Improve Focus with Learner Training


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On this site, I talk a lot about learner training. Learner training is guiding learners on how to learn while they are in class, when they do assignments, or when they wish to engage in learning activities on their own at home.

It is usually something that is only peripherally touched upon, and sometimes, not even mentioned at all. In a way, we may assume as teachers that as long as we do a good job of engaging our learners with our material and lesson design, learners will learn; it is our responsibility.

But, will learners maximize their potential or take advantage of learning opportunities that only they can perceive? Through learner training, they come to realize that their own actions, outside of what a teacher might demand of them, can play a significant role in the progress of their learning, in and outside of the classroom.

I believe that learner training is so important that I leave a good amount of time for it in the beginning of the period that we are together, whether it is a course, semester, etc. During these lessons, I guide my learners in exploring the actions they can take to get the most out of class time and the time they spend in contact with the language in general. Hopefully, these habits stick with them throughout their learning careers, long after they leave my class.

So, how can you make lessons based on learner training? Here are a few areas that I focus on. There are, of course, plenty of other areas. Hopefully, I’ll discuss them in future articles. Even within each area, you can spend time on the finer details. I believe for each of these areas, a class session of between one and two hours can be spent, depending on how you structure the learning activities.

For each of the areas, you might want to find material to demonstrate what learners can do, have them reflect on what they are doing, and have them set small goals to implement these practices into their learning.


1. Strategies to Learn Vocabulary and Grammar

Learners come to you with preconceptions of vocabulary and grammar if they have any experience with language education. Some of these preconceptions can be hindrances, while some may turn out to be useful knowledge for the entire class. Guiding learners on how to use texts, audio, or video appropriately to learn vocabulary and grammar can really help them reap the benefits of class time.

Focusing on these strategies takes some of the burden off of you as the teacher to always select appropriate vocabulary for the learners to pay attention to, and gives this responsibility to the learner as they must decide what is appropriate, useful, and how they can benefit the most out of it.

Some concepts you can introduce them to is to make sure that they look for expressions and not just single words (here), making sure that they do not just underline and look up expressions they have never encountered before, but also ones that they have encountered before but don’t necessarily use (here), and ways to review the new language they have encountered (here). Building an awareness of different aspects of their linguistic knowledge, and more importantly, how they can improve it, is important. Hopefully, this awareness becomes natural as they continue with their language learning endeavors.


2. How to Participate In Class

Here, we can introduce to learners what to actually do during class time within certain activities. For example, if the learners are in a discussion with others, what can they do to maximize their learning? Perhaps, they can make notes of ideas they can’t say (gaps). In a monolingual class, they might be able to ask others how to say these ideas. After a discussion, they can take a minute or two to jot down thoughts about their performance, such as whether they thought they were repeating too many phrases, or writing down what they actually wanted to say in a more specific manner. Thus, their individual learning actions become a focal point for them during lessons.

If a class activity involves a whole class discussion, these same strategies can also be applied. In this way, learners are not just sitting there waiting to consume information from the teacher, but actively thinking about how to formulate their thoughts or noticing gaps in their own knowledge. The learner is finding ways to benefit from the environment, and learner training does a good job of helping them realize how to accomplish just that.

There are, of course, other ways to participate in class, and having learners brainstorm together the ways they can benefit from class time can really raise awareness about what they can do to take charge of their own learning in the classroom.

I find that if these sort of strategies are not explicitly mentioned, learners do not really think about them, because of the prevalent conception of how a class ought to be — the teacher directing the learning, and the learners following instructions. Of course, learning can be much more nuanced than this, and learner training is an opportunity for both teachers and learners to explore the different colors of classroom interaction.


3. Strategies for Completing Homework Tasks

Having a good talk about what learners can do with their homework is another way to hand over the control to the learner. Especially with younger learners, there is a perception that homework is something to be “completed.” Rather, teaching them ways to see opportunities in the assignments you give them is a way for them to really exploit and appropriate the learning material.

Of course, this depends on the tasks you give your learners for homework, but getting them away from the “complete the homework” mentality to the “let’s see the different ways I can learn” mentality can help with most assignments.

For example, you can teach them how to reflect on certain difficult areas. If you assign readings for homework, you can teach them different ways to utilize the learning to practice language. Perhaps they can summarize the reading, reflect on a certain part, or paraphrase the reading for language practice.

Again, brainstorm with your learners the different ways they  can benefit from different homework assignments. I am always surprised by the ideas they have, and it makes reflecting on learning a part of the class culture.


Why is learner training important?

The more your learners are aware of how they learn, and more importantly, how they can learn, the more freedom you can allow them to learn, as opposed to studying or completing activities that you choose. If, for example, my learners are aware that with a reading, they can do all the activities listed above, I can simply set the following assignment for homework: With this reading, come prepared to talk about it in class tomorrow.

In preparation, they might read and summarize the reading. They might paraphrase the reading orally. What they do is up to them. However, if they are not aware of the different ways they can exploit material, you will have to instruct them much more directly. And even after this instruction, if they are not aware that these are actions they can consciously take on their own to learn, they will be less inclined to do so.

Moreover, learners will be less likely to blame you for not having challenging or engaging material. After learner training, they have all these tools, even during class, at their disposal so that they can really benefit from class sessions. With them, even when a certain part of class does not speak to them in terms of interest or level of difficulty, they can find some way and take some action to improve their learning. If they find a class discussion too simple, a learner who is aware that they can write down more complex gaps to discuss more nuanced ideas will be more likely to write it down. Again, ask them what they can do in class during these times during the learner training sessions.

Overall, I recommend that everyone incorporate learner training into their classes to some degree. For lower level learners, it might be a bit difficult, but with proper scaffolding,  it can be done. If the group is monolingual, I have no qualms about conducting a few class sessions in their native language first (if it is one I speak) as to raise awareness of what they can do when the class sessions change to ones that are mostly conducted in the target language.


What are some ways you train your learners in the class? What are some challenges that you have? Leave a comment below.


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