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Set It Up Then Let Them Go: Task Based Meets Flipped Learning, A Conversation with Dr. Una Cunningham

 

Themes

  • Task-based meets flipped learning: "just-in-time instead of just-in-case"
  • Students need to feel safe
  • Teachers need to set up tasks and give space

 

Dr. Cunningham's Info Page

Link to the full interview

 

Highlights

 

“What all language teachers need to be doing as much as possible is to get the students to use the language spontaneously.”  Meaning-focused activities instead of form focused activities like cloze tests where they are filling in a gap.

 

"As a language teacher, you’ve been [flipping] all along.”

 

It is "a logical shift" towards flipped learning as technology advances, along with reflective teachers constantly learning how to best take advantage of it.

 

"As time goes on and teachers get more and more material prepared, it makes sense to set that material free for the learners, let them self-select up to a point, with some guidance. I think you can build up a little library of material that you’ve created yourself and that you’ve sourced from other educators, because that’s part of the beauty of it all that you can share and use other people’s work that’s intended for sharing.

 

"The best part of having a library of materials that you have build and/or curated is that you can offer choice to your students,” whether it be by level of difficulty they choose or by subject.

 

Let us not forget how special it is to have such tremendous access to information.

 

“Explicit instruction should be given at the point of need; just in time instead of just in case.”

 

Let students be the driving force over when they need explanations.

 

The idea is that the students are doing something they really care about, finding out something they really want to know, and telling each other about it. Finding out something in the target language and talking about it in the target language.

 

“If all language has to go through the teacher, then there is actually very little language being used by each student. A goal should be that every student takes the language in their mouth every class, otherwise it is hard to feel a success as as student.”

 

“If all language has to go through the teacher, then there is actually very little language being used by each student. A goal should be that every student takes the language in their mouth every class, otherwise it is hard to feel a success as as student.”

 

The goal is to get every student using the target language spontaneously in authentic situations, and learners build proficiency through well designed tasks.

“All the stuff I’ve done in class is useful out of class. It works!”

 

Students need more exposure to extensive reading and listening, but also more production of extensive writing and speaking as well. The only way to do extensive speaking is to get them to do it on their own, to make it safe.

 

It is common to neglect individual student work that is not reviewed by the teacher because there is a notion that if the language does not go through the teacher, then it does not count. This is not sustainable. That means that everyone is going to be doing very little.

 

Full notes from interview (edited and revised), with links to referenced material

 

How did you get started with Flipped Learning?

"As a language teacher, you’ve been [flipping] all along.” Before flipped learning was ever a fad word, like many language teachers, Dr. Cunningham built websites for her students and provided links to songs, websites, among other content and resources for the learners to access by internet. She would tell students the end of Spanish class, “there is something new on the website, go and have a look, and they would be really into that." The next morning she would blast Manu Chau or Ricky Martin which she had provided on the website. Students got some initial exposure outside of class, the teacher built off of that content when they arrived to class. This is so common for language teachers that it is "a logical shift" towards flipped learning as technology advances, along with reflective teachers constantly learning how to best take advantage of it.

 

However, it is important to remember that flipped learning is more than just having a lecture that students watch before class and homework that is done in class, as that is still a lecture model.  "As time goes on and teachers get more and more material prepared, it makes sense to set that material free for the learners, let them self-select up to a point, with some guidance. I think you can build up a little library of material that you’ve created yourself and that you’ve sourced from other educators, because that’s part of the beauty of it all that you can share and use other people’s work that’s intended for sharing. It can be anything, but I think it is best for more extended listening or viewing.”

 

On having a video bank

It can be easy to forget how much things have changed since the “early days of the web.” Many young people might not even remember dialing up from the phone line and waiting for the web page to load little by little, especially now that you can almost instantly watch streaming high definition video on a mobile device. Let us not forget how special it is to have such tremendous access to information. For example, to get lyrics of songs, "that was a big deal.”

 

"The best part of having a Library of materials that you have build and/or curated is that you can offer choice to your students,” whether it be by level of difficulty they choose or by subject.

 

Now, you can have a bank of videos and resources that you provide for students to access as needed. With so much information online a teacher does not need to always stop class and give an explanation on the spot. You have a curated library for those who need it, when they need it. That student, that one who always says, "but why is that?” "Go to video 37 and you can see.”  A video bank is also tremendously valuable in contributing to feedback on written work. "Go back and see video 45 on subject verb agreement."  How many times does one have to be reminded of subject verb agreement throughout the language learning process? With a non-transient video they can go back as many times as needed when they need (along with other multimodal resources).  All this is to say, that Flipped Learning is a means to focus form as needed while engaged in authentic communication tasks. “Explicit instruction should be given at the point of need; just in time instead of just in case.” “That’s how I flip my class.”

 

Teachers who flip spend so much time figuring out how to make great, interactive videos and/or curating great content, but then the trick is how to change in-class time? What does your in-class time look like?  

I use class time as much as possible for student production and perception and less time on grammatical explanations, that is, grammatical explanations at point of need instead of a whole class activity. Let students be the driving force over when they need explanations.  The class is very student-centered with the teacher there to support the students use of the language.

 

If you could only do one activity, what would it be?

It would probably be something task-based: getting students to use the language, to make a necessity for the students to use the language. It would be a task that is close to them so that would be intrinsically motivating. Something that they needed to do for some reason. The idea is that the students are doing something they really care about, finding out something they really want to know, and telling each other about it. Finding out something in the target language and talking about it in the target language.

 

Role of teacher: Set it up and give them space

The role of the teacher thus becomes to set up the activity, devise the stimulus, then give them space.  You do not have to be hovering over them and directing their learning every second. Give them big questions, themes, set up the task and give them space. “If all language has to go through the teacher, then there is actually very little language being used by each student. A goal should be that every student takes the language in their mouth every class, otherwise it is hard to feel a success as as student.”  

 

What is Task Based Learning?

“Task-based learning is finding a real reason why your learners need to use the language.” That is, letting them do something real in the target language. Take Pinterest for example.  It is full of people that do work and then share it with the world.  That is an example of an authentic task. Users develop a hobby, share it with other users, and browse other users’ content. Social media is a fantastic analogy to task-based learning because “students are not learners, they are users.”

 

How can one make a task; How can you break it down to smaller components?

What are the smaller components of learning a language? It depends on the goal. For example, if you are teaching English at a company in Colombia and an Australian boss comes to the company for a visit, you will need to prepare the students for the visit. Here is how to start.

 

Do a genre analysis: this is like "deconstruction" of the skill. Will it be a conversation with the visitor? What are the characteristics of the conversation? Do you shake hands? How do you shake hands with an Australian? Firmness of grip? Do you make eye contact? What about distance? Who speaks first? What do they say? Certain situations, along with texts, use similar patterns of language based culture and society.  These are called genres. The teacher can find a video of one of these conversations then analyze it to break it down to its smaller components. This article discusses genre-based approach in language learning.

 

For example, students will invite a visitor from the company to lunch. They will need to debate choosing a restaurant, call and make a reservation, organize transportation from airport and to restaurant, explain the menu to the guest, discuss business, make small talk, end the meal, etc. They sky is the limit. Group B is responsible for arranging them to stay in your home. "It’s imagination.”

Train learners with breakdown repair strategies. What do they do if they don’t understand? What do they do if the other person doesn’t understand? Can you find another way to communicate instead of just repeating over and over. These can be quite fun, the British comedy show Faulty towers has many examples of social interactions gone awry.  Here is a link to a Faulty Towers video.  Here is another Faulty Towers video teachers can use.

 

Authentic tasks are great for spiraling content as well, that is, the same themes repeated periodically throughout the program, each time building off the previous knowledge and expanding it to a more advanced level. For example, the task of going to the restaurant could be done multiple times--at the beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels-- each with more complex components. Option: Tasks like these are also great for mixed ability classes. Provide the task with three “routes”, a green, yellow, and a red. Students can choose their level of difficulty, they can choose their level of ambition.

 

If the sky is the limit, then how do we adapt our learning outcomes?

"Use the descriptors from CEFR for outcomes. Those are your targets, there it is.” Here is a link to one of many CEFR indicator rubrics (measuring proficiency).

 

Achievement vs. Proficiency

This brings us to the theme of achievement tests versus proficiency tests. Dr. Cunningham argues that more proficiency should be built into our courses and assessment. Whereas achievement tests (chapter 1, 2, etc.) are relevant for physics, they are not as much for second language learning.  The goal is to get every student using the target language spontaneously in authentic situations, and learners build proficiency through well designed tasks. Here is a link to a sample course whose objectives are based on CEFR.

 

On needing a safe environment to make errors

One outstanding benefit of having students practice these real world tasks is that learners can familiarize themselves with frequent situations, and success in controlled situations builds confidence for the future. Learners need the space to practice and make mistakes in a safe environment. If learners are not making errors, then they are not trying to use the language, they are just parroting. There is a rewarding feeling of using the language: learners feel like they overcame/achieved something and now they will be able to do again. “All the stuff I’ve done in class is useful out of class. It works!”  In the end, learners of second languages need to not be afraid of making errors. They need to be like a child and just try it out. But what are they afraid of?

 

On extensive input and output

Students need more exposure to extensive reading and listening, but also more production of extensive writing and speaking as well. The only way to do extensive speaking is to get them to do it on their own, to make it safe.   For receptive skills a great resource is audiobooks (or graded readers) so that students can read the text and simultaneously listen. Watching soap operas with English subtitles is another example of extensive input. As for extended output, it might be necessary to get them to do it on their own, and possibly not reviewed by the teacher. Activities could include keeping a written or spoken diary, a blog or vlog. Motivate them somehow to do it, but it is not to be made public. It is common to neglect individual student work that is not reviewed by the teacher because there is a notion that if the language does not go through the teacher, then it does not count. This is not sustainable. That means that everyone is going to be doing very little. There needs to be more extensive input as well as output.

 

Fear, face threatening acts, & foreign language anxiety

“A goal should be that every student takes the language in their mouth every class, otherwise its hard to feel a success as as student.” Yet, the activity needs to be safe. A simple example: for many second language learners, reading aloud alone in front of the class would bring tremendous anxiety. That being said, practicing reading aloud can have significant beneficial effects (not as a means to test speaking or pronunciation, but as a way to get some general familiarity with the language, genre, and sight-sound recognition). How can learners read aloud, but not have to do it alone in front of the class? Here are four examples to promote extensive speaking, the first two in the group space and the second two in the individual space.

 

  1. Choral reading - in groups of four, two students read aloud simultaneously while the other two students in the group listen. Then they switch, so the other two now read in unison. They are not alone, and the group is much smaller thus taking away the pressure to read in front of the entire class.

  2. Songs - Dr. Cunningham does not like using songs as a listening activity as much as a production activity. It is better to use it as a productive activity to let them sing. Singing in unison has benefits that include feeling united as a group and hence lowers anxiety. In addition, Dr. Cunningham referred to Swedish research on choir singing that found that when people are singing in a choir, the singers do not only breathe together (obviously they need to breathe together to sing in unison), but also their hearts beat at the pace! Here is a link to that article.

  3. Learners read aloud privately. "They can record themselves reading, and practice several times until satisfied. They can even make a little podcast of their own as a part of the flipped class.” Why not have them read aloud every day, a simple daily habit just like brushing one's teeth? This is a great way to promote extensive speaking. Another option would be to record an audio diary.

  4. Have students read into voice recognition software such as Siri, or voice-to-text software such as on Google Docs or on most current smartphones. Learners speak into their microphone while what they say is transcribed into text on the screen. Learners can see what words are understood (or not) by the device, and they can try to adjust their speech to be better understood. A benefit of this is that the software does not judge them.

 

Paul Nation’s site was mentioned: links for extended reading/listening, among other great resources

 

Follow up

Add video examples!

 

Through my conversation with Dr. coming him, as well as reviewing the interview and finding links, I have gained much insight from the experience. In addition I have used many of the tactics philosophies and tips that I received from Dr. Cunningham, factoring them in in my daily decisions of teaching. It has helped me make better decisions and change my teaching for the better. For example:

 

  • Tried Choral Reading activity with my level four class

  • Green yellow and red options for students to choose their level of ambition

  • Singing: extra emphasis on using song

  • Implementing Extensive reading/listening/speaking/writing

  • Designing tasks so well that I can set it up then give them space

  • Putting students in groups according to weak areas, challenging stars.

*for all above need to be continued practice, not just one time.  

 
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