Skip to main content

Make English Language Learning Stick

Over the summer, one of my favorite reads was Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, published earlier this year by Belknap Press.  This book was very helpful in summarizing studies I have read and heard about as a graduate student and it also helped clarify the teaching techniques and learning strategies that have sufficient evidence in their efficacy.  I believe this book should be included in introductory courses in teacher education programs.

For this posting, I'd like to go through the book's Tips for Teachers (pages 225-228) and apply them to English language teaching and second language acquisition.

Tip #1 - Explain to Students How (English Language) Learning Works
If students are finding that English language learning is difficult that may indicate that they're improving their learning.  The language will be easier to use and components of the language (grammar rules, vocabulary, ways to pronounce, etc.) should be easier to remember.  If a student if finding it easy to learn English, they may risk forgetting it easily.  The best example of this is cramming vocabulary for a test.  How many people can easily recall the meaning (not to mention the proper use) of their SAT or GRE vocabulary words?

Another important point of this tips is that students learn best by making mistakes.  The effort they put into learning why they made those mistakes and attempting to correct them will help them master that area.  Mistakes lead to mastery.

This is the first tip, but this doesn't mean you as a teacher do this first and then you can check it off your list to move on to teaching English.  I believe teachers should do this often, especially at times when students feel frustrated or lose motivation because of the level of difficulty.  That is evidence of their learning instead of the opposite.  But it's not an excuse for a teacher to make the lesson more difficult.

Tip #2 - Teach Students How to Study
I love this tip so much, it has become a central part of my teaching philosophy.  A great detailed explanation of how to teach students how to study can be found on pages 201-211 of Make It Stick.  As an experienced teacher, this tip seems like common sense, but it reminds me when I was a new teacher who was too focused on the content of the lesson, which was usually an isolated component or two of the language, a grammar rule or a reading strategy.

Language teachers have a leg up on this tip compared to subject-matter teachers like science teachers or history teachers who may feel they need their students to a know a certain number of facts or concepts.  We language teachers are more about developing a skill set than a knowledge set in our students, and learning how to study is a skill.

Learning how to study English is a skill that may seem foreign to our students who are not used to studying an additional language or studying in or for an Anglo-American context.  Most language teachers are aware of the culture that is attached to learning.  This culture can be academic culture and/or it can be a culture tied to their first language.  The reason this tip is central to my teaching philosophy is that I believe ELTs should be demonstrating how English language learning helps to function in an English-speaking academic environment, which includes how to study.

Tip #3 - Create Desirable Difficulties in the Classroom
As tip #2 was already central to my teaching philosophy, the main idea for tip #3 changed my perspective towards teaching English.  Quizzes, well designed quizzes, are very helpful.  Although the concept of quizzes are not new to me, the appropriate ways of using quizzes are.  Through most of my entire graduate studies, quizzes were not discussed much except as part of a course or unit on assessment.  But I do not remember extra attention given to quizzes.

I'd like to blog more about this in my next blog posting because I have many ideas of how to design quizzes for formative assessment purposes and how to design quizzes to cut down on homework assignments as well.  I promise to blog about this next and within the next month!

Tip #4 - Be Transparent
Being transparent means "be[ing] up front about some of the frustrations and difficulties that come with certain types of learning" (p.228).  I think this is closely tied to the first tip.  As ELTs explain how learning works, we should be transparent that certain types of learning (like learning the grammar rules and their exceptions) can be very frustrating.  I think this is also the coaching tip.  Persistence is key to winning the game, which may be earning a target grade or score.

I'm so immersed in research-informed practices and English language teaching materials that all of these tips seem like common sense and easy to implement.  I'd like to hear how these tips are useful to newer English language teachers.  And I'd like to know if there are any experienced teachers that are surprised by any of these tips. 


Popular posts from this blog

What Is So Great About Extensive Reading?

I'm collaborating on a research and development project for integrating extensive reading into intensive English programs. After the initial review of the most recent literature, I was quite surprised at the overwhelming positive effects of extensive reading on reading proficiency, comprehension, and motivation. Although I'm still skeptical, I'd like to share the findings with you.

I looked at 17 articles published since 2012. Although this may not seem like much, 3 of these articles were meta-analyses, which investigated a much larger quantity of studies on extensive reading. Only one was not relevant to intensive English programs, bringing it down to 16 articles. Many of these articles came from the 2015 discussion forums in Reading in a Foreign Language. The majority of those discussion forum articles were not empirical studies, but they went in depth answering "What constitutes extensive reading?" After summarizing these answers, this blog post covers the res…

Are you an Open Educator?

Image from What is an Open Educator? According to a recently published article from the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL):

An Open Educator chooses to use open approaches, when possible and appropriate, with the aim to remove all unnecessary barriers to learning. He/she works through an open online identity and relies on online social networking to enrich and implement his/her work, understanding that collaboration bears a responsibility towards the work of others.

Does this sound attractive for English language teachers? It seems to some who offer courses through or with YouTube. But what does it mean "to remove all unnecessary barriers to learning?" Working for free? Not necessarily. If you read the article, it seems you'd be working on a sliding scale depending on the socioeconomic status of the learners, but this sliding scale is a sliding slope. How can poor le…

The Tao of Praxis

Last week, I started reading The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff to my daughter as part of her bedtime regimen. I bought this book years ago after a colleague recommended it to me when he learned I was interested in Taoism. Since then I have embraced much of its philosophy, but I stop short of calling myself a Taoist. I didn't realize until now that Taoism has deeply affected my attitudes and beliefs towards English language teaching and scholarship, especially concerning the concept of praxis. Below are some examples.

The passage above comes from Chapter 3: Spelling Tuesday, page 26. It's not a subtle attack on academics, specifically those whose goals are to get published to be accepted among an elite circle of scholars. This is particularly striking to me because, at this point in my life, I would like to gain acceptance among this elite circle, which I perhaps naively equate to tenured professors. However, I strive to make my life's work beneficial to English language te…