5 ways of using Edmodo with language learners (part 2)

In part 1 of this series, I shared 5 ways of using Edmodo with language learners to make homework more interesting. In this post, I will focus on ways of using Edmodo with language learners, to support the development of their language learning autonomy. This post extends what I spoke about in my webinar on developing Learner Autonomy, offering a similar mixture of initial theory followed by practical ideas for using Edmodo.

Introduction

In my current context, learners are obliged to do ten hours of private study over the duration of the course, in order to pass. With classes that only happen twice a week, in most cases, out-of-class study is vital for good progress to be made and I am fully in favour of this component of the languages courses here. However, I would argue that this obligation requires autonomy rather than scaffolding it. Indeed, “…fostering autonomy does not mean simply leaving learners to their own devices, but implies a more active process of guidance and encouragement to help learners extend and systematise the capacities they already possess.” (Benson, 2011:91)  When faced with the requirement of private study and left to their own devices to fulfil it, some learners may just default to doing language practice activities online or watching films in English. This may be particularly true of those who are new to language learning and do not yet know many different ways of helping themselves learn outside the classroom. Of course there is nothing wrong with either activity in the above example, and learners may find that these work best for them. The important thing, I feel, is that this be an informed decision based on awareness of alternatives rather than a default position.

Theories of, and perspectives on, learner autonomy abound (for an overview of different perspectives, see Oxford, 2003).  The sociocultural perspective is the one I have chosen to use in my work with my students, with its “central interest in the roles of interaction and social participation in the development of learner autonomy” (Borg and Al-Busaidi, 2012:5). In terms of methodology, I prefer Smith’s (2003) “strong” approach, which works on the assumption that learners are autonomous to different degrees and attempts to work with them to “create the atmosphere and conditions in which they will feel encouraged to develop the autonomy they already have” (Benson, 2003:305). This contrasts with a “weak” approach (Smith, 2003), which is based on a deficit model in which learners are viewed as lacking certain behaviours, which must be transmitted to them. Autonomy within this perspective, then, is a product of instruction and a deferred goal (ibid). A “strong” approach starts with what learners bring to the table and addresses issues, raised by critics of the concept of learner autonomy, with regards to its appropriateness in different contexts. By developing an approach with the learners, the methodology is what Smith (2003) describes as a “becoming appropriate methodology”.

But where does Edmodo fit into this? Well, Edmodo, as a collaborative space for learners, can be used in conjunction with giving them a handout with range of ideas for them to try, some of which entail using Edmodoand providing opportunities in class for learners to reflect on and discuss what they have tried, how useful they found it, as well as why, and what they would like to try next, setting personal goals along the way. These discussions needn’t last for too long (for those who are anxious about using class time) and provide a valuable opportunity for building motivation, by enabling learners to help each other with any difficulties met along the way (group trouble-shooting!) and sparking interest in terms of trying ideas that classmates have tried. In my experience, learners are proud to share what they have achieved and interested in what their classmates have done, as well as generally able, between them, to resolve problems met by a member of their cohort. The metacognitive element inherent in reflecting on one’s own learning and discussing it with others is also invaluable in the development of person, task and strategy awareness (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012).

Here are five ways that learners could use Edmodo, within the framework described above, to further their own learning, in doing activities that are not set for homework and to complement other activities, using English, done in their own time.

5 ways of using Edmodo

1) Article sharing and discussion

This activity gives learners the opportunity to express their thoughts, opinions and ideas related to a newspaper or magazine article and see what others think. This uses both receptive (reading) and productive (writing) skills, and enables authentic, communicative use of language between students outside of class time.

  • A learner finds an article that he or she thinks is interesting and posts the link to Edmodo, along with a short paragraph explaining why they think its interesting and an opinion related to the topic.
  • Other learners in the class can then read the article and respond to the original poster with their own ideas and thoughts.
  • The discussion continues until it has been exhausted.
  • (Optional: Learners are allowed 5 or so minutes at the beginning of a lesson to discuss the article[s] in small groups.)

Benefits:

  • The opportunity to share opinions provides a purpose to reading that may be motivational for some learners.
  • Sharing opinions about an article requires a greater depth of processing than just skimming the article for an overall meaning and moving on. The learner has to engage with the ideas contained in the text in order to form an opinion.
  • For learners in contexts where there is not a lot of opportunity to use English outside the classroom, a genuine communicative situation is created.
  • The teacher can look at the exchanges to see what language is missing, that the learners need to express themselves better, and provide this in the classroom.
  • If this is done at intervals, learners can look back at early discussions and compare these with more recent ones. This enables them to see progress in their ability to express themselves.

Of course, the same activity can be applied to a podcast or video clip.

2) Listening task generation

This activity is adapted from Vandergrift and Goh (2012). They call it a “peer listening task” (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012: kindle loc 3923), whose goal is to facilitate extensive listening. The idea is that learners create a listening task for their classmates to carry out.

  • Learners find a youtube clip or podcast in English. (This will require listening closely to a number of such clips, in order to find a suitable one)
  • They post a link to this clip on Edmodo, along with some questions about it.
  • The teacher checks the questions to make sure they are correct and clear, making any suggestions/corrections by responding to the post.
  • The learner can edit the questions according to the teacher’s feedback.
  • Other learners then watch/listen to the clip and answer the questions.

Vandergrift and Goh (2012) provide a template for this activity, which can be adapted and used, or you, the teacher, can create your own brand of scaffolding, if you wish. Obviously, in order to make suitable questions, learners need awareness of suitable question types for listening tasks. By taking a metacognitive approach to listening in class time, you can help learners to increase their task knowledge, which can then be applied to to this activity, with support from you.

Benefits:

  • Edmodo provides an easy means of sharing the clips and questions, creating a repository of listening tasks for learners to do in their own time.
  • To decide on a clip, learners need to listen closely to a variety of such clips.
  • A bank of listening material is built up, which learners can use at any time. (I did this with my learners in advance of their end-of-course listening test, as a means of enabling them to do extra listening practice!)
  • Making questions for other students to answer may be more motivating for some students than just listening, particularly if they don’t understand enough first time round: rather than giving up and moving on, they are encouraged to persevere.

3. Time for a chat!

This is a very simple activity but potentially a very beneficial way of recycling language met in class in a communicative, meaningful way.

  • Any learner may start a conversation on Edmodo, on any topic, by posting a conversation opener. (In Headway Pre-intermediate, there is a lesson on keeping conversations going. You could model this activity by setting it as follow-up homework to that, or a similar, lesson and then encourage learners to do it independently when they see fit. Learners may be more inclined to do it if they have had a go and know that it is not complicated, whereas they may shy away from doing things they haven’t tried before, as it is easier to stick with the known.)
  • Other learners respond and the conversation develops.
  • The conversation continues until learners run out of things to say.

Benefits:

  • Learners use language communicatively outside of class and are able to experiment further with language that they have studied earlier in the course.
  • Quieter learners may feel more comfortable expressing their opinions in writing and doing so may help build up their confidence to increase spoken production later on.
  • The teacher can see if learners have understood how to use this language and troubleshoot any misuse.

When recommending this activity to learners, suggest that they try to incorporate language that they’ve been using in class: this then becomes an opportunity to experiment with that language. It doesn’t have to be from the latest lesson, it could be from any lesson or combination of lessons earlier on in the course. It could be grammatical or lexical,  most likely a combination of the two. Of course the emphasis is on communicating meaning rather than using specific forms, but if learners have in the backs of their minds that this an opportunity for recycling, they find ways of bringing in some of the language naturally. If it sounds stilted or is used inappropriately, the teacher can use this as the basis for some analysis in a subsequent lesson. Research demonstrates that

4. Let’s Cook!

This activity will not appeal to all learners, but that’s fine. Those to whom it does appeal can try it and may benefit from it…

  • Learners write a recipe for a favourite dish. (Not an easy task, but you can direct them to recipe websites, particularly those with lots of pictures, for them to see example recipes)
  • When finished, they post it on Edmodo. 
  • Learners may then try and cook friends’ recipes and post pictures of the finished product on Edmodo. They can tell their friends what they think of the recipes and find out what their friends think about their own recipes.
  • Variation: For lower level learners (one of my pre-ints managed this very nicely!), direct them to a recipe website, where they can search for a recipe in English that they want to cook. Once they have cooked the recipe, they can post a picture on Edmodo and/or (depending perhaps on what it is!) bring a sample to class! (My pre-int did both!)
  • Variation: For higher level learners, they may like to compare an L1 recipe and the English version (i.e. a recipe for the same dish but written originally in English) and see what similarities and differences there are in structure, lay-out, use of language etc.

Benefits:

  • It’s a fun way of using English outside of class.
  • It exposes learners to English used in a different way from what they may be used to.
  • It’s practical and hands-on, using language rather than just learning about language: this will hopefully be motivational for learners, as there is a concrete outcome of using the language.

Obviously if a learner has no interest in cooking, then it’s a non-starter. But the beauty of out-of-class work is that learners can choose what they do…

5. Reporting a conversation

Many schools offer some kind of conversation club or guided (to a greater or lesser extent) speaking opportunities, that learners may attend outside of class time. Edmodo allows students who attend these extra-curricular sessions the opportunity to benefit more from them.

  • Students attend conversation club/pub night/guided speaking opportunity of whatever description.
  • Subsequently, learners write about it on Edmodo: What was discussed? What new language did they learn? What did they find most interesting? What was the silliest/funniest/cleverest thing that was said?
  • Other learners who were not able to attend can then read about the session and respond to the content of the post in any way they wish. A further discussion on the topic may arise!

Benefits:

  • Students who attend the speaking occasions gain from revisiting and reprocessing the content and language of these.
  • Students who did not attend may be tempted to attend at a later date when they are able to and may learn something new from the posts written by students who did attend.
  • The teacher can see what their students have picked up from a speaking occasion and clear up any linguistic misunderstandings that may have arisen.
  • If further discussion arises in response to the post, this creates another opportunity for meaningful language use. For the original poster this may offer chances to recycle newly learnt lexis.

Edmodo and Reflection

In addition to activities such as these, of course, Edmodo has potential as a reflective tool. You can encourage learners to write reflective pieces regarding past language learning experience, progress they feel they’ve made on a course so far (perhaps at the mid-course stage), goals, and what they’ve learnt when they reach the end of a course. Reflection is arguably an important factor in the development of learner autonomy: “only experience that is reflected upon seriously will yield its full measure of learning” (Kohonen, 1992:17). Obviously this shouldn’t be over-done – learners may get tired of it if you try and get them to do it all the time! Written reflection of this type, done at reasonable (what is “reasonable” will depend very much on the length of the course, the frequency of the lessons etc) intervals, can, however, complement the discussions alluded to earlier in this post. The added benefit of using Edmodo as a means of doing this is that learners can read each others’ reflections and gain from their colleagues’ insights, which may differ from their own, and it’s also very interesting for the teacher to see what the students think and how aware they are of their learning, learning processes and learning progress, and what they take away with them at the end of a course.

Student feedback:

As I’ve already shared student feedback from completed courses in the webinar (see my slides in the recording) and in part 1 of this series of posts about Edmodo, I thought I would use feedback from my current semi-intensive course who are now just over half way through their level. At the half-way point, I find it useful to give learners the chance to evaluate Edmodo and come up with ideas of their own for how it could be used. A class of heads plus mine is better than one! In addition to fresh ideas arising, it gives learners ownership of the page, and this ownership motivates them to invest more time and effort into using it. My semi-intensive gang are pre-intermediate and focus on the first 6 units of a 12 unit pre-intermediate course book. Therefore at this point, they have looked at 3 and 3/4 units.

I gave my learners the beginning of six sentences to complete – two about the reading project, two about Edmodo and two about the course as a whole. The two about Edmodo were:

Edmodo is good because…  and I think Edmodo would be better if…

This didn’t give me any statistics but those 6 questions gave the learners the opportunity to critique different aspects of the course and the course as a whole, and me the opportunity to negotiate the onward path with them. Between us, then, we benefit in terms of the course becoming better-suited to learners’ needs.

Here are the students’ answers:

Edmodo is good because…

  • Edmodo is good because is useful to exchange and train our English. It is also good to propose topics for discussion and creates team spirit of classmates.

  • Edmodo is good because….. I think that it’s a very good way to exchange some informations not only about homework but also about topics we chose discussing on.

  • Edmodo is good because we can talk with the other classmates and when there are some homework we can compare together.

  • Edmodo is good because, through the app, I can read and post topics and homework from everywhere…

  • -Edmodo is good because allows all the students to comunicate each other not only for the homework but on everything we decide is useful to improve our english

  • Edmodo is funny even though I hate FB. This exercise of writing would be better if we read and checked our written in classroom all together.

Edmodo would be better if…

  • Edmodo would be better if we use it more and if we continue to use it after the course.

  • Edmodo would be better if…. I don’t know, I find it useful enough as it is ! …..Perhaps if everyone could choose a topic of conversation on which we have to prepare from the next time and on which we will discuss for improve our ability in conversation.

  • Edmodo would be better if it was possible connect it with the student’s personal mail addresses So when a student writes something or a post, all the recipients could automatically receive notice or, if possible, the whole contents of the edmodo’s posts

  • Edmodo would be better if is possible have a private chat like facebook because I think that if I can talk with someone for a thing the private chat is more useful than the notice-board ( ? )

  • Edmodo would be better if?

2 students have yet to respond (this is hot off the press homework!) and one conflated the questions, as you can see in the first set of answers above.

This class didn’t wait till the half-way point before taking ownership! They are the first class which I introduced Edmodo to straight away at the start of the class. They are also the first class who got the activity ideas handout for the Experimenting with English project straight away. (Straight away in both cases means lesson 2, when we did the Self-Access Centre tour) However, on the strength of this evaluation, we have decided to use the beginning of the lesson on Monday to bring Edmodo up on screen using the projector and do a quick collaborative error correction slot. This will focus on the posts that are generated by the other idea to arise, which was to choose a topic each week, share links to relevant articles/information and discuss it on Edmodo, then use a small amount of class time to share ideas in class too. So again, learners benefit from rehearsing language, followed by feedback and task repetition (although changing the medium from written to spoken) and all based on something of interest to them as a group. With regards to the student who wants email notifications every time something is posted, I have looked into that using the Edmodo community support forum and got a link for him to set it up.

One similar thing to come out of this feedback and the feedback from the end of my previous courses, is that learners may not be keen on social media but still like Edmodo and recognise the benefits of it. The feedback from these learners clearly demonstrates their recognition of it as a tool for supporting their learning and for using independently – they like the fact that it is not just for homework. It is important to emphasise from the start that it is their space. Using it for homework, to model activities and to encourage communication, is great but at the same time, if they know it is theirs, they will find even more innovative ways of using it.

Finally, being a semi-intensive class, they are likely to have a good rapport anyway, due to the frequency of classes, but having Edmodo enhances that, too, as one student above recognises explicitly. Therefore, while autonomy may be a major goal (at least as far as I am concerned!), the benefits are not limited to that. I  think, on the whole, that this group of learners is getting a lot more out of their course than 4hrs a week of language study. As well as becoming more autonomous, they are getting what they want out of their course (despite the fixed learning goals/curriculum/assessment, there is still room for negotiation, if one enables that) and enjoying lots of opportunity to use language collaboratively, communicatively and meaningfully outside of class time, as well as the “team spirit” that arises from this.

Conclusion

It is important to differentiate between expectation of learner autonomy and fostering learner autonomy. In order to do so, it helps to be aware of different perspectives on learner autonomy and methodologies for bringing it in to the classroom. Edmodo is a collaborative tool, which allows greater scope for language use outside of the classroom, and used in conjunction with a supportive framework, which helps learners to experiment, reflect on their experimentation and become more aware of different ways of developing their language skills, can, I believe, play a role in helping learners become more autonomous.

How’s your work-life balance?

Yesterday, I got out of Palermo for the first time since the Christmas holiday. It was also the first day since the Christmas holiday that I didn’t do something ELT-related – be it teaching (obviously, 5 days a week), teaching-related admin, prepping for teaching, marking, IHCYLT course modules/assignments/portfolio tasks, blogging, reading ELT-related books/journal articles/blogs, preparing for my webinar etc. It was lovely to actually see a bit of Sicily (which turns out to be rather beautiful when you get out of the city – which isn’t a bad city, but is a city!) to go horse-riding, enjoy the wonderful colour of the countryside and relax! It was also quite an effort, getting up early to get the station for an early train, after a tiring week at work – but so worthwhile.

Now, one of my resolutions for this year was to achieve a better work-life balance – do you think I’m succeeding? I’d say I’m not. And now that the IHCYLT has come to an end, I feel it is time to do something about that… Now that I don’t need to divide my weekends between course-related work and recovery/sorting life and flat out/batch cooking etc, I would like to start getting out of the city on Saturdays and doing day-trips to see a bit of the beautiful surrounding countryside and towns. So that when it eventually becomes time to leave Sicily, I’ve actually seen something of it. I think the thing about doing the ELT thing abroad is that unless you are proactive and make time for it, do something about it, you just end up working and not seeing much of where you are, which is a shame really. At this rate, when my visitors come here during the Easter break, they will end up seeing more in that week than I will have seen in nearly 7 months. On the plus side, I will be seeing it with them! 😉

Ironically, next Saturday I’ve got my first Palermo-based social commitment in a while and in a couple of weeks I’m pretty sure there’s some more Speaking examiner training which I shall be doing. (Unless it’s on a Friday this time, I can’t remember…)  However, that aside, when there are no other commitments, I want to commit myself to getting out and about! There is life outside of ELT (believe it or not!) and I’d like to taste that part too. So that even if all the rest of the time I sleep, breathe, speak and live ELT, there is ONE day a week where I DON’T. Where I switch off, do something else, go somewhere else, think about something else.

So that’s me. And in thinking about me, of course I started to wonder about the rest of the ELT world. Are you all as obsessed as I am? Or are you better at managing the whole work-life balance thing? Do you leave work at work during the week? I find that difficult. When I’m not actually at work prepping, doing admin or teaching, which doesn’t leave much time anyway as I’m at work between 9 and 11 hrs a day, I’m either anticipating what’s to come (if it’s morning before I go in) or my brain is spinning with what’s been done (if it’s night and I’m finally home). I often dream about it, I generally wake up thinking about what I’ve got to do at work (or worrying, if there’s a lot on to remember!) and it takes time for my mind to stop spinning when I go to bed at night (despite always reading for 40 mins before bed, non-ELT related things that is!). If I wake up during the night, sometimes I can’t get back to sleep because my brain starts thinking about work. I do other things in the morning before I go to work (study Italian, do yoga) but it’s always there at the back of my mind. Yet, I’m *sure* the sky would not fall and the world would not end if I weren’t like this! I’d just be less strung out :-p

So, to reiterate my earlier questions, the answers to which I’m interested to hear/see, and to add a few more: What is your work-life balance like? How do you manage it? Do you leave work at work during the week? How about weekends? If you have reached a good work-life balance, have you always been able to do that or did you have to work at it? Any tips for me? 😉

End-of-course reflections

Today, three of my adult classes and one of my kids classes did their final tests. Tomorrow, my two teenager classes will do their final tests. The three young learner classes, I keep, the three adult classes, I lose. So today was goodbye to three lots of students: I felt (feel!) rather bereft! It’s certainly been quite a roller-coaster of a four months: Moving to Palermo, starting the new job – and these classes! – as well as learning Italian and then embarking on the IH Young Learner Teaching certificate course, to top it all off. Phew! Meanwhile, this is my first job post-Delta and M.A. ELT, so there has been a backlog of learning to process (meanwhile trying to deal with all the learning from the YL certificate course too!), some settling down to do, as well as lots of experimentation, naturally. This mid-way point seemed like a good point to pause and reflect.

I feel I have learnt heaps in the past four months, much of which from my students. It’s been wonderful working with them and trying to help them become more autonomous, confident language users. Learning has also resulted from being observed by my DoS and my Young Learner Coordinator, both as part of regular in-service CPD and as part of the YL certificate course. A grand total of 5 observations in 4 months! In addition, there have been a fortnightly series of workshops on various topics. Sometimes I go to them thinking, “this is really the last thing I feel like doing this [Friday] morning” but then, once you’re there, it’s really refreshing being back in the learning seat and it has a clear positive impact on your teaching. The YL certificate has taught me a lot, it goes without saying, as well as driving me up the wall on a regular basis. Nothing like in-service training certificate courses to test the boundaries of one’s sanity! And of course I’ve also learnt a lot from being a language learner again: my attempts to learn Italian have certainly coloured what I do in the classroom. Finally, the various threads of my learner autonomy project have been immensely rewarding and have yielded some very positive results/feedback, but there is so much more potential for development with the project, which is a great position to be in – very exciting! 🙂  I will continue to experiment and find ways to help my learners harness all the potential bubbling away in them as individuals and as groups.

My Delta and M.A. already seem a very long time ago, and I miss that time, as it was such an immense time of learning and growth for me. However, it’s wonderful to be working in a place where I can really work with what I’ve learnt and build on it. I’m looking forward to the next wave of courses and building on what I’ve learnt during the first lot – using all the freed-up processing space that comes from not having to learn a bunch of new systems for doing things (e.g. progress reports, testing, etc etc) and from greater familiarity with the materials. Once the YL course has finished, and I have more time freed up, I would like to make some more materials – or at least finish refining the ones I made during my M.A. and started to upload onto my blog before the tidal wave of work swept over me! – read more (I’ve got a back-log of ELT reading building up!) and experiment more systematically with the many, many things I’ve learnt over the past year and a half.

The last four months have been hard work, there’s no denying it, but so rewarding. I suppose that is what teaching is all about! Here’s to the next four and all the challenges they hold… 🙂 (First things first, though: a heap of marking and reports to plough through by Friday! 😉 )

 

 

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.

My first blog post on the British Council Teaching English Website

How does blogging help you to be a better teacher? is the title of my first blog post written on the British Council Teaching English website. In this post, I consider the following words in relation to blogging and teacher development:

• Reflection

• Metacognition

• Motivation

• Destination

• Connection

In the process, I also decided to re-write the question thus: How does blogging help you to BECOME a better teacher? A minor change but, to me, it better encapsulates and emphasises the on-going process of growth that teacher development involves. “Be” seems more stative and static, somehow…

To find out how I related the above list of words to blogging, please click here.

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“Reflection” (Copyright: Me! Taken in 2002 or so…)

 

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…

Blogging highlights of 2013: me versus WordPress Monkeys!

I received an email from WordPress this morning: Your 2013 year in blogging. I also recently read 12 from ’12: The best of your posts from this year (blog challenge) by Adam Simpson. I had planned to round off 2013 by writing something along similar lines to identify my blogging highlights for this year. This post will be a mixture of that and response to WordPress‘s report on my blog activity this year…

According to WordPress, here are my top 5 posts for this year.

This is based on the number of views received. So, according to their quantitative analysis:

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The best according to WordPress!

Though I hadn’t started writing the intended Top 13 from ’13 blogpost before receiving WordPress‘s email (unless you count setting up a draft post with a title as starting :-p ), I had started thinking about what blogposts I would choose:

WordPress and I agree with regards to number 1. 30 things to enhance your teaching? would definitely have headed my list of my favourite posts of mine from 2013. Why?  Because it got me loads of views? No. Because not only did it win me the British Council blog of the month award for June 2013 (which, to be fair, accounts for it topping the “number of views analysis”), but, as importantly, it is also a reminder of the fantastic flavour of learning that I tasted while doing my course at Leeds Met Uni during the academic year 2012/13. I had the time of my life, learnt loads and look back on the experience with great fondness and appreciation.

Of the rest of that list, 4 and 5 would also definitely have made the 13 for ’13 cut. Extensive Reading part 2 is important to me because it came about as as result of my (on-going) learner autonomy development projects and as a result of my own recent experiences of using extensive reading for my own language learning. Bringing Metacognition into the Classroom would have made the cut because I still find the whole area of metacognition and metacognitive awareness development and its role in language learning fascinating. My interest was sparked by Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening by Vandergrift and Goh, which I read in preparation for designing the materials I created for my Materials Development module assessment, having stumbled across it by chance in Leeds University Library (making use of my SCONUL card!). A chance discovery that had a deep impact both on my assignment and my conceptualisation of language teaching and learning.

Delta Tips 6: Resources for Module 1 exam revision would probably not have made the cut, but I would certainly have chosen a post from my Delta Tips series, as representative of the series, which I enjoyed writing because it gave me the opportunity to reprocess all my learning and create a record of it to look back on (we always extol the virtues of peer-teaching in the language classroom and I think as teachers we can benefit as much as our learners by sharing and reflecting on what we learn), and because judging by the number of views the various posts in the series have had, they’ve been at least moderately useful to other Delta trainees.

The final post listed in the WordPress top 5, at number 3, (Elementary Teens (13-15 year olds) Christmas Lesson) wouldn’t have made the cut for my 13 for ’13 list either. I think I would have gone for my Elementary Teens Global Issues SIG challenge materials/lesson plan instead. Why? Because it was a rewarding process making materials to meet the challenge both of Global SIG’s food awareness month and of engaging my teenagers early on in their course.

Other posts that didn’t make the quantitative top 5 but would make my qualitative top 5 (or 13 from ’13) would be:

  • my posts, Part 1 and Part 2, about my Delta and M.A. respectively, because they act as a reminder of the professional and personal growth I’ve enjoyed since September 2012 and a motivator to continue pushing myself to use what I’ve learnt and add to it.
  • a post as representative of my Dissertation Diary series, e.g. this one, which helped me achieve a solid mark for my dissertation materials/rationale and which provides me with a window to look back on that process and remind myself of what I learnt as well as how.
  • In response to Observations of an Elementary Language User as representative of all my posts relating to my experience of being back in the Elementary language learning seat, which has also influenced my teaching and my learner autonomy projects in various ways.
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Posting a-go-go!

2013 has definitely been a year of blossoming for my blog: The 83 posts mentioned above were all written from May onwards this year, so in the space of about 8 months. Meanwhile, the three previous years of blogging yielded the other 21 – quite a stark contrast! What have I gained from blogging so extensively? Well, my British council blog award and resultant webinar (forthcoming!) on learner autonomy, for starters. But also, a space to reflect and re-process my learning, as well as a record of my professional development over the course of time. It gives me a lot of pleasure to look back over posts I’ve written and recapture the excitement, motivation, inspiration etc that the posts were borne of, while reminding myself what I’ve learnt.

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Countries, countries, everywhere!

That my posts have been read by people from 164 countries makes me feel a sense of connectedness to teachers and the industry worldwide – I feel a part of something. The teachers I communicate with via Twitter, via this blog, via their blogs (I’m planning a post where I list the blogposts by others which have most inspired me in 2013 – stay tuned! Update: That post is now written and can be found here) and other means of online CPD (e.g. participating in webinars) are all part of the big online staffroom that I am lucky enough to be able to pop into on a regular basis and from which I gain and share ideas, creativity, motivation and inspiration.

Blossoming blog (“Frangipani_flowers” taken from Google images search, licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

And finally, to end my last post for this year, a big thank you to everybody who has been part of my 2013 and all my very best wishes for a happy and fulfilling 2014. Carpe diem! 🙂

In response to “Observations of an elementary language user”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vive la difference! 🙂

square peg

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

The twelve weeks of class (to the tune of the 12 days of Christmas)

A bit of Christmassy fun, loosely based on some of the things my level 3’s have done thus far during their course… Set to the tune of the 12 Days of Christmas.

My challenge to you: choose another Christmas carol or song and do something similar: have fun changing the lyrics to make it about teaching. If you do, comment on this post with a link to it so I can have a look! 🙂

The 12 weeks of class

In the first week of classes, my teacher gave me to me

the goal of reading extensively.

In the second week of classes, my teacher gave to me

two Edmodo tasks and the goal of reading extensively.

In the third week of classes, my teacher gave to me

three present simples, two Edmodo tasks and the goal of reading extensively.

In the fourth week of classes my teacher gave to me

Four phrasal verbs, three present simples, two Edmodo tasks and the goal of reading extensively.

In the sixth week of classes my teacher gave to me

Five verbs plus -ing! Four phrasal verbs, three present simples, two Edmodo tasks and the goal of reading extensively.

In the sixth week of classes my teacher gave to me

six jumbled questions, five verbs plus-ing! Four phrasal verbs, three present simples, two Edmodo tasks and the goal of reading extensively.

In the seventh week of classes my teacher gave to me

Seven prepositions, six jumbled questions, five verbs plus-ing! Four phrasal verbs, three present simples, two Edmodo tasks and the goal of reading extensively.

In the eighth week of classes my teacher gave to me

Eight comparative adjectives, seven prepositions, six jumbled questions, five verbs plus -ing! Four phrasal verbs, three present simples, two Edmodo tasks and the goal of reading extensively.

In the ninth week of classes my teacher gave to me

Nine collocations, eight comparative adjectives, seven prepositions, six jumbled questions, five verbs plus -ing! Four phrasal verbs, three present simples, two Edmodo tasks and the goal of reading extensively.

In the tenth week of classes my teacher gave to me

Ten minutes spent reviewing, nine collocations, eight comparative adjectives, seven prepositions, six jumbled questions, five verbs plus -ing! Four phrasal verbs, three present simples, two Edmodo tasks and the goal of reading extensively.

In the eleventh week of classes my teacher gave to me

eleven quantifiers, ten minutes spent reviewing, nine collocations, eight comparative adjectives, seven prepositions, six jumbled questions, five verbs plus – ing! Four phrasal verbs, three present simples, two Edmodo tasks and the goal of reading extensively.

In the twelfth week of classes my teacher gave to me

twelve fun ways to use English , eleven quantifiers, ten minutes spent reviewing, nine collocations, eight topics for discussion, seven prepositions, six jumbled questions, five verbs plus – ing! Four phrasal verbs, three present simples, two Edmodo tasks and the goal of reading extensively.

(I’m now wondering about doing something along these lines with my advanced class as part of their last lesson this term: combining reflection on what they’ve learnt/done this term with a bit of fun and collaboration…If I do and it goes well, I’ll share the lesson plan here!)