The Principle of Minimalism in ELT

April 2013

Tension is a necessary factor in achievement. If something is too easy then people don’t try as hard and if something is too difficult then people give up. That’s why being a teacher involves challenging students with content and concepts that are only slightly beyond their grasp. I’ve heard this goldilocks zone described as being in ‘the flow’ — i.e. the state of being completely absorbed in a task that we cease to notice anything else even the passage of time.

A building needs a certain amount of tension to stay upright. If the pressure is too great it comes crashing down, if it is too small it won’t go up. The same applies with learning.


This deep focus when our minds cannot be distracted from the task in hand is the best kind of learning. That’s why I’m a fan of the ‘less is more’ approach to language learning. I like to minimize the input that students receive and focus on one structure rather than distract them with various forms of input. This is the problem I have with overuse of technology in the language classroom. Endless input is sometimes viewed as a panacea for language learners but I disagree. I think input often functions as noise, and without a teacher to use and to direct its use, input on its own has limited efficiency in language learning.

Tension is the great integrity. ~ Richard Buckminster-Fuller


Limiting inputs or eliminating inputs or only using one particular input, whether it’s visual, textual, auditory, or kinesthetic (touch & feel) is a good way to get students to use their language skills to fill in the gaps. By limiting input you are stretching people’s communicative competence. Here are some ways to do this.

Play some music without words and then ask students to write about what they see, hear, or feel. Classical music is obviously excellent as it really does seem to paint pictures — ‘The Rite of Spring’ by Stravinsky is a good example. Also the music of renowned film composer, John Williams, works really well. There are so many creative and clever interpretations to be made from music and this show by musical comedian Bill Bailey really exemplifies this.

Show a clip from a silent movie and ask students to describe what happened. Better still is to put them into groups and get them to dub the dialogues themselves. Obviously Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton are the best, but also contemporary films with the sound off work well.

Pictures paint a thousand words and thus provide endless opportunities for ESL. Try this activity to maximise discourse and teamwork skills from simple images.

Tweets are like doing pressups for the brain. All good art comes from working within limitations and the tweet is an excellent form for forcing people to get to the point. Get students write summaries and answer questions using <140 characters.

Error correction — spend enough time examining errors first by echoing the error back to the student, but if this proves too hard then provide just enough more input by representing it textually on the board and eliciting.

Eliciting as much as you can — not giving answers and information until they have had the chance to try first.

Minimising teacher talk and the old syndrome of teacher verbosity.

Using silences effectively and not feeling uncomfortable with silence.

The point of student centered learning is to challenge people and this means putting the onus on the learner and not the teacher. The teacher is traditionally the default provider of language. But to me, good language teaching is about making students into the ones who give, and therein lies the challenge both for us and for them.