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… 😉

BELTA & TESL Toronto Online Conference: 8/9 August 2014

Today, the 9th of August 2014, I was lucky enough to deliver a presentation as part of the BELTA and TESL Toronto Online Conference. The topic of my talk was Is anybody reading this? Making writing more interactive using Edmodo and Blogs. 

Saturday 9th August @ 16.30

Saturday 9th August @ 16.30

I started off by looking at what exactly writing is and how/why we do it with our learners. From this, I moved on to consider some of the issues that may arise in the teaching of writing, which provided a useful springboard for me to introduce the 4 C’s:

C-ommunication

C-ollaboration

C-reativity

C-omparison

My presentation went on to explore each of these, in terms of what we do in the classroom, what we ask learners to do at home and how Edmodo/Blogs could enhance this for our learners. For those who are unfamiliar with Edmodo, I provided a link to a workshop on using Edmodo that I gave at IH Palermo last academic year.

I also discussed a variety of activities, which you can find out more about at the following links:

Finally, I offered some student feedback gathered during the last academic year…

  • “Edmodo is a good way for know the classmate.in the same time is a good idea to improve our knowledge and confront opinion and so on! besides is a good tool to read and think in the english mode.”
  • “Edmodo is a good idea because we can write, read and talk in english with our classmate. We can improve our english with text, podcast that one user post and we can link an immage and describe it and we can talk about it togethere.”
  • “Edmodo is a funny way to keep in touch! You can also discuss (in English) about everything you want and share links, photo, files…”
  • “Edmodo simply is an informatics tool for the class students more usefull than a personal mail because It gives the possibilities to close the comunications only between them!”
  • “Edmodo is like a forum. Of course if you write about everythingh in English, you’ll improve your writing. It’s funnier than doing homework on your notebook. You can write wherever you are (at the moment I’m writing while people are talking about neuroprotection!)”
  • Edmodo is a usuful way to continue your english studies outside the school. Thanks to this group you can compare your homeworks,share your favourite links and discuss about everything you want to discuss! At first,I thought the typical workbook was better than this innovative way ,instead the prons are lots. Everywhere you are,you can look up something you learnt but that you forgot asking something writing on ed-modo, ’cause thanks to the app available for smartphones,you can connect in a real time and you’ll find the other one who will answer to your posts. Even your teacher will be on ed-modo who will correct your homeworks and will answer to your doubts accelerating your studies without waiting for the next lessons beginning.

…before handing over to participants for some question and answer/discussion time. Thank you to BELTA and TESL Toronto for giving me this opportunity to share my ideas and experiences with fellow teachers world-wide.

The link to the recording is available here. Additionally, here is a link to my powerpoint slides.

Fire away!

Fire away!

Feel free to comment on this post if you have any questions or want to discuss anything further! I will be happy to hear from you.

Autonomous learning (5): Games learners can play (autonomously)!

This is the fifth in a series of posts whose goal is to explore ways of helping learners develop their language skills autonomously. The first two posts are specific to listening. The first post, which focuses on perception of connected speech can be read here , the second post on dictations as an autonomous learning tool here. The third was on the topic of “text mining” and can be read here while the fourth post was on using Graded Readers as a means of autonomous language and skill development. This post expands the series even further (!) to look at games as an autonomous learning tool. 

Games are widely used in the language classroom – as warmers, as stirrers, as lead-ins, as a means of practice, as review…and so the list goes on. This post looks at games as an autonomous learning tool:

  • What games can learners play on their own?
  • What games can learners play collaboratively via platforms such as Edmodo, Blogs or Wikis?
  • What games can learners play on other websites?
  • What value do these games have?

These are based on activities I’ve done with learners and activities I’ve done/am doing as a learner (of Italian). None of them are sufficient on their own, of course, but I believe each of them could become one of the many little pieces that make up the mosaic of language learning.

What games can learners play on their own?

Games are not the first thing to come to mind when you think about learning on your own. However, there is plenty of fun to be had in autonomous learning. Here are a few ideas:

Scrabble

Alone? Why not!

  • Get hold of a cheap scrabble set (I picked up a set of magnetic letters for about £6 on Amazon recently) or any game that constitutes a set of letters (e.g. Bananagrams) and play! Even if, like me,  you don’t have the scrabble board, as long as you assign each letter a score, you can create your own scoring system. You can also combine sets of letters and make a bumper game…
Bumper-scrabble!

Bumper-scrabble!

  • Get hold of an app! There are lots of free or extremely cheap word-game apps available. I picked up one with multiple dictionaries so that I can play in Italian. It’s nice to have a board and to have the scoring done for you, but on the other hand you can’t randomly decide that you’re going to work with 10 letters rather than 7 to give more scope for word-creation! NB: yes, you may need to be Player 1 AND Player 2… Some apps offer a solitary option, others not!
Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

Benefits:

  • Trying to make words out of any given set of letters has you drilling yourself for every piece of vocabulary you know!
  • More time spent focusing on the target language – and every little helps…
  • Fun! = An extra thing to do using the target language that doesn’t seem like “study”.
  • Sometimes you make a word that you remember exists but can’t remember the meaning – then you look up the word and remind yourself of the meaning. This helps take the word from that borderline between recognition and production closer to production.

 Magnetic Poetry

  • Get hold of a set! There’s nothing quite like sticking alllll the magnets onto your fridge…then wondering what to do with them next. Seeing how many words/stems you know is a good start. Categorising them comes next. Into words types. Into ‘words I recognise’ and ‘words I use’…then try to use the ones you only recognise so that you can move them over. Make sentences. Make poetry. Make anything you feel like… 🙂
I particularly enjoyed classifying All The Words...well, nearly all!

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

  • Use it online: Here learners (of English) can play with magnetic poetry pieces for free online. With 6 kits to choose from, there’s no shortage of words! Learners of Italian have to satisfy themselves with the real life version. Ah well! 🙂
Screenshot from Magnetic Poetry Online (http://magneticpoetry.com/pages/play-online)

Screenshot from Magnetic Poetry Online (http://magneticpoetry.com/pages/play-online)

Benefits:

  • Trying to make phrases or sentences out of the various words/stems has you drilling yourself for every piece of language/possible combinations of language that you know!
  • More time spent focusing on the target language – and every little helps…
  • Fun! = An extra thing to do using the target language that doesn’t seem like “study”.
  • Creativity that sidesteps the blank page syndrome: Having a load of words to start with, and making a game out of using them, makes production less daunting.

Storyonics

  • Get hold of a set: Storyonics is essentially a pack of cards, each of which has 4 pictures on it. Each picture is surrounded by a different coloured rectangle. But the same 4 colours per card are used throughout the pack. The game is to make a story using the pictures on the cards. You can use all the pictures on each card, or for the quick version each player chooses a colour and only has to incorporate the pictures ringed with that colour into the story. As an autonomous game, you can pick a colour (or two!), or try to use all the pictures, to make a story. You could record yourself re-telling the story, with the cards laid out in order as a prompt. You could attempt to upgrade your language in the re-telling: use more complex language, use more features of spoken narrative etc. Over time, you could compare your attempts and progress.
Storyonics!

Storyonics!

  • Make a set!: It’s a simple concept. And with resources like ELTpics, making your own needn’t be too difficult. Learners could make a couple of ‘cards’ each and share them in an Edmodo group or other collaborative tool e.g. Google docs, thereby jointly producing a pack. Learners could then compare the stories they come up with…

Benefits:

  • Stimulant for language production: This game acts as a stimulant for extended language production. Telling stories in another language is challenging but rewarding. Difficult at first, practice makes, well, not perfect but certainly for an improvement!
  • Potential for language upgrading: Retelling a story and recording oneself doing it (which is very easy with technology these days) provides an opportunity for language upgrade.

Bingo

  • Make a Bingo card: use recently learnt language, focus on a particular element of language, etc. Watch or listen to something suitable. (E.g. an action film might not be the best thing if your Bingo card is full of news vocabulary…) Tick off any of the language that you hear.

Benefits:

  • Active listening vs. passive listening: You may not hear all your chunks but you can be sure it’s going to make you listen to whatever it is you are watching/listening to super-carefully!
  • Simple, straightforward and free: All you need is a pen and a piece of paper, as well as whatever it is that you are going to watch.

Quizlet

  • Create sets of flashcards and play games with them online or on your mobile phone/tablet. It could be words and definitions, it could be phrases, it could be language you have picked up from reading/listening that you want to be able to use productively as well as recognise, it could be language based on a particular point (for me, recently, such a point was personal pronouns!) …

Benefits:

  • Fun: Quizlet is a fun way to study vocabulary. (As with anything else, as the sole means of learning, it is insufficient, but as part of a varied diet, it’s very valuable…)
  • Recycling: Learning vocabulary requires repetition and exposure to that language in context. Drilling yourself on Quizlet keeps it fresh in your mind so that you can look out for it while reading or listening extensively.

For more about Quizlet and how to use it, see this post.

My Quizlet Sets!

My Quizlet Sets!

Shadow-reading

  • Acquire an audiobook with accompanying text. E.g. a graded reader. For more challenge, go authentic! Play the audio and attempt to shadow read. How many sentences can you keep up for?

Benefits:

  • Helps make you more aware of different pronunciation features and sound-spelling relationships. I recently discovered that I had been pronouncing (Italian) third person plurals completely wrongly without realising it. This activity helped me to discover that on my own.
  • Helps to develop your sense of rhythm of the language.
  • Gives you experience of producing language at speed, physically.
  • Fun! Often ends up with a bit of a tongue twist. But over time, the tongue twist happens later and later.

What games can learners play if they have access to classmates via tools like Edmodo?

There are lots of things that classes of learners can do outside of class, if they are using a tool like Edmodo  as part of their course. Here are a few:

Out of context

  • A learner picks a word or phrase out of something they have been reading or listening to and posts it on Edmodo.
  • Other learners try to put it back into context – turning it into a sentence, a question, a couple of sentences, seeing who can get closest to the original.
  • The original poster can help by giving clues. E.g. the number of people involved, the mood, the location etc.

Picture stories

  • A learner opens the story by posting an opening sentence or two, then linking to or copying in a picture.
  • The next learner must continue the story with a sentence or two, somehow incorporating the picture into their continuation and then link to another picture.
  • And so the process continues, with learners adding text and pictures to the thread.
  • The end product is an illustrated story.

Define me, describe me

  • For inspiration a learner can gather a bunch of random objects or find several pictures with lots of things in them, online.
  • The learner sets a timer for one or two minutes and defines or describes(orally) as many things as possible, recording him/herself doing so.
  • Next, the learner posts the recording on Edmodo. Other learners should try to guess what the things are.
  • Over time, learners can look back at their own recordings and see if they can improve the definitions/descriptions or correct any errors, and compare earlier and later recordings to identify progress.

Picture dictation

  • A learner writes directions to draw something, without identifying what it is, for other learners to follow.
  • The other learners attempt to follow the directions and post their drawings in response to the original poster, together with guesses as to what they have drawn.
  • The original learner looks at what is produced and may or may not wish to refine their directions…

Benefits:

I am grouping the benefits for these collaborative activities, as there is plenty of overlap.

  • Development of spoken and written fluency, through extensive use of language.
  • Encouragement for learners to think about/in the target language.
  • Encouragement for learners to use language more between classes.
  • Motivation for learners, as studying becomes a bit more fun and language production isn’t threatening.
  • Language play: playing with language can help give learners more ownership over the language as they manipulate it in different ways.
  • Of course, as with all the other activities in this post, any given activity is insufficient on its own but as part of a varied died of activities, the end result is increased input and output of the target language.

Scaffolding

Many of these activities are based on activities commonly used in class. Using classroom counterparts and encouraging learners to try out the activities at home, perhaps through getting them to make a learning contract with an ongoing cycle of experimentation and discussion, learners may be more likely to do these kinds of activities unprompted in their own time, thus supporting their in-class learning.

Conclusion

Games can form a valuable part of a varied diet of language learning activities. There are games that don’t require the presence of other people and other games that can be realised via tools like Edmodo which enable learners to connect with each other outside class time. Providing adequate scaffolding is important in order to get learners using these types of activities independently, to support their language learning.

If you have ideas for other games learners could play on their own or collaboratively via tools like Edmodo, please comment and let me know about them! 

My top 10(+!) EAP resources

Now that I am (temporarily) teaching EAP (English for Academic Purposes), I thought I would combine my Top 10’s in ELT idea with my useful EAP resources idea… Here is a list of great resources for EAP teachers and their students. As with all the Top 10 (+) lists, feel free to comment and suggest additional resources – new ideas always welcome!

Books

 EAP Essentials – by Olwyn Alexander, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spence.

EAP Essentials - essential in name, essential in nature...

EAP Essentials – essential in name, essential in nature… – screenshot from Amazon

This is a really useful book for anyone in EAP, whether new to it (as I am) or experienced (is my hunch) – it is a very interesting read, treating all aspects of EAP in great detail. It includes tasks throughout, which make you read actively, and a CD with lots of sample EAP materials on it. The materials are cross-referenced to in the text, and exemplify the authors’ perspectives on effective EAP teaching. The lucky teachers on the Sheffield Uni pre-sessional induction were given a free copy before Jenifer Spence proceeded to teach us how to teach EAP! I couldn’t benefit from this freebie, however, as I had already bought my own copy (last year), to try and learn a bit about EAP before applying for jobs…

English for Academic Purposes – by Edward de Chazal

Another comprehensive tome...

Another comprehensive tome… – screenshot from Amazon

This comprehensive take on EAP has the added benefit of being available in electronic form. (Generally a good thing if you are in the habit of moving from one part of the world to another on a regular basis!) It deals with the history of EAP, methodology, language, criticality, skills and more.

Online Resources

 The Oxford University Press ELT Blog

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 20.56.34

OUP ELT EAP (!) – a screenshot of the search result page

On the OUP ELT blog, you can find a number of blog posts that are EAP-related. Click on the picture to be taken to the results of a search for these posts.

 Lexico Blog

Lexicoblog - a screenshot of the homepage

Lexicoblog – a screenshot of the homepage

I first came across Julie Moore rather recently – at IATEFL, where I attended her brilliant talk . Since then, I’ve also discovered this blog of hers, which is full of high quality posts. Can be relied upon for good food for thought if you are EAP-oriented, or if you just like reading interesting things! In her blog, you can also find some information about the e-book she made for Teacher to Writer, How to write EAP materials. Which is another great resource for the list:

How to write EAP Materials

Screenshot from Julie's post about this wonderful book that she produced.

Screenshot from Julie’s post about this wonderful book that she produced.

Writing materials is something we all do a bit of, even if it’s just for us to use with our own students. This little book is a great way to improve what you create and learn more about EAP in the process! Highly recommended.

EAP Infographics

Screenshot of EAP Infographics

Screenshot of EAP Infographics

EAP Infographics is a project in progress by Adam Simpson, and an ingenious way of presenting EAP language and functions visually. Adam also gives you a run down on the what and how of making and using infographics here . Whether you use Adam’s visuals or start making your own, your students may well find the visuals helpful as a means of making the language and functions clearer and more memorable. They may serve to clear up doubts that learners have regarding meaning and usage too.

Wordandphrase.info 

A screenshot of Wordandphrase.info/academic

A screenshot of Wordandphrase.info/academic

This is a fantastic tool. It is an interface for corpus analysis, which enables the user to generate definitions, synonyms, collocates and concordance lines. There is a special academic section of the site, pictured above, which is where you want to direct EAP students to, rather than the general part of the site. This tool is helpful in pushing learners to become more autonomous, as you can deal with vocabulary-related questions by directing them to explore a word or chunk using this tool, rather than relying on you. If they use a word or chunk wrongly in their writing, you can also direct them to look at it using this tool and try to correct their mistakes independently. Hopefully this approach also makes the correct version more memorable, as more processing would go into the process of correction. Learners may need some guidance initially, as concordance lines can be a bit daunting. The great thing about the concordance lines generated by this site is that they are colour coded by word type, which makes picking out patterns that much easier.

Google docs

Screenshot of my Google drive!

Screenshot of (my) Google drive!

Of course Google docs is not aimed at EAP teachers and learners. It is aimed at and accessible to everybody. If you haven’t got a gmail account, why not make a dummy account so that you as a teacher have access to this valuable tool? Many universities give staff gmail university email accounts, so you might get one that way too! Google docs is a collaborative tool. It allows multiple users to edit documents simultaneously. It also includes a chat function and a commenting function. The combination of multiple editing and chat function means that it is ideal for group projects and the commenting function makes feedback very easy. I’ve used it a lot in my EAP writing classes recently – in class, students work in pairs or groups to do activities (e.g. write an introduction, write a paraphrase etc.), compare their output with the rest of the class and I comment on their output too. The end result is a collection of e.g. paraphrases commented on by the teacher, which can then be a resource for students to come back to, if they are struggling with the element in question. I get them to submit their homework this way too, so that it, too, can be compared and become a class resource. Students can learn from their own and each other’s mistakes. And, of course, unlike the usual scraps of paper that students seem to produce when they have to write anything down, or the haphazard notebook full of anything and everything, documents in google docs are easy to come back to and look at beyond the time of production.

Academic Vocabulary 

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 19.39.47

Screenshot of Academic Vocabulary

The University of Nottingham have made this brilliant website based on Avril Coxhead’s Academic Wordlist, which resulted from research she did into vocabulary used in an academic context. Nottingham Uni have developed a collection of tools that make the list even more helpful. For example, you can paste in a text and the site will highlight all the academic words. You can also gap those words out to create an activity for students to do. You could for example do this with a transcript from a lecture: get learners to listen and complete the gaps, thus focusing them on the academic vocabulary. Students could use this tool autonomously too, to help them build up a bank of academic words collected through looking at texts or simply by using the lists and sublists, as well as associated concordance activities.

Using English for Academic Purposes: A guide for students in higher education

Screenshot of Using English for Academic Purposes: a guide for students in higher education

Screenshot of Using English for Academic Purposes: a guide for students in higher education

This comprehensive website could be of use to the teacher who is new to EAP and wants to learn more about it (ahem!) as much as for the students it is directed at. Why not divide up the site between your group of students, and get groups of them to explore each section of it. Give groups a little time to discuss what they found, then regroup the groups to present to each other about their section of the website. The next homework could be to try a different part of the website, based on needs, weaknesses and\or interests.

Useful EAP-related resources

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 19.30.04

Screenshot of my ‘Useful EAP resources’ post

And finally, I am including this post, even though it’s number 11,  because in it are gathered a whole lot more links to EAP-related resources, that I started collecting over a year ago now, to help me find out more about EAP because I knew I wanted to work in a university this summer! 🙂 Happily for me, I made it! Currently working at Sheffield University and loving it. (Though it’s the reason why this blog has been so quiet! Turns out pre-sessionals are all-consuming for the most part! 😉 )

I hope you find these resources useful and please do comment with further resources to add to the list! I would love to know about them! 🙂

 

Autonomous learning (4) – Graded Readers

This is the fourth in a series of posts whose goal is to explore ways of helping learners develop their language skills autonomously. The first two posts are specific to listening. The first post, which focuses on perception of connected speech can be read here , the second post on dictations as an autonomous learning tool here and the third on “text mining” can be read here.  The first two posts focus on listening, the third on autonomous use of reading and listening texts, and, in keeping with my expansion of the series focus, this post is focusing on graded readers as means of autonomous learning – language development and skill development

What?

 Graded readers are books that are written in the target language, graded to suit learners of that language rather than being geared towards native speakers of that language. They exist for a range of levels, generally corresponding to those within the Common European Framework of Languages. Graded readers often (but don’t always) contain activities related to the text, either dispersed throughout the text or gathered at the end of the book.

A variety of well-known publishers have published collections of graded readers, information about which can be found on their websites. Here are some links to the graded reader sections of some of the publishers that do graded readers:

 Choosing a Graded Reader

As the list of links above might suggest, there is no shortage of choice where graded readers are concerned. Of course each publisher produces one or more different types of graded reader. Graded readers can be:

  • a text, graded to a particular level.
  • a text and an audio disc recording of the text.
  • a text, an audio recording of the text and questions/activities that accompany the text.
  • an e-book, with above-mentioned features integrated.
  • probably other versions exist as well…!

I recently discovered that graded readers do not only exist in English for learners of English but in other languages for learners of those languages. Including Italian! The main focus for this post will be book-plus-audio graded readers, based on my recent experience of working my way through Villa dei Mughetti, published by Black Cat.

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Having worked my way through a graded reader, I now feel a lot better placed to help my learners get the most out of theirs, where before I tended to leave them to it, within the remit of my reading project.

In terms of choosing a graded reader, availability will be the major factor. When I bought my graded reader, in Palermo, it was the only one they had in Italian! I would recommend choosing one that comes with an audio recording, if possible, as this is a very valuable additional resource. Fortunately for me, Black Cat readers generally seem to come with accompanying cd.

Getting Started

My top tips for getting started with a graded reader would be:

  • Locate the answer key for the accompanying activities (if you have a version with activities!): with some, that’s as easy as checking the back of the book and finding that they are there. With Villa dei Mughetti I had to go to the Black Cat website, register as a teacher and then I was able to download them. Not the easiest, and if students are expecting the usual back-of-the-book scenario, they may be a bit perplexed and therefore a bit of help might not go amiss!
  • Decide how to begin: Think about your goals in using the reader and the different approaches you could take (dependent on what kind of graded reader you have chosen). Decide which approach(es) you want to try.

Different Approaches

Here are some approaches a learner could use:

  1. Read through the text without looking at the questions.
  2. Read the text and answer the questions/do the activities as you go along.
  3. Listen to the complete audio cd without looking at the questions or text.
  4. Listen to/read a section first, then read it/listen to it, then answer questions as you go along.
  5. Listen to a section first, then answer questions, then read it to check.
  6. Listen and read simultaneously, the whole text, without looking at any questions.
  7. Listen and read simultaneously, answering the questions as you go

A learner might use the same approach throughout or vary the approach from chapter to chapter. As mentioned above, learners’ goals will/should influence the choice of approach. For example, my dominant approach was to listen to a chapter, do the activities, read to check, then mark the score-able activities using the answer key. I.e. (5) above. My goal was to work intensively on my listening.

Here is how I perceive the above activities could match to different goals:

  1. Extensive reading
  2. Intensive reading/language work
  3. Extensive listening
  4. Supported intensive listening/reading (depending which you are stronger at and which you are weaker at, the other supports it)/language work
  5. Intensive listening/language work
  6. Sound-spelling awareness/pronunciation
  7. Sound-spelling awareness/pronunciation, plus comprehension/language work.

It could be useful to discuss different approaches with learners, to raise awareness of how different approaches map to different learning goals. Encourage them to experiment with different approaches and report back to their peers, so that they are encouraged to reflect on their experience of trying the various approaches – they could initially all experiment with the same approach and then compare notes, even if they were all using different graded readers (provided the graded readers all had the same resources e.g. audio and activities), and then move on to deciding which they prefer, or they could all experiment with whichever approach they wanted to and report back on whatever they have done. They could also group themselves according to what approach they wanted to try.

This experimentation and discussion would fit in quite nicely with both my Experimentation with English and Reading Project approaches. As mentioned in those projects, it needn’t be very time-consuming in class.

Graded Reader Activities

In Villa dei Mughetti, there was a chunk of activities at the end of each chapter. Each chunk included a mixture of score-able and un-score-able activities.

There were:

  • Comprehension activities: T/F; Y/N; ordering events; matching utterances and characters etc.
  • Language focus activities: grammar explanation plus practice activity, vocabulary activities e.g. matching pictures and words, a crossword, matching words and definitions etc.
  • Productive skills-focused activities: each chunk of activities had both a writing activity and a speaking activity.

Comprehension activities

These are straightforward and can be done as a reading exercise or a listening exercise. If learners choose to listen and answer the questions, as I did, it would be useful to encourage them to use the text as a transcript to identify why they make any mistakes. Of course this would be easier for them to do if you have done with them in class before, in your listening lessons.

Language focus activities

Vocabulary: learners need to be selective in deciding what to do with the vocabulary that the activities encourage them to focus on. Is it vocabulary they want to actually learn? It won’t necessarily be – some of the vocabulary in Villa dei Mughetti was very random and I wouldn’t choose to focus on it sufficiently for it become part of my productive linguistic resources (e.g. names of flowers whose names I don’t even know in English – I’m happy for the flowers to be pretty, I’m happy enough to learn what the names are in Italian, but I’m really not fussed about *learning* all their Italian names.)

So, if the vocabulary isn’t useful, that’s fine, do the activities and move on. However, if is vocabulary that learners want to learn, then they  need to do something with it beyond the activities in the book. For example, input it into Quizlet and use the various study and game modes; try to use it in the writing activities etc.

Grammar: This (at least in Villa dei Mughetti) is generally based on language/examples from the text. If a learner is familiar with the grammar and gets all the questions in the practice activity right, great. Move on but don’t forget to look out for more examples, in context, in the ensuing text and in other texts that you encounter. However, if there are a few mistakes, it could be worth using a website or book with grammar explanations and activities, to try and clarify any misunderstanding. Once it’s under control, at least on a declarative level, it’s even more important to look out for further examples of it in context – in future chapters and other texts (written or spoken). In this way, the grammar activities become diagnostic, either confirming what you are familiar with or acting as a springboard to working on what you are less familiar with.

Productive skills focus activities

These activities, at least in Villa dei Mughetti, are the un-score-able ones. I’m of the opinion that self-study material doesn’t have to be score-able to be useful, so I am glad these activities feature in my current preferred graded reader series!

In order to get the most out of them, it is useful to have tools to use alongside them: i.e. a blog for the writing and a voice-recording tool (e.g. Audioboo, Audacity, a mobile phone, vocaroo etc, for the speaking. That way, you can collect your writing activities on your blog, and accumulate a series of voice recordings too. If using a website to record your voice, you can usually link to the recording in your blog, or if you make files on your computer, this can usually be uploaded. Evernote could be used in a similar way.

This enables progress to be charted. You could also encourage learners to share blog links with each other, and compare their production. Or, if you use Edmodo with them, they could post things on it instead of creating blogs etc. Of course a class blog could be used too. Once learners have reached the end of the graded reader, they could go back through their recorded written and spoken activities, to see if they can identify progress and identify/correct any errors.

Some of the activities might seem a bit lame (in my limited experience) but they may be able to be combined, with a bit of imagination. Thus, as you might have picked up on, I don’t think it’s necessary to complete the productive activities before moving on to the next chapter. As long as you are doing the activities regularly, then it just becomes a matter of how it best fits the time frame you have available. Writing a text takes longer than answering a few T/F questions, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop doing the T/F questions until you have time to do a longer activity.

Other Activities

Graded Readers can yield activities beyond those contained in the book (if it’s the type of reader with activities):

  • Dictations: A great additional use for the accompanying audio disc. Dictations may not immediately come to mind as a potential activity but actually it works well, as the language is graded to the reader’s level and it tends to be read clearly. Of course it won’t be a dictation speed or with built in pauses, but as one has control of the recording, one can repeat a short passage (a minute at most) multiple times and see how many times it takes to get everything done. If the activity is repeated at regular intervals, comparisons regarding number of times necessary can enable progress to be tracked. Comparison with the transcript, as with standard dictations, can indicate weaknesses in decoding skills.
  • Writing/speaking: As mentioned, those in the book may not seem the most exciting, but the concept is sound. So, if a group of students are using the same graded reader, then get them to come up with alternative ideas for productive activities, that they actually want to do. You as the teacher could collect these and over time build up a collection of supplementary materials to share with future students. If your school has a library of graded readers, copies of those materials could live with the collection of readers.Students may be concerned about lack of feedback with the productive activities, so it may be useful to explain that a) it’s still a useful activity even without feedback, as it helps the development of fluency (of writing or of speaking) and b) it’s also useful to go back over the texts produced (written or spoken) and see if any mistakes can be identified, especially as time passes and language level (hopefully) consolidates.
  • Gapping the text: A bit more work is involved with this activity, but it should be worth it. Learners type up a small portion of the text. (A similar length to that used for the dictation) and then gap some words. This could be words that they struggled to hear/decode the first time round (to facilitate this, after they listen to a chapter, do exercises and read to check, they could also check if they read anything different from what they had heard. Alternatively, listening first and then listening/reading simultaneously to compare). It could be chunks relating to the language/grammar point in that chapter, or a previous chapter. It could be any chunks that they understand but wouldn’t produce unprompted, that they think might be useful to activate. (See my post on text mining for more information about this approach.) Students then leave the reproduced, gapped text aside for a while. Later, they come back to it to play the audio and attempt to fill in the gaps. (NB: If you think this would be too easy, I can only say that I have done something similar with dictations: I’ve listened, made mistakes, identified mistakes through transcript comparison, marked mistakes but not corrected them, left it aside for awhile, come back to it and tried to listen and correct the mistakes – now gaps where something is wrong – and struggled! Generally I’ve been able to correct some and still failed on some, even though I’ve seen the correct answer previously.)

Is it extensive reading?

Some might argue that with all the activities breaking the text into small portions, reading graded readers doesn’t count as “proper” extensive reading. However, I would say that:

  • a graded reader can still be used for extensive reading/listening if the text is heard/read through first time round without using the activities. Or, after the activities have all been done, one could read/listen through the whole text without stopping for activities, enjoying a greater understanding of the text.
  • a graded reader is a beneficial learning resource that can be used as well as more traditional texts. E.g. I read other things to read extensively and use my graded readers mainly for intensive listening. As with anything, alone it might be insufficient but as part of a varied diet of activities, including extensive reading/listening without activities, it can be very valuable.

So, I don’t think it’s such an important issue to worry about. As long as students are aware of different ways of using their graded readers, of how these ways map to different learning goals, which may change as they progress through their graded reader, and, finally, of the benefits and limitations of graded readers as learning resource, then they can use their graded readers as suits their purpose and get as much out of them as possible.

Conclusion

Graded readers are a rich resource of learning, perfect for autonomous study. This is particularly true if you have access to an audio recording as well. A wide range of approaches can be used with a graded reader, depending on learning aims. There is also potential for a students to do further activities not stipulated by the graded reader, and create supplementary materials for use with them. Both the process of creation and the use of these can be another valuable part of the process of using a graded reader. Some teacher guidance could be helpful in enabling learners to make the most of their graded reader, through a cycle of experimentation and metacognitive discussion. This could be achieved without the graded readers necessarily becoming a teacher-led/controlled activity.

I’ve really enjoyed using my graded reader in Italian and look forward to using more! (And, I confess, I do still have a couple of productive activities to do – one of which is next on my agenda for this afternoon!) I also look forward to being able to help my learners get more out of their graded readers when I re-launch my reading project at IHPA in October! 🙂

If you have any more ideas for helping learners use graded readers more effectively as an autonomous learning tool, please share them by commenting on this post. 

Autonomous skill development (3) – text mining

This is the third in a series of posts whose goal is to explore ways of helping learners develop their language skills autonomously. The first two posts are specific to listening. The first post, which focuses on perception of connected speech can be read here and the second post on dictations as an autonomous learning tool here . This post doesn’t focus specifically on listening skill development but I have decided to include it in this series as it focuses on an autonomous learning activity. So I hereby declare the series focus expanded! 

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

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

Aims:

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

Materials/tools:

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

Procedure:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does it work?

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

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

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… 🙂