Yesterday was the start of our academic year (for the English school – our Italian school is open all year round.)
My first class was a group of pre-schoolers, aged four and five, one of whom was clutching a My Little Pony.
The purple plastic horse is an improvement. Last year, she had a much larger, more intrusive, though presumably more-comforting, cuddly sheep.
I told her repeatedly that the fluffy soft-toy was, in fact, a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, just biding its time until the right moment came to shed its disguise, jump out, and devour her.
But she wouldn’t have it. It was a PECORA, she told me, over and over.
Interestingly, Italian kids, no matter how small, are all terrified of the lupo. It must be a folk memory, passed down from generation to generation.
Anyway, later in the evening, there was a group of adults at B1/B2 level – four Italians and a girl from Ukraine, which was interesting as her pronunciation issues were different from the usual, meaning I had to make an extra effort to listen and pick up whatever didn’t sound right.
“Hjave” she said, instead of “have”, which was new to me.
With the kiddies, obviously, I had the lesson all planned out – sixty fun-filled minutes with a clear plan for managing the interactions and a defined teaching-objective – the initial presentation of the words ‘mummy’, ‘daddy’, ‘sister’, ‘brother’ and ‘baby’ through a story involving a family of owls (a word that all the kids’ parents knew but none could pronounce…)
Pre-schoolers are not great at taking responsibility for their own learning, so things go better when the teacher sets things out clearly: now colour the picture, and now it’s time for a game, you can have ONE sweet and, as you’ve all worked very hard, why don’t we watch a little TV?
Adults, in theory, should be different.
This being the first class (out of sixty) my lesson plan involved asking the students to talk (in pairs, in English) about WHY they were taking the course, WHAT they expected from it, and HOW they thought I could help them.
This had the predictable result that, when it was time to feed back ideas to me, everyone said they wanted to revise the grammar they had studied at school, everyone wanted to do lots of speaking, everyone wanted to improve their listening skills, everyone wanted to speak more accurately, everyone wanted to speak more fluently, and so on.
Basically they wanted everything, and they wanted me to tell them exactly what to do to get it.
At which point I’m like, but if you want to study ALL THE GRAMMAR (which is fine), how will we find time for practising speaking, and listening, and doing all the other things you want from the course?
Blank faces, so I asked how much time they had to devote to their language-learning.
The consensus was, perhaps an hour a day?
But probably not every day.
No, certainly not EVERY day…
OK, so you’ll work at home, too. That’s good, I told them. What exactly are you going to do? Do you have a study plan?
I drew an eight by four table on the whiteboard.
Along the top line I scrawled: Mon. Tue. Wed. Thur. Fri. Sat. Sun.
And down the left-hand column: morn. aft. eve.
So now we had potentially twenty-one blanks to fill.
The first thing, I explained, is to identify WHEN you can study, perhaps by crossing through the slots when you’re busy working or doing other things.
I showed them, by putting a diagonal line through Thursday evening, when the lesson was taking place.
And the same for Monday thru Wednesday evenings, and for Saturday morning, other days when I’ll be teaching from now on.
And then, I said, you can fill in the things you’re already committed to.
For you guys that’ll be the lessons on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
For me, well, I have online Swedish lessons on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings (I added them to my table) and a Turkish lesson on Friday morning (ditto).
OK, then you can put in any other language-learning activities you usually do. For example, I listen to the ‘easy Swedish news’ each weekday in the afternoons (I added these five events to my table).
And at the weekend, when there’s no ‘easy news’ I listen to the ‘real’ radio while I’m cooking – let’s add that in for an hour or so on Sunday morning, there, like that!
So that’s the stuff that’s already decided.
Next, we can maybe make a list of things we do but that, perhaps, don’t have a fixed schedule. They don’t go into the plan, but we have to consider the time they’ll take.
For example, I copy and paste the notes that my online teachers make during our Skype lessons into a separate file, checking words I don’t know in Google translate.
I may not always find time to do this, if it’s a busy week, but sooner or later I catch up. So that’s one regular language-learning job I do, but which isn’t scheduled.
And now we can considerthe things that we SHOULD do, or WOULD LIKE TO do.
I advise not writing them in on your plan, not yet, anyway, or it starts looking less like a study plan and more like an impossible dream…
Try and keep the plan as minimal as possible. Small goals are easier to achieve than larger ones.
So perhaps make your list of ‘possibles’ NEXT TO the plan?
For instance, I’ll add:
- read news articles in Swedish
- watch Turkish TV programs
- read the grammar notes for both of those languages that I copied from Duolingo but never looked at
OK, and here’s the final stage…
Now I’m going to look at my week plan and pick out one or two ‘slots’ in which I don’t have anything already scheduled and where I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find time to ‘study’, if I so choose.
Sunday afternoon tends to be a good time, so I’ll add an ’empty box’ there, see?
Why is the box empty? A little patience, please, and I will tell you.
Any more possibles? Maybe here, on Friday afternoon, when I’m not teaching, after finishing the boring Friday jobs, and yet before opening the beer (draws another empty box).
OK, and now I’ll pick something from my list of possibles and write it, or them, in the boxes!
There you go: Friday afternoon – start working on grammar notes from DL, Sunday afternoon – watch a Turkish TV series.
And that, more or less, is how to do a study plan.
Homework, ladies and gentlemen, is to do one of your own.
You can tell me about what you’ve decided to focus on when we see each other on Tuesday evening, OK?
So that was my lesson for the adults, more or less.
We also worked on the pronunciation of ‘months’, which no one can ever say, and noticed that Italians say ‘depends from’ while English-speakers say ‘depends on’.
But the gist was the WHY/WHAT/HOW, so getting them to think about their needs and assumptions, and then showing them how to make a study plan, so hopefully amplifying any effect that the course alone could have.
The logic being that they, the students, are the best people to take overall control of their learning, and the various activities that will promote it.
While it’s clear that the pre-schoolers need to be told what to do, that doesn’t have to be the case for adult learners.
Language-learning isn’t a clear process, if only because people are different and have varying objectives and preferences.
A degree of learning how to learn is therefore a pre-requisite, and that also means experimentation.
If it works, keep doing it.
Try other things, too, and if they’re useful, do them as well.
That way you can build up a ‘portfoglio’ of language-learning activites, ideally things which focus on different skill areas (speaking, reading, listening etc.)
If any one activity starts showing what economists call diminishing marginal returns, stop doing it and use the time for something else.
Keep doing your chosen activites for long enough and you should see results.
If not, swap out the ones that don’t seem effective.
Now THAT’s a good use for a teacher!
Not to tell students precisely what to do, but to suggest things that might work – materials, activities, study techniques – and to motivate students to give them a try!
Have you listened to yesterday’s easy Italian news yet?
There’ll be another published tomorrow morning (Saturday).
Why not add reading/listening to EasyItalianNews.com to your study plan??
There’s something new there three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
And it’s FREE.