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Change in the Language Classroom: Process and Intervention
by Joy Reid

Change is a predictable and natural response to evolving needs (Stoller 1991). But that does not mean that change is easy, and it does not mean that change occurs in the foreign-language classroom just because teachers teach. Yet change is at the basis of education; change in the language classroom is continuous and ongoing. In fact, education is change. Specifically, foreign- language students who are learning how to use noun clauses or to guess a word s meaning from context or to request a librarian s help or to structure a paragraph are constantly making changes in their background knowledge and experience, and in their learning styles and strategies. This article discusses the processes of change that occur in the language classroom and suggests that teachers who consider the integral relationship between education and change can better assist their students in the learning (that is, the change) process.

In our everyday lives, change occurs constantly. We choose to eat a different food for breakfast, to take a different route to work, to read a book we haven t read before. Sometimes the change is larger or more complex: we decide to marry; we choose to take a new job; we plan the curriculum for a new class. Choice is a key word in change; when we choose to change, we recognize the benefits of the change, and we realize that our choice involves both responsibility and consequences.

But even choosing to change does not mean that change is easy or fun. In fact, research shows that even small changes can leave us tired and irritable. For example, as you deliberately take a different route going home, observe the amount of time and energy such a small change takes. As you eat dinner, eat in a different sequence. Tomorrow morning, consciously choose to comb your hair or shave in a different pattern, and reflect on your feelings about even this single discrete change. Then consider the ways in which you might make one of these changes permanent. You would need to remember , to practice , and to motivate yourself with the idea that the change will be beneficial that, for example, a different route to your home will be more beautiful, quicker, or easier. Finally, think about how you would feel if any of those small changes had been imposed on you (rather than freely chosen).

The change process

Research about change (Goldenberg and Gallimore 1992; Gresso and Robertson 1992; Kirkpatrick 1987; Schlossberg 1987) has shown the following:

1. Educational change occurs in individuals first. That is, change is a highly personal experience, and only after individuals change does change occur in larger groups: classrooms, institutions, nations.

2. Individuals change only if the change will benefit them. There are, of course, many kinds of personal benefits: financial, intellectual, social, psychological. One benefit is a good grade on a test; another might be a word of praise from the teacher.

3. People may appear to change even when they have not. While imposed change can make individuals appear to change, real change comes only if individuals determine - or are persuaded - that the change is in their best interest.

4. Change takes time, patience, and resources, and the more complex or difficult the change, the more time, patience, and resources it will take.

5. Significant change (that is, complex change) is neither fun nor easy.

6. Significant change is not an event. Rather, it is a process, and that process includes several stages.

The research model I find most applicable to change in the classroom, the Concerns Based Adoption Model (CBAM) (Hord et al. 1987), has shown that there are seven stages of concern in the change process. These stages occur when students encounter a new concept in the classroom (or when teachers, or parents, or citizens encounter change in their lives). Table 1 defines the seven stages of concern.

Change in the classroom

Of course, not everyone begins the change process at the first stage ( awareness ). Rather, individuals enter the change process at different stages - one person in class may be at the information stage, another may have concerns at the personal stage. The stage of concern depends on

  • the nature and complexity of the change: How much does the student already know? How difficult is the change? How complicated is the change?
  • the nature and situation of the student who is changing: Is the student open to change? motivated to change? able to change?
  • the ways in which the teacher implements and supports the change: How experienced is the teacher in the change process? Is the teacher sensitive to the needs of the students who are facing the change? Are there appropriate resources to give the students practice opportunities and appropriate feedback?

Moreover, the stages of concern are not necessarily linear, but rather are developmental and recursive . Students may, for instance, move from the information to the personal stage, then step backward again into the information stage.

The first two stages - awareness and information - are the ones we teachers are most familiar with. It is often our responsibility to introduce topics - raise awareness - and give information to our students. We initiate learning and answer the questions as we establish credibility and trust in our classrooms. Part of our job as language teachers is to have the necessary information and to be able to interest the students in learning that information. The students responsibility is somewhat limited at these first two stages; they need only to be interested and willing to learn. For both teachers and students, these stages of the change process are well known.

It is the middle two stages of concern ( personal and management ) that ESL teachers are most likely to encounter in their classes, and that they may not recognize. Of these, the more crucial is the personal stage, which occurs after the individual has learned about change but before the individual has committed to that change. Why crucial ? Because it can be - and usually is - a stage filled with reluctance, frustration, even resentment. Think for a moment about culture shock - those feelings of I hate the food, I hate the country, I hate the people, I hate the language that travelers have, to a greater or lesser extent, when they first live abroad. If we think about culture shock in light of the change process, we could say that these travelers are going through the personal stage of change, during which they feel reluctance, resentment, even anger about the imposed changes they are experiencing, changes that they have not yet committed to, changes for which they have few or no coping strategies.

Students in our language classrooms may - probably do -have the same kinds of feelings, when they must, for instance, memorize verb tenses, write an essay, or read and summarize a book in English (whether or not they articulate those feelings to their teachers). They may say - or at least think - X worked fine for me in my previous education. Why should I change? or How will this change make my life better? or Is this going to be on the test? Notice that all of these comments are personal. They all say Tell me exactly how this change will benefit me. As these students learn more about the topic (for example, noun clauses, idioms, or transitions), and as they have opportunities to practice and receive feedback on their work, we hope that they will find the acquisition of new knowledge - the change - beneficial and thereby will commit to that change.

Of course, the teacher can impose change - forcing students to write English paragraphs with topic sentences or to practice dialogs for the doctor s office or to fill in blanks with correct verb tenses, for example. But imposing change is, at best, a last resort that we can only hope will eventually result in the students commitment to the change. For without commitment, real change doesn't take place. Students may perform, but they will not become.

Once students have committed to the change, they have entered the management stage of concern. These concerns involve time- and effort- management, and they are comparable to a teacher s first week of teaching, or the first month with a new textbook in a class. The amount of work seems overwhelming, the time spent doing the work seems endless, and there is an inability to prioritize or to complete work. Our language students are often in the same predicament: overloaded with many changes in their lives, having very little perspective about long-term objectives, and even less understanding of the prioritizing of work and skills, they feel helpless, and, as a result, they may even retreat to the personal stage of concern. As students learn more about the change and have opportunities to practice that change, they begin to gain more control over their efforts. Many students end a language class in the management stage: they have learned and can manage the change within the classroom although they may not be able to modify the change in ways that will allow them to use it outside of the classroom environment.

The consequences stage of concern involves the process of a shift from teacher responsibility to student responsibility; it can have a significant impact on the class, since the result is a commitment by the students to independent and long-term learning. Students who have moved out of the management stage have taken control of their work and identified successful learning strategies. They have the self-confidence to embark, individually, on work within the specific change area and, importantly, to evaluate how well their skills, strategies, knowledge, and the products associated with the change work. Students who are in the consequences stage are the teacher s delight, with their independent discoveries, their perceptions, and their growth. Those who are in the consequences stage have learned : they can apply the change in a variety of situations, and they know how to initiate and implement their own work. These students are often excellent group leaders and peer coaches in the classroom. If the change is small and relatively discrete (for example, using the past tense correctly, or specific vocabulary words, or appropriate roleplay), the teacher is likely to be able to observe the consequences stage: the student using the past tense correctly outside of class, or reporting the ways in which learning certain medical vocabulary and practicing it in roleplay situations enabled him/her to communicate successfully with the doctor. But certainly not all students enter this stage before they leave the class; indeed, most students reach only the management stage during the 4 6 months of a language course. This is unfortunate for both the teacher and the students: the teacher is not confident that s/he has been successful, and at least some of the students are certain they have not been successful.

The last two stages of concern, collaboration and refocusing , show that, as students progress through the stages of change, their responsibilities grow. These last stages are almost entirely the responsibility of the students. These are the stages in which the student puts his/her new knowledge to work, adapts it to fit specific situations outside the classroom, and modifies it to fit his/her own needs. S/he evaluates possibilities and implements changes that benefit him/her. Unfortunately for teachers, these stages almost always occur after the students have left the class, when they use the information and skills they have learned in order to work successfully in other classes, and/or to complete other work. As teachers, we would be delighted to be able to stand back and watch these processes take place, but we rarely have that opportunity because the class has ended.

Teachers and change in the language classroom

Learning about the processes of change is educational for teachers in several substantial ways, and knowledge about the stages of concern can lead to change in a teacher s classroom approach. First, because students as well as teachers should understand that learning is integrally related to change, and that learning (which is change) takes time, patience, and resources, teachers will spend some time at the beginning of the course explaining the basics of the change process to their students. Moreover, students must be made aware that change involves processes stages through which other students also pass. Therefore, later in the course, when many students seem to be struggling with the material, small-group discussions about the stages of concern can allow students to share their feelings, their problems, and their possible solutions with fellow students. While teachers need not spend large amounts of time teaching the change process, the topic does provide content about which students can write, read, and speak.

In order to use the change process successfully in the language classroom, teachers must next establish a mindset. We must understand, for example, that the more complex the change, the more time, patience, and resources such as lectures, field trips, readings, and collaborative projects the change will take. In addition, we must believe that personal concerns about change are normal, shared, and even expected. And we must understand that the stages of concern do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by students feelings about the change, by their perception of their abilities to use it/do it, by the number of other changes they are involved in (the more changes a student is experiencing, the less willing that student will be to accept new change), by the classroom environment, and most important, by the kind and level of support and assistance they receive as they move through the stages of concern.

The teachers' responsibilities in helping their students through the stages of concern begin at the awareness stage. First, early in the change process, as part of introducing the topic (for example, skimming and scanning in the reading class, or the use of verb particles, or the use of the infinitive) and providing information, the teacher should have persuasive evidence to present, evidence that shows why the change is necessary and beneficial. This is the selling part of teaching we must be able to convince our students that what we are teaching is important and interesting and valuable for them personally, and we must make clear the positive short- and long-term benefits of such learning (that is, changing).

At the same time, the teacher should be informing the students about their responsibility in the learning process: students must decide whether or not to learn, to commit to the change. And students must understand that choosing either to commit or not to commit to a change involves both responsibility and consequences. If, for example, students choose not to read and learn certain material, or learn how to spell certain words, or practice the syntax of certain sentence forms, they risk failing an examination or being embarrassed in class. If students in a writing class choose not to adapt their writing styles to fulfill the expectations of an English-speaking academic audience, they must understand that certain hardships can occur. They will, at the very least, spend more time explaining their writing styles and strategies to their professors. They will have to learn to endure a level of confusion or misunderstanding from their teachers. At worst, they risk not succeeding in their studies. But it is their choice; the choice is therefore their responsibility. If, in contrast, students decide to learn about the expectations of their academic audience, and to adapt their styles accordingly, the benefits are clear: easier and more successful communication.

Next, we teachers should be prepared for student reactions during the personal stage (which may not be actually spoken or even visible in class), reactions that range from reluctance to resentment. Moreover, we should not take these personal reactions personally. Because even small, incremental, deliberate change can be time-consuming and frustrating, we must expect the reactions of our students to complex educational change to be quite negative, at least at first. And we must be accepting of students who regress to the personal stage, as we recognize the validity of the problems and the developmental quality of change.

Finally, as our students move through the process of change, we can help them to become aware of their progress. For example, at the beginning of a module or an assignment, we might ask our students to reflect on why we are studying the structure of a comparison/contrast paragraph or vocabulary about earthquakes or the pronunciation of those vocabulary words. Students might discuss in pairs or groups (or write in their journals, or discuss with the teacher) what they expect to learn in this module or assignment. In the middle of a class or a lesson, we could ask students to discuss what they are learning, and have them write questions about the material that needs answering. At the end of a single class or a series of lessons, we might ask students to write on the chalkboard or in their journals (or discuss with a group of peers) what was easy or difficult about the class or module, what problems they encountered and how they solved those problems, and, most important, what they learned.

Researchers call this approach to learning metacognition : by writing about and discussing what they are learning, how they learn best, what they do not understand, and how to apply their learning in a variety of situations, students are becoming aware not only of what they are learning, but that they are learning, they are changing. Metacognitive activities demonstrate to students that they are responsible for their own learning, that only they can choose to change. Teachers in a metacognitive classroom can help their students through the stages of concern by designing metacognitive opportunities and by offering positive comments that show the students that they are learning: I m pleased with what you've learned by doing this essay or You have learned this very well!

Teacher intervention

By talking with students about the change process, by addressing the stages of concern as we plan our awareness and information lessons, and by demonstrating to our students that they are capable of learning and changing, we are already intervening indirectly in our students stages of concern. But intervention can also occur more directly. Teacher intervention in the change process can assist students in moving through the stages of concern more easily and quickly.

Such intervention involves using techniques that are appropriate to each individual stage of concern. That means that teachers must become skilled in identifying the stages of concern in their students and assessing the immediate needs of those students. Table 2 shows typical responses to each of the stages of concern.

In general, appropriate responses to the two most crucial stages, personal and management , include the following:

PERSONAL STAGE: We must be able to say, in truth , that we understand how hard change is, that we appreciate the hard work, and that, with time and effort, the students will succeed.

MANAGEMENT STAGE: Here is the perfect place for styles and strategies training, and for coaching in time management and priority setting. Being able to identify their learning strengths and to practice overcoming their weaknesses empowers students at this stage.

One caution: teachers must be careful, during this stage, not to get too far ahead of their students in the change process. As teachers, we can see the next stages ( consequences, collaboration, refocusing ), but the students may have not yet moved beyond the struggles of the personal or the management stage of concern. Students who have intense personal concerns will have little or no receptivity to solutions to management or collaborative concerns, and inappropriate responses to the needs of the students may actually hinder their progress. The intervention of the teacher in the change process should, therefore, be focused on reducing concerns at a specific stage.


This article has recommended that foreign-language teachers investigate and then promote the integration of the change process into their classes. Of course, the decision to incorporate change in the language classroom will not be easy. Teachers committed to this change in their teaching approach need time to plan the explanations and discussions. They need to become more responsible for providing students with the long-term objectives and rationales for teaching and learning that will allow their students to take charge of their own learning. And they need to develop explicit criteria for evaluation and the consequences surrounding student choice, so that their students can become aware of and understand the expectations of the class. Only then can students become responsible for anticipating and fulfilling those expectations.

In order to facilitate these changes, teachers will need patience with themselves and their students, time to develop their ideas, and the necessary resources to implement the changes. They will need to remember, to practice, and to motivate themselves with the idea that these changes will be beneficial for their students.

The principal benefit for foreign-language students in a change-process classroom is the formation of independent learning skills. For example, students who understand the relationship between education and change, and who realize that the stages of concern are shared by other learners, may be able to move through the crucial personal and management stages more easily. In addition, teaching students about their choices in the learning (the change) process can give students a sense of responsibility for their own learning. While students may initially find this responsibility burdensome, it will, with time, patience, and resources, benefit and empower them.


  • Goldenberg, C. and R. Gallimore. 1992. Changing teaching takes more than a one-shot workshop. Educational Leadership, 47, 7, pp. 69 71.
  • Gresso, D. W. and M. B. Robertson. 1992. The principal as process consultant: Catalyst for change. NASSP Bulletin, 76, 540, pp. 44 47.
  • Hord, S. M., W. A. Rutherford, L. Huling-Austin and G. Hall. 1987. Taking charge of change. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Kirkpatrick, D. L. 1987. How to manage change effectively. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.
  • Schlossberg, N. K. 1987. Taking the mystery out of change: By recognizing our strengths and building on them we can learn how to master transitions. Psychology Today, 21, pp. 74 76.
  • Stoller, F. 1991. IEP administrators perceptions of programmatic innovation. Doctoral dissertation, Northern Arizona University.

Joy Reid teaches and coordinates the ESL support program in the English Department at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Her interests include computers and composition, discourse analysis, and contrastive rhetoric. She has written several ESL composition textbooks; her newest book is _Teaching ESL Writing_.


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Table 1

CBAM Stages of Concern

awareness: This initial stage might be called unawareness
; it occurs before a student knows much about the idea or the issue (the change).
information: This is the stage during which the student
wants to know more about the idea or the issue, and the teacher has the opportunity to give information about the change.
personal: During this crucial stage, the student makes a
commitment to the change.
management: This is the period during which the student
struggles to accommodate the change.
consequences: The person in this stage of the change
process has successfully implemented the change in one area and is now able to apply what s/he has learned in other areas, and to evaluate the results.
collaboration: During this stage, the student reaches
outward, beyond him/herself, to see how others have managed the change.
refocusing: The student now has adapted the change to fit
his/her needs, actually making changes within the change to make the change work better for him/her.

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Table 2

Responses to the Stages of Change

awareness "I m not very interested."
information "I'd like to know more about it."
"What does it mean?"
personal "How will it affect me?"
"It looks very hard."
"I don't think I ll be very good at doing it."
Management "I'm spending all my time trying to do it."
"It's taking too much time."
Consequences "How will my other professors evaluate it?"
"What will happen when I do it for others?"
collaboration "How are others doing it?"
"I'd like to share what I m doing with others."
Refocusing "I have some ideas about it that would make it work better."
"If we changed this part, it would be more successful."

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