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Encouraging ESL learner independence

Man sat at desk smiling while workingLara Storton has seventeen years of experience in ESL, teaching English for Academic Purposes and teacher training, and has recently written the Milestones in English Student’s Book and Teacher’s Book at B1+ level. She joins us today to outline steps towards encouraging language learners to continue their study outside the classroom and how to make use of technology and online resources to promote independent learning.

The student-centered approach is becoming more common as teachers realize the benefits of being a facilitator in the classroom, encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning in collaborative tasks and discussions. Of course, as a teacher you decide what happens in the classroom, but how can you extend learner independence outside it?

Set learning goals

Students come to class with their own individual learning goals. Often their motivation for learning will be goal-oriented: geared towards a specific exam, career or university placement and so getting them to spend time on skills development outside of class – rather than cramming for an exam – can be a challenge. And it can also be difficult for students who do want to develop their independent study skills to decide what to study outside the classroom.

What you want is for your students to become confident in organizing their own learning, studying what they want or need to study in order to achieve their long-term goals so that when they pass that exam or get into university, they can go on working independently and with confidence.

So first of all you need to get them thinking about their own learning goals in more detail. Do some needs analysis in class using questions. For example: Why am I studying English now? What do I hope to achieve in the future by learning English? What are my main strengths? How can I build on them? What are my weaknesses? How can I improve my skills and turn my weaknesses into strengths?

Students can then write down a list of individual learning goals and some suggestions of how to achieve them. Make this an interactive activity to highlight its importance and promote independence from the beginning – get students to discuss their learning goals and make suggestions in pairs or small groups. Take time to review these both as a whole class and individually with each student. This way you can help guide learners towards independent study in a way that requires them to take the initiative.

Get students to think about how to extend their learning in class

Once your students have established their learning goals, you can support them further by making references to independent study during lessons. Get them thinking about how they could extend their learning and build on the skills they have practised in lessons, saying for example, ‘How could you practice this at home?’ ‘Has anyone got any ideas about how you could extend what you’ve learned in this lesson?

At first your students may need some support with thinking of ideas so you could give them suggestions such as, ‘Read a newspaper and find two more examples for each dependent preposition we studied today.’ ‘Read a short text on a topic you are interested in and prepare to summarize it to a partner tomorrow’. ‘Read an article on a subject you’re interested in, underline all the present tenses and consider why the writer has used each one.

Over time these suggestions will give students an awareness of a range of independent study techniques and strategies and increase their confidence and motivation to move towards independence.

Take advantage of technology

In terms of motivation, we are lucky to live in an age where technology offers a wide range of self-study options. Most students will have a smartphone, laptop or tablet and are likely to be very adept at using it! This means that they can access a wealth of online study opportunities.

When online practice first became available, technology and programming was limited so exercises tended to be very short. Often they were gap-fill or choose-the-correct-option type tasks which required little ‘thought’. Of course there is a benefit to these more automatic types of exercise but nowadays online study programmes and resources can offer students so much more in terms of skills development. Features such as high quality images, games, audio, video, writing walls and discussion forums add to learner experience helping them to stay motivated and engaged.

From a teaching perspective, online study programmes also act as a ‘first step’ to guiding your students towards independent study – they can work on achieving their learning goals at their own pace and at a level that they feel comfortable with. They tend to be progressive, so once a student is has mastered the necessary language and skills, they can move on to the next level.

One example is the Oxford Online Skills Program. The programme runs at all CEFR levels and offers students the opportunity to work on either General or Academic English. Students can log on in their own time and choose what they want to study in whatever order they like in order to achieve their learning goals. An advantage is that the study material is generic – each module is based around a specific language focus, skill or topic so it can be used alongside any course and to suit varied interests.

Tapping into those interests is extremely motivating so encourage your students to engage with online material as much as possible not only on official study programmes but also through authentic websites and social media.

Build independent skills online

Once your students start to become motivated to study independently, encourage them to adopt a systematic approach to build their skills. In class, have regular discussions about how students can use technology for independent study, for example by listening to podcasts or online lectures, or by reading articles on their subject or area of special interest.

You could set aside a regular time in class where students discuss how they have studied independently this week and say what they have learned, what they have practiced, what they feel they gained from the study and how they will continue to develop those skills in future.

An online study programme can also help to guide students towards a systematic approach which they can then use with authentic materials. For example, in the Oxford Online Skills Program, modules are set up like mini-lessons giving students the opportunity to raise schema (activate their own knowledge and ideas and relate these to their experiences) by looking at an image or watching a video, and then complete a series of exercises including language, vocabulary or form focus. These build up to a final productive ‘task’, either written or spoken, and finally a ‘reflective’ task prompts students to consider their own learning experience and performance.

A2 Listening Engage

Engage activities activate schma. (Screenshot from Oxford Online Skills Program Academic A2)

This type of structure helps students to get into good independent study habits which they can then apply in the future at home or at college or university with authentic texts on subjects that are interesting to them or important to their course of study or career.

 


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Online Learning Platforms: Helping Your Students Engage

Learning online

 

Many English coursebooks come with access to an online learning platform full of material to help learners develop their language skills further. These can be particularly beneficial for academic English learners who need to achieve a certain level of English within a limited time period. But I wonder how many students (and teachers) fully exploit these materials.

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Messages, Discussions and Chats: Increasing Student Interaction

TabletsWith over 30 years of experience as a teacher and teacher trainer, Veríssimo Toste looks at how the role of a teacher is changing, ahead of his webinar on using Messages, Discussions and Chats to increase student interaction.

Today’s students are not limited to learning English in the classroom only. Through the use of technology, learning English has become 24/7 – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In this environment, what is the teacher’s role in helping their students learn? More importantly, how can technology help teachers to help their students learn better? Using messages, discussions, and chats as an integral part of their classes, is one way. Through the use of these simple features, teachers can address questions of mixed ability, customised learning and teaching, personalisation, as well as simply being able to increase contact time with the language, beyond the classroom.

Using “Messages” provides teachers with a simple means to contact their students, as well as for students to be in contact with their teacher. In this way, teachers can follow up in individual needs, without taking up valuable class time. Students can ask questions or raise doubts without the pressure of time and classmates that can be a part of the lesson. In using “Messages” teachers and students can more easily focus on their communication, as these appear within the learning management system (LMS) and so are not confused with general, personal e-mails.

“Discussions” gives teachers and students a forum in which they can continue discussing a specific topic raised in class. Students can exchange their opinions with each other over a period of time. They can participate when it is more convenient to them. They have time to consider their responses. Discussions can range from topics raised in class, to language points based on specific grammar or vocabulary, or how to prepare for a test. The options are limitless. The key is that through the use of discussions online, students can increase their contact time with English.

Whereas discussions can take place over a specific period of time, with students participating at their convenience, chats are an opportunity for the teacher to get everyone together at the same time, although not necessarily in the same place. Seeing that the class had difficulty with a specific topic or language point, the teacher can set up a chat in which the students participate online. Students have an opportunity to follow up on the topic on their own, thus preparing before the actual chat takes place.

By basing the use of messages, discussions, and chats on work done in the classroom, the teacher can provide students with a platform to expand their learning. To find out more about practical classroom activities to achieve this, join me on the 6th or 8th of October 2015 for my webinar, “Messages, Discussions and Chats: Increasing Student Interaction”.

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To go online or not to go online in the EFL/ESL classroom

Go online in EFL/ESL classroomHow do teachers decide whether to go online in the EFL/ESL classroom? Chantal Hemmi suggests that a hermeneutical process to finding out about student progress and future needs can help. Chantal teaches at the Center for Language Education and Research at Sophia University. She is also a series consultant for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, advising on online integration.

A hermeneutical process is all about being a good listener and observer of student progress over time: ‘Essentially, hermeneutics accords an important role to the actors and demands sensitivity and ability to listen closely to them’
(Young and Collin, 1988:154).

With increasing learner access to both authentic materials as well as materials written for language learners online, teachers are faced with a question: Shall I go online in class or not? The same goes for homework. One way to make this informed choice is for teachers to think critically about the aim of the lesson. Here are some questions we could ask ourselves:

  1. Will the activity raise interest in the new topic area?
    Is it more effective to go online to stimulate interest in the subject, or do we want in-class activities that incorporate an interactive, kinesthetic element with the use of cue cards or pictures to encourage students to brainstorm activities interactively?
  1. Do we want to go online to do a reading or listening exercise, or a vocabulary learning activity for input? Can this be done more effectively online, or are your students in need of more face-to-face scaffolding of content and language before you go online?
  2. Are we encouraging students to develop their autonomy by going online to do some research on an essay or presentation topic? Do the students have access to a library from which to borrow books or download reliable materials? Which is the better option for them, to go online or to use paper-based publications, such as books?

The choice must always link into the aims of our courses.  We have to bear in mind the strategy we want to take in order to develop students’ knowledge of the content, the language they need to function in the class, and also the opportunity for students to think critically about what they are learning. Teachers must decide what mode of input and output we want in order to scaffold the content, language and skills students need to deal with communication in our diverse global communities.

How do good teachers that I know find out about what is authentic to the learners? Some go for needs analysis questionnaires. Others opt for interviewing or focus groups where you set a list of semi-structured open-ended interview questions that you want the learners to discuss.

In my view, teaching itself is a hermeneutical process of finding out about where the students are with their learning, what they have learnt and what they are still not confident about, and how they want to get the input, online or through basic scaffolding through classroom interaction, with the teacher facilitating the construction of new knowledge or language input. A hermeneutical process is all about being a good listener and observer of student progress over time: ‘Essentially, hermeneutics accords an important role to the actors and demands sensitivity and ability to listen closely to them’ (Young and Collin, 1988:154). Not only should we be a good listener and observer, but also we should have the ability to choose tasks that best fit the class learner profile, based on our observations about where they are with their learning.

Thus, a hermeneutical process of finding out about student progress and future needs does not only look at snapshots of learners at a point in time, but looks at what happens over a term, or over the whole academic year. For example, a short speaking or writing test taken before mid-term can show a snapshot of the student’s ability at that point in time.  But we can include different modes of assessment such as group interviews, presentations, and essay writing tests to see what kind of progress is observed over time. The key to making the process hermeneutical is to construct a dialogue through online or paper based learner diaries so that students can reflect on their progress and about what they are learning. The teacher can make comments about student observations and thus sustain the dialogue over a period of time.

I myself learnt through experience that when I am still being controlled by the actual technology, blended learning cannot help to manifest the aims of the course.  The beauty of an effective blended learning journey will only be actualized when the teacher gains control over the technical as well as the methodological knowledge and skills to design courses so that in every lesson, the teacher knows why he/she is going online or choosing to stay with face-to-face input. Blended learning is a site of struggle, because the teacher has to question his/her role and to become skilled in making those important decisions that are going to play a crucial role in the design of our courses. Ultimately the aim is to conduct activities that benefit our learners with varying needs. Finally, blended learning also gives the teacher and students opportunities to explore effective modes of learning and to make the learning experience authentic to the learner.

References and Further Reading

Garrison, D. & Kanuka, H. Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education 7 (2), 2nd Quarter 2004, 95-105. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/10967516)

Young, R. & Collin, A. (1988). Career development and hermeneutical inquiry. Part I : The framework of a hermeneutical approach. Canadian Journal of Counselling 22 (3), 153-161.

 Walker, A. White, G. (2013). Technology Enhanced Language Learning  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.


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So you want to teach online?

Middle Eastern woman on laptopShaun Wilden, a freelance teacher trainer and expert in online tutoring, shares some thoughts on his upcoming series of webinars on teaching students online.

Over the last few years, language teachers have had to come to terms with a technological shift in the way they teach. Though VLEs (Virtual Learing Environments) have been used in education for many years, it is only over the last few that they have become part and parcel of teachers’ working lives as either they, their school, or the material they use have found their way online. Be it setting homework via edmodo, using Facebook to extend the classroom or using online workbooks to complement courses, language teaching is more blended than ever before.

Being thrust into this asynchronous world of teaching can be quite daunting for those of us that were trained for the face-to-face classroom. We are used to standing in front of a group of learners, setting tasks that get our learners to communicate while we monitor, react, guide and prod. We are skilled in the art of classroom management, noticing when a student is off track, reading body language to gauge if a student is struggling and knowing when a task is finished and how to wrap it up. We are comfortable working face to face, knowing our training and experience has given us the skills to handle most things that school life throws at us.

While the popularity of social networking has implicitly helped us come to terms with asynchronous communication, a tweeted conversation or discussion of the latest cat photo on Facebook hardly counts as adequate training for dealing with students online. Is it a given that a skilled classroom teacher will automatically make the transition to the online environment?

As with many of the technological changes that come to schools, blended learning is often introduced at the behest of the stakeholders, sometimes with little thought given to how the change is going to affect teachers and impact on their working routine. Likewise, they often presume this is what the students want and assume that students will jump into asynchronous learnin,g embracing in-task discussions with the same gay abandon they show when updating a social network status. However, in reality an online forum is, for many, a far more stressful entity than the physical classroom. If you have ever joined Twitter, think about how long it took you to craft your first tweet and the angst of getting it right. Will anyone read it? What does it say about me? Is my language correct? Do I have anything to say? These are all questions that tend to go through your mind. There is something about the written word that increases the stress – perhaps the permanency compared to the ephemeral nature of something said.

Having trained teachers to work online for the last eight or so years, I’m all too familiar with all these issues and the nervousness teachers feel when venturing into the online teaching environment. Even the most confident teacher can feel trepidation when taking their teaching into the asynchronous world. How do I set my class up? How do we communicate? How do I motivate them? How do I stop certain students dominating? When do I need to give feedback? Are questions I regularly get asked.

Now, you may be forgiven for thinking that starting to blend your teaching is a bit of a minefield. It isn’t. Getting started is easy; being effective is more of a challenge. So to help you get acquainted with the asynchronous world, we’re running a series of workshops over February and March. If you want to learn about the skills and being an effective teacher, join me over three webinars when we’ll discuss everything from netiquette to making sure students join in and not lurk.

To find out more about tutoring online, join Shaun’s forthcoming webinars:

Online tutoring part 1: what does it offer teachers and students?
Watch the recording of the webinar.

Online tutoring part 2: the challenges and benefits
Watch the recording of the webinar.

Online tutoring part 3: getting the most out of your students
26th March 2014