In the last post I argued that coursebooks may have something to offer independent learners and their language coaches (that’s you). This runs counter to a common viewpoint in ELT that coursebooks stifle independent learning. I suggested that you re-evaluate the coursebook you are using because you may well find that it provides a decent starting point for learning coaching and some good material to get your class thinking about their learning.
In this post I’m going to present five ways you can give your coursebook the coaching twist. Turn your coursebook teaching into learning coaching!
1 Behind the scenes
At the start of the course, some teachers introduce the coursebook to the students with a quiz, with questions designed to show students around what the book has to offer, eg:
What topic can you find on page 76?
What useful section is located on pages 157-158?
Find three ‘Quick checks’. What are they? Where are they?
After this, put the students in pairs or small groups and get them to prepare a list of questions for the coursebok writer as if they were going to interview them. Use the writer’s name on the front of the book to make it realistic. Then have them swap questions with another group and discuss and try to answer those questions orally.
Get them to act out the interview with the writer of the coursebook for the podcast “English Teacher Monthly”. They might do this in pairs to start, but you might want to ask the better interviewers up to the front afterwards.
Rationale – Students are unlikely to take much interest in the design and content of the coursebook, which is after all quite a dry subject, even though it concerns their learning program significantly. By wearing masks and getting personally involved in these areas, they may be more inclined to care about these things and think about them more carefully.
2 Yes, I can!
This series of activities is designed to help learners think about what they have learnt and how well they have learnt it. It exploits a common feature of modern coursebooks – regular checklists of learning outcomes. Some coursebooks include ‘can do’ statements like this one, which are usually found at the end of each unit or after every two or three units. Learning coaches get learners evaluating their progress in a ‘coursebook dependent’ way at the beginning but gradually the learners get better at articulating learning outcomes for themselves.
After Unit 1
Ask the students to look at the checklist. Make sure that they understand the statements by getting them to match them up with the page number or sections where they studied and practised them. Point out that the statements are expressed in terms of what they can do and not what they know. For example, in the above checklist it asks whether they can ‘talk about what’s happening now’ when it could have expressed it as ‘use the present continuous for actions happening now?’.
Get the learners to complete the checklist. Tell them that this is for them and that you don’t need to see their answers. Invite them to come to you at the end of the lesson to discuss their answers only if they want to. Elicit some ideas for what they could do if they don’t answer ‘Yes, I can’. Some possible answers might be:
talk to the teacher about it
do extra exercises in the workbook
read the lesson pages from the student’s book again
go to the grammar reference at the back of the book
ask a classmate for help
find examples of the language with an online search
practise putting the new language into practice (speaking or writing)
Rationale – Many students have fixed notions that learning grammar or vocabulary is an end in itself, not a means to an end. By ticking boxes related to ‘can do’ statements, learners are doing two things: they are looking at the real-world practical use of grammar structures and they are underlining their achievements in discreet, manageable steps, saying to themselves: ‘Yes, I can’.
Students may find it strange to do an exercise in their books that their teacher doesn’t need to see. They may be unwilling to admit a lack of understanding to the teacher who is supposed to have taught them! By bringing this issue to the fore, learning coaches underline the learners’ responsibility for their own learning.
After Unit 2
This time, encourage your learners to think a bit harder about what they have learnt. Before the lesson, choose keywords from the checklist to gap. Create a gap fill either on the board or on a worksheet. From the above checklist, for example, you might do the following.
|Can you…||Yes, I _____||Yes, more or _____||I need to look _____|
|1 talk about your _____ and neighbourhood?|
|2 _____ directions and explain _____ things are?|
|3 talk about what you can and _____ do?|
|4 give and follow _____?|
|5 leave a message on the _____?|
|6 talk about what’s _____ now?|
|7 talk about people’s _____?|
|8 get your message across when _____?|
Get them to fill the gaps, then to complete the checklist as before.
After Unit 3
This time, you should begin to expect more from the learners. Ask them to fill an empty table:
|Can you…||Yes, I can||Yes, more or less||I need to look again|
Put them in groups of 3 or 4 and explain that together, they should write the ‘can do’ statements for Unit 3 without looking. You might quickly flick through the pages in the book in front of the class to remind them of the lessons. Go around the room making suggestions and giving prompts. Get them to share their answers as a whole class before checking in the book.
Rationale – This is the third unit in a row that the class will have used the checklist. As a coach, you are encouraging a good habit which will hopefully become a regular part of their learning routine. If making your learners do something like this feels a bit authoritarian, consider the common primary education practice of making students write a title at the top of a new topic or lesson; as an effective independent learner you probably still do this years after being taught it. A bit of ‘teacherly’ encouragement is not anathema to coaching towards independence!
After Unit 4
Don’t make such a big deal of the checklist; this time, quickly elicit the ‘can do’ statements orally from the whole class, then let them check.
After Unit 5
Just give them five minutes to fill in the checklist on their own.
After Unit 6
Set the checklist for homework
After Unit 7
Remind the students that the checklist is there.
After Unit 8
Don’t mention it. One or two lessons into Unit 9, ask them whether they did Unit 8.
After Units 9 and on
Don’t mention it any more.
Rationale – Over the course of a year you have gently handed over responsibility for this area to your learners. There will be, of course, learners who don’t adopt this reflective practice in their learning, but that will be their choice. Hopefully, many of your students will go on thinking for themselves about what they have learnt and how well.
3 Drastic Cuts
You may sometimes find that you do not have time to cover the whole unit, depending on contact hours that month, the overall length of the course or the pace of the class. Normally in this situation, the teacher would choose which lessons from the book to cut, but the learners could do it given the chance (and a little guidance).
Explain to the class that this month there isn’t enough time to do everything in the unit and that it is necessary to cut one lesson. Put the choices on the board; for Unit 3 you might write Lessons 3.1 / 3.2 / 3.3 / 3.4 / 3.5
If possible, get the students into a ‘board meeting’ formation around a big table with their books in front of them. With larger classes you could organise groups around several tables with one chairperson per group. Ask them to look at the next unit. Invite suggestions as to which to cut; with everyone’s ideas, make sure they justify their suggestions. Also, be sure to encourage disagreement.
After five or ten minutes, wrap up the meeting and call a vote. Hand out slips of paper on which the students write their preferences. Whichever lesson gets the most votes is cut, even if it one that you would have preferred stayed in
Rationale – This helps learners to see that the coursebook is not some authority that tells you what to learn; rather it is a tool for learning, a useful guide, and nothing more. Also, it is important as a coach to encourage students to make choices about what they learn. While we cannot expect them to decide on learning outcomes from scratch (one reason coursebooks are useful is to do that for us), we can make decisions easier by presenting them with choices.
4 Why? Why? Why?
After every activity one lesson, ask the students why you made them do it:
Why did we do that gap fill?
Why did I make you say the phrases?
Why did I ask you to copy the board?
Then do it at least once every lesson until it becomes a common question in the classroom that the students are used to answering.
Rationale – Coaching encourages learners to make decisions for themselves about how to learn. By repeatedly asking them to justify good learning practice in class, they will hopefully be better able to justify what they do outside of the class.
5 [your own idea]!
Rationale – We want to practice what we preach! Please contribute to this post and practise making coaching decisions about what to do with your classes. Leave your ideas in the comments below.