Below are a list of tips on how to start or expand a SAC (Self-Access Centre) and/ or student library, with lots of ideas on how to make sure students actually use it and benefit for it, with each tip taking full account of the shortages of money and space that are often a problem in English language schools.
1. Things to read
The most useful reading matter for most students are graded readers (= easy readers), preferably with accompanying CDs and supplementary exercises. Try to choose these carefully by the interests of your students, e.g. being suitable to their age range or including business topics. A similar alternative is magazines for English language learners, which have graded articles that are shorter and more topical than graded reader books, but can tend to get worn out and dated more quickly. For students who need to read for academic reasons such as taking IELTS, specific books on reading skills are probably useful.
For anything but Advanced level learners or those who must read English everyday in their study or work, authentic texts are a second best option to the carefully graded self-study materials mentioned above. If you do have the right kind of students, lack the money to buy graded materials or want to provide specific information such as tourist brochures that is not available especially written for language learners, there are ways of making authentic materials easier to read and more useful for language development. The most important thing is to provide the kinds of comprehension questions, vocabulary exercises etc with answer key that a textbook reading would have. As this can be quite time consuming to produce yourselfie?? probably the best option is to offer them authentic newspaper articles plus tasks that several websites offer regularly, either in the favourites of the web browser of a computer that students can use, or printed out and put into a folder of reading material.
As well as making sure the materials are useful, the other secret is in make sure students find something interesting to them so that they keep coming back for more. Methods to help them find something they like include folders of articles on particular topics, putting books together by genre rather than by level, and clearly marking recommendations from the staff and other students. Reading material on the internet can be organised in similar ways, either in the favourites section of the web browser, or by giving links on the school's website or blog.
Other equipment etc. you might want to provide to help students include installing dictionaries on the computers, proviging bilingual and English-English dictionaries (of several levels in the case of English-English ones), audio equipment for them to read and listen to graded readers with, desk lamps, and a printer.
2. Things to listen to
Again, the two best options are probably graded readers with CDs and specific skills books- this time books to develop listening skills. There is not the range of books on listening skills available there used to be when listening labs were more popular in schools, but the gap has been somewhat filled by podcasts, something which many websites now offer both for native speakers and for English language learners. As with reading, carefully graded texts with well-designed, textbook-style tasks are the best. These can be downloaded onto a computer students can use, given as a link of the school's blog, or (depending on copyright) copied onto a CD for students to listen to at home.
As with reading materials, most students will learn much more from graded materials than from ungraded materials for native speakers, especially as tasks are even harder to write for audio materials than for reading materials. Things students who do have the level and motivation might find interesting include downloads of radio programmes and audio books.
Other equipment etc. that can help students boost rtheir listening skills include folders with the tapescripts of listenings from the textbook they are using in class, headphones on all computers, installing programs to play audio such as Real Player, blank CD ROMs to copy audio to, and audio equipment with headphones to listen to things on.
3. Exam practice
Although reading and listening materials can be the most interesting and useful for students in the long term if they are guided carefully to the right material, in the short term the books that are likely to get the most use are the ones on EFL exams like IELTS, ToEFL and TOEIC. Textbooks are not much use outside class, so the best materials for students are practice exam books (e.g. books with real tests from previous years) and self-study exam practice books. The best practice exam books provide not only a key but also a guide to why each answer is wrong or right. The best self-study exam books examine the exam section by section with all exam practice tips and advice on what language can come up being given in interactive ways. Even more interactive are the exam practice CD ROMs which are available from several companies for each exam and are not only useful for the CBT versions of the exam, but also for livening up practice for the paper-based exams. These CD ROMs tend to be far superior to the free online exam practice that is available, but it is possible to find a few fun and useful little exercises that you could recommend students with a list of links, links from the school blog, or in favourites in the school computers' web browser.
4. Pronunciation practice
Pronunciation practice seems like the perfect thing to be practising on your own as it is fairly mechanical and takes lots of repeating over and over that there isn't time for in class. The difficulty, however, is not having a teacher to give the students feedback on how well they are producing the sounds they are trying to make. Students listening to their own voice through headphones is a big step forward, and this can be achieved with digital voice recorders, old fashioned cassette tape recorders, or a computer program. In all these cases, it can be difficult to listen to the model and record yourself repeating it without specialist equipment, so investing in language lab equipment or a specialist English pronunciation CD ROM is usually worthwhile. Some computer software claims to go to the next level and analyse the student's voice and tell them how good their pronunciation is. While this claim is not true at all, having a waveform on the screen you aim towards reproducing can still add some motivation to pronucnaiton practice and is worth a try.
There are also many self-study books and tapes on English pronunciation available, with maybe a cheaper option being offering students the pron exercises from General English workbooks and Business English workbooks.
5. Grammar practice
Grammar practice is another section in which grammar practice CD ROMs and grammar practice websites have gone a long way towards adding some fun and interaction to the process, but they still generally lag behind self-study grammar books in terms of how much grammar they cover and how well they explain it. The best solution, money permitting, is to provide a range of books and CD ROMs. As well as varying by level, self-study grammar books vary in how much of a discovery approach they take to the grammar and how much they concentrate on the "basics" on English tenses or how much they try to fill in all the little bits of grammar that recent research have put into the grammar teaching mix.
6. Vocabulary practice
The factors to consider in choosing vocabulary practice CD ROMs, vocabulary practice websites and self-study vocabulary practice books are the same as in Grammar Practice above, but with slightly less variety of materials available. It is also worth pointing out to students that the best way to really learn vocabulary is to read, which for most people means graded readers.
7. Something to watch
The best things to watch for language learning purposes are DVDs with English subtitles and language learning videos. If you can provide worksheets for the DVDs and select movies and comedy programmes that are suitable for various levels, this adds real value above and beyond what the students could do for themselves in the video rental shop. These things are already done for English language learning videos, but they can tend to be a bit dull and are not as motivating as working your way up to understand a Friends video.
8. A computer
There are some really nice language learning CD ROMs and paid sites out there, but if you don't have the budget for them you can provide some useful practice just by providing an Internet connection and putting all the best free language learning sites you have found into the Favourites of your web browser. These can also be organised into categories depending on what skill and language the students want to practice. One step up, and still free, is to set up a blog with links to such sites and a few more hints for students on how to find the most suitable materials. Depending on copyright laws, you can also probably download some free podcasts from the BBC etc for students to listen to on the same computer, but might not be allowed to let them copy them for their own use.
You will probably need to invest in a good virus programme, and a microphone and headphones headset. You will probably also want to set the security settings of your computer quite high to stop, for example, the students from changing the default site when you open the web browser.
9. A language lab
While it is still possible to buy a special machine that helps students listen, repeat, record their own voice and listen back, most schools nowadays go for the cheaper option of headphones and microphones for the computer with a specialist CD ROM. The main difficulty with this is allowing students to use any older format materials you might have on tape etc.
10. A comments book
This is to let students comment on what they would recommend for other students or to make requests for new materials or recommendations. In the same or a different book, teachers can also pass on their comments, e.g. reporting technical problems they had. If students might be shy about other students reading their comments, rather than a notebook you can provide slips of paper to write comments on and a postbox to post them into.
Posters in the self-access centre or library (or on the door of the cupboard with self-access materials in) should say what different things are available; how to find things by level, genre and skill; what things are new; what things are recommended; what students should do if they have any problems or questions; guides for places to buy more of the same; and rules such as "private email only on the two computers on the left".
12. A guide for students
This can be an A4 leaflet they are given when they enter the school or can pick up when they enter the SAC, or can be a booklet or folder in the SAC that students can flick through. Any of these can also be left as a document on the desktop of the school computers for students to read there, or can be the opening page of the school blog that is the default webpage for the web browsers. Information to include is basically the same as in Posters above, but perhaps in a bit more detail such as "If you liked (Harry Potter), you will probably like (Lord of the Rings)"
13. Shelf labels
These have the dual purpose of helping students find what they need and helping you by getting them to put it back in the right place. You can label by level, skill, genre, "Recommended section", "New materials", "Reference only" etc. Colour coding materials and the shelf space they live on can also help.
14. A member of staff
Humans being what they are, rather than going to the reception desk as the posters suggest, students with questions are just as likely to give up. Even if they are mainly marking their homework rather than looking over students' shoulders, having a member of staff in the room can be a really good idea.
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