance to internalize each new item before moving on. Once this foundation is built, adding new words and phrases becomes easy and natural because there’s a clear framework to attach them to.» Wikipedia:

«4. Organic learning. The program is strictly auditory. Pimsleur suggested auditory skill, learned through hearing and speech, is different from reading and writing skill. He referred to his auditory system as "organic learning," which entails studying grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation simultaneously. Pimsleur asserted that learning by listening also enjoins the proper accent.»

Adds the company: «Every new item introduced in a Pimsleur course is given within the context of a conversation or exchange. This helps learning and retention in a multitude of ways, from allowing your brain to automatically integrate intonation, rhythm, melody, and pronunciation, to embedding prompts for your memory. When you need a word, it’s there – seamlessly on the tip of your tongue.»

There you are. Let’s summarize the elements we can use in class:

1) He uses native language to learn the foreign language. That’s taboo among us, though; but he’s a linguist, he should know!

2) Students are expected to respond almost instantly, within a few seconds after the prompt, just as a regular conversation.

3) He also acknowledges the fact that new words will be forgotten immediately and repeatedly, therefore the importance of teaching and recalling the same vocabulary many times over in increasing intervals. Repetition is important!

His method has been used to have illiterate immigrants learn the basic English.

You should try yourself Mr. Pimsleur’s method for one or two hours to learn a language you know nothing about, in order to fully understand and experience his ideas. They provide free lesson samples in the website

The method of Mr. Chérel

Mr. Alphonse Chérel

Let me quote again from Wikipedia: «Their method for teaching foreign languages is through the listening of records or tapes and the reading of a book with the text that you are listening to, one side native language, one side foreign language. This method is focused on learning whole sentences, for an organic learning of the grammar. It begins with a long passive phase of only reading and listening [that is, only understanding the target language, reporting the meaning in native language], and eventually adds active exercises [asking the student to speak the target language, reading from native language]. Most books contain around 100 lessons, with the active phase starting on Lesson 50. The word “Assimil” comes from assimilation.»

It should be noted that the sentences of every lesson and the illustrations tend to be humoristic or ironic. Mr. Chérel thought that amusing learners helped them remember.

He himself spoke many languages and spent many years traveling around Europe teaching languages, so he developed his methodology from his experience in what was effective and what didn’t work.

For over eighty years the Assimil method has been using translations in the native language effectively for learning a foreign language. Here that is “frowned upon,” but this French company has been using it to effectively teach dozens of languages in Europe and around the world.

Again, I ask you to study a few lessons of his materials in a totally foreign language to you (not English, of course), so you can experience first hand his methodology. The company’s website is

The tutorial method

The methods we use in classes are outdated. You probably agree. But how antiquated are they? How about 500 years outdated?

Before the invention of the printing press, books were hand-copied and consequently very expensive. So lectures were simply the “reading aloud” from a book, and the students became their own scribes, transcripting what they heard.

But the printing press made books readily available. A teacher could write his ideas, have them published and delivered at a fraction of the previous cost. Nowadays it is even cheaper, and even free, with digital media.

So, why are we still using a method that was relevant 500 years ago, because of the limitations of technology? Why are we teachers still delivering content via lectures, as our ancestors ―who had no access to cheap photocopies and computers and tablets and smartphones etc.― did centuries ago?

Teachers deliver the same content year after year, consuming hours repeating themselves, where they could simply present them in a written form and use their time to help students, research, etc.

Here is where the tutorial system is useful.

Let’s read from Wikipedia again. Sorry for not being rigorous quoting my sources, but a quick text search would point you to the correct article:

«At Cambridge University and Oxford University, undergraduates are taught in the tutorial system. Students are taught by faculty fellows in groups of one to three on a weekly basis. At Cambridge, these are called “supervisions” and at Oxford they are called “tutorials.”

»One benefit of the tutorial system is that students receive direct feedback on their weekly essays or work in a small discussion setting. The University of Buckingham has also retained the weekly tutorial system when it was set up as England’s first private university in the 1970s.

»Student tutorials are generally more academically challenging and rigorous than standard lecture and test format courses, because during each session students are expected to orally communicate, defend, analyze, and critique the ideas of others as well as their own in conversations with the tutor and fellow-students. As a pedagogic model, the tutorial system has great value because it creates learning and assessment opportunities which are highly authentic and difficult to fake.»

Basically, in Oxford and Cambridge the tutor and the student get together regularly, usually once per week, and individually or in very small groups. The tutor assigns the student to read chapters from a book over the week, to summarize what he learned and his own reflections in an essay that he has to argue for in the next session. The tutor will ask the student questions, trying to make him think rigorously and to improve the flaws in his argumentation. The tutor doesn’t lecture the student; the student learns mainly by his personal studying.

More praised lavished upon this method from a British tutorial college:

«The tutorial method, like other aspects of the Oxford education, was considered by many to be outmoded and elitist. In the 1960s, the rapid growth of new universities throughout Britain resulted in accusations that the tutorial method was both inefficient and unsuitable, large lectures being deemed to be the more appropriate method of teaching in the modern university.

»Nonetheless, a defence of the tutorial method quickly followed in the wake of these changes … the tutorial method’s individual focus and unique ability to foster dialogue, argumentation, and independent thought outweighed any criticism against it.

»In the last decade, multiple studies have been conducted exploring the unique learning benefits of the tutorial method. 130 years after it was formally established as the cornerstone of Oxford education, the tutorial method retains its prestige and effectiveness … If there is any product of which Oxford has special reason to be proud, which has stamped its mark on the lives and characters of generations of men, and has excited the outspoken envy of other nations, it is that wonderful growth of personal tuition which has sprung up in our midst … it is through the tutorial system that students develop powers of independent and critical thought, analytical and problem-solving abilities, and skills in both written and oral communication and argument.»

In colleges that use the tutorial method, there are only a few hours a week spent in lectures. Personal study takes most of the students’ time. Unfortunately, among us it is the opposite: lectures take most of the students’ time, and students almost never read. And even complain if you assign reading tasks!

Exclusive lecturing is evidently and inefficient use of resources. It is time consuming, since the teacher has to repeat himself every term; it doesn’t cater to individual needs of students, only to the “average”, forcing many students to feel they are wasting time and others that they can’t catch up; the content that can be transmitted orally is infimal, compared to reading in personal study. Besides, what is taught in class is easily forgotten and the teacher would have to explain again; the notes taken by students tend to be unreliable and fail to include important information, etc.

So the basic elements of tutoring are: 1) reading materials, for personal study; 2) personal study, hours of it; 3) evaluation and guidance of the student’s progress by the tutor.

It is easy to see that this method is inherently personalized.

How can we apply this method to our English classes?

How to do it in class

What you need beforehand

Your students need to have their own books. Since you will not be lecturing students from different levels and educational backgrounds ―it would be futile, many will not understand―, each student has to have a book appropriate to his level of knowledge.

A student with no book will have nothing to do in a class with no lecture to listen to, and every other classmate studying from different pages.

You need a companion book with your explanations. Student books contain a lot of exercises, eye-catching pictures etc., but sometimes lack the necessary grammar explanations. So it is important to prepare a sort of handbook containing the explanations required to better understand the book’s contents. These explanations can be in the students’ native language, at least in the preliminary levels.

I know, it is an additional workload for the teacher, but once it’s done you just need to improve and update it regularly (with the students’ new questions etc.), and saves you a lot of explanations.

When a student asks you something, you just point her to the relevant part of your handbook.

Nice teachers would also willingly share their handbooks and materials!

Dictionaries and listening devices. While you are monitoring or evaluating some students, others are studying individually and a few are looking up words in the dictionary or listening to the recordings of the book. Helps you keep students busy. Since many students use smartphones and tablets nowadays, they can use them to listen and find out new words. The Google Translator is an excellent app for Android devices, it works as a dictionary.

I usually set three chairs in front of the class: one for me, and two for the students that are going to be evaluated. If they feel they are ready to be evaluated, they spontaneously come to the front.

How to do it in class

You begin the class with the usual welcoming, a warm-up or engaging activity.

If you wish you can also lecture now for a few minutes. Since the class has just begun, it will not be difficult to have your students’ undivided attention for ten or fifteen minutes and lecture about a topic of common interest. But only for ten or fifteen minutes; remember, we’re trying to do a different and better class here.


Then you ask students individually to come to you (that’s why you have two chairs next to you).

You check your log to see where did your students stop the previous class in their books. If you’re too lazy to keep a log (I am!), you can ask your students to come with their books so you can see where they stopped. Usually the last page they have written notes in, or finished exercises, etc.

You ask the student to review the last page or the last two pages they studied in the previous class. This is important, as we believe that learning happens really when reviewing. It’s not “I studied, I know it,” but “I studied, I forgot it, I have to review it in order to learn it properly.” Remember Mr. Pimsleur’s graduated-interval recall.

Students go back to their chairs to review, you call other students to check where did they stop and assign pages or excerpts to review.

Once all students have been assigned something to review, after a few minutes the students that have finished reviewing will ask you to evaluate them.

They come to you and sit by your side. One student is evaluated, the other waits. If they are in the same page, they could be evaluated simultaneously.

Evaluation uses either the Pimsleur or Chérel technique. You ask them to say a few sentences in the opposite language (Pimsleur), or to read a text in the opposite language (Chérel).

From English to Spanish (easier for beginners) or viceversa (more challenging, and practice for real conversations: you give them the idea in Spanish, and they should be able to convey it in English).

I enforce the three-seconds rule: After you provide the prompt, they should start speaking within three seconds. Longer than that, it is not useful for conversation, which is the goal of any learner: being able to converse in the new language. So if they take longer than three seconds, ask them to review and try again in a few minutes. Also don’t allow pauses of more than one or two seconds in the middle of a sentence!

If they are 80% correct, they are allowed to continue studying, as described in the next section. If they don’t seem to be ready, simply ask them to review again for a few minutes, maybe listen to the recordings too, and come again.

I set an important rule: students are not allowed to pass the page if they don’t understand, or are able to speak, at least 80% of the contents of the page. They must be able to understand when you speak to them the sentences in English, and they should be able to convey the idea in English when you give it to them in their native language.

Books are usually well structured and organized. Failing to enforce full comprehension of the contents, as slow as it may force the student to advance, may cause gaps in the student’s understanding, and it would show later on.


Once a student has successfully completed the review, before she goes back to her place, you assign her something to do.

It will probably be all of the following:

1) Read the next page of the book, a new one, and underline the new words.

2) Look up the words in the dictionary, or ask the teacher the meaning. If they use the dictionary, make sure they write down the meanings, and have the proper meanings. Sometimes students are lazy and just write down the first meaning without checking for context.

3) If they have a translation of the readings, they use that to compare the two languages and find how to use similar expressions etc.

4) If available, they listen to the relevant recordings. Not just to “listen” to them, but focus on the proper pronunciation. You’ll notice when evaluating them if they are pronouncing properly; if they aren’t, correct them casually. If they are mispronouncing lots of words, they should listen to the recordings again.

5) Perform what I call the Daily Drill. This is where the real learning takes place. With this drill they will learn to speak fluently. It is easy ―though a little boring― and extremely effective.

Students read a sentence, for example: “I wish it were my birthday already.”

They have to understand its meaning, whether by reading the provided translations («Desearía que ya fuera mi cumpleaños»), or by finding the new words in the dictionary.

Once they are able to understand the sentence, they should listen to its recording.

Then comes the drill:

a) They read the sentence aloud, once: “I wish it were my birthday already.”

b) Then they cover the text and repeat the sentence aloud. Once, twice, three times: «I wish it were my birthday already, I wish it were my birthday already, I wish it were my birthday already.» Pronouncing properly, not slurring the words, and aloud. They have to be able to hear themselves.

c) If they can’t do it because they forgot the sentence, they simply go back to step a): read it aloud again, then cover the text, and try again.

d) With the text still covered, they recall its meaning in Spanish: «Desearía que ya fuera mi cumpleaños.» This is a fourth repetition of the sentence. Just to make sure they understand what they are saying! If they can’t, go back to step a).

e) Finally, still not looking at the sentence, they repeat it for a last time in English. After the distraction of Spanish, if their brains are able to recall the English sentence, they probably know it just fine by now. Otherwise, back to step a)

Total: 5 repetitions.

You should probably model the exercise for them and then ask them to do it in front of you, just to make sure they know what to do.

Eventually they will forget how to do it, so you have to model again and ask them to perform the exercise in front of you, so they remember.

And tell them that repetition is the basis of any learning. Even more with speaking, that involves not only thinking, but moving the mouth and making sounds coherently and synchronically and simultaneously with their thinking.

Like any synchronous movement ―dancing, martial arts, juggling, writing, etc.― practice makes perfect. There are no shortcuts to this. They have to speak in a soliloquy for hours in order to be fluent. They have to pay the price! In terms of time and effort and tuition of course haha.

6) When they have done the daily drill, they should be ready to be evaluated, in a similar manner as the initial review; either with the Pimsleur or Chérel method, or both.

7) Repeat the process: understand, study, listen and evaluate, until you run out of time.

8) If they finish a lesson or topic, they do the workbook exercises.

9) Do a written test after they finish each unit in the book.

Working in this manner does not set a time limit for students to finish a lesson.

Of course, if they are barely making any progress, you should figure out some strategy that could be of help; either reviewing the basics, or going back a few lessons in the book, etc., to reinforce the student’s sense of self-reliance and get better results next time. Sometimes it is just fine to “let it go,” and continue advancing in the book, even though they haven’t mastered at least 80% of the contents; rather that having them stick to the same page for weeks, have them move on. They will probably get a hang of the method soon, and anyway you will review all lessons again before going to the next book (it is advisable to review every unit after they finish the book. It won’t take long, and will improve their comprehension.)

Working this way virtually guarantees that the students will get satisfactory results in tests. They will tell you when they feel ready to be examined, and they will do well.

Closure and wrap-up

Students can work this way comfortably for two hours, provided there is a 15-minute break. The third hour you will hear complaints! That they are tired, bored, etc.

That’s when we like to sing songs, having given the students the lyrics beforehand and watching music videos that they like.

When you dismiss them, thank them for having come. They like that, it strokes their ego and they leave feeling good about themselves. Good manners are always appreciated!

Some suggestions for teachers

Warn your students that they will need a fairly good memory. They have to know that they are expected to remember what they learn! We will review content a lot as part of the program (every session begins with a review, and we review the entire book after it is finished), but students should show they remember stuff.

Some students have very a fragile memory, and it is very difficult for them to reproduce content; they will have to double or triple their efforts, or else they wouldn't learn.

Sometimes a little learning by rote has to be used, for example when learning wordlists when preparing for a test. But keep a positive attitude and they will be willing to try.

Some English programs offer “learning without memorization.” That is an unrealistic expectation in case they want to conform to standards (e.g. CEFR).

Warn students that they will experience frustration. It will be common for them to feel like they aren’t making any progress. Encourage them to keep “ploughing on”; it will become easier with time, but there are few shortcuts at the beginning. Your own experience learning a new language (you should be a learner too!) will enable you to sympathize.

There is always going to be some student attrition. No matter how good you are as a teacher, no matter how good your methods, some students are always going to stop coming. Some run out of money, others run out of time, a few find learning a new language more challenging than they expected, others find your method doesn’t work for them... You can’t know every reason. You can’t cater to every student that knocks on your door.

Try to always improve, but don’t worry too much about students not returning. Have in place some sort of “marketing funnel” that delivers new students in a regular basis, and do your best.

Grammar is necessary. Some English programs offer “Learn English without any grammar,” but that is an extreme reaction to the usual “teaching only grammar” teachers do at schools. Of course at the beginning one should not focus in grammar; it is enough to correct students as they make mistakes. But as knowledge increases, a clear understanding of why something is or is not correct becomes necessary. Comparing similar Spanish structures saves a lot of explanations. Giving students access to grammar books also enables them to look for their own answers.

Using the native language is ok. We all agree that the best way to learn a language is to travel and live where everybody speaks it. Apparently by extension it was assumed that the second best way to learn it was with a native teacher who exclusively spoke the target language in the classroom.

In theory it should work, but what we see is that it only works for a few talented students who seem to get the language “on the fly,” while the rest will feel left out. There will be rapidly-growing gaps in these students’ knowledge and they won’t be able to speak.

That’s not all. Even worse, some students will start withdrawing: emotionally (“I’ll never be able to speak English, I’m so dumb”), intellectually (you can only try to understand gibberish so much before you simply space out and start blocking the “noise”) and physically (stop attending classes since you don’t seem to be making any progress).

Since we learn mainly by association, depriving your students of the context they are already familiar and comfortable with and forcing them to learn “in a void” (with no references) like babies, for them will feel like they are forced to travel crawling on all fours (like babies), when they could simply walk or take a taxi! It is very probable that they get tired of it and quit the course altogether in frustration. If they are forced to stay (by their parents, usually) they will resort to cheating and shamming. But such pretense is not learning!

“Modeling” the word for them or using flashcards is only useful for simple nouns or verbs. How would you model the word “instead,” “despite,” “though,” etc.? Just give the translation, they understand, and can move on.

I insist: their mother language is the main tool or frame of reference they use to relate to the social world. Arbitrarily depriving them of it doesn’t make learning easier: it makes learning unnecessarily more difficult.

(In the same vein, it is assumed that every native speaker can automatically become a good teacher, just because he speaks the language well. That is not the case. Speaking a language natively is no sign of merit, effort or skill. It is just an accident of nature.)

Make a simple test to see if your “classic methods” of no-Spanish-allowed are working. Prompt a student to say a few sentences á la Pimsleur, using words that they should already know, according to the content they have covered. More often than not they won’t be able to do it. They can’t express an idea in the target language, so the usual method is not working.

«But wait,» you reply. «Aren’t they getting used to translating everything and always? Won’t it become a bad practice that they won’t be able to get rid of?»

They probably will, at first at least. Let’s use the baby example. At first babies can’t move at all. Then they roll around on the bed; later they crawl on all fours, then they start holding onto things to stand up and walk step by step. Sometimes parents buy baby-walkers, which help them initially until they become more of a hindrance than a help, and the baby starts walking faster and more freely all by himself.

It’s the same with the native language. At first Spanish is the floor they crawl onto; the coffee table they hold to; the baby-walker they use to move around. But eventually they will find that they can speak faster and more fluently without translating, and they will let go of it.

Bear in mind that it’s not translating for the sake of translating, but providing them with the idea they supposedly want to say in English. If you enforce the three-second rule they will get used to respond fast; there will be no time to space out and translate mentally. The process will become instantaneous.

Trust your students. Raise your expectations, and your students will rise to the level of your expectations! (Hat tip to Mr. Escalante from the movie Stand and Deliver.)

If you want to check some research papers about the convenience of allowing the use of L1 in language learning, please visit Uso de la lengua materna en el aprendizaje del inglés, a post I wrote with some quotes to academic papers, to assuage qualms.

Having said that, don’t allow them to become overly dependent on translations. Discourage them from translating everything in their books; they would be making a Spanish book of an English one! They should only write the meanings of new words, not every word (if any; I sometimes recommend the method of "looking up the same word in the dictionary as many times as necessary, until you rememeber it"! Usually looking up a word four or five times is enough to remember it). Sometimes they like translating everything because it is reassuring and comforting, but patiently and firmly encourage them to ignore this insecurity and trust their knowledge.

Encourage the use of dictionaries. Students in the age of Youtube are used to watching moving images. They are no longer used to reading instructions; they are accustomed to watch video tutorials, so a dictionary feels old and antiquated. They will prefer Google Translator to a dictionary because it is a very responsive and flexible app: it can translate images, scribbles, real-time speech etc.. But a dictionary has a wealth of information: examples, idioms, usage, etc., so it should be used. Patiently explain students how to navigate through dictionaries, identifying the different parts of a definition and learning the meanings of the different abbreviations used. Spend some time getting acquainted with the phonetic symbols used to describe pronunciation. By the way, I am referring to dictionaries as software, in PCs or mobile devices; I haven’t used a physical dictionary in a long while! Also, students in the Movers level (just before A1 level in the CEFR) should start using English dictionaries as well, not only translating dictionaries.

Be patient. Younger and slower students will have to go through a “silent period” at first. They won’t seem to be making any progress and will hardly speak anything, even after reviewing it many times. They will stay in the same lesson or pages for weeks. It will be very frustrating for everyone. This “silent period” can last a few weeks or months. But despair not, dear teacher. They will eventually get the hang of the method and start making progress, slowly but surely. Your perseverance will be much rewarded.

That said, sometimes parents should be warned that their beloved offspring learn very slowly, and it will cost a lot in tuition for them to learn a new language.

I used to think that there was a difference of ten-to-one among students‘ learning speeds. Now, seeing that some students take a couple of weeks to learn a level and others take a couple of years, I gave up calculating the ratio, but parents and teachers should adjust their expectations accordingly: it probably won’t make much economic sense having little Charlie learn a new language, if the family has a limited budget. He could learn something more suited to his abilities and tastes.

Despite that, I believe that anyone who could learn their mother tongue can learn a new language. It will probably take years, but it is possible: I’ve seen a few cases where perseverance paid off.

Quod natura non dat, Salmantica non præstat. This surely is not very nice or politically correct to say, but your students’ IQ will show in your class and in their results, and there’s only so much you can do about it.

Many students haven’t been properly nourished from an early age; others haven’t had an intellectually enriching upbringing in their families; others would have inherited double-digit IQs from their parents and you’ll know when you meet those parents. Do your best and be aware that “no one is obliged to do the impossible”—It will be work for a whole society, for generations to come.

Speaking means knowing. After a student has studied a page, be it with a traditional method or with this one, he should be able to do two things: 1) to understand when spoken to, and 2) to speak the contents of the page when prompted. Otherwise, what is the point? To be able only to read English? Of course not. So the daily evaluation is personal and performed orally; no chances to cheat or sham. If they can speak it, they know it. If they can’t, they have to review, and try again in a few minutes. This is important to check if your work as a teacher has been done adequately! It’s not enough to say, “I explained, but they are so dumb that they didn’t learn anything. Their problem.” If you explained, but they didn’t understand, you haven’t done anything of value; you have lost your time. Make sure they can speak; then they can move on.

In the same line, do not expect students to speak better English than their native tongue. Some students' command of their own language is very limited; their lexicon is poor. Many have had poor educations, some are barely literate; for some, oral communication just isn't their strongest trait. So adjust your expectations accordingly!

Ditch the reassuring. At least while they are speaking! Sometimes students ask for your feedback while they are in the middle of a sentence. For example, you prompt them to say, “No creo que ella quiera ir,” which is not a question, and they say: “I don’t think?, she wants?, to go?”, with the intonation of a question, as if they were asking you to confirm with a nod that they are correct. Encourage them to say the sentences from beginning to end without expecting feedback while they are speaking; you shall correct their mistakes after they have finished speaking. Thus they will get used to speak complete sentences, not fragments! Of course, you normally shouldn’t interrupt them in the middle of a sentence, but make any remarks after they have finished.

Don’t allow them to repeat the sentences. They sometimes repeat your prompt before rendering it to the target language. Discourage them from doing so. Though reassuring, it should not be necessary and reduces their fluency by incorporating an additional step in their process. It doesn’t happen in real conversation, so there’s probably no need to keep repeating prompts.

Don’t allow stuttering. We are not talking about a speech impediment, but the fact that they don’t probably have a clear idea of what they are supposed to say, so it shows in the form of stuttering. So ask them to speak clearly, confidently, without stuttering. If they can’t, they should review; maybe you’ll have to help them clarify some points, model the pronunciation, etc. Once they know the vocabulary, structures, etc. well enough, it should show in their speaking clearly.

Encourage students to use standard structures. Sometimes in their native language they are used to speak with run-on sentences spliced with commas. Not that it is OK. But when they try to do the same in English, the result will be deplorable. So encourage them to use a “subject, verb, predicate, period, stop speaking” structure. This will help think along more clear lines, express themselves better in English, and refrain from using pet words like “um, like, so-so, people,” etc.

“One idea, one sentence” should be their motto at the beginning. Tell them they don’t need to keep speaking poorly just to “fill the silence.”

Have them ditch pet words. The aforementioned “so-so, people” are used profusely by beginners. Let them know that it’s not that those words are prohibited, but the increasing richness of a student’s vocabulary should show in the more sparingly use of those words.

«Algo así» (“something like that”) is not good enough! They have to speak well! Where and when are they going to speak properly, if not in the classroom? In real conversations they will probably make mistakes, but the idea of practicing is doing it well enough. I sometimes tell my students, «Imagine if I asked, “What’s two and two?”, and you said: “Three! No, wait… Five! No, no. It’s… four!” That’s not good enough! Either you know it, or you don’t; if you do, say it correctly at the first try; if you don’t, review.» Have high expectations and they will rise to meet them.

Ask them to speak fluently, not fast. Students sometimes assume that they are to speak fast, as their teachers do. But tell them it is not necessary. They should speak correctly of course, and fluently, which means linking the sounds of the words, the ending sound of a word with the beginning sound of the next word. Ask them to “speak slowly, but fluently,” which means that they speak the whole sentence without stopping, as if the whole sentence were one long word. By the way, that’s why it is sometimes difficult to understand fast speakers, because it is difficult to differentiate the words when the sounds are linked.

In the same vein, remember to enforce the three-second rule (they should start speaking within three seconds after you give them the prompt) and discourage long pauses in the middle of a sentence. Even worse, ask them to start over if they mix in a few Spanish words in the middle of a sentence!

Students must make themselves understood. Of course there is a lot of mental work required to utter a comprehensible phrase in the target language (you should know, if you are learning a new language yourself, as suggested) so you probably won’t correct each and every mistake your student makes, but since the purpose of language is communication of ideas, demand understandable expressions.

For example: if they mispronounce something, but you understand what they meant, you might decide to let it slide. But if you did’t understand the student, let them know: they are not communicating at all, so what’s the point? The same if they convey information both of you know is false; for example, when they forget to properly emphasize the “t” when they say “can’t.” It could be a source of misunderstanding, so correct them.

Ask them to convey emotions when they speak. Beginners have a hard time enough just trying to say a sentence, but more advanced students can be asked to show emotions when they speak English. Once they are able to speak with proper pronunciation and fluency, the emotion should show in: 1) the tone of their voices; 2) their facial expressions; and 3) their gestures. Ask them to “speak with their hands,” and they will understand what you mean. They are to become a little like actors! And something interesting happens: when they focus on the emotion that they are trying to show, rather than in the construction of the sentence, for some reason they speak faster and more fluently. It sounds a lot more natural, too!

You should be a learner, too. You will be empathetic with your students if you try to learn a new language, like Mandarin, Russian, etc. You will feel what they feel: the frustration, the anxiety when tested, the disappointment with slow progress, etc. It is very easy to judge students as lazy or dumb “because they can’t understand something so simple!”

So take classes of a language that is totally new to you, and make a commitment to become fluent in it. Thus you will walk your students’ path and your mind will inspire ideas to make learning easier for you and your students.

Don’t penalize mistakes. They should be seen as learning tools. They are what happens when someone tries something new. They are the price to pay if you want to become proficient in anything. There will be lots of mistakes! You will make mistakes too when you try to learn a new language.

Remember that failed tests also represent some kind of failure for us, because we have failed to help the student learn something. It probably is partly our fault.

So mistakes and failed tests should be seen as feedback and opportunities for improvement.

Don’t make tests terrifying. Tests are learning tools, too. If you follow the method outlined above, you should test students when they feel ready to be tested, not before; this way they will probably pass the test, and with good marks!

If they don’t, well, it’s not the end of the world. Just find out what needs to be reviewed, do additional exercises, and try again in a few days.

Is it really that bad to say to a student: «please tell me when you feel ready to take the test. Meanwhile, I can help you better understand the topics that aren’t clear yet.»? This approach better helps the learning goal.

That said, if you are getting the hint that they are never going to be ready, just “shove them into the water,” and have them take the test. Tell them it is just an exercise (it always is), tell them they’ll be able to take it again in a few days, try some “paradoxical intention” and tell them to fail it! Tell them you don’t expect them to pass in the first try; actually, many students who for the first time listen to the British accent used in Cambridge tests have a difficult time understanding it. But after a review and listening while reading the test script, they almost invariably increase their grades.

Avoid high stakes tests. If you see tests as learning tools, and mistakes as part of the process of learning, then you will probably see high stakes tests as inconvenient and unfair. If failing a test means months of lost time, or a student having to take the same course year-round, or ―even worse― changing the student’s life course altogether, then we’re doing it wrong!

Tests should not be the “inquisition tribunal” or a “trial by ordeal.” Learning tools, remember?

If you get rid of rigid time frames and deadlines, exams lose a lot of the negative emotions that usually surround them. Learning occurs more easily in a relaxed environment.

Why ask the student to repeat the whole course, when a few days of reviewing would suffice? Studying should not be used as punishment.

Do you imagine a classic teacher, such as Socrates, failing his weaker students? Or Jesus, giving “passing” and “failing” grades to His Apostles? Of course not. Not even to Judas! As the Master said, «It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.» It is the ignorant who needs us teachers, not the learned.

Another advantage of removing time constraints and high-stakes test, is that it virtually eliminates cheating. Why cheat, if you will only take the test when you feel ready for it, and in the case that you fail, you can take the test again in a few days? You will have removed the incentives of cheating: students will usually cheat the teacher, but not themselves.

Repetition is important. Learning to speak a new language fluently involves creating new neuronal pathways and connections. Practice makes perfect. Language learning is more akin to learning how to dance (that involves coordinated and graceful movement), than learning mathematics (which is mainly intellectual).

So that is why the daily drill is of the utmost importance. Use it when you learn a new language, and you will see results. Learning a new language requires hundreds of hours of practice speaking, and the daily drill provides an easy and private framework to put in the hours. There are no shortcuts to this.

Divide long tasks. «A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step» (Laozi) Students have to know a few hundred verbs, undoubtedly. But not all at once! First give beginner students a list of the 30 most common verbs. Then ask them to learn only five verbs from that list. Once they are ready and pass your oral/written evaluation, ask them to learn five more, and so on. A few weeks later give them a list of one hundred verbs, but ask them to learn only 25 at a time, etc.

Substitute grades with milestones. Grades are unfair, provided that students’ abilities and intelligences are different. One weak student can make her best effort, and only deserve a B, but a genius student who never pays attention and never focuses can get an A with no effort at all. (I knew a student who always slept through math class. The teacher, incensed, woke him up and asked him to come to the board and solve a difficult exercise. Since the student didn’t pay attention to the explanation, the teacher expected him to fail so he could set an example. But the gifted student solved the problem easily, figuring out the procedure as he went.)

So if we have to have grades, we should substitute them with only “passing” or “has to review” grades, with accolades (“cum laude”) if necessary.

Milestones can be chapters or sections of a book, or finishing Algebra and going into Calculus (or something, I have forgotten my math!), or qualifying from A2 (beginner) to B1 (intermediate) in a foreign language, etc. They are all signals of progress.

Anyway, even if you can’t substitute grades with milestones due to policy, if most students get better grades because they take tests when they are ready to be evaluated, grades lose their importance and negative connotations.

Tell students to show initiative. My experience shows me that those students who show initiative ―by opening their books at home to review, using a dictionary to look up a few words, to challenge themselves: “how would I say this in English?”, etc.― are the ones who will learn. Even despite poor teachers or textbooks; because they show initiative. Learning is something that “they” do, not the teacher; the teacher is only a help.

Don’t rush students. It’s useless and it frustrates them. You can’t make a plant grow faster; you can’t force a mind to understand or learn something. Remind yourself often that humans aren’t “trivial machines,” where you can input something and expect a defined result, like a vending machine.

Really makes you think that almost everything in schools appear to be designed imagining children as trivial machines, little more than Pavlovian dogs. smh

The Cambridge tests and their related materials have been designed each with two years in mind, covering the whole primary school and high school; so expect two years for students of the appropriate age to pass a test, less if you use condensed materials focused in passing the tests.

Encourage them continuously; regularly think of ways of making their learning easier; but don’t get all worked up if they make progress very slowly. Remember, materials and tests have been designed to be passed in two years in average, which means some students will need less than two years to pass those, some students more!

On the contrary, the students who demonstrate a passive approach to their learning by only exposing themselves to English in the classroom will not learn. It is more probably that they drop out of the classes. Tell them that you can “tell the future” and that you know that some, maybe most, of them will never learn English unless they show initiative.

Conform to international standards. Nowadays the Cambridge tests are commonly used to assess English knowledge. I encourage students to prepare to take and pass these tests as soon as they pass certain milestones in their learning. The Young Learners English (YLE) tests are easy enough for beginners. I also ask my adult students to take them, because they require a limited vocabulary (400 words for the Starters test, around 700 for the Movers test and maybe a thousand for the Flyers) but don’t underestimate these tests! Even though they are designed for elementary school students, the listening part can be demanding. They serve as preparation for the KET test (around 1400 words). Asking a beginner to learn a 1400-word vocabulary from scratch can be daunting and frustrating. But passing an easy 400-word children test can be a nice milestone and encouraging.

Don't create a lot of rules. Rememeber, most rules are arbitrary! Don't get full of arbitrary rules. A few guidelines regarding schedules and procedures should suffice. Remember Tacitus's dictum: «The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.» You surely don't want that!

Host your students. Many students go to class with a feeling of dread, of helplessness. It could be different if you became the host of your students! It is cheap to buy every once in a while soft drinks, some chocolate, and share with your students. They will surely appreciate the gesture, since it won’t be that often that they get something nice from their teachers. Also, playing some soft music in the background isn’t too distracting and helps create a more welcoming atmosphere.

How to adapt the method for bigger classes. Today a few students unknowingly suggested this idea to me. They were learning some vocabulary lists in order to pass the KET test. Two young men decided to study together, even asking to leave the room to go to an empty classroom in order to better concentrate. I agreed, somewhat amused (they weren’t close friends), and expecting dismal results from their initiative.

A few minutes later I checked on them and, to my amazement, they were really studying, asking questions to each other, writing difficult words on the board, etc.

Later they showed up again in class to check on their classmates’ progress. I asked if they were ready, they said that both would be in a few moments’ time. They went back to their studies, I checked on them again, and found them still studying.

I then realized, why not evaluate both of them simultaneously? In larger groups it is probable that a few students will be in the same page. They like studying together and evaluating each other. They like helping their weaker colleagues and that saves you a lot of explanations!

You could ask pairs or groups of three to come to you to be evaluated simultaneously. They would feel more confident and less nervous! Since they are going with a buddy or two, it does not feel as a “confession.”

This hasn’t been yet tested in a classroom, but soon will. I will update this document with the results.

Anyway, keep your expectations realistic. You won’t probably imagine a famous teacher such as Jesus with a hundred apostles; you won’t probably have personalized tutoring with fifty students simultaneously...

Finally, a point that will probably raise a few brows among dear readers, but I think you should be able to exclude students from your classes. We all are human beings; we have our quirks and oddities, and it is normal that we just can't get along well with everybody. I'm sure good teachers make an effort to behave professionally, and not let personal likings or dislikings get in the way of a job well done.

But students must know that the teacher is not compelled to suffer their company, as much as they shouldn't be forced to suffer a particular teacher!

Many students of young age will try to disrupt your class and make you lose your composure just because they can. Rigid institutions where you can't exclude disruptive students do nothing to discourage such behavior.

A key concept in becoming a mature adult is agency, «the capacity of an entity to act in any given environment.» An environment where you have almost no control of your actions (you can't ask disruptive students to leave, you can't refuse to allow them in your class), where you have no choice about who you interact with (you are forced to remain in the same place), is akin to a prison! And we'd probably agree that it is not an environment conducive to a good raising.

Students should learn very early on that actions have consequences. Being hostile, rude, prone to violence etc. should not tolerated, and students should be clear that by behaving like that they will be losing opportunities in life.

So I contend that neither you nor other students should be forced to associate with those who insist on being unpleasant.

This inconvenience is very easily when another teacher teaches a similar course. Usually one teacher can't work with some student, but experience tells that the other teacher probably can. So you ask the student to work with the other teacher (agreeing to take one of his disruptive students when necessary) and problem solved.

Some advantages of this method

You do not need a lot of planning. Actually, you can’t plan much at all! Since your students will be using different books (or be in different lessons if they use the same book), you cannot plan for all. You just have to follow a general plan. You can see the plan we followed in Appendix 3. So planning, the bane of the teacher, is not an issue anymore.

This method works. As described in The Power of Personalized Learning for School Improvement in

Hard data and peer-reviewed research are confirming the great potential of a well-implemented personalized learning model for creating rich, engaging learning environments that result in dramatic improvements in student achievement—and this research is informing everything that occurs in the personalized classroom.

Perhaps most prominent among this research—and one that is helping drive current classroom practice—is a study called The Turnaround Challenge, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In the study, school improvement experts described what they saw as the most effective personalized learning model, where instruction is organized around:

«…a short feedback loop of formative assessment, adapted instruction, further formative assessment, and further adapted instruction… The evidence from HPHP effective-practice research on this strategy is overwhelming: Chenoweth’s recent case studies (2007), the CPE/Caliber Associates research review (2005), Marzano’s meta-analysis of research on student achievement (2000), and most individual studies cite this kind of feedback-based instruction as having profound impact on student achievement.»

As you can see, that is precisely what we do.

If you want to read The Turnaround Challenge, you can download it from

This method helps you avoid problems with students who make progress slowly. If your academy sells fixed−duration programs (e.g., one year), if the student has not made adequate progress when the contract expires you will have a problem. Due to a fragile memory, some students learn very slowly! I have seen differences of 10−to−1 in learning abilities. With this method you can ask them to come more frequently, without disturbing other students’ progress. You can establish an "open door" policy, where students can drop by any time they want, provided that there are no more than a maximum of 12 students already in class. Your students will know that they won't be denied service; the only limitation will be the size of the class. With this method coordinating classes will not be a problem anymore.

If you follow the guidelines and use common sense, students will experience no reduction in the quality of services they receive; they will be happy with the flexibility (and getting “more bang for their buck,” since they are allowed to drop by more frequently), and administrators will hear no complaints.

Use the lazy student method. Sometimes a student won’t study what you assign them to; sometimes they don’t have time, sometimes they aren’t disciplined enough.

For them, you could use the “no study” approach. You simply use Mr. Pimsleur’s method of spaced repetition, for the whole fifteen-minute session (Mr. Pimsleur's half-hour recordings were a too long for my tastes, and I have also experienced the usual one-hour Skype language learning sessions too long. Fifteen minutes just do the trick). Set a goal of a few words to learn, and prompt them in sentences at increasing intervals. If the student fails to respond, give them the answer, have them repeat it (they will usually do it themselves) then restart the interval session.

Let students be aware that learning exclusively with this method will probably take considerably longer than if they also studied by themselves. But for some very busy people it could be the only way they can make progress. It is also a very natural way of learning, by listening and speaking, becoming acquainted with interacting with another person. Another advantage is that the student needs hardly any materials, if they are going to work like this usually.

Further reading

Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences is a must. You will see your students in a new light, and you will refrain from labeling “smart” or “not so smart” when you have understood they have different intelligences: you will accept them as they are. But don’t just assume “everybody knows that”: read the book.

Robert Kiyosaki has been criticized a lot after the housing crash, but his book Rich Kid, Smart Kid is relevant for our purposes. It tells his experience as being taught by rigid teachers who only recognized one intelligence as “smart.” He has a lot of anecdotes to tell.

The website teaches, well, the collegiate way, which aspires to create live communities in our institutions. Schools should resemble more the Hogwarts School from the Harry Potter films (which kids love), rather than factories or diploma mills.

The book Education: Free and Compulsory by Murray Rothbard explains these topics so clearly that I can not refrain from quoting several paragraphs (you can download the book for free from the website):

One of the most important facts about human nature is the great diversity among individuals. Of course, there are certain broad characteristics, physical and mental, which are common to all human beings. But more than any other species, individual men are distinct and separate individuals. Not only is each fingerprint unique, each personality is unique as well. Each person is unique in his tastes, interests, abilities, and chosen activities. Animal activities, routine and guided by instinct, tend to be uniform and alike. But human individuals, despite similarities in ends and values, despite mutual influences, tend to express the unique imprint of the individual’s own personality. The development of individual variety tends to be both the cause and the effect of the progress of civilization. As civilization progresses, there is more opportunity for the development of a person’s reasoning and tastes in a growing variety of fields. And from such opportunities come the advancement of knowledge and progress which in turn add to the society’s civilization. Furthermore, it is the variety of individual interests and talents that permits the growth of specialization and division of labor, on which civilized economies depend. As the Reverend George Harris expressed it:

Savagery is uniformity. The principal distinctions are sex, age, size, and strength. Savages...think alike or not at all, and converse therefore in monosyllables. There is scarcely any variety, only a horde of men, women, and children. The next higher stage, which is called barbarism, is marked by increased variety of functions. There is some division of labor, some interchange of thought, better leadership, more intellectual and aesthetic cultivation. The highest stage, which is called civilization, shows the greatest degree of specialization. Distinct functions become more numerous. Mechanical, commercial, educational, scientific, political, and artistic occupations multiply. The rudimentary societies are characterized by the likeness of equality; the developed societies are marked by the unlikeness of inequality or variety. As we go down, monotony; as we go up, variety. As we go down, persons are more alike; as we go up, persons are more unlike, it certainly though [the] approach to equality is decline towards the conditions of savagery, and as though variety is an advance towards higher civilization....

Certainly, then, if progress is to be made by added satisfactions, there must be even more variety of functions, new and finer differentiations of training and pursuits. Every step of progress means the addition of a human factor that is in some way unlike all existing factors. The progress of civilization, then...must be an increasing diversification of the individuals that compose society.... There must be articulation of each new invention and art, of fresh knowledge, and of broader application of moral principles.

With the development of civilization and individual diversity, there is less and less area of identical uniformity, and therefore less “equality.” Only robots on the assembly line or blades of grass can be considered as completely equal, as being identical with respect to all of their attributes. The fewer attributes that two organisms have in common, the less they are “equal” and the more they are unequal. Civilized human beings, therefore, are unequal in most of their personalities. This fact of inequality, in tastes, and in ability and character, is not necessarily an invidious distinction. It simply reflects the scope of human diversity.

It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.

There is a sense, however, in which equality among men is sensible and beneficial. Each individual should have the freest possible scope for the development of his faculties and his personality. In order to have this scope, he must have freedom from violence against himself. Violence can only repress and destroy human growth and endeavor, and neither can reason and creativity function under an atmosphere of coercion. If each person has equal defense against violence, this “equality before the law” will permit him to maximize his potentialities.

Since each person is a unique individual, it is clear that the best type of formal instruction is that type which is suited to his own particular individuality. Each child has different intelligence, aptitudes, and interests. Therefore, the best choice of pace, timing, variety, and manner, and of the courses of instruction will differ widely from one child to another. One child is best suited, in interests and ability, for an intensive course in arithmetic three times a week, followed six months later by a similar course in reading; another may require a brief period of several courses; a third may need a lengthy period of instruction in reading, etc. Given the formal, systematic courses of instruction, there is an infinite variety of pace and combination which may be most suitable for each particular child.

It is obvious, therefore, that the best type of instruction is individual instruction. A course where one teacher instructs one pupil is clearly by far the best type of course. It is only under such conditions that human potentialities can develop to their greatest degree. It is clear that the formal school, characterized by classes in which one teacher instructs many children, is an immensely inferior system. Since each child differs from the other in interest and ability, and the teacher can only teach one thing at a time, it is evident that every school class must cast all the instruction into one uniform mold. Regardless how the teacher instructs, at what pace, timing, or variety, he is doing violence to each and every one of the children. Any schooling involves misfitting each child into a Procrustean bed of unsuitable uniformity.

What then shall we say of laws imposing compulsory schooling on every child? These laws are endemic in the Western world. In those places where private schools are allowed, they must all meet standards of instruction imposed by the government. Yet the injustice of imposing any standards of instruction should be clear. Some children are duller and should be instructed at a slower pace; the bright children require a rapid pace to develop their faculties. Furthermore, many children are very apt in one subject and very dull in another. They should certainly be permitted to develop themselves in their best subjects and to drop the poor ones. Whatever the standards that the government imposes for instruction, injustice is done to all—to the dullards who cannot absorb any instruction, to those with different sets of aptitudes in different subjects, to the bright children whose minds would like to be off and winging in more advanced courses but who must wait until the dullards are hounded once again. Similarly, any pace that the teacher sets in class wreaks an injustice on almost all; on the dull who cannot keep up, and on the bright who lose interest and precious chances to develop their great potential.

The effect of the State’s compulsory schooling laws is not only to repress the growth of specialized, partly individualized, private schools for the needs of various types of children. It also prevents the education of the child by the people who, in many respects, are best qualified—his parents. The effect is also to force into schools children who have little or no aptitude for instruction at all. It so happens that among the variety of human ability there is a large number of subnormal children, children who are not receptive to instruction, whose reasoning capacity is not too great. To force these children to be exposed to schooling, as the State does almost everywhere, is a criminal offense to their natures. Without the ability to learn systematic subjects, they must either sit and suffer while others learn, or the bright and average students must be held back greatly in their development while these children are pressured to learn. In any case, the instruction has almost no effect on these children, many of whose hours of life are simply wasted because of the State’s decree. If these hours were spent in simple, direct experience which they were better able to absorb, there is no question that they would be healthier children and adults as a result. But to dragoon them into a school for a formative decade of their lives, to force them to attend classes in which they have no interest or ability, is to warp their entire personalities.

Another powerful argument against compulsory education, one which is generally overlooked, is that, if instruction is compulsory, and the parent cannot afford to send his children to a private school or tutor, and is prevented from instructing the children himself, he must send his child to a public school. In the public school will be most of the others who would not be there were it not for the universal compulsory law. This includes subnormal, uneducable children, and various types of juvenile delinquents and hoodlums. Whereas the parent would prefer not to send the child to formal schooling, rather than to compel him to associate with these vicious types, the State forces him to do so, with incalculably evil consequences to innocent children. Removed for part of the day from the care and supervision of the parent, the child is compelled to associate with vicious companions, and might even be influenced by them to join juvenile gangs, adopt drug addiction, etc.

These are not exaggerated evils, as any reader of the current press knows, but, true to the common hatred of individual superiority and distinction, the passion for leveling an enforced equality proclaims: this is good; let every child be forced to learn about “life” and be forced to associate with the lowest types of humanity. The envy and hatred toward the potentially better and superior child is apparent in this position, and underlies the argument for enforced equality and consequent suppression of superior individuality.


The Reverend George Harris described the effects of compulsory education in imposing uniformity and enforced equality (soon after the establishment of compulsion):

Education is already so generally provided in America and other countries [1897], that, without forecasting imaginary conditions, there is no difficulty in seeing how much equality is given by that opportunity.... The same amount of time is given to all; the same courses are prescribed for all; the same teachers are appointed to all. The opportunity is not merely open; it is forced upon all. Even under a socialistic program it is difficult to imagine any arrangement for providing the education which all are supposed to need more nearly equal than the existing system of public schools. Even Mr. Bellamy [a prominent totalitarian socialist of the day] finds schools in the year 2000 AD modeled after those of the nineteenth century. All things are changed except the schools.... Behind fifty desks exactly alike fifty boys and girls are seated to recite a lesson prescribed to all.... But the algebra is not an opportunity for the boy who has no turn for mathematics.... Indeed, the more nearly equal the opportunity outwardly, the more unequal it is really. When the same instruction for the same number of hours a day by the same teachers is provided for fifty boys and girls, the majority have almost no opportunity at all. The bright scholars are held back...the dull scholars are unable to keep up...average scholars are discouraged because the brighter pupils accomplish their tasks so easily.


In the 1940s, the English writer and critic Herbert Read emphasized the diversity of man by pointing out the “psychological” objection to a compulsory “national system of education”:

Mankind is naturally differentiated into many types, and to press all these types into the same mold must inevitably lead to distortions and repressions. Schools should be of many kinds, following different methods and catering for different dispositions. It might be argued that even a totalitarian state must recognize this principle but the truth is that differentiation is an organic process, the spontaneous and roving associations of individuals for particular purposes. To divide and segregate is not the same as to join and aggregate. It is just the opposite process. The whole structure of education as the natural process we have envisaged, falls to pieces if we attempt to make that structure...artificial.

The great philosopher Herbert Spencer pointed out the despotism inherent in compulsory education:

For what is meant by saying that a government ought to educate the people? Why should they be educated? What is the education for? Clearly, to fit the people for social life—to make them good citizens. And who is to say what are good citizens? The government: there is no other judge. And who is to say how these good citizens may be made? The government: there is no other judge. Hence the proposition is convertible into this—a government ought to mold children into good citizens.... It must first form for itself a definite conception of a pattern citizen; and, having done this, must elaborate such system of discipline as seems best calculated to produce citizens after that pattern. This system of discipline it is bound to enforce to the uttermost. For if it does otherwise, it allows men to become different from what in its judgment they should become, and therefore fails in that duty it is charged to fulfill.

And Mrs. Paterson answers teachers and educators who would tend to reply in epithets to her criticism:

Do you think nobody would willingly entrust his children to you to pay you for teaching them? Why do you have to...collect your pupils by compulsion?

One of the best ways of regarding the problem of compulsory education is to think of the almost exact analogy in the area of that other great educational medium—the newspaper. What would we think of a proposal for the government, Federal or State, to use the taxpayers’ money to set up a nationwide chain of public newspapers, and compel all people, or all children, to read them? What would we think furthermore of the government’s outlawing all other newspapers, or indeed outlawing all newspapers that do not come up to the “standards” of what a government commission thinks children ought to read? Such a proposal would be generally regarded with horror in America, and yet this is exactly the sort of regime that the government has established in the sphere of scholastic instruction.

Compulsory public presses would be considered an invasion of the basic freedom of the press; yet is not scholastic freedom at least as important as press freedom? Aren’t both vital media for public information and education, for free inquiry and the search for truth? It is clear that the suppression of free instruction should be regarded with even greater horror than suppression of free press, since here the unformed minds of children are involved.

End of the long quote. It is certainly true that “there is nothing new under the sun”; none other than one of the foremost libertarian intellectuals was already teaching decades ago many of the ideas I inferred from experience. It is reassuring that these ideas are consistent with libertarian values.

Ibarra, Ecuador, South America

July 2015


Appendix 1: Owner's manual

This is the owner's manual we ask students to read, so they know what to expect.

It is obviously in Spanish, since it is intended for new students with no previous knowledge.

* * *

¡Bienvenido al mundo del inglés!

Este idioma le abrirá la puerta a la cultura de más de 360 millones de personas que lo hablan nativamente, y le permitirá comunicarse con más de mil millones de hablantes.

El idioma inglés es más fácil que el español. No distingue entre géneros (en español, hablamos de “la” casa, “el” perro; en inglés, son simplemente the house, the dog) ni tampoco las conjugaciones son difíciles; los verbos sólo tienen tres formas, mientras que en español son muchas. Así que si usted aprendió español, ¡puede aprender inglés; es más fácil!

El único aspecto que puede presentar cierta dificultad, es la pronunciación. Pero eso se resuelve fácilmente con la repetición. La repetición es un concepto clave en el aprendizaje de idiomas. Debe escuchar varias veces los sonidos para recordarlos y reconocerlos, y pronunciarlos varias veces para ser capaz de decirlos rápidamente y bien en el momento oportuno.

La ventaja de nuestro método

En un curso tradicional de inglés, como los que de colegios, universidades y academias tradicionales, todos los alumnos tienen el mismo programa, el mismo calendario y están sujetos a los mismos plazos: para rendir exámenes, entregar deberes, iniciar y terminar el curso, etc.

Creemos que eso no es conveniente, pues todos aprendemos a distinta velocidad; tenemos más o menos bases en el idioma, y no deseamos esperar meses para poder empezar los estudios.

Con nuestro método, usted puede empezar sus estudios en cualquier momento; presentarse a rendir exámenes cuando se sienta listo, y avanzar a su propio ritmo. ¡Siempre esforzándose y exigiéndose disciplina, por supuesto!

Incluso en caso que sea necesario usted puede ausentarse —por motivos de viaje, por ejemplo— y retomar su programa cuando esté de regreso.

Los tutores se esfuerzan por adecuar la enseñanza a sus necesidades de aprendizaje, volviendo el método personalizado, gracias al limitado número de estudiantes por curso. Siempre están listos para ayudarle, apoyarle y animarle.

En fin, son varias ventajas que usted tiene al estudiar con nosotros.

Cómo se aprende la lengua materna

El aprendizaje de los niños ocurre de manera orgánica, es decir, por asimilación, sin entender conscientemente las estructuras formales del lenguaje (gramática). Las construcciones de frases y el orden de colocación de palabras, sonidos, etc., se les va “pegando” poco a poco. Así, ciertas estructuras les “suenan bien” mientras que otras “suenan mal”, y con la corrección de los padres van aprendiendo.

La mente humana es tan asombrosa, que pronto el niño es capaz de entender y formular frases que jamás ha oído antes, combinando por su propia cuenta las palabras que ya conoce.

En las primeras fases de aprendizaje de un idioma, el niño atraviesa una fase silenciosa, en la que escucha y asimila progresivamente las palabras. Pronto los padres se dan cuenta que, pese a que el niño no habla aún, sí entiende cuando le hablan, y puede obedecer órdenes de cierta complejidad; por ejemplo, «tráeme el teléfono que está sobre la mesa», etc.

Gracias a la abundancia de estímulos auditivos (escuchar la lengua nativa muchas horas al día), el niño pronto empieza a repetir esos sonidos y a tratar de expresarse. Los padres piden al niño repetir constantemente nuevas palabras y frases, y lo corrigen y no se dan por satisfechos hasta que el niño pronuncia bien.

Además, los padres siempre están dándole estímulos desafiantes a los niños: no sólo los hacen repetir, sino que también les hacen preguntas, les piden que les cuenten sobre qué hicieron en el jardín de infantes, etc.. El habla se convierte en algo instantáneo; el niño no se “queda pensando” varios segundos antes de responder.

Los niños primero aprenden a entender el idioma natal cuando lo escuchan; meses después, aprenden a hablarlo; años después, probablemente ya en la escuela aprenden a leer y escribirlo, y unos cuantos años después, recién aprenden la gramática.

Lamentablemente a veces hacemos al revés cuando queremos aprender un idioma nuevo: machacamos la gramática de entrada, cuando aún no nos hemos familiarizado con el idioma; no es de asombrarse que sea muy difícil y árido aprender así.

Cómo se aprende un nuevo idioma

Creemos que lograr un conocimiento del inglés esencial requiere de alrededor de 80–100 horas de aprendizaje.

Estas horas deben distribuirse: 50% lectura, 25% escuchar audios en inglés, un 20% practicando oralmente, y un 5% escritura.

(Se escribe poco cuando uno es principiante. Más adelante lo hará más.)

Estas 100 horas pueden hacerse en unos tres o cuatro meses, estudiando un mínimo de seis horas a la semana.

Si sólo hace tres horas a la semana, su aprendizaje del inglés esencial le tomará más de seis meses.

La experiencia nos sugiere que es más probable que usted abandone sus estudios, y no consiga su meta, si no estudia con intensidad al principio.

Sentirá ansiedad, inseguridad, frustración en las primeras semanas. No será fácil al principio. Su cerebro se resistirá a aprender algo totalmente nuevo y que no se parece casi nada al lenguaje que ya conoce.

Pero si vence esos desafíos, y cumple esas cien horas en los primeros meses, será recompensado con una creciente facilidad para aprender más y más inglés.

Pero debe pagar el precio en cuanto a horas de estudio individual. Aunque estamos para ayudarlo, nadie puede hacerlo por usted.

El profesor debe dividir su tiempo entre varios alumnos, así que la mayor parte de la práctica oral —es decir, la repetición de frases— debe ser hecha individualmente. El profesor luego evaluará su comprensión y su fluidez, y lo animará a avanzar a la siguiente lección o le pedirá que repase para evaluarlo nuevamente.

Expectativas realistas

Usted necesitará memoria. Usted deberá aprender muchas palabras, y recordarlas, y ser capaz de reconocerlas y emplearlas rápidamente. Si su memoria es frágil, deberá redoblar su esfuerzo. De lo contrario, probablemente Ud. no verá los resultados que espera. Así que tómelo en cuenta: se espera que Ud. tenga una memoria “en buen estado físico”, pues la usará bastante.

Si usted no repasa constantemente, por lo menos unas tres horas a semana (horas adicionales al estudio con los tutores), olvidará más rápido que lo que aprende. Es decir, difícilmente hará progreso alguno.

Peor aún, si usted deja pasar meses sin estudiar, olvidará casi todo lo que ha aprendido, y su estudio habrá sido en vano.

Su actitud debe ser proactiva, no pasiva. No debe venir dispuesto a “que le enseñen” inglés. Nosotros vamos a ayudarle a aprender el idioma. Pero quien va a hacer el esfuerzo, es usted.

Esto es similar a ejercitarse para estar en forma. Si usted deja de ejercitarse, pierde tono muscular, y hasta engorda. No hay término medio: o se pone en forma, o empieza a ponerse “fofo”; o aprende más inglés, o empieza a olvidar lo que ya sabe.

Siguiendo con la metáfora, un entrenador físico le sugerirá qué ejercicios hacer, cómo alimentarse, etc., pero quien debe hacer el ejercicio físico es usted.

El “saber inglés” consiste en reconocer y recordar cientos y miles de palabras. Nadie puede ayudarle a “metérselas” en la memoria; usted debe repasarlas una y otra vez.

De la misma manera, hablábamos de por lo menos veinte horas de práctica oral. La mayor parte de esa práctica será repetición de frases, para que su cerebro se acostumbre a hablar en el nuevo idioma con fluidez.

¡Buena suerte y sea paciente con su aprendizaje!

En qué consiste aprender inglés

La meta consiste en saber por lo menos unas dos mil palabras, y ser capaces de reconocerlas rápidamente, saber combinarlas en frases instantáneamente, etc.

Obviamente el aprendizaje será progresivo, pero para que tenga una idea, si desea que su curso dure diez meses, cada mes deberá aprender unas doscientas palabras.

Eso equivale a unas cincuenta palabras por semana, ¡o diez palabras nuevas al día!

Parte de esas palabras se las dirá el profesor; parte de ellas usted las buscará en el diccionario. El diccionario es su mejor amigo. Le enseñará acaso más que el mismo profesor. Tenga un buen diccionario, o utilice la aplicación Traductor de Google en su teléfono o tablet. Cuando esté más familiarizado con el idioma, puede empezar a utilizar definiciones en inglés. Sugiero el diccionario Collins Cobuild, sus definiciones son muy fáciles de entender.

Es normal que, luego de aprender una nueva palabra, se le olvide al poco tiempo. Olvidará cada palabra nueva unas tres o cuatro veces. De ahí que deba repasarlas constantemente. Para ahorrarse cientos de búsquedas en el diccionario, puede anotar los significados al margen para poder repasarlos. Otros prefieren buscarlas cuantas veces sea necesario, ¡para “obligarse” a recordarlas a punta de esfuerzo!

Pero recuerde: diez palabras nuevas al día...

Cómo estudiar

Usted tiene su libro y un buen diccionario, suponemos. También es de desear que disponga de los audios del programa.

¡No se quede con dudas! Siempre use el diccionario.

Siempre empiece con un repaso. El aprendizaje ocurre en realidad cuando Ud. repasa; es normal que la primera vez que Ud. aprende algo, lo olvide poco después. De ahí la importancia de los repasos. Son imprescindibles; deben ser ojalá diarios.

Sin embargo, no basta con hacer un repaso “visual”: ojear el texto y pensar, «sí, lo entiendo». No es suficiente. Le aseguro que, pese a que Ud. entienda el texto al leerlo, no le será fácil tratar de hablarlo en inglés. Y, como decimos en clase, «si usted puede decirlo en inglés, usted lo sabe. Si no, debe repasar e intentarlo nuevamente».

Puede hacer dos cosas para comprobar si está en condiciones de hablar en inglés el contenido de una lección:

1) Lea una de las traducciones en español, y trate de decirla en inglés.

2) Lea en inglés una de las frases inglesas; luego cúbrala, y trate de repetirla en voz alta dos o tres veces.

Le aseguro que ambos ejercicios tienen cierto grado de dificultad y serán un desafío que una vez conquistado —cuando pueda decir las frases fluidamente— lo harán sentirse muy bien.

Aplique la regla de los tres segundos: una vez que tiene la frase que va a decir, debe empezar a hablar antes de tres segundos. La idea es que estos ejercicios lo ayuden a desarrollar la fluidez necesaria para participar en conversaciones reales; en una conversación real una pausa demasiado larga resulta incómoda y se pierde la naturalidad. De ahí que la respuesta debe ser casi instantánea.

Si usted nota que “está pensando demasiado” para tratar de armar la frase, es un signo de que aún no está listo; debe leer en voz alta y repetir sin leerla la frase hasta que pueda hacerlo fluidamente. Recuerde: es un proceso que debe llegar a ser mecánico, automático. Así habla Ud. en su lengua natal, ¿verdad?

De la misma manera, evite hacer pausas de más de uno o dos segundos en la mitad de una frase. Eso no es útil en una conversación; se interrumpe la fluidez, ¡y hasta irrita a interlocutores impacientes! Vuelva a repasar. Menos aún interrumpa la oración para añadir palabras en español.

Si está haciendo el repaso en clase, el tutor le pedirá que diga algunas frases en inglés, o que entienda lo que él dice.

Una vez que ha terminado el repaso, avanzará a nuevo contenido. Sugerimos seguir los siguientes pasos:

1. Subrayar las palabras nuevas. De esta manera podrá fijarse mejor en ellas.

2. Anotar los significados. Esto es importantísimo. Si no descubre el significado de una palabra nueva, no ha aprendido nada. Puede preguntar al tutor, usar un diccionario o el Google Translator.

A veces el significado se entiende por el contexto, pero no siempre es así; ¡no “adivine”! Si anota el significado de la palabra nueva, se ahorrará búsquedas futuras. Asegúrese que tiene el significado correcto para el contexto de la oración; hay palabras que tienen varios significados. El tutor le ayudará si es necesario.

Otros estudiantes prefieren no anotar en los márgenes o entre líneas, para “obligarse” a recordar los significados. Puede hacer una lista aparte, o aprender como hizo el autor de estas líneas: ¡buscando la misma palabra en el diccionario, cuantas veces sea necesario, sin anotarla! Usualmente basta con unas cuatro o cinco veces para recordarla.

3. Si tiene una traducción, compare los textos. Fíjese cómo cambian el orden de las palabras, o cómo una expresión equivale a otra, aunque sea distinta. No siempre se puede traducir literalmente una expresión. Pregunte al tutor si no está claro cómo una frase se “vierte” en otra equivalente.

4. Si tiene los audios, escúchelos. Pero no lo haga sólo por “cumplir un requisito”; escuche activamente, fijándose en la pronunciación. La idea es que Ud. pueda pronunciar las palabras lo más parecido al modelo, y que pueda reconocerlas cuando las escuche sin tener un guión a mano. Si es necesario, interrumpa la reproducción para repetir en voz alta las frases que va escuchando. Recuerde que las palabras son, ante todo, sonidos. La escritura es algo secundario. De hecho, los niños hablan durante varios años antes de aprender a leer; y las personas analfabetas nunca aprendieron a identificar la palabra escrita, sólo saben los sonidos. Recuerde: el sonido es lo principal; las palabras son sonidos.

5. Realice el “ejercicio diario” (daily drill). Esta es la parte más importante de nuestro método de trabajo, así que la vamos a explicar en detalle.

El “ejercicio diario” (daily drill)

Se realiza de la siguiente manera:

Lea la oración en inglés, entiéndala (usando las traducciones disponibles, o un diccionario), escuche su sonido. Por ejemplo, si la oración es «Make sure you have the keys», entienda «asegúrate de que tienes las llaves».

Lea la oración en voz alta, una vez: «Make sure you have the keys».

Cubra el texto con su mano o un papel y repita la oración en voz alta. Una, dos, tres veces: «Make sure you have the keys, make sure you have the keys, make sure you have the keys». Pronuncie bien, claramente, para que pudiera ser entendido por un interlocutor. Debe escuchar su propia voz; no hable inaudiblemente. No debe hacerlo sólo mentalmente; debe hacerlo en voz alta, o no aprenderá a hablar.

Si no puede hacerlo porque se olvidó la oración, vuelva al paso 2: lea en voz alta la oración, cúbrala y trate de repetirla.

Con el texto aún cubierto, trate de recordar el significado de la frase en español: «Asegúrate de que tienes las llaves» (4ª repetición).

Aún sin ver el texto, trate de decirla nuevamente en inglés: «make sure you have the keys» (5ª repetición). Después de la “distracción” de recordar el significado de la frase, si aún puede decirla en inglés, es muy probable que ya la sepa fluidamente.

En total, son cinco repeticiones orales —no “en la mente”; orales— como mínimo.

Luego de hacer varias otras frases de esta manera, puede tratar de recordar cómo se dice una de las primeras frases. No debería ser tan difícil; si lo es, repase más.

Este “ejercicio diario” puede realizarlo en la comodidad de su hogar; de hecho, ya que requiere tiempo es preferible que lo haga en su domicilio, para que aproveche el tiempo de la tutoría para aclarar dudas, ser evaluado por el tutor, practicar conversación en inglés, etc.

Una vez que ha realizado el ejercicio diario, si lo ha hecho adecuadamente estará en condiciones de ser evaluado por el tutor. Si no, simplemente siga practicando, o pida ayuda.

Recuerde: si usted puede decirlo en inglés, lo sabe. Si no puede decirlo, no lo sabe; simplemente debe practicar más.

Algunos consejos útiles

Usted debe estudiar en su casa. Si no lo hace, difícilmente aprenderá. Es más probable que abandone sus estudios, a que logre cumplir su meta de aprender inglés. La experiencia nos enseña que los estudiantes que demuestran iniciativa —repasando en su tiempo libre, leyendo con la ayuda del diccionario, etc.— son los que de verdad aprenden.

Si usted muestra una actitud pasiva, sólo estudiando en clase, probablemente nunca logre hablar en inglés. ¡La clase no es suficiente!, pues para ser capaz de hablar usted debe de pasar horas practicando el habla. Si no lo hace, se dará cuenta que, como muchos estudiantes, usted entiende cuando lee, pero le resulta difícil hablar. Ejercite el habla realizando el “ejercicio diario”.

No hay atajos a la repetición oral. Si quiere aprender a leer inglés, debe leer en inglés muchas horas; si quiere aprender a entenderlo, debe escuchar inglés muchas horas (ayudándose de un guión); si quiere aprender a hablar inglés, debe hablarlo muchas horas. De ahí que tiene que repetir muchas veces el ejercicio diario.

Recuerde que un lenguaje está compuesto de varias destrezas relacionadas, pero diferentes (escuchar, hablar, leer, escribir). Cada una tiene su propia área cerebral, por lo que deben desarrollarse por separado. Es como ejercitar sólo un brazo, y no el otro; la diferencia sería notable.

Aprender un idioma se parece más a aprender una coreografía (que requiere movimientos coordinados y con elegancia) que a aprender matemáticas (que es principalmente trabajo intelectual). Una vez que le explican cómo hacer un problema de matemáticas, usted puede hacer varios ejercicios similares; pero usted habrá notado que no es fácil hablar un texto, pese a que se lo entiende bien. La repetición oral es la solución.

Vea películas con subtítulos en inglés. Le sugiero que sean películas que Ud. ya haya visto, para que no se preocupe por seguir la trama sino por asociar el subtítulo con el diálogo en escena. Pause la reproducción para buscar palabras en su diccionario. ¡No se quede con dudas!

Luego de haber entendido el diálogo, si desea reproduzca nuevamente la escena esta vez sin subtítulos, tratando de entender el diálogo. Este ejercicio es harto provechoso y ameno.

Cante. El profesor le facilitará letras de canciones, que esperamos sean de su gusto. Al cantar desarrollará fluidez, pues debe cantar al ritmo de la música, siguiendo al artista.

En Internet encontrará muchas más letras de canciones traducidas (revise o o también y en muchos aficionados ponen subtítulos en español e inglés a sus videos favoritos. No todas las traducciones serán 100% fiables, pero su diccionario y su tutor le ayudarán.

El español le ayudará a aprender inglés. No se preocupe de que “se acostumbra a traducir todo”. Si aplica la regla de los tres segundos, sabe que debe responder casi instantáneamente; no tendrá tiempo de traducir “desarmando” la frase. Recuerde: la respuesta debe ser casi automática, sin pensar. Si usted demora en responder, significa que aún no tiene la fluidez necesaria, y debe seguir realizando el ejercicio diario.

El español es un “andador” que le ayudará a “aprender a caminar” en el inglés; eventualmente será menos y menos necesario. Es como las tablas de multiplicar: nos las sabemos de memoria, y nos ayudan a hacer cálculos más rápidamente. No nos ponemos a contar con los dedos cuando nos toman las tablas; es instantáneo. Si alguien no se sabe las tablas, se nota enseguida: “¿seis por siete?” “Este... eh....”. De la misma manera, cuando le toman lección en inglés, debe responder inmediatamente.

Sea paciente. Los primeros tres meses son esenciales pues se familiarizará con el idioma. Los primeros días probablemente se le harán muy cuesta arriba, especialmente si no tiene bases previas con el idioma. No desespere, no se desanime: eventualmente se hará más fácil. Usted logró aprender español, que es una lengua más difícil que el inglés; usted aprenderá inglés, si no se rinde.

Recuerde que las palabras son sonidos. Usualmente pensamos, “el inglés es difícil pues se pronuncia distinto de lo que se escribe”. Es más bien al revés: se escribe distinto de lo que se pronuncia. El lenguaje es primordialmente hablado: la escritura siempre viene después, ya sea en la historia de los pueblos, ya en la vida de cada uno (se aprende a hablar a los dos o tres años, y a leer y escribir recién en la escuela, años después). Así que siempre fíjese primero en el sonido de una palabra, y luego en cómo se escribe.

Hablar es saber. No es suficiente “yo entiendo cuando leo”; debe poder hablarlo. Ése es el criterio que tomará en cuenta el profesor para sugerirle que avance o siga repasando. De la misma manera, no se conforme con el “se dice más o menos...” o “algo así”.

Siguiendo con el ejemplo de las matemáticas, nadie se conformaría con un estudiante que ante la pregunta: “¿Dos por dos?”, dijera: “¡Tres! No, espera... ¡Es cinco! No, no... ya sé: es cuatro”. Si usted lo sabe, puede decirlo bien a la primera. Si no puede, debe repasar.

Hable bien. Hable claro, con seguridad, sin esperar que el profesor le confirme en media frase si está hablando bien o no. Hable sin titubear, sin repetirse, sin hacer pausas largas. Por supuesto, evite intercalar palabras en español en media oración, ¡y diga lo que se le preguntó; no se invente! Si no puede hacer todo esto porque no se siente seguro, debe repasar.

Hable fluido, no rápido. Si puede hablar rápido, está bien; pero no es una meta necesaria. En cambio, sí le pediremos que hable fluidamente, es decir, uniendo los sonidos de las palabras. El sonido final de una palabra debe unirse, ser continuo, con el sonido inicial de la siguiente palabra. Hable despacio, pero sin hacer pausas; como si toda la oración fuese una sola palabra larga.

Transmita emociones cuando hable. Al principio basta con que diga las frases y pronuncie bien. A medida que vaya avanzando y ya sea fácil hablar, piense en transmitir emociones mientras habla: 1) en su tono de voz; 2) en sus expresiones faciales; y 3) en sus gestos y lenguaje corporal. Recuerde que gran parte de la comunicación es no–verbal. Así su inglés sonará mucho más natural ¡y, por alguna extraña razón, también hablará más rápido!

Itinerario a recorrer

Usted debe aprobar los seis exámenes de Cambridge. Estos exámenes se usan en todo el mundo, y son de dificultad creciente.

Los tres primeros exámenes han sido diseñados para niños de escuela primaria. ¡Pero no crea que son demasiado fáciles!

Los tres exámenes siguientes son para estudiantes de secundaria y adultos.

Usualmente empezará con un libro de texto, y al terminarlo se le ayudará a prepararse para que rinda estos exámenes. Es decir, un libro, luego un examen, luego un libro otra vez.

Si ya tiene bases del idioma, puede directamente prepararse para rendirlos.

Exámenes de niños:

Starters. Incluye una lista de aproximadamente 400 palabras. Para rendirlo, debe aprenderse perfectamente la conjugación del verbo “to be”, y adicionalmente una lista de 30 verbos esenciales. A muchos estudiantes les resulta desconcertante la pronunciación británica empleada en estos exámenes. Si le resulta difícil entenderlos, el tutor le hará repetir el audio junto con el guión, para que vaya asimilando los sonidos peculiares del inglés británico.

Movers. La lista de vocabulario contiene aproximadamente 700 palabras. Debe además aprenderse una lista de 100 verbos comunes, en su forma base y en pasado. A partir de este nivel se pide que poco a poco emplee más definiciones en inglés que traducciones. Aprobando este examen, Ud. adquiere un nivel A.0 en el marco común de referencia europeo de idiomas (Common European Framework Reference).

Flyers. La lista es de alrededor de mil palabras, y debe aprenderse los cien verbos comunes también en participio, para poder conjugar los tiempos perfectos. El nivel alcanzado es A1.

Exámenes para jóvenes y adultos:

KET, Key English Test. La lista es de unas 1.400 palabras. Ud. debe tener ya la costumbre de leer en inglés, pues se evalúa la comprensión lectora con cierto nivel de abstracción. Recomendado a partir de 13 años en adelante. Ud. obtiene el nivel A2 al aprobarlo.

PET, Preliminary English Test. La lista es de 2000 palabras aprox., y el nivel de abstracción es mayor. Ud. necesita soltura con textos más complejos, saber inferir (le preguntarán cosas que no han sido dichas expresamente) y hacerlo rápidamente en el examen de listening. Otorga un nivel B1.

FCE, First Certificate English. No espere darlo con posibilidades de éxito sino cuando esté por terminar sus estudios de colegio, en torno a los 16 ó 17 años. Equivale al TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language) americano. No hay una lista de vocabulario especial para este examen, pero puede utilizar la New General Service List (aprox. 2800 palabras) para prepararse. La ventaja que esta lista está ordenada según la frecuencia de uso de las palabras. Estos exámenes suponen un nivel de cultura de una persona apta para estudios universitarios, por lo cual pueden entenderse exigentes; no sólo en conocimientos de inglés, sino también de cultura general e inteligencia verbal. Al aprobarlo, se considera que Ud. tiene un nivel B2.

A medida que Ud. va aprobando los exámenes, tiene la garantía de que su aprendizaje es exitoso, pues estos exámenes son exigentes y evalúan todas las destrezas: comprensión lectora, comprensión auditiva, escritura, expresión oral.

Espero que este documento le haya aclarado el camino a recorrer. Cualquier pregunta, no dude en consultar a los tutores.

Appendix 2: Teachers' cheatsheet

This is a short two–page document that summarizes the method. It is useful for teachers who are learning how to apply this method in their classes.

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Working with mixed–ability classes cheat sheet

Just follow these six steps:

1: Review.

Have students come to you in pairs.

Ask them what pages did they complete last class; assign some of the content already covered to review. Can be grammar, vocabulary or both.

Send them back to their seats and have more students come to you. This assignment of what to review shouldn’t take more than five minutes.

Then they start coming back so you can evaluate them. If they are ready, assign new content to cover. Ask them to…

2. Find out the meanings of the new words.

First they should underline or mark the words or expressions they don’t understand.

They can use the dictionaries installed in the PCs, a tablet, their smartphones, or ask the teacher/classmates.

Have them come to you again to make sure they have the correct meanings.

Explain in few words any grammar topics that are obscure. Keep it simple, do not engage in long explanations: remember you have more students to serve.

If they need further help, refer them to any good Grammar Handbook.

Make sure they have understood. Once they have, they know they have to…

3. Do the exercises

By now they should understand most of the content and should have no problem doing exercises. Check their progress.

4. Listen.

Don’t allow students to listen before they have finished with their vocabulary! Otherwise they won’t understand everything, and will begin guessing meanings and making incorrect assumptions.

They’ll go by themselves to the PCs to listen, or they could use their tablets or smartphones and stay in their seats.

First they should listen while reading (they should already be able to understand the text). Then listen without reading; if they understand, they are finished in this stage. If they don’t, they have to listen & read again.

It is useful to repeat after the speaker, too.

When they finish, they have to…

5. Study.

They have to learn how to say the contents in English, and understand you when you speak English to them.

This will usually take some time, but every few minutes, whether they are ready or not, have them come to you and give the lesson. Otherwise they could take the whole hour studying without showing results. Remind them there are no dire consequences for failing repeatedly; they should just keep trying!

6. Lesson.

Use Messrs. Pimsleur and Cherel’s methods to take lessons, as described in How to Teach Mixed–Ability Classes.

If they aren’t pronouncing properly, it probably means that they just listened perfunctorily and should listen again, this time focusing on the sounds they have to reproduce later.

80–90% understanding & production is enough to allow them to move on in their studies.

Checklist for an effective class:

I am sitting in front of my students, or roaming the class.

Every student has successfully passed the review, and is learning new content.

Every student has come to me to give a lesson of new content, at least two times today. (not counting the times they come to be assigned what to review, or to check if their vocabularies are OK.)

Every student has done some written exercises, in the book, workbook or worksheets.

Every student has listened to the audio at least once, either with the computers or with their own devices.

General Guidelines

Don’t usually lecture! Don’t usually teach; be a tutor. Help them learn individually. There are Grammar books in Spanish in the computers for students to use; refer students to them. The focus is in their work, not yours; you are merely an aide, not the “star of the show”!

Allow the use of smartphones or tablets in class, but only to be used as dictionaries or for listening. Some students could be allowed to listen to music while they study, provided that they use headphones and are making progress. (It has been shown that listening to music helps some students concentrate, specially the restless or hyperactive students.)

If you have too many students and it’s difficult to take two or three lessons per student, have them prepare in pairs and take the oral lessons in pairs as well. You’ll probably have a few students in the same unit.

Sing a few songs, play a game, show a video, do a hands–on activity etc. the last 20 minutes or so to change the pace.

If students are preparing for a Cambridge test (as they should eventually do), you can allot some time for studying vocabulary, say 30 minutes, or one hour of class.

Evaluate using sentences, not single words. It’s more difficult but that’s how people speak: with complete sentences, not single words!

Deliver value to your students. Young students will always complain about being forced to take English classes. Though if they feel they are learning in class everyday and making progress, they will be grateful and appreciate coming to the academy (albeit reluctantly). But if they are under the impression that they are losing their time, they will tell their parents! You can’t fake it; make it worth their while! Leave them feeling, «Wow, one sure learns here!»

Remember the motto: No child left behind. Every student that comes to us, has to leave our company less ignorant. Help every student give their best. For some it could be learning just a few lines per class; for others could mean covering two or three lessons that day! Don’t ignore students; have them come to you two times per class minimum to be evaluated.

When taking oral lessons, use the following criteria: 1) after you give them the prompt, they shall start speaking within three seconds. Longer than that means they’re not ready. 2) don’t allow long pauses between words; ask them to link sounds, to speak as if the whole sentence were a long word. Tell them not to speak fast, but fluently. 3) discourage them to interrupt themselves to correct their own speech. Tell them you will correct them after they finish speaking. 4) Don’t allow stammering. If they’re ready, they should speak clearly and confidently. If they aren’t, they should review until they are. 5) Don’t allow “false starts”: when they begin the sentence, but for some reason they stop halfway and start over. 6) Don’t “reassure” them in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes they pause and look at you, as if asking, «Am I doing OK?», waiting for a nod. Remain expressionless. Tell them you’ll usually provide feedback after they are finished speaking. You usually won’t interrupt them in the middle of a sentence.

Appendix 3: Content distribution

This is an example of how you can insert the commonly used Cambridge test in your current program. It includes three series of books: one for children, one for teenagers, one for adults.

It is in Spanish so salespeople can refer to it.

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Distribución de contenidos

*** Cada libro debe repasarse completo luego de terminarse ***

Serie Everybody Up

Niños hasta once años.

Libro 1: En la mitad darles la lista del verbo “to be”, que la aprendan. Si tienen una tablet o smartphone, que instalen el traductor de Google (y descarguen dentro de la aplicación el diccionario de español, para que funcione siempre sin necesitar internet) y lo usen como diccionario. Que no se acostumbren a traducir todo, sino sólo las palabras nuevas.

Libro 2: Al principio darles la lista de los 30 verbos y el Starters. Poco a poco deben írsela aprendiendo, para que rindan el Starters cuando acaben el libro 2. Las palabras de la lista del Starters debe evaluarse no sueltas, sino en oraciones.

Libro 3: Darles la lista del Movers e irla estudiando poco a poco.

Libro 4: Empezar con la lista de 100 verbos, e irla estudiando a lo largo del libro. Aprenderse únicamente las formas bases y los pasados, no los participios aún. Al terminar libro 4 deben rendir el Movers. Si están en 7mo grado (11 años de edad), que instalen el diccionario Collins Cobuild y que lo usen como diccionario principal. Al repasar la lista del Movers, deberían ser capaces de definir algunas palabras en inglés, a su manera (es decir, no es necesario que reciten de memoria las definiciones del Collins).

Libro 5: Que vayan aprendiendo los participios de la lista de verbos.

Libro 6: Al empezar el libro 6 debe dárseles la lista del Flyers. Aprenderse la lista de verbos completa (incluyendo los participios). Rendir el Flyers cuando terminen el libro 6.

No hay más exámenes ni libros para niños de primaria.

Si un niño pasa a 7mo. grado o secundaria sin haber culminado la serie Everybody Up, puede continuar con la serie Look Up, que es más propia para esa edad.

Serie Look Up

Niños desde once años, generalmente a partir de 8vo grado, excepcionalmente a partir de 7mo de básica. Niños menores de 11 años o en grados inferiores deben usar Everybody Up. Adultos también pueden usarla, lo hemos hecho exitosamente con varios.

La serie de libros llega, según los editores, hasta un nivel B2, así que al final de cada libro deben hacer un examen de Cambridge (seis libros, seis exámenes).

Libro 1: Apenas empiezan, en la unidad dos darles la lista del verbo “to be”. En la unidad 3 ó 4, los verbos esenciales. Luego en la mitad del libro, la lista del Starters. Rendir y aprobar el Starters al terminar el libro 1. Que instalen el traductor de Google en sus teléfonos o tablets, y le descarguen el diccionario offline.

Libro 2: Darles la lista del Movers apenas empiezan. Asimismo deben irse aprendiendo la lista de 100 verbos, sólo en formas bases y pasados. Que instalen el diccionario Collins Cobuild. Al revisar las listas de vocabulario, deben ser capaces de definir algunas palabras en inglés. Al terminar el libro 2, rendir el Movers.

Libro 3: Que aprendan también los participios de la lista de 100 verbos y del Flyers apenas empiezan. Al terminar el libro 3 rendir el Flyers.

Libro 4: Darles la lista del KET apenas empiezan. Ayudarles con las definiciones de las palabras polisémicas. Al terminar el libro 4 rendir el KET.

Libro 5: Darles la lista del PET apenas empiezan. El libro no es suficiente material de lectura; debe proporcionársele lecturas adicionales. Al terminar el libro 5 rendir el PET.

Libro 6: Darles la New General Service List apenas empiezan. Al terminar el libro 6 rendir el FCE, o el TOEFL. Se supone que un estudiante en este nivel tendrá unos 16 años. Estos exámenes requieren inteligencia y cultura general superior al promedio: es decir, que pueda ser aspirante a estudios universitarios (exigentes) en el primer mundo. El hábito de la lectura es prácticamente imprescindible para tener posibilidades de aprobar estos exámenes, que no son para nada fáciles.

Serie Interchange

Jóvenes adultos desde 16 años. En casos excepcionales, desde 15 años. Jóvenes menores de 16 deben usar la serie Look Up. Aunque es preferible la serie Look Up incluso para adultos por ser más fácil y estar diseñada de acuerdo con los estándares del marco europeo.

Según los editores, la serie Interchange sólo llega hasta un nivel B1... Sin embargo, con preparación adecuada los chicos podrían estar en condiciones de aprobar el FCE.

Interchange Intro (amarillo): En la primera lección, aprender el verbo “to be” con los pronombres personales. A medida que se avanza en la primera mitad del libro (lecciones 1–8), aprenderse los 30 verbos esenciales y la lista del Starters. Rendir el Starters al terminar la lección 8. Al empezar la lección 9, darles la lista del Movers. Rendir el Movers al terminar la lección 16.

Interchange 1 (rojo): Al empezar, darles la lista del Flyers y la de los 100 verbos esenciales (por ahora sólo deben aprenderse los presentes y pasados). Al terminar la unidad 8, tomar el examen Flyers. Al empezar la unidad 9, darles la lista del KET, y empezar a aprenderse los participios de los 100 verbos. Al terminar la unidad 16, rendir el KET.

Interchange 2 (azul): Al iniciar, darles la lista de vocabulario del PET. Al terminar el libro (lecc. 16), rendir el PET.

Interchange 3 (verde): Darles desde el inicio la New General Service List. Al terminar el libro, rendir el FCE.

*** Recordar que cada libro debe repasarse completo luego de terminarse, enfocándose solamente en el habla ***