EFL Listening lesson: what one class learned (and taught me) about learner autonomy

This is a story about listening. About about how, in an effort to encourage learner autonomy, I helped some students start to overcome their fears of tackling authentic listening texts. But it’s also about what I discovered from listening to my own students about the strategies they used for tackling authentic texts. And finally, it’s about listening to feedback ― the best kind of feedback a teacher can get.

The story starts in 2015, when I taught four different groups, back to back, at a single company. The first group, Level B2 on the register, made it clear to me from the outset that the one thing they didn’t want was to suffer through another year with a coursebook (business or otherwise) that missed the mark. So we plunged in without one.

Lessons were a combination of articles they found, topics that came up in class, grammar that reflected challenges I picked up on in conversation and writing. Not having a coursebook also freed up time for developing, practicing and doing presentations, which they loved.

Sounds like trouble

The thing that absolutely terrified them, however, was listening. Even with graded listening activities for homework from BBC Learning English, they’d come back agonizing over the accents and lamenting how much they’d missed. We duly worked on individual sounds and connected speech, did targeted dictations and more in-class listening exercises. And I also encouraged them to do individual homework tasks listening to things that interested them.

They soldiered on, but when I asked them to watch some PechaKucha presentations online to get a feel for the format (before doing it ourselves), this group practically went into crisis. It was two American college girls talking about a canoe trip that apparently pushed them over the edge. The students swore they didn’t understand anything. I flipped on the meeting room computer and tried vainly to firefight by revisiting the presentation. Between accent, lexis, speed and sound quality issues, it was a difficult presentation. But at that point it was foolish to even try. Panic had set in. In Krashen’s terms, their affective filters were solidly up.

After the next week’s class, the company’s training manager asked to meet with me so I could justify my methods. She was very polite and understanding while I explained my case, but I was still a bit taken aback by the fact that she’d been called on to intervene at all. It seemed that word was spreading around the company that I was torturing the groups with authentic ― and for that read: impossibly difficult ― sources.

Listening for signs of hope

I had given the same assignment to all four groups, from Pre-Int to Advanced, and I was happy to report to the training manager that not everyone had given in to despair. While there was some of the expected grumbling about not understanding everything from the lower levels, there were two particular students in the B1 group whose reactions interested me. Both had done the homework. But both had taken difficult speakers in stride. Because both had applied different strategies for choosing which presentation to listen to.

The first said she loved bees, and so she listened to a presentation on beekeeping something like 10 times to understand as much as possible. In other words, the topic had intrinsic interest. It was motivating.

The second said he tried one presentation and found it too difficult. He found another too difficult, and another, and kept trying until he found one he could understand. He listened to it a few times ― not as many as the woman ― but enough so that he could complete the task. In other words, he self-selected for difficulty, and found a presentation that was a right fit for his competence.

Both did something I as a teacher would have struggled to do with them individually ― in the first case, find a task that pinpointed a highly motivating interest I hadn’t known existed, and in the second, find a sort of Goldilocks just-right gradation of listening text. Both did something it would have been impossible to accomplish had I imposed a single listening text on them as a class.

Making strategies explicit

I took these revelations home with me and typed up a sort of guide with some tips for grappling with authentic listening texts. The next meeting with the first group was full crisis-management mode, and I shared the tips and we talked calmly through what makes authentic texts hard, but what can make them easier.

The biggest revelation for them, I think, was that they had the power to choose. Rather than torturing themselves with the first listening text they found, they could self-select. Select for interest or select for difficulty. But it was up to them.

After that, we tried a number of the usual authentic sources, including one of my favorites, The Week’s This Week I Learned podcast by Lauren Hansen. It’s 12 minutes or so of summaries of the sort of random, interesting things you expect to find around the internet on any given week. I like it because each piece averages about 3 minutes, the production quality is very good, it’s downloadable and there’s something for everybody. (To be fair, it serves up exactly the sort of the pub quiz trivia that gets shoehorned into the already overcrowded columns on your average coursebook layout, but the advantage of sending students individually to the podcast is that they can choose what actually interests them.)

Building confidence

I told them to each listen to what they wanted and then come back and share what they’d learned. When they wanted more community support, they agreed between them to all choose and listen to the same text each week ― a sort of listening club. To keep it fresher, however, I encouraged them to form two teams, write up some questions, and quiz each other. The game-aspect seemed to motivate them even more to understand and stump the opposing group with their questions. Autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean go it alone.

At the end of the course they not only delivered great final-day presentations, but gave me a wonderful and generous send-off, with a pizza party and a Christmas basket to boot. And then the classes stopped.

The company didn’t start lessons again. Had I done the right thing or scared them off English? I wondered. Until about a year later.

The sound of learner autonomy

While browsing through the toasters in a big electronics megastore one Sunday morning I bumped into one of the women from that B2 course. We chatted about our holidays. And when I asked if she saw the others much her response made me grin from ear to ear.

Every week, she reported. They contacted each other to pick a listening activity from This Week I Learned, listen together, and discuss. What I’d dubbed their listening club was continuing as before, alone, without the aid of a teacher.

It’s the best feedback a teacher, or rather an educator, can get: the knowledge that their time with you actually made a difference in their educational development. Not in the sense of she can use the present perfect a little better, but as in she’s left the class better equipped to pursue her own education and development in English.

Because that, I thought, the grin still plastered to my face, sounds like learner autonomy.

The moral of the story

The moral, I think, is that if we want to encourage learner autonomy we have to

  • get our students to practice it by giving them space on the calendar/syllabus and opportunity through individual or group choice of texts, topics, etc.
  • find out what strategies they’re using and help those not using good strategies to do so (my “listening plan”, mentioned above, is one such attempt). If this information and encouragement comes from your students and not you, even better.

 

How do you encourage students to deal with authentic listening texts outside – or inside – class?

How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Are your students struggling with authentic listening activities?

Below is a brief guide I wrote to help my EFL students overcome both confidence issues and poor strategic choices when doing independent listening at home (the full story of which can be found here).

In addition to coaching them on how to choose what to listen to, the point was to make the structure of standard-issue listening activities visible to them so that they could make it part of a self-guided listening routine.

For the record, this is not a replacement for doing regular listening work in the classroom, whether it’s activities you’ve created, canned coursebook texts or ad-hoc micro-dictations. But this guide gives students one more tool for developing independence and autonomy in their learning.

Since I first created it, I’ve used it with a number of groups from lower intermediate to advanced level. Sometimes I’ve read through it in class, point by point. Other times I’ve just handed it out and had the students read through it (and apply it) at home. But in any case I regularly have students bring in the results of their independent listening to share and guide discussion in class.

Feel free to use it or adapt it as you like for your classrooms!

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How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Do you get nervous at the thought of listening online? You shouldn’t! When you listen to anything online, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Be selective

First, be selective about what you listen to. You’re going to spend 10-20 minutes on this, so don’t just force yourself to listen to the first thing you find. Being selective means you should prioritize:

  • Brevity ― a 2-3 minute selection will probably be more doable than a 10 minute selection because you’ll be able to go back and re-listen to it.
  • Difficulty ― choose something that’s a good challenge, but not impossible.
  • Interest ― a topic you’re really interested in will usually motivate you to try to understand more. (Also, you might already know something about the topic, which will help.)

Don’t stress about catching every word

Next, don’t stress about not understanding every word. Remember, in real life, when you listen to the radio in the car or at home, you probably don’t pay attention to or hear every word. You hear some important points and then later reconstruct a memory of what you heard. Also, remember that a lot of things like pop music and talk radio can be difficult for even native speakers to understand, because it’s fast, the sound quality may not be good, people don’t always speak/sing clearly or the speaker’s accent might be unfamiliar.

Have a plan

Finally, have a plan for when you listen. It’s important to listen more than once and think about different things each time. My listening plan would look something like this:

 

Listening Plan

  1. Before you listen, look at the title and (possible) summary. Think about the following questions:
    • What do you know about the topic?
    • Have you heard anything about it in the news?
    • What do you think they’re going to talk about?
  1. Listen once:
    • Who? What? How? Where? When? Why?
    • Briefly summarize (out loud or in writing) what you heard/understood. Realizing what you understood/didn’t understand should help you focus on what to listen for next.
  1. Listen twice for more detail about the previous questions.
  2. Listen three times:

Write down some key vocabulary. I’d try to put key vocabulary in 2 categories:

  • Key topic-related vocabulary (if the topic is “Scientists discover water on Mars”, topic-related vocabulary like: spaceship, astronaut, space probe, atmosphere, etc.)
  • Other interesting/important/unknown words you hear. It can be words you know, or words you don’t know.

 

Mars/space vocabulary Other
spaceship

astronaut

space probe

atmosphere

find out

seek out

investigate

 

(If there’s a script, listen a fourth time with the script. Check your vocabulary list against the text and add to it.)

  1. After listening:

Say or write a brief summary of what you heard, using the key vocabulary you wrote down. Look up any unfamiliar words. Then, go and listen to something else on the same topic ― you might find a lot of similar vocabulary, and maybe even find you understand more!

Conclusion

At first, it may seem like a lot of steps, but the better and better you get, the fewer steps you’ll actually have to do. The goal in the end is to automatize the whole process so you listen consciously and effectively but without the stress. Follow these tips and you’ll be healthier, happier, more confident and have stronger listening skills.

Learner-centred teaching from A1: An Olympic Crossword

Crossword A1Hurdles

Since we’re in the midst of the Olympics, yesterday one of my colleagues handed me a crossword with names of Olympic sports and other associated vocab. She’d used it as a filler, but I thought I’d extend it and make a whole lesson out of it.

How? Well I started with a miming game. This entailed hurdling two chairs and nearly doing myself an injury, but gave everyone the giggles and broke the ice for the two new girls who’d joined us today. The students then took turns. Carlos’s ‘equestrian’ was particularly  interesting! In this way, and with the help of Google images, I elicited most of the vocab they’d need to do the crossword, which they then merrily got on with.

I then explained that they were going to make their own crossword about the winter Olympics. At this point there was vociferous protestation from one student ‘Teacher I’m A1 not B1. It’s too difficult!’….and: ‘We’re from Brazil! We not know winter Olympics!’. But I stubbornly soldiered on with my plan. I happen to believe that students are capable of a lot more than they (and we) give them credit for (as I discussed in my IATEFL talk at Birmingham).

I wrote the stages on the board:

  1. Find out about the Winter Olympics.  (using their mobile phones)
  2. Write the questions. Use the crossword we did as a model.
  3. Design your crossword using the grid. Colour the squares at the end of the words. Don’t forget to write the numbers for the questions.

The product

DSC_0020

By the way, for the grid simply Google’crossword grid’.

As you can see, it generated some pretty impressive lexis for A1 learners. One of the girls exhaled a loud ‘phew!’ when they’d finished. It IS hard for them, but achievable if you give the right support. With activities like this, in contrast to using a book or a photocopy, the students do most of the work and are actively engaged with the language, which of course (we hope) makes it more memorable.

The next step is that they swap their crosswords and complete a puzzle created by their classmates. That’s today’s lesson...

 

 

 

Long Live Exam Prep- Part Minus Two A: The First Lesson

As I explained in Part Minus One the first day of an exam prep class can be the stuff of TEFL nightmares. So here’s a suggestion for how to avoid unnecessary stress.

Before the lesson

Get there early. Move the furniture around. Groups of 3/4 desks together is usually best. Stick a post-it note on each desk with a marker pen for them to write their first name when they come in. Write your first name on the board (if appropriate- I know in some countries it wouldn’t be), and ‘Please try to speak in English’.

Starting the lesson

Introduce yourself (just your name) and ask the students in their groups to guess where you’re from, what you do in your free time, if you’re married/have children/have brothers and sisters, what languages you speak, etc etc. You then elicit their ideas and write them up on the board. This is what my FCE students came up with the other day (my IWB wasn’t working!).DSC_0007

I have to say that the life they invented for me was much more interesting than my real life! And they made me 5 years younger 🙂

You then tell them how many things they got right, but not which ones. In this case there were only three. Ask them to decide in pairs which ones they think are right and highlight these (I outlined them in blue in the picture). Then tell them how many they got right (green in the picture).

Now they write some questions to ask you to find out more information, but give them some restrictions in terms of grammatical forms so as to push them a bit. My students were B2, so I asked them to use:

  1. present perfect
  2. 2nd conditional
  3. a future form
  4. their choice

They came up with:

  1. Why have you chosen to teach at this school?
  2. If you could live in any country in the world, where would you go?
  3. What will you be doing in 5 years time?

When you’re eliciting the questions you can work on the pronunciation of connected speech and weak forms.

They then ask you the questions and you give your answers. After that, a B1 class would benefit from a spoken recap in pairs. That way you can check they’re following you and give them a little more practice.

Now it’s their turn to ask each other the questions, but they may need to change couple of things (like ‘teach’ in question 1). Give them time to do this, then get them up on their feet mingling and talking.

Use this as a diagnostic activity to see what they’re capable of. Monitor and collect examples of good and inaccurate language. Give some feedback and work on corrections.

After all that ask them: ‘So what does all this have to do with your exam?’

The answer is that they’ve just practised Speaking Part 1 without knowing it. They’ve also got to know their classmates, they’ve got to know you, and you’ve got a better idea of their ability.

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In Part Minus Two B I’ll outline a similar idea to Kyle’s carousel  to provide learner-centred instruction from day one.

Promoting learner autonomy from day one: individual selection of reading texts in the ELT classroom (Part 2)

In part 1 of this article I explained how you can start of encouraging learner autonomy in the classroom from the first day’s homework assignment.

It’s part of a four-step procedure in which students can independently select, read and prepare texts for homework (step 1) and do a carrousel activity (step 2) to share what they’d read and learned.

Now I’m going to describe steps 3 and 4, including how to lead a follow-up discussion and help students overcome difficulties they may have had sourcing authentic texts.

3. Teacher-led discussion and task-analysis (day 2, part 2)

Once you’ve wrapped up the carousel, it’s now time to focus on discussion of the task itself. This is the kind of meta-analysis that also helps encourage autonomy, as you’re asking students to make judgments about their own learning processes and study techniques, as well as classroom activity.

When monitoring the carousel or the small-group discussion that followed, you may notice that some students confess to having had difficulty with the task, some even coming to class saying, “Here’s my text! But I barely understood anything!” I regularly observe that a few students:

  • Can’t discern whether their text is fact or opinion
  • Choose texts written in non-proficient English
  • Don’t self-select for difficulty (usually choosing impossibly difficult texts)

The result can be frustrating for some students. But as a teacher trying to encourage learner autonomy I want these difficulties and frustrations to come out immediately, and not further on down the course.

It’s a teaching moment, and we can start a discussion about what’s difficult about sourcing authentic texts (including topic unfamiliarity, grammatical and lexical complexity, density, relative lack of other clues, text length) which leads to discussing important criteria in text selection: motivation (choosing texts interest them enough to overcome some of the difficulties inherent in authentic texts) and self-grading (choosing texts that represent a linguistically manageable challenge). You can also board and discuss the sources students used (the specific online newspapers, academic journals, blogs, etc.) and discuss the pros and cons of using each one.

Remember, these are all things they consider (however unconsciously) when surfing the internet in L1. You just need to make it clear that they should apply transfer the same skills to L2 reading.

Tweaks and interventions

  • Write a guide: After discussing and boarding ideas about the challenges of authentic texts, have groups write a guide for the class with tips for next time (e.g. Choose a 1-2 page text. Choose a L2 text on a familiar topic.). They can write their guide in the form of a magazine article, letter or simply bullet points. Next time you assign a similar homework task, ask them to pull out their guide, follow their own instructions and see if it works ― or what they would revise.

 

4. Whole class single-text intensive reading (optional)

For homework (or, if you teach 4-hour blocks like I used to in Istanbul, in class), you can bring the class back to focus collectively on a single text. This will reassure those who struggled with the text they found or with the unrestricted nature of the task.

Have the class vote on the text they found the most interesting (it can be one they heard about from the “source” ― i.e. the original presenter ― or from a small group member in the wrap-up discussion) and assign it for homework.

You can assign the original reader a different task, like creating comprehension questions (to be sent by email to the others) or identifying and creating a quiz on the key grammar and vocabulary for the following week. If you’ve got a grammar syllabus, find some key grammar point contained in the text and jump to that section of the coursebook or grammar reference (if you don’t want to do it on the spot, tell the students you’ll assign a grammar point within 48 hours and email them the homework).

 

Conclusion: Where to go from there

By starting with an activity like this, you’re not just paying lip service to learner autonomy, you’re actually putting it into practice. And more importantly, you’re laying the foundations for an in-class culture of learner autonomy that will (I believe) help contribute to a richer learning experience for both your students and you.

In future articles, I’ll explore more activities and procedures for encouraging learner autonomy in the ELT classroom.
In the meantime, how do you promote a culture of learner autonomy in your classroom?

Promoting learner autonomy from day one: individual selection of reading texts in the ELT classroom (Part 1)

I believe that promoting learner autonomy is essential for both success and enjoyment in classroom language learning.

What is learner autonomy in the EFL classroom? In terms of the classes I teach I broadly define it as learners making decisions about what we do during the course.

This simple definition includes the idea that they are part of a class (“we”) gathered for a specific duration, and that decisions can be made both individually and collectively, in relation to classroom activity and out-of-class homework.

One of most straightforward ways to encourage this is giving students choice over the texts and topics we study in class and for homework.

Here is one activity for promoting autonomous choice of texts and topics that I’ve used with upper-intermediate and advanced EFL classes, adults and high school kids (but could conceivably be used in many other contexts).

Autonomy in text choice: day 1 reading homework

The first day of a new course is not only for introductions and getting to know each other, but also for establishing expectations about the rest of the term. If you plan to promote learner autonomy, there’s no better time to start.

At the end of day one of the course, I give the following homework assignment:

For homework, find something interesting to read on the internet. Print it out, read it and bring it. Be prepared to talk about it with your classmates.

That means everybody will come to class with a different reading text. Sounds like a recipe for classroom chaos, right? What do you do with all those texts?

Actually, this is part of a multi-step procedure which I’m going to explain in-depth below (steps 1 and 2) and in the next post (steps 3 and 4).

  • Independent text selection/reading
  • Student interaction/peer sharing
  • Teacher-led discussion and task-analysis
  • Whole class single-text intensive reading (optional)

Just to be clear up-front, this isn’t a warmer, or something you squeeze in between other activities. The in-class portions (Part 2 & 3) could easily run 1½ ― 2 hours. In other words, this is your class.

As you’ll see, this process gives students autonomous choice within the group (perhaps their first in a language class), offers maximum speaking practice (while putting new lexis into use), addresses problems of and offers support for developing learner autonomy and opens new doors to future lessons and the course as a whole.

1. Independent text selection/reading

As stated above, the task asks students to find a text for reading and study, and be prepared to share it with their classmates.

When I assign the homework I emphasize that they’ve got total control over topic, source and text genre (it could be an article, a blog post, a letter to the editor, an advertisement, anything as long as it’s written).

I don’t usually front-load this first homework assignment with extra tasks, but depending on your teaching style or context, you could add the following tweaks to the assignment:

  • Write a 100-word summary
  • Write down, define and write an example sentence for 10 keywords/phrases essential for understanding the text

2. Student interaction/peer sharing (day 2, part 1)

In the next lesson, students share what they’ve read. You could put students in pairs, but the best thing about this situation is that everybody’s got something interesting and different, and I don’t like to limit them to a 1-1 exchange.

It’s also good to remember that at this point you’ve got no idea what they’ve actually brought in. There is no central text, but many different texts, and you’ll want to see and hear about as many as possible.

So instead of pairwork what I like to do instead is have students do a carousel, an activity that I picked up long ago from Scott Thornbury’s invaluable How to Teach Speaking (called “The Poster Carousel” there, on p. 87). Here’s my applied (and modified) version:

The carousel

Have everybody tape their texts to the wall. Half the class stands by their articles, the other half circulates. Students can stop and ask about any articles that look interesting (based on the headlines). They can stay and chat or move on. Then the groups switch. This allows everyone to get to hear from multiple people about different topics, while also giving “presenters” repetition practice as they explain their article to different audiences. Encourage students to ask questions ― it’s a discussion, not a real presentation.

Tweaks and interventions

  • Rehearsal: Before taping up their articles, have everybody take a few minutes to review their text again. If you haven’t asked them to do it as part of the homework, ask them to now write down 10 key words/phrases from the text which will help them explain it from memory. This gives them essential rehearsal time so they don’t simply read from their text on the wall.
  • Constraints: To manage circulation, give students limits, e.g. 15 minutes to hear from 3 presenters (but it doesn’t have to be 5 minutes at each ― encourage them to invest time relative to their interest level).
  • Lexis collection: Students have to collect a set number of key phrases from each presenter.
  • Monitor for language related to explaining, summarizing, asking and answering questions, etc. You can intervene to help students individually, or stop the group mid-task and model/board essential language.

One of the best things about the carrousel activity is that rather than obtrusively looming over (or crouching next to) students as they discuss their texts, you can mingle with them, monitor and note-take much less obtrusively, and have a peek at their articles. And as with any student good activity, your lack of information about article content actually gives you a genuine need to listen and find out more.

But if you’re not used to not having control over the text, don’t panic. Step 4 will give you the opportunity to (optionally) have a more traditional single-text whole-class focus (and give you time to prepare for it).

Wrap-up

When both groups have finished, get into small groups to share which article they found most interesting, and why. Groups can then share their favorites with the class. You can also ask for (and board) 10 useful words or expressions they learned. You (or a delegated secretary) should take note of which topics seemed the most popular, key vocabulary, etc. for future reference.

That’s the end of the activity (but not the end of the class, or the process). In the next post, I’ll describe steps 3 and 4, and how you can use individual text selection and the carousel activity as a springboard to helping students better equip themselves for practicing learner autonomy in the EFL/ESL classroom.