Helping language learners visualise their linguistic development: growing learning

My learners often struggle to recognise the progress they are making and how much work they do put in to their learning – both seem like a drop in the ocean compared to all the lacks – the “I can’t“‘s and “I have no time“‘s  that are all too clear to them and tend to be their focal point. Time spent on language study and progress made are quite intangible for a lot of the time, to the person using that time and making that progress. This can lead to lack of motivation and tailing off of initial enthusiasm.

Additionally, learners tend to avoid studying unless they have a substantial chunk of time to devote to it. Being busy people, with a range of commitments to juggle, clear hour-long chunks of time do not arise as frequently as they might like. However, what they often don’t realise is that there is value in “little and often” when it comes to language study.

When I started my reading project with my learners, I looked for a motivating way for them to record their reading and goals, but wasn’t able to find something that matched what I was after. This remained the case with the “Experimentation with English” project that came next in my series of initiatives.

With all this in mind, I wanted to come up with a new way of recording learning that would address some of these issues. I wanted:

  • motivating: way for learners to record their out-of-class work that would make them value short periods of time more highly
  • visually appealing: a way to enable learners to see at a glance how they are using what time they do have to dedicate to their language learning/use and to compare this with their own personal learning goals.
  • simple: the learners won’t use it if it’s overly complicated – and who could blame them!

What came about was a handout called

“Growing language skills – how many flowers can you grow?”

…which sounds ridiculous, I know, but, despite this, is a useful non-technological tool for my learners to use. (I’d like to technologise it too, turn it into a “motivation app” of some sort, but I haven’t yet figured out how, so for now it is a simple hand-out!)

The handout - with a flower courtesy of www.openclipart.org

The handout – with a flower courtesy of http://www.openclipart.org

What you don’t see in this image (because I did it manually post-printing and pre-photocopying!) is that I have divided up the entire image into small segments. Each segment represents 10 minutes. The idea is that learners use colour-coding. E.g. listening is blue, reading is red, writing is green, speaking is orange. (There is also space for them to add other things e.g. exam preparation) In this colour-coding example, if they read for 30 minutes, they can shade three segments in red. Of course many activities use multiple skills. In this case, learners need to decide what their goal is in doing that activity – which skill they are focusing on. I also added some instructions to act as a reminder. (See the completed versions below…)

Thus, as well as creating a visual of time spent on learning, the idea is that learners are encouraged to reflect on both their activity purposes and learning goals.

What you end up with is something like this:

Some students piloted it for about a month...

Some students piloted it for about a month…

Benefits:

  • Visual impact: A learner can look at his/her flower and see immediately how much of their time they are spending on any given skill, in comparison to other skills.
  • Motivation: Hopefully, they can feel some kind of satisfaction as the number of shaded segments grows. And if they shade in all the squares, they can have another handout and can start on their second flower. During a course, they can see how many language flowers they can grow. (This I haven’t been able to pilot yet, as I only had the idea late on in the course, so it’s only been a mini-pilot so far…)
  • Metacognitive development: Learners are encouraged to develop a habit of reflecting on their language learning activities, their own learning goals and how the two relate. It would be helpful to support this via in-class discussion around these handouts, both before learners start using them and during the period of time that they are in use. (With the dual purpose of ensuring they don’t get forgotten!)
  • Pride: Hopefully learners will feel proud of all the learning that is represented in their flowers, with the flowers playing the role of making that time and study more tangible and visible.

Feedback from one of my students (one whose flower is pictured above):

I think that the guided study flowers is important for student because he can notice all the activities he does every day and in this way he can know his improving!

So, learning and progress become more noticeable, more tangible. It’s only a very small tool, nothing earth-shattering, but can hopefully make a positive difference.

Issues:

  • It’s a flower. It’s sissy! Perhaps I need to come up with a design that is appealing to male as well as female learners. (Not that all female learners are automatically going to find flowers appealing!) Having said that, although the photographed examples are from ladies, a couple of my male learners did also use theirs. I’m planning to redesign it for my next lot of courses. Maybe there will be multiple design options!
  • What about the learners who do loads? Some of my learners are prolific in their guided study and rack up hours and hours and hours. They might find shading every ten minutes of every activity they do rather tedious. I wonder if I could make it so that learners could decide on how many minutes each segment would be worth.

Future directions:

  • Obviously thus far I have only used this idea with two classes, and only for a relatively brief length of time (dictated by when I had the idea!) so it’s still very much in the developmental stage. I’m currently overhauling my learner autonomy projects and trying to create a course plan (parallel course plan? It’s *not* the main course plan, but the idea is for it to run alongside that, as it has been doing but more systematically) that brings them all together systematically, so fitting this idea into that is one of my (many) challenges.
  • Introducing it needs more thought, as does how it is revisited, in order for it to be most useful to my learners in the long term. This of course ties in with the whole challenge of fitting it satisfactorily into the above-mentioned course plan. For this, more thought also needs to go into how best to mine the potential metacognitive benefits, in conjunction with other activities for metacognitive development.
  • I want to make it into an app. I think it’s a fairly straight-forward concept and wouldn’t be difficult to turn into an app. I envisage there being a choice of designs you can use, all of which would be already divided up into ten-minute chunks (or perhaps the student could specify the length of time, within reason – maybe between ten and thirty minutes). Learners would just have to attribute a skill to a colour, with x number of colours available. There could be some completed models with brief commentaries, to demonstrate.
  • I’d like to try it with my own Italian learning – but that will have to wait until I have access to a printer, since it isn’t an app yet! I’d be curious to see how my Italian learning time divides up between skills, especially as I am using my learning contract to try and bring more variety into my learning. I’m sure reading and listening extensively would dominate, but I wonder how everything else would stack up. Which makes me think that perhaps this idea is more intrinsically interesting when you are experimenting with new ways of learning: if you know that all you do is watch films extensively, then you already know which colour will dominate, whereas if you try a range of different activities over time, then it’s less predictable.

Watch this space…

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23 thoughts on “Helping language learners visualise their linguistic development: growing learning

  1. It’s a wonderful idea and I was wondering how I could replicate it for my learners. Is it perhaps more appropriate for younger learners? How old are your students?

    • I’ve only piloted it with adult learners so far (examples and feedback shown above are from those adults), but it would work nicely for younger learners, I agree. I think for adult learners, it’s important they see the point so that they recognise that it isn’t just gratuitous colouring in so that they don’t feel patronised. If you do replicate it, let me know how you do and how you get on – comment here or send me a guest post if you like! 🙂

      • I work with business professionals so I’ll have to find a way of corporatizing in some way 🙂 Will let you know how it goes.

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  3. Love it!!! I am already thinking of other takes on your idea … literally ‘building’ a lego tower coloured brick by coloured brick … other drawings. Thank you so much Lizzie!

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  6. Wow, this is a great approach! I really like how it enables the learners to visualise their learning and progress, something that is usually quite hard to do. The best part is that it transferable to all kinds of learning areas and subjects. You have inspired me to try and make some of these myself, although I think I’m going to go for a more adventure inspired design.

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  14. Thank you very much for this post. I’ve used a mandala as suggested and wrote some information about ‘little and often’. I hope that the students can see the value of coloring.

    I also included ‘flashcards’ because I want to inspire my students to use flashcards. Then I shared it with an English corner here and am waiting for feedback. Thanks so much everyone, great inspiration!

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