Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Setting Goals: You can do it!

My oral communication class has seven high-level English learners who are very smart, very fluent, and--for the most part--very accurate. The problem with teaching students with a high level of proficiency for me became, what do I teach? So I searched around in the Principles and Practices textbooks for clues and re-read my initial position statement for this class. The following is some of the guiding ideas that I collected for instructing high-level students.

Brown (2007) states that teaching such high level learners can be very difficult, especially given the temptation to just hand over a topic and letting the students speak without purpose or goal. At this level students need targeted goals in order to overcome the hurdles that prevent them from improving their accuracy and to find some kind of progress. For many students at such a high level, “plateauing” becomes a problem in which students struggle to make progress in improving for long stretches of time.

Consider the following quote from Brown on strategic learning:

"All too often, language teachers are so consumed with the 'delivery' of language to their students that they neglect to spend some effort preparing learners to 'receive' the language. And students, mostly unaware of the tricks of successful language, simply do whatever the teacher tells them to do, having no means to question the wisdom thereof. In an effort to fill class hours with fascinating material, teachers might overlook their mission of enabling learners to eventually become independent of classrooms--that is, to become autonomous learners" (p. 258-259).

Brown also states in teaching advanced level students:

"Some aspects of language, of course, need focal attention for minor corrections, refinement, and other 'tinkering'; otherwise, teachers would almost be unnecessary. So your task at this level is to assist in the ongoing attempt to automatize language and in the delicate interplay between focal and peripheral attention to selected aspects of language" (p. 127-128).

Kumaravadivelu (2003) relates that self-directed or self-access learning contains a narrow view, a view that focuses on how learners can become self-learners through critical thinking, decision making, independent action, gathering knowledge, taking responsibility or initiative, confront weaknesses or failures, develop self-control or self-discipline, stop relying on instruction for learning, and realize that autonomy relates to interacting between the learner, the teacher, and the educational environment.

By combining psychological/cognitive strategies with learning strategies students can become more autonomous and productive learners. This includes using a wide variety of learning strategies, choosing the best strategy for the task, and how to monitor their performance, and how to access the outcome (Kumaravadivelu, 2003).

Taking these ideas together, we can see that despite creating a rich, well directed, and assessable lesson plan, students must be prepared to receive the information from the lesson and utilize the information in producing language and learning to stretch their language learning development. By having students take steps to identify their language learning goals and to self-correct them through classroom or non-classroom learning, we are maximizing the potential for each student to become self-directed and motivated learners. Students who are prepared with the proper and wide ranging learning strategies and are capable of critically thinking, noticing, internalizing, and producing language in their L2 without direct instruction or hand holding.

Moreover, students who have identified the grammatical, social, or cognitive hurdles that prevent them from learning a second language will be much more capable of overcoming these obstacles and adapt their learning from their experiences and capable of measuring their own progress.
Therefore, knowing what our language learning goals and the strategies to overcome them are critical for our students.


In the previous lesson we began to cover the topic of the global economy as stimulus material for students' timed conversations. I also asked student to write three learning goals in their blogs that were 1) explicitly stated, 2) achievable, and 3) tractable or assessable. In today's lesson, we will review the goals from their blogs and use a worksheet to narrow details about what they would like to learn.


We began class by reviewing several example sentences from the students' blogs that from the a previous assignment to identify basic grammatical problems. The problems included tense agreement, modifying compound nouns, relative clauses, and use of quantifiers such as "a lot." When asked, students were able to correct most of the errors but they did not understand why. In some cases, I was unable to provide an explanation for an error and its correction.

Next, we reviewed a students' blogs and examples of the goals written in the blog:

I also decided to show some examples of broad, incomplete, or non-assessable goals so students and then model a learning goal that I created for my Japanese studies. I copied these goals and produced them on a "" page.

After reviewing the student goals and the model goals, the students were given a handout in order to revise their goals. The remaining time of the period was used to complete the goal sheet although few students could revise more than one goal. Some students also said that they did not feel that setting goals was useful for their learning style or had experience in setting goals before.

Finally, toward the end of the class, I directed student to discuss with a partner their language learning history through a timed conversation. Students asked their partner how they learned English, if they thought it was effective, and what comments they received on their initial goal. Each person then reported how their language partner learned English and their opinions on effective ways to learn languages. By the time this conversation was complete, we had run out of time and only half of the lesson plan was completed.


This was a discouraging lesson as a teacher because not only did the students not understand the purpose of writing goals but they also didn’t see the usefulness in doing so. After the final timed conversation, several students related that they didn’t understand why they were being asked to set goals and also stated that they felt goal setting didn’t fit into their learning style. At this point, I had to explain some of my rationale for the class set up, and I think having to explain the rationale dissuaded students from the usefulness of the class.

I have to ask myself, should I have been more discrete in what I was trying to ask my students to accomplish? Should I have asked my students first whether they thought setting goals was useful, or was I correct in pushing for this element of the class curriculum? In retrospect, I can see now that the students were unable to relate the goals they set to their real-world and their learning practices and that they were also unable to maintain or track their progress. However, I still believe that goal setting is a vital key for a class with highly proficient language learners who are struggling to refine their accuracy, and I hope to improve this aspect of the class so students can learn to set and track their own goals in the future.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

My first day June 23, 2010

Today is my first independently taught ESL class at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. I’ve studied a lot about teaching and learning, so I’m anxious to get back into the classroom and test out some of the ideas that I’ve developed over the last two semesters. I’ve brought several important “principals” and “macrostrategies” to my classroom.

First, I’d like my students to develop their learning skills and become self-directed/autonomous learners.

Second, I would like my students to grow in their accuracy by concentrating on noticing and progressing in their inter language.

Third, I would like my students to collaborate and interact in groups and pairs, but I would also like them to develop peer-editing and self-evaluation techniques that match the goal of learning autonomy.


First, I want to be conscious of maximizing learning by giving students opportunities to share and explore relevant and interesting topics.

Second, I’d like them to develop a language awareness of different socio, cultural, and political influence that influence language discourse.

Third, I’d like to focus on using student writing to capture and complement my students speaking so that they can become more conscious speakers and thus more accurate.


Today is the first lesson. Even though my syllabus is complete and I have a website that all the students can use and refer to, I didn’t have a chance to complete my lesson plan as fully as I would have like to. In preparation for this class I created a class website where students can view the class syllabus, a class calendar, assignments, and resources. There is also a class blog site where students will post blogs for other students to read. I also have plans for students to create their own blogs using where they can reflect on their speaking. I think these two spaces will be important for students to formally post their ideas and to internally reflect on their own learning process. The first step before finalizing the class syllabus and developing lesson plans will be to handout a student questionnaire to self-assess their own learning background and goals and to gather data for their interests, needs, and weaknesses and strengths.


I began the class by giving the students a self-introduction on myself including my teaching experience, my studies, my travels to Japan etc. Then I began the ice breaker activity by asking each student to take some candy from a bag. When everyone had a piece, I asked them to tell us something about themselves that no one else knows for every piece of candy they took. Students shared where they were from, what foods they liked, what sports they liked, where they have traveled and lived before, and why they were studying at the MIIS IESL program.

Next I played a video of an interview on TV of a movie star and asked the students to notice speaking strategies such as follow up questions, repeating/shadowing, and storytelling. Students watched the video and then we discussed the actor and the interview.

Then, I explained that in this class we would be having timed conversations in which students must hold a conversation for a certain amount of minutes. In this case, we chose 2.5 minutes. I asked the students to talk about a place they recommended their speaking partners should visit. All the students made it to the 2.5 minutes and some past the time marker. Next, the students related what they learned from their partner by summarizing where their speaking partner suggested that they visit.

Finally, I handed out a self-evaluation and questionnaire that asked students to give their opinion on their own language learning abilities and history. For homework, I asked the student to begin a blog in which they will write a brief language learning history about themselves and what they thought was good and or bad about it.


Well, it’s the beginning of the ESL session, and this class is my first official/solo class that I’ve taught since 2002. It’s great to be in control of my own class and set the syllabus agenda, assignments, materials, and lessons. I hope my students feel energetic about the class, that the assignments are useful, and that they learn something, of course. In considering what I want to focus on in this semester, I revisited some of my earlier work from the past two semesters. I’m definitely interested in peer-editing as a tool for noticing and correcting mistakes and I’m interested in building strong learning habits so students can become independent learners.

Today, I think the timed-conversations worked really well in helping the students break the ice with each other and to become conditioned to the tasks that I will ask them to complete for this class. Eventually, I hope to capture students’ timed conversations by recording themselves using tools such as Audacity or Garage Band so they can reflect on their own speaking performance. I also want them to write and try to capture and plan what they will say before they say it to help them smooth out their accuracy.

I was also struck about the amount of planning work involved in preparing for this class. I didn’t have time to complete all of my lesson planning for class so I was a bit nervous that I would flop on the first day. I’ve resolved to have a complete lesson plan for every lesson.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why keep a journal

Farrell (2007) states that teaching journals are the more effective way to become a reflective teacher and the most natural way to do research. He lists the following benefits for keeping a journal:

  • Its a way to clarify one's own thinking
  • As a way to explore one's own beliefs and practices
  • As a way of becoming more aware of one's teaching styles
  • As a way of monitoring one's own practices
  • In order to provide postitive feedback on one's teaching, for example by writing about successful experiences
  • To vent one's frustrations and set goals for remedying problems
  • To raise a way of collaborating with other teachers in exploring teaching issues
  • As a way to collaborate with other teachers in exploring teaching issues
  • As a way of triggering insights about one's self as a teacher and about one's teaching
  • To provide a record of one's teaching for others to read
As a process of self-discovery, writing journals can give a voice to our teaching and they can help focus our energy. After reading this article, I've decided to change the way I am structruring my teaching journal. I've decided in order to keep my journal writing fresh, engaging, and practical, I'm going to restructure my journal entry in the following way:

1. I'll talk about an incident or thought that happened in my teaching to lead the journal.
2. I'll narrate or bullet the events of the day
3. I'll discuss what events have caught my attention and that I want to focus on.
4. I'll analyze what happened and what possible changes can be made and pose questions to my invisible audience or to myself for my next journal entry.

I reserve the right to modify my journals as I see fit so that they are relevant to my teaching, myself, and my students.