Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The "Personal English Organizer”, or portfolio, moves students into autonomy

Carlos Leite and Flávio Franca, Brazil

In our many years of EFL teaching we have come to the conclusion that regardless of the methodology or approach we use with our students we desperately need effective classroom management, learner training and the use of a good organizer to promote autonomy and facilitate the learning process.

Through lesson observation feedback (our own and peers’) we have become aware that even the most perfectly well planned lessons in terms of techniques many times lack a very important element – getting students to take on responsibility for their own learning. It is very common to notice in our own lessons or in our colleagues’ students passively reacting to our high profile activities with a very low level of involvement or commitment. Most of the times this happens because we as teachers have conditioned our students to expect to be fed or to be entertained each and every second of the lesson.

Many of us still have the belief that good classroom management skills are limited to discipline, seating arrangement and good use of the white board. There is very little emphasis placed on awareness.

We believe that awareness is a key word in both classroom management and learner training. We feel that students need to be aware of several important factors which are crucial to the learning process:

1. They need to be aware of how we learn a language and the most relevant elements which need to be mastered in that target language (i.e., vocabulary, grammar, phonology and skills like listening, reading, speaking and writing)

2. They need to be aware of their individual strengths, needs and learning styles/preferences.

3. They need to be aware of the importance of the learning environment in the learning process. In most cases when we are teaching EFL the learning environment is the classroom. Students need to be involved in setting that environment. We feel that the classroom atmosphere must be stimulating both physically(i.e.,chairs, wall decorations, news boards, well organized and attractive whiteboard, etc...) and psychologically (i.e., students need to be respected and be made partly responsible for monitoring new vocabulary, songs, news boards, social events,and even discipline... as well as taking appropriate notes and making use of a good organizer).

The idea of developing the Personal English Organizer dates back to over 7 years ago when we started asking our students to bring notebooks to class as part of the class contract. The notebook was to be divided into 4 sections (Vocabulary, Grammar, Idioms and Writing). It was very well accepted by at least 70% of the students and we started having competitions at the end of every semester to choose the best notebooks (the most organized and nicest looking ones). It was very gratifying to see students taking notes and asking where to place the new words or grammar points they were learning...Some of them copied everything that was on the board even the way we designed the letters or the cartoons we drew to illustrate vocabulary and expressions. However, there were those (about 30%) who didn’t bring anything to class. They had their coursebooks and workbooks which we knew they rarely opened... We started wondering how we could optimize the notebook experience and extend it to those students who had poor study habits and low motivation.

We decided that an organizer would be an extension of the classroom. It would be the only concrete thing students would have to take home and in which they’d had some input. It could be a tool to promote self awareness. Students would be encouraged to use the organizer to facilitate their awareness of how the target language was categorized and what was more or less important to record and to practise at home. Through using the organizer students would hopefully become more aware of their own learning styles and preferences.

We strongly believe that organization plays a major role in the process of learning a language. We have noticed that when students start getting their English organized in a notebook or a portfolio it also gets organized in their minds and when they need to recall recently learnt language items they don’t have to make any effort because they know exactly where to find them.

A good organizer facilitates classroom management, promotes learner training/autonomy and can easily substitute the traditional workbooks. Some of the most obvious advantages of using an organizer are:

1. A good organizer is innovative – a much welcomed change. Students view traditional workbooks as boring, old-fashioned and with no room for their own notes, creativity and personalizing.

2. A good organizer helps students feel clearer about what they are learning. Grammar points are presented in a simple clear cut way.

3. A good organizer isn’t overloaded with information and exercises. It gives students just enough information and practice to keep them motivated.

4. Through using an organizer students learn how to categorize new vocabulary as well as learn new words from good tips on word formation.

5. A good organizer will get students into the habit of taking notes in class. It will also help them with their study skills. Students will learn what is important to recall and will record that in an organized way.

6. The use of an organizer also forces teachers to be clearer about what they are teaching, to organize their lessons better and let students know about what needs to be recorded.

There are many other advantages to using an organizer as a tool to facilitate language learning. Perhaps the greatest one is the amount of involvement that we get from our students when they eventually start automatically deciding what is relevant and meaningful to them in our lessons. It’s always pleasing to see how different each organizer will look at the end of a semester. It is a truly unique experience for both teachers and students. Many times we underestimate our students’ abilities to choose what is good for them in terms of learning and we are surprised to see language items that have unintentionally come out in a lesson recorded as important material ... It is time we started looking at what we can do to promote real student motivation in the classroom and that can only be done through the use of tools which facilitate awareness and autonomy in the process of learning a language.

Carlos Leite has been an EFL teacher for over 20 years. He has a B.A in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Education from Florida Atlantic University (U.S.A) as well as the RSA Diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults.

Flávio Franca has been an EFL teacher for over 10 years. He has the Certificate for Overseas Teachers of English (COTE) and B.A. Degrees in both Music and Business Administration from the Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil.