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.

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39th ELT Blog Carnival: Blogging with Students

The theme for the 39th ELT Blog Carnival is Blogging with Students and it is a timely theme for me: With adult courses coming to an end this week, my first experiment with using a blog in the language classroom has also reached its conclusion. This was done with my Advanced class, which took place twice a week, at 1hr20 a pop, for approximately four months. It was an interesting class in terms of demographic: There were 7 students in total, 3 of whom were middle-aged and 4 of whom were teenagers (but older teenagers, coming to the end of their school years).

My goal in using the blog with these learners was:

To give them additional opportunities for using English and to harness it as a tool to help in the development of learner autonomy.

I’ve learnt a lot from the experiment and am looking forward to trying again with another group of students, using what I’ve learnt this time around.

How I did it:

I  created the blog on WordPress (I don’t know how to use any other blogging software currently!), naming it after the class, and introduced it several lessons in to the course (it got delayed by a lesson due to technical issues but I’d delayed it until that initial technical issues attempt for other reasons – see “What do I think…” below), giving learners the user name / password, demonstrating use and clarifying that they needed to put their name in brackets after their post title so that we could know whose was whose.  I mostly used the blog for homework with them initially – with the idea of modelling potential uses of it. One thing that I found very interesting is that half way through the course, I gave the learners the opportunity to discuss the use of the blog and how they’d like to use it. They came up with some great ideas (which I am going to steal and try to implement with future classes! 😉 ) but mostly they did not implement them. They also wondered if having their own log-ins would be better but then agreed that it actually wouldn’t change anything in the great scheme of things. However, in conjunction with other learner autonomy development tools, some of the learners did use the blog autonomously as well as for the activities I set as homework. Given that 4/7 were swamped with school work and tests, while 3/7 had full-time jobs and family commitments, I can understand why the ideas were there but the action wasn’t, and particularly admire those who did make time to use the blog autonomously.

What did the students really think of the blog? 

Well, I collected final feedback in two different ways: feedback questionnaires, which covered various activities/tools used with the group, and reflective pieces in which students were asked to look back on what they’d learnt from the course and evaluate it – NB the brief was very vague, I did not ask them specifically to write about the blog or the other “extra” activities used, but just to reflect on what they’ve learnt and what they found useful.  (These were published on the blog! *still awaiting a few more of these to be submitted…). Here are a couple of soundbites:

From a reflective piece, looking back on the course:

What I appreciated most was that most of these activities were often intended to foster interaction among participants by different forms of technical communication, such as publishing texts on the school blog.  By drawing upon constant web-based practice it succeeded in offering a fresh approach to language production.

From another reflective piece:

The use of the blog was also encouraging to use english outside class in many different ways.

From a feedback form in space provided beneath each question for further comment on the number circled:

It helped us to have feedback even when not in class and it was a great way to learn English in a new, less traditional way.

From another feedback form:

I liked the blog idea. […] The blog is a very useful tool and it could be exploited even more.

Due to the nature of the feedback forms, students were able to expand on what they wanted to, so some talked more about the other tools/activities used. However, the four extracts above are from four different students.

One piece of feedback which reflects my approach to using the various tools/activities, including the blog is this:

The teacher made the tools not compulsory, which was already the best way to use them.

It was in response to “How could the teacher make these tools/activities more useful for you?” More on this in my forthcoming webinar on learner autonomy.

What do I think of the blog/”blogging with students”?

I’m very pleased that it went down so well with the students, despite their time, or lack thereof, issues and I absolutely agree with the student who thinks it could be exploited even more. That is something I will be mulling over before kicking off with the next course. Now that I am more comfortable with the process (it can be ever so daunting introducing something new, that you haven’t used with students before – even if, like me, you are familiar with blogging for your own purposes! I was incredibly nervous when I introduced it, hence putting off a few lessons before I did so – I had to really push myself to do it but I’m very glad that I did!), I think it will be easier to refine it and maximise on the potential that lies in it, both in terms of opportunity for using English outside of class and in terms of learner autonomy development.

One thing that blogging with students does enable is more interesting, interactive homework. (This is also true of Edmodo, which I have used with my other classes, with very positive feedback) You can get them to do writing tasks with a real communicative purpose, which require them to read each others writing and respond to it meaningfully, and which are also good fun. (I will dedicate a future blog post to ideas for using a blog or Edmodo for interactive, communicative homework… )

Extra work?

Teachers may worry that having a class blog will create a lot of extra work for them. Maybe it does a bit: it’s important to respond to learners’ work. One problem I had with this was simply forgetting to open the blog and check for new work, because in my main browser, I’m logged into my own blog and so I used a different browser to be able to be logged into the class blog at the same time. However, it’s a lot easier to mark homework that is typed and that you can copy/paste and reformulate/refine than it is to decipher student handwriting and try to squeeze feedback into any available space. The student can then compare their work with the feedback in the comments, without being put off by all the pen marks (and possibly struggling to decipher the teacher’s handwriting! 😉 ) and the piece of work stays filed away on the blog, enabling easy comparison with future pieces of work. I also think the benefits do definitely outweigh what we, as teachers, need to put in for it to run smoothly.

Potential?

One thing I did not tap sufficiently is the blog’s potential as a reflective tool – ironic, given the name of my blog and my penchant for reflection! Also, because I’ve been trialling various things, the trialling has occurred as and when the ideas arose in response to what has been happening in my classrooms. It’s all been super-interesting but definitely not very…smooth. Now that I have a stock of ideas and a clearer idea of how to approach using the tools, including the blog, I hope I will be able to tap its potential more effectively. Of course, I will still respond to what emerges in individual classes, so more ideas will be born and existing ones adapted, but having a core of existent ideas gives the project more of a backbone and frees me up to focus on tweaking and identifying new ways to exploit the blog further, both as a communicative tool and a learner autonomy development tool. Already the ideas are bubbling away in my mind… 😉

Another avenue of potential that I’d like to explore is that of converting the accumulation of learner work on the blog into a learner language corpus. This could then feed back into work done in the classroom, in a variety of ways. This would also be possible with Edmodo. One would copy the texts over from whichever platform and store them in plain text format, before analysing them with a corpus analysis tool. I can envisage also having a corpus for each level, so that over time, the more classes I use these tools with, the bigger each corpus would become. There would perhaps be potential for comparative work, where learners analyse their own class corpus in relation to a higher level and gain a clearer picture of where they are and what they are working towards. Or compare with a lower level, to gain a clearer idea of their own progress. Or compare with an established corpus, native- or non-native speaker-based, such as the BNC or VOICE.

I think technology, especially that which enables opportunities for genuine communication, has a lot to offer language learning, if it’s used in a pedagogically sound fashion, where there are clear aims and benefits inherent in the uses made of it. In my current context, it offers students a valuable means of communicating in English between classes, which is important as, being in Palermo, there is not a lot of opportunity for using English outside of class time. They clearly recognise this and I hope that with future classes, my use of the blog and its integration into the course will be smoother and more effective so that the benefits are maximised.

Conclusion

I’m really looking forward to reading the other blogposts in this carnival, and anticipate hopefully that they will form a lovely little resource for teachers looking to use a blog with one or more of their classes. To any teachers who have been thinking about trying it but been too nervous too: Just jump in and give it a go! It’s not actually that scary (I’ve discovered!), in fact, it’s a lot of fun and very rewarding – for teacher and students alike.

blog

What shall we do with it? Anything is possible… (Taken from Google advanced images search – licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

Have you seen these? My top 5 2013 blogposts from other blogs

As promised in  my self-indulgent review of my own posts from 2013, I will now look at some of the posts I’ve read that were produced by other people…

In 2013, I read dozens of interesting, well-written blog posts that inspired me to try out new things in the classroom and to respond with reflections of my own. For my first post of 2014, I’m going to attempt to pick out my top 5. (Choosing 5 out of so many was a difficult enough task, so I’m not going to attempt to rank them! 😉 )

  • Ways of exploiting lexical self-study material in the classroom part two: some things we can get students to do.  This is the second post in a series written by Hugh Dellar, on his well-known blog. I first became aware of this series of three posts when a member of my PLN tweeted part 2 of the series (as linked). Of course I then also read part 1 (and part 3 when it later came out!) Bursting with helpful ideas, these posts really got me thinking and indeed experimenting in the classroom. I drew on part 2 when I did my first observation in my current job and opened up a key area to develop within my practice, which was (and is) very exciting. I really recommend reading these posts if they’ve slipped beneath your radar thus far…
  • The case for: 6 reasons why our language learners should get homework. This post by Adam Simpson was brought to my attention by another member of my PLN, this time by way of Facebook. It particularly resonated with me because I’m working in a context where giving homework is compulsory, and I’ve tried really hard to make the homework as meaningful and relevant to the learners as possible, as well as trying to use it as a tool to help them become more autonomous. What I particularly like about this post is the inclusion of questions for us teachers to ask ourselves when we are thinking about setting homework. These are questions I want to return to regularly this year, as I continue in my mission to make homework really worthwhile for my learners.
  • Teacher Dereliction Anxiety Disorder  Yet again, I became aware of this post by Kevin Stein as a result of a member of my PLN sharing it via social media. (Are we sensing a pattern here?? 😉 ) It is the second in a series of posts about extensive reading, on a blog called The other things matter – which I think is a fantastic name and concept, by the way! Don’t you agree? The “other” things really do matter, in teaching. The post contains a lot of useful ideas for getting learners reading extensively whilst combatting teacher anxiety at using class time for “such things”. Although in my current context, contact time is too brief for a lot of what is suggested, the concept of using time for things other than teaching <insert language point here> is far from lost on me: my current learner autonomy development and extensive reading projects require brief but regular use of class time to maintain – time that I would argue is well spent.
  • Writing journals with students  by Sandy Millin is one of the many posts that I read on her blog last year. In this post, she tells us about how she used journals with various of her classes in Newcastle, and the benefits this had for both her and the learners. The activity may need a little adjustment/adaptation to work in contexts with less contact time available but nevertheless it’s another shining example of the wonderful “other” things teachers do with their learners, so if you haven’t read it yet (unlikely – everybody has read Sandy’s posts, I think! 😉 ) then get on over to her blog and have a squiz.
  • Can teachers do research? is by Marisa Constantinides. She talks about a research project she carried out and then goes on to discuss the question in the title, providing suggestions to help teachers get started with action research. I like this post because I strongly believe that doing classroom-based research is a great way to develop and can also be very motivational for teachers: instead of getting bogged down in a rut and doing the same thing, in the same way, time after time, it allows you to explore and evaluate different ways and new ideas for doing things. I’m currently in the middle of some small-scale learner autonomy-related research projects with my learners, as a result of which I’ve done fair bit of reading of relevant literature and reflecting over this break and am keen to continue working with my learners, and see where the project takes us next. (Just as well, as the holiday is all but over!) Maybe 2014 could be the year for you to start researching in your classroom too? Have a look at Marisa’s post for tips on how to go about it…

So, that’s my top five. I could have kept listing posts ad infinitum, but, instead, over to you: It would be fantastic if you could comment on this post with a link to any one (or two or three..) blog post that caught your eye and inspired you in 2013. 🙂 I look forward to seeing your comments and visiting the posts you recommend…

The 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival on Learner Autonomy has arrived!

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the opportunity to see, for the first time united in one place, a collection of links to a series of reviews of articles related to the fascinating area of study that is learner autonomy!

First up we have:

Anthony Ash writing about an article that features in the English Language Teaching Journal (vol. 62/4) published by Oxford University Press. This article is entitled Learner Autonomy and was written in 2008, by Richard Smith.  Please find Anthony’s review here and a link to the original article here. A fine choice of article and a succinct review. I’d highly recommend reading the original article, it’s freely available and offers a brief overview of issues around the concept of learner autonomy.

The second contribution came from:

Me! I reviewed an article by Robert Godwin-Jones (2011): Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Language Learning in Language Learning & Technology vol. 15 number 3. October 2011. You can find the review here. This article looks at various technological tools from the perspective of interest in developing learner autonomy. Godwin-Jones also addresses various issues related to learner autonomy along the way. Again, freely available by clicking on the link attached to the title (above) of the article.  In my review, I also finish off by indulging in some of my own reflection on the content.

The third review to join the party was sent by:

Another Anthony! He treats an article by Cynthia Carr: Enhancing EAP Students’ Autonomy by Accommodating Various Learning Styles in the Second Language Writing Classroom which appeared in the INTESOL Journal,  vol 10/1 in 2013. As well as reviewing Carr’s article in depth, Anthony writes of his own experience as a teacher and learner in relation to learner autonomy and learning styles. You can find his review here. The article itself is available freely, but the link I found generates an automatic download rather than a webpage. So, if you want to read it, just put the title and author into Google and click on the link provided. 

Our fourth contributor was:

Mura Nava, who reviewed Possible effects of free online data driven lexicographic instruments on foreign language learning: The case of Linguee and the Interactive Language Toolbox in Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences , issue 95, a conference paper by Buyse K. & Verlinde, S. (2013).  You can find the paper here. The paper reports a study of the use of online corpora-driven dictionary Linguee and their success in comparison with other online dictionaries.  Mura’s review is available here.

The fifth review was submitted courtesy of:

Nathan Hall, who reviewed the following article: Lee, Lina. (2011). Blogging: Promoting learner autonomy and intercultural competence through study abroad in Language Learning & Technology, 15(3). 87-109. You can find this article here.  As the review explains, it reports on a study relating to the use of blogging tools  and ethnographic interviews in the context of studying abroad. Nathan brings out and comments on some interesting elements of the study, and you can read his review here.

Finally, in by the skin of his teeth, came:

Glen Cochrane and his review of Dias, J. (2000). Learner Autonomy in Japan: Transforming ‘Help Yourself’ from Threat to Invitation in Computer Assisted Language Learning, 13(1), 49-64. This article treats an action research project at a university in Japan, in the context of a speaking/listening class. Unfortunately, the article is not freely available, but nevertheless Cochrane gives a detailed synopsis of the findings and again highlights the importance of sensitivity to context in the development of learner autonomy. You can read his review here.

This brings us to the end of the 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival, which has brought together an interesting range of perspectives on the topic. I hope you’ve enjoyed this snapshot of ELT Research on a very topical issue in ELT If your interest has been aroused, I recommend also having a look at the following pieces of work, if you can get your hands on them:

  • Benson, P (2007). Autonomy in Language Teaching and Learning in Language Teaching vol. 40 /01. January 2007, pp 21 40. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

(An overview of all the literature related to LA up to the point of publishing!)

  • Illes, (2012) Learner Autonomy Revisited in ELTJ vol. 66/4 Special Issue. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

(A look at some of the very interesting and pertinent issues that emerge in relation to LA in this day and age.)

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

(A brave – and extremely useful! – attempt to synthesis and systematise the theories surrounding Learner Autonomy)

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

(A look at different approaches to realising learner autonomy as well as the importance of context and its influence on the approaches chosen.)

**Learner Autonomy Across Cultures is a great book if you can get hold of it, brings together a lot of interesting research and theory on the topic of LA

  • Vandergrift L. and Goh, C (2012) Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening. Routledge. Oxon.

(An in-depth look at metacognition, which also addresses the role it plays within the development of learner autonomy)

And finally, from the most recent ELT Journal, (an article I read yesterday and would have liked to review for this carnival if I hadn’t already done one on a different article!):

  • Humphreys, G. and Wyatt M. (2014) Helping Vietnamese Learners to become more autonomous in ELTJ vol. 68/1. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

 

In response to “Observations of an elementary language user”

As many of you know, I’ve been back in the “Elementary Language Learner” shoes since late September, which was when I moved to Palermo. Since then, Chia Suan  (who blogs for ET Professional) has written a couple of posts which deconstruct the teaching and learning mantras that many subscribe to, which I have read with great interest. You can find part one here and part two here. (Both well worth a read!)

I’ve also blogged about my experiences of language learning, including the difficulties I had with the language lessons I was lucky enough to attend for free, but subsequently gave up due to excess time commitments, and thoughts in relation to reading extensively. I found that being a language learner again has made me see what I do (teaching) in a whole new light. In view of this, Chia’s posts have made very timely reading matter! Having read the second one this morning and it being the end of the year (hurrah for holidays!), it seemed like a good time for some reflection on learning and teaching, in response to Chia’s posts.

Firstly, I would like to say thank you to Chia for deconstructing “eliciting is good”! I can remember all too clearly sitting in the class and wondering when the teacher would stop trying to extract language that we just didn’t have or wishing we knew what it was that was wanted. Getting blood out of a stone would surely have been easier. And it got worse when we’d be asked to repeat something that the teacher had elicited, so we thought ok, it must be correct, cool. *Then*, having repeated it, we’d finally learn that it was in fact wrong and be back to elicitation square one again. Reading Chia’s post made me breathe a sigh of relief – it’s not just me!

The other point in Chia’s post that jumped out at me is the final mantra she deconstructed: “Learners should commit themselves wholeheartedly to their language learning process and take responsibility for their learning. They should come to class everyday on time, do their homework, and seek out opportunities to actively use the language everyday.”  As Chia says, just because we teach language for a living, doesn’t mean our learners learn language for a living. Something I feel to be very important is to avoid trying to force anything on learners. Not only because learners are not just learners but people with lots of things vying for attention in their every day lives, but also because language learning is SO personal: one man’s meat really is another man’s poison. Rather than forcing anything on learners, we should be helping them discover what works for them. And sometimes that may be putting language learning on the back-burner for a spell as other things in life take over.

My school is closed for two weeks over Christmas now. I haven’t given my (adult) learners any homework, but in the last lesson I gave them some time to discuss with each other what they could do over Christmas to try and keep using English. They have some sheets with various activity ideas (that I gave them about a month ago, part of an on-going project) and these were used within the discussion. But even this was optional: the activity wasn’t framed as “You must choose x number of things to do and do them” but, having discussed why it might be a good idea to try and use English during the holiday (end-of-course test is not long after we start back again), “what do you think you’d like to try and do?” They all chose some things. They will all do varying amounts of whatever it is they have chosen to do. Some may not be able to do much of anything at all. And that’s fine. But what about those who don’t do anything? I hear you say. Well, they aren’t stupid. They understand how and why it would be helpful to use English during the break, just as outside of class during term-time. If they’re not able to use English over the Christmas break (family commitments, going away etc.) then that’s how it is – in Chia’s words, “that’s ok”. I think the majority of them will do something, some will do more than others, and every little will help. And for those that don’t, I don’t think forcing something on them would be helpful anyway.

Meanwhile, this elementary learner is in England for two weeks and needs (wants) to keep up her Italian. I haven’t got a course book with me. I’ve finished the first course book I was using, and plan to start another one in the new year, but for now I’m on holiday. So my Italian maintenance will mostly take the shape of reading extensively in Italian, blogging in Italian (I have a little private blog that so far has a grand total of 3 entries – only started it recently) occasionally, speaking a bit of Italian with my sister (she speaks a bit) and probably that will be about it. My main goal for these next two weeks is to relax. It’s my first holiday since August 2012! If were still attending classes and my teacher had loaded me with holiday homework and said I had to do it, I think I’d ignore it until the day before the lesson and then spend a few minutes rattling out as much as I could half-heartedly. I don’t think it would help much!

Long live being critical of teaching mantras, I say! I don’t know if there will be a part 3 to Chia’s ‘observations of an elementary language user‘ series of posts but I hope so! It’s so important for teachers to be able to empathise with what their learners are going through and put ourselves in learners’ shoes but so easy to forget and ask learners to do things or do things with learners that we, ourselves, would hate if we were them! E.g. bad elicitation. Or forcing them to learn in ways that just don’t work for them. Or teaching them useless vocabulary. As teachers, we (hopefully) know something about different ways of teaching and learning that may (or may not) work, but we shouldn’t assume we know best or that learners who don’t learn the way we think they should are deficient. I think there’s no such thing as an ideal language learner. It might be easy to say “the ideal language learner does x, y and z” but x, y and z may be hopeless for some learners, who may be much better off doing a, b and c. In which case, forcing x, y and z would be rather like square pegs and round holes… Rather than ideal, or less ideal, there are just differences. Many differences. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, as the human race is not a bunch of clones!

Vive la difference! 🙂

square peg

Square pegs and round holes? (Taken from google search “licensed for commercial reuse with modification”)

2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival: A Review of “Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Language Learning” (Godwin-Jones, 2011)

For my contribution to the 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival, whose theme is Learner Autonomy, I have chosen an article by Robert Godwin-Jones (2011): Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Language Learning in Language Learning & Technology vol. 15 number 3. October 2011. I have used Godwin-Jones’ own sub-headings to organise my review. Obviously this is only my interpretation of what Godwin-Jones has to say…

LEARNING TO LEARN

Godwin-Jones begins by highlighting the explosion of interest in learner autonomy that has taken place over the last ten years and the relationship between learner autonomy and developments in technology. He acknowledges, however, that learner autonomy, as a concept, substantially pre-dates the age of computing. Like the majority of articles, chapters and books published on the subject of learner autonomy, Godwin-Jones tips his hat to Holec’s work in the late 70’s and explains that learners plus “appropriate learning material” does not equal learner autonomy: necessary, too, are the skills, mindset and motivation that lead to successful independent study.

Godwin-Jones suggests that the development of effective strategies is insufficient without the willingness to reflect on and improve on these over time, as language learning progresses. He cites learner diaries as a traditional means of cultivating this type of metacognitive awareness and suggests that online writing tools such as blogs and electronic portfolios or online editors like Google Docs. He alludes also to the European Language Portfolio and LinguaFolio, and the role these could play in providing learners with “concrete evidence of achievement”.

THE TEACHER’S ROLE

In the second part of his article, Godwin-Jones moves on to consideration of the role of the teacher within learner autonomy. Within this section, he addresses the cultural aspect of learner autonomy, explaining that in a culture where learning is teacher-centred, both teachers and learners may find the role changes required unsettling. He also explores issues inherent in distance learning and learning management systems e.g. Moodle, in terms of learner autonomy, e.g. that the teacher is usually the sole decision-maker with regards to content presentation, organisation and expectation with regards to progress through a course.

A significant role for teachers as individuals, that he discusses, is that of enabler and motivator: teachers need to offer their learners advice regarding online tools and services. Teachers can also help by enabling learners to discover and evaluate tools themselves.

AUTONOMOUS, NOT ALONE

In the third part of his article, Godwin-Jones addresses the importance of a peer network in the development of learner autonomy. He dispels the myth of the autonomous learner as stuck alone in an ivory tower surrounded by materials and cites the prominence of the “social dimension” of learner autonomy within the literature. (Maintaining Control: Autonomy and Language Learning (2009) is offered as an example of this.). He quotes Edith Esch’s definition of autonomy, from her chapter in this volume, “autonomy as the capacity to exercise critical thinking about learning as a participant in a social milieu”.

He goes on to discuss computer mediated communication (CMC) tools such as Second life and tandem learning networks, explaining that teachers may provide initial guidance but ultimate success, in terms of utility, is dependent on the learners themselves. Allusion is also made to peer-scaffolding, in helping learners to become more confident and independent. Godwin-Jones also points out issues with CMC, such as exclusive focus on content at the expense of focus on language, while suggesting that a balance of focuses may be important in language development through CMC.

SELF-DIRECTED STUDY

In this section, Godwin-Jones moves on to consider CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) and its role in promotion of learner autonomy, flagging up the issue of getting learners to take full advantage of what is available and the importance of metacognitive knowledge in enabling this. He also discusses tools that enable experimentation with concordancing and the potential effects of such tools on learning.

He also explores mobile devices e.g. tablets and the effect these have on language learning choices, wondering whether the development of these will mean a shift from favouring print materials to preferring multimedia options.

OUTLOOK

In this final section the idea of personal choice is discussed initially in relation to mobile devices and then in relation to examples of learner autonomy that hold a socio-political significance. Godwin-Jones also reminds us again of the effect of culture on learner autonomy, stressing that it will “look different in different cultures”, and the importance of adaptation to these differences by the teacher. He concludes by identifying further areas of potential interest for research (as he does throughout) and expressing “a hope that more emphasis on autonomous language learning results in empowering learners, not sacking teachers”.

References:

Esch, E. (2009). Crash or clash? Autonomy 10 years on. In Pemberton, R., Toogood, S. & Barfield, A., (Eds.). Maintaining control: Autonomy and language learning. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

NB: A particularly useful element of this article is the inclusion of hyperlinks to the various tools discussed as well as a list of resources as an appendix. 

My own reflections:

Immersed, as I currently am, in learner autonomy directed projects, both as a teacher and as a language learner (currently learning Italian) I have found it interesting to return to this article and re-read it, contrasting it with other articles and book chapters that I have read. He seems to present the influence of culture as a potential barrier to learner autonomy, though he does make up for this by identifying that learner autonomy “will look different in different cultures” and that teachers need to adapt to this, which is more in keeping with Smith (2003), who outlines a strong version of learner autonomy that doesn’t view learners as deficient, lacking certain behaviours associated with a ‘successful autonomous learner’ but rather focuses on helping them develop their own ways of being autonomous. I think this strong version of learner autonomy has a lot going for it.

Returning, to Godwin-Jones, I do appreciate the dedication of a section of the article to the teacher’s role within learner autonomy: I agree, based on my own (albeit limited) experience, that the teacher does play an important role in enabling autonomy. Learner autonomy does not only exist outside of the classroom: what happens in the classroom plays an important role in the promotion of it. Equally important, also discussed in this article, is the role of learners’ peers in development of autonomy.

Godwin-Jones makes a brief allusion to the importance of motivation in independent learning. In some ways it seems obvious that the two are linked. However, obvious though it may seem, it may still be very useful to consider theories of motivation (e.g. Dornyei, 2013) when considering how to scaffold the development of learner autonomy.

It was also interesting to read about the issues with distance learning, as I am currently doing a blended course so can empathise with the issues from a learner’s point of view.

All in all, it is a succinct article, freely available, offering a lot of ideas to experiment with.

References:

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

Language barriers, helplessness and the “new identity” (Part 2)

On the 25th September, I wrote about my experiences of arriving in Palermo, the vibrant capital of Sicily, with virtually no Italian and getting to grips with being a below elementary level language learner again. I also explored the idea of the second language identity, as my experiences made me reconsider the idea of learners having a target language name to use in language lessons (and perhaps mentally when negotiating the target language environment!). You can find that post here. This post is an update!

I had a couple of comments on my initial post, which gave me the idea of asking my learners what *they* think of the idea. This appealed to me because previously I’d only heard the idea of target language learners discussed in terms of ‘giving learners English names’, i.e. the teacher makes the decision and chooses the names. Last night, in my first lesson with my advanced learners, I broached the subject towards the end of the class after we’d done some getting-to-know-you activities and found their response very interesting.

Firstly, to give a bit of context, this was a group of six learners (there should have been more but they were absent!), of whom 50% were comfortably middle aged (two women and one man) and 50% were teenage boys. Quite an interesting demographic for a class (we all thought, it came up in discussion at one point!). Anyway, I started by asking them if they had any experience of being given English names in any of their previous English classes (at IH, at school, at university, wherever they had learnt English before). The answer was a unanimous no. Neither did they know anybody who had been given an English name. I had expected more of a mixture of experience (purely because when I was a British Council language assistant in France, many moons ago, I worked in a few French primary schools and some of the French classroom teachers had given their learners English names for use in English lessons… :-p).

I then asked them if this was something they would be interested in, at this point fully expecting them to say “no” but soldiering on nevertheless because I’d brought up the subject so I had to see it through! However, they unanimously said they would like English names. (I did then explain the reason for bringing it up – i.e. how I’d thought having an Italian name, for learning Italian and helping along my experimentation with Italian words and sounds, might actually be quite a nice idea.) They also asked if I was going to give them English names, but I encouraged them to choose their own. Interestingly (to me), they all chose Anglicised versions of their own names. I say ‘interesting’ because when I thought about having an Italian name, I didn’t then look for the Italian version of ‘Lizzie’ or ‘Elizabeth’ – I looked at a list of Italian girls names, to see if I could find one that appealed. Thinking about it, that’s quite a nice compromise though – you get the other language identity but don’t quite relinquish your own in the process.

Of course, these are advanced learners studying in a non-English-speaking environment so it’s a very different scenario from my own. It’s also a different scenario from what it would be for their lower level counter-parts at this school. Why? Because they already have a strong command of the language. Nevertheless, they are interested and have chosen their names, so next lesson I must remember to use these English names and will be interested to see it how it goes and what they make of it all as the course progresses. I wonder if they will use their English names when (if?!) they use the class blog I have set up for them: they will all have access to it using a single user-name and password, so they will need to put their name in the title line to identify their posts as their own.  I haven’t broached the subject with any of my other classes yet – mostly because I forgot! – but may do in the next couple of weeks. It will be interesting to compare different classes’ (different ages, levels etc.) responses to the idea.

As for my Italian persona, well, I’ve dabbled. I haven’t fixed on a name but the concept of trying to be Italian, I have used a bit – for extra spoonfuls of confidence! And at least I can now manage with ordering food and drink, rather than running away empty-handed: progress!

Finally, my questions from the initial post still stand:

  • Have you given or encouraged your learners to choose different names/cultivate a second language identity before?
  • How did you do it?
  • How did it work out?
  • Also, what was your context? (Were you in the target language country or in the learners’ own country?)
  • Alternatively, have you ever tried adopting a ‘new identity’ of any description before, in learning a foreign language?
  • Ever taken on a different name for your language lessons?
  • Have you ever used any materials (as teacher or learner) that exploit the whole ‘second language identity’ thing? If so, which ones and how did you find them?

I really would be interested to know! 🙂