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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. 

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