Learning Contracts and Language Learning (part 2): how I’ve used one and what I’ve learnt (other than a lot of Italian!)

On the 4th June this year, a day after I arrived back in the UK from la bella Sicilia, I considered the potential utility of learning contracts and then proceeded to make myself one, with the vague goal of maintaining my Italian while in a non-Italian-speaking environment:

This is my learning contract, dutifully copied and pasted into Evernote.

This is my learning contract, dutifully copied and pasted into Evernote!

And here are the research questions that I also had in mind when I made it:

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 19.43.10

I wondered…

I also promised an update regarding my use of my learning contract, and its effect on my learning, one month on. And here we are, one month on! That was quick. I am happy to say that learning Italian has become a regular feature in my days and weeks, despite the last two being swamped by induction into a new job and first week doing said job.

But the big question is…

Have I managed to keep to my contract?

Pretty well, yes!

There were two days in the first week where I didn’t manage to do my extensive listening, because I wasn’t organised and I was on the move. (By lack of organisation, I mean I hadn’t got as far as putting something in Italian on either my iPod or iPad, so couldn’t listen on the train, which was the only free time I had on those days.) Apart from that, I have mostly stuck to it. The first week was the most difficult because I spent several days not quite getting on with it. I was on the move, so even the easy bits like extensive listening weren’t easy logistically, and as for the rest, basically there were all these activities many of which I wasn’t in the habit of doing, and I just wasn’t sure which to start with. However, as the week wore on, I decided I had better pull my finger out and managed to do everything on my contract just in time. The second week and onwards, I’ve got stuck in right from day 1 of the week, and have managed to fulfil the contract with time and activities to spare. Except for Saturday 28th June, when I was at a conference and the train ride was spent finishing preparations for that, and on a bit of extensive reading, and the rest of the day was full of conferencing and catching up with one of my friends from my M.A. course who was also attending. Extensive listening fell by the wayside again! (Even though I had Harry Potter e la Pietra Filosofale on my iPad! If only the journey had been half an hour longer…)

Harry Potter is good for journeys - as long as there isn't a conference I haven't prepared fully for at the other end of the journey...

Harry Potter is good for journeys – as long as there isn’t a conference I haven’t prepared fully for at the other end of the journey…

I would give myself 97% success rate of sticking to the contract. (My maths isn’t great but there were lots of successful days and only three non-successful days.) Also, with regards to extensive listening and reading, on the majority of days I have done more than then stipulated 20 mins a day.

What difference has it made to my learning?

  • It’s pushed me to do a variety of activities which I wouldn’t otherwise be doing: and, in doing this variety of activities, over time, I’ve noticed how they can feed into each other and used this to my benefit. [And this is exactly what my Experimenting with English project is based on: encouraging learners to do a variety of out-of-class activities through scaffolding experimentation!]
  • It’s enabled me to do a lot of language recycling: I’ve noticed that language I pick up in a given activity (e.g. doing dictations) I sometimes meet in my input activities (e.g. extensive reading/listening) or I’m able to use productively (e.g. writing my blog or chatting on Facebook messenger)
  • It’s motivated me: If I didn’t need to do all those activities each week, I wouldn’t be waking up extra early to get something done before going to work, for a start! And I’d probably just be drifting along reading and listening a bit. Also, the noticing (bullet 1) has become another motivating factor – I love it when something I’ve learned from one activity crops up in another!
  • My  productive vocabulary is growing: for starters, I take language from input-based activities and use it, rather than just recognising it ad nauseum. Quizlet has become my friend, I put a lot of language into it and use it to drill myself. But I particularly like the mobile app, which I use on my iPad, and specifically within that, the learn function. It gives me a prompt and I have to type in the Italian. If I get it right, I get a green tick and it goes to learnt, but I have to get it right a few times before it goes to mastered. If I get it wrong, it highlights the mistakes and then corrects them. I like that because it makes the errors vs the correct version really visual. Eventually they all transfer to mastered and you get a percentage score based on your accuracy during the process. I have scored 100%…once! The increase in my productive vocabulary has helped me feel more confident in my speaking and writing. (Speaking in terms of chatting on FB messenger and in terms of recording myself speaking. I also chatter away to myself in Italian while cycling to and from work each day – but perhaps I shouldn’t be admitting to that! :-p ) I use Quizlet a lot more often than once a week now (most days in fact!) and have 6 sets so far:
My Quizlet Sets!

My Quizlet Sets!

  •  It’s given me a sense of control over my learning: I chose the activities, and how I fit them into my week is flexible. I think a week is a useful unit. It means you can have slightly more and less productive days, though by the nature of my contract some stuff needs to be done every day, as long as within a week you do everything you stipulated in the learning contract. The quantity of stuff encourages piecemeal chipping away at it. Also, by keeping a record of what I do each day, I know exactly where I am with my list and what I still need to do in any given week. I manage my study time accordingly.
  • It’s give me a framework for my learning, yet it is flexible: Since starting with my LC, I have experimented with activities not on the list too. For example, a trip to Foyles bookshop resulted in the purchase of a set of Italian Magnetic Poetry, which has taken up residence on my fridge. The first thing I did was classify them all into (from left to right) adjective stems, noun stems, verb stems, conjugated verbs, verb/other endings (I started out just with “verbs” but there were too many!), prepositions, articles, pronouns, adverbs, question words, conjunctions, and expressions/negatives. There were also a few I didn’t know what to do with (the column starting celeste) and the cluster I wasn’t sure of the meaning of (to the right). They were all mixed up on sheets that I had to break into individual words. This classification activity was very satisfying:
I particularly enjoyed classifying All The Words...well, nearly all!

I particularly enjoyed classifying All The Words…well, nearly all!

I have also used them to try and make actual sentences:

fridgemagnetsinuse

How many mistakes can you spot? :-p

I haven’t used them as much as I would have liked though. One of my goals for the next month is to experiment with them and try to find different ways of using them.

Buying this set of magnets got me thinking about word games in general, and that started a little trend. First I got out my bananagrams game and did some solitaire criss-crosses:

My first attempt!

My first attempt!

There is a cluster of useless letters to the right, which I had to remove, and then two letters I was unable to use. The canny amongst you will notice there are 2 “z”‘s there: that was a mistake – first I thought there was only one “z” as per Scrabble and thought there weren’t any words with only one “z” (I could only think of double “z” examples) and by the time the second one emerged I had forgotten about the first. In the second game, I managed to use up all but one letter:

Only one left out!

Only one left out! Although looking at the picture now, why didn’t I just make “tu” using the “t” in “ripete”?! I didn’t suss the whole “z” thing till game 3…

I didn’t complete these games in one go, of course. I just added a word here and there when I came up to my room (where the table is). My justification for these little forays: It’s all incidental use of language. I thought about Italian and Italian words slightly more than I otherwise would have done: couldn’t hurt. Also had me drilling myself with all the words I could think of, trying to find one which would match whichever letters I had at the time! And finally, it’s FUN! 🙂

I also picked up a very cheap set of Scrabble Fridge magnets. Now, there’s no room on my fridge (for obvious reasons) but that hasn’t stopped me using them to a play a very odd version of Scrabble:

Strange Scrabble

Strange Scrabble

It was fun to introduce scoring into the equation, however strangely the scoring worked. Of course, now I have a hankering to play real Italian Scrabble with an Italian Scrabble set and ideally an Italian opponent! 🙂

  • I’ve discovered more about how the activities I do can be useful. A good example of this is dictations: dictations are back in fashion these days, various versions (e.g. running, shouting etc. dictations) are popular in the classroom, and some websites offer learners the opportunity to use them outside the classroom too. I hadn’t thought about dictations as an autonomous listening development tool, but through using them myself, I have understood more about their potential, which resulted in this blog post. This is something I will be able to pass on to my learners.
A dictation: If you want to know what all the highlighting and colours are all about, click on the picture...

A dictation of mine: If you want to know what all the highlighting and colours are all about, click on the picture…

What have I learnt so far?

  • Variety is great: Doing a variety of activities increases exposure to language, productive use of language and recycling of language in different contexts. This can’t be a bad thing.
  • Regularity is great: Working with the unit of a week, and having a fairly lengthy list of activities, study periods need to be regular for me to get through it all. Little and often has worked well. (With the odd longer session thrown in on the rare occasions where time has permitted!)
  • Record-keeping is key: It’s so much easier to operate when you know what you’ve done and what you want to do within a given time-frame. Having a record of activities done (and lengths of time where relevant) is also motivating, as the list grows.
  • Reflection is satisfying: I did a written reflection each week, looking back on the week and what I’d achieved as well as how I felt about my progress. It’s very satisfying to reach reflection day each week and look back on a week full of activities and the new relationships emerging between said activities.
  • Activities don’t have to involve “meaningful use of language” to be meaningful and valuable: As long as there is variety and within that variety there are activities which do involve meaningful use of language, other activities e.g. Quizlet and dictations etc. have their place too. Both, for example, have improved my spelling! Quizlet has improved my recall, dictations have improved my decoding skills.
  • How activities interact is also key: Within a variety of activities, it’s helpful if you can link them together, and thus wind up doing a lot of language recycling. E.g. picking up a phrase through a dictation activity and then using it in a Facebook chat.
  • Real communication is hugely motivating: I’ve enjoyed several chats on Facebook, with an Italian IHPA colleague of mine. Chatting with C. has given me the opportunity to experiment with the language that I’ve picked up through other activities and get feedback on what I produce. It’s also been a lot of fun, nice to keep in touch, and the source of a lot of learning. As I said, I’ve taken language from other activities to the chats, but also vice versa – e.g. recording what I thought were “good” phrases on Quizlet and using it to learn them. I’m particularly lucky because she uses a range of error correction techniques, and for the majority of the time these a) make me think and b) don’t disrupt the flow on the conversation.

Goals for next month:

  • Continue following the LC!! It’s working so far, can it work for another month or will I lose interest?
  • Experiment with the magnetic poetry and figure out how to make it work for me.
  • Investigate Italian corpora/concordancing tools (they must exist!) and find one that works for me: when I learn new words, I often think it would be really useful to have an Italian version of www.wordandphrase.info to generate a bunch of examples of that word/chunk in use, so that I can see how it used, rather than only knowing what it means and say one example of use.

Conclusions thus far:

  • My first research question remains unanswered: a longer period needs to pass before I’ll know whether the LC has helped me maintain motivation over a longer period!
  • My second research question seems to have been answered positively thus far: Yes, I have managed to do what is on my LC and then some, and yes it has definitely made a difference!
  • For the naysayers: You could argue that the motivation is also coming from the fact that I really want this LC to work. But, on a daily basis, that isn’t what is motivating me – my motivation is mostly from enjoying the mixture of activities and using the language (which I love!), and from the satisfaction of doing what is on the LC and producing my lengthy record of things I have done, which lives in Evernote and is growing into a source of lovely smugness :-p :
The smugness of doing... ;-)

The smugness of doing.. 😉 [an extract from Evernote]

  • Overhauling my Experimenting with English project: Well, I was going to do this anyway, but now I have a bunch of activities that I’m very keen to add to the handout as well as more ideas for how to use it with learners! But that will have to wait until September when I’m back at good ol’ IHPA! (Meanwhile, I’m experimenting with applying my understanding and experience of learner autonomy development to a very different context: Sheffield University summer pre-sessional course, but that’s a whole nother blog post…)

Next update due: 5th August 2014: I shall report back on all my goals and progress with my LC then.

Meanwhile, have I convinced you to try using learning contracts/the concept of pushing experimentation with a variety of activities, either for your own language learning or with your learners? If so, let me know your thoughts by commenting on this post! I would also be interested to hear anybody’s thoughts on what I’ve been up to so far, whether or not you plan to try anything I’ve mentioned… 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Learning Contracts and Language Learning (part 2): how I’ve used one and what I’ve learnt (other than a lot of Italian!)

  1. I’d love to try this, but it is with Middle School students. Any suggestions? I’m thinking of something online, but guiding through a checklist. What do you think?

  2. Pingback: Autonomous skill development (3) – text mining | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

  3. Pingback: Learning Contracts and Language Learning (part 3): another month of outcomes | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

  4. Pingback: Learning contracts and language learning (Part 3): the end of the summer and beyond | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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