learner needs, books and unanswered questions

Theme of the week is meeting learner needs and there is a question in here somewhere I’m having trouble articulating.

Needs in Module Three and on my courses

I’m draft marking as a tutor on the Distance Delta autumn M3 and running the ITI autumn M3 (among other things, but there is much M3 dialogue going on right now), so spending a lot of time trying to get teachers to think about how they can find out what their learners needs are and how to address them. At the same time, the first class they have given me in the language school this year is a small group of teenagers who hope to eventually do the iGCSE first language English.  It is new for me and I’m not sure if it even really counts as TEFL. All of them grew up here in Istanbul with one English speaking parent, but they speak Turkish to each other.  I’m trying to work out what they can do and what the iGCSE exam involves. The Cambridge site provides a syllabus and a past paper with example answers and I’ve been given a book. I’ve met them twice now and I think it is going to be really interesting as the way they use language, the language they have at their disposal and the things the exam asks them to do with language all seem to be clearly related to, but in some ways slightly different from the learners (and the end goals) I am more used to, so it is making me rethink and remix what I would usually be able to apply automatically and also look at new ways of accessing information about them and their language and ways of getting them involved in things.

Needs in the iGCSE group

Two weeks in, my plans are as yet a slightly unfocused maelstrom of ideas. This week. for example, I want somehow to work out how big their vocabularies really are (to actually put a number on it) and get them to notice words, take more note of what those words can do, play with words and I really want to engender a desire in them to acquire more – a tall order perhaps and clearly not going to be accomplished in a three hour class, but I need to come up with some first steps. Last week the main element in the book was introducing them to summary, but the activities in the book didn’t give much help as to how to achieve it, so I had some steps they could try and some layers of collaboration where they reacted to / got feedback from each other during those steps. It half worked, but we need to go back to it with more steps. I can see the same problem coming up in the next focus. The activities are set up with lexical items that ought to be outside their range and a nudge to guessing the items, but that’s it. No longer term strategies, introduction to a thesaurus, overt demonstration of why they need to do any of this or how it will be useful to them. So that’s what I will probably spend much of Thursday working out.

The catalyst that linked this up

And into that mix on Sunday morning dropped Scott Thornbury’s weekly post on his (De-) Fossilisation diary, asking what are classrooms good for and giving a picture of a learner slightly frustrated by the obstacle to learning that a course book can be, which on a first read is as neat and immediate a rationale for a teacher doing Delta M3 as a tutor could hope for.

But then I went back for a second read. In answering the question (what are classrooms good for) he states he got interaction (that makes sense, we have people travel a long way to the face to face components of classes they could choose to do wholly on line, in both the language school and in ITI), emergent incidental learning (largely from diversions from the book), opportunities for risk taking and lastly the immersion of the class time itself. That last one seems important. I show learners tricks and activities I think they could weave into their daily lives to extend / reinforce what we are doing in class. Some adopt these things successfully, but for some the actual class time itself is a last bastion where they might do something about their English in the face of an overload of work, kids and general exhaustion). He says he got a lot from going back into a classroom as a learner, but he also makes it clear he felt he could have got much more and seems to put the blame squarely on the coursebook ‘rather than expanding opportunities for learning, it seemed to shrink them’.

Book or no book ? But then maybe that’s not the question.

My first reaction was that statement wasn’t fair to course books. In any given year I probably teach two courses with a book and two without and there are definitely things to be said for both. I’m lucky that if I do a course with a book I can add, drop and skip with no problems about common syllabus or ‘consistency’, which is one of the comments I get from Delta teachers when I start on a ‘Why don’t you ..’. Some institutions end up ‘shrinking opportunities’ for everyone with edicts about what should be seen to be done in what lesson, but in a large institution with a raft of parallel pre-sessional classes and common testing, administrations seem to think everyone should be treated the same. That is a scarily double edged thought, isn’t it ? Equal opportunities and 1984 all jammed into the one phrase.  I’m also lucky because I usually get to choose the book so actually like some of the things in it. And I let them run whereever they like with things in class. There is no fixed schedule to finish a unit or even a book in, so I’m all for wandering into any interesting sounding learner generated diversions. On the no book courses I bring things to the lesson. These are as a result of what they have seemed interested in, or struggled with or want to know about, but I find the article, make the information gap that focuses on the language they say they want to work on or find or come up with the game that might get everyone to rote practice something without realising it. They don’t bring it. And for one thing this makes a lot of work (deciding, finding a theme, putting together a bunch of things we can pick and choose from takes ages longer than having a ready set theme and just adding to or choosing not to do bits of what is already in a book) and for another thing they don’t see so clearly what they have or have not done. If they have a book they go away thinking we have ‘done’ the pages – not that that is often particularly useful in terms of language learning, but it does seem useful in terms of needing a sense of achievement. But writing it all down makes me think both those lacks (learners not generating content and/or not seeing what they have done) are things I would like to do something about.

So the alternative is …

I could ask them to do more of it (at least to take it in turns to bring the articles, odd ones have occasionally brought things. I have asked, but I haven’t insisted and I have always had back ups in case no one brings anything, which has mostly led to them not bringing things – maybe I have to learn to play chicken better on that point). These groups do two slots of three hours a week and while there is often some nice casual chat at some point in any evening that leads to them asking for things or me pulling out things they could re-examine, one of us needs to bring something into the mix.

I can see that you could apply ‘bring something interesting and then teach from point of need’ even at elementary level, but I’d want an even bigger range of back up texts, ideas and activities in case of incomprehension with lower levels and that would be a great deal more work, unless you recycle them into future classes, but then you are just doing the same as the course books, presenting them with things you think might be good for them as opposed to things that were designed for them. I guess CLL is the ultimate let it emerge approach that might work with beginners, but I’ve been afraid of using Turkish with low level groups (as it can be so hard to get them to speak in English as opposed to about it if they know you speak Turkish). Maybe the time has come to try it.

I sound embarrassingly apologist, much like when I’m trying to get a teacher to be learner centred and they seem afraid to let go, but they finally start farming out corners of things like letting learners write answers on the board instead of doing it themselves.

So I should encourage them to come in with anything they think is interesting in terms of wanting the others to read it and / or wanting to understand some of the language in it. If that works (and I can see it would once you were at a point where they could grasp the main ideas in things they found on the net, I encourage them to do it with reading texts I have brought in or the texts in the book if we are using one, to look for things they want to collect or pick apart), the other part is getting them to see what they have achieved so they don’t go home each time thinking they’ve just had a bit of a chat. Having a round up where they agree on that ? Though it will be different for each of them. And it also leaves a hole with regard to recycling/building systems, which is something some course books do well – I’d have to think that through. Q1

Should this work differently under different constraints ?

Ok, now I’m itching to be given a ‘no book’ language class (preferably at intermediate level or above) to see how far I can make it work at a pure level (as opposed to just randomly happening once or twice a week in the classes – so it becomes the meat and not the potatoes), or whether I obsessively start making instructions and steps to help them (is that cheating ? structuring how things emerge ? Q2), but meanwhile, what I have got is an iGCSE class and Delta Module 1 and 3.

I’m much less confident about this in the context of the iGCSE class as there is an external end goal – the exam. The book is great for me there as, for example, it gives me lots of examples of the types and lengths of texts they will be expected to work with and produce and I’m getting a feel for the task types. But does it shrink opportunities or expand them for the students ? I’m not sure. Probably the latter.  Last week, having lined up a series of things they could do and should do at home with links for them in a wiki, I immediately got ‘yes, but what do we have to do’ and to give them their due, it isn’t just them. I sometimes get exactly that response from Delta teachers too. In both cases though, some of them aren’t in a class because they want to be, but because external forces have told them they need to be (but then that is true of lots of language learners too). The iGCSE group are very nice teenagers though, if I tell them they have to come to class with something, I think they will (though that seems slightly against the grain of things they are interested in emerging, but they are interested in some weird and wonderful things), but because I’m not so comfortable with the goals here, it is harder to see how to set that up. And can the ability to write summaries or guess unknown lexis emerge ? Q3. I guess if nothing else I have come up with a new and reasonable sized task. How to get the iGCSE class to bring / create / do more of the work ? I have been too busy trying to figure it out myself to have even thought about that yet.

And the Delta Modules ? I already instituted projects as part of our Delta M1 (though that is a component I really want to expand and in ways that are in keeping with the ‘bring your own interests’ side of things) and in that environment I can set up lots of optional extra activities for people, but there is again an external end goal (but again one that needs the teachers to examine and then find ways of building their own knowledge base). The Module Three is by its very nature something that people make their own. I’m not sure to what extent the things the teachers need to know for Delta can be left to emerge (or at least not if they are on a limited schedule) Q4, but this post is already too long.

I think I have written myself round to discovering that I have the most freedom to make things entirely emergent in the language classes, but am actually unwittingly more traditional there. The external goals of Delta make many elements a necessity, but despite that I have come up with some ways of providing for at least socio constructivist approaches if not emergent learning in that course.

And the conclusion seems to be that you have to just keep chipping away at all of it, but it is a good idea to read other peoples blogs.

it also leaves a hole with regard to recycling/building systems, which is something some course books do well – I’d have to think that through. Q1

is that cheating ? structuring how things emerge ? Q2

And can the ability to write summaries or guess unknown lexis emerge ? Q3

I’m not sure to what extent the things the teachers need to know for Delta can be left to emerge (or at least not if they are on a limited schedule) Q4

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