Learning Contracts and Language Learning (part 2): how I’ve used one and what I’ve learnt (other than a lot of Italian!)

On the 4th June this year, a day after I arrived back in the UK from la bella Sicilia, I considered the potential utility of learning contracts and then proceeded to make myself one, with the vague goal of maintaining my Italian while in a non-Italian-speaking environment:

This is my learning contract, dutifully copied and pasted into Evernote.

This is my learning contract, dutifully copied and pasted into Evernote!

And here are the research questions that I also had in mind when I made it:

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 19.43.10

I wondered…

I also promised an update regarding my use of my learning contract, and its effect on my learning, one month on. And here we are, one month on! That was quick. I am happy to say that learning Italian has become a regular feature in my days and weeks, despite the last two being swamped by induction into a new job and first week doing said job.

But the big question is…

Have I managed to keep to my contract?

Pretty well, yes!

There were two days in the first week where I didn’t manage to do my extensive listening, because I wasn’t organised and I was on the move. (By lack of organisation, I mean I hadn’t got as far as putting something in Italian on either my iPod or iPad, so couldn’t listen on the train, which was the only free time I had on those days.) Apart from that, I have mostly stuck to it. The first week was the most difficult because I spent several days not quite getting on with it. I was on the move, so even the easy bits like extensive listening weren’t easy logistically, and as for the rest, basically there were all these activities many of which I wasn’t in the habit of doing, and I just wasn’t sure which to start with. However, as the week wore on, I decided I had better pull my finger out and managed to do everything on my contract just in time. The second week and onwards, I’ve got stuck in right from day 1 of the week, and have managed to fulfil the contract with time and activities to spare. Except for Saturday 28th June, when I was at a conference and the train ride was spent finishing preparations for that, and on a bit of extensive reading, and the rest of the day was full of conferencing and catching up with one of my friends from my M.A. course who was also attending. Extensive listening fell by the wayside again! (Even though I had Harry Potter e la Pietra Filosofale on my iPad! If only the journey had been half an hour longer…)

Harry Potter is good for journeys - as long as there isn't a conference I haven't prepared fully for at the other end of the journey...

Harry Potter is good for journeys – as long as there isn’t a conference I haven’t prepared fully for at the other end of the journey…

I would give myself 97% success rate of sticking to the contract. (My maths isn’t great but there were lots of successful days and only three non-successful days.) Also, with regards to extensive listening and reading, on the majority of days I have done more than then stipulated 20 mins a day.

What difference has it made to my learning?

  • It’s pushed me to do a variety of activities which I wouldn’t otherwise be doing: and, in doing this variety of activities, over time, I’ve noticed how they can feed into each other and used this to my benefit. [And this is exactly what my Experimenting with English project is based on: encouraging learners to do a variety of out-of-class activities through scaffolding experimentation!]
  • It’s enabled me to do a lot of language recycling: I’ve noticed that language I pick up in a given activity (e.g. doing dictations) I sometimes meet in my input activities (e.g. extensive reading/listening) or I’m able to use productively (e.g. writing my blog or chatting on Facebook messenger)
  • It’s motivated me: If I didn’t need to do all those activities each week, I wouldn’t be waking up extra early to get something done before going to work, for a start! And I’d probably just be drifting along reading and listening a bit. Also, the noticing (bullet 1) has become another motivating factor – I love it when something I’ve learned from one activity crops up in another!
  • My  productive vocabulary is growing: for starters, I take language from input-based activities and use it, rather than just recognising it ad nauseum. Quizlet has become my friend, I put a lot of language into it and use it to drill myself. But I particularly like the mobile app, which I use on my iPad, and specifically within that, the learn function. It gives me a prompt and I have to type in the Italian. If I get it right, I get a green tick and it goes to learnt, but I have to get it right a few times before it goes to mastered. If I get it wrong, it highlights the mistakes and then corrects them. I like that because it makes the errors vs the correct version really visual. Eventually they all transfer to mastered and you get a percentage score based on your accuracy during the process. I have scored 100%…once! The increase in my productive vocabulary has helped me feel more confident in my speaking and writing. (Speaking in terms of chatting on FB messenger and in terms of recording myself speaking. I also chatter away to myself in Italian while cycling to and from work each day – but perhaps I shouldn’t be admitting to that! :-p ) I use Quizlet a lot more often than once a week now (most days in fact!) and have 6 sets so far:
My Quizlet Sets!

My Quizlet Sets!

  •  It’s given me a sense of control over my learning: I chose the activities, and how I fit them into my week is flexible. I think a week is a useful unit. It means you can have slightly more and less productive days, though by the nature of my contract some stuff needs to be done every day, as long as within a week you do everything you stipulated in the learning contract. The quantity of stuff encourages piecemeal chipping away at it. Also, by keeping a record of what I do each day, I know exactly where I am with my list and what I still need to do in any given week. I manage my study time accordingly.
  • It’s give me a framework for my learning, yet it is flexible: Since starting with my LC, I have experimented with activities not on the list too. For example, a trip to Foyles bookshop resulted in the purchase of a set of Italian Magnetic Poetry, which has taken up residence on my fridge. The first thing I did was classify them all into (from left to right) adjective stems, noun stems, verb stems, conjugated verbs, verb/other endings (I started out just with “verbs” but there were too many!), prepositions, articles, pronouns, adverbs, question words, conjunctions, and expressions/negatives. There were also a few I didn’t know what to do with (the column starting celeste) and the cluster I wasn’t sure of the meaning of (to the right). They were all mixed up on sheets that I had to break into individual words. This classification activity was very satisfying:
I particularly enjoyed classifying All The Words...well, nearly all!

I particularly enjoyed classifying All The Words…well, nearly all!

I have also used them to try and make actual sentences:


How many mistakes can you spot? :-p

I haven’t used them as much as I would have liked though. One of my goals for the next month is to experiment with them and try to find different ways of using them.

Buying this set of magnets got me thinking about word games in general, and that started a little trend. First I got out my bananagrams game and did some solitaire criss-crosses:

My first attempt!

My first attempt!

There is a cluster of useless letters to the right, which I had to remove, and then two letters I was unable to use. The canny amongst you will notice there are 2 “z”‘s there: that was a mistake – first I thought there was only one “z” as per Scrabble and thought there weren’t any words with only one “z” (I could only think of double “z” examples) and by the time the second one emerged I had forgotten about the first. In the second game, I managed to use up all but one letter:

Only one left out!

Only one left out! Although looking at the picture now, why didn’t I just make “tu” using the “t” in “ripete”?! I didn’t suss the whole “z” thing till game 3…

I didn’t complete these games in one go, of course. I just added a word here and there when I came up to my room (where the table is). My justification for these little forays: It’s all incidental use of language. I thought about Italian and Italian words slightly more than I otherwise would have done: couldn’t hurt. Also had me drilling myself with all the words I could think of, trying to find one which would match whichever letters I had at the time! And finally, it’s FUN! 🙂

I also picked up a very cheap set of Scrabble Fridge magnets. Now, there’s no room on my fridge (for obvious reasons) but that hasn’t stopped me using them to a play a very odd version of Scrabble:

Strange Scrabble

Strange Scrabble

It was fun to introduce scoring into the equation, however strangely the scoring worked. Of course, now I have a hankering to play real Italian Scrabble with an Italian Scrabble set and ideally an Italian opponent! 🙂

  • I’ve discovered more about how the activities I do can be useful. A good example of this is dictations: dictations are back in fashion these days, various versions (e.g. running, shouting etc. dictations) are popular in the classroom, and some websites offer learners the opportunity to use them outside the classroom too. I hadn’t thought about dictations as an autonomous listening development tool, but through using them myself, I have understood more about their potential, which resulted in this blog post. This is something I will be able to pass on to my learners.
A dictation: If you want to know what all the highlighting and colours are all about, click on the picture...

A dictation of mine: If you want to know what all the highlighting and colours are all about, click on the picture…

What have I learnt so far?

  • Variety is great: Doing a variety of activities increases exposure to language, productive use of language and recycling of language in different contexts. This can’t be a bad thing.
  • Regularity is great: Working with the unit of a week, and having a fairly lengthy list of activities, study periods need to be regular for me to get through it all. Little and often has worked well. (With the odd longer session thrown in on the rare occasions where time has permitted!)
  • Record-keeping is key: It’s so much easier to operate when you know what you’ve done and what you want to do within a given time-frame. Having a record of activities done (and lengths of time where relevant) is also motivating, as the list grows.
  • Reflection is satisfying: I did a written reflection each week, looking back on the week and what I’d achieved as well as how I felt about my progress. It’s very satisfying to reach reflection day each week and look back on a week full of activities and the new relationships emerging between said activities.
  • Activities don’t have to involve “meaningful use of language” to be meaningful and valuable: As long as there is variety and within that variety there are activities which do involve meaningful use of language, other activities e.g. Quizlet and dictations etc. have their place too. Both, for example, have improved my spelling! Quizlet has improved my recall, dictations have improved my decoding skills.
  • How activities interact is also key: Within a variety of activities, it’s helpful if you can link them together, and thus wind up doing a lot of language recycling. E.g. picking up a phrase through a dictation activity and then using it in a Facebook chat.
  • Real communication is hugely motivating: I’ve enjoyed several chats on Facebook, with an Italian IHPA colleague of mine. Chatting with C. has given me the opportunity to experiment with the language that I’ve picked up through other activities and get feedback on what I produce. It’s also been a lot of fun, nice to keep in touch, and the source of a lot of learning. As I said, I’ve taken language from other activities to the chats, but also vice versa – e.g. recording what I thought were “good” phrases on Quizlet and using it to learn them. I’m particularly lucky because she uses a range of error correction techniques, and for the majority of the time these a) make me think and b) don’t disrupt the flow on the conversation.

Goals for next month:

  • Continue following the LC!! It’s working so far, can it work for another month or will I lose interest?
  • Experiment with the magnetic poetry and figure out how to make it work for me.
  • Investigate Italian corpora/concordancing tools (they must exist!) and find one that works for me: when I learn new words, I often think it would be really useful to have an Italian version of www.wordandphrase.info to generate a bunch of examples of that word/chunk in use, so that I can see how it used, rather than only knowing what it means and say one example of use.

Conclusions thus far:

  • My first research question remains unanswered: a longer period needs to pass before I’ll know whether the LC has helped me maintain motivation over a longer period!
  • My second research question seems to have been answered positively thus far: Yes, I have managed to do what is on my LC and then some, and yes it has definitely made a difference!
  • For the naysayers: You could argue that the motivation is also coming from the fact that I really want this LC to work. But, on a daily basis, that isn’t what is motivating me – my motivation is mostly from enjoying the mixture of activities and using the language (which I love!), and from the satisfaction of doing what is on the LC and producing my lengthy record of things I have done, which lives in Evernote and is growing into a source of lovely smugness :-p :
The smugness of doing... ;-)

The smugness of doing.. 😉 [an extract from Evernote]

  • Overhauling my Experimenting with English project: Well, I was going to do this anyway, but now I have a bunch of activities that I’m very keen to add to the handout as well as more ideas for how to use it with learners! But that will have to wait until September when I’m back at good ol’ IHPA! (Meanwhile, I’m experimenting with applying my understanding and experience of learner autonomy development to a very different context: Sheffield University summer pre-sessional course, but that’s a whole nother blog post…)

Next update due: 5th August 2014: I shall report back on all my goals and progress with my LC then.

Meanwhile, have I convinced you to try using learning contracts/the concept of pushing experimentation with a variety of activities, either for your own language learning or with your learners? If so, let me know your thoughts by commenting on this post! I would also be interested to hear anybody’s thoughts on what I’ve been up to so far, whether or not you plan to try anything I’ve mentioned… 🙂

One little thing… (A guest post by Ceri Jones!)

A little over a month ago, I issued a challenge to all who read this blog. The challenge was to reflect on and write about a little thing that has made a big difference to your teaching during the last year. All was quiet and then sometime later, there was a flurry of discussion on Twitter 

Little things...

Little things…

little things...

Little things…

as a result of Sandy sharing my link on Twitter and Facebook. (Thank you, Sandy!) And this is where Ceri Jones comes in. Not only is this the first blog post written in response to my challenge, but Ceri also has the dubious honour of being the first person to write a guest post on my blog! I’m delighted to host her post here and hope she will be the first of many guests. Ceri is a teacher, materials writer (you may have seen her name on one of your course books! – Inside Out, Straight Forward, The Big Picture…) and also has a great blog , well worth a visit.

Here it is then, Ceri’s response to my challenge… 

I was sitting on a train using Facebook as a pacifier, when I came across this great blog post by Lizzie. It got me thinking. Then it got me writing. First to Lizzie in the comments and then in my little purple note book.

ceri pic 1

my little purple notebook – © Ceri Jones

One little thing …

Post-its used to be an essential part of my day-to-day teaching kit. I was teased about it, in fact, leaving little coloured squares in my wake wherever I went. But that was a long time ago. And I moved on and discovered other tools that obsessed me instead (scraps of paper, IWB slides, shared photos on my phone, voice recordings on our class blog.)

Then, a few months ago, I attended a workshop at a conference by a teacher taking the reverse journey, from technology to paper. And more specifically exploring the potential of post-its. It wasn’t her ideas as such (though she had some great ones to share) but the objects themselves that inspired me. And on Monday morning I bought a stack of post-its and took them into my beginners class. And alongside the whiteboard, the miniboard, the projector, and the blog, they became a new focus for collecting and organizing and revisting and recycling emergent language in our barefoot classroom.

My purple notebook started to bulge with them. The walls of the classroom were decorated with them. The photos from our classes were dotted with them. I don’t think it’s changed the way I taught as such, but it did refresh it and made playing with language (literally) more hands on.

Here are a few examples:

Post-its in action

Post-its in action – © Ceri Jones

In this class, the post-its helped us look back at what we’d studied last term, and look forward to what we wanted to do next. I’ve kept them in my notebook as a reminder.

ceri pic3-2

post-its and question words – © Ceri Jones

In this photo, taken in yesterday’s class, we’re revisiting question words. The students matched the words with their meanings. Then we took away the words and they remembered them from their meaning. Then we took away the meanings and remembered them from the words. Then we moved them around and regrouped them, comparing e.g. who, which and what, or how, how much, how many, how often. The little pink stack will come back to the table at the beginning of the next lesson again to be fingered and matched and moved around.

Ceri pic 4

question words in context – © Ceri Jones

Here the words have gone back into the context of the questions the students had asked in the lesson before. And later, after we’d followed the various tangents thrown up by the questions, they stayed on the board without their questions as memory hooks.

The colour and the movement and the manipulation makes the language, and the lesson, just that little bit more memorable. A little thing … but thanks for giving me the time to think about it Lizzie!

Thank you, Ceri!

I hope everybody enjoys Ceri’s post as much as I have.

If you would like to write a guest post in response to this challenge, or on a different topic (e.g. metacognition , language learning , your Delta/M.A. experiences , learner autonomy, a classroom activity you’ve used successfully… etc!) please do get in touch by commenting on this post or emailing lizzie.pinard@gmail.com.

In reply to David’s rebuttal: the future of language learning part 2

Firstly, I would like to thank David Petrie for this opportunity to debate and discuss that has arisen out of his thought-provoking post for the British Council Teaching English site and equally well-written rebuttal of my response to that post. For me this is one of the magic things about blogging: the opportunity to engage in critical, reflective discussion and debate on our teaching and learning beliefs, our pedagogies, our methodologies, with fellow members of the profession, so that much less of it becomes entrenched or gathers dust.

I will now respond to David’s rebuttal to my original points and weave in a few more points of my own along the way.

David explains that:

I certainly didn’t mean to imply that language is anything but social or used for anything other than a communicative purpose.  I don’t see, though, how this belief mitigates against learning in an online environment.  People do, after all, communicate quite effectively online. 

Absolutely. People do communicate very effectively online and language is used communicatively. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools are brilliant – I use Edmodo and blogs with my students regularly. However, does this use of language fully prepare learners for face-to-face encounters? I would argue that it doesn’t. Spoken communication and use of language involves so much more than words. Online communication recognises this: we try to bridge the gap between online and face-to-face communication by using emoticons ( 🙂 ) , abbreviations for paralinguistic devices (LOL! <sigh…>) [For more about this overlap between spoken and online communication, see my summary of Fiona Johnston’s talk at IATEFL this year: Write here, write now- developing written fluency ] and we manage most of the time – give or take a few arguments when tone is misread. However communicating in this way does not fully capture the diversity of spoken communication. For this reason, I feel that while online collaborative platforms are a valuable additional opportunity for meaningful language use, learning language exclusively through their use is insufficient. I think online learning may be better suited to content learning, which we are able to package in words and diagrams, rather than language learning, which is a lot more complex to package. (This perhaps being one of the reasons why technologically based language learning has seen lots of change and innovation, and is continually evolving, but has not taken over classroom-based language learning despite this kind of prediction.)

However, in addition to this, David argues that sites such as Vocaroo mean that speaking can be included in online learning too. Yes, again, absolutely. In response to this, though, I would like to highlight the difference between this form of speaking – making a voice recording, listening to someone else’s voice recording, responding to that voice recording in a further recording etc – and a face-to-face conversation. If you are not sure what I mean by this, record yourself and a few friends having a conversation. Now try and transcribe it. Can you capture the full meaning of what was said? How much code do you need to be able to do that? Do you notice how you pick up what your friends are saying, interrupt or overlap and complete their utterances? Do you notice the wide range of different tones used? What about non-verbal communication? How do you capture it all? Now how do you transfer that to online communication such as that done using Facebook messenger or similar? Spoken conversation is co-constructed and we have to co-construct differently online, mimicking spoken conversation but adapting to the different medium. Clearly it would not be possible to interact online using discourse analysis transcription coding to capture spoken communication – it would take far too long and be too complicated; beside which, until technology enables us to see what someone is typing as they type it, then mimicking interruptions and overlaps, as they happen in spoken conversation, are not possible in any case. So I would say tools such as Vocaroo are great for helping learners to practice speaking in terms of stringing words together fluidly and coherently over the piece of discourse as a whole, and certainly lend themselves to practicing presentations or other single-turn speaking, but they do not enable learners to practice genuinely conversing in real time in the target language. (And this, together with the social side of language learning, is why PSP Speaking and Thursday night English-speaking pub night are so popular with our students – they recognise that in order to use English more competently, as well as learning and developing skills, they need opportunities to converse in English.Skype and other similar video-conferencing software such as Adobe are another possibility, but even this is limited.

I would argue that since language began as caveman noises which in turn became utterances and developed into the complex form of spoken communication as we know it today, if learners want to learn language in order to be able to use it face-to-face, then they need opportunities to use it face-to-face in a supportive setting. If they don’t live in a situation/community/location that allows this, then the language classroom and, indeed, the language community of the language school, can provide such opportunities. Returning to the social side of language learning, I would also argue that online socialising is no replacement for face-to-face communication. As a friend of mine who is currently working in a small place, far away from friends and family put it, and I paraphrase, “I feel isolated. Having people on the end of a skype call is not the same as having them there with you.” To illustrate this further, would you prefer to spend the evening having a drink while talking with people in Second Life or similar and trawling Facebook, sat at your computer, or join those people for a drink in real life? Being able to communicate online is brilliant, and social media have helped bring like-minded people together from all four corners of the world, it is true (#ELTchat is one such shining example, as is the British Council Teaching English Facebook page); but think how excited we get at the prospect of attending a conference and talking to members of our online PLN in person! I believe there will be no small number of learners who feel the same way about their course mates. (I know I’d give anything to be back in a room with my fellow M.A. DELTA course mates of 2012-2013, for a good discussion, and our Facebook group just isn’t the same – as a small example!)

Well, despite the length of this blogpost, I’ve only scraped the surface of David’s second blogpost and there is so much more there to deal with. However, for now, work beckons and will be followed by a 3-day holiday from the computer, so you’ll have to wait a bit for the next instalment! 🙂

open clip art org

Computers are great but grrrr! 🙂 Photo taken from http://www.openclipart.org via Google image search labelled for commercial reuse with modification.


12 things I’ve learnt about language learning by being a language learner!

Italian and I…

We had barely met when I first arrived in Palermo. I called bruschetta “brooshetta” , pizzeria “pizzERia” and could barely string a sentence together. I had a few Memrise chunks – they meant I could ask where the vatican is (might have got some odd looks from the good people of Palermo if I tried that!*) and comment on the large number of taxies in sight, or surmise that something might be dangerous (me attempting to do anything in Italian, perhaps?) but when I went into a bar/cafe near where I work, I didn’t have the confidence to attract their attention or the language to follow it up with getting what I wanted.

I did have a few lessons but dropped out fairly early on because of a combination of lack of time and being driven slightly mad (much as it was interesting to see the classroom from the learner point of view!). I was, however, very motivated to learn, so worked my way through an A1/A2 coursebook and picked up some useful stuff and some less than useful (the only time I’ve needed to describe my daily routine at length was in a speaking test which formed part of an entrance test when I was thinking of joining a class again! :-p ). I’ve watched a load of dvds, films and series, with then without subtitles. I’ve read extensively. I’ve used what little language I have with various people. The latter three things I’ve kept up while the coursebook (the B1 version now) has fallen by the wayside. Though now that I’ve decided to do another year here, I have renewed my intentions to pick it up and continue…

I love Italian and have enjoyed the learning process thus far. Having just been on holiday around Sicily and having succeeded in putting my language to good use, I feel extra positive about it now! So I thought I’d pull together some things I’ve learnt on my journey as a learner up til now…

12 things I’ve learnt so far from my language learning:

  • 20 mins morning and evening is worthwhile. It must be-it’s all I’ve ever have time to do during the week and I’ve dragged myself from zero to A2 in my 7 months here so far. (In my entrance test I was one point off B1 for the written bit and my speaking was in the same general ball park). However, learners often think that if they don’t have an hour or so to spend, it’s not worth starting. Being busy people, finding that hour is, of course, difficult. 20 mins could be much easier! (I’ve a project under way currently to work on making small slots of time more appealing and likely to be used!)
  • Read, read, read! When I started Harry Potter one, I was looking up rather a lot of words and I also used a parallel English text alongside the Italian, varying which I’d read first; but now (I’m half way through Order of the Phoenix) I can read, understand and only look up the occasional word (or ignore it and read on!) Also, just because I was a (very) basic user, that didn’t mean I couldn’t start reading books in Italian. Familiar stories can be very useful for soaking up new language. My experiences of extensive reading have fed into my reading project.
  • I should listen more. I’ve done well with dvd films and series but I haven’t mined radio – took ages to discover I could get it through my ipod and plug that into speakers then promptly forgot ever to do so. (Internet radio is no go because I have a limited monthly data allowance which streaming radio would kill!) I really need to dig out my ipod again…
  • (Related to above point) getting into a learning routine is really useful! I automatically do my reading each evening (and often with lunch too); for a while (3 months?) I also opened my coursebook religiously each morning with my morning cuppa. Then it just becomes what you do as part of a day rather than an added extra that can be forgotten. How can we help our learners develop helpful routines?
  • Mapping to other languages is so helpful. French is related to Italian and I have reasonable French, which I’ve used to my advantage in looking for similarities and differences, both of which are useful memory aids. Not to mention just being really *interesting*! While on holiday, my aunt (who has good Spanish and French, but little Italian) and I (good French, basic Italian) were often making comparisons between these languages and also German (we both have a smattering of that too) for both of the reasons mentioned above. So, other languages should be welcomed in the classroom, I think.
  • I can do more than I perceive. Have just been on this holiday around Sicily, which involved doing a lot of taking charge, as my aunt and uncle, who travelled round Sicily with me, have little (her) to no (him) Italian. I managed. Including several phone calls! I found I had more vocabulary than I realised and could make myself understood fairly easily. When I first arrived, as I said earlier, I once went into a bar to try and get a slice of pizza or similar, but didn’t even have enough language to get their attention and was also too scared to say anything. Progress has definitely been made and that is hugely motivating! (Which underlines how important it is to help learners discover that they can use language – a bit like the budding readers in my classes have done with reading in English…)
  • Though I didn’t give myself another (Italian) name in the end (see my post about identity here), I’ve noticed that before I speak in Italian, there is a split-second moment where my Italian mindset slips into place, just before I open my mouth. It’s not a “how do you say xxx?” type switch, more of a changing channels to my Italian channel. Maybe this is slightly related to second language identity? (I have to become “Lizzie who CAN speak Italian”…) I’ve also noticed that I respond in Italian automatically when, for example, I bump into someone and need to apologise or what have you. Without thinking. So maybe the Italian mindset is on more than I realise, but when I speak with purpose, I become aware of it?
  • I have found myself at times trying to apply what I teach to my own learning, especially, for example, the metacognitive approach for listening to stuff, and at times going completely against it (e.g. all the words I looked up initially in Harry Potter!)  I have concluded that all is very useful to be aware of, but it’s important to feel the freedom to break rules too: language learning is so personal. Rather than tell a learner you should/shouldn’t do this or that, I’d involve them in a discussion about possible ways of doing things and benefits/limitations of each.
  • Living in a country doesn’t necessarily mean you do tons of speaking to native speakers, especially if you are low level. But nevertheless, being surrounded by the language counts for a lot. Even just in terms of reminding you to study :-p But also you hear it and see it regularly, even if you don’t do much speaking. When I went to UK at Christmas, I found it much harder to study, a) having lost my routine and b) being surrounded by English again. However, as time passes, and you become more comfortable in your use of the language, exploiting opportunities that DO arise becomes easier.
  • Losing self-consciousness and focusing on communicating definitely helps. A dash of necessity is useful in making this step. And when you are understood, and manage to do what you want to do, you feel dead chuffed! Again helpful to try and replicate this to some degree in the language classroom, at whatever level. (I think I’d have found it much more motivating to do a task where use of personal details was needed than I did the language practice activity I did have to do, which was pretty much a communicative drill. Not knocking the communicative drill, but maybe an extra task too…)
  • If you speak other languages, it’s good to try and maintain them while learning the new one. I read in French regularly – generally every evening after I’ve done my 20 mins of Italian reading. (I have a 40 min piece of music that is neatly divided into two sections, so no clock watching needed!) I think a) it’s nice not to lose the previously learnt language and b) it must be good brain gym switching between languages!
  • If you learn a new word, it’s like making a new friend – in a crowd of other words, where before it would have been just part of that “sea of faces”, once you make friends with a word, it stands out. E.g. I learnt “condividere” today and then overheard some random Italians speaking and picked out that word amongst others. (Was I primed to notice it by having focused on it earlier in the day?) But like human relationships, if you only meet someone once, you may then forget their name/face and need reminding at the next meeting, when you know you know them from somewhere but can’t place them. (Which is more likely to happen when you meet them out of what you perceive as their usual context)

And last but not least, though more being reminded than having learnt:

How much I love languages, language learning and language teaching! 🙂

(* I know – I can substitute other things too…)


La bella Italia – Italian flag: from commons.wikimedia.org – licensed for commercial reuse with modification

What about the social side of language learning? (In response to David Petrie’s “The Future of Language Teaching”)

In his post for the British Council Teaching English website, David gives us a futuristic language teaching case from 2034, study drawing on currently existent technologies and their potential uses. His closing question is,

“Do you think there’s a role for the language school? I’m not so sure.”

But what about the social side of language learning?

In the private language school where I currently work, adult learners jump at the opportunity to do things in addition to their classes e.g. Reading Group, where they read and discuss a given graded reader periodically, and PSP speaking (an hour of mixed-level English conversation) or English-speaking Thursday nights at the pub. Who do they attend with? For the latter two, it is open to any level, and learners often sign up to join with, or in the case of the pub, just turn up with, other members of their class. 

Their language classes are not only about language learning – though clearly this is key! – but also 2 hours and 40 mins to 4 hrs a week (depending on their course intensity) doing something with a group of friends, some of whom have been met in previous courses at the school, some of whom are classmates (for YL, teens, university students), with new friends made each course too, as new learners join, others leave and so the classes evolve. They enjoy being in each other’s company twice or three times a week, in the classroom, learning English together. Perhaps it should be no surprise: after all language evolved because humans are social creatures. The benefits of this in terms of language learning are, of course, the pair –  and group – work potential that is there to be mined, the collaboration, the opportunities to learn from one another, for a start.

Young learners, meanwhile, learn a lot more than language when in the classroom – they learn social skills, cognitive skills, motor skills and so on. And they have fun, too! Would they be there if their language learning at school were super effective? I’m not sure. But I do know that we don’t only have kids in need of remedial help in our YL classes. We have a mixture of brilliant kids/teens, average kids/teens and kids/teens who do need lots of extra help. To me this suggests that they don’t only attend because school language learning isn’t good enough. Some of them love English and learning, some of them doubtless are there because their parents think it is a Good Thing. The latter may start classes because of that and discover that they love learning too.

Perhaps for people who are learning English purely to get ahead in their job, David’s vision is a possible futuristic avenue. (Though I question if after working all day using a computer, as many might, they’d want their language learning to be purely computerised too?) Either way, for people who learn as a hobby, or as part of a holiday, or who combine it with socialising outside of work/school, for whom English is important but who want to use it to speak to people face to face (or on the phone!), technology is better off in a more ancillary role.

For me, the future of language learning still involves groups of people coming together to use and explore language. And the delicate in some ways, robust in others, ecosystem of the classroom, that “small culture” (Holliday, 1999), is part of this. The language school is another small culture, within which that classroom culture operates and by which it is influenced, as is the university language teaching centre, or the primary or secondary school and the languages department within it.

Does this make me a technophobe? Insecure about my future as a teacher? I hope not. I just think there is room for all. And perhaps technology, as used in David’s case study, will make language learning accessible to *additional* learners and become an additional option, rather than becoming a replacement. I think that as far as technology is concerned, as with language teaching and learning methodology, there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as Michael Swan would say. I think we should build on what we have rather than lopping off entire aspects of it.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater! Image taken from google advanced image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification (source: www.wikipedia.org)

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Image taken from google advanced image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification (source: http://www.wikipedia.org)

What do you think?


Holliday, A. (1999) Small Cultures in Applied Linguistics vol. 20/2 pp. 237-264. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

STOP and reflect: A four-step action plan for lesson reflections

Last year, I did a guest blog post for the British CouncilVoices” website, after winning the Teaching English blog of the month award. I wrote about using reflection as a tool for developing your teaching. (You can read the post here.) I’ve recently revisited that post and have now created a visual that succinctly captures the (hopefully!) snappy little acronym I created for it.

The acronym is:


Step back; Take stock; Open your resources; Plan for next time

Let me know what you think! 🙂 (And compare what the visuals make you think with what I actually wrote in the blogpost linked to above!)


Step Back


Take Stock


Open your Resources


Plan for Next Time

Little thing, BIG difference! (A reflective challenge)

I had to complete an appraisal form recently, in which one of the questions asks about input from workshops and feedback from observed lessons, and whether you’ve implemented this or not. At IH Palermo we are lucky enough to have workshops timetabled in to our week on a regular basis (once every two weeks) as well as formal and informal observations, both of which are developmental. In addition to the two formal observations I’ve had as part of the in-school development programme, I’ve also had four further observations due to doing the IH Young Learners and Teenagers training certificate. A fairly predictable result of this is that as well as experimenting with all (not all, I’m working on it but there’s a heeeeuge amount to be going on with!!) the theory I was exposed to during my M.A. in ELT with integrated Delta at Leeds Met and what I’ve added since through my own reading and exploration, I’ve been systematically incorporating things picked up, both from workshops and all those many observations.

Following the reflections required by the above-mentioned form, I’m going to share one of those things with you now. Just one. One tiny one. And, as you can gather from the post title, it’s a tiny thing that has made a BIG difference! Once you have read mine, I invite you to share something of your own (as a post on your own blog – post a link to it in the comments section of this post so that everyone can have a look – or simply comment on this post) that you have tried out during the last year and which you have found makes a difference.

To stand or not to stand? That is the question! Teacher position in the classroom…


And it’s a question I didn’t ask myself until after my first formal observation here, when my DoS gave me the post-observation feedback. It had been an adult class of pre-intermediate learners. He told me I tended to tower a little over the students when monitoring. I was a bit confused. So my DoS stood up, came round to my side of the desk and demonstrated: first he stood next to me and spoke, then he squatted down next to me and spoke. That visual explanation made a powerful impact. He then suggested I also try sitting down more in general – for example when doing feedback or during discussions. I went away and duly tried this (both monitoring from lower down and sitting more), and other things that had come out of the observation feedback, and found this eeny weeny-seeming little thing of teacher position made a really big difference. It created a more intimate atmosphere in the classroom. The level of banter increased. And, I suspect, the learners left the room with less of a crick in their necks than previously! 😉


For some reason, though, I only tried it with my adult classes. Fast-forward some number of weeks and I was observed teaching teenagers, for my first observation on the YL course. It hadn’t occurred to me, for some reason, to transfer this particular feedback gained during my adult class observation to my teenager (13-15 year olds) classes. This came out in the feedback, and off I went to implement it. To sit down at suitable moments. Again, it led to a much more relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, with my teenagers being more willing to speak up.

Young Learners

Fast-forward a few more weeks (months?) to another YL observation, different observer, different age group. This time we’re talking 10-12 year olds. You don’t sit down for them, right? Well, I didn’t anyway. No. In fact, I made them all dizzy with the amount of time I spent moving around, including when I was giving instructions. Again, during the feedback, this observer also suggested I might like to sit down more in my lessons. I wasn’t convinced, but I was hellbent on implementing all the feedback and sorting out my YL teaching. And hey, guess what? It made a difference. With my 10-12 year olds, sitting down while I gave them instructions (in combination with having moved their desk-chairs closer together to make a smaller horseshoe) helped them to focus better while I was giving them instructions. Why? Their eyes weren’t moving around all over the place following me, and getting distracted by other more pretty things on the walls or on other students’s desks etc in the process. Spending more time at their eye level in general (both in terms of sitting and monitoring) has also decreased the distance between us, making, again, a more comfortable atmosphere in the classroom. I see less of the tops of their heads, they see less of my waist and chin – everyone’s a winner!! :-p

Over to you!

I challenge you to reflect on what is it, what little thing, has made a big difference to your teaching during the last year. And I look forward to hearing about it! 🙂