The First Fifteen Minutes by Steve Schackne

The Problem

Scheduling is an important part of pre-semester work at most schools. Teachers, of course, like favorable hours, not too early and not too late. And never, if it can be avoided, a split shift. Few teachers want a nine o’clock followed by a three o’clock.

In the rush for favorable time slots and course assignments, the plight of students is often overlooked. Almost every scheduled class time carries possible disadvantages for students. Early in the morning and they are often not fully awake—active social lives and onerous homework burdens often contribute to sleep deprivation. A class before the lunch hour and student minds may wander to the meal break approaching. The class just after lunch may find students logy and a bit sleepy as the blood courses from brain to stomach to digest their recent meal. A class late in the afternoon, like the early morning class, carries the risk of fatigue, as students have already put in several hours at school and are looking forward to the bell. These problems can be compounded in younger students—high school and junior high—who often have shorter attention spans than university students.

The First Fifteen Minutes

I feel the first fifteen minutes of any class is crucial. Classes need to be both useful and interesting, but you can’t deliver quality unless students are actively engaged at the very beginning.

Authentic language is most often spontaneous and unpredictable; much of the Natural Approach is predicated on this. The first fifteen minutes of my classes are often unplanned—it could revolve around a linguistic irony that intrigues me and that begs student input; it could be a cultural phenomenon that is of interest to my students; it could also be a piece of my life that I want to share with my students.

Example 1: The names of colors in both Chinese and English often double as family names. This jumped into my head one day on the way to work at my Chinese university.
I asked the students to look at a long list of colors on the board, and decide which were common last names in English. This was reversed to look at colors in Chinese, citing comparisons and contrasts—Brown can serve as a family name in English, but not in Chinese, while the character for yellow is a common surname in Chinese, but not in English. White can serve as a family name in both languages. This simple, some would say pointless, cross-language exercise was spontaneously presented to my students one morning to solicit their input. It aroused the curiosity of both students and teacher, and satisfying that curiosity generated fifteen minutes of “real” language exchange.

Example 2: The Walt Disney brand has long exercised an intense interest for Asians.
And none of the Disney characters is more iconic than Mickey Mouse. He adorns tee shirts, coffee cups, automobile dashboards, you name it. Exactly how this obsession developed is unclear, but an example of its depth was seen in the opening of the Hong Kong Disneyland a few years ago. For weeks before the opening, the local press ran stories on almost every aspect of this theme park from size, layout, and cost to employment qualifications and labor relations. The coverage all but pushed the major global issues of the day off the front pages.

On a whim a friend sent me a You Tube clip featuring the old Mickey Mouse Club television series. The Mickey Mouse Club was a 1950s tv show which featured music, skits, and chat all designed to tie in and promote the Disney brand. The cast consisted of a dozen or so young attractive “mousketeers” who danced, sang, and acted on the show every week.

I showed my students a couple of the program introductions which featured music and dancing combined with Disney animation, ending with the Mousketeer Roll Call, in which the regular performers would introduce themselves by name to the television audience. The students were fascinated; it was the first time they had seen American generated Disney memorabilia, and it prompted a lively far-ranging discussion on the show and its cast members. When did the show air? How were the cast members chosen? What careers did the kids pursue as adults? As with example 1, this presentation, on the surface, could be viewed as a pointless distraction or, if addressed at the end of class, as filler material. But the Mickey Mouse Club generated authentic language; because of Disney’s cultural adoption in Asia; it created multiple information gaps which required real communication to fill. In short, it created what I call an E-S-T progression. It engaged the students because of the cultural foothold Disney has established in Asia. It stimulated them in that their familiarity and interest in the subject created information gaps that needed to be filled—they wanted to find out information they didn’t have. If students are engaged and stimulated, they are psychologically and motivationally ready to have me teach.

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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