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Encouraging Learners to Use English Outside the Classroom

activity adult learners homework Apr 11, 2022

Most adults have a limited amount of time they can dedicate to studying English in a given week, and many of them take that time and try their best to spend it in synchronous classes with a teacher who can guide and correct them as needed. Once they’re out of class, however, life takes back over and they have to divide up their remaining time between work and family responsibilities, sleep, and all of the other things that demand our attention in life.

If a learner takes two hours of class per week with a teacher and doesn’t do any other studying outside of class, in a calendar year with perfect attendance, they’ll have amassed just over a hundred hours of study. But learners and teachers get sick, go on vacation, have holidays off, and plenty of other things that cause a lesson here or there to be canceled, so the reality is that it often comes out to even fewer hours than that.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) suggests that there are general amounts of time that need to be invested in order for a learner to advance from one level to the next. And guess what? It’s likely that most learners won’t reach those suggested hours if they don’t do any study time outside of class throughout the year.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are also learners who are able to take more than two hours of class in a week. But for many people, between their budgets and their schedules, their class time is limited in a given week and any other studying and learning that they do will need to happen on their own, outside of class.

So how can you motivate your learners to prioritize self-study and boost their progress outside of class? We’ve broken down some tips for you, depending on how hard you want to push your learners on this!

Intense Focus:

If your learners are on board for regular motivation, check-ins, and self-study tips or assignments, consider a few of the following approaches:

– Encourage learners to look for English in their daily lives and to interact with authentic materials when possible. You can suggest a few of these resources (think news websites, podcasts, social media posts, songs, docu-series, etc.) based on what you know about your learners’ interests.

-Create a group of learners of the same level on Facebook, WeChat, or Whatsapp. Prepare some short prompts that you can share to that group throughout the week. You could create these prompts to elicit target language taught recently for that level, or you could design them to get learners talking about their interests, hobbies, families, or countries.

-Consider a weekly vocabulary assignment that you can assign to each group participant. This could be a list of words or phrases that you want them to study. Encourage them to define them one day, and then share antonyms and synonyms on another day. Have them share words that are similar but belong to a different class on the next day. Prompt them to use in a message the next day, record an audio the next day, and so on and so forth. You can get creative and have them do whatever you want them to do, but the point is that they’ll work with that vocabulary and do some research on their own as to how to use it. If you have them work in a group (as mentioned in the previous point), there’s a bit of healthy peer pressure that will encourage them to complete the prompts as they see others sending theirs in. By keeping things on a social media app that your learners all have on their phones, you make a bit of English interaction and study every day a little easier, because who among us doesn’t have those apps open on and off throughout the day?

-Share the worksheets provided in The TEFL Lab’s content section with learners after class. Encourage them to complete the writing assignments throughout the week. After the first lesson, they can complete a writing prompt and email it to you. Email them a few corrections or tips back, and ask them to have it corrected to review at the beginning of the second class of the week.

-If you have a learner that’s really interested in a specific piece of media (a series on Netflix, a classic book, etc.), invite them to watch or read that media as a study project. Guide them in how to track new vocabulary and how to create regular summaries of what they’ve read or watched every chapter/episode/etc. You can turn this into a weekly check-in that takes up 15 minutes or so of class. Invite them to present new vocabulary they’ve learned and ask them CCQs to see how well they’ve understood it on their own. Listen to their summary of what’s happening, and ask them to share what they think will happen next.

-Especially useful for low-level learners, encourage them to create a set number of sentences each day that works with a particular grammar point. By having them focus on this grammar point, they’ll start to grasp the sentence structure better, and they’ll find themselves exploring the parameters of the rules they’ve learned (mistakes are welcome because they’ll help define those parameters as you correct them)! You can ask your learner to submit sentences a certain number of days each week via WhatsApp, email, or whatever other means works well for you both. You might have your learner write sentences in the present simple on Monday, and you might ask her to write them about things in her apartment. This is a great enriching activity because she’ll probably need to look up some translations and definitions in order to talk about what is in her apartment. The cool thing? Now every time she thinks of “coffee mug”, she’ll be picturing HER coffee mug! Those little details are so valuable in the recall process of language learning. On Wednesday, you might ask her to do the same thing with present simple negative sentences, and you can keep the same context or change to something different. Then assign questions on Friday. This steady stream of tasks to complete is going to give her great practice outside of class while also showing you where her persistent errors are happening.

Moderate Focus:

If your learners want some brief self-study tasks assigned throughout the week but don’t want to complete daily check-ins or tasks, consider a few of the following approaches:

-Set objectives with them in class. This puts the ball in their court. You might ask them “How many paragraphs from this article do you want to read this week?”, or “How many new words do you want to find this week?”, or “How many practice emails do you want to write this week?”– by giving the learner the chance to decide, you take the pressure off to make this an everyday task while still providing follow-up based on what they feel they can commit to. Once they’ve set those objectives, you can share the article, list of words, or specific writing prompts you want them to work with throughout the week.

-Share the worksheets provided in The TEFL Lab’s content section with learners after class. Encourage them to complete the writing assignments throughout the week. After the first lesson, they can complete a writing prompt and email it to you. Email them a few corrections or tips back, and ask them to have it corrected to review at the beginning of the second class of the week.

-Curate a list of podcasts, Instagram accounts, Youtube videos, songs, or anything else relevant to the interests of your learner(s). Ask them at the end of each class (or alternatively, each week) if they want to read a Humans of New York interview, watch a beauty product review on Youtube, listen to a podcast episode about circular economies, or listen to a playlist of songs from The Beatles (or a million other ideas you can come up with). Based on what sounds interesting to them, send them the post/article/playlist/etc. to work with that week. Ask them to write down new vocabulary or phrases they find, identify the use of a specific grammar point, share a summary, and then share their opinion about the topic the media discusses. You can review their progress each week, every two weeks, each month, or on whatever schedule works best for you and the learners.

Light Focus:

If your learners want some guidance on what to do outside of class but are fairly non-committal to completing tasks regularly, consider a few of the following approaches:

-Invite learners to download a flashcards app on their phone and add new words after each class. This becomes an easy-to-use study tool that they can use when they find they have a spare 5 minutes here or there throughout the day.

-Share via email, WhatsApp, or other means of communication a prompt to respond to at some point during the week. It could be a matter of identifying the errors in some sentences that you share, and then correcting them. It could be a writing prompt about their favorite movie, something they’ve achieved recently at work, or whatever other prompt you’d like to assign that will get them using specific target language you’ve been working on.

-Ask learners to narrate something they’re doing throughout the week at home using the recording function on their phone (they could use video if they’d like). It could be preparing dinner, folding the laundry, or anything else that can be done while talking. What’s the value here? You can either have them narrate the process (a specific function), or just tell you a little about how their week is going (more general use of language). It doesn’t feel like it’s taking extra time out of their busy days, but it is an instance of thinking in English, moving their mouths to make English sounds, recalling vocabulary, and more that they wouldn’t have had that day otherwise.

You’ll notice that we didn’t add drills to these lists. While there’s nothing inherently bad about having learners complete language drills for self-study, we know that the more we can help learners use English to talk about and learn about things that are relevant to their lives, needs, and interests, the more likely they are to complete the task. Giving them tasks that have them listen, read, speak, or write with the language you’ve been working on in class is inherently more interesting and valuable than very confined, repetitive exercises (lookin’ at you, matching columns). If time or interest is already a challenge for learners, leaning more heavily into prompts and tasks that encourage learners to communicate about, consume information regarding, or find language to describe matters that are of immediate interest to them is, of course, a more motivating way to sneak in some English study and practice throughout the week.

Time to reflect: What other tips do you have for keeping your learners engaged in their English studies outside of class? Have you tried ideas like these? How successful were they? Thinking of your current students, which activities here would work best?