Fitting learner training into your syllabus

Summary: Making sure that students find out the best ways to improve their English outside the classroom without needing to diverge from your class's curriculum, with many ideas for interactive classroom activities on the topic of language learning.

Like an English literature teacher who recommends a book that turns someone into a lifetime reader, the most important and inspiring thing that an EFL teacher can do is to help students find at least one way of learning English outside the classroom which they find motivating and useful. However, it can be difficult to find time to do this in a course that is already packed with things to do. This article gives ideas of how to inspire your students to improve their English outside class without needing to go off the course syllabus, however strict it might be. 

In general, the ways of linking learner training and your course’s syllabus are:

  • Linking learner training to one to one interviews
  • Linking learner training to needs analysis
  • Linking learner training to grammar points
  • Linking learner training to functional language
  • Linking learner training to vocabulary
  • Linking learner training to topics on the syllabus
  • Linking learner training to skills work
  • Linking learner training and exam practice

There are many specific teaching ideas for each of those points below. As syllabuses are most often tied to grammar points (for some reason), I’ll deal with that topic near the top, but first two sections on how to tie it into your syllabus from the very first moments.

Linking learner training to one to one interviews

It is fairly common to use one-to-one mid-term or end-of-term meetings with students to discuss how they are progressing and what they can do to improve their progress. It is less common but at least as useful to do the same thing before students are even registered on the course during a level check interview. In fact, I find that I can almost always judge someone’s level of spoken English through five minutes’ discussion of the very relevant and useful topic of learning English, usually without any need to ask students about more random topics like hobbies and family. More specifically, we discuss their previous experiences of learning and using English, how well those experiences went, what they can do in and outside of class to improve on those experiences, and what else they can do to help with their present and future needs for English. Perhaps the most critical part of that is to ask what their priorities are, ask what they think they can do to quickly improve those things, and then give your own tips.

Linking learner training to needs analysis

Especially if you didn’t get a chance to speak to students about their experiences of trying to improve their English during the level check, it can be very worthwhile to get students talking about it from the very first class. As well as working as a kind of needs analysis, talking about the topic can also help guide them towards good language learning habits from day 1. 

There are too many people in the lesson to have a useful whole class discussion, or students are too shy to do so. I therefore tend to put students into pairs and give them interview forms with spaces for some notes on their partner’s needs for English, experience of using English, experience of learning English in class, experience of self-study, weak and strong points in English/ difficulties with English, opinions on the best ways to learn English, etc. If you don’t want too much of a formal interview style, you can give both students in each pair the interview forms at the same time or even just one interview form per pair to share, plus some useful phrases for sharing similar and different experiences like “So do I” and “In my case,…”

Perhaps after discussion as a class of the most important topics that have been raised during the needs analysis discussion, the lesson can then move onto other activities suggested below like giving advice on typical problems with learning and using English.

Linking learner training to grammar points

Given how courses are usually structured, probably the easiest way of making sure students reflect on their learning and get useful self-study tips is to link it to grammar points like Present Simple, future tenses and adverbs. Ideas useable with these and many other grammar points are given below. 

Language Learning Resolutions – for going to, will, and adverbs of frequency

Students write at least five language learning New Year resolutions for the next twelve months like “I’m going to read at least two English novels” and “I’m going to learn 100 words”. They compare ideas with each other and say if they think that their partners are being too ambitious or not ambitious enough. If you have the same class of students for long enough, you can keep copies of their resolutions and discuss how they have done with keeping up with those resolutions (so far) after a month or two. 

Language Learning Resolutions can also be done with adverbs of frequency, with students making make sentences like “I’m going to check my vocabulary list more than twice a week” and “I will ask the teacher a question every week”. 

Choosing the Right Level – for adverbs of frequency with Present Simple, and countable and uncountable nouns

This is like a simpler version of the activity above, plus with more discussion. Students discuss and try to agree on what the right level is for things like “Learn vocabulary before you study grammar” and “Learn every word in a newspaper article”, e.g. “quite a lot of” for the first statement and “almost never” for the second one. 

Language Learning Problems and Advice, for adverbs of manner, countable and uncountable nouns, adverbs of frequency with Present Simple, prepositions, past tenses, and modal verbs

Students take turns explaining a problem that they have with language learning such as “I speak quite slowly” and “I can’t quickly remember what I have studied when I am speaking” The other people in their group then give advice on how to solve that problem. After sharing at least five or six problems each, the whole class can then discuss any particularly big or common problems that came up in the group discussions. Students will probably have some difficulty coming up with suitable issues to discuss, so you could give them suggested verbs and/ or adverbs, and perhaps allow them to make up some problems which they don’t really have. As well as actual problems, students can also ask about how to do things in a more positive way, e.g. study vocabulary more efficiently. 

The same activity can be done with students explaining their problems with countable and uncountable nouns with determiners like “not enough”. I tend to do this by giving them suitable sentences to use when explaining their problems like “I don’t have enough vocabulary” and “There are too many phrasal verbs and I don’t know which ones to study” for their partners to give advice on. After the giving advice stage, I then test them on the language that they were just using by asking them to classify the nouns as countable and uncountable (plus maybe the determiners which go with each kind of noun) or by giving them an error correction task. 

To link this activity to Present Perfect, students can also tell (true or made up) stories of problems they have had with language learning, perhaps in response to “Have you ever…?” questions.

The idea of problems and solution can also be made specific to modal verbs by giving or asking students to come up with sentences with modals to describe the situation in sentences like “I don’t have to use English in my work at all at the moment, but I might have to move abroad in the near future”. 

It’s a bit more of a stretch than the ideas above, but students can also explain language learning problems related to prepositions such as issues they have had “on the internet”, “in emails”, “at work”, “in my free time” and “on holiday”. After the discussion stage, you can test them on their memory of the suitable prepositions for each phrase.

With all the ideas above, students could also rank the problems by how much of an issue they are before discussing the most important. 

Language Learning Problems Mimes – for Present Continuous and Past Continuous

Particularly if students lack the vocabulary to talk about language learning, it can be useful to get them to mime common good and bad things like “I’m speaking while I’m thinking” and “I’m thinking carefully/ silently about what I want to say before I speak”. After doing the miming stage, students can classify those actions as good or bad, rank the best or worst, discuss how much of a problem they think each thing is, and/ or come up with advice to solve each problem. 

It’s a bit of a tenuous connection to the grammar, but if you get the students to shout “Stop” before they guess what was being mimed, they can guess with the Past Continuous tense with sentences like “(When I shouted stop), you were showing your tongue to pronounce ‘th’”. 

Linking learner training to functional language

Language Learning Problems – for asking and giving advice

The ideas above on problems and advice could work just as well as practice for advice phrases like “If I were you, I’d…” and “I highly recommend…” If you want to also practice phrases for asking for advice, you could give the students a list of possible problems with phrases like “I have a problem with… What do you think I should do?” already in them. It can also be useful to give students phrases for reacting to advice like “That’s a great idea. I’ll give it a try”, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” and “That’s a good idea, but in my case…” After finishing the language learning problem discussion stage, you can then test them on the asking for, giving and reacting to advice phrases that they were just using. 

Realistic and Unrealistic Language Learning – for can etc to talk about ability

Students work together to write phrases that they believe to be true with “can”, “can’t” and similar phrases for talking about ability, making sentences like “People can easily learn ten words every day” and “It is impossible for most adults to lose their accent”. 

Language Learning Certainty and Uncertainty – for generalising and speculating

Give students at least ten statements about language learning which are too certain and/ or overgeneralised such as “Children learn second languages quicker than adults do” and “There is no point learning lists of vocabulary”. Students work together to make the statements more realistic, e.g. “Children tend to learn second languages quicker than adults do if they move to a country where that language is spoken” and “There is no point learning lists of vocabulary unless you also hear or read the vocabulary in context”. Before, during or after the rewriting activity, you will probably want to give them useful phrases to use to make those phrases more accurate such as “tend to”, “if” and “unless”. 

Language Learning Opinions – for phrases for giving opinions and agreeing and disagreeing, including strong and weak opinions

This is a bit like a more argumentative version of the activity above. Give students a list of things that people do to learn languages, including some bad ideas like “learn every word in a dictionary” and “leave language learning tapes playing while you are asleep”. One student chooses one of the language learning ideas and gives their positive or negative opinion on it. Perhaps after guessing which of those ideas are being spoken about, the students discuss if they agree with that opinion, including the strength or weakness of the problem. 

To present the language of strong and weak opinions during this task, you could give the ideas in sentences with phrases like “I strongly believe that… works” and “I’m not sure but I guess… is a good idea” already in them, asking students to change the strength of the opinion if they need to when they read them out in order to match their own real opinion.

Language Learning Definitions – for explaining and clarifying

Students are often unfamiliar with words that they need to ask about and talk about their language learning such as “idioms”, “phrasal verbs”, “prepositions”, “fluency” and “accuracy”. Introducing this kind of vocabulary can be tied to useful functional language for explaining words which the other person might not understand such as “It’s a kind of…”, “It’s similar to… but…” and “It means (something like)…”, also useful for or talking around words which you can’t remember. You can make it into a game by asking one person to explain one of the words without saying its name until the other people guess what is being talked about, or you simply give students a list of this kind of vocabulary and ask them to work together to explain what the words mean. 

To bring some actual learner training into this and that activity, you will then need to move onto some discussion of what to do to help with such issues. 

Testing Each Other on Language Learning Vocabulary – for checking/ clarifying

Students ask each other questions like “How do you spell…?” and “What syllable of… is stressed?”, with the topics of the questions being useful language for talking about language learning like “fluency”, “intonation” and “accuracy”. They can then use the same vocabulary to share their experiences, ask for advice, and give advice. 

Language Learning Negotiations – for negotiating

Learner training can be tied to the language of negotiating by getting students to negotiate on the contents of a future English course, e.g. seeing what they can get out of a language school for ten thousand pounds or negotiating with the HR department on a course for their workers. After finishing the negotiating roleplay, they can then discuss in more general terms which ways of learning a language are most worthwhile and the best value for money. 

Linking learner training to vocabulary

Language Learning Problems and Advice – for vocabulary to talk about language learning

The idea of giving advice mentioned above for grammar and functional language can also be used to present and practice vocabulary for talking about language learning like “skimming”, “scanning”, “weak forms”, “linked speech” and “pausing for thought”. Give students at least fifteen of those kinds of phrases to ask each other for advice on, or whole sentences including such vocabulary if they will have problems making the sentences for themselves. 

Language Learning Trends – for the language of trends

Learners describe changes in topics like the popularity of online classes and using English at work. They then discuss how they have reacted or should react to those changes, e.g. taking advantage of positive changes (like more videos with English subtitles being available) or reacting to challenges (such as more and more academic papers being in English or the ease of avoiding English when you go abroad nowadays). 

Personality and Language Learning – for character words

Students try to come up with language learning tips which are suitable for people with different characters such as lazy people, people with short attention spans, easily bored people and impatient people who want instant results. They should include their own characters if they can, but they can quickly move onto more general discussion if they run out of ideas or the discussion becomes too personal. You can then discuss which activities are probably suitable for most people, with their varying personalities. 

Language Learning and Objects – for classroom, office, household and technology vocabulary

You can link classroom training to objects such as those found in classrooms and offices by getting students to brainstorm different ways to use Post Its, a computer, a voice recorder etc to improve their English. They can do this either by brainstorming many ideas for one object or by brainstorming ideas with different objects to be improve on one particular weak area such as understanding rapid speech. 

Linking learner training to topics on the syllabus

If it isn’t possible to link language learning to specific vocabulary on the syllabus, you can at least link it to a topic in the book. You can do this with a surprising number of topics, e.g.

  • Movies and books – Discussing which ones are easy to understand in English, how to approach a movie or book to make it easier to understand and learn from, etc
  • News – Discussing choosing easy to understand news sources, what to do before reading or listening to a news story to make it easy to understand and useful for language learning, what to do with vocabulary after you learn it from a news story, how useful or not the news is for general language learning, etc
  • Technology – Discussing how to use technology to help with language learning, how much technology helps and hinders people learning languages (because they can spend the whole time communicating with people back home even when they are abroad to learn English, because internet translation is still comically bad, etc)
  • Time management and organisation – How to use time management and organisation tips to help with language learning, etc
  • Working practices – How to help people at work deal with communication problems in L2, etc 

Linking learner training to skills work

This idea is possibly the most tenuous link between the rest of the course and learner training, but quite frankly any excuse should be good enough to cover something so important in your classes! The easiest and possibly most useful way of linking learner training and skills work is as part of the feedback on a reading, listening, speaking or writing task. This should consist of discussing how they can do the same kind of thing better next time, and what they can do between classes to make the task more manageable next week. For example, if they had problems using fixed phrases in an emailing homework task, you could suggest keeping suitable phrases in a single Word document and collecting more from the emails that they receive in their work, or help them to come up with such tips for themselves.

Linking speaking and learner training

Many of the activities for grammar etc above obviously involve a lot of speaking, but there are also useful speaking tasks without specific language points that you can use such as ranking debates, more formal debates, roleplay meetings, communication gap activities, discussion questions, controversial statements to discuss, etc. All of these are possible to do on the topic of language learning. Most of these can be set up the same as with any other topic, but a communication gap on language learning is a little more difficult. Possibilities include matching up problems and solutions on Student A and Student B worksheets (without showing the worksheets to each other), choosing a top five or ten from twenty or so different language learning suggestions on the two different worksheets, or choosing which of the two opposite views on the two worksheets they agree with (for each of the six or seven subtopics given).

A much simpler way of regularly linking this topic to speaking that I use a lot to start the lesson is simply to ask “Have you used English since our last lesson?”. I usually limit this to talking about using English (at work, watching movies, etc) rather than actually studying English, to stop the first few minutes of the lesson from becoming too heavy. 

Linking writing and learner training

If you particularly want to practice writing of essays, emails, reports, articles or reviews, all of those can be usefully tied to the topic of good language learning. For example, students could examine the advantages and disadvantages of different ways of improving one skill in an essay, write an email asking for or giving advice on language learning, do some research on the habits and opinions of their classmates to write a report, or review a language learning app.

Linking listening and learner training

It’s quite surprising that textbooks don’t use the topic of language learning more in listening materials, as you could easily make a good lesson on the topic with listening materials such as:

  • one person sharing their experiences (perhaps as a YouTube-style webcam talking head)
  • two people asking for and giving advice
  • two people debating the best way to improve one part of their English
  • someone having communication problems in English
  • part of a conversation exchange
  • an advertisement for a language learning method

If you can’t find such material online, your colleagues in the teachers’ room should have interestingly varied experiences of language learning that they could talk about.

Linking reading and learner training

Even more than with listening, there should already be plenty of authentic reading materials on the topic of effectively using and studying English that you can use and adapt. Examples include reviews of language learning methods and materials, personal experiences of language learning, and newspaper editorials on the topic of language education. If you can find a written text on the topic of reading skills such as predicting before you read and guessing from context, you could use a text in a nice circular way both to do those things while reading and to lead onto discussion of those kinds of skills. You can also get students to read each other’s writing work on the topic of language learning. 

Linking learner training and exam practice

Students studying for exams such as FCE, IELTS and TOEFL are perhaps those who most need help with how to study effectively outside class, as well as tips on using those skills in the actual exam. Unfortunately, given how late students often leave it to start studying for such exams, they can also often be the least likely to have time to spend much time talking about such self-study tips. However, it is quite easy to link most exams to the topic of doing the right things to really develop your English. Most of those ways are similar to those given above for skills, namely discussing how to develop skills after giving feedback on an exam task, doing listening and reading tasks on the topic of language learning (in this case with proper exam-style questions at the checking comprehension stage), and doing exam-style writing on the topic of language learning. In a similar way, it is very easy to design FCE speaking questions, IELTS speaking questions etc on the topic of language learning. This is doubly useful, as language learning could well be a topic in the speaking test and those kinds of questions can naturally lead onto a more generally useful discussion on what students should do outside class to improve their English and raise their scores.

Copyright © 2015

Written by Alex Case for

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