English language learners often seek advice on how to manage language acquisition better. Stella Cottrell in her book ‘Study skills’ explains what CREAM strategy is and highlights its benefits for students. Although this handbook is written for undergraduates who want to achieve success in academic studies, some insights can be used for EFL students as well.

CREAM stands for:

C Creative

R Reflective

E Effective

A Active

M Motivated

Let’s consider how all of the points above can be applied to language learning.

C-Creativity is especially important for generating ideas in the early stages of new assignments. It is particularly true about learning English: we have to imply imagination all the time while speaking, writing essays, constructing sentences and inventing situations etc.

Creativity stimulates different areas of the mind, makes learning fresh and effective. The author encourages to foster creativity by doing some exercises:

  • Finding connections between two random objects, for example, a cup and a plant.
  • Combining the front half of one animal and the rear of another to create another one. Or mixing two different ideas to create something new.
  • Asking ‘what if …?’ questions: What if the weekend were three days long?
  • Asking a question ‘How would others do it?’: how might Pablo Picasso approach this study problem? Or Nelson Mandela?

Cottrell suggests some creative ways of memorizing information. Some of her adapted tips for EFL:

  • Sing an essay plan for a possible exam essay to a well-known tune. 
  • Read collocations aloud in peculiar voices. Over-dramatise to make them memorable. 
  • To remember complex items, such as idioms or phrasal verbs, use a sequence of images, linked by a story. 
  • Imagine crazy pictures to help you remember words and phrases.

R-Reflection is a very effective habit for learners. Apart from formal assessment, they need to reflect on how they learn (progress, motivation, gaps in knowledge). Learning journals, self-evaluation questionnaires, progress sheets are good tools for reflection.

 Example of self-evaluation questions from ‘Study skills’:

  1. Generally, how well am I doing in this unit?
  2. In this unit, I am best at____. What makes me better at these aspects?
  3. To do better in this unit, I need to improve____. What prevents me from doing as well at present?
  4. What have I already learnt, or improved, since starting this unit?

EEffectiveness doesn’t necessarily mean working hard. Students can spend too many hours working instead of using smart strategies. Stella Cottrell suggests that:

  • The organisation of the workplace is essential for being in the right state of mind for study. This is true about working online. Storing information in the right way can save time in the long term.
  • Time management is really important. She advises having a calendar or diary to record important dates, setting internal priorities and deadlines. 
  • Using sensible shortcuts will free up time and mental effort for where we need it most. Smart techniques include reading selectively, finding information quickly, practising prediction, colour-coding information etc.

A-Active learning techniques make success. The author opposes ‘active learning’ to ‘passive methods’:

  • Being more involved in the educational process instead of waiting for directions and information.
  • Looking for links between different things contrary to treating pieces of information as separate units.
  • Understanding and relating new information to what is already known. In other words, long-term memory versus surface processing.
  • Taking charge of training and managing it like a project rather than expecting others to prompt or to remind students of steps, stages and deadlines.

More examples of active strategies applicable to EFL:

  • Summarise a text in 8–12 words. This makes you think about what you have read.
  • ‘Teach’ new material to a real or an imaginary person. Imagine you are giving a short lecture or instructions.
  • Construct spider diagrams – or other patterned notes.
  • Draw a simple picture or symbol to remind you of a new topic. Think of 3–5 real-life examples of what you have learned. This helps you to apply new knowledge to life.

M-Motivation is one of the key points which has the greatest influence on the success of learning a language. According to Sarah Cotrell the factors like the clarity of purpose, the confidence in the outcome as well as managing ‘boring bits’ affect our desire to learn. Students with weak motivation usually lose direction, they are bored because of poor study techniques, experience a crisis of confidence, are not challenged or challenged too much.

The author suggests some strategies for raising motivation. 

  • Set clear goals for studying English. Typical reasons are: to find a job abroad, to improve career opportunities, to travel abroad, to be a role model for children etc.
  • Write down your response to the prompt ‘I am doing this because …’. List as many reasons as you can. Underline those that are the most important to you.
  • Compile a list of all the ways that English will be of benefit to your life, personal and professional, over the longer term. Use your reflective journal to think this through.
  • Create a motivational chart. Write out your reasons for mastering English in a way that will keep you inspired. Add photos, newspaper clippings or other material that reinforces your sense of purpose. 
  • Make a screensaver of your motivational chart to keep being inspired.
  • Treat yourself for fulfilling the least motivating tasks. Rewards should be proportionate to how much time or emotional effort it takes to undertake the activity.

Teachers can help learners to implement most of these techniques, for instance, setting goals, defining benefits, creating motivational tables etc. It’s a good idea to give a precise focus at the beginning of every lesson, for example, a quick list of the things that will be considered. Setting short-term goals, such as being able to talk about past events or writing a message to an English-speaking person on social networks will help to see the results.

We hope that the tips from the book ‘Study skills’ will enable students to master English and give educators a better understanding of how to have more effective lessons.

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