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15 ways to help your students dream in English

By Alex Case
There is a fair amount of evidence from psychologists to show that REM sleep is important for the fixing of long term memories, and even that increased REM sleep is associated with better second language learning. This suggests that dreaming in English might be not just a sign that your students have reached a good […]

There is a fair amount of evidence from psychologists to show that REM sleep is important for the fixing of long term memories, and even that increased REM sleep is associated with better second language learning. This suggests that dreaming in English might be not just a sign that your students have reached a good level (as is popularly believed), but might also work as a way of fixing the language in their heads. Although it is a bit of a leap in logic to go on to say we must therefore make our students dream in English in order for them to learn the language well, sometimes scientific theories are as important as an inspiration for new approaches as they are as a justification, and anyway common sense tells us that dreaming in a foreign language can’t hurt (as long as it isn’t too tiring!). With those things in mind, here are 15 possible ways of using the power of dreams for learning English that I have come up with:

1. Preparing for performances
As an ex-amateur actor, I can say from experience that nothing increases the number of memorable dreams related to your life as much as having to learn lines knowing that you will have to perform them in front of people in the near future. This can also work for the language classroom, and has the added benefit that the adrenaline produced before and during the performance can also help with the learning process. The same thing is true of knowing they will have to perform in a more ad lib situation, but only if the format is fixed enough so they can in some way rehearse the situation and/ or the language in their heads.

2. Tests
Also in my experience, everything that is true of knowing you will have to perform in front of the class is also true of exams, especially oral ones. Mentally rehearsing answers to the questions during sleep is only possible if they know what language will come up and what type of question they will be answering, e.g. by giving them all or part of an oral test with a very fixed format they have already had explained to them such as IELTS or FCE Speaking, and maybe even telling them which topics will come up this time. You can get their memory even more involved by showing them the actual questions they will be answering, allowing them to go away and quickly look up the answers and then try to keep them in their heads until the exam.

3. Obsession/repetition
Other times I have been particularly aware of my brain trying to learn something during sleep have been when the same thing is repeated over and over in the dream, and this is usually also things that have been repeated over and over in my life, such as throwing pots in a desperate attempt to get one right or a part of a computer game that I’ve got stuck on. The same thing can be achieved by testing the students on the same language with the same games over and over, obviously varying them bit by bit before they get bored but keeping them similar enough that they really get stuck in students’ heads. Another way of making obsessive repetition acceptable is to repeat the same word or sentence over and over, but just varying the stress or intonation.

4. Revenge
Another thing that humans often can’t get out of their minds even when they sleep is trying to get revenge on someone, be it a love rival or just a rival sports team. We can bring this into the classroom and maybe into students’ dreams by keeping the same teams for several classes, or telling them they will play the same game tomorrow with the same partner(s) and so they’ll win if they can learn the language well before then and produce it quickly on the day

5. Almost getting it right
A less competitive thing that can also become an obsession and therefore part of your dreams is very nearly achieving a challenge and rehearsing what you would do if you got another chance, for example very nearly winning at a funfair shooting game or finally talking to that person you fancy but messing up what you say. You can set the students similar classroom challenges such as remembering every sentence in a memory game or brainstorming 100 examples of a particular type of vocabulary, and then when they just fail tell them that they will have another chance in the next lesson.

6. Make stories
Moving onto what our less obsessive dreams consist of, the ones we tend to remember are stories in some form, but usually made up from linking seemingly unrelated elements together. Similar games can be played in the class, e.g. being asked to make a story out of a random list of words or collection of pictures. Hopefully the stories they make will be so memorable to them that they come back into their heads later on, including possibly in their dreams. Unfortunately, people tend to remember even stories they learnt in L2 mainly in L1, so you will need to try and avoid this happening in this case. Techniques include having an obviously English speaking situation (e.g. asking directions from a beefeater to the Tower of London or talking about food that doesn’t exist in their country) or linking the words together in ways that don’t work when translated into L1, such as rhymes.

7. Make links
Although we remember dreams as stories, what our brains seem to be doing is making links between things we learn to make them more memorable. By using this skill in class, we can not only make the language more memorable but also hopefully make the same links come up in their dreams. Activities using this include pellmanism (= pairs/ memory game) with unconnected vocabulary and making mind maps (= spider diagrams) with vocabulary.

8. Their own fantasies
Another way of thinking about using what students dream about is to try and incorporate their specific fantasies into the class, e.g. “Where would your dream holiday be? Imagine you are there. Tell a local journalist what you think about the place/ Write a postcard home” or “Who is your favourite English speaking star? Imagine you are in the lift with them. Start a conversation.” It is probably best if these are, despite being fantasies, times when they might have to really speak English, because otherwise if they do dream of the same situation likely it is just as likely to be in L1 as in English.

9. Stress
Another factor that can make the roleplays mentioned above memorable and likely to float into their minds later are a feeling of stress or embarrassment, like the being caught in a lift example above. Other examples include roleplays you fail because you can’t get a word in or run out of time which you can try again next week.

10. Act out
As we rarely dream about sitting on a chair with flaps talking with someone next to us using the Present Continuous, the more movement in class the better. For example, get them to stand up and do the actions when doing roleplays.

11. Props
Another way of making a roleplay or other classroom activity something that is likely to stick in their minds and maybe pop up at unexpected times is objects they can manipulate while speaking, e.g. plastic food for restaurant roleplays. This is most memorable if the objects or the way they are used is slightly surreal, as is usual in a memorable dream.

12. Copy a video
Another way to get their whole imagination involved in roleplays is to get them to do a roleplay or performance based on a clip of a video you have shown them. This is more likely to be memorable if the situation is one they can really imagine themselves in, if there are famous actors they know in it, or if the scene is famous.

13. Really set the scene
If you do not have a video or props to get their imaginations working, at least get them to picture where they are, who they are speaking to etc before starting a roleplay. Even seemingly irrelevant details like the temperature of the place they are and what they imagine themselves wearing can help fix the roleplay in their memories and so make it more likely that it will come back in some way in their dreams.

14. Teach the language of dreams
A thing we rarely dream about is sitting around in a pub having a nice chat with our friends in English. If your students dream they are speaking English it is likely to be with people they don’t know, for example strangers stopping them in the street for directions, or in conflict situations like making and dealing with complaints. As these are also the most difficult situations that are likely to come up in their waking lives, they could also be the most useful topics to tackle in class.

15. English just before sleeping
Unless you are cruel enough to make your students do their homework late in the evening, this is likely to mean giving them something relaxing they can do in English that doesn’t tire them out but does involve their imaginations, such as reading a graded reader one level below the level of their class or watching a TV series with subtitles.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET July 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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