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Ann Loseva: Learning outside teaching

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I used to think what I say in class about learning outside class makes a lot of difference.

I used to think what I say in class about learning outside class makes a lot of difference. I used to think my tips and advice are important, noteworthy and likely to leave a long-lasting impact on students. It was like believing that simply sharing the links, facts and information in a very enthusiastic way would rub off on them and instantly get them hooked. In plain words, I used to be sure that telling about a thing convincingly enough meant bringing real tangible change to my learners' habits. However, this has proven not even remotely true in the majority of cases for me.

Two years ago I wrote a post for iTDi Blog about using English outside of class. In that post I shared an activity that I still practise doing (in a modified form) with almost all of my students, no matter what their age, level or context is. We discuss previous language learning experience and pay special attention to formal vs informal ways of bringing English into our predominantly very Russian language landscape. This is always an interesting and useful discussion, but, at the end of the day, can I ever be sure they’ll use and learn English, as well as notice it, once out of class? No matter how intrinsically motivated my students seem during our lessons - asking for additional resources for self-study or books to read on their own - it has been my consistent experience that the majority of them fail to persist and their initial enthusiasm fades away very quickly. I can understand them, by the way.

It’s true that many of my students watch popular series in English or with English subtitles, and they start doing that way before we start our course. Others play games and use the English version of software on their computers. Some chat with foreign friends in English, some read books, some listen to songs and learn their lyrics to sing along. My observation is what’s relevant is what sticks. Following this logic, it’s a clear conclusion to me that what’s relevant to student A, with his unique experience, needs, interests and such, will not necessarily be relevant or satisfying to student B, with his unique but different set of experiences, needs, interests and such. So, a teacher’s task can be learning the student for what he/she is, outside of class. As long as you “feel” the learners, get along with them and together find what type of an activity could really tick with this particular student, you're probably there. And you can imagine, simply by processing that line, how rare it would be the case.

How can I as a teacher ensure learning will continue? I can't. I can't expect students to do grammar exercises on their own to improve on their weak points, however interactive and engaging the exercises are. I can't expect students to keep vocabulary lists or note down “interesting” language items from the series they watch or the books they read (in fairness though, I’ve had students who actually do these things on their own). What I can do is to try to create a firmer habit. What I can do is to keep in contact and nudge. What I can do is to be open and openly curious about learners’ language discoveries and progress. I can try to demonstrate and kindly share what worked and keeps working now for me, as a tireless language learner, not just a teacher.

I have seen my students tweet in English. I have seen my students be active in social networks and communicating in English, writing status updates in English, sharing articles and news stories they read in English. I have seen my students use Instagram in English. I have seen my students run photo blogs and organize start-up projects in English (for example, ProMoscowGuide has just been set up by my student and her friend to offer walking tours for English and Russian-speaking guests of Moscow). In contrast, I had students who were eager to learn in class, put their effort and time into self-study as well, but never managed to find their English space after lessons were over.

Motivation is a tricky concept. I’m not taking credit for being a powerful motivational force for any of the linguistic achievements of my former or present students. These *mostly grown-up* people are living their lives having made their own conscious choice of either using English in these lives or not. Those who opt to go without English are just as worthy of respect and understanding. The light moral of my musings might be as follows: don’t think a teacher is so almighty as to motivate students to do something they are not inclined to do. Think, instead, that a teacher is someone to help a learner recognize how English could fit in their plain of interests or professional needs. And of course, tell about the things you know with enthusiasm and convincingly enough.