Learning Awareness

Photo by Carol Goodey available on  http://flickr.com/eltpics under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence, http://bit.ly/tzwXSI want to lose weight. My son wants to gain weight. (Oh, that it were the other way around!) So far, we’ve been succeeding and awareness of that success is motivating us to keep going.  Fortunately, it’s been easy to gauge our progress using the bathroom scales!

While I’m not going to try to say that weight-loss is like language learning, success in learning is similarly motivating. It is not, however, so readily measured and recognised by those doing the learning. Tests and assessments can help but, as Scott Thornbury points out in a comment after a recent blog post O is for Outcomes, “often even informal assessment seems to focus on what the learners can’t do – i.e. their distance from the target – rather than what they can do.”

Learners (or potential learners) can easily get turned off if they don’t perceive that they’re making progress, if they feel that they’re not able, or if they don’t believe they’re ‘good language learners’. Learners are often more aware of what they can’t do (yet) – “Oh, my English is not good!”, “There are so many words I don’t know!” – rather than what they have learned and what they are able to do now that they weren’t before. We need to help them see that progress.  It’s important to be realistic about our abilities but it’s also important to know that we are improving – and indeed that we can improve – and to be aware of the difference learning is making.  Learning a language is such a long and unpredictable process that we need to be able to recognise the progress we make and the things we are able to do that we couldn’t before to keep us going.  In my experience and from my observations of and discussions with learners, doing so boosts confidence and self-esteem, as well as increasing motivation to continue learning.

We could, as is often suggested, set SMART goals with our learners. As they accomplish these specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-related goals, their progress is clear. These can be useful for some aspects of learning and can help to break down a bigger task into smaller steps. But, I’ve never much liked SMART goals for language learning in general and as John Sutter writes:

“language learning, far from being SMART, tends to be CASUAL:

C Cyclical – language isn’t learnt step by step; items and skills need continual revisiting and review.
A Asymmetrical – different skills and aspects of language may develop at different paces. ‘Spiky’ profiles, where a learner might have, for instance, advanced speaking and listening skills, but only intermediate reading, and elementary writing skills, are the norm rather than the exception.
S Social – language learning is a social process rather than a measurable set of competences.
U Unpredictable – how exactly learning takes place, and under what circumstances it occurs is still very mysterious. Learners do not all follow the same path.
A Affective – language learning involves the whole person – their emotions and identities affect and are affected by aspects of the language learning process.
L Local – language learning is highly context-bound, both in terms of what is learnt, and how it is learnt.”

(Sutter, 2009: 208-9)

Tyson Seburn recently reflected on where and how learning occurs in a very interesting post and recognised that his deepest learning comes on his own terms, and does not match expected outcomes.

So, if we accept the CASUAL and very personal nature of language learning – which I do – how do we help learners to see that they are learning and that they are making progress towards their ultimate goal of being proficient speakers of English and of being able to participate fully in the English speaking world around them?

How do we see learning? How do we know it has happened?

Tessa Woodward, during a panel discussion at this year’s IH DOS Conference, said that you know that learning has happened when “you find yourself able to do something or be something that you weren’t or didn’t before.”

Learners need to be able to recognise this. Some do, without our help. Others can overlook it, particularly those who feel less able to do things, who are less confident or easily discouraged.

As Adrian Underhill emphasised during the IH DOS panel discussion, “it’s the learning we need to look at […]. That’s what we need to track. That’s what we need to grow antennae for.  The single moving part that we’re there for is the learning and that’s what we need to see.” And, I would add, learners need to see it too. We can’t assume that they do.

In class, we can highlight when learners are able to do more than they could last week, that they are successfully using language in ways they hadn’t been doing before, that despite the look of fear that flickered across their face when writing in class was mentioned, they’ve done well with X and Y, so now need to concentrate on Z.  By providing support and advice, we can gently push them beyond “I can’t” to “I didn’t think I could but now I see I can and I’m relieved and quite chuffed!” What you do and how you do it will depend on the individual you’re working with.  In a post about one-to-one teaching within a group, Adrian Underhill talks about close-up teaching where he is able “to follow an individual learner’s subtle inner moves, or at least to recognise them and to make them visible using a variety of interventions.”

We can talk to learners about their learning, their language use and the difference learning is making for them and encourage them to reflect on it. This is something I do regularly. After being asked to think about it and report on it, learners are more aware of what they do, how they do it, and what has changed. These changes are our outcomes. Outcomes will probably vary according to learning goals and contexts. In my current context, outcomes often include feeling more able and more confident about using English in different situations and with particular people, being promoted at work to a position that requires more English use, people commenting positively on their language use, being able to understand a whole film in English or read a more demanding book.  During one recent conversation about language use and learning, a learner told us, “I know I can speak English now! I am free!”

By reflecting on and recognising their achievements in ways that are personal to them, learners become aware of how what they do helps them to learn and how that learning helps them to do and become what they aspire to do and be. By discussing it with others, they gain insights into what works for other people and what might work for them. And, by instigating and being involved in these discussions, we learn more about learning too.


Sutter, J. (2009) Planning and Assessment: Reflection, Evaluation and the Learning Cycle,  in Paton, A. and Wilkins, M. (eds) Teaching Adult ESOL: Principles and Practice. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

10 Responses to Learning Awareness

  1. swisssirja says:

    Thank you, Carol, for this post! I was nodding my head at every line, but most importantly, this post came as a very welcome reminder of how we should NOT forget to help our students to see, to clearly feel the progress they are making! I do it, but probably not enough. I do it when I correct their tests. I would leave short comments if their writing is getting better or they have used great expressions. I would point it out in class when we have discussions, when some students pronounce really well some tricky words, when they make good sentences, when they are fluent. And I have noticed that if I do it explicitly, they start looking for their own progress as well. Only recently I had one really shy learner come up to me and tell proudly how he could understand almost everything in his favourite sitcom. Or another student who gave a spontaneous comment at the end of a lesson once *”Hey, I feel iI’m getting better here!” 😉

    Sometimes, to show my students that they are indeed learning, I let them write something short at the beginning of the semester. Then collect it and keep till the end of the semester. Then I would give their writings back and ask them to read and correct their own works. Most of the time they are able to find quite many errors and it is one of the rare moments when finding errors makes them happy 😉

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Many thanks for this great comment, Sirja. It’s really good to read about your experience with your students and how they start looking for their own progress when you explicitly point out what they can do. It’s such a pleasure to see people recognise their abilities and consequently possibly their potential.

      Thanks also for sharing the activity of returning written work to be corrected at the end of semester. I think I’ll give that a go soon. It could be used as initial assessment, as well as a way of showing progress. Do you ever get them to write on the same topic and compare versions?

      • swisssirja says:

        Yes, exactly. The idea of correcting their own writings was actually a follow-up to initial assessment. I had asked them to write a picture description in the first class and then, having all these papers at home I thought it would be a waste not to use them again. And that’s how the correct yourself activity was born.
        I haven’t tried the same topic two versions though, but am eager now! Especially as I have the same students for 4 consecutive years (!!!!) the last semester being a revision before their final exam. So I could very well use this activity as a revision when language we have seen over three years needs brushing up. Great idea! Thank you.

  2. Josette says:

    Favorite quote: “Learning a language is such a long and unpredictable process that we need to be able to recognise the progress we make and the things we are able to do that we couldn’t before to keep us going.” Yes! Thank you for writing this Carol! Inspiring.

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  5. Josh says:

    hi Carol, really love this post, and your blog in general 🙂

    I was reading around about teacher learning (ie CPD), and found my way here via your review of Carol Dweck’s book on James’ blog Think…(it’s amazing where you can end up following link after link!!)
    Anyway, it struck me that the CASUAL model for language learning which you mentioned was equally applicable to teacher learning, don’t you think, and definitely worth teachers being aware of this idea both for their Learners and for their awareness of their own personal and professional development.

    Thanks a lot!

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Hi Josh, I’m glad you found your way here and stopped to leave a comment!

      I think you’re right that a lot of teacher development will be CASUAL and yes it would be worth teachers being aware of the idea to encourage them to identify changes in what they are able to do that they couldn’t before or what they understand now that they didn’t before and also to be aware of what caused that change, if that makes sense. Noticing changes in our abilities and knowledge can be motivating and give us an often much needed boost. It’s an interesting topic, which I’ll give more thought to (I’m a bit tired at the moment 🙂 )

      There was an interesting post and discussion about this on The Secret DoS’s blog, but you may have started your cyber wanderings there. 🙂


      PS: Thanks for your supportive comments about this post and the blog.

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