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)

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…

Extensive Reading (part 2)

In this post, I wrote about my own experience of extensive reading and reflected on the idea of getting students a) reading extensively and b) benefitting as much they can from it. Following on from this, I have attempted to start the ball rolling and get the pages turning (at the hands of my learners, of course!).

page turning

Let the pages turn! (Taken from advanced google image search filtered for “labelled for commercial use with modification”)

My experimentation thus far is informed by:

  • what I have learnt about learner autonomy (as well as the role multimedia can play in facilitating this).
  • what I have learnt about motivation.
  • what I have learnt about the relationship between these.
  • what I have learnt about theories of learning (particularly drawing on social constructivist ideas).
  • my own experience of extensive reading (as language learner and teacher) as well as others’ (e.g. the experiences related during a talk at a MATSDA conference this year).
  • reflection on the relationship between the implications all of these and the learners in my classes.

My goal is:

To get my learners reading regularly, over a substantial period of time (not a one-week wonder) and reaping the benefits of this. However, it is important that it comes from them, that they are doing it of their own volition not because it’s forced on them, not because Lizzie said so. Ideally, it should also be something they can enjoy. Of course, pleasure is multi-faceted…

For example, this could be pleasure that results from:

  • relaxation.
  • discovery/satisfying curiosity.
  • achievement/success.
  • overcoming a tough challenge.
  • finding something really difficult but persevering nevertheless.
  • feeling a sense of progress – linearly through the book and/or in terms of language learnt from it.

And the type of pleasure experienced, if any at all, is likely to shift regularly.

Why is pleasure important? I think because it is then more likely to be something they do long term rather than just this semester. (I read in French for pleasure still. And it keeps my language ticking over.)

My classes:

For now, I am focussing on adult classes. (Perhaps when I have done my IH Young Learner training certificate, which I am starting soon, I will think about how to set about this project with my low-level teenaged learners…!) I teach a mixture of levels (currently pre-intermediate, upper intermediate and advanced) and I am using a similar approach with all of these levels. I’m keeping track of what I’m doing with the learners and how they are responding over time by recording anything of interest/relevance in a 50-cent notebook. (The same notebook that I’m using to keep track of my experimentation with various multimedia tools for developing learner autonomy, as I think extensive reading can be an important tool for autonomous learning and autonomy is important in extensive reading.)  It’s early days but it’s already really interesting! (I think so, anyway :-p)

My approach (the beginning):

I started the whole process by putting the learners in small groups for a brief discussion about extensive reading (scaffolded by some simple prompt questions).

This enabled me to gauge:

  • their attitude to reading
  • what they already know about the benefits of reading for language learning
  • what approaches they have used and how well (or not) these have worked for them.

At both lower and higher levels, the learners had experience and ideas to share. Unsurprisingly, a mixture of approaches were discussed. Of course, they then looked to me to tell them “the magic way” but that was not to be…

I responded that:

  • all the approaches they had discussed were equally valid
  • all the approaches had different benefits/drawbacks.
  • varying the approach used could be the best way to gain the most benefits in the long term.

I think this was important to discuss, because there is a danger that learners may think there is only one “right way” of doing things (“I must read x type of book in y time using z approach, if I don’t I won’t learn anything”), and if the perceived “right way” doesn’t work for them, they may give up altogether, feeling that their way is wrong and therefore not worth doing. Whereas, there are, of course, any number of ways to skin a cat/read a book/learn a language.

They also wanted me to tell them what to read, so we discussed the benefits/drawbacks of:

  • reading a book that you have already read in L1 vs. a book you’ve never read before.
  • graded readers vs. authentic texts.
  • books vs magazines/newspapers.

I then gave them the task of finding something they wanted to read in English. The only stipulation was it had to be something they could read over time. So, a book, a book of short stories, a newspaper/magazine that they would read regularly (as vs. a single article). I encouraged them to find something that they want to read.

This, of course, is very subjective:

  • Some learners welcome the challenge of an authentic text (like me and Harry Potter in Italian – it may seem a ridiculous prospect, an elementary learner trying to read Harry Potter written for Italians, but it’s working! And, as it happens, one of my level 3’s has picked Harry Potter in English – which he says is difficult but he is enjoying it and wants to persevere – so far! 🙂 )
  • Some prefer the security of a reader graded to their level and will benefit more from this.
  • In terms of subject matter, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

I think that whatever learners choose to read, if the desire is there, they can gain something from it. Why? Because it will add to the all-important motivation to persevere. And perseverance = exposure to language in use.

The learners themselves had ideas of where to get hold of English reading material:

  • local bookshops
  • the library
  • online sources, for those with kindles
  • I also posted a link to the Gutenberg project on Edmodo for added inspiration.

My approach (further information):

Compulsory?

I did not make this project compulsory, but explained that once a week we would use ten or so minutes of a lesson to discuss progress/difficulties/approaches used etc. As we had already discussed the benefits, they understood why I was introducing this into their course and were receptive to the idea. I’m not forcing this on them, I’m offering it to them as a potential learning tool and scaffolding their independence in using it. A couple of students in one of my classes don’t want to read. So they are going to listen extensively instead. They are going to watch series/films in English with English subtitles on (so, a bit of reading too!). That’s fine. We’ll see – perhaps as the course progresses and the other learners who are reading share their experience of it and how it’s helping them, these learners may be tempted to experiment outside of their comfort zone. Meanwhile, any exposure to English is better than none!

Level?

With the lower levels, this discussion came the lesson after we had done a lesson of which part had focused on learning new vocabulary and the kinds of things you need to know about a word in order to learn it. This tied in quite nicely: Their homework was to find three words/phrases that were new to them, find out the type of information that we had looked at in class (collocations, prepositions, examples of different meanings of a single word where relevant etc. etc.) and post this on Edmodo, to share with the other learners. I put a link for the Oxford Learners Dictionary onto Edmodo for them to help them with this.

With higher levels, I have some other tools up my sleeve to try out with them, but meanwhile the project levels itself by choice of reading matter.

Autonomy potential?

Subsequently, I have told learners that I won’t set this vocabulary work as homework anymore but it is still something they can continue to do. It can also count towards their 10hrs guided study (learners at IH Palermo need to complete 10hrs of independent learning – any time they use English outside of class of their own volition i.e. not homework). Soon, I want to introduce Quizlet as a way of reviewing the vocabulary they accumulate. Over time, I hope to help them build up a range of ways to use reading material and any vocabulary they choose to extract from it. (I’m not dictating when or how often they should look up words, but between them there is a range of approaches in use, which I am encouraging and will continue to encourage experimentation with.)

I have also asked two levels (so far) – pre-intermediate and advanced – to set themselves mini-goals for their reading over the next week. It was their choice what their goal was, the only stipulation was that it should be small enough to be a realistic aim for one week of reading. Next week’s ten-minute discussion will enable them to share what progress they have made with their goals and consider how realistic they were in light of this. Hopefully, success with the goals will be motivating, in terms of the reading, and if any learners don’t achieve their goals (there are bound to be some), collaboratively (and with my help if necessary) they can work out why and adjust their goal-setting for the next week to make their goals more achievable while still challenging. This will hopefully avoid demotivation by guiding learners towards a way of enjoying a series of meaningful mini-successes rather than becoming dispirited because the end goal (the usual, vague “improve my English for xyz reason”) doesn’t seem to be getting any nearer. I’m doing this because I think motivation management is important for the development of learner autonomy and perseverance.

Conclusion

So, it’s early days but I would say a positive start: the learners are on board. For me, the next step is to help them sustain this motivation rather than get bored/lose interest/give up. Additionally, of course, I want to help them become more autonomous learners. This extensive reading project is one strand of that. I have a handful of ideas up my sleeve (in relation to this project and the larger learner autonomy project) and time this weekend (a three-day weekend, hurrah!) to reflect and formulate the next phase of my plan of action.

What’s next?

Well, if you want to know the results of these experiments (what worked, what didn’t, evaluation at the end of these learners’ current course/level, what else I did to try and make these projects successful i.e. the afore-mentioned ideas lurking up my sleeves), I think you’ll have to wait till my British Council webinar on learner autonomy which will take place in February next year, as conveniently enough my current adult classes mostly finish towards the end of January next year (except for one that finishes in December) – just about in time to round up what I learn, and package it suitably for sharing with others… 😉

Your thoughts?

Meanwhile, as usual I would be very interested to hear from anybody with any thoughts on all this. As I mentioned in my previous post, I would love to hear anybody’s experiences of trying to get learners reading extensively and independently, as well as of being a language learner and using extensive reading as a learning tool.

Extensive Reading (some reflection and a request for ideas!)

It is widely agreed that extensive reading helps language learning and we are always trying to encourage our learners to read, read, read…

reading_harry_potter__by_shadowhawk49-d5i09x0

It’s a good way to learn a language… (Taken from Google advanced search filtered by “free to use, share or modify, even commercially”)

I started reading in French when I was doing French A-level. I remember the first longer-than-course book-length text I read, which was a short story by Guy de Maupassant, set as summer holiday reading. I looked up many, many words and wrote the translations above/next to/below the words in the book. I remember the sense of achievement when I finally finished. Homework done, I moved onto Le Petit Prince, which was a lot less laborious and more enjoyable, with much less word translation. I was in France at the time, so I was reading only in French (had to be done!) I bought myself the audio disk of Le Petit Prince and listened to that repeatedly. (I just loved the story and hearing the words!) On a subsequent trip, I began my journey through what was then the whole series of Harry Potter – up to The Goblet of Fire. Later, I had to do a lot of reading for my university studies, but I still managed to fit in some pleasure reading when I was in France doing the compulsory couple of months there in the summer after the first year of studies – I worked my way through both enormous tomes of Les Miserables!

Old_book_-_Les_Miserables

Just a light read… (Taken from commons.wikimedia.org via Google advanced search filtered by “Free to use, share or modify even commercially”)

Looking back, the extensive reading worked well for me, but I think not as well/effectively as it is now that I’m doing the same thing here in Italy. I’m reading Harry Potter in Italian. I’m an elementary (if that) learner but I know the story and Italian has a lot in common with French, so it’s manageable. (I think with very different languages, it becomes a lot more difficult at elementary level – for example, I tried to read in Indonesian but found that very difficult, though at least it shared the same alphabet with English and had its share of imported vocabulary…) But unlike before, I’m not just reading: I’m reading to learn, I’m reading actively, I’m noticing everything I possibly can about how the language works. I’m comparing and contrasting how it works and the vocabulary with both French and English. I’m also using the English version to help me: I read some of the English version, then read it in Italian. I also do it the other way round, to have a go and then check my understanding.

It’s early days but within a relatively short period of time, my receptive vocabulary has soared and even my productive vocabulary is coming along. I also have a much clearer mental picture of the language. For me, the key to successful extensive reading has been in choice of text and approach.

Ideally the text needs to be enjoyable or motivating in some way:

I’m enjoying Harry Potter in Italian because it’s relaxing, being light-hearted, amusing and easy conceptually, and I’m free to focus on all the new (for me) language contained in it, a lot which, of course, is extensively recycled. I’m motivated by all the new language I’m discovering. Familiarity helps – you’d think it would be boring re-reading things but actually once you let go of reading to find out what happens next, it’s like spending time with an old friend i.e. comfortable and relaxing. I think that relaxation helps the brain be open to new linguistic discoveries. It also lowers as much as possible the cognitive demand of the content, freeing up my brain’s resources for linguistic matters.

In terms of approach:

 Shifting the focus away from “what happens next” to “how does this fit together?” is working well for me so far: noticing and then trying to understand, as well as experimenting with the new language. I find that the descriptive parts are useful for building up my vocabulary and seeing how things fit together, while the dialogue parts provide language to play with and attempt to produce. The experimentation won’t necessarily be at the same time as the reading – it often comes later when I’m walking to or from work, reflecting on what I’ve read most recently and playing with it in my mind. Sometimes that might just be mentally repeating a chunk, sometimes using a chunk as the basis for forming an original sentence of my own. I suppose it is inductive learning – rather than looking at a list of rules, I’m looking at language in action and inferring the way it works from that. I do also refer to my grammar book from time to time, though, to check my hypotheses. Contrary to how it might sound, it’s not a laborious process. And it gets quicker all the time, the more I learn. It’s also, I would say, a fairly autonomous learning process: I’ve chosen what to read, how to approach it (based on what I know should work), how much to read a day (limited by other commitments but little and often seems fine!) etc. I suppose it is also a heavily metacognitive process – I’m very aware of what processes I’m using to read and learn the language, and why I’m using these processes.

Why am I reading like this?

Because during my DELTA and M.A. in ELT, I learnt a lot about how languages are/can be learnt, which I’m now attempting to apply to my own language learning. Reflecting on this, I’m now wondering how I can use my own experience to help my learners a) do more extensive reading (because I really believe it helps) and b) become more autonomous and effective in their extensive reading. (I’m fairly sure that the way I’m doing it now is a lot more effective than the way it was when I first did it in French!) Of course, horses for courses. It won’t work for everyone – does anything? – but the trick is to help those learners find out what does work for them and to help those who it could work for but who haven’t tried it to discover it as an additional learning tool. I think this could be especially helpful for my learners here, who have 1hr20min lessons twice a week and little exposure to English otherwise. (This is why homework and guided study and PSP [Personalised Study Programme]/PSP Speaking  – which all encourage the use of English outside of class – are such an important feature of the courses at the IH here.)

I might start with a little questionnaire to find out what their extensive reading experiences have been up to this point, and take it from there. I’ve been experimenting with Edmodo and class blogs, which has been overwhelming positive (they are very willing!), so by and large they do seem to be the sort of learners who will give anything a go if they think it will benefit them. The motivation to learn is definitely there, it’s a case of harnessing it, or helping them to harness it.  I think helping them develop metacognitive awareness will also be key.

(Of course, extensive listening is another interesting avenue to explore but that for another time!)

Any ideas?

NB: we don’t have sets of graded readers and the school’s little library (a few shelves) is a rather eclectic mix of books! Time is also a factor – it’s racing by. One of my courses finishes in December, the majority  finish in January. My elementary teens and my 11/12 year old mid-level tweens, I have until the end of May (I believe) so a lot more time to play with there… (Though of course what may work for them will be different from what may work for adult learners.)

Please share your stories of trying to get learners to read extensively, both successful and otherwise: let me learn from your experience as well as my own! I’d also be interested to hear about how extensive reading has worked (or otherwise) for you as a language learner…

🙂

Some materials – at last! (Part 2)

I have just added another section of materials to my Materials page!

The materials are some of what I produced for the Materials Development module that I did as part of my M.A. in ELT at Leeds Met. The linked page contains further information and links to the materials themselves. I’d be interested to hear what you think (but understand that this may not be possible until I’ve uploaded the whole of the unit!) 🙂

I have now uploaded the second section of the unit – some reading and language focus – plus teachers’ notes. However, because I haven’t got copyright of the reading text – which is taken from Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man – I have blanked out the text. You could still use the sequence by sourcing the book and pulling out Chapter 14 pages 20-23 from “All right the bell has rung.” to “Just take the story and feel sorry for the kid and the mother with her countenance and, maybe, the dad, and not analyse it to  death.”  This follows on from the speaking section, which I uploaded previously.

Enjoy – and if you use them, please do let me know how it goes by commenting below or on the Materials page…