What Does It REALLY Take to Succeed? A Speaking Activity

At the NYS TESOL Applied Linguistics Conference at Columbia’s Teachers College earlier this year, much was made of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the importance of giving ESL students ample opportunities to practice “higher order thinking skills” (HOTS).

This caused me to take a fresh look at  my own lesson plans to make sure I was including activities that challenged my intermediate-level adult ELLs to sharpen their  critical thinking skills.  Assured by several presenters at the conference that “ranking” activities promote critical thinking, I took what otherwise might have been a pedestrian discussion topic focused on “What success means to you . . . ”  and turned it into a lively HOTS activity.  Here’s how:

We started with a small- group warm-up discussion of what students perceived to be the differences in the definitions of “success” in their countries and in the United States.  Almost unanimously, students felt that success in the U.S. was defined largely in terms of wealth—“being rich” and “having a powerful and important job.”

I then wrote the following eight words/phrases on the board in random order:




I told my students they had a task to do with their group, which was to rank these factors in terms of how much they thought the factors contributed to the likelihood of someone “succeeding” in the United States, in light of how they had earlier defined success.  However, before ranking the eight factors I had written on the board, I challenged them to think about what factors might be missing from the list and add them in, so they had at least 10 factors to work with.  Two groups added “education.”  Other additions included “willpower,” “experience,” and “religion.”

The groups then spent about 30 minutes arguing and debating the ranking of the 10 factors.  Once the groups had completed their work, I asked them to write their rank-ordered lists on the board, for the other groups to review and ponder.  Here are the lists they came up with, starting with what they considered the most important factor at the top, and the least important at the bottom:

Rank Order Group #1 Group #2 Group #3
#1 Family income Willpower Country of origin
#2 Connections Hard work Family income
#3 Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence
#4 Education Education Connections
#5 Last name Connections Experience
#6 Skin color Family income Luck
#7 Country of origin Country of origin Skin color
#8 Hard work Last name Religion
#9 Luck Skin color Last name
 #10 Luck Hard work

I then mixed the groups up so that a representative of each group now found themselves speaking to their counterparts from the other two groups.  I asked them to compare and contrast the lists.  In what ways were they similar? How did they differ? And why?

It was intriguing, for instance, to see that every group had independently ranked “intelligence” as #3 on their list and that “connections” were ranked among the top five factors by all three groups.  But there were also significant differences among the groups, which made for lively and robust discussions, as students challenged each other to explain their differing rankings and to give examples to support their rankings.

What did Group #3 mean by “religion” and why did they add it as a relevant but low-rated factor, whereas groups #1 and 2 added “education” and rated it relatively high? Why did group #2 think that “willpower” was the single most important factor in determining success in the United States while group #1 thought that “family income” was the most important? Why did “hard work” count for so little in the estimation of two of the groups? The permutations and discussion opportunities were endless.

Finally, students—virtually all of whom are immigrants working in survival jobs—discussed the extent to which they thought they did or did not have “connections” that would help them succeed in the United States.  True to the generally (and surprisingly) optimistic tone of the entire exercise, several were able to give examples of valuable “connections” they had forged in the United States which they felt had helped them or would help them in the future.  All in all, it was an engaging activity that kept students speaking at length for at least 75 minutes.

Of course, if you are teaching EFL instead of ESL, you could tweak this activity by asking students to identify and rank the factors that lead to success in the country where you are teaching, rather than what leads to success in the United States.

How might you add to or change this activity for your context?




About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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5 Responses to What Does It REALLY Take to Succeed? A Speaking Activity

  1. This seems like a very important discussion that everyone should have a say in. There seems to be many factors that determine one’s success in life. It doesn’t surprise me that both Group #1 and Group #2 ranked education #4 in rank order of what determines success. Although, I’m surprised that Group#3 didn’t include education in their list. Things like intelligence and connections helps with being successful in certain things, but in my experience I’ve learned that educating yourself as much as possible helps to take you far in life.

  2. Adrienne says:

    I love this exercise. I would be curious to know the students countries of origin, educational levels, literacy levels in their mother tongues, time spent in the U.S., and how these things contributed to their answers. While studying TESOL, we gave the students a personal profile questionnaires. This helped us identifiy these factors to taylor our lesson plans accordingly. I’m not an expert but this made me curious. Thank you for sharing this exercise.

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Dear Adrienne – Thanks for writing in. These are all excellent questions. All I can say is that my own class was very diverse: we had students with college degrees from their home countries working with students who had struggled to finish high school in the U.S.. We had students from South America, Asia and Europe. When I try this activity again, I’ll think about whether I see any correlations between the factors you mention and the responses provided. But what’s so interesting about this activity is that the students have to negotiate within their group to come to a consensus that transcends their varying backgrounds. Best, Alexandra

  3. Wow! This is a fabulous process for encouraging students to practice HOTS. At English Language Partners of Wisconsin, tutors work with immigrant adults in small groups. This would be an excellent activity between tutors and students.

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Dear Beth – Thanks for your enthusiasm. I’d love to hear how your students respond to this activity. Looking forward to your feedback, Alexandra

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