One of the big challenges with teaching younger learners, (although not limited to younger learners) is the tendency to leap into a task, whizz through it, and then yell, as quickly as possible “finished!”This is annoying on two counts – for one there is the issue of what to do with the learners once they have finished, and the second issue is that the learners spend their time looking at achieving the end product without actually recognising the learning done in the process of getting there. The same thing happens when you ask a question to the class: they all leap in with hands shooting up as quickly as possible, or even yelling out answers in order that they be the first to answer the teacher. This isn’t the same as misjudging the abilities of the class: that is, however accidental, basically the teacher’s fault. This is learners racing to complete.

But why is this so important? After all, the learning outcomes will have been met by the learner completing the activity, (that’s why they are called “outcomes”, surely?) opportunities for feedback have been given. Why the beef with working quickly? And why punish learners for their enthusiasm?

The problem with whizzing through the task like this is that there is no time built in for learning. It’s all outcome. Learners miss things, forget aspects, don’t pick up on subtleties and very often make mistakes because they aren’t looking properly. A task or a classroom question may have different levels of understanding: a surface understanding and a deeper understanding, and the latter will probably be missed by a learner focussing on finishing first rather than on finishing well.

So, I figured I needed some strategies to deal with this.

First up, the simple tactic of having something else to lob at the early finishers. This is fine, but it doesn’t really encourage a more careful, reflective approach to learning. Ditto extension tasks and other ideas which basically just give them more work: yes, they need challenge and they need stretching, of course, they do, but they also need to learn to reflect on the processes they are going through.

A second easy tactic is making sure they are going back over written work and make sure they are happy with it. However, this only works once, and doesn’t work at all if they’ve got the answers right. There is a variation on this, which is to get the learners to explain why they think a given answer is right. I tend to ask this a lot at higher levels in ESOL anyway, and I think I will be trying it more extensively with written work as well as spoken classroom questioning. I’m also harsher marking the earlier finishers, for example underlining a spelling error that I might let go with another learner (assuming the activity is not specifically about spelling).

A third one I have tried is the thinking time strategy. I infuriated some members of my 16-18 class on Wednesday by telling them I wanted my answer after a minute, and not before. The minute was awkward, with the learners initially fidgeting and whispering, but in the end they probably thought about their answers for an average of 30 seconds rather than the usual 2 microseconds. It wasn’t a tricky question, more of an opinion, but the answers which I got were more carefully reasoned, more articulate and generally better than they had been on other equally easy topics. If I were using this on, say, a grammar question then the praise would not be the right answer, necessarily, but rather for the best and clearest answer. This could (possibly) work for a paper based activity by simply requiring students (E2 upwards?) to write an explanation for some or all of their answers.

There is an old one I’ve used before to deal with the desire to whizz through without thinking or reading the whole rubric and exam paper first – devise a mock test which covers about two or three pages, and then at the very end of the test is the instruction “Do not answer any of the other questions” or similar. This should, at least, introduce a wariness amongst the learners, as well as serve as a useful reminder. Of course, you would have to be ready for the students to finish very quickly!

I think that collaborative activities which absolutely require co-operation for success are also useful in this regard: I’m thinking of jigsaw type reading tasks, where student A has some answers, student B has other answers and only be sharing effectively can they complete the activity. The discussion here also requires more effective justification of the answers, rather than “this is right and this is right and this right.” I have always disliked excessively competitive activities, and, according to Lightbown and Spada in How Languages are Learned they are generally less motivating than collaborative activities. I do find a blend of the collaborative and competitive more effective: team based competitions, essentially.

So these are all things I’ve tried, and to be honest, most of them are basically about stretch, challenge and differentiation. The one thing I do want to get is the activity which is nasty in the same sense as the “do not answer any of the above questions” idea is nasty and will catch learners out for not completing something more reflectively.
So some ideas I might try:

– A handout based task which has, as its last instruction, “go back through the questions and think of two alternative answers to each one” or similar.
– A gap fill with an unnecessary gap and an extra word which could go in the gap, and then tell the learners this after they have finished, to force them to go back through and examine each answer carefully.
– Related to the last idea: include a question or two for which there is no “right” answer, or indeed any possible answer.

It sounds mean, trying to catch learners out like this, but the point, as I said at the beginning is that I don’t want to be mean or discourage them generally. I just want to discourage them from racing through, and I want to encourage them to do something not just first, or even simply correctly, but to do it so that they learn from it. It’s not a big ask, is it?



  1. Some interesting ideas here. I also sometimes ask the early finishers to go and help the slower ones – thus forcing them to explain their answers. I also do not allow them to pick up their pens for the first 5/10 of a writing task. They read and reflect on the question first

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