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Listening to the Learners: The Role of the Learner Diary in RSA/UCLES CTEFLA Teaching Practice
by Henny Burke
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A case study

I now intend to show, through the use of a case study, how I employed learner diaries on the teaching practice component of a CTEFLA course at the British Language Centre, Madrid. (Apart from my own name, pseudonyms have been used throughout.)

The trainees

The 12 trainees were divided into 2 microteaching (TP) groups. Therefore, each TP group comprised 6 trainees. One TP group started off with a Beginner group and the other TP group began by teaching an Upper Intermediate group. Midway through the course the TP groups swopped over and in that way gained experience of teaching different levels.

The TP Tutors did not change but stayed with the same group of learners. I spent the whole month with the Upper Intermediate learners.

The Upper intermediate learners

The Upper Intermediate learners received Intermediate classes for two hours a day throughout the four weeks resulting in a total of 36 hours of class. There were 14 learners in the group.

The learners received the classes free, but all of them worked in companies that have contracts with our centre. The free classes were offered as a type of Public Relation service. The learners knew that their teachers were on a training programme. This knowledge affected the learners' expectations: "I was just a little bit scared because I knew that the teachers hadn't experience." (Pepa Learner Diary Day One Aug 3)

"In this particular course, my expectations were quite different from a standard one, because I was told that we would have 6 teachers making their practices and changing every 20 minutes." (Elena Learner Diary Day One) Although all of the learners worked in companies they were told that they would be attending a General English Course as opposed to a Business English Course. This appeared to suit the majority of the learners. "What do I expect from the course? I expect to be more fluent, to have better grammar (prepositions, phrasal verbs, idioms) and to increase my vocabulary." (Belen Learner Diary Day One Aug 3)

Weeks one and two

I felt reluctant to plan too much of the course without having first met the learners. However, it was necessary to plan at least the first 2 days so that the trainees had time to prepare their slots.

The first day's class was essentially a "getting to know each other" day, but it also seemed important to have the learners introspect about language learning. Therefore, most of the activities were taken from Learning To Learn English (Ellis and Sinclair 1989:6-10)

"Patrick has made us thinking about what sort of language learner we are. And we all were a mixture, although after reading all scores, I think that I'm mainly ANALYTIC because I think that learning grammar or vocabulary isn't theory. but a way to express yourself easily and better. (I mean: Saying what you really want to say.)" (Maria Learner Diary Day One Aug 3)

The idea of learner diaries was also presented on the first day. Caroline introduced the idea: "My session was a discussion slot and I feel the discussion went okay. I also feel that most of the students may now look on a learner diary as quite a positive idea." (Caroline TP Log Day One Aug 3)

She turned out to be right, "About Caroline's exercise, I thought that writing a learner diary wasn't a good idea, but now I have think about and I believe that it's a useful writing homework." (Belen Learner Diary Day One Aug 3)

A problem I encountered in the first week was planning 6x20 minute slots for each trainee as it was sometimes difficult to predict just how long an activity would take. I still did not really know the learners and I still did not really know the trainees.

By Day Two we were already having problems. Patrick obviously felt my planning had been awry: "Basically my slot was a damage limitation exercise with all the wrong materials. The group was lethargic, sluggish and not as cooperative as Day One. To hit them with the tense system was the wrong thing at the wrong time. I think, in conclusion, we could have had a good class in one of the 40 mm slots. However, it was only 20 minutes. Changes for the future - same class but take an hour over it."'(Patrick TP Log Day Two Aug 4)

His view was echoed by one of the learners: "The verbs review was good but not enough. We need more time." (Elena Learner Diary Day Two Aug 4)

I could understand Patrick's frustration, but also felt the main problem was not the quantity but the way he had handled the material. Fortunately, the fact that I had access to the TP logs, and not only read them but also wrote in them myself, meant that what could have become a tense situation became defused.

"I think we discussed in feedback how it could have been more effective. Perhaps the material could have been stretched out to have covered 40 mins but I think that would have made for a rather boring class. Nevertheless, I'm glad you pointed out that you felt it was too much for a 20 minute slot and any feedback you'd like to give me on TP points I will definitely be interested in listening to it and discussing it. These logs can be very useful for that kind of dialogue." (TP Tutor's Entry In Patrick's Log. Day Three Aug 5)

A similar problem arose on the same day when Susan decided to ignore the teaching brief (TP points) and do her reading slot in her own way. I know that I didn't adhere to the instructions given to me as strictly as maybe I should have done. But, I was maybe forgetting where I was and forgetting the time factor." (Susan TP Log Day Two Aug 4)

I had to write back in her TP' Log, "For me the fundamental problem was you had a reading slot to cover in 20 mins and we spent 11 mins on open class discussion. I wouldn't want to give the impression that you can Qn1~ do the TP points and not change anything, but I think it's important if you do want to change anything that we talk about it first." (Henny Day Two Aug 4)

The learners also had comments to make on that slot, "Susan's reading discussion wasn't easy at all because of the text vocabulary and the discussion was a little boring." (Belen Learner Diary Day Two Aug 4)

Encouragingly Susan decided to follow the TP points in her next slot and was able to handle an extremely difficult listening effectively and not demotivate the learners. "My slot was in effect a test of their comprehension of an external conversation, although it was a difficult extract it was good for them." (Susan TI' Log Day Three Aug 5)

Maria's entry in her learner diary illustrates how important it is to choose success-oriented tasks when handling skills work: "The listening of Susan have been really difficult. As Carmelo said: Gloria Estefan must speak Chinese. I've guessed that the interview was about her family because I've picked out 3 words: mother, grandmother and father. The rest was a mystery. In spite of it, I've been able to answer a question listening to the cassette (great!) Interesting! I'd never imagined that I could be a COUCH POTATO." (Maria Learner Diary Day Three Aug 5)

One problem that faces any syllabus designer is that of deciding which topics to bring into class: "The selection of topics can arouse considerable controversy on religious, moral or political grounds." (White 1988:67)

The learner diaries helped here. "We have finished the first week. I would like to have more time to talk and. I think it would be a good idea to organize more discussions about daily matters like divorce, drugs etc." (Carmelo Learner Diary Day Four Aug 6)

As a result of this feedback, I was able to plan more time for discussions, and divorce was discussed at the end of Week 2 and a lesson on drugs was included in Week 4.

I decided to include a class on Death at the beginning of Week 2. My main reason for this is it is an area that people quite often need to talk about but it tends to be avoided in EEL classes.

"Bringing up the subject of "funerals" was difficult. I elicited some words from the students but then I could feel an atmosphere of uncertainty and apprehension developing and I think this threw me slightly. This was the first occasion when I feel I spoke too much. Having said this I was quite pleased with the students' response to the task. I think they learned Some new words." (Ben TP Log Day Five Aug 9).

As it was none of the learners seemed offended or upset by bringing "death" into the classroom. They seemed to view it as a useful vocabulary extension. "Today we learnt some words about the death, this sort of words aren't usually learnt." (Ana Learner Diary Day Five Aug 9). Some of the trainees had mixed feelings: "Ben's introduction was specially effective only to be dampened by the following topic -Death. But he coped..." (Susan TP Log Day Five Aug 9)

The main difference in the second week was that 3 trainees were now teaching for 40 minutes every day as opposed to 6 trainees teaching 20 minutes. The learners preferred this system: "Finally each of them has had around 40 minutes to explain his lesson so we have been able to finish the exercises." (Carmelo Learner Diary Day Five Aug 9). "We have changed the style, not changes every 20 minutes, but every 40. That's better to go deeper into different things." (Elena Learner Diary Day Five Aug 9).

It seemed to suit everybody a lot better working with 40 mm slots. However, I think it was necessary that the first week be divided into shorter sequences so that the trainees had time to feel their feet. In terms of course design I, personally, found it much easier to plan 40 minute as opposed to 20 minute slots.

Deciding what grammar points to include in the course was quite problematic as there did seem to be a mixture of levels. The learner diaries helped here as a lot of learners wrote that they would like to study phrasal verbs. Therefore, I timetabled an "Overview of phrasal verbs" for the Wednesday of the second week. Caroline gave the class: "I went 2nd. today and I have to admit to being quite satisfied with the way things went. I think everyone found it quite informative." (Caroline TP Log Day Seven Aug 11)

The response in the learner diaries was certainly favourable: "Today the class was fantastic, the time passed very quickly. Caroline developed a special class and was wonderful explaining phrasal verbs (separable/inseparable). Everybody was listening with a big interest. A good structure on the explanation, simple concepts, written on the board, and easy exercises." (Nacho Learner Diary Day Seven Aug 11)

What the learners most seemed to like was the fact that they felt they were being listened to. Because areas they had said they would like to look at were included, they felt they had some say in the process of syllabus design. "I forgot to thank you to include phrasal verbs in the programme." (Pepa Learner Diary Day Seven Aug 11)

It was not only the learners who contributed to the syllabus design, the trainees also participated. Heather asked if she could teach relative clauses (defining vs. non-defining) in one slot as she felt she had misled the learners in one of her previous sessions when she had been presenting "so...that". Therefore, I timetabled for her to do relative clauses on the Thursday of the second week.

The learners also had views on methodology: "I like working in small groups of 4 people, because it's easier for me speaking than in a large group. If you observe large groups there are always the same 3 or 4 people speaking, the ones who speak more fluently. In a small group have more time for speaking and if I stop because I don't know how to say something I just have only 3 faces looking at me, not II, so I don't get so nervous." (Belen Learner Diary Day Seven Aug 11)

However, there were also problems with group work, "It is good to talk a lot among us, as we are already doing, but the problem I see, is that the teachers cannot hear us all the time, and cannot correct the mistakes we make. I miss this." (Elena Learner Diary Day Nine Aug 13)

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