What we can learn from Michel Thomas?


A kid who loves football learns all about it effortlessly.

Learning with Michel is just as effortless.

Woody Allen


A distinctive focus on what and how to teach leads to successful learning.

I was never a natural linguist. In one school report, my French teacher sneered that I would never pass GCSE. Languages always seemed to go in one ear, and out the other. Ten years later, I can speak French, Spanish and German conversationally, and I’m just starting Russian – thanks to one man’s teaching method.

Michel Thomas mastered ten languages and taught them prolifically. His approach offered perennial monoglots like me the chance to master languages like a polyglot. It did the same for Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and Eddie Izzard. Stephen Fry called it ‘a unique and perfectly brilliant way of teaching languages’. Schools in England are benefiting, starting with this BBC documentary in 1997 and culminating in its endorsement in 2007 from the Dearing Languages Review, whose authors report its ‘considerable success and motivated learners’. The students themselves said, ‘we learned in one week what normally takes five years.’ So how does his teaching achieve such successful learning?

In a nutshell, Michel Thomas sequences what you need most and checks whether you’ve retained it. For instance, if you’re learning French, you don’t start by learning the colours, days of the week, months of the year or directions round town, as with most courses. Instead, Michel teaches you powerful verbs, so that after just a few hours, you can ask ‘are you going to do it?’ and say ‘I want to go with you’. He selects the most useful concepts and combinations. He then sequences and checks them in a fast-paced interactive dialogue that requires frequent memory recall. You practice verb combinations until you’ve mastered them. His analogy is that this gives you the ‘backbone’ for you to bulk out with the ‘flesh’ of vocabulary in the country. I tried his audio language teaching before I went to Spain, then Germany and, like Woody Allen before me, for the first time in my life, I began learning languages effortlessly.

A distinctive focus on what and how to teach: the lessons we can learn from Michel Thomas are revealed by Jonathan Solity, professor in educational psychology at UCL, in his book The Learning Revolution. From it, I’d distil five key ideas: optimal selection, interleaved learning, separation of minimal differences, distributed practice, and instant feedback. Solity suggests that applying these insights to teaching results in successful learning.


Optimal Selection

Ask: what is the most useful content for students to learn?

Identify coherently what is used most often.

Select judiciously the optimal amount to teach: not too little content as to be inadequate, not too much as to be useless or confusing.

Teach the core concepts to allow students to generalise from specific instances to any number of other examples and to apply widely valuable information.


Interleaved Learning

Sequence the logical single steps in a gradual progression from easiest to hardest skills and concepts.

Introduce new material always alongside familiar material for long-term memory retention.

Build up incremental, cumulative learning by revisiting and rechecking.

Revisit and revise to signal what is important and what is to be remembered.


Separation of Minimal Differences

Present concepts through a range of positive and negative examples, including exaggeratedly similar, exaggeratedly different and minimally different examples: the critical difference is how the examples are sequenced.

Separate potentially confusing items, concepts and skills to minimise confusion.

Show examples consistent with the rule before introducing exceptions.


Distributed Practice

Practise, revisit and reinforce a handful of core concepts in many different contexts.

Facilitate progress with dedicated, distributed practice (little and often) and the simple but powerful act of frequent recall.

Give frequent opportunities that demand recall of taught information.

Get students to experience success, progress and improvement.


Instant Feedback

Give frequent, specific praise and constant instant feedback to correct what will be most helpful to improve.

Correct mistakes by either asking questions or shaping (model-ask-again model-ask-again).

Use errors and misconceptions as feedback on your teaching to guide future decisions about what and how to teach the subject.

Solity is right to point out the similarity of these ideas with the insights of direct instruction. Equally fascinating is how well it dovetails with decades of scientific research in cognitive science. A 2013 study on Applying Cognitive Psychology to Education showed distributed and interleaved practice to have the highest utility of any learning techniques, as their benefits generalise across four categories of variables: learning conditions, student characteristics, materials, and task types. Solity argues that Michel Thomas offers a ‘radically different way of thinking about raising achievement that focuses exclusively on what is taught and how, areas that are within every teacher’s sphere of influence.’ It is this distinctive focus on what is directly within our sphere of control as teachers that is so useful.

But Solity also sees in this the promise of a ‘radical rethink and change to the way students are taught’. Pioneering academy chains such as ARK are using a specialist Maths curriculum that applies these principles – as the Head of Maths at King Solomon Academy in Westminster comments on this post. Pimlico Academy is trailblazing a grammar course that optimally selects content, interleaves learning, distributes practice and gives instant feedback. The Curriculum Centre has designed a groundbreaking arts curriculum that integrates these insights. The radical rethink is underway.

Solity, J. 2008: The Learning Revolution

BBC 1997: Michel Thomas, The Language Master.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., and Willingham, D. 2013: Applying Cognitive Psychology to Education


About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to What we can learn from Michel Thomas?

  1. I also love this method; improved my school level languages no end! Second time that I’ve encountered the term ‘interleaved learning’ tonight; another powerful idea that often gets overlooked.

  2. Rory says:

    When learning a foreign language, or anything else new: repeat, repeat repeat, restate, restate, restate, retell, retell, retell.

  3. Rory says:

    I like these summaries very much. They capture many skills, tools and solutions succinctly. Thanks, Rory

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  6. Jon-Eric says:

    Speaking of interleaving, shouldn’t your post be interleaved with “What we can learn from (whomever) Michel Thomas (appropriated his method from)”? Thomas gets a lot of credit as a result of having targeted high profile, articulate students in the entertainment (i.e. the PR) industry. There is a much more likely candidate for the originator this method of language teaching (at least in this form) pre-Michel Thomas, and the roots to go back further than that.

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  9. Clive says:

    After learning French with Michel Thomas and being completely inspired I introduced it in to my school’s MFL department (They’re v positive about it) – a really effective way of getting pupils to actually construct spontaneous sentences and speak the language naturally – as opposed to formulaic learning of passages. I’ve always been frustrated by most pupil’s inability to have an informal conversation even after 5 years of learning French. The Michel Thomas methods gets pupils constructing their own sentience a immediately.

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