Getting Ahead in English Outside of Class: Next Steps

In a recent blog post, I described how—from the very first day of class—I introduce my students to the idea of pushing themselves to speak, read, and listen to substantially more English outside of class.  In that blog post, I offered a sample of the weekly log I ask my students to complete to track their self-directed learning activities, and I promised to report back on how this project has unfolded this semester.  So here we go!

Shortly after introducing the idea of the weekly log (known at my college as the “Success Book” log), I gave my students a homework assignment to interview someone they know who has learned to speak English with near-native fluency and to uncover the secrets of those successful language learners.

As explained in an earlier post, I have found that students are especially receptive to suggestions for self-directed learning that come from their peers and from members of their own culture.

This semester, my students really took this assignment to heart. Several went to the other side of the globe to find answers.  One of my Chinese students logged onto QQ (China’s instant messaging program) to chat about the assignment with a friend from home whose English is excellent.  A Saudi Arabian student tracked down and interviewed an English-speaking friend now living in Ireland.  A Brazilian student spoke to a friend living in Japan, while one of my Japanese students contacted a cousin in Canada.

The English self-directed learning strategies they discovered—and which they laid out for all to see by dictating their discoveries to classmates assigned to be their “recording secretary” at the whiteboards on two of our classroom walls—were as varied as the students:

  • Talk to somebody with modern tools, such as Skype, Facebook, YouTube, QQ.
  • Don’t hang out with Arabians.
  • Carry a notebook around and write down new vocabulary words.
  • Don’t to [sic] make Japanese friends.
  • Read newspapers.
  • Listen to music and try to find out the lyrics.
  • Don’t be affraid [sic] of asking when you don’t know the meaning.
  • Watch TV.

With all of this advice—and more—displayed on whiteboards around the classroom, I asked the students to think carefully about these different “secrets” of successful language learners.  I asked them to walk around the classroom and choose two of the strategies they thought they’d like to try out and put a check mark on the whiteboard next to it.  Then, for homework,  I asked them to incorporate the strategies they had chosen into a written monthly plan for increasing the amount of time they intend to spend speaking and listening to English.

Finally, to make sure that students are actually implementing their speaking and listening plans, I periodically ask them to bring their Success Book logs to class and to share them with each other in small groups.  I then invite several volunteers to showcase their logs for the entire class.  They use the overhead projector and the classroom document camera to project the plans on a large screen for all to see and then walk us through the logs, day by day.

When we did this last month, the entire class was blown away by the weekly log that one of my Japanese students showcased.  She had logged a record number of 45 hours of English practice outside of class in one week, including listening to five different TED talks (with and without the English subtitles), using online grammar websites to practice her grammar, meeting with her conversation partner, and speaking for several hours every day to the American host family she lives with.  The runner-up that week, a Brazilian student, logged 27 hours.  All in all, the logs have set up a subtle but friendly competition in which all students are ultimately winners.


About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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5 Responses to Getting Ahead in English Outside of Class: Next Steps

  1. Ashlea Miyauchi says:

    I wonder if there’s a way to adapt this for reading success.

  2. Walton says:

    Nice. I like the way the students are in control of the process and that you aren’t pushing them to use English 24/7 just add English to a few contexts. I wonder how you ensure that they are actually learning? I would hate to see this become something graded or evaluated but I have students who listen to American music all the time but they have no idea what is being said. Their logs would be amazing, but the results would be nil. Or maybe you just hope exposure does the trick for them.

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thanks for your comment, Walton. By reviewing the logs together in class, we’d catch the problem you identified. I ask my students to make sure that they are using a variety of out-of-class speaking/listening/reading/writing strategies. Someone who simply logged hundreds of hours of listening to songs without bothering to download the lyrics and understand them would inevitably face skeptical comments from his/her peers. My students aren’t shy about critiquing each others’ efforts!

  3. Leslie Greenlee says:

    One of my student’s husband who was from China and spoke Chinese, met an American who spoke English . They met every day for 2 hours for 8 months. The Chinese person learned English and the American learned Chinese. They both became fluent in 8 months. I thought this was a great success story!

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Dear Leslie: A great success story, indeed. It’s what we want for all our students – and that’s the reason behind this activity. Thanks for writing in! Alexandra

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