Number one for English language teachers

Teaching technologies: setting up self-access centres

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

Advice and suggestions on how to set up self-access centres.

Has anybody tried to organize self-access for learners? How should I do it?

What are they? What are they for?

In recent years an intense debate has been going on about self-access centres. The development and spread of new technologies applied to teaching has further fostered this discussion, together with the ideas connected to the necessity to develop learners’ autonomy. As a consequence, many self-access centres have been set up in different grades of schools and institutions, above all in universities, but also in secondary schools and, in some cases, in primary schools.

The main questions that teachers ask themselves when looking at the idea of instituting a self-access centre are: what kind of equipment and facilities, and therefore financing, would I need? Will my students benefit from it? And, if so, in what ways?

The answers are manifold and obviously depend on a number of factors, including the age of the students and grade of school, and the goals and objectives which are aimed at.

At the beginning a self-access centre can be set up even with very basic equipment and can be created in any kind of school, with materials and objectives that are different and geared to the specific needs. The main idea is to create a space where students can work independently, at their own pace, with materials that are varied, according to their needs, preference and learning styles. It can be created within the classroom, or in a room specially equipped for this aim, and used during or outside the lessons. At the beginning, the facilities may just mean a library with some easy readers and a tape recorder with headsets and cassettes; if possible there should also be a video recorder or DVD player with some films, and a PC with some software designed for language learning. The centre can then be improved along the years, adding equipment and materials according to the needs of the students.

Within the classroom or in a specially created room?

If it is set within the classroom, a special space should be dedicated to it in the room: for example, a corner with the materials and equipment placed on one or two desks. Here students could work individually or in pairs reading, listening to CDs with headsets, or working on the computer while the rest of the class is, for instance, completing a task or a test, or doing other activities. This setting could be very useful in mixed-ability classes to differentiate the lessons when needed.

If a special space, ideally a room, can be dedicated to it within the school building, the idea is to create a friendly environment where the learners can go and make use of the material when they need or feel like to. It could also be placed within the school library, creating a corner dedicated to language learning. The advantage in this case would be that part of the equipment could be shared. Examples of activities can be choosing books or magazines to read on site or to borrow, working on listening skills, developing a topic the students need or feel like to improve, or simply using computers to play games and do exercises of different kinds – in a word, to be more exposed to the language in a space and a time which is not necessarily set by the teacher, but can be chosen by the students themselves.

The arrangement of the room and of the material can follow different patterns, here too, according to the age and objectives of the centre. Following the typology suggested by Gardner and Miller*, it could be designed as a Market Stall, where it operates in the classroom on certain days and/ or times, or as a Games Arcade, which is especially suitable for younger learners as the focus is on learning through fun activities, or as a Supermarket, where it is possible to browse through the materials to choose independently which one to use, or even as a Cash and Carry, where the range of the materials is limited but there are more copies available. The environment should in any case be friendly, the books, CD ROMs and videos on display and catalogued according to level, and there should be some room, even a couple of chairs, to sit down and carry out the chosen activity in a relaxed way.

In practice…

Some examples of self-access centres and of activities for different ages could be the following:


a) Young learners

Typologies - Games Arcade, Market Stall, Bring and buy

Materials - A set of books (readers) and magazines

  • Sheets of activities and language games
  • Some CDs of stories and songs
  • A PC with software and CDs of games and language activities
  • Activities - 20/30 minutes when students make individual choices from the materials every week. The activities can be done in the classroom or taken home, especially with books
  • 20/30 minutes devoted once a fortnight to the exchange of material about the language or the culture related to it brought in by the children or by the teacher
  • Sheets of activities can be used by the students when a class task has been completed earlier^

b) Teenagers

Typologies - Games Arcade, Market Stall, Bring and buy, Supermarket

Materials - Books, including easy readers, magazines, textbooks

  • Sheets of activities and language games, with answer keys
  • Some CDs of language material, stories and songs
  • A DVD player and DVDs
  • A PC with software and CDs of games and language activities
  • Activities - 20/30 minutes when students make individual choices from the materials every week. The activities can be done in the classroom or taken home, especially with books and magazines. There can be a follow up with a feedback from the students about what they have read, to be shared with class-mates
  • 20/30 minutes devoted once a fortnight to the exchange of material about the language or the culture related to it brought in by the students or by the teacher
  • The material can also be used in pairs or in groups for project work, especially when related to culture
  • Following the introduction of new materials or a class test students can work individually on tasks related to the language structures or skills they need to reinforce or develop
  • Songs can be used for self or group dictation; new ones can be brought in by the students themselves
  • If facilities include an internet connection sites can be used for online activities for language learning

c) Secondary school students

Typologies Games Arcade, Market Stall, Supermarket, Technology

Materials - Books, including easy readers, magazines, textbooks

  • Sheets of activities and language games, with answer keys
  • Materials for international language exams with answer keys
  • CDs of language materials and songs
  • A DVD player and DVDs
  • A PC with software and CDs of games and language activities – a good example is the Reward CD ROM series
  • Activities - Following the introduction of new materials or a class test students can work individually on tasks related to the language structures or skills they need to reinforce or develop
  • Students preparing for international certification exams, such as Cambridge or Trinity, can further practice their skills
  • The songs can be used for self or group dictation or for listening with cloze; new ones can be brought in by the students themselves
  • The material can also be used in pairs or in groups for project works, especially the one related to the culture, ESP or literature
  • DVD can be viewed individually or in small groups
  • If facilities include an internet connection, many sites offer online activities for language learning^^

We can see that some of the features are shared by all grades of school. What varies is the kind of materials present in the centre and the type of tasks the students practice. The level of autonomous use of the material increases with age, but students can nevertheless start being trained from as early as primary school to choose the kind of work they need or want to do. This can set the basis for an attitude that leads to taking responsibilities for their own learning, and to the understanding that the choice of materials and ways of work can also correspond to their individual, different and unique learning styles.**

Training students to use the self-access space

Especially at the beginning, but not only then, a positive attitude to autonomous learning should be developed and work in the self-access centre can to be guided to help this. This can be done using the facilities for some of the activities during classes, where the teacher acts as a tutor or facilitator, guiding the learners though the materials and tasks. As an alternative, some individual or group sheets can be prepared, to be handed out to the students, pointing out the work they need to do. An example of this sheet can be the following:

Dear (Student’s name),

Yesterday’s test has shown that you need to practice more on ________________.
Therefore, using the material in the self-access centre, I would ask you to do the following:
CD Rom ____, Unit ____ exercises ____
Book/Textbook ____, Unit ____ page ____ Exercises ______
(A detailed description of exercises and instructions should be inserted above.)
When you have completed the exercise, collect your work in a folder. We will look at it together and look into the parts that you have found most difficult. If you are ready, you’ll be given the possibility to sit another test; if not, you will be given some more practice, until you feel confident.

This makes it possible on one hand to create tailor-made, individual and specific practice for the learners, and on the other to train them to use the resources and the facilities of the self-access centre in a freer and freer way. For younger students, the sheet could be written in their first language. So, setting up a self-access centre is not out of reach. Certainly it is not to be considered a magic tool that solves all language learning problems, but it can for sure be a good means to implement motivation, learner choice and learner autonomy, which are, especially in language learning, fundamental ingredients to successful learning.

 Notes

* Gardner & Miller, 1999; the various typologies mentioned are Phone sales, Mobile shop, Market stall, Bring-and-buy, Postal sales, Boutique, Video rental shop, Technology, Catalogue shop, Fats food restaurant, Games arcade, Discount Store, Supermarket, Cash and carry, Department store.

^ A case study of a Self-access centre in a primary school is reported in Gardner & Miller, 1999, p 14.

^^ A case study of a Self-access centre in a secondary school is reported in Gardner & Miller, 1999, p 15

** Many more activities to be carried out in a self-access centre can be found in Sheerin, 1989.

Bibliography/ Further reading

Benson, Phil & Woller, Peter, Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning, Harlow, Longman, 1997

Gardner, David & Miller, Lindsay, Establishing Self-Access, From theory to practice, Cambridge, CUP, 1999

Sheerin, Susan, Self Access, Oxford, OUP, 1989

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