Moving Beyond “Do you like?” (by Randy Poehlman)

Flickr: Eastnhuh

Getting students to express preference and to make choices is as easy as holding out a red pencil and a blue pencil and letting them choose, then providing practice and drills based on the language that facilitates that choice.

This is taken one step further with open ended questions like Which sport do you like? This essentially boils down to a vocabulary lesson with a few rotating structures and is a good way to teach sports related language or another common language from food to animals to school subjects.

Getting students to move beyond this to express meaningful opinions in the classroom is often a difficult proposition for both ESL teachers and students. Students need to have achieved a certain level of proficiency before they are comfortable moving past the “do you like?” stage. However, leading students through this transition can open them to critical thinking in a second language and can route them into a new way of expressing themselves and to interacting with the world around them.

Opening students to debate and exchanging unique, critical and more complex opinions can be done relatively easily over a few months, and when you spend the time building this skill, the reward in student language retention, self confidence and a whole host of positive factors will converge as you move forward.

Step 1: agree or disagree

Starting simple and going slow will improve the overall quality of the class and will allow students to naturally progress as they move forward. A good way to introduce this element into your class is to give students the initial push, I agree with Yuka and I disagree with Kentaro. Allow students to correct homework as a group and allow them to practice this initial language. Depending on cultural elements, the age of students, their social status and other factors this could go quickly, or could take some time to develop.

Step 2: justify disagreement

The next push is having them justify their disagreement. This will often happen naturally as students say, I disagree with Kentaro. The answer is C. At this point, the word “because” becomes very important. Teaching students the importance of the word “because” can be challenging at times, but once it is solidly embedded, it quickly becomes a cornerstone of their language and enables students to make all kinds of creative expressions. When students are comfortable using “because” on a regular basis, they will naturally start asking “Why?” and when students ask “Why?” independently, that is a major victory and a huge breakthrough. Supporting another student’s opinion with a secondary argument also goes hand-in-hand with this concept: I agree with Kentaro because the answer is A. It says so in the first sentence.

Step 3: build arguments

In the next stage, students are ready to explore elementary debating propositions. As always, start easy and progress slowly. This can be done by having them explore familiar concepts, presented as statements: Soccer is a boring sport. Video games are bad. Once students grasp this concept of trading ideas and supporting and disagreeing, they are ready for a subtly more complex proposition such as Should student’s have to wear uniforms?

At this point students are ready for the columns of, “Yes” and “No.” Allow them to build arguments and provide reasons for their positions. This is a good time to introduce note-taking into the mix. Have students write their opinions in answer the question in their notebooks.

Step 4: offer counter opinions

Following this, the project gets a little more difficult and may feel like pulling teeth at times. The students are first required to answer with their opinion on the statement: I think that students should wear uniforms so it is easy to see who is a student at that school. Then the same student has to offer a counter opinion as a follow up, which at times can be quite challenging: If students don’t have to wear uniforms, they can show their own style. This can be managed with engaging questions. This forces the student to examine the issue from two sides, in support of and in opposition to. After the student’s have all offered one opinion and then a counter opinion, have them select the best answer in it’s entirety and present it.

Step 5: agree and disagree (sit on the fence)

After students have become comfortable with presenting their desired position at the conclusion of the “debate” they can move into “fence-sitting,” where students simultaneously hold two opinions and say things like, Yes, children should have to go to bed before mid-night, because they need rest for the next day, but if I stayed up until 1 a.m. I could finish my Math homework.

Step 6: use the skills in a variety of contexts

At this point, you have students who are ready, willing and able to freely express themselves in a confident manner, and although the grammar and the vocabulary are lacking at times, they have the skills needed to contribute to and shape the debate. There are several directions you can explore at this point, including elementary experiments in democracy, business, debates on art, culture, or resource selection for their own learning. The potential to expand is endless.

My pilot class for this project is currently at this stage and I want to take the debate framework one step further before I open them up to more exciting projects: setting up a hypothetical debate. I call this the “what if” stage. Taking a proposed statement, making a decision and then dealing with the repercussions from that decision. In the coming weeks, I want to give them a question such as one most famously asked by Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me: What would happen if I ate Mc Donald’s for one whole month?

When students have the ability and confidence to freely trade ideas and to expand on each other’s ideas and even challenge these ideas, they can set about building bridges. They can confidently move beyond “Do you like?” They can express why they like something, aspects they don’t like, advice to change the elements they don’t like and advice to improve on aspects they do like. They can even deal with the outcomes of the proposed changes and can fully explore the issues that will challenge them, as they deal with a new language.

Note: This article by Randy Poehlman originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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8 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks for breaking this down in such clear steps, Randy! I have the perfect class to try this with 🙂

  2. Bee (Fumi Ito) says:

    Thank you for sharing your great idea ! Starting simple and going slow…. I agree with you. It is very important !

  3. Mark Kulek says:

    I can use this for some of my adult classes.

  4. Matt says:

    Great ideas in this article, thanks!

  5. Ann Foreman says:

    Hi Randy and Barbara,

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.



  6. Eric Roth says:

    Thank you for writing this practical primer on helping students go from expressing simple preferences and providing reasons to developing critical thinking and problem solving in our English classrooms.

  7. Some good practical advice. This is similar to how I prepared senior high school students in Japan for English debate classes, but in a much more accelerated way to refresh their knowledge of what they had already studied.


  8. joan vamv says:

    thank you for sharing this wonderful idea.