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The Thrill of Discovery: Reading to Learn

Six year old girl reading on the floorAhead of his talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton entitled ‘The Thrill of Discovery: Reading to Learn’, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, shares how he came to learn that students will be motivated to read in a foreign language if allowed to discover for themselves the thrill of reading.

My first experience with encouraging students to read was with a class of 10-year-olds in Portugal.  28 students walked around 4 tables full of different simplified readers. Their objective was simply to choose one to read, a much more difficult task than I was aware of at the time. One student, Eduardo, summarised the feelings of the class succinctly and directly: “Why should I read in English when I don’t even read in Portuguese?”

A good question. I realised most of them were doing this because I had asked them to, because they trusted me. I looked at Eduardo and told him he didn’t have to read if he didn’t want to. Surprised, and not really believing me, he sat down and waited for the bell to ring, putting me to the test. I walked around the room answering students’ questions, asking what they liked to watch on TV. I figured this would give me an idea of what would interest them.

A few minutes, Eduardo at my side. “Teacher,” he said, “this book is about football. Can I take this one?” When I said yes, he was obviously surprised that a book about football was acceptable. He walked away with the book. I knew that he was now worried about being able to understand it in English. Eduardo was not known for being a good student in general, and even less so in English. I left him alone, keeping an eye on him from a distance. Minutes later he was at my side again. “Teacher, did you know that Pele was only 17 in his first World Cup?” I told him I didn’t. Eduardo proceeded to tell me a lot of other information about football. By the end of the class he decided he would try reading the book.

Eduardo went on to read many other books that year and nearly 20 years later I still remember what I learned about motivating students to read – simply let them read. Let them discover the thrill of learning and the sense of achievement in reading in a foreign language.

Carl Rogers said “we cannot teach another person directly; we can only facilitate his learning.” Reading allows teachers to facilitate their students’ learning. It reinforces classroom learning, as the vocabulary and grammar of our syllabuses, are all there. More importantly, all those verb tenses, adjectives, nouns, and adverbs are there with the purpose of communicating information. The language appears in a context, it is a means to an end and not an end in itself. After all, we don’t normally go to a bookshop and choose a book to read because it has great examples of the ‘present perfect’.

Reading is also a great motivator to learn English. It exposes students to different worlds and different experiences, and it allows them to share these experiences with each other. More importantly, in my view, reading gives students a sense of achievement. It shows them the result of the years they have been studying English. In designing activities to accompany students’ classroom reading, I always make sure that my activities do not interfere with the magic that is reading. The aim of my activities is not to motivate students to read – the books will do that – it is to help them share their reading experience.

Eduardo taught me that, and I still remember the smile of satisfaction when he finished a book and the sense of expectation as he browsed the bookshelf for another.

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Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 3)

Man sat at desk smiling while workingHaving looked at different types of motivation, and considered what makes different materials motivating, Mark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series, now introduces his taxonomy of intrinsic motivations: the IPEC taxonomy.

What kind of EFL material is intrinsically motivating and most likely to induce ‘flow’? Some indications may be found by looking outside the language classroom. What kinds of things do people do spontaneously in day-to-day life, without looking for extrinsic rewards?

One such potential activity is playing computer games. Malone (1981) presented a theoretical framework for intrinsic motivation in the context of designing computer games for instruction. He argued that intrinsic motivation is created by three qualities: challenge, fantasy, and curiosity.

Challenge involves outcomes which are uncertain and which depend on a combination of luck and skill. Fantasy is the imagined world the player moves in. And curiosity is the intellectual arousal the player feels when they believe their knowledge is incomplete.

Of these three, fantasy is the quality which seems most specific to computer gaming and less obviously applies to the adult EFL domain – which is not to say it is absent, in role-plays and simulations for example. It may be useful, following Malone’s example for computer gaming, to develop a taxonomy of intrinsic motivations specifically for the EFL context, and this is what I will attempt to do in what follows.

My taxonomy can be summarized by the initials IPEC: Interest, Personalization, Entertainment, Challenge. We will look at each of these in turn.

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Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 2)

Young man falling asleep holding booksFollowing his post defining and exploring two kinds of motivation in adult learners, Mark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series, continues the series with a consideration of why some material is inherently more motivating than others.

In Williams and Burden’s book Psychology for Language Teachers (1997) they trace back certain theories of motivation to a theoretical assumption of ‘homeostasis’ – namely that animals – and people – prefer not to be in a state of arousal. That is, we would prefer to be in a state of having all our physical and intellectual needs satisfied.

However, experiments have shown this not to be the case, and that even rats are motivated by curiosity and novelty. John McVicar Hunt (1961) identified the motivating force of curiosity: we actively seek material which is surprising, incongruous, or discrepant.

To see what this might look like in more concrete classroom terms, consider the following example from Widdowson (2003). He suggests that there is a big problem with the following pedagogic text, with its accompanying illustration:

This is a man. He is John Brown; he is Mr Brown. He is sitting in a chair. This is a woman. She is Mary Brown; she is Mrs Brown. She is standing by a table. Mr Brown has a book. The book is in his hand; he has a book in his hand. Mrs Brown has a bag …”

Widdowson’s problem is not, as you might expect, that the text is so unnatural and unlike anything in real life. These things are not necessarily problematic. The real problem is that the text is boring. It tells us nothing that we didn’t already know from the picture. The text is ‘simply a device for demonstration. As such, it offers nothing for learners to engage with’. You might say that the text is too stable – there are no loose ends to provoke any kind of curiosity.

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Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 1)

Young man chewing pencil while studyingIn the first of a three-part series, Mark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series, defines and explores two kinds of motivation that can lead to different learning outcomes with adult learners of English as a foreign language.

‘Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been manipulated long enough from the outside by textbooks and teachers, and they have counted graduation as the first day of freedom.’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002)

Three key terms in this quote are motivated, attention, and learning, and they are closely related. Attention determines what appears in consciousness, and without it no learning can be done. Attention is a kind of psychic energy, an effort of the mind, and to make this effort, you must be motivated to do so. The quote implies that there is more than one kind, or quality, of motivation; it speaks of being extrinsically motivated, implying a contrast with intrinsically motivated.

And it seems that these different kinds of motivation can lead to different learning outcomes. Stevick has pointed out, ‘In the long run, the quantity of your students’ learning will depend on the quality of the attention they give to it’ (Stevick 1982). Csikszentmihalyi’s quote is pessimistic about the quantity of learning which will result, in the long run, from relying exclusively on extrinsic motivation.

So what are these two kinds of motivation?

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