When I was in grad school in the late 90s taking an MA in TESOL, I had an excellent professor as my practicum advisor in English Language teaching.
This was Dr. Jennybelle P. Rardin, who was a student of the Charles Arthur Curran method of language teaching called Community Language Learning (CLL).
One principle of CLL is to give language students enough structure in their lessons so that they can essentially take over part of their own learning. The more advanced the students, the more control they can master.
I incorporated this principle into the lesson described herein. In order to be able to accomplish lessons where student autonomy is central to the process, you have to plan every detail so that once you let go of the reigns, students can confidently take over, with you in the background as the expert and time keeper, as the need arises.
In the planning process, I think of each learning activity as a circle and try to imagine each element unfolding to see where the trouble spots might lie.
This 4-part lesson plan (LP) is intended for roughly 8 to 15 intermediate to high intermediate level students. In my experience, many English Language classes last about 2 hours, so I’m estimating about 30 minutes for each part, which should provide ample time. You might have less time and in any case, you have to work the time frame out for each major section to give students more than enough time to get the minimum done, leaving extra time for those moments where there is a spike in engagement / natural learning going on.
To help ensure student confidence, it is essential that the 4 major parts of the LP are explained to and clarified for students, as an overview before beginning and individually just before each section. In this LP, the major learning activity sections focus on speaking, listening, writing, and editing, respectively. As you will see however, all 4 sections include at least 2 language skills.
Focus on improving speaking skills (student led, roughly 30 min)
For the first major component of this LP, put students in a circle and you’ll need a recording device—back in the 90s we had to use an actual tape recorder, but now the microphone function of a mobile phone should work for this purpose (a bit of experimenting may be necessary).
When the students are situated in their circle, explain that:
· they will be having a conversation about anything they choose (you might suggest some topics that are not too ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ to get the ball rolling);
· any student can take the conversation in different direction;
· all students must contribute about 2 minutes to the conversation, but the students themselves will control the order of speaking through cooperation and should encourage any shy students to speak up;
· the entire conversation will be recorded;
· they will have about 15 to 30 minutes for the whole conversation (depending on group size);
· a volunteer will take charge of the recording device (the recording czar), test the technology and make sure to stop the conversation if there are any technical issues; and
· fun while learning is very much encouraged because, as Krashen (1982) famously put it, of a lowered ‘affective barrier’
Focus on improving listening skills (student led, roughly 30 min)
After 15-30 minutes of interactions, stop the conversation and move things along to the next major stage (stay in the circle), in which the entire conversation is played back and each student writes down his / her words exactly as they were uttered, with no edits or corrections.
Of course, this may mean that they have to direct the recording czar to ‘go back’ in the recording so they can listen again and correctly record their words. Students should be prepared to control most of this dynamic. This session is, of course, done in English and adds greatly to the fun and engagement of the entire group because it is the students improving their listening skill based on need, not rote practice, etc.
Focus on improving writing skills (teacher-led, roughly 30 min)
After everyone has carefully documented their own utterances, the group moves over and sits in front of a long white board (or black board). For this session to work well, there must be enough board space for ALL students to be writing at the same time.
First, everyone will go to the board and write down their own utterances exactly as they were originally expressed with no edits or alterations—this rule must be firmly enforced because private editing reduces the effectiveness of the group learning process. This might be 5 to 10 sentences for each student, depending on their individual speaking styles.
Focus on improving editing skills (teacher-led, roughly 30 min)
After recording their utterances completely and authentically on the board, students will sit down, then the group can move on to the editing, learning activity. First, everyone is directed to read everyone’s else’s writing fully and then invited up to the board to indicate where, in their own writing and everyone else’s, the ‘errors’ are, in their opinion. It is VERY important to inform students at this point that they may or may not be accurate in their assessment of writing ‘errors’—what they think is an error might not be, and things they consider correct might not be.
NO corrections are to be made, just circles or underscores are to be added where ‘errors’ are found. So, everyone will move across the board, put their editing marks on everyone’s writing, and then sit down.
For this part to work well, it is important for all students to be able to recognize their own editing marks. Once everyone is seated and satisfied that they have marked all ‘errors’, each student’s writing is analyzed en masse for alleged errors, supported of course with your expert guidance.
After the remarks regarding a given student’s writing are exhausted and everyone is satisfied, then the next student’s writing is addressed. Don’t forget that errors will be missed and that it is your job to either directly point out these instances or lead students to see these instances indirectly. This session can also be a very lively, engaging, and fun conversation and learning experience. Mind the time though, as the comments here can get carried away.
The editing exercise arguably provides an opportunity for the most English Language acquisition, because it is built on the foundation of the other LP components and it includes student analysis of the deep structure of the syntax / grammar of their own and their colleagues’ writing. That is, the better students understand L2 grammar in the context of all 4 skills, the greater their chances of L2 acquisition.
Reflections on promoting student autonomy
I was accustomed to teaching science courses at the college level before I took my degree in TESOL, and so had to get used to teaching in a more participative way.
Letting go of controlling 80 to 90% of the learning activity time and becoming comfortable with setting up lessons meticulously so that the students were somewhere between 50 and 80% in control (depending on their confidence & competence as a group), is not something I recommend unless you are comfortable with less obvious power in the context of your classes.
The truth is, some teachers are comfortable with a significant level of student autonomy and some are not. I always advocate that teachers use approaches that are authentic to their nature.
I am very comfortable with giving my students bounded independence, as it allows me to observe and get involved in strategic ways, where my expertise can really add value to the learning experience, for myself as well as my students.
Dr. A E Schneider holds several graduate degrees from Columbia University, including a doctoral degree in Science Education, as well as master’s degrees in TESOL, Organizational Psychology, and Counseling Psychology. In 2015, Dr. Schneider took a master’s degree from The American University in Cairo, in International and Comparative Education. Please visit the links below if you interested in services that include professional editing, research paper development, business and conversational English, business coaching, teacher development, or school improvement. Special discounts offered for Thai residents.