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.

Video for the Terrified (or just slightly nervous)

In a departure from the usual written form, this week’s guest post is a video from Eric Oscar Wesch from Etacude. If you’ve ever wondered about creating your own videos, but were too terrified or overwhelmed by the tech to start, this post will calm your fears, explain why we should all be doing it and get you started with tech that you probably already own. You’ll be making videos in no time!

Collaborate to Innovate

OK, before we start, I’ll admit I do have a vested interest. I firmly believe that we all know something and should pass it on to help us all grow as teachers. That said, I’m not the only one…

You probably don’t know me, I’m not Scott Thornbury or Jeremy Harmer (not least because I’m a girl) but neither am I Penny Ur or Laura Patsko some other big ‘name’ in the ELT world. I’m just a teacher, like you. The thing is, I know things that you don’t know and I’ve done things that you’ve yet to try, while you know stuff that I don’t and you’ve done things I’ve not even considered or had the guts to try – yet (go on, persuade me…). But then, you probably kind of had a sneaking feeling about that before you started to read, otherwise why would you be reading a post from someone you don’t yet know?

I’ve flipped classes, I’ve built a Moodle site from scratch, I’ve created courses and started a teaching business. I’ve navigated technology that I never imagined I’d be able to and I’ve met the most wonderful teachers. You may have done some of the same things, but you may also be able to hold the attention of a room full of teenagers, you may know how to use an interactive whiteboard, you may use dogme without batting an eyelid, you may be a marketing genius, you may be able to stand in front of a roomful of expectant people at a conference and not wish the ground would open up and swallow you – please, show me how to do these things.

Please, show all of us.

Many of us collaborate on a small scale, without even realising it. When you go into the staff room after a particularly stressful lesson and rant at your colleagues and someone offers a useful suggestion – that’s collaboration. You have learned another technique and your colleague has learned what not to do with that particular group of learners. Perhaps you have spent hours trying to find the perfect video for a lesson (we’ve all done it – that internet rabbit hole is a scary place), you are so pleased with yourself, you pat yourself on the back and show a colleague. That’s collaboration. Maybe you are stuck for an activity and post a request in a Facebook group. That’s collaboration too.

Broadwell (1969) suggests that development can be construed as a move from ‘unconscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious competence’. The idea being that we may be unaware that we are doing something badly until we realise it has been made better.  It is in this movement where collaboration is most productive – someone else’s advice or guidance is so much more supportive than a ‘superior’ telling you how to ‘improve’.

If we can move past the ‘phatic communion’ (Lansley) of just moaning together and agreeing with each other, then collaboration can be a truly rewarding and, dare I say it, fun approach to learning and developing our skills. There is really nothing more thrilling than have peers thank you for your insight into something and then act on it. It is a boost to your confidence, validates your ability and experience and is great for consolidating the knowledge that you may not even realised that you had in the first place. When this tacit knowledge (Sternberg & Horvath, 1999) is realised or extracted then collaboration is the most effective approach to professional development. That penny-dropping ‘duh!’ moment, when we suddenly realise that we had the answer all along, cannot be replicated in a lecture theatre or classroom while we ‘do’ obligatory staff development – this is the stuff that we come to naturally, because we need the answer or information.

My first conscious and deliberate act of collaboration was some years ago. I’d been teaching in the UK for a year or so post-CELTA. I was getting on OK, still doing the post-CELTA thing of spending every waking moment planning lessons for a part-time job, but getting on OK and feeling like a ‘proper’ teacher.

For the B2 groups, there were just two teachers, myself and another (we’ll call her Caroline – because that’s her name). We soon realised that our learners were jumping from one class to the other and losing any course continuity. So, we decided to collaborate on creating a shared scheme of work.

We spent that year planning lessons and syllabi together and sharing our work, so that we both taught the same lesson (or variations of) each week. The benefits were myriad. Our learners could attend whichever lesson was convenient each week and not miss anything, lesson planning time nearly halved (tea and chatting did slow us down a bit) and we each learnt about new activities, approaches and techniques that we hadn’t tried before. I also learned more about teaching in that year than I had working by myself and doing the CELTA; and I made a wonderful friend. I also used the school LMS to give learners access to materials after class, something which was new to Caroline.

We all (mostly) advocate learners working out stuff for themselves as the best method of acquiring the language, the same goes for us, the teachers. In this connected world, there are so many ways of collaborating and sharing our knowledge and experience to help both ourselves and others. Work with a friend, join a SIG, co-teach, make use of any of the 1000’s of groups on social media, attend a workshop (maybe even an ELT.Training interactive online workshop) or even just take time for a cup of tea and a chat. When we get together to find the answers to questions we may not even realise we have, we can move mountains.

So, show me what you know, show all of us.

References

Broadwell, Martin M. (20 February 1969). “Teaching for learning (XVI)“. wordsfitlyspoken.org. The Gospel Guardian.

Lansley, C (1994) Collaborative Development: an Alternative to Phatic Discourse and the art of Co-operative Development. ELT Journal, 48 (1): 50-6

Sternberg & Horvath (1998) Tacit Knowledge in Professional Practice: Researcher and Practitioner, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc

Working on language learner pain-points through a coaching approach

This week’s guest post by the lovely Gabriella Kovács briefly discusses the basics of language coaching and gives you some ideas about how it works… and a very practical takeaway activity to use in your next lesson.

Something to identify is whether you are a coach coaching learners, or a language professional (teacher, trainer) using coaching elements, techniques and tools to add dimension to your classes. 
When you coach, you coach, when you teach, you may make use of specific coaching elements, but that is not coaching: that is teaching with a coaching approach.  In my experience of the past few years, the latter is basically what most language professionals need, this is what learning about LC can provide.

Language coaching is a process focusing on learner needs, interests, motivation and goals.  By identifying – with the learner – what and why they wish to achieve concerning their language learning and language usage goals, the missing pieces of the puzzle fall into place nicely.  By asking questions, guiding with empathy and positivity there will be space for the learner to come to terms with who they really are as language learners, language users and will increase their commitment to taking steps to reach their goals.

The definition goes: A conversation-based process with a purpose to map and create optimal language acquisition or language usage-related goals. The framework is based on strategies utilising intrinsic motivation and developing learning awareness, where both parties are equal partners.  It is important that clients (learners) claim ownership of their own development. (Source: Gabriella Kovács ACC)

Learners may feel stuck or demotivated, keep postponing exams, cannot significantly make progress, do not seem to find time to study the language, believe they are not good at learning languages etc.

For some, working on these issues might take one session, for others 3-6, it really is not about time. I have had clients collaborating with me for one session and leave happily, while others I support for months and work in true partnership with them, covering themes related to their workplace communication issues, exam preparation etc. 

Key questions to ask when beginning a coaching process might be:

In what way(s) is your goal supporting other aspects of your life?

Do you have an ideal type of teaching or lesson in mind you would feel comfortable with?

If you had 15 minutes a day to learn, what would you do in that time?

I work with adults in the corporate world and blend coaching with communication training. Many times I go in with 3-4 coaching tools and a handout and we discuss what is going on for the learner. I provide the attention all learners should be receiving – and they strive.

Let me present an activity I often use with learners when identifying motivation, learning preferences, strategy issues for them. 

  1. Print and cut about 6-10 quotes and place them on the table in front of the learner/s. (If you have a class, then get them into pairs or groups of maximum 3-4.)
  2. Go through the quotes and make sure learners understand the meanings of the words and phrases. Make this as short as possible. (Don’t interpret the meaning of the quotes themselves to them.)
  3. Ask learners to choose 2 quotes that resonate with how they are feeling in connection to their learning challenges right now, why that quote is important for them at present.  Let them explain to you or their partner/group. 
  4. Finally get them to highlight and share some interesting ideas.  Let them reflect on the activity: Why was this activity valuable for you?
  5. You can even collect their reflections and summaries on post-its and put them on the wall.

This is a precious activity as it needs very little preparation, will support learning awareness and deepen understanding of aspects of learning/teaching learners may not have thought of before. It may take 10 minutes, it may take 30 minutes… Be prepared for a fruitful conversation indeed!

These are my favourite quotes, but there are many, many more out there!

  • Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  – From the book Narcotics Anonymous
  • If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much. Lewis Carroll
  • Nothing is impossible… the word itself says I’m possible! Audrey Hepburn
  • The journey is the reward.  – Chinese proverb
  • People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing, that’s why we recommend it daily.  – Zig Ziglar
  • When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps. – Confucius
  • Problems are only opportunities in work clothes. Henry Kaiser
  • Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure. – Confucius
  • I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. – Einstein
  • Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.- Xun Kuang
  • A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. –  Thomas Carruthers
  • That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way. – Doris Lessing

Hope you enjoyed reading this and found it useful. 

Australian-born Gabriella Kovács ACC, an internationally certified language coach, business communication trainer (B.Ed., M.A.), mentor and teacher trainer. She is behind the idea of founding an organisation to support all professionals interested in language coaching, which has manifested in ILCA (International Language Coaching Association).

Her mission is to add dimension and depth to ongoing language learning practices and create a more holistic, person-centred approach for language professionals. She provides webinars, f2f and online trainings, publishes articles and works with her clients.

Making Ourselves a Priority: Gaining Time and Motivation

And here it is – fanfare please – our first guest post!

Thank you to Olivia Price-Bates, ADOS at a school in Italy and recent participant on the 5 Day Summer Challenge (click here for details of the next one)

Time.  The greatest nemesis to all teachers and school owners. Whether it’s managing to cover all stages in your lesson plan or just lamenting there are not enough hours in the day, lack of time is often cited as being one of the most difficult aspects of our profession. Striking that perfect work-life balance to deliver great lessons and still have time to explore the wonders of the country that you’ve adopted is challenging, and seeking time-saving solutions seem to be on most teachers’ wish lists.

As an ADOS and mum of two, juggling work and family life takes its toll, especially living in Southern Italy where the concept of time is flexible and even the seemingly most simple of tasks like posting a letter can shave hours off your day.   While I’m enjoying a well earned summer break, I’m aware of the new school year creeping into view and am starting to think of how I can best be prepared for the year ahead.  I feel privileged that we teachers get to make resolutions twice a year, both in January as the new year rolls in and again in September as we set ourselves the goals and objectives we aim to achieve in the forthcoming school year.

Having raided the stationery department, I’m now sitting down to think of my personal and team goals for the school year and like all resolutions while they’re made with good intentions and an injection of energy after a well-deserved rest, it’s easy to let the day to day of school life, deadlines and family commitments become obstacles in the way of achieving our goals. So how can we and our teachers stay motivated?

Growth comes through reflection and giving ourselves the time to reflect on our experiences can pave the way for more of those magical light bulb moments occurring more and more often but we need to find ways to make time to allow these to happen so that we don’t fall back on behaviours that while gaining us time can cause our teaching to stagnate and stunt our professional growth.

   * START NOW: The initial and undoubtedly most important factor in motivation is setting out clear goals of what you want and can realistically manage to achieve. The hardest part of realising our goals is taking that first step but making that initial commitment, signing up to that course, buying that book or writing that checklist is a sure-fire way to release the dopamine which will keep us motivated to stick to our objectives.  Procrastination is always lurking so why not start NOW.  Think about 6 things you want to achieve over the next school year, either from a teaching or management perspective depending on your context.  Make sure they are specific and measurable in some way, for example instead of saying ‘I want better classroom management skills’, say ‘I want to reduce the level of L1 in my classroom by introducing multi-level activities which appeal to different learner styles’.  By breaking down objectives into small, achievable chunks which you can clearly see the extent of their success you will increase motivation whether it be intrinsic or extrinsic.

   * STICK TO A SCHEDULE – From the outset, decide how and when you are going to dedicate time to achieving your goals. We are, after all, creatures of habits and so to become successful we need to make our tasks part of our behavioural routine.  Ask yourself how you can make time work for you? My goal is to dedicate more time to reflecting on my teaching. So a small change I’m making, which will hopefully have big results, is changing my lesson plan template to include a reflection section where after the lesson I can quickly write which aspects were successful and which didn’t work.  This will help me build up a better picture overall of classes and methods which will inform all of my teaching, fingers crossed.  

Knowing exactly when you can find time in your daily schedule will make you more likely to stick to goals: perhaps your daily commute is the perfect time to dedicate to watching webinars or listening to podcasts, maybe instead of checking Instagram you can spend an hour every morning reading a book or following some key writers on Twitter.  By making it part of your daily routine, and an enjoyable part, you’re more likely to stick to it.

   *  A PROBLEM SHARED… Hands up if you’re guilty of taking on the world and not delegating or asking for help as often as you probably should.  I imagine most of us are guilty of piling our plates too high with work commitments and therefore giving ourselves more stress than we actually need.  I wax lyrical about how teaching means we ourselves are always learning, so let’s make sure that we are dedicating enough time to listen to others.

New perspectives, advice and input will all prove invaluable when it comes to achieving our own CPD objectives so make sure you take the time to go for that coffee (or glass of wine) and have a good old chat.  Developing relationships makes for a happy workplace and we all know that positivity breeds productivity; you may find that suddenly your workload reduces because of new collaborations or new ways to work on things you deemed to be time consuming.

* GOOD JOB! Recognising and celebrating effort, whether it’s yours or another member of your team’s is a great motivator.  Student, teacher or manager, we all want to be appreciated and if we work hard that effort needs to be recognised.  Recording goals and celebrating our achievements will help us to keep going when the going gets tough, which incidentally always seems to coincide with exam periods!

   * TAKE TIME OUT – Teacher burnout happens far too frequently. Nobody can work effectively when they are exhausted, so know your limitations and learn the warning signs to know when a break is needed.  Remember the process is just as important (if not more) than the end goal and every step you make shows change and growth. Recognise that everything you do towards your own development is positive and even if you don’t end up writing that book, speaking at that conference or finding that perfect way of presenting the subjunctive, you have gained purpose, confidence and furthered your passion and knowledge in your career. Be proud. And celebrate with chocolate cake.