Autonomous skill development (3) – text mining

This is the third 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 and the second post on dictations as an autonomous learning tool here . This post doesn’t focus specifically on listening skill development but I have decided to include it in this series as it focuses on an autonomous learning activity. So I hereby declare the series focus expanded! 

The inspiration for this post is in part my own language learning and in part a workshop I attended this afternoon on developing speaking fluency. Text mining was one of the techniques mentioned, in terms of being a way of supporting learners to complete speaking tasks more successfully. As I understand it, learners use a text that has previously been exploited for listening/reading and highlight language that they do understand but wouldn’t use themselves unprompted. The idea is that they can then carry the language over for use in a speaking task on a similar topic. Beautifully simple. It was one of several techniques for lessening cognitive load and enabling learners to use more complex language. And, I imagine (and as was suggested), motivating for learners to be focusing on the language that they do “know” in a text, rather than only the language they aren’t familiar with, which is usually the case. I gather the idea, as explained to us today, originally came from this talk by Joan Saslow at IATEFL in 2013

So that was the workshop. What excited me is that “text mining” is something I have been doing myself, autonomously, on a regular basis this summer, in my Italian learning. Only, I hadn’t given it a label, it was just something I do and have found a lot of value in, particularly because of what I’ve done with the language mined post-mining. So the focus of this post isn’t on text mining as a means of working on spoken fluency in the classroom, but on text mining as an autonomous activity for bridging the gap between receptive and productive skills.

Aims:

  • Develop productive language resources
  • Expand vocabulary
  • Develop language awareness

Materials/tools:

  • Texts! Of any description – the more varied, the better.
  • Quizlet
  • A blog or similar

Procedure:

  • Encourage learners to read and listen extensively (for a start!). Ideally a range of texts – authentic original, authentic translations (i.e. books translated from another language into the target language, not for a language learning audience) graded readers, non-fiction, written, audio of whatever description, the more varied the better. (I’m currently actively in the middle of two books (one original Italian, one translation into Italian), two audiobooks (both translations into Italian), a science-y/technology magazine  (authentic Italian) and a graded reader (Italian for learners!), currently! As well as the inevitable dvd.)
  • Get them to highlight language that they understand but don’t produce, that could be useful for them to produce. (So that they don’t just highlight everything. Part of the trick is being selective. And how you select obviously depends on purpose, amongst other things. I don’t have a specific purpose for learning Italian but I select chunks because I can imagine myself wanting to express that meaning when I converse in Italian once I’m back in Sicily. I also select chunks if they include a structure or language point that I’ve come across and started learning about – so for example the subjunctive or use of prepositions. Of course when purpose is considered in this way, then it will probably vary from reading/listening occasion to reading/listening occasion. E.g. I won’t always be on the look out for prepositional phrases but for a spell I might be. Then I’ll move on to a new focus.)
  • Obviously if that was it, it would be a bit useless. A sort of “ah that’s a nice chunk…ok, bye bye chunk.” The trick is recycling. And lots of it. Of course seeing it used (or if not specifically it then a variation of it – that often happens) in further reading/listening is great – but if you’ve forgotten about it you might not notice it and you are also unlikely to produce it. In order to avoid this, I like to use Quizlet. I input the chunks – so already that makes me focus on them some more – and then I use the learn mode (generally on my iPad because I prefer the mobile app learn mode to the website learn mode) to help me memorise them a bit. That way, I’m more likely to remember them when I come across them again. And I do! Come across them again, that is.
  • Still not enough. Further steps much depend on the chunk. I have variously  i) tried to manipulate it if it is not a fixed chunk (could I make it refer to another time frame? could I make it stronger or weaker? how formal is it? what is a more/less formal way of expressing that? could I change the context of use/topic?) ii) tried to use in the little blog posts I write on my Italian post iii) tried to use in conversation – currently limited to Facebook chatting but once I’m back in Sicily…! iv) used it while talking to myself. And I really do think talking to yourself in the target language has value. It may mean you are crazy, I don’t know, but it’s a great way to experiment with language in a very non-threatening way. Doesn’t even have to be aloud, can be internally, in your head. I usually do it aloud when I’m cycling to and from work! I do it internally at various other times. v) used it during my weekly self-recording speaking sessions. vi) tried to use all my linguistic resources, including those acquired in this way, in my solitaire “scrabble” games. Over time, I become aware that these chunks, that I wouldn’t have produced before, have made their way into my active productive language resources.

So, it’s pretty simple really! But the keys are:

*The* keys! :-) Image taken from Google image search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification.

*The* keys! 🙂 Image taken from Google image search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification.

  • Variety of activities – for genuine recycling. And I think language learning contracts may play an important role in this: I didn’t do a wide variety of learning activities regularly until I made myself a contract, and it is only through making myself (initially) follow that contract that I discovered how useful variety is. They started off as discrete individual activities on a list, but by doing them and learning more about them and how to benefit as much as possible from the interplay between them, they have now become a sort of language learning web, catching new language for me. I think in terms of scaffolding learners, then my Experimenting with English project (or anything along similar lines) could be helpful too.
A web for catching language! image from commons.wikimedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification.

A web for catching language! image from commons.wikimedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification.

  • Being on the look out for “your” language. So that when you hear or see it, you get that little glow of recognition.
  • Being willing to talk to yourself and experiment with the language that way. And talk to others too, when the opportunity arises.
  • Some memorisation. (It’s useful! Insufficient on its own but valuable as a component of a larger approach)
  • Being selective – or you highlight the whole book/article/whatever. And I think this would be the most difficult thing for learners. However, perhaps this is another facet of the activity as described in the opening to this blog post, as a classroom activity for scaffolding speaking. Perhaps it can be used as a way of helping learners become better able to use it as an autonomous learning activity. I.e. get them to discuss what chunks they’ve chosen and why. How could those chunks be useful?
  • Having time off: I still do a lot of “just” reading. I’m not reading to stop every ten seconds to highlight. If a chunk really stands out, I’ll grab it. But because of how this seems to work, even when I’m “off” – I’m still very tuned in to noticing any language I’ve grabbed previously. But I don’t transfer it to Quizlet immediately necessarily. Sometimes I do –  if it’s a – to me – particularly yummy piece of language and my computer is to hand. But often I let a handful “build up” and then transfer them over and start working on them. So, it’s not intrusive to the reading.

I think on it as a sort of “active” reading/listening – rather than just letting it all wash over me, in the hopes that some might stick, I’m actually doing something to start making it stick.

Does it work?

For me, yes. Absolutely. My productive language resources have increased a lot since I started my language learning contract (i.e. doing a variety of activities including text mining) My receptive skills have improved too, but I think this approach has helped the gap between my receptive and productive skills to not widen in the process. “Process” is perhaps the key word. This is more of an on-going process than an activity, really. More of a mindset that I’ve developed, which I think is useful for approaching language learning.

For other learners? Further research is needed!  I shall be experimenting come October… Meanwhile, try it out with your learners and let me know!

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 19.43.10

I wondered…

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

But the big question is…

Have I managed to keep to my contract?

Pretty well, yes!

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

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

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

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

What difference has it made to my learning?

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

My Quizlet Sets!

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

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

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

fridgemagnetsinuse

How many mistakes can you spot? :-p

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

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

My first attempt!

My first attempt!

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

Only one left out!

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

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

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

Strange Scrabble

Strange Scrabble

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

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

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

What have I learnt so far?

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

Goals for next month:

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

Conclusions thus far:

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

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

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

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

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

MATSDA 2014 – What about the other 165 hours a week?

Today I was lucky enough to do a 45 minute presentation at the MATSDA conference in Liverpool. This was held at Liverpool University and the usual lovely crowd of people attended. Thank you to all who attended my talk – one of four that took place at 12.0o.

My presentation focused on ways of helping learners increase their exposure to English, and their use of it, outside of class time. I feel this is essential for learning and acquisition to take place, as the limited quantity of time available in class is insufficient, and beset with course-book related issues.

I discussed obstacles to acquisition and then looked at the various projects I’ve been working on with learners,  for the last 8 or 9 months: my reading project, my experimentation with English project, my use of collaborative tools project (which is linked with the aforementioned experimentation project), my efforts to help my learners become language researchers. I also briefly discussed the materials I made for my dissertation project, whose goal was also to help learners make use of the language in the out-of-class environment.

For further information about these projects and to access all the references made during the talk and that I’ve used during the course of all the projects, please visit my learner autonomy page and look in the section entitled Learner autonomy-related projects. For information about my dissertation materials, scroll down further on the same page and see the third link in the Presentations section.

Finally, here are the slides I used during the presentation.

Thank you to MATSDA, and especially Brian and Hitome, for allowing me to speak and making me feel very welcome.

How do we help out learners to bridge that gap... Copyright: Lizzie Pinard 2014 (between Palermo and Cefalu, Sicily)

How do we help out learners to bridge that gap… Copyright: Lizzie Pinard 2014 (between Palermo and Cefalu, Sicily)

Autonomous listening skill development (2) – Dictations

This is the second post in a series of posts whose goal is to explore ways of helping learners develop their listening skills autonomously. You can read the first post here.

This post is not going to focus on the use of dictations as a classroom activity (for some great ideas relating to classroom use of dictations, have a look at this great recent post of Marek’s) but at their use as a tool that students can use autonomously to work on receptive pronunciation/decoding processes, writing (in terms of spelling and punctuation, but potentially also grammar) and vocabulary.

Dictations may not immediately come to mind as an autonomous learning tool: you need someone to dictate something to you (be that the teacher or a classmate), to check what you write and to highlight mistakes, right? Well, not anymore. In the age of the internet, it is possible to take dictation away from the classroom and put learners in charge of using dictation as a learning tool. But for those who lack access to a decent internet connection, or whose students do, never fear: there are other ways and means too, so read on…

Potential Sources of Dictation Activity Materials

1. Websites with dictations on them

Essentially, all you need for a dictation is a recording which has a transcript. The internet has made a multitude of these freely available. “But they are too fast!” I hear you say. It’s true, most recordings don’t come at traditional dictation speed, complete with punctuation. That’s ok though. It’s all in how you use them…

Some sites have specially made dictations for language learners:

 Breaking News English

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 07.48.09

Screenshot 1 from Breaking News English dictations page (don’t forget to sponsor Rio!)

On this site, amongst all the other things they can do, learners can choose from a list of dictations. As you can see, the dictations are labelled according to difficulty.

Once the learner clicks on one of the listed dictations, they are taken to a special screen:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 07.48.28

Screenshot 2 from Breaking News English dictations page

The learner listens to the text and writes what he or she hears, in the box that is next to where it says “Guess“. If the word is correct, it will appears in the correct part of the right-hand box. The asterisks in this box correspond to the letters in the words that the learners will hear, and the gaps between them indicate where each word ends and another begins.

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 07.55.48

Screenshot 3 from Breaking News English dictations page

I think this is a valuable starting point for learners: these clues will help them become better at chunking correctly and hearing words within a speech stream. Of course, the instant feedback is useful too.

The British Council 

The British Council have an ESOL website – esol.britishcouncil.org – which has a section with dictations that learners can do. You can access these by clicking on Listen and Watch and then selecting Dictations:

Screenshot 1 from ESOL Nexus website

Screenshot 1 from the ESOL Nexus website

Selecting Dictations will take you to the following screen:

Screenshot 2 from ESOL Nexus

Screenshot 2 from ESOL Nexus

The approach taken to dictations on this site is very interesting. As well as the “Listen and Write” aspect of the dictation, learners who use these dictations can work through a series of tasks based on the speech features found in the dictation:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 08.14.47

Screen shot 3 from ESOL Nexus

Here you can see tasks on word stress and identifying the verb. Other tasks I saw while playing with the site include counting the words, identifying the connecting sound (choosing between /r/, /w/ ), and distinguishing between sounds. If your learners are not interested in productive pronunciation, they can always ignore the “listen and repeat” parts!

So this website not only allows learners to use dictations autonomously, but also builds up an awareness of receptive pronunciation that will come in handy if they try to use other tools (e.g. recordings and transcripts) to do dictation-like activities. As a teacher, you could perhaps have a look at the tasks this website sets alongside the traditional dictations, and adapt them for use in class.

However, the reason I have become so interested in dictations as a learning tool is this Italian site:

Screenshot 1: One World Italiano

Screenshot 1 from One World Italiano

The approach to dictation on this site is very basic: more basic, you might argue, than the other two afore-mentioned sites:

Screenshot 2 One World Italiano

Screenshot 2 from One World Italiano

You listen at normal speed, listen and write at dictation speed (i.e. with pauses), listen and check at normal speed, then compare your product with the transcript. Obviously this is an approach that you could adopt with any recording and transcript, except that you wouldn’t get the dictation speed. It is also an approach that is flexible enough to be adapted in a number of ways, as we shall explore later in this post…

2. Websites with recordings and transcripts

Of course there are plenty of such sites these days… Here are a couple that I think are particularly good, as examples. (Feel free to comment on this post and suggest others if you feel strongly that they ought to be on this list!)

Elllo.org 

Screenshot 1 from Elllo.org

Screenshot 1 from Elllo.org

If you click on Search by Level-Topic-Country, then you should be taken to a list of interviews:

Screenshot 2 from Elllo.org

Screenshot 2 from Elllo.org

As you can see, in addition to the title, the nationality of the speakers and the level of the recording are also provided. This site is good because it is not “native speaker”-centric. So for learners who are interested in using English as a lingua franca, rather than speaking to native speakers, this might complement other sources very nicely. That there are different levels of recording is useful too, as it makes using the recording and transcripts more accessible to lower level learners.

British Council Learn English

The British Council Learn English site has a “Listen and Watch” section that makes a very valuable learning resource:

Screenshot 1 from British Council Learn English

Screenshot 1 from British Council Learn English

Here, you can find a variety of podcasts and series of podcasts, at a mixture of levels, which are accompanied by listening activities but also – all importantly for our dictation focus – a transcript!

3. Non-internet based resources

Dictations are not limited to the internet. Other resources your learners could use include:

Graded Readers

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Screenshot from the Blackcat-cideb website

I have recently discovered graded readers as a language learner. (I knew about English graded readers as a teacher, but I think you can only fully appreciate them if you use one in a language that you are trying to learn!) What a revelation! I love them! (But that’s for another post…) Of course, as far as this post is concerned, we must limited “graded reader” to those that come with an accompanying audio recording.

Course book listenings/supplementary materials

Learners often get a cd with course book listening recordings or access to a cd rom containing either course book listening recordings or “extra practice” listening recordings/activities within similar topic areas. Transcripts are usually in the back of the student book or embedded somewhere in digital resources like cd-roms. (I know, for example, that this is the case with at least some levels of Speak Out; Headway digital has such materials that students may have access to etc.) As well as doing whatever language/skills practice activities come with these materials, learners could use the recordings and transcripts as another source of dictation practice.

Audio books

Remember the book-and-tape sets you used to get when you were young? Then they became book-and-cd. These are generally aimed at younger native speakers, but can be equally useful for language learners, provided they don’t get hung up on the target age of the materials.

Ok, so we’ve established that there is no shortage of potential material for autonomous use of dictations as a learning tool, but what do we do with them?

Activities

Let’s go back to the basic approach that my Italian website offered:

  • listen to the recording
  • listen to the recording at dictation speed and write what you hear
  • listen again at normal speed and check what you wrote
  • look at the transcript

A very good basic approach, which we could easily apply to the materials from both British Council resources and Elllo.org, but it can be extended and it is important to make full use of that “look at the transcript” phase.

How?

  • Don’t panic about only listening and writing once: you have control of the replay button, why not use it! Perhaps in due course you will be able to do it with one listen through, until then it’s ok to be human rather than give up!
  • Compare your product and the transcript
  • Highlight all your mistakes
My first Italian dictation with errors highlighted.

My first Italian dictation with errors highlighted.

But don’t stop there. Look at each mistake and the correct version, identify why you made that mistake, what/why you misheard:

My analysis of my errors

My analysis of my errors (added to the second time round)

Then identify any patterns in your mistakes i.e. your general weaknesses:

Pattern/weaknesses identification

Pattern/weaknesses identification

Note: I haven’t corrected the mistakes, only analysed them.

  • Leave it all for a few days. Yes, uncorrected.
  • After a few days, use your highlighted transcript and repeat the dictation process. Try to correct your errors by focusing particularly hard on the highlighting and trying to remember what caused the mistake.
Take 2! Correcting the errors...

Take 2! Correcting the errors…

  • Make any corrections in a different colour so that it is easy to see them.
  • Compare your corrections to the transcript and see how you did this time round.
  • Underline any remaining mistakes/omissions so that they are in evidence.
  • Analyse them as before.

Thus, instead of transcript comparison being: “Oh, I made x number of mistakes, not too bad, will try again next time.” and that being the end of the dictation activity, it becomes an extended learning opportunity. The mistakes are where the learning is. Obviously I benefit from having a reasonable awareness of what contributes to receptive difficulties and therefore can analyse my mistakes reasonably easily. To help learners gain this awareness, why not do the activity with them in class and provide a handout to help scaffold their analysis? (Such as that found in Vandergrift and Goh, 2012 consisting of a list, written in the first person, of potential error causes, for learners to match to their errors) Of course, as mentioned earlier, the British Council ESOL Nexus site is a good way in to being able to analyse errors more effectively too.

What about when the recordings don’t come with the dictation pauses and are quite fast?

That’s ok. There are several ways to work with more challenging recordings in a similar way.

Chunk-grabbing

  • Take one minute of your graded reader recording – that is plenty! (It also means you have a lot of potential dictations in one graded reader! 😉 ) I recommend that you listen without trying to write anything first. As per the approach above, where you listen at normal speed before you do the dictation activity. So, listen for meaning. It also works if you do it after having used that part of the graded reader normally i.e. listened and/or read and done the activities in the reader, as long as you let some time elapse before you do so.
  • Listen again and write down any chunks that you can. It’s moving pretty quickly, so you will grab a few phrases and a few words here and there. I did this on the computer, and entered after each chunk.
  • Play it again and try to fill in a few gaps.
  • Repeat until you’ve captured that one minute of recording.
  • Compare with the transcript – again, thoroughly- as per the approach described with the gato e topo dictation.
My first graded reader dictation

My first graded reader dictation

Here, I have highlighted my errors and put in underlining where I have omitted something. I will return to it in a few days and try to correct those mistakes by listening again.

Chunk-grabbing variation

  • Start as per the chunk-grabbing activity above.
  • After listening and grabbing a few chunks and words, listen again but don’t add anything else.
  • Then use your chunks and words, and what you can remember, and try to reconstruct the text. So, do a dictogloss.
  • Compare your dictogloss with the transcript. This time you will the analyse grammatical and lexical choices you’ve made as well as what you’ve (mis)heard.

(I will come back to this activity in more depth, including how to scaffold it in class and use it as a pronunciation tool, in a future post…)

I think the important thing when doing dictation activities with more challenging recordings i.e. recordings that are not geared towards it (and even when you are struggling with the gatto e topo recording, which is geared towards it 😉 ) is to not get stressed by it. Accept that it will be difficult, possibly frustrating too, and that you will make mistakes. The mistakes are the best part of it – they are a wonderful opportunity to learn. And there’s nothing like that moment of comparison, and the “ohhhhh” when you realise what you’ve done! So rather than it being traumatic and off-putting, it’s fun and focuses you very intently on what you are hearing. (For anybody interested in metacognition, this would be a mixture of person and task awareness! Being aware of how you might feel when doing a task and being ready to minimise negative feelings that may interfere with the task, and being aware of what the task will require [including where to find the resources and the effects of using different resources e.g. more challenging recordings vs. “easier” recordings] and its outcomes)

Using the resources and activities for autonomous learning

As with any activities that you want learners to do autonomously, it is important to:

  • model it in class first – do a small dictation, collaboratively analyse the errors learners make (and if you share their first language and are learning it, and have tried doing dictations, you could also show them yours! I plan to show my efforts to my classes during my next courses at IHPA. Seeing analysis of their own language might make the idea of error analysis in the target language less opaque, and seeing all your errors will hopefully make the idea of making them less taboo.)
  • point them towards scaffolding resources such as the ESOL Nexus site before you ask them to do the more complex sequences of activities.
  • in due course, get them to do it as homework (perhaps post outcomes on Edmodo or similar too – my learners enjoyed that)
  • provide time for discussion in class subsequently. (e.g. Learners could compare their error analysis, swap products and transcripts and see if they can help each other analyse or work in groups and look together at each in turn, while you go round and contribute as you see fit.)
  • encourage them to set goals regarding how often they will try these activities themselves, not as homework
  • ensure they have understood where to locate suitable resources
  • allow them to report back subsequently, to share successes (or failures, which can then be troubleshot), and help them to maintain motivation.

Enjoy!

I hope these ideas are useful and look forward to hearing how you/your learners got on with using them. 🙂 (As ever, related guest posts are always welcome!)

Helping language learners visualise their linguistic development: growing learning

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

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

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

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

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

What came about was a handout called

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you end up with is something like this:

Some students piloted it for about a month...

Some students piloted it for about a month…

Benefits:

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

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

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

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

Issues:

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

Future directions:

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

Watch this space…

Learning contracts and language learning

The concept

Have you or your students ever made a learning contract before? Up to now, I’ve mostly encountered the concept in association with teaching young learners/teenagers and it generally includes rules for behaviour, which the student and teachers should follow. The idea is that by involving the learners in decisions regarding what should and shouldn’t be done in class, they will be more invested in adhering to these rules and take more responsibility for their own and each others’ actions. If we extend the scope of these contracts to include language learning behaviours then I think (hope!) they could become a very useful motivational tool. As my students have identified, through the projects I’ve done with them, “making goals and communicating them to others is a good way to gain motivation” (Student Feedback).

There would be echoes of:

  • goal setting theory (Locke and Latham, 1990, in Dornyei and Ushioda 2012:loc 569, in terms of goal difficulty, goal specificity, goal importance and commitment)
  • motivation theory (e.g. Egbert, 2003, in Dornyei and Ushioda 2012:loc 2039, and Motivational Flow, which requires a balance of challenge and skills, opportunities for focus, clear goals, intrinsic interest and authenticity of task and sense of control over the task process)
  • learner autonomy theory (in terms of taking responsibility for own learning, making decisions regarding one’s learning etc. e.g. Benson, 2011).

So, I think (hope!) learning contracts, if the scope were extended to include language learning behaviours rather than just classroom behaviours, could be a very useful motivational tool.

How useful? Well, I hope to find out this summer…

The experiment

I’ve just come back to England for approximately three months. During this time, unlike the past 8 months, I won’t be regularly exposed to Italian by default, which means it would be very easy to just ‘not get round to’ working on my language skills and systems. This would be rather a shame as I would inevitably regress fairly significantly in the process. In a vain attempt to maintain my Italian, I am going to make myself a learning contract.

My research questions: 

  • Will making a learning contract help me be more motivated, for a longer period, to keep up my Italian learning while away from la bella Sicilia?
  • Will I actually do what is on my learning contract or will it have more power than that? What difference will it make?

My methodology:

  • Make the learning contract on this blog (therefore communicating it to a LOT of people!); copy it to Evernote as a checklist and check things off as I do them. Then uncheck them for take 2, recheck for take 3 etc. In order to keep track of what I’m doing.
  • Attempt to do what I said I’d do. (!)
  • Be aware of and make a note of when the learning contract influences my language learning behaviour.
  • Reflect on my progress with the language and with regards to the contract at regular intervals. (So the contract doesn’t get forgotten!)
  • See how rusty/otherwise my Italian is by the time I go back to Palermo!

My learning contract:

  1. Read extensively in Italian for at least 20 minutes every day. (I did this in Sicily, so it’s not a huge ask!)
  2. Listen extensively to Italian for at least 20 minutes every day. (This can include radio, podcasts, tv series, films etc.)
  3. Use my Italian graded reader regularly: To include reading it, listening to the audio, completing all the activities, reflecting on the process of using a graded reader for language learning. (I’m very curious to find out what it will be like! Will be a first for me!)
  4. Write on my Italian blog at least once a week. (If I do it more often, great, but a minimum of once a week.) I wrote on the plane yesterday, still need to upload it, so I have done so this week = a good start!
  5. Study grammar at least once a week. (Again, if more, so much the better but at least once is better than nothing!)
  6. Do intensive listening practice at least once a week. E.g. use this site . (Re frequency, as above!)
  7. Record myself (following muttering along to recordings or speaking freely, depending on my focus) at least once a week. (Re frequency, as above!)
  8. Use Quizlet to learn vocabulary at least once a week. Alternate between adding words and playing with words each week. (Re frequency, as above!)
  9. Read something from my Italian magazine at least once a week. (It’s a big magazine, full of lots of articles of varying sizes. It’s sort of science-y, technology-y, news-y in content. I’ve only read about two things so far!)
  10. Send a message to one or more Italian friends on Facebook once a week. (Dual benefit of keeping in touch with people and using Italian!)

Signed: Lizzie Pinard   Date: 4/6/14

Next update on my progress due: 4th July or as near thereafter as work permits!

Wish me luck! Let’s see what happens to my Italian in the next few months…

Depending how things go, I may attempt to transfer what I have learnt through this experiment to my teaching in the autumn! I.e. try learning contracts with some of my learners.

References:

Dornyei, Z. and Ushioda, E. (2012) Teaching and Researching Motivation. Pearson Education Limited.

Benson, P. (2011) Teaching and Researching: Autonomy in Language Learning. Pearson Education Limited.

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