Some thoughts about authentic materials in ESL classrooms

I was thinking this morning about the role of authentic materials in ESL classes.  It’s of course covered during the CELTA course and several reasons are given about why they should be used in the classroom.  First, it can be very motivating for a student to engage with an authentic source as it gives them a chance to see how English is used in the real world.  It removes that filter you get when you’re using a coursebook where all the language has been graded down making it accessible, but not quite the real thing.  It’s also very empowering when students have been able to work through an authentic source and are able to get meaning out of it.  Plus, it adds for a level of personalization when materials in a coursebook don’t quite line up with student interests.

For my own part, I agree with a lot of these ideas and like to use authentic sources when possible.  However, there is the issue of matching a text to a student’s level, and here I’m not quite as satisfied with the answers you currently get from a CELTA course.  The standard answer seems to be that theoretically any material could be used for any level.  It’s just a matter of how the tasks are set up.  Yet, I don’t find this entirely satisfying, because as readers of a text, we don’t usually read just to complete some kind of exercise.  Most of the time, if we’re reading a book, we’re reading for enjoyment, and if we’re unable to make sense of a text, we’ll likely put it down out of boredom.  So it seems that the idea of any text could be used for any level as long as the tasks match the level seems a little naive.  It feels like that depending on the level of the text, a student would need at least a certain minimal level of English in order to keep engagement with the text high enough to complete the tasks.

I’m curious as to your ideas.  How often do you use authentic materials in your classrooms?  What difficulties do you have using them with your students?  What successes have you had with using them?

What’s on your reading list?

So I’ve been busy with work lately and haven’t been able to post as much as I’d like, but I wanted to take a few minutes to share a couple of books I’ve read recently.

  1. Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman – I read this book after seeing it get mentioned on Twitter. I’ve been really interested recently in the brain and how people learn so I was intrigued at the idea of two different systems in the brain, System 1 and System 2. I think it has a lot of potential for ESL, in examining how we can channel someone’s attention (System 2) and engage it in a learning process and if we can use it to help new language use become more of an automatic process (System 1). Some of his examples later in the book were a bit dense for me and I had trouble following them, but I think overall it was a worthwhile read.
  2. Design for How People Learn – Julie Dirksen – I read through this one because I was looking for a read to help me in my job. I found this book really useful in how it addresses designing for different gaps (knowledge, skills, motivation and environment). It really mirrors how we try to do things in my company and helped give me a deeper understanding of some of the things I’m already doing.

So those are a couple of books I’ve been reading. What’s been on your reading list?

What if students controlled their own learning? (from YouTube)

Although it’s a few years old, I think this video offers some interesting ideas in regards to autonomous learning and I wanted to share it. Here were some of the points I found most meaningful.
 
1. Yes as a default position. To me, I think this one is important not just in the classroom but also in the workplace. Everyday people have ideas and suggestions for how things could be improved or made to work better for them, but oftentimes we’re told ‘no.’ Either it’s not practical or we don’t have the resources. I think switching to a default position of yes really opens up a dialogue and can begin a process of personalization that makes the classroom and the workplace more meaningful and engaging places to be.
 
2. Home Learning. I really like this idea as a replacement for traditional homework. It allows students to choose objectives or tasks that are relevant and meaningful to them. They can work on areas that they are struggling with or work on something that’s related to a personal goal of theirs. Again, this makes the work more meaningful to them, increasing their motivation to actually finish it.
 
3. Letting the student choose their own classes. When I was in high school, there was a set curriculum we had to follow and we could only choose one or two electives. It would’ve been amazing to be able to choose all the classes I took every year. Again, this kind of change gives learners more control over their learning and can increase their engagement with the school.
 
This isn’t to say I don’t see limitations in this approach. For example, while it is empowering to let students choose their own course of study, this isn’t always possible in the classrooms where we work, where we might be given a syllabus and a coursebook by our headmaster and told to teach it. However, I do think there’s room to personalize the lessons to better suit the learners’ interests where possible.
 
Those are just a few of my quick thoughts. What do you think about this kind of approach? Let me know in the comments below.

First Impressions – Lyricstraining.com

I took some time recently to try out the website, lyricstraining.com and wanted to share some of my first impressions about the site.

What is it?

Lyricstraining.com is a website that tries to help you learn a language through music.  It’s free to sign up and you can sign up with your Facebook account if you have one.  Once you’re signed up you can learn several languages through the website, not just English.  Most of the language are European languages though you can also learn Japanese.  I spent my time though looking at the English content though, so I can’t comment on how much material there is for other languages.

My Experience

Creating my account took only a couple of minutes, and then I was able to start exploring the site. I looked for a few songs to begin practicing and found “Sparks Fly,” by Taylor Swift, “Castle on the Hill,” by Ed Sheeran and “Hurt,” by Johnny Cash.  One of the first things you’ll notice is that the site is streaming videos from YouTube.  This could present an issue if you’re working in some markets, like China (where I work currently), as YouTube may be inaccessible without a VPN.

When you listen to the song, the lyrics are shown beneath the video, with occasional gap-fills that you must fill.  You have two different options for how to do this, typing down what you hear or choosing an option from a list of choices.  In addition, the site offers four difficulty levels, so a learner could choose one that matches their current proficiency in the language.  As the song plays, the learner scores points by correctly filling in the gaps and earns multipliers to their score by getting several answers correct in a row.  If you get one wrong, you lose your multiplier.  After the song finishes, you’re then shown a leaderboard where you can compare yourself to others.  I found trying to fill in the gaps fun, and seeing the leaderboard kept me engaged.  I can see how this would provide motivation for a learner to go back and try again, to try and improve their score and move up the leaderboard.

In addition, there are other tools available on the site.  One is a tool that allows you to add a song and its lyrics (it seems that the site is community-driven by trying to get the users to add more songs).  This is also a nice way to practice with a language though for more advanced learners.  There are also tools for teachers, where you can take a song and make your own gap-fill for a song.  This would be useful if you want to use a song to raise your learners’ awareness of a set of words or grammar.  Last you can make a favorites list of songs if you have ones you want to come back to in the future.

Final Thoughts

I think lyricstraining.com offers a fun and engaging way to practice a language.  The leaderboard creates a desire for learners to redo exercises, as they try to get a higher score than their friends.  It also has some uses for teachers, as you can create your own gap-fills for learners.  And it’s free to sign up, so there’s no barrier to give it a try.

However, there were a couple of things I didn’t like about the site. The first is there were a lot of banner ads on the site.  I know this is to be expected as it is free, but the ads were a little distracting.  Also, as I was listening to some of the songs, I noticed minor spelling errors in some of the words.  Nevertheless, if you have a learner who loves music and wants to use music to help them to learn, I think this is a nice website for them to use.

What are your thoughts?  Have you used this website before?  What did you think?  What other websites and apps would you like me to look at?

Autonomous Learning

I want to begin a series of posts looking at the topic of autonomous learning. In recent years this has become a popular topic not just in ESL but in education generally. But what does it mean, how does it benefit learners, how can we support it in the classroom and what are the challenges in achieving it? I want to begin examining these questions and hopefully, by the end of this series, we can offer some practical advice for supporting learner autonomy in our classrooms.
What is it?
It might be easy to think autonomous learning just means studying on your own, but this would be an oversimplification. Rather, the goal of autonomous learning is to empower learners to make their own choices when it comes to education. In traditional classrooms, choices about what to study and what resources to use are made by educators. They choose the textbook you use, when your class meets, how long the class is and what activities you do during the class. However, in an autonomous learning environment, learners are trusted more with these decisions. The student can choose what they want to study, how often and how long they study and what resources they use.
Why is it beneficial for learners?
In the current learning environment, this can be a very popular way to learn as there are a plethora of resources out there to use. Just open up your app store and see how many language learning apps are available. Open up YouTube and see how many videos are out there to teach you a foreign language. Go online and see how many websites there are that can offer language classes over Skype. In addition, people lead busy lives and aren’t always available to go to a class. I’ve looked before at Chinese classes being offered where I live. Even though I have the motivation to go, they’re always offered at times when I’m working. The same is true for many of my own learners, who often complain about working long hours and then getting asked to work overtime on top of that. In this environment, learner autonomy provides a practical solution.
Challenges
There are two main challenges to fostering autonomous learning in our classrooms: the students and the teachers. For students, autonomous learning has to be about more than just downloading an app and using it to study. Autonomous learners must be prepared to take more responsibility for their own learning. They must be able to regulate their study, making sure they focus on how often and how long they study. Trying to force all your study into one session every week will probably not yield the learning outcomes you’re looking for. Also, learners must take greater responsibility for evaluating their own work. They need to ask questions about what they’re learning and decide how well they understand it. And if a learner feels like they could understand something better, they need to decide what steps they can take to gain that better understanding.
There’s also the problem that educators may be reluctant to foster autonomous learning. One reason is that educators may believe that autonomous learning will undermine their role. However, this need not be the case. One important element of autonomous learning should be that we can trust our learners to make their own choices about their learning, and take ownership of the process. That doesn’t mean we’re useless. We can still be there to offer support, to help learners understand why certain things don’t work and to offer suggestions for what learners can do next to expand their learning.
However, there is the question of what skills or techniques we can use in class to help our learners develop the ability to learn autonomously. I’ll start to look at these questions in the next post by looking at how we can raise our learners’ awareness of autonomous learning. In the meantime, if you’d like more information on autonomous learning, look at some of the links below. And what are your thoughts on autonomous learning? Is it something you use in your classroom currently?
Sources:
Creating Autonomy-Supportive Learning Environments | Jon Stolk | TEDxSMU: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxlFzrfdqa4
What is Learner Autonomy and How can it be Fostered?: http://iteslj.org/Articles/Thanasoulas-Autonomy.html

The Autonomous Learner – Noticing

Last week we started a look at autonomous learning, what it was, how it benefits students and how we can begin to encourage it in the classroom. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, feel free to go back and check it out. This week we’re going to dive deeper into the topic, looking at skills that learners should have if they want to be better autonomous learners. The first skill we’re going to look at is noticing.
Noticing – What is it?
Noticing can be broken down into two ideas. First is that it’s important for learners to be paying attention to the language so they can begin to “notice” key aspects of the language. These include understanding what the language means, how to correctly use it in a sentence and understanding how it should sound when you speak it. Second, it also refers to a student’s ability to observe the target language in a model and compare it to their own speech, to better understand and correct what mistakes they’re making. This is called “noticing the gap.”
How does it benefit students?
This is a question that’s still up for debate, but it boils down explicit and implicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is the idea that learners can be aware of grammar rules, but they’re still slow at using them in speech because they have to consciously think about the grammar rule and apply it. Think of any learners you have who can make the sentence correctly, but their speech is a bit slower and less fluent because they’re really thinking about what the correct sentence looks like. People with implicit knowledge are able to make sentences more quickly and may not even be aware of the grammar rules they are using.
How all of this benefits the student is where the debate comes in. The big question is whether or not explicit knowledge can become implicit knowledge. Some theorists, such as Krashen, argue no, this can never happen. Certain areas of the brain take charge of implicit knowledge and others take charge of explicit knowledge and we can’t transfer knowledge between the two.
However, there are those who disagree with this idea. One position is called the interface position, which argues that “explicit knowledge can have some impact on implicit knowledge.” There are two views of the interface position, a strong and weak view. Advocates of the strong view argue that through practice, grammar rules can be internalized. This would allow learners to use this language more naturally. The weak view tends to agree with Krashen, that explicit knowledge can never become implicit knowledge, but it can help the brain develop implicit knowledge. This idea is supported by studies that showed students who received grammar instructions did better with their accuracy than students who did not.
How can we help our students “notice” language?
There are several things we can do in the classroom to help our learners. One is to draw students attention to our target language by keeping it underlined or highlighted in our boardwork and other materials. We can also make use of gap-fills to test if students can recreate the target language from memory. Even if learners struggle with this, it can still be a learning opportunity as they compare their guesses with the correct answers and begin to see where the gaps in their knowledge are. Also, we can engage with students and help them examine the language. See if the learners can work out the rules for themselves in guided discovery tasks. These can help create for a very student-centered lesson and help our students feel empowered to take charge of their learning.
So what do you think? Do you believe noticing is an important part of learning a second language? Do you use noticing tasks in your classroom? Let me know in the comments below.
Sources:
Teaching ESL Students to Notice Grammar. Noonan III, Francis J.: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Noonan-Noticing.html

How to learn ENGLISH through the BBC

The FUTURE of Learning

bb

(Photo credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningenglish)

I am not usually in the situation of promoting competitors, but I feel that this one has to be looked at for those students who really don’t have anything else much to help them except the internet or the radio.

Also there is a common phrase around the world that someone speaks ‘BBC English’, and I would like to propose to the world community of English language learners that this is in fact THE English to try to master!

Anyway the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has been around since 1943 and has been not only connecting to the world in English since then, but has been actively promoting English to international learning for over 60 years…you can’t ignore that.

But let’s have a look at what they do actually offer:

  1. BBC Website that offers simple quick information on how to start a conversation in almost anywhere!

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NEXT TOP 15 English SLANG you should start using now to sound like a real BRIT!

The FUTURE of Learning

brit

(Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1GGFUyD)

A while ago I gave you the first 20 slang phrases from English that are worth looking at, now let’s check out another 20. There are even more too I will tell you about later!

  1. Quid – pound

That shirt cost me 20 quid.

  1. Loo – toilet

Excuse me, can you tell me where the loo is, please.

  1. Nicked – stolen

Hey I have just had my mobile phone nicked.

  1. Nutter – crazy person

Be careful around that person he is known to be a nutter.

  1. Gobsmacked – Amazed

When he won the competition I was really gobsmacked.

  1. Chap – Male or friend

He is a really nice chap.

  1. Bob’s Your Uncle – There you go!

When you finish the job, then bob’s your uncle you are done!

  1. Don’t give a monkeys aunt – don’t care

Honestly, I don’t give a…

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