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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autonomous listening skill development (2) – Dictations

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

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

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

Potential Sources of Dictation Activity Materials

1. Websites with dictations on them

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

Some sites have specially made dictations for language learners:

 Breaking News English

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 07.48.09

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 07.48.28

Screenshot 2 from Breaking News English dictations page

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

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 07.55.48

Screenshot 3 from Breaking News English dictations page

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

The British Council 

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

Screenshot 1 from ESOL Nexus website

Screenshot 1 from the ESOL Nexus website

Selecting Dictations will take you to the following screen:

Screenshot 2 from ESOL Nexus

Screenshot 2 from ESOL Nexus

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

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 08.14.47

Screen shot 3 from ESOL Nexus

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

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

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

Screenshot 1: One World Italiano

Screenshot 1 from One World Italiano

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

Screenshot 2 One World Italiano

Screenshot 2 from One World Italiano

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

2. Websites with recordings and transcripts

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

Elllo.org 

Screenshot 1 from Elllo.org

Screenshot 1 from Elllo.org

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

Screenshot 2 from Elllo.org

Screenshot 2 from Elllo.org

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

British Council Learn English

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

Screenshot 1 from British Council Learn English

Screenshot 1 from British Council Learn English

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

3. Non-internet based resources

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

Graded Readers

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Screenshot from the Blackcat-cideb website

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

Course book listenings/supplementary materials

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

Audio books

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

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

Activities

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

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

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

How?

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

My first Italian dictation with errors highlighted.

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

My analysis of my errors

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

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

Pattern/weaknesses identification

Pattern/weaknesses identification

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

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

Take 2! Correcting the errors…

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

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

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

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

Chunk-grabbing

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

My first graded reader dictation

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

Chunk-grabbing variation

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

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

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

Using the resources and activities for autonomous learning

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

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

Enjoy!

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

Helping language learners visualise their linguistic development: growing learning

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

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

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

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

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

What came about was a handout called

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you end up with is something like this:

Some students piloted it for about a month...

Some students piloted it for about a month…

Benefits:

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

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

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

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

Issues:

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

Future directions:

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

Watch this space…

Learning contracts and language learning

The concept

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

There would be echoes of:

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

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

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

The experiment

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

My research questions: 

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

My methodology:

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

My learning contract:

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

Signed: Lizzie Pinard   Date: 4/6/14

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

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

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

References:

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

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

41st ELT Blog Carnival on Learner Autonomy – coming soon!

I’m delighted to be hosting the 41st ELT Blog Carnival in June this year and looking forward, very much, to seeing lots of posts written by lots of people, all about learner autonomy – the 41st Blog Carnival topic of choice.

To find out about how to get involved, how to submit posts, how to avoiding missing out on ELT Blog carnivals to come and where to go to catch up with ELT Blog carnivals past, click on the image below:

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 16.58.38

Get your thinking caps on, everybody!

Let the carnival begin!

Let the carnival begin! Image taken from en.wikipedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Let the carnival begin! Image taken from en.wikipedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification

 

Autonomous listening skill development: activity 1

How do I help learner get beyond “just” listening?

Listen! (Image taken from www.pixabay.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

Listen! (Image taken from http://www.pixabay.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

I encourage learners to listen extensively outside class, and extensive listening is recognised as beneficial to language learning. But what about actually developing listening skills? As in, listening with a view to improving both decoding (“translating the speech signal into speech sounds, words and clauses, and finally into a literal meaning” (Field, 2008:kindle loc. 2386)) and meaning-building (“adding to the bare meaning provided by decoding and relating it to what has been said before” (ibid)) skills.

How can I help learners to actively work on their listening outside class as well as during listening lessons? Part of learning autonomously is awareness of a range of task types and their potential learning benefits, and the corresponding ability to pick tasks according to learning goals. Helping learners become able to do this with their listening is something I have begun to work on within my learner autonomy projects.

What activities can learners do to help themselves develop their listening skills rather than just listening?

In this series, I will describe some listening activities I’ve done with learners to help them become more autonomous listeners by giving them something tangible to do with their out of class “listening practice”.

This first activity works well as a follow-up to a lesson with focus on weak forms , in which you have raised learners’ awareness of weak forms in connected speech.

Aims:

  • increase perception of weak forms in connected speech
  • develop sense of rhythm and the role of weak forms and word/sentence stress within this
  • develop learners’ ability to chunk written language correctly when they read it

Materials:

  • Learners will need a recording that has an accompanying transcript. (For learners at intermediate and below, www.elllo.org could be a useful resource for this; for higher level learners, a possible resource is the BBC “Voices” project )

Procedure:

  • Learners should, of course, first listen to their recording for meaning (identify main ideas, key information etc.)
  • Once learners have listened for meaning, they can compare what they heard with the transcript and check.
  • This done, learners play the recording again and mutter along with the recording, aloud. (For this, it could be worth selecting a portion of the recording rather than trying to do the whole thing.)
  • Ensure that learners are aware that initially this will be very difficult. The speakers will speak “too fast” for learners to keep up. However, if they replay and mutter along with a portion of the recording several times, then they will be able roughly match it.
  • How do they match it? In order to keep up with the recording and not get out of synch, they will be forced to use the same rhythm and stress as the speaker. This means they will need to stress certain words and shrink others – i.e. the weak forms. NB: The goal of this isn’t to try and get learners to speak in this way: it’s to develop their perception of the stress and rhythm of English, which they can then use to help themselves listen more effectively. However, I think the productive element is important as it helps to increase their perception by making it physical. 
  • Follow up: Once learners have muttered along enough times to be able to do so relatively comfortably, they could then record themselves reading the transcript aloud, trying to maintain the rhythm they developed during the muttering activity. They could post their recording and a link to the original recording on a collaborative platform e.g. Edmodo and compare each others’ efforts.
  • Breaking the activity down: With my learners, I did this as a series of homework activities:The first was to find a recording, listen for meaning, check with the transcript, then do some muttering.The second was to do some more muttering and then record themselves.The third was to listen again to the original recording, with the transcript, and mark all the pauses they heard, and use those pauses to help themselves manage their breathing while muttering and while recording themselves. Then they compared the first lot of recordings with the second lot.Of course this third step could be done earlier: Done in the order I did it, learners benefit from the comparisons they can make, but done earlier, they may benefit from that scaffolding sooner.

Benefits:

  • Because learners have to use correct word and sentence stress in order to keep up with the recording, it draws their attention to these. (I found when I tried the activity with an Italian recording, I’d get out of synch and lose the rhythm when I put the stress in the wrong place in a word. E.g. “gentile” springs to mind, and “sapere”, “utile” and “omeopata” – you realise that you keep getting out of synch at particular points, listen again and pay special attention to those points, then try again with the correct pronunciation, and then, with persistence, it works better.)
  • Recording yourself and listening to the recording, as well as comparing to the original, can help you pick out weaknesses in your pronunciation, and in doing so become more aware of what you are hearing.
  • Listening to, looking at and producing the weak forms helps learners become better able to recognise them through familiarity: it draws very focused attention to how the words look vs how they sound when condensed in connected speech, which is highlighted by the physicality of having to produce it.

Important to remember:

  • Bring it back into the classroom: give learners time to discuss at the beginning of the lessons following those when you set this activity as homework.
  • Ensure learners know they aren’t expected to speak in this way: Otherwise put, ensure the goals of the activity are clear to learners. When you set the activity, having done your focus on weak forms lesson, encourage learners to make the link between that lesson and this homework activity.
  • Scaffold it: You might have noticed that my lesson on weak forms involves some muttering along with the transcript. This means that before I got my learners doing the activities described in this post, for homework, they weren’t starting from a blank page – either from the pronunciation awareness perspective or from the task knowledge perspective (accustomed to using transcripts for listening activities, done similar activities in class, know how to approach them vs. “the transcript is that strange bunch of text that lurks in the back of the course book”!). Hopefully this will have made it less daunting and less confusing; well, certainly my learners all managed to do the task successfully and were enthusiastic about it.

Conclusion

Helping learners develop their listening autonomously is something I will be doing more work on in the future: exploration only began post-IATEFL (using Sandy’s ideas as a way in) and has been sporadic since then (I’m human! There are only 24hrs in a day and some of those are needed for sleeping/eating etc.!) with a burst of ideas emerging very recently through experimentation with my learners and in my own language learning. I’m planning to build on it, and work it into my learner autonomy projects more systematically as next steps, especially during the next set of courses that I teach.

References:

Field, J. (2009) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press.

My top ten learner autonomy and metacognition resources

Are you interested in the prickly issue of learner autonomy? Do you feel that metacognitive awareness is important in language learning? Do you want to find out more about these thought-provoking elements of ELT? This latest post in my ‘ELT top ten’ series offers a list of resources to get you started with learner autonomy and metacognition. 

As with all the other posts in this series, please do respond with your own opinions of resources that should be included in this list.

Books

There are tons of good books out there on the topic of learner autonomy, and I could go on forever listening ones that would be worth reading. I’ve narrowed it down to three, but I don’t doubt that there will be some disagreement with those I have chosen, and feelings that other books should have been included as well/instead. Please do comment on this post to recommend any other books that you strongly feel should be read by anybody who is interested in the topics of learner autonomy and metacognition. 

  • Phil Benson: Teaching and Researching Autonomy

Screenshot from Amazon.co.uk

Screenshot from Amazon.co.uk

This book offers an in-depth treatment of autonomy: Starting from theory, it looks at different definitions of learner autonomy, the history of autonomy theory, perceptions of autonomy in fields outside of language learning, issues of definition and description of autonomy and its different dimensions. The second section moves on to considering autonomy in practice, looking at a range of different approaches to fostering it, while the third part considers it from the angle of research (typical of this series of books), looking at different methodologies and case studies.

  • Learner Autonomy across cultures: language education perspectives

Screenshot from Amazon

Screenshot from Amazon

This is an edited book, with chapters written by authors from a range of contexts. These are case studies and reports on the subject of learner autonomy and its relationship with different cultures – not limited to national culture but also institutional, small-group and other types of culture. I found two chapters in particular heavily influential, and those are the chapters by Rebecca Oxford and by Richard Smith:

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.

  • Vandergrift and Goh: Teaching and learning second language listening: metacognition in action

Screenshot from Amazon

Screenshot from Amazon

This book takes the theory of metacognition and applies it to the learning of listening, offering a theoretically based pedagogy for teaching listening. This was my first proper introduction to metacognition theory, and I found it a very accessible way in. Particularly useful are the different example activities provided to show how the theory can be put into practice. It also uses narrative extracts at the beginning of chapters to illustrate learning and teaching listening, and the processes used, together with reflective questions about these, and this feeds into the content that follows. Well worth reading.

NOTE: In terms of books that are cheap and easily accessible, it is worth bearing in mind that the IATEFL learner autonomy SIG (see “online resources” below) has published a series of edited books related to learner autonomy, that are available in e-book format. 

Articles

As with books, there are hundreds of articles I could have selected for inclusion here. In order to narrow down the selection, I tried to go for articles which don’t require subscription to journals. This made the pool substantially smaller! For an extra list of freely available articles, you could look at the 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival , in which you can find links to bloggers’ reviews of a selection of further freely available articles about learner autonomy. Additionally, if you can access any of Anita Wenden’s articles on the topic of metacognition, you won’t be disappointed. (E.g. from the ELTJ “Helping language learners think about learning” or from Applied Linguistics, “Metacogntive Awareness and Language learning” – and if you can only get hold of one of those, I’d go for the latter!) 

  • Smith, R. (2008)

Key concepts in ELT: Learner Autonomy (retrieved from: http://pracownik.kul.pl/files/10134/public/learnerautonomy.pdf on 20/05/2014) in ELT Journal vol. 62/4. Oxford University Press.

Part of ELT Journal‘s key concepts series, this article is a very concise summary of what the concept Learner Autonomy is all about. A useful way in to the complex field of theory that comes under the umbrella of learner autonomy.

  • Phil Benson (2006)

State of the art article: Autonomy in language teaching and learning (retrieved from: http://www4.pucsp.br/inpla/benson_artigo.pdf on 20/05/2014) in Language Teaching Journal vol. 40 p.21-40. Cambridge University Press.

This article is a more in-depth starting point, as it is a literature review of all the literature related to the topic of learner autonomy, up until 2006. As a result, it offers not only a lengthy reference list that could keep you going for years, but also concise information about all the texts referred to, to help you identify those which are most likely to provide you with the information you are looking for.

  • Borg and Al-Busaidi (2009)

Learner autonomy: English Language Teachers’ beliefs and practices published by the British Council

Part of the British Council’s efforts to make ELT research freely available, this publication can be downloaded with no charge from the British Council Teaching English website. As indicated, it is a study of teachers’ beliefs and practices in relation to the topic of learner autonomy.

 

Online resources:

 

  • The IATEFL Learner Autonomy SIG

Screenshot of the LA SIG website

Screenshot of the LA SIG website

This is one of the special interest groups affiliated with IATEFL (the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language). It organises one- and two-day conferences in various locations, pre-conference events and SIG days at the IATEFL annual conference and has a publishing presence through the edited books its members have edited and its newsletter, Independence. If you are interested in learner autonomy, it could be worth joining this group in order to share your ideas with others who share your interest.

The Learner Autonomy SIG also has an online presence, hence inclusion in this section, through this Facebook group. It is a closed group but anyone with an interest in learner autonomy can request membership. And you can find out more about the LASIG, and what it does, on their website. 

 

  • Science Direct

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 11.58.53

Screenshot of ScienceDirect.com

This website is one that I’ve only discovered recently, but as far as I can understand it basically enables you to search for different articles, and contains links to .pdfs of articles that are freely available as well as links to ones that you have to pay to access. If you download an article via one of these links, it then offers to generate a list of “recommend articles” related to the topic of the article you downloaded.

Here, for example, is a list of articles generated on the theme of metacognition.

  • The Autonomy Approach

Screenshot from Delta Publishing site

Screenshot from Delta Publishing site

A fairly recent publication, The Autonomy Approach is aimed at teachers, with a goal of helping us understand the theory behind autonomy and put it into practice. You could argue that it should be under books, but I’m putting it under online resources because on the Delta Publishing site (as vs. on Amazon etc) you can find sample pages from the book e.g. the introduction to Part B and sample activities. This makes it an online resource that you can try, before committing to buying the book.

  • My “Learner Autonomy” page!

Screenshot of my L.A. page!

Screenshot of my L.A. page!

On my Learner Autonomy page , I have collected blog posts I have written that relate to learner autonomy and metacognition. This includes

  • summaries of learner autonomy-related talks at IATEFL
  • write-ups of my own learner autonomy-related projects (with reference lists)
  • a write up of the 2nd ELT Research blog carnival on Learner Autonomy, which I hosted
  • links to articles relating to learner autonomy and/or metacognition that I’ve written for publication on other sites (E.g. IH Journal, Teaching English British Council)
  • links to materials I’ve made for helping learners use tools like wordandphrase.info and Quizlet independently
  • links to a webinar and a ten-minute conference presentation that I have given on the topic of learner autonomy

and will hopefully also grow to include links to posts written by other people, on the topic of learner autonomy and/or metacognition. So please get in touch if you have a post/website which would fit this bill!

If you know any other great resources for learner autonomy and metacognition, please comment so I can have a look and then add them to the list – it can grow into the top ten (plus)!