Delta Notes 3: Issues in teaching lexis

This Delta Notes series came about because I was packing up all my stuff to move out of my flat and found my Delta notebooks. I didn’t want to put them in a box (got plenty to store as it is plus it’s pointless…) and let them gather dust, so thought I’d write up the notes I was interested in keeping and get rid of the notebooks instead! The project is on-going, the notebooks didn’t get stored or binned but I am getting tired of carrying them round the world…  

Feel free to share opinions, add ideas, argue against any ideas you disagree with etc by commenting using the comment box beneath the posts. (These are just some of my notes from Delta input sessions – I may have misunderstood or missed something: there was a lot of information flying around that semester!)

[NB: The sessions during which I took these note were delivered by Dr Ivor Timmis of Leeds Metropolitan University, so all credit to him for the insightful input.]

Lexis

 

Lexis! Image taken from en.wikipedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification

Lexis! Image taken from en.wikipedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification

Why do we need to plan how we teach lexis?

  • It doesn’t happen automatically: 

Focus on lexis is needed for learners to remember and be able to use lexis effectively. When acquiring L1, exposure – massive exposure – may suffice but in a classroom context, the exposure available is not sufficient for lexis to be acquired efficiently without focus and careful planning.

  • It’s a big task!

To understand an unknown item in a text, one needs to be able to understand 95% of the co-text. Fortunately, 2000 words accounts for about 80% of what you hear or read. Unfortunately, there is a law of diminishing returns at work thereafter: 3000 words would that figure up to about 82%, and so on. Calculating vocabulary size is complex because it depends on whether we count lexemes only or each word of a family. (NB: Lexeme = a basic root word with no inflections)

  • It’s a vital task!

Without grammar, little can be conveyed, without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.” – Wilkins, 1972.

How do we choose what lexis to teach? What criteria can we use for selection?

There are several criteria we can choose to apply to selection of lexis:

  • frequency
  • coverage
  • learners’ needs and interests
  • learnability
  • opportunism

Frequency

We could teach learners the most frequently used words. We have frequency lists that would enable us to do this. However, there are limitations to this approach.

  • The top 50 most frequent words are mostly grammar words e.g. “and”.
  • Frequency can clash with “teaching convenience” e.g. days of the week have different frequencies.
  • Words may have great interactional value but little referential value. E.g. “just” is very commonly used as a softener but has little meaning on its own.
  • Written vs. spoken: “though” is in the top 300 but it is used very differently in spoken discourse from how it is used in written discourse. Compare “Though it wasn’t a very good film, it was quite funny.” and S1: “It wasn’t a very good film.” S2: “It was quite funny though.”
  • Frequency lists include single words rather than collocations whereas many collocations would feature more than individual words if lists allowed it.
  • It raises the questions of whose frequency. British English frequency? American English frequency? Frequency in language used by pilots?

Coverage

We could teach learners words with broader coverage first. E.g. Teaching “go” before “walk” or “drive”; “book” before “notebook” or “textbook”, in terms of word specificity, and teaching words that appear in a greater number of different kinds of texts before those that are very specific to a particular text type. As with frequency, there are limitations to this approach:

  • Context and learner needs may mean that more specific vocabulary is required from the outset.

Learners’ needs and interests

These may be more apparent in an ESP or EAP class than in a general English class. If you are teaching in a very specific context, then this will influence your vocabulary selection more than other criteria will.

Learnability

There are a lot of factors that influence the learnability of a piece of lexis.

  • Tangibility. Is it abstract or concrete? Concrete lexis is easier to learn and remember. e.g. apple vs. distraction
  • Grammatical behaviour. How does it behave grammatically? E.g. accuse -> accuse somebody of doing something; suggest -> suggest that; depend -> depend on; responsible -> responsible for.
  • L1 aid/interference: Is it a cognate or a false friend? False friends mean meaning is easily confused.
  • Confusability: similarity of words e.g. raise (transitive) /rise (intransitive), similarity of root word e.g. take over/take after.
  • Cultural distance: How familiar is the concept? E.g. “moor” or “sleet” in North Africa…

Opportunism

What about language that emerges in class? Do we ignore “Dogme moments” because it is a low frequency item or an item with low coverage etc.? Or do we take advantage of learners’ desire to know something?

Going beyond words

There are many collocations that we use frequently: many would feature more than individual words if they were allowed in frequency lists.

Language is grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar.” – Michael Lewis (1993)

When we produce language, we go to lexis first and then use grammar to control it.

  • Delexical verbs and their collocations: e.g. have a bath; make a cake; have a word; do a runner; get lost; get drunk. These verbs are meaning-light (light lexical content) but commonly used in combination. Some combinations are more common than others.They are a common source of error. E.g. doing a Masters (“native”) vs. studying a Masters (“learner”)
  • Verb and adjective collocations of content nouns: e.g. teach “set the table” rather than just “table”. In order to be able to use nouns, we need to know the verb and adjective collocations that we can use them with.
  • Exploit metaphorical links: e.g. money commonly collocates with spend; make; waste; save; invest; spare – and so does time!”Bet” – the metaphorical meaning is more common than the literal meaning – “I bet you’re right.”
    “See” – used more commonly to mean “understand” than for its literal meaning.

“far more general utility in the recombination of known elements than in the addition of less easily useable items” (Sinclair and Renauf, 1988)

– do we need to rethink our priorities? It could be better to teach learners to use what they already know in a wider range of uses.

e.g. instead of just “enjoy” – enjoy, enjoyable, enjoyment, enjoy a reputation (different word types and different combinations)

Processes in lexis building

Here are a range of processes we can engage learners in, as we help them to learn lexis:

  • recognise – do they know it when they see it?
  • identify – do they know it when they see it within a text?
  • match – can they put it together with its definition? with common collocates? with synonyms? with antonyms?
  • categorise – can they link it with the correct word type? topic? metaphorical v literal? etc.
  • retrieve – can they remember it without a visual or aural stimulus?
  • contextualise – can they use it in a sentence or as part of discourse?
  • activate – can they use it without prompting?
  • extend – can they use it in a variety of ways?
  • manipulate – can they convert it into a different word type? can they use it in combination with other words?
  • rank – can they compare it with other lexis?
  • deduce – can they guess what it means when in an unfamiliar combination?

Depth of processing

This refers to the number of times the brain touches the word: identify and rank = two processes. The more processes used, the greater the depth of processing becomes. The greater the depth of processing used, the greater the chances of retention. It is important for learners to use a variety of processes when learning lexis.

Teaching lexis

There are two main approaches to vocabulary teaching: “Front door” and “Back door”

“Front door” teaching means identifying a group of words and teaching them. This can be done in two ways.

  • “verbal”: by eliciting, explaining or defining, using a matching activity (NB: this must be carefully graded to be of any use!), translating, getting learners to deduce the meaning from context (NB: learners must be able to understand a lot of the co-text)
  • “non-verbal” : using pictures/images (e.g. photos, from the internet, flashcards), symbols, actions (mime, gesture, facial expression), realia, drawings, sound effects.

“Back door” teaching means using a text-based approach, in which you highlight/draw attention to words/chunks within a text.

Elicitation

Elicitation is a commonly used technique in the language classroom. It is when we get learners to provide information rather than simply telling them something. Like many techniques, it has benefits and limitations. This means we need to keep certain things in mind when we want to use elicitation.

Benefits: 

  • It can be engaging for learners.

Limitations:

  • You can’t elicit what learners don’t know.
  • Can be time-consuming

To remember:

  • You must be precise.
  • You must ensure that the language you use to elicit is well graded.
  • You cannot use terms that are more difficult than the concept itself when defining/explaining it.
  • Once you have explained or elicited something, you must check that a learner has understood. (Concept checking questions are a common way of doing this – for more on this see Jonny Ingham’s detailed post on it.)

Review

How often should we review vocabulary? Very frequently, otherwise vocabulary books become “word cemeteries” – long lists buried and forgotten!

  • Students are very tolerant of recycling and revisiting, more so than we tend to assume.
  • It is useful to use the concept of expanding rehearsal: increase the gap between recycling each time. E.g. review after a week, then after two weeks, then after a month etc.

There are many ways of reviewing vocabulary, but that’s for another post!

References:

Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach: The state of ELT and the way forward. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

Sinclair, J. M., & Renouf, A. (Eds.). (1988). A lexical syllabus for language learning. In R. Carter & M. McCarthy (Eds.), Vocabulary and language teaching (pp. 140-158). Harlow: Longman.

Wilkins, David A. (1972) Linguistics and Language Teaching. London: Edward Arnold.

 

At the British Council ELTons, 2014!

At the risk of sounding unbearably smug and like I’m blowing my own trumpet at full volume etc. (which, let’s face it, would be most un-British!), I’m going to allow myself one more post about the ELTons 2014 and my very unexpected win. Why? After all, yesterdays news, today’s fish and chip papers and all that…

Well, I’ve been given permission to upload my “winner’s interview” (recorded after the awards ceremony, when I was still completely stunned!) onto my blog – and being as realistically I’m never going to win an ELTon again, and, even if blue moons were to happen, will definitely never win the Macmillan New Talent in Writing award again (for obvious reasons…) So I’ve decided to go ahead and have my interview on my blog – it’s the first time I’ve ever been interviewed, and probably the last, so why not!

Here it is:

As I said in the interview, you can’t get hold of the materials yet – they are still just my dissertation project, so there is only one printed copy (first edition!) gathering dust in my tutor’s basement somewhere and a .pdf or two on my hard drive – but here is some information about them if you are interested!

And here are a smattering of the wonderful tweets I received following my win:

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 14.40.38Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 14.50.16Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 14.50.21Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 14.50.29Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 14.50.37Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 14.50.52

And, yes, yes I did “favourite” them all! 🙂 I also attempted to respond:

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 14.59.41

Thank you, again, to all who sent me such lovely messages. I couldn’t put them all on here, or this post would be endless! But it was very enjoyable to receive them all, they were much appreciated. 🙂

I will be very interested to see how it all unfolds – when I will hear from Macmillan, what they will say… I haven’t heard anything from them yet, however, which I’m actually quite surprised about: I suppose I had expected some kind of acknowledgement from them, that I have won their award this year! But then, these are not circles in which I’m accustomed to moving, so I can’t say I have anything solid on which to base my expectations! The good news is that the B.C. ELTons team are taking care of the prize money aspect and arrangements regarding this are under way. Yay!

Interesting times, especially having read this post by Nicola Prentis. All I can say is, watch this space! Meanwhile, there is no shortage of “things to do” on my never-ending list! 🙂

What’s in a name?

What *is* in a name?

This blog post was inspired by a recent email exchange with somebody who wrote to me asking for information about the Leeds Met M.A. ELT/Delta. However, the “biggest concern” that this person had, and the main question they wanted me to answer, was with regards to the university’s reputation and the impact of this on post-qualification job-hunting.

It’s a fair question.

In fact, before I went to Leeds Met, I also had the same question. Although, my concern was more immediate – about the quality of the course rather than what would happen beyond it.  I suppose big names are reassuring: If you go to a school with a big name, you embark on your mission with confidence in what will happen – it will be as high a quality as befits such a name. Small names are perhaps more of a gamble. I had never heard of Leeds Met until I found the course leaflet in my conference pack when I went to Glasgow in 2012.

Why did I make that gamble?

I investigated the course website very thoroughly, looking at the staff profiles relevant to my course, and was reassured by the extensive experience the tutors could lay claim to, teaching (both in years and variety) and academic (presentations. publications etc). Additionally, of course, not any centre can run a Delta course – they have to meet all sorts of criteria and be externally assessed periodically to ensure that they are meeting those criteria. The tutors have to be suitably qualified and experienced as well – naturally.  I was planning to take the Delta/M.A. route, where the Delta is integrated into an M.A. in ELT. So in the end, I thought that at the very least I would (hopefully!) come out of the course with my Delta, which is universally recognised, and if the M.A. wasn’t much good, so be it – I’d make of it what I could.

Outcome

In the end the gamble I made paid off in spades: I learnt a huge amount and have been trying to put it all to use, and build on it, ever since; in various ways. The course was practical as well as rooted in theory, my tutors were so supportive of all my efforts and I’ve also had a wealth of opportunities since, that have emerged as a result of doing the course and putting that learning to use. Most recently, of course, I’ve won an ELTon for the materials I produced as my dissertation project.

Question

To those in the position of hiring people in the ELT profession, do you look at C.V.s and make a decision to short-list or not short-list a person for an interview based on the name(s) attached to their qualification(s)? How much does it influence you and why?

To all those who have done M.A.s in an ELT-related field, or any other ELT-related qualifications, what influenced your choice of institution?

 

Question time! (image taken from pixabay.org via google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification)

Question time! (image taken from pixabay.org via google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification)

 

 

 

 

British Council ELTons 2014: the speech I *didn’t* make

As everybody who follows this blog (and one or two others who don’t) know, I was nominated/shortlisted for an ELTon this year. I was delighted when I made the long-list back in November – would have been quite satisfied just to have got that far – then thoroughly wowed when I made the short-list in March.

Tonight, thanks to my lovely Dos and my school director, I was able to attend the awards ceremony, along with my M.A. ELT tutor/”product team”, Heather. Prior to the ceremony, all nominees had been emailed to request that we prepare a speech for just in case we should win the award. Well, suffice to say speech-writing didn’t happen, end-of-term report writing (and a million other things) did – but that’s ok, it wasn’t like I was going to actually win or anything… Except, I did. Miraculously enough, I am now an ELTon winner in the category of Macmillan award for new talent in writing. (Thank you, Macmillan and thank you British Council!)

Apparently I won!

Apparently I won!

I was so stunned when they announced me as the winner, that I had to be shown the way to get onto the stage. And then, of course, I was presented with the award (which I can vouch is very solid glass, going by the weight – wouldn’t like to drop it on my toes by mistake…) and asked to say a few words. Rabbit in the headlights comes to mind, but nevertheless I duly made a speech of sorts. Which could be summed up in the following sentence: “I was super lucky because I went to IATEFL a couple of years ago, found a flyer in my conference pack and as a result wound up at Leeds Met, where my materials were born” I clean forgot that one is supposed to thank every man and his dog on such occasions – and it’s not like I’m without people to thank. Fortunately, I have a blog, so now I’m going to write the speech I should have said! (Though I think what I said was a good start…)

“I’m standing here (now a figurative here!) tonight because of a flyer. Two years ago, I went to the IATEFL conference in Glasgow and I found a flyer in my bag. It was the flyer for Leeds Metropolitan Uni, where I would go on to do my M.A. in ELT. It wasn’t a decision taken lightly – it was a risk. But sometimes, taking risks pays huge dividends. I didn’t know Leeds Met. I didn’t know that I would find the best tutors (thank you all!) and course-mates (thank you too!) I could ever have hoped to have there. I stepped into the unknown – and got super-lucky. I’m mostly here tonight because I’m lucky…

My biggest thanks has to go to Heather Buchanan, course leader of the M.A. ELT/Delta at Leeds Met, from whom I learnt so much during the materials development module, and who gave me so many hours of her time and so much support throughout the course and especially while I was creating these dissertation materials (and trying to decide how to answer the awkward questions she asked me about them on a regular basis!). Also, for not letting me bin them halfway through the summer when I had decided they were rubbish and I’d be better off starting again! Thank you for everything, Heather. 🙂

Secondly, I must thank Sandy Millin, who I met thanks to Twitter and #ELTchat and who has been a massive source of inspiration to me ever since. If it weren’t for her, my materials would be twice as long as they currently are, as the instructions would all be epically long, rambling nightmares. One weekend, Sandy eventually managed to just about beat the habit of using ten words where three would do out of me, as well showing me a wonderful world of computer shortcuts that made my life (well, using Indesign and MS Word) a lot easier, during a rather trying several months! Thank you so much, Sandy! 🙂

Thirdly, a big thank you is also due to Jane Templeton, one of my course mates at Leeds Met. She had the unenviable task of putting up with my regular whinging about the D-beast. (On the plus side, she got to moan about her assignments to me too, though!) Seriously, though, things are made so much easier by the support of others who know what you’re going through, so you can cuss together over a glass of wine! Thank you, Jane! 🙂

Finally, though they only came into my life after the big project was complete, I want to thank my current employers and colleagues. I work in a fantastic school, with really supportive people around me and that is invaluable. Currently, it is the busiest time of the year at IH Palermo, but my DoS let me attend the ceremony tonight nevertheless and has been so very supportive of me in every way, while my colleagues have, between them, covered the classes I will be missing as a result. Thank you Jonny, Pat and Silvio, and everybody else at IH Palermo. I’m very glad to be going back for another contract after the summer!

I’m also here because my Grandad left me some money when he died, and it was that money that I used to pay for my course at Leeds Met. He was an amazing man, who lived an amazing life and I wish he were able to see what a difference he’s made to my life. My M.A. ELT/Delta year was life-changing in so many ways. And this ELTon award is one of the wonderful outcomes of it.

I’m delighted to accept the award (yep, still delighted!) and (still pretty much as) stunned (as I was when I stumbled onto the stage this evening). Thank you everybody.”  Fortunately I hadn’t prepared a speech so the audience didn’t have to sit through this when I was unleashed on the microphone. 😉

It’s been a crazy journey getting to this point, and I look forward with interest to the next stage. Meanwhile, it was a brilliant experience being at the ELTons ceremony tonight, albeit rather surreal for a little nobody like me! 🙂 My warmest congratulations to all the other winners in all the other categories!

And now, 20hrs after I woke up in Palermo this morning, goodnight world! 🙂

British Council ELTon/”Macmillan Education award for new talent in writing” shortlisted!

Not long before the British Council ELTon application deadline last year, I submitted some of my materials for “The Macmillan Education Award for new talent in writing” (previously called the Award for Innovative Writing), deciding I had nothing to lose by doing so.

To quote from the British Council website,

“The ELTons, sponsored by Cambridge English, are the only international awards that recognise and celebrate innovation in English language teaching (ELT). They reward educational resources that help English language learners and teachers to achieve their goals.”

The Macmillan award is in its sixth year of running, while the ELTons as a whole are in their twelfth year.

I was delighted when I learnt I’d been long-listed, but didn’t dream I’d get any further than that; but, somehow or another, I have! I have now been shortlisted for the award, which means I’ve made the top five out of all the applications submitted. What an honour!

D646 Eltons 2014 Nominated MacmillanInnovative rgb FINAL OL

Shortlisted!

The materials I submitted are not on my blog, but once the competition is over and I haven’t won (I can’t even begin to imagine that I will win, which is fine: I’m just jubilant to have got this far!), I’ll upload some samples. I made them while at Leeds Met : they, alongside a 5000 word rationale, were my dissertation project and represent hours upon hours upon hours of work. Not only the time spent on the project itself, but all the reading done and hours of classes attended for the Materials Development module, too. I won’t go into details about the content of the materials here and now, as my talk at IATEFL Harrogate in two weeks’ time, which will be written up here in due course, is based on them: I don’t want to steal my own thunder! 😉 But it was all those hours spent that nudged me to enter: having devoted all that time to working on something, the last thing you want to do is consign it to a dusty cupboard forever!

Anyway, for now, suffice to say, I feel extremely lucky to have got as far as the shortlist. And grateful that I had a dissertation supervisor who, having given me a solid foundation of knowledge from which to start (as my Materials Development tutor),  pushed me to do my absolute best with my dissertation materials, by asking hundreds of awkward questions (! 🙂 ) and giving unstinting time and support throughout the process. It was a very valuable experience for me.

Congratulations to all the other nominees – in my own and all the other categories! Let’s see what happens in May!

Delta Tips 14: Writing a Module 3 Essay – the conclusion and wrapping things up!

This is the fourteenth in a series of blog posts I’m doing in response to the number of Delta-related searches that bring visitors to my blog. Each post in this Delta Tips series will deal with a different element of the Delta, based on my experience of doing it (and surviving to tell the tale! ) at Leeds Met

 The module 3 extended specialism essay is a very special beast. If you thought Cambridge were demanding in their criteria for Module 2 LSA’s or perversely picky in how they want you to answer Module 1 exam questions – you’d be right! But, it’s nothing compared to what they demand you fit in to a measly 4500 words for Module 3…

  • For an overview of what’s required and tips for starting out, look at Delta Tips 9
  • For information about writing the first section of the essay – the introduction – look at Delta Tips 10.
  • For help with the second section of the essay – the needs analysis – try Delta Tips 11.
  • To find out more about the third section of the essay – the course design – try Delta Tips 12
  • To get to grips with the fourth section of the essay – the assessment – look at Delta Tips 13.

The focus of this post is the conclusion of the essay and “wrapping things up” – by which I mean making sure your finished product is packaged the way Cambridge want it! (No mean feat… 😉 )

Congratulations! You have made it to the final section of the Module 3 essay-beast! You are probably sick of the sight of it and really looking forward to finally getting rid of the damn thing, but persevere, for this final section: the fat lady ain’t singing jeeust yet!

The conclusion, for which you are allowed to use a piddly 400 words, is where you will:

  • evaluate what you have produced: extol the virtues (benefits for learners, ways in which learning objectives are met through what you propose) and explain how you minimised the negatives as much as you could in the given circumstances (identify the limitations, the effect on the learners and how these limitations are better than the alternatives).
  • succinctly identify and summarise application of principles to practice: making reference to previous sections, how did the principles you identified to start with (section 1) affect the design of your course (sections 2, 3 and 4)?

Top tips:

  •  Don’t hope that the examiners won’t notice the problems with your design: They will. Hopefully you have done your best to design out flaws, but in the real world nothing is perfect. The trick is to recognise the imperfections and be able to justify (succinctly, as usual!) their existence and explain how you have minimised them as much as possible. Show that the benefits outweigh the limitations.
  • Demonstrate that your essay is a beautiful, cohesive whole: summarise how part 1 fed into part 2, which fed into part 3, which fed into part 4. Show how the issues identified in part 1 have been addressed in the process of designing parts 2-4.
  • Use sub-headings: The examiners like having relevant information flagged up – this saves them from hunting through your writing trying to identify if you have or haven’t met this or that criteria. (Imagine how you’d feel with a massive list of criteria to apply to someone’s writing – you’d want all the help you could get! Now imagine you are on your nth script of the day – how hard are you going to look for the needles in the haystack? 😉 ) *p.74 contains guidance about the conclusion – use those guiding questions to help you insert your guidance for the examiner.
  • Be succinct: You have 400 words – use them wisely! Reference in a space-efficient way (as demonstrated in previous post of this series) Word-count is very important: if you are over the limit, you will be penalised (and you want ALL of those marks!!), if you are 100 words or more over the limit, your essay will be sent back unmarked and you’ll have to pay again once you’ve cut down the number of words. Better to make sure in advance of sending it the first time!

The appendices and wrapping it all up

Don’t forget that it isn’t over until it’s over: once you’ve written your amazing 4500 word Module 3 essay beast, and accumulated a load of supporting documents, you then have to collate all this in exactly the way Cambridge wants you to.

Top tips:

  • Read the handbook pages 74 -76 carefully. Follow the guidelines for packaging (p.74/75), presentation (p.75) and referencing (p.76). Then when you have finished, read it again and check that you really *have* followed them. Cambridge are picky, there’s no doubt about it, but at least they explain the ways in which they are going to be picky, so that you can tailor your essay to their pickiness! If you are lucky enough, get someone who will proofread it for you, checking that you have met all the pernickety criteria (or if you are even luckier, your tutor will give it a final once over and check everything is in the right place!).
  • Remember, this stage will take longer than you think! (I can remember finishing my essay and then spending an awfully long time getting all the various bits of appendices together, in the right order, in the correct documents etc…) So leave plenty of time to do it in, in order to minimise your stress levels – these will be high enough as it is! 😉
  • Hopefully you will have been keeping your list of references as you went along. Make sure you have got all your references on it. Only list those resources that you have actually referred to in the essay itself – what Cambridge calls “explicit evidence” is necessary to show that you have read what you list.
  • You may find that your files are larger than Cambridge’s maximum file size. Fortunately, Word has a file-shrinking tool that you can use. Also make sure that when you plonk .pdf’s into your document (completed questionnaires, sample materials and the like) that you have saved them in the smallest file size that you can first.
  • Don’t forget your contents page. Hopefully you have lots of neatly labelled sub-headings in your document – these can come together to form part of your contents page, beneath the section headings. (I’m in the process of uploading samples of my Module 3 essay, so will upload my contents page too and link to it here, in due course…)
  • Finally, remember to use the Cambridge naming conventions for each file (Handbook p.75)

When all is done and dusted, pat yourself on the back and get yourself taken out for a large glass of the beverage of your choice! 🙂 Congratulations!!

“Experimenting with English”: scaffolding autonomy

How can we create “a supportive and encouraging learning environment which can help to lower anxiety filters and challenge students to consider new or alternative methods of learning.” (McCarthy, 2013 kindle loc 4662)? That is the question that I consider in this post, a question that I have been exploring since doing a module on Multimedia and Independent learning, as well as one on Materials Development at Leeds Met as part of my M.A. in ELT. It is also one of the questions that formed the basis of the webinar on Learner Autonomy that I did in collaboration with the British Council Teaching English group.

Learner autonomy is complex and multi-faceted, as this diagram shows:

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 20.42.12

This diagram shows the range of levels on which learner autonomy can operate. My post will focus on “independent use of learning resources“, “independent use of learning technologies” and “development of autonomous learning skills” as well as “focus on teacher roles“, as the form of autonomy development that I discuss requires the teacher to play an active role in a non-traditional way.

The “Experimentation with English” project developed partly as a result of my keenness to investigate ways of helping my learners become more autonomous partly in response to an institutional requirement that learners do 10 hours of independent learning (homework excluded) in order to pass their courses. Benson (2011) draws attention to the difference between programmes that foster autonomy and those that require it. Without teacher  intervention, I felt that the afore-mentioned institutional requirement was part of the latter category. This was no criticism, but pushed me to consider ways of working with it so that I could use it as a means of actively fostering autonomy too.

Firstly, I considered potential reasons that learners might not be successful in their independent study. I came up with the following:

  • lack of motivation: some learners may not feel motivated to complete this component of the course. They may not see the value of it. The result? They may do the bare minimum and not gain very much from it, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophesy in a vicious circle kind of a way.
  • lack of tools/ideas: some learners may be very keen but not know where to start, or where to go next. The result? They may do only a very narrow range of activities, thus limiting the potential benefits.
  • lack of success: some learners may struggle as they study independently with nobody to tell them what to do. The result? They may feel inadequate and anxious, they may give up or resort to doing only the easiest activities, those which they believe themselves able to do.
  • lack of confidence: some learners may believe they are not good enough to do things using the target language or they may believe that they don’t know the “best” way and therefore there’s no point trying. The result: They may not try in the first place, to avoid failing or using the “wrong” way of doing things.
  • lack of time: some learners may find that life gets in the way. “Language learner” may only be a very tiny part of what it is to be them, the commitments, responsibilities, pressures. The result? they may put off independent study, in the hopes that later they will be able to find enough time.

So how can the teacher face these potential issues, perhaps in a way that minimises the possibility of them arising in the first place and/or nips them in the bud if they do emerge? Importantly, how can the teacher help the learners become better able to manage these potential issues themselves?

Experimentation with English

This is a very simple solution, drawing on a sociocultural perspective of learner autonomy. This version of autonomy places importance on the learner as a member of a social group, in which  learning, or in this case autonomous learning, is mediated by more experienced others. (Oxford, 2003).

Requirements:

  • activity sheet: a collection of ideas for using English outside class, with space built in for learners to write comments regarding their use of the activities, on a handout for learners to keep with them.
  • regular class time allocation for discussion: 10-15 minutes at the start of one lesson per week is sufficient – arguably not a big ask.
  • that’s all!

What?

Of course, the activity sheet/ideas will look different depending on your context and learners’ needs:

  • Working in a non-English speaking country, in a private language school, the ideas on my Experimentation with English sheet are geared towards helping learners maximise their exposure to the target language and communicative use of the language outside of class.
  • I have not used this project with young learners or early teenagers, the youngest have been 16 years old – teenagers who are considered old enough for adult classes. A YL version of this would look different – I leave it to the YL experts amongst you to figure out what it should be!
  • ESP classes would require activities that related to their specific needs and learning goals.
  • In an English-speaking environment, such a handout would include ways of harnessing that environment, empowering learners to benefit more fully from it. (Although it is often assumed that learners in an English-speaking environment enjoy more opportunities to use the target language on a regular basis, it is important not to forget that accessing these opportunities may not be as straight-forward as we might assume.)

How?

  • In the lesson where I introduced Experimentation with English, I gave learners the handout and asked them to look at it before the next class, and to identify any activities they were familiar with and any ideas that immediately grabbed their attention/interest.
  • Then, in the next class, I gave them time to discuss, in small groups, whether they had already tried any of the ideas, and if so how useful they had found the ideas, and which of the ideas interested them. Being a group of individuals with widely varying experiences and interests, there was plenty to discuss.
  • I then proposed that they choose one or more activities to experiment with and said that I would give them time at the beginning of a lesson a week to discuss what they had tried, how useful they had found it, any problems they had experienced etc. Thus, learners went away knowing that there was a safety net underneath them as they tried new things: they had support.
  • Subsequent discussions saw learners sharing their experiences/ideas, their problems, solutions to classmates’ problems and setting goals regarding what they would try each to do each week.

Benefits?

I feel it would be most useful to look at this in terms of the problems identified above.

  • lack of motivation: By trying different things, learners gained more from their independent learning, which fed positively into their motivation.  Learners’ motivation also increased as a result of regular goal-setting (and satisfaction of reaching goals) and as a result of discussion.
  • lack of tools/ideas: the activity handouts gave learners a starting point, which they were encouraged to compare with what they already and use as the basis for further experimentation.
  • lack of success: this was addressed in two main ways. Firstly, the regular discussions meant that learners weren’t isolated when they faced problems in learning to learn independently. Secondly, part of the discussions involved goal setting, which helped learners become more motivated when they met their goals.
  • lack of confidence: discussion and experience-sharing helped learners see that there are many different ways of learning rather than “right” and “wrong” ways. Starting with comparison between what learners already do and the ideas on the handout built in an opportunity for learners to validate their current methods, helping them feel less insecure about their learning habits. Having new ideas to try, in a supportive environment, helped learners have the confidence to extend their current learning approaches, increasing their effectiveness.
  • lack of time: learners were not castigated for spending time doing things other than language learning and were encouraged to spend any small amount of time that they could fit in amongst their other commitments. Thus learners were better able to focus on what they could do rather than what they couldn’t do. Every little helps…

Feedback

In a feedback form that I gave to learners at the end of the course, I asked them if they had found the “extra” activities useful, using a Likert scale but also providing space for explanation of answers. In a separate question, I also asked them if they understood more about how to learn. Here are some of the comments:

“The discussion at the beginning of the lesson was stimulating to do more work at home.”
“They are very helpful to do something interesting with English”
“I think that the ‘extra’ activities are useful, because they are moments to improve our English and you can compare your extra homeworks to your extra homework of your classmates”
“It was very helpful because it helped us to improve our method how to learn English”
“Because they helped me to use English out of the class and to improve my speaking”
“The extras are useful. I can practice on the internet even not attending an English course.”
“Yes, because now I understood that I have to read or listen a lot in order to improve my English. Before this course I have only studied the grammar”

The comments show that the discussions had a dual value for learners: as well as the autonomy-related value, in terms of stimulation to learn outside the classroom, learners appreciate the opportunity to use language meaningfully, to discuss their experiences, and the effect this has on their speaking ability.

On the same form, giving them a choice of yes or no, and space for explanation, I also asked learners whether they had found setting goals useful. Here are some of the comments from learners who circled yes:

“otherwise it’s easy to waste time”
“setting goals and communicating them to others is an effective way to gain motivation”
“the goal compels you to accomplish a task in a shorter time”
“I’m glad when I reach my goals, even if they are a bit ambitious”
“They helped me to study more”
“You feel very satisfied when you reach your goals”
“With a goal, I was more motivated to continue the activities”
“Yes because I’m lazy so I need it”

Increased motivation was the most common theme with regards to the comments about goal-setting. While setting goals within this framework, where learners communicate their goals to others on a regular basis is not independent, I would argue that learners show autonomy in choosing goals for themselves and develop that autonomy in a supportive atmosphere, learning about different types of goals as well as how to set challenging yet achievable goals. It is clear that the learners cited above recognise the value of the goal-setting process, so hopefully this has become another tool for them to manage their learning – a tool that they will be able to use independently beyond the end of the course.

Conclusion

Learner autonomy can be scaffolded from within the classroom, in order to enable learners to benefit more fully from all the learning opportunities beyond it. Harnessing and managing motivation is as important as stimulating that motivation in the first place. However, in the classroom, teachers tend to focus on that initial stimulation, forgetting that any motivation that is stimulated also needs to be maintained (Dornyei and Ushioda, 2012). (To illustrate this, consider the difference between the project/framework described above and initiating the same project but then leaving it outside the classroom.)

By stepping into the role of enabler rather than transmitter, encouraging learners to try new activities outside the classroom and bringing that learning back into the classroom regularly (through reflective, collaborative guided discussion) as well as helping learners develop their ability to set effective goals, I believe that teachers can help learners to “systematise the capacities that they already possess” (Benson 2011:91), thus fostering autonomy rather than simply expecting it.

References

Benson, P. (2003)  Learner autonomy in the classroom in in Nunan, D. [ed] Practical English language teaching. PRC: Higher education press/McGraw Hill.

Benson, P. (2011) Teaching and Researching Autonomy (2nd Edition) Pearson Education. Harlow.

Dornyei and Ushioda (2012) Teaching and Researching Motivation (Kindle Edition) Pearson Education. Harlow.

McCarthy, T. (2013)  Redefining the learning space: Advising tools in the classroom in in Menegale, M [ed] Autonomy in Language Learning: Getting learners actively involved. (Kindle Edition) IATEFL, Canterbury.

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.