Learning about Learning: Studying the Brain in English Class

Learning about Learning: Studying the Brain in English Class

By: Stephen M. Ryan

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It was the katydid that convinced me. I really had no interest in this grasshopper-by-another-name, for all its reported mastery of camouflage. Neither did my students. But the writers of our textbook thought we should take an interest in it, thus presenting my students with a double whammy: an insect they didn’t want to know about described in a language they had not yet mastered.

It’s not just the katydid. Our textbooks are crammed with allegedly interesting topics that few of us care enough about to want to know more. Students read about unique architectural designs one week and the history of board games the next, while listening texts tell them about plans for a fictional new library in a town they’ve never heard of.

"English Teaching always needs a topic."
Stephen M. Ryan
TT Author

Why? Because English Teaching always needs a topic. Since we are teaching how to use language systems to communicate, we need something to communicate about. We can lecture about grammar, discourse, or syntax, but as soon as we give examples or turn to a text to analyse, we need a topic. There is nothing in the nature of English, nor in our various approaches and pedagogies that tells us what that topic should be.

This is a particular problem for English for Academic Purposes (EAP) teachers. They are blessed, in comparison with TENOR teachers—teacher who spend years Teaching English for No Obvious Reason. At least their learners have a purpose: they are studying English in order to study in English. Unfortunately, they tend to come in mixed groups: future Psychology students with future Mechanical Engineers with future Economists or PoliSci majors. So, what should the texts we give them to practice their academic English skills be about? Katydids, apparently, since they can be discussed in quasi-academic prose and tend not to be something even future Biology students know a lot about. A level playing field: an area of mild interest, but nothing more, to just about everyone in the room.

For me, the katydids were the final straw. I watched my students struggle to understand the camouflage strategies of these little beasties in order to get to grips with the academic language used by those who study them, and watched them struggle with the language intended to help them understand what these chromotropic critters were up to. It wasn’t helping them to learn English, still less to keep their enthusiasm for learning English alive.

Enough. Time to do some serious thinking about what my students were interested in that could stand the kind of academic treatment we expect from an EAP text. Lots of them are into K-POP, but not all. The perennial problem. Then it dawned on me: they all share an interest in studying English, superficially at least, as they all want to pass the course, and for some of them the motivation runs much deeper than that. Could I structure a course around the academic research on the best way to study a language?

If I could, it would solve another problem that had been worrying me for years. As a fully paid-up member of the Brain SIG, I am a firm believer in sleep as a route to better learning. In fact, almost my first encounter with these Think Tanks was a double issue on Sleep and its effect on learning. I hurried to tell my students about what I had discovered: they really should get some more sleep if they wanted to improve their learning. They listened, as politely as they ever do, and then moved on. No discernible change. As a native-speaking teacher of English, they expected me to know about English, but not really about learning, or sleep, or other lifestyle-related topics. Their expectations of me were setting firm limits on the areas of their life my words could influence.

But, what if the scientific advice about study was coming from texts, not directly from me? I began to draw up a list of brain topics related to learning a language I thought they should know about: Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise, Study Habits, Mindsets, Memory, Spaced Repetition, The Social Brain. It turns out I knew quite a lot, and where to find out even more. Why? Because I read these Think Tanks.

Finding reading texts was the easy part. The archive of Think Tanks is a gold mine. Some texts were usable in their published form. Others I re-wrote, expressing the ideas of the original authors in words and structures (both sentence structures and discourse structures) I thought my students needed to know. I did mine a couple of EAP textbooks to find out what the essential vocabulary and structures were considered to be, but then I found that most of them were occurring naturally in Think Tank texts I was using/re-writing, so I stopped worrying about them and focused on the accessibility of the prose: how easy it was to understand, and how likely it was to spark interest.

Listening texts were more of a challenge. The lead-in videos we use for the Think Tanks tend to be both longer and at a higher level of abstraction than I could reasonably expect my students to deal with. TED Talks are great, but they are talks, with a minimum of visual support. A good goal for any EAP course to aim at, but not something to confront students with in the early stages. YouTube, though, has a lot of illustrated talks: as the narrator explains concepts and ideas, they are illustrated at the same time with cartoon-like images, often aimed at a young audience. These are of varying quality, both in terms of ideas and language, and do not always have the mix of challenge and support my students need. In some, every word appears on the screen (as in this one), so it becomes a real-time reading text (and I tend to avoid using these); in others, the terminology of brain structures and neurotransmitters goes way beyond what I can handle (as in this one), let alone my students (so, I avoid these, too). On any given topic, though, I can usually find one or two that strike the right balance between the two extremes. I ended up using this one.

Once I started using these videos, I realized that they were helping me to walk the talk I often give about using all means available (audio, visual, textual, non-verbal, etc.) to make sense of a text. The animated pictures on the screen are a real help in understanding the narration. Later in the course, I found that news reports offer a different but equally helpful mix of words and word-painting: moving visuals, sub-titles for keywords and proper nouns, body language, and a certain amount of contextualization. This allowed me to vary the genre of the listening texts we used to include not only “Hey, kids, look at this cool stuff about your brain” videos, but also news reports, more grown-up documentary pieces, and even infomercials.

I was lucky that I see the same students for a Reading class and a Listening class each week, so I could design Reading lessons that support the Listening lessons and vice versa. A (fake) newspaper report about the impact of a new emphasis on growth mindsets at a high school complemented an illustrated talk by Carol Dweck. The students, used to compartmentalized learning, needed a little persuasion to see connections between the two (a picture of Carol in the newspaper report helped) but gradually they came to see that what they studied on Friday could help them to understand the text we looked at on Wednesday. Connecting ideas between courses is a concept from Education 101, but it is so seldom practiced in my teaching environment that it had to be approached as though it were a brand-new idea.

As for what we did with these texts (reading and listening), we did what any English teacher does when approaching a text: we looked at discourse and organization; we focused in on key vocabulary; we decoded main ideas; visualized examples; and unpacked explanations. We went beyond the text, using it as a jumping-off point for skills that will be applicable to other texts too: focusing on what we know rather than what we don’t, using text-organisation as a guide to meaning, applying our knowledge of morphology to difficult-sounding words, etc. Always, though, I tried to focus on meaning: how does the particular decoding strategy we are using enhance our understanding of what the author/speaker is saying?

But I try to go further. I’m not only trying to interest my students; I want to engage them, too, to give them an understanding of how their brains work so they can learn to use them better. I want studying about the language-learning brain to have an impact on how they actually use their brains to learn language. I try to build each topic we look at into a chance for students both to reflect on their current practice and to consider making changes to it. So, in many ways, the most important part of the lesson is the application of the ideas they read and hear about. Our unit on Memory starts with students making self-reports about their vocabulary-study habits, and ends with them trying out new techniques recommended in our main video and then reporting back on what works best for them. After our unit on Exercise, and the Brain we decided take Energy Breaks every 20 minutes during our lessons.

So, goodbye katydid, library planning, and the history of Monopoly and other board games. Hello to learning about the brain as it is used by language learners. These are still English lessons, of course, with appropriate focus on skills, language, and discourse, but now they are dealing with a topic of critical relevance to students: how they can actually learn the language. Once or twice a student even says the lesson topic was “interesting” or “useful.” Perhaps more so than animal camouflage.

List of Topics I have covered so far with the Reading Texts and Listening Videos used


Reading Text

Listening Video

Sleep and the Brain,

or sleep your way to better grades

Sleep … Perchance to Dream,” by Amanda Gillis-Furutaka, (Think Tank, Vol 4, No.2). (adapted)

How Sleep Affects Your Brain,” by Dana Foundation.


or how to pass the weekly vocabulary tests

The Role and Restrictions of Working Memory,” by Mike Kelland, (Think Tank, Vol. 4, No. 3). (adapted)

11 Secrets to Memorize Things Quicker Than Others,” by BRIGHT SIDE.

Mindsets and Learning,

or “not yet”

I wrote a fake news report about a high school that changed its “fail” grades to “not yet” on report cards. My fiction was based on “The Power of ‘Not Yet,’” by Carol S. Dweck.

Fixed Mindset Vs. Growth Mindset,” by Bryan University.

“Aha!” Moments,

and the Role of Dopamine in Learning.

Dopamine,” in Simple English Wikipedia. (adapted)

Learn English Vocabulary – New Word: Aberrant – The Archimedes Eureka Story,” by easyvocab

Exercise and the Brain,

or why do we move about in English class?

Let’s Move: 5-Minute Energy Breaks,” by Marc Helgesen, (Think Tank Vol. 4, No. 7).

Spark: How Exercise Improves Your Brain An Animated Book Summary,” by One with Life.

and parts of “A physical education in Naperville,” by Jose Luis Lucas Saolin.

Bonus – for introducing the Exercise and the Brain topic while studying online


The Dangers of Sitting – Health and Wellbeing,“ by Litmos Heroes.

Nutrition and the Brain

or Eat your Way to Better Grades


Brain Health and Nutrition,” by American Heart Association.

The Social Brain and Learning,

or why does our teacher make us sit in a circle?

Book Review: Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect,” by Glenn A. Magee, (Think Tank Vol. 6, No. 9). (adapted)

and “Using Social Testing to Sooth One of Life’s Darkest Moments,” by Tim Murphey, (Think Tank Vol. 7, No. 2).

Making ‘Social’ a Superpower in the Classroom,” by Matthew Liebermann. (18:06 – 20:30).

Announcement from the Think Tank Team: A New Resource

Inspired by Stephen’s attempts to bring the good word about the brain to his English learners, the Think Tank team has decided to add a new area to our website. This new area will feature readings about Mind, Brain, Education and related topics in simplified English. Topics will be based on articles that appear in our Think Tanks. The ideas expressed will not be simplified but the language in which they are explained will be made more accessible.

Use them in class if you wish. Share them with colleagues. You might also want to read them yourself as a gentle introduction to some of the major ideas in our field.

To start things off, Stephen has provided a summary article based on October’s Think Tank: Teacher-Student Relations in the Language Classroom. Keep the new webpage bookmarked to follow this new resource as it grows.

Stephen M. Ryan has been teaching English at Sanyo Gakuen University for a while now, but he is still trying to get it right.

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