Final project report:Encouraging Active Learning

Sacia Stiles, Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative, Providence Public Library


I am a Lead ESOL Teacher for the Family Literacy Program at three branches of the Providence Public Library. Ours is a first-step program for adult learners and their children which meets three hours per week. A Program Assistant works with the children, and together we plan whole group activities which we do about once a month. We also have a Computer Coordinator who takes small groups of learners in turns to learn basic computers skills.

As the adult learners have a range of English and literacy levels, we enlist the help of volunteer tutors to facilitate small groups. I prepare lessons for the volunteers, which we go over before each class. Generally, I try to structure the class so that volunteers work with small groups of advanced students, or 1:1 with literacy students, and I teach a group of about ten learners with the lowest English levels. Most of them are Spanish speakers and we communicate in Spanish when something isn't clear in English.

Our program does not utilize any formal assessment tools to evaluate learners' level upon entering nor progress upon leaving. We have open enrollment with the goal of maintaining attendance of about 20 learners per class. If a student leaves the program, we call a new person from the waiting list. At the end of this cycle, we had about half of the original group which we started with in September; one quarter had started in February and the others had come since then.

In this report, I will be describing the process and results of an inquiry project that I have been involved in since October. My motivation to take part in this inquiry was rooted in the great satisfaction that had come from working in this program since September 2000, combined with the challenges that I was still facing and hoping to better understand. Throughout the year, while I collected some data from all of the learners in the program, I focused on the particular students that I taught at two libraries, Mount Pleasant and Knight Memorial Branch Libraries, for the purposes of this report.

Arriving at my Question

Last summer as I prepared to start the new school year, I read work by Paulo Freire, and referenced Elsa Roberts Auerbach's, Making Meaning, Making Change and ESL for Action. I was determined to base my classes on the principles found in these works and develop a participatory curriculum. My goal was that our course content would reflect learners' everyday experiences. I was interested in helping each learner to identify a clear goal for the course and a plan for reaching it. I would prepare my lessons around the themes and specific situations that learners suggested, hoping that learners' sense of accomplishment would be related to the progress they made in working toward their goals.

As I began to implement this approach in the fall, however, I came to recognize the challenges of carrying it out with low-level ESOL learners whose needs were incredibly broad. While roughly half of the learners in each of my classes were active participants with clear goals, the other half approached the class rather passively. Some from the latter group had been in the class for over a year, but had made very little progress. They:

  • expressed a great need and desire to learn English and better their lives
  • came consistently and on time to each class
  • appeared comfortable and happy in the classroom
  • thanked me with smiles and handshakes at the end of lessons
  • However, I was also seeing the same learners:

  • not retaining material we had studied in previous classes
  • not asking or answering questions
  • expressing understanding of new language, but not being able to use it
  • responding in activities solely in Spanish (sometimes with words they knew in English) and showing surprise by my asking them to try to communicate in English
  • coming to class without having completed homework or a given task that we had discussed in the previous meeting
  • agreeing with anything I said and resisting offering opinions or ideas with regard to learning or course content
  • unable to identify a specific goal for the class or plan for attaining a goal
  • As such, I felt that aside from my greater goal of using student input to determine our curricula, I first needed to take a step back and understand how different learners approached the class and how I could encourage more active learning and cooperation within the groups. I hoped to better understand the broad range of backgrounds and experiences of my learners and adapt my teaching to suit their needs. Furthermore, I was interested in helping learners recognize the strategies that they had always used for learning and apply these in our classroom. Thus, I arrived at my question:

    What happens when specific strategies are implemented to encourage more active learning?

    My objectives then broadened to include:

  • helping learners identify goals and plans for reaching them
  • developing curricula which reflected their goals and real life experiences
  • validating students' previous knowledge and helping them recognize how they learn best
  • exploring opportunities together for autonomous learning in their everyday lives
  • Looking More Closely at the Issue

    I spent the first few months making closer observations of how my particular learners approached our class. Through class discussions, a survey and my observations, I was able to initially define three very general categories of learners. Examples of incidents that helped me to formulate those categories are given in italics below each description:

    Active learners (roughly half of each group): These students generally had high levels of education in their own countries or a solid base of English when starting the class. They often came to class with specific questions, had a system of organizing their work (i.e. a notebook, index cards, verbal explanations of how they made sense of language rules, etc.) and were able to identify clear goals for the class. They retained information from one class to the next, studied on their own and learned new concepts quickly.

    During our lesson on strategies for learning English in week one, Elsa said that she studies with the Picture Dictionary for one hour each day and writes sentences with the words. In her dialogue journal that day she wrote, "I need that the teacher to go slow. I need vocabulary list for to practice at home. I need that teacher gives examples in the board."

    Mount Pleasant passive learners (roughly half of that class): Most learners in this group were over 40, had little or no formal schooling and had low literacy skills. Many were unfamiliar with, and lacked confidence in, the classroom. They seemed most comfortable in a teacher-centered setting in which they participated very little. They reported sometimes studying outside of class if I assigned a very specific task that we went over together before and after, but rarely retained information from previous classes. They found the concept of goal setting confusing and relied on me, as the teacher, to tell them what they needed from the class.

    Teacher Inquiry Journal Entr -- November 18, 2002

    On Monday we began class as we usually do: "Hello. How are you? How was your weekend?" Maria continues to start her answer in Spanish with words that we have practiced in English. When I write down the words she needs on the board, she nods and continues in Spanish, until I ask her to repeat them. During lessons, she often nods and smiles, but cannot use new language when I call on her. She does not, however, appear frustrated. In our discussion last month about strategies for learning English, she didn't volunteer answers until called on and then said, "Study much," but could not offer specific examples of how she studies.

    Knight Memorial passive learners (roughly half of that group): These learners were young adults who expressed motivation to learn, but who still acted as if being active learners was not "cool." When called upon they would giggle and say that they didn't know, but would not ask for clarification or help. They reported that they did not study outside of class, including if the whole class discussed a particular task to do, and received laughs of recognition from their group-mates when they were not prepared.

    About half of this group also had low levels of literacy and formal education, but they approached the class differently than older learners at Mount Pleasant. One student, Julio, often remarked laughingly, "I don't do anything to practice English. 'I'm lazy!" These learners understood the concept of a goal, but could not identify their own goals. The following incident is typical of what I encountered in the first few months with the some of the learners at Knight Memorial:

    In the second week of class, we discussed language that we would need in the English classroom. Through this, we elicited the questions, "How do you say___?" and "What does ____ mean?" We practiced these questions with different words, discussed how they translated into Spanish and learners wrote them in their notebooks. I asked them that they come to the following class with one example of each.

    In the next class, only two learners had done the work: one had forgotten but did it quickly, one left her notebook at home and rewrote her questions, and four others had no reason. Soon it was clear that two hadnšt understood the directions, so we practiced with the examples of others. By the end, all understood, but the four said they couldnšt think of any words, or that there were too many. We discussed that these questions were important in order to be active in learning English: to take note of new words, be curious and ask for help. I told them to choose two and come with the questions for the following class, but in the next class they gave the same responses and laughed among themselves.

    Data Collection Methods

    I will begin by describing briefly what I implemented and then explain how I collected data based on those strategies. In an effort to encourage active learning, while also experimenting with a participatory approach, I incorporated the following into my classes at the two libraries. The degree to which they were carried out depended on the structure of each class and learners' responses.

    1. Lessons based on real stories that students shared in class.
    2. Discussion and idea sharing, incorporating the concepts of:

  • goal setting and plans for reaching goals
  • strategies for learning inside and outside of class
  • recognizing how one learns best
  • 3. Materials and activities that I hoped would encourage more active learning:

  • dialogue journals‹books that learners wrote in at home and exchanged with me in class
  • learning journals (adapted from Making Meaning, Making Change, Auerbach, 1992, p. 120) -- self-assessment sheets on which students reflected on what they had learned at the end of each week and set a goal for the coming week
  • activities in which students taught the group new words that they had learned outside of class and recorded on a vocabulary sheet
  • sessions to share progress made with Practicing English On Your Own (adapted from Hands-on English, Vol. 10, No. 4, p.4)--a list of activities to do outside of class (with space for students' own ideas)
  • I recorded outcomes through:

  • keeping anecdotal records and field notes in a journal
  • document analysis (of surveys, learning journals, student stories, Practicing English On Your Own sheets, dialogue journals and course evaluations)
  • recording notes from interviews and discussions with individual learners
  • Findings

    I planned a variety of activities in order to see to which learners best responded, which met with mixed degrees of success and failure. In an attempt to find some connections between these results, I saw that it was the way in which these were carried out, rather than the activities themselves that determined their levels of success. In the end, my understanding of what encourages active learning was reaffirmed: cooperation, student input, personalization, repetition and recycling, variety in structure and activities, guidance and patience. I have grouped my findings of that which proved successful or challenging in categories, with data samples in italics to illustrate these points.

    What encouraged active learning

    Below I have listed four general categories of where I saw the best results in relation to my initial question: cooperative learning, personal connection/learner input, consistent assignment of specific tasks and challenges, and meetings with individual students.

    Cooperative learning

    All learners were active participants in lessons or tasks which required that they work together, had a responsibility to their classmates and help each other solve problems. The strengths of each learner naturally worked to complement weaknesses of others and I was impressed by the encouragement, patience and energy exhibited among learners during such activities.

    For example, the class at Knight Memorial Library established a routine of starting lessons by each student teaching one or more words learned outside of class to his/her peers. This vocabulary was recorded on a "New Words" sheet that each student had and was also posted on our classroom bulletin board, to share with other groups. The more active students were eager to jump up to the board and explain their new words. Some found it intimidating at first, but received help and encouragement from their classmates. The younger, more passive learners didnšt bring words in the initial lessons, but once seeing that the group depended on them to do their part, came prepared to the following lessons.

    The Mount Pleasant class developed a similar ritual of sharing their progress on the Practicing English On Your Own sheets that we used. Because learners knew that their peers expected them to share having completed a new task with the group, they completed most of the tasks and added their own. A lesson devoted to looking at photos of different ways of learning was another success in this respect. The activity revealed that most learners were drawn to photos and concepts of a teacher-centered classroom in which students listen passively as the teacher transfers the information to them. However, the structure of the activity required the learners to complete a task in a multi-level group of peers, help each other with language constructions, share their work with the rest of the class, and interact with their classmates to discuss ways in which they preferred to learn. I was pleased to note learners explaining concepts to each other, helping others with writing and pronunciation, sharing opinions and speaking mostly in English in a predominately Spanish-speaking environment.

    At Mount Pleasant, short whole group activities with the children also went over very well, since about half of the learners came with their families. During drawing dictations, bingo games and figure labeling activities, children were incredibly helpful and encouraging to their parents. The adults were laughing, relaxed and exhibited a great deal more energy than usual.

    Personal Connection/Learner Input

    While drawing out personal information from many learners was challenging, lessons based on stories that students told in class or dialogues that they needed to practice for specific situations were the most successful. Learners indicated on class evaluations and discussions that they enjoyed and learned from these lessons and my observations indicated that learners were more relaxed, laughed more and participated more during them. As group cohesion was strengthened throughout the year, these results increased since learners became more used to this concept (it became a fun surprise to see who the next lesson would be about), as well as became better friends with their classmates. Furthermore, through the use of materials prepared about people in the class and dialogue journals, learners saw that they were listened to, that their voices dictated curricula.

    Teacher Inquiry Journal Entry -- March 12, 2002

    In an informal conversation at the beginning of one class, Rosalba told the story of falling and hurting her ankle. Together, we retold and wrote Rosalbašs story as a group. In the next class, we retold the story again, pieced it together with cards of individual words, then practiced a dialogue which recorded the original conversation of Rosalba telling me the story. The following week, Maria turned in her dialogue journal and had written a story using the language from that lesson about a time when she had gotten hurt. This was the first personal story that she had written on her own, without a question prompt. Claudia brought in a medicine label that she had questions about. Nobody had ever brought in anything with a question before, although Išd encouraged it. Ruth asked if we could practice a dialogue for going to the doctor. This was the first time she had identified something specific that she needed English for.

    The use of photos that learners brought of their families and countries, or ones that I had taken in our class, also sparked interest and enthusiasm. While some still spoke Spanish at first to describe or ask questions about family photos, their interest motivated many learners more than usual to search for the words they needed or to ask for help in formulating their sentences. Rosalba, who had a very low level of English and was often quite shy, lit up and spoke non-stop throughout an activity with the few words she knew to describe the photo of a woman who had been in the class during the previous cycle.

    Consistent assignment of specific tasks and challenges

    Because I realized that most of my adult learners had many responsibilities and few hours for practicing English outside of class, I rarely used to assign homework unless they asked for it. When I did assign optional homework, I would casually suggest an idea such as writing a story, bringing in a piece of confusing mail, or completing a worksheet that I handed them on the way out the door. Most of the more active learners did these assignments. The other half of each class did not. However, almost all learners expressed the need to devote more than three hours per week to learning English. I knew that, since we were unable to have more class time, I needed to devote more of our time together toward guiding learners in their independent study.

    The week before our February vacation, the Mount Pleasant Library class devoted an entire lesson to going over the Practicing English On Your Own worksheet, which offered examples of specific tasks for learning English. We discussed the concept of opening our eyes to the opportunities for learning around us in our daily lives and how to be active in discovering them. Learners used the ideas from the sheet to brainstorm other ways to practice on onešs own and the whole group added these to their lists. Aside from being a cooperative activity, as mentioned previously, it provided specific examples in a checklist format. Learners who had done very little homework up until that point came to class with several activities checked off to share. Feedback from learners was also positive, as they reported having learned language related to what existed around them, but that they hadnšt known or had a specific reason to investigate.

    Teacher Inquiry Journal Entry -- May 19, 2002

    While completing evaluations, Jorge said that before joining the class he wasn't very motivated to learn English on his own. "If I saw a street sign and don't know what it means, I don't care. Why do I need to know that word? Now, I go home and look in the dictionary and write it down for New Words." I asked him what caused this change. He replied, "Because now I need more New Words for bring the class. I need more, more! Now I like English."

    The younger learners especially responded to independent work when it was presented as a challenge. They always brought homework when I assigned it by saying something like, "You brought one word tonight. Thatšs good. Letšs see if Thursday you can bring three. Donšt forget!" They also required that further guidance; for example, "How do you learn new words? How do you find out what they mean? How can you remember them? Where can you write them down? Donšt forget to bring your notebook to class!" I resisted this intense direction at the beginning of the course, but, when presented with clear confidence in the learner, and sometimes a sense of humor, I realized that it was what many of my students had needed to become more active.

    Meetings with individual students

    While I was able to learn a great deal about what motivated or hindered learners to be active in my classes, there were still some that I passed the months without truly understanding and whose level of participation in the class did not change much. Because I met with volunteer tutors just before class and the library closed just after the class ended, it was also difficult to arrange to meet with individual learners.

    However, by May unexpected circumstances (low attendance, extra volunteers, etc.) made it possible to have a chance to work with each of these learners individually or in a small group. It was only during those brief meetings that they were unable to blend into the larger group and had to be more active. We were able to speak informally about their experience in that class and others previous, to brainstorm some strategies for learning inside and outside of class (which varied widely between learners, making these interactions all the more clearly necessary) and discuss specific situations in which they needed English that we could practice in our lessons.

    Teacher Inquiry Journal Entry -- April 9, 2002

    Last Thursday, Amanda took my group on the computers while I worked individually with Carlos, who has a high level of spoken English, and who started learning to read and write only a few years ago. This is his first experience in a classroom. He expressed frustration in learning English because, he explained, he studies for one hour after our classes, but can never retain the material the next day. He showed me the book that he was using, English in 30 days, which was dry, boring and difficult to follow for someone with low literacy skills.

    Together we discussed what language was relevant to his everyday life and what exercises he could do on his own to practice it. We used the Picture Dictionary to write a recipe for the pizza dough that he makes each day, and we marked the pages that had kitchen vocabulary. Tonight, he brought a fresh copy of the recipe with greater detail and some sentences about his daily routine at work. He said he planned to make cards to put around the kitchen with new vocabulary on them.

    I learned through brief interactions with individual learners that many of the them had little experience in formal educational settings, were nervous participating in front of their peers, possibly had learning disabilities, had their minds on much more than learning English while they were in class, and/or were simply exhausted. Individual meetings were also essential in my data collection for this project. These were times in which I could elicit more information about what strategies learners knew were helping or not helping them.

    During our discussion about how we learn best, most responses were offered by the more active group of learners. However, as I moved around the room while learners wrote, Rosalba told me that she learns best by using her hands, that she needs to touch something. When learners completed evaluations, I worked individually with Rosalba to help her with writing and elicit greater detail from her. She related with enthusiasm that the activities that had helped her most were those in which we used photos, cards or realia. She said she had best learned to form sentences by using cards with individual words on them and that she had made similar cards to study with at home.

    What proved challenging

    The challenges that I faced with regard to my initial question can be grouped into three general categories: lack of continuity, attempting to integrate complicated and unfamiliar activities in a short amount of time, and eliciting information from students about their learning.

    Lack of continuity

    The greatest challenge in collecting data and seeing clear outcomes from what I implemented in my classes was the unavoidable changes that happened from one day to the next. Learner attendance was inconsistent, especially during bad weather; when volunteers couldn't come, group dynamics changed as learners found themselves with different classmates, and sometimes different teachers; making an effort to integrate whole group activities with the children, as well as the computer component of the course sometimes resulted in short, disjointed lessons. It was nearly impossible to work with the same learners in the same group setting on any ongoing theme.

    The effectiveness of certain activities was difficult to gauge for lack of time or for having presented them in a hurried or disjointed manner. As such, some fell by the wayside and weren't carried out in the way that I'd hoped. Because the group structure changed, rituals were difficult to maintain. For example, at the end of a hectic week, we sometimes didnšt have time to start learning journals together. After one animated whole group activity, just as learners were getting ready to report their partners' learning preferences to the group, it was time for half of the learners to go to computers; in the following lesson three new learners came and four from the previous class were absent, so that continuing this would have been confusing. Such is the nature of our program, which made it clear to me how challenging it must be for our learners to have a sense of continuity in their studies, let alone for me in my collection of data.

    Complicated, unfamiliar activities in a short amount of time

    As discussed in successes above, most learners needed a great deal of guidance to carry out new and unfamiliar tasks. Because I had several ideas for how to approach my initial question, it was difficult to choose which route to take without simply experimenting. As a result, some of the students' work and responses showed that they did not have a clear understanding of what they were to do, did not see the relevance of that work to their learning English and/or did not find the work interesting. When I saw that this was the case, those activities were left behind.

    Dialogue journals were introduced in January with clear instructions and a specific topic, based on our lesson that day, for the first entry, "What is your goal for this class?" Almost all learners did the first entry and I responded to them with further questions. However, only about 10% of each class, all of whom I considered to be more active learners, continued after that point. The dialogue journals required, more than most of the course content, a great deal of learner-autonomy and self-direction.

    While most learners reported on evaluations that they liked the learning journals and had found them helpful, this wasnšt the impression that I got from their work on them. The journals were generally approached with side-glances to classmates that said, "What does she want us to do on this one?" Responses were vague as to what they had learned, what they liked, what their goals for the coming week were. Some learners did not complete them at all. Others asked me whether each of their answers were correct. While I had hoped that these could serve as tools of self-assessment, they were too complicated and reflected my own assumptions about how one measures one's progress, rather than those of the learners.

    Eliciting information from students: How do you learn best?, conclusion and recommendations

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