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Teaching Strategies for Autonomous Learning

Yesterday I presented at the KOTESOL 2013 International Conference.

Here are the slides and handouts from the presentation:

Teaching Strategies for Autonomous Learning (Powerpoint Slides)

Teaching Strategies for Autonomous Learning – Notes

Know Yourself

Language Learning Strategies

Word Web

 

 

Encouraging Autonomy in Learners

Autonomous learning is one of the current trends in ELT, although it’s been around for quite a while, at least since Henri Holec’s 1981 book Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning.  He defines learner autonomy as “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning” (see wikipedia).  An autonomous learner will  be active in ensuring they learn the language, and do what it takes to learn the language.

Like most trends in ELT, it is possible to overemphasize autonomy, and I think teachers need to be aware that autonomy is more appropriate for some learners than others.  Younger learners may not be ready or willing to take (complete) responsibility for their learning, and even with older learners, it is really up to the learner to become autonomous or not.  You can lead a horse to water, but not make it drink; likewise, you cannot force learners to become autonomous, but you can do two things: encourage them and equip them.

How can we encourage learners to become more autonomous?

  1. Raise awareness.  Many learners haven’t thought much about the way they learn.  Discuss issues like autonomy, motivation, and learning styles with the students, so that they have a chance to think about them.
  2. Explain the benefits of becoming autonomous to the students, which include focusing on your own needs, using strategies that work for you personally, and focusing on topics that are personally interesting.
  3. Do activities to help students reflect on their learning, such as a learning style survey (e.g., the Learning Style Survey or the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning) and setting learning goals.

How can we equip learners?

  1. Give them resources for learning.  Let them know about sites they can use to learn their target language independently.
  2. Teach them various strategies for learning.  In particular, many students need help learning strategies for speaking and writing, as these are not covered as much in traditional curricula.
  3. Help them to set goals for themselves.  Ask them about their goals from time to time (soft accountability).
  4. Try to give some assignments that are open enough that students can accommodate them to their goals.

If possible, class contents should complement  what students are able to do on their own time.  That is, they should include the things that students can’t do by themselves.  In particular, there is often a need for feedback.  A student may write things on their own, according to their own goals, but feel a bit lost without any feedback.  If it’s possible for the teacher to provide feedback for student-driven activities, it will be very beneficial to autonomous students.

 

 

Grammar: Rules vs. Tools

Teaching and learning grammar is always a controversial topic in Applied Linguistics.  Here in Korea, grammar is somewhat of an obsession in the established education system, with the memorization of complex rules taking precedence over more vital things such as comprehension and communication.  When I asked my students what they felt when they think of grammar, they said “headache”, “hard”, etc.  On the other hand, some linguists go too far the other way, emphasizing the communicative approach so much they’d rather do away with grammar study entirely.  I prefer a balanced approach, with a strong emphasis on communication and input, but with some time focused on grammar and vocabulary, depending on the learner’s personality.

But we need the right approach to grammar.  Those who cram grammar (neglecting all else), as well as those who criticize grammar teaching, tend to think of grammar as a list of rules (arbitrary, irrational and complex).  I advocate a different view of grammar: as a set of tools.  Tools which allow us to express our complex ideas, often with simple vocabulary.

tools

Learning Korean, I found grammar study very useful.  Grammar in Korean usually centers on the myriad of affixes that can be added to words.  Learning a new one allowed me to express a new idea: the past tense, experience, ability, necessity, etc.  I always wanted to learn more, because I found that with each one I could express more ideas.

Of course, grammar study involves learning how to use the tools in the right way.  I suppose many learners get bogged down in this, especially since language lessons / language tests tend to focus on the intricate parts that people often fail on, rather than the most useful ones that learners can use to their advantage.  When teaching English Communication, I try to focus on basic grammar that will allow the students to speak more easily, and express their ideas more.  However, I do occasionally get bogged down in something a bit more complicated, and I suppose I focus on accuracy a bit too much sometimes (not that a focus on accuracy is always a bad idea; but it should be appropriate to the students’ current level).

By helping students to see grammar as a set of tools, and by helping them to use the tools they are acquiring by giving them opportunity to use what they’re learning, students can become more motivated

3 Dimensions of Language Learning Success

What does it mean to be “good” at a language?  We often think of language ability in one dimension only:  beginner, intermediate, advanced;  he’s better at English than me; we’re about the same level; etc. Tests and test scores often reflect this too: a higher score (in TOEIC, JLPT, TOPIK, HSK, etc.) means a higher ability.  Some tests give separate scores for different skills: reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar.  So that recognizes that ability is more than just a single number.  But I think a better way to look at language ability is in three dimensions.

In Applied Linguistics, accuracy and fluency are often viewed as separate aspects of language ability.  Sometimes they’re pitted against each other: you should focus on fluency, or sometimes the opposite.  These two make up the first two dimensions in my model, and to those I’d add range.  They make up semi-independent dimensions, and all are important. Let’s look at each a little further.

Accuracy is the ability to use the language correctly.  Most often we think of accuracy in output: speaking and writing.  That is, the ability to speak and write correctly.  It might also be the ability to answer grammar questions on a test correctly (if that’s important to you).  But accuracy can also be applied to listening and reading; the ability to comprehend correctly what is spoken or written.

Fluency (used here) is the ability to use the language “with ease”.  That is, being able to listen comfortably, to read quickly, communicate without too much difficulty, get the point across, etc.  It is not necessarily accurate; some people can speak quite fluently, yet make basic mistakes.

Range is the range of domains / genres / topics that you can operate in.  You may be quite fluent and accurate in a few areas (e.g. buying things in a store, talking about light topics) while being very limited in others.  Many academics are very strong in English in their area of specialty, but have a lot of difficulty in more casual environments.  Many are limited to a few topic areas that they are interested in, or that have been covered by coursebooks.  I’ve found my Korean speaking ability changes greatly depending on whom I’m conversing with; so in that sense, my range is partly limited by co-interlocutor.  A truly advanced learner will be able to operate in a wide range of topics, including “getting by” in topics they are not very familiar with.

As you advance in a language, you should be advancing in all three dimensions (although often in the short term, an increase in accuracy or fluency might have a temporary adverse effect on the other; this is normal, caused by focusing on the other, and shouldn’t matter in the long term).  Don’t neglect accuracy or fluency, as some tend to do; take some time to develop fluency regularly, and focus on form from time to time.  And always push yourself into new topic areas so that you will feel comfortable and not limited.

 

Language Acquisition Research

I’ve been doing some review of second language acquisition, and one thing has struck me as I’ve read about some of the research.  The way that a lot of the research is done seems problematic, especially the research which attempts to answer how language is acquired.

Much of this research follows the format Pretest – Treatment – Post-test, with treatment differing between the experimental and control groups.  The treatment is usually some kind of instruction, opportunity to practice, or other exposure to language, especially a particular grammatical structure.  Even this is a big shortcoming of such studies, as they often equate language acquisition with acquisition of morphosyntax.  The pretest – treatment – post-test format is pretty standard, but the interpretations made are sometimes a bit flimsy.  Either they will find that the experimental group outperformed the control group (as a group!) and conclude that the treatment leads to acquisition, or they’ll find the experimental group didn’t outperform the control group (as a group!) and conclude the treatment does not lead to acquisition.  Perhaps I’m overgeneralizing a bit, and they will usually hedge a lot, but that’s basically it.  I think they’re oversimplifying language acquisition a bit, and here are my two reasons.

First, they make assumptions based on the group.  If the experimental group outperforms the control group (p< .05!), or on the other hand if it doesnt, they make conclusions about acquisition in general, assuming that all learners will acquire language in a similar way, thus for example assuming that either all learners or none will benefit from grammar instruction.  Although this may be somewhat true in the case of L1 learning, or for very young learners, there is a lot of evidence that older learners and adults learn a second language in different ways, that they have different learning styles and that some tend to prosper more in a structured environment with explicit instruction, whereas others prosper more in an immersive environment.  Most acquisition research has ignored this.

Another problem is they often assume that the effects of the treatment should be manifest immediately.  But I think it’s completely reasonable that instruction will have some beneficial effects some time after, possibly well after, the instruction took place, as long as other prerequisites of acquisition are met (sufficient input and opportunity for output).  For example, if the third person singular (eats instead of eat) is taught too early for the learners to begin using it right away, the instruction may nevertheless have a beneficial effect later when they are ready to learn the structure.  Of course, some studies include delayed post-tests, but delayed post-tests are rarely sensitive enough to give reliable results; and how are the experimenters to know when to place the delayed post-test?  If it is too early or too late, it may not have a chance to give positive results.

Anyways, it’s obviously a bit too easy to criticize research in a field like Applied Linguistics, since so much of it is flawed and it’s really quite impossible to get firm results that are expected in the hard sciences, just by nature of what is being studied.  So I’m reluctant to play the armchair critic; but what I want to say is that basically, interpretations of experimental research need to be made very cautiously, and I try to avoid strong claims about the nature of language acquisition.

If asked my own view, which comes from a composite of experimental research, my own experiences (as both teacher and learner), listening to others’ experiences, and intuition, is that acquisition of a second language comes through both comprehensible input, output (both of these being necessary conditions), and that language instruction and focus on form is usually beneficial, although with the caveats that it depends on the learner, and that inappropriate instruction without input / output can be detrimental.

 

Presentation Slides

I presented at the KOTESOL International Conference today.  I was a bit overwhelmed by the numbers – I didn’t expect nearly that many.  Thanks to all those who came and attended, and thanks to those who shared their ideas.  Here are the slides from my presentation; I’ve added a few more slides to give a few more examples.  Any more ideas?  I’d love to hear them.

12 Types of Task for Speaking Tests plus

 

Update: Here are slides from a recent presentation on the same topic at Seoul National University of Science and Technology.

SeoulTech Presentation

KOTESOL 2012 International Conference

I’m speaking at the KOTESOL International Conference in Seoul tomorrow.  My talk will be titled “12 Types of Task for Speaking Tests.”  I’ll be talking about different tasks that can be used when designing speaking tests, with the focus on progress tests, that is, the kind used for midterms or finals in an English class.  The 12 tasks are:

  1. Question & Answer
  2. Preference w/ Choice
  3. Information Gap
  4. Picture Description
  5. Interactive Tasks
  6. Storytelling
  7. Data Description
  8. Comparisons
  9. Giving Advice
  10. Giving Instructions
  11. Expressing Opinions
  12. Advantages & Disadvantages

I’ll be putting some samples of speaking test materials up here soon.

Creativity and Education

Recently I showed a really interesting video to my advanced English class:

Schools kill creativity

It’s about education and creativity, and has a lot of potential for starting interesting discussion.  Actually, it was a bit above my students’ level (I’d shown it once before to another class and it worked better then) so in retrospect I think I should have shown it with Korean subtitles.  But we did have a good discussion in the end.  But one thing I noticed, was that when it came to creativity and education, almost all the students seemed to think creativity in education is limited to certain subjects, i.e. music, art, and physical education.  Likewise, they felt the only way to stimulate creativity in children is to teach them more music, more art, and more physical education.

I think they’re missing out on what creativity is and how it can be taught.  Perhaps they’re so used to the rote memorization style of learning in subjects like English, Korean, and even mathematics, that it’s hard for them to conceive of the role of creativity in these domains.  But emphasizing these subjects doesn’t necessarily mean that creativity needs to be neglected.  Rather it is the way these subjects that are taught that stifles creativity in them.

All subjects can include creativity.  English can be creative, even as a second language – writing and speaking are inherently creative.  Korean (as a first language) could be creative, if only the students were allowed to express their own ideas about the literature they read, or to write their own poems and stories.  Mathematics can be incredibly creative, if they were only taught to solve problems rather than solve formulas.  History can be creative, if students are encouraged to interpret history themselves.  Science can be creative, if students need to work out the steps of an experiment before doing it.

Education is more than just development of creativity, and there is a place for memorization, learning rules and formulas, and gaining knowledge.  But creative development should always be a key part of education – not only art and music education, but in all subjects.

Videos for discussion

Lately I’ve been viewing a lot of TED videos, and finding a lot that could be really useful for provoking discussion in the classroom.  I’ve used a few of them (see below), and I’ve bookmarked a lot more that I might want to use in the future.

For the most part they’re most appropriate for intermediate to advanced classes.  Subtitles are usually available in both English and Korean (as well as a lot of other languages), so these can be used to aid students with comprehension.  There’s a lot of potential for using these in a web-based course as well.

The first video I used is this one:

Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity

This video was great for provoking discussion in my small class.  I think the thing that made it so useful was the relevance to the students.  Korean students have been through a education system that kills their creativity, and they could see that it’s the same all over the world.  We were able to talk about their experiences, their ideas for a better education, and a lot more.  Although I don’t agree with everything Ken Robinson says about education, in particular in some of his other appearances on Ted.com, he has a lot of important things to say, and makes a great case.

The next video I showed was a bit of a flop:

Carl Honore: In praise of slowness

I don’t think the topic was nearly as interesting, and the speaker’s pace was at complete odds with the topic of his discussion: incredibly frantic and fast.

Recently I showed this video to my mentee students:

Richard St. John’s 8 secrets of success

It’s a nice short video, the main points are made visually as well as orally, and can lead to a lot of discussion.  Unlike most of the videos, I think you could use this video even with low level students.

Some other videos I’m hoping to use some time:

Susan Cain: The power of introverts – A great talk arguing the important role that introverts have to play.

Margaret Heffernan: Dare to disagree – The importance of not just having “yes men”.

Derek Sivers: Weird, or just different? -Nice short talk about thinking in more than one way.

Boaz Almog “levitates” a superconductor – I think this might be really interesting for kids, though parts will be a bit difficult.