Ratios for English and Thinking

I’ve been reading Doug Lemov’s wonderful Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College. It’s not because I want to put more of my students on the path to college necessarily–actually the only students I teach these days are college students. No, I got interested in this book because Mr. Lemov did (and still does) something really interesting. He looked at schools that demographically-speaking should have been doing poorly but were actually excelling and he looked into the classrooms for reasons why. His studies of these outlier teachers (videoing and cataloging their techniques) led to this book.  (I find that much of what he says lines up nicely with what Dylan Wiliam recommends as well –see my posts about his Embedded Formative Assessment). I think he is onto something important for learning and teaching–promoting more thinking and more thinking about thinking. Some might argue that that this is an L1 issue, but I don’t think so. And some might argue that it is a little regimental, but again, I don’t think that is the case with most of the techniques. Instead, I find the bulk of techniques are academically healthy and do not preclude more interactive, humanistic approaches. I also find that many–very many actually–of the techniques can be adaptable for EFL and some can be used just as is. This post is about Ratios, an idea–a lens really–that Mr. Lebov uses to talk about cognitive work, but I think can be useful  to consider in EFL teaching.



The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology (MEXT) has been pushing for greater use of English in the classroom these last few years but especially starting this year in high school. Many teachers accept this and are trying to follow this directive to some degree; but many teachers have already decided they’ll be using much less English than MEXT wants. At my institute, we’ll be observing classes and measuring the percentage of English teachers use with students to produce a ratio. Some teachers will try to up the percentage of English they use in the classroom while we are there, no doubt. Some will just go ahead and teach the way they’ve always been teaching, explaining things in Japanese mostly. The simple ratio of English to Japanese used in the classroom is too simplistic, some teachers argue. Some things are more efficiently taught in Japanese, some say. Students won’t understand if English is used, some say. They’ll complain and shut down, some complain. But the official MEXT line is for teachers to just do it and let the pieces fall where they may. And it was with this English-in-English issue on a back burner in my mind that I came across the technique labelled Ratio in the Structuring and Delivering Your Lessons section of Mr. Lemov’s book.  Mr. Lemov has a lot to say about ratios, not in language teaching, but in thinking teaching.

One of the most important goals as teachers is to cause students to do as much of the cognitive work–the writing, the thinking, the analyzing, the talking–as possible. The proportion of the cognitive work students do in your classroom is known as your Ratio  (pg. 92).

I really like this idea because it addresses something I see happening all the time in classrooms: the teacher is at the front working really hard; yet many, if not most, of the learners are not engaged and not thinking. A failure to keep learners engaged  at all  is one of the shortcomings I regularly observe, and when we talk about it, some teachers come back that it is not their job to “entertain” students. This misses the point in two ways. First, engagement and entertainment are  different things (though there is overlap). Without the attention of learners nothing can happen. You can “hook” them in many ways. You can bring in a little multimedia, do something unexpected, react to the content of the text,etc. But that is not the only thing missing from many lessons. There is also a definite lack of cognitive engagement in most classes, a point that many teachers seem to miss as well. Learners sit, minds passively waiting for the answer, for the chance to enter info into notebooks, with as little cognitive effort possible. “Thinking is hard,”Daniel Willingham says in Why Don’t Students Like School? “Unless the cognitive conditions are right, [people] will avoid thinking” (pg. 3). Mr. Lemov acknowledges that students need to be trained to think more actively. They need to be engaged in that thinking process as the teaching happens, as the lesson unfolds. He distinguishes between thinking ratio and participation ratio, two related but not exactly the same ratios. The goal of increasing  the participation ratio is to have students apply and consolidate their knowledge as often as possible. But challenging students to think and actively wrestle with unfamiliar ideas is also important. By just giving the information to students, a chance to make them think is missed. Students need to be encouraged to think whenever it is possible. Making them think and vocalize their thinking gives a good thinking ratio.

A successful lesson is rarely marked by a teacher’s getting a good intellectual workout at the front of the room. Push more and more of the cognitive work out to students as soon as they are ready, with the understanding that the cognitive work must be on-task, focused, and productive (pg. 93).

So how is this done? Well, Mr. Lemov provides 10 methods for integrating this while the teaching is happening. Instead of just giving the information, ask questions to pull it out of students. Break problems into smaller, more answerable parts, facilitate deduction with examples, ask for reactions or whys, and just generally teach the habits of discussion–the process, the language, and the need to support statements and opinions. This leads to better participation and thinking ratios, and ultimately to better thinking habits and better, more active, learning.


Back in the EFL classroom, we can see a problem right away with the Teach-English-in-English ratio. It is too teacher-centered. It assumes that simply using more English in the classroom will result in more gains in proficiency. Um…it might over years of English classes with various subjects and instructors, but  I’m not sure most teachers buy into this cumulative effect aspiration.  It also ignores the thinking ratio and the participation ratio, which are very important because they focus on what is going on inside the learners. It can be argued that without a better thinking/participation ratio, more English will not necessarily result in significant English learning. Most of the gains will be exiguous at best. Students will get used to hearing some commands, some comments, some greetings, some procedural language–all important, yes–but they will not get used to engaging with an interlocutor in English, understanding ideas, reacting to ideas and feelings, evaluating and forming opinions, soundly supporting ideas, etc.  in English. Not unless there is engagement and thinking on a regular basis.

Teaching English in English effectively involves engaging learners in English and making them think. It is communicative in the most personal/academic/cognitive/affective way. That’s why I like the lens of thinking ratio. That’s why I think Mr. Lemov has something to offer for EFL classes. If teachers try to improve their thinking ratio and English ratio at the same time, I think there will be an improvement in both.



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