December 2011
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Molly P. McHarg, Virginia Commonwealth University, Qatar

“When do you use English?”

This is a question I often start with in all of my English classes―whether teaching bilingual preschool children in the United States or university master’s students in Qatar. I want to know where and when my students are practicing English, and I want to get them to start thinking about how they can independently use their own resources to improve their English skills.

The impetus for the development of this activity―which can be a one-time activity, a regular element of a course, or a lifetime strategy for language learning―came during my novice years as an instructor. I had great aspirations of becoming a successful and world-renowned ESOL teacher. I was sure that the more time I invested in planning lessons, developing materials, and individualizing instruction, the more I would surely aid in developing my students’ language skills. I came to realize, however, that my limited classroom time with students was exactly that―limited. I could, and should, continue pouring my efforts into specialized and personalized instruction for my students, but more important, I needed to make sure they had the tools to develop their language skills outside of the classroom.

This insight prompted me to begin dedicating more time and energy into creating materials for students to become independent learners. The handout I use is the basic “prototype” of this prewriting activity for EFL learners. Below I have described the procedure for using this handout, some possible adaptations, and the rationale behind this pedagogical approach.


  1.  Discuss with your students how they use English in their everyday lives. Brainstorm not only what they do now to practice English, but possible opportunities (e.g. listening to the radio, using the Internet).
  2. Discuss your limited role as an instructor―despite all your efforts, it is ultimately their responsibility as students to become independent learners. Your role is to facilitate them in this pursuit.
  3. Distribute the “Last Week I improved my English by . . .” worksheet (see below). Encourage students to carry it around with them at all times. Visually demonstrate to them how they can fold it up, roll it up, and stick it in their pockets, purses, or backpacks.
  4. At the start of each week, have students bring their worksheet to class. Ask students to share (as a whole class, small groups, or in pairs) some of the experiences they had using English.
  5. After students have discussed their experiences, they can begin writing about them.


  • Depending on your learners, the worksheet itself can and should be developed according to their needs and resources available. For example, if your students all have regular access to iPods, this could be added. If your students do not have access to television, remove this option.
  • Students write different things on the worksheets. For example, preliterate learners can simply circle a picture to show engagement in an activity, while more advanced students could take notes or write an essay on a particular experience or interaction they had using English.
  • Technology integration: Students can develop their own charts and graphs (on the computer or plotting by hand). This will aid students in seeing a visual representation of how frequently they use English over time.
  • Competitions can be developed based on the frequency of English language use. For example, an individual learner (i.e., in a one-on-one tutorial setting) could set personal goals. Classes could be divided into teams or pairs, or even based on individual language use.


  • Students need to be independent learners outside of the classroom. Instructors have the responsibility of guiding and facilitating this pursuit.
  • With the possible adaptations (see above), this activity is appropriate for all ages and literacy levels.
  • This can be used as a one-time activity in the classroom or as an ongoing project. It can be used to reinforce all the skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) and is very individualized according to learner needs and preferences.

Molly McHarg is a writing center instructor and adjunct faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. She has taught EFL learners in the Middle East for over 5 years. She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Composition and TESOL program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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