Encouraging Students to Become Independent Language Learners

Mary Tapia, Upper School Modern Languages Teacher, writes about independent language learning enriches the classroom experience.

One of the greatest challenges a teacher faces on a day to day basis in the classroom is how to meet the needs of students who come with a wide variety of skill and maturity levels. In a single class I may have 9th or 12th graders, and their language experience varies from exposure since Kindergarten to a single year of high school instruction. Thus, like virtually all my colleagues in Modern Languages, I must be creative in order to find ways to engage these students and help them along the path to developing fluency in the target language. Additionally, I myself am a life long learner, and I try to keep abreast of the ways in which the classroom is changing in the 21st century. As a result of all the above, I have been exploring strategies to make my classroom less teacher centered and more effective in meeting the needs of my diverse groups of learners. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject of differentiated learning, in this brief article, I would like to share some of the ideas I have implemented to help my students become more independent learners.

First of all, like most Modern Language teachers I already use plenty of group and pair-work in order to increase the opportunity for participation of each student in class. This is an obvious first step in encouraging students to work independently. Also, I have experimented with requiring students to collaborate more often outside of class. By using free online tools such as http://www.googledocs.com or chat rooms, students can interact online and present their work to the teacher on the next day. Of course, the teacher must provide clear instructions and a realistic task for such an assignment, but my experience has been that students are happier to practice their interpersonal skills in this manner than they would be to simply write a traditional composition for the teacher.

Another way I encourage my students to work independently is to schedule regular visits to our language lab. During these visits, I make certain that we are not simply doing the same things we could do as a group in class such as group listening to a recorded document. I plan the lesson carefully, post the written instructions on Blackboard, and expect that when the students come to class they will log on and stay focused for the entire period. Each set of instructions is tailored for the level and language, but I do my best to provide a variety of activities which will provide an opportunity to practice interpretative, interpersonal, and presentational skills. Also, I make certain that in addition to the required tasks, there are optional activities at the end so that no one can sit idle. These optional activities include (but are not limited to) visiting the http://www.bbcmundo.com website for Spanish or http://www.tv5.org for French. While my students are working independently, I have time to spend a few minutes with each one individually. These brief but regular conversations help me build a strong relationship with my students and enable each one to ask questions without worrying about what their peers might think.

In my AP Spanish class, I have experimented with letting my students choose some of their own homework assignments. This is a structured project which requires students to reflect on their individual strengths and weaknesses, formulate a goal, and develop a list of tasks specific to chosen specifically to help achieve their objective. My role is simply to mentor them at the beginning, give them feedback along the way, and hold them accountable for what they have proposed to do. Probably the most powerful part of this project is the fact that students have choice about which tasks to perform and considerable flexibility about when to hand them in. There is plenty of research to show that motivation to complete a task increases when a person has had a say in choosing it. Also, the motivation to complete the task increases when there is a clear goal in mind. Too often the student’s goal is to earn a grade, but in this case, I do my best to encourage students to focus on improving a skill, not on a earning a grade.

I implemented a somewhat similar project in my French class last trimester. After completing a couple of free online diagnostic tests for the first homework assignments, each student chose a series of tasks to complete as homework for each lab day. Then, at the beginning of each lab period, I asked each student to write in their journal about what he or she had done the night before and provide some “proof” of what they had done. The journals could be in either English or French, and the proof could be a recording, a written document, or even a screenshot of work done with an online tool such as http://www.conjuguemos.com At the end of the trimester, each student made an oral presentation to the class about what their work had been and what they had learned.

What I have learned from these experiments is that the shift to a student centered classroom can be rewarding for both teacher and students. With creativity and use of readily available technology, my students can and do work well independently. I do not have hard data to prove the degree to which their fluency has increased, but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the fact that they were more actively engaged than they would have been if I had been standing at the front of a classroom controlling every step of their journey. As I continue to explore ways to encourage independent learning, I have started a blog about my experiences. If you would like details, rubrics, or handouts from these or future projects, please visit http://tapiaclassroom.wordpress.com/.