Listening for learning

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @mrsdkrebs, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence, http://bit.ly/tzwXS

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @mrsdkrebs, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence, http://bit.ly/tzwXS

This post is in response to Nathan Hall’s invitation to take part in an ELT Research Blog Carnival. The first topic is ‘listening’.

In a recent post, the Secret DOS asks, along with many other questions, if there is any more to language learning than memorisation, regurgitation and evaluation. I’d say there is. What that more is, though, may depend on who’s doing the learning and on what and why they want to learn. An essential element, however, must be that learners develop an understanding of how the language is used in different contexts and for different purposes by reading and listening to what and how things are written or said in that language.

But how do we cover all the many possible contexts learners will want to participate in? There isn’t enough time. There are too many learners. Their motivations, interests and goals are too diverse. Well, we don’t. Realistically, we can’t.

We can, however, help learners to apply what they do with us to what they want or need to be able to do in other areas of their lives. Some learners will do this naturally. Others will need support, guidance and encouragement.

With the limited time available to meet face-to-face in many contexts, we can try to expand the learning time by encouraging and guiding learners to take advantage of the language around them to get a feel for how language is used in a variety of contexts, to develop language skills and also to become more aware of their learning. (Even when time isn’t limited, this seems like a good thing to do!)

Jenny Kemp (2010) reports on a study of listening logs kept by students as part of a listening skills module. Essentially listening-focused learning diaries, the listening logs were used by students to record at least five listening experiences per week over the course of eight weeks. Information recorded in the logs included details of the activity – date, source and what happened – and a reflection on the experience. Learners could choose what kinds of listening they included according to their own interests, goals and lives. Any listening activity could be included – listening to songs, topping up mobile phones, a listening task found online, etc. Learners were asked to think about the types and variety of listening they do and how easy or difficult each experience was. They considered how factors such as accent, speed, background noise, interest or tiredness affected their ability to participate in the listening event. They reflected on how they responded, if they enjoyed it, if it was useful and what they would do differently when next in a similar situation.

The accounts in the listening logs showed that learners were aware of their language abilities and learning processes. Whether this awareness was developed through the listening and recording activities or whether learners already had a good understanding of this is not clear. However, having a record did seem to make it easier for them to recognise progress between instances of similar activities.

“This time it was better because I already knew what the machine was going to ask me, although I think that I can understand it much better than before.” (Learner 2)

They showed an understanding of what makes an experience more difficult and of the strategies they could employ to make it easier.  Instances where learners simply recorded their problems were opportunities for the teacher to offer feedback and advice.

One of the aims of the listening logs was that, as learners developed metacognitive awareness, they would be more able to take control, make decisions and direct their own learning and development. The entries provided evidence that learners anticipated difficulties in particular situations and took action to minimise these or that they set themselves learning challenges to move towards their goals. “Next time I’ll make my mind work harder, no subtitles” (Learner 9). Learners also recorded an awareness of the new language that they were learning from their listening activities.

Kemp found that the listening logs provide insights into students’ motivation for learning English through the situations they choose to participate in and their reflections on the experiences. The logs can also, she argues, “be instrumental in [motivation’s] generation”.

Keeping the logs seems to increase learners’ awareness of their language ability and learning processes and strategies, allowing them to use those insights to make decisions about future learning and language use.  It encourages learners to take control over their own learning and to recognise progress in areas that are relevant and important to them.

As Kemp writes in the introduction to the article:

“As language teachers, our goal should be to provide these learners not only with transferable skills but also with guidance, to raise their awareness and enable them to become independent learners who are able to exploit the potential learning situations in which they find themselves.”

Jenny Kemp’s consideration of the entries in her students’ listening logs provides us with insights into the thinking and learning processes of her learners. It contributes to our understanding of the diversity of learner motivations, preferences and experiences and were we to read similar accounts from our own learners, we would be in a better position to advise, guide and provide input related to their own particular contexts and goals.

Reference:

Kemp, J. (2010). The Listening Log: motivating autonomous learning. ELT Journal, 64(4), 385-95.

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.

Encouraging Talk, Encouraging Learning

I was asked recently to give an ESOL workshop to volunteer literacies tutors. While all are experienced and well trained to use a social practices learner-centred approach with a range of literacies learners, the majority would not have had ESOL specific training. Also, many would be working one-to-one with a learner, either on their own or in a group setting. I thought for a long time about what would be most useful for them and what we could look at in the one hour we would have. After a few false starts in my planning, this is what I went for in the end (without the interactive bits).

ESOL Curriculum Framework The ESOL learner, like the literacies learner, is at the centre of the process. It’s what they want and need to be able to do in their contexts that should be the focus, helping them to become confident language users, successful language learners, responsible multilingual citizens, and effective communicators (and contributors!) The starting point should be the learner – not the grammar, the vocabulary or the skills.

The wealth of material around English language teaching can be confusing and overwhelming to those new to it. The focus on grammar and skills that comes across in many publications and in initial training courses can lead new practitioners to wonder how we can apply a social practices approach to working with ESOL learners. The approach outlined in Teaching Unplugged offers what seems to be an ideal solution. As the authors, Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury, remind us:

“Learners are your primary resource. They have stories to tell, ideas to explain and feelings to describe.” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009: 24)

They go on to say that:

“Allowing learners to express themselves, encouraging them to do this to the best of their ability, and showing them how they can do this more effectively, is the essential work of the unplugged teacher.” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009: 24)

This is also the essential work of a literacies worker. The main differences  would be that there is usually less shared language and often more focus on improving speaking  with ESOL learners. So, building on the previous two quotes, we had one more from an NRDC Effective Practice Study which suggested that:

“One of the main tasks is to encourage classroom talk, transforming talk into learning and learning into talk.” (Baynham, Roberts, et al, 2007: 54)

As this study also highlighted, ‘talk is work’ in ESOL. But before we can take advantage of the learning opportunities offered by talk, we need to encourage the learners to talk. Some learners are very keen to express themselves and have lots to say. Others though, particularly new learners who are getting to know us, are nervous, hesitant, not sure if they should talk, if they can talk, and will need encouragement. So how do we do this?

Create the right atmosphere. We all do this already. Put the learner at ease, smile, laugh. Show interest and respect. Establish good rapport and treat them as equals and as fellow speakers of English (and other languages). This is what I was getting at in the post Language use for learning.

Allow space for the learner to make contributions. Build longer pauses into your own talk. It’s not comfortable to do this. We don’t easily tolerate pauses in a conversation but it’s worth getting used to. Learners need time to process what’s been said and what they want to say. Leaving space before we start an activity or topic will provide an opportunity for learners to bring up their own topic and this will usually be more relevant and memorable for them – you can always save what you’d planned for the following session. Not rushing to speak when a learner hesitates will allow them to continue their turn, to have the time to find the words and phrases themselves, and to allow them to initiate a topic change. A study by Scott Thornbury and trainee teachers showed that the time a teacher waits after asking a question was usually very short but that “even slight increase in wait time result in an increase in the quantity and quality of learner contributions and an increase in the number of learner questions.” (Walsh, 2011: 39-40)  (I’ll let Rachael Roberts tell you more about the wonder of wait time.)

Use prompts. Bring something along that you think will interest the learner. This could be anything – questions, texts, activities. It could be photos (ELTpics perhaps? ;-)), visuals, or visualisation tools like those featured in the Reflect ESOL approach.  When getting to know learners, I’ve found that things like maps & visualisation tools often work well. The focus is off the language and the conversation and on something that can be understood without much language, but a lot of information can be shared. It is, of course, important to be sensitive to difficult areas in a learner’s life that they may want to avoid talking about. You can also encourage learners to bring things along and to ask questions. It’s important for learners to get a lot of practice asking questions so that they’re not always the ones in the less powerful position of answering and responding – whether in the learning situation or the wider community.

By encouraging learner talk, by conversationalising all work, and being open to ‘off topic’ contributions, we find out more about them – both their interests and what they can do in the language – even about complete beginners, communicating through mime, drawings and dictionaries. This continues to give us information we can use to plan future sessions and gives us a place to start building on their language. So, how do we help learners develop their language? Selecting and adapting ideas from Teaching Unplugged… again, the following are some of the ways that practitioners could work with the language.

React, recast, record, research, repeat, review, recycle

Before focusing on the language, react first to what is being said, to what the learner wants to communicate.

Recast the learners utterances by reformulating what they say to make it more like what we would usually hear. A lot of people, whether language teachers or not, will have a tendency to do this anyway. Parents and teachers do it with children as they are learning the language and university lecturers do it with new students becoming part of a new discourse community.

As we reformulate or help with vocabulary, we should make sure that we record the new language so that we can focus on it and come back to it. One of my favourite ways of recording the language that comes up in a session with small groups is on little pieces of paper (you can move them around, notice patterns, add to them). As you help learners with words and phrases they need to express themselves, write them down and keep listening. At an appropriate point – you may not have to wait until the end of their story (as long as you come back to it) – focus on some of the language more closely.

That appropriate point might need to be the following session after you’ve had a chance to research the language. You can refer to other sources – grammar books, coursebooks and online reference sites – between sessions and you can also refer your learner to them.

But your own knowledge of the language – through using it (& increasingly reflecting on it) yourself –  is also going to be useful for your learners. You know what sounds right. You’ll know if a word is missing or if something doesn’t sound right and how it would sound better. [In the workshop, we looked more closely at some language that had come up in one of my recent ESOL groups, prompting the participants to notice similarities and differences, patterns, pronunciation and collocation, and how a focus on the language could then bring us back to conversation.]

So you react to the message, you reformulate and help as needed (but not jumping in too quickly), you record and focus on the language. Repetition is a useful strategy. Learners can repeat a word or a phrase to make sure they have the pronunciation right, or to practice producing a longer sentence after you.

Repeating an activity can be a really valuable exercise. Studies have shown that simply repeating a task improved learners’ accuracy and fluency. I’ll let Rachael tell you more about this too, because this post is getting too long – Task repetition: helping students to improve accuracy, repertoire and fluency.

It’s then important to review and recycle the language. The language can be reviewed at the end of the session. Learners can be asked to recall the language by being reminded of the context it came up in, or by giving a definition or a synonym that they’ll recognise. Learners can select some of the language they think they’ll be able to use after the session, think of how they’ll be able to use it, in which contexts, rehearse and then use it and report back. Language can be reviewed and recycled in future sessions, in a range of planned activities or further conversation. As you become increasingly aware of the learners’ needs and interests, it’ll be easier to select other activities from the many sources around – in course books or resource books, on blogs or websites, or from colleagues.

That’s an as-brief-as-I-can-make-it overview of what we did. There is so much more I would have liked to talk about but we only had an hour. There were good discussions and I’m hoping it was useful for and useable by the participants. I’ve heard that the feedback on the day was positive.

If you’ve made it this far… well done and thank you! I wasn’t sure I was going to manage to the end myself 😉

So, as a wee reward, here’s some suggested further reading.

  • A Multilingual Lesson by Sam Shepherd’s blog. This is a lovely example of creating the right conditions for genuine communication and consequently language learning.

References:

Baynham, M., Roberts, C., Cooke, M. and Simpson, J. (2007) Effective Teaching and Learning: ESOL. London: NRDC. (Also available online.)

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Walsh, S. (2011). Exploring Classroom Discourse: Language in Action. Abingdon: Routledge.

What I had planned, but not as I’d planned it!

Thursday found me in a particularly reflective mood and my morning session with a small group of Polish beginners got me wondering about many aspects of my practice. I wondered how I would have done things differently if I’d been being observed and whether I’d have been right to do so. I’ve been wondering about the role, the format and the necessity of a plan and about the use of L1 in a language learning situation. And, today, after reading Phil Longwell’s post on mindfulness I’ve been thinking about how I pay attention to and respond to what’s happening at the present moment.

I was going to expand on some of those wonderings here after sharing an account of my Thursday morning, and I had actually started to but it was getting too long (and I was getting too tired) so, for now, here’s just what happened for anyone who might be interested. I hope it makes sense! I may come back to the ‘clever’ bits at a later date!

I had a plan – of sorts. The week before, we had heard good news about one learner’s son and how one family member was very happy and another was very very happy. We looked at another way to say very very happy and built on this looking at other emotions – one of these being worried. In response to the question, Are you worried? a learner told me that she was worried because she needed another job. In light of this, I thought that the most useful thing for her at the moment would be to be able to tell people what she can do, and that the other learners would benefit from this too. So, we were going to look vocabulary for activities and then at simple sentence structures with I can/can’t and questions Can you? and answers. I had photocopies of a workbook and a printout of a board game to support this.

The learners came in, took a wee while getting settled, and I waited.
When people seemed ready, I asked how they were. They were all ok. Then, there was some discussion in Polish between two learners and out of that came the word ‘mushroom’. One learner, we heard, had been picking mushrooms the day before in the grounds of a big local hotel. I asked if she made soup with them. Yes, I was told. Mushroom soup is very good, another learner contributed. But these mushrooms weren’t only destined for soup. They were also used to make pierogi. There was some more chat in Polish and the English words holiday and Happy Christmas came out of it. Christmas holidays I suggested. Yes. More Polish. I caught tradycja. Tradition, I said. Yes. Pierogi is something they traditionally eat at Christmas – on Christmas eve. What else did they eat at Christmas? What do we traditionally eat in Scotland, they asked. How do they make Polish Stuffed Cabbage? They all chipped in to describe the process, using words they know, dictionaries, pictures, mime and sound. We wrote it down. We checked it was right. We read through it together. We focused on the main verbs – mix, put, fold, pour, boil, eat – and some prepositions – on and in. We separated these from the recipe and then used them to reconstruct the recipe orally – first referring to notes, then from memory.

As we were finishing this, one learner (the one who needs a new job) was looking at a Polish/English picture dictionary and making notes of words related to cleaning. She was still paying some attention to what we were doing as she did this – chipping in now and again – and when we finished she asked me how to pronounce what she had written in her notes. As the need for this was clear, we spent the rest of the session working on this. Writing the verbs on pieces of paper – clean, hoover, dust, mop, polish etc – then adding objects – windows, floor, furniture and so on, all the while clarifying and checking understanding. And then, we added I can, I can’t and Can you?. As the title, says, what I had planned 🙂 but not as I’d planned it! We now had a substitution table made up of pieces of paper and we drilled questions and answers (substitution and chain drills) using the table. Most things the learners could do, so there was little opportunity to practice “No, I can’t” on this particular morning, until, that is, one learner asked another if they could hoover the windows!?!

I plan to do more on this next week…

🙂

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!

🙂

Talking Football with Complete Beginners

I’m working with a small group of Polish beginners. We don’t have much shared language but we’re managing each week to communicate through mime, drawings, ELTpics, dictionaries and, increasingly, fortunately, English!

I knew they had recently had a tour around the sports and leisure facilities at the community campus and that they had been really interested in what was available. (I knew because I’d been with them!) So, yesterday, I had planned to work on language relevant to the sports and fitness activities available. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to do – I wanted to see what drew their attention, if anything – but had thought that they might like to understand what activities were available, that it would be useful for them to be able to ask about and understand prices and to learn some vocabulary around swimming – lanes, public, adult, lockers, changing room, lifeguard, towel. So armed with some leaflets from the recreation centre, a laptop from the library – because that might be a better way to show what Zumba was than any mime I could do! – and my ideas, I was ready to see what happened.

The first learner came along. We greeted each other. I asked how he was. He was ok, very very ok. The was a brief silence and he filled it. He asked me if I had watched the football. I hadn’t but I knew about it, just! We started to discuss it and I recorded the lexis needed on my slips of paper. When the other learners arrived I asked if they had watched the football. They had and so we continued. I found out that one of the matches went into extra time and then a penalty shoot-out. I asked if it was exciting. Slips of paper and footballThey didn’t know that word. I mimed but also found it in the Polish-English dictionary. Yes, they all agreed. It was very exciting. Using drawings and mime, they asked how to say goal, goalkeeper and kick. They looked up save and using a variety of sources and strategies we built up a set of football vocabulary – football pitch, referee, whistle, score, half-time, corner, team, red card, yellow card etc.

Two learners had been to Glasgow at the weekend and had seen the Celtic and Rangers stadiums. This took us to a discussion about the weekend. We touched on food too. I’m not sure how this linked to what we were talking about other than one learner remarked that there was no English for bigos in the dictionary. They told me how it was made and what other foods they liked. This part of the conversation served to recycle language from previous sessions – food, like/don’t like, simple sentences.

To review, we came back to the football vocabulary and recapped our discussion and I learned a bit more. I found out that the final is going to be on 19 May, so I’ve told them that after the 19th, we’ll use all the language we found today to talk about it. They asked me if I would watch. I said I would. I will! Who should I support? They said Chelsea.

I enjoyed our session and I think they did too. They took lots of notes, asked questions and introduced new topics. They were interested in the topic and it was relevant to their lives. They’ll have opportunity to use it again soon and, hopefully, it means they’ll increasingly be able to have conversations with English-speaking colleagues and neighbours.

Perhaps, next week we’ll do what I had planned for yesterday…

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

My Tuesday Evening ESOL Group

As I find my way around my new blog, and come to terms with the idea of blogging, I just thought I’d post here my recent contribution to the ELT Dogme yahoo group. I’ve been following the group since I discovered it, and Dogme, at the beginning of 2009. There are lots of interesting discussions there and the posts which have been most helpful have been accounts of work with learners. I thought I should make a contribution. So, this is what I wrote about my group of 13 March 2012…

“It’s a long time since I’ve contributed to this group but I felt it was high time that I shared some of my experiences as I’ve really enjoyed the stories from other members. What follows is a very simple account of a session with one of my ESOL groups. There’s nothing clever or fancy about it, but I do believe that, for this group anyway, it was useful and effective. These particular learners are very positive about their language learning in the group, and that has given me the confidence to finally post something. So…

It had been a busy day, I had arrived home at 5pm and left again 15 minutes later. As I arrived at the library door, two of the learners were waiting for me. Inside, rather than sitting around our usual table, one of them suggested we sit in the armchairs arranged in a circle in the other corner. We sat and started to talk about our day. My contributions prompted questions from the learners that were just beyond their current language abilities, but by using gestures, other words and examples, they communicated their meaning, I supplied the words, wrote them on slips of paper, answered their questions and we continued.

As the other learners arrived, our conversation turned to jobs. I asked the learners about the jobs they had done in their life. We heard that one learner had just got an additional job. We found out that two of the learners had run their own businesses in their country, that two of them had skills to do jobs needed by another learner, and that two were interested in doing some part-time study. The learners are at different levels. When one learner talked, I focused on his use of the past simple, correcting or eliciting self correction. (He understands the concept but doesn’t use it much yet!) With another more proficient learner, I introduced the present perfect continuous. We reviewed the use of ‘used to’. Learners worked hard at expressing themselves, searching for the best way they could say something, and working with other learners to find the word or phrase they were looking for.

As words and phrases were needed and as grammar points came up, I wrote them on slips of paper and put them on the table in the middle of our circle. We reviewed them towards the end of the session. Patterns emerged. In addition to one learner telling us that she had been working since she was 18, we heard that another had been living in his village for 2 years. One of us used to work as a shop assistant, while another used to live in a neighbouring town. Much of the vocabulary related to employment or business.

Individual learners wanted to take home ‘their’ words, but I’ve offered to type them up so that they could all have them. I’m doing that now and will send it out to them. I’ve hyperlinked the grammar points to relevant pages of the British Council’s Grammar Reference web pages and the words to the Macmillan online dictionary, with suggestions on things they could write to use to practise and recycle the language.”

You can read the replies here and, if you haven’t already done so, explore some of the other messages on the ELT Dogme group. It’s a good read!

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