Brainstorming in EFL - problems and solutions
Summary: Making brainstorming more useful and fun
Brainstorming in this article means giving students an open-ended chance to produce as many of something (e.g. words of one kind) as they can, for example brainstorming positive and negative personality adjectives or collocations with the word “have”. It could perhaps be considered as a less controlled form of elicitation. Just like elicitation generally, brainstorming is very popular in the modern EFL classroom for reasons that are often unconsidered but probably include giving (limited) control to the students. It also makes them more active, which might make them responsible for their own learning and likely to learn better.
I started an article a couple of years ago critiquing the unthinking overuse of brainstorming in English language teaching, but as I was writing it I realised that it isn’t how much you brainstorm but how, and I’ve been experimenting since then with exactly that. In fact, I have since extended far beyond vocabulary to get students brainstorming useful phrases, sentence stems, exam tactics, cultural differences, communication strategies, and grammar (e.g. foods which are usually uncountable).
The basic form of brainstorming as taught on most TEFL courses is the teacher standing in front of the board and taking students suggestions for things to write in a list, table or mind map - a kind of spider with a word, phrase or sentence in the centre and the brainstormed words coming out from it, perhaps after categories or sub-categories. For example, the teacher writes “body” on the board and the finished word map has categories like “limbs”, “facial features” and “organs” followed by individual items like “heart”, “eyelashes” and “leg”. This article will look at specific problems with this popular way of brainstorming before looking at whole class brainstorming more generally. It will then go on to do the same for one of the potential solutions – group brainstorming. Other more general problems with brainstorming will then be dealt with in the final section.
Problems with mind maps
The biggest practical problem with word maps is that during the actual brainstorming they tend to turn into a bit of a mess on the board. One reason for this is that it is difficult to predict where most words will come, meaning one half of the board might be packed with words while the other half is empty. This can be partially solved by the teacher brainstorming the exact same thing themselves before the lesson, sticking to words they think the students might know so that they get a realistic idea of what the finished mind map might look like.
Another reason for messiness is that categories often only come up after the individual words or subcategories are already on the board, making use of the eraser and subsequent rewriting or squeezing in of words necessary. The teacher could start with all the categories already on the board, but this takes away some of the control and initiative that makes brainstorming an attractive activity for the students. Alternatively, the teacher could try to elicit the categories as students suggest individual words that would fit in with them. These solutions also partially work with the third and fourth reasons for messiness, which is the teacher or students wanting to move words around and show links to more than one category.
A more language-related problem with word maps is that the words to explain categories are often higher level than the individual words, as shown with the “limbs”/ “leg” example used above. There is no real solution for this, but the teacher could put brackets around words that students aren’t expected to learn or delete such words as the last stage of the brainstorm. The temptation to even up the number of individual words in each category can also lead to the same kinds of problems with words that are too high level, and if it is considered necessary (for example to make the meaning of the category clear), the same kinds of solutions could be used. More general problems with level are dealt with below.
It is very difficult to copy mind maps. One solution is to select the particular bits you want them to copy, e.g. by circling important words. Another is simply to use lists or columns instead of mind maps. If you do want them to all have copies of the actual mind map, it can be printed from an IWB, photographed and then printed from a computer, or photocopied from groups’ brainstorming sheets.
Problems with whole class brainstorming
As with most kinds of whole class speaking, the biggest problem with brainstorming together is that some students will contribute too much and others not enough. This could include the students who know the most useful vocabulary remaining silent. Solutions include letting students brainstorm in groups first and going round student by student to ask for contributions. The latter tends not to be too pressurising if you let them contribute anything at all rather than insisting on contributions to one category, and you could perhaps allow limited dictionary use if they get stuck for ideas. Some students who are reluctant to contribute on their own might also be more willing if they are working as a team who get points for relevant contributions, perhaps with really shy students whispering their ideas for their partner to shout out.
Student talking time
Although it might seem that students shouting out vocabulary is the best example of reducing the role and talking time of the teacher, it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, the teacher often ends up explaining new vocabulary that one student has introduced, correcting students, adapting what students have said to make it more useful (e.g. introducing a more up-to-date word), and eliciting missing words and categories. As with whole class brainstorming more generally, the easiest solution is to do the same thing in pairs or groups.
In theory, anything the class can do with the teacher in front of the board can be done with a piece of A3 paper, a pencil and an eraser in each group. As with groupwork generally, students will need a bit more help getting started than in whole-class work, for example by giving them at least categories in the mind map before they start, by starting the brainstorming as a class and then letting them continue in groups, by giving them fixed stages to follow (e.g. brainstorm, then categorise, edit, and finally compare with another group), and/ or giving them useful phrases to use while brainstorming (e.g. “What can we put here?” and “These two seem similar. Can we put them together?”) Students need to be told to only use one pencil per group so that they have to work together and speak as well as write, and this pencil can be given to the person who is contributing least to avoid the even greater danger of one student dominating.
Other problems with group brainstorming will also be familiar from common student complaints about pairwork and groupwork more generally, such as wanting to learn from the teacher rather than their partner(s). The main solutions to this are also more general – lots of monitoring and feedback from the teacher during the groupwork stage and a final feedback stage, e.g. putting all words into a big final brainstorm on the board or comparing their lists to lists you have prepared on worksheets.
The other potential issues with brainstorming are more general to the process in general and so are dealt with below.
General problems with brainstorming in EFL classes
Low level language
My biggest problem with brainstorming as it is usually used in EFL classes is that most of the time is often wasted writing up words that students were already familiar with, such as “nose” and “hair” in the body vocabulary example given above and “father” and “brother” if the topic is family. The most obvious solution is to give them a partially-completed list, table or mind map with the easy words already in it, but this is far from ideal as it makes the remaining task very mechanical and means students don’t get the “momentum” of ideas coming quickly that can often lead to recalling things that they thought they had forgotten. In whole class brainstorming the similar but better option is for the teacher to quickly write in some obvious examples when a category is suggested, then turn back to the students for more examples. In groups they can be told that they will only get points for words that other teams don’t think of.
High level language
As well as the specific problem with categories mentioned in the context of mind maps, there is also the chance that the language that students shout out is too high level for it to be worth explaining to the rest of the class. If that happens more than once or twice in whole class brainstorming, especially from the same student, I tend to accept further contributions of this type but not write them up, only bothering with explanations of words that make it to the board. Perhaps the only solution with group brainstorming is to group higher level students together and/ or talk about the usefulness of the language in a whole class feedback stage, perhaps using brackets to mean words that can be happily ignored as suggested for some mind map categories above.
Too many words
A problem which is related to the one above is getting so much useful language that it becomes impossible for students to learn it all. One solution is underlining or circling words that students should learn. Another is to write the most useful words on slips of paper and place them in a “word box”/ “word bag” of vocabulary that students know you will recycle in future lessons.
Brainstorming is new to the students
A very specific example of students not being familiar with brainstorming is that many Business English textbooks include activities on brainstorming during business meetings, something some students will literally never experience. Many more will never have been asked to take part in brainstorming during their education and/ or never been taught how to do so. The best solution to this is to start with whole class brainstorming then switch to brainstorming in pairs, giving them useful phrases to use during brainstorming that emphasise what they are supposed to be doing such as “No need to edit now” and “I’m not sure about that, but let’s just put it down anyway”. For brainstorming more complex things such as ideas before a debate or before writing an IELTS Writing Part Two paragraph plan, they can also be given fixed stages that tie in with connected useful phrases such as “brainstorm all and any ideas”, “put into categories”, and “edit/ select”.
A much smaller thing that can also have a big impact is running out of space on the board or piece of paper during the brainstorming. With an interactive whiteboard you may be able to copy and paste the brainstorm into another page, shrinking its image to leave extra space around the edge. In a similar way, you could keep extra paper and sellotape handy to add to groups’ A3 sheets of brainstorming paper (sellotaping across the back so as not to get in the way of writing). The other two solutions are deciding a section, e.g. one category, is finished and erasing it to make way for others, or taking one section and starting again with it on another page.
It is very difficult to guess how long a brainstorming stage will last, and that is even without being distracted by explaining obscure vocabulary that students come up with (or explaining why you won’t explain). If the other stages of the lesson can’t be made more flexible to make room for a variable-length brainstorming stage, your only option is to have a strict time limit and just add any useful ones that students haven’t mentioned by that point yourself.
More theoretical issues with brainstorming
As I was going to do with the previous article I mentioned in the introduction, it is also possible to raise more general issues with the whole idea of brainstorming in EFL classes. My latest doubt is whether an activity where students are pausing for thought a lot and trying to come up with more and better ideas might interfere with the fluency that is already most of my students’ biggest problem.
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