Eliciting techniques for the ESL classroom

By Allan Sweeney

By Allan Sweeney

By Allan Sweeney

Effective use of eliciting techniques keeps your students actively engaged throughout the class while providing valuable insights into their learning. Are you making the most of these strategies in your lessons?

ESL Teaching | Eliciting techniques

To develop any skill, you need a foundation of techniques to build it on.

A teachers ability to elicit what they know their students know is an essential skill, and it can take many years to fine-tune the techniques required to develop it.

This article outlines eliciting techniques and strategies that have been proven to be effective in the ESL classroom. I've included practical examples and advice about how to implement them into your lessons. I hope you find it useful.

What do we mean by eliciting?

In the context of English teaching, to elicit means to draw out or evoke responses from your students that reveal their current level of understanding on a particular theme or topic. 

It refers to a range of techniques that teachers use to prompt their students to provide information rather than relying entirely on the often overused teacher to student interaction pattern. 

Why do we want to use elicitation techniques?

There are benefits for both the teacher and the students.

Eliciting helps us to establish the limits of our students' understanding. This is valuable information that we can use to adapt the current lesson and future course materials. 

Students are encouraged to participate more, reducing TTT (Teacher Talking Time). Practical use of eliciting techniques can change the dynamic of a classroom from a lecture into a conversation about language.

It provides more opportunities for your students to demonstrate language that they are already familiar with, which will improve their retention of these concepts and their confidence in using them. 

What techniques can we use in the ESL classroom?

There are opportunities to deploy eliciting techniques at any point in your lesson. 

Introducing new themes and concepts

Beginning a new topic provides an excellent opportunity to determine how much your students know about a given area. How they respond should shape your approach to the new theme. Here are a few techniques that you can use:

Spider Diagrams: Brainstorming new topics on the board can be a fantastic way to warm students up for a lesson. 

This technique works particularly well with adults and advanced level students. 

It is worth spending a little time planning this activity. Try to break the topic up into subcategories, identify the vocabulary they'll need for the lesson and think about how you can elicit these words from the group.

You want the students to provide as much as possible, but you should guide them toward vocabulary you feel is most valuable and appropriate to their level. 

The example below is from one of our advanced lessons on the topic of The Mind. You can check out the entire lesson here.

ESL Eliciting techniques for vocabulary

Personal anecdote: Having the students share a personal story can be a great way to engage students in a theme or topic. 

Look for these opportunities when planning your lesson. For example, if you were discussing the topic of Parties, you might prompt the students to share: 

  1. The worst party they ever went to.
  2. The best present they've ever received.
  3. The most embarrassing thing they ever saw/experienced at a party.

Free writing: The students write openly on a topic for a set amount of time. The aim is to keep writing without worrying too much about punctuation, grammar or spelling. 

Before they begin, the students should understand that you are not going to correct their work.  

Free writing is an exercise in self-discovery for the student, forcing them to recognise the limits of their knowledge while also shedding light on what they currently understand.  

Encourage your students to note down any vocabulary or expressions that give them trouble during the task. It can be related to anything they are trying to express. 

Finally, review where they ran into trouble and work through explanations on the board. 

How to elicit vocabulary

When it comes to vocabulary, there's no shortage of eliciting techniques available.

Definitions or descriptions: You can elicit vocabulary by giving students a dictionary definition. For younger students, descriptive clues work better. 

Games: Guessing games are excellent for testing and revising vocabulary with your students. Here are 17 fun and simple ideas you can try out in your classes.

Antonyms/ Synonyms: Prompt the students by giving them a word with a similar or opposite meaning. 

Spider diagrams: Spider diagrams can be a great way to discover how much your students know about a topic, and they also work great as a revision exercise or warmer.

Flashcards: Children respond well to visual cues. Flashcards are an effective tool for introducing and revising vocabulary with younger learners. 

If you want to see some of these in action, check out this fantastic video from Chris Westergaard. He expands on these ideas while also providing tips to avoid leaning on the L1 and documenting new vocabulary on the board. 

Eliciting Grammar

When planning how to teach a grammar topic, you should attempt to identify concepts related to what you are presenting. These may be opportunities to engage your students and test their retention of language points that you have previously covered.

The example below is from one of our elementary level lessons on the Past Simple Negative. You can view the entire lesson plan here

ESL Eliciting Techniques | Grammar

The blue text represents opportunities to elicit information from your students. In this case, subject pronouns, example activities, time modifiers.

Reading

Well-designed reading materials generally contain headlines or accompanying pictures that you can use to elicit predictions about what they think the article is about. 

Use these prompts to drive a discussion with the group before they start the exercise. 

You can combine this with some of the techniques mentioned earlier. For example, you could create a spider diagram of key vocabulary and concepts or encourage the students to share a funny anecdote related to the theme.

Things to be careful with

As essential as these techniques are, you should be aware of a couple of caveats. 

Do not overuse

With a new class of students, it can be challenging to gauge what they know. If you are not careful and try to elicit too much, your lessons risk becoming more like a quiz session. 

So be careful not to overuse as it can stagger your lesson, and you might not hit the main learning objectives you planned for.

During this awkward stage, try to be more aware of the groups' reactions to your questions. Read their faces and don't wait too long if they all draw a blank. 

As you become more familiar with your students, your understanding of their limits will improve, and you will make better decisions about what to elicit and when. 

Understand the culture

When deciding how to implement these strategies, it is crucial to consider the culture of the country that you're teaching in.

Cultural differences can result in a hesitancy to participate or volunteer information, making it difficult to determine what your students know. 

To get these techniques to work, you might find yourself fighting all kinds of invisible barriers. Some examples: 

  • Many cultures view the teacher as the central authority for knowledge in the classroom, and students may be discouraged from volunteering information. 
  • The gravity of volunteering incorrect information may be heavier in some cultures, making students more hesitant.
  • In cultures where the group is valued more than the individual, students will be reluctant to stand out from the crowd.

Therefore it is vitally important that you tailor your eliciting methods to mitigate the effects of any cultural differences in the classroom.

Here are some strategies that you can adopt:

  • Instead of leaving a question open to the group, nominate an individual. That student is now not responsible for standing out among the group. 
  • Lean on questions that have no wrong answer, like personal preferences or experiences. 
  • Offer encouragement instead of correction when a student volunteers incorrect information. If they are close to the correct answer, guide them to it rather than asking another student for the right answer. 
  • Reduce hesitancy by giving the students a moment to think. A confident student is more likely to volunteer an answer. 

Additional tips

Hopefully, you've picked up a few techniques that you can start using in the classroom right away. Here are some more tips and considerations that build on these ideas.

  • Remember, don't be afraid to elicit at any stage of the lesson, from the warmer to the games.
  • When reviewing a lesson plan, spend some time thinking about the kind of information that you can elicit and plan questions to prompt your students. 
  • Try to use prompts related to previous lessons. For example, "John's favourite type of fruit" instead of "A yellow fruit". 
  • Ask open-ended questions with adults and advanced learners, and use guided questions with lower levels.
  • Look for opportunities to add a brainstorming stage as a preparation for group work activities. If used well, these are great for getting students to elicit information from each other.
  • Use concept checking techniques to confirm understanding instead of asking students, "Do you understand?".
  • Be careful not to ignore quiet students. If they are hesitant to get involved, nominate them to volunteer information.
  • Start from the meaning and work towards the word. Rather than asking, "What does criminal mean?" you could ask, "What do you call a person who has committed a crime?"
  • Acknowledge praiseworthy contributions. For example, if you were trying to elicit the adjective scary and a student volunteers frightening, make sure to give that student kudos for coming up with such a great suggestion. 
  • Look for opportunities to open the floor to the whole class, check if they agree/disagree or have anything else to add.

Conclusion

If you want to see more examples of board work and activities that make use of these strategies, check out our library of ESL lesson plans. We lean on these techniques heavily throughout our resources.

I'd now like to elicit some advice in the comment section to help new teachers who are just starting to incorporate these techniques into their teaching. 

To all teachers.

What has been your biggest challenge in applying strategies and techniques to elicit more from your students? And how did you overcome it?

About TEFLHandbook

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Allan Sweeney

Allan is the Co-Founder & Lead Developer on the TEFL Handbook project. He spends his time building software and creating resources that support English teaching. You can learn more about his goals for the project here.

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