Learning about learners

In my course we’re writing essays, and I summarized some recent learnings on learners. May not make for very exciting reading, but writing it all down does clear the mind of many, many cobwebs!

Essay:

‘If we can train students to record their new lexis in a more useful manner, we can do a lot to help their progress’ (Jim Scrivener, Learning Teaching, Macmillan 2005:239).

List FOUR strategies that learners can use to organize their learning of lexis effectively.

In language teaching, there has been a shift in focus away from the role of the teacher in a given setting to that of the autonomous learner, highlighting learner needs and learning strategies as a part of the need for lifelong self-directed learning. This shift is particularly useful as expert users of L2 build lexis throughout their lifetime, continuing to acquire language in new contexts, exploring unfamiliar lexical fields and dealing with specialized terminology in higher education, on the job and in new social environments.

Coaching learners to develop effective methods of organizing their note-taking, documenting their takeaways in class and in self-study, as well as helping them develop options for creating their own revision materials can go a long way to motivating and empowering them as learners. Ideally, the methods they employ should link together the input, the practice, and the review of new lexis, and also serve as reference. Four effective strategies that combine all of these goals, and will appeal to learners with different learning preferences, include:

1.    creating paper or digital flashcards
2.    using graphic organizers
3.    applying lexis in extended writing
4.    recording audiofiles

These strategies may well be used in combination to achieve different purposes.

1. Creating paper or digital flashcards

Homemade flashcards have many uses in learning. In a refresher class, they can be used to pre-test and then introduce missing key vocabulary before a text is presented. During presentation, learners can select words that have come up, or contrast the words given with those heard or read. Afterwards the flashcards can be used in a wide variety of communicative sorting, matching, defining, guessing, storytelling, memory building and other revision activities.

Blank cards thrown into the mix, perhaps with a given format to fill in, will allow the learners to add words, fill in definitions, translate, copy out reference sentences and form new models, or list various words representing aspects of the word’s meaning, as you would find on a “Taboo” game card. Another variation is to make a gapped vocabulary card that makes learners recollect the word from a set of collocations. Learners can use such tailor-made cards in combination with picture cards, for associative storytelling and memory; in bartering games, where a buyer has to define a word properly to earn it; in “Reverse Taboo”, where the player has to use all of the words on the card to define it (with his team guessing the word) or in straight “Taboo”, where the player has to define it without using the given words. They can also be combined with commercially available sets of flashcards.

Various models of flashcards for learning:
cards

Completely blank or formatted blank cards are ideal vehicles for logging emergent vocabulary in class, which can then also be revised using the above methods. Their potential for communicative activities is what makes cards far more versatile than individually kept lists. If decks of flashcards are to be written up in class for emergent group activities, each group does need to have a designated scribe, even as the individual students keep their own notes on the emergent vocabulary, and periodic rounds of comparing notes and having the teacher check for errors are needed.

Though the effort of making flashcards is substantial, their potential for individual revision is huge. German science journalist Sebastian Leitner developed what is now called the Leitner system in the 1970s, whereby flashcards are placed in a box with five subdivisions, and reviewed in cycles, based on the principle of increasing intervals. The learner works through the subdivisions from front to back: New vocabulary goes in front, into division one, and is reviewed, and any vocabulary that was familiar is moved into subdivision two, while vocabulary that was not remembered stays in one. Subdivision two is reviewed in the same way, known vocabulary being moved into subdivision three. So vocabulary moves through the subdivisions from front to back, each successive subdivision being revisited less frequently than the one before it. By the time words reach subdivision five, they are anchored in long-term memory. This tried and tested method has been implemented in computer-assisted language learning and flashcard software. New apps running on a variety of handheld platform will incorporate sharing through social networks.

Using flashcards for revision of classroom work generally appeals most to learners who enjoy kinesthetic styles of learning. The communicative aspect of the way the cards are used in class may appeal to learners with a relatively high level of what Gardner calls interpersonal intelligence, while maintaining a well-organized deck is very much the domain of the solitary learner. Creating a set of flashcards for each learner requires dedication and oversight by the teacher, and can be particularly complicated to coordinate in large classes. Overall, creating and working with such flashcards is a learning strategy that requires a relatively high level of learner commitment, and may work best in exam courses or in closely knit groups.

2. Using graphic organizers

Graphic organizers are useful for presenting words that cluster together to form lexical fields. The words will have certain features in common, and others that distinguish them, so they can be analyzed according to their components. Componential analysis (CA) provides a relatively abstract view of the vocabulary, and learners may attribute different meanings to given words, (McCarthy 1990: 31) so they will rarely match the precision of the content that can be contained in a flashcard. This has its obvious disadvantages, but also its advantages, as it invites discussion about meaning.

Graphic organizers are ideal pre-activity primers, as they are especially effective in activating previous knowledge and then providing a logical format for learners to incorporate new input (Constantinides 2011). They allow associative thinking to be combined with more logical analysis in a powerful visual format. Vocabulary can be presented by the teacher using the framework, letting students compare and distinguish words. Alternately, an organizer can be blank, a tool for productive task in which learners fill in spaces, guided by reading, listening, brainstorming or remembering, thinking about the lexical meaning of each word, collecting, comparing and contrasting words in a given context. In writing the words down, they are also practicing spelling.

A graphic organizer is exceedingly versatile in terms of the strategic support it can provide the learners working with it. T-charts invite contrasting, and Venn diagrams present both shared and distinct characteristics. Simple grids are perhaps the most versatile. For example, a learner may use a simple parts of speech grid to list morphemes:

noun1

But alternately, and more productively I’d say, he or she might note down possible collocations using the same grid:

noun3

Graphic organizers can be used to scaffold lexical tasks of higher order thinking. In CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Leaning) and in BE/ ESP (Business English/ English for Special Purposes) they can introduce a subject and its terminology, accompany the reading of a text or a listening exercise, or prepare spoken or written production. Entered lexical chunks and collocations provide anchors the learner can refer to and retrieve freely, reading from the page, on the spot. The graphic organizer scaffolds speech, with the learner adding the “grammar words” to make complete sentences.

Business trainer Mark Powell shows trainee teachers this technique extensively in his LCCI CertTEB course. One of his charts is built around a bubble for a keyword in the center, with a line down the middle, dividing the left from the right hand side of the page. The left hand side is for words that precede the keyword, while the right is for those following it:

restaurant

One can use flow charts for processes; bubble diagrams for main issues; cause-effect charts to lay out strategies; and time lines to sort out stages and turning points in a process.

Mindmaps are the freest form of graphic organizer, a highly individualized image based on the mapper’s personal take on the connections between the central theme, the concepts that branch off from it and then subordinate related words and concepts.

Paul Emmerson has created a whole course book built around graphic organizers, Business English Frameworks, which includes generic vocabulary strategically mapped out, for learners to personalize, filling in lexis from their own fields of work.

The great advantage of using graphic organizers is that they appeal to a wide variety of learners: those who consider themselves to be visual learners, those who want to write down keywords to remember them, and those who like to think conceptually and systematically. They can be used for both receptive and productive tasks, and at various stages of the learning process, so the visual layout can be used again and again and come powerfully and deeply engrained.

They can also be used by groups to collect and share knowledge. In a company course I observed recently (thank you, Khushi!), the teacher, Rosalie Khushi Pasquale, drew three conceptual mind maps on flipchart paper, and had the participants complete them, brainstorming and discussing appropriate vocabulary. While selected “experts” stood by their charts, the others moved around, completing the other charts with new input. At the end, the “experts” presented the charts to the whole group and collected feedback. Students who enjoy engaging in collaborative group work (Gardner’s “interpersonal learners”) stand to benefit most from this learning strategy.

IMG_2241

To highlight the strengths and weaknesses of using graphic organizers, I’d like to contrast them with labeling naturalistic pictures or schemas, an approach used extensively in primary and secondary school, and in studying specialized terminology in ESP. Children will often be given outline pictures to build words into. Mark Fletcher, a trainer promoting “whole brain” and NLP activities in ELT, has used such outline drawings in adult education as well. He has a drawing of a beachside resort where learners log vocabulary items in likely areas of the picture, following up with no fewer than 10 different exercises that recycle the vocabulary in storytelling and game formats. This use of visual anchors reduces the confusion regarding lexical meaning that accompanies the more abstract graphic organizers, but also reduces the potential of having to explore meaning.

Morgan and Rinvolucri have a paradox take on labeling naturalistic outlines in a keyword exercise they call “pegwords”. In this approach, completely unrelated vocabulary is attached, or “pegged”, to a strong image, and then recalled in sequence (Morgan/Rinvolucri 1986:118). This memorizing game is highly effective for learning new lexis and jogging memory, but again represents a lower order of thinking than do graphic organizers.

The specific challenge to learners and teachers alike in working with graphic organizers remains, however: Organizing lexis is not the same thing as defining or translating it, and unless they note down concrete examples and collocations, learners may easily make errors when they go back to retrieve the lexis they learned. Therefore, graphic organizers need the support of notes, definitions, translations and/or concrete examples, logged elsewhere so as not to reduce the visual power of the organizer itself.

3. Applying lexis in extended writing

A learner needs to use the new lexis meaningfully to retain it, and the more often, the better. The group in Khushi’s company course mentioned above has developed a collective strategy that involves using the lexis given by the teacher in preparation of the next lesson to write a continuing story. Every lesson, the teacher will assign a new page (e.g. a vocabulary page from the Business Spotlight Skill Up booklet) to introduce lexis that the participants prepare on their own.

Most of the vocabulary will be somewhat familiar, though the participants tend not to use it, and will be unfamiliar with the more idiomatic expressions. One of the students is given the assignment of selecting words to incorporate in the story that has been unfolding over the past year or so, a soap opera that has everyone eagerly awaiting the latest twist, and negotiating how the story will continue. The designated author of the week pens the story (just over a page, including ten words), hands it in to the teacher, who corrects it/ gives feedback, and the author revises it and sends it back to the teacher, all before the next lesson. She then takes the new vocabulary out, creating a strategic gap fill. In the lesson, the gap fill text is handed out, and the author presents it in class, reading it out loud as the others fill in the gaps as they come up. In the lesson that I observed, the author actually presented two outcomes, in response to the teacher having questioned whether the group would accept her first version. The group then debated the outcomes with great verve, finally voting to give the next author freedom to choose which storyline to continue.

This strategy combines individual coaching in writing with collaborative group processes, fostering both individual excellence and group cohesion.

While simply writing autonomously and without direction has not proved to be an effective learning strategy (Lunt 2009), any writing guided by an agenda and feedback and possibly incorporating a social component (dedicated readers!) will promote learning: in a learner’s notebook, with pen pals, in a blog or magazine, or in an evaluated essay.

4. Documenting lexis in audio files

Many of my academic learners have their greatest difficulties pronouncing key words and specialized terminology they know only from reading. This is an area that I am still struggling to develop a proper teaching methodology for. What I have found, however, is that audio files that learners co-create and can use for revision are popular and powerful memory anchors, especially when they are personalized and connected to a given project or workshop.

Learners may wish to listen to new input repeatedly for better comprehension, as they in fact have trouble catching what they hear the first time around, or for pronunciation practice, as a gapped recording, read out slowly, short phrase by short phrase, leaving enough space to repeat. One of my students got rid of his “th” problem by reading about Paul Bunyan, the “mythological lumberjack” with me. In one to one classes students may collect an audio lexical bank, or even develop a rap around the most difficult lexis, and record it together. “Good listeners” may enjoy extended recordings to recap the lesson on their mp3 player on the way home. A brief synopsis of the lesson as a co-constructed story can be recorded as a send-off.

I encourage students to go online to explore the audio resources available there, including dictionaries with sound files, and to record themselves using online tools and to compare what they sound like with the online recordings. They need to practice this in class, as they will rarely hear the distinctions or notice the problem zones on their own, and need to train their ears and muscles then and there. But once these resources are known, students can access them on their own.

Literature:

Published by

Anne

Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

5 thoughts on “Learning about learners”

  1. Listening and recording lexus from audio is fabtastic.
    As it forces students to recognize the spoken version, tests spelling and comprehension.

    Big fan as it covers multiple skills.

    Finding appropriate resources is good. a recent find of mine was wired news for any techie orientated courses.

    Even been reading it mysen just for pleasure instead of just work 😉

  2. Hi Stew – Wired is fab. But their audio is new to me. Are you talking about this http://www.wired.com/video/?
    I’m as blind as the seeing come, but also really like the visuals in that magazine. Still have the one copy I actually bought last August, coz it’s so nice to have flapping around. They’ve got all their bases covered.
    Yeah: Extracting/ distilling lexis out of audio is another great one. It can be really hard if you go straight to writing, though, because you’re crossing over from this whole big world of decyphering sound to the world of reencrypting it as spelling. Hey, that will challenge even your odd English teacher (me!). It’s a good skill, certainly. Easier: Crossing the words you hear off a list. I was just thinking, maybe you could collaborate on making a big word field on a given news item, then have students sort the words into a graphic organizer, and then listen to the news audio and cross off which words were actually used.

  3. Hi Anne,

    Thanks for sharing all of that. Vocabulary learning strategies (VLS) and strategies-based instruction are areas I’m very much interested in.

    You’ve nicely described 4 sets of strategies that would definitely appeal to different types of learner and/or perhaps the same learners at different stages of their own development or with different goals for different lexical items.

    A couple of questions/comments I’d like to add:

    A) Whilst greater strategies use has often been equated with more proficient learners, what combinations and sequences of strategies are effective and under what circumstances? What strategies do our learners need to develop?

    A strategies inventory can help to identify what strategies students use and perceive as most useful, while self-report, written reflection and discussion can offer further insights into what learners do (or think they do).

    For beginning learners or those who have limited strategic learning of their vocabulary (typically, for example, because in the past they’ve generally been provided with wordlists and tended to learn them by rote), I generally start with the learners reflecting on their own VLS then introduce the following:

    1. How to choose which words are worth learning (as opposed to writing down every new word they encounter), e.g. use of vocabulary level check, high frequency/academic wordlists, or relevance to a field of study or interest
    2. Dictionary/Thesaurus use, esp. multifunction electronic dictionaries (EDs) that are widespread here in Japan
    3. Word cards, including the process of creation, expanded review, and different ways of using them
    4. VLS review, evaluation, & goal-setting, incl. (a) breadth vs depth of vocabulary, (b) receptive vs productive use.

    Even with relatively advanced learners:
    – many have not thought about how to effectively select which words they spend time learning
    – most only use basic bilingual ED functions and are surprised to discover they can use a monolingual learner dictionary comfortably or in combination with a bilingual dictionary
    – only a few have tried word cards and only in the most simple manner
    – almost none have thought about evaluating their strategies or thinking about whether they are learning words for productive or receptive use, nor realise that the time they need to learn vocabulary and the forgetting that occurs is ‘normal’ and not a sign of them being ‘bad at remembering vocabulary’.

    B) Quality of strategies use: It is important for both learners and teachers to recognise learner development with respect to VLS, i.e. it takes time and practice to become fluent, comfortable, and confident using strategies. So encouraging learners to persevere can be vital to ensuring that learners discover the effectiveness of what they are doing or make a more informed choice to abandon strategies that are not working for them but be open to the possibly of returning to those strategies in the future. Therefore, one thing that I have been experimenting with has been to apply the notion of expanded review to strategies themselves. For example:
    Week 1: Vocabulary level check. VLS reflection, evaluation & goals
    Week 2: VLS reflection. Intro VLS 1 (e.g. Word selection & word cards)
    Week 3: VLS 1 reflection & evaluation, development & goals. VLS 2 (e.g. EDs)
    Week 4: VLS 2 reflection & evaluation, development & goals. VLS 3: [learners’ choice]
    Week 5: VLS 1 & 3 reflection & evaluation, development & goals.
    Week 6: VLS 2 reflection & evaluation, development & goals.
    Week 7: VLS 3 reflection & evaluation, development & goals

    Hence rather than covering more strategies (e.g. a different strategy each week), I’ve moved to covering fewer strategies in depth. I think that this type of curriculum planning (1) enables the teacher to better monitor not only learners’ use but also their development of strategies, (2) offers learners more opportunity to talk about their strategies with each other and discover various approaches to using the same strategy, (3) gives learners a chance to go back to their teacher and ask about strategies, (4) recognises and reinforces the notion that strategies develop over time, and (5) encourages the metacognitive development of strategies evaluation and organisation.

    C) There is also teacher-development in that it takes time as teachers to become more proficient at introducing and providing instruction in strategies. Reflecting on our own practice, evaluating, and goal-setting, sharing and discussing ideas is also crucial to our professional development . So, thank you for providing this informative and thought-provoking opportunity – and thanks to Ann Mayeda for passing on this website today! I hope I’ve shared something useful and please accept my apologies for the dearth of references compared to your original piece, but they’ll be available later this year in a forthcoming chapter and I’m more than happy to share if anyone’s interested.

  4. Hi Phil,
    This is a very interesting approach to training learning. You make several excellent points, and I’m especially interested in the idea that learning strategies develop over time and learners need support in applying them consistently for a prolonged phase before they really notice their usefulness and can assess which ones work best for them personally. We might, as teachers, have a variety of preferred presentation styles and aim to cater to various learner preferences; but for students to actively process what they see and hear and do in class most effectively, they need more coaching and then self-directed experience. I could see how your idea of consecutive overlapping focal points could be turned into a series of projects across the entire curriculum, in fact across subjects. My sister-in-law teaches elementary school and said she thinks many of the learning strategies that have been known for years are taught and catered to only in the lower grades, and then kids are let loose and have to fend for themselves, without the necessary learner support. A more encompassing and longterm developmental perspective would give learners real life skills, but requires a real across the board agenda.
    So there probably does need to be some sort of continuing support for the various strategies afterwards, after the initial phase, when learning strategies as such no longer take center stage, but are adapted as the learners progress and meet new challenges.
    I was trying to find you online. Can you send me a link to a place you write? Thank you!

  5. Hi Anne

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. It’s a good question as to when and in what stages should support be withdrawn (cf. removing training wheels) and learners encouraged to venture off an experiment with their own strategies. There are, of course, learners who will do this regardless of what teachers, too, but there are others who don’t. Some continue to use the same strategies regardless of whether or not it is effective, e.g. I write words repeatedly … because (a) my elementary school teacher told me to (b) that’s what everyone else does (c) that’s what I’ve always done. So effective fostering strategies evaluation is also important. For example, we might ask learners to initially reflect on (a) what worked well, (b) what didn’t work, (c) why, and (d) what’s your plan (e.g. SMART goal) to improve. After that, we might encourage strategies transfer by asking (a) in what other situations might this strategy be useful/not so useful. So there is self-evaluation of strategies use and evaluation of the strategy itself. (This essentially comes from “The Learning Strategies Handbook” (http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Strategies-Handbook-Anna-Chamot/dp/0201385481), which offers a lot of practical ideas.

    I’m afraid I don’t really have a blog but you can find some things that my colleagues and I’ve been working on in the following two places:
    http://mashcollaboration.com/
    http://www.eltnews.com/columns/mash/learners_voices/

    All the best,

    Phil

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