When the Learners Take Over

I can’t remember if it was Jim Scrivener in Learning Teaching or Jeremy Harmer in the Practice of English Language Teaching who said what is important in a lesson isn’t what the teacher does but what the learners do. Either way, it’s a recurring theme in ELT pedagogy, with other notable authors of language methodology referring to the notion of creating an environment which is conducive to learning.team-1480072_1280

In fact, this concept of creating a learning environment in which there are ample opportunities for learning to take place was something I didn’t quite grasp when I first started teaching. However, a few years into the job I came to understand that what is important isn’t what I do, but what my learners do. They are, after all, the ones doing the learning.

It wasn’t until I had finished the Delta that I realised it really is all about the learners. I remember one of my Delta tutors talking about how in a pre-service training course he overheard a trainer describing a committed and excellent teacher is one who runs around the classroom and the school, so much so their clothes stick to them from the ensuing perspiration. Of course, my tutor was quick to point out that if anyone should be sweating from a lesson, it should be the learners – they should leave the room having been pushed to their learning limits.

While that sounds all nice and dandy, it is hard to put into practice. How do you design a lesson which really maximizes learner engagement, so much so that it pretty much removes the teacher from the equation? How do you pass on the learning to the learners to the point that the teacher plays nothing more than a supporting role?

Well, this week I got the opportunity to do just that. Keep reading to find out more…

The situation

I’m currently teaching on a pre-sessional course at Newcastle University. As any of you who are acquainted with pre-sessional courses will know, they tend to involve a certain amount of language learning and a huge amount of academic skills development. As such, they often mean delivering lecture and seminar style lessons, working with heavy texts, and focusing on the use of language to execute core academic skills, such as summarizing and paraphrasing.

On the scheme of work for this week was summarising, quoting and paraphrasing. Each topic big enough to be a lesson on its own. I decided to dedicate a whole lesson to paraphrasing, as this is a topic we hadn’t yet covered and it’s one which pre-sessional learners tend to find very useful when completing their assignments.

Despite having a coursebook, the course director decided to assign a different set of materials to this lesson: chapter 1.6 of Academic Writing: A Handbook for International Students by Stephen Bailey.

I’m not sure whether Bailey had set out to produce a text book which was meant to be used inside the EAP classroom or for learners to use independently during self-study time, but either way the structure of the chapters lends itself so well to self-study that the teacher can pretty much be removed from the equation. In fact, the materials are laid out in such a way that they guide the learner stage by stage through the process of:

  • Discovering what paraphrasing is
  • Making rules  for paraphrasing explicit
  • Providing numerous examples
  • Working through a number of scaffolded practice exercises

Setting it up

With such self-explanatory and well-scaffolded material, it really did make me wonder whether I should simply give the learners the chapter as an extended homework task. After all, what would I be doing in the classroom, apart from providing the answers?

It was at this very moment of thinking and planning that I realised that this was the perfect opportunity for me to set up a great opportunity for learning, where the learners could engage with the topic on an individual and group level and I would be free to play a supportive role, giving individual learners the attention as and when they needed it.

So, I created a Task Sheet: it was essentially the written down version of what would have been my instructions. There were four major tasks which were broken down into a series of smaller instructions, which asked the learners to do things like:

  • Read the introductory section and work with your partners to make sure you understand it
  • Complete Exercise 2 on your own and then compare your answers with your partners
  • Exercise 4 requires you to agree together on the best version: do this as a group and state your reasons in the space below
  • As a group, paraphrase the following paragraph, making use of the techniques you have just been learning about

Given that they are already very used to working individually and then comparing together in pairs or groups of three, reading this in an instruction rather than hearing it from the teacher made no difference: they quickly recognised it as the standard things we do in lessons.

The teacher

So, you are probably wondering what I was doing. Well, at first, very little. When I handed out the instructions and the reading materials, they needed some time to read through the introductory section and ensure that they had understood it. They worked with their dictionaries a lot at first and then eventually worked with their partners to establish everyone was on the same page. All I did during this time was walk around the classroom and make it clear I was available if they needed me.

Once they started working on the exercises, I started peering over their shoulders to look at their work. I could quickly see who was doing the task well and needed no support from me and those who were struggling with the task. This is where I played more of a guiding or supporting role: working with the individual student, helping them through the exercise.

I continued doing this throughout the lesson. Sometimes I noticed an instruction wasn’t quite as clear, so I would stop the class and give the instruction orally. But most of the time I didn’t speak with them on a whole class level but on an individual level.

Pros and cons

This approach definitely has its pros and its cons. On the upside, after speaking with the learners about the lesson during the break, it was clear that this approach:

  • Lets learners work at their own pace
  • Allows for a mixture of individual and group work
  • Creates more silence i.e. the teacher hardly spoke
  • Maximizes engagement levels

Most of all, it ensured students got more individualised support and attention from the teacher, which was something they really appreciated. However, despite all the good things that came out of the lesson, there were some drawbacks:

  • There weren’t any feedback stages
  • Not everyone was going at the same pace through the lesson

Worst of all, one activity took much longer to do than I had expected, but I wasn’t able to drop the next stage in order to make up the lost time and move quicker to the final production task. This was because learners were at different stages of the lesson and some had already started the next task. This means you have got to really know how long each activity will take your learners and account for timing more, as it is literally out of your hands.

All in all, an enjoyable lesson which the learners got a lot out of. Have you ever used this approach? How did it go? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

12 thoughts on “When the Learners Take Over

  1. Hi Anthony, Just found your website today by typing ‘ELT’ in a Google search. Really enjoyed this article on ‘When the Learners Take Over”. This is entirely my approach to teaching adults Business English whether it’s small groups in-company or in large classroom settings at university. Here’s an article I wrote about how I learned the hard way to adapt to a class of 24 guys at a technical university in France. These young men ‘taught each other’ TOEIC vocabulary and grammar. Competition engaged them and the games I made for the class were based on ideas taken from video game designers. Hope you enjoy reading it http://www.businessenglishallure.com/how-to-engage-millennials-in-eslefl-class/

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  2. I really like this approach and some of the strategies you describe. I use the same type of structure (letting students work, floating around and helping individuals, stopping to clarify instructions), but have never used the task list before.
    Did your students enjoy this style? Did they seem engaged in the task? I’ve had some students who get bored or lose interest if they’re left “on their own” for too long.

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  3. Great post. Food for thought.

    Kept wondering about my own Korean context. Students seem less inclined to take the initiative and learn by doing something and more concerned about a) their smartphone and b) performing a function that seems to be in line what what the teacher is telling me to do.

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    1. Hey! Thank you for comment.

      The group I did this was a Chinese cohort of pre-postgraduate students. They’ve come to the course somewhat disciplined but largely tend to do, like your learners, that what the teacher says. That’s why I provide them with a task sheet with a set of instructions to completed one by one, including when to work alone and when to work in groups. Have you tried that?

      As for smartphones, mines ate never off theirs but it is 99% of the time to check lexis. Are you’re doing the same or playing games?

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      1. Good idea re: the written instructions to tick off. I usually just tell them as they’re Upper Int + but that sounds like a good way to get them to focus more

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  4. Hi Anthony, I’ve used a similar approach with paraphrasing & experienced the same advantages & drawbacks. It’s difficult to estimate how much time to allow as every group is different. I try to have an extra task ready for fast finishers to avoid rushing the rest of the class.

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  5. Give time limits. You can say, ‘Do this till the alarm goes off’. I’d say it’s scaffolding time management, making sure all that needs doing gets done.

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      1. I’d argue that time limits might help certain students stay engaged. It’s easy for minds to wander without any time pressure, especially when they have the whole class. Students aren’t always the best at pacing themselves.

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