The role of NLP in teachers' classroom discourse

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  • The role of NLP in teachersclassroom discourse

    Radislav Millrood

    Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is an approach to language teachingwhich is claimed to help achieve excellence in learner performance. Yet there islittle evidence of the impact that NLP techniques in teachers discourse canhave on learners. The article draws on workshops with teachers whereclassroom simulations were used to raise teachers awareness of the role thatNLP can play in teachers verbal interaction with their students. Theworkshops enhanced teachers awareness of the fact that by creating or ruiningteacherlearner congruence their classroom discourse can lead learners tosuccess or failure.

    Recent interest in Neuro-linguistic programming or NLP (Hardingham 1998) has been NLP seen recently as one of the resources to enhance e=ectiveness of

    language instruction. It has been well established in the framework ofhumanistic psychology since 1971. NLP claims to help achieve excellenceof performance in language teaching and learning, improve classroomcommunication, optimize learner attitudes and motivation, raise self-esteem, facilitate personal growth in students, and even change theirattitude to life (Thornbury 2001: 394).

    The task of introducing NLP to teachers is a complex one, because neuro-linguistic programming is often associated in published literature withexploring individual di=erences and styles in learners, acceleration oflearning, training of sensory systems, emotional memory, multipleintelligence, brain-based activities, hypnotic induction, counselling, etc.(see e.g. Fletcher 2000). NLP is presented as a very broad areacomprising various means to make learning more e=ective, involving,and learner-friendly (see tasks in Revell and Norman 1999). However,NLP in connection with classroom discourse still remains understudied.

    Workshops aims, Three workshops to enhance teachers awareness of NLP in their organization, and classroom discourse were organized in the city of Tambov (Russia). The participants workshops were held as brainstorming, simulation, and analysis


    The participants in the workshop were 16 experienced teachers ofEnglish, none of whom had less than 5 years of teaching in secondaryschools. All were satis>ed with their profession, enjoyed their work, and

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  • were regarded by authorities and colleagues as e=ective teachers ofEnglish.

    Workshop 1 NLP in teachers discourse was de>ned for the participants in the De>nition of NLP workshop as intervening with teacher-learner congruence by addressing

    learners cognitive-emotional domain (neuro component) throughverbal interaction with the learner (linguistic component).

    Teacher-learner congruence was presented as a perfect harmony betweenteachers and learners intentions, actions, attitudes, and motives in theirclassroom interaction. The teachers recalled situations from their ownexperience when there was no need to use modal operators such as youhave to, you should, you must, you ought to, you should have, andother means of verbal intrusion. Instead, classroom proceduresdeveloped naturally and smoothly with teacher and learners being on thesame wavelength (Andreas 2000: 17). In such situations learners wereperceived by teachers as proper students, while learners put trust in thetrue teacher, and regarded every moment of lesson procedures as theright teaching.

    The participants in the workshop admitted that teacherlearnercongruence produced a therapeutic e=ect of improved learner self-esteem, better involvement in classroom procedures, greater motivation,the lowering of learners individual defences, and an increasingsensitivity to knowledge (Thornbury 2001; OConnor and Seymour1993).

    The participants in the workshop were o=ered a zone of congruence (C-zone) metaphor, showing how skilful teachers can create stretches ofe=ective teacherlearner interactions during a lesson. The teachersagreed that C-zones in teacher-learner exchanges created optimalconditions for a productive classroom interaction.

    The teachers re?ected on their own classroom situations when they wereable to transform learner resistance zone (R-zone), i.e. inability orunwillingness to co-operate in a zone of congruence (C-zone). Figure 1below is one of the classroom video episodes prepared for the workshopwith teachers comments.

    The teachers came to their initial assumption that teacherlearnerinteraction could have an impact on learners performance (Thornbury2001: 393), and that this impact could become most positive in the C-zone. This assumption was illustrated by a popular NLP tenet that thereis no failure in learners, only in the teachers intervention.

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  • figure 1

    Workshop 2 The next step in raising teachers awareness of NLP in classroom NLP techniques discourse was to introduce the techniques of neuro-linguistic

    programming. Most researchers agree on the inventory of NLPtechniques (Garratt 1997; Hardingham 1998; OConnor and Seymour1993, etc.). These techniques were adapted for the workshop in thefollowing way: Establishing a rapport between the teacher and learner/s (building an

    interpersonal contact with the learner through support, interaction,and empathy).

    Modelling the learner (o=ering strategies for the learners to achievebetter results).

    Creating a learner >lter (monitoring correct/incorrect knowledge orbehaviour).

    Pacing with the learner (achieving harmony of teaching and learningin rate, style, and production).

    Leading the learner (introducing a cognitive challenge for the learner). Elicitation with learner (guiding the learner to an output). Calibration of the learner (recognizing individual di=erences in

    learners). Re-framing the approach (stopping unproductive teaching strategies,

    and providing better alternatives so as to improve learningopportunities).

    Collapsing an anchor (reinforcing learner achievement byemphasizing success).

    Analysing NLP techniques, the teachers suggested that theirimplementation or misuse could lead to success or failure in learners.

    Classroom episode Congruence Comments

    T: So, you have listened tothe text and who can nowtell me why this story isfunny.

    L: (silence)T: Is this story funny?L: . . . erT: Did the tourists know

    Spanish?L: No . . . EnglishT: How did they

    communicate?L: . . .with pictures.T: Yes, they drew a picture

    and wanted to say thatthey were . . .

    L: they were hungryT: Thats right. They were

    hungry and wanted to getsome food . . . etc.



    The teacher tried to organisea follow-up to a listeningactivity but the learner wassilent.

    The opinion question didnot produce any response

    The fact questions workedbetter.

    Further questions created abetter way to enter theC-zone with the learner, e.g.the learner took up theteachers idea by continuingthe sentence and the teacherdeveloped the learnerscontribution.

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  • For example, establishing a rapport could presumably be conducive tocreating a comfortable and supportive atmosphere during a lesson.Conversely, in certain situations, neglecting or denying a rapport couldbe an adverse factor that might impede learner achievement. Similarly,pacing with the learner could be part of the sca=olding system, created bythe teacher to bring students closer to success. Failing to keep pace with alearner could have a ruinous e=ect, especially on students with a lowcapacity for adapting.

    Verbalizing NLP In an attempt to integrate NLP and teacher discourse the participants in techniques the workshop were asked to think about what phrases they might use in

    order to implement NLP techniques in their discourse. The exerciseproduced the following results (Table 1):

    NLP techniques Teachers phrases suggested during the workshop

    Rapport Oh, great! Thats a very good idea! Now, there will be asurprise for you!

    Modelling Will you take notes? Follow the text closely. Why dont youwrite your sentences? First read and only then say.

    Filter Here are the words for you. These phrases will benecessary. The rule is You need more logic.

    Pacing Am I speaking too fast? Take your time. Do you follow me?Are you clear on what I am saying?

    Leading Could you say it clearer for all? I would like to elaborate onthis point. Why dont you make the story longer?

    Elicitation What if the question is put di=erently? Compare the twopictures. What do you know about . . . ?

    Calibration Reading is your forte. Why dont you sit nearer for betterhearing? You can do the rest after the other classes.

    Re-framing OK . . . Let me put it di=erently. I will read it slower thistime. Id better write the words on the board for you

    Anchoring This idea is particularly useful. I very much like your choiceof expressive words. These examples are really great.

    table 1

    Classroom In addressing teacher classroom discourse, the focus was put on the discourse and initiate and follow-up turns in the initiate-respond-follow-up teacher-learner framework (I-R-F), in which a teacher initiates an exchange, a learner congruence responds, and a teacher follows up with more verbal intervention

    (Sinclair and Coulthard 1975). The teachers admitted that congruencewith learners depended heavily on the form of initiation by askingquestions, introducing a task, explaining the material, describing asituation, etc. The teachers response to learners answers in the form ofcontrolling, helping, challenging, and evaluating, was also a veryimportant factor in achieving teacherlearner congruence.

    According to the teachers experience, building teacherlearnercongruence in the form of a smooth, uninterrupted, and productiveinteraction was possible in a collaborative classroom activity (van Lier

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  • 1984), where teacherlearner relationship was viewed by teachers as amore complex role pattern than teacherquestioner/assessor andlearnerresponder (Lynch 1991). Teachers discourse was understood asbeing deeply integrated in learners verbal behaviour, increasing the roleit could play in leading learners to either success or failure.

    Some teachers knew ways of making discourse more e=ective, includingthe use of questions referring to learners real life, thereby exercisingempathy with the learner, activating heuristics, giving a feedback onmessage rather than on accuracy, negotiating meaning with learners,talking naturally, maintaining classroom rapport and interactive groupwork (Kumaravadivelu 1993; Cullen 1998; Reilly 2001). The next stepwas to raise teachers awareness of NLP techniques in achievingteacherlearner congruence, and programming success or failure inlearners.

    Classroom The participants in the workshop were asked to simulate a classroom discourse situation with a learner who demonstrated certain problems in ful>lling simulation a task. The participants then tried to recognize NLP techniques in the

    stretch of teacher discourse (Table 2):

    Teacher discourse NLP techniques

    a So, what do you do in the morning? a Elicitation from the learnerb OK, Ill put it di=erently. b Re-framing teaching strategyc Lets take a look at this picture. c Leading the learnerd This is a family and each family d Creating a learner >lter

    member is doing something . . .eating breakfast, shaving, still lyingin bed, etc.

    e Could you say what each person isdoing at the moment? . . . e Eliciting from the learnertable 2

    In this exercise the teachers increased their awareness that the teachersverbal turns were at the same time NLP techniques with some de>nite,though not always recognized, functions.

    Workshop 3 By way of simulation the participants acted out teacherlearner Programming interactions, in which some problems occurred. Later, the teacher and success and failure the learner commented on their work (Table 3):in learners

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  • Teacherlearner interactions Teacherlearner comments

    T: The guy does it every morning. T: I start teaching and already feel He does it. So, hows Present Simple tired of explaining every single formed? bit.

    L: With the verb . . . L: I can say what I remember . . .T: . . .Yes, what else? . . . What verb? . . . T: I hate dragging ideas out of them.L: The verb . . . and no to . . . L: I know something but am not

    sure.T: Yes, now give me the example . . . T: Asking for examples is a relief.L: (silent) L: I am not sure what Present

    Simple is.T: What do you usually do at weekends? T: I know its useless to ask this

    question.L: to sleep L: I simply say what I can.T: . . .You usually do what? . . . T: At last he has got an idea.L: I to sleep late . . L: I say what and how I can express

    it.T: Yes, mind the verb . . . T: I still have to put him right.table 3

    The exchange illustrated that there was little teacherlearner congruencein the episode. The teacher, feeling tired and frustrated, wanted toincorporate the learner in the dialogue, and to enhance communicationby picking up ideas, commenting, and responding, but felt obliged toevaluate learner output, and to improve it grammatically by accepting orrejecting the contribution against certain criteria (Cullen 2002).

    Simulating success The participants in the workshop were asked to simulate and contrast a and failure typical exchange between a teacher and a successful/unsuccessful

    learner in performing a communicative task, e.g. eliciting from apicture. Among others, the following phrases were recorded in theexchange with successful learners: Why do you think so?, Give yourreasons, What would you do, if you were . . . , What is your choice?,Thats interesting, Thats a great idea, I am wondering whether youare right on this . . . , I have never heard of it before, OK, keep talking!,Its a very good guess!, etc.

    Exchanges with unsuccessful learners mostly contained phrases such asAnswer my question . . . , What have you understood from this text?,What new words do you remember on this topic?, Could you repeatafter me?, Say it in a complete sentence, Do you understand myquestion?, Mind your grammar, Use Present Simple, Say it again, Isthis correct?, What do you see after the verb?, Speak slower, Readevery word, etc.

    NLP techniques in The analysis showed that in simulating their discourse with successful teachers learners the teachers were mostly using NLP techniques such as pacing simulations with the learner (e.g. What you are saying is interesting indeed, I

    myself have never heard of it before, etc.). Another frequent techniquewas leading the learner with challenging questions (e.g. Why do youthink so? What would you do if . . . ? etc.). The number of leadinginterventions was slightly over the number of pacing turns. Yet anothertechnique used by the teachers with successful learners was anchoring

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  • success by saying, Your answer has been very good, I will show youressay to other teachers, etc.

    The overall quantity of reactions produced in simulating discourse withunsuccessful learners was somewhat bigger, because the teachers feltthat these learners needed more intervention. The most frequenttechnique was eliciting learner output (e.g. What do you see in thepicture?, What have you read in the text about . . . ?, Could you repeatafter me? etc.). Another technique was >ltering correct and incorrectlanguage (e.g. Mind your grammar, Say it again, Is this correct?, Usethe article, etc.). Yet another technique was modelling the learner byadvising on learning strategies, such as Read every word attentively,>rst make up the sentence in your mind, and only then say it., etc.Teachers remarks did not consider individual styles, but simply called formore attention and organization in learners.

    NLP techniques of leading and pacing with the learner, as well asanchoring learner success, made up the enabling area of classroomdiscourse that promoted self-actualization and development insuccessful learners. The techniques of eliciting with the learner and>ltering correct from incorrect output, as well as modelling learnerstrategies (without considering individual styles) constituted thecontrolling area of classroom discourse with NLP techniques applied toless successful students.

    The idea developed by the participants in the workshop was thatcommunication with successful learners was mostly done in theenabling area. Verbal interaction with unsuccessful learners usuallyentered the controlling area of NLP techniques in teachers classroomdiscourse. At this stage it was important to >nd the means needed inorder to move teachers verbal interaction with less successful learnersinto the enabling area.

    Enabling the The participants in the workshop were given the role-cards for teachers learners to act out verbal interaction with their learners. The teachers were

    instructed to practise a grammar structure, elicit from a picture, checktext comprehension, discuss an issue, brainstorm an idea, etc. Thelearners were given roles according to which they experienced adi;culty, such as lacking vocabulary, missing a point in a grammarrule, thinking holistically and overlooking details, having poorimagination, being re?ective and needing more time, etc. The task ofthe teacher was to calibrate the learner by recognizing the nature ofthe problem, and to pace, i.e. to harmonize with the learner by showingtolerance and patience, to re-frame the procedure by altering teachingtechniques and making a di=erence, to lead by challenging, sca=olding,and laddering, and to anchor success. The criteria for a successful taskdepended on a productive interaction with the learner throughachieving teacherlearner congruence. One of the simulated exchangesis given below (Table 4).

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  • Teacherlearner exchange Comment

    T: This is a picture for you (>re of an T: My task is to elicit with the learnererupting volcano with no crater from the picture of a volcanoseen). What do you see in it? eruption. There is only >re and

    some lava seen in the picture.L: . . . >re . . . L: I lack imagination, and only say

    what I see. T: Fire of what? T: I want to make the question

    concrete.L: (silent) L: The question does not help.T: What is it ?owing? Red! T: I want to hint at lava and

    volcano.L: (shrugging shoulders) L: I do not recognize the red as

    lava.T: Where can you see >re in nature? T: Lets work with her general

    knowledge.L: Forest >res, earthquakes, volcanoes. L: I know that volcano can give out

    >re.T: What can this >re be caused by? T: Perhaps she can make a guess

    now.L: OK! This is volcano eruption and lava L: I now clearly see that this is a

    ?owing down. volcano eruption and can nowgive a description.

    T: Yes, a good guess. Now, you can give T: We have done it! She can now a full description. give a full description of the

    picture.table 4

    The teacher succeeded in achieving congruence with the learner by suchNLP techniques as calibration (the learner was lacking imagination andholistic vision), pacing, re-framing, leading the learner, and anchoringsuccess. The interaction became productive when the teachersuccessfully re-framed the questioning strategy, and addressed thelearners general knowledge.

    Post-workshop self- The teachers were asked to self-observe during the lessons following our observation workshops. These are some of teachers re?ections (abridged, edited,

    and, in some cases, translated from Russian):

    1 After the workshops I made a decision to stop being crazy myself, drivingmy class mad by achieving perfection and accuracy. I decided to startprovoking learners intellectual growth and to give them time for this. Idecided to live and to let live.

    2 During a test I once accused a girl of cheating but allowed her tocontinue. The girl refused and ran out. Before our workshops I would nothave had the slightest doubt that what I did was right. Now I think Ishould have talked to her privately >rst.

    3 The boy was describing the picture and was >nding it di;cult. I said,Use more adjectives, and then I thought, Id better give him a list ofthese adjectives and I wrote adjectives on the board and he made severalsentences himself.

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  • 4 She was making that mistake again and I was prepared to say Mind yourgrammar as usual, or Repeat after me, but then it occurred to me thatactually grammar was not very important in giving ideas about thatIndian tribe. So I continued listening and nodding Yes, andparticipating.

    5 I asked them a question, and there was silence. My usual response insimilar circumstances would be, Do you understand my question?,although I knew it was useless. Instead, I dropped the question andpointed to the passage in the text with the answer to the question. Theyimmediately reacted.

    6 The girl is a slow learner and it takes her forever to answer. Usually itirritated me and I could not stop pushing her on. This time I asked thelearners to work in small groups and to produce short and correct writtenanswers to my question. For this I asked them to write only >vesentences each. Then I told the girl to read.

    7 I usually try to correct every mistake in my learners. After our workshop Istopped correcting errors at all (at my own risk) and started to followwhat they were saying. The learners ideas turned out to be quite relevantand we worked on them, though their grammar was not the best, ofcourse.

    Conclusion The workshops produced evidence that teacher discourse can be considered as a tool, programming success or failure in learners bycreating or ruining teacherlearner congruence through a set of NLPtechniques.

    Such NLP techniques as establishing a rapport with students, calibrating,keeping pace with, and leading the learner, re-framing classroomprocedures, as well as anchoring success, were described as enabling thelearners, generating more chances, and helping with programmingsuccess. Excessive focus on eliciting output, the continuous >ltering ofcorrect and incorrect knowledge, and the modelling of learner strategiesin the top-down way were found to be associated with lessteacherlearner congruence, and fewer chances for successfulteacherlearner interaction.

    Any simulated material presented in this article should, of course, beviewed with caution. However, the >ndings from the workshops seem toprovide evidence that the teachers awareness of NLP potential in theirdiscourse was raised, and participants in the workshops became morelearner-conscious and ?exible in their professional work.

    Revised version received November 2002

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  • References

    Andreas, S. 2000. Congruence. Change 38: 17.Cullen, R. 1998. Teacher talk and classroomcontext. ELT Journal 52/3: 17987.Cullen, R. 2002. Supportive teacher talk: theimportance of the F-move. ELT Journal 56/2:11727.Fletcher, M. 2000. Teaching for Success. The brain-friendly revolution in action! Folkestone: EnglishExperience.Garratt, T. 1997. The E=ective Delivery of TrainingUsing NLP. London: Kogan Page.Hardingham, A. 1998. Psychology for Trainers.Wiltshire: The Cromwell Press.Kumaravadivelu, B. 1993. Maximising learningpotential in the communicative classroom. ELTJournal 47/1: 1218.Lynch, T. 1991. Questioning roles in theclassroom. ELT Journal 45/3: 20110.OConnor, J. and J. Seymour. 1993. IntroducingNLP. Neuro-Linguistic Programming. London:Thorsons.Reilly, P. 2001. Meeting learners academic needs.Forum 39/2: 34.

    Revell, J. and S. Norman. 1999. Handing Over:NLP-based activities for language learning. London:Sa;re Press.Sinclair, J. and M. Coulthard. 1975. Towards anAnalysis of Discourse: the English used by teachers andpupils. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Thornbury, S. 2001. The unbearable lightness ofEFL. ELT Journal 55/4: 391402.van Lier, L. 1984. Analysing interaction in secondlanguage classroom. ELT Journal 38/3: 1609.

    The author

    Radislav Millrood is a Doctor of Psychology andEducation in ELT. He is Head of the EnglishTeaching Department at the University of Tambov(Russia), and a consultant for British Councilprojects. His current interests are in teacherdevelopment by distance, humanistic aspects oflanguage instruction, and Internet-basedconsultancy using his Internet site.


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