On college campuses all across the United States, adult ESL classes are getting underway for the fall semester. Ever since I began teaching, I have devoted a substantial portion of the first day of class to laying the groundwork for our intensive, semester-long focus on self-directed learning. Here’s what we do in every course, from high-beginners to advanced:
First, I ask my students to reflect on how they feel about speaking English. Afraid? hesitant? confident? I invite them to work in pairs to create a list of questions to ask their classmates to find out how much English they are speaking, hearing, and reading outside of class. Together, we create a structured interview tool that they can then use to interview at least three of their new classmates to find out what they are currently doing to practice their English.
For at least 10 minutes, they ask each other questions like:
- Who do you regularly speak English with? Who have you spoken English with in the past 48 hours?
- What have you listened to in English in the past 48 hours?
- What English-language websites do you regularly look at?
- What English-language TV shows and films have you watched recently?
- What books or magazines have you recently read and enjoyed in English?
- Do you ever text in English? Do you ever post comments on Facebook in English?
We then debrief together, using four columns on the board—Speaking English, Listening to English, Reading in English and Writing in English—to record what students discovered about their classmates and to establish a baseline for their self-directed learning. Right away, we establish the value of peer-to-peer learning, as students hear about movies, books, and TV shows in English that their classmates have enjoyed.
Typically, however, it becomes apparent that most students are spending relatively little time practicing their English outside of class. To dramatize the importance of drastically ramping up the number of hours they spend speaking, listening to, and reading English when they are not in class, I ask my students to compare the amount of time they spend speaking and listening to English to the amount of time their children, most of whom are fluent in English, have been exposed to English. Together, we do a rough calculation on the board:
- A typical 6-year child is in school for an average of 6 hours per day. That’s 30 hours of English per week.
- They watch cartoons or other TV shows for at least 2 hours a day, or 14 hours of English per week—in all likelihood, a conservative estimate.
- They play video games or other games with their friends for 2 hours a day, another 14 hours of English a week.
Very quickly, we’re up to close to 60 hours a week that children spend hearing and speaking English, compared to the handful of hours their parents—my students—spend in an ESL class (typically 6 hours a week). The goal of our class is to help narrow that gap, so that my adult students are spending a substantially greater proportion of their time by the end of the semester speaking English, thinking and reading in English, and listening to English.
To get there, I will be introducing a new self-directed learning tool to my students this semester. It’s a weekly log that my colleagues and I at SUNY Westchester Community College developed this summer. Students use the log—which they can keep either on paper in a 3-ring binder or on their smartphone—to record each self-directed learning activity they engage in and the amount of time they spent on that activity. Here’s what a sample weekly set of entries might look like:
Getting Ahead in English Outside of Class
Log for the week of __________________ , 2013
|DATE||WHAT I DID||TIME SPENT|
|September 13, 2013||Asked the librarian to demonstrate how I can download free audiobooks to my smartphone||30 minutes|
|September 14, 2013||Watched a movie in English.||2 hours|
|September 15, 2013||Used my computer to practice grammar online.||30 minutes|
|September 16, 2013||Had lunch with a classmate to practice my English.||30 minutes|
|September 17, 2013||Listened to the news in English on the radio in the car going to and from work||30 minutes|
|September 18, 2013||Watched a cooking show on the Food Channel||1 hour|
|Weekly Total||5 hours|
Throughout the semester, I will be asking my students to work in small groups to showcase the self-directed activities they have recorded in their logs and to compare notes on what they enjoyed and what was most helpful to them. As detailed in earlier blog posts, and articles, nothing inspires students more than hearing about what their classmates are doing to improve their English. It’s a virtuous cycle that begins in our class on Day 1.