Weekend past, Phnom Penh played host to the 12th annual CamTESOL Conference: Promoting autonomy in language teaching and learning.
A hot theme for a sultry city, the conference boasted a huge number of speakers, workshops and papers along with around 1500 attendees. Cambodian teachers from county-wide were present, as were professionals living and working in countries all over Asia, as well as a clutch of American, Canadian Australian and British participants.
From an uninspiring opening plenary from Prof. Rebecca Oxford in which she showed visual metaphors for learning strategies and shared such nuggets of wisdom as ‘a useful learning strategy is to take a deep breath before speaking’ to an interesting and thought-provoking closing one from Phil Benson, CamTESOL’s presenters offered lots and little in equal measure but very rarely failed to charm.
What did I learn about autonomy?
Dull, albeit endearing, Prof. Oxford did provide a clear definition and elaboration of autonomy:
Autonomy is the:
- CAPACITY / ABILITY to take charge of learning
- WILLINGNESS to do so
Action refers to learning strategies, which are ‘conscious actions taken to enhance learning’. As far as I can tell, these may be:
- practical (keep a notebook and write your day’s events in it every evening)
- affective (taking deep breaths before talking in public)
- organisational (allocate the first hour after waking up to reading the news in English)
Oxford claims, autonomous learners are confident, resilient and believe in the power of learning stategies, evidenced by the fact that they perform better in language events than non-autonomous learners.
To encourage learners to become autonomous, the teacher’s role is to make strategies feasilbe and resources available. He needs to motivate learners to take actions for learning that become HABITS. Once a learner has taken ownership of a habit and no longer requires the teacher to provide motivation, we have learner autonomy.
Phil Benson’s closing plenary offered up a couple of noteworthy points (there were probably more, but it was late in the morning and the sun was shining).
He talked about ‘the problem of teaching’. A curious insight based on what he had seen in Hong Kong – and something I have seen here in Vietnam. Kids go to learn English at such young ages now; private kindergartens are ubiquitous in Asia, there are even schools with “classrooms” full of 1 year olds!
Benson noted that such an educational set-up actually fosters a culture of anti-autonomy. These youngsters get so used to “being taught”, rather than learning for themselves that they get systematically pushed away from the idea of autonomy from the youngest of ages. Is it not surprising that trying to sculpt autonomous learners seems so difficult for most teachers?
The final point that resonated with me was the finding that there is weak (or no) research to suggest that explicit instruction / transmission teaching helps language learning. So basically nearly everything that happens in classrooms all over the world is wrong. The research concedes that participation in langauge activities does help language learning.
Langauge activities rather than grammar activities. Doing stuff with language rather than focus on forms; communication with language is the way to learn. Sounds like the Natural Way mixed with TBL, two things which always put a smile on my face, which is what I had as I walked out the conference door and into the sweltering sunshine.
What else did I learn at CamTESOL that can succintly condensed into bullets?
- Curiosity is key when teaching YLs and Hoang Thi Nhat Tam showed us ways to incorporate it into the very young learner classroom.
- Carrots and sticks are also essential, and don’t forget to get down to their eye level when you interact.
- Cameron Romney informed that images on classroom materials can be:
- DECORATIVE (impact)
- SUPPORTIVE (schema)
- CENTRAL / INSTRUCTIONAL (agency)
- 21st Century learners expect to see images with text, so we should provide them with that on our teaching materials. We just need to decide which of the above roles we want our images to play.
- Marcel Van Amelsvoort got serious about autonomy with university students, lamenting the fact that just because learners have smart phones and devices, does not mean that they use them in any kind of educational manner.
- If you want university studnets to get serious about autonomous learning and establish learning habits, you have to bring in accountability, provide rationales, set individual goals, integrate use of learning strategies in classtime, provide a choice of learning tools for different learning preferences.
- Portfolios may provide the best means for getting learners to study autonomously.
- *There is something jarring about the idea of autonomy only being successful when it is placed under the above teaching interferences. Perhaps this is required to build good learning habits.
- Fact: On average 250,000 words read will result in better reading speed. A standard low level graded reader has 5,000 – 6,000 words.
- Only 25% of English speakers are “natives”, most speakers will not be speaking to “natives”, “native” accent is still highly sout after though. “Natives” are on borrowed time.
- ‘Non-essential’ pronunciation features, such as linking and weak forms are to be taught as receptive skills.
- Creating engaging and useful workshops about teaching vocabulary is clearly not easy.
- Mech Chanreaksmey reminded me that planning time, task repetition, relatable topics, demos and examples, language input, content (ideas and opinions) input will all help reduce speaking anxiety.
- How about letting students perform speaking tasks in L1 first?
- Let’s put a stop to ‘Death by Powerpoint’ by getting students to make Group Smartphone Documentaries, said Lachlan Jackson. Here, here!
- Matthew Rossman schooled all on how to get YLs to work together (!) with the use of “viral feedback“: the answer sheet is a virus that begins with the fastest finishers, who then spread the virus around by monitoring and checking other student answers until the whole class is “infected”.
Kudos and thanks to everyone who attended and presented – see you next year!
Here you can find my CAMTESOL slides from:
Introducing stategies and providing motivation for effective vocabulary recording with young learners.