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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, what about my progress?

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

83%!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

Post-Script

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

Stay tuned… 😉

Learning Contracts and Language Learning (part 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)

Top ten resources for teachers (part 2!)

“The internet is a great place for English language teachers, if you know to where to look!” …thus began part 1  – a post that was written to bring a group of internet-based gems together, to make it easier for all English language teachers to find and benefit from them. It has turned out to be a popular idea, even gaining a nomination for the  Teaching English British Council blog of the month award, BUT it also ruffled a few feathers: In making the list, I left off some brilliant resources!

So here is part 2 – another top ten resources for teachers to try out… This time, including the websites/resources that YOU wanted to see included! (Plus some more of my own…)

1. ELTpics

 

Screenshot of ELTpics home page

Screenshot of ELTpics home page

 

This collaborative project has made it possible for teachers to easily source creative commons – licensed photos for use in their classrooms. The above website has links to explanations about creative commons licensing, as well as how to download and accredit images. The images themselves are stored on flickr:

Screenshot of ELTpics Flickr site

Screenshot of the ELTpics photo-stream home

If you click on “albums”, then you can see, at a glance, all the different categories that are in use on ELTpics e.g. predictions, phrasal verbs, adjectives…  The project leaders set a new category on a regular basis, inviting everybody to send them pictures to upload into that category. You can also submit photos to be included in older categories. It is important that the photos you upload are your own and that if there are people in the photos (e.g. a picture of students doing an activity), that you have their permission to share those photos too.

2. Take a photo and…

Screenshot of Take a photo and...

Screenshot of Take a photo and…

Linked with the ELTpics initiative above, this blog contains ideas for how you can use photos – taken from the ELTpics stream or otherwise – in your classroom to great effect. Worth a look if you are after some inspiration!

3. (a) Teachit ELT

Screenshot of Teachit ELT

Screenshot of Teachit ELT

This is a website I hadn’t come across before – to the surprise of one of the readers of the original post. Free members have access to the above-pictured resources (nicely indexed in various ways – by level, skill, specialism etc) but can only download  .pdf files. If you want access, for example, to an audio track, you’d have to upgrade your membership. It looks as though you can get plenty of mileage out of .pdf access only, though, so worth a look.

Because you have to pay to enjoy the full benefits of this site, I will offer an alternative no. 3:

3. (b) Breaking News English

Screenshot of Breaking News English

Screenshot of Breaking News English

A 2014 ELTon nominee, this site offers freely available lesson plans and activities based on simplified news articles written by the site owner. Resources are divided up by level and as well as providing written text, there are also recordings of the articles being read aloud. These can be accessed at different speeds. There is also a dictation facility, which you can use with learners, allowing them to listen and type what they hear into a box (containing clues in the form of the dictation text written in asterisks, one for each letter of a word with space between words), and find out if thy are right or wrong.

4. Wordandphrase.info

A screenshot of wordandphrase.info

A screenshot of wordandphrase.info

Time for one of my own favourites! This wonderful site allows you to find out about words and chunks of language, through corpus data analysis. You can input a chunk of text and see which words fall into the top 500, the top 3000 and which words are outside of the top 3000, according to frequency of use. You get definitions, synonyms, common collocates divided up by word type. You can also see which register(s) words/chunks are used in and see examples of use, either filtered by register or all registers mixed together. As teachers, we are often faced by student questions regarding usage or student work containing language that doesn’t seem quite right to us, though there is no grammatical reason why it couldn’t be. Wordandphrase.info is great for answering all these queries. Going a step further, it’s a great resource to get students using themselves, as a tool to help them answer their own language-related queries. If you want to know more, or want help using the site, I’ve written a series of posts about the site, including self-access materials to guide students (or teachers!) through use of it.

5. Science Direct

Screenshot of Science Direct

Screenshot of Science Direct

This is another one of my favourites. I hear you wondering, though, if I’ve got the name wrong – what’s science got to do with ELT? Well in fact, this is a site that allows you to search for articles from (as you can see) a range of disciplines. There are no small number related to different facets of ELT too. E.g. this search I did relates to learner autonomy and metacognition. You can search by journal title, author name etc. or browse by broader categories. One good thing about this site is that if you access a particular article, it will then offer you links to another set of articles based on the subject matter of the initial one you looked at. Of course there are the usual quantity of articles that are not freely available BUT, equally, there are plenty that are, and you can download these as .pdf files. So this is a handy way to access ELT-related literature.

6. Hancock McDonald English Language Teaching

Screenshot of Hancock McDonald English Language Teaching

Screenshot of Hancock McDonald English Language Teaching

This great site contains a mixture of classroom materials and other resources e.g. articles and reviews related to pronunciation and listening skills. The site owners, Mark Hancock and Annie McDonald, are successful published authors and materials writers, so the materials are of high quality and the blog content worth reading. Pronunciation and listening are often referred to as the Cinderella skills, those that get neglected, and that are difficult to teach. Well, this site provides the inspiration necessary to get to Cinderella to that ball!

7. Recipes for the EFL classroom

Screenshot of EFLrecipes.wordpress.com

Screenshot of Recipes for the EFL classroom

This handy little blog fills a niche: It doesn’t offer lesson plans or glossy materials, but what it does do (and well, if the stats I’ve heard about are anything to go by!) is offer a mixture of activities, techniques and ideas that you can very easily use in the classroom. Taking the metaphor of a lesson as a meal, this blog divides aspects of teaching up by course and provides “recipes” for doing things differently and perhaps that little bit better. As an added bonus, you get some actual food and drink-related recipes too! Well worth a visit and bookmark.

9. TEFL.net

Screenshot of TEFL.net

Screenshot of TEFL.net

This site has been around for donkeys years. As well as lesson plans and resources, it hosts some discussion forums, a plethora of articles on ELT-related topics, a site of the month award offered on a – you guessed it! – monthly basis to recognise quality ELT websites, and more. You can also sign up for a weekly email that will bring teaching tips right to your doorstep – or inbox – regularly.

10. Film English

Screenshot of Film English

Screenshot of Film English

This website is an ELTon award winner for Innovation in Teacher Resources, and rightfully so: It contains a wealth of lesson plans based on short films. As well as using these to teach language, the lesson plans deal with “cine literacy” and encourage critical thinking skills development, important in this day and age. All resources are freely available, with the option of offering a donation to support the site and maintain its current “ad-free” format.

Afterword

That brings me to the end of another Top 10! I hope you enjoyed it and will find it useful. To the person who recommended EFL Smart Blog , it seemed a good site (if an interesting colour scheme) but more directed at students than teachers. For my top ten resources for teachers list, there has to be a significant element of the site that is geared towards helping teachers in some way. As you can see by the range of sites listed, there is no fixed format for this help to take, the only stipulation is that utility for teachers, not only students. 

Keep the recommendations coming – there’s always the chance of a part 3!

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 20.47.59

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the handouts:

This one is for learners who use Edmodo

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

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

My comments about the handouts: future directions

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

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

 

 

Speaking and storytelling

In a recent post, I outlined a collaborative writing activity for consolidating past simple and past continuous tense use. In that post, I briefly mentioned a possible follow up activity, using learner generated content and focusing on selected elements of spoken narrative. Since then, I’ve done just that with my pre-intermediate learners, and found it worked well, so I thought I’d share what I did with it here…

Time: 45 minutes (depending on class size/group size)

Materials: Cut up structural elements of spoken narrative and their linguistic realisations. (See example here ) (With higher levels, previously, I’ve cut up all the chunks individually but with my pre-ints I cut the chunks up in groups, so they had to match groups of chunks with the function rather than individual chunks, to provide more scaffolding)

Focus: Chunks of language used to structure stories when told orally (rather than written).

As I mentioned, I did this as a follow up to a lesson focusing on consolidation of past simple and continuous. For homework, I asked learners to prepare a story to tell a small group of their classmates at the start of the next lesson. Some of them hadn’t done the homework, but I grouped them so that in each pair/small group, at least one person had done the homework, meaning there was student-generated content to work from.

  • Give learners a few minutes to tell their stories to their pair/group. Give some delayed feedback on language use.
  • Tell the learners that the aim of the next part of the lesson is to look at the language often used in storytelling.
  • Hand out the cut-up chunks of language and functions; ask learners to match them.
  • Give learners each a copy of the handout as it was before you chopped it all out.
  • Do some pronunciation work, so that they can get their mouths around the chunks and experiment with intonation.
  • Get them to think about how they could integrate the language into the stories they told at the start of the lesson.

(Some of my learners had written out their story, some hadn’t; the activity worked in both instances: learners were looking closely at their writing, or discussing what they had said, and matching parts of it to the various functions, to decide which chunks to include. I monitored and guided them if they were using a chunk inappropriately.)

  • Once learners have finished, either regroup them and let them re-tell their stories to a new group/partner, using that new language and follow that up by letting a few tell their stories to the whole class, or, as in the case of the second class I tried this with, if you only have a small number of students, if they have practiced their story in their groups, you can skip straight to the whole class stage and let all of them have the opportunity to show off!

(My students automatically gave each other questions to answer before re-telling their stories, in the first class which tickled me!)

The next part of the sequence uses Headway Pre-Int 4th edition’s picture story of a flight attendant, Stephen Slater, who gets hit over the head by a passenger taking their bag out of the overhead compartment before the plane had stopped moving. Slater goes crazy and opens the emergency exit/slide, slides down and is arrested. Based on a true story! The book sequence is a series of newspaper articles related to the story and the picture story forms part of an opening activity. However, any simple picture story would do here!

  • Get learners to tell the story in the pictures, using the storytelling language that they’ve just been working with.
  • Tell the learners that same story (in my case I did it from the point of view of one of the other passengers on the flight!), of course using some of the target chunks.
  • Learners listen and tick the chunks they hear used.
  • Follow up with a discussion about how the chunks can help them in listening/understanding as well as speaking, and how speakers use those chunks in storytelling to help the listener follow what is being said: when we tell stories, we want the listener to think it’s as funny/crazy/<insert adjective we feel the story is> as we do, so we want them to follow what’s happening.

As the sequence in the book uses newspaper articles (it’s a reading sequence), I might in the next lesson draw attention to how events are ordered in newspaper articles compared with telling stories orally…

It worked well, but of course it was also a bit back to front really – the learners heard me telling the story as one of the last parts of the sequence. It was a nice way to finish (I set the book reading activities – question answering – for homework) but logically it should have happened earlier in the lesson. But on the other hand, the learners got there successfully without it, using their own stories and the language/functions met in the lesson. They did upgrade their stories really well, and using the chunks helped them in terms of fluency. I could perhaps have told a story of my own earlier in the sequence, to illustrate the chunks in use – perhaps before getting the learners to edit their own stories. Perhaps next time I will! What order should you do it in? Up to you! 🙂

Helping language learners become language researchers (part 3): concordance activity outcomes

In the first post of this series, I described the potential power of Wordandphrase.info and offered some materials I had made to introduce my students to the site. I also identified the possible issues around getting learners to use this site independently and wondered about helping them do so by bringing the site into the classroom through concordance activities based on information from it.

My second post described the first three activities that I created and did with my advanced and upper intermediate learners subsequently. 

Since then, both groups of learners have done a task for homework: the upper intermediate learners completed the task started in class while the advanced learners did a separate task. For each group the scaffolding process was different. This post discusses the process used for each group and the subsequent outcomes, as well as lessons learnt from this.

Advanced learners:

We did two concordance activities in class before they had to do any independent homework using the site. The first activity encouraged them to use concordance lines to discover the error in a sentence one of them had written, while the second looked at information taken from the website with regards to three words – concordance lines and frequency information – and required the learners to guess which word each set of information corresponded to. (NB: They had met the vocabulary prior to this!)

The homework I gave them was to use wordandphrase.info to find out about three more words from the same list of vocabulary that had been thrown at them at the end of unit 5 in Headway advanced and come to the next lesson ready to share what they had discovered. We shared out the words so there was no duplication of information.

Last night we met again and it was time to discuss the homework. I had anticipated that some of them wouldn’t have done the homework and that there may have been problems using the site (despite having the materials – those I shared in the first post of this series – to help them) but, in fact, all of the learners turned up with information they had found out and printouts from the site (some learners had printed directly, others had created a new document using information copied and pasted from the “print screen” page, to be more selective about what they printed). They each took a turn to tell their classmates and me about the three words they had explored.

Once that was finished, I asked them how they had found the activity and another interesting discussion ensued. They had found it very interesting but a couple mentioned that while the site was very interesting, it was also very time-consuming because it has so much information. Another learner very cleverly pointed out that if you had a purpose/goal in mind, and kept that as your focus, then it’s much less time-consuming (which is perhaps true of using the internet in general, as was also discussed: a digital literacy skill). She loves the site and intends to keep using it. None of them were scared or put off or scarred for life in any way – so that’s good! 😉

This made me think back to the first post I wrote about wordandphrase.info, when I mentioned my Leeds Met course-mate’s materials that had been written to help learners use the site with a specific purpose (to choose which vocabulary to learn from texts): in that post, I wondered if her materials would be more effective than my more general “how to use the website” ones. The answer arrived at from the above discussion would seem to be “yes“. However, there may be an argument for letting learners come to that conclusion themselves, as happened here. Perhaps starting from the more general, learning what the website is capable of, realising that using it without a goal equals spending a lot of/too much time and then building up a bank of purposes may help learners more in terms of independent usage, especially in terms of being able to add to that bank of purposes independently beyond the end of the course.

Outcomes: I’m very proud of my learners and feel that they are making steps towards independent use of the site. Next steps will involve getting them to use it to help them edit pieces of their writing and exploring other purposes with them, so that they start building up that bank of purposes to use it for.

Upper-intermediate learners

With these guys, it’s less of a success story (so far!) but a lot learnt (by me) as a result. We did a “find the missing word” concordance activity (again, based on previously met vocabulary) in class, but didn’t have time to complete it, so the questions regarding the patterns in the concordances became homework. What I should have done is left it when we ran out of time, and come back to it at the start of the next lesson. At the time, I thought it would be interesting to see what they could do.

The problem was, as we hadn’t done a similar activity before, they didn’t understand what was expected of them and answered the questions according to their intuition rather than by using the concordance lines. So the rubrics weren’t clear enough and my instructions weren’t either! (Though some of them had understood, so perhaps it was just last-thing-on-a-Tuesday-night syndrome for the rest! They are busy bees and last lesson finishes soon before 9, so it makes for a long day) Of course, had we done a similar activity before, fully in class, then they would have understood what was expected. Compare this with the advanced learners, with whom I did 2 activities in class before expecting any independent work.

Outcomes: 

My next step is to do some more in-class activities, to help the learners understand what is required, and develop the necessary skills, then try again with getting them to do the activities independently and using the site. I will then apply what I’ve learnt from my advanced gang and help them to build up a bank of purposes to use the site for. (I’m also going to edit that activity *again* to try and make the tasks clearer…!) My upper intermediate learners are interested but confused, as far as wordandphrase.info and related activities go. But I’ve got time to remedy it…

What I have learnt from both of these experiences?

  • Adequate scaffolding is crucial for independent success – whether with these activities or using the website. I unwittingly experimented with both approaches – both adequate and inadequate scaffolding!
  • Expecting too much too soon is counter-productive. On the other hand, when properly scaffolded, the learners can use this site really successfully.
  • Just because I understand what is required, doesn’t mean it’s going to be clear to my learners. They haven’t come across concordance-based activities or a tool like wordandphrase.info before. Rubrics, rubrics, rubrics!

Conclusion:

I’m really enjoying this project and it’s still early days – looking forward to seeing what I can do with it in the fullness of time (read: during the rest of the course). I think I’m also learning about as much as my learners are – there’s a lot to learn! 🙂  Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes too… 😉