Little pieces of paper

Pieces of paperOne of my favourite ways of capturing and recording language while working with small groups of up to about six language learners is on little pieces of paper. When these pieces of paper have featured in some of my posts, people have remarked on their use and, consequently, I’ve become more aware of how I use them and thought I’d try to write about them in a bit more detail. While possibly too simple a thing to write about, I’ve found them to be a very efficient, flexible and satisfying way to work with learners and their language. So, this is a this-works-well-for-me-it-might-for-you kind of post.

A few years ago, I was meeting with a group of learners in a room without a white board. A brand new building, great facilities, but I got the room without a white board! I brought a portable flipchart with me. I used it much as I would a white board and it was fine. It wasn’t ideal, though. The pages quickly filled up. I couldn’t erase parts of phrases to replace them with alternatives. I couldn’t quickly get rid of evidence that I had made a mistake! And, recovering and reviewing earlier language meant flipping frantically back through the previous sheets. So, not very efficient and not at all flexible.

While working with the learners, we all sat around the same table – much as a group sitting down to dinner would – and when a learner asked about something, or needed a word or phrase, I jumped up to write it on the flip chart. I didn’t mind doing this, but some learners seemed to feel they were putting me out by asking a question, some saying “no, no, it’s ok, you don’t need to write”. So, not very satisfying either.

During one session, I stayed at the table more and wrote the language on paper and put it in the middle of the table so that everyone could see. This had the advantage that I wasn’t using as much paper. To add flexibility, I tore the paper into smaller pieces. I realised that this meant that I could quickly retrieve language used earlier in the session and use it in new contexts. I could also bring similar language together to allow patterns to be noticed. The flexibility meant that learning opportunities were more accessible and exploitable. What might have remained a chaotic list of words and phrases on sheets of A1 paper, became language we could move around, discard, and add to easily.

I started to bring pre-cut paper into sessions with me but when I got the chance to use a room with a white board, I took it, relieved, and started once again to use the board. My board work, however, has always tended towards the chaotic. I start with good intentions, with images of colleagues’ well-organised boards in my head, but it quickly gets out of hand. The board needs to be cleared regularly – after having taken a photo of it, if I remember – and the language at the beginning of the session exists only in memory or on my phone (and, possibly, in the notebooks of learners!)

With small groups, though, I now hardly ever use the board any more. I have my pieces of paper in every session and I use them according to what’s needed with any particular group. I first mentioned them in my first ever post writing about my Tuesday evening ESOL group. They also featured when I wrote about what I had planned, but not how I planned it.

Most recently, I used them with a beginners group of Polish learners when the topic of what they do at Easter came up. Using a version of the language experience approach – putting the learners’ ideas into English – and with the ideas on using translation from George Woolard’s recent publication in mind, we gradually built up and captured their story on the bits of paper, breaking the sentences up into phrases. We read it through and focused on pronunciation. One person was there for the first time and didn’t want to speak in English but had helped to build up the story using L1. Then, I kept the beginning of each sentence where it was and we mixed up the rest of the pieces of paper. Using Google Translate (carefully), I played a translation of a sentence (and variations) in their language for the learners to reconstruct in English using the pieces of paper. We checked the result by playing the sentence in English on Google Translate. (I could have said it myself, but it seemed to give the learners a bit of a boost to hear their sentence said by another voice.)  The new learner participated in reconstructing the sentences by helping to select and arrange the language needed, seeming more confident as the session progressed.

Having the pieces of paper in the middle of the table meant that this was a very collaborative activity, with learners having to work together or at least monitor what others were doing or saying. We were able to start with what the learners wanted to talk about and work with that and, by doing so, the meaning was clear to them from the beginning. I just needed to check that I understood properly before providing an English version for it. And, I now have the set of pieces of paper that I can bring in next week to review and expand the language we encountered.

Following this, a learner wanted to know the word for ‘daffodils’ in English. We found it and I said that this was my favourite flower. For the last 15 minutes we asked and answered questions about our favourite flower, sport, colour, etc, all with the support of a substitution table made of little pieces of paper!

So, this is what I do. I often think that what we choose to do in class is guided by our personalities and how our mind works (or doesn’t). I need to keep things simple! I’d be very interested to hear what you do – either using pieces of paper – or in dealing with chaotic white boards!

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.

Reference

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.

What I know about …

… I could write on the back of a stamp!

This is just a quick post to share one of my favourite getting-to-know-you activities which always seems to work well. I’ve found that it helps create a relaxed and interested atmosphere and it’s a great way for learners to start getting to know each other… and me them!

I first found it in a publication called Try it: it works! put out by SATEFL in 2000 and edited by Anne Lawrie. It’s a collection of activities contributed by the SATEFL members. This activity came from Kathleen McMillan.

Very briefly, and slightly adapted from the original, it goes like this…

You’ll need copies of postage stamps, or stamps cut from envelopes if you have any. [NB: You’ll have to use this activity while people still know what stamps are!]

Introduce the saying, “What I know about [cars/football/trainspotting] I could write on a stamp!” and check the meaning.

Discuss just how much could actually be recorded on a stamp and how many pieces of information they think they could record about their partner on a stamp.

Handout a stamp to each learner. (In my experience, this is when learners perk up, become interested, and smile!)

Agree a minimum target number of pieces of information (10, 15, 20) and then ask learners to find out about their partner and record everything (as much as they can) on the back of the stamp.

Let the discussion run as long as you think is appropriate. In the book, a time limit is suggested but I’m inclined to let it run as long as there’s good discussion going on. One of my main aims with this activity is for people to have the chance to get to know each other and to start to feel comfortable in each other’s company. It’s also a great opportunity for me to get a better feel for who the learners are, what they can do, what they seem interested in to use in planning future sessions.

Learners can then introduce their partner to the group or to another pair. Be sure to see who managed to get the most pieces of information onto their stamp!

The idea of writing on such a small area seems to create a bit of a buzz – a challenge. Also, learners continue thinking of things to ask their partner as long as they can fit more on the stamp and so they uncover interesting things about each other. Of course, it’s always a good idea to remind learners that they don’t have to answer any question that they don’t want to for any reason and discuss strategies for doing so.

I use this with new groups and also when new batches of learners join an existing group. Because the second scenario is more common where I am, I need to have a few favourite getting-to-know-you activities, but as I haven’t seen this one written about elsewhere I thought I’d pass it on!

🙂

ESOL Reading Groups

I’ve believed in the value of extensive reading for language development since reading helped me to improve my French while living and working as an au pair in Reims. Reading the books found at the house helped to nudge me out of a period of stagnation. It helped immensely. Not only did I finally find out how Ça y est! was written – something that had been puzzling me for months – but I also felt more fluent. There was more French in my head.

Other people think it might be quite a good idea too. An overview of investigations into extensive reading programmes in Day & Bamford (1998:33) showed that:

Students increased their reading ability in the target language, developed positive attitudes toward reading, had increased motivation to read, and made gains in various aspects of proficiency in the target language, including vocabulary and writing. These programs were in a variety of settings with diverse populations, from young children to adults.

So, now I encourage the ESOL learners I work with to read extensively. I schedule a slot for a reading group and provide, or point them in the direction of, suitable books. It doesn’t take a lot of extra work on my part. The learners do most of the work between sessions, which works out quite well since they’re the ones who want to improve their language!

I’ve had an ESOL reading group for a couple of years now since I proposed starting one to take part in the Six Book Challenge. The idea of a challenge, and the prizes, encouraged the more reluctant readers to give it a go. Participants had to read six books, of any length, in six months. They could choose what they wanted to read. They could choose to listen rather than read. They could even choose to read in their own language (a detail I decided to keep from them!) If you’re in the UK, it’s worth finding out about the challenge because I’ve found it to be quite motivating for lots of different learners. Your local library may be able to support it.

The reading group usually gets together once a month – sometimes more often – to discuss what we’ve been reading, why we haven’t been reading, what we’d like to read and anything else prompted by the stories or books themselves. We started using the graded readers and the Quick Reads from the community library, and have since been slowly building up our own collection of Cambridge English Readers following enthusiastic recommendations from Jez Uden. Learners choose what they want to read to suit their level and interest. It’s completely up to them but I recommend that they choose something that they can read without needing to use a dictionary. Otherwise, they may soon lose interest and motivation. We don’t use any of the exercises that might be included in the books.

Every session is different and we’ve had some really interesting discussions – hearing about one participant’s inspiration for her own novel-writing in her own language, finding out about rationing in Romania, as well as discussing which books we’ll order next with some of the leftover money in the budget! I help out when people need language for the discussions but I try not to correct or focus on language too much during the sessions. I want the feel of the sessions to be different from the language learning sessions. In my mind, the purpose of these meetings is to encourage reading between sessions, by giving a reason and motivation to read, rather than for specific language work during the sessions.

Learners have said they feel that reading has helped them feel more confident about grammar, vocabulary and spelling. By listening along to a CD while reading, they see how words that they know orally are written (or vice versa). They get a boost when they see that the book they’ve just read quite easily shows that they know over a thousand words in English. They are aware of their own progress as they realise that level 2 is now too easy for them and they move on to reading books at level 3. And, they get to use the English they have to discuss their reading and their thoughts with others.

So, that’s what we do! Jez Uden, mentioned above and below, meets in cafés which sounds perfect! I’d love to hear about your experiences of extensive reading for language development – either your own or your learners – or about the thoughts you’ve had about introducing it in your context.

And, if you’d like to explore extensive reading and reading groups further, you might find these links useful to get you started. These include a really interesting British Council Seminar by Jez Uden about the importance of reading for pleasure, a presentation by Richard Day on the Value of Extensive Reading, an article from Alan Maley on the Teaching English site about why extensive reading is good for our students, and advice on how to use graded readers from Rob Waring on the Oxford University Press ELT pages.

Reference:

Day, R. and Bamford, J. (1998) Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom, New York: Cambridge University Press

%d bloggers like this: