I consider the greatest problem facing me as a language teacher is knowing how to motivate my students: how to get them past the hurdle of seeing learning English as just another academic subject, to regarding it as developing a communication tool that will be useful for them throughout their lives.
Over the last years I’ve gradually developed a working method that seems, at least, to tackle the problem. It’s based on using web publishing resources for creating tasks which are relevant to students and that produce tangible results.
- Case study
- The broader context – task-based learning and developing PLEs
- Drawing out the implications
Case study: presenting a recipe task
In my first session with a group of adult students (Basque School teachers) we set up a class blog and, soon after, identified that pronunciation was an area they wanted to focus on. Accordingly, I formulated a task for presenting a recipe in a post on their blog:
- First, the students had a chance to study a model. In pairs, they selected a recipe from Videojug – a web site that uses videos to give advice on how to do things and contains hundreds of recipes. Each video also includes a text version of the instructions. The students were asked to pay particular attention to sentence stress and intonation and to make a note of any new vocabulary that they felt was critical to understanding their video recipe.
- Next, we had a session all together where we commented on what kind of language, intonation and word stress were used in the recipes and reviewed new vocabulary.
- Then, the students changed partners and took it in turns to describe the recipe they had looked at, to their new partner, who hadn’t seen it.
- Back in their original pairs, they decided on a recipe of their own to present. They made notes and discussed which of them was going to cover each step.
- I then demonstrated how to use VoiceThread to present their recipes. (VoiceThread is a web resource which allows you to choose photographs, either from the internet or your computer, and create an on-line slideshow with a recorded commentary.)
- Back again working in pairs, they found photos of the ingredients of their recipes on the internet. Then they uploaded their photos to VoiceThread and recorded their recipes, using the photos they’d found as visual aids.
- Once completed, they created a post on the blog and embedded their VoiceThreads into it. (A post is an entry or contribution to a blog. It can include text, images and videos, amongst other things. Embed means to incorporate something within something else, in this case, a blog post.)
- After publishing their recipe posts, I spent time with each pair listening with them to their VoiceThreads and focussing on any problems they’d had.
- Finally, everybody discussed and commented on each other’s recipes.
- An example from the class blog of the completed task.
The broader context – task-based learning and developing PLEs
The method I’ve described here is clearly indebted to the investigations and developments in task-based learning promoted by Dave and Jane Willis, amongst others. Like them, I consider that the focus of language learning should be on content and meaning rather than grammar. This doesn’t mean that grammar is left out of the equation but rather approached in the context of reviewing all the knowledge that is required to work successfully through each stage of a task.
I’ve also been influenced by the debate on Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). A PLE constitutes all the different tools and resources that a learner employs to satisfy his/her learning needs. It can include physical elements such as, books, films, software, on-line resources, electronic devices, but also environmental ones such as, where and how the learning takes place, whether it is solitary or collaborative, and what constraints act upon it. The other essential dimension of a PLE is what the learner him/herself brings to the learning process, for example, their skills, competences, prior knowledge and learning strategies.
I’d like to think that by using web publishing resources in my classes, I’m helping students to enrich their PLEs. In the recipe task, we used a blog combined with VoiceThread, but there are a host of other publishing resources that can be employed in endless permutations for task-based work – a bricolage of possibilities. My hope is that the more students are exposed to these types of resources and recognise their potential as learning tools, they more they will start taking the lead in expanding their PLEs for themselves and, ultimately, see this as an ongoing, lifelong process.
Drawing out the implications
I’d now like re-examine my working method in the light of what it implies for the learning process.
Using a collaborative platform
I invariably use a blog as my platform for task-based work. Setting one up forms a collaborative effort between me and my students: they choose its title, layout and invite themselves to become members. This establishes from the outset their ownership of what’s published on the blog and helps them to see it as a space where they can express themselves freely. There are, however, other alternative platforms available that you can use, such as wikis (for example, via wetpaint) or do-it-yourself web pages (for example, via pageflakes.)
Employing scaffolding techniques
Putting tasks on the class blog results in taking the spotlight off me: freeing me to take on the role of facilitator and devote more time to individual students. While the rest of the class is working on the task in hand, I have the chance to talk to students one by one about the previous task they completed. This allows me to make use of the scaffolding techniques that are so productive in language learning: I listen to or read with each student what they have produced, and by gauging where they’re at, help them by hints and prompts to bridge the gap between what they have achieved and what they would like to achieve.
I try to design tasks that cover a content area that is wide enough for students to pick on a particular aspect that interests them; that require them to be creative; and that stretch them, but don’t to overwhelm them. Challenging students to be inquiring and creative motivates them to think for themselves, collaborate with their class mates and draw on their knowledge when necessary, reflect on what they know and need to know, structure their thoughts and, ultimately, find the language that suits the occasion. It also gives space and opportunity for those who are not so academically or text biased, to express themselves through images and sound.
Obtaining real results
It is of paramount importance that the platform for all this is the internet, an authentic communication channel, and that students are using their language skills to negotiate with the real world. When students publish their work on a blog they experience real and tangible results from their efforts; by contributing to the body of information and knowledge that all of us have access to via the internet, they actively break through the confines of the classroom.
So, to come back full turn to where we started with the sample task; from one who has had the opportunity to try out the recipes published by the students, the proof is in the pudding, they are very tasty indeed!
- From grammar-based teaching to task-based teaching - making the shift, Jane Willis
- Criteria for identifying tasks for TBL, Jane Willis http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/criteria-identifying-tasks-tbl
- Reading for information: Motivating learners to read efficiently, Dave Willis http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/reading-information-motivating-learners-read-efficiently
- A task-based approach, Richard Frost http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/a-task-based-approach
- Personal Learning Environments, Graham Attwell, www.elearningpapers.eu, Vol 2, No 1, January 2007, ISSN 1887-1542 http://www.elearningeuropa.info/files/media/media11561.pdf
By Ann Foreman
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