Helping language learners visualise their linguistic development: growing learning

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

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

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

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

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

What came about was a handout called

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you end up with is something like this:

Some students piloted it for about a month...

Some students piloted it for about a month…

Benefits:

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

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

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

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

Issues:

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

Future directions:

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

Watch this space…

Autonomous listening skill development: activity 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aims:

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

Materials:

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

Procedure:

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

Benefits:

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

Important to remember:

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

Conclusion

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

References:

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

My top ten learner autonomy and metacognition resources

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

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

Books

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

  • Phil Benson: Teaching and Researching Autonomy

Screenshot from Amazon.co.uk

Screenshot from Amazon.co.uk

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

  • Learner Autonomy across cultures: language education perspectives

Screenshot from Amazon

Screenshot from Amazon

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

Oxford, R. (2003) Towards a more Systematic Model of L2 Learner Autonomy in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

Smith, R. (2003) Pedgagogy for Autonomy as (Becoming) Appropriate Methodology in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

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

Screenshot from Amazon

Screenshot from Amazon

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

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

Articles

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

  • Smith, R. (2008)

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

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

  • Phil Benson (2006)

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

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

  • Borg and Al-Busaidi (2009)

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

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

 

Online resources:

 

  • The IATEFL Learner Autonomy SIG

Screenshot of the LA SIG website

Screenshot of the LA SIG website

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

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

 

  • Science Direct

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 11.58.53

Screenshot of ScienceDirect.com

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

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

  • The Autonomy Approach

Screenshot from Delta Publishing site

Screenshot from Delta Publishing site

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

  • My “Learner Autonomy” page!

Screenshot of my L.A. page!

Screenshot of my L.A. page!

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

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

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

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

 

The role of metacognition in language learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My questions for you:

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

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

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

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

 References:

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 20.47.59

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the handouts:

This one is for learners who use Edmodo

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

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

My comments about the handouts: future directions

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

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

 

 

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

image taken from google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification/ http://www.pixabay.com

 

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy! 🙂