Friday, November 8, 2013

A Textbook for Autonomous Learners

I know, I know, the "t" word is something of a no-no for fans of the unplugged approach!  But I don't think that education-oriented books should be banned completely from the lives of English learners.  (Deep breath ... hear me out!) I read textbooks for information and inspiration as I work on improving my teaching skills.  Why shouldn't English learners use them to support their efforts as well?

Four pages of this.
Of course, I'm using a broad definition of the word textbook.  I'm NOT referring to those books with a "scope and sequence" at the beginning!  In my opinion, those are written for teachers and administrators.  Just skim the 10-20 pages at the beginning of one such book -- if they were addressed to a language learner, they would be in L1, no?  They basically promise that if you follow the steps in the teacher's guide and the student follows the steps in the student book, the student will produce something that correlates to the requirements of funding providers. (I accept that that something will include some learned English.  My point is that the book is written to serve teachers, not learners.)

What I'm thinking of is the kind of book that has readable chapters with questions and other activities for discovery and reflection, suggestions for trying out new ideas, and a good list of references. These are the books that I (a dedicated self-motivated learner) use myself.  They can be used alone for reading and reference, they can be used as a textbook in a formal class, and they're very effective in an informal book circle arrangement.

Such a book does not pretend to be teaching English.  It can be in the learner's L1 (although, if it's addressing advanced learners it might be in English).  What it offers is support for a transition from student to learner. Some ideas:

How to be a learner.  For those who are not already skilled at self-directed learning (any kind, not just language learning).  Especially for those who have many years of training as "students" and who believe that a tutor or teacher must tell them how to reach their goal. It might address identifying personal goals; noticing, evaluating and taking advantage of resources; finding and asking for help; reflection and self-assessment; learning from undesired or unexpected experiences; setting up a network of supporters; making time for practice, etc.

Two pages of this.
How to be a language learner. The learner applies the skills above directly to language learning.  What are the habits of a successful English learner and how can they be acquired?  Is a language class necessary?  If so, what kind of class?  What do you intend to get out of it?  How can you check that you are getting what you need?  How can you help the teacher, other learners, and even administrators to help you reach your goal?   If language class is not needed (or not available), what resources do you have available and how can you take advantage of them?  What is the best dictionary?  How do you use a corpus?  How can you analyze a text for readability?  What is the pedagogical relevance of certain activities and drills?  And so forth.

How to be a [particular L2] learner. This should explicitly address issues that are unique to various kinds of learners (for English: EFL, EAP, ESP, ELF, ESL, etc.).  In the US, for example, folks who are here on an F-1 visa should know that they can't attend free government-funded classes (it's illegal).  They would do better to find (or contribute to setting up) a conversation "meetup" in a coffee shop.  Wouldn't it be nice if they had tips for going about doing this and the confidence to try?   Hmmm, learners might be better served if this were a subscription e-periodical so they would get access to regular articles and advice on different topics and learners could discuss with each other, share tips, etc.

I've been mulling over ways to untrain students into learners for a long time.  The motivation to put it in writing came a week or so when I stumbled on a book that is effectively a prototype for How to Be a Language Learner.  It's a Peace Corps document called On-Going Language Learning Manual (free PDF!).  It's written for people who are in a foreign environment and want to learn the language, even though they don't have access to a teacher or class.  In other words, it's a set of instructions for autonomous learning!

Four pages of this.
One gem:
Try to learn grammar every day from listening to people talk. You will come to recognize patterns of sounds and the meanings they carry. You can begin to figure out the rules from the many examples you hear in everyday speech. In fact, eventually you will become aware that you are internalizing many of the rules without giving conscious thought to them.
Another priceless aspect is the idea of having a "language helper".  A volunteer might find a native speaker who is willing to answer questions, model authentic speech, etc.  The learner is clearly directing and controlling what he or she wants from the helper.  For example, here is one tip:
Ask your language helper to accompany you on your learning adventures to observe or “coach” you, but only when you need and want help.
This book could be edited slightly, translated to other languages and offered to every learner who finds themselves in a place where a new language is spoken and who wants to join in.  And its ideas can be used for untraining now.  I will be borrowing from it for my lessons as soon as possible.

Just to set the record straight: I think teachers and English classes play a valid role in the learning process.  In fact, classes would be more effective if learners and teachers know from the outset what they want and need from each other and everyone in the room is working together to make it happen.  Even books like the one pictured here could play a role (thought neither the teacher nor the learners would be snaking through it mindlessly, hoping to push other-defined "success"  out at the end)!

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