Danger! Learner coach in the classroom

[It’s been gratifying to see some teachers have been putting some of the activities and ideas from the blog into practice. One practitioner who’s been coaching his students for a long time and has provided us with plenty of ideas for the blog is our good friend, Mark McKinnon. Mark teaches, trains and writes in Barcelona, and we’re very lucky this week to read about his experience in the classroom. Over to you, Mark, and thanks for being our first guest blogger!…]

I have been taking on the responsibility for my students’ learning outside the classroom for quite a number of years now. Helping my learners learn how to learn simply made sense to me. I naturally saw myself as teacher-coach much like a player-coach would be to a sports team.

As any new coach would, I dived into my new job with great enthusiasm. My students were eventually presented with an entire itinerary of what to do outside the classroom and how to do it. This outside class plan was presented to them little by little, for example, this week’s idea for practicing your English outside class.

However, the initial reaction I received from some of my students was not at all positive. Asking them to comment on our work together by anonymous questionnaire proved to be the key to complete honesty. Although the majority of them were positive about the coaching, there were quite a number of students who were under the impression that my demonstrations were “taking time away from their language study in the classroom” or “taking away from their speaking time in class”.

I realised that although my coaching ideas were good and very useful for most of my learners, I simply wasn’t involving them in the coaching process enough. Somehow they were missing the point and I was certainly to blame for that.

By dealing with learner coaching communicatively in the classroom I have since found a better balance. The learners need to feel involved in the process and coaching should be integrated with classroom work.

Here is one idea to integrate learner coaching into classroom work:

A two-week learner diary

The students identify an area that they would like to improve. It helps if this is guided, for example, giving them a list of areas to choose from.

  1. Each student decides what he or she is going to do to improve this area. Again it helps if there is a list of ideas to choose from. These ideas identify a clear activity and can contain some guidance.
  2. Each student then makes a timetable of when they are going to do this extra work. They should be realistic about the times they are free to do extra study.
  3. They will then work on this area outside the classroom for two weeks.
  4. Two weeks later they prepare answers to the following questions before they come to class:
  • What have you done to improve your chosen language area?
  • Do you think you have improved? Why?
  • What problems have you had while working on this language area?
  • What material have you found to help you? (Web based or published material)
  1. The students sit in small groups to discuss the questions.

The result of this is that the students are more involved in the language practice process. They choose their own area of language to improve therefore they are responsible for their own learning. It’s communicative as the language learning discussion is prepared and carried out by them. The students are much more open to your coaching as they discuss the problems they have had. There is also a clear opportunity to swap material, websites and ideas for further practice. I have also found that by treating this speaking activity just like any other discussion they have in class, that means giving them correction and feedback on their speaking, my students feel that their “English learning time” and “English speaking time” are not being restricted in any way.

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10 Responses to Danger! Learner coach in the classroom

  1. annehodg says:

    Great idea, Mark. I’ve been struggling to get my blended learning students to engage with each other on our Moodle platform for this purpose, so at our next session I’m going to kick off as you suggest. The two classes are huge, 35 students each, so I think I’ll set up small groups, have them set their personal agendas and report to their chosen “group coordinator”, who’ll in turn have the job of checking on them to see that they are keeping up their diaries, and getting the links and ideas they need. We have a full month between sessions, but setting up such an itinerary – instead of just having them do assignments – might create the momentum we’re lacking.

  2. Andy Wilson says:

    Hi there Mark, thanks for the tips.

    I´ve been attempting to introduce learner coaching since January. A perfect time I thought for taking advantage of new found motivation. Using an idea from a previous post I gave my students a worksheet for planning their study time outside of the class and using me as an example – a want to improve my Spanish, so I thought we could all go on the journey together.

    From time to time I ask what people have done to improve/practise their English and I tell them about what I´ve done so as to maintain motivation. This has been positive to some extent by making students aware of activities they can do outside the classroom and at the same time caused students some frustration as they struggle to balance work, family and study time. Doing the same myself has given me an insight into the same difficulties my students, but determined to improve my Spanish and help them with their English.
    It´s an ongoing process, and now at Easter time it´s another opportunity to review their learning to learn progress.

    Thanks Andy

    • Mark McKinnon says:

      Hi Andy!
      That’s great! I feel that being a language learner yourself brings you closer to your students in terms of learning experiences. It almost becomes an ideas exchange in the classroom, which is also an opportunity for authentic speaking. Students seem to appreciate that you are going through the same thing and tend to open up more when talking about their own experiences. I find that many of my coaching ideas are drawn from my own experience as a language learner.
      Keep it up! Good luck with your Spanish too!

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  5. Totusha says:

    Thank you very much for this, this will definitely be incorporated into my lessons!

  6. Carol says:

    Thanks for this (& the other posts in the blog). The idea of learner coaching and encouraging work outside of the classroom is particularly important for contexts like mine where the learners are only in class for a couple of hours a week. I’ve often talked to learners about what kind of things they can do between sessions to improve their English but I haven’t been systematic enough about it. Mark’s post here is just the kind of idea I can incorporate into sessions and I will be coming back to the previous posts before starting back in January.

    Thank you!

    • Hi Carol,
      Daniel here. Your word ‘systematic’ got me thinking. Perhaps that’s what’s missing in many teachers’ approaches to independent learning. We try to be systematic in class, whether it concerns classroom management issues such as scaffolding with kids or the building of complexity in grammar teaching. But home study tends to be rather slapdash (or at least it has been in my classes!). The message is: pay at least as much attention to what your learners do when you’re not there as you do when you are, and do it systematically. Thanks for that word, Carol!

  7. Hi Mark
    Thanks! This is a very intetresting example of learner coaching in action. Can you give some examples of areas students chose to work on or that you suggested and what kinds of things they did to work on that area.

  8. Hi Mark,
    I really like the idea you have at the end of the post about satisfying those who might feel that talking about learning is a waste of speaking time in class. Treat this speaking activity the same as you would others and provide feedback and correction, very crafty!

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