Extensive Reading (Part 3): The “Reading Project”

page turning

Turn those pages! Take from an advanced Google images search, licensed for commercial reuse with modification

In part 1 of this series, I reflected on the benefits of reading extensively, from the point of view of my own language learning experience, and in part 2 I discussed the process I had used to initiate my “reading project” with my adult classes (pre-intermediate to advanced) at IH Palermo language school. Following on from my British Council Teaching English webinar on Learner Autonomy, here is part 3. In this post, I look at the outcomes of the reading project and explore the links between this project and learner autonomy, which was the goal that drove its creation.

The benefits of reading extensively are well-documented, and in an EFL context where exposure to target language is limited, the regular exposure to language in use that reading extensively can provide is even more valuable to learners. But how do we get learners reading extensively in their own time? I started to explore this question last year, when I started working at IH Palermo, having explored a lot of the theory related to learner autonomy and motivation while studying at Leeds Met. I felt that if I could get learners reading independently, of their own volition, over an extended period of time, then this could be one way in which they could learn autonomously. And so, in collaboration with my learners,  the Reading Project was born.

Fast forward several months and those courses came to an end. I gave learners a feedback form to complete.

  • Out of 23 students who completed the forms: (there should have been 6 more but they were absent from the classes on the day I handed out the forms for completion) 19 said they read more in English now than they did before. They circled between 4 and 6 on the Likert scale I used for this question.
  • Breaking this down: of these 19,  6 students circled 6, 6 students circled 5 and 7 students circled 4.
  • In terms of level: The lowest level class (Pre-Intermediate), all learners circled 4 and upwards, with the majority 5’s and 6’s, while in the Upper Intermediate class, only one learner out of 9 circled below a 4. The lower number in the Up Int class and the three lower numbers in the Advanced class were qualified by their explanation, in the space provided, that they already read a lot in English before. I’m pretty sure the Reading Project won’t have done those few learners who already read a lot any harm, while the majority who didn’t may have benefited a lot. 

The feedback form also asked learners if they would continue to read in English after the course. All respondents except one circled “yes”. Whether they do actually continue to read is, of course, an unknown quantity at this point, but the positive thing is that the desire is there. I bumped into one of the students the other day and she spontaneously started telling me that she was still reading and listening to audio books, so that’s at least one who continues – at least for now! 🙂

Obviously numbers can be deceptive, or circled at random. However the comments learners wrote in the space provided for this, or in the end-of-course reflective pieces I asked them to write, tallied with the numbers circled. NB, I did not stipulate what aspects of the course the learners were to comment on, it was a completely free piece of writing so learners were free to choose what to highlight. Here are a few comments from the learners, written on their feedback forms or in those end-of-course reflective pieces:

Advanced learners:

“Definitely yes. I wasn’t used to read in English, now I understood that it’s not impossible as I thought, I’ll continue reading.”

“I think that reading in English is useful to learn new vocabulary but it needs time”

“I have always read in English whenever I felt a need to do so, not really because I found it helpful. The reading project has surely helped me read more in English”

“One of the aspects of the course I have appreciated most, was the encouragement our teacher has given us to read as much as possible from different sources such as books, short stories and so on; I also liked the follow up in the classroom when we were comparing our ideas and emotions.”

“The reading project was the thing I appreciated the most. It helped me having a start to read in english, which is something that i wasn’t used to, but now i’m sure i’ll continue”

Upper Intermediate:

“I’ll continue because it’s more pleasurable than reading in Italian”

“Well why should I learn English then?”

“I found reading in English very useful, so I think it’s important to keep reading in order to improve my English”

“Because I’ve found it useful to improve my language and vocabulary”

“I would like to continue, although in this period I don’t have a lot of time”

“I understood the importance of reading in English”

Pre-intermediate:

“I like reading in English. I found a new word: English Lettereture. I choose amazing English book and I thanks you for this reason.”

“I want to continue to read in English because I think it’s a good tool to learn new words”

“Yes, because I understood that it is useful, and because now I like reading a book in English”

“I think that it is important and I like read in English”

Overall, then, I feel that it was a successful project: Lots of reading happened on a regular basis, learners remained motivated, to the extent that they express desire to continue reading beyond the end of the course, and, importantly, showing recognition/understanding of how reading can benefit them. Learners also set their own goals and experimented with different approaches, within a supportive environment.

What made it so, other than the wonderful learners I was working with?

  • Through the initial discussion questions, I drew learners’ attention to the benefits of reading extensively in English, as well as the validity of different text types (e.g. authentic text vs graded readers vs bilingual versions) and approaches to reading. They understood the value of it and so were keen to embark on the project. Insecurities of the “is this type of book as good as that as type of book?” and “if I read like this <describes approach>, is it bad?” sort were also dealt with in this discussion.
  • Free choice of reading material meant that nobody had to read anything that didn’t interest them. One man’s meat is another man’s poison…
  • The subsequent discussions, at regular intervals (once a week), helped learners maintain their motivation to keep on reading. These discussions addressed potential issues. For example in one of the discussions we discussed The Rights of the Reader  which emphasised, amongst other things, that it was ok to stop and change books if you weren’t enjoying it, amongst other things. This is important because it is obviously far better for a learner to recognise that it may be the book that is the issue, rather than reading in English itself, and try changing books rather than give up. This applies both during the reading project and beyond.
  • Another benefit of the regular discussions was that learners often brought their books along to these, excited to show everybody what they had decided to read, and other learners were interested to see what their classmates were reading and hear where they had got these books from. This show-and-tell element kindled interest in those who were slow to get involved. And, of course, when learners finished a book in English (sometimes for the first time in their lives), they were always delighted to share that news with everybody.
  • Goal-setting also helped learners maintain their motivation. Setting their own goals gave learners more ownership over the process and project. Obviously this was scaffolded rather than independent, but hopefully as learners recognise the value of it, and learn how to do it effectively, it becomes a tool they can use independently beyond the end of the course.
  • There was no stick: learners didn’t get in to trouble for not meeting their goals, or not being able to read so much one week compared to another week. Conversely, whatever reading they did manage to do was met with enthusiasm (by both myself and their classmates!). Through this they learn that it is ok not to be super-successful ALL the time, that just because you have lots of commitments (e.g. exams or work-related commitments) during a period, doesn’t mean you are a failure and should give up altogether. They also learn that every little helps.
  • It wasn’t homework, it wasn’t compulsory, it wasn’t a chore, it was something they chose to do. They also chose how much to do, when to do it etc. In this way, they found out how to fit it into their life in the way that best suited them. Of course initially not everyone was super keen, there are always one or two who are a bit skeptical, but then a couple weeks down the line, they turn up in class clutching a book, ready to tell their classmates that they are reading now too! I prefer to let them come to it themselves, rather than forcing it on them. If it is a choice they make, they are more likely to continue.
  • I let them reflect on, and evaluate, the project at the half-way point, asking them what they thought would improve it. One of the classes decided to add to it: alongside reading their books, they decided to take turns posting an article link to Edmodo so that everybody could read it between classes, discuss it on Edmodo by responding to the original post and have a few minutes in class once a week to discuss it face-to-face. Again, this was giving them ownership of the project and some say in how their class time be used.

I have just started again with a new lot of courses (several pre-intermediate, an upper intermediate and an advanced) and have so far made a little change to my process:

  • Before asking them to set goals, I explicitly elicited different types of goals that they could make, so as to make it easier for them to make goals. What was interesting is that with two classes of the same level (pre-int) at the same point in the course, one class was able to supply, between them, all but one of the goal ideas I’d thought of,  while the other class were a bit blank and needed more support.  All classes are different and it’s important to be ready to respond to what a particular class needs. In the first class, they’d all found something to read by the second weekly discussion (the first post-being encouraged to find something), in the blank class, only one had. However, the following week, the majority of the blank class had found something to read and they are starting to learn to set suitable goals. Such inauspicious starts are just as normal as the keen bean starts, the thing is to persevere gently with it.
  • Another change is that I have introduced the project right at the beginning of the course, whereas last term, I only had the idea, and developed it, part way through! This will hopefully give learners longer to benefit. Certainly in my semi-intensive class, a learner who had never read a book in English before is now on her fourth and her confidence has blossomed along with it.

How does The Reading Project tie in with learner autonomy development?

The Reading Project was one of the strands of my learner autonomy development project, the other two being use of collaborative online platforms (Edmodo and class blogs) and my Experimentation with English ProjectObviously learner autonomy looks different in different contexts. In my context, my goal was to enable learners to harness effectively all the resources at their disposal outside of class time, so that they could benefit from maximum exposure to the target language and from using it a variety of ways. The Reading Project helped raise learners’ awareness of different approaches to extensive reading and the benefits of extensive reading. Some learners changed their dominant approach, entirely of their own volition, as a result of discussing with other learners who used different approaches, experimenting with a new approach and finding it more effective. The project also helped them use goals as a means of managing their motivation in the long term by setting short term goals which are challenging yet attainable. Finally, it offered opportunity for reflective discussion regarding their reading progress and how they felt about it. It was a regular process of goal setting, reflection and evaluation of progress.

All I did, as the teacher, was provide the opportunity for discussion (about 10 or so minutes at the start of a lesson – except when setting the project up, the first two discussions needed 15-20 minutes) and feed in questions for discussion, using this as a tool for generating interest in the project and then maintaining that interest and motivation as the course wore on. I elicited as much as possible from the learners, in terms of benefits, different approaches, goal types, pros and cons of different text types etc and just fed in the odd little bits that were missing between them as a group. In this way, by starting with the learners’ knowledge and experience, they were able to learn from each other: as a group they had a much bigger knowledge and experience base to draw on than as individuals.  The discussions also enabled their motivation as a group to be harnessed, with those less motivated benefitting from those with more motivation, leading to a net result of greater overall group motivation levels. Of course individual motivation levels fluctuate, so different learners benefited from “feeding off” the group motivation at different times.

I think an important aspect of the project is that it became very much a part of the course. The discussions and goal-setting happened at regular intervals. I believe that if you embark on such a project (which isn’t very demanding in terms of teacher input/preparation) it is important to persevere and not let it fall by the wayside. Another very important aspect is that there is no obligation coming from the teacher. The teacher is in the role of enabler in this project, opening up an on-going dialogue with the learners and joining them in their journey towards greater autonomy. The journey isn’t smooth, it’s more of a rabbit burrow than a bridge (thinking of the oft-used expression of “bridging the gap” used in association with autonomy!) and learners have to work hard to keep burrowing. By bringing the project back into the classroom at regular intervals, learners are given support in their efforts, as well as being helped to become better at using various tools to make the process easier for them.

Obviously my approach won’t be applicable in all contexts. As a teacher, it is important to be sensitive to your context, which is why I believe Smith’s (2003) strong methodology is very effective. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend blindly applying my Reading Project in any context. What I would recommend is:

  • careful consideration of context and learning goals.
  • adjusting your own mindset so that you are constantly on the look-out for ways to help your learners become more autonomous.
  • working with your students to identify ways of meeting those learning goals. If you have ideas, share them with your students and see what they think. Do this in such a way that they are fully aware of the potential benefits of whatever it is you have in mind: guided discussion is invaluable for this.
  • differentiating between ideas that require autonomy and ideas that support its development. If you have one that falls into the former category, think about how to scaffold students’ use of it.
  • not forcing anything on your students. If you have helped them become aware of the benefits and not all of them want to do it, let those who are keen embark on it and see what happens.
  • recognition of the role of motivation and being aware of how you can help learners manage their own individual motivation and harness their motivation as a group.

I would be very interested in hearing about your current or future learner autonomy-related projects: please do comment on this post either to tell me about them or to post a link to where you have written about them.

References:

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

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“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.

5 ways of using Edmodo with language learners (part 2)

In part 1 of this series, I shared 5 ways of using Edmodo with language learners to make homework more interesting. In this post, I will focus on ways of using Edmodo with language learners, to support the development of their language learning autonomy. This post extends what I spoke about in my webinar on developing Learner Autonomy, offering a similar mixture of initial theory followed by practical ideas for using Edmodo.

Introduction

In my current context, learners are obliged to do ten hours of private study over the duration of the course, in order to pass. With classes that only happen twice a week, in most cases, out-of-class study is vital for good progress to be made and I am fully in favour of this component of the languages courses here. However, I would argue that this obligation requires autonomy rather than scaffolding it. Indeed, “…fostering autonomy does not mean simply leaving learners to their own devices, but implies a more active process of guidance and encouragement to help learners extend and systematise the capacities they already possess.” (Benson, 2011:91)  When faced with the requirement of private study and left to their own devices to fulfil it, some learners may just default to doing language practice activities online or watching films in English. This may be particularly true of those who are new to language learning and do not yet know many different ways of helping themselves learn outside the classroom. Of course there is nothing wrong with either activity in the above example, and learners may find that these work best for them. The important thing, I feel, is that this be an informed decision based on awareness of alternatives rather than a default position.

Theories of, and perspectives on, learner autonomy abound (for an overview of different perspectives, see Oxford, 2003).  The sociocultural perspective is the one I have chosen to use in my work with my students, with its “central interest in the roles of interaction and social participation in the development of learner autonomy” (Borg and Al-Busaidi, 2012:5). In terms of methodology, I prefer Smith’s (2003) “strong” approach, which works on the assumption that learners are autonomous to different degrees and attempts to work with them to “create the atmosphere and conditions in which they will feel encouraged to develop the autonomy they already have” (Benson, 2003:305). This contrasts with a “weak” approach (Smith, 2003), which is based on a deficit model in which learners are viewed as lacking certain behaviours, which must be transmitted to them. Autonomy within this perspective, then, is a product of instruction and a deferred goal (ibid). A “strong” approach starts with what learners bring to the table and addresses issues, raised by critics of the concept of learner autonomy, with regards to its appropriateness in different contexts. By developing an approach with the learners, the methodology is what Smith (2003) describes as a “becoming appropriate methodology”.

But where does Edmodo fit into this? Well, Edmodo, as a collaborative space for learners, can be used in conjunction with giving them a handout with range of ideas for them to try, some of which entail using Edmodoand providing opportunities in class for learners to reflect on and discuss what they have tried, how useful they found it, as well as why, and what they would like to try next, setting personal goals along the way. These discussions needn’t last for too long (for those who are anxious about using class time) and provide a valuable opportunity for building motivation, by enabling learners to help each other with any difficulties met along the way (group trouble-shooting!) and sparking interest in terms of trying ideas that classmates have tried. In my experience, learners are proud to share what they have achieved and interested in what their classmates have done, as well as generally able, between them, to resolve problems met by a member of their cohort. The metacognitive element inherent in reflecting on one’s own learning and discussing it with others is also invaluable in the development of person, task and strategy awareness (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012).

Here are five ways that learners could use Edmodo, within the framework described above, to further their own learning, in doing activities that are not set for homework and to complement other activities, using English, done in their own time.

5 ways of using Edmodo

1) Article sharing and discussion

This activity gives learners the opportunity to express their thoughts, opinions and ideas related to a newspaper or magazine article and see what others think. This uses both receptive (reading) and productive (writing) skills, and enables authentic, communicative use of language between students outside of class time.

  • A learner finds an article that he or she thinks is interesting and posts the link to Edmodo, along with a short paragraph explaining why they think its interesting and an opinion related to the topic.
  • Other learners in the class can then read the article and respond to the original poster with their own ideas and thoughts.
  • The discussion continues until it has been exhausted.
  • (Optional: Learners are allowed 5 or so minutes at the beginning of a lesson to discuss the article[s] in small groups.)

Benefits:

  • The opportunity to share opinions provides a purpose to reading that may be motivational for some learners.
  • Sharing opinions about an article requires a greater depth of processing than just skimming the article for an overall meaning and moving on. The learner has to engage with the ideas contained in the text in order to form an opinion.
  • For learners in contexts where there is not a lot of opportunity to use English outside the classroom, a genuine communicative situation is created.
  • The teacher can look at the exchanges to see what language is missing, that the learners need to express themselves better, and provide this in the classroom.
  • If this is done at intervals, learners can look back at early discussions and compare these with more recent ones. This enables them to see progress in their ability to express themselves.

Of course, the same activity can be applied to a podcast or video clip.

2) Listening task generation

This activity is adapted from Vandergrift and Goh (2012). They call it a “peer listening task” (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012: kindle loc 3923), whose goal is to facilitate extensive listening. The idea is that learners create a listening task for their classmates to carry out.

  • Learners find a youtube clip or podcast in English. (This will require listening closely to a number of such clips, in order to find a suitable one)
  • They post a link to this clip on Edmodo, along with some questions about it.
  • The teacher checks the questions to make sure they are correct and clear, making any suggestions/corrections by responding to the post.
  • The learner can edit the questions according to the teacher’s feedback.
  • Other learners then watch/listen to the clip and answer the questions.

Vandergrift and Goh (2012) provide a template for this activity, which can be adapted and used, or you, the teacher, can create your own brand of scaffolding, if you wish. Obviously, in order to make suitable questions, learners need awareness of suitable question types for listening tasks. By taking a metacognitive approach to listening in class time, you can help learners to increase their task knowledge, which can then be applied to to this activity, with support from you.

Benefits:

  • Edmodo provides an easy means of sharing the clips and questions, creating a repository of listening tasks for learners to do in their own time.
  • To decide on a clip, learners need to listen closely to a variety of such clips.
  • A bank of listening material is built up, which learners can use at any time. (I did this with my learners in advance of their end-of-course listening test, as a means of enabling them to do extra listening practice!)
  • Making questions for other students to answer may be more motivating for some students than just listening, particularly if they don’t understand enough first time round: rather than giving up and moving on, they are encouraged to persevere.

3. Time for a chat!

This is a very simple activity but potentially a very beneficial way of recycling language met in class in a communicative, meaningful way.

  • Any learner may start a conversation on Edmodo, on any topic, by posting a conversation opener. (In Headway Pre-intermediate, there is a lesson on keeping conversations going. You could model this activity by setting it as follow-up homework to that, or a similar, lesson and then encourage learners to do it independently when they see fit. Learners may be more inclined to do it if they have had a go and know that it is not complicated, whereas they may shy away from doing things they haven’t tried before, as it is easier to stick with the known.)
  • Other learners respond and the conversation develops.
  • The conversation continues until learners run out of things to say.

Benefits:

  • Learners use language communicatively outside of class and are able to experiment further with language that they have studied earlier in the course.
  • Quieter learners may feel more comfortable expressing their opinions in writing and doing so may help build up their confidence to increase spoken production later on.
  • The teacher can see if learners have understood how to use this language and troubleshoot any misuse.

When recommending this activity to learners, suggest that they try to incorporate language that they’ve been using in class: this then becomes an opportunity to experiment with that language. It doesn’t have to be from the latest lesson, it could be from any lesson or combination of lessons earlier on in the course. It could be grammatical or lexical,  most likely a combination of the two. Of course the emphasis is on communicating meaning rather than using specific forms, but if learners have in the backs of their minds that this an opportunity for recycling, they find ways of bringing in some of the language naturally. If it sounds stilted or is used inappropriately, the teacher can use this as the basis for some analysis in a subsequent lesson. Research demonstrates that

4. Let’s Cook!

This activity will not appeal to all learners, but that’s fine. Those to whom it does appeal can try it and may benefit from it…

  • Learners write a recipe for a favourite dish. (Not an easy task, but you can direct them to recipe websites, particularly those with lots of pictures, for them to see example recipes)
  • When finished, they post it on Edmodo. 
  • Learners may then try and cook friends’ recipes and post pictures of the finished product on Edmodo. They can tell their friends what they think of the recipes and find out what their friends think about their own recipes.
  • Variation: For lower level learners (one of my pre-ints managed this very nicely!), direct them to a recipe website, where they can search for a recipe in English that they want to cook. Once they have cooked the recipe, they can post a picture on Edmodo and/or (depending perhaps on what it is!) bring a sample to class! (My pre-int did both!)
  • Variation: For higher level learners, they may like to compare an L1 recipe and the English version (i.e. a recipe for the same dish but written originally in English) and see what similarities and differences there are in structure, lay-out, use of language etc.

Benefits:

  • It’s a fun way of using English outside of class.
  • It exposes learners to English used in a different way from what they may be used to.
  • It’s practical and hands-on, using language rather than just learning about language: this will hopefully be motivational for learners, as there is a concrete outcome of using the language.

Obviously if a learner has no interest in cooking, then it’s a non-starter. But the beauty of out-of-class work is that learners can choose what they do…

5. Reporting a conversation

Many schools offer some kind of conversation club or guided (to a greater or lesser extent) speaking opportunities, that learners may attend outside of class time. Edmodo allows students who attend these extra-curricular sessions the opportunity to benefit more from them.

  • Students attend conversation club/pub night/guided speaking opportunity of whatever description.
  • Subsequently, learners write about it on Edmodo: What was discussed? What new language did they learn? What did they find most interesting? What was the silliest/funniest/cleverest thing that was said?
  • Other learners who were not able to attend can then read about the session and respond to the content of the post in any way they wish. A further discussion on the topic may arise!

Benefits:

  • Students who attend the speaking occasions gain from revisiting and reprocessing the content and language of these.
  • Students who did not attend may be tempted to attend at a later date when they are able to and may learn something new from the posts written by students who did attend.
  • The teacher can see what their students have picked up from a speaking occasion and clear up any linguistic misunderstandings that may have arisen.
  • If further discussion arises in response to the post, this creates another opportunity for meaningful language use. For the original poster this may offer chances to recycle newly learnt lexis.

Edmodo and Reflection

In addition to activities such as these, of course, Edmodo has potential as a reflective tool. You can encourage learners to write reflective pieces regarding past language learning experience, progress they feel they’ve made on a course so far (perhaps at the mid-course stage), goals, and what they’ve learnt when they reach the end of a course. Reflection is arguably an important factor in the development of learner autonomy: “only experience that is reflected upon seriously will yield its full measure of learning” (Kohonen, 1992:17). Obviously this shouldn’t be over-done – learners may get tired of it if you try and get them to do it all the time! Written reflection of this type, done at reasonable (what is “reasonable” will depend very much on the length of the course, the frequency of the lessons etc) intervals, can, however, complement the discussions alluded to earlier in this post. The added benefit of using Edmodo as a means of doing this is that learners can read each others’ reflections and gain from their colleagues’ insights, which may differ from their own, and it’s also very interesting for the teacher to see what the students think and how aware they are of their learning, learning processes and learning progress, and what they take away with them at the end of a course.

Student feedback:

As I’ve already shared student feedback from completed courses in the webinar (see my slides in the recording) and in part 1 of this series of posts about Edmodo, I thought I would use feedback from my current semi-intensive course who are now just over half way through their level. At the half-way point, I find it useful to give learners the chance to evaluate Edmodo and come up with ideas of their own for how it could be used. A class of heads plus mine is better than one! In addition to fresh ideas arising, it gives learners ownership of the page, and this ownership motivates them to invest more time and effort into using it. My semi-intensive gang are pre-intermediate and focus on the first 6 units of a 12 unit pre-intermediate course book. Therefore at this point, they have looked at 3 and 3/4 units.

I gave my learners the beginning of six sentences to complete – two about the reading project, two about Edmodo and two about the course as a whole. The two about Edmodo were:

Edmodo is good because…  and I think Edmodo would be better if…

This didn’t give me any statistics but those 6 questions gave the learners the opportunity to critique different aspects of the course and the course as a whole, and me the opportunity to negotiate the onward path with them. Between us, then, we benefit in terms of the course becoming better-suited to learners’ needs.

Here are the students’ answers:

Edmodo is good because…

  • Edmodo is good because is useful to exchange and train our English. It is also good to propose topics for discussion and creates team spirit of classmates.

  • Edmodo is good because….. I think that it’s a very good way to exchange some informations not only about homework but also about topics we chose discussing on.

  • Edmodo is good because we can talk with the other classmates and when there are some homework we can compare together.

  • Edmodo is good because, through the app, I can read and post topics and homework from everywhere…

  • -Edmodo is good because allows all the students to comunicate each other not only for the homework but on everything we decide is useful to improve our english

  • Edmodo is funny even though I hate FB. This exercise of writing would be better if we read and checked our written in classroom all together.

Edmodo would be better if…

  • Edmodo would be better if we use it more and if we continue to use it after the course.

  • Edmodo would be better if…. I don’t know, I find it useful enough as it is ! …..Perhaps if everyone could choose a topic of conversation on which we have to prepare from the next time and on which we will discuss for improve our ability in conversation.

  • Edmodo would be better if it was possible connect it with the student’s personal mail addresses So when a student writes something or a post, all the recipients could automatically receive notice or, if possible, the whole contents of the edmodo’s posts

  • Edmodo would be better if is possible have a private chat like facebook because I think that if I can talk with someone for a thing the private chat is more useful than the notice-board ( ? )

  • Edmodo would be better if?

2 students have yet to respond (this is hot off the press homework!) and one conflated the questions, as you can see in the first set of answers above.

This class didn’t wait till the half-way point before taking ownership! They are the first class which I introduced Edmodo to straight away at the start of the class. They are also the first class who got the activity ideas handout for the Experimenting with English project straight away. (Straight away in both cases means lesson 2, when we did the Self-Access Centre tour) However, on the strength of this evaluation, we have decided to use the beginning of the lesson on Monday to bring Edmodo up on screen using the projector and do a quick collaborative error correction slot. This will focus on the posts that are generated by the other idea to arise, which was to choose a topic each week, share links to relevant articles/information and discuss it on Edmodo, then use a small amount of class time to share ideas in class too. So again, learners benefit from rehearsing language, followed by feedback and task repetition (although changing the medium from written to spoken) and all based on something of interest to them as a group. With regards to the student who wants email notifications every time something is posted, I have looked into that using the Edmodo community support forum and got a link for him to set it up.

One similar thing to come out of this feedback and the feedback from the end of my previous courses, is that learners may not be keen on social media but still like Edmodo and recognise the benefits of it. The feedback from these learners clearly demonstrates their recognition of it as a tool for supporting their learning and for using independently – they like the fact that it is not just for homework. It is important to emphasise from the start that it is their space. Using it for homework, to model activities and to encourage communication, is great but at the same time, if they know it is theirs, they will find even more innovative ways of using it.

Finally, being a semi-intensive class, they are likely to have a good rapport anyway, due to the frequency of classes, but having Edmodo enhances that, too, as one student above recognises explicitly. Therefore, while autonomy may be a major goal (at least as far as I am concerned!), the benefits are not limited to that. I  think, on the whole, that this group of learners is getting a lot more out of their course than 4hrs a week of language study. As well as becoming more autonomous, they are getting what they want out of their course (despite the fixed learning goals/curriculum/assessment, there is still room for negotiation, if one enables that) and enjoying lots of opportunity to use language collaboratively, communicatively and meaningfully outside of class time, as well as the “team spirit” that arises from this.

Conclusion

It is important to differentiate between expectation of learner autonomy and fostering learner autonomy. In order to do so, it helps to be aware of different perspectives on learner autonomy and methodologies for bringing it in to the classroom. Edmodo is a collaborative tool, which allows greater scope for language use outside of the classroom, and used in conjunction with a supportive framework, which helps learners to experiment, reflect on their experimentation and become more aware of different ways of developing their language skills, can, I believe, play a role in helping learners become more autonomous.

Webinar on Learner Autonomy: Information and References

Today, the 19th of February 2014, at 11 a.m. C.E.T., I had the privilege of leading a webinar on Learner Autonomy Development, courtesy of the British Council’s Teaching English website. I started with a discussion regarding the theory related to learner autonomy, inviting participants to offer their own definitions and images of learner autonomy, and using the variety of definitions offered to illustrate how learner autonomy looks different in different contexts, before providing some definitions from the literature. This was followed with a brief look at each of my current learner autonomy development projects:

  • the Reading Project (click here)
  • the Experimenting with English Project (click here)
  • the Edmodo/Blog Project (click here)

(Links to these will be added in the next few days, as they are published)

Links to these can also be found on my Learner Autonomy page (click here). They cover largely the same ground as that covered in my webinar but with additional information regarding the process I went through with each project while developing it with my learners.

I concluded my webinar with a series of quotes from learner autonomy theorists. Each of these, I feel, makes an important point that is worth keeping in mind as you embark on the process of working with your learners to develop autonomy both inside and outside the classroom.

To see the recording of this webinar, please click here.

Many thanks to the British Council for giving me this wonderful opportunity, to International House Palermo for being supportive of my penchant for trying new things in the classroom, and last, but assuredly not least, to all the tutors in the M.A. ELT department at Leeds Metropolitan University for helping me find my voice and empowering me to question things as well as look for answers. Looking for answers may mostly lead to further questions (!), but it’s an amazing journey to go on. 🙂

Here is a full list of the references used in the webinar:

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.

Borg and Al-Busaidi (2012) Learner Autonomy: English Language Teachers’ Beliefs and Practices British Council, London.

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

Holec, H. (1981) Autonomy and foreign language learning. Pergamon. Oxford (First published 1979, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.)

Holliday, A. (2005) The struggle to teach English as an International Language (Kindle Edition) Oxford University Press. Oxford.

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. and Ushioda, E. (2009) Under whose control? in  in Pemberton, Toogood and Barfield [Ed] Maintaining Control: Autonomy and Language Learning. Hong Kong University Press. Hong Kong.

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

If you are interested in learning more about Learner Autonomy, I would recommend the following resources:

Benson, P. (2003) Autonomy in language teaching and learning in Language Teaching vol. 40 issue 1 p.21-40. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Menegale, M [ed] (2013) Autonomy in Language Learning: Getting learners actively involved. (Kindle Edition) IATEFL, Canterbury.

Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] (2003) Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

The IATEFL SIG newsletter, Independence, which comes out three times a year and is free to SIG members or £6.50 to non-SIG members.

If you are interested in learning about research done into the use of CMC tools in the language classroom, I would recommend the following resources:

Pinkman, K. (2005) Using blogs in the foreign language classroom in The JALT CALL Journal vol 1

Tratjemberg and Yiakoumetti (2011) Weblogs: a tool for EFL interaction, expression, and self-evaluation in ELT Journal vol 65/4. Oxford University Press.