Humanising Language Teaching
STUDENTS WORKING ON THEIR OWN - THEIR REACTIONS (lower secondary)
Organised by Laura Cova
I was teaching English to two 14-year-old classes at a secondary state school in Parma (Italy). The classes were rather large (27 students in IC and 24 in ID) and they were mixed-ability as students came from different schools. Most of them had been studying English for at least three years, some even longer than that, but a few had only started learning it five months before, either because they had studied French or because they had chosen not to learn the English they were being taught! Since in their first two years at secondary school students should develop a basic communicative competence, what I was teaching was often a sort of revision for many of them and it was obviously not easy to satisfy the needs of learners with very different knowledge of English.
When I went to Pilgrims in Canterbury for a fortnight on a Socrates in-service training course I knew that no English teacher would substitute for me. The students would probably spend their time in the classroom anyway, but with a teacher of a different subject in charge. I thought I could "exploit" the resources available inside the class and so I told the students I was going to divide them into groups of three. Each group would have a tutor in it to give support to the others, if necessary. I read out a list of the possible tutors (more than were needed in order to give someone the chance to opt out) and told them to form the groups as they liked, provided there was a tutor in them. Some students were surprised because they didn't think they were good enough to be tutors, some of them were very pleased and one was so worried that she came to me immediately and asked if she could please give up being a tutor!
During the following lesson they gave me the group list and I handed out the English programme for the following two weeks "without the teacher" (six 50 minute-lessons for each class). The programme required them to do simple exercises on basic grammar structures, work on vocabulary and do some personal writing. It also stated that the work was meant mainly to be done at school, but would have to be completed at home if necessary. Each student would be responsible both for him/herself and for the whole group. Each student should first try to do as much as possible on his/her own and then ask for the tutor's help. I told them that once back I would check their work and we would have a test after a couple of lessons together. I finally left for England to enjoy my course.
On coming back I was pleased to find a positive, active atmosphere. I did not get the dismaying feeling which generally creeps upon you when you get back to a class after a fortnight absence to find out that they have forgotten all about English and you! On the whole the students seemed to be rather satisfied with their work and most of them regretted not having had enough time to work in class (sometimes they had been allowed to go home earlier or to come in later). First of all I asked them to write their comments and feelings about this "tutoring project". Some wrote that they had worked better at home on their own and some felt the need to stress that they had never resorted to their tutor, but I found out that the most positive reactions to the tutoring came from the weaker students, who most needed help with their English. They seemed to have worked more than usual and to have become active in their learning thanks to the support of someone they trusted. Some tutors, too, found the new experience exciting and rewarding; they had had no real problems and had been able to help others.
As a follow-up we reviewed together only the exercices the students did not feel sure about and I collected the personal writing task and corrected them individually because that was the area where I thought they neeeded individual feedback. The results of the test were fairly good on the average, but I think students gained more from this experience than just some knowledge of the language. Some of them explored a different role, teaching and thereby learning themselves. Others experienced a different approach to English having the chance of learning at their own pace in a small group which is much less challenging than a large class full of people who seem to understand everything much quicker than you do! At the end of school most of them rated the work with the tutors as the best English-learning experience of the year.
What I learnt is that it is sometimes good to let students take full responsibility for their learning and overtly give them the choice of how much and how to work. After all we can only learn if we choose to do it!
Sara (tutor): Nonostante fosse una novità per me, l'esperienza da tutor mi è piaciuta molto. Il mio gruppo ha funzionato a meraviglia e anche uno di noi che ha sempre avuto delle difficoltà si è impegnato per superarle ... Ridendo e scherzando, abbiamo passato due fantastiche settimane (senza la prof) e, alla fine, ci siamo ritrovati con tutti gli esercizi fatti. E' stata una bella esperienza, e mi auguro che la prof se ne vada più spesso, così ci dà ancora la possibilità di gestirci da soli.
Although it was something new for me, I enjoyed very much being a tutor. My group worked wonderfully well and one of us who has always had problems with English worked hard to get over them. ... We spent the two weeks pleasantly (without our teacher) and in the end all the exercises had been done. It was a good experience and I hope our teacher will go away more often so we will have again the chance to work on our own.
Angelo: I compiti erano tanti e non li ho fatti tutti. Alcuni erano facili, altri più difficili, ma con l'aiuto del tutor ci sono riuscito ad eseguirli. Alcuni compiti li ho fatti a casa, non so se mi sono serviti, vedremo! ----->We had a lot of homework and I didn't do all of it. Some exercises were easy and some were more difficult but with the help of the tutor I managed to do them too. I did some exercises at home, I don't know how much I have learnt, let's wait and see!
Mariachiara (tutor): Il lavoro che ho svolto con Irene e Guillermina è stato molto buono. Abbiamo imparato tutte qualcosa di nuovo, anche se non abbiamo lavorato in classe perchè ci facevano uscire prima o entrare dopo. Sono stata contenta di essere il loro tutor, e devo dire che molte cose le sapevano fare bene e spesso il mio aiuto non serviva ... Durante il lavoro in classe ognuna di noi svolgeva i propri esercizi e alla fine si rileggeva tutto con le dovute correzioni e spiegazioni.
The work I did with Irene and Guillermina was very good. We all learnt something new, even if the time at school was not enough because sometimes they let us go home earlier or come to school later. I was happy to be their tutor and I must say that they could do a lot on their own and they did not need my help often. ... In the classroom each of us did the exercises on her own and then we checked and discussed them together.
Irene: Purtroppo abbiamo fatto la maggior parte (60%) degli esercizi a casa perché non c'era tanto tempo ... ---->It is a pity we did most of the exercises at home because we had not time enough at school ...
Riccardo (tutor): Il gruppo ha lavorato piuttosto bene, a parte qualche difficoltà incontrata da un membro che di conseguenza ha richiesto più tempo. Gli esercizi sono stati comunque svolti in gran parte a scuola, i rimanenti invece individualmente.
The group worked quite well, only one of us had some problems which required a bit longer. We did most of the exercises at school and the rest individually.
Mirco (beginner): E' stata un'esperienza bella, è stato il mio primo lavoro di gruppo in inglese ... Il tutor, Riccardo, mi spiegava alcune regole che dovevano venire svolte nei diversi esercizi ...
It was a good experience and my first group work in English ... Riccardo, my tutor, explained to me the rules I needed to know in order to do the exercises ...
Cinzia: E' stata un'esperienza nuova. E' servita ad essere più autonomi, a cercare di riuscire a lavorare anche senza l'aiuto dell'insegnante. ... Il tutor (che ne sa di più) aiutava le altre due persone del gruppo.
It was a new experience. It helped us be more self-reliant. We tried to work without the help of the teacher. The tutor (whose English was better) helped the other two in the group.
Antonio: L'aiuto del tutor mi è servito a capire le cose che non riuscivo a comprendere, insegnandomele e segnandomi gli errori che facevo ... è stato un appoggio, un supporto che ha permesso di lavorare bene e serenamente.