In many parts of the world, learners are coming up to a long summer break. What can they do during a longer period like this to maintain and develop their English? Apart from the typical ‘read a book’ or ‘Watch films in English’, what tools and methods can you suggest that will help?
I am one of those learners. Except, for me it’s Italian that I have been trying to maintain over a long break away from Sicily, rather than maintaining English during a period of no English lessons! The principle, though, remains the same. How am I doing with it? So far, so good! I’m on week 7 of my attempt to keep my Italian going, and it’s working! This blog post, then, will consist of a range of suggestions for learners who are between lessons and trying to consolidate their skills and systems during that time, based on my own experience this summer.
It could be argued that a break from lessons might potentially be a very good thing: an opportunity to really consolidate. However, for that consolidation to take place, varied exposure to and use of the language on a regular basis is essential. Consolidation just won’t happen if learners spend the summer just watching the odd film or reading the odd book. Variety is the spice of life, and a language learner needs to maintain that variety long enough to reap the benefits.
So, the ingredients needed for a successful summer are:
- Varied exposure to language
- Varied use of language
- Active use of language (vs. passive, whether receptive or productive)
- Motivation – to keep going over a long summer break
- Autonomy – taking control of one’s learning.
Here is my solution to meeting these combined needs: a learning contract.
I made myself a learning contract on the 4th June this year. It consists of a list of activities that I want to do over the course of any given week and a promise for an update one month down the line. Week 1 was a struggle – I barely managed to complete all the activities, but I did because I didn’t want to miss meeting my contract! Since then I have been managing with time to spare, generally doing more than the minimums that I set myself within the contract. Regular reflection (weekly with additional bits thrown in) has enabled me to identify the interplay between the activities and make the most of that. I think a week is a good unit to work with – it is enough time for there to be some flexibility, which is important as we all have busy lives and learning needs to be juggled around that, but a small enough unit that it is manageable, while providing a useful a steady drip-feed of motivation.
However, I am a teacher. I have a good knowledge of different activity types and how they map to different learning goals. Learners may not necessarily but it is something that can be fostered in class time. Learners who haven’t been prepared in this way and face the long summer break may benefit from some guidance in choice of activities. Perhaps you could offer them a list from which to select activities to add onto their contract. Perhaps you could show them an example contract and elicit the need for variety and balance of skills/systems, as well as opportunities for recycling language. It would also be beneficial to encourage regular reflection, as this is key to recognizing the benefits and identifying means of reaping more of them, as well as to maintaining motivation.
Here are links to some recent blog posts I’ve written offering guidance for autonomous learning activities that might be of value to learners who are trying to learn on their own (like me!).
- Learning Contracts and Language Learning (part 2): how I’ve used one and what I’ve learnt (other than a lot of Italian!) This post provides an example learning contract (mine) as well as information about how it works in practice.
- Autonomous skill development 1: How do I help learners get beyond just listening? This post outlines an activity that learners can do to actively develop their listening skills, by developing their perception of connected speech and weak forms, rather than just passively listening.
- Autonomous skill development 2: Dictations This post suggests resources that can be used for dictations and ways for learners to dictations autonomously rather than teacher-controlled classroom versions.
- Autonomous skill development 3: Text mining This post explains what text mining is and how learners can use this process autonomously, to bridge the gap between receptive and productive skills.
- Autonomous skill development 4: Graded readers
Finally, I would highly recommend that you enable your learners to keep in touch with each other through use of a platform such as Edmodo or a class blog, so that they have a space to report back about what they’ve doing, as this might also help to motivate them to keep going and provide a space to share what they are learning in the process. It also allows for some genuine communication in English, which provides another opportunity for productive use of language.
In conclusion, the summer holidays can be a valuable time for learners to consolidate their language abilities and develop their skills, and there are a number of things that learners can actively do to develop. It is up to us, as teachers, who know about these activities, to raise learners’ awareness of these and actively encourage experimentation with them. Combining these with use of a learning contract is a good way of pushing oneself to do a variety of activities, and encouraging learners to use one may help them to maintain language-learning activities over a long break, so that they come back ready for the next step in their language learning “career”.