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! 🙂

Innovation in education: looking for learning (British Council Associate blog post 3)

For my third blog post as a British Council Associate, I chose the topic of innovation in education.

This was the brief:

As learning technologies become more and more ubiquitous in our teaching, how can we ensure that pedagogy is at the centre of what we do to increase learning? What tools do you incorporate into your teaching and how do you ensure they help learning?

I shared the approach I use to ensure that the tools I use help learning, and to ensure that pedagogy remains central, using Edmodo and Wordandphrase.info as examples.

To read my blog post, please follow this link.

To see other blog posts I’ve written for the British Council, please follow this link. (Topics so far are: “Course books in the classroom: friend or foe?” and “How does blogging help you to be a better teacher?”)

Thank you, British Council Teaching English, for letting me post alongside some really great bloggers.

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

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

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

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

Advanced learners:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upper-intermediate learners

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

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

Outcomes: 

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

What I have learnt from both of these experiences?

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

Conclusion:

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

Extensive Reading (Part 3): The “Reading Project”

page turning

Turn those pages! Take from an advanced Google images search, licensed for commercial reuse with modification

In part 1 of this series, I reflected on the benefits of reading extensively, from the point of view of my own language learning experience, and in part 2 I discussed the process I had used to initiate my “reading project” with my adult classes (pre-intermediate to advanced) at IH Palermo language school. Following on from my British Council Teaching English webinar on Learner Autonomy, here is part 3. In this post, I look at the outcomes of the reading project and explore the links between this project and learner autonomy, which was the goal that drove its creation.

The benefits of reading extensively are well-documented, and in an EFL context where exposure to target language is limited, the regular exposure to language in use that reading extensively can provide is even more valuable to learners. But how do we get learners reading extensively in their own time? I started to explore this question last year, when I started working at IH Palermo, having explored a lot of the theory related to learner autonomy and motivation while studying at Leeds Met. I felt that if I could get learners reading independently, of their own volition, over an extended period of time, then this could be one way in which they could learn autonomously. And so, in collaboration with my learners,  the Reading Project was born.

Fast forward several months and those courses came to an end. I gave learners a feedback form to complete.

  • Out of 23 students who completed the forms: (there should have been 6 more but they were absent from the classes on the day I handed out the forms for completion) 19 said they read more in English now than they did before. They circled between 4 and 6 on the Likert scale I used for this question.
  • Breaking this down: of these 19,  6 students circled 6, 6 students circled 5 and 7 students circled 4.
  • In terms of level: The lowest level class (Pre-Intermediate), all learners circled 4 and upwards, with the majority 5’s and 6’s, while in the Upper Intermediate class, only one learner out of 9 circled below a 4. The lower number in the Up Int class and the three lower numbers in the Advanced class were qualified by their explanation, in the space provided, that they already read a lot in English before. I’m pretty sure the Reading Project won’t have done those few learners who already read a lot any harm, while the majority who didn’t may have benefited a lot. 

The feedback form also asked learners if they would continue to read in English after the course. All respondents except one circled “yes”. Whether they do actually continue to read is, of course, an unknown quantity at this point, but the positive thing is that the desire is there. I bumped into one of the students the other day and she spontaneously started telling me that she was still reading and listening to audio books, so that’s at least one who continues – at least for now! 🙂

Obviously numbers can be deceptive, or circled at random. However the comments learners wrote in the space provided for this, or in the end-of-course reflective pieces I asked them to write, tallied with the numbers circled. NB, I did not stipulate what aspects of the course the learners were to comment on, it was a completely free piece of writing so learners were free to choose what to highlight. Here are a few comments from the learners, written on their feedback forms or in those end-of-course reflective pieces:

Advanced learners:

“Definitely yes. I wasn’t used to read in English, now I understood that it’s not impossible as I thought, I’ll continue reading.”

“I think that reading in English is useful to learn new vocabulary but it needs time”

“I have always read in English whenever I felt a need to do so, not really because I found it helpful. The reading project has surely helped me read more in English”

“One of the aspects of the course I have appreciated most, was the encouragement our teacher has given us to read as much as possible from different sources such as books, short stories and so on; I also liked the follow up in the classroom when we were comparing our ideas and emotions.”

“The reading project was the thing I appreciated the most. It helped me having a start to read in english, which is something that i wasn’t used to, but now i’m sure i’ll continue”

Upper Intermediate:

“I’ll continue because it’s more pleasurable than reading in Italian”

“Well why should I learn English then?”

“I found reading in English very useful, so I think it’s important to keep reading in order to improve my English”

“Because I’ve found it useful to improve my language and vocabulary”

“I would like to continue, although in this period I don’t have a lot of time”

“I understood the importance of reading in English”

Pre-intermediate:

“I like reading in English. I found a new word: English Lettereture. I choose amazing English book and I thanks you for this reason.”

“I want to continue to read in English because I think it’s a good tool to learn new words”

“Yes, because I understood that it is useful, and because now I like reading a book in English”

“I think that it is important and I like read in English”

Overall, then, I feel that it was a successful project: Lots of reading happened on a regular basis, learners remained motivated, to the extent that they express desire to continue reading beyond the end of the course, and, importantly, showing recognition/understanding of how reading can benefit them. Learners also set their own goals and experimented with different approaches, within a supportive environment.

What made it so, other than the wonderful learners I was working with?

  • Through the initial discussion questions, I drew learners’ attention to the benefits of reading extensively in English, as well as the validity of different text types (e.g. authentic text vs graded readers vs bilingual versions) and approaches to reading. They understood the value of it and so were keen to embark on the project. Insecurities of the “is this type of book as good as that as type of book?” and “if I read like this <describes approach>, is it bad?” sort were also dealt with in this discussion.
  • Free choice of reading material meant that nobody had to read anything that didn’t interest them. One man’s meat is another man’s poison…
  • The subsequent discussions, at regular intervals (once a week), helped learners maintain their motivation to keep on reading. These discussions addressed potential issues. For example in one of the discussions we discussed The Rights of the Reader  which emphasised, amongst other things, that it was ok to stop and change books if you weren’t enjoying it, amongst other things. This is important because it is obviously far better for a learner to recognise that it may be the book that is the issue, rather than reading in English itself, and try changing books rather than give up. This applies both during the reading project and beyond.
  • Another benefit of the regular discussions was that learners often brought their books along to these, excited to show everybody what they had decided to read, and other learners were interested to see what their classmates were reading and hear where they had got these books from. This show-and-tell element kindled interest in those who were slow to get involved. And, of course, when learners finished a book in English (sometimes for the first time in their lives), they were always delighted to share that news with everybody.
  • Goal-setting also helped learners maintain their motivation. Setting their own goals gave learners more ownership over the process and project. Obviously this was scaffolded rather than independent, but hopefully as learners recognise the value of it, and learn how to do it effectively, it becomes a tool they can use independently beyond the end of the course.
  • There was no stick: learners didn’t get in to trouble for not meeting their goals, or not being able to read so much one week compared to another week. Conversely, whatever reading they did manage to do was met with enthusiasm (by both myself and their classmates!). Through this they learn that it is ok not to be super-successful ALL the time, that just because you have lots of commitments (e.g. exams or work-related commitments) during a period, doesn’t mean you are a failure and should give up altogether. They also learn that every little helps.
  • It wasn’t homework, it wasn’t compulsory, it wasn’t a chore, it was something they chose to do. They also chose how much to do, when to do it etc. In this way, they found out how to fit it into their life in the way that best suited them. Of course initially not everyone was super keen, there are always one or two who are a bit skeptical, but then a couple weeks down the line, they turn up in class clutching a book, ready to tell their classmates that they are reading now too! I prefer to let them come to it themselves, rather than forcing it on them. If it is a choice they make, they are more likely to continue.
  • I let them reflect on, and evaluate, the project at the half-way point, asking them what they thought would improve it. One of the classes decided to add to it: alongside reading their books, they decided to take turns posting an article link to Edmodo so that everybody could read it between classes, discuss it on Edmodo by responding to the original post and have a few minutes in class once a week to discuss it face-to-face. Again, this was giving them ownership of the project and some say in how their class time be used.

I have just started again with a new lot of courses (several pre-intermediate, an upper intermediate and an advanced) and have so far made a little change to my process:

  • Before asking them to set goals, I explicitly elicited different types of goals that they could make, so as to make it easier for them to make goals. What was interesting is that with two classes of the same level (pre-int) at the same point in the course, one class was able to supply, between them, all but one of the goal ideas I’d thought of,  while the other class were a bit blank and needed more support.  All classes are different and it’s important to be ready to respond to what a particular class needs. In the first class, they’d all found something to read by the second weekly discussion (the first post-being encouraged to find something), in the blank class, only one had. However, the following week, the majority of the blank class had found something to read and they are starting to learn to set suitable goals. Such inauspicious starts are just as normal as the keen bean starts, the thing is to persevere gently with it.
  • Another change is that I have introduced the project right at the beginning of the course, whereas last term, I only had the idea, and developed it, part way through! This will hopefully give learners longer to benefit. Certainly in my semi-intensive class, a learner who had never read a book in English before is now on her fourth and her confidence has blossomed along with it.

How does The Reading Project tie in with learner autonomy development?

The Reading Project was one of the strands of my learner autonomy development project, the other two being use of collaborative online platforms (Edmodo and class blogs) and my Experimentation with English ProjectObviously learner autonomy looks different in different contexts. In my context, my goal was to enable learners to harness effectively all the resources at their disposal outside of class time, so that they could benefit from maximum exposure to the target language and from using it a variety of ways. The Reading Project helped raise learners’ awareness of different approaches to extensive reading and the benefits of extensive reading. Some learners changed their dominant approach, entirely of their own volition, as a result of discussing with other learners who used different approaches, experimenting with a new approach and finding it more effective. The project also helped them use goals as a means of managing their motivation in the long term by setting short term goals which are challenging yet attainable. Finally, it offered opportunity for reflective discussion regarding their reading progress and how they felt about it. It was a regular process of goal setting, reflection and evaluation of progress.

All I did, as the teacher, was provide the opportunity for discussion (about 10 or so minutes at the start of a lesson – except when setting the project up, the first two discussions needed 15-20 minutes) and feed in questions for discussion, using this as a tool for generating interest in the project and then maintaining that interest and motivation as the course wore on. I elicited as much as possible from the learners, in terms of benefits, different approaches, goal types, pros and cons of different text types etc and just fed in the odd little bits that were missing between them as a group. In this way, by starting with the learners’ knowledge and experience, they were able to learn from each other: as a group they had a much bigger knowledge and experience base to draw on than as individuals.  The discussions also enabled their motivation as a group to be harnessed, with those less motivated benefitting from those with more motivation, leading to a net result of greater overall group motivation levels. Of course individual motivation levels fluctuate, so different learners benefited from “feeding off” the group motivation at different times.

I think an important aspect of the project is that it became very much a part of the course. The discussions and goal-setting happened at regular intervals. I believe that if you embark on such a project (which isn’t very demanding in terms of teacher input/preparation) it is important to persevere and not let it fall by the wayside. Another very important aspect is that there is no obligation coming from the teacher. The teacher is in the role of enabler in this project, opening up an on-going dialogue with the learners and joining them in their journey towards greater autonomy. The journey isn’t smooth, it’s more of a rabbit burrow than a bridge (thinking of the oft-used expression of “bridging the gap” used in association with autonomy!) and learners have to work hard to keep burrowing. By bringing the project back into the classroom at regular intervals, learners are given support in their efforts, as well as being helped to become better at using various tools to make the process easier for them.

Obviously my approach won’t be applicable in all contexts. As a teacher, it is important to be sensitive to your context, which is why I believe Smith’s (2003) strong methodology is very effective. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend blindly applying my Reading Project in any context. What I would recommend is:

  • careful consideration of context and learning goals.
  • adjusting your own mindset so that you are constantly on the look-out for ways to help your learners become more autonomous.
  • working with your students to identify ways of meeting those learning goals. If you have ideas, share them with your students and see what they think. Do this in such a way that they are fully aware of the potential benefits of whatever it is you have in mind: guided discussion is invaluable for this.
  • differentiating between ideas that require autonomy and ideas that support its development. If you have one that falls into the former category, think about how to scaffold students’ use of it.
  • not forcing anything on your students. If you have helped them become aware of the benefits and not all of them want to do it, let those who are keen embark on it and see what happens.
  • recognition of the role of motivation and being aware of how you can help learners manage their own individual motivation and harness their motivation as a group.

I would be very interested in hearing about your current or future learner autonomy-related projects: please do comment on this post either to tell me about them or to post a link to where you have written about them.

References:

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

Webinar on Learner Autonomy: Information and References

Today, the 19th of February 2014, at 11 a.m. C.E.T., I had the privilege of leading a webinar on Learner Autonomy Development, courtesy of the British Council’s Teaching English website. I started with a discussion regarding the theory related to learner autonomy, inviting participants to offer their own definitions and images of learner autonomy, and using the variety of definitions offered to illustrate how learner autonomy looks different in different contexts, before providing some definitions from the literature. This was followed with a brief look at each of my current learner autonomy development projects:

  • the Reading Project (click here)
  • the Experimenting with English Project (click here)
  • the Edmodo/Blog Project (click here)

(Links to these will be added in the next few days, as they are published)

Links to these can also be found on my Learner Autonomy page (click here). They cover largely the same ground as that covered in my webinar but with additional information regarding the process I went through with each project while developing it with my learners.

I concluded my webinar with a series of quotes from learner autonomy theorists. Each of these, I feel, makes an important point that is worth keeping in mind as you embark on the process of working with your learners to develop autonomy both inside and outside the classroom.

To see the recording of this webinar, please click here.

Many thanks to the British Council for giving me this wonderful opportunity, to International House Palermo for being supportive of my penchant for trying new things in the classroom, and last, but assuredly not least, to all the tutors in the M.A. ELT department at Leeds Metropolitan University for helping me find my voice and empowering me to question things as well as look for answers. Looking for answers may mostly lead to further questions (!), but it’s an amazing journey to go on. 🙂

Here is a full list of the references used in the webinar:

Benson, P. (2003)  Learner autonomy in the classroom in in Nunan, D. [ed] Practical English language teaching. PRC: Higher education press/McGraw Hill.

Benson, P. (2011) Teaching and Researching Autonomy (2nd Edition) Pearson Education. Harlow.

Borg and Al-Busaidi (2012) Learner Autonomy: English Language Teachers’ Beliefs and Practices British Council, London.

Dornyei and Ushioda (2012) Teaching and Researching Motivation (Kindle Edition) Pearson Education. Harlow.

Holec, H. (1981) Autonomy and foreign language learning. Pergamon. Oxford (First published 1979, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.)

Holliday, A. (2005) The struggle to teach English as an International Language (Kindle Edition) Oxford University Press. Oxford.

McCarthy, T. (2013)  Redefining the learning space: Advising tools in the classroom in in Menegale, M [ed] Autonomy in Language Learning: Getting learners actively involved. (Kindle Edition) IATEFL, Canterbury.

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. and Ushioda, E. (2009) Under whose control? in  in Pemberton, Toogood and Barfield [Ed] Maintaining Control: Autonomy and Language Learning. Hong Kong University Press. Hong Kong.

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

If you are interested in learning more about Learner Autonomy, I would recommend the following resources:

Benson, P. (2003) Autonomy in language teaching and learning in Language Teaching vol. 40 issue 1 p.21-40. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Menegale, M [ed] (2013) Autonomy in Language Learning: Getting learners actively involved. (Kindle Edition) IATEFL, Canterbury.

Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] (2003) Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

The IATEFL SIG newsletter, Independence, which comes out three times a year and is free to SIG members or £6.50 to non-SIG members.

If you are interested in learning about research done into the use of CMC tools in the language classroom, I would recommend the following resources:

Pinkman, K. (2005) Using blogs in the foreign language classroom in The JALT CALL Journal vol 1

Tratjemberg and Yiakoumetti (2011) Weblogs: a tool for EFL interaction, expression, and self-evaluation in ELT Journal vol 65/4. Oxford University Press.

Join me tomorrow – a webinar on Learner Autonomy

Tomorrow (that’s Wednesday!) at 10 a.m. British time and 11 a.m. Palermo time, I will (for the very first time ever!) be leading a webinar about learner autonomy – rather a buzz-phrase in the world of ELT at this time.

This webinar will briefly look at some of the theory around learner autonomy (including issues of definition, context, motivation and methodology) before moving on to discuss some practical ways of helping learners become more autonomous, as well as how features of these connect with the theoretical issues raised earlier on. Learner autonomy can’t be pre-packaged, so don’t come expecting that! However, I do hope to share some ideas that will help you embark on rewarding journeys of your own, in your context, with your learners.

For more information on how to join this webinar, please visit this link.

I hope to see you there! 🙂

Coursebooks in the language classroom: friend or foe?

I have written a second blog post for the British Council Teaching English website, as one of their  TeachingEnglish associates – a name that has been given to us since I wrote my initial post! I feel rather out of place on a list amongst such experienced, knowledgeable teachers but honoured to have the opportunity to be there and happy to be able to share my ideas.

My post, which was published today, can be found here and looks at ideas for making the course book a friend rather than a sworn enemy, through:

  • evaluation
  • adaptation
  • personalisation
  • looking for opportunities to use the content as a springboard to fostering learner autonomy

You could also have a look at Rachael Roberts’s post on the same topic, here – it turns out we both tend to look on course books as cookery books rather than strait-jackets! 

Thank you, British Council Teaching English!