What are the advantages of independent practice? And how can teachers encourage more of it? Daniel Barber provides some steps for implementation.

first steps into 620x200

What are the advantages of independent practice for students?

Language learners have access to more resources and opportunities than ever before. Years ago the problem for learners was lack of access: How do I practise English when I’m not in class? But finding resources is no longer an issue. You can pick and choose from a huge range of websites, podcasts, distance courses, telephone classes, adaptive learning apps, video lessons, video-conferenced conversation exchanges and mobile learning platforms, to name but a few.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our students took full advantage of this wealth of opportunities? Imagine a learner who watches YouTube clips, reads books and listens to the news in English; who finds herself a language exchange partner on Skype to practise speaking, reviews new vocabulary on the bus to school every day with a flashcard app, rehearses conversations in her head, keeps a blog in English and records herself to practise pronunciation. How much easier our jobs would be if they were all like that!

These people exist, of course. I’m sure you can think of students you’ve had who show one or more of these good learning habits. But they are few and far between. So the question is: what’s stopping other learners from being like them?

The challenges of independent learning

First of all, it may be easier to access learning opportunities, but the challenge now is one of choice: Where do I even begin? Too much choice can make the first step towards change a frustrating nightmare. Have you ever looked for something online and, confronted with hundreds of options, given up? On the flip side, learners may simply be unaware of what’s on offer. It still surprises me when students say they’ve never visited the BBC Learning English website, used the Macmillan English Online Dictionary or tried www.lyricstraining.com.

Secondly, just because the opportunities are there doesn’t mean our interest in learning has necessarily increased. It is just as difficult to maintain motivation as it always was. Even if you’re using the latest colourful, engaging platform to study English, it doesn’t take away from the fact that learning is often hard – and we don’t always feel like working hard.

It’s also much easier to get distracted and waste time these days, isn’t it? Students have always needed to learn organizational skills, but new digital skills, or ‘digital literacies’, are needed for the 21st century. These skills include – as well as knowing the right search terms to find exactly what you need on Google – managing information overload and being able to discern critically whether learning tools are effective or not. Without these skills, learners might get very frustrated, despite their best intentions!

Finally, how clearly do learners keep their goals in mind when learning? Without a clear objective, a sense of how they will get there and how they will monitor and measure their progress, learners will quickly lose their way.

How teachers can help learners – 10 ideas

It’s time that we all spend a little less time fretting over lesson plans and in-class learning and devoting a little more of our energy to our learner’s ‘English language lives’ once lessons have finished. Here, in brief, are some ideas for how to go about this.

  1. At the start of the course, and at regular points afterwards, conduct whole group coaching sessions to help establish students’ short- and long-term goals and to discuss their motivations for learning English. Try to find time to talk to each person about their individual goals.
  2. Brainstorm all the different things they could be doing outside of class to practise English with the resources they have available. Encourage a variety of ideas, both technology-based and tech-light. An important factor in helping students accomplish difficult, long-term tasks is to have multiple opportunities for success. Varied modes of practice can help provide those chances. However, with a multitude of ideas it is really useful to have these ‘organized’ in some way, so you can see what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Divide the list into speaking, reading, listening and writing practice; vocabulary learning; and so on. Ask students to fill in a diary for the following week. Get them to decide how much time they can devote to English practice and exactly when those times are, from three-hour blocks at the weekend to five-minute slots on the bus to work. For each time slot, ask them to choose something to do from the list.
  3. Follow up the diary exercise the following week. Ask students what they did; whether they achieved all the practice they planned (and if not, what got in the way); and which activities they found useful or enjoyable. Most importantly, ask them what they plan to do next week and whether they will change anything. Keep this up for as many weeks as it takes to see students adopting some new learning habits.
  4. Plan into your lessons opportunities for students to share the things they do independently to practice their English with the rest of the class. They should demonstrate the activity and describe the benefits. You could arrange that each week one student shares an idea, or leave students to organize themselves and compare their ideas.
  5. Make use of the course you’re using to help your students get a sense of their progress. Most courses these days include review activities and ‘stop and check’ tasks where students evaluate their own abilities to use English in the ways they’ve been studying. Independent learners ask themselves how well they’ve learnt something and what they need to do about any failure to learn. Also, if you are able to choose which activities and lessons in the course to do and which to leave out (e.g. because of lack of time), why not let your students have a say in the decision? By including them in this part of the planning process, you are giving them a sense of agency in their own learning.
  6. In the same way, let students make decisions about the course homework they will do. By asking students to prioritize activities and ignore others, you are asking them to articulate their strengths and needs and increasing their sense of learner autonomy.
  7. Devote twenty minutes each week to doing these things. Encouraging independent practice is not a separate lesson to be done and then forgotten – the class needs to integrate it into their everyday learning.
  8. Encourage students to explore upcoming topics and new language on their own by offering a flipped lesson, with online material to use before class. Click here for more on Flipped Language Learning.
  9. If you are using a blended course, show students the range of online resources available to them for independent practice. Demonstrate the various components in class and encourage them to use these at home. Follow this demonstration in subsequent lessons by asking students whether they have started to explore the resources, what they have done and whether they would recommend them to their classmates.
  10. Finally, don’t expect students to immediately embrace greater control in their English learning. Many people are most comfortable letting the teacher make the decisions. Offer modest choices at first, and always help students to understand how these steps towards autonomy work and why they are good. Gradually increase those freedoms as the students become more confident.

References

For more detailed information about the role of teachers in their learners’ language lives, see the blog I run with Duncan Foord: www.learnercoachingelt.wordpress.com.