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In my previous post (A quick challenge for TEFLers: Pick your Potion!

), I did a small experiment


with two different lesson plan approaches to the same essential content and broad teaching
objective, to see which teachers preferred to use and why. A very interesting discussion ensued, and
it is worth glancing over that post before exploring this one.
Plenty of readers will quickly recognise the gentleman in the picture at the start of this post,
as Jeremy Harmer rarely needs an introduction to anyone interested in professional development in
ELT. The reason I've chosen that picture in particular is because it is rather representative of my first
encounter with Jeremy, through the lens of his The Practice of English Language Teaching (or
PELT, as it is often affectionately called). It was early in the year 2000, and I'd finally managed to find
some ELT books to help me with not only my own development as a teacher, but a whole team of
inexperienced teachers I'd suddenly been handed responsibility for.
At the time, I was very much a "PPP guy" - thanks mainly to my 90s TEFL certification, but also
because Presentation, Practice, Production seemed to work so well and was a handy basic
methodology to present to other new teachers. A section in Harmer's PELT explained the pros and
cons of PPP, and then gave a quick overview of Harmer's own model called ESA. "ESA" stands
for Engage, Study, Activate. A fuller explanation with more detailed example applications was soon
found in Harmer's more general introduction to ELT: How to Teach English.
My reaction to ESA was rather similar to the image you can see above. It was almost as if I saw
Jeremy raising a hand and saying, "Hey, there's more than one way this can work, and it's really up
to you to decide which one will fit, and when and why." Aside from the realisation that "presentation"
and "engagement" were different in some important ways, the main revelation was the idea that the
three elements of ESA could be slotted together in different ways to create different styles of lessons.
According to Harmer, you could follow a "PPPish" or (as Jeremy calls it) "straight arrows" approach,
and ENGAGE the learners, do some STUDY to build and practice language, and then ACTIVATE
that language through free/open conversation and writing applications (essentially "ESA" in that order
of elements). You could also try a more "deep end" (or Jeremy's name for it: "boomerang") approach
and activate language earlier in the sequence, followed by some targeted study/practice feeding from
that output, with a later option of reapplying that earlier activation or moving on to a new activation
task (creating an EAS(A) model). And then there was "patchwork ESA" which entailed slotting E, S,
and A in all sorts of combinations that could be quite extensive and elaborate.
This idea of a range of options and combinations for lesson elements has been quite possibly the
most significant inspiration in my approach to English language teaching, right up to this day. Beyond
encouraging me to start experimenting, it gave me an initial peek at an exciting array of different
learning processes and outcomes. This whetting of an eclectic teaching appetite also gave me a rich
diet of exciting things to chew on, many of which eventually came out in my own coursebook
series, and - well - I'm still chewing! (Aside: I did eventually get to pass on these sentiments to
Jeremy in person over a table in a pub one evening, which was a great honour, marred only by the
sort of over-enthusiasm that makes you act like a bit of a hopeless git when you meet one of your
heroes face to face for the first time!).
Anyway, to illustrate some of the interesting differences between the basic ESA and EASA
models, my previous post was set up to see which of the two teachers would opt for and why. For

me personally, the EASA model (represented by Lesson Sequence A in the examples in that
previous post) has become a sort of "default" teaching approach (with the exception of beginner-level
classes, for which I think the basic ESA is by far the most appropriate), and in all the schools I've
worked and trained in I've striven to showcase this approach to teachers as a new teaching model to
explore. It has always fascinated me how the majority of teachers either quickly defer back to an ESA
approach, or never actually move on or away from it. Is it because ESA is actually more effective for
the majority of learners and teachers? Or could there be something else at work here?
I should perhaps briefly highlight here what I believe to be some fundamental differences between
the two models:
ESA = build/prepare language before asking students to use it in their own communication
EASA = experiment/use own language resources first, then learn how to build on and improve that,
and then reapply with either the same or a relatively similar activity.
If I can be forgiven for somewhat over-generalising: ESA is rather controlled and assumes students
need to build and practice before communicating; EASA is somewhat discovery and task-based,
assumes students can (and should) use existing language to communicate before doing any specific
building or practice (without assuming anything too specific about what they already know), and is
reflective where ESA is predicative.
The comments from teachers in that previous post were really interesting in all sorts of ways. Most
preferred the EASA model, but some commented that they would still go with the ESA version,
basically because this would be more appropriate for their learners or particular learning
context. Almost everyone also agreed that ESA is the preferred model and sequence when it comes
to commercially published learning materials. Publishers are an excellent litmus test in terms of
identifying what a majority of teachers tend to prefer (their goal, after all, is to sell to teachers the
materials they feel most comfortable with using), and I don't think it would be going too far to say
that, on the whole, worldwide, English language teachers are much more inclined towards ESA than
any other model.
So the question is: why? Is ESA actually more effective and appropriate (than an EASA model) in the
majority of English teaching situations? Not an easy question to answer in a single blog post, but
here goes my theory.

ESA is a preferred model over EASA because, essentially, learners are deeply afraid of
failure. Beyond and before that, it is teachers themselves who fear failure most of all.

For the learners, it is only natural that they fear making mistakes, and they fear not knowing what to
say possibly even more. Especially when it comes to communication in social or classroom settings,
nobody likes to sound or look like "a fool." If language learning in a classroom becomes an endless
sequence of mistakes and confusion, there will (of course?) be a likely drop in motivation and
enthusiasm. Learners are likely to feel more comfortable and confident if they feel that have been

given adequate chances to build up their language in small, manageable layers, ironing out mistakes
as they go, well before they are called on to use it in wider communicative situations. If a teacher
calls on them to start opening doors without having given them clearly identified keys for doing so, it
may feel unfair or just not feasible. There is a risk that some or even many students may just give up,
or refuse to try in the face of such an unjust approach to learning. In some contexts, where
the objective of learning English appears to be more about passing an important test than anything
else, ESA may actually feel like the only appropriate way to go about this whole language learning
dilemma (or perhaps just straight up ESS or SSS may seem even more appropriate).
These learners' teachers are often acutely conscious of this fear of failure, and in sharing it, try
to accomodate their learners' fears. Making students feel capable and confident is of utmost priority
to them, and an ESA approach - while not guaranteeing success in all instances when it comes time
to "activate" - at least demonstrates a "fair" sequence that gives learners appropriate models and
practice before they are called on to actively use the language.
But teachers also fear failure in their own teaching approaches and outcomes and how this is
perceived by the learners, parents, school administration, and beyond. They fear classes of students
who make lots of mistakes or refuse to speak because they haven't been given adequate
preparation. This (they feel) will be a very poor reflection on them and their relative teaching ability
and effectiveness. The only way to avoid this (many teachers feel) is to stick to a controlled and
incremental approach to teaching language, with carefully prepared and guided stages before
anyone is asked to do anything on their own. There is also a large number of teachers who
fear (often, but not always, for good reason) that they don't actually know enough to teach without
meticulous pre-planning and a very controlled lesson sequences.
Generally, ESA could be seen as "fair" to all concerned, given that it maintains confidence and
motivation, and is a good way of showing all those external (but important) players that everyone
(learners and teacher) are getting on with their jobs to the best of their ability.
If that is all true and relevant, why do I personally prefer EASA as a default model in language
learning classrooms? Why and how have I managed to use it to create very motivated and confident
learners in my own classrooms (mainly in a super conservative East Asian teaching context where
learners are often severely self-conscious and petrified at the very thought of any failure of the
smallest kind, and institutes insist on very clear incremental lesson styles that avoid the very notion
of failure indicated above)?
Before you assume this is a prelude to some sort of trumpet-blowing exercise in demonstrating what
a talented and miraculous teacher I (appear to think) I am, let me just assure you this has nothing to
do with length of teaching experience or some sort of messiah-like teaching attributes. For me
personally, the importance of using EAS(A) more than ESA came about first through the
establishment of some new principles in my personal teaching philosophy, and then became
reinforced and highly effective through constant experimentation and reflection.
The most fundamental principle I established for myself (in terms of running with EAS(A)) was:
Fear of failure is natural and warranted, but in a long-term rather than short-term sense.

Rather than worrying about whether students would master and feel comfortable with (every stage
of) every lesson, I worried more about their eventual ability and confidence to use English in natural,
unscripted, non-prepared-for situations. Going through passport control on their first trip abroad,
there would be no "engage, study, and activate" - it would be pretty much all "activate". In a
conversation or business negotiation, again: it's "activate, activate" the whole way. By using a
teaching approach that had activation early on, I was preparing students for a reality where this
would happen, and they would need to be able to rely on the language they already had at their
disposal (and in the case of communication breakdowns, a ready set of strategies to fall back on to
handle the situation - both linguistically and emotionally). Sticking to an ESA approach, I would be
conditioning students to believe they needed somebody to engage them in a task and help them
practice it in manageable chunks before they could use it on their own - a situation that just doesn't
happen with language use "out there" in the real world.

From there, a variety of other principles helped the cause, and there were a variety of sacrifices (if
that is the most appropriate word) that needed to be made as well. These included things like:
- Some initial lessons bombed spectacularly, and I had to be willing to not take it too personally or
worry that I might not look "good at my job"
- I wasn't always the most "popular" teacher on staff, and sometimes at the start of courses I was
labelled as "too hard" by some students (on account of my tendency to ask students to try and use
language before I would teach them something about it)
- I had some "differences of opinion" with other teachers and academic management
- I had to find new ways to work around the approaches in our pre-set coursebooks, which were
almost always ESA (at best) and PPP (at worst)
- I had to avoid the local stereotyping of students in my context as being "boring" and unwilling to try
new approaches and take risks with language
- I had to brush up on my ability to "teach on the spot" in response to student production that hadn't
been strictly predicted, requiring a better awareness of grammar and vocabulary
- I had to avoid the temptation to make things easy just to avoid initial misunderstanding or a drop in
motivation and confidence (a suprisingly strong temptation in most teachers)
- I had to work more on my ability to forge open, trusting, and "fearless" atmospheres in my
classrooms, which in turn required some different thinking about authority and role as a teacher
- I had to be really REALLY bloody patient

Despite all the difficulties, the results for me (and my probably highly biased retrospective
impressions of it all) were really amazing. And once I got on a roll with it, I found less of that "fear of

failure" in myself as a teacher when using a model like EASA. That confidence and belief began to
show, and learners began to see it earlier and earlier in new classes. I honestly feel that their fear of
initial failure began to decrease as well - at least to the point where it wouldn't always swamp a
willingness to "take a shot at it" before getting specific help and practice with language.
Once you get to that point, where the fear of failure and "not knowing" is exceeded by a willingness
to try, you can take your learners to a lot of pretty exciting places in your classroom, and within
themselves.

I'm willing to concede that not all teachers will see ESA and EASA in the same way I do, and that
many will either never try the "deep end" style embodied in EASA or never allow themselves to
believe it could possibly work effectively in their own particular context. My personal opinion is that
such teachers are often taking the shorter route that leads to a less fulfilling destination, and
potentially caters to short-term fears more than long-term aspirations. But that's the great thing about
opinions: like noses, everyone has one, and they smell differently.
If, however, you do find it is your "thing" or something you'd like to explore, leave a comment here
about it and/or consider dropping by the blog again later when my last post in this little series
explores the notion of potentially "having your cake and eating it" (because I do think Harmer's ESA
is that sort of cooperatively consumable cake!) - namely through published materials that facilitate
both ESA and EASA from the same page(s), at a teacher's discretion.