Could Do Better

Could Do Better

By: Stephen M. Ryan

Materials for Introducing Mindsets to EFL Students

Astute readers of these pages may remember that I am engaged in a project to teach my EFL students about their brains at the same time as they learn English. My main approach has been to use texts and activities in English with my twice-a-week Reading and Listening class students. I see them once for Listening and then again, later in the week, for Reading. In this article, I will share with you a sequence of materials focused on Mindsets that I use in both weekly lessons.


My goal, as with any decent Reading/Listening teacher, is to help students to build skills for dealing with a variety of written and spoken texts. Since much of the students’ English education so far has focused on bottom-up decoding skills, we tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time on (top-down) discourse skills, although we do also engage with the grammatical structures and lexis of a text.

I realized a number of years ago that conventional reading and listening texts (i.e. those from commercially produced textbooks) were failing to engage my students’ interest and imagination. After some thought, I further realized that one interest my students definitely had in common was in using their brains to learn English. Hence the project: finding and making materials that dealt with how the brain learns and using them in class as a way of teaching and practicing the reading/listening skills mentioned above.

One of our lesson sequences is about Mindsets.

Warming up to Mindsets

As a way of easing into the topic, we start with a series of pictures of students obviously succeeding or failing, like “Mike,” pictured here. After giving students a chance to describe what they see in the picture, I ask them what Mike’s success can be attributed to. The range of answers elicited tends to cluster around the two poles of “He’s really smart” and “He must have studied hard.” Without any particular comment from me, we move on to the next stage of the lesson.

“Take out your smartphones [I love the look of surprise on students’ faces when I say that]. Go to:

and scroll down until you find the “Interative Quiz: Fixed v. Growth Mindsets.” Take the quiz (you can use a dictionary to check any words you are not sure of) and let me know whether your result is Fixed Mindset, Uncertain, or Growth Mindest. As you take the quiz and see your result, think about this question: What do they mean by Fixed or Growth Mindset? (btw, a “Mindset” is a way of thinking).”

With students’ curiosity (hopefully) aroused, we move on to a Reading text and a YouTube video to watch and listen to. Which of the two we start first really depends on the schedule, but studying each of them helps us to understand the other.


As a Listening text, I use an illustrated talk (I’m not even sure what to call the genre, but you can find it here) from Bryan University that I found on YouTube. In three and a half minutes, the video explains Dweck’s two mindsets and puts a very positive spin on the potential unlocked by having a Growth Mindset. The narrator speaks clearly and relatively slowly and there is ample support on the screen provided by pictures and keywords.

With the key question “What do they mean by Fixed or Growth Mindset?” still in our minds, we watch the video all the way through once, and then begin to unpack it by focussing on the easiest-to-understand element of its presentation: the pictures on the screen. Using a series of still images from the video, we check our understanding of each of the visuals. This not only brings us closer to the answer to our key question, it also allows us to make predictions about what the narrator might be saying. Next, we do the same thing with the words on the screen, still using the screenshots (so, no sound yet).

Finally, with the understanding provided by the pictures and words on the screen, we are ready for some more intensive listening. To support and direct students’ listening efforts, I provide a handout with a framework that prompts them to contrast the beliefs, approaches to learning, amount of effort made, and attitudes to challenges and setbacks of a person with a Fixed Mindset and one with a Growth Minset. These are the key points of the video and the framework lays them out in the order in which the narrator explains them.


The Reading text is one that I wrote myself. It is in the style of a newspaper article reporting on a decision by a local high school to put Dweck’s findings into practice by redefining failing grades on their report cards as “not passed yet.” Whereas the video brings alive theoretical concepts and research findings, the focus here is deliberately practical. I leave it largely to the students to figure out the connection between the video and the text but, as we have worked with several of these paired texts before, they do have some practice in doing so. I chose the newspaper style as it is a distinct discourse pattern that we have not encountered in previous units.

We start, as we do with the Listening, with the non-verbal aspects of the text. In fact, before they ever get to see the text, students are presented with the pictures that accompany it. As each picture is revealed, they are asked to speculate on the topic and message of the text.

A further slide shows the general layout of the piece, and it is clear from this that it is a newspaper article. This gives an “in” to a short explanation of the discourse of a simple news article (“pyramid” style, with the story told several times each time in more detail) and some of the associated lexis (headline, byline, lead, etc.).

By now, primed with ideas about the topic and an understanding that they will be searching for the answers to 5W and 1H questions (Who? Did what? When? Where? Why? and How?), students now receive the text and, in pairs, work to answer the W and H questions. When they compare answers, they find that they have not all answered in the same way (some focus on the change made by the school, others on the announcement of the change), but by pooling their answers they have a clear understanding of what the story is. If they need a further prompt to understand why “fail” has been replaced by “not yet,” the mention of Carol Dweck in the Reading text provides a neat connection to the explanation of her work we have been hearing in the Listening lesson.

Towards Application

In each of the units of the course, I find the hardest thing to do is to find a way to help students to see that what they have just studied in class has direct consequences for the way they study and live their lives. After the unit on sleep, for example, I am pretty sure they understand that the amount of sleep they get has a significant effect on their learning (and why), but do they change their sleeping habits as a result? Not at all.

"The power of 'not yet.'"
Stephen M. Ryan
TT Author & Editor

As a wrap up for the Mindsets unit, I try to formulate questions that will not only clarify if they have understood the different consequences of Dweck’s two mindsets, but also prompt them to consider applying this understanding to their own mindset. I ask “What is a Fixed Mindset? And what do people with this Mindset do?” I ask the same about a Growth Mindset. I ask which has better consequences to learning. I ask which Mindset it would be most useful to have as a student. I ask “Do you think you have a Growth Mindset?” and “If not, what could you do to acquire one?” (These are questions from an end-of-unit, let’s-pull-it-all-together worksheet.) Their answers are usually just what Carol Dweck would suggest they should be for optimal learning, but do they all become optimal learners? Well, not yet.

Stephen M. Ryan teaches English at Sanyo Gakuen University in Okayama, Japan. He knows he can be a better English teacher for his students next year.

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