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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, what about my progress?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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


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


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

Stay tuned… 😉


Learning Contracts and Language Learning (part 3): another month of outcomes

On the 4th June this year, a day after I arrived back in the UK from la bella Sicilia, I considered the potential utility of learning contracts and then proceeded to make myself one, with the vague goal of maintaining my Italian while in a non-Italian-speaking environment. A month later, on the 4th July, I posted my first update. Time has done that speeding by thing again, and the day has come, 4th August, for update number 2!

The main theme of update number 1 was discovery. I had discovered how the activities I do link in with one another, I learnt more about various language learning activities e.g. dictations, I realised how difficult in some ways, and how easy in other ways, it is to stick to a learning contract. In my post, I explored all these discoveries and how I could apply them in my teaching. Since then, I’ve also written blog posts about it, for example one about graded readers and one about text-mining, as well as the one on dictations which I had already produced by the time of my last update.

This month, my main theme is development. Both linguistic development and contract development (albeit only mentally – I haven’t physically made any changes to my contract but mentally I have added a few activities).

Have I kept to my contract?

Yes! I haven’t missed a single day. NB: this does not mean I have heaps of spare time. (Il da fare non manca mai, davvero!) As well as working full time, I’ve also visited people overnight in other towns, graduated and in so doing spent time with the family, prepared for an online conference and so the list goes on. It just means I’m practising what I preached to my learners for the whole of last academic year: Anything is better than nothing. Use the time you do have rather than waiting for time you will never have. Be it listening to ten minutes of audiobook over breakfast, watching 20mins of a film over dinner, doing a few rounds of Quizlet on the bus on the way into town when going to the supermarket, or a few go’s of Scrabble, the ten and twenty minutes grabbed here and there all add up. On any given day, I manage to do a variety of activities.

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

A reminder of my learning contract!

What has changed?

In my last post, I explained that I tended to do more than the contract stipulates, as the contract stipulates minimums. In addition to what’s listed, I now:

  • regularly use an app. for learning verb conjugations. Some things just need be memorised and verb-endings are one of them! The app is a fun way of drilling my verbs. It gives me a verb and tells me how I should conjugate it. E.g. riuscire, third person singular, present subjunctive. If I get it right, I get a green “correct” stamp. If I get it wrong, I get a red “incorrect” stamp and the correction. I’ve noticed that sometimes I just don’t pay enough attention. It asks me for 3rd person plural present subjunctive and I gaily key in 3rd person singular conditional or something. (It often seems to be subjunctive and conditional that I mix up in this way! Am improving though...)The app records running statistics, e.g. how many verbs I’ve got right out of the total number of verbs I’ve attempted (yep, that’s right 608 so far!), and then also breaks that down into different verb types (-are, -ire, -ere; regular/irregular, tenses). I’ve now got the total overall percentage to 62%. I have to admit, breaking into the 60’s was very exciting after spending rather a while languishing in the high 50’s!

    When I first downloaded the complete app (at a whopping £1.69), I got over-excited and ticked all the different tenses. Then I realised that wasn’t going to work and got rid of the absolute past and subjunctive pluperfect (less urgent to learn!!) amongst others. Hence the 2/5 statistic for it! Further down the list (not seen in this pic) can be found conditionals and subjunctives…  I’m a lot more rubbish at past participles than I had realised before using this app. I’m not too bad at imperfect, and obviously present is easiest…

Yay! 62%!

Yay! 62%!

  • regularly play scrabble – both the real live version (minus the board with my own special rules and scoring!) and the app version. I enjoy this, I drill myself stupid trying to think of all the words I know and working out which I can make with my letters!


    Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

    Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

  • have broken down “extensive listening” into smaller components. In any given day, I aim to listen to some audiobook, watch some news and watch some of a DVD. I’ve become more aware of the value of variety and push myself to ensure I get it! I’ve also downloaded a free RAI app, to get 24hr news-on-tap in Italian:
RAI: News on tap!

RAI: News on tap!

  • have broken down “extensive reading” into smaller components. In any given day I try to read some authentic Italian i.e. original language Italian book as well as all the translations of more familiar things that I’m chowing my way through. Again, for the sake of variety. But also because I think it’s important to experience original language texts.
  • play Storyonics in Italian! 🙂 Storyonics is a storytelling card game. There is a pack of cards, each of which has 4 pictures on it. You pick a card and incorporate either all the pictures, or the picture ringed by the colour you’ve chosen, into your story. This morning I worked my way through the purple-ringed pictures and had lots of fun! I also recorded myself doing so. This is so that over time I can make comparisons between earlier and later recordings, and also go back and try to correct any errors I might notice.


  • make fewer new sets on Quizlet but on the other hand I have been adding to existent sets. I now have 7 sets on Quizlet. What I also now find useful is gathering examples related to a language point I’ve struggled with e.g. personal pronouns and learning those. The idea is that if I have learnt a few correct examples, when I’m not sure, I can mentally compare between what I’m trying to say and the examples and try to work out if I’ve got it right or not. So far so good!
My Quizlet sets!

My Quizlet sets!

  • have started doing my weekly reflections in Italian! I thought I had better since I always expect my learners to reflect in English…!  I write a reflection once a week, looking back over the week and what I’ve achieved, what I’ve noticed etc. I was doing them in English, of course, but two weeks ago I did my first one in Italian. I’ve done one more since and plan to continue with this.
  • have become vegan and done most of my learning about that in Italian – using Italian websites, watching documentaries in Italian, cooking recipes that are in Italian… E.g this frittata:
Vegan cooking in Italian!

Vegan cooking in Italian!

What progress have I made?


  • My listening is heaps better than it was. I can understand most of what I listen to, without exaggeration. Recently I particularly enjoyed watching Life is Beautiful in original Italian with no subtitles and being able to understand most of it. I’m also currently working my through a 7ish hour audiobook of The Secret Garden in Italian (done 4hrs15mins so far!), which I’m loving. I find the news the hardest in terms of understanding, I probably only understand about 80% of it. Il Giardino Segreto, I understand about 90%. My DVDs also about 90%. I miss the odd word, essentially. I put this down to a combination of working on decoding skills through intensive listening activities such as dictations, using my graded reader as a listening activity etc. and lots of extensive listening. I did a listening test on an Italian learning website. I managed 93% on the advanced test. Not saying it was an especially valid test, and I don’t think I am an advanced listener by any means, but it still made me feel rather chuffed! 🙂 I was also chuffed to do the second part of the gatto e topo intermediate dictation recently, as in part 1 I got about 27 mistakes, whereas in part 2 I only had 9 mistakes. I don’t really know how good I am in the great scheme of things, but I do know I’ve improved substantially, so I’m satisfied!
Il giardino segreto!

Il giardino segreto!

  • I can write at greater length, expressing myself more easily and quickly. I now have 15 posts on my little Italian learning blog.
  • When recording myself speaking, I notice that I hesitate less than I used to now. I.e. I have longer runs of fluid speech before pausing for thought. Pauses are becoming more in line with thought groups rather than language lack. There are still some of the latter, naturally, but fewer than there were.
  • My productive vocabulary continues to grow. Interplay between Quizlet, my extensive reading/listening and chats on Facebook has helped in this department. Text-mining has become a regular feature of my learning.
  • I’m a lot more organised than I was in the first month. I know exactly what activities I want to do when, depending on what time I have available. I’ve got my resources organised so that I can maximise on any train journeys. I’ve even organised my iPad:
All organised!

All organised!

  • I can think in Italian rather than thinking in English and translating into Italian. Not all the time, but I have enough language that I’m comfortable doing to be able to do it a fair bit.
  • Still getting to grips with the magnetic poetry (which was on the to-do list for I made in my last post, for this month!), but I can report that I have found a new way of using it, which involves choosing 5 or 6 words at random, with my eyes closed, then using those as the basis for production (a story, a poem, whatever).

What have I learnt about language learning?

  • Sometimes success can be demotivating!! Counterintuitive but true. One of those ‘things clicking into place and an improvement jump’ moments seemed to be followed by ‘mmmm can’t be bothered to study…‘ (I just wanted to read and listen extensively instead!) But I got back on track pretty quickly, thanks to my contract, so that was alright. So perhaps another role they can play, then, is in ensuring that you don’t get complacent!
  • Variety really is the spice of life. My success in this learning malarkey is, I believe, largely down to the variety of activities that I do on a regular basis. Lots of input, lots of output, varied use of language.
  • Listening skills can be developed autonomously if you combine work on decoding skills with extensive listening. I have lots of ideas for active autonomous listening that I look forward to passing on to my students.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition! It really does help for some things. Apps like Quizlet and my conjugations app make it fairly palatable too.
  • Being organised helps! In the first month I lost a few days due to lack of it. This month, no.
  • Perseverance is key: doing a variety of activities for a few days and then kicking back and relaxing the rest of the time won’t make much difference. Doing a variety of activities every day for a month, and nearly every day for two months, really does!
  • Having somebody to talk to in the language (even if by “talk to” we mean on Facebook messenger!) really helps. Having that opportunity to use the language and get feedback (in terms of how the conversation goes, not necessarily error correction, though I enjoy that too when it arises!).
  • Speaking skills can be developed autonomously. Using voice-recording tools, telling stories doing storyonics, anything that encourages language production contributes positively, I think. Of course there is nothing like speaking to another human being and generally learners (who aren’t on holiday) do at least get that opportunity on a regular basis. Outside class-time, the activities alluded to above can also be useful.
  • For every little moment where you notice improvement, there a hundred where it seems like it’s never going to happen and you have to push through all of them!  Remembering those occasional ‘break-through’ moments, and knowing that the only way to get one again is to keep working, and sticking to the damn contract, are all useful in these circumstances.

What comes next?

  • Work, work and more work! I have under two months before I will be back in Sicily. I have to make the most of that time. My major motivation has become that I want to go back to Palermo and be able to talk with the Italians I know in Italian. And I want to be able to do so without making an utter d*** of myself in the process! I know I’ll make mistakes and I’ll continue to have moments where my tongue gets in knots and I feel like I’m back at A1 level again, but if they can become fewer and further between, those moments, then so much the better!
  • I want to sort out my pronouns, my prepositions and my conjugations. I want that percentage on my conjugation app to get up to 80% by the end of my next month. Pronouns I’m beginning to get my head around but need to spend more time looking at. On the other hand, I think prepositions will always be a work in progress…
  • I want to be able to understand more of the news bulletins that I watch. I want to be able to understand as much of the news as I do of other things that I watch/listen to. So that means more intensive listening work, as well as continuing to listen extensively.
  • I want to continue to develop my productive vocabulary. The current method (extensive reading/listening, FB chats, text mining, Quizlet), is working, so I will stick with it, but more so!
  • When I get back to Palermo, I want to apply everything I’ve learnt about learning autonomously to my learner autonomy projects and help my learners benefit from it all.

As for my research questions:

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 19.43.10

A reminder of my ‘research questions’

  • So far, the LC has helped keep me motivated for two months. Obviously this still doesn’t yet count as “a longer period”, so the jury is still out!
  • For two months, yes. Plus, plus! It’s made a big difference so far, in terms of making me do a variety of activities and discover links between them, then add to the variety according to what I’ve learnt. I think they are a powerful autonomous learning tool.

Let me know if you use learning contracts with your learners – I’d love to hear about it! In turn, once I’m back in Sicilia, and apply everything I’ve learnt in my quest to help my learners become more autonomous, I’ll report back from time to time too. 

As for my own learning, the next report is due on the 4th September. As I finish my full-time summer job on the 5th, I rather suspect that there will be a slight (day or two!) delay for that one…!