By Laura Kehdi – Westway Trust. Member of PDNorth’s online practitioner action research group
I am currently teaching ESOL pre-entry at Westway Trust and I just love it, as it is very rewarding. I have based my research on a pre-entry group of lovely international students, who I teach on Mondays and Wednesdays for two and a half hours per lesson. Each student has a different background, nationality and age. Most of them are illiterate and many also have learning differences and difficulties. Many speak Arabic as their first language, others speak Portuguese, Spanish and Farsi.
Stage 1: Getting feedback from students
I asked my students what they like about my lessons, what they don’t like, and what they would like to continue doing. As they are beginners, I did this by talking to them directly (using translation when necessary), and by taking notes. Their response didn’t surprise me at all; they were all very happy and enthusiastic about what we are currently doing. However, what everyone really wanted to be able to do was to keep trying to learn how to read and write certain words. In essence the group want to become literate, which as an ESOL teacher, is my aim for them too! Following some phonics training our team accessed in November as part of our Outstanding Teaching and Learning (OTLA) CPD, a particular approach caught my attention – something so simple but so useful at the same time. I had never thought of it before, and I felt it could potentially help my students very much when it came to learning a new word, especially when writing and reading it.
Stage 2 implementing a new teaching strategy: From copy and speak to copy, copy, copy, no copy, check!
The technique I first tried out with students is focused on copying words while speaking them at the same time. So, while a student is writing one word, it is extremely helpful to speak the sound of each letter instead of being silent. However, notice that it is the sound of the word that we are taking in consideration, not the name of the letters. So, for example, with the word “cook”, students would say k-ʊ-k (c-oo-k), and not see-ou-ou-key / c-o-o-k.
I shared this strategy with my students, as a new way of practising and learning a new word while becoming more independent; in fact, students can use this strategy anytime and anywhere, without the teacher‘s help. However, I found that just copying the words wasn’t enough for students to both understand the word and to check how much they had actually learned. Building on my reflections, my work with students, and my learning during the CPD course, I developed the following exercise: copy, copy, copy, no copy, check!
STEP 1 Copy, copy, copy
Students copy the word multiple times and concurrently speak the sound of the word (we copied the same word at least 10 times).
STEP 2 No copy
Students cover the sheet where they have copied the word many times. On another sheet, they then try to write the word without copying, just one time.
STEP 3 Check!
Students compare the word they have written without copying (step 2) with the original word (step 1). Students can then see if the word is correct, how many letters were right and how many were wrong – by doing so, students can see by themselves what was correct and what they need to practise.
Repeat this cycle as many times as needed with the same word. Once students feel confident with the word chosen, they can change it and start all over again with another word. I found that it was helpful to stress the name of the steps ‘copy, copy, copy, no copy, check!’ almost like a chant, as this was very helpful for students to memorise the sequence of the exercise, which also helped promote students’ independence.
Stage 3: Reflecting on the results of copy, copy, no copy, check!
I am very pleased with the outcome of the activity so far; I could see huge improvements in every student! For instance:
- Most of the students can remember and write the word at stage 2 100% correctly. I was impressed on how much copying while speaking the sound of the word, could help students to memorising it – incredible!
- A few students did not write the word completely correctly. However, I saw a huge improvement in my group. Sometimes from one letter correct to three or four.
- Speaking the word is key. The sound itself massively helps students at stage 2, when they have to remember the spelling of the word without copying it. Students have combined and memorised the letter and the sound together, therefore this helps them with remembering each letter of the word when saying it.
A key finding from this intervention is that it has helped students to become much more independent when studying a new word. They learn how to practise, to check and correct the word by themselves, and not with the help of the teacher as usual. This is a huge step, especially for illiterate pre-entry ESOL students.
There are however situations where this approach could be less successful; it is helpful to be aware of these problems, to avoid disappointment. For instance:
- Students might not be aware nor confident enough with the pronunciation of the word. Make sure the teacher does a lot of drilling first and records the word with the student’s phone to help them and to promote self-study.
- Students might start spelling the word (name of the letters) instead of speaking the sound of it. For example, with the word “cook”, students would say see-ow-ow-key / c-o-o-k, but actually they must say k-ʊ-k (c-oo-k).
- Students might struggle with speaking the sound of the word and copying/writing it at the same time. For example, some of them might have just started copying the first letter but finished to pronounce the whole word already. Teacher’s must show students a few examples on the board first, and the stress the fact that writing and speaking must be concurrently.
- Many students forget to continue speaking after a while. They get back to what they used to do, which was copying without any sound. Make sure you always monitor and encourage students to persist with the nature of the exercise.
- Students might struggle with remembering the chant at first. Make sure to reinforce this as it helps students to be independent, knowing what to do without any help. Without the chant, it is extremely difficult for students to remember what to do at every stage, especially at pre-entry levels.
Stage 4 – Concluding thoughts and next steps
I am truly pleased on the very positive results I had with my group. I believe that having included the technique as a three-stage cycle improved the outcome even more. This activity works very well not only when it comes to helping students, (especially those who are just beginning to learn to read and write), to learn and practise a new word, but also to promote self-study. I designed this activity for pre-entry students, but it can be adapted and used with higher levels too. For example, instead of learning one word, students might want to practise a whole sentence. Timewise, the exercise can be done in 5 minutes or in 15 – do it as much as it is needed, I would say. I intend to keep adapting my approaches based on learner feedback and my observations, and I will continue engaging in action research as a way of reflecting upon the strategies I develop to support my learners.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity to engage in action research and to work on such an enjoyable and important project. I hope that many teachers will find this activity as useful and efficient as I did, and that they will use it to help students to become literate and more independent.
Cathy Clarkson from our CPD exchange (Yorkshire & Humberside) talks about the impact practitioner research has had on her own continual professional development.
I’m no stranger to practitioner research. It’s formed a valuable part of my CPD throughout my career, with the support of organisations such as the NRDC, LSIS, SUNCETT, EMCETT and the ETF*.
I was involved in a few of the NRDC projects. I really am a child of the Skills for Life agenda and it seems crazy how critical we were of it at the time. My first foray into practitioner research was with the ICT Effective Practice study. I was one of the nine practitioner researchers, working with the fabulous people at the Institute of Education. Whatever happened to webquests? Just one of those technologies that comes and goes, although the underlying principle of guiding students through the complexities of the internet seems even more relevant today.
I took this model of collaborative action research to my MA dissertation, which I was fortunate to piggy back with an NRDC practitioner-research grant. The Lancaster University tutors were amazing, and the mentoring I got from tutors at Leeds Mets and the Institute of Education was invaluable. The Action Research Network is still viewed through the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia by the Dewsbury College gang. With the MA under my belt, I managed the application for the college to become a Cambridge-approved centre offering both the CELTA and the full DTE(E)LLS – the only place outside of London offer the ESOL subject specialism. Because of this, I managed to secure a grant through the Creative Routes project and with this money bought a set of iPads to be used by our DE(E)LLTS trainees to support their CPD. The highlight of this project was a trip to Morocco to run a workshop for IATEFL and MATE where the post-it notes we’d brought were more novel that the mobile technology.
With the demise of NRDC, LSIS picked up the baton of supporting practitioner research. With support from the SUNCETT team, the theme of emerging technologies continued in my practitioner research as I looked at what we could find out about iPads by working collaboratively with tutors and students from different curriculums. I learnt that I couldn’t answer the question about how to use this emerging mobile technology in the classroom, because I had been focusing on how the technology supported independent study out of the classroom. This led me to apply for an EMCETT grant to explore the question of mobile technology in the classroom. I brought my (now aging) iPads together into a class set and I worked with my beginner ESOL group to find out what this technology had to offer in the classroom. We explored ESOL apps of varying quality and I got some insight into the differing opinions on what 16-18 year olds thought were good or poor apps. My next project, once again supported by EMCETT, broadened this question into other curriculums. I worked with other tutors, who worked with their students, to explore how a class set of iPads could be used effectively.
It may be no surprise reading this, by the end of the year I was pretty tired, I needed a break from practitioner research and I needed to get a little more control of my work/life balance. It’s one thing to get the grants and the college to promise the time, but the reality is that practitioner research eats in to your life. Of course this doesn’t mean that I stopped trying new things. Not at all. It just meant I stopped writing about it, I cut back on blogging and Tweeting although I still ran some sessions for NATECLA for a short time.
In the summer of 2018 something changed. The universe realigned and the stars pointed me to an EdD, which is basically a taught PhD. This has given me over a year since I started the course to get a feel for what I want to study, and today I have submitted my proposal. I am also dong an OTLAEnglish project, funded through the ETF. It is very interesting doing these projects simultaneously. It feels very different doing a doctorate to doing any other practitioner research. I am both intrigued and scared by the philosophical nature of research. It has taken me about the same amount of time to write my EdD proposal as it has to do the entire OTLAEnglish project. But the start/finish notion of these projects is deceiving. The EdD isn’t just starting, it has started and I can already feel the messiness of engaging in action research. The OTLA project isn’t finished, the report may be written but the activity continues.
Without funding from organisations such as the NRDC, LSIS, and ETF I’m not sure that I would be taking my EdD now. I certainly could not have done these projects without the support of the people working with the organisations who provide the funding. The money is of course always welcome, but as we found out in the Action Research network, a group of willing tutors with a rota of baking, can create the time and space needed to be able to reflect on changes made in the classroom. I would recommend anyone to look for funding opportunities, particularly through the ETF. Twitter is a fabulous place to find out about these things and there is a growing base of FE tutors chatting and sharing. Going to conferences is also useful, look out for a local teachmeet, FEbrewed and the upcoming ReimagineFE conference heading into its fifth year. There are also the regional Professional Exchange Networks (PEN). Internally you could hunt out your Advanced Practitioner, who I am sure will be more than happy to support you in developing your own practitioner research project or find some like-minded colleagues to create a Research Space to talk about your practice – don’t forget the cake.
- CELTA – Certificate in Language Teaching to Adults
- EMCETT – East Midland Centre of Excellence in teacher training
- NATECLA – National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults
- ETF – The Education and Training Foundation.
- LSIS – Learning and Skills Improvement Service
- OTLA – Outstanding Teaching, Learning & Assessment programme (ETF)
- PEN – Professional Exchange Networks
- MATE – Moroccan Association for Teachers of English
- NRDC – National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy
- SUNCETT – University of Sunderland Centre of Excellence for teacher training
- AP – Advanced Practitioner
- CPD – Continual Professional Development
Robert Broome, a practitioner from our online action research exchange, explores how language and context matters when embedding Functional Skills.
My name is Robert Broome. I’m a level 1 course team leader in professional cookery at North Hertfordshire College and I am also completing my PGCE teaching degree at Bedford college. As part of my course I was asked to complete an action research project of my choice. Because I teach on a vocational course, I decided to see whether adding contextualised examples of maths and English work within my cookery sessions could help students with their maths and English studies. This has been of interest to me not only within my profession but because, I too at 28 years old struggle with English in a general sense (e.g. reading, spelling and breaking down of text).
A report from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, Department for Education, and The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP (published 2 July 2014) stated:
‘Many students have problems in maths and English all the way through the progressing to adult life. “40% of pupils do not get GCSE grades A* to C in English and maths by age 16. Worse still, 90% of those who don’t reach this basic standard by 16, don’t achieve it by age 19” (dept. of education, 2018).
Another interesting study made by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), states that older generations tend to perform better in maths and English based tasks than younger learners.
I researched into these claims by the government by conducting my own experiment with a few of my level 1 professional cookery students. I asked a few GCSE standard maths and English questions and the average score out of 13 was 7-8, which works out to be 57% of the mark. I then asked the same questions to adult learners, all of whom were over the age of 40. The average score for the older learners was 11-12 out of 13, which is 88% of the mark.’
After compiling data whereby I had asked students GCSE standard questions in both Maths and English, I then used their knowledge of Professional cookery to help them progress and challenge them in these areas. In order to do this I took the GCSE questions and “re-worded” them with terminology based around catering and hospitality. I also gave students visual aids to help them around the kitchen classroom. This process was much the same with maths; my aim was to get students to think of maths in the hospitality industry as opposed to working from a textbook. My hope was that this approach would help learners:
- See the relevance of maths and English skills within professional cookery;
- encourage a subconscious style of learning, helping students learn through experience and by what they saw and heard in the kitchens.
- encourage reluctant students to learn important maths and English skills, without these needing to be explicitly taught.
- Help close the maths and English skills gap I noticed between younger learners, and adult learners.
Following this period of embedded and contextualised maths and English work, I then asked students the GCSE standard questions again and cross referenced their answers with the previous ones to see if there were any improvements, big or small. With each group of learners there were slight improvements, with most learners scoring at least one point more than they had during the first test. The graph below shows the differences in learners’ scores, before and after they had accessed contextualised English and maths work:
Whilst the gains in learners’ test results initially seem quite small, perhaps more telling was their improved spelling of contextualised vocabulary. One example I did of this was when I asked the students how to spell ‘Tagliatelle’. Initially, only 1 student out of 15 got it correct. I then posted around the two kitchens a glossary of types of pasta where Tagliatelle was on this. A couple of days later I asked the class to spell Tagliatelle again. The number of students who spelt it correctly grew from 1 to 3. Not a huge leap but then an additional 4 students were only 1 or 2 letters off the correct spelling, a huge improvement in such a short period of time!
If I was to sum up my research it would be that vocational courses can have an impact on a students’ maths and English skills in both a positive and a negative way. The positives are clearly seen in my research, if teachers keep pushing maths and English in their lessons then students will progress. The negative however is that I noticed a lot of my students didn’t realise how important Maths and English is to vocational courses and professions. The mentality is for most was once they have finished maths and English at GCSE then they don’t need to think about it again. This is where students can slip on their skills in Maths and English over the two to three years they are in vocational courses at colleges. This potential for slippage adds to employers’ concerns that college leavers do not always have the maths and English skills they require for the working world. I believe that by constantly reminding students on vocational courses how important Maths and English is in the working world, alongside constantly embedding and contextualising maths and English work (to the point where students may not realise that’s what they are doing) vocational teachers can make a massive impact upon students’ motivation, engagement and success in maths and English, during their time at college and in the future.
I also think it’s vital for tutors to keep up to date on their own Maths and English, so we can help students and so we can improve our own confidence to teach these essential skills.