icon  icon icon


Brain-based teaching - FIS workshop

This page has been prepared as a follow-up to the professional development workshop about Brain-Based-Teaching, held by Dr Robert Greenleaf on 20 November 2006. It contains statements made by Dr Greenleaf (or taken from the workshop booklet), together with corresponding extracts from pages in the Teachers section of this ESL website. Putting into practice some of the advice from these two sources, which show a strong overlap, would certainly enhance the learning potential of the ESL students in your classes. [Go to Dr Greenleaf's website.]

"The cognitive learning system can be overrun by the stress response system."
"No meaning, no memory. Period."
"Working together in small groups can integrate the 5 natural learning systems."
"The reflective learning system weighs past, present and future projections."
"It is important to start with what is going on in the barn. / Students need a context for the building of meaning."
Allow 3-5 seconds of uninterrupted silence after a prompt to allow students to consider/recall responses."
"The learning potential can be up to 50% higher if connected with visual input."
"Word acquisition is critical to comprehension."

At the foot of the page are references to some of the sources of the information in Dr. Greenleaf's workshop booklet and presentation.

The cognitive learning system can be overrun by the stress response system.


The following extract gives examples of some of the causes of stress for ESL students, and what teachers can do to alleviate it.
Source: http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/support/faq1.htm#25

Some ESL students at FIS suffer from physical, emotional or behavioural complaints that are caused by culture shock. The shock can be caused by difficulties in adjusting to Germany and German culture. It is more likely however to be the result of trying to cope with the demands of a very different school system from the one they have left behind. The effects of culture shock - or to be more precise, school shock - are described in some detail in my article to parents elsewhere on this site. My intention here is to make mainstream teachers aware of some of the teaching practices at FIS that may be unfamiliar and stressful to ESL students. Of course it is not suggested that colleagues change their teaching philosophy to avoid all possibility of discomfiting ESL students. But an awareness of the points below will often be sufficient to prevent teachers drawing the wrong conclusions about the behaviour and attitude of the ESL students in their classes. It can help to alleviate stress if ESL students feel that the teacher is knowledgeable about and sympathetic to their difficulties. Teachers can also help adjustment to the new culture by reinforcing the student's pride in his own culture. [More on this]

Possible sources of school shock

Of course not all ESL students come from education systems that follow the practices implied above, and most of those who do will not experience more than a temporary discomfort at the differences in our school. What is common to all ESL students, however, and what is probably the main cause of school shock, is the huge mental effort required to work for more than 8 hours a day learning new content in a foreign language. For this reason it is clear that students will benefit directly from any efforts by teachers to make the classroom language and homework tasks as comprehensible as possible. Ways to do this are described in the following articles:


No meaning. no memory. Period.


The following extract explores the problems for ESL students if their cultures and background knowledge are ignored in school.
Source: http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/support/faq1.htm#8

On a more general level, it is useful if the culture and history of the student can be incorporated into lessons. [More] It is important that students feel teachers respect their cultures as much as the dominant cultures of the school. (The ESL department has a very useful set of materials of the different countries of the world, called Culturegrams. There is also another set in the school library.)

Cummins (1996) has an excellent explanation of the importance of integrating ESL students' cultures and background experiences into your lessons, thereby validating their personalities and identities:

.. when students' language, culture and experience are ignored or excluded in classroom interactions, students are immediately starting from a disadvantage. Everything they have learned about life and the world up to this point is dismissed as irrelevant to school learning; there are few points of connection to curriculum materials or instruction and so the students are expected to learn in an experiential vacuum. Students' silence and non-participation under these conditions have frequently been interpreted as lack of academic ability or effort, and teachers' interactions with students have reflected a pattern of low expectations which have become self-fulfilling.

Cummins J (1996) Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society Ontario CA California Association for Bilingual Education

Two simple examples of including the non-native speaker's culture and previous educational experience:


Working together in small groups can integrate the 5 natural learning systems.


The following extract explores the special benefits for ESL students of working in cooperative groups.
Source: http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/support/faq1.htm#28

An excellent way of integrating ESL students into your class is via cooperative activities. Researchers have found that language learning takes place most effectively when learners are engaged in interesting tasks that allow plenty of meaningful interaction with sympathetic native speakers. However, it is not enough to just put the ESL student with 2 or 3 others and hope for the best. If this happens, there is a danger that the ESL student will take on a peripheral role - or have it forced on her. Therefore, it is most beneficial if the group activity is so structured that the outcome is dependent on the contributions of ALL the group members.

As an example, consider the topic of pollution. First each member of each group chooses or is allocated a sub-topic. Those having the same sub-topic, say river pollution, meet together to discuss and research that sub-topic. The students then return to their original groups where they report on what they learned in the sub-topic groups. Group members then discuss how to include this information in their final report or presentation.

Using this method, the contribution of each group member is critical to the final outcome. To provide extra support to ESL students, you could arrange it so that they are given an easier sub-topic or task, or that the sub-topic group they go to contains a same nationality peer.

In summary, it can be said that pair or group work is important for ESL students because it gives them the chance to express their ideas and opinions or ask questions (of the teacher or other group members) on a smaller stage than in front of the whole class. It also gives the teacher a much better chance to offer individual and unobtrusive help.

[There is more information on cooperative grouping in: Second Language Students in Mainstream Classrooms, Sears, C. (1998) Multilingual Matters. I have a copy of this book in my room if you would like to borrow it.]


The reflective learning system weighs past, present and future projections.


The following extract is a presentation slide from the ESL training workshop for mainstream teachers. It lists reviewing/previewing at the start and end of the lesson as one of the most important ways to help ESL students in the classroom.

Classroom practices conducive to ESL student learning



It is important to start with what is going on in the barn. / Students need a context for the building of meaning.


The following extract is a presentation slide from the ESL training workshop for mainstream teachers. It deals specifically with what teachers can do to help students understand difficult texts. The advice about activating existing knowledge is crucial; it is repeated in many other workshop presentation slides and throughout the pages of advice and information for mainstream teachers.
Source: http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/fis/workshop/w6_7-9.htm

What can teachers do to help ESL students understand what they read?


Allow 3-5 seconds of uninterrupted silence after a prompt to allow students to consider/recall responses.

“Consider pausing after student responses, to allow/encourage additional comment and second responses to support the first response, or to provide additional/other inputs (second wait time).” Greenleaf 2006.


This following extract is from a page of advice to teachers on how to help ESL students understand what they hear in the mainstream classroom.

Helping ESL students understand what you say

7. Increasing wait time will give students a chance to process what they have heard and formulate answers in their mind. It is particularly helpful to repeat or rephrase questions that are in complex syntax or require more than simple answers. If you invariably expect 2 students in the class to answer such questions before you give feedback, this will add to the amount of time available for the ESL student to formulate a response, even if that response is a mental one that he or she does not yet feel confident to express aloud.


The learning potential can be up to 50% higher if connected with visual input.


There are many pages on the ESL website where it is stressed how important visual input is in aiding ESL student comprehension of written and spoken language. The following extract is a presentation slide from the ESL workshop which provides a model of assessing task difficulty. Cognitively demanding, context-reduced tasks, which will be most difficult for ESL students, can be made more accessible through the use of visual material such as pictures, video, graphic organizers.
http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/fis/workshop/w3_4-8.htm  (Open this webpage for full functionality.)


Explanation: According to this model (first devised by Professor J. Cummins) classroom tasks can be categorized in two ways:
  • according to the cognitive demands they make on students
  • according to the degree of contextual help available to the students.

Most difficult for ESL students will be tasks that are both decontextualized and cognitively demanding. (Quadrant D)

Teachers of beginning ESL students should aim to increase the contextual help without reducing the cognitive quality of a task.

More on Cummins' model and its implications for teachers.



Word acquisition is critical to comprehension.


This extract is from a page giving information about English vocabulary and how teachers can assist ESL students learn it.
Source: http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/support/vocab.htm

What can mainstream teachers do to help ESL students learn essential vocabulary?



The first link below is to Dr. Greenleaf's own web page containing much of the information from the workshop booklet prepared for the FIS presentation. Dr. Greenleaf's page contains, inter alia, references to research into wait time, question techniques, learner generated questions.

Workshop summary page

The following links are to information on ASCD publications referred to in Dr. Greenleaf's booklet.

Teaching to the Brain's Natural Learning Systems. Given, B. ASCD 2002.
Classroom Instruction that Works. Marzano, Pickering & Pollock. ASCD 2001

This final link is to a source of information on long-term memory and recall:

Learning, Teaching and the Brain. Schenck, J. KNOWA, 2003.


Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)