HomeGrammar, Vocabulary, & PronunciationGoldilocks and the three answers

Goldilocks and the three answers




Group of five young children jumpingIn her first blog post for OUP, Barb Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of the Let’s Go series, considers how introducing language to young learners requires an approach that’s ‘just right’.

Imagine if you will, that Goldilocks teaches English as a foreign language to children. Her students have been learning about animals and are talking about which animals they like and dislike. She asks one of her students, “Do you like bears?” Assuming that the student does indeed like bears, which of the following answers does Goldilocks hope for?

Yes, I do.
Yes, I do like bears.

All three answers are possible, but like Goldilocks looking for her porridge, only one of them is just right.

Yes, I do like bears is too long. It falls into the category my co-author Carolyn Graham calls “not real English.” Grammatically, it’s possible, but is unlikely to be heard in conversation.

Yes! is too real. It’s a shortcut answer that’s convenient when everyone understands that yes is followed by additional (unspoken) information. Children learning English as their first language develop a passive language foundation that helps them do this. Goldilocks knows that her foreign language students get most, if not all, of their language foundation in her class. Unless she exposes her students to longer answers, they aren’t likely to learn that the implied meaning of yes changes, based on the question asked:

Are you happy? Yes, I am.
Is this a star? Yes, it is.
Is he twelve? Yes, he is.
Do you want some cake? Yes, I do.
Can you ski? Yes, I can.
Have you ever seen a bear? Yes, I have.
Will you study tonight? Yes, I will.

The answer, Yes, I do, is short enough to be “real,” but long enough to contain the information students need to build a language foundation that will eventually help them become successful readers and writers in English. That’s why Goldilocks knows that it’s just right.

These just right answers also help students make connections between related language patterns, so even before they’re grappling with literacy, they can more easily access a larger repertoire when trying to express their own unique ideas.

For example, both of these questions are related to the same original statement: I like bears.

What do you like? I like bears.
Do you like bears? Yes, I do.

It’s easier for children to remember them as variations on a similar theme than as individual patterns, each requiring its own distinct file folder in a child’s memory.

The key to making these slightly longer answers as easy as the shortcut answers is fluency. Once students have learned to answer Yes, I do with natural rhythm and intonation, it’s no more difficult to say than Yes (and much more useful!)

One of my favorite activities to quickly build speaking fluency is one I learned from another of my co-authors, Ritsuko Nakata.  She does what she calls 6-second drills, but I’ve never met children who saw them as anything but fun activities. The name comes from the amount of time these “drills” take in class. Children have a task in which the language is embedded. For example, you might ask children to repeat Yes, I do three times quickly, then stand up, raise their hands, and shout Finished! Next, you might ask them to whisper, or to clap three times before standing.  Since it’s silly to begin with, children enjoy making it a race, to see who can speak the fastest.

Ritsuko Nakata 6-second drill from Barbara Sakamoto on Vimeo.

As Goldilocks knows, we have many options to choose from when we introduce language to young learners. Our job as teachers is to find the one that’s just right for our learners.

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  1. Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for an interesting post. I certainly agree with you about the ‘too long’ answer. Those used to be expected as answers in tests at my school but luckily that’s no longer the case. I think the ‘Yes, I do’ answer is useful for establishing good language habits early on – much better than a lazy ‘Yeah’ for sure. I still find it a bit unnatural though. After a time, I do start to expose my learners to more natural answers such as ‘yes, but not much’, ‘oh yes, a lot’, ‘yes, that’s my favourite animal’ and so on.

    However, that comes later. As you say, when introducing language we need the right balance to keep it simple.


  2. […] called Goldilocks and the three answers and it’s over on the OUP English Language Teaching Global Blog. The post is about the […]

  3. Thanks, David, for your thoughtful comment.

    I’ve seen your work, and have gotten to know you a bit through our various online networks, so I believe that when your students answer “Yes” they also understand the rest of the answer that’s implied, because you’ve made sure that they’ve learned it.

    What I see sometimes is that teachers start with the simple “Yes” or “No” answer because it’s easy, but and never move beyond. In some cases, the teachers won’t be teaching the same children in a year or two, so there’s no strong motivation to tackle what’s perceived as difficult, and the parents are happy just to hear their kids speaking 🙂

    The problem comes later, for the teacher who has to tackle reading and writing. Then, students have to learn the longer forms because they’re more common in written English. At this point, the entire linguistic load is heavier, and adding the longer forms of answers just adds to it.

    Much easier to teach them from the start, when the overall language load is light!

  4. Hi Barbara

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post here. I agree with you about teaching “Yes, I do!” “No, I can’t” type answers and I usually insist on these short answers from an early stage, to get students into the habit of using them naturally.. I find that doing lots of fun drills and quick-fire question and answer sessions usually work really well.
    Thanks for sharing your views.

    • I think you’ve hit on an important key, here, Janet! Keeping the pace lively with fun drills and quick-fire Q&A practice definitely makes it much easier to become fluent with using the language at natural speed.

      The students who learn natural English at natural speed find the longer answers just as easy as the shorter ones 🙂

  5. What do you think about using negative questions to elicit the positive response? For example “You don’t like bears?” when you’re expecting that the child does like bears. In that case the natural language response, “Yes, I do”, is the same as the response you’re hoping for.

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