Innovation in education: looking for learning (British Council Associate blog post 3)

For my third blog post as a British Council Associate, I chose the topic of innovation in education.

This was the brief:

As learning technologies become more and more ubiquitous in our teaching, how can we ensure that pedagogy is at the centre of what we do to increase learning? What tools do you incorporate into your teaching and how do you ensure they help learning?

I shared the approach I use to ensure that the tools I use help learning, and to ensure that pedagogy remains central, using Edmodo and Wordandphrase.info as examples.

To read my blog post, please follow this link.

To see other blog posts I’ve written for the British Council, please follow this link. (Topics so far are: “Course books in the classroom: friend or foe?” and “How does blogging help you to be a better teacher?”)

Thank you, British Council Teaching English, for letting me post alongside some really great bloggers.

Edmodo Workshop: 28/3/2014 (A how-to for teachers…)

Today I did a workshop on using Edmodo, for my colleagues here at IH Palermo. It was a very practical workshop, with the goal of sending teachers away with the technical know-how necessary for using Edmodo and some ideas for integrating it into their classes. I thought I’d share what I did and the materials I made/used here, in case it’s of interest to anyone else who wants to run a similar workshop at their school – or anyone who wants to learn how to use Edmodo, themselves! (The handout with step-by-step instructions for teachers and students, and my power point slides with step-by-step screen shots, are at the end of this post.)

Edmodo home

Welcome to Edmodo! – A screenshot of Edmodo’s homepage!

This was the outline of my workshop:

  • What is Edmodo?
  • Edmodo as a teacher (“How do I…?”)
  • Edmodo as a learner (“How do they…?”)
  • Integrating Edmodo (Homework; autonomous use)
  • Potential issues (“But what about…?”)

What is Edmodo?

For the “what”,  I used Edmodo‘s own description of itself:

“a free and safe way for students and teachers to connect and collaborate”

– in combination with the way I explain it to  my learners:

“a space for this class to use English together at any time, to discuss, to share links, to share pictures, to share files. And sometimes, a space for homework!”

It isn’t a millstone, it’s not compulsory, it’s an opportunity. I think it’s important to put it like that, so that students feel they are getting something extra rather than being forced into doing something.

 “Edmodo as a teacher” 

This involved getting all the teachers registered and attached to our school, as well as exploring the Edmodo platform from a teacher’s point of view. I had prepared powerpoint slides with screen shots, which I used to take the teachers through these steps. Registering is a one-off process, so getting it done in the workshop meant that teachers didn’t have to fiddle about with it on their own later on, which might have been off-putting during an already busy day.

Edmodo as a learner” 

For this part, I gave the teachers a group code, which was for a group I had set up in advance, getting them them to register as students in this group. This was to give them a flavour of Edmodo from the students’ perspective. As well as the powerpoint as a guide, I had my own Edmodo account open on the group page, so that they could see what happens on the teacher’s page, when a student joins a group and uses the page. I had set up a little poll and a quiz for them to do as students too. Hopefully having used Edmodo as a student will help them be better able to help their students, if it is needed.

“Integrating Edmodo”

Now that my colleagues had played with Edmodo, both as a teacher and as a learner, I got them to brainstorm ideas for using it with their learners. I also gave them links to my two blog posts, on using Edmodo to make homework more interesting and on using Edmodo for fostering learner autonomywhich each contain a series of ready-to-use ideas to experiment with. The goal of this part of the workshop was to arm them with ideas so that they could easily start to use Edmodo with their own learners. 

“But what about…?”

This section was to give teachers the opportunity voice their concerns about using Edmodo and hopefully to address these. I started with the slide of potential issues (though some had cropped up as the workshop progressed, of course):

  • But what if my students don’t like social media?
  • But what if my students don’t use Edmodo?
  • But what if my students think this is a stupid idea?
  • But I don’t have *time* for this!!
  • But how do I give feedback?
  • But I’m rubbish with technology!
  • …any more?

These listed I could address:

  • I’ve had students who hate Facebook but love Edmodo. The trick is avoid selling it as Facebook the second. It’s not. It’s a tool to support their language learning and to enable them to communicate in English more than they otherwise could.  They may not be too sure about it as first, but just give them time and don’t force it down their throats. It’s an opportunity not a millstone.
  • That’s ok. It’s not compulsory to use it. Also, hopefully, as they see course mates using it, and finding it useful, they will want in on the action too! Again, don’t force it. But allow a bit of class time for discussion about it (within discussion about activities using English outside the classroom), so that those who don’t use it are exposed to the experiences of those who have, which will be potentially motivating.
  • I haven’t had a student yet who’s thought it’s a stupid idea. Students tend to like things that have been made specially for them – it makes them feel special!
  • With regards to time, once you are registered, it’s quick and easy to use. If you use it for homework, then you are only using what time you would be using for marking.
  • Feedback can be done in a variety of ways: you can reply to posts with both response to content and corrections, if it’s a case of homework – I usually copy the sentence with the error, put it in quotation marks, then paste it again and correct it, with the corrections capitalised so that they are easier to spot. Alternatively, you could use it for delayed feedback in the classroom – it’s easy to copy and paste to a slide and project it in the classroom.
  • With regards to technological prowess,  very little is needed in order to use Edmodo. As long as you can type a message in a box where it says “Type your note here”, type in a group or student name where it says “Type the name of a group, student or teacher here” and click send, and as long as you can type a message under student’s note, where it says “type your reply here” and click send, you’re away! Anything else (polls, quizzes etc) is an optional extra. You also don’t need a Facebook account or an email address, or anything else, in order to use it.

The teachers then had time to voice any more, for discussion of how to deal with them.

Finally, I showed them some of my own class pages, so they could see it in action. I had even got some of my students to write a post for me to show the teachers, saying why they like Edmodo (and therefore why it’s good for teachers to use it with students!)

Here is the handout I made for extra reference (made for use in conjunction with the powerpoint, hence lack of screen-shots!)

Here is a copy of my slides (which are mostly step-by-step for how to use Edmodo)

To conclude this post, I’d like to say a big thank you to Sandy Millin, who introduced me to Edmodo, by essentially doing a mini-version of this workshop with me, when I visited her last year! (And also, when I mentioned this workshop to her, for reminding me of the value of an opportunity to play about with it, if you are a teacher coming to it for the first time!)

And thank you, of course, to my DoS, for giving me the opportunity to deliver a workshop to my colleagues, which was a rewarding learning experience.

 

Helping language learners become language researchers (part 3): concordance activity outcomes

In the first post of this series, I described the potential power of Wordandphrase.info and offered some materials I had made to introduce my students to the site. I also identified the possible issues around getting learners to use this site independently and wondered about helping them do so by bringing the site into the classroom through concordance activities based on information from it.

My second post described the first three activities that I created and did with my advanced and upper intermediate learners subsequently. 

Since then, both groups of learners have done a task for homework: the upper intermediate learners completed the task started in class while the advanced learners did a separate task. For each group the scaffolding process was different. This post discusses the process used for each group and the subsequent outcomes, as well as lessons learnt from this.

Advanced learners:

We did two concordance activities in class before they had to do any independent homework using the site. The first activity encouraged them to use concordance lines to discover the error in a sentence one of them had written, while the second looked at information taken from the website with regards to three words – concordance lines and frequency information – and required the learners to guess which word each set of information corresponded to. (NB: They had met the vocabulary prior to this!)

The homework I gave them was to use wordandphrase.info to find out about three more words from the same list of vocabulary that had been thrown at them at the end of unit 5 in Headway advanced and come to the next lesson ready to share what they had discovered. We shared out the words so there was no duplication of information.

Last night we met again and it was time to discuss the homework. I had anticipated that some of them wouldn’t have done the homework and that there may have been problems using the site (despite having the materials – those I shared in the first post of this series – to help them) but, in fact, all of the learners turned up with information they had found out and printouts from the site (some learners had printed directly, others had created a new document using information copied and pasted from the “print screen” page, to be more selective about what they printed). They each took a turn to tell their classmates and me about the three words they had explored.

Once that was finished, I asked them how they had found the activity and another interesting discussion ensued. They had found it very interesting but a couple mentioned that while the site was very interesting, it was also very time-consuming because it has so much information. Another learner very cleverly pointed out that if you had a purpose/goal in mind, and kept that as your focus, then it’s much less time-consuming (which is perhaps true of using the internet in general, as was also discussed: a digital literacy skill). She loves the site and intends to keep using it. None of them were scared or put off or scarred for life in any way – so that’s good! 😉

This made me think back to the first post I wrote about wordandphrase.info, when I mentioned my Leeds Met course-mate’s materials that had been written to help learners use the site with a specific purpose (to choose which vocabulary to learn from texts): in that post, I wondered if her materials would be more effective than my more general “how to use the website” ones. The answer arrived at from the above discussion would seem to be “yes“. However, there may be an argument for letting learners come to that conclusion themselves, as happened here. Perhaps starting from the more general, learning what the website is capable of, realising that using it without a goal equals spending a lot of/too much time and then building up a bank of purposes may help learners more in terms of independent usage, especially in terms of being able to add to that bank of purposes independently beyond the end of the course.

Outcomes: I’m very proud of my learners and feel that they are making steps towards independent use of the site. Next steps will involve getting them to use it to help them edit pieces of their writing and exploring other purposes with them, so that they start building up that bank of purposes to use it for.

Upper-intermediate learners

With these guys, it’s less of a success story (so far!) but a lot learnt (by me) as a result. We did a “find the missing word” concordance activity (again, based on previously met vocabulary) in class, but didn’t have time to complete it, so the questions regarding the patterns in the concordances became homework. What I should have done is left it when we ran out of time, and come back to it at the start of the next lesson. At the time, I thought it would be interesting to see what they could do.

The problem was, as we hadn’t done a similar activity before, they didn’t understand what was expected of them and answered the questions according to their intuition rather than by using the concordance lines. So the rubrics weren’t clear enough and my instructions weren’t either! (Though some of them had understood, so perhaps it was just last-thing-on-a-Tuesday-night syndrome for the rest! They are busy bees and last lesson finishes soon before 9, so it makes for a long day) Of course, had we done a similar activity before, fully in class, then they would have understood what was expected. Compare this with the advanced learners, with whom I did 2 activities in class before expecting any independent work.

Outcomes: 

My next step is to do some more in-class activities, to help the learners understand what is required, and develop the necessary skills, then try again with getting them to do the activities independently and using the site. I will then apply what I’ve learnt from my advanced gang and help them to build up a bank of purposes to use the site for. (I’m also going to edit that activity *again* to try and make the tasks clearer…!) My upper intermediate learners are interested but confused, as far as wordandphrase.info and related activities go. But I’ve got time to remedy it…

What I have learnt from both of these experiences?

  • Adequate scaffolding is crucial for independent success – whether with these activities or using the website. I unwittingly experimented with both approaches – both adequate and inadequate scaffolding!
  • Expecting too much too soon is counter-productive. On the other hand, when properly scaffolded, the learners can use this site really successfully.
  • Just because I understand what is required, doesn’t mean it’s going to be clear to my learners. They haven’t come across concordance-based activities or a tool like wordandphrase.info before. Rubrics, rubrics, rubrics!

Conclusion:

I’m really enjoying this project and it’s still early days – looking forward to seeing what I can do with it in the fullness of time (read: during the rest of the course). I think I’m also learning about as much as my learners are – there’s a lot to learn! 🙂  Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes too… 😉

Helping language learners become language researchers: wordandphrase.info (part 1)

What is wordandphrase.info?

Wordandphrase.info is a brilliant website. Essentially, it is a user-friendly interface for analysing a corpus. (For those of you who haven’t come across this term as yet, a corpus is a collection of texts stored electronically.) In this case, it is the COCA (Corpus Of Contemporary American English) corpus, a 450 million word corpus. It is the largest corpus that is freely available, was collected between 1990 and 2012 and contains texts from spoken, newspaper, fiction and academic registers.

Due to its user-friendliness (colour-coding for different parts of speech in the examples, colour-coding for frequency in text analysed etc.), wordandphrase.info seems ideal for use with students, a tool that could help them become more independent, by providing a means of discovering how language is used, that doesn’t rely on the teacher.

It provides information like:

  • frequency of word or phrase use (within the top 500 most-used words, 501-3000, 3000+)
  • frequency of word or phrase use within particular genres (spoken, newspapers, fiction, academic)
  • definitions, synonyms and collocates (for which it also provides frequency information, making it a very powerful collocational thesaurus, for phrases as well as words)

It allows you to:

  • input (type in or copy and paste) a paragraph of text and see at a glance (through colour-coding) how frequent words are.
  • search for a phrase from that inputted text, by clicking on the component words and generate examples of that chunk of language in use.
  • look at a list of colour-coded examples and identify, at a glance, what types of words are used before and after the word in focus (nouns? adjectives? adverbs? prepositions?), with a rough indication of frequency (in terms of how much highlighting of a particular colour you can see in comparison to another) too.

All in all, it enables you to gain a  better idea of the meaning and use of a word or phrase, as well as its potential alternatives.

However, when learners first meet it, it might seem daunting:

  • When you search commonly used words or phrases, large numbers of examples may be generated: this may be confusing for learners, especially as the examples are portions of sentences (x number of words around the word being analysed) rather than complete sentences, and are devoid of context.
  • Before the colour-coding for parts of speech can help you, you need to understand what it means!
  • There is a lot of information on the page – it can be difficult to know where to start.

How can we use this website with learners?

This is something I am still exploring. I think it has massive power but the limitations need managing carefully so that they don’t put students off.

I have already created some self-access materials (inspired by a course mate of mine – see below for more details) which guide learners through using the site, through a series of tasks, and help them to discover what they can do with it. My learners (of various levels) have used these materials and many were able to complete the tasks without too much difficulty. Some learners independently shared information they found via using the site, using our class blog. However, for the most part it “gathered dust”. 

While my materials address the “how” (at a basic level – there is more that the website can do, that I am still finding out!), they don’t help learners become better at identifying the patterns that are present in the examples generated. Perhaps in order for learners to use wordandphrase.info successfully and really harness its power, in-class scaffolding is needed, in the form of using concordances with learners, getting them to produce word profiles and generally developing their noticing skills. Of course, as teachers we are always trying to help learners develop better noticing skills, but we usually work with texts, complete with some kind of context, rather than with sentence fragments devoid of context. Transferring these noticing skills, then, may not be achieved automatically.

One of my aims in the next couple of months is to create some activities using concordances and other information from Wordandphrase.info and use them with my learners, to give them more scaffolding, and help them to develop their use of the site independently, as language researchers. I hope to integrate it so that learners use it to find out  more about the vocabulary we meet in class, as well as encourage them to apply it to language they meet out of class. What I create and how I get on with this project will form part 2 (and onwards?!) of this series of posts.

Here are the materials I have made:

Wordandphrase.info self access  – a guided discovery tour of the website, with an answer key at the end. If you aren’t familiar with the site, these might be as useful for you as for your learners?! 🙂

These materials were inspired by a course mate of mine at Leeds Met , Jane Templeton, who made some guided discovery materials to help learners use wordandphrase.info  to choose mid-frequency vocabulary from texts they encountered, as these mid-range words provide a useful learning focus, and to find out more about their choices. I wanted to use wordandphrase.com with my learners too, but wanted a more general purpose intro to the features of the site, rather than geared towards that particular purpose.  So it was I made my materials, with the example word “outfit” – which may seem a rather random choice! – taken from the page of compounds learners meet in Headway Advanced Unit 6. Though, one might well question whether guiding learners towards a particular purpose, as in Jane’s materials, might be more useful than my vaguer, more general approach… <answers on a postcard!>

How can this website help *you*, the teacher?

Wordandphrase.info enables you to:

  • copy and paste in a text that you want to use with your learners and see at a glance what percentage of high frequency (top 0-500), mid-frequency (500-3000) and low-frequency (outside the top 3000) words are present in your text and so an indication of what difficulties it is likely to present to your learners.
  • You could use this information to guide you in decisions regarding what words to pre-teach, what scaffolding your learners might need when they meet this text, or perhaps what words to adjust to more frequently used synonyms (something else the site can help you find, as it provides both synonyms and frequency information, as well as examples of use, if you are unsure whether you have found the right alternative) if you feel that would be more appropriate, depending on your goals in using the text and the level of your learners.

Conclusion:

Wordandphrase.info is a site with a lot of potential for language learners and teachers alike. I’m still learning how to use it and finding ways to tap that potential. Please let me know how you get on with using the materials I have uploaded here, and the website, whether yourself, or on behalf of your learners – I would be very interested to hear! I would also be interested to hear any ideas, you have and try out, for integrating use of Wordandphrase.info, in any context, and how it has benefited your learners.

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.

Webinar on Learner Autonomy: Information and References

Today, the 19th of February 2014, at 11 a.m. C.E.T., I had the privilege of leading a webinar on Learner Autonomy Development, courtesy of the British Council’s Teaching English website. I started with a discussion regarding the theory related to learner autonomy, inviting participants to offer their own definitions and images of learner autonomy, and using the variety of definitions offered to illustrate how learner autonomy looks different in different contexts, before providing some definitions from the literature. This was followed with a brief look at each of my current learner autonomy development projects:

  • the Reading Project (click here)
  • the Experimenting with English Project (click here)
  • the Edmodo/Blog Project (click here)

(Links to these will be added in the next few days, as they are published)

Links to these can also be found on my Learner Autonomy page (click here). They cover largely the same ground as that covered in my webinar but with additional information regarding the process I went through with each project while developing it with my learners.

I concluded my webinar with a series of quotes from learner autonomy theorists. Each of these, I feel, makes an important point that is worth keeping in mind as you embark on the process of working with your learners to develop autonomy both inside and outside the classroom.

To see the recording of this webinar, please click here.

Many thanks to the British Council for giving me this wonderful opportunity, to International House Palermo for being supportive of my penchant for trying new things in the classroom, and last, but assuredly not least, to all the tutors in the M.A. ELT department at Leeds Metropolitan University for helping me find my voice and empowering me to question things as well as look for answers. Looking for answers may mostly lead to further questions (!), but it’s an amazing journey to go on. 🙂

Here is a full list of the references used in the webinar:

Benson, P. (2003)  Learner autonomy in the classroom in in Nunan, D. [ed] Practical English language teaching. PRC: Higher education press/McGraw Hill.

Benson, P. (2011) Teaching and Researching Autonomy (2nd Edition) Pearson Education. Harlow.

Borg and Al-Busaidi (2012) Learner Autonomy: English Language Teachers’ Beliefs and Practices British Council, London.

Dornyei and Ushioda (2012) Teaching and Researching Motivation (Kindle Edition) Pearson Education. Harlow.

Holec, H. (1981) Autonomy and foreign language learning. Pergamon. Oxford (First published 1979, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.)

Holliday, A. (2005) The struggle to teach English as an International Language (Kindle Edition) Oxford University Press. Oxford.

McCarthy, T. (2013)  Redefining the learning space: Advising tools in the classroom in in Menegale, M [ed] Autonomy in Language Learning: Getting learners actively involved. (Kindle Edition) IATEFL, Canterbury.

Oxford, R. (2003) Towards a more Systematic Model of L2 Learner Autonomy in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

Smith, R. and Ushioda, E. (2009) Under whose control? in  in Pemberton, Toogood and Barfield [Ed] Maintaining Control: Autonomy and Language Learning. Hong Kong University Press. Hong Kong.

Smith, R. (2003) Pedgagogy for Autonomy as (Becoming) Appropriate Methodology in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

If you are interested in learning more about Learner Autonomy, I would recommend the following resources:

Benson, P. (2003) Autonomy in language teaching and learning in Language Teaching vol. 40 issue 1 p.21-40. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Menegale, M [ed] (2013) Autonomy in Language Learning: Getting learners actively involved. (Kindle Edition) IATEFL, Canterbury.

Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] (2003) Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

The IATEFL SIG newsletter, Independence, which comes out three times a year and is free to SIG members or £6.50 to non-SIG members.

If you are interested in learning about research done into the use of CMC tools in the language classroom, I would recommend the following resources:

Pinkman, K. (2005) Using blogs in the foreign language classroom in The JALT CALL Journal vol 1

Tratjemberg and Yiakoumetti (2011) Weblogs: a tool for EFL interaction, expression, and self-evaluation in ELT Journal vol 65/4. Oxford University Press.

5 ways of using Edmodo with language learners (part 1)

Edmodo is a collaborative platform that is specifically geared towards use in teaching and learning. It describes itself as “a free and safe way for students and teachers to connect and collaborate”.  When I use it with my students, I tell them it is a space for us, only for us, to use English at any time when not in class. In my current context, this has instant appeal: opportunities for using English outside class are limited in Palermo, particularly if your commitments are such that you cannot get to the school to participate in any of the extra-curricular activities on offer.

It is easy to get students signed up on to Edmodo: you provide them a group code, which enables them to register as student in the class attached to that group code, and they generate their own username and password. The trick when you introduce any new tool, of course, is to get learners using it comfortably and regularly. For me, another goal that I keep in mind is to enable learners to use it autonomously in a variety of ways that supplement their classroom learning. What is the difference? Well, learners could use it “comfortably and regularly” but only when told to and only in fixed, limited ways…

However, the focus of this post is on homework, so “compulsory” use of Edmodo, rather than autonomous use. Autonomous use will follow in a different post (part 2!), after my webinar. I’ve found that using Edmodo allows me to set more interesting homework tasks, that provide learners with the opportunity to communicate and me with an overview of what they can produce and, in some cases, what difficulties they may be having with what we have done in class. Here are five ways of doing this:

1) Question Time! (Pre-intermediate level)

 There is a big focus on questions in the first half of our pre-intermediate course. Students struggle with word order, form and choice of question word, sometimes adding words in when they shouldn’t, too. The course book has a grammar focus box which requires students to match question words and answers, as well as the usual focus on form gap-fills as practice. As homework, rather than a.n.other gap fill or writing questions that will never be asked, you can get students to use Edmodo to ask each other questions:

  • Give them the set of question words which they have learnt how to use
  • Ask them to post a list of questions for people in the class to answer.
  • They can then respond to each others’ questions.

Benefits: 

  • You can see at a glance who has and hasn’t got their heads around question forms. (Obviously secure in writing doesn’t preclude problems when speaking, but you can address that in class later!)
  • The students have a non-linguistic purpose for making questions: to find out more about their classmates. This should be more motivating than filling in more gaps or writing a list of questions and then forgetting about it.
  • The way they answer the questions provides insight to their understanding of the questions.
  • The students spend time between classes using the language that you have been focusing on in class in a freer way, making it more memorable for them.
  • As students communicate with each other between lessons, as well as during their twice a week classes, their rapport builds.
  • You can correct any mistakes in the questions as students post them and respond positively to correct questions, and there remains a record of this: students can look back and see where their mistakes were and what the correct version is. This could be useful when it comes to revision for tests.

A very simple activity, with plenty of benefits for both teacher and learners. This could be applied to other levels by varying the complexity of the language required. Lower levels could make more simple questions, higher levels could be encouraged to use a range of tenses and/or perhaps include reported questions too.

2) A “Getting to know you” diagnostic activity (Pre-int upwards)

The first lesson in any course usually features a heavy component of “getting to know you” -related activity. (My own current favourite is “A Map of Me”, which Sandy Millin came up with!) Of course, as a learner, when you meet a big group of people (in my context, the maximum class size is twelve and if it’s a full class this is big enough to count as “big” in terms of getting to know people!), it’s hard enough to remember all of their names, let alone everything they told you about themselves, in English, one after another. Here is a homework activity you could use in an early lesson:

  • Ask learners to write three sentences about their past, three sentences about their present, three sentences about their future. In each set of sentences, one should be true and two should be false.
  • Learners then post their sentences on Edmodo and look at the sentences written by everybody else.
  • Learners guess which sentences are the truthful ones.

Benefits:

  • You get a swift overview of learners’ basic tense control. (You already have a fair idea of what their speaking on the topic of themselves is like, from your “getting to know you” activities during the lesson, so this complements that and allows you to see if spoken mistakes are slips/procedural, and therefore not present when learners are writing and have more time to spend on accuracy, or due to absence of knowledge.)
  • Once learners have finished guessing and the truth has been revealed, you also learn more about your learners as individuals.
  • Learners write briefly about themselves for an audience, using a mixture of tenses.
  • The “game” factor hopefully makes this writing a fun activity rather than a chore.
  • Learners get to know more about their classmates.

Another simple activity, requiring no preparation, that gets learners communicating. For higher levels, encourage use of more complex language – stipulate, for example, use of a mixed conditional, a past modal etc.

3) A “taster” (all levels)

Looking ahead at what you are going to focus on in the next lesson, topic-wise or language-wise, you can use Edmodo to rouse learners’ curiosity and engage their interest before they even come to class.

  • If your next topic/sub-topic is, for example, the news, post on Edmodo asking if they have seen anything interesting in the news lately.
  • If you’re going to look at vocabulary related to “My Ideal Day”, post on Edmodo and ask learners what they like doing at the weekend. (You could then get them to repeat this activity, using “My Ideal Day” as the title, following the lesson, so that they can use the vocabulary from the lesson. They (and you!) could compare what they produced in the taster and what they produced in the follow-up. You could also get them to compare their “ideal day”‘s and find anything they have in common, to make it more interactive.)
  • If you’ve prepared a concordance activity to draw their attention to the differences between “say”, “tell” and “speak”, post a sentence using each, on Edmodo, with the key word blanked out. Get them to decide which word fits into which sentence.

Benefits:

  • You can get an idea of your students’ communicative capabilities in relation to the topic/language you are planning to look at in the next class. (This may influence your planning, too!)
  • As the lesson is not the first time for the learners to think about the topic/language/vocabulary in question, they start in a stronger position.
  • It provides an extra opportunity for rehearsal of the language, meaning learners may be able to produce more complex language during class discussions. Where necessary, you can help them reformulate this and the net result can be a higher quality of language as the take-away.
  • If learners compare “taster” and “follow up” production, on Edmodo, they will hopefully be able to see progress.

Again, very little preparation required on the teacher’s part. (How long does it take to post a topic-related question or similar?)

4) Spot the difference (higher levels)

This works well with upper intermediate and advanced learners. It requires detailed reading and some writing too. Summary writing is not an uncommon task, every learner has to do it at some point, but this activity makes it a less tedious thing to do…

  • Ask learners to find a newspaper or magazine article that interests them and to post a link to the article on Edmodo.
  • As well as posting the link, in the same post, they should post a summary of the linked article. However, this is not a straightforward summary: learners need to summarise the article but change five pieces of information, so that the summary is inaccurate.  Encourage the learners to be sneaky and make changes that are difficult to spot straight away.
  • Learners should then read classmates’ summaries and linked articles, in order to identify the differences, and reply to the post with their suggestions. (This does not preclude other learners reading and guessing – there’s nothing to say that whoever posts first is necessarily going to be correct!)
  • You can post error correction feedback on the summaries if you want to, or use it as the basis for a delayed error correction in the next class. (It’s quick and easy to copy and paste sentences that could be improved OR examples of good sentences onto a powerpoint slide to project in class). Learners can then be encouraged to go back and self-correct their summaries, using what they have learnt from the error analysis activity.

Benefits:

  • Learners are required to read (both their article and other students’ articles and summaries), write (the summaries) and communicate (their guesses) with each other.
  • The “spot the difference” element gives the learners a purpose for reading, writing and communicating.
  • Trying to trick their classmates will hopefully be fun and therefore add some motivation, where “write a summary” on its own may fail, with some learners.
  • Learners have an audience (their classmates) for their writing. This may encourage learners to take more care over their work, rather than rushing something off on a piece of paper to submit to the teacher in the next lesson.
  • It generates a writing sample for the teacher to use for error analysis, and learners can edit their own work following this, upgrading it.

5) Project work

I don’t know about other course books but the newer editions of Headway like to include little “projects” at the end of some sections. These usually go along the lines of “Use the internet to find out more about ________ [ ________ being related to the topic that learners have just finished working with]. Bring information and pictures to the next lesson to share with your classmates about it” or similar.  That’s all well and good, but what if your learners don’t have a tablet or a printer? What if your learners find interesting articles that other learners didn’t find but would like to read? What if you are pushed for time and just can’t see yourself “using up valuable lesson time on random project work, you stupid course book!” ?

Well, these projects can work very nicely using Edmodo.

  • Very simply, ask learners to share links to information, upload pictures, and comment on what they find using Edmodo. In other words, do the project, but do it on Edmodo.
  • Encourage learners to look at what other learners have found and compare it with their own findings.
  • Now that you have a shared body of information, that learners have thought about and discussed on Edmodo, you can still allocate five or ten minutes in a subsequent lesson for learners to discuss it orally. However, if you really don’t feel you can justify this, at least learners have still had the benefit of searching for, reading and discussing information related to the topic they have been studying in class.

Benefits:

  • Learners get to do the projects and communicate with each other outside class, using a range of skills and language in the process.
  • Learners get to benefit from the information their colleagues have found.
  • Tablets and printers are not required for information-sharing, making it a lot quicker and easier and not excluding learners who haven’t got access to these. (Of course more and more students have tablets, but it is still probably more common to have access to a computer. As for printers, *I* don’t have one, my sister doesn’t have one, it’s not everybody who happens to have access. Also printer ink is expensive and black and white grainy pictures are not that exciting to look at! :-p )
  • If the teacher is pushed for time, the in-class portion can be cut, if necessary, or kept very brief. (A lot briefer than would be possible with loads of paper articles to swap, compare and discuss etc! Students would be ready to launch into discussion, having already seen each others’ offerings, and rehearsed the necessary language to discuss them, on Edmodo)

Conclusion

Edmodo is a great tool, very simple to use and with huge amounts of potential. The activities I have described above are equally simple, require little to no preparation on the teacher’s part and generate a lot of genuine, purposeful language use, both receptive and productive. It enables learners in context where English isn’t much-used to use English between classes and consolidate learning done in class in interactive, hopefully motivating ways. I’ve only been using Edmodo since September, and haven’t even begun to tap all the “extra features” it has – various features and apps and so forth – but the way I use it, just on a basic level, is proof that you don’t have to be particularly tech savvy in order for you and your students to benefit from using it.

I will finish with some student quotes gained from feedback forms and reflective pieces:

“The third English course is a bit different from the previous: Edmodo has been a new tool to improve English and, even thought I don’t like very much the social network, I think it is a very useful tool to share many things, to suggest other tools, give ideas and take one’s cut from my classmates’ works. Edmodo has been a virtual place “dedicated” to our level three and I liked it.” [From a reflective piece]

“Yes definitely. I really like Edmodo and the reading project. It’s a new idea to improve our English” [The question was, “Did the course “extras” help you?”]

“Enough helpful, because it’s difficult to speak English in this city, it’s not a thing that happens every day” [Question as above]

“Yes, because I was always in contact with my classmates” [Question as above]

“Edmodo is a good opportunity of communication” [Question as above]

“I think that the ‘extra’ activities are useful, because they are moments to improve our English and you can compare your extra homeworks to your extra homework of your classmates” [Question as above]

I hope I’ve convinced you to give it a try, if you don’t already? 🙂

If you do already use Edmodo, I would love to know how you do – I’m always looking out for fresh ideas! Please comment and share ideas below… 🙂