41st ELT Blog Carnival on Learner Autonomy – coming soon!

I’m delighted to be hosting the 41st ELT Blog Carnival in June this year and looking forward, very much, to seeing lots of posts written by lots of people, all about learner autonomy – the 41st Blog Carnival topic of choice.

To find out about how to get involved, how to submit posts, how to avoiding missing out on ELT Blog carnivals to come and where to go to catch up with ELT Blog carnivals past, click on the image below:

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 16.58.38

Get your thinking caps on, everybody!

Let the carnival begin!

Let the carnival begin! Image taken from en.wikipedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Let the carnival begin! Image taken from en.wikipedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification

 

Autonomous listening skill development: activity 1

How do I help learner get beyond “just” listening?

Listen! (Image taken from www.pixabay.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

Listen! (Image taken from http://www.pixabay.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

I encourage learners to listen extensively outside class, and extensive listening is recognised as beneficial to language learning. But what about actually developing listening skills? As in, listening with a view to improving both decoding (“translating the speech signal into speech sounds, words and clauses, and finally into a literal meaning” (Field, 2008:kindle loc. 2386)) and meaning-building (“adding to the bare meaning provided by decoding and relating it to what has been said before” (ibid)) skills.

How can I help learners to actively work on their listening outside class as well as during listening lessons? Part of learning autonomously is awareness of a range of task types and their potential learning benefits, and the corresponding ability to pick tasks according to learning goals. Helping learners become able to do this with their listening is something I have begun to work on within my learner autonomy projects.

What activities can learners do to help themselves develop their listening skills rather than just listening?

In this series, I will describe some listening activities I’ve done with learners to help them become more autonomous listeners by giving them something tangible to do with their out of class “listening practice”.

This first activity works well as a follow-up to a lesson with focus on weak forms , in which you have raised learners’ awareness of weak forms in connected speech.

Aims:

  • increase perception of weak forms in connected speech
  • develop sense of rhythm and the role of weak forms and word/sentence stress within this
  • develop learners’ ability to chunk written language correctly when they read it

Materials:

  • Learners will need a recording that has an accompanying transcript. (For learners at intermediate and below, www.elllo.org could be a useful resource for this; for higher level learners, a possible resource is the BBC “Voices” project )

Procedure:

  • Learners should, of course, first listen to their recording for meaning (identify main ideas, key information etc.)
  • Once learners have listened for meaning, they can compare what they heard with the transcript and check.
  • This done, learners play the recording again and mutter along with the recording, aloud. (For this, it could be worth selecting a portion of the recording rather than trying to do the whole thing.)
  • Ensure that learners are aware that initially this will be very difficult. The speakers will speak “too fast” for learners to keep up. However, if they replay and mutter along with a portion of the recording several times, then they will be able roughly match it.
  • How do they match it? In order to keep up with the recording and not get out of synch, they will be forced to use the same rhythm and stress as the speaker. This means they will need to stress certain words and shrink others – i.e. the weak forms. NB: The goal of this isn’t to try and get learners to speak in this way: it’s to develop their perception of the stress and rhythm of English, which they can then use to help themselves listen more effectively. However, I think the productive element is important as it helps to increase their perception by making it physical. 
  • Follow up: Once learners have muttered along enough times to be able to do so relatively comfortably, they could then record themselves reading the transcript aloud, trying to maintain the rhythm they developed during the muttering activity. They could post their recording and a link to the original recording on a collaborative platform e.g. Edmodo and compare each others’ efforts.
  • Breaking the activity down: With my learners, I did this as a series of homework activities:The first was to find a recording, listen for meaning, check with the transcript, then do some muttering.The second was to do some more muttering and then record themselves.The third was to listen again to the original recording, with the transcript, and mark all the pauses they heard, and use those pauses to help themselves manage their breathing while muttering and while recording themselves. Then they compared the first lot of recordings with the second lot.Of course this third step could be done earlier: Done in the order I did it, learners benefit from the comparisons they can make, but done earlier, they may benefit from that scaffolding sooner.

Benefits:

  • Because learners have to use correct word and sentence stress in order to keep up with the recording, it draws their attention to these. (I found when I tried the activity with an Italian recording, I’d get out of synch and lose the rhythm when I put the stress in the wrong place in a word. E.g. “gentile” springs to mind, and “sapere”, “utile” and “omeopata” – you realise that you keep getting out of synch at particular points, listen again and pay special attention to those points, then try again with the correct pronunciation, and then, with persistence, it works better.)
  • Recording yourself and listening to the recording, as well as comparing to the original, can help you pick out weaknesses in your pronunciation, and in doing so become more aware of what you are hearing.
  • Listening to, looking at and producing the weak forms helps learners become better able to recognise them through familiarity: it draws very focused attention to how the words look vs how they sound when condensed in connected speech, which is highlighted by the physicality of having to produce it.

Important to remember:

  • Bring it back into the classroom: give learners time to discuss at the beginning of the lessons following those when you set this activity as homework.
  • Ensure learners know they aren’t expected to speak in this way: Otherwise put, ensure the goals of the activity are clear to learners. When you set the activity, having done your focus on weak forms lesson, encourage learners to make the link between that lesson and this homework activity.
  • Scaffold it: You might have noticed that my lesson on weak forms involves some muttering along with the transcript. This means that before I got my learners doing the activities described in this post, for homework, they weren’t starting from a blank page – either from the pronunciation awareness perspective or from the task knowledge perspective (accustomed to using transcripts for listening activities, done similar activities in class, know how to approach them vs. “the transcript is that strange bunch of text that lurks in the back of the course book”!). Hopefully this will have made it less daunting and less confusing; well, certainly my learners all managed to do the task successfully and were enthusiastic about it.

Conclusion

Helping learners develop their listening autonomously is something I will be doing more work on in the future: exploration only began post-IATEFL (using Sandy’s ideas as a way in) and has been sporadic since then (I’m human! There are only 24hrs in a day and some of those are needed for sleeping/eating etc.!) with a burst of ideas emerging very recently through experimentation with my learners and in my own language learning. I’m planning to build on it, and work it into my learner autonomy projects more systematically as next steps, especially during the next set of courses that I teach.

References:

Field, J. (2009) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press.

My top ten learner autonomy and metacognition resources

Are you interested in the prickly issue of learner autonomy? Do you feel that metacognitive awareness is important in language learning? Do you want to find out more about these thought-provoking elements of ELT? This latest post in my ‘ELT top ten’ series offers a list of resources to get you started with learner autonomy and metacognition. 

As with all the other posts in this series, please do respond with your own opinions of resources that should be included in this list.

Books

There are tons of good books out there on the topic of learner autonomy, and I could go on forever listening ones that would be worth reading. I’ve narrowed it down to three, but I don’t doubt that there will be some disagreement with those I have chosen, and feelings that other books should have been included as well/instead. Please do comment on this post to recommend any other books that you strongly feel should be read by anybody who is interested in the topics of learner autonomy and metacognition. 

  • Phil Benson: Teaching and Researching Autonomy

Screenshot from Amazon.co.uk

Screenshot from Amazon.co.uk

This book offers an in-depth treatment of autonomy: Starting from theory, it looks at different definitions of learner autonomy, the history of autonomy theory, perceptions of autonomy in fields outside of language learning, issues of definition and description of autonomy and its different dimensions. The second section moves on to considering autonomy in practice, looking at a range of different approaches to fostering it, while the third part considers it from the angle of research (typical of this series of books), looking at different methodologies and case studies.

  • Learner Autonomy across cultures: language education perspectives

Screenshot from Amazon

Screenshot from Amazon

This is an edited book, with chapters written by authors from a range of contexts. These are case studies and reports on the subject of learner autonomy and its relationship with different cultures – not limited to national culture but also institutional, small-group and other types of culture. I found two chapters in particular heavily influential, and those are the chapters by Rebecca Oxford and by Richard Smith:

Oxford, R. (2003) Towards a more Systematic Model of L2 Learner Autonomy in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

Smith, R. (2003) Pedgagogy for Autonomy as (Becoming) Appropriate Methodology in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

  • Vandergrift and Goh: Teaching and learning second language listening: metacognition in action

Screenshot from Amazon

Screenshot from Amazon

This book takes the theory of metacognition and applies it to the learning of listening, offering a theoretically based pedagogy for teaching listening. This was my first proper introduction to metacognition theory, and I found it a very accessible way in. Particularly useful are the different example activities provided to show how the theory can be put into practice. It also uses narrative extracts at the beginning of chapters to illustrate learning and teaching listening, and the processes used, together with reflective questions about these, and this feeds into the content that follows. Well worth reading.

NOTE: In terms of books that are cheap and easily accessible, it is worth bearing in mind that the IATEFL learner autonomy SIG (see “online resources” below) has published a series of edited books related to learner autonomy, that are available in e-book format. 

Articles

As with books, there are hundreds of articles I could have selected for inclusion here. In order to narrow down the selection, I tried to go for articles which don’t require subscription to journals. This made the pool substantially smaller! For an extra list of freely available articles, you could look at the 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival , in which you can find links to bloggers’ reviews of a selection of further freely available articles about learner autonomy. Additionally, if you can access any of Anita Wenden’s articles on the topic of metacognition, you won’t be disappointed. (E.g. from the ELTJ “Helping language learners think about learning” or from Applied Linguistics, “Metacogntive Awareness and Language learning” – and if you can only get hold of one of those, I’d go for the latter!) 

  • Smith, R. (2008)

Key concepts in ELT: Learner Autonomy (retrieved from: http://pracownik.kul.pl/files/10134/public/learnerautonomy.pdf on 20/05/2014) in ELT Journal vol. 62/4. Oxford University Press.

Part of ELT Journal‘s key concepts series, this article is a very concise summary of what the concept Learner Autonomy is all about. A useful way in to the complex field of theory that comes under the umbrella of learner autonomy.

  • Phil Benson (2006)

State of the art article: Autonomy in language teaching and learning (retrieved from: http://www4.pucsp.br/inpla/benson_artigo.pdf on 20/05/2014) in Language Teaching Journal vol. 40 p.21-40. Cambridge University Press.

This article is a more in-depth starting point, as it is a literature review of all the literature related to the topic of learner autonomy, up until 2006. As a result, it offers not only a lengthy reference list that could keep you going for years, but also concise information about all the texts referred to, to help you identify those which are most likely to provide you with the information you are looking for.

  • Borg and Al-Busaidi (2009)

Learner autonomy: English Language Teachers’ beliefs and practices published by the British Council

Part of the British Council’s efforts to make ELT research freely available, this publication can be downloaded with no charge from the British Council Teaching English website. As indicated, it is a study of teachers’ beliefs and practices in relation to the topic of learner autonomy.

 

Online resources:

 

  • The IATEFL Learner Autonomy SIG

Screenshot of the LA SIG website

Screenshot of the LA SIG website

This is one of the special interest groups affiliated with IATEFL (the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language). It organises one- and two-day conferences in various locations, pre-conference events and SIG days at the IATEFL annual conference and has a publishing presence through the edited books its members have edited and its newsletter, Independence. If you are interested in learner autonomy, it could be worth joining this group in order to share your ideas with others who share your interest.

The Learner Autonomy SIG also has an online presence, hence inclusion in this section, through this Facebook group. It is a closed group but anyone with an interest in learner autonomy can request membership. And you can find out more about the LASIG, and what it does, on their website. 

 

  • Science Direct

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 11.58.53

Screenshot of ScienceDirect.com

This website is one that I’ve only discovered recently, but as far as I can understand it basically enables you to search for different articles, and contains links to .pdfs of articles that are freely available as well as links to ones that you have to pay to access. If you download an article via one of these links, it then offers to generate a list of “recommend articles” related to the topic of the article you downloaded.

Here, for example, is a list of articles generated on the theme of metacognition.

  • The Autonomy Approach

Screenshot from Delta Publishing site

Screenshot from Delta Publishing site

A fairly recent publication, The Autonomy Approach is aimed at teachers, with a goal of helping us understand the theory behind autonomy and put it into practice. You could argue that it should be under books, but I’m putting it under online resources because on the Delta Publishing site (as vs. on Amazon etc) you can find sample pages from the book e.g. the introduction to Part B and sample activities. This makes it an online resource that you can try, before committing to buying the book.

  • My “Learner Autonomy” page!

Screenshot of my L.A. page!

Screenshot of my L.A. page!

On my Learner Autonomy page , I have collected blog posts I have written that relate to learner autonomy and metacognition. This includes

  • summaries of learner autonomy-related talks at IATEFL
  • write-ups of my own learner autonomy-related projects (with reference lists)
  • a write up of the 2nd ELT Research blog carnival on Learner Autonomy, which I hosted
  • links to articles relating to learner autonomy and/or metacognition that I’ve written for publication on other sites (E.g. IH Journal, Teaching English British Council)
  • links to materials I’ve made for helping learners use tools like wordandphrase.info and Quizlet independently
  • links to a webinar and a ten-minute conference presentation that I have given on the topic of learner autonomy

and will hopefully also grow to include links to posts written by other people, on the topic of learner autonomy and/or metacognition. So please get in touch if you have a post/website which would fit this bill!

If you know any other great resources for learner autonomy and metacognition, please comment so I can have a look and then add them to the list – it can grow into the top ten (plus)! 

 

The role of metacognition in language learning

According to Vandergrift and Goh (2o12:loc 360), “metacognition, or the act of thinking about thinking, refers to the ability of learners to control their thoughts and to regulate their own learning.”  They go on to explain that despite the fact that metacognition is key to listening (the focus of their text), its role in the classroom remains minimal. I believe metacognition is a crucial part of language learning in general, but even broadening the scope in this way, I suspect the degree to which it is integrated into language learning is probably still fairly minimal, as with listening.

Indeed, in my own language learning at school and university, I can remember there being a lot of content – grammar, vocabulary etc – but I don’t remember learning how to regulate my own learning or being helped to develop metacognitive awareness. I managed, however, to learn reasonably well in the end – I did German to A-level and French up to university level, getting good results. So what difference does metacognition and metacognitive awareness make to language learning? If I managed well enough with French and German, without any, or perhaps very little, metacognitive awareness, doesn’t that suggest it’s not really necessary as long as your teacher tells you what activities to do and when?

I would say, speaking from experience, that it hugely affects what you are able to achieve independently:

I went to work in Indonesia in 2010, and was there for a year and a half. I’d just done my CELTA. I spoke no Indonesian prior to arriving – other than a smattering of phrases that I taught myself before I left home. I did manage to learn a little bit of Indonesian while in the country, but not much. I was keen but my efforts were clumsy and ill-informed, with very little in the way of success, so I then got demotivated, as well as losing confidence, so learning was very minimal overall. Then I did my M.A. in ELT and Delta, and actually learnt a bit more about how languages are learnt and taught, coming across all manner of theories and being encouraged to consider them all critically.

I came to Italy to work last September. This time, I have had much greater resources to draw on in my language learning. I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learnt about learning and teaching English to my own learning of Italian, and, in 7 months of self-study, get myself from complete beginner to (very) low pre-intermediate level (though I sometimes still sound like a total beginner when I get my tongue all in knots! :-p ). Obviously I’ve benefitted from my knowledge of French, but I’d argue that here, it’s not just the fact that I speak French that helps, but the fact that I’m aware of how to use that skill/knowledge to my benefit while learning Italian.

I’ve been able to use a whole range of metacognitive and language learning strategies that I wasn’t able to use while learning Indonesian, as well as a range of task types, clear in my understanding of what I could achieve in using them and how to maximise that benefit. As well as not being put off by initial difficulties e.g not understanding what I was listening to when I first starting watching things without subtitles. This is part of what Vandergrift and Goh (2012) would refer to as strategy knowledge and task knowledge. I’ve also been able to manage my motivation a lot better and avoid getting discouraged when progress has been slow or when I thought I’d never get out of my “silent period“, for example. This is part of what Vandergrift and Goh (ibid) would refer to as person knowledge.

I would suggest that as learners spend the majority of their time outside the classroom and mostly don’t have the opportunity to do whole courses devoted to theories of learning and how to learn, it is up to us, as language teachers, to ensure that we help them develop sufficient metacognitive knowledge and understanding of how language learning works – how to approach tasks, how the tasks can be beneficial, what strategies you can use to gain the most benefit from them etc –  for them to be able to help themselves learn without the teacher always telling them exactly what to do and when (so that they are able to learn outside of the classroom), and, all-importantly, manage their own motivation. Vandergrift and Goh (2012) contains lots of ideas for developing metacognitive awareness in relation to the skill of listening and a lot of their ideas, I would suggest, are adaptable and applicable to other areas of language learning. I wonder how widespread their use is.

My questions for you:

  • Have you used your knowledge of learning theory and language teaching in your own language learning? How?
  • Have you helped your learners to develop their metacognitive awareness and become more able to manage their own learning? How?

Here are some posts about my own language learning and what I’ve learnt from it:

And here are some of my ideas for helping learners to develop metacognitive awareness and apply it to their learning, to help them become more autonomous:

Finally, if you have written any posts that are relevant to the theme of language learning and applying metacognitive awareness to your learning processes, or write any in response to my questions, please do link to them in the comments section of this post!

 References:

Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. Teaching and learning second language listening: metacognition in action Routledge. Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 09.13.23

IHTOC (International House Teachers Online Conference) May 2014

At 14.20 CET (12.20 GMT, 13.20 BST) I took part in the International House Teachers Online Conference (a.k.a IHTOC). Each talk in this conference is ten minutes in length, with talks being divided up in to 50 minute sessions. In my session, I had the honour of talking in the same session as David Petrie of IH Coimbra (with whom I’ve been discussing the future of language teaching, on our respective blogs) whose topic was “What I did on my holidays – six things from IATEFL 2014“; Emma Cresswell from IH Santander who gave a talk called “From conference to classroom“; Anya Shaw who hails from IH Buenos Aires Belgrano and spoke on the topic of “Homework: rethinking our routines” and last but assuredly not least, Sandy Millin, the DoS at IH Sevastopol who shared “Five ways to raise your professional profile“.

My own talk title was “From teacher to enabler: stimulating acquisition outside the classroom“. Those of you who have read my blog before will know that I am very interested in the prickly issue of Learner Autonomy and exploring ways of enabling language acquisition during the many hours learners spend outside class. Little wonder, then, when I was invited to submit a speaker proposal, this interest came to the fore.

In my ten minutes, I discussed why the step from teacher to enabler is important to make and suggested 3 simple ways to do this.

  • Encourage experimentation
  • Get learners goal-setting
  • Keep talking!

The rationale behind the first point is that learners, myself included when it comes to Italian, tend to stick with one or two “safe” activities, if they do any work at all outside class time. In order to broaden their range of activities and help them remain motivated to try new things, scaffolded experimentation can be very effective. However, giving learners a bunch of ideas and then leaving them to it is not helpful in terms of maintaining motivation. Chances are they will file away the handout and quickly forget about it, reverting back to their mainstay activities.

This is where points two and three come in.

Setting challenging yet achievable intermediate, mid-term goals can help learners maintain their motivation by breaking down the monolithic task of learning a language into more manageable chunks and increasing the chances of success: t

The experience of success, especially that which is hard-won, is one of the motivational factors that Dornyei (2013) includes the third channel of his L2 Motivational Self-System – the language learning experience.

Regular discussion, in which learners communicate their goals and discuss their learning experiences gives rise to the benefits of heightened commitment to the goals, greater satisfaction in attaining goals as they share their achievements, and less isolation when they are in a learning slump – indeed, during these times they can ‘feed off’ the motivation of others and regain the desire to have another go; and then be the ones that give faltering classmates that extra push.

I suggested that this recipe was not limited to the handout I shared, but could also be applied to extensive reading or anything we want learners to do outside the classroom.

My ideas drew on goal setting theory (Lock and Latham, 1990), motivation theory (Dornyei, 2014) as well as the idea of motivational flow (Egbert, 2003) and, of course, learner autonomy theory (e.g. Benson, 2011, Oxford 2003, Smith, 2003)

10 minutes is not a long time, so I had to wrap it up pretty quickly, having elaborated on my three-step plan and hand on to the next speaker!

Here is a copy of my slides and here  is a link to the recording.

References:

Benson (2011) Teaching and Researching Learner Autonomy Pearson Education. Harlow

Egbert (2003) in Dornyei and Ushioda (2012) Teaching and researching motivation Pearson Education. Harlow

Dornyei, Z. (2014) Plenary talk, Motivation and the vision of knowing another language in the Warwick Postgraduate Conference, June 26th 2013.

Lock and Latham (1990) in Dornyei and Ushioda (2012) Teaching and Researching Motivation. Pearson Education. Harlow.

Oxford, R. (2003) Towards a more Systematic Model of L2 Learner Autonomy in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

Smith, R. (2003) Pedgagogy for Autonomy as (Becoming) Appropriate Methodology in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

 

 

 

 

How I’m learning Italian (inspired by the one and only Sandy Millin!)

Sandy’s brilliant post on how she’s learning Russian has inspired me to reflect on and write about my own efforts to learn Italian, with a bit of comparison between my way and hers.

The first difference between our learning is that, when not cancelling them, she is having lessons. What’s more, they are one-to-one lessons. I had a few small group lessons when I first arrived in Italy, and established that I was a terrible classroom learner. Like Sandy, I, too, felt sorry for my teacher having me as a student! I wonder if I would do better in one-to-one classes? It would be interesting to have a few and find out…

I suspect, though, like any adult learner of a foreign language, time management would be an issue. Especially, like Sandy, the whole HOMEWORK bit! During the time period of the small-group lessons, near the beginning of my time here, I mostly did my homework half an hour before the lesson started – it couldn’t have been any nearer the time because our weekly staff meetings immediately preceded the lesson time-slot! On the surface you’d have assumed I was an unmotivated, bad learner. Not so. The problem was that I was too motivated – I had already met what we were looking at in class during my own self-study. So the homework – gap fills and writing out verb conjugations and so forth – was boring.

(Or would it? If I were in a one-to-one class, then theoretically we’d be doing stuff I was interested in knowing, both in the classes and, by extension, for homework. Ah, homework. It’s compulsory to set it here, so with my own experiences in mind, I’ve worked very hard on trying to ensure that the homework I set is meaningful and of interest to my learners.)

Needless to say, I stopped the lessons (time was at a premium and the lessons weren’t doing it for me) and went it alone.

Reading

 

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 08.10.46

Harry Potter: tutti i libri!

 

Knowing that I enjoy reading in languages others than English (especially French), I immediately decided I had to start reading in Italian. So I bought Il piccolo principe from the local bookshop (had to be done, was the first book I ever read in French too…) and downloaded a complete set of Harry Potter books in Italian onto my e-book reader. I also dug out a pdf. of Harry Potter 1 in English. I used them side by side. Sometimes I read a few paragraphs in English, followed by those paragraphs in Italian, and repeat. Sometimes I did the reverse. It was a fascinating voyage of discovery, seeing how things were said in Italian and taking care to keep an eye out for any similarities with French – lexical or grammatical. So I suppose, though I was reading extensively, I was also reading intensively – using the text to learn about language.

Eventually (somewhere part way through this first in the series), I gave up using the English version and just used the Italian version. It wasn’t a conscious decision, so much as a gradual realisation that I had enough language not to need the side-by-side translating any more. I graduated to looking words up when necessary. Initially, quite a few words. (What a terrible language learner! You’re supposed to guess by context/ignore etc. Oh well!) As time passed, fewer and fewer words. What I now rather like doing with words I don’t know is guessing what they mean and then looking them up to see if I’m right or not.

I also downloaded an audio book of Harry Potter 1, having read an article suggesting that extensive listening to audio books, in addition to extensive reading of the same books, can be beneficial. I still haven’t finished listening to it. But I’ve listened to a few chapters, some while reading at the same time and some just listening. A few of my students swear by it (they like graded readers that come complete with audio!).

It’s ok, I haven’t read Harry Potter exclusively – I’m also ploughing my way through a series of books about horses aimed at teenagers. Which is actually useful because I’ve taken up horse-riding again since I’ve been in Sicily, so having a working knowledge of that vocabulary is relevant! I’ve yet to find a use for all the magic-related vocabulary I’ve picked up… 😉

Actually, reading didn’t come first. What came first started before I even got to Italy: Memrise.

Memrise

 

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 21.44.44

Screenshot of Memrise site

 

Once I accepted the job at IH Palermo, I downloaded “Basic Italian” from Memrise, using the app on my Ipad. From this little gem, I learnt how to say something could be dangerous (potrebbe essere pericoloso), to comment on how many taxis I could see (ci sono molti taxi), to ask where the Vatican is (dov’e il Vaticano?), and the Italian for pork (carne di maiale). Which, as a vegetarian, I haven’t had to ask for, but it’s useful to avoid on menus! *NB excuse any errors – it’s been a while since I reviewed these and I don’t often write!

Memrise teaches you chunks and provides lots of random pictures which are supposed to help you remember words. (All I can remember of the pictures was that an alarming number of them featured busty women which had nothing to do with the chunks in question! But I’m sure there were some good ones too.) It also gives you a sense of progress by likening the learning progress to growing flowers. You plant seeds, you grow them,  you water them, etc.

Things I like about Memrise:

  • It gives you chunks: I like chunks. Once I’ve learnt them and can say them, I like analysing them and seeing how they’re made and seeing if I can manipulate them to do other things.
  • Instant feedback: It gives you a chunk, in Italian or English, you touch what you think is the translation (out of the choice they give you) and it tells you if that is correct or incorrect.
  • The inbuilt spaced review: It “locks” sets until you need to “water” them.
  • Audio and visual: As well as seeing the chunks, a voice says them to you. Therefore you can repeat them after the voice.
  • Priming: You see language in the multiple choices given that you focus on subsequently. So you’ve seen it repeatedly before you focus on it, so it’s a little bit familiar already. Although, who knows how useful that is when it’s all out of context?

Things I don’t like about Memrise:

  • For the most part, it’s matching/multiple choice. It would be nice if, as well as that, you could graduate on to typing in the translation for long chunks. With multiple choice, sometimes you know which one it is because you know which ones it isn’t. (Though that in itself is an interesting exercise and tests your knowledge of other chunks, I suppose!) I think the closest you get is choosing words from a selection to form the chunks and spelling out words from a selection of letters they give you.
  • The randomness: There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to the chunks selected. I suppose you could make your own sets like on Quizlet, and then it would be more specific/tailored, but I haven’t got that far with it – it got forgotten before that!

Memrise has the dubious honour of being the only language learning app/programme that I’ve ever used properly. (I’ve also dabbled with Babel but abandoned it very quickly!) Unlike Sandy, I haven’t used Quizlet as a language learner. I’ve used it to revise Delta terminology and I’ve made self-access materials to help my learners use it (though very few of them have got particularly keen on it) but I haven’t tried to use it to learn language. I used Memrise prior to departure from the UK to give myself *something* – as that would be better than arriving in Italy with absolutely *nothing*! I didn’t use it for long after I actually got to Italy. Now that I’ve said that, I plan to open it, run through the sets and see if I can get 100% or what it teaches me this time round!

Vocabulary

So if I don’t use Quizlet and my use of Memrise has died a death, how do I learn vocabulary? Well, I haven’t used vocabulary lists, I haven’t post-it’ed my flat, I haven’t made index cards. I did have a vocabulary note book (which was an appalling example of a vocabulary notebook!) – where I’d note down any words or phrases that interested me, higgledy piggledy, and look over them periodically. I’ve also learnt a bit of various topic-related vocabulary from my course book (daily routine, things in a house, going on holiday, shopping and eating etc. the usual kind of thing!). But the majority of it, I have learnt through reading, as described above. I like the idea of using Quizlet but… a) I’m not sure what vocabulary I’d choose to input. But more importantly, b) I have limited time to devote to language learning and I really like reading and watching dvd series or films. <Bad learner flag!> …although I think I pick up a fair bit of vocabulary from those activities. I feel it’s slightly more meaningful to see vocabulary repeatedly in context rather than in flashcards/lists. Perhaps another thing for my to-do list, though, is use Sandy’s Quizlet guide and see what other people have done with it in terms of learning Italian. That will be most interesting, even if I don’t actually do the games and stuff.

I learnt fruit and vegetable vocabulary from the market, which is also my main location for recycling that vocabulary! Other food vocabulary has come via studying menus in various restaurants. Helpfully enough, my course book had a sequence dedicated to market shopping, so I learnt a few useful phrases that way too.

 

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Listening

I’ve been watching dvds – films or episodes of series – in Italian fairly regularly since my arrival in Palermo. To start with, I used subtitles in English and then very soon switched to Italian subtitles. Then I bought a DVD series with no Italian subtitles! Shock horror! So I had to watch without subtitles. At first, it was just a case of looking at moving pictures and catching the very odd word once in a while. I persevered. A few episodes in, I noticed I was no longer just looking at pictures but also actually understanding some of what was said. Now I can follow reasonably well. I haven’t used subtitles since buying this DVD series, even on subsequently bought DVDs which do have them. Why? I tried it and found the subtitles annoying.

As mentioned earlier in the post, I’m also listening to Harry Potter 1 very sporadically.

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….very sporadically!

 

I’m very unlikely to finish it in the next few weeks, but it will come in very useful over the summer, when I need to find ways to maintain my Italian while not in Italy!

Another good source of things to watch and listen to in other languages is Youtube. I found a lovely cartoon film which had been dubbed in Italian, which I really enjoyed watching while I was in England over Christmas, in a desperate attempt to hold on to some Italian:

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Such a lovely little story – do watch it, in whichever language you want to! 🙂

 

I haven’t used Youtube overly much while in Italy, though, due to my internet connection being limited – I get a certain number of gigabytes of data per month, which streaming would eat into massively. I plan to mine it over the summer – another thing for the Italian Maintenance list…

For the same reason (limited data connection), my use of Italian radio has been… limited. I really should either find my Ipod, which picks up radio but which I’ve managed to lose, or pick up a cheap little FM radio.

My TV doesn’t work, so that hasn’t been a possibility – perhaps next year! (I shall be living in a different flat – hurrah!)

I had some good listening practice during my recent holiday – I wound up having to make and receive a couple of phone calls – every language learner’s nightmare. I used context and key words to get by! I didn’t understand everything but I understood enough – and more than I would have expected to understand. I didn’t worry about the bits I didn’t understand. I also used strategies to check my understanding of what was important e.g. repeating it back and paraphrasing.

Maybe I should do more intensive listening? Make myself do mini-dictations and the like?

Writing

I don’t do a lot of writing. I have, however, tried one thing to give myself writing practice: I started an Italian blog. No, you can’t see it – it’s deliberately set to private!! It has a grand total of about three entries, though there is one entry in my Ipad notes that I haven’t yet uploaded, I don’t think. I can’t even remember. The majority of the writing has been done in Ipad notes, while on planes to and from Palermo. Being captive for three hours seems to work!

What I like about blogging in Italian:

  • It makes me actually use the language productively. (My receptive skills are so much stronger than my productive skills!)

What I dislike about blogging in Italian:

  • Time-consuming! So I should maybe set myself a mini-goal such as writing something once a week. Or write less per post and more frequently, until I can do it more quickly.
  • I can’t say complex things yet (or at least couldn’t when last I tried!) so frustration often accompanies it!

I really ought to dust the blog off and get using it again…

Speaking

Speaking is the missing link in my language learning. I don’t do it nearly enough. For ages I’ve been meaning to try and set up a language exchange but have kept putting it off. Why? Well, what will I say? I’m not that talkative at the best of times! What I’d really like is PSP Speaking sessions like we have in our school (an hour-long, mixed level, group discussion in English on different topics, done in pairs/small groups and then whole-group, with some feedback given) in Italian! Maybe next year I’ll get round to setting up a language exchange…

Grammar

I’ve learnt quite a bit of grammar from an A1/A2 course book that I’ve worked my way through. It’s not bad – generally involves giving you a text in Italian, reading or listening. If a listening text, the transcript is then printed for mining in subsequent activities once you’ve listened for meaning. The grammar comes out of the texts, which have clearly been written for that purpose. I suppose it works for me because I like language in context. I’ve got the B1/B2 book, but I haven’t yet done much of it. I lost my habit of getting the book out first thing in the morning, sometime soon after Christmas. I really should find it again. And remember how lucky I am that I’ve found some Italian course materials that work for me – sounds like it’s much harder with Russian!

What I haven’t done is sit down and learn verb endings. I know plenty of regular verbs/endings  in the present, and I can form the past. I have quite a few past participles (or whatever they are called in Italian, the form you use to express the past along with avere). I know some future forms. I know a handful of conditionals. But during the holidays, I noticed that since I never say “we”, I struggled when I wanted to use a conditional “we” form. Of course I found ways around it. So it probably wasn’t necessary. But perhaps it would help to have a look at some verb tables, now that I have picked up a variety of verbs and endings via reading and listening, and compare it with what I’ve picked up.

Productive vs. Receptive

Like many learners, I have a very spiky profile. My receptive skills are pretty strong, while my productive skills are a lot weaker. My receptive vocabulary is pretty big now, my productive vocabulary a lot smaller – though words and chunks are moving across all the time, the more I meet them in various contexts. Perhaps, like Sandy, I should record myself speaking and listen back for mistakes. Perhaps I should pull my finger out and sort out that language exchange. Or, have a few private lessons… I also definitely need to do more writing, as that at least would also force me to produce.

Time

I’m a big fan of little and often, so I don’t need to challenge myself to do ten minutes a day as Sandy did. What I need to do is challenge myself to vary what I do more within the time that I do use. Difficult, though, as the reading I do in the evening (20 minutes) doubles as unwinding and when I watch series in the morning, I’m eating at the same time. When I read Harry Potter during the day, again I’m generally eating. So, maybe, then, I need to *add* ten minutes of non-extensive reading/listening – related activities to what I already do.

Some conclusions

Well, I’ve already drawn plenty of conclusions here , but…

  • Homework needs to be meaningful if you want your learners to actually do it!
  • Extensive reading is a very valuable learning tool and should be encouraged. It can be combined with intensive reading of the same text. (I’m sure people won’t necessarily agree with this, but it worked for me so I can live with the disagreement!)
  • Extensive listening is too!
  • Language learning is very personal: One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Many of Sandy’s methods don’t appeal to me at all and require much more discipline than I have, but they clearly work for her. Don’t force learners to learn outside the classroom in ways they don’t find useful/appealing. But do encourage experimentation with new ways of learning. (I will try Quizlet, honest…)  – This way, they/we may find more ways of learning that work for them/us.
  • Chunks are good! I agree with Sandy here. As a beginner, starting with chunks then analysing them for grammar later on is a good way forward.
  • Comparing texts in L1 and target language is useful: I found it invaluable when I started reading. I would have struggled a lot more if I hadn’t had that way in. It made reading in Italian accessible to me.
  • Reflecting on your learning is also useful: It enables you to be clear about what you’re doing and why, and to identify the gaps in it, as well as look for ways to try and fill those. Metacognitive awareness is very valuable.

I think, also, interestingly, I may be a terrible language student (in a classroom situation) but I’m not too bad of a language learner. I’m motivated, I’m self-aware, I’m fairly disciplined, I work hard. However, I could be better: I don’t vary my activities enough, I rely too heavily on extensive reading and listening.

Methodology

Well, I haven’t experienced Dogme as a learner yet, but, as with Sandy:

All good in my experience!

I would also add:

Looking ahead

What do I need to do in order to develop my Italian? And what do I need to do in order to maintain it for the nearly four months that I’ll be in the UK over this summer?

  • Keep reading! (That shouldn’t be a problem – I’m only on Harry Potter 5, L’Ordine della Fenice …)
  • Broaden my reading: investigate different genres – there must be plenty to find on the Internet: newspapers, magazines, forums etc.
  • Watch films/series in Italian regularly: I will have a decent internet connection while in the UK so no excuses!
  • Listen to Italian radio: As above!
  • Speak!: Really need to set up that language exchange…
  • Try Quizlet?: Investigate it again and see if I can make it work for me. And/or maybe try making a set on Memrise
  • Get a grammar book out: Look at the verbs, look at some other grammar and see what I have picked up from reading/listening extensively. Give it names. Look at a few rules. That kind of thing!
  • Get my course book out: It wouldn’t hurt, would it? Get that routine going again…
  • Add ten minutes! Do at least ten minutes of studying a day that isn’t extensive reading/listening.

I know from experience (the Christmas holidays – 2 weeks)  I will have to make an extra effort to keep it going during the summer. At least the fact that I’m coming back here after the summer should be a good motivating factor!

Watch this space – I’ll post an update on how my aims, above, panned out – especially over summer…

And thank you, Sandy, for inspiring this post!

(PS: to those who are waiting for me to pick up where I left off with the social side of language learning and to respond to comments on the last post I wrote in relation to this, I will get there soon, honest! I’ve been on holiday for a few days so got some catching up to do…)

12 things I’ve learnt about language learning by being a language learner!

Italian and I…

We had barely met when I first arrived in Palermo. I called bruschetta “brooshetta” , pizzeria “pizzERia” and could barely string a sentence together. I had a few Memrise chunks – they meant I could ask where the vatican is (might have got some odd looks from the good people of Palermo if I tried that!*) and comment on the large number of taxies in sight, or surmise that something might be dangerous (me attempting to do anything in Italian, perhaps?) but when I went into a bar/cafe near where I work, I didn’t have the confidence to attract their attention or the language to follow it up with getting what I wanted.

I did have a few lessons but dropped out fairly early on because of a combination of lack of time and being driven slightly mad (much as it was interesting to see the classroom from the learner point of view!). I was, however, very motivated to learn, so worked my way through an A1/A2 coursebook and picked up some useful stuff and some less than useful (the only time I’ve needed to describe my daily routine at length was in a speaking test which formed part of an entrance test when I was thinking of joining a class again! :-p ). I’ve watched a load of dvds, films and series, with then without subtitles. I’ve read extensively. I’ve used what little language I have with various people. The latter three things I’ve kept up while the coursebook (the B1 version now) has fallen by the wayside. Though now that I’ve decided to do another year here, I have renewed my intentions to pick it up and continue…

I love Italian and have enjoyed the learning process thus far. Having just been on holiday around Sicily and having succeeded in putting my language to good use, I feel extra positive about it now! So I thought I’d pull together some things I’ve learnt on my journey as a learner up til now…

12 things I’ve learnt so far from my language learning:

  • 20 mins morning and evening is worthwhile. It must be-it’s all I’ve ever have time to do during the week and I’ve dragged myself from zero to A2 in my 7 months here so far. (In my entrance test I was one point off B1 for the written bit and my speaking was in the same general ball park). However, learners often think that if they don’t have an hour or so to spend, it’s not worth starting. Being busy people, finding that hour is, of course, difficult. 20 mins could be much easier! (I’ve a project under way currently to work on making small slots of time more appealing and likely to be used!)
  • Read, read, read! When I started Harry Potter one, I was looking up rather a lot of words and I also used a parallel English text alongside the Italian, varying which I’d read first; but now (I’m half way through Order of the Phoenix) I can read, understand and only look up the occasional word (or ignore it and read on!) Also, just because I was a (very) basic user, that didn’t mean I couldn’t start reading books in Italian. Familiar stories can be very useful for soaking up new language. My experiences of extensive reading have fed into my reading project.
  • I should listen more. I’ve done well with dvd films and series but I haven’t mined radio – took ages to discover I could get it through my ipod and plug that into speakers then promptly forgot ever to do so. (Internet radio is no go because I have a limited monthly data allowance which streaming radio would kill!) I really need to dig out my ipod again…
  • (Related to above point) getting into a learning routine is really useful! I automatically do my reading each evening (and often with lunch too); for a while (3 months?) I also opened my coursebook religiously each morning with my morning cuppa. Then it just becomes what you do as part of a day rather than an added extra that can be forgotten. How can we help our learners develop helpful routines?
  • Mapping to other languages is so helpful. French is related to Italian and I have reasonable French, which I’ve used to my advantage in looking for similarities and differences, both of which are useful memory aids. Not to mention just being really *interesting*! While on holiday, my aunt (who has good Spanish and French, but little Italian) and I (good French, basic Italian) were often making comparisons between these languages and also German (we both have a smattering of that too) for both of the reasons mentioned above. So, other languages should be welcomed in the classroom, I think.
  • I can do more than I perceive. Have just been on this holiday around Sicily, which involved doing a lot of taking charge, as my aunt and uncle, who travelled round Sicily with me, have little (her) to no (him) Italian. I managed. Including several phone calls! I found I had more vocabulary than I realised and could make myself understood fairly easily. When I first arrived, as I said earlier, I once went into a bar to try and get a slice of pizza or similar, but didn’t even have enough language to get their attention and was also too scared to say anything. Progress has definitely been made and that is hugely motivating! (Which underlines how important it is to help learners discover that they can use language – a bit like the budding readers in my classes have done with reading in English…)
  • Though I didn’t give myself another (Italian) name in the end (see my post about identity here), I’ve noticed that before I speak in Italian, there is a split-second moment where my Italian mindset slips into place, just before I open my mouth. It’s not a “how do you say xxx?” type switch, more of a changing channels to my Italian channel. Maybe this is slightly related to second language identity? (I have to become “Lizzie who CAN speak Italian”…) I’ve also noticed that I respond in Italian automatically when, for example, I bump into someone and need to apologise or what have you. Without thinking. So maybe the Italian mindset is on more than I realise, but when I speak with purpose, I become aware of it?
  • I have found myself at times trying to apply what I teach to my own learning, especially, for example, the metacognitive approach for listening to stuff, and at times going completely against it (e.g. all the words I looked up initially in Harry Potter!)  I have concluded that all is very useful to be aware of, but it’s important to feel the freedom to break rules too: language learning is so personal. Rather than tell a learner you should/shouldn’t do this or that, I’d involve them in a discussion about possible ways of doing things and benefits/limitations of each.
  • Living in a country doesn’t necessarily mean you do tons of speaking to native speakers, especially if you are low level. But nevertheless, being surrounded by the language counts for a lot. Even just in terms of reminding you to study :-p But also you hear it and see it regularly, even if you don’t do much speaking. When I went to UK at Christmas, I found it much harder to study, a) having lost my routine and b) being surrounded by English again. However, as time passes, and you become more comfortable in your use of the language, exploiting opportunities that DO arise becomes easier.
  • Losing self-consciousness and focusing on communicating definitely helps. A dash of necessity is useful in making this step. And when you are understood, and manage to do what you want to do, you feel dead chuffed! Again helpful to try and replicate this to some degree in the language classroom, at whatever level. (I think I’d have found it much more motivating to do a task where use of personal details was needed than I did the language practice activity I did have to do, which was pretty much a communicative drill. Not knocking the communicative drill, but maybe an extra task too…)
  • If you speak other languages, it’s good to try and maintain them while learning the new one. I read in French regularly – generally every evening after I’ve done my 20 mins of Italian reading. (I have a 40 min piece of music that is neatly divided into two sections, so no clock watching needed!) I think a) it’s nice not to lose the previously learnt language and b) it must be good brain gym switching between languages!
  • If you learn a new word, it’s like making a new friend – in a crowd of other words, where before it would have been just part of that “sea of faces”, once you make friends with a word, it stands out. E.g. I learnt “condividere” today and then overheard some random Italians speaking and picked out that word amongst others. (Was I primed to notice it by having focused on it earlier in the day?) But like human relationships, if you only meet someone once, you may then forget their name/face and need reminding at the next meeting, when you know you know them from somewhere but can’t place them. (Which is more likely to happen when you meet them out of what you perceive as their usual context)

And last but not least, though more being reminded than having learnt:

How much I love languages, language learning and language teaching! 🙂

(* I know – I can substitute other things too…)

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La bella Italia – Italian flag: from commons.wikimedia.org – licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Experimenting with English (Part 2) – Activities for learners to do outside the classroom [26 and counting!]

In my blog post Experimenting with English: scaffolding learner autonomy, I discussed how I approached helping my learners to use English outside the classroom, drawing on learner autonomy theory and methodology (e.g. Benson, 2011; Oxford, 2003; Smith 2003). Central to that project, alongside the very important element of discussion, was a handout I created for my learners.

Here is a screenshot of a sample page, taken from the listening section:

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Sample page from my Experimenting with English activities handout, listening section.

As you can see, the handout consists of a series of activities for learners to try, with space for them to record when they tried it and what they thought of it. The handout is divided up by skill (reading, listening, speaking, writing). What you can’t see here is that in each subdivision, as well as the activities I’ve added, there is space for the learners to add their own ideas. I have two versions of the handout, which you can access below, one of which is aimed at the learners I use Edmodo with and one of which is aimed at the learners I use a WordPress blog with. Both handouts are geared towards a non-English speaking environment, and towards adult learners of General English, reflecting my current context (a private language school in Palermo).

In my experience, as I mentioned in the Experimenting with English blog post, simply giving the learners this handout is insufficient. It gets lost, it gets forgotten, it gathers dust… What is very important for the project to be successful is regular discussion time allocated to learners’ out-of-class activities and encouraging learners to set goals in relation to this. It is also important to get learners to think about why there is space for them to write comments. Here are some reasons that we (groups of learners and I) have discussed in relation to this:

  • it means you can remember what you tried and how useful/difficult/interesting/boring/helpful etc. you found it.
  • if you try an activity more than once, at a different time, you can see if your opinion of it changes or if it gets easier to do.
  • after some time, you build a record of what you have done and you can look back to see what progress you’ve made.

Of course, my learners are busy people and the time they have for out-of-class study is limited. And sometimes that limited amount of time becomes zero time, because other things take over. It’s important to be understanding of this. And, equally, to be enthusiastic when they do manage to do things.

Here are the handouts:

This one is for learners who use Edmodo

This one is for learners who use a blog (actually it’s the same as the Edmodo one but I replaced “Edmodo” with blog, where relevant! As I use blogs with higher level learners, one of my plans is to tailor this handout more towards what they can do and include use of other tools I use with them. When I did the name-changing, I didn’t have time to work on this aspect!)

(To read in detail about how I used them, please see Experimenting with English: scaffolding learner autonomy )

My comments about the handouts: future directions

These handouts are just prototypes. I created them to fulfil a need I identified while working on my autonomy fostering projects, and they’ve been useful for that, but I want to work on them: add activities and improve both the handout and how I use it in class, based on what I’ve learnt during the last 7 months, so that they will be more effective when I use them next academic year (yes, I shall be back in Palermo again!). Additionally, of course such a handout in a different context, for example an English-speaking environment, would look different and include additional different activities, geared towards helping learners mine that resource effectively.

I’m also currently working on a means of helping learners record their out-of-class activities in a quick, easy but visually appealing and useful way – so that they could look at it and at a glance be able to see the balance of skills they’ve been working on etc. Hopefully a couple of my classes are piloting it now, during the Easter holidays, so it will be interesting to see if it is working as I envisaged or…not! But more about that in a future post… 🙂

 

 

My IH Journal column no.2: learner autonomy and metacognition

My IH Journal (International House Journal) tagline is as follows:

“To celebrate my 30th birthday (18/06/2013), I made an attempt to identify 30 things that I’d incorporated into my professional practice over the preceding year. 30 is quite a large number, but having spent an academic year at Leeds Metropolitan University learning vast amounts while tackling the Delta integrated into an M.A. ELT, I thought I should be able to pinpoint any number of things and by doing so, it would reinforce them in my mind as well has creating a record to look back on. Despite the final length of that blog post, each of the 30 items was only briefly treated. In this column, I revisit that blog post, selecting items and expanding on them.”

For my second column, which recently appeared in issue 36 (Spring 2014), I focused on learner autonomy and metacognition. As I get lots of searches relating to metacognition leading to my blog, I thought I would post a link to this column for any who are interested in this area and that of learner autonomy.

The contents page shows the wide variety of articles and columns that IH Journal has to offer – something for everybody to read, so why not have a look?

Enjoy! 🙂

Innovation in education: looking for learning (British Council Associate blog post 3)

For my third blog post as a British Council Associate, I chose the topic of innovation in education.

This was the brief:

As learning technologies become more and more ubiquitous in our teaching, how can we ensure that pedagogy is at the centre of what we do to increase learning? What tools do you incorporate into your teaching and how do you ensure they help learning?

I shared the approach I use to ensure that the tools I use help learning, and to ensure that pedagogy remains central, using Edmodo and Wordandphrase.info as examples.

To read my blog post, please follow this link.

To see other blog posts I’ve written for the British Council, please follow this link. (Topics so far are: “Course books in the classroom: friend or foe?” and “How does blogging help you to be a better teacher?”)

Thank you, British Council Teaching English, for letting me post alongside some really great bloggers.