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)! 

 

The role of metacognition in language learning

According to Vandergrift and Goh (2o12:loc 360), “metacognition, or the act of thinking about thinking, refers to the ability of learners to control their thoughts and to regulate their own learning.”  They go on to explain that despite the fact that metacognition is key to listening (the focus of their text), its role in the classroom remains minimal. I believe metacognition is a crucial part of language learning in general, but even broadening the scope in this way, I suspect the degree to which it is integrated into language learning is probably still fairly minimal, as with listening.

Indeed, in my own language learning at school and university, I can remember there being a lot of content – grammar, vocabulary etc – but I don’t remember learning how to regulate my own learning or being helped to develop metacognitive awareness. I managed, however, to learn reasonably well in the end – I did German to A-level and French up to university level, getting good results. So what difference does metacognition and metacognitive awareness make to language learning? If I managed well enough with French and German, without any, or perhaps very little, metacognitive awareness, doesn’t that suggest it’s not really necessary as long as your teacher tells you what activities to do and when?

I would say, speaking from experience, that it hugely affects what you are able to achieve independently:

I went to work in Indonesia in 2010, and was there for a year and a half. I’d just done my CELTA. I spoke no Indonesian prior to arriving – other than a smattering of phrases that I taught myself before I left home. I did manage to learn a little bit of Indonesian while in the country, but not much. I was keen but my efforts were clumsy and ill-informed, with very little in the way of success, so I then got demotivated, as well as losing confidence, so learning was very minimal overall. Then I did my M.A. in ELT and Delta, and actually learnt a bit more about how languages are learnt and taught, coming across all manner of theories and being encouraged to consider them all critically.

I came to Italy to work last September. This time, I have had much greater resources to draw on in my language learning. I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learnt about learning and teaching English to my own learning of Italian, and, in 7 months of self-study, get myself from complete beginner to (very) low pre-intermediate level (though I sometimes still sound like a total beginner when I get my tongue all in knots! :-p ). Obviously I’ve benefitted from my knowledge of French, but I’d argue that here, it’s not just the fact that I speak French that helps, but the fact that I’m aware of how to use that skill/knowledge to my benefit while learning Italian.

I’ve been able to use a whole range of metacognitive and language learning strategies that I wasn’t able to use while learning Indonesian, as well as a range of task types, clear in my understanding of what I could achieve in using them and how to maximise that benefit. As well as not being put off by initial difficulties e.g not understanding what I was listening to when I first starting watching things without subtitles. This is part of what Vandergrift and Goh (2012) would refer to as strategy knowledge and task knowledge. I’ve also been able to manage my motivation a lot better and avoid getting discouraged when progress has been slow or when I thought I’d never get out of my “silent period“, for example. This is part of what Vandergrift and Goh (ibid) would refer to as person knowledge.

I would suggest that as learners spend the majority of their time outside the classroom and mostly don’t have the opportunity to do whole courses devoted to theories of learning and how to learn, it is up to us, as language teachers, to ensure that we help them develop sufficient metacognitive knowledge and understanding of how language learning works – how to approach tasks, how the tasks can be beneficial, what strategies you can use to gain the most benefit from them etc –  for them to be able to help themselves learn without the teacher always telling them exactly what to do and when (so that they are able to learn outside of the classroom), and, all-importantly, manage their own motivation. Vandergrift and Goh (2012) contains lots of ideas for developing metacognitive awareness in relation to the skill of listening and a lot of their ideas, I would suggest, are adaptable and applicable to other areas of language learning. I wonder how widespread their use is.

My questions for you:

  • Have you used your knowledge of learning theory and language teaching in your own language learning? How?
  • Have you helped your learners to develop their metacognitive awareness and become more able to manage their own learning? How?

Here are some posts about my own language learning and what I’ve learnt from it:

And here are some of my ideas for helping learners to develop metacognitive awareness and apply it to their learning, to help them become more autonomous:

Finally, if you have written any posts that are relevant to the theme of language learning and applying metacognitive awareness to your learning processes, or write any in response to my questions, please do link to them in the comments section of this post!

 References:

Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. Teaching and learning second language listening: metacognition in action Routledge. Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 09.13.23

IHTOC (International House Teachers Online Conference) May 2014

At 14.20 CET (12.20 GMT, 13.20 BST) I took part in the International House Teachers Online Conference (a.k.a IHTOC). Each talk in this conference is ten minutes in length, with talks being divided up in to 50 minute sessions. In my session, I had the honour of talking in the same session as David Petrie of IH Coimbra (with whom I’ve been discussing the future of language teaching, on our respective blogs) whose topic was “What I did on my holidays – six things from IATEFL 2014“; Emma Cresswell from IH Santander who gave a talk called “From conference to classroom“; Anya Shaw who hails from IH Buenos Aires Belgrano and spoke on the topic of “Homework: rethinking our routines” and last but assuredly not least, Sandy Millin, the DoS at IH Sevastopol who shared “Five ways to raise your professional profile“.

My own talk title was “From teacher to enabler: stimulating acquisition outside the classroom“. Those of you who have read my blog before will know that I am very interested in the prickly issue of Learner Autonomy and exploring ways of enabling language acquisition during the many hours learners spend outside class. Little wonder, then, when I was invited to submit a speaker proposal, this interest came to the fore.

In my ten minutes, I discussed why the step from teacher to enabler is important to make and suggested 3 simple ways to do this.

  • Encourage experimentation
  • Get learners goal-setting
  • Keep talking!

The rationale behind the first point is that learners, myself included when it comes to Italian, tend to stick with one or two “safe” activities, if they do any work at all outside class time. In order to broaden their range of activities and help them remain motivated to try new things, scaffolded experimentation can be very effective. However, giving learners a bunch of ideas and then leaving them to it is not helpful in terms of maintaining motivation. Chances are they will file away the handout and quickly forget about it, reverting back to their mainstay activities.

This is where points two and three come in.

Setting challenging yet achievable intermediate, mid-term goals can help learners maintain their motivation by breaking down the monolithic task of learning a language into more manageable chunks and increasing the chances of success: t

The experience of success, especially that which is hard-won, is one of the motivational factors that Dornyei (2013) includes the third channel of his L2 Motivational Self-System – the language learning experience.

Regular discussion, in which learners communicate their goals and discuss their learning experiences gives rise to the benefits of heightened commitment to the goals, greater satisfaction in attaining goals as they share their achievements, and less isolation when they are in a learning slump – indeed, during these times they can ‘feed off’ the motivation of others and regain the desire to have another go; and then be the ones that give faltering classmates that extra push.

I suggested that this recipe was not limited to the handout I shared, but could also be applied to extensive reading or anything we want learners to do outside the classroom.

My ideas drew on goal setting theory (Lock and Latham, 1990), motivation theory (Dornyei, 2014) as well as the idea of motivational flow (Egbert, 2003) and, of course, learner autonomy theory (e.g. Benson, 2011, Oxford 2003, Smith, 2003)

10 minutes is not a long time, so I had to wrap it up pretty quickly, having elaborated on my three-step plan and hand on to the next speaker!

Here is a copy of my slides and here  is a link to the recording.

References:

Benson (2011) Teaching and Researching Learner Autonomy Pearson Education. Harlow

Egbert (2003) in Dornyei and Ushioda (2012) Teaching and researching motivation Pearson Education. Harlow

Dornyei, Z. (2014) Plenary talk, Motivation and the vision of knowing another language in the Warwick Postgraduate Conference, June 26th 2013.

Lock and Latham (1990) in Dornyei and Ushioda (2012) Teaching and Researching Motivation. Pearson Education. Harlow.

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.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 20.47.59

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the handouts:

This one is for learners who use Edmodo

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

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

My comments about the handouts: future directions

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

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

 

 

My IH Journal column no.2: learner autonomy and metacognition

My IH Journal (International House Journal) tagline is as follows:

“To celebrate my 30th birthday (18/06/2013), I made an attempt to identify 30 things that I’d incorporated into my professional practice over the preceding year. 30 is quite a large number, but having spent an academic year at Leeds Metropolitan University learning vast amounts while tackling the Delta integrated into an M.A. ELT, I thought I should be able to pinpoint any number of things and by doing so, it would reinforce them in my mind as well has creating a record to look back on. Despite the final length of that blog post, each of the 30 items was only briefly treated. In this column, I revisit that blog post, selecting items and expanding on them.”

For my second column, which recently appeared in issue 36 (Spring 2014), I focused on learner autonomy and metacognition. As I get lots of searches relating to metacognition leading to my blog, I thought I would post a link to this column for any who are interested in this area and that of learner autonomy.

The contents page shows the wide variety of articles and columns that IH Journal has to offer – something for everybody to read, so why not have a look?

Enjoy! 🙂

Amy Brown – Reading for pleasure: a path to learner autonomy?

Well, I had to come to this – after all my reading project shenanigans, I was very interested to hear about another reading project…

Reading for pleasure: a path to learner autonomy?

Amy is a senior teacher and the coordinator of the IH Newcastle Personal Study Programme (guided self-study – 1 or 2hrs a day, timetabled, supports regular classes). The ethos of PSP is learner autonomy.

Amy starts by discussing the prickly term of learner autonomy. Not everybody has the same idea of what it is. She asked around the staffroom, getting teachers to say what they think about learner autonomy… but first we had to discuss!

What do we mean by learner autonomy?

The answers from Newcastle…

“learners learning to learn for themselves”

” having the ability to decide for themselves”

…and many more.

Key characteristics of reading for pleasure

Amy formed her own idea of what exactly this means. Three characteristics relevant for this project:

Choice, individual and at learners pace [and one more I missed!]

In the beginning…

Magazines and newspapers were available for reading and a small library of graded readers. Students couldn’t take them home, as so small, so no home reading. There were also trips to the library/bookshops, giving help in book selection (this guidance was appreciated) e.g. this is modern English so could be helpful for you to read.

They wanted more emphasis on pleasure…

This necessitated a bigger library and not only graded readers. Many books were selected, recommended or donated by teachers. Some books have been made into films. Some are for younger speakers. But authentic.

PSP Induction – conversation starter “have you ever read a book in English” (Just like I did with my project, but in the classroom!! :D)

Did many students take up the opportunity? Yes, but mostly those who were readers in their own language and the problem was, when the books came back, the enthusiasm had dipped. When they were returned a few weeks later, uncertainty as to whether they had actually finished…

Pre-check out questions: “What are you going to do when you come across new words?” – entry to a discussion on strategy. “What made you choose this book? – conversation starters.

There were also follow-up chats – how is it going? where are you up to? Also in written form through the journal system. If a couple of students were reading the same book, got them together to discuss also.

But were we getting to new readers or only established readers?

The Reader Organisation

Began in Liverpool, then moved to Newcastle. They promote literacy and wellbeing. They are commissioned from the local council, mental health associations etc. It’s always voluntary attendance, no one is forced to go. It’s a “shared reading group”. Amy mostly found examples with younger learners within ELT, rather than adult learners.

It’s low pressure. The reader (leader – trained reader) reads aloud and stops at natural breaking points, and asks questions re what might happen next and what do you think happens? It involves a lot of reading aloud. There is never any pressure to read. People who read out loud in these groups do it voluntarily and it can be a liberating experience. Amy attended a meeting, didn’t read aloud, but came away feeling really keen to read! She recommends that you google their website.

Amy also came away thinking about how to implement within the school.

How would learners react?

Within this project should be no follow-up activities. The reward should come from the reading itself.

A reader came into IH Newcastle for a 4-week collaboration. B1+ 2 weekly groups, max. 12 students led by “a Reader” (not a “teacher”) – to create an atmosphere not of class but of reading and pleasure. A mix of nationalities and genders. A teacher was also invited along. Luckily there was no asking about language points. They did a short story called “The Umbrella Man” by Roald Dahl

Lots of discussion and personalisation came up naturally and lots of prediction because it was suspenseful story. Without any visual aids.

What about the responses?

Feedback came from observing teachers – a form with prompts to complete.

  • No phone or dictionaries…the students were in the moment.
  • not rushed, not over done [a natural pace]
  • focus on overall meaning
  • lots of enthusiasm from the teachers [and their learners had told the class about it]

Feedback from students mostly came via class teacher “spies” from natural conversations where the students told their teacher about what was happening in the group.

Some of the students really loved it.

“It helps me to understand books better”

“After the group, I think – I need to keep reading” [in a focus group at the end – enthusiastic about reading when they left the group]

“It doesn’t feel like study” [important in a study-packed day!]

A lot of the students invited were IELTS students but the response:

“I need to practice more the exam” …something that needs working on! Students don’t see the benefit of non-exam focused work.

How is all this promoting learner autonomy?

We all discussed together and thought yes!

Finally Amy talked about where the project was going next…

  • more shared reading (more levels/choices)
  • silent reading groups
  • shared reading with IELTS texts? Splitting it into short stories and poetry separately.

Amy can be contacted at amy@ihnewcastle.com in relation to this project!

Julie Moore: How do Engineers say that? Encouraging academic independence in ELT (Session 1)

This is my first academic English session for the conference! I had intended to attend more, but as I have mentioned in previous posts, the best-laid plans of mice, men and conference participants… It is also the first talk of the day for the ESP SIG Day. We are shown the timetable and I realise I may  be back in this room again after the coffee break! That’ll save getting lost… 😉 Apparently they are also being recorded…

How do Engineers say that? Encouraging academic independence in ELT

Julie starts with thank-you’s and asking the audience to complete the feedback form at the end, and introduces herself.

She is going to talk to us about dealing with mixed-discipline classes and how to encourages students to be more independent. She asked us who are practising EAP teachers and most hands went up except mine – yet! She also asked about management roles and materials developers. Still not me… 😉 She acknowledges that we all want to get different things out of the day. (For me? to learn more about EAP!) She compares us to a mixed-discipline EAP class – going on to different things, with different objectives. The teacher/presenter has to (try to) keep all happy.

She shows us a wordle (word cloud) of the different subject areas of students on her courses. Some are more heavily represented than others, but there is a huge range. The course coordinator often doesn’t know till the last minute who will turn up. Institutional constraints mean they can’t be split up but must be taught in the same class, all with different needs, wanting to learn different things.

Principle no 1:

Identify key, transferable academic principles, features, skills and language: things that will be useful in any discipline. What will be useful to all of my students?

Principle no 2:

Give the students a clear rationale: explain to the students why you have chosen these things and why they are useful. This is a step that often gets missed out but is very important, as students may  not see the relevance. Materials writers should make it clear to teachers and students, teachers to their students.

Principle no 3:

Encourage students to apply general classroom ideas to their own discipline via independent study. We will see an example of how we can encourage students to do this.

E.g. 1 OUP Advanced writing module: A sequence of tasks leading to a writing task

Looking at the task of writing a critical response. Traditionally we teach essays, and essays do come up across discipline, but less common in hard sciences, but the other genre that occurs across disciplines is a critical response/critique/review. When Julie thinks of a critique she thinks of English literature, but students can critique all kinds of things, especially at advanced levels.

This activity presents students with examples (five in the book, three shown on screen), short examples of critique writing from different disciplines. Students asked to think about which discipline they are studying, topics discussed and stances taken. Within the examples, some of the language is in bold.

The first example is a science-y kind of subject. The review is a bit critical, a bit supportive – “significant uses”  but them it expresses limitations “not entirely consistent”: so this is getting students to think about how we evaluate.

So students start to see here that this style of writing occurs across disciplines. This is the very first task. You are showing them upfront that this something that all disciplines need to do. All the examples won’t be directly relevant to the student, but they can see the relevance of the activity. So this is an example of engaging the students upfront.

Identifying skills and features

Julie shows us a lesson sequence, with task headings that are focused on transferable features/skills rather than topics. This draws out skills and language, and how to use abstracts for writing and research. This may be from looking at examples not related to their discipline but then the final task is an independent research project where they are encouraged to find examples related to their discipline and focus on those abstracts. Which features studied in the lesson occur in the abstract and identify the language for describing aims.

But will they really do it? Maybe some of the conscientious ones. But the others won’t bother. Julie says that the important thing is to require students to report back. “Next class bring back what you have found, so you can report back” – that stops it being a throwaway task. (This fits right in with my thoughts/feelings/approaches re autonomy!) 

In a class of 14 students in Julie’s class, there were a total of 23 abstracts, ranging from law, business, electronic engineering, film studies, TESOL – quite a range. What they found was 12 used personal pronouns “I” and “We” – interesting as we often tell students not be personal but in this context, talking about aims, it IS common: important for reading and writing as well. 10 examples of reference to the text itself – “this article” and “this paper”. They also found some verbs for describing aims, some overlapping with what had been discussed in the above sequence from OUP and some new. E.g. examine, discuss, analyse etc

It got the students thinking about similarities and differences between theirs and other disciplines. With all these tasks, the discussion is more important than anything else, giving students time to explore their own discipline in relation to others, giving them the skills to start doing this themselves: transferable skills, helping them to move towards a more autonomous position. You help them develop the skills to explore and analyse for themselves.

(I love this!! So inline with my beliefs!)  

Five minutes for questions: (paraphrased…)

Q Are your students mostly post-graduate students? A lot of my students probably wouldn’t have that sense of their own discipline. 

A: The book we were working on was for Advanced level, so aimed more at post-grad students. You could do it a little bit. One of the reasons we focused on abstracts is that they are freely available, so even if they aren’t attached to a uni yet and don’t have access, then it’s still possible for them to start to explore a little bit. They can still explore texts from their own area.

Q: Presumably you as the teacher could bring in a pile of abstracts to help them, as they may not have the skills to find these themselves. 

A: Yes, you could absolutely.

Q: I was just reflecting on what you were saying about throw-away tasks – I think I’m guilty of this – I think a lot of that comes from nervousness thinking that we need to know about all the disciplines. I’d get nervous that I’d get all these abstracts back the next time and none of them would fit together etc. Any advice for setting up that second task?

A: I think for me it’s just about having confidence in what you do know and being perfectly happy to admit what you don’t know. E.g. this law student who brought in bizarre abstracts that I didn’t understand because of the legal language. All I could say to him was “that’s interesting” but other law students had brought more conventional ones and we explored the reason behind the differences and we came to the conclusion that it was a specific journal with a specific style. Release control, not worry too much and be able to admit that you don’t know. I don’t think you always have to have an answer. You just deal with the things you can deal with.

Audience member comment: Students enjoy explaining at a higher level what they know to students from a different background, when you put them in groups to discuss.

Students are a wonderful resource!

 

 

IATEFL 2014: Bridging the gap between materials and the English-speaking environment

My very first IATEFL talk!

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Date: Thursday 3rd April 2014

Time: 17.45-18.15

After introducing myself and my three invisible hats (teacher of English, learner of language/teaching, ex-student of the Leeds Met M.A. ELT/Delta – the origin of the ideas on which this talk was based), I provided the following talk outline:

  • Over to you! (A few questions…)
  • Student-led interviews (benefits and issues)
  • My materials
  • Using the framework

Attendees then discussed the following questions:

  • What context do you teach in?
  • What materials do you use?

Which led to these:

  • Do the materials exploit the rich resources of language outside the classroom?
  • Do the materials encourage students to exploit it?
  • Do materials scaffold students to exploit it?

Following this discussion, I revealed two quotes by Tomlinson (2008, 2013):

“None of the books seem to really help learners to make use of the English which is in the out of school environment everywhere.” (Tomlinson, 2008)

“Little[No] attempt is made to encourage the learners to make use of English in their actual or virtual environments outside the classroom.” (Tomlinson, 2013)

One way in which language schools try to encourage learners to engage with the language in the out-of-classroom environment in English-speaking places is to send learners out to interview members of the public. I asked attendees to consider the benefits and potential issues with this activity, before providing some of my own:

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The question of how to guide learners across the murky waters of the potential issues to reap the possible benefits is where my materials come in. The next part of the talk discussed the influences that informed the development of my materials:

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And then revealed the basic framework I’d created using Task-Based Learning (Ellis, 2003; Willis and Willis, 2007), Language Awareness Approach (Svalberg, 2007) and the Intercultural Approach (Corbett, 2003):

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Of course this bare frame doesn’t demonstrate how those theories were woven in, and does give rise to possible questions/issues. So at this point I predicted some possible questions that might have been forming in the audience’s mind:

But…

  • Won’t they get bored?
  • Is it a good use of so much time?
  • What about linguistic development?
  • Isn’t it a cop out? Mucking about instead of learning language?

And then explored how I used the approaches I’d chosen, to address these issues and to maximise learning and learner engagement, and how I’d addressed issues that critics have raised with regards to the theories. The result was this framework:

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(F.L. stands for functional language and S.E. stands for students’ experiences.)

 

The final part of the talk dealt with using this framework and exemplified this with a task from my own materials. The initial steps of using the framework have much in common with a genre-based approach:

  • Think about how you want your ss. to use language
  • Find texts produced in that genre/those genres. (Or make your own with your colleagues!)
  • Identify common generic features (language, structure, organisation, appearance etc)

To this I add:

  • Pinpoint interesting/engaging non-linguistic outcomes.
  • Consider scaffolding.
  • Pick out linguistic and cultural dynamism.
  • Build in reflection.

Obviously the first bullet point of part 2 of the list is in keeping with TBL tenets. The second refers to how the tasks are going to feed into each other, how the activities within each task are going to feed into each other and how the whole is going to enable learners to be able to do something by the end of it. The third is in keeping with the Intercultural Approach and the Language Awareness approach. The final bullet point, opportunities for reflection, is crucial to all three approaches as well as being the key to turning experiences into learning, and connecting learning to experiences.

To exemplify this, I used the third task of my materials:

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I discussed how content generated by students in the second task fed into the pre-task activity, in which students collaborate and exchange information, in preparation for the main task of this third task. The main task requires learners to synthesise the information they’ve collected between them, and use it as the basis for their question preparation. They are then helped to analyse  these questions by considering cultural and pragmatic issues, before moving on in the post-task activities to engaging with input in the form of a real interview, which leads to language focus and speaking skills development. Throughout the task, learners are encouraged to reflect and connect their own experiences and knowledge with what they are learning, and to identify similarities and differences between their own culture, other learners’ cultures and the target language culture.

Being a twenty minute talk (plus ten minutes for questions), I had to bring it to an end pretty swiftly by this point, by thanking International House, Palermo, for allowing me to attend IATEFL 2014, and the Leeds Met M.A. ELT department (and especially Heather Buchanan, who was my supervisor for the dissertation project in which I made these materials) for all the guidance and support that I was given in my learning and in realising my ideas, because without the course I most definitely wouldn’t have been giving this talk today. And the final thank you, of course, to everybody who attended!

Here is a list of references for my talk:

Svalberg, A. (2007) Language Awareness and Language Learning in Language Teaching vol. 40/4. Cambridge Journals

Moran, P. (2001) Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice Heinle and Heinle. Canada

Murray, N. (2012)  English as a lingua franca and the development of pragmatic competence in ELT Journal Volume 66/3 Oxford University Press

Corbett, J. (2003) An Intercultural Approach to Language Teaching Multilingual Matters. Clevedon

Ellis, R. (2003) Task-based Language Learning and Teaching Oxford University Press Oxford.

Willis D. and Willis J. (2007) Doing Task-based Teaching Oxford University Press, Oxford

Tomlinson, B. (2008) English Language Learning Materials: A Critical Review Continuum London

Tomlinson, B. and Masuhara, H. (2013) Survey Review: Adult course books in ELT Journal Volume 67/2. Oxford University Press Oxford

MATSDA, here I come!

I’m delighted to have had my speaker proposal accepted for the MATSDA (Materials Development Association) 2 day conference on the last weekend  (28th/29th) in June, this year. The theme of the conference is Second Language Acquisition and Materials Development.

This is the abstract that I proposed:

What about the other 165 hours a week? Developing materials that scaffold and encourage out-of-class language acquisition, through their use as classroom tools.

Is this title a contradiction in terms? Perhaps not: the average language learner spends around 2-3 hours a week in the classroom, implying that for acquisition to take place, exposure to the target language shouldn’t be limited to classroom confines. Indeed, learner autonomy is somewhat of a buzzword in ELT – we recognise the inadequacy of classroom time with regards to acquisition, as well as the issue of syllabus structure often being at odds with learner ‘readiness’ to acquire, meaning that what learners do outside class time becomes of the utmost importance. However, there is often a gap between what we expect our learners to do outside the classroom and how we help them to do it. This talk looks at ways of helping learners harness the target language in their environment, real and/or virtual, effectively, and the role that learning materials, and their use in the classroom as well as beyond it, can play in scaffolding the process, in addition to stimulating and maintaining motivation, curiosity and the desire to acquire.

Last year, MATSDA was great fun – a friendly atmosphere full of banter and loads of interesting ideas to assimilate. I’m sure this year will be no different. I hope to see some of you there. For those who can’t make it, the usual write-up and references will follow – linked to on my Presentations page.

🙂

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

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

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

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

Advanced learners:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upper-intermediate learners

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

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

Outcomes: 

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

What I have learnt from both of these experiences?

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

Conclusion:

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