Learning Contracts and Language Learning (part 3): another month of outcomes

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. A month later, on the 4th July, I posted my first update. Time has done that speeding by thing again, and the day has come, 4th August, for update number 2!

The main theme of update number 1 was discovery. I had discovered how the activities I do link in with one another, I learnt more about various language learning activities e.g. dictations, I realised how difficult in some ways, and how easy in other ways, it is to stick to a learning contract. In my post, I explored all these discoveries and how I could apply them in my teaching. Since then, I’ve also written blog posts about it, for example one about graded readers and one about text-mining, as well as the one on dictations which I had already produced by the time of my last update.

This month, my main theme is development. Both linguistic development and contract development (albeit only mentally – I haven’t physically made any changes to my contract but mentally I have added a few activities).

Have I kept to my contract?

Yes! I haven’t missed a single day. NB: this does not mean I have heaps of spare time. (Il da fare non manca mai, davvero!) As well as working full time, I’ve also visited people overnight in other towns, graduated and in so doing spent time with the family, prepared for an online conference and so the list goes on. It just means I’m practising what I preached to my learners for the whole of last academic year: Anything is better than nothing. Use the time you do have rather than waiting for time you will never have. Be it listening to ten minutes of audiobook over breakfast, watching 20mins of a film over dinner, doing a few rounds of Quizlet on the bus on the way into town when going to the supermarket, or a few go’s of Scrabble, the ten and twenty minutes grabbed here and there all add up. On any given day, I manage to do a variety of activities.

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

A reminder of my learning contract!

What has changed?

In my last post, I explained that I tended to do more than the contract stipulates, as the contract stipulates minimums. In addition to what’s listed, I now:

  • regularly use an app. for learning verb conjugations. Some things just need be memorised and verb-endings are one of them! The app is a fun way of drilling my verbs. It gives me a verb and tells me how I should conjugate it. E.g. riuscire, third person singular, present subjunctive. If I get it right, I get a green “correct” stamp. If I get it wrong, I get a red “incorrect” stamp and the correction. I’ve noticed that sometimes I just don’t pay enough attention. It asks me for 3rd person plural present subjunctive and I gaily key in 3rd person singular conditional or something. (It often seems to be subjunctive and conditional that I mix up in this way! Am improving though...)The app records running statistics, e.g. how many verbs I’ve got right out of the total number of verbs I’ve attempted (yep, that’s right 608 so far!), and then also breaks that down into different verb types (-are, -ire, -ere; regular/irregular, tenses). I’ve now got the total overall percentage to 62%. I have to admit, breaking into the 60’s was very exciting after spending rather a while languishing in the high 50’s!

    When I first downloaded the complete app (at a whopping £1.69), I got over-excited and ticked all the different tenses. Then I realised that wasn’t going to work and got rid of the absolute past and subjunctive pluperfect (less urgent to learn!!) amongst others. Hence the 2/5 statistic for it! Further down the list (not seen in this pic) can be found conditionals and subjunctives…  I’m a lot more rubbish at past participles than I had realised before using this app. I’m not too bad at imperfect, and obviously present is easiest…

Yay! 62%!

Yay! 62%!

  • regularly play scrabble – both the real live version (minus the board with my own special rules and scoring!) and the app version. I enjoy this, I drill myself stupid trying to think of all the words I know and working out which I can make with my letters!
    Bumper-scrabble!

    Bumper-scrabble!

    Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

    Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

  • have broken down “extensive listening” into smaller components. In any given day, I aim to listen to some audiobook, watch some news and watch some of a DVD. I’ve become more aware of the value of variety and push myself to ensure I get it! I’ve also downloaded a free RAI app, to get 24hr news-on-tap in Italian:
RAI: News on tap!

RAI: News on tap!

  • have broken down “extensive reading” into smaller components. In any given day I try to read some authentic Italian i.e. original language Italian book as well as all the translations of more familiar things that I’m chowing my way through. Again, for the sake of variety. But also because I think it’s important to experience original language texts.
  • play Storyonics in Italian! 🙂 Storyonics is a storytelling card game. There is a pack of cards, each of which has 4 pictures on it. You pick a card and incorporate either all the pictures, or the picture ringed by the colour you’ve chosen, into your story. This morning I worked my way through the purple-ringed pictures and had lots of fun! I also recorded myself doing so. This is so that over time I can make comparisons between earlier and later recordings, and also go back and try to correct any errors I might notice.
Storyonics!

Storyonics!

  • make fewer new sets on Quizlet but on the other hand I have been adding to existent sets. I now have 7 sets on Quizlet. What I also now find useful is gathering examples related to a language point I’ve struggled with e.g. personal pronouns and learning those. The idea is that if I have learnt a few correct examples, when I’m not sure, I can mentally compare between what I’m trying to say and the examples and try to work out if I’ve got it right or not. So far so good!
My Quizlet sets!

My Quizlet sets!

  • have started doing my weekly reflections in Italian! I thought I had better since I always expect my learners to reflect in English…!  I write a reflection once a week, looking back over the week and what I’ve achieved, what I’ve noticed etc. I was doing them in English, of course, but two weeks ago I did my first one in Italian. I’ve done one more since and plan to continue with this.
  • have become vegan and done most of my learning about that in Italian – using Italian websites, watching documentaries in Italian, cooking recipes that are in Italian… E.g this frittata:
Vegan cooking in Italian!

Vegan cooking in Italian!

What progress have I made?

Lots.

  • My listening is heaps better than it was. I can understand most of what I listen to, without exaggeration. Recently I particularly enjoyed watching Life is Beautiful in original Italian with no subtitles and being able to understand most of it. I’m also currently working my through a 7ish hour audiobook of The Secret Garden in Italian (done 4hrs15mins so far!), which I’m loving. I find the news the hardest in terms of understanding, I probably only understand about 80% of it. Il Giardino Segreto, I understand about 90%. My DVDs also about 90%. I miss the odd word, essentially. I put this down to a combination of working on decoding skills through intensive listening activities such as dictations, using my graded reader as a listening activity etc. and lots of extensive listening. I did a listening test on an Italian learning website. I managed 93% on the advanced test. Not saying it was an especially valid test, and I don’t think I am an advanced listener by any means, but it still made me feel rather chuffed! 🙂 I was also chuffed to do the second part of the gatto e topo intermediate dictation recently, as in part 1 I got about 27 mistakes, whereas in part 2 I only had 9 mistakes. I don’t really know how good I am in the great scheme of things, but I do know I’ve improved substantially, so I’m satisfied!
Il giardino segreto!

Il giardino segreto!

  • I can write at greater length, expressing myself more easily and quickly. I now have 15 posts on my little Italian learning blog.
  • When recording myself speaking, I notice that I hesitate less than I used to now. I.e. I have longer runs of fluid speech before pausing for thought. Pauses are becoming more in line with thought groups rather than language lack. There are still some of the latter, naturally, but fewer than there were.
  • My productive vocabulary continues to grow. Interplay between Quizlet, my extensive reading/listening and chats on Facebook has helped in this department. Text-mining has become a regular feature of my learning.
  • I’m a lot more organised than I was in the first month. I know exactly what activities I want to do when, depending on what time I have available. I’ve got my resources organised so that I can maximise on any train journeys. I’ve even organised my iPad:
All organised!

All organised!

  • I can think in Italian rather than thinking in English and translating into Italian. Not all the time, but I have enough language that I’m comfortable doing to be able to do it a fair bit.
  • Still getting to grips with the magnetic poetry (which was on the to-do list for I made in my last post, for this month!), but I can report that I have found a new way of using it, which involves choosing 5 or 6 words at random, with my eyes closed, then using those as the basis for production (a story, a poem, whatever).

What have I learnt about language learning?

  • Sometimes success can be demotivating!! Counterintuitive but true. One of those ‘things clicking into place and an improvement jump’ moments seemed to be followed by ‘mmmm can’t be bothered to study…‘ (I just wanted to read and listen extensively instead!) But I got back on track pretty quickly, thanks to my contract, so that was alright. So perhaps another role they can play, then, is in ensuring that you don’t get complacent!
  • Variety really is the spice of life. My success in this learning malarkey is, I believe, largely down to the variety of activities that I do on a regular basis. Lots of input, lots of output, varied use of language.
  • Listening skills can be developed autonomously if you combine work on decoding skills with extensive listening. I have lots of ideas for active autonomous listening that I look forward to passing on to my students.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition! It really does help for some things. Apps like Quizlet and my conjugations app make it fairly palatable too.
  • Being organised helps! In the first month I lost a few days due to lack of it. This month, no.
  • Perseverance is key: doing a variety of activities for a few days and then kicking back and relaxing the rest of the time won’t make much difference. Doing a variety of activities every day for a month, and nearly every day for two months, really does!
  • Having somebody to talk to in the language (even if by “talk to” we mean on Facebook messenger!) really helps. Having that opportunity to use the language and get feedback (in terms of how the conversation goes, not necessarily error correction, though I enjoy that too when it arises!).
  • Speaking skills can be developed autonomously. Using voice-recording tools, telling stories doing storyonics, anything that encourages language production contributes positively, I think. Of course there is nothing like speaking to another human being and generally learners (who aren’t on holiday) do at least get that opportunity on a regular basis. Outside class-time, the activities alluded to above can also be useful.
  • For every little moment where you notice improvement, there a hundred where it seems like it’s never going to happen and you have to push through all of them!  Remembering those occasional ‘break-through’ moments, and knowing that the only way to get one again is to keep working, and sticking to the damn contract, are all useful in these circumstances.

What comes next?

  • Work, work and more work! I have under two months before I will be back in Sicily. I have to make the most of that time. My major motivation has become that I want to go back to Palermo and be able to talk with the Italians I know in Italian. And I want to be able to do so without making an utter d*** of myself in the process! I know I’ll make mistakes and I’ll continue to have moments where my tongue gets in knots and I feel like I’m back at A1 level again, but if they can become fewer and further between, those moments, then so much the better!
  • I want to sort out my pronouns, my prepositions and my conjugations. I want that percentage on my conjugation app to get up to 80% by the end of my next month. Pronouns I’m beginning to get my head around but need to spend more time looking at. On the other hand, I think prepositions will always be a work in progress…
  • I want to be able to understand more of the news bulletins that I watch. I want to be able to understand as much of the news as I do of other things that I watch/listen to. So that means more intensive listening work, as well as continuing to listen extensively.
  • I want to continue to develop my productive vocabulary. The current method (extensive reading/listening, FB chats, text mining, Quizlet), is working, so I will stick with it, but more so!
  • When I get back to Palermo, I want to apply everything I’ve learnt about learning autonomously to my learner autonomy projects and help my learners benefit from it all.

As for my research questions:

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 19.43.10

A reminder of my ‘research questions’

  • So far, the LC has helped keep me motivated for two months. Obviously this still doesn’t yet count as “a longer period”, so the jury is still out!
  • For two months, yes. Plus, plus! It’s made a big difference so far, in terms of making me do a variety of activities and discover links between them, then add to the variety according to what I’ve learnt. I think they are a powerful autonomous learning tool.

Let me know if you use learning contracts with your learners – I’d love to hear about it! In turn, once I’m back in Sicilia, and apply everything I’ve learnt in my quest to help my learners become more autonomous, I’ll report back from time to time too. 

As for my own learning, the next report is due on the 4th September. As I finish my full-time summer job on the 5th, I rather suspect that there will be a slight (day or two!) delay for that one…! 

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Autonomous learning (4) – Graded Readers

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

What?

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

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

 Choosing a Graded Reader

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

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

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

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

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

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

Getting Started

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

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

Different Approaches

Here are some approaches a learner could use:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graded Reader Activities

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

There were:

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

Comprehension activities

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

Language focus activities

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

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

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

Productive skills focus activities

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

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

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

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

Other Activities

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

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

Is it extensive reading?

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Autonomous skill development (3) – text mining

This is the third in a series of posts whose goal is to explore ways of helping learners develop their language skills autonomously. The first two posts are specific to listening. The first post, which focuses on perception of connected speech can be read here and the second post on dictations as an autonomous learning tool here . This post doesn’t focus specifically on listening skill development but I have decided to include it in this series as it focuses on an autonomous learning activity. So I hereby declare the series focus expanded! 

The inspiration for this post is in part my own language learning and in part a workshop I attended this afternoon on developing speaking fluency. Text mining was one of the techniques mentioned, in terms of being a way of supporting learners to complete speaking tasks more successfully. As I understand it, learners use a text that has previously been exploited for listening/reading and highlight language that they do understand but wouldn’t use themselves unprompted. The idea is that they can then carry the language over for use in a speaking task on a similar topic. Beautifully simple. It was one of several techniques for lessening cognitive load and enabling learners to use more complex language. And, I imagine (and as was suggested), motivating for learners to be focusing on the language that they do “know” in a text, rather than only the language they aren’t familiar with, which is usually the case. I gather the idea, as explained to us today, originally came from this talk by Joan Saslow at IATEFL in 2013

So that was the workshop. What excited me is that “text mining” is something I have been doing myself, autonomously, on a regular basis this summer, in my Italian learning. Only, I hadn’t given it a label, it was just something I do and have found a lot of value in, particularly because of what I’ve done with the language mined post-mining. So the focus of this post isn’t on text mining as a means of working on spoken fluency in the classroom, but on text mining as an autonomous activity for bridging the gap between receptive and productive skills.

Aims:

  • Develop productive language resources
  • Expand vocabulary
  • Develop language awareness

Materials/tools:

  • Texts! Of any description – the more varied, the better.
  • Quizlet
  • A blog or similar

Procedure:

  • Encourage learners to read and listen extensively (for a start!). Ideally a range of texts – authentic original, authentic translations (i.e. books translated from another language into the target language, not for a language learning audience) graded readers, non-fiction, written, audio of whatever description, the more varied the better. (I’m currently actively in the middle of two books (one original Italian, one translation into Italian), two audiobooks (both translations into Italian), a science-y/technology magazine  (authentic Italian) and a graded reader (Italian for learners!), currently! As well as the inevitable dvd.)
  • Get them to highlight language that they understand but don’t produce, that could be useful for them to produce. (So that they don’t just highlight everything. Part of the trick is being selective. And how you select obviously depends on purpose, amongst other things. I don’t have a specific purpose for learning Italian but I select chunks because I can imagine myself wanting to express that meaning when I converse in Italian once I’m back in Sicily. I also select chunks if they include a structure or language point that I’ve come across and started learning about – so for example the subjunctive or use of prepositions. Of course when purpose is considered in this way, then it will probably vary from reading/listening occasion to reading/listening occasion. E.g. I won’t always be on the look out for prepositional phrases but for a spell I might be. Then I’ll move on to a new focus.)
  • Obviously if that was it, it would be a bit useless. A sort of “ah that’s a nice chunk…ok, bye bye chunk.” The trick is recycling. And lots of it. Of course seeing it used (or if not specifically it then a variation of it – that often happens) in further reading/listening is great – but if you’ve forgotten about it you might not notice it and you are also unlikely to produce it. In order to avoid this, I like to use Quizlet. I input the chunks – so already that makes me focus on them some more – and then I use the learn mode (generally on my iPad because I prefer the mobile app learn mode to the website learn mode) to help me memorise them a bit. That way, I’m more likely to remember them when I come across them again. And I do! Come across them again, that is.
  • Still not enough. Further steps much depend on the chunk. I have variously  i) tried to manipulate it if it is not a fixed chunk (could I make it refer to another time frame? could I make it stronger or weaker? how formal is it? what is a more/less formal way of expressing that? could I change the context of use/topic?) ii) tried to use in the little blog posts I write on my Italian post iii) tried to use in conversation – currently limited to Facebook chatting but once I’m back in Sicily…! iv) used it while talking to myself. And I really do think talking to yourself in the target language has value. It may mean you are crazy, I don’t know, but it’s a great way to experiment with language in a very non-threatening way. Doesn’t even have to be aloud, can be internally, in your head. I usually do it aloud when I’m cycling to and from work! I do it internally at various other times. v) used it during my weekly self-recording speaking sessions. vi) tried to use all my linguistic resources, including those acquired in this way, in my solitaire “scrabble” games. Over time, I become aware that these chunks, that I wouldn’t have produced before, have made their way into my active productive language resources.

So, it’s pretty simple really! But the keys are:

*The* keys! :-) Image taken from Google image search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification.

*The* keys! 🙂 Image taken from Google image search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification.

  • Variety of activities – for genuine recycling. And I think language learning contracts may play an important role in this: I didn’t do a wide variety of learning activities regularly until I made myself a contract, and it is only through making myself (initially) follow that contract that I discovered how useful variety is. They started off as discrete individual activities on a list, but by doing them and learning more about them and how to benefit as much as possible from the interplay between them, they have now become a sort of language learning web, catching new language for me. I think in terms of scaffolding learners, then my Experimenting with English project (or anything along similar lines) could be helpful too.
A web for catching language! image from commons.wikimedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification.

A web for catching language! image from commons.wikimedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification.

  • Being on the look out for “your” language. So that when you hear or see it, you get that little glow of recognition.
  • Being willing to talk to yourself and experiment with the language that way. And talk to others too, when the opportunity arises.
  • Some memorisation. (It’s useful! Insufficient on its own but valuable as a component of a larger approach)
  • Being selective – or you highlight the whole book/article/whatever. And I think this would be the most difficult thing for learners. However, perhaps this is another facet of the activity as described in the opening to this blog post, as a classroom activity for scaffolding speaking. Perhaps it can be used as a way of helping learners become better able to use it as an autonomous learning activity. I.e. get them to discuss what chunks they’ve chosen and why. How could those chunks be useful?
  • Having time off: I still do a lot of “just” reading. I’m not reading to stop every ten seconds to highlight. If a chunk really stands out, I’ll grab it. But because of how this seems to work, even when I’m “off” – I’m still very tuned in to noticing any language I’ve grabbed previously. But I don’t transfer it to Quizlet immediately necessarily. Sometimes I do –  if it’s a – to me – particularly yummy piece of language and my computer is to hand. But often I let a handful “build up” and then transfer them over and start working on them. So, it’s not intrusive to the reading.

I think on it as a sort of “active” reading/listening – rather than just letting it all wash over me, in the hopes that some might stick, I’m actually doing something to start making it stick.

Does it work?

For me, yes. Absolutely. My productive language resources have increased a lot since I started my language learning contract (i.e. doing a variety of activities including text mining) My receptive skills have improved too, but I think this approach has helped the gap between my receptive and productive skills to not widen in the process. “Process” is perhaps the key word. This is more of an on-going process than an activity, really. More of a mindset that I’ve developed, which I think is useful for approaching language learning.

For other learners? Further research is needed!  I shall be experimenting come October… Meanwhile, try it out with your learners and let me know!

Autonomous listening skill development: activity 1

How do I help learner get beyond “just” listening?

Listen! (Image taken from www.pixabay.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

Listen! (Image taken from http://www.pixabay.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

I encourage learners to listen extensively outside class, and extensive listening is recognised as beneficial to language learning. But what about actually developing listening skills? As in, listening with a view to improving both decoding (“translating the speech signal into speech sounds, words and clauses, and finally into a literal meaning” (Field, 2008:kindle loc. 2386)) and meaning-building (“adding to the bare meaning provided by decoding and relating it to what has been said before” (ibid)) skills.

How can I help learners to actively work on their listening outside class as well as during listening lessons? Part of learning autonomously is awareness of a range of task types and their potential learning benefits, and the corresponding ability to pick tasks according to learning goals. Helping learners become able to do this with their listening is something I have begun to work on within my learner autonomy projects.

What activities can learners do to help themselves develop their listening skills rather than just listening?

In this series, I will describe some listening activities I’ve done with learners to help them become more autonomous listeners by giving them something tangible to do with their out of class “listening practice”.

This first activity works well as a follow-up to a lesson with focus on weak forms , in which you have raised learners’ awareness of weak forms in connected speech.

Aims:

  • increase perception of weak forms in connected speech
  • develop sense of rhythm and the role of weak forms and word/sentence stress within this
  • develop learners’ ability to chunk written language correctly when they read it

Materials:

  • Learners will need a recording that has an accompanying transcript. (For learners at intermediate and below, www.elllo.org could be a useful resource for this; for higher level learners, a possible resource is the BBC “Voices” project )

Procedure:

  • Learners should, of course, first listen to their recording for meaning (identify main ideas, key information etc.)
  • Once learners have listened for meaning, they can compare what they heard with the transcript and check.
  • This done, learners play the recording again and mutter along with the recording, aloud. (For this, it could be worth selecting a portion of the recording rather than trying to do the whole thing.)
  • Ensure that learners are aware that initially this will be very difficult. The speakers will speak “too fast” for learners to keep up. However, if they replay and mutter along with a portion of the recording several times, then they will be able roughly match it.
  • How do they match it? In order to keep up with the recording and not get out of synch, they will be forced to use the same rhythm and stress as the speaker. This means they will need to stress certain words and shrink others – i.e. the weak forms. NB: The goal of this isn’t to try and get learners to speak in this way: it’s to develop their perception of the stress and rhythm of English, which they can then use to help themselves listen more effectively. However, I think the productive element is important as it helps to increase their perception by making it physical. 
  • Follow up: Once learners have muttered along enough times to be able to do so relatively comfortably, they could then record themselves reading the transcript aloud, trying to maintain the rhythm they developed during the muttering activity. They could post their recording and a link to the original recording on a collaborative platform e.g. Edmodo and compare each others’ efforts.
  • Breaking the activity down: With my learners, I did this as a series of homework activities:The first was to find a recording, listen for meaning, check with the transcript, then do some muttering.The second was to do some more muttering and then record themselves.The third was to listen again to the original recording, with the transcript, and mark all the pauses they heard, and use those pauses to help themselves manage their breathing while muttering and while recording themselves. Then they compared the first lot of recordings with the second lot.Of course this third step could be done earlier: Done in the order I did it, learners benefit from the comparisons they can make, but done earlier, they may benefit from that scaffolding sooner.

Benefits:

  • Because learners have to use correct word and sentence stress in order to keep up with the recording, it draws their attention to these. (I found when I tried the activity with an Italian recording, I’d get out of synch and lose the rhythm when I put the stress in the wrong place in a word. E.g. “gentile” springs to mind, and “sapere”, “utile” and “omeopata” – you realise that you keep getting out of synch at particular points, listen again and pay special attention to those points, then try again with the correct pronunciation, and then, with persistence, it works better.)
  • Recording yourself and listening to the recording, as well as comparing to the original, can help you pick out weaknesses in your pronunciation, and in doing so become more aware of what you are hearing.
  • Listening to, looking at and producing the weak forms helps learners become better able to recognise them through familiarity: it draws very focused attention to how the words look vs how they sound when condensed in connected speech, which is highlighted by the physicality of having to produce it.

Important to remember:

  • Bring it back into the classroom: give learners time to discuss at the beginning of the lessons following those when you set this activity as homework.
  • Ensure learners know they aren’t expected to speak in this way: Otherwise put, ensure the goals of the activity are clear to learners. When you set the activity, having done your focus on weak forms lesson, encourage learners to make the link between that lesson and this homework activity.
  • Scaffold it: You might have noticed that my lesson on weak forms involves some muttering along with the transcript. This means that before I got my learners doing the activities described in this post, for homework, they weren’t starting from a blank page – either from the pronunciation awareness perspective or from the task knowledge perspective (accustomed to using transcripts for listening activities, done similar activities in class, know how to approach them vs. “the transcript is that strange bunch of text that lurks in the back of the course book”!). Hopefully this will have made it less daunting and less confusing; well, certainly my learners all managed to do the task successfully and were enthusiastic about it.

Conclusion

Helping learners develop their listening autonomously is something I will be doing more work on in the future: exploration only began post-IATEFL (using Sandy’s ideas as a way in) and has been sporadic since then (I’m human! There are only 24hrs in a day and some of those are needed for sleeping/eating etc.!) with a burst of ideas emerging very recently through experimentation with my learners and in my own language learning. I’m planning to build on it, and work it into my learner autonomy projects more systematically as next steps, especially during the next set of courses that I teach.

References:

Field, J. (2009) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press.