Following on from his look at ‘getting to know you’ activities in last month’s post, MET’s blogger David Dodgson this time focuses on establishing independent learning habits and encouraging the development of study skills. He shares what he does with his EAL students to encourage them to engage with the language around them and be active learners.
In last month’s post we looked at ideas for the first week of a new course, ranging from classic ice-breakers to beginning to discover and uncover the learning experiences of our students. This latter aim of uncovering the learning experience is key early in a long-term course, especially in the context I work in with many students in the B1/B2 range and studying most of their subjects in English. It is all too easy for them to remain stuck on that ‘B2 plateau’ comfortable and articulate when communicating yet lacking the academic language to aim for the very top grades.
It is therefore vital to encourage students to become aware of how they interact with language and be active in seeking learning opportunities so that they can raise their level of English beyond simply attending EAL input lessons. In this post, I will detail how I encourage students to recognise, explore and engage with the multitude of language opportunities around them on a skill by skill basis.
The most important place to start is reading. In that ‘Get to Know You’ phase, I often discover that my secondary students don’t spend much time reading. They read texts for their studies and scroll through social media apps but that is about it – very little time is spent reading for pleasure. Luckily, my school has a well-stocked library so we often spend a few lessons in the first half-term there. Initially, I encourage my students to read for pleasure. Graded readers are a good place to start, but I will soon push the more confident readers towards accessible titles written for native speakers such as Holes or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
But it is not only about works of fiction, of course. I encourage my classes to read around topics covered in our language classes or in their mainstream lessons. I show them websites like BBC News or The Conversation and direct them to explore discussions and debates further. I was delighted just this week when, after a lesson about differing media portrayals of hijab-wearing athletes, two of my students brought to class articles representing opposing viewpoints on Greta Thunberg, drawing parallels between our class texts and the more current ones they had been reading.
Similarly, I encourage exploration of audio sources of information and opinion related to in-class topics. Podcasts are an obvious place to begin with resources like Radiolab, Nerdette, and Stuff Media all good launching off points. News summaries also offer a time efficient way to get them up to date on current affairs, with the bonus of giving them more opinions and reactions to offer in class discussions as well.
Noticing Language in Use
A little side note before I go on to the productive skills of speaking and writing – in order to engage my students more actively in focusing on the language featured in their reading and listening exploits, I encourage them to keep notes of new and/or interesting snippets of language they come across. This may be in the form of a vocabulary notebook in which they record words and phrases along with the context they found it in and further examples of use.
I also encourage them to be on the lookout for any grammar we have covered in class. Say, for example, we have been looking at the present perfect; I then direct the students towards news articles to see how the tense is used to introduce recent events. They soon start to do this themselves bringing lyrics from songs, slogans from adverts, and quotes from novels to class. In this way, their extensive reading and listening becomes not only about increased exposure but also increased awareness of language.
My students are often confident communicators and speak in English with a variety of classmates and teachers on a daily basis so further development in conversational fluency is not always a priority. One key area for them to focus on, however, is the more formal mode of giving a presentation. For their IGCSE ESL exam, they have to give a talk on a topic and they are often asked to summarise research findings or present ideas in their other lessons as well.
To perform well in these situations, they often need practice but the classroom is not always the best place as those confident conversers often feel self-conscious when giving an extended talk to an audience. I therefore frequently task them to practise by recording themselves. This gives them a pressure free opportunity to give their talk, check their timings, and, perhaps most crucially, review. Even without my input, the students will often listen back and note where their talk was unclear. They will then re-record and come back to class ready to deliver.
Writing, much like reading, is a skill my students seem unlikely to engage in beyond the confines of their learning. The best method to get them writing more remains keeping a journal. Giving them an opportunity and the time to write without the pressure of assessment helps them become much more fluid writers. To tie everything together (and to help any students who are struggling to write), I ask them to connect their journal writing with the other skills work I have them do: reviews of what they have read, summaries of podcasts, and reflections on their presentations are all great starting points (indeed, they can earn extra merits within the school for contributing reviews to the school library website). I also encourage them to include those words and phrases they have noticed in their reading as well to further encourage recycling and development of language.
Keeping a Record
A lot of this work takes place outside class and it can be difficult to keep track of it all. It can also be a challenge initially to engage students with these ideas, which they may see as taking up free time or taking away from study time. Besides stressing the long-term benefits to their language, I emphasise that they do not have to do all of these things all the time. They are free to choose exactly what they focus on and how frequently. I encourage them to be active independent learners through the school’s system of merits. Any evidence of work done beyond the formal tasks set in class earns them a merit award and increases their chances of a high effort grade come report card time.
So how do they provide evidence? One app we have begun to use is Google Keep. When my students have read an article or listened to a podcast, they save a link to Keep, add a few comments and share it with me. When they see a new word or phrase, they snap a photo and share it through the app, adding a definition as they do. They sometimes even upload their best recording of their presentation and share it for me to give feedback on ahead of class. In this way, they can collate a collection of their language development activities to review on a regular basis and I can track what they are doing outside the classroom.
How do you engage students with independently accessing language and developing their skills? Please add your ideas in the comments section!