Summary of a plenary talk – How to achieve flow in language learning

If you try to remember some of the moments in your life when you felt really happy, you may come to a conclusion that these were the moments when you were so immersed in what you were doing that you completely lost track of time. This phenomenon is described in contemporary psychology as a state of flow. One of the pioneers of the research on flow is Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

It is argued that a flow state is characterized by the absence of emotion – a complete loss of self-consciousness. However, in retrospect, the flow activity may be described as enjoyable and even exhilarating.


In her plenary talk for the 20th P. A. R. K. conference in Brno, Christina Latham-Koenig explains that flow, the secret to happiness, can contribute to successful language learning.

She maintains that to achieve flow, activities should have clear aims, clear and immediate feedback and that there should be a balance between challenge and ability. If an activity is too challenging, teachers (coursebooks authors) should provide plenty of support. On the other hand, if an activity appears to be too easy, extra challenge is needed.

Here are some of the ways of adding extra support:

  • demonstrate an activity yourself first and don’t be afraid of TTT (take teacher talking time as extra exposure to the target language)
  • from prompts, elicit the whole sentences so that the task goes smoothly later on
  • elicit vocabulary before the activity starts
  • use scene-setters and follow-up questions as an open class activity rather than part of pairwork, for example
  • write possible responses on the board so that Sts can see them (and actually use them) all the time during the activity
  • help with ideas, not just language
  • help Sts to start the activity (this can be the most difficult part for them)
  • give Sts plenty of time to plan and rehearse

If extra challenge is needed

  • get Sts to return questions with “What about you?” responses
  • insist on Sts asking for and giving more information
  • provide Sts with more sophisticated language
  • set a time limit (and insist on Sts talking all the time)
  • insist on Sts using specific language

Christina Latham-Koenig then elaborates a bit more on listening activities. She suggests the following ways of adding extra support:

  • check the script beforehand and think of ways of pre-teaching language
  • pre-teach cultural information as well
  • get Sts to have a final listen with the script
  • pause in order to break the listening into small chunks (concentration span has gone down over years, she argues)
  • pause in order to give Sts time to write (multitasking is difficult)
  • tell Sts to listen without any task at first so that they can get used to the accent, for example

As far as the extra challenge is concerned, you can

  • just play the audio once (not twice as we usually do)
  • when doing T/F statements, ask why a statement is false
  • use the audio script afterwards for teaching some extra language

I dare say that most of us teachers would admit that we sometimes feel that an activity is a bit too challenging or not challenging enough. However, no matter how much we plan, we might not always be prepared for such a situation. That’s why I really liked Christina Latham-Koenig’s talk – she equips us teachers with a handful of useful tips on how to make our lessons more engaging.


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Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

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