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The First Fifteen Minutes
by Steve Schackne

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Example 3: Sometimes a pedestrian and insignificant fragment of your life can be a trigger for a communicative language event. I began a class during the winter doldrums one day, not really clear about what I wanted to do. I sat on a desk facing my students, and caught sight of my new athletic shoes, purchased just the day before.

Teacher: See my new shoes?

Students: [No response]

Teacher: How much do you think I paid for them?

Student A: What brand?

Teacher: Lotto

Student B: Where did you buy them?

Teacher Ho Lan Street

Student A: 360?
Teacher: 275

Student(s): No way

Teacher: I got them on sale

Student(s) Where?

Teacher: Sports Attic

Student(s): Where is that? (Ho Lan Street is a strip of many sporting goods stores)

Teacher: The big blue store right across from Watsons (several students started writing this down).

Student C: I prefer New Balance

Student D: Nike and Adidas are both better than New Balance

Student C: But New Balance has….

At this point the conversation morphed into a discussion about the relative merits of different brands of athletic shoes. An insignificant part of my life turned out to be something more significant to my students. Sneakers are a fashion statement here in Asia, along with blue jeans and mobile phones. The students know quite a lot about these things, and I had tapped into both their interest and knowledge by pointing out my new shoes.

At the end of this discussion, they were awake. The topic had engaged them, the discussion had stimulated them, I was more than halfway across the E-S-T continuum. I forget if we had a really successful class that day. Sometimes the “T” is hardest part, but without the “E” and “S” the “T” will always be less than ideal.


There are many reasons for students to arrive in class unprepared to learn. The class hours are assigned and often don’t fit their lifestyles; it is the students who have to adjust to the school’s schedule. Also, school is often associated with boredom and drudgery, at least in the traditional sense. It can be viewed as a process students have to muddle through in order to be rewarded at the end. The period starting at adolescence and ending at young adulthood is marked by major change—friendships are being formed, demands are being made both by families and the community. Their bodies are changing, along with their emotions and view of the world; normal biological impulses are bubbling inside vying for their attention. It’s not surprising that conventional classroom instruction is often an uninteresting routine for them.

Textbooks have tried to address the issue; they have become more visually arresting; they have tried to adopt topics that are more interesting and relevant for today’s learners. Many of these texts have preparatory modules corresponding to my “first 15 minutes,”
but their approach is often structured and unnatural. Typical texts use warm-up questions to predict the topic of the chapter. A picture is used as a prompt and then questions are discussed in pairs or small groups. Sample: What does the picture show? What do you think the person in the picture is thinking? Is she angry? Surprised? Happy? What do you think the title of the unit means? What do you think this unit will be about? These are legitimate questions that will stimulate prediction, but they are questions presented to students without their input. Are they genuinely interested in the topic? Will the picture and the questions be enough to trigger engagement and stimulation?

The function of language is finite. We use it to persuade, to educate, to inform, to amuse and entertain. If there is no communicative purpose, discourse often won’t take place. By purpose, I mean language students have to have an underlying desire to communicate, whether it be to make you laugh, to persuade you to give them a “B” not a “C” or to inform you that they will be absent on a particular day.

Granted, getting students interested at the beginning of class can often be a hit or miss proposition, but using the real world and understanding their role in it, their interests, their hopes and fears, and what specialized knowledge (want to know about cell phones, ask a teenager) they bring into the classroom, is more often a superior springboard to real communication than even the best textbook. And engaging them at the beginning can mean the difference between success and failure in the classroom.

Further Reading

Schackne, S. "Language Teaching Research-In the Literature, but not Always in the Classroom" Journal of Language and Linguistics 1/2 2002.

Schackne, Steve. “The Common Sense Approach: How One Teacher Organized A Speaking Course For 200 Chinese Graduate Students,” in DevelopingTeachers.Com, 2005.

Terrell, T. “A Natural Approach.” Innovative Approaches to Language Teaching, ed. R.W. Blair, Rowley, Mass: Newbury House

The Mickey Mouse Club” Wikipedia


Steve Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics. In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher training, program administration, and online-distance learning. He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York, and has taken post graduate language training at Taipei Language Institute and the University of Macau.
His postings have included Taipei Language Institute, Tunghai University (Taiwan), Kansas University, Culver Educational Foundation, University of California--Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State University, University of Macau, Ming Chuan University (Taiwan), and Fooyin Institute of Technology (Taiwan). He has lectured and published all over the world, but is now best known for his educational resource web site, Schackne Online.

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