Brainstorming in EFL and ESL Classes

What is Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a combination of  a relaxed, informal approach to problem-solving and lateral thinking. People are asked to find ideas and thoughts that can at first seem to be a bit irrelevant. The idea is to use some of these ideas to form original, creative solutions to problems. Even some seemingly useless ideas can spark still more ideas. The goal of brainstorming is to direct people to new ways of thinking and break from the usual way of reasoning.

The most important thing about brainstorming is that there should be no criticism of ideas. students try to open up possibilities and discard wrong assumptions about the limits of the problem. Judgments and analysis of ideas are explored after the brainstorming process while focus should be at this stage on idea generation.

Why brainstorming?

Brainstorming contributes to the generation of creative solutions to a problem. It teaches students to breaks away from old patterns of reasoning to new unexplored paths of thinking.

  • Problem solving has become part and parcel of teaching and learning process. Brainstorming can make group problem-solving a less sterile and a more satisfactory process.
  • It can be used with your class to bring the various students experiences into play. This increases the richness of ideas explored, particularly before reading, listening and writing activities.
  • Brainstorming is fun. That’s why it helps student-student and students-teacher relationships to get stronger as they solve problems in a positive, stress-free environment.

Brainstorming technique was first designed to be used with groups,  but it can also be used by a single person privately to generate ideas.

Individual Brainstorming

When individuals brainstorm on their own, they come up with more ideas, and often better quality ideas, than groups of people who brainstorm together. Perhaps this occurs because of many reasons

  • In groups, learners aren’t always strict in following the rules of brainstorming, and the risk of unfavorable group behaviors may arise.
  • Instead of generating their own new ideas, students may pay more attention to other people’s ideas.
  • Sometimes learners forget their ideas while they are waiting for their turn to speak.
  • Sometimes people are blocked because of shyness.
  • Some students tend to do well when they work alone.
  • individual brainstorming may be less engaging and  less stressful.  Students are free and do not worry about other people’s opinions and judgements, and can therefore be more freely creative. For instance, a student who hesitates to bring up an idea in a group brainstorming because he thinks its unworthy, might  be free to explore it in an individual brainstorming and find that it develops into something quite interesting.
  • Students don’t have to wait for others to stop speaking before they contribute their own ideas.

There are however some downturns with individual brainstorming. In a group brainstorming, the experiences of the members of the group help to develop ideas thoroughly. This is something that might be missing in individual brainstorming where only the individuals experience come to play.

Group Brainstorming

Group brainstorming may work in so many effective ways:

  • Brainstorming brings the full experience and creativity of all members of the group to solve a problem. When individual group members get stuck with an idea, another member’s creativity and experience can take the idea to the next stage. Group brainstorming can therefore develop ideas in more depth than individual brainstorming.
  • Another advantage of group brainstorming is that it helps everyone involved to feel that they have contributed to the end solution.
  • It reminds one that other people have creative ideas to offer.
  • Brainstorming can be great for team-building and creating harmony within a team!

Nevertheless group brainstorming has some disadvantages. It can be risky for individuals. Valuable but unusual suggestions may appear irrelevant at first sight. That’s why, the teacher needs to be careful not to suppress these ideas. Group problem-solving must not stifle creativity.

How to Use Brainstorming

John R. Hayes recommends following these steps in his book “The Complete Problem Solver.”

“Separate idea generation from evaluation. Start with the idea generation phase, writing down ideas as they occur, without criticism. You should welcome wild or silly ideas, and you should try to combine or improve ideas that were generated earlier. The hard part in this phase is to control your internal editor– the internal voice of criticism which may lead you to ignore an idea that seems too dumb or trivial. Just as with group brainstorming, when you begin to run out of ideas, you can review the list as a source to stimulate further production. When the ideas really have stopped coming, it is time to move on to the evaluation phase. Here you review each idea to select those that seem best for solving the problem.”

As it is said above both group and individual brainstorming can work perfectly well. I thinks that we, as teachers,  should vary the types of brainstorming so that students may fulfil their needs according to their learning style. It is also possible to combine both types by having students carrying out individual brainstorming the results of which can be shared in a group brainstorming.  In the following description I will show how a group brainstorming should be done.

  • Prepare the environment for the brainstorming to take place. Arrange the students desks in a manner that helps better students contributions.
  • Depending on the level of students you can either write the ideas that come from the session yourself or appoint one student to record them.
  • The ideas should be noted in a format that everyone can see and refer to. You may use the board or computers with data projectors.
  • Define the problem you want students to solve clearly.
  • Be sure that t students understand that the objective of the session is to generate as many ideas as possible.
  • After stating the problem, give students enough time to think the problem over on their own.
  • Ask students to contribute their ideas.
  • Make sure that you give all students a fair opportunity to contribute.
  • Try to get everyone to contribute and develop ideas, including the quietest members of the class.
  • Tell students that they may develop other students’ ideas, or use other ideas to create new ones.
  • Tell students that criticism and evaluation of ideas are banned at this stage because criticism is risky and may stifle creativity and cripple the whole brainstorming process. This uncritical attitude among members of the group is of paramount importance.
  • Encourage enthusiasm by providing positive feedback to all contributions without exceptions.
  • Give free vent to students creativity and imagination. Let people have fun bringing  as many ideas as possible.

Brainstorming in EFL & ESL classes

In EFL and ESL classes brainstorming can be effective in a wide range of areas of instruction.

  • Pre reading
    Teachers ask questions that are central for the overall comprehension of the text and students try to give as many answers to them as possible. The questions must involve a wide variety of possible answers.
  • Pre listening
    The same as above. Students come up with as many answers to open-ended questions.
  • Pre writing
    A topic can be fully brainstormed in an individual or group brainstorming (or a combination of both) to generate a s many ideas as possible. At home students use their notes to prepare an outline and write the first draft to be edited in class.
  • Grammar
    In order for students understand how grammar works they should explore it instead of having the teacher explaining everything. It would be an interesting experience for students to brainstorm how different structures are used, what their meanings are and how they are formed.
  • Vocabulary
    EFL a nd ESL students are often faced with difficult vocabulary. It is a good idea to teach students how to use a dictionary, but it would be better if students use brainstorming sessions to find the meaning of difficult vocabulary using the context. Again, encourage students to provide their guesses and accept all of them even the wildest ones. Only later with the help of the teacher students try to evaluate them and pick up the most appropriate definitions.

These are just suggestions. Teachers can develop this technique to fit their students needs.

To teach students how to brainstorm, I suggest using this lesson plan:

To use an online tool to brainstorm problems have a look at this post:


Hayes, John R. (1989). The Complete Problem Solver. Hillsdale, NJ; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

3 thoughts on “Brainstorming in EFL and ESL Classes”

  1. Pingback: English in 2 months | Elə-belə Yazılar ● Записки Просто Так

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