Useful IELTS Websites

Here is an annotated list of all the useful links I’ve found for helping students prepare for IELTS. I thought it would be a useful resource for anybody teaching IELTS (as this is what I would really have liked to find when I started!) and I will soon be adapting it and posting it as a resource specifically aimed at students on the Independent English blog (I promised my current class!). There were/are too many for all to be included in a ‘Top 10’ list but they are worth a look nevertheless; whether by you or your students! Let me know if you think there are any links that I should add or if any of the links are broken. I intend to keep adding links to this list, as I come across them.

IELTS! image taken from en.wikipedia.org via google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification

                                                            IELTS!                                                                           image taken from en.wikipedia.org via google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification

General

This website is very useful, containing sections on writing, reading, speaking, listening, grammar, vocabulary, with advice and opportunities for practice, as well as a section that brings together all the material available for download e.g. sample tests, sample answers for the writing etc. It also boasts a useful collection of student writing, for Writing Part 1 and Part 2, together with feedback on this.

The British Council Learn English IELTS page bills itself thus:

‘In our IELTS section you can find practice materials and advice to help you prepare for the listening, speaking, reading and writing modules of the IELTS test.

You can watch learners from different parts of the world give views and opinions about IELTS. There is a series of videos focusing on the speaking module of the test, as well as online practice activities and mock test papers for the other three modules.’

A good starting point for students, the official IELTS website contains all the information students/test takers need to know about how to register, how to find a test centre etc. It also contains a test sample for each of the 4 components and a complex set of FAQ’s.

Regularly updated with quiz questions relating to the various components of the IELTS exam, typical grammar and vocabulary, this Facebook page is linked with IELTS.org.

A collection of freely accessible practice materials for all four test components, put together by IELTS Exam-Net.

Lots of material for IELTS preparation here, focusing on each of the components as well as on relevant grammar and vocabulary for both General and Academic IELTS (the latter based on the Academic Word list) and providing lots of opportunities for learning how to approach the exam, practising and, in terms of the writing, seeing what other people have produced.

This website contains daily IELTS lessons from ‘Simon’, an ex-IELTS examiner. For example, the latest lesson is ‘IELTS Writing Task 1: using words from the chart’. There are categories for each of the components, and with the writing divided up into Academic Part 1, Academic Part 2 and General. There is also a section for general advice and for relevant grammar and vocabulary.

Reading

From IELTS Buddy, another clear overview of this component of the exam, detailing the different question types and requirements, with some useful tips.

From British Council Learn English IELTS page, this is a reading text and some questions, together with an answer key for checking afterwards.

This is a comprehensive page from DC IELTS which includes links to tutorials focusing on each of the reading question types, tutorials focusing on increasing your reading speed, tutorials focusing on the necessary reading sub-skills, a band calculator and some exam tips.

Listening

IELTS Buddy gives a clear overview of the listening component of the IELTS exam, as well as a selection of practice tests.

Students can do listening test practice on this part of the British Council Learn English IELTS page.

From the DC IELTS website, this page gives a clear overview of the listening component of the IELTS exam, together with links to 10 lessons that focus on various sub-skills that students need to be confident with in order to do well in this component. It also boasts a Band Calculator that students can use to translate their listening scores into IELTS bands.

Independent English is a site that was set up by DoS and teacher trainer Sandy Millin, with whom I have just entered into collaboration regarding this site. Its goal is to help learners learn independently by publishing posts that both offer a range of ideas and guide students through carrying them out. I haven’t posted any content yet (watch this space!) but Sandy has published this post on IELTS friendly podcasts, which brings together links to a range of podcasts on IELTS style topics e.g. science and global problems, and offers suggestions for using these effectively.

Speaking

Students can look at the assessment criteria for the speaking component of the exam here.

A series of videos put together by the British Council,  giving advice on how to approach the speaking component of the IELTS exam.

A comprehensive overview of the speaking component, this DC IELTS page contains a map of the speaking exam, tips for success, training videos, practice questions, focus on the exam format, on how to use preparation time, speaking component tutorials e.g. on pausing language, and ideas for practice, amongst others.

Writing

This post from the IH London Blog helps students prepare for the IELTS writing component, by focusing on how to structure a Part 1 and a Part 2 piece of writing.

Writing Part 1

‘IELTS Buddy’ provides sample Writing Part 1’s for all the possible task types and analyses the process of producing an answer to a Writing Part 1 task.

Again from ‘IELTS Buddy’, students can look at other students’ work together with feedback on it.

This is a link to the criteria used for marking Part 1 of the writing component of the IELTS exam.

A blog post from TEFL Reflections, of a podcast focusing on the Task Achievement category of the assessment criteria for Part 1. NB: This blog has other useful posts relating to the IELTS exam including focus on writing and on speaking.

This article on Exam English explains how to approach an IELTS part 1 with two sources of data within a single task, e.g. a graph and a table.

Writing Part 2

This blog post on the IH London blog focuses on how to improve your writing score by planning more effectively. NB: This blog contains other useful IELTS-related articles in its exams category.

In this section of IELTS Buddy, students can look at example part 2 essays written by other students, together with feedback.

And here is the criteria used for marking Part 2 of the writing component of the IELTS exam.

From Exam English, this is a detailed explanation of what examiners are looking for in the introduction and conclusion of a Writing Part 2 essay.

Another article from Exam English, this time explaining how Part 2 questions work and how to make sure you have answered them fully.

From DC IELTS, this page contains a wealth of material to help students with IELTS essay writing.  It looks at the different types of essay, structuring an essay, the process of writing an essay, some sample essays, vocabulary for essay writing, a focus on each portion of the essay (introduction etc.), and guidance on how to review your essay effectively once you’ve written it.

Vocabulary and Grammar

This is a link to all the lessons on the IELTS Simon site that focus on IELTS grammar and vocabulary-related topics, for example ‘IELTS Grammar: natural answers‘ and ‘IELTS Vocabulary: Band 7-9 words‘.

Quizlet

Quizlet is a useful website that allows you to review and memorise vocabulary, while having fun at the same time. Registration is free and can be done by setting up a new account or by using a Facebook or Google account. Students can access sets of flashcards that other test takers have made, or create their own. Quizlet can be used on both smartphone and tablet devices (Apple and Android) as well as your computer.

Here are some sets relating to IELTS that students can use:

Quizlet sets relating to IELTS speaking component.

Quizlet sets relating to IELTS writing component.

Quizlet sets relating to IELTS reading component.

Quizlet sets relating to IELTS listening component.

Here are some materials I wrote, which take you through the process of using Quizlet.

Memrise

Memrise is another site dedicated to learning while having fun. Registration is free and can be done by setting up a new account or using a Facebook account. Memrise can be used on both smartphone and tablet devices (Apple and Android) as well as your computer.

Here is a selection of the courses that have people have made to prepare for IELTS:

A selection of courses relating to IELTS. Memrise courses relating to IELTS

Other vocabulary resources

Exam English have made a timed quiz relating to words from the academic word list.

Also from Exam English, here students can find the academic wordlist and related tests.

From the DC IELTS website, this is a comprehensive set of activities linked with the Academic Word List, including activities that allow students to see the words used in the context of IELTS writing answers. Includes daily activities and review activities as well.

Wordandphrase.info is a tool for corpus analysis and the academic version enables one to search an academic corpus for words or phrases and generate concordances of examples showing how they are used, as well as definitions, synonyms, collocates and frequency information. Here are some materials I made, which guide you through the process of using www.wordandphrase.info. These materials focus on the general part of the site (www.wordandphrase.info) rather than the academic but the principal is the same. (Creating materials specifically focusing on the academic portion is on my list of things to do!)

Grammar-related links

Exam English have put together a twenty question grammar quiz for IELTS test takers.

This link, from the IELTS-exam.net website, offers offers “concise yet comprehensive coverage of the grammar necessary in order to be successful in the IELTS test.”

Exam strategies, techniques and tips

Put together by the British Council, students from all over the world give their opinions and tips for the IELTS test.

From IELTS Buddy, this is a collection of lessons relating to each of the four components of the exam, containing lots of tips for how to approach these most effectively.

This is a set of exam tips from the Exam English website.

The top five fears of IELTS test takers and how to overcome them.

Knowing the exam well is a key strategy, and this is a quiz from the DC IELTS page for students to find out where they are with this.

10 Tips to help students succeed in the speaking component, from DC IELTS.

Apps

If you are inclined towards the world of tablet and smartphone, as many are these days, here are a couple of apps that might be worth looking at:

This app was developed by Sam McCarter, writer of the Macmillan Ready for IELTS coursebook. It works on iPhone, iPad and Android devices. For free, you get access to a wide range of interactive activities to practice essential IELTS exam skills, and for £3.99 or five dollars, you get that plus ‘take the test with an interactive video examiner’, detailed hints and tips on all the different parts of the exam and an interactive ‘can do’ statement section with which you can score yourself. If the course book is anything to go by, then I would imagine that this app will be worth the small outlay. But even what’s available for free is already a jolly good start and surely worth downloading!

This is a free app developed by the British Council, which enables students to work on building up their IELTS-relevant vocabulary, through doing lots of quizzes and fun activities. There are different topics, typical to IELTS, such as ‘The Environment‘ and ‘Work and Business‘.

In the Classroom

Lesson plans and materials for helping students to prepare for each of the components, including some plans that require minimal materials/preparation.

More material ready to deploy in the classroom, together with advice on how to use it effectively.

For more resources that are useful for teachers (but also including books that are suitable for self-study), you might like to look at my recentTop 10 Resources’ list !

Again, If you know any other useful sites, please comment on this post so I can add the links to this collection! 

Motivation

Motivation is a slippery beast.

Amongst those who research it, there are many differing views (Dornyei and Ushioda 2012) but there is agreement with regards to its effect on human behaviour:

“Motivation is responsible for

  • why people decide to do something
  • how long they are willing to sustain the activity
  • how hard they are going to pursue it” (ibid: kindle loc 259, emphasis as per original)

A lot of investigation into motivation has taken place over the years, with various theories abounding to account for the origins of motivation, the effects of motivation, the effects of the absence of motivation and other such elements.

Motivation is fascinating.

It is something that everybody both enjoys and struggles with at various intervals. It can fluctuate hugely in a very short space of time. When you’re feeling motivated, you can’t imagine not being motivated by whatever it is that is motivating you at that time, but then something happens and your motivation nose-dives, at which point you find it difficult to imagine feeling motivated again. Motivation can be influenced by so many things, both external and internal. Of these influences, some will kindle motivation and some will dampen it, changes which may occur simultaneously, resulting in a sort of battle of influences, with victory being a very temporary state. Of course, with so many influences at play, it is difficult to identify which one is responsible for any change that occurs (Dornyei and Ushioda, 2012).

Motivation is closely entwined with learner autonomy.

My other passion, learner autonomy, is closely entwined with motivation. Nobody is going to dedicate any length of time or great effort to doing something that they are not motivated (whether that motivation be positive or negative) to do. Autonomous language learning, by nature, requires, amongst other things, motivation. The motivation to begin, and, as importantly, the motivation to keep going. Enthusiastic language study/use for two days followed by several weeks of doing nothing will have little effect on one’s competence. Indeed, Williams and Burden, 1997 (in Dornyei and Ushioda, 2012) highlight the need for language teachers to consider not only the arousal of interest but also the longer term process of helping learners sustain it. I would argue that this applies not only to motivation within the classroom across the duration of a course, but also to the motivation for learning outside the classroom.

Developing one’s language skills autonomously is hard work. It is hard enough work, when, as a teacher, you are very aware of how learning a language works: we know that it is slow, that progress may seem invisible, but we also know that every little helps and that perseverance is key. We know how important exposure to the target language, in all its forms, is; we know that a vast amount of this type of exposure is necessary for the effects to become apparent. We have awareness of different approaches to learning, different activities and the benefits of these, enabling us to combine them as we see best suits our needs. Of course, even with our knowledge of all these things, we are not immune to dips in motivation. There are far too many different elements that influence motivation for anybody to be immune to dips in it.

Motivation is long-term.

Perhaps, then, in terms of sustaining motivation, we ought to ask not only “how do I stay motivated?/how do I help my learners stay motivated?” but also “how do I rekindle my motivation when it dips?/how do I help my learners rekindle their motivation when it dips?” Take, for example, my Italian learning. Over the summer, while I was in the UK, I was, by and large, hugely motivated to improve my Italian. I worked so hard on it that my housemate dubbed my attic bedroom “Little Italy”. My key motivation was being able to converse in Italian when I got back to Palermo. Fast forward back to mid-October, and here I am. Have I spoken loads of Italian? No. Outside of work, there has been the odd bit of transactional communication, at work, the opportunities to actually converse, getting beyond pleasantries (hi, how are you, how was your weekend etc.) are few and far between. (I think I need PSP Speaking [on offer at IHPA – multilevel English conversation hour that students can freely sign up for, in addition to their courses] in Italian!)  Since returning to Palermo, my motivation has fluctuated a lot more than it did in the UK. I find this interesting because being in the target language environment is supposed to be motivational. It’s supposed to be harder to stay motivated when you are outside it. Perhaps this would be the case if you had no concrete plans to travel to the target language environment in the foreseeable future.

Motivation is problematic.

My first problem after getting back to Palermo was that I lost my overall driving goal – that of ‘being able to converse in Italian when I get back to Palermo‘. Initially I was very happy – I managed to do things like sort out my phone and internet in the phone shop unaided, a far cry from the same time last year, when I had no language and could do nothing independently. And then something happened. A week where, for the first time in ages, I didn’t meet my (updated) learning contract – by a long shot. I just hadn’t really bothered. Instead, I merely read my current book(s). After that week elapsed and I had even “forgotten” to do my weekly reflection (in Italian), I had a little emergency meeting with myself, to try and figure out what was going on. What was going on was that I didn’t feel motivated anymore. My outdated goal needed updating. It has now, as of a couple of days ago, become ‘I need to keep studying so that when opportunities to speak properly in Italian do occasionally arise, I haven’t lost all the language I was building up over the summer with afore-mentioned opportunities in mind’. The reflection and the goal-updating have helped my motivation somewhat. Of course one of my other motivations, that I love the Italian language, has remained a motivation – but that only motivates me to keep reading and to a lesser extent watching/listening in Italian. All well and good, but the speaking only gets rustier! What all of this highlights for me is some issues around goal-setting: goals need to be updated if circumstances change (but a change in circumstances may, of course, not be as big as a move between countries as in my example); lack of, or outdated, goals can result in lack of motivation; goals that are too general don’t have such a strong effect on motivation (“I want to be better at Italian” could be said to be a goal of mine, of course, but it is not specific enough to motivate me on its own.) Plenty of food for thought.

Motivation is inspirational. 

This whole process, spanning the months from June when I started learning Italian in earnest through until now, has on various occasions given me food for thought, leading me to wonder how to apply what I learn from my own experience to what I do with students in the classroom. The latest developments have lead me to delve into further experimentation with helping learners manage their motivation. I say “further” because my learner autonomy projects last year had a strong thread of this running through them. So perhaps this post is a very long-winded way of saying “stay tuned for more posts relating to motivation and language learning” !

References:

Dornyei, Z. and Ushioda, E. (2012) Teaching and Researching Motivation (Applied Linguistics in Action) Routledge. Oxon.

Teaching Academic Listening (and transferral to the General English classroom!)

This summer, I worked on a pre-sessional course for the very first time…

At Sheffield University, as well as teaching your tutor group writing skills and guiding them through the process of producing an extended written project, each teacher is responsible for teaching one of the other skills (reading, speaking or listening) to their own and a further two groups. For me, that skill was listening, 8 weeks of academic listening. And it was really interesting!

In this post, I’m going to share some of what I’ve done with my students and some of what I’ve learnt in the process. I also want to reflect on what might be transferable back to the general English classroom at International House, Palermo – rather imminently! (This post has been a few weeks in the pipelines!)

The 8 week listening thread of the pre-sessional course at Sheffield University was based on OUP EAP upper intermediate/B2 (de Chazal & McCarter, 2012) The listening skills development in this course book, to me, seems very strongly rooted in strategy development: students are equipped with strategies to use in order to help themselves listen more effectively to academic texts e.g lectures. Generic elements and functional language are teased out and students’ awareness raised, combined with scaffolded practice opportunities. This scaffolding is evident within units and across the book as a whole, where a gradual decrease can be identified, as students are expected to listen increasingly more independently.

This in mind, was all I had to do turn up and open to page x? Possibly not! In any case, having read a lot about teaching listening (e.g.Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action  Vandergrift and Goh 2012), much of which seemed applicable to academic listening, and adding to this what I had gleaned from the induction week as well as the relevant chapter in EAP Essentials (Alexander, Argent and Spencer, 2008), I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the listening skills thread:

  1. Include (systematically, with gradually decreasing scaffolding) review activities at the start of the class and reflective activities at the end. (3hr lessons lend themselves to this approach beautifully!)
  2. Avoid the scenario of students meeting a new strategy and then consigning it to the dusty depths of a folder, never to be used again.
  3. Enable students to track their progress/development and recognise an accumulation of strategies being at their disposal. Not only this but also encourage *regular use* of them.
  4. Linked to all of the above, help the students become more independent listeners.

How did I do this?

  • Long-term planning

I made a hand-out to accompany each class, based on the activities in the course-book. Each handout guided the learners through the lesson from reflection to main content to review, also highlighting any new strategies introduced, and I made several weeks’ worth in advance. The main reason for this was time-management, trying to free up time for intensive marking periods and planned absences (graduation, wedding). However, I noticed that it really helped the coherence, especially as I had Vandergrift and Goh (2012) in mind, in terms of systematically reducing scaffolding and guiding learners towards independence in planning, monitoring and evaluating their strategy use. There was clear progression, explicit progression, from one class to the next.

Result: 

Increased coherence, making the content more useful for students.

I had the ss fill in a feedback form at the end of the class - 4 questions, no numbers, to encourage reflection  (for them) and to gain an insight into their thoughts (for me).

I had the ss fill in a feedback form at the end of the class – 4 questions, no numbers, to encourage reflection (for them) and to gain an insight into their thoughts (for me).

Out of 36 responses, one was withholding judgement until he/she knew whether he/she had passed the USEPT exam (the university entrance proficiency test), one thought it was partly useful but felt we talked too much, and the rest were “yes”‘s.

Transferability: 

It’s different in a General English environment, as courses tend to be organised around grammar structures. However, what I want to try and do this year at IH Palermo is help students see how they are building on what they have learnt and be more systematic in how I approach my lessons in terms of review and reflection. Of course, being 1hr20 minute lessons rather than 3hr lessons limits the amount of time available for this. Nevertheless, working with the time available, a similar ratio could usefully be applied.

  • Strategy tables

Strategy tables kept and updated by the students over the duration of the course.

Strategy tables kept and updated by the students over the duration of the course.

I made these between week 2 and week three of the course, following the blank stares that emerged in the initial review section of week 2. The idea was to help students build up a reference/resource, where at a glance they can see what strategies they have learnt and how to use them. This means they should be more likely to use them independently, rather than systematically forget about them, as new strategies are encountered. I completed the first strategy as an example, gave the students a little bit of time at the end of the class in week three to start updating them (so as to ensure they knew what they were doing) and then sent them off under instructions to bring their tables up to date. An important thing that emerged from this was the fact that it was not an instant success. The following week, not all students had updated their tables. However, by bringing it back into the classroom each week at the beginning of the lesson (students would compare their tables), an expectation of autonomy was created. In due course, all the students did live up to that expectation. This coincides with the recognition of the value of what they are doing and the behaviour becomes truly independent rather than purely response to expectation.

Result: 

Students finished the course with a record of what they had learnt, a resource to take away, and a more independent approach to their listening skills development. Out of 36 responses, 35 were “yes” and one was “no”, who thought that there were too many strategies to juggle. This student hadn’t yet reached the point of being able to select strategies independently. With 8 weeks of teaching, expecting all students to reach that point may be a little over-ambitious. Many students commented that the strategy tables were useful for reviewing what had been learnt in previous lessons and made remembering the strategies and how to use them easier. I was particularly pleased with comments that cropped up regarding the utility of the strategy table beyond the end of the course. If learners can see how something is going to be useful to them long-term, they are likely to invest more in using it, and be more independent in their use of it.

Comments on the strategy table.

Comments on the strategy table.

Comments on the strategy table (2)

Comments on the strategy table (2)

 

Comments on the strategy table (3)

Comments on the strategy table (3)

 

 Transferability:

I think use of a strategy table would transfer nicely to exam preparation classes, where exam strategies are key to success. It could also potentially be useful in terms of accumulating a record of learning strategies met and experimented with, or resources. In the past, I have given learners a handout with different resources for them to try. I wonder if getting them to create this handout themselves, collaboratively perhaps, might be even more effective…

  • Listening logs

Listening log in action!

Listening log in action!

These were made and introduced alongside the strategy tables. The idea was not by own but based on what I’ve learnt by reading about teaching listening. I adapted it to this context. As with the strategy tables, I started the learners off with an example. The goals were to encourage independent listening, to help learners develop metacognitive awareness and to avoid the scenario (much bemoaned by listening teachers) of the question “What have you listened to since the last lesson? Which strategies have you practiced?” being met with blank stares. Again, as with the strategy tables, learners compared their logs at the beginning of each lesson.

Result:

Some students thought the log could be improved by including space for their actual note-taking. Others thought it wasn’t for them. Those that used it, however, did find it useful, as a means of structuring and tracking their out-of-class listening and tracking their progress.

Listening log comments (1)

Listening log comments (1)

Listening log comments (2)

Listening log comments (2)

Listening log comments (3)

Listening log comments (3)

Listening log comments (4)

Listening log comments (4)

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 20.39.30

Listening log comments (5)

Transferability: 

As I have learnt through my own language learning this summer, as well as through these students’ experiences, logging is an incredibly useful thing to do. I think it is very transferable to the General English classroom. Students can log their out-of-class study and in the process create a record of their efforts, achievements and progress. Personally speaking, I’ve found it a useful way of maintaining motivation. I think learning logs could be also usefully used in conjunction with something like a learning contract. I think it needs careful thought though, as to how valuable it’s going to be. For example with these students, it wasn’t just what they did that they recorded, but how they went about it (in terms of strategy choice) and reflections on that experience.

  • Reprocessing information/strategies

As well as using listening logs and strategy tables with the students, I also used classroom activities to encourage them to reprocess what they were learning and really internalise it. For example, mingles in which the students played strategy guessing games or simply recalled as many strategies (and what they involve) as they could in a given time frame, swapping partners frequently and repeating (generally also collecting and taking with them information/ideas from their various partners – enabling them to benefit from a collective understanding of what they were learning).

Another effective activity was getting students, in groups to create mind-maps of the strategies, which they then presented to their classmates:

Mind-maps (1)

Mind-maps (1)

IMG_0674

Mind-maps (2)

IMG_0673

Mind-maps (3)

Result:

This encouraged deeper processing both of what the strategies involved and how they relate to each other as well as to the task at hand. We did the activity in a lesson subsequent to one in which the focus of the lecture extract was on categorisation (e.g. Aristotle’s classification of the world) and using diagrams in note-taking, so this task also developed that theme by requiring students to categorise the strategies and present their ideas visually.

Transferability: 

Activities like this obviously have great transferability potential, and,  as well as encouraging deeper processing of lesson content, give students opportunity to use language meaningfully and benefit from each others’ knowledge and understanding.

  • Systematic introduction of out-of-class listening resources 

At the end of each class, I gave students a new resource to try (e.g. Oxford University podcasts, UCL lunchtime lectures etc.) and at the beginning of the next class, they had to report back to their classmates regarding what they had done with the resource and an evaluation of it. This was done in conjunction with using the listening logs described above. Again, uptake wasn’t instantaneous, but perseverance meant students did use the resources in due course – and develop their listening.

This was a more directed version of my Experimentation with English project. It seemed logical as EAP is more directed too: goals are very specific, and specific needs relating to these require specific resources. I think there is something to be said for for introducing resources piece-meal, in terms of not overwhelming students. Having said that, my students at IH loved the handout with all the different resources.

Transferability:

I wonder about using this approach in conjunction with my EE project. So, as well as giving learners the resource, going through a more directed process so that all the learners end up trying at least some of the resources. Then, those who are more independent will inevitably try more besides, but perhaps the gap between the more and less independent might be lessened by the extra direction.  I think this could also be transferable to exam preparation classes, in terms of encouraging students to use different exam preparation resources to prepare, and sharing what they learn with each other.

Conclusions:

It was a very interesting summer, and, I am happy to say, my three groups performed very strongly overall in the listening component of the listening proficiency/entrance exam. Importantly, they also felt they had made progress, thanks to the concrete means of measuring it (e.g. strategy tables and listening logs), which helped maintain motivation and encourage a feeling of all the hard work they were putting in being worthwhile. Equally importantly, they were equipped to continue to develop their skills independently and apply what they had learnt in the new context. (Encouraged by frequent pushing from me to reflect on the relevance of what we were doing to what they would be doing in the future – i.e. their university courses!).

I now look forward to trying to transfer what I have learnt to my current context and help my new students to be develop as effectively as possible over the short duration that they are studying with me.

 

 

Learning contracts and language learning (Part 3): the end of the summer and beyond

It’s been quite a while since my last update on my learning contract shenanigans. It was due on the 4th September, but…life has been rather attention-seeking since then! As you may remember, on the 4th June this year, I decided to make and attempt to stick to a learning contract. Month one saw me off to a positive start albeit taking a while to get my resources organised, month 2 was up and down motivation-wise, but the contract kept me on track when I started veering towards complacency on occasion. And now here we are at the end of month 3.5, meaning I’m heading back to Palermo! In fact, I am writing this on the flight in a final desperate bid to round up my summer of learning before I’m thrown headlong into the next phase.

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

A reminder of my learning contract, which lives in Evernote, in my Italian notebook!

Did I stick to my contract in month three? Yes. Despite mega-commitments to fulfil concurrently! Since then? No. There are only 24 hrs in a day and seven days in a week. Between visiting people to say cheerio and packing my life up, not much time remained. However, I’ve done my best and, I would say, done more than I would have done if I hadn’t had my contract pestering me! So, failure or success? Depends on which view you take. I’m leaning towards success, as I used what time I did have rather than focusing on what I couldn’t do. Also, just because I couldn’t do as much as I would have liked, I didn’t stop altogether in response to that, which would have been the easy way out.

Anyway, what about my progress?

  • Well, last month I vowed to get my percentage on the conjugation app up from low sixties to 80. Took a couple weeks but I got to 83% with no individual tense scores below 80.
83%!

83%!

Been slack on it lately though – once I met that goal, my interest dipped hugely! What I should have done at that point is make a new goal…so there we go, a demonstration of the importance of goal management in terms of motivation!

  • I’ve persevered with Quizlet, and text-mining. I now have two sets of text-mined language,with 80 and 61 terms respectively. Two, because 80 terms was unwieldy enough! I’ve become better at text-mining while listening now, and also at hearing and clocking variations on them. I’ve noticed the importance of context: the phrases I’ve mined from texts or conversations are much more ‘mine’ than those I’ve picked out from language learning resources. Additionally, I try to use my new language productively, when writing or chatting, either on FB messenger or with myself! With the latter, I silently articulate whatever phrases match the situation I’m in and the emotions that go with it.
All my sets for the summer! (Except the two you can't see at the bottom, called 'phrases with fare/avere/essere/voler/potere/dovere ' and 'verbs and prepositions'

All my sets for the summer! (Except the two you can’t see at the bottom, called ‘phrases with fare/avere/essere/voler/potere/dovere ‘ and ‘verbs and prepositions’

This combination of techniques has been central to my learning this summer, and definitely something I want to pass on to my students.

  • Another effective approach has been my focus on two areas of grammar – prepositions and pronouns – and combining learning about these, learning examples of (using Quizlet) them, and actively looking to notice their use in texts. It was, however, also very helpful to have a friend simply explain how they work, which I then reinforced with use of learning resources (grammar book, websites…). This applies equally to things I have noticed but couldn’t explain/understand e.g. Pronouns and past participle agreement. It was useful to be able to say ‘I’ve noticed x – what gives?’

This reminds me of this blog post published a little while back, which dichotomised “the deliberate teacher way” and the “power learner way”, i.e. bite-sized chunks vs. all at once. In response, I will be controversial and say I want and like both! Again and again, for me, variety is the spice of life and the interaction between approaches and techniques is as important as the approaches/techniques themselves. It could be argued that it’s in this interaction that the language catching web I mentioned in this post about text mining is built and works most effectively, in my own admittedly limited experience.

  • I’ve been grappling with my audiobook of Cime Tempestose, finding it useful to go back and listen again periodically. Partly because of dipping in and out meaning that it’s easy to forget what’s going on, partly to deal with the speed (it’s faster than The Secret Garden!) and partly because I haven’t read or listened to it in English previously, so that ups the challenge. I’m on disc 2 and understand the majority of what is going on now. I stil go back and listen again periodically as that also enables extra text-mining and noticing.

What next?

Well, very soon I shall get to test my italian by speaking it! Actual speaking rather than typing! I’m super curious to see what will happen. I know I have a much wider vocabulary and a better command of basic grammar than I did at the start of summer, and my listening is much improved, but will being faced with actual Italians reduce me back to the stuttering wreck I was at the beginning of June? Time will tell.

I need to get into a study routine here too. Maybe I need to make a new contract, which bears in mind the resources available in the TL environment. There’s also my course book that remains unfinished…

One thing is for sure, I plan to use the language as much as possible and enjoy it! (I must remind myself of this in gibbering wreck moments!)

Conclusions

Learning contracts are a useful motivational tool, which can encourage use of a range of activities. Of course, like anything else in language learning, there are pitfalls to be aware of and try to avoid. They are certainly no panacea (of course), and how effective they are will vary from learner to learner. It is important to manage motivation and sub-goals carefully, to avoid complacency or loss of interest! However, the existence of the contract does help in this department. I plan to try and keep using one myself, and will try to use what I’ve learned through this experiment to help my learners develop their autonomous learning skills.

Post-Script

In order to get in to my temporary apartment (where I can finally upload this post!), I had to deal with the Italian owners. Once they sussed I could speak Italian, that’s what we did. And…I understood everything (give or take an occasion of asking for a repetition) plus was able to communicate reasonably competently, able to say what I wanted to say. A far cry from when I arrived this time last year and failed to get myself any food to eat (in a bar), soon after I arrived! I think that now I have enough language for there to be more language than gaps in familiar situations, meaning that I can make myself understood and, I hope, when I’m stuck for a specific word/chunk, paraphrase around it and elicit it from my interlocutor so that I can learn it! That is the approach I want to use…time will tell how it works out for me! 

Stay tuned… 😉

Learning Contracts and Language Learning (part 3): another month of outcomes

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. A month later, on the 4th July, I posted my first update. Time has done that speeding by thing again, and the day has come, 4th August, for update number 2!

The main theme of update number 1 was discovery. I had discovered how the activities I do link in with one another, I learnt more about various language learning activities e.g. dictations, I realised how difficult in some ways, and how easy in other ways, it is to stick to a learning contract. In my post, I explored all these discoveries and how I could apply them in my teaching. Since then, I’ve also written blog posts about it, for example one about graded readers and one about text-mining, as well as the one on dictations which I had already produced by the time of my last update.

This month, my main theme is development. Both linguistic development and contract development (albeit only mentally – I haven’t physically made any changes to my contract but mentally I have added a few activities).

Have I kept to my contract?

Yes! I haven’t missed a single day. NB: this does not mean I have heaps of spare time. (Il da fare non manca mai, davvero!) As well as working full time, I’ve also visited people overnight in other towns, graduated and in so doing spent time with the family, prepared for an online conference and so the list goes on. It just means I’m practising what I preached to my learners for the whole of last academic year: Anything is better than nothing. Use the time you do have rather than waiting for time you will never have. Be it listening to ten minutes of audiobook over breakfast, watching 20mins of a film over dinner, doing a few rounds of Quizlet on the bus on the way into town when going to the supermarket, or a few go’s of Scrabble, the ten and twenty minutes grabbed here and there all add up. On any given day, I manage to do a variety of activities.

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

A reminder of my learning contract!

What has changed?

In my last post, I explained that I tended to do more than the contract stipulates, as the contract stipulates minimums. In addition to what’s listed, I now:

  • regularly use an app. for learning verb conjugations. Some things just need be memorised and verb-endings are one of them! The app is a fun way of drilling my verbs. It gives me a verb and tells me how I should conjugate it. E.g. riuscire, third person singular, present subjunctive. If I get it right, I get a green “correct” stamp. If I get it wrong, I get a red “incorrect” stamp and the correction. I’ve noticed that sometimes I just don’t pay enough attention. It asks me for 3rd person plural present subjunctive and I gaily key in 3rd person singular conditional or something. (It often seems to be subjunctive and conditional that I mix up in this way! Am improving though...)The app records running statistics, e.g. how many verbs I’ve got right out of the total number of verbs I’ve attempted (yep, that’s right 608 so far!), and then also breaks that down into different verb types (-are, -ire, -ere; regular/irregular, tenses). I’ve now got the total overall percentage to 62%. I have to admit, breaking into the 60’s was very exciting after spending rather a while languishing in the high 50’s!

    When I first downloaded the complete app (at a whopping £1.69), I got over-excited and ticked all the different tenses. Then I realised that wasn’t going to work and got rid of the absolute past and subjunctive pluperfect (less urgent to learn!!) amongst others. Hence the 2/5 statistic for it! Further down the list (not seen in this pic) can be found conditionals and subjunctives…  I’m a lot more rubbish at past participles than I had realised before using this app. I’m not too bad at imperfect, and obviously present is easiest…

Yay! 62%!

Yay! 62%!

  • regularly play scrabble – both the real live version (minus the board with my own special rules and scoring!) and the app version. I enjoy this, I drill myself stupid trying to think of all the words I know and working out which I can make with my letters!
    Bumper-scrabble!

    Bumper-scrabble!

    Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

    Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

  • have broken down “extensive listening” into smaller components. In any given day, I aim to listen to some audiobook, watch some news and watch some of a DVD. I’ve become more aware of the value of variety and push myself to ensure I get it! I’ve also downloaded a free RAI app, to get 24hr news-on-tap in Italian:
RAI: News on tap!

RAI: News on tap!

  • have broken down “extensive reading” into smaller components. In any given day I try to read some authentic Italian i.e. original language Italian book as well as all the translations of more familiar things that I’m chowing my way through. Again, for the sake of variety. But also because I think it’s important to experience original language texts.
  • play Storyonics in Italian! 🙂 Storyonics is a storytelling card game. There is a pack of cards, each of which has 4 pictures on it. You pick a card and incorporate either all the pictures, or the picture ringed by the colour you’ve chosen, into your story. This morning I worked my way through the purple-ringed pictures and had lots of fun! I also recorded myself doing so. This is so that over time I can make comparisons between earlier and later recordings, and also go back and try to correct any errors I might notice.
Storyonics!

Storyonics!

  • make fewer new sets on Quizlet but on the other hand I have been adding to existent sets. I now have 7 sets on Quizlet. What I also now find useful is gathering examples related to a language point I’ve struggled with e.g. personal pronouns and learning those. The idea is that if I have learnt a few correct examples, when I’m not sure, I can mentally compare between what I’m trying to say and the examples and try to work out if I’ve got it right or not. So far so good!
My Quizlet sets!

My Quizlet sets!

  • have started doing my weekly reflections in Italian! I thought I had better since I always expect my learners to reflect in English…!  I write a reflection once a week, looking back over the week and what I’ve achieved, what I’ve noticed etc. I was doing them in English, of course, but two weeks ago I did my first one in Italian. I’ve done one more since and plan to continue with this.
  • have become vegan and done most of my learning about that in Italian – using Italian websites, watching documentaries in Italian, cooking recipes that are in Italian… E.g this frittata:
Vegan cooking in Italian!

Vegan cooking in Italian!

What progress have I made?

Lots.

  • My listening is heaps better than it was. I can understand most of what I listen to, without exaggeration. Recently I particularly enjoyed watching Life is Beautiful in original Italian with no subtitles and being able to understand most of it. I’m also currently working my through a 7ish hour audiobook of The Secret Garden in Italian (done 4hrs15mins so far!), which I’m loving. I find the news the hardest in terms of understanding, I probably only understand about 80% of it. Il Giardino Segreto, I understand about 90%. My DVDs also about 90%. I miss the odd word, essentially. I put this down to a combination of working on decoding skills through intensive listening activities such as dictations, using my graded reader as a listening activity etc. and lots of extensive listening. I did a listening test on an Italian learning website. I managed 93% on the advanced test. Not saying it was an especially valid test, and I don’t think I am an advanced listener by any means, but it still made me feel rather chuffed! 🙂 I was also chuffed to do the second part of the gatto e topo intermediate dictation recently, as in part 1 I got about 27 mistakes, whereas in part 2 I only had 9 mistakes. I don’t really know how good I am in the great scheme of things, but I do know I’ve improved substantially, so I’m satisfied!
Il giardino segreto!

Il giardino segreto!

  • I can write at greater length, expressing myself more easily and quickly. I now have 15 posts on my little Italian learning blog.
  • When recording myself speaking, I notice that I hesitate less than I used to now. I.e. I have longer runs of fluid speech before pausing for thought. Pauses are becoming more in line with thought groups rather than language lack. There are still some of the latter, naturally, but fewer than there were.
  • My productive vocabulary continues to grow. Interplay between Quizlet, my extensive reading/listening and chats on Facebook has helped in this department. Text-mining has become a regular feature of my learning.
  • I’m a lot more organised than I was in the first month. I know exactly what activities I want to do when, depending on what time I have available. I’ve got my resources organised so that I can maximise on any train journeys. I’ve even organised my iPad:
All organised!

All organised!

  • I can think in Italian rather than thinking in English and translating into Italian. Not all the time, but I have enough language that I’m comfortable doing to be able to do it a fair bit.
  • Still getting to grips with the magnetic poetry (which was on the to-do list for I made in my last post, for this month!), but I can report that I have found a new way of using it, which involves choosing 5 or 6 words at random, with my eyes closed, then using those as the basis for production (a story, a poem, whatever).

What have I learnt about language learning?

  • Sometimes success can be demotivating!! Counterintuitive but true. One of those ‘things clicking into place and an improvement jump’ moments seemed to be followed by ‘mmmm can’t be bothered to study…‘ (I just wanted to read and listen extensively instead!) But I got back on track pretty quickly, thanks to my contract, so that was alright. So perhaps another role they can play, then, is in ensuring that you don’t get complacent!
  • Variety really is the spice of life. My success in this learning malarkey is, I believe, largely down to the variety of activities that I do on a regular basis. Lots of input, lots of output, varied use of language.
  • Listening skills can be developed autonomously if you combine work on decoding skills with extensive listening. I have lots of ideas for active autonomous listening that I look forward to passing on to my students.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition! It really does help for some things. Apps like Quizlet and my conjugations app make it fairly palatable too.
  • Being organised helps! In the first month I lost a few days due to lack of it. This month, no.
  • Perseverance is key: doing a variety of activities for a few days and then kicking back and relaxing the rest of the time won’t make much difference. Doing a variety of activities every day for a month, and nearly every day for two months, really does!
  • Having somebody to talk to in the language (even if by “talk to” we mean on Facebook messenger!) really helps. Having that opportunity to use the language and get feedback (in terms of how the conversation goes, not necessarily error correction, though I enjoy that too when it arises!).
  • Speaking skills can be developed autonomously. Using voice-recording tools, telling stories doing storyonics, anything that encourages language production contributes positively, I think. Of course there is nothing like speaking to another human being and generally learners (who aren’t on holiday) do at least get that opportunity on a regular basis. Outside class-time, the activities alluded to above can also be useful.
  • For every little moment where you notice improvement, there a hundred where it seems like it’s never going to happen and you have to push through all of them!  Remembering those occasional ‘break-through’ moments, and knowing that the only way to get one again is to keep working, and sticking to the damn contract, are all useful in these circumstances.

What comes next?

  • Work, work and more work! I have under two months before I will be back in Sicily. I have to make the most of that time. My major motivation has become that I want to go back to Palermo and be able to talk with the Italians I know in Italian. And I want to be able to do so without making an utter d*** of myself in the process! I know I’ll make mistakes and I’ll continue to have moments where my tongue gets in knots and I feel like I’m back at A1 level again, but if they can become fewer and further between, those moments, then so much the better!
  • I want to sort out my pronouns, my prepositions and my conjugations. I want that percentage on my conjugation app to get up to 80% by the end of my next month. Pronouns I’m beginning to get my head around but need to spend more time looking at. On the other hand, I think prepositions will always be a work in progress…
  • I want to be able to understand more of the news bulletins that I watch. I want to be able to understand as much of the news as I do of other things that I watch/listen to. So that means more intensive listening work, as well as continuing to listen extensively.
  • I want to continue to develop my productive vocabulary. The current method (extensive reading/listening, FB chats, text mining, Quizlet), is working, so I will stick with it, but more so!
  • When I get back to Palermo, I want to apply everything I’ve learnt about learning autonomously to my learner autonomy projects and help my learners benefit from it all.

As for my research questions:

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 19.43.10

A reminder of my ‘research questions’

  • So far, the LC has helped keep me motivated for two months. Obviously this still doesn’t yet count as “a longer period”, so the jury is still out!
  • For two months, yes. Plus, plus! It’s made a big difference so far, in terms of making me do a variety of activities and discover links between them, then add to the variety according to what I’ve learnt. I think they are a powerful autonomous learning tool.

Let me know if you use learning contracts with your learners – I’d love to hear about it! In turn, once I’m back in Sicilia, and apply everything I’ve learnt in my quest to help my learners become more autonomous, I’ll report back from time to time too. 

As for my own learning, the next report is due on the 4th September. As I finish my full-time summer job on the 5th, I rather suspect that there will be a slight (day or two!) delay for that one…! 

Autonomous learning (5): Games learners can play (autonomously)!

This is the fifth in a series of posts whose goal is to explore ways of helping learners develop their language skills autonomously. The first two posts are specific to listening. The first post, which focuses on perception of connected speech can be read here , the second post on dictations as an autonomous learning tool here. The third was on the topic of “text mining” and can be read here while the fourth post was on using Graded Readers as a means of autonomous language and skill development. This post expands the series even further (!) to look at games as an autonomous learning tool. 

Games are widely used in the language classroom – as warmers, as stirrers, as lead-ins, as a means of practice, as review…and so the list goes on. This post looks at games as an autonomous learning tool:

  • What games can learners play on their own?
  • What games can learners play collaboratively via platforms such as Edmodo, Blogs or Wikis?
  • What games can learners play on other websites?
  • What value do these games have?

These are based on activities I’ve done with learners and activities I’ve done/am doing as a learner (of Italian). None of them are sufficient on their own, of course, but I believe each of them could become one of the many little pieces that make up the mosaic of language learning.

What games can learners play on their own?

Games are not the first thing to come to mind when you think about learning on your own. However, there is plenty of fun to be had in autonomous learning. Here are a few ideas:

Scrabble

Alone? Why not!

  • Get hold of a cheap scrabble set (I picked up a set of magnetic letters for about £6 on Amazon recently) or any game that constitutes a set of letters (e.g. Bananagrams) and play! Even if, like me,  you don’t have the scrabble board, as long as you assign each letter a score, you can create your own scoring system. You can also combine sets of letters and make a bumper game…
Bumper-scrabble!

Bumper-scrabble!

  • Get hold of an app! There are lots of free or extremely cheap word-game apps available. I picked up one with multiple dictionaries so that I can play in Italian. It’s nice to have a board and to have the scoring done for you, but on the other hand you can’t randomly decide that you’re going to work with 10 letters rather than 7 to give more scope for word-creation! NB: yes, you may need to be Player 1 AND Player 2… Some apps offer a solitary option, others not!
Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

Benefits:

  • Trying to make words out of any given set of letters has you drilling yourself for every piece of vocabulary you know!
  • More time spent focusing on the target language – and every little helps…
  • Fun! = An extra thing to do using the target language that doesn’t seem like “study”.
  • Sometimes you make a word that you remember exists but can’t remember the meaning – then you look up the word and remind yourself of the meaning. This helps take the word from that borderline between recognition and production closer to production.

 Magnetic Poetry

  • Get hold of a set! There’s nothing quite like sticking alllll the magnets onto your fridge…then wondering what to do with them next. Seeing how many words/stems you know is a good start. Categorising them comes next. Into words types. Into ‘words I recognise’ and ‘words I use’…then try to use the ones you only recognise so that you can move them over. Make sentences. Make poetry. Make anything you feel like… 🙂
I particularly enjoyed classifying All The Words...well, nearly all!

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

  • Use it online: Here learners (of English) can play with magnetic poetry pieces for free online. With 6 kits to choose from, there’s no shortage of words! Learners of Italian have to satisfy themselves with the real life version. Ah well! 🙂
Screenshot from Magnetic Poetry Online (http://magneticpoetry.com/pages/play-online)

Screenshot from Magnetic Poetry Online (http://magneticpoetry.com/pages/play-online)

Benefits:

  • Trying to make phrases or sentences out of the various words/stems has you drilling yourself for every piece of language/possible combinations of language that you know!
  • More time spent focusing on the target language – and every little helps…
  • Fun! = An extra thing to do using the target language that doesn’t seem like “study”.
  • Creativity that sidesteps the blank page syndrome: Having a load of words to start with, and making a game out of using them, makes production less daunting.

Storyonics

  • Get hold of a set: Storyonics is essentially a pack of cards, each of which has 4 pictures on it. Each picture is surrounded by a different coloured rectangle. But the same 4 colours per card are used throughout the pack. The game is to make a story using the pictures on the cards. You can use all the pictures on each card, or for the quick version each player chooses a colour and only has to incorporate the pictures ringed with that colour into the story. As an autonomous game, you can pick a colour (or two!), or try to use all the pictures, to make a story. You could record yourself re-telling the story, with the cards laid out in order as a prompt. You could attempt to upgrade your language in the re-telling: use more complex language, use more features of spoken narrative etc. Over time, you could compare your attempts and progress.
Storyonics!

Storyonics!

  • Make a set!: It’s a simple concept. And with resources like ELTpics, making your own needn’t be too difficult. Learners could make a couple of ‘cards’ each and share them in an Edmodo group or other collaborative tool e.g. Google docs, thereby jointly producing a pack. Learners could then compare the stories they come up with…

Benefits:

  • Stimulant for language production: This game acts as a stimulant for extended language production. Telling stories in another language is challenging but rewarding. Difficult at first, practice makes, well, not perfect but certainly for an improvement!
  • Potential for language upgrading: Retelling a story and recording oneself doing it (which is very easy with technology these days) provides an opportunity for language upgrade.

Bingo

  • Make a Bingo card: use recently learnt language, focus on a particular element of language, etc. Watch or listen to something suitable. (E.g. an action film might not be the best thing if your Bingo card is full of news vocabulary…) Tick off any of the language that you hear.

Benefits:

  • Active listening vs. passive listening: You may not hear all your chunks but you can be sure it’s going to make you listen to whatever it is you are watching/listening to super-carefully!
  • Simple, straightforward and free: All you need is a pen and a piece of paper, as well as whatever it is that you are going to watch.

Quizlet

  • Create sets of flashcards and play games with them online or on your mobile phone/tablet. It could be words and definitions, it could be phrases, it could be language you have picked up from reading/listening that you want to be able to use productively as well as recognise, it could be language based on a particular point (for me, recently, such a point was personal pronouns!) …

Benefits:

  • Fun: Quizlet is a fun way to study vocabulary. (As with anything else, as the sole means of learning, it is insufficient, but as part of a varied diet, it’s very valuable…)
  • Recycling: Learning vocabulary requires repetition and exposure to that language in context. Drilling yourself on Quizlet keeps it fresh in your mind so that you can look out for it while reading or listening extensively.

For more about Quizlet and how to use it, see this post.

My Quizlet Sets!

My Quizlet Sets!

Shadow-reading

  • Acquire an audiobook with accompanying text. E.g. a graded reader. For more challenge, go authentic! Play the audio and attempt to shadow read. How many sentences can you keep up for?

Benefits:

  • Helps make you more aware of different pronunciation features and sound-spelling relationships. I recently discovered that I had been pronouncing (Italian) third person plurals completely wrongly without realising it. This activity helped me to discover that on my own.
  • Helps to develop your sense of rhythm of the language.
  • Gives you experience of producing language at speed, physically.
  • Fun! Often ends up with a bit of a tongue twist. But over time, the tongue twist happens later and later.

What games can learners play if they have access to classmates via tools like Edmodo?

There are lots of things that classes of learners can do outside of class, if they are using a tool like Edmodo  as part of their course. Here are a few:

Out of context

  • A learner picks a word or phrase out of something they have been reading or listening to and posts it on Edmodo.
  • Other learners try to put it back into context – turning it into a sentence, a question, a couple of sentences, seeing who can get closest to the original.
  • The original poster can help by giving clues. E.g. the number of people involved, the mood, the location etc.

Picture stories

  • A learner opens the story by posting an opening sentence or two, then linking to or copying in a picture.
  • The next learner must continue the story with a sentence or two, somehow incorporating the picture into their continuation and then link to another picture.
  • And so the process continues, with learners adding text and pictures to the thread.
  • The end product is an illustrated story.

Define me, describe me

  • For inspiration a learner can gather a bunch of random objects or find several pictures with lots of things in them, online.
  • The learner sets a timer for one or two minutes and defines or describes(orally) as many things as possible, recording him/herself doing so.
  • Next, the learner posts the recording on Edmodo. Other learners should try to guess what the things are.
  • Over time, learners can look back at their own recordings and see if they can improve the definitions/descriptions or correct any errors, and compare earlier and later recordings to identify progress.

Picture dictation

  • A learner writes directions to draw something, without identifying what it is, for other learners to follow.
  • The other learners attempt to follow the directions and post their drawings in response to the original poster, together with guesses as to what they have drawn.
  • The original learner looks at what is produced and may or may not wish to refine their directions…

Benefits:

I am grouping the benefits for these collaborative activities, as there is plenty of overlap.

  • Development of spoken and written fluency, through extensive use of language.
  • Encouragement for learners to think about/in the target language.
  • Encouragement for learners to use language more between classes.
  • Motivation for learners, as studying becomes a bit more fun and language production isn’t threatening.
  • Language play: playing with language can help give learners more ownership over the language as they manipulate it in different ways.
  • Of course, as with all the other activities in this post, any given activity is insufficient on its own but as part of a varied died of activities, the end result is increased input and output of the target language.

Scaffolding

Many of these activities are based on activities commonly used in class. Using classroom counterparts and encouraging learners to try out the activities at home, perhaps through getting them to make a learning contract with an ongoing cycle of experimentation and discussion, learners may be more likely to do these kinds of activities unprompted in their own time, thus supporting their in-class learning.

Conclusion

Games can form a valuable part of a varied diet of language learning activities. There are games that don’t require the presence of other people and other games that can be realised via tools like Edmodo which enable learners to connect with each other outside class time. Providing adequate scaffolding is important in order to get learners using these types of activities independently, to support their language learning.

If you have ideas for other games learners could play on their own or collaboratively via tools like Edmodo, please comment and let me know about them! 

Autonomous learning (4) – Graded Readers

This is the fourth in a series of posts whose goal is to explore ways of helping learners develop their language skills autonomously. The first two posts are specific to listening. The first post, which focuses on perception of connected speech can be read here , the second post on dictations as an autonomous learning tool here and the third on “text mining” can be read here.  The first two posts focus on listening, the third on autonomous use of reading and listening texts, and, in keeping with my expansion of the series focus, this post is focusing on graded readers as means of autonomous learning – language development and skill development

What?

 Graded readers are books that are written in the target language, graded to suit learners of that language rather than being geared towards native speakers of that language. They exist for a range of levels, generally corresponding to those within the Common European Framework of Languages. Graded readers often (but don’t always) contain activities related to the text, either dispersed throughout the text or gathered at the end of the book.

A variety of well-known publishers have published collections of graded readers, information about which can be found on their websites. Here are some links to the graded reader sections of some of the publishers that do graded readers:

 Choosing a Graded Reader

As the list of links above might suggest, there is no shortage of choice where graded readers are concerned. Of course each publisher produces one or more different types of graded reader. Graded readers can be:

  • a text, graded to a particular level.
  • a text and an audio disc recording of the text.
  • a text, an audio recording of the text and questions/activities that accompany the text.
  • an e-book, with above-mentioned features integrated.
  • probably other versions exist as well…!

I recently discovered that graded readers do not only exist in English for learners of English but in other languages for learners of those languages. Including Italian! The main focus for this post will be book-plus-audio graded readers, based on my recent experience of working my way through Villa dei Mughetti, published by Black Cat.

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Having worked my way through a graded reader, I now feel a lot better placed to help my learners get the most out of theirs, where before I tended to leave them to it, within the remit of my reading project.

In terms of choosing a graded reader, availability will be the major factor. When I bought my graded reader, in Palermo, it was the only one they had in Italian! I would recommend choosing one that comes with an audio recording, if possible, as this is a very valuable additional resource. Fortunately for me, Black Cat readers generally seem to come with accompanying cd.

Getting Started

My top tips for getting started with a graded reader would be:

  • Locate the answer key for the accompanying activities (if you have a version with activities!): with some, that’s as easy as checking the back of the book and finding that they are there. With Villa dei Mughetti I had to go to the Black Cat website, register as a teacher and then I was able to download them. Not the easiest, and if students are expecting the usual back-of-the-book scenario, they may be a bit perplexed and therefore a bit of help might not go amiss!
  • Decide how to begin: Think about your goals in using the reader and the different approaches you could take (dependent on what kind of graded reader you have chosen). Decide which approach(es) you want to try.

Different Approaches

Here are some approaches a learner could use:

  1. Read through the text without looking at the questions.
  2. Read the text and answer the questions/do the activities as you go along.
  3. Listen to the complete audio cd without looking at the questions or text.
  4. Listen to/read a section first, then read it/listen to it, then answer questions as you go along.
  5. Listen to a section first, then answer questions, then read it to check.
  6. Listen and read simultaneously, the whole text, without looking at any questions.
  7. Listen and read simultaneously, answering the questions as you go

A learner might use the same approach throughout or vary the approach from chapter to chapter. As mentioned above, learners’ goals will/should influence the choice of approach. For example, my dominant approach was to listen to a chapter, do the activities, read to check, then mark the score-able activities using the answer key. I.e. (5) above. My goal was to work intensively on my listening.

Here is how I perceive the above activities could match to different goals:

  1. Extensive reading
  2. Intensive reading/language work
  3. Extensive listening
  4. Supported intensive listening/reading (depending which you are stronger at and which you are weaker at, the other supports it)/language work
  5. Intensive listening/language work
  6. Sound-spelling awareness/pronunciation
  7. Sound-spelling awareness/pronunciation, plus comprehension/language work.

It could be useful to discuss different approaches with learners, to raise awareness of how different approaches map to different learning goals. Encourage them to experiment with different approaches and report back to their peers, so that they are encouraged to reflect on their experience of trying the various approaches – they could initially all experiment with the same approach and then compare notes, even if they were all using different graded readers (provided the graded readers all had the same resources e.g. audio and activities), and then move on to deciding which they prefer, or they could all experiment with whichever approach they wanted to and report back on whatever they have done. They could also group themselves according to what approach they wanted to try.

This experimentation and discussion would fit in quite nicely with both my Experimentation with English and Reading Project approaches. As mentioned in those projects, it needn’t be very time-consuming in class.

Graded Reader Activities

In Villa dei Mughetti, there was a chunk of activities at the end of each chapter. Each chunk included a mixture of score-able and un-score-able activities.

There were:

  • Comprehension activities: T/F; Y/N; ordering events; matching utterances and characters etc.
  • Language focus activities: grammar explanation plus practice activity, vocabulary activities e.g. matching pictures and words, a crossword, matching words and definitions etc.
  • Productive skills-focused activities: each chunk of activities had both a writing activity and a speaking activity.

Comprehension activities

These are straightforward and can be done as a reading exercise or a listening exercise. If learners choose to listen and answer the questions, as I did, it would be useful to encourage them to use the text as a transcript to identify why they make any mistakes. Of course this would be easier for them to do if you have done with them in class before, in your listening lessons.

Language focus activities

Vocabulary: learners need to be selective in deciding what to do with the vocabulary that the activities encourage them to focus on. Is it vocabulary they want to actually learn? It won’t necessarily be – some of the vocabulary in Villa dei Mughetti was very random and I wouldn’t choose to focus on it sufficiently for it become part of my productive linguistic resources (e.g. names of flowers whose names I don’t even know in English – I’m happy for the flowers to be pretty, I’m happy enough to learn what the names are in Italian, but I’m really not fussed about *learning* all their Italian names.)

So, if the vocabulary isn’t useful, that’s fine, do the activities and move on. However, if is vocabulary that learners want to learn, then they  need to do something with it beyond the activities in the book. For example, input it into Quizlet and use the various study and game modes; try to use it in the writing activities etc.

Grammar: This (at least in Villa dei Mughetti) is generally based on language/examples from the text. If a learner is familiar with the grammar and gets all the questions in the practice activity right, great. Move on but don’t forget to look out for more examples, in context, in the ensuing text and in other texts that you encounter. However, if there are a few mistakes, it could be worth using a website or book with grammar explanations and activities, to try and clarify any misunderstanding. Once it’s under control, at least on a declarative level, it’s even more important to look out for further examples of it in context – in future chapters and other texts (written or spoken). In this way, the grammar activities become diagnostic, either confirming what you are familiar with or acting as a springboard to working on what you are less familiar with.

Productive skills focus activities

These activities, at least in Villa dei Mughetti, are the un-score-able ones. I’m of the opinion that self-study material doesn’t have to be score-able to be useful, so I am glad these activities feature in my current preferred graded reader series!

In order to get the most out of them, it is useful to have tools to use alongside them: i.e. a blog for the writing and a voice-recording tool (e.g. Audioboo, Audacity, a mobile phone, vocaroo etc, for the speaking. That way, you can collect your writing activities on your blog, and accumulate a series of voice recordings too. If using a website to record your voice, you can usually link to the recording in your blog, or if you make files on your computer, this can usually be uploaded. Evernote could be used in a similar way.

This enables progress to be charted. You could also encourage learners to share blog links with each other, and compare their production. Or, if you use Edmodo with them, they could post things on it instead of creating blogs etc. Of course a class blog could be used too. Once learners have reached the end of the graded reader, they could go back through their recorded written and spoken activities, to see if they can identify progress and identify/correct any errors.

Some of the activities might seem a bit lame (in my limited experience) but they may be able to be combined, with a bit of imagination. Thus, as you might have picked up on, I don’t think it’s necessary to complete the productive activities before moving on to the next chapter. As long as you are doing the activities regularly, then it just becomes a matter of how it best fits the time frame you have available. Writing a text takes longer than answering a few T/F questions, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop doing the T/F questions until you have time to do a longer activity.

Other Activities

Graded Readers can yield activities beyond those contained in the book (if it’s the type of reader with activities):

  • Dictations: A great additional use for the accompanying audio disc. Dictations may not immediately come to mind as a potential activity but actually it works well, as the language is graded to the reader’s level and it tends to be read clearly. Of course it won’t be a dictation speed or with built in pauses, but as one has control of the recording, one can repeat a short passage (a minute at most) multiple times and see how many times it takes to get everything done. If the activity is repeated at regular intervals, comparisons regarding number of times necessary can enable progress to be tracked. Comparison with the transcript, as with standard dictations, can indicate weaknesses in decoding skills.
  • Writing/speaking: As mentioned, those in the book may not seem the most exciting, but the concept is sound. So, if a group of students are using the same graded reader, then get them to come up with alternative ideas for productive activities, that they actually want to do. You as the teacher could collect these and over time build up a collection of supplementary materials to share with future students. If your school has a library of graded readers, copies of those materials could live with the collection of readers.Students may be concerned about lack of feedback with the productive activities, so it may be useful to explain that a) it’s still a useful activity even without feedback, as it helps the development of fluency (of writing or of speaking) and b) it’s also useful to go back over the texts produced (written or spoken) and see if any mistakes can be identified, especially as time passes and language level (hopefully) consolidates.
  • Gapping the text: A bit more work is involved with this activity, but it should be worth it. Learners type up a small portion of the text. (A similar length to that used for the dictation) and then gap some words. This could be words that they struggled to hear/decode the first time round (to facilitate this, after they listen to a chapter, do exercises and read to check, they could also check if they read anything different from what they had heard. Alternatively, listening first and then listening/reading simultaneously to compare). It could be chunks relating to the language/grammar point in that chapter, or a previous chapter. It could be any chunks that they understand but wouldn’t produce unprompted, that they think might be useful to activate. (See my post on text mining for more information about this approach.) Students then leave the reproduced, gapped text aside for a while. Later, they come back to it to play the audio and attempt to fill in the gaps. (NB: If you think this would be too easy, I can only say that I have done something similar with dictations: I’ve listened, made mistakes, identified mistakes through transcript comparison, marked mistakes but not corrected them, left it aside for awhile, come back to it and tried to listen and correct the mistakes – now gaps where something is wrong – and struggled! Generally I’ve been able to correct some and still failed on some, even though I’ve seen the correct answer previously.)

Is it extensive reading?

Some might argue that with all the activities breaking the text into small portions, reading graded readers doesn’t count as “proper” extensive reading. However, I would say that:

  • a graded reader can still be used for extensive reading/listening if the text is heard/read through first time round without using the activities. Or, after the activities have all been done, one could read/listen through the whole text without stopping for activities, enjoying a greater understanding of the text.
  • a graded reader is a beneficial learning resource that can be used as well as more traditional texts. E.g. I read other things to read extensively and use my graded readers mainly for intensive listening. As with anything, alone it might be insufficient but as part of a varied diet of activities, including extensive reading/listening without activities, it can be very valuable.

So, I don’t think it’s such an important issue to worry about. As long as students are aware of different ways of using their graded readers, of how these ways map to different learning goals, which may change as they progress through their graded reader, and, finally, of the benefits and limitations of graded readers as learning resource, then they can use their graded readers as suits their purpose and get as much out of them as possible.

Conclusion

Graded readers are a rich resource of learning, perfect for autonomous study. This is particularly true if you have access to an audio recording as well. A wide range of approaches can be used with a graded reader, depending on learning aims. There is also potential for a students to do further activities not stipulated by the graded reader, and create supplementary materials for use with them. Both the process of creation and the use of these can be another valuable part of the process of using a graded reader. Some teacher guidance could be helpful in enabling learners to make the most of their graded reader, through a cycle of experimentation and metacognitive discussion. This could be achieved without the graded readers necessarily becoming a teacher-led/controlled activity.

I’ve really enjoyed using my graded reader in Italian and look forward to using more! (And, I confess, I do still have a couple of productive activities to do – one of which is next on my agenda for this afternoon!) I also look forward to being able to help my learners get more out of their graded readers when I re-launch my reading project at IHPA in October! 🙂

If you have any more ideas for helping learners use graded readers more effectively as an autonomous learning tool, please share them by commenting on this post.