The ABC of ELT

How does the Pareto Principle Apply to ELT?

Have you heard of the 80/20 principle (also know as the Pareto Principle)? Here is a really simplified version of it. An Italian economist by the name of Vilfredo Pareto discovered that in a wide variety of areas, 80% of the results would come from 20% of the producers. In his example, 80% of Italy was owned by 20% of the people, and 80% of his peas came from 20% of the peapods. But it can go further. In an office, people have noted that 80% of the work can come from 20% of the time in the week (yes, most people are that unproductive) or 20% of a companies clients can provide 80% of the income.

The application of this principle is usually to focus on that 20% more as it will have the biggest impact and also takes less to influence than trying to influence everything.

What about the Pareto Principle in ELT?

I heard of this principle years ago and while it has it’s limits (it’s not a universal truth, sometime the difference is greater) I’m sure there is an obvious teaching implication.

We should focus our effort on those 20% activities or actions which will have 80% of the impact.

By that, I don’t mean we should kick out most of our students (though if you are a freelancer, it might be worth getting rid of those most inconvenient students.) but instead, focus on the aspects of teaching that will have the biggest impact (I’m going to present a very different theory and idea next week but I still think this is a useful thought experiment and I hope you’ll join in even if you are skeptical of the Pareto principle).

With that in mind, here are some small changes that may have a big impact

Lexical approach

In my opinion, this is a strong argument for using a lexical syllabus and approach. After all, the lexical approach seeks to focus on more frequently occurring language and language that is actually used rather than theoretical language created from grammar + vocabulary.


I’ve taught lessons with next to no prep before (covering for sick teachers is fun) and I can tell you that there is a huge difference to “We need you to cover this class…GO” and you walk into the classroom to “There’s a class in an hour…good luck”. Even when it comes to teaching unplugged (unplugged/unplanned doesn’t mean unprepared) there is a huge difference to doing some and little preparation. If I had to identify one factor that dramatically improves the quality of my lessons, it’s prep.

The core aspects of teaching

One of the ideas that I think is important for personal development as a teacher is to concentrate on the “core” aspects of teaching. That is the aspects which are central to teaching, are done the most often and are relevant across teaching styles. The only issue is that I think there could be a huge debate over what should be included here. Here are some ideas that I have and the reasons why, however I’d love your voice too.

Setting up activities

When an activity is set up well, the students know what they need to do, are motivate to engage with the activity and will both produce good language and take in some new language. The reverse leads to confusion, questioning and unwillingness to try and activity leading to a lack of language production.
There are a few key ingredients but

  • clear instructions
  • a clear progression from previous activities
  • scaffolding of language that they will need for the task

Are two central aspects as they help students know what to do and see a reason for what they are doing and have the language toolbox to complete the activity.

Giving good feedback and correction

I lumped feedback and correction together, because in essence, correction is a certain type of feedback. Both are responding to students language and activity. Good feedback helps students to acknowledge the language they produced, and know how they can improve in the future. It also helps provide motivation.

Personalisation activities

Personalisation activities help students to internalise the language they are exposed to and practice using them in ways they will probably use them in the future. They are usually the most interesting parts of the lesson from my experience and have the most interesting results as well as most amount of language.

Focus on the most important errors for correction

One of the key lessons I took away from module one of the DELTA was the idea that you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) correct every error as not all errors are equal. Some are things which haven’t come up yet, some are slips and some show genuine confusion over language that they are in the process of working out how to use.
This is especially true for Dyslexic students who can get disheartened by a piece of paper covered in corrections. Instead focusing on the most important errors mean they are more likely to come away with something to work on rather than having given up all hope.
As a teacher, it can be tempting to try and correct every error. Instead we should work out which errors are going to help our students communicate more effectively and lead to the biggest difference.

What do you think?

What aspects have you noticed have a big impact on your teaching? What do you focus on the most when it comes to your lessons?

About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

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