The Most Effective ESL Teaching Strategy You’re Not Using: Absurdly Short Time Limits

The dreaded plateau.

We’ve all been there.

Your students feel like they are wading through molasses and getting nowhere.

Enthusiasm wanes, and interest fizzles out faster than a firework in a flash flood.

Lessons become a chore for you and for them. Time slows down like you are in some kind of alternate universe.

It usually happens at an intermediate level, when the basics are well understood but more advanced concepts seem light years away.

The targeted teaching strategy I have for you today will shake your students out of this torpor. It involves timing – well, time limits actually. The proposed time limits may seem super-scarily short at first, but you will come to see that the results are long-term.

Effective ESL Teaching Strategies with Absurdly Short Time Limits

Why Short Time Limits?

  • Grab their attention. Setting ridiculously short time limits will make your students scream in protest, gasp with shock and laugh in horror. All of this is good. It means that your students are engaged and interested in what is to come. That is half the battle in language teaching.
  • Use their strengths to your advantage. Your students are used to getting bombarded with a gazillion different things per nanosecond. They flit from Snapchat to YouTube viral videos in a heartbeat. If anyone can do short time limits, they can!
  • The human brain thrives on short time limits. In real life (what? you mean language classes are not real life?) we use information gathered at high speed to evaluate and predict. In a recent experiment, scientists from the University of Glasgow played recordings of voices saying “hello” to research subjects. The results? People judge character traits like trustworthiness and warmth in just half a second or less.
  • Short time limits build confidence. As long as you use them well, your students will amaze themselves at how much they can glean in the super-brief window of opportunity you give them.
  • You’ll get people talking. An activity with short time limits is a great springboard for lots of discussion.
  • Everyone loves a good challenge! Crazy time limits are fun. Fun for you, fun for your class. Enough said.

So, How Short is Short?

This little explanation won’t take long.

Between 10 seconds and 45 seconds, to be exact.

10 Great Activities with Scarily Short Time Limits

More than anything else, short time limits encourage discussion and the development of fluency. Too often, students will hem and haw over a question or activity. They will hesitate to participate because they are over-thinking what needs to be done. By setting a scarily short time limit, your students will have to kick their brains into gear quickly and throw out whatever comes to mind. Try the following skill developing activities with short time limits:

1. Speaking skills – problem solving.

2. Speaking skills – discussion, giving opinions, expressing agreement and disagreement.

3. Speaking skills – brainstorming.

4. Speaking skills – speculating.

5. Scanning a text for specific information.

6. Skimming a text for text type or to “get the gist.”

7. Predicting content based on a visual prompt.

8. Memorizing vocabulary.

9. Listening for information.

10. Listening for inference.

There are many more ways you can employ short time limits, as you will discover once you try them out!

Time Limit Tips and Techniques

  • Provide thorough instructions. Activities using very short time limits need careful explanation and set up. Otherwise, students may feel overwhelmed or incapable of doing what you’re asking them to do. Instructions and examples are key. I like to demonstrate what not to do as well as what they should be doing.

Example: If you are going to give your class just 15 seconds to look at a whole page of text, demonstrate the wrong way to do it before they get started. Pretend that you’re reading the words painstakingly, one-by-one (hey – maybe even get out a dictionary and look up some of the words!). Make it obvious that by the end of the time limit that you’ve only managed to get as far as the second line. Epic fail.

Now, demonstrate for them another and more effective way to approach this task. They will see that, when only given 15 seconds to absorb a page of text, the best thing that they can do is cast their eyes all over the text and try to remember important words. Make a big deal of the fact words like “and,” “the” and so on are not helpful, but nouns and verbs are.

  • Give good feedback every time. Some people will find the whole short time limit thing harder than others. To encourage everyone to be successful, use pairs and groups to pool results and then give the whole class feedback.

Example: Have your students read a text for 15 seconds, cover the text and then write down all the words they can remember. Then, have them compare their lists with partners and add extra words to their lists. From there they can compare in larger groups to make their lists even longer. During feedback time, elicit ideas from the whole class and write the words on the board (or get a student to be your writing assistant). In this way, you will come up with a very long list and everyone will feel involved.

  • Meet resistance head-on. Some people will get seriously grumpy or annoyed or say it’s impossible to do the task. Be prepared for this and counter it by getting students to predict how many words they think they will remember or the whole class will remember. Give students who really can’t or won’t participate a specific task to do, like compiling the list for the group or being the one in charge of timing.

Sample Lesson Plan with a Absurdly Short Time Limit

Here is  a lesson plan using a short time limit to get you started. This is for a reading lesson, but you can apply short time limits to many other activities. I have used a short summary text of the film Million Dollar Arm which I wrote myself. You can easily do the same. The important thing is that the text has a strong story (basically a beginning, middle and end).


  • This works best if the students don’t know the film at all.
  • I’ve deliberately omitted the name of the film.
  • You could use one or two photos to illustrate some of the key points if you want to help the class, but that does detract from the focus on the text.
  • The follow up would be showing them the Million Dollar Arm video clip.

Reading Lesson

Material: A one page reading text, I have used a film synopsis I wrote.

Level: Upper Intermediate (the technique can be used for all levels from elementary to advanced).

Time: 45 mins – 1 hour


  • Practice speaking skills: asking for and giving information and opinions, agreeing and disagreeing, speculating, telling a story.
  • Identify key vocabulary.
  • Practice reading skills: scanning a text for key points.
  • Generate interest in the film clip next lesson.


1. Hold up the text from a distance and ask how long they think it would take to read it. Deliver the bombshell that they will have just (15/20/30/45) seconds to look at it!

2. Show them how to tackle this challenge, using the ideas above (bad example, good example, writing key words, not looking at conjunctions and articles, etc.)

3. Hand out texts face down. Say “go” and then start timing. Say “stop.” They turn their papers face down again.

4. Individuals write down all the words they can remember.

5. Students compare answers in pairs, then groups, and add words from classmates’ lists to their lists. Make sure everyone has the same longer list of words by monitoring carefully.

6. Elicit the key words from the class and write all over board.

7. In pairs, then groups, have them discuss how the words could fit together into a story.

8. Elicit some possible story ideas from the class and write them on board or just do it orally. Accept all ideas, don’t try to guide them to the right answer. It doesn’t matter!

9. Ask students if they would like to read the text again – more slowly this time – to see if they were right. This usually gets a very enthusiastic response. They turn over and read again with a much longer, more “normal” time limit.

10. Students check their understanding with a partner and then conduct class feedback to see if they got the story right. Usually they manage to come pretty close, which is very encouraging for all concerned.

11. Depending on time, you can then move on to further reading exercises as per normal (e.g., comprehension questions, key vocabulary, retelling the story from memory). Have them elicit a good title for the film, or look at the real title together and discuss its meaning. Does this sound like the kind of film they would enjoy watching?

12. Conclude the lesson by praising the fact they understood so much after just 15 seconds. Anything is now possible! Build interest and anticipation by telling them that next lesson they will be watching a little bit of the film itself.

Next Lesson: This will focus on playing The  Million Dollar Arm film trailer so begin by getting students to retell the story of the film and then show them some stills from the trailer. You can then go on to discuss the material in the usual way.

Million Dollar Arm summary text for lesson:

This is a summary of a film based on a true story.

It is 2008. JB is a sports agent. He owns a big house, drives a Porsche and has a series of model girlfriends – none of them serious. But the reality is that he is in big trouble. There are a lot of sports agents around who are better than him – much better, slicker and smarter. It’s not looking good for JB and his business partner Ash. In fact, things are so bad that they will go out of business if JB doesn’t come up with a new idea really fast.

One night, JB and his partner are watching TV, flipping between the reality show ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and a cricket match from India. That is when JB gets his crazy idea. Why not create a reality TV talent show in India to try and find the next baseball superstar?

Backed by a Chinese-American millionaire, JB goes to Mumbai, India with a retired baseball scout and a local translator to set up the show and find his star. The winner will get a million dollars and the chance to go to the US and play for a major league team.

Over 40,000 people turn up for the televised auditions and things don’t look good. The cricket-playing Indian men and boys can’t throw the ball hard enough or fast enough to be successful in baseball. But eventually two 18-year-olds, Rinku and Danesh, show real talent. They win the competition and JB brings them back to Los Angeles to train with legendary baseball coach Tom House. The idea is that the boys will be signed to a major league team.

Rinkua and Danesh are from a small village in India and LA is a big fast city. It is a huge culture shock. They find American culture hard to understand. Training at professional level in baseball is really difficult. They feel lonely and disoriented. JB begins to realize that maybe his idea was not such a good one after all. The boys are not playing well and things are going very badly. They fail in a Major League try-out and important scouts are unimpressed.

A woman called Brenda rents a small house at the back of JB’s property. She makes friends with the boys and helps JB understand that unless he really shows he cares about them and builds a real relationship with them, they will never be able to play really great baseball and be true stars.

Slowly JB realizes that there is more to life than making money and having superficial relationships with people. Things begin to improve. He arranges another try-out and the boys are offered a contract by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Time to Finish

Short time limits can be great fun and add variety to many different activities. Don’t use them all the time (you can have too much of a good thing) and remember they don’t suit every lesson or learning style, but with some imagination and encouragement you can apply them to lots of things.

The main aim is usually to encourage speaking skills – opinions, agreeing and disagreeing, storytelling and so on. But understanding a text quickly or pulling out key vocabulary are welcome secondary results that come from this kind of activity. It also serves as a strong motivator and confidence booster.

Don’t wait too long to try this. Give yourself a short time limit to apply this strategy to your classroom, and have fun!

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