Revisiting ELT Mantras #2: Don’t give, elicit

People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.

Blaise Pascal, 1669


He took some persuading.

When the 17th Century Christian philosopher wrote that in 1669, it was as a part of a description of human intellect. But these are words which still hold true for many of us teachers who have had any level of basic training. We can all remember that one boring teacher at school or university who used to lecture us. Sometimes it took all our powers of concentration not to day dream and lose the thread of what they were saying.

Therefore, it makes sense to elicit rather than give information. Not only for Pascal’s reason, but also simply because it keeps students cognitively involved. As teachers this is one of the fundamental basics that we inherently know to be true when we teach. However, since it’s what I set out to start to do with this series, it’s only fair that we take a fresh look at this ELT ‘mantra’. So when is eliciting not a good idea?

When the learner just wants to know the answer. Picture the scenario: the whole class is silently reading a text carefully, when one of the students calls you across and asks you, ‘what is ‘aghast’?’ You then take a step back so the whole class can see you, ask everyone to stop reading, and say, ‘Ok, does anyone know what ‘aghast’ means?’ You’re faced with a row of blank faces, before another student guesses ‘surprised?’. You explain that it’s similar, but stronger, more like shocked. In this case it’s quicker just to tell the student the answer, note it down, then go through with the class at the end.


Did he just say ‘ICQ’?

OMG! by Andrea Schaffer CC-BY-2.0

‘Guess what’s in my head’. While it’s good to elicit, there’s a time when it’s clear nobody knows the answer and it’s time to give it. However, the opposite is also worth remembering, i.e. give the students long enough to respond. When we ask a question and don’t get an immediate response, it’s sometimes all too easy to jump in and rephrase the question. However, remember that when learners (especially at lower levels) hear your question, they also need to process the English in their L1, then think of answer, process that back into English and respond. All this takes time. So while we don’t want to wait for too long, we need to give students long enough. About three seconds is usually right (but remember not to count out loud J ).

Keep it natural. When you speak to people in your L1, you don’t expect them to finish your sentences. For example, you don’t walk into a book shop and say ‘I need a book on…’, so we shouldn’t speak to learners like this. If students can’t finish your sentences (e.g. ‘This is the …’ (present perfect)), it’s probably because they don’t know what you’re asking. It’s a bit like saying ‘My mother’s maiden name is…’ Keep it natural and ask questions (e.g. ‘What tense is this?’).

Wherever possible, elicit words, not meanings. To show you what I mean, let me ask you a couple of questions:

1 What does ‘love’ mean?

2 I’m thinking of an adjective to describe how I feel when I haven’t eaten for a long time. What is it?

Which one was easier to provide a definitive answer to? Hopefully you’ll agree the second, as I was trying to elicit the word, not the meaning. It’s very difficult to describe what something means, much more so in a foreign or second language. That’s why we, as teachers, should provide meanings and ask for words, not the other way round – it’s our job.

What about you? Do you have any top tips for eliciting you’d like to share?

Related links

The British Council’s TeachingEnglish site has a useful post on eliciting.

Dylan Gates outlines benefits and warns of the dangers of over-eliciting on his blog.

*I’ll be giving a talk at IATEFL Harrogate on Wednesday 2nd April on a similar topic to this series, titled Don’t Believe in FAiry Tales: Critical Thinking in Teacher Development. If you’re at the conference, please feel free to come and say hello.


Stephen Greene
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Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

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