ETp 6 – a learning-centred class

How does a coaching classroom look and feel for the students and the teacher?

What actually happens in a classroom where the teacher is taking a coaching approach? Let’s have a look at a couple of diary entries to get a flavour of how a coaching approach might develop.

Sara, the teacher

October 11th

I included ten minutes in my plan to ask students about how they practised English outside class. At first no response, then finally Pablo broke the silence and said that he had got a DVD and watched it in English. I asked him a few questions about the film and had the rest of the class ask him some questions, too. I then asked about how it helped his English, whether he used the subtitles, and so on. Next, I put the students in pairs and told them they had to choose a film to recommend to their partner to watch in English, saying why they would like the film and how it would help their English. They did this very well and we ended up spending 15 minutes on it. We agreed to have a report-back slot next week to talk about their experiences.

Mishka, the student

May 20th

First today in English class, we talked in groups about the activities we are doing at home to practise our English. I was with Pablo and Porfirio. The teacher told us last week about where we can listen to songs and write the words. I found a song by Kate Nash called Foundations that I like very much, so I told my classmates about that. It’s good because it is a very common story for me and the accent is very clear. I learnt the expression to wind someone up from the song and I taught it to the class. Pablo showed us a brilliant dictionary you can use with any website. Its name is and you can click on any word on the page you are reading and it gives you a definition. Then you can save the word in your own wordlist. It is so cool! Porfirio said he wasn’t very happy. He can’t do much English study because his father is sick and he has to visit him in the hospital every day. We tried to give him some ideas of things to do. He said it takes half an hour on the bus to go to the hospital, so we suggested that he uses this time to practise. We had a brainstorm of things we can do on the bus.

After that we talked about our motivation levels for a few minutes with Sara, our teacher. I said my level was high, 9 out of 10! Personally, I feel good about my English at the moment – I can see my progress because I passed the practice exam we did in class. Porfirio said his was 6, because he could not practise more; Sara told him he had practised a lot coming to class both days this week and congratulated him for that.

[end of entry]

If you want to hear more from Sara, read her account of an upper-intermediate group she teaches in the box below.

Sara talks about learner coaching with her upper-intermediate group

I have a small group of upper-intermediate adults. I only get to see them once a week, on Mondays. In my experience, students forget what they’ve learnt and don’t progress much if their encounters with English are this infrequent, so I decided to encourage more home study to keep their English ticking over. At the same time, I didn’t want to just pile on work from the workbook because I’m aware that there are loads of different types of activities out there that can help learners learn. Sounds like a cliché, but I believe homework can be attractive and fun, especially if the students decide what to do for themselves!

My approach was to replace the missing second lesson each week with an email sent each Thursday. An email is easy to manage and the big advantage is that you can include direct links to recommended websites and online activities. The basic idea is to recommend at least three different home study ideas each week, which the students can try out, or not, as they see fit. I try to vary the skills that they practise, so one email might include a technique for practising speaking, a cool website with some videos to listen to, and a news article to read. If possible, I make it relevant to the topic we’re doing in class, but I don’t worry about that too much.

The next lesson, we always start by talking about these activities: whether anyone did them; if so, what were they like; would they recommend them, and so on. I don’t judge if they didn’t do anything because, well, firstly, they’re grown ups, and secondly because some of my students feel bad enough that they can’t devote more time to English without me banging on at them!

There isn’t always much take-up of what I recommend because these people lead busy lives, but I figure that if only 30 percent of the class do one of those activities on their own, then I’m increasing their learning significantly. Sometimes I find an activity that I think is really great, but it’s a total flop. One or two of the ideas have really taken off, and interestingly, this has usually been when one of the students recommended it, not me.

This is just an example of what might happen in a class with a coaching approach. In previous articles we have suggested a range of activities, both teacher-directed and learner-directed, which can help students practise more English and move more swiftly to their goal. It is worth remembering that quantity is arguably as important as quality when it comes to practising a language, so we shouldn’t worry too much about what students are doing as long as they are doing something!

You can create a coaching habit in your classes, as Sara did, by:

  • Regularly allowing time for follow-up on out-of-class activities. Force the issue. You will see how, after a few weeks, no one will want to come empty handed to these coaching slots.
  • Setting interesting tasks and allowing the students to choose from a range of options or invent their own ways to practise.
  • Showing interest in what your students do and giving plenty of encouragement. Celebrate time spent practising English; worry less about what exactly was done.

If you have read the previous five articles in this series and looked at the diary entries above, you probably have a good feel by now for what we understand by learner coaching, but let’s have a brief recap and situate it in the context of some related terms used in ELT.

Teacher who are learning coaches do three things:

1 They help their learners to exploit their skills and abilities to achieve their goals.

This means finding out what the students can do and like doing to practise English and helping them to do that as much as possible. In articles 2 and 3 we looked at some examples of reading, listening and speaking practice that students can do outside class, in particular exploiting resources on the internet.

2 They help their learners to set goals and monitor their achievements.

In article 4 we looked at how to incorporate opportunities for goal-setting and monitoring into class on a regular basis.

3 They inspire and motivate their learners, especially when they see that they are flagging.

In article 5 we looked at how students can monitor their own motivation and how teachers can intervene to enhance it.

A note on terminology

Reading these articles you will probably have found yourself thinking about other ELT terms such as learner autonomy, learner training, learner independence and learner-centred. How does learner coaching fit in?

For us, learner coaching is a mindset which prioritises the three teacher roles listed above. It is based on the assumption that all learners are autonomous by nature and that working with this in mind will maximise results. The role of the teacher-coach is to acknowledge autonomy rather than train learners to learn in a certain way. An autonomous learner is not necessarily independent, self-motivated or a ‘good language learner’. In fact, learners who attend language classes (and are therefore of interest to teachers) very often understand that they are more likely to succeed if they work together with other learners and under the guidance of an expert. Recognising this (and paying for it) is in fact an affirmation of their autonomy. Students may flourish better in a class with a teacher-centred approach or with a learner-centred approach. In a coaching approach, the decision on how a class is run is a matter for consensus.


2 Responses to ETp 6 – a learning-centred class

  1. Billie's Blog - tefltalk says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this article series on learner coaching! Good food for thought 🙂

  2. Great tips about the teacher as a learning coach and thank you for the great presentation you gave at LAKMA, 2011 in Vilnius, that was really interesting.
    I am actually doing the experiment on myself and see if this can actually improve my French and then transfer it as a methodology to my students. I am talking about it with my team of Italian teachers as I run an Italian Cultural Centre, La Dante in Cambridge, I am sure they’ll warm up to the approach. It makes a lot of sense and after all language is exposure and this needs to be nurtured.
    Giulia Portuese-Williams

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