The Importance of Project Work in Language Learning

This guest post is from Shannon Amaadar (Kings English). I first came across Shannon via some excellent videos she had created to help teachers foster more engagement and motivation with learners in the classroom. I am thrilled she has agreed to contribute this post on how to use project based learning to build enthusiasm and autonomy for learning.

My classes used to start with students sitting in desks with their books out waiting for instruction. They weren’t excited, I wasn’t excited. That is, until I realised that there’s a better way to learn.

Language is something that’s experienced and used. It’s a tool to express your ideas and a means to tell stories and pass knowledge. Why are we relegating it vocabulary lists and grammar rules?

Using the language is so important for acquisition. Giving it practicality and usefulness makes learning easier and more enjoyable. We can do this by making a project the main focus of classroom activity.

Problem solving and discovery are two of the best ways we learn anything. This type of learning encourages our brains to be at alert. It thinks the information is important and hangs on to it, rather than putting it in short term memory then dumping it later on. Project based learning (PBL) is a great way to get students thinking about language in a different way.

Getting started

Setting up a class project can not only help students acquire language, it strengthens other skills such as teamwork and critical thinking. All while accomplishing a task. It makes classes interesting again and students open up to learning.

According to John McCarthy at TeachThought.com students who have a direct interest in the subject they’re studying, engage more and achieve better results. By making the lesson relevant to the students, they’ll work harder towards their goal. PBL is a great way to practice this.

The best way to begin with project work is to come up with a subject that everyone can get behind. Maybe you introduce students to the effects of pollution or solving a community problem such as turning a vacant plot of land into a garden or helping feed the homeless. Whatever your topic, make sure it’s something students can get passionate about.

Once you’ve established a goal, work as a class to come up with solutions. If we take the example of plastic pollution, perhaps students could design a tote bag to replace plastic shopping bags. Materials and designs could all be discussed in English, and the final product could use English designs elements like phrases. Finally the finished tote bags can be used to fundraise to donate to a local cause.

By making the language something that is useful, something that has meaning, students are more likely to retain the vocabulary and grammar rules, than if they simply wrote them down and tried to memorise.

Learning English has now become a fun activity and something that students can look forward to doing each class. This is so important, because students, who are bored, don’t learn.

Assessment

One of the great things about project work is how easy it is to assess understanding. You can see how well each student is doing by looking at factors such as participation, and how well they follow direction.

It’s a great idea to take some time at the end of the class to have a quick discussion. It’s ok to ask students how well they understand what was talked about in the lesson. Encourage students to give you honest answers and provide extra help in understanding where necessary.

When students aren’t afraid to make mistakes and speak up, language acquisition happens quickly. It’s important for students to understand that making mistakes is a part of discovery. When something doesn’t work or is wrong we learn from it better than if it worked or was right. Project work is all about discovery and making mistakes.

Having “check points” throughout the project work can help you gauge student understanding as well. At various stages of the work students can answer a short questionnaire, discuss where they are in the project development, or self assess with a rubric distributed by the teacher.

Making sure that all students are up to speed is essential for the success of the whole class. If students are falling behind, catching it quickly and offering extra help or guidance to those who need it will help everyone be successful.

Structure

Centering lessons on group project work might sound to some like teachers have given up. Allow the students to do as they will, and hope for the best. This is the farthest from the truth.

When using project based Learning, the teacher’s role is to set the parameters and guide students along the way, without interfering and allowing for mistakes.

It’s common for students to be unsure, always asking for guidance and assistance. It’s important that, as the teacher, you stay back a little and encourage discovery. Asking questions like: “what would happen if…?” and “why don’t we try this and see what happens?” Encouraging students to explore will make them feel more comfortable to do just that.

According to Dr. Ping Li in an interview with Francois Grosjean Ph.D. for Psychology today, there are 5 parts of a language that our brains must process. Lexicon, phonology, orthography, syntax, and pragmatics, therefore it would make sense to engage our brains in activities that encourage use in all of these areas.

PBL may be the best way for learners to experience, make use of, and retain language. It doesn’t hurt that it’s fun and fosters friendships and cooperation at the same time.

Try using this method in your classroom and see what results you get out of it. You might find your students are achieving well beyond your expectations.

Fighting Dyslexia

This week’s guest post is from the oh-so-knowledgeable Jood Burkinshaw, a SEN and dyslexia specialist working in schools and the armed forces in the UK. Jood gives us some practical approaches to dealing with dyslexic adult learners.

Years ago I was covering an English lesson for a teacher who’d set the rather open ended task:

‘Write about your saddest day’.

Two young men sat together at the front. One produced a heart rending and articulate account of the day, ten years before, when his dad had told him and his brother that their mum had died. The other, after 40 minutes of sweat and toil, rubbing out, crossing out and general discomfort, produced the following: ‘MY sabbist bay wars wen my gerdil bieb’.

What struck me was the indignity of this chap not being able to express himself in writing: the beginning of my career long mission to understand and mitigate the effects of what we now know as Dyslexia.

The Rose Review produced in 2009 was a major turning point. The resulting report produced a definitive description of Dyslexia alongside a commitment to training a cohort of specialist teachers (of which I was one) who would be qualified to assess for Dyslexia and advise teachers in removing inherent barriers to learning.

The Rose definition is as follows:

  • Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.
  • Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.
  • Dyslexia occurs across a range of intellectual abilities.

The BDA (British Dyslexia Association) points out that a dyslexic learner can show a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process. Some have strengths in areas, such as design, problem solving, creative skills, interactive skills and oral skills.

  • It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points.

Current research indicates that children with a family history of ‘risk’ factors (e.g. a parent is dyslexic) but who are learning to read may still be on the dyslexic continuum. It is possible that difficulties will begin to manifest themselves as the student progresses through school.

  • Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor coordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.

This gives us a structure for both assessment and teaching.

Fast forward to 2020 ………………

Somehow (long story), after a long career as a secondary school SENDco, then a peripatetic specialist teacher supporting schools from infant to sixth form; I’m now contracted to the RAF where I work with Dyslexic personnel.

We identify by assessment, the spikes and dips in their learning profiles and teach them, alongside their line managers, how to achieve optimum functionality through their learning, their training and their professional development.

Whilst all my teaching is individualised, there are a few core and generic principles that I come back to again and again. These are encompassed in the following, the focus here is on independent study and exam preparation, but the principles can be applied in many teaching and learning situations:

FOR THE TEACHER:

  • Clearly explain assessment/task requirements
  • Allow 25% extra time for exams and assessments where possible, including earlier access to course materials.
  • Consider visual stress and use suitable screen colours (green is best) / whiteboard pen colours (black and blue being the worst)
  • Offer printed material on buff or pale green paper
  • Offer electronic versions of study materials where possible, so that the learner can adjust the format himself.

FOR THE LEARNER:

Proof reading techniques:

On screen:

  • Choose a large font – ariel 14 is suitable
  • Double space the document
  • Highlight in grey or yellow
  • If/ when available, read aloud /Dragon Naturally Speaking to read back
  • Check one line at a time; reading one word at a time to avoid reading what you think is there, as opposed to what is actually there
  • Remove highlight colour for that line when checked
  • Remove bullet points and extra spacings to convert to prose if required.

Effective Reading Techniques:

When reading is laborious, it uses so much brain power that there isn’t always any left for remembering or understanding what’s been read.

Paradoxically, adding in some extra brain processes can make your reading more effective in terms of understanding and remembering:

  • visual mapping of material (noting the page layout and headings/ bold print etc)
  • if material isn’t chunked or broken up, look for distinguishing features such as a dash, capitalisation etc, to visually chunk for yourself
  • take prior note of number of items, where there are bullet points or sections
  • mentally categorise the information in more than one way – cross referencing reinforces what you know and helps to find bits you forgot
  • make a mental note of anything you found amusing/ confusing/ interesting
  • make a mental note of anything you want to ask a question about

Reading Techniques to try when required to read and remember bulky or densely printed material:

  • Note where the full stops are
  • Read a sentence at a time, in your head first, then aloud to confirm if it makes sense
  • Mentally note any tricky words
  • Make use of context clues – what is it likely to say, given the words around it?
  • Mentally summarise, at suitable intervals
  • Allow yourself ‘brain breaks’ when you begin to find the reading more difficult – just a minute’s break or even a few seconds will allow your brain to rest then start processing successfully again.

Avoiding Spelling Errors:

  • Use on-screen ‘sticky notes’ as reminders for commonly mis-spelt words
  • Have a look at the spelling section on www.bbc.co.uk/teach/skillwise/English
  • Use mnemonics
  • Consider the root word:
    • eg Cognitive, from the root word Cognition
  • Use colour coding (eg just highlight the tricky bit)
  • Look for words within words
  • Use visual links and reminders:
‘Electric Ian’ the electrician
  • Break down the word into memorable chunks:
    • Pharmaceutical pharm ace u tical

Memory Techniques and Study Skills:

Bear in mind the need to address all 4 quadrants of the study cycle:

STORE:

  • Make your notes as visually memorable as possible:
  • Quadrants for hand written notes or diagrams
  • Chunking and bullet points
  • Colour coding and highlighting
  • Consciously try to improve your mental storage system:
  • Anchor points in your location eg imagining the information stored on areas in the exam location
  • Store information alongside images or a scenario or story

SECURE:

Consolidate knowledge by:

  • verbal discussion
  • practical application
  • repetition – as on the Forgetting Curve

The intervals on the timescale axis can be used for review processes and practice

REVIEW:

  • Don’t just read through notes:
  • reformat:
  • mindmap layout
  • flowchart of process
  • diagram
  • list
  • chunked bullet points
  • picture transposed onto visual location
  • verbalise:
  • read aloud
  • use Dragon or other text to speech to read aloud
  • have it read to you by a human
  • verbal q and a session
  • chant a ‘mantra’ ….. (repeat a formula or sequence over and over until you can’t forget it) good one for the car!
  • Use a traffic light (RAG) system to denote the areas needing the most or least review
  • Follow up with methodical use of index cards:
    • Replace at back of box if secure (green)
    • In middle if partially secure (amber)
    • Near front if insecure (red)

Retrieve:

  • Successful retrieval relies on the previous stages having been addressed thoroughly
  • Retrieve in ‘brain dump’ style – whatever is triggered by the question or challenge, in no particular order, then put into order once salient points are recalled
  • Retrieve by recalling triggers from storage phase – eg quadrants, colours, number of boxes, number of bullets, page layout
  • Retrieve by searching mental files for appropriate storage – eg did you visually map this information, or use a story, or picture a scenario
  • Retrieve by environment – where were you when you revised it? Who gave you the information? Who gave the best answers to questions?
  • Before writing answers, allow some planning time

Will 2020 be YOUR year???

If you’re anything like me, you will already be sick of reading all the ‘New Year, New You’ type posts that are now flooding the internet. What was so terrible about the old me? What’s suddenly changed overnight? Why should I become a different person? (on second thoughts, don’t answer, I’m not actually that bothered!)

I’m happy being me. I don’t want to change, I just want to tweak…

So this New Year, instead of making the kind of resolutions that I don’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of actually keeping, I will be tweaking. I have a pretty good idea of what I am good at and where I could do with making some improvements (both professionally and personally). So that’s what I’ll be doing, just gradually working on a few areas. No wholesale ‘new me’, just the same old me, developing gradually, as I have always done.

No public declarations of things I’m going to do in 2020, no plans for some huge shift in my personality (sorry), no crazy weight-loss projections, no determination to have a class of teenagers eating out of my hand by September. Just a quiet reflection of my strengths and weaknesses and how best to tweak them, not because it is the 1st of January, but throughout the year.

This time next year I will be looking back at the things I HAVE done, rather than stressing about the resolutions that I didn’t keep.

So happy New Year, I wish you all the best for 2020. Be you – after all, it’s what you are best at.