IELTS swap-shop at the ELTC

IELTS! image taken from en.wikipedia.org via google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification

There are a number of us teaching IELTS afternoon classes at the ELTC this term, so I thought it would be a good idea for us to share ideas to use in IELTS classes. With the help of the TD team at the ELTC, this was duly organised and took place on Wednesday 11th October. I kicked off by sharing a couple of my go-to activities and then everybody else followed suit.

I also promised to provide a written record of the workshop, for everybody to use as reference. Therefore, this post is a write-up of all the ideas that emerged, both for my colleagues to refer back to and for anyone else out there blessed with IELTS classes to dip into, divided up by skill to make it more user friendly.

Writing

1.

I’ll start with mine! Nothing spectacular but it worked well with my group…

Aim:

To encourage students to look at their feedback carefully rather than burying it in their bags never to be seen again. To create the need for students to ask when they don’t understand an element of the feedback (rather than ignoring it), hopefully rendering future feedback, presented similarly, more useful.

Procedure:

After writing feedback on a set of Part 1 or Part 2s, as part of the marking process, T makes a checklist based on common errors the students have made. Save this for later.

In class, group students in 3s or 4s, hand out the pieces of writing and have them look at their feedback. They should use the feedback to make a group checklist of things to remember next time they do a similar piece of writing. (To do this successfully, they need to understand their feedback. T monitors and provides further explanation when needed.) When students have finished, regroup them so that each new group contains one student from each of the previous groups. They should compare their checklists and add any extra items. T hands out the pre-prepared checklist for students to compare with their own (or in my case, as marking time was short and I hadn’t quite got round to typing up the checklist, I put it on Google classroom the next morning for the students to access at home!).

2.

Aim:

Familiarise students with the writing marking criteria and help them become better aware of their strengths and weaknesses in relation to these.

Procedure:

Give students a handout with some sample feedback comments together with the marking criteria headings (see example below). In groups, students look at the sample comments and decide together which of the criteria they affect.

They can then look at a piece of writing you have given them feedback on and categorise your comments in a similar way. In doing this, they can see which criteria they have most/least positive/negative feedback within and thereby see where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

3.

Aim:

Encourage students to focus on paragraph construction/organisation.

Procedure:

Put students in groups and give them a part 2 question to brainstorm ideas for. Give each person in the group a topic sentence for a possible paragraph for that essay question. They add the next sentence and pass it on. This continues for a few sentences until the paragraph is complete. In order to add their sentence, the students have to read the paragraph carefully and understand where it is going. They will also have to look at the language used carefully, in order to use rich lexical chains rather than repeating a particular word over and over across sentences.

Once the activity is finished, stick the paragraphs up around the room then get students to walk round in pairs to look at and analyse them. (You can give them/elicit a checklist of things to look for). On the basis of this, they decide which paragraph is best and why. You could then ask them to look at a paragraph of their own from a previously marked piece of writing and analyse it in a similar fashion.

4.

Aim: 

Get students using chart/graph language for part 1 and give students practice in understanding what is happening in such visuals.

Procedure:

Students draw a chart or graph but don’t label it. T redistributes the charts so that each student has another student’s chart or graph. They they then have to analyse it, decide what is going on and create the labels. The charts/graphs are redistributed again and this time students have to pick out 3 features and write about them in part 1 fashion. Once finished, the charts/graphs and accompanying paragraphs can be stuck on the wall for students to walk round, analyse (elicit what criteria they should use first, of course) and rank.

Speaking

For speaking, I brought along a print out of my Part 2 Speaking Game , which aims to encourage students to speak for a full two minutes, and my colleagues brought the following:

1. 

Aim:

Develop fluency and use of vocabulary (using the game “Just a minute”)

Procedure: 

Give the students this handout/similar to familiarise students with the game and elicit the rules:

Once they have understood the goal and rules, brainstorm a list of IELTS-style topics. The students then use these to play “Just a minute”. The repetition factor applies only to content words/ideas.

Variation:

Rather than having students interrupt the speaker for the repetition/hesitation, the speaker is encouraged to speak for a minute uninterrupted and, at the end of the game, the other two students in the group score him/her based on how much/little repetition/hesitation there was.

2. 

Aim:

Work on expanding responses to IELTS speaking questions

Procedure:

Brainstorm and write on the board as many IELTS topics as your class can think of between them. Students then mingle, find a partner and ask that partner a question about one of the topics on the board. The response should be well-developed but the student who asked the question should also ask follow-up questions to encourage further expansion. Before they start, tell students that they will have to report back a few interesting things they find out, to encourage them to listen carefully too. You might also like to model expansion, to give students a clear target. T monitors and does delayed feedback on the end, commenting on expansion, use of vocabulary etc not just grammatical errors.

3.

Aim:

Develop fluency in speaking

Procedure:

Prepare sets of cards, with one IELTS speaking topic per card. Students pick a card and have to speak about the topic for a minute. Then next time, they have to speak for a minute and a half. Then two minutes. This helps them to build up the length of time they can speak for. The topics can be broad e.g. “holidays” or you can make it harder by making the topic more specific or restricting the time frame.

4.

Aim:

Work on planning/preparation for speaking part 2

Procedure: 

For homework, students choose an image that relates in some way to whichever topic you have been looking at in class. They should also prepare some notes that will help them speak about that image. Restrict the size of the paper they can use, to something of the size that they will get for an IELTS part 2 speaking exam task. In class, everybody uploads their pictures to Google classroom, in order to project them for everybody to see, and then students take it in turns to stand up at the front of the class, and use their notes to speak about the image.

I then made the suggestion that students organise their speaking part 2 note paper as follows:

The idea is that in the pressure of the moment, when they glance down at their notes while speaking, it will be easier for them to keep track of whether they  have spoken about all the required elements. Credit to my ex-DOS Jonny Ingham, an IELTS speaking examiner,  from whom I got this idea while teaching IELTS at IHPA! He said the students who use the note-making time effectively always out-perform those who don’t, as the response tends to be better organised and clearer.)

Reading/Listening/Vocabulary

1.

Aim:

Develop the skill of matching paragraphs to headings.

Procedure:

Give each pair of students one paragraph between 2 from an IELTS reading text. (Depending on how big your class is and how many paragraphs the text has, you may have more than one pair with the same paragraph. This doesn’t matter.) Students look at their paragraph, discuss it together, and write down a few key words that sum it up. Only once they have done this do you then distribute a list of the headings, one of which belongs to their paragraph. Using their key words, and looking again at their paragraph, they decide which heading is theirs. They must agree and be able to prove their answer to the class i.e. be able to explain how the heading corresponds with the content/vocabulary of their paragraph.

Variation:

Instead of giving students a paragraph, give out just the topic sentences of each of the paragraphs and the list of headings. Again, they must work together and decide which heading goes with the topic sentence they have by noticing how the words in the topic sentence correspond (positively or negatively) to the words in the headings.

2. 

Aim: 

Encourage students to identify the wrong answers in a reading or listening, as a way to help them identify the right answer.

Procedure:

Students work together to look at a multiple choice question/it’s possible answers and see which wrong answers they can identify by using the text. “It can’t be c) because it says x while in the text it says y” With listening, this can be done whole class by (re)playing short sections of text in order for students to focus on one question at a time.

Variation: Before playing a listening text, have students look at the questions/possible answers and have them discuss what they would expect to hear if each of the choices were the correct answer. They should think about different ways of expressing the answers.

3.

Aim:

Expand students’ vocabulary

Procedure:

Every time you use a text in class, follow up reading skills work by getting students to call out any words they found difficult and boarding them. They then need to do some word work – find synonyms and opposites, word families, useful expressions etc. Get them to keep a notebook where they can group vocabulary by topic.

Variation:

After looking at a text, tell students that they need to know all the vocabulary in it as you will test them on a random selection of words from it in the next lesson. If they don’t know any words in it, they will need to go away, find out what the words mean and learn them.

4. 

Aim: 

Develop students’ awareness of collocation

Procedure:

Before a listening lesson, look at the transcript of the listening text and pick out up to eight good collocations (you don’t want to overdo it!). After students have done the listening exercises that go with the text, dictate the first half of each collocation for students to write down. Play the listening again and students should listen in order to write down the second half of each collocation. Once they have got them all, get students to use the collocations by making sentences/asking and answering questions etc. Draw attention to any cases where they should be avoided in writing (e.g. if they are too informal).

Resource recommendations

Two particular books were mentioned as go-to books:

1. 

IELTS Resource Pack 

Has lots of useful speaking (also a good resource simply of [almost] endless speaking topics if you are at a loss) and lots writing activities that encourage interaction.

I would have mentioned it if one of my colleagues hadn’t. One of my favourite activities involves students looking at two part 2 essays, both of which contain a mixture of good and bad sentences, and identifying which are the good so that they finish with one good part 2 essay. There are also some good part 1 writing activities.

2.

IELTS Testbuilder

This has good explanations for reading texts regarding why certain answers are wrong, why the correct answers are correct etc.

Final tips…

1.

With the map questions in listening, take advantage of the box sizes – a big square won’t be a little cafe, a tiny square won’t be a shopping centre etc.

2.

Don’t forget task repetition: using speed dating/speaking ladders can facilitate task repetition within speaking activities, which will have a positive effect on fluency and complexity.

3. 

I will cheekily add: Don’t forget my Useful links for IELTS post for a wealth of IELTS-related links, and my Top 10 resources for teaching IELTS  might be of interest too.

I hope this post is useful to some of you. Do any of you have any go-to activities or resources for IELTS? If yes, please do share them by using the comments box below this post.  🙂 

(To my colleagues: if I have missed anything or got anything wrong, please let me know and I’ll make changes accordingly. Scribbling things down and then subsequently trying to decipher them may not be the most reliable method but it was all I had!)

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Valentine’s Day Lesson Idea/plan + materials

For once in my life, I decided to break with tradition and actually do a Valentine’s Day lesson. Turned out to be quite good fun with my Upper Intermediate teens during their last lesson before Valentine’s Day…

Image from wikicommons.org licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Image from wikicommons.org licensed for commercial reuse with modification

This lesson includes a prediction quiz, a video clip, a short philosophical reading, a discussion and some project work. Materials used are all linked to at the end of this post.

  • Brief lead-in: Show slide with a Valentine’s Day picture and a picture of marmite. Ask students what these have in common. (Love it or hate it…) Which camp are they in? Why? (NB: you may want to show a quick clip of a marmite advertisement – I would if I did this lesson again! Unless students are familiar with marmite…)
  • Prediction quiz: In pairs/small groups, students complete the quiz about Valentine’s Day with their predictions.
  • Video clip: Students watch/listen and check their predictions, noting correct answers where necessary.
Click on this picture to be taken to the video clip!

Click on this picture to be taken to the video clip!

  • Check: Students check what they understood in pairs/small groups.
  • Discuss: Students discuss if they are surprised by any of the statistics and why/why not.
  • Discuss: In new groupings, students discuss the two philosophical questions that lead in to the reading.
  • Read: Students read the short text and compare the writer’s views with their ideas from the discussion.
  • Discuss: Students discuss the gist and opinion questions at the end of the text.
  • Produce: Having learnt all about Valentine’s Day, the students, as campaigners, now create their own holiday. (Who is it in honour of? Why? How is it celebrated? Encourage them to make it as zany as possible. Encourage them to incorporate the statistical language from the video clip [in the case of my teens, this recycles the statistical language they met last term]). Students should present their holiday in a poster (for my students I prompted them to use the persuasive language we’d looked at in a previous lesson, so some more review), to convince the government to give everybody a national holiday for it. I also warned them that I (the government) would be asking a few questions following the presentation, which they duly prepared for.

My teens got really in to the final production stage, getting into role as petitioners for their holiday, and they even took a photo of their finished poster afterwards! 🙂

Here are the materials I used:

And here is the holiday that won!

The 'Government' says, "Yes, please!" ;-)

The ‘Government’ says, “Yes, please!” 😉

If you use this lesson with your classes, I hope  you enjoy it! Let me know how it goes by posting in the comments… 🙂

Teaching Academic Listening (and transferral to the General English classroom!)

This summer, I worked on a pre-sessional course for the very first time…

At Sheffield University, as well as teaching your tutor group writing skills and guiding them through the process of producing an extended written project, each teacher is responsible for teaching one of the other skills (reading, speaking or listening) to their own and a further two groups. For me, that skill was listening, 8 weeks of academic listening. And it was really interesting!

In this post, I’m going to share some of what I’ve done with my students and some of what I’ve learnt in the process. I also want to reflect on what might be transferable back to the general English classroom at International House, Palermo – rather imminently! (This post has been a few weeks in the pipelines!)

The 8 week listening thread of the pre-sessional course at Sheffield University was based on OUP EAP upper intermediate/B2 (de Chazal & McCarter, 2012) The listening skills development in this course book, to me, seems very strongly rooted in strategy development: students are equipped with strategies to use in order to help themselves listen more effectively to academic texts e.g lectures. Generic elements and functional language are teased out and students’ awareness raised, combined with scaffolded practice opportunities. This scaffolding is evident within units and across the book as a whole, where a gradual decrease can be identified, as students are expected to listen increasingly more independently.

This in mind, was all I had to do turn up and open to page x? Possibly not! In any case, having read a lot about teaching listening (e.g.Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action  Vandergrift and Goh 2012), much of which seemed applicable to academic listening, and adding to this what I had gleaned from the induction week as well as the relevant chapter in EAP Essentials (Alexander, Argent and Spencer, 2008), I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the listening skills thread:

  1. Include (systematically, with gradually decreasing scaffolding) review activities at the start of the class and reflective activities at the end. (3hr lessons lend themselves to this approach beautifully!)
  2. Avoid the scenario of students meeting a new strategy and then consigning it to the dusty depths of a folder, never to be used again.
  3. Enable students to track their progress/development and recognise an accumulation of strategies being at their disposal. Not only this but also encourage *regular use* of them.
  4. Linked to all of the above, help the students become more independent listeners.

How did I do this?

  • Long-term planning

I made a hand-out to accompany each class, based on the activities in the course-book. Each handout guided the learners through the lesson from reflection to main content to review, also highlighting any new strategies introduced, and I made several weeks’ worth in advance. The main reason for this was time-management, trying to free up time for intensive marking periods and planned absences (graduation, wedding). However, I noticed that it really helped the coherence, especially as I had Vandergrift and Goh (2012) in mind, in terms of systematically reducing scaffolding and guiding learners towards independence in planning, monitoring and evaluating their strategy use. There was clear progression, explicit progression, from one class to the next.

Result: 

Increased coherence, making the content more useful for students.

I had the ss fill in a feedback form at the end of the class - 4 questions, no numbers, to encourage reflection  (for them) and to gain an insight into their thoughts (for me).

I had the ss fill in a feedback form at the end of the class – 4 questions, no numbers, to encourage reflection (for them) and to gain an insight into their thoughts (for me).

Out of 36 responses, one was withholding judgement until he/she knew whether he/she had passed the USEPT exam (the university entrance proficiency test), one thought it was partly useful but felt we talked too much, and the rest were “yes”‘s.

Transferability: 

It’s different in a General English environment, as courses tend to be organised around grammar structures. However, what I want to try and do this year at IH Palermo is help students see how they are building on what they have learnt and be more systematic in how I approach my lessons in terms of review and reflection. Of course, being 1hr20 minute lessons rather than 3hr lessons limits the amount of time available for this. Nevertheless, working with the time available, a similar ratio could usefully be applied.

  • Strategy tables

Strategy tables kept and updated by the students over the duration of the course.

Strategy tables kept and updated by the students over the duration of the course.

I made these between week 2 and week three of the course, following the blank stares that emerged in the initial review section of week 2. The idea was to help students build up a reference/resource, where at a glance they can see what strategies they have learnt and how to use them. This means they should be more likely to use them independently, rather than systematically forget about them, as new strategies are encountered. I completed the first strategy as an example, gave the students a little bit of time at the end of the class in week three to start updating them (so as to ensure they knew what they were doing) and then sent them off under instructions to bring their tables up to date. An important thing that emerged from this was the fact that it was not an instant success. The following week, not all students had updated their tables. However, by bringing it back into the classroom each week at the beginning of the lesson (students would compare their tables), an expectation of autonomy was created. In due course, all the students did live up to that expectation. This coincides with the recognition of the value of what they are doing and the behaviour becomes truly independent rather than purely response to expectation.

Result: 

Students finished the course with a record of what they had learnt, a resource to take away, and a more independent approach to their listening skills development. Out of 36 responses, 35 were “yes” and one was “no”, who thought that there were too many strategies to juggle. This student hadn’t yet reached the point of being able to select strategies independently. With 8 weeks of teaching, expecting all students to reach that point may be a little over-ambitious. Many students commented that the strategy tables were useful for reviewing what had been learnt in previous lessons and made remembering the strategies and how to use them easier. I was particularly pleased with comments that cropped up regarding the utility of the strategy table beyond the end of the course. If learners can see how something is going to be useful to them long-term, they are likely to invest more in using it, and be more independent in their use of it.

Comments on the strategy table.

Comments on the strategy table.

Comments on the strategy table (2)

Comments on the strategy table (2)

 

Comments on the strategy table (3)

Comments on the strategy table (3)

 

 Transferability:

I think use of a strategy table would transfer nicely to exam preparation classes, where exam strategies are key to success. It could also potentially be useful in terms of accumulating a record of learning strategies met and experimented with, or resources. In the past, I have given learners a handout with different resources for them to try. I wonder if getting them to create this handout themselves, collaboratively perhaps, might be even more effective…

  • Listening logs

Listening log in action!

Listening log in action!

These were made and introduced alongside the strategy tables. The idea was not by own but based on what I’ve learnt by reading about teaching listening. I adapted it to this context. As with the strategy tables, I started the learners off with an example. The goals were to encourage independent listening, to help learners develop metacognitive awareness and to avoid the scenario (much bemoaned by listening teachers) of the question “What have you listened to since the last lesson? Which strategies have you practiced?” being met with blank stares. Again, as with the strategy tables, learners compared their logs at the beginning of each lesson.

Result:

Some students thought the log could be improved by including space for their actual note-taking. Others thought it wasn’t for them. Those that used it, however, did find it useful, as a means of structuring and tracking their out-of-class listening and tracking their progress.

Listening log comments (1)

Listening log comments (1)

Listening log comments (2)

Listening log comments (2)

Listening log comments (3)

Listening log comments (3)

Listening log comments (4)

Listening log comments (4)

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 20.39.30

Listening log comments (5)

Transferability: 

As I have learnt through my own language learning this summer, as well as through these students’ experiences, logging is an incredibly useful thing to do. I think it is very transferable to the General English classroom. Students can log their out-of-class study and in the process create a record of their efforts, achievements and progress. Personally speaking, I’ve found it a useful way of maintaining motivation. I think learning logs could be also usefully used in conjunction with something like a learning contract. I think it needs careful thought though, as to how valuable it’s going to be. For example with these students, it wasn’t just what they did that they recorded, but how they went about it (in terms of strategy choice) and reflections on that experience.

  • Reprocessing information/strategies

As well as using listening logs and strategy tables with the students, I also used classroom activities to encourage them to reprocess what they were learning and really internalise it. For example, mingles in which the students played strategy guessing games or simply recalled as many strategies (and what they involve) as they could in a given time frame, swapping partners frequently and repeating (generally also collecting and taking with them information/ideas from their various partners – enabling them to benefit from a collective understanding of what they were learning).

Another effective activity was getting students, in groups to create mind-maps of the strategies, which they then presented to their classmates:

Mind-maps (1)

Mind-maps (1)

IMG_0674

Mind-maps (2)

IMG_0673

Mind-maps (3)

Result:

This encouraged deeper processing both of what the strategies involved and how they relate to each other as well as to the task at hand. We did the activity in a lesson subsequent to one in which the focus of the lecture extract was on categorisation (e.g. Aristotle’s classification of the world) and using diagrams in note-taking, so this task also developed that theme by requiring students to categorise the strategies and present their ideas visually.

Transferability: 

Activities like this obviously have great transferability potential, and,  as well as encouraging deeper processing of lesson content, give students opportunity to use language meaningfully and benefit from each others’ knowledge and understanding.

  • Systematic introduction of out-of-class listening resources 

At the end of each class, I gave students a new resource to try (e.g. Oxford University podcasts, UCL lunchtime lectures etc.) and at the beginning of the next class, they had to report back to their classmates regarding what they had done with the resource and an evaluation of it. This was done in conjunction with using the listening logs described above. Again, uptake wasn’t instantaneous, but perseverance meant students did use the resources in due course – and develop their listening.

This was a more directed version of my Experimentation with English project. It seemed logical as EAP is more directed too: goals are very specific, and specific needs relating to these require specific resources. I think there is something to be said for for introducing resources piece-meal, in terms of not overwhelming students. Having said that, my students at IH loved the handout with all the different resources.

Transferability:

I wonder about using this approach in conjunction with my EE project. So, as well as giving learners the resource, going through a more directed process so that all the learners end up trying at least some of the resources. Then, those who are more independent will inevitably try more besides, but perhaps the gap between the more and less independent might be lessened by the extra direction.  I think this could also be transferable to exam preparation classes, in terms of encouraging students to use different exam preparation resources to prepare, and sharing what they learn with each other.

Conclusions:

It was a very interesting summer, and, I am happy to say, my three groups performed very strongly overall in the listening component of the listening proficiency/entrance exam. Importantly, they also felt they had made progress, thanks to the concrete means of measuring it (e.g. strategy tables and listening logs), which helped maintain motivation and encourage a feeling of all the hard work they were putting in being worthwhile. Equally importantly, they were equipped to continue to develop their skills independently and apply what they had learnt in the new context. (Encouraged by frequent pushing from me to reflect on the relevance of what we were doing to what they would be doing in the future – i.e. their university courses!).

I now look forward to trying to transfer what I have learnt to my current context and help my new students to be develop as effectively as possible over the short duration that they are studying with me.

 

 

Autonomous learning (4) – Graded Readers

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

What?

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

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

 Choosing a Graded Reader

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

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

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

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

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

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

Getting Started

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

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

Different Approaches

Here are some approaches a learner could use:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graded Reader Activities

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

There were:

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

Comprehension activities

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

Language focus activities

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

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

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

Productive skills focus activities

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

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

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

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

Other Activities

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

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

Is it extensive reading?

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Autonomous 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!)

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.

Helping pre-intermediate learners with listening: focus on weak forms

Introduction

My starting point for this activity was Sandy Millin’s Stepping into the real word: transitioning listening workshop at IATEFL 2014. In particular, it was this section of notes that I made during her workshop [my complete notes for the workshop here]:

Weak forms

“Pronunciation of a word changes when within a sentence. The schwas make a difference – the most important sound? With this sound, it’s difficult to draw the line between pron. and listening. “I wanna be a schwa – it’s never stressed!”

Give students some common grammar words which have strong and weak forms; ask learners to create a sentence using these words or a short story and discuss whether it’s a strong or a weak form as used in that context. Learners have to identify when the sounds will be weak or strong, then try to say them. Trying it out in sentences helps learners to be more confident when they hear it. Not expected to speak like this all the time, just a classroom game to build confidence and ability to recognise sounds.

Get students to race to say sentences as quickly as possible to win a point for their team. Weak forms come out as they try to get the sentences out as fast as they can.”

Counter-intuitively, I used a course book listening for my adaptation of this sequence. It was an interview with Jessica Ennis soon after she won the World Championships. (Of course, since then she has done rather well in London 2012!) There were a couple of reasons for this: Firstly, weak forms were in evidence. The TRB doesn’t say anything about the origins of the recording or how it was made, but it’s clearly at least trying to be authentic and challenge the learners’ listening skills (it’s a purely listening skills focused sequence the recording forms part of). Secondly, I felt that the book didn’t fully exploit the recording in the afore-mentioned sequence – it only had two fairly brief listening activities and a discussion activity attached.

 The sequence I devised, however, could be used with any listening recording –  basically, the sequence fits in after learners have listened to a recording for meaning.  I used a guided discovery approach with the goal of awareness-raising and metacognitive development, as well as the specific focus on weak forms.

Time:

45 minutes

Materials:

A listening recording – authentic or otherwise – where weak forms are in evidence; guided discovery handout (available here). [Handout optional – as long as you had some sample grammar words to display, you could do the whole sequence by feeding in the instructions/questions orally as you go along!]

Procedure:

  • Fold up the handout so that learners can only see the first question:

“What two things do all these words have in common?”

  • Let learners look at the words (a sample collection of grammar words that have weak and strong forms – I took a screen shot from Sandy’s slides, as she had prepared just such a sample using a word cloud creator like Wordle, to save me some time!) and discuss the question together. My learners found this challenging so I gave them some clues to help: “One of the two things is related to the type of word; the other is related to pronunciation“. One of my learners did then say “they are weak forms”, cleverly enough, so I expanded her answer to include that these words have both strong and weak forms, and they are all grammar words and grammar words are often weak unless we want to emphasise them for a specific meaning-related reason.
  • Unfold the handout and get learners to look at the sample collection of grammar words and work in pairs to assign each a strong and weak pronunciation. We did an example together first – also identifying that the strong pronunciation is the dictionary pronunciation but the weak pronunciation is often used when the word is used as part of a sentence, unless the word is being emphasised to express a particular meaning – then they worked in pairs for a few, then we went through some together to see what they had come up with, until one of the learners said “Is it my hearing or do they all change to the same sound?” – cue introduction of the schwa! and me acting a weak, frail, hunched over little person to visualise this friendly, neighbourhood weak sound! – and a bit more discussion, which culminated in them saying that they wanted to hear the weak sounds in conversation. – Which was exactly what I had planned…
  • [If it hasn’t already been discussed within the previous step, ask learners how they think this phenomenon – weak forms – could affect them when they listen to people speak]
  • Direct them to the transcript of whatever recording it is you are using for this sequence, in my case the interview with Jessica Ennis. Get them to work in pairs, look at the grammar words in the transcript and decide if they think those words are pronounced as strong or weak forms. [I let them do it for the first part of the transcript, to get them thinking about the role of those grammar words in the given sentences and the likely resultant pronunciation but then stopped them to move onto the next stage in the sequence, as time was limited. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to do the entire transcript anyway, as it could get a little arduous!]
  • Play the recording again. Get learners to check what they have already discussed and continue the process but as a listening exercise this time, underlining strong forms and/or circling weak forms. Let them compare afterwards and give them the opportunity to ask about any they aren’t sure about.
  • Let them experiment. Ask them to work in pairs (or whatever number suits your recording/class numbers) and read through the transcript aloud together, each taking one of the roles, and using the weak forms they have identified. Encourage them to say the sentences quickly as speed influences pronunciation of weak/strong forms, so by speaking quickly, the weak forms are more likely to occur!
  • Play the recording a final time. This time, learners should mutter along with the transcript, again giving them the opportunity to listen and also feel the pronunciation in their own mouths as they produce. I deliberately did the last two stages in this order, as I felt they’d be more successful with the muttering if they had had the chance to try it out previously and therefore had more familiarity on their side, having thought about the links between meaning and pronunciation of the grammar words. [This shadowing/muttering along with a recording is an activity I picked up during my Delta]

At one point during this sequence of activities the issue of ELF pronunciation was also raised – the learners were wondering about the necessity of speaking like this, as they felt it would be very difficult to [of course], so I said that this depended on their goals: that use of weak forms/stress can make it easier for native speakers to understand, but that if they are speaking to other non-native speakers, then understanding is much easier if you don’t use weak forms. And I also pointed out that whether or not they wanted to speak to native speakers, focusing on weak forms as we had done in this lesson would help with listening, which they fully agreed with.

At the end of the lesson, I asked if it had been useful and the answer was a very heartfelt “YES!” 🙂  Certainly a lot of interesting discussion was generated and the learners appreciated the extra time spent working with the recording and these words that give them so much difficulty in understanding.

I’m planning to adapt the sequence for use with my other pre-intermediate learners [who are lower in the pre-intermediate level] by using it with a notoriously challenging listening that’s coming up in their course book]. With either class, having done the sequence using a course book recording, I’d like to revisit it [not repeat the whole sequence obviously, but apply the concept] with them, using a more authentic recording. I’d also like to extend the concept by devising an activity that gets them to use syntactic and contextual clues to identify weak forms within utterances they have not seen a transcript for.

Thank you, Sandy, for the inspiration! 🙂 (As well as Vandergrift and Goh, 2012 and Field, 2009, of course! – They always influence what I do with teaching listening!)

References:

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

Millin, S. (2014) Stepping into the real world: transitioning listening   ( http://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/iatefl2014/ )

Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. (2012) Teaching and learning second language listening: metacognition in action. Routledge

listen

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