Neuroscience and Learning English

One of my students  on WhatsApp, Kevin, lives in Peru  and he's an engineer  who has a keen interest in learning English. Recently he attended a conference on Neuroscience and learning English. He brought this up in the Advanced WhatsApp Group and we had a very good discussion for about 4 hours. Below are some of the points that he outlined as part of the lecture and a website to to review. The lecturer was Tracey Nokahuma Espinoza from California and she discussed the following points: The importance of breathing and relaxing. They need to break a one-hour class into segments so that intense learning takes place during 20 minutes with the remaining time focused on other areas. She talked about reducing stress and gave an example of how people feel stress when they have to take a test. Her point being that stress is not conducive to learning. She mentioned the need to repeat a lesson in different ways. And she also said that it was very important that the students get plenty of rest. There is a lot to think about! How do we learn a foreign language, especially as  adults? How does our brain work?!


Paul, we so appreciate your thoughtful post! 

I wanted to reflect on your statement: "The need to break a one-hour class into segments so that intense learning takes place during 20 minutes with the remaining time focused on other areas."   I am a huge fan of Horton's absorb, do, and connect model.  (See HERE  for a short summary.)  Since attention spans drop drastically after 10 minutes, just giving students more information does little good.  They need to take the information presented and do something active with it (talk, write, draw, move) in order to learn it.  

Presenting more information does not result in students' learning more.  I would rather present less information that students can absorb at a deeper level than try to "cover" more material with little learning taking place.   Just presenting information and expecting students to learn it is one draw back of K-12's focus on the "testing curriculum" and one reason why students drop out of school and come to our adult education programs.   

Thanks for your comment Paul!  In a three hour class, we could cycle through several rounds of absorb, do, and connect.   For example:

Instructor teaches a skill (10 - 15 minutes)  (Absorb)

Students practice the skill with a partner (10 minutes) (Do)

Students discuss what they learned/challenges with the skill in a whole class discussion (5 minutes)  (Connect)

The instructor can then re-teach or clarify the skill as necessary based on student feedback.  

At this point, 30 + minutes of class time has elapsed.  We can now start another cycle of absorb, do, connect and continue these 30 + minute cycles throughout the three hour class period.  

Does that make sense?


Thanks for your great question, Paul!

Absorb, do, and connect is a template (or model) of learning that can be used with any level of students with any subject area/skill.   Here is how it can work:

Absorb - Learners take in information by listening, reading or watching

  • Keep the absorb time short: no more than 10 to 15 minutes
  • If learners have a more complicated skill to master, break the learning into chunks with breaks in between

Common absorb activities are:

  • Reading articles
  • Watching YouTube videos
  • Listening to stories

Do - Students do something active to apply what they are learning such as answer questions or complete graphic organizers. 

Some do activities are:

  • Pictures – Students draw a picture showing what they have learned.
  • Bumper Sticker Summary - Create a seven word or less summary of what is being taught.
  • Email to a Friend – Ask students to write an email to a friend explaining something they have learned.
  • Journaling – Students can write about a variety of topics.  Journals do not have to be graded and can be shared or kept private. 


Connect - Learners interact with the material and with each other.

Some connect activities are:

  • Walk and Talk - Have students walk around the room with a partner and talk about what they have been learning.
  • Circle Toss - Have students stand up at their tables and form a circle.  Toss around a ball and as each person catches the ball, they answer a question or tell something they remembered from the learning experience. 
  • Snowball Fight - Have learners write something about the lesson on a piece of paper, crumple it up, and then have them stand up and throw the crumpled paper around the room for 30 seconds.  Then have students pick up one of the balls, read what is on the paper, and tell someone else about it. 
  • Always/Sometimes/Never – Put the word always on one sheet of paper, sometimes on another, and never on a third sheet.  Place the sheets in different places around the room (or on three different places on the white board).  Give students a statement based on the material they have been learning.  Have students move to either always, sometimes, or never based on how they think the question or statement should be answered and explain why to someone standing near them. 

Instructors can keep cycling through absorb, do, and connect throughout a class period of any length.  I hope that helps!  

Paul, here is how absorb, do, connect could look in an adult ESL class (high intermediate to advanced level).  This class is focused on preparing students for the civics portion of the citizenship test.  


Instructor gives a 10 to 15 minute lesson on the US Constitution focusing on what it is and why it was written.  


Working in small groups, students complete a graphic organizer such as 5 W's and 1 H


In a whole class discussion, groups share their graphic organizers with other groups.

In pairs, students discuss at least two things they learned about the US Constitution.

(I read somewhere about how in many large group instruction ESL classes that most students spoke for less than 2 minutes total over the course of the class.  Doing connect activities can help change that outcome!)

Paul, how do you conduct classes over What's App?  I downloaded it earlier this week to communicate with friends overseas.  Does it have functionality like Zoom or Skype with webcams?  

Steve....I think that the emphasis on student initiative in what you describe is the key. In other words it could fit in well with any class as a part of the over-all activities and be a positive addition. The students you describe are advanced so there would have to be a somewhat different approach for level 1. Thanks!!