Helping Learners Feel the Relevance of English

Helping the Learners Feel the Relevance of English

Sue Lownsbrough

Research Group Lead

Anthology of Practitioner Action Research Reports 2020-21

The relentless pressure on English teachers in the post-16 sector to raise achievement grades, whether it be grade 4 GCSE or Functional Skills, often narrows the focus of teaching and learning to examinations: ‘Paper 1 and grammar’ and so on. But does this focus engage or motivate all our learners? For those few who need the qualification for their next steps or those who just missed out, this approach may prove motivating. Some learners know what they need to work on and there is a clear link to their lessons. However, for those who believe they are “No good at English” and will never achieve the elusive grade 4, or those who cannot see the relevance of GCSE in their lives, this approach fails to inspire confidence and often results in disengagement and slow progress, with some learners even regressing. This point was illustrated on the project by one teacher’s commentary, “many students suggest that they may not have the grade 4, but they can read, write and speak. Therefore, to many students, the 4 becomes irrelevant.”

One common thread from the OTLA 7 Practitioner Action Research projects was how learner engagement, motivation, confidence, and their progress improved significantly when learners could relate to their learning. This manifested itself in several ways:

Building upon existing practices from their everyday lives

• employing technology (Warrington and Vale Royal College)
• using emojis to annotate texts, plan writing and develop vocabulary (Kendal College and South Lakes Community Learning).

Conquering negative beliefs about their ability

• mastering challenging vocabulary and grammar (Reaseheath College and Sheffield Lifelong Learning respectively)
• developing positive features of growth mindset around confidence and success (Sheffield College).

Recognising English as a life skill beyond the GCSE classroom:

• learner directed shared creative writing for predominantly young males (City of Liverpool College and Hopwood Hall College)
• supporting vocational writing (Lakes College).

It seems that English teachers continuously search for the “key” to unlock each learner’s potential, often focusing on finding  finding ways to help learners tackle challenging examination questions. However, practitioners conducting action research found that engaging with learners’ interests raised self-belief and created a new sense of personal achievement, improving their confidence to face up to the demands of the examination.

This can be seen in the following vignettes:

Prioritising Learners Needs

At the start of the project, teachers still felt the pressure to focus on examination preparation, as illustrated by this teacher’s reflection: “I found it challenging to consistently include mindset starters at the beginning of lessons. With the current situation, Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGS) and COVID-19 related bubbles, time is very limited. It often felt like I was ‘wasting time’ if I didn’t move straight on to exam preparation. Sometimes, even if I did have time to plan a mindset starter, I would often skip it as felt like I couldn’t go into as much depth with the students as I wanted, or that it wasn’t as meaningful or impactful as preparing for the exam questions.”

During the project this teacher trialled different teaching approaches to engage with the learners’ lives and perspectives. For example, through a systematic use of “mindset starter activities at the beginning of lessons to encourage students to understand why they were learning about or developing a particular skill, which often linked to the real world”.

By the end of project, the teacher was pleased to report how her teaching approach had changed, “A huge shift in focus to building confidence in all students that I teach to inspire, motivate and help raise their aspirations … I have better understanding of adult learning needs than this time last year e.g. the need to understand ‘why’ and that instruction should take into account a wide range of pre-existing background knowledge and experience. This differing needs.”

This has resulted in the teacher’s “increased confidence …in (her)ability to meet their needs.”

Connecting With Learners Interests

A GCSE tutor, who had been uncertain at the outset of the project was pleasantly surprised to see how using emojis successfully helped her learners to engage with texts. This tutor had previously modelled underlining and highlighting for text-marking activities, but she had found that learners often struggled to apply these approaches themselves, either highlighting too much or nothing at all.

She discovered learners found emojis to be the most natural tool for text marking, and as she encouraged this approach it really boosted learner confidence:

“They help show emotions through picture and make it easier to see.”

“They, help the reader understand characters’ emotions and the emotions the writer wants to show”.

“I think emojis are helpful as if you go back to a quote that you want to use you can use an emoji of what that quote makes you feel. Everybody has similar emotions and feelings when they see the same emoji”.

The teacher concluded, “There is a playful element to using emojis that lessens the intimidation of getting it right first time.”

Another learner on the project felt, “The emoji project has helped me to understand English. It helped me to understand how a character is feeling in the text and be able to write a relevant response. It’s very natural for me to use emojis in my everyday life when I’m texting people, so I already know what they mean. I have got more ticks in my work than I have ever got in my life…’’

Connecting With Learners Interests

A GCSE tutor who was looking at approaches to developing learner resilience found that giving her adult learners time in every session for discussion about their concerns, empowered them in their learning journey and had a positive impact. “Learners need to feel listened to and that the classroom, online or in college, is a safe space for them to explore ideas and opinions.”

As a result, she has adjusted teaching and learning to incorporate what they have learned as part of the action research: “I find it interesting that often these discussions, particularly in college, have opened up space for students to discuss wider issues, which in a global pandemic have highlighted how vulnerable some students are to things like conspiracy theories. I think that perhaps I am now more open to having these discussions and talking about wider issues with students as I feel a responsibility to raise awareness and not see them as separate and disruptive to student’s learning.”

Acknowledging learners’ concerns about examinations

Whereas the projects above focused on teaching and learning approaches to engage learners, and help to build their resilience generally, by contrast another organisation focused directly on examinations. They aimed to develop vocabulary to use in the examination that had been identified by the awarding body. However, even though they had prioritised the examination requirements, the tutors found that inviting learners’ views about their teaching approach towards the examination had a noticeable effect. Involving learners in choosing teaching approaches built the learners’ confidence and helped them to make progress.

The changes in approach were welcomed by learners compared to the more traditional approaches they had experienced at school, where they had typically been given ten new words each week with a test on Friday. The key changes were to offer fewer items of vocabulary to learn but spending time with the learners in mastering their use.

Giving learners more agency over their learning had a significant impact on engagement and progress: “You can get them in your head. It’s better to get them in your head instead of changing every week.”

When they were asked how they felt about the words, learners reported they might not use them in everyday speech, but they do feel more confident that they now could choose the right words.

The Lancaster Literacies Project (Ivanic et al, 2009) gives many examples where situating learning within learners’ experiences and interests, had a significant impact on achievement. They describe learners’ existing literacy practices as having certain characteristics:

“multimodal… combining symbols, pictures…” (as in the Kendal College and South Lakes Community Learning project).

“multimedia” (Warrington and Vale Royal).

“generative … involving meaning-making, creativity and getting things done” (City of Liverpool College and Hopwood Hall College, Lakes College, Sheffield Lifelong Learning and Reaseheath College).

“agentic … with the students having control” (Sheffield College).

This sample illustrates the extent to which the OTLA practitioner research projects created a framework in which teachers were able to evaluate their existing practice with others and assess its impact on learning (Professional Standard 10, ETF, 2014) which resulted in a shift from a focus away from the end result, the examination, to the approach to learning; an approach which was guided by the learners, their lives and their drivers. Although they refocused from directing all their attention on the examination, their teaching impacted positively on the assessment outcomes.

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