Talking Points April 2015

This month, we have invited Mathew Porter to Talking Points. Mathew is a long-valued part of the Hiroshima LD Get-togethers, and of Hiroshima JALT, who has just moved to many new things in Fukuoka. As an English teacher who became a language advisor (LA), and is now returning to language teaching (note our awkward use of tenses below, reflecting these changes!), we thought this would be a good chance to learn what we can from him as he reflects on what he’s leaving and what he’s going on to.

Naomi: First, could you tell us briefly what your basic responsibilities have been as a language advisor?

Mathew: I had a lot of duties as an LA, but my main duty was working one-on-one with students to help them with different facets of their language learning, which might mean helping them clarify goals, choose skills to focus on, select materials, address a specific and immediate problem, or give advice about study abroad. In my experience, I had a few students who came to see me for follow up sessions or to talk about a different concern, but the majority of students I saw only came to me once. It’s hard to generalize the advising process, but when appropriate I would encourage students to come back and see me after they had tried out the strategies or materials we had discussed so that we could reflect together on the results of trying them out. Of course, students were also free to visit another LA and to see different LAs about the same topics to get different opinions, which a few students did do. The three advisors at our center were all English-Japanese bilinguals, and the option of the two languages helped our students feel comfortable. At the beginning of a session, I always gave students a choice to talk with me in either Japanese or English, and many of them chose to speak in Japanese. However, whenever we went out into the center to look at resources, we needed to use English. When students had problems while looking at resources, I would take the resources back to my office so we could discuss them in Japanese. I did have a few students who wanted to discuss in English and others who would ask for Japanese whenever they were unable to continue in English.

Besides advising, I worked closely with the other LAs to design self-directed learning materials, promote our Self-Access Language Center to students and staff, as well as develop and improve the curriculum for a self-directed language learning course. Promoting the service was especially important because students are not required to see an LA, so the SALC team had to actively promote the advising service to students using various activities such as the mandatory first-year SALC orientation, digital and print advertisements around campus, and stamp card campaigns, to name a few.

Jim: What are the most common problems you find that students have about studying English (or becoming autonomous language learners)?

Mathew: I’m sure the problems I encountered are not unique. The students I worked with had problems identifying and clarifying their learning goals, making appropriate efforts to achieve those goals, maintaining motivation, and managing their time. For example, I often had students who wanted to improve their conversational ability, but they were driven by outside forces towards TOEIC materials. They’d make an appointment to talk to me about TOEIC, but during the session, we’d come to realize that the student didn’t really need a TOEIC score and just wanted to become able to have a brief, friendly conversation with an English speaker.

Perhaps what prevents some language learners from becoming more successful learners is their lack of ability to reflect upon and become aware of their learning, and this includes so much–their needs, goals, methods, motivation, strategies, weaknesses, strengths, and tools for measuring outcomes. Some learners can already manage all of this, some do it subconsciously, and some are rather poor at it.

Naomi: How did you advise your students on how to become better reflective learners? Do you have some sort of pre-LA and post-LA survey so that students can see how much they’ve benefited from seeing an LA?

Mathew: I didn’t do anything specifically to encourage students to become more reflective beyond asking questions that challenged the conceptions they brought with them and modeling how, for example, comparing the methods and results of current study to the students stated goals might reveal the need for a different approach, different materials, or adjustment of goals. For example, I regularly met with a third-year psychology student who needed to improve her passive knowledge of psychology-related English and be able to translate a passage from an intro-level psychology textbook into English for admission to a local graduate program in psychology. Although she said her focus was on learning vocabulary, each week she would bring me an English translation she made of her Japanese psychology textbook. Her method of studying (translating and then highlighting all unknown English words and writing margin notes) and the results (inability to recall words she had encountered previously) were not successful, but week after week she would do the same thing. I began to directly challenge her approach and we ended up finding a text dedicated to English-Japanese psychology terminology on Amazon and she bought it and began to use it along with an English for Academic Purposes textbook that had examples from psychology to strengthen her recognition of the words she needed to learn. Whether these sessions made her more reflective is certainly debatable. How would we measure that ability to reflect or changes in that ability? Is the ability to reflect a generalizable skill or is it content and context specific? Could a person be reflective in certain situations but not show the same ability in other situations where reflection might be beneficial? Is reflection a strategy used only when problems in goal achievement arise? These are questions I began to ask by the end of my tenure as an LA but which, for me at least, remain unanswered, as we did not conduct any pre-post surveying of students.

Jim: What has been the biggest challenge for you as a language advisor?

Mathew: My biggest challenge has been learning to listen to students and not be so quick to tell a student that this one way is sure to propel him/her towards greater language proficiency. This is what I’d always done as a teacher. For example, I’d encourage students to read graded readers to get more exposure to comprehensible English input and introduce online tools in class for listening and pronunciation practice. But this is a bit of a one-size-fits-all approach, and we all know that learning is more personal. The students in my class might not have been interested in reading and they might not have even wanted to work on this skill. A learning advising session, then, is an opportunity to help a student verbalize her thoughts about her learning process through certain macro/microskills employed by an LA and hopefully provide the right guidance at the right time. However, it really depends on the student and what she is looking for. Some students are looking for the LA to be an authoritarian and tell them what to do, while other students just want an expert to give some feedback on something they are tackling themselves. Grow’s (1991) article on the stages of self-directed learning was inspirational in helping me see this.

Naomi: How can the skills you acquired from this post help you as a language teacher in the classroom?

Mathew: I’m actually about to return to classroom teaching in April 2015, in a situation with large class sizes as well! Classroom learning and self-directed learning are different things. Classes have expectations and teachers need to hold students accountable, particularly because classroom learning involves grades and credit. The English learning goals are already pretty clear since I’ll be working with nursing students. But, I would like to help my students realize (and manage) the goals we are working towards in class, identify their weaknesses, create a resource corner in the library with materials that can help them improve the areas in which they are weak, and provide them with assistance and time to find/use those resources, and also create activities that get them to reflect upon their experiences and share these reflections with other students. These aspects of the learning process are some of what I learned from my experience as an LA. Meanwhile, I will continue to try to have LA-like conversations with students about their learning when meeting privately, but I don’t think very meaningful conversations about learning can happen in the 10 minutes between classes.

Jim: A cynic might say that there are two types of language learners: those who already know how best to learn the language – and do it, and those who don’t know and won’t listen and even when they’re told, won’t change. And neither would benefit from talking with a learning advisor.

Mathew: I have a problem with the hypothetical. Are these students required to see the LA? If they have to visit an LA, perhaps the results will be poor. Also, are these students already motivated to learn the language? If they are motivated, I suspect that either would be willing to talk about their learning, which brings me to my answer: if you believe that social interaction shapes learning, then you’ll see the error in the cynic’s argument. Either learner could have a conversation about their learning activities that could help them to become aware of something that makes them take a different course of action in their studies.

Naomi: Finally, on a more positive note – we were never really that cynical, anyway! – we get the impression that you believe that anywhere would benefit from having an LA. Do you?

Mathew: Yes, more or less. Certainly, if you plan on having a SALC or expect students to self-select materials and do some kind of self-directed study, I think a full-time LA in essential.

Jim: Thanks a lot, Mathew. All the best with everything, and look forward to seeing you somewhere soon!

NOTE: For those interested in learning more about Self-Access Learning Centers and Learning Advisors, Mathew recommends the following list of readings. He also suggests looking into the organization called JASAL (The Japan Association of Self-Access Learning) at https://jasalorg.wordpress.com/ and the journal SiSAL (The Studies in Self-Access Learning) at http://sisaljournal.org/).

Grow, G. O. (1991). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult education quarterly, 41(3), 125-149.
Kato, S . (2012). Professional development for learning advisors: Facilitating the intentional reflective dialogue. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 3 ( 1), 74-92.
Kato, S. & Sugawara, H. (2009). Action-oriented Language Learning Advising: A new approach to promote independent language learning. The Journal of Kanda University of International Studies, 21, 455-475.
Kelly, R. (1996). Language counselling for learner autonomy: the skilled helper in self-access language learning. In R. Pemberton, E.S.L. Li, W.W.F. Or & H.D. Pierson (Eds.), Taking control: Autonomy in language learning (pp. 93-113). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
McCarthy, T. (2013). Redefining the learning space: Advising tools in the classroom. In Menegale, M. (Ed), Autonomy in Language Learning: Getting learners actively involved. Canterbury, UK: IATEFL.
Morrison, B. R. & Navarro, D. (2012) Shifting roles: From language teachers to learning advisors. System, 40, 349-359.
Mozzon-McPherson, M. (1999). An analysis of the skills and functions of language learning advisers. Links & Letters, 7, 111-126.
Mozzon-McPherson, M. (2003). Language learning advising and advisers: Establishing the profile of an emerging profession. IX Trobada de Centres d’Autoaprenentatge , 11-30. Retrieved from http://www20.gencat.cat/docs/Llengcat/Documents/Publicacions/Publicacions%20en%20linea/Arxius/IX%20_annex1.pdf

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Joseph Tomei says:

    Just a quick note, JASAL also organizes a forum at the JALT conference each year, so check your program to find out about it.

Leave a Reply