Using NLP in ELT

In a recent article I mentioned how noting students’ eye movements can help the teacher understand when they are ready to start a task. This is an insight that comes from NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming). I am not an expert on NLP, but over the last ten years or so have found various NLP techniques extremely useful in the classroom. What I’m going to write here is a vast over-simplification of the theory, and focuses only on the elements which I have used most, ignoring other things completely. But I hope it will give you a taste of how NLP can be relevant to EFL/ESL teaching. If you’re interested, the best introduction to using NLP in the classroom are the two books by Jane Revell and Susan Norman In your Hands and Handing Over, both published by Saffire Press. The basic idea behind NLP, as I understand it, is that our outcomes – our “successes” and “failures” (but there is no failure in NLP, only feedback) – are determined by the thought and behaviour patterns which we use unconsciously all of the time. By recognising our own patterns, we can change the ones which are not getting us the outcomes which we want. And as teachers, we are also involved in helping others achieve the outcomes that they want – in particular to learn effectively and in a way that is enjoyable, to become a valued member of their learning group and so on. For me, one of the most important core concepts of NLP is the recognition of differences in cognitive style – or what NLP calls “representational systems”. There are five of these systems (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Olfactory and Gustatory) of which the first three are most commonly used. Everyone will have a preference for one of the styles even if they use all five at times, and this will determine how they take in and access information and thus how they experience the world. This is often reflected in the metaphors that people use. Two minutes ago I found myself writing give you a taste of – a gustatory metaphor. In the classroom, your non-conscious teaching style will tend to reflect your representational preferences, but your learners will probably learn best if activities are geared to their predominant systems. For instance, my predominant system is kinaesthetic and my favourite classroom activities reflect this. My learners are often on their feet and walking around, manipulating flashcards, or discussing past experiences and how they felt in certain situations (the kinaesthetic system involves both tactile and emotional feelings). I use the visual system a lot too, but tend to ignore the auditory unless I really concentrate on including it. For example, I naturally prefer written explanations to spoken ones, tend to limit the amount of listening comprehension I do with students, and so on. But if I only followed my own preferences, there would be a mismatch between my teaching style and my students’ learning style. I need to look consciously at the activities I plan for each lesson to ensure that all styles are catered for, not just my own. Or if I’m teaching one-to-one, I can gear activities specifically to that learner’s style. Some common classroom activities and the three main representational preferences which they match are in the following list – one may surprise you :
  • activities involving story-telling, listening to cassettes, oral explanations, songs and music, repetition, silent planning, conversation (Auditory)
  • mime, drama, roleplay, activities involving movement, the manipulation of flashcards or objects, note-taking (Kinaesthetic)
  • activities involving graphs, pictures, video, written exercises, texts and explanations, use of the board or OHP, note-taking, highlighting with different colours (Visual)

Why is note-taking listed under kinaesthetic? I’m a copious note taker and have been all through my educational life. But I rarely if ever look at the notes again. It is the mere physical act of writing them, the feeling of the pen forming the words, which is important to fix the ideas in my brain (1). How often have you said to students “It’s not necessary to write it down – it’s all on the handout.” ? But for some people it is necessary.

Activities involving moving around will appeal to kinaesthetic learners.

Other insights from NLP which I have found useful are :

  • Eye movements will reflect the representational systems which a person is using and how they are thinking, and can give important clues to the teacher on how best to react to a student. For example, for most people eye movement to the right will mean that the person is imagining or inventing something, and if the eyes are at mid-level this will be auditory – they may well be trying to formulate what they want to say. Noticing this, the teacher can pause and give them the time they need rather than pushing for an immediate answer.

  • Mind and body are interconnected - posture can create, maintain or change state. There is a lovely Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown is standing with bowed head, hunched shoulders and a glum expression. He says to one of his friends : This is my depressed stance. When you’re depressed, it makes a lot of difference how you stand. (He straightens up) The worst thing you can do is straighten up and hold your head high because then you’ll start to feel better. (He slumps again.) If you’re going to get any joy out of being depressed you’ve got to stand like this. Try it – it works. If you’re feeling down, and stay in a depressed stance you go on feeling bad. Change your posture and you change your state. Try it on those days when you just really don’t feel like going into the classroom – walk in using the body language that you’d use if you were really looking forward to it and knew you’d enjoy it. Or when you take the six-thirty class and find the students slumped and tired after a hard day’s work, recharge their energies with some stretching activities or an activity where they’re on their feet and moving rapidly around.
  • Language can also create state and affect outcomes – if you tell your students in advance that an activity is difficult you’ll see them tense up and prepare themselves to fail. Negative language is negative suggestion, while positive language is positive suggestion. If instead you tell them “You’ll enjoy the next activity – it will give you the chance to put together all that we’ve been doing in the last few lessons”, the implication is quite different.
  • People are motivated by different “metaprograms”. For example, some are internal evaluators – they will decide for themselves if a technique is useful or if they are making progress. Others are external evaluators. They need to hear it from others, the teacher or the other students, before they will believe it. A statement like You’re really making a lot of progress this year will convince and motivate the second group, but the first will want to decide for themselves. They’ll respond well, on the other hand, to the chance to self-evaluate and give feedback on the course and their own progress. Other metaprograms include options vs procedures oriented – do students want to be told exactly what to do and the right way to do it, or do they want choices; motivation towards the outcome they want (This activity will help you assimilate the new vocabulary) or away from the outcome they don’t want (If you do this twice a week you’re much less likely to forget the new vocabulary); independent or co-operative – do they like working alone or as part of a group; and sameness vs difference – do they feel more secure if the lesson always has the same format, contains the same activity types etc, or do they prefer variety and like every lesson to be different and unexpected. Not every person will be at one end or other of the continuum for each metaprogram – some will be happy working in either mode. But recognising the existence of these (and other) metaprograms helps us to recognise when we ourselves tend to one extreme or the other and why our students may be reacting badly to our lessons. If we are difference oriented, we may think we’re running a great course by constantly varying the methods and activities we use. But our “sameness” students may be feeling insecure – which will inevitably have an effect on the success of their learning.
  • Communication is non-conscious as well as conscious – I talked about one aspect of this, without mentioning NLP, in the article Warm Up Your Classroom! What message does the visual impact of your classroom convey? Does it suggest that learning will be an enjoyable, “warm” experience or does it convey a sense of coldness, neglect and lack of care and attention? What effect will the message that the students are receiving non-consciously have on their participation in the class and the success of their learning?

NLP, then, helps us “see things from the other point of view” and to realise that our own way of thinking, speaking, and acting, although it seems so natural and obvious, is not necessarily shared by the students in front of us. To maximise their learning, we may need to adapt the way we plan and conduct our lessons, to change the activity types we use, and to re-think the way we communicate.


1. I owe this insight to Jane Revell's account of the same experience in In Your Hands.

Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by Qian Jong.

No comments: