Teach English: Correlation and Causation

Teach English Writing Concepts

This lesson helps ESL students improve the quality of their writing, speaking and thinking by understanding the differences between correlation and causation.

Learning these vital concepts helps students write logical stories and essays by avoiding post hoc fallacies. It also helps them develop critical thinking skills and an ability to express complex ideas in writing and conversation classes.

Developing an ability to identity and evaluate cause and effect relationships is not easy for students, especially those coming from an education system that emphasizes rote memorization. Finding causality requires a degree of imagination and a willingness to inquire, to dare and explore ideas.

In that sense, imagination fosters understanding.

Lesson Purpose

By the end of this lesson, ESL students will:

  • define correlation and causation
  • explain the differences between the two concepts
  • demonstrate that knowledge in practice exercises
  • apply that knowledge in a writing assignment

Step 1 – Basic Correlations

Introduce the idea of superstition. It is a belief that a supernatural force causes another event (good or bad) to happen. Basically, superstitious people believe there is good and bad luck and that these things can be influenced by human actions. Here are a few examples.

  • A baseball player does not change his socks when he is hitting the ball very well for many games. He thinks those socks bring him good luck and that luck makes him hit the ball well.
  • In Korea, mothers do not serve seaweed soup (very delicious BTW) for breakfast if a son or daughter has a test on that day.

Here is the basic sentence pattern of superstitions.

  • A happens before B.
  • Therefore, A causes B to happen.

Step 2 – Articulate Correlations

A correlation tells us that two actions change and that their change seems to be connected.

Correlations can be expressed in many ways. It is sometimes easier to understand correlations when we use these sentence patterns:

  • the more …, the more …
  • the less …, the less …
  • the more …., the less …
  • the less …, the more …

For example:

  • The more I wear these socks, the more I hit the ball.
  • The more seaweed soup I eat for breakfast, the lower my test score.

There are three key points with correlations:

  1. They show WHAT things change or move. They can also tell us HOW MUCH things change.
  2. Correlations do not tell us WHY things change. Correlations do not explain change.
  3. Correlations are useful because they show us where we should focus our attention when we want to understand why things change

Explaining change – describing why things change – is what we call causation.

Step 3 – Basic Causation

Ask students to consider this correlation:

  • The more time students spend in the library, the better their test scores.

Is it true? Does more time in the library help students get better test scores?

I think most people might say no. The number of hours in a library does not affect scores. Sometimes people don’t study in the library. They sleep, play games, chat with friends or read books not related to their tests. So, it might be better to say this:

  • The more time students study the classroom material and textbook, the better their test scores.

This library example helps us to understand the difference between correlation and causation.

Causation is cause and effect. When one event happens we know what the result will (or might) be.

Look at these correlations. Do they also tell us a good cause and effect connection?

Science suggests that each of these correlations also contains a reasonable and logical cause and effect connection. However, those connections are not obvious at first, so we need to use our imagination or existing knowledge.

Here are some examples of possible explanations that show us a link between cause and effect.

  • Sleeping improves learning because memories of facts and actions become deeper in the brain when we sleep.
  • Loud music in a bar causes people to drink more beer because it’s too noisy to have a conversation, so people drink when there is nothing else to do.
  • Breakfast helps people become thin because they aren’t hungry during the day, so they eat less junk food, which is makes people fat.

There are two key points with causation:

  1. It shows WHAT things change or move.
  2. Causation also tells us WHY things change.

Step 3 – Classroom Practice

Look at these charts. Describe the relationship as a correlation. Do you think there is a cause and effect relationship? Explain.

Step 4 – Apply Your Knowledge

By now, the students should have a pretty good idea about correlations and causation. Let’s put that knowledge to work.

  1. Watch this short video (about 4 minutes).
  2. Identify the main correlation presented by the speaker.
  3. Answer this question: does this sound like a reasonable causal relationship? Explain your idea with reasons.

I use this exercise as a prompt for a one or two page writing assignment, but it could easily work in a conversation class.

Teaching Notes

A summary of my suggested answers and thoughts (for your consideration) are below.

  • Correlation: the more money a country has, the longer the life span in that country.

That’s the basic idea of the speaker’s presentation. The speaker tends to mix words, like health and wealth however.

  • Most of my university students could identity a suitable correlation. Most students seemed to think the correlation was true (i.e. there is cause and effect), but had a hard time imagining what the specific links might be.
  • A few students wanted to argue there was no causal relationship (a welcome breath of fresh air) or that there might a negative causal relationship.
  • With some prodding and a couple of examples, students eventually get around to the idea that money can buy things which have a direct impact of life span, like access to a plentiful supply of healthy food, sanitary water systems, access to medicine that can cure or prevent disease, medical technology, hospital services.
  • Some even got around to the idea that wealth creates the possibility of leisure which leads to less stress which can have a positive impact on life span.

In all cases, I asked students to make the linkage between money and life span as clear as possible.


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Image Credits

Featured image by Martina K. Its use complies with the owner’s creative commons licensing terms.



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