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English Learning Circles - a path to learner independence
- What are Learning Circles?
- What are the principles underpinning successful English Learning Circles
- How do you set up a Learning Circle?
What are Learning Circles?
As teachers, we want to help our students learn to speak English well. They, too, might share this goal. However, actually getting students to use English with each other is a problem which is often difficult to overcome. How can we help students to recognise the importance of actually using English, and motivate them to do so in a classroom environment?
One possible solution is to help students create their own English clubs. In recent months, the BBC World Service has played an active role in promoting the development of English Learning Circles. These English clubs are formed by groups of students as a way of improving their English through real-life activities, devised by the participants themselves rather than prepared by their teachers. Many of the Learning Circles meet outside of lesson time - but there is no reason why teachers cannot use the underlying principles to help students become better learners inside the classroom too.
What are the principles underpinning successful English Learning Circles?
Real communicative goals: Very often, communication in the classroom is confined to answering questions or to completing a task with a partner. In a Learning Circle, however, there is a focus on communicating your own ideas in English. For example, participants may wish to produce a magazine for members, and for other students in their school. They might wish to invite a visiting speaker to give a talk in English - or they might want to prepare a talk for others. Whatever the task, the focus is on the ideas which are being expressed and communicated to an audience of interested listeners or readers.
Devolved responsibility: In the traditional classroom, the teacher is responsible for setting and for marking tasks. In a Learning Circle, participants create tasks for each other. For example, instead of the teacher selecting a reading text and setting comprehension questions, it's possible for the students in the Learning Circle to choose a text which they find interesting, then set questions on that text for others to answer. This has the combined benefit of helping the students to improve their own reading (or listening) skills - they have to be able to understand the text in order to set the questions - and to help them become more independent learners by asking them to select appropriate learning materials and tasks.
A sense of achievement: When students take responsibility for tasks, the sense of achievement which they gain can make them very motivated. However, in project work, we teachers often feel we need to be involved in the tasks too. For example, it is not unusual to see teachers taking responsibility for retyping articles for school magazines or for putting together posters of students' work. These are all tasks which the students themselves could do. By allowing them to complete the tasks themselves (with you as an available helper), the final product may not have the teacher's expert touch but it will certainly feel to the students that it's all their own work.
The principles which underpin English Learning Circles are those which support all successful project work.
How do you set up a Learning Circle?
In class - or out of class? You may be motivated to help organise an out-of-school Learning Circle for interested students. However, it is also possible to adopt the principles of the Learning Circle into your scheduled classes. You could begin by identifying one of your lessons per week as a 'club' lesson, with the students participating in the types of activities and projects described above, and with you taking the role of support rather than controller.
Getting started: Your students will need help in deciding how to organise their club. What types of activities can they do? Who is going to do what? A step-by-step guide to getting started can be found at the related classroom activities - Setting up an English Learning Circle; Learning Circle ideas checklist
Finding the resources: Many teachers complain that it is difficult to find a range of materials to suit their students' needs and tastes. Remember, however, that with a Learning Circle, you need to consider how helping your students to find interesting material for their own tasks and projects is more the focus of your role. Brainstorm with your students places where they might find articles and programmes which they'd like to talk about. The BBC World Service is a good starting place!
Mix long-term and short-term goals: Your students may decide that they want to engage in a long-term project, such as compiling their own magazine. Remember, however, if their magazine takes a long time to complete, some may lose motivation along the way. Try to ensure that your club meetings or lessons combine work on long-term projects with some short-term fun activities to help keep everyone involved.
The underlying principles of the Learning Circle - promoting learner autonomy by encouraging the students to take responsibility for activities - can make the English club a fun place to be. And it could make a big difference to how your students view their learning overall.
Karen Adams, professional development manager