Steve Darn - ELT
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GME: Neuro Linguistic Programming in ELT

NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) has been around in language teaching longer than we may realise. Those teachers who incorporate elements of suggestopedia, community language learning, music, drama and body language into their lessons are already drawing on NLP as it stood twenty years ago.

The roots of NLP
NLP, with its roots in psychology and neurology, is about the way the brain works and how the brain can be trained for the purpose of betterment. It encompasses or is related to 'left / right brain' functions, 'visual / auditory / kinesthetic' learning styles, multiple intelligence and other areas of research which are attempting to identify modes of learning whilst recognising the importance of the individual learner.

NLP and related subjects have their sceptics, particularly in terms of general classroom applicability and how NLP is commercially marketed as a method of self-improvement. NLP has been labelled a 'quasi science' and criticised on the grounds of lack of empirical studies, but there are sound reasons why NLP is compatible with current classroom practice.

  • NLP is about recognising patterns.
  • NLP is concerned with process rather than content.
  • NLP provides a model of how we communicate with ourselves and others.

NLP and language learning
The NLP model explains how we process information which comes to us from the outside and is based on the work of Richard Bandler and John Grinder, who initially recognised the importance of eye contact and movement in identifying emotional states and how (rather than what) individuals think.

In NLP, information arrives via the senses, and 'six modalities' are identified as ways that different individuals perceive the messages. These modalities are:

    • Visual Remembered
    • Visual Constructed
    • Auditory Remembered
    • Auditory Remembered
    • Auditory Digital
    • Kinesthetic

These clearly form the basis of what we now know as 'VAK'- The identification of visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners and the need to cater for different learning styles in the classroom.

As externalities arrive, our perception of these is modified by three major elements - deletion, distortion and generalisation. These processes are instantly recognisable in language learners:

  • Deletion
    There is too much information for the learner to handle. Learners delete or omit some information in order to make input manageable. From the teacher's point of view, we have already learnt not to present too much new language at once, and the principle of 'less is more'.
  • Distortion
    Language learners will distort information into forms which are understandable and learnable. This process is both negative, in that it produces errors and misunderstandings, and positive in that it contributes to learnability and motivation.
  • Generalisation
    This is one of the ways that we learn, by taking the information we have and drawing broad conclusions. At its worst, over-generalisation occurs, causing misuse of rules and poorly formed hypotheses.

However, what is actually learnt by individuals is dictated by their own personal filters. NLP identifies these as 'beliefs', 'values', 'decisions' and 'memories', broadly defined as the way someone handles information.

In NLP, these filters affect our model of the world and our behaviour. In language learning, they explain a wide range of learning styles and strategies:

  • Learners make decisions based on beliefs and value judgements. They are often in a state of conflict because their previous learning experiences do not coincide with their current learning environment.
  • Values provide the basis for decisions about what is right and wrong, what they want / need to know and don't want / need to know. In certain cultures, some beliefs are disabling, in that they prevent learners adopting strategies such as risk-taking which teachers would like to encourage.
  • Memories and prior decisions create beliefs which are affect our current behaviour. Learners often revert to previously adopted strategies and require deconditioning, while it can be argued that adult learning patterns merely replace earlier learning strategies which have been forgotten.

NLP also recognises the importance of non-verbal communication, particularly eye contact, posture, breathing and movement. 'Congruency' is achieved when there is a match between verbal and non-verbal communication. Congruency, here, may have a language learning parallel in the concept of fluency, suggesting that non-verbal communication should be taught alongside functional language and phonology in order to achieve natural language production.

NLP in the classroom
Teachers using music to create atmosphere and stimulate creativity, or using mime and drama techniques to build confidence and add body language to speech acts are already drawing from the NLP repertoire. Only recently, however, have classroom activities specifically and overtly based on NLP been developed by ELT practitioners.

Many of these activities also integrate the skills and are extensions or modifications of existing techniques such as storytelling, guided fantasy, role-play and simulation. Areas where NLP can have a real impact, however, are those which explore the relationships between students and between students and teacher, and those which help to create a healthy and positive learning environment:

  • Creating rapport
    Rapport is the sense of ease that develops when people are interacting with others they feel comfortable with, and is essential for meaningful communication to take place. Rapport is most likely when like-minded people interact. In the classroom, mingle and 'getting to know you' activities, as well as continuous negotiation between teacher and students foster rapport, while communication gap activities and group work reinforce it.
  • Mirroring
    One way of establishing good rapport is to mirror the behaviour of those we wish to influence or to be influenced by. Mirroring of posture, gestures, facial expressions and even breathing can easily be practised in the classroom, while simple drilling achieves the same results with phonological features of connected speech and key lexical phrases. To achieve natural communication, verbal and non-verbal aspects need to be combined in communicative activities. Learners may be asked to mirror the behaviour of characters on television before mirroring each other and the teacher.
  • Creating positive states and anchoring
    This is about motivation and maintaining positive attitudes to learning. In NLP, a positive state is created through a mental image formed by the process of achieving something mentally or physically, and this state is anchored by a gesture, expression or body movement which is repeated to maintain or recall the state. Guided fantasy may be used to create the state, and a movement or sound selected to represent it. Some teachers, often subconsciously, opt for different positions in the classroom to carry out certain actions, such as give instructions, teach grammar or tell a story. In ELT this is a type of anchoring by which students automatically know what is going to happen next in a lesson, and are prepared for it.
  • Maintaining flow
    NLP fits in nicely with 'Flow Theory', the notion that learning flows like water and that the best learning takes place when uninterrupted. For the purposes of lesson planning, flow is achieved when there is a balance of skills development and new challenges, clear task goals and the need for concentration. Successful learning takes place when learners feel a sense of control over what is happening in the classroom, do not feel self-conscious, and receive positive feedback from each other and the teacher. In good lessons, time seems to pass quickly. There are clear messages here about balance of activities, interest, attitude to errors, confidence building, learner training and autonomy. Competitive and collaborative games, jokes, songs and anecdotes, personalisation and well-stuctured information gap activities all help to maintain flow.
  • Pacing and leading
    A set of strategies requiring the listener to 'tune in', accept and correctly state the speaker's point of view (pacing) before suggesting an alternative point of view (leading). Acceptance of an argument will be accompanied by the listener's mirroring of the speaker's behaviour. Activities involving listening without response, turn-taking, planning and decision making are useful for raising awareness of this process.
  • Perceptual positioning
    This is an extension of mirroring used in NLP for resolving conflicts and involving a neutral third party as a mediator in disputes. An ELT application here would be in a reading or storytelling lesson, where one position is taken by the writer / teller, another by a character in the story, and a third by a reader or neutral observer of events.
  • Modelling good practice
    NLP asks us to mirror what others do well. In ELT, much of this is about learner training, particularly when learners discover each other's strategies or adopt new study skills, for revision and examination preparation for example.

Whether one is a disciple of NLP or not, what is clear is that NLP and ELT are complementary in that NLP learns by observing communication patterns, and ELT learns from what NLP suggests as best practice in improving interpersonal communication and therefore learning. There is nothing in NLP that is contrary to current ELT methodology in terms of communicative language learning and humanistic approaches, while NLP has much to contribute to the already vast repertoire of the informed eclectic.

Further reading
Revell and Norman, In your Hands, Saffire Press
Ravell and Norman, Handing Over, Saffire Press
Rinvolucri and Baker, Unlocking Self-expression Through NLP, Delta Publishing
O'Connor and Seymour, Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Thorsons

first published 01 December 2005