IATEFL 2015: Structured Reading Tasks for Using Authentic Materials to Teach Academic Skills – Dr Barbara Howarth

Another academic session! 

Barbara Howarth is from Glasgow International College in Scotland. The approach she is talking about originates from Edward de Chazal. She works in a pathway college – students there are aiming to get into university, they aren’t there yet. This could be pre-masters programmes, science and engineering students. They teach a range of academic skills.

In the “research project” module (a min. of 5.5 IELTS score in reading  and IELTS 5.5), students get 20 weeks and they are aiming towards writing a research project based on secondary research. 10-15 students per group. Materials are provided. Within these are a number of authentic texts. The overall approach is a task-based approach and reading is integrated into this. The form of assessment is an 8000 word written report and a poster presentation. The students choose their own topic.

(So this is similar to what the Uni Sheffield students I teach have to do, except my students get about 8 teaching weeks to produce a 2000 word written project based on secondary research. They also give an oral presentation on the same project.)

A 12-step approach 

<For a list of all the steps see handout page 1>

The rationale is to grade the tasks and present them in a logical order, so that students are taken naturally through the reading process. Work with these tasks repeatedly so that a level of automaticity is developed.

Step 1:  Bibliographical details identification

It’s very important that students have bibliographical details for any text they are working with. So getting them to highlight the relevant information is a straight-forward task to start with. However, issues can emerge, such as lack of issue number on the front page, but if you look in a database, you can find the issue number. To deal with this, use follow up homework tasks to get the students into the library and databases to find such information.

Steps 2 and 3 (see the handout)

Step 4: Labelling abstracts.

Starting to think about information and what type of information is in this text. One element is the abstract/summary, another element is the analysis. This might involve the results but for these to make sense, you need to understand the aims. They need to be interpreted, so you need to draw conclusions i.e. evaluate the findings. So the task at this stage is for students to label an abstract. Show them a model first. Things that aren’t straightforward for students: The aim sits within the method. Sometimes its difficult for the students to label up the aims.

Up to this stage, we have mainly been previewing the text – bibliographical details, what kind of information is in there, how it is structured. Basic things but things that are necessary in order for the students to approach meaning.

Step 5 (see handout)

Step 6 Meaning

The aim of the task is to write a summary. The abstract is a summary, yes, but what is the point of the whole paper? The main point will correspond to the aims of the paper. The main points are determined by these. In the example paper, there are two aims – to analyse the carbon sequestration and to simulate the potential carbon sinks. Important for students to identify these and break them down. Getting them to copy bits of information encourages them away from the laptop. In this case, the aims. Anything they copy should be denoted by quotation marks and include a citation. So this gives them the main information with other distractions removed. The example summary is a two-sentence summary reflecting the two main aims. Insisting on reduction of number of words encourages paraphrasing.

Step 7 and 8 (See handout)

Step 9 Language

Language is a means of expressing meaning. So the language that you choose to look at arises from the steps that have preceded. E.g. in this case, the language of analysis, relating to the informational elements in question. This task is a categorisation task – identifying topic-related vocabulary (e.g. carbon sequestration, forestation) and vocabulary related to analysis (e.g. rate, applied to, empirical growth curves) Then divide the vocabulary up into word type. Follow up work could involve the Oxford Dictionary of Academic English. All the words identified are present. Underlined words are head words. Red words are on the AWL (Coxhead 2000)

Step 10: Critical thinking and evaluation

After dealing with meaning and language, students are in a position to start engaging with slightly more higher order cognitive tasks. E.g. discussion questions. Students need to learn that they need to justify their opinions. Another task is to look at conclusions and relate them to the results, and realise that they contain an element of evaluative judgement.

What Barbara has seen

Students go from the state of being buried in their laptops and make a transition into being really thoughtful readers. That change may be brought about by giving the students a structured step by step that they can use, working from simple to more complex tasks necessary in academia. The magic moment for Barbara is when she hands out a reading text and students automatically start to apply the process – e.g. highlighting the bibliographical information.

There will be a link to the handout here (once I have photographed and uploaded it!)

An interesting session! And a reminder that I STILL need to get round to reading de Chazal’s book that has been sitting on my kindle since last year… 

reading glasses pixabay

Let’s read! Image taken from Pixabay.

 

Valentine’s Day Lesson Idea/plan + materials

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

Image from wikicommons.org licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Image from wikicommons.org licensed for commercial reuse with modification

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the materials I used:

And here is the holiday that won!

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

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

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

Autonomous learning (4) – Graded Readers

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

What?

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

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

 Choosing a Graded Reader

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

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

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

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

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

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

Getting Started

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

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

Different Approaches

Here are some approaches a learner could use:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graded Reader Activities

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

There were:

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

Comprehension activities

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

Language focus activities

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

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

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

Productive skills focus activities

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

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

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

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

Other Activities

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

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

Is it extensive reading?

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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.

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! 🙂

Minor achievements, major gains

Last Friday evening (it’s been a busy week!), I took myself out to dinner. It’s become my Friday treat here – a meal out, on the way home after work. It means the weekend has arrived! Usually it involves some degree of stuttering and feeling annoyed with myself, because I just can’t summon up the language I know I have, when I actually need it. (Ten minutes later, no problem – by then I’ve usually got it :-p)  That time, however, for the first time, I did everything smoothly and appropriately! A very minor achievement, ordering a meal in a restaurant, asking for various condiments, dealing with between-course exchanges (I had some rather lovely seasonal fruit for dessert) and post-meal bill-sorting exchanges, but a real confidence-booster. Last night, I went back (it’s my Friday night restaurant, so sue me!) and felt confident – I’ve done it before, so I can do it again! – and upped the challenge: this time I decided to try adding some small talk too and managed to do so. No philosophical discussion, but baby steps, just baby steps…

Dornyei’s (2011)  Motivational Self-System has three components, the third of which relates to the L2 Learning Experience.  This third component draws attention to the role of the learning environment within motivation and within this component, the “experience of success” (Kindle edition loc 1848) plays a role. Motivation, of course, is not static. Part of a dynamic system, as Dornyei explains motivation is now considered to be, it is in constant flux, affected by both internal and external factors (ibid: loc 5013) This theory of motivation makes me picture the classroom as a cauldron, motivation (of various types) AND demotivation (ditto!) bubbling away within. The question then arises of how we can help learners, as a group, to harness all these different positive energies and enable them, in combination, to be stronger than the negative energies, both at that time and outside class, when they are doing various activities using English.

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A cauldron of motivation and demotivation, bubbling away… (Taken from Google search licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

One of my learners came up to me at the end of class today, for me to sign her guided study form. The exchange went something along these lines: S: “I finished my book”  Me:”Yay! Did you enjoy it?” S:”Yes my first book in English! So I’m very happy!”  Me:”That’s brilliant! Are you going to read another one?” S:”Yes, definitely I want to!”. (I’m not sure who was more delighted – her or me! 😉 ) Is this a minor achievement? Some might argue it is (not me!). Either way, the gains are massive for this learner, in terms of confidence and motivation, which will hopefully last until the next “minor” achievement. Adam Simpson wrote a very interesting blog post about motivation in the classroom, and how a lot of  it is down to the students, as individuals and as a group, rather than the teacher. I fully agree with his post (and, like him, feel very lucky to have some super groups of learners to work with! 🙂 ); however, I think the teacher can have a positive influence on the evolution of motivation: perhaps as well as scaffolding language learning so that learners can experience – and be motivated by – success in their language use in the classroom, we can also scaffold their development of approaches to learning language out of class-time which enable additional success/achievement outside the classroom. As with my student from the example above. Perhaps part of learner autonomy is enabling learners to find ways of being successful in their own language learning outside of class, as part of their own motivation management, be it in choosing, reading and finishing a book, or in choosing and successfully completing other language use activities, and setting their own goals in doing these things. The teacher doesn’t create/generate or manage the learners’ motivation, but helps them do this themselves.  I believe that what happens in the classroom can play a key role in this, in various ways. Starting, of course, with the learners themselves and what they bring to the table between them, as a group.

This  can create additional work for the teacher, certainly at least initially, but it’s so worth it when you enable students, like the one mentioned above, to read their first book in English or find “a new word: English Lettereture (sic)” (from a student feedback form, different class).  However, I’m going to refrain from launching into an in-depth discussion of exactly what I’ve been doing with my learners and the feedback I’ve had (entailing plenty of food for thought for me!) – for now, anyway! After my I’ve done my British council webinar, I imagine I’ll expand on the simplicity of the reading project (as a follow-on to Extensive Reading Part 2) and other threads of learner autonomy development that I’ve been attempting to weave through my classes. (Disclaimer: There will be nothing earth-shattering!! There is no panacea…)

For now, for a warm fuzzy end to this post, I’d love to hear about your last “makes it all worth it” moment! (I want to bottle them all to get me through the final tests marking/reports/admin hell that comes next week! 😉 )

References:

Dörnyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (2011). Teaching and researching motivation (2nd ed.). Harlow: Longman.

Reading in L2, Running (and Yoga…)

When I went home for Christmas, I set myself the target of reading in Italian at least a little bit every day. I succeeded, but it was quite a struggle: obviously there were plenty of distractions – people to see, things to do, places to go… Some days I read only for a few minutes, one or two pages. On the days where I had some relaxation time built in, I managed a bit more, though other books (about learner autonomy and about motivation) also clamoured for attention, as did actual relaxation ( :-p ). I also set myself the target of getting out running as often as possible, to try and get back in the habit of it so that on returning to Palermo, I could kick-start some healthier habits than I had got into by the end of last term. Due to afore-mentioned lack of healthy habits last term, this was difficult. I knew it would be hard work, so I had to really push myself to get out (and stay out!). As the holiday progressed, and the little running outings added up, it became easier and I began to look forward to it again. I’ve only been back in Palermo just under a week but I’ve been running 3 times and have another running outing planned for tomorrow. As for the reading, I’m back to my usual 20 minutes in the evening, plus ten minutes or so during my lunch break, each day.

So what has the one got to do with the other? And where does Yoga fit in?

It’s all about there being no substitution for actually doing it.

  • If you don’t read in L2, run, or do yoga regularly, they all get harder. And it gets harder to motivate yourself to do them because you know it will be harder due to how long you’ve spent not doing them. You also get slower (reading, running) and stiffer (yoga), which again makes it less enjoyable, which negatively affects your motivation to do it next time.
  • Conversely, if you get in the habit of doing them regularly, they are enjoyable, you are able to do enough (succeed sufficiently) that you feel motivated, and they do you good (in terms of language learning or health). That they are now enjoyable also means you feel motivated to do them more often.
  • Setting targets can be helpful in terms of actually making you do any of these activities and it can add to motivation each time you meet such a target. (This week, my running target is 27k – I’ve to do 10k tomorrow in order to meet that target, so I shall see if I can still run that distance! For my learners, setting reading targets has been useful.)

Following my own reflections, I put the question to my Upper Intermediate class, as a warmer:

I divided my learners into in groups and asked them to brainstorm similarities between running and reading, giving each group an opportunity to summarise their ideas for the rest of the class. They came up with some interesting ideas:

  • If you get bored of running the same route, you can change your route, while if get bored of reading, you can change your approach to reading. (We’ve previously discussed different ways of reading and pros/cons of each, validating learners’ approaches and encouraging experimentation with different approaches, so I was pleased to see this aspect brought up spontaneously by them in this discussion, with no prompting from me!)
  • In running, there are many different types of shoes you have to choose the right pair of shoes for yourself in order to enjoy running and get what you want out of it. In reading, there are many different kinds of books and other things to read that you have to choose from and in order to enjoy it, you need to find the kind of material that is right for you. (This made me happy because at the beginning of the term, there was a lot more insecurity re what “should” we read, what is “correct” etc. and we discussed pros and cons of different types of reading material and I emphasised the importance of what they read being what they WANT to read, and now they are much more confident in choosing material that they actually enjoy for their extensive reading)
  • The more you run, the faster you can get and the further you can run. The more you read, the more you will be able to read in a given time (i.e. your reading speed/fluency will increase as well as your stamina).
  • Some people prefer running alone, some prefer running in groups. With reading, some people prefer doing it independently while others prefer the social aspect of being part of a book club and sharing the reading experience that way. Some people like to discuss what they are reading, others aren’t bothered about doing that.

What would I do differently next time? I’m planning to do this little discussion activity with another group of mine, with whom I have also been doing my reading project, but I think this time, after letting them brainstorm (so that I don’t influence their ideas initially, as I am very interested in what they come up with by themselves), I will feed in a few prompt words e.g. goals/targets, motivation etc, and see if they can also identify some of the ideas that I had. I will also elicit the metacognitive purpose of the activity – reflecting on different qualities of reading in order to compare it with running and raising awareness of the importance of frequency/regularity in order to benefit. I attempted to do this with my upper intermediates, but when they didn’t generate the ideas I was after, I explained it rather than guiding them to it. As ever, room for improvement…

Why am I using valuable class time for this kind of discussion? To encourage valuable collaborative reflection on learning – in this case, reflection on the reading process – which feeds into development of awareness and autonomy (in terms of the choices they make, and how this changes over time, with regards to their reading, which also continues to be collectively reflected on). I would say it was successful to an extent – it certainly brought out some interesting points (including things that I hadn’t thought of, when I had thought about it myself in relation to my own L2 reading), which showed that my learners have gained from everything we’ve been doing in addition to learning all the required content. It’s also interesting, as I have been pondering the issue of collecting useful feedback with regards to my various projects, as the courses are all nearing their end, and this has unexpectedly given me some extra food for thought. However, as mentioned above, I will be making changes to how I do it next time I do it! 🙂

And now a question for you: Would you use this discussion activity with your learners? How would you change/adapt it? …Or do you think I’m just bonkers? 🙂

no running in the library

Nooo…. 😉 (Image taken from Google image search, licensed for commercial use with modification)