Don’t just fill the gaps - try leaving some space…

“5 years almost exclusively with native speakers and our students can not speak English well enough!”

This was the central focus of a meeting at work the other day - why are our students reluctant/unable to speak? They have an extensive English programme starting in kindergarten and continuing throughout their time in Primary school with native speakers either as their sole teacher or their ‘conversation’ teacher. However, when it comes to middle school and high school with oral proficiency exams, debate clubs etc., they are found wanting in their communicative skills.

Gaps - waiting to be filled or best left to grow? Image by Cr4nberry

Now, of course, there is a whole other debate about whether starting to learn a foreign language at pre-school age is beneficial in the long-run, not to mention the whole native/non-native speaker arguments. There are also unrealistic expectations from the parents to deal with (such as when I see one of my students out and about during the weekend and their mother and father say “Go on then - say something in English” and then frown as the child clams up). It should also not be forgotten that there are many success stories - many times over the last few years, I have engaged in conversations lasting 20-30 minutes with 3rd graders with no communication problems whatsoever.

However, I have also wondered many times why that success rate is not higher and what holds some kids back from developing their speaking skills and fluency. Various explanations were offered in the meeting - large class sizes, mixed-ability groups, lack of discipline, too much focus on written exams - along with suggestions of how to engage students more - drama activities, poster projects, lunchtime cross-curricular clubs - but the over-riding factor seemed to be lack of time. “Our syllabus is jam-packed already” and “we have so much material to cover” were phrases said repeatedly.

I had two thoughts during the meeting - first that the obvious solution to an over-loaded syllabus was to remove a couple of components, thus allowing for more time to be devoted to creative use of English and speaking practice, and secondly that ‘conversation’ will always be limited as long as the syllabus dictates that past simple can’t be learnt until these kids are nearing the end of 4th grade - over 5 years after most of them began learning English!

That evening, I decided to walk the last part of my journey home instead of the usual taxi-share and I was still pondering the problem. The walk and the air (I won’t say ‘fresh’ as I was walking along a busy road at the start of rush hour!) helped clear my head and get me thinking straight. A huge part of the problem stems from the over-reliance on materials, whether published or produced in-house: Whenever English hours are increased in a particular grade, the automatic reaction seems to be “let’s choose another book or reader then”; hand-outs are rolled out production-line style for ‘conversation’ classes; grammar and vocabulary practice activities fill up the English website. These kids are spending their English learning time filling gaps on worksheets and then we act surprised when they can’t speak very fluently!

Then I remembered a point Luke Meddings made in his ‘Six Sketches’ talk at ISTEK last April (I never take notes during talks as I believe that a really useful or profound idea will stick in my head and this was one of those). He showed us a painting of a coastal scene (I forget the title and the artist - a consequence of not taking notes I guess!) and told us the artist had used only a few tones of brown and blue (I think) and yet there was a white house visible near the sea. Luke told us the artist had created that part of the image by using no colours at all - he had just left some space on the canvas. However, without that space, the painting would not have been that striking at all.

And so it came to me - instead of trying to ‘fill gaps’ (whether on a worksheet or in our learners’ knowledge) all the time, we should be leaving some space, space in which our learners can explore, grow and develop. With no space, we run the risk that they feel pressured, closed in, claustrophobic even. And this is where dogme ELT has its great strength - instead of cramming the gaps with paper, it opens the space and lets the learners loose in it.

So let me finish with an example of one of the ways I let the learners explore the space rather than fill the gap. Take the classic information gap activity - students are divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’ and given incomplete sets of information. They have to pair up and ask each other questions to complete their copy of the worksheet. This may be information about a person, a place or a product but usually it’s all set our for them. They just think of the questions and write down the answers. This is called ‘communicative’ as there is a purpose to the activity but ask my students and they will tell you it’s just boring. The activity is quickly forgotten and the ‘A’ and ‘B’ worksheets may be found under the desk, on the floor or in the bin at the end of class.

After being introduced to teaching unplugged, my approach changed. My students instead start with a blank page in their notebook. They draw a person (or monster, alien, whatever character they wish) and then create a profile for him/her/it. I then put them into small groups and they ask each other about the characters they created and recreate their partners’ profiles in their own notebooks. We may even recreate the pictures as well by listening to a description and trying to draw it as accurately as possible. Essentially the activity is the same but the content is entirely student-generated, the level or personalisation is high and the student engagement is through the roof! The activity is a lot less controlled but a lot more language (spoken and written) is produced.

So I think the answer to the communication problem I described at the start of the post is simple - leave some space…. and watch our students grow!


  1. Hi Dave,

    Really liked the theme and advice. Just posted a link to it on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you'd like to check there. for comments.

    Please feel free to post there whenever you have anything you'd like to share.



  2. Excellent post.

    I often wonder about this myself and, lately, in terms of meaningful homework. Just yesterday I collected all their wbs, and not surprisingly, many had the same answers - and mistakes. I am convinced that filling in blanks (especially in WBs) adds little to their language learning experience. Something student-generated, where they are allowed to CREATE and enjoy what they're doing seems so much more rewarding. And to SHARE what they've done.

    Watching them grow... love that!

  3. Hi Dave, as always love your new post. I agree with you totally, thx for some new great ideas. When I give my students more space,in writing or speaking process, they really show their potentials and use English so openly and freely. So, let's try and "leave them some space"

  4. Brilliant, Dave! I have a feeling this latest little activity I posted on ER might be a bit more suitable for exploring the space rather than filling the gap:

    Your post here also reminds me of one I wrote some time ago about finding and exploiting the cracks in the curriculum made of concrete. Similar theme going on.

    By the way, Turkey and its approach to EFL for YLs is eerily (and I guess in many ways, erringly) similar to what I experienced in Korea.


    - JR

  5. Great post. Unfortunately, something i am all too familiar with working in Korea. I am going to show this blog to my boss.

  6. Yes, excellent post.
    Where I work it's so top down with so much admin and boxes to tick, there is very little time or space for teachers to be creative.

  7. Hi Dave,
    One of the things I most enjoy about where I am now is the freedom to teach the students however I feel best. It's allowed me to be a lot more experimental, including leaving a lot more space in my weekly work plan. When I first arrived I worried that my plans, which we have to produce by Tuesday lunchtime each week, weren't detailed enough, and I tried to add more to them. After a few weeks I realised that the extra things I put on the work plan were just ways for me to leave less white space on the paper, and that we never got round to them in class - I've been trying to give the students time to absorb what they're learning, rather than rushing them through multiple worksheets. Now I feel much more relaxed when I'm planning and teaching, and I can see the students really appreciate it.
    Great advice!

  8. You've got a well-thought out solution to a classic problem. Leaving space in the curriculum for the students to use their own materials easily helps increase communication since they are vested in the topic.

  9. Thanks for all the positive feedback! I see this post has struck a chord in the ELT blogosphere. :)

    Ann - thanks as ever for sharing the post on FB.

    Lu - 'meaningful homework' is a great term and one I will be using this year. So often homework/extra work seems to be just 'covering the ground' by doing workbook pages or photocopied hand-outs and that needs to stop.

    Marijana - it's so often the case that students are at a loss when first asked to 'create', isn't it? I find that sad but also find it rewarding when they start to express themselves more.

    Jason - good to see you back around the blogosphere! 'Talk it up' looks like a great way to get kids doing something creative even when self-studying. Unfortunately, I believe Turkey and Korea must be similar to a lot of other countries out there when it comes to YLs - start early and overload them with pre-packaged material. Hopefully, I can 'be the change' in that sense at my school.

    Barry - great that you will pass this post on. We need to show more of these posts to people who wouldn't otherwise see them!

    Fiona - I've experienced the same: the syllabus takes over as does the admin work. We need to break the shackles and make our own space!

    Sandy - 'gap-filling' of another sense. I also used to feel like something was missing if I wasn't armed with a packed plan (but more on that in my next post....)

    Tyson - the solution seems so simple, doesn't it? That begs the question, why haven't more people though of it?

  10. I think many people have thought of it, but so many are wrapped up in the comfort of coursebooks and defined syllabi and sticking to the plan. As a result, it's dismissed as impractical.

  11. You'vee hit the nail on the head there Tyson. Many people I work/have worked with may criticise coursebooks from time to time but never think of working without them (or even around them!) Any tendencies towards not using the book are seen as 'dangerous', 'ineffective' or, as you said, 'impractical'.

    The question is: how can we change that?


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