How can we revitalise ELT?

‘Wait – I could use that!’: A few days before the US elections, researcher A. Greenwald went around asking people whether they intended to vote and why. Naturally, most replied that they would. But here is the thing: it later transpired that the people asked were much more likely to vote than another, control group (Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007 – p. 63). Why? Because simply stating your intention creates a public commitment and this generates a small, subconscious pressure that pushes you towards being consistent. OK – let’s pause here: could we not do the same idea with our students? Ask them whether they intended to do their homework perhaps (and why)? Indeed, we could. Is this an idea we could use? Yes. Does it have to do with ELT? No. Read on…

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Has this ever happened to you? You read books, you attend conferences, you watch webinars and it is all great – initially. Beyond a certain point however, you find yourself thinking ‘Yes, I know that’ or ‘Hmmm – that’s X in other words’ – if you are an old hand, you may even find you can predict what people are going to say before they do so! Why? The answer is ‘The Law of Diminishing Returns’. It’s a little like picking figs from a fig-tree. In the beginning it’s all very easy and your basket keeps filling up, but once you have picked the low-hanging fruit, you have to work much harder for much smaller returns. So here is an idea: why not move to another tree? The Moral: To rekindle your interest in teaching, try going beyond ELT.

For the past ten years or so, I have been exploring the vibrant field of Applied Psychology and I have come to realise that there are all kinds of insights from such domains as Advertising, Management, Custumer Service or even Design which can be really useful to us as teachers. In what follows I am going to share with you three ideas pinched from the food-and-drink industry. In each case I will be suggesting one or two ways in which we can make use of these discoveries in our classes.

The loveliest word

 What is the best word out there? A word which captures everything that really matters? I will tell you. It’s ‘Kate’ – if your name happens to be Kate, that is; or ‘Anne’ if this is what people call you. The loveliest word in English is your name. Advertisers know that of course. In Australia, Coca-Cola wanted to reconnect with the younger generation. How did they do that? Piece of cake: they printed some of the most popular names on Coke bottles! Imagine going to the supermarket and finding a Coke with your name on it. Wouldn’t that attract your attention? And why not get one for your boyfriend with his name on it? But what if you couldn’t find it? No problems: there were special kiosks where you could have a friend’s unusual name printed out on the bottle. Naturally, sales soared… (Ferrier 2014 – p. 110) Watch this amazing clip:

Make a note of the idea: we are the centre of our world. Our first name attracts our attention and creates positive associations.

So how can we use this? 

Use your students’ first names. At every opportunity. I used to try to create a closer bond with my students by addressing them as ‘mate’ or ‘chief’. Not anymore. ‘But’ you might say ‘I already use my students’ first names – all the time’. Do you? Let us have a look at that essay you marked a moment ago…

Don’t tell – sell!

This one completely blew my mind (Wansink et al. 2005). Imagine a buffet restaurant like the ones you find in all good hotels. Next to each of the metal containers, there is a label with a description of the food: ‘Grilled Chicken’ or ‘Cod Fillet’ or ‘Vegetable Soup’. What do you think would happen if someone were to replace these labels with more descriptive ones such as ‘Tender Grilled Chicken’ or ‘Succulent Cod Fillet’ or ‘Creamy Vegetable Soup?’ That’s right: all of a sudden, these dishes became much more desirable and consumption increased dramatically. Clearly, the fancy adjectives worked wonders. But here is the interesting thing: not only did these descriptions increase demand, people gave the food much higher ratings too! Watch this clip:

So this is the big discovery here: expectations colour perceptions. Forget ‘What you see is what you get’; research suggests that ‘What you get is what you expect’!

So how can we use this?  

Well, think about how you introduce the material you give your students. Do you say ‘Now we are going to read an article…’ or ‘OK – you’ll never believe what this article says…’. And what about activities? Is it ‘Now we are going to do an activity to practice X…’ or ‘Right – this is my favourite activity ever…’? Now look at how I introduced this section. The moral: sell your stuff to students.

Engagement – (capital E)

This last story comes from Germany (Ferrier 2014 – p. 108). The McDonald’s people had a problem: they had to advertise, but their budget was limited. What could they do? Then one of them had a brainwave: why not get the customers to do the work? So they organised a competition. They set up a site where people could go and make their own virtual burgers. All the ingredients were there, and they could combine them in any way they wanted to create something visually impressive. Now here is the clever bit: having done so, the people themselves would then promote their creation in the media! And everyone would get to vote for their favourite option. Not only would the winning burger be included in the McDonald’s menu, there would be prizes too. Well, wouldn’t you get your friends involved? Wouldn’t you get them to vote for your masterpiece? Watch this clip:

Needless to say, the idea was hugely successful. The secret here was ownership: whatever we create, feels exceptional – regardless of how good it actually is.

So how can we use this?  

Well, think about the activities we use in class. Most of them are language manipulation tasks, right? But what if we were to ask our students to create something – a story, or a poster or a sketch? And what if there was a safe site where they could upload their work and where others could vote for their favourite? Just an idea…

It only takes a nudge 

OK – what about this one? The students of a secondary class in the UK were due to take a math test the following week. The parents of half of these students – the parents, mind you, not the kids! – received the message in the picture a few days before the test. That was all. The results? The students whose parents got the message did substantially better than the others. Not only that; the idea was popular with both parents and students! (Service & Gallagher 2017 – p. 115) Apparently, sometimes all we need is the right reminder at the right time. The sender doesn’t even have to be the teacher! Imagine the possibilities here: ‘Improve your school results – get a good secretary!’ I rest my case… 😊  


  • Ferrier, A. (2014) The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press
  • Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. (2007) Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion. London: Profile Books
  • Service, O. & Gallagher, R. (2017) Think Small. London: Michael O’Mara Books
  • Wansink, B. van Ittersum, K., Painter, J., , How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants. (2005). Food Quality and Preference, 16 (5) 393-400
Nick Michelioudakis
Nick Michelioudakis

Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has worked for a number of publishers and examination boards and he has given seminars and workshops in many countries.  He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines. Nick has just designed a short course on Psychology and Language Teaching, which you can find out more about here