Be Explicit: The Power of Teaching about How to Learn

I’m still trying to process all the wonderful information picked up from sessions at this year’s Southeast TESOL conference in New Orleans. As I think about my experiences and look over my notes (summary blog posts coming soon), I am struck by a common theme I noticed in a number of sessions I attended. This theme wasn’t the main focus of any of the sessions, nor do I think the presenters were necessarily emphasizing this particular idea, but it is one I have seemed to synthesize from the talks, discussions, research, pedagogy, and experiences that filled the air: be explicit.

Now, I’m not talking about explicit grammar teaching (the jury is still out on that one). I’m talking about explicitly teaching students about learning – how they learn and the best ways the learn.

Teach the Brain

The most interesting and exciting session I went to was by educational neuroscientist Janet Zadina, “Empowering English Language Learners: Insights from Neuroscience”. This was a fascinating talk – one which I plan on dissecting more of when I have the time. Besides dispelling numerous neuromyths and explaining how learning works in the brain, Dr. Zadina mentioned a curious idea: teach students how the brain learns. Now, I cannot find the reference she gave for this information. However, she stated that teaching students how their brains learn and the best strategies to utilize for learning has been shown to actually improve learning!

Dr. Zadina briefly spells it out in this talk: Teaching students how the brain works includes teaching them that the brain can change, they learn through neural networks, and how to strengthen neural networks when they are having difficulties. A quick glance at Dr. Zadina’s book chapter titles give even more information on what can be taught to students about their own brains.  For even more resources, Larry Ferlazzo has a great post on this. And check out this great post on Edutopia.

Teach the Mind

Zadina’s research no doubt has a connection to Carol Dweck. Dweck was brought up several times this week, including during Carol Read’s wonderful presentation. Dweck, for years, has been researching the concept of the fixed and growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is fixed. They react negatively to mistakes and errors and don’t use them as opportunities to improve because they don’t believe they can. Growth-minded people believe one’s intelligence can grow. They put the effort into learning (and learning from mistakes) because they understand learning is a process that requires work. Read, echoing Dweck, calls for teachers to explain to students these mindsets and help them switch to a growth mindset where students value the process of learning, not just the end result. These calls are also supported by much of Dweck’s research, which shows that switching to this mindset contributes to actual gains in learning.

Teach the Language

There was a speaker from the Defense Language Institute English Language Institute who discussed learning strategies to promote communication in the classroom. Learning strategies are a heavily researched field within ELT and both quantitative and qualitative research have shown that strategy instruction is valuable in the language classroom. There are many strategies that can be taught, and many ways to teach them, but much of the literature reinforces what the speaker stated: be explicit. Naming the strategies was among the different parts of the framework the speaker was discussing. Students should not only learn that there are strategies, and why/how they should use them, but they should be able to refer to these strategies as well. This can facilitate planning, monitoring, and evaluating strategy usage, which in turn facilitates language learning.

The National Capitol Language Resource Center has a great free online book called “Developing Autonomy in Language Learning” which deals heavily with language learning strategies, including how to teach them.

Teach the Mouth

I also attended a workshop called “Speech Conditioning for the Second Language Learner”. It focused on a framework for teaching pronunciation starting with rhythm, then vowel work, and then intonation – all with the goal of increasing intelligibility, not accent reduction. The framework that was introduced follows ideas of muscle training in any sport. Pronunciation involves a re-learning of the many muscles of the mouth. To assist in this muscle work, the speaker explicitly taught students about how pronunciation works. She starts her classes with discussions of this Wikipedia article on isochrony, helping students understand the difference between syllable-, mora-, and stress-timed languages and where they fall in this categorization. This allows students to notice, first, that these differences even exist, and second, what kind of speaking pattern English has. In addition to rhythm work, she teaching mouth shapes and tongue positions to assist in learning vowels. This type of explicit instruction is not done everyday. Rather, it is frontloaded in the course so that students have this metalinguistic foundational knowledge to base their future practice on.

Explicit pronunciation teaching is nothing new. I watched a very interesting IATEFL presentation about a very similar idea called “What to teach before you teach pronunciation.” Piers Messum, the speaker, takes a similar, explicit approach in helping learners understand the muscles involved in speaking English. Knowledge of consciousness of these is said to lead to better and clearer speech. I know that as a learner of French, Korean, and Polish, explicit knowledge of the articulatory processes did help me understand pronunciation more, and extending this knowledge into practice does seem to help better cement the tricky tongue work and mouth movements needed to master a foreign language.

Warning: Explicit Language

So, the take away: be explicit in order to empower students. This explicit knowledge is like a flashlight. Students who have this kind of knowledge of the underlying processes of learning and language have a great advantage to those who are stumbling in the darkness that is the complex phenomenon of learning. Anything to help illuminate the path will be beneficial.