It Ain’t What You Teach

It seems to me that more and more often I come across students who don’t know how to learn. I can see that they work hard, try to learn for tests, they’re definitely not lazy but they’re not learning efficiently. Not only is this disappointing in terms of results, but more importantly, it’s demoralizing too.

That’s why, for the last few years I’ve spent more and more time motivating students, persuading them that they CAN do it, and then specifically showing them how. 

And it often pays off. 

I’m by no means an expert, and the field of learning strategies is HUGE, but here are a few things that I found work really well.

Before getting down to business, I’d like to answer the question of WHY teach learning strategies. After all, the activities I’m going to share actually take up a certain amount of valuable class time. However the payout is worth the investment, I believe it was Doug Lemov in his fantastic book Teach Like a Champion, who said “sweat the small stuff”, and actually one of the best tips I picked up from him was to spend time practicing handing out and collecting in work with students, and I actually do that at the start of term! I make it into a game and there’s a competition between rows to be the fastest, but as I mentioned – it pays off it the long term, and ensures we don’t lose handouts or homework in the classroom.

By taking the time to explain clearly how to learn, you actually save time in class, there’s less going back over stuff when it is clear most students have “got it”, and it makes students more autonomous so, if necessary, they can go back and revise in their own time.

This makes learning more motivating, as does the feeling of being in control that successful learning strategies develop.

Once strategies are in place and practiced regularly then progress will get even quicker, and of course as you’re working on these strategies in English, the students are also picking up language as they go along – in fact many of my students don’t even realize we’re learning strategies, it’s just more “stuff” we do in class!

The first, and in my opinion, most important strategy to learn is motivation. You may not consider it a strategy, but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s essential for successful learning. There are lots of activities to encourage motivation, one of my favourites is “You Can Do It”. You’re probably familiar with it and it can be used in many ways. Ask the students to write down 4-5 phrases about things they have already accomplished. You can take in their papers and make a “Find Someone Who” out of them, or encourage them to walk around, sharing and explaining their achievements with each other. You can also ask them to add a lie, and then as they read the list out to the class, the other students have to guess which one isn’t true.

Another way of boosting motivation is to find your WHY. Why do your students want to learn English? What is their goal? You’re probably familiar with SMART goals, so ask your students to write down ( yes it’s important to write it down somewhere they can come back to regularly) their Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound goal. One step further, are you familiar with SMARTER goals? I came across this concept thanks to Michael Hyatt ( whose planner has saved my life and sanity on many occasions!), he adds Exciting and Risky to his Smart list.

No matter how motivated your students are at the start of term, at some point they will encounter the dreaded DIP. This usually takes place about 10 days/ 2 weeks into a new project, you know- around the time you start finding excuses for not going to the gym! The important thing is to see it coming, recognize the symptoms, i.e., “life” gets in the way, and plan ahead ways to come out of the other end asap. I do this by asking students to write their WHY down or tell to their neighbour every few lessons. Encourage students to choose an accountability partner in the class and to motivate each other, you could do a class on motivational quotes, get students to choose their favourites and write some down to send their partner at regular intervals. A couple of weeks into term you can spend time in class sharing quick wins, these are mini-activities to keep the learning fresh but also easy, in the same way that, if you haven’t got time to go to the gym, you can do a 10-minute Hit workout at home with an app. Quick Wins include apps such as duolingo, or a 5 minute writing storm, following a song you like on Youtube with the words written up, sending a text in English, posting or commenting on SM in English, finding and using a word-of-the-day app,  or writing in a learning journal.

I think learning journals are a great way to keep an eye on our learning. Journals in general are brilliant for seeing hos far we’ve come, remembering our Why (again! Yes I know, it’s important!) If you’re anything like me you tend to forget how far you’ve come. This is especially the case for language learners, as they progress, they encounter more and more complex language, often they’re still making the same number of mistakes in tests, or even more. It’s important to remind them how far they’ve come. They can do this themselves by looking back over their learning journals. They can complete them in English or L1, and use prompts such as how my learning went today, a thing I learnt, my next step, and especially my next reward.

Rewards are important for motivation, if we keep slogging away, adding extra hurdles once we accomplish something, it’s hard to feel good about our learning. Planning rewards, for example if I get 75% on these present simple exercises, I’ll watch a series/have some chocolate/buy myself some cool stationery (you can tell I’m a teacher can’t you!).

The next important strategy to implement is ROUTINE. You know the saying, what gets planned gets done. An ideal week plan is a great way of being sure to fit learning into your schedule. Writing out an Ideal Week Plan is also good practice of the present simple (just like the You Can do It activity is often good revision of the present perfect;) Ask students to notice when they have more or less energy during the week and plan in easier, less demanding activities for “down” times.

The above activities often don’t feel like strategy training to students, however strategies related to specific skills often do. Although many of my classes are made up of “let’s listen to this guy and find out about sharks” style activities, towards the start of the term I always take a lesson to go over each skill in detail. Basically explaining, today we’re going to learn how to do a listening comprehension/writing activity, etc. We call these protocols and they’re a list of things to do when faced with a skills task. For example for a listening comprehension:

1.Look at the title and any images closely to guess the subject. 

2. Brainstorm vocabulary items in this theme.

3. Read and be sure you understand the questions and then guess the answers.

4. Check how many times we can listen

5. Check what language the answers should be in, also should they be notes? Full sentences? drawings etc?

6. Reread the questions before you…

7. Listen first time.

8. Answer or jot possible answers to the questions you’ve got.

9. Listen again.

10. Complete the rest of the questions.

11. Complete any blanks with intelligent guesses.

12. Reread and check your answers make sense, for example if he’s a schoolboy, he’s probably 14, not 40!

Another similar strategy is Speak Aloud. Here, I model what I would do for a task by simply speaking aloud the relevant thoughts that go through my head, “I’m looking at the title and checking… etc.” I also regularly ask students to do the speaking aloud as we embark on a task. Asking Important Questions is an extension of this, whenever we do an activity, I get one of the students to ask the IPs “what language should we answer in?” “How many times can we listen?” “How many words should we write?” etc. 

Obviously, this is just the tip ofr the iceberg in terms of learning strategies, but I hope you will not only find the ideas useful, but be encouraged to research and use more strategies of your own.

To Go Further:

  • Essential Motivation in The Classroom- Ian Gilbert
  • Motivation, Mlanguage Identity & the L2 self- Zoltàn Dörnyei & Ema Ushoida
  • The Dip- Seth Godin