The writing skill most foreign language teachers don’t teach: interactional writing

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1.What is writership?

Chatting online or texting via SMS, WATSAPP, etc. has become part and parcel of our daily life, the verb and noun ‘chat’ alluding to the fact that although we are writing we are in fact ‘talking’ to someone. Just like in a face-to-face conversation when chatting online we have to respond to our interlocutor in real time if we want to ‘stay’ in the conversation and, most importantly, if we want to keep him or her engaged.

Since in real-life face-to-face communication applied linguists refer to interactional listening as ‘Listenership’ I will henceforth call the set of skills involved in interactional writing: ‘Writership’.

Listenership and Writership have many similarities in terms of the cognitive processes they involve. There are, however, important differences, too. Besides the most obvious difference , i.e. the fact that  communication does not happen through the oral medium, there is another important one: when texting or chatting we do not usually see our interlocutor. This means that the all-important non-verbal aspects of communication (e.g. the cues we get from our interlocutor’s body language) are missing – which often leads online chatters to use imagery as a compensatory strategy. This entails that effective writership must not simply include fluency (as in: speed of production) but also a level of mastery of TL vocabulary and discourse functions which makes up for the lack of non-verbal cues and pre-empts ambiguity.

2. Should we be concerning ourselves with interactional writing?

Whilst skyping with Steve Smith of www.frenchteacher.net last night we were talking about the time teachers should allocate to writing. Steve made a very important observation that echoed what I have always thought: writing is less important than listening, speaking and reading as students are not very likely to use the target language after passing their GCSEs; hence, not much time at all was the answer– writing can be done by students at home. But then it suddenly dawned on me that that was true of Steve’s generation and mine, but not of the current one.

In the highly inter-connected world where global communication happens at the speed of a few milliseconds on Facebook, Twitter, Watsapp and SMSs many of our students are very likely to engage in interactional TL (target language) writing in the future – in fact many already do on a daily basis. Another example of how emerging technologies affect not only the way we communicate in real life but also, inevitably, the way we teach foreign languages.

3. But how do we teach interactional writing?

First of all let us consider what it involves.

First and foremost, obviously, the ability to understand an interlocutor’s input.

Secondly, the ability to respond to that input in real time, maybe not necessarily at the same speed as one would do in oral interaction but still quite rapidly. In other words, effective writership requires writing fluency.

Thirdly, effective writership requires a high level of intelligibility of output – not necessarily grammatical accuracy and complexity. Spelling becomes more important than it is in essay writing in that the speed of the interactional exchange does not allow the interlocutor a lot of time for working out ambiguous items.

Fourthly, the command of a sizeable repertoire of high frequency lexical items, a fairly wide range of discourse functions, the basic tenses and communication strategies (e.g. ways to compensate for lack of vocabulary).

Fifthly, in dealing with a TL native speaker an effective interactional writer must be able to grasp cultural features in their input, including the jargon and abbreviations used in TL instant-messaging communication (e.g. knowing that in French LOL is MDR).

The obvious corollary of the above is that most of the traditional communicative activities we use to foster autonomous communicative competence (through both the oral and written medium) and listenership apply to the teaching of writership too (e.g. information gap tasks and role-plays). In fact the oral communicative practice that takes place in your classroom will have a major impact on learner writership.

These are some of the activities I use in the classroom to promote writership:

  1. As a starter or plenary I stand in front of the class and type questions in the TL on the classroom screen. The students, equipped with mini-boards or iPads, have two minutes to write an answer including three details. In order to differentiate I usually ask two questions, the second being an extension for the more fluent students. Accuracy is not a concern, but intelligibility is.
  2. Picture tasks. This is similar to the previous task, except that the stimulus the students have to respond to is visual. The rationale for this task is that (a) in social media students often do have to respond to a visual stimulus; (b) it taps into their creativity; (c) it may elicit language that transcends the boundaries of the topic-at-hand.
  3. ‘What is the question?’ tasks. Students are provided with a very short dialogue in the TL where the questions have been omitted. Their task is to provide the missing questions
  4. Social media slow chat. Using Edmodo I ask my students to chat with each other about a given topic. I give out red cards to the chat-initiators and blue cards to the responders. The initiators are in charge of asking questions to any of the responders in the class. Every ten minutes the initiators and responders will switch cards. The students are given a time limit to answer, which varies from group to group – this is hard to monitor, of course, but my students are usually honest. The reason why I use Edmodo rather than Twitter is that (a) Edmodo allows the teacher to edit mistakes (please note: I only correct major intelligibility mistakes); (b) it looks a lot like Facebook but it is safer; (c) the teacher has total control over everything that happens in the interaction. Last year I paired up my class with a class from an overseas school and we chatted on Edmodo for thirty minutes. Great experience that intend to do again this year. This activity is great as a prelude to oral activities as it allows the students more time to make the same communicative choices they will have to make in the oral interaction whilst still putting communicative pressure on them
  1. Very short translations under time constraints; students need to translate the teacher’s input on mini-boards. Again, focus is on intelligibility and fluency here rather than on100 % accuracy.
  2. Agree or disagree. A simple statement appears on the screen (e.g. Tennis is very enjoyable; I like it when it rains; the food in the canteen is great) and the students have to write a response on their mini boards under time constraints.
  3. Fluency assessment. At key stages in the unfolding of a unit of work I use the activity described in point 1, above, but ask students a much broader question and give them a lot more time to answer it on paper or on using google classroom. At the end of the allocated time I ask the students to stop and note down how many words they wrote. The time to word ratio will give me an indication of the levels of writing fluency in my class at that moment in time. I value this activity as fluency is an important pre-requisite of effective writership.

Conclusion

Emerging technologies, especially the internet and social media have transformed the way we live and we use language in communication. On a daily basis I find myself chatting on social media in four different languages and I find the linguistic challenges this poses quite taxing as it requires faster language processing ability and sociolinguistic competences that I do not always possess.

Whether we like it or not, the vast majority of our students communicate via social media or other forms of instant messaging. Hence, if we are to prepare them for communication in the real world this phenomenon cannot be ignored. Teaching interactional writing skills is therefore a must, in my opinion.

Teaching this set of skills has also the added benefit of preparing our students for oral communication as it requires them to process language in real operating conditions whilst allowing more time than the oral medium does. In this sense, the attainment of effective writership may be seen not just as an end in itself but also as instrumental to the attainment of oral fluency intended as the ability to retrieve information from Long-term Memory under communicative pressure. Do you currently work on developing TL writing fluency in your learners?

12 challenges of ICT integration in MFL instruction

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INTRODUCTION

ICT integration in the MFL curriculum and its implementation in the classroom pose a series of important challenges which refer to the way digital tools and tasks affect language acquisition as well as the students’ general cognitive, emotional, social and moral development.

Unfortunately, not much is known about the impact of digital assisted teaching and learning on language acquisition and I am not aware of any research-based approaches to ICT integration in MFL. Teachers apply their intuitions and experience accumulated through non-digital assisted teaching to emerging technologies often taking a leap of faith.

In what follows I advocate a more systematic, thorough and reflective approach to ICT integration in MFL teaching and learning, one which considers cognitive, ethical, pragmatic and, of course, pedagogical factors. I also advocate, that whilst I believe that emerging technologies can indeed enhance learning, they will not unless they are effectively harnessed. This requires (a) an understanding of language acquisition; (b) a grasp of how each digital medium affects acquisition; (c) how it fits an individual teacher’s ecosystem.

TWELVE CHALLENGES OF ICT INTEGRATION IN MFL

Please note that the list below is not exhaustive; it only includes what I deem to be the most important challenges I have identified based on my own experiences with ICT integration.

Challenge 1: Enhancement power vs Integrating ICT for ICT integration’s sake

The first question you have to ask yourself when planning to use an app or web-tool or carrying out any digitally-based task in your lessons is: Does it really enhance teaching and learning as compared to my usual non-ICT based approaches? How can I be sure of that?

Teachers often feel compelled to use an app or web-tool for fear of not appearing innovative enough in the eyes of their managers; however, after all, if their classroom presence, charisma, humour, drama techniques, etc. are more compelling than Kahoot, iMovies, Tellagami and the likes, it would be silly to use less impactful teaching tools just to check the ICT-integration box – unless, of course, one is doing it for the sake of variety or to get some rest at the end of a long and tiring school day.

In my experience this is one of the most difficult challenges when a school goes 1:1 with lap-tops or tablets. Teachers feel that if they do not use ICT as much as possible they are somehow failing the school or will be left behind. This can cause some teachers, especially the less ICT-savvy ones, serious anxiety. And if this issue is not properly tackled from the beginning, learning will be affected quite negatively, especially during the first phase of integration when teachers are trying things out.

Possible solutions

This issue can be addressed by:

  1. Providing training in how specific digital tools and tasks actually affect student cognition and language acquisition at different stages of MFL proficiency developments. Emerging technologies workshop facilitators and ICT integration coaches usually show teachers how to use a specific tool or conduct an ICT-based task but do not delve into how it enhances language acquisition across the four macro-skills and why it is superior to its non-digital counterpart. To buy into ICT integration in MFL, teachers must be provided with a solid rationale as to why, how and when in a teaching sequence specific digital tools and tasks enhance learning. This is rarely done. Experimentation with a digital tool at the expenses of student learning is ethically wrong considering that little teacher contact time is usually available to MFL learners.
  1. Deciding on a set of clear pedagogic guidelines, both generic and subject-specific, for ICT integration in lessons (e.g. Generic guidelines such as: Is there an expectation for the iPad to be used in every single lesson? ; MFL specific guidelines: When doing a project about school, students should not do the filming around school during lesson time). Whilst the provision of an overly prescriptive framework would impact teaching and learning negatively, in my view, a clearly laid out pedagogic framework for ICT integration would prevent some teachers from over-using digital tools and others from under-using them. The elected framework will have to be convergent with the MFL department’s espoused methodological approach to language instruction.
  1. Producing an MFL-department ‘ICT handbook’ detailing the benefits and drawbacks of each digital tools and embed in curriculum design–This would complement the above-envisaged guidelines. The ‘handbook’ could take the form of an interactive google sheet onto which each member of the MFL team logs in the pros and cons for learning of each digital tool as their understanding of its impact on learner cognition increases. Unlike what often happens this should not merely consist of a dry detailed list of the latest and coolest apps with technical tips and a cryptic description like “Good for listening” or “Children find it fun”. After the first ICT integration cycle, embed the best recommendations found in the ‘handbook’ in your schemes of work.
  1. Piloting the digital tools prior to use –Get a few students – including ‘weaker’ students, too – to try the app or website at lunchtime or after school, possibly in your presence; if not possible, ask them to do it at home. Then gather some feedback on it about the ‘mechanics’, how much they learnt, how enjoyable they found it, how they would improve it. Remember to ask them to compare the impact of that app with the non-digital approaches to the same tasks that you would normally use. Piloting digital apps and tasks has been a lifesaver for me on several occasions.
  1. Student voice – see below (Challenge 5)

Challenge 2 – Language learning metaphors we live by

Digital literacy within and without the language learning domain is very important. So are E-learning strategies (i.e. the set of approaches and techniques which MFL students can deploy in order to independently use web-based resources to enhance their learning). However, if, as part of our teaching philosophy, we set out to forge effective lifelong language learning habits with our students we also have the ethical imperative to impress on them the importance of human-to-human interaction as a fundamental lifelong learning skills. As discussed in a previous post (‘Rescuing the neglected skill’), ICT integration in MFL often results in oral proficiency and particularly fluency (the proceduralization of speaking performance) being neglected. This is usually due to a tendency to involve students in (a) ludic activities (e.g. online games of low surrender value); (b) the creation of digital artefacts through single or multiple apps; (c) digitally-assisted projects of the likes envisaged by Puentedura’s Redefinition criteria.

By skewing the classroom language acquisition process towards an interaction-poor and mainly digitally-based model of learning we give rise to metaphors of learning which do not necessarily truly reflect the way language is produced and learnt in the real world. These metaphors – rightly or wrongly – may form the core of our students’ beliefs as to how languages are learnt for the rest of their lives!

Possible solutions

Teachers ought to ensure that there is a balanced mix of digital and non-digital tasks and that oral activities aimed at developing oral competence and involving learner-to-learner interaction feature regularly in MFL lessons. After all, we want to forge students who can interact with other humans, don’t we?

Challenge 3 – Curricular unbalance

As mentioned above, ICT MFL integration has the potential to be detrimental to oral fluency development. In my experience, however, other aspects of language acquisition are penalized too; one is listening fluency and another one is grammar proceduralization. As far as listening goes, one reason is that there are not very many free apps and web-based resources which promote aural skills. Another issue relates to the fact that one very important aspect of listening competence, listenership, is often overlooked in the ‘techy’ classroom. Listenership refers to the ability to listen, comprehend and respond as part of an interaction with an interlocutor; when learners work with a machine, there is no interlocutor to react to

As for grammar, there are verb conjugators like mine (www.language-gym.com) and apps and websites involving work on morphology and syntax; but these are not designed to develop cognitive control over the target grammar structures (i.e. accurate written or oral performance under real operating conditions).

Language and communicative functions (e.g. agreeing and disagreeing; sequencing information; comparing and contrasting) are also often neglected in digitally-based PBL.

Possible solutions 

Ensure that in every unit in your schemes of work ICT-based integration does not result in an excessive focus on reading, writing, word-level vocabulary learning and grammatical drills of the gap-filling/mechanical kind.

Challenge 4 – Divided attention

Unless students are highly proficient in the target language, digital manipulation has the potential to hijack student attention away from language learning. Cutting, pasting, app-smashing, searching for sound-effects, downloading images, etc. take up a lot of the students’ cognitive resources. My students also often complain about being distracted by the notifications they get from e-mail and social network whilst on task. The obvious consequence is divided attention which may lead to poor retention.

Another source of divided attention is the cue-poor nature of digital media. In a typical interaction with a teacher or peer an MFL student can rely on many verbal and non-verbal cues (e.g. facial expressions and gestures) which will enhance understanding or clarify any doubts s/he may have; however, when it comes to digital environments, apps or web-tools are not as cue-rich and may pose various challenges that may disorientate less ICT-savvy or confident learners. If one has twenty or more students, it is not rare to have two or three experiencing this sort of problem at the same time. Hence, yet another source of divided attention.

Possible solutions

First and foremost, get your students to turn off social networks and social network notification and establish some clear sanctions for those who do not.

Do not involve students in any digital manipulation in lesson unless absolutely necessary. Flip it: get it done at home!

Model the use of an app / web-tool to death, until you are 100% sure everyone has understood how to use it. Also, group the less ICT-savvy students together – you will spot them very soon, trust me. This will save you the hassle of running from one side to the other of the classroom and will avoid other students being distracted by requests for help coming from those very students.

Challenge 5 – Time-cost

This point follows on from the previous one, in that, in view of the very little teacher contact time available to MFL teaching, one has to put every single minute available to very good use; to invest a lot of valuable lesson time into the mechanical manipulation of a digital tool which does not directly contribute to language acquisition verges on the unethical considering that the ultimate objective of language learning is to automatize receptive and productive skills – which requires tons of practice.

Possible solutions

The same provided for the previous point.

Challenge 6 – Variety

I have observed many ‘techy’ lessons where students spend a whole hour on the iPad! This practice is counter-productive not only for what I have discussed above, but also because there is research evidence that many students do find it tedious and not conducive to learning (Seymour,2015). In a small survey I carried out some time ago, my students recommended that the continued use of the iPad should last no longer than 15-20 minutes.

Possible solutions

Even though you may change app or game or task, you cannot keep your students on the iPad, laptop or whatever device you use for a whole lessons! As discussed in a previous post, it is good practice to alternate short and long focus, individual and group work, digital and non-digital tools/tasks, receptive and productive skills, ludic and academic activities, etc.

Challenge 7 – Student voice – How do we get the information ?

At some point you will want to find out how ICT integration into your teaching eco-system is being perceived by your students. Many education providers will go about it by administering questionnaires, possibly a google form as it is easy to set up, administer and analyze quantitavely. However, there are many problems with that if you want to obtain rich data which will help you improve the next cycle of ICT integration. The main problem is that a typical google-form survey ‘imposes’ onto the informants closed questions which require them to answer by choosing yes or no, or a frequency (e.g. often, rarely) or quantity (e.g. a lot, some) adverb. However, say 30 % of the students indicate they do not find ICT useful; you will not know why and which aspects they are referring to. Not to mention the fact that this kind of data elicitation encourages a very superficial ‘tick the box’ approach which does not spark off deep thinking on the issues-in-hand.

Hence, to enhance the richness of the data so obtained, course administrators ought to at least triangulate the google surveys with one-on-one semi-structured interviews involving a cross-section of learners of different ability and gender. A former colleague of mine, in her master’s dissertation research, found out that her interview findings on ICT integration often contradicted data on the same issues obtained through a google-form survey.

Challenge 8 – Evaluation of ICT integration by peers /SLT

In many schools ICT integration in MFL is evaluated by using the SAMR model. This can be detrimental to foreign language learning for reasons that I have discussed at length here:  http://tinyurl.com/o3yp64v (Of SAMR and SAMRitans – Why the adoption of the SAMR model may be detrimental to foreign language learning)

Possible solution

See solution to challenge 1, above (point 2)

Challenge 9 – Learner attitudes towards digital tools

If your school has gone 1:1 with the iPad or other tablet you may find that in most of your classes there will be one or more students who will not enjoy using the device for language learning.  This presents you with an ethical dilemma. If it is imperative to differentiate our teaching so as to cater for every learner’s cognitive and emotional needs what can you do to suit their learning preferences?

Possible solution

If, after trying various tactics, you still have not managed to ‘win the learner over’ and their aversion for the mobile device still remains, you have three options that I can think of. First one: tough, they need to adapt – not the most empathetic of approaches. Second option: give them alternative tasks with similar learning outcomes using traditional media. Third option: if you use the iPad for snappy activities of no more than 10-15 minutes alternated with other non-digitally-based tasks, as I do, you will find that these students will not complain much at all, in the end.

Challenge 10 – Lack of meta-digital language learning awareness

The internet offers a vast array of TL learning opportunities. However, students need to be equipped with the metacognitive tools which will enable them to seize those opportunities. This entails teaching learners how to learn from TL internet input sources, web-tools and App so as to be able to use them autonomously (e.g. how to best use verb conjugation trainers, Youtube, Memrise, Wordreference forums, etc. for independent learning ).

Possible solutions

Embed one or more explicit learner training program in meta-digital learning strategies (e.g. e-learning strategies) per ICT integration cycle. Since learner training programs do require extensive practice in the target strategies, one should offer instruction in only a limited range of strategies per cycle. A widely-used instructional framework can be found in this post of mine:  http://tinyurl.com/qxafy7m  (‘Learner training in the MFL classroom’)

Challenge 11 – Ethical issues

Easy access to the digital medium and apps entails the danger of ‘cut and paste’ plagiarism and the use of online translators.

Possible solution

Besides alerting the students to the dangers of such practices, teachers may ask their students to sign a ‘contract’ in which they pledge never to commit plagiarism nor to use online translators. During the initial phase of integration, teachers will have to remind students of their pledge to keep it into their focal awareness and spell out the sanctions for flouting the ‘rules’. In my experience this is a highly successful tactic to pre-empt such issues.

Challenge 12 – Product vs Process

Since a lot of apps and emerging technologies workshops concern themselves with the production of a digital artefact (e.g. iMovies) ICT integration in MFL is often characterized by an excessive concern with the product of learning. However, language teaching should focus mainly on the development of listening, speaking, reading and writing skills (the process of learning) rather than merely putting together a digital movie, app-smashing or presentation (the product).

Possible solution

The production of a digital artefact can be conducive to language acquisition if teachers and learners lay as much emphasis on the process of learning as they do on the final product. This involves identifying what levels of complexity and fluency in each macro-skill are expected of the learners at each stage in the development of a given project and provide extensive contextualised practice throughout the process with those aspirational levels in mind.

Conclusion

Successful ICT integration in the MFL curriculum and its practical implementation are no easy tasks. First and foremost they require a pedagogical framework which is consonant with whatever instructional approach to L2 learning is espoused by the MFL team. Secondly, its effectiveness will be a function of the extent to which a teacher knows how, why and when digital tools enhance learning and affect learner cognition and language acquisition. Thirdly, teachers need to control the tendency, common during the first cycle of integration for teachers to let the digital medium take over and drive teaching and learning; this is very common amongst emerging technologies enthusiasts. This is highly detrimental to learning and I have experienced first-hand the damage it causes to student enjoyment and motivation as well as to their levels of oral and aural fluency. Fourthly, learners’ meta-digital learning awareness and strategies need to be enhanced through structured learning-to-learn programs. Fifthly, teachers must not forget that they have the ethical imperative to form a balanced linguist versed in all four macro-skills and endowed with high levels of fluency and autonomous competence. ICT integration must be eclectic and mindful of this.

In conclusion, ICT integration in MFL is not an exact science as yet. For it to be successful, the best recipe is not to rush it for the fear of been ‘left behind’ and not appear as an ‘innovative’ school or teacher. Course administrators and teachers must always have at heart the linguistic, cognitive, socio-affective and moral needs of their students and integrate ICT with those needs in mind. Not merely integrate for integrations’ sake. Ultimately, ICT integration should assist, not drive, teaching and learning.

A little experiment with Padlet. Of teacher myths and learning reality

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I often read on the Internet or hear from ‘techy’ teachers of the presumed learning benefits of various Apps. More than often, when I investigate those claims with my students they are down-sized. The truth is that the way adults’ cognition – especially teachers’ – interacts with a learning tool often differs from an adolescent’s.

A few months’ back, one such claim was made in my presence. The context: an ICT training session in which one of the participants criticized Google classroom based on the fact that, unlike Padlet, when a student works on an assignment the other pupils cannot see what their peers are writing and consequently the opportunities for learning would be drastically reduced.

Reflecting on that claim on my way home I thought about myself, an avid and highly motivated learner of 8 languages – would I, whilst doing a Padlet task, actually actively look at my class mates’ output so as to learn from it? My answer was: possibly not, maybe a fancy idiom might attract my attention and would ask the teacher about it, but nothing more than that. But maybe students would; so I decided to put my colleague’s claim to the test.

The next day I asked students from four of my Spanish classes (2 year 8 and 2 year 9 groups), immediately after creating a padlet wall to which all of them had contributed, to note down in their books or iPads three language items they found in their classmates’ writing which they found interesting and/or useful. Two weeks later I asked them to recall the items they had noted down. Guess what? Only two of the 68 students involved in this experiment actually remembered something (one item each). Not surprising. Even when a student does notice something in another learner’s output they must do something with it for some degree of deep processing to occur and retention to ensue.

I also asked my students how often they actually look at what their classmates write and ‘steal’ useful language items from them. The vast majority of them replied ‘very rarely’ or ‘never’. Yet another mismatch between teacher presumptions and foreign language learner cognition.

The lesson to be learnt: not much is known as yet about the way adolescent foreign language learners interact cognitively and affectively with many of the Apps currently used in many MFL classrooms. ‘Experiments’ like mine should be carried out as often as possible in order for teachers not to be misguided by Internet myths. Padlet can be a useful App, no doubt; but assumptions about what learners do with it, should be rooted in evidence not simply wishful thinking.

Five central psychological challenges facing effective mobile learning

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A while ago, a very good friend and former colleague of mine, Fiona Seymour, popped around my classroom to have a chat with a group of year 8 students about how they felt the use of the iPad had impacted their learning since its adoption in our school. Some interesting facts emerged from the discussion which referred to some cognitive and metacognitive challenges that learners face when using the iPad or any other mobile device for learning.

Interestingly, in a very informative article that Fiona shared with me a few months later, two Scottish researchers from The University of West Scotland, Dr. Melody Terras and Dr Judith Ramsay address the very same challenges that my students mentioned, recommending that education providers take them into account when adopting mobile learning as the main or one of the main modes of delivery of the curriculum.

As a fan and assiduous user of mobile technology in the classroom I found this article a true ‘eye-opener’ as it not only confirmed some of the concerns I had about mobile learning but also triggered an ongoing process of reflection on their possible implications for teaching and on what I could do in my daily practice to address those concerns.

I believe than at an exciting time where ICT integration in the classroom is a reality in most developed countries every educator must be aware of these psychological challenges and endeavour to address them consistently and systematically in their teaching.

The five psychological challenges

Terras and Ramsay (2012) (at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2012.01362.x/abstract ) identify the following crucial challenges of mobile learning:

  1. The context-dependent nature of memory

As I have already discussed in a previous blog (“Words in the mind – how vocabulary is stored and organized in the brain”), memory is context-dependent. In other words, the context in which we create a memory will enhance our chances to recall that memory later. Thus, for instance, if I am learning a set of new vocabulary in my classroom, whilst sitting next to my friend Joe and facing my teacher, who is wearing a bright red flowery shirt, the classroom, my friend Joe, my teacher and her shirt will enhance my chances to recall that vocabulary in the future. Memory is also state-dependent. In other words, individuals are more likely to effectively recall a memory when he/she in the same emotional, motivational or physiological state in which he/she was when he/she encoded that memory.

As Terras and Ramsay point out, research shows that the retrieval of recently learnt material is highly affected by the influence of context. These findings have huge implications for mobile learning, as mobility, the fact that the learner may be using the iPad or phone to study in different environments, may disrupt the support of the context as a cue for retrieval of the target information. Thus, for instance, a student who used the iPad to learn new vocabulary for a test in his room, may then be revising it in the car or school bus on the way to school,then, once in school, may be going through it again in the library or in the canteen; each change of environment being different, the context-related retrieval cues will be missing, with a possible negative impact on recall.

Hence, the main learning-enhancement advantage of mobile devices, i.e. the fact that one can carry them with oneself wherever one likes, has the potential to disrupt learning. What can teachers do to address this issue? Terras and Ramsay do not make any pedagogical suggestions. My take on this is that, like one should do with any learning tool, teachers have the ethical imperative to forge healthy learning habits; this entails (a) raising learner awareness of this issue and of how it can affect learning and (b) modelling effective memory strategies which may effectively compensate for the lack of context-based cues; for example, students may be taught that, on learning new vocabulary whilst reading a French text on the iPad, they can creatively associate them with images and L1 words through the so-called ‘Keyword technique’, index cards and other menmonics or by using Apps like ‘Poplet’ or ‘Padlet’ to store and organize it semantically during or after reading the text. The association created through these two approaches would function as powerful retrieval cues at recall.

  1. Human resources are finite

As I have often reiterated in my posts, one of the greatest ‘enemies’ of learning, if not the greatest, is divided attention caused by cognitive overload on Working Memory (e.g. processing inefficiency) or interference (e.g. being distracted by an another stimulus whilst trying to learn). As many of my students have pointed out over the years, mobile devices can generate a lot of distraction, mainly coming from notifications from Facebook, Instagram and e-mail. Terras and Ramsay report a study by Cicso investigating the ability of social media to distract students. The study revealed that UK students are ‘most distracted by social media’. Another sort of distraction that Terras and Ramsay do not consider, but that I notice day in day out in my school and surrounding areas, is that mobile devices allow for students to study whilst socializing (e.g. they sit around in groups each working on their iPad). This was less likely to happen with PCs and laptops. In sum, as Terras and Ramsay (2012: 824) advocate,

Mobile learners may need to be more skilled at inhibiting responses to extraneous stimuli. In particular, they may need to develop superior attentional control in order to be effective learners in environment that are not primarily designed for learning. Noisy and changing environments and the potential distractions posed by social media may place significant additional demands upon the learner’s auditory and visual attention.

As they also point out, one important harm that interruption causes to learning occurs at the level of prospective memory. Prospective memory supports the intended execution of future tasks and may be time-based (e.g. remembering to check an essay once more first thing in the morning the next day before handing it) or event-based (e.g. remembering to arrange ideas in a logical sequence when planning an essay). Disruption seems to have a particularly harmful effect on prospective rather than retrospective memory, especially on the stages of prospective memory involving execution and evaluation.

Divided attention can stem from the environment but also from the mobile medium itself. As Terras and Ramsay point out, research evidences that face-to-face communication always outshines mediated communication as the latter is usually less rich and more ambiguous. Mobile devices, websites and apps pose more cognitive challenges, especially for less able and flexible learners who may experience processing overload whilst accessing and/or manipulating it.

Another important harmful effect was highlighted by myself in a previous post on the SAMR model (“Of SAMR and Samritans…”) and refers to another powerful source of divided attention: the cognitive load posed on Working Memory by the ‘mechanics’ involved in the creation of a digital artifact. Often teachers involve students in tasks which require them to operate simultaneously on two levels: on the one hand they are required to generate, elaborate and organize ideas related to a given task’s brief, on the other they are required to convey the resulting intellectual product of that process through digital media (e.g. smashing apps). If teachers are not careful, the demands posed by such modus operandi can easily cause cognitive overload and impede learning.

Sources of cognitive overload must be anticipated and addressed in the planning of any activity in which digital media are integrated with MFL learning.

  1. Distributed cognition and situated learning

By this, Terras and Ramsay refer to the new phenomenon created by the Web, whereby learning contexts which in the past where very distant from one another are becoming increasingly interconnected via mobile social networking. Thus, mobile learners construct their comprehension of the world and knowledge through cognitive interaction with a much greater and more culturally diverse range of contextual sources of information than non-mobile learners. This has obviously the potential to greatly enhance learning. However, the challenge resides in the fact that not all individuals, nor all external input, will be of value for the learning process. Hence, mobile learners need to be ‘taught’ how to discern who and what on the web is relevant to their learning and reliable as a source. As Terras and Ramsay put it:

Learners will have to cope with an extra layer of complexity in their learning ecology: mobile social learning increases the density of the distributed cognitive network. So, although learners may benefit from this increase in the distributed and situated nature of their cognitive ecology, the challenge is to use their digital literacy skills in addition to more generic cognitive skills in order to screen out redundant or irrelevant input to their learning

Education providers, in my opinion, need to invest much more than they usually do in structured learner training programs aimed at raising learner awareness of this challenge, whilst modelling effective approaches to a safe, discerning and cognitive-/time-efficient use of web sources. Such programs should be implemented, in my view, concurrently and as extensively and intensively as digital literacy programs are – which, as research suggest, rarely happens.

In the MFL classroom this is an important issue across several dimensions of learning. Firstly, mobile MFL learners are more likely to be tempted to use online translators and must be warned about the dangers of their use. Secondly, they need to become more discerning as to the cultural or political bias of the target language sources they interact with. Thirdly, they must be able to grasp the differences in terms of register, between different types of text genres (e.g. how writing a facebook feed differs from writing a blog or journal article). Fourthly, plagiarism is highly encouraged by the mobile social networking culture where information is recycled at high speed with little regard for intellectual property.

  1. Metacognition is essential for mobile learning

This is undoubtedly the most important challenge. Mobile learners must possess the ‘psychological infrastructure, as Terras and Ramsay put it, to support mobile learning. In other words, they need to develop metacognitive skills to be able to cope with all the above mentioned challenges. They need to develop strategies in order to best prevent the already discussed sources of cognitive load and external distractions from interfering with their learning and to generally effectively self-manage the learning process; this is particularly important if we aim to develop truly competent autonomous learners. The development of mobile learners’ web-related metacognitive competence should start concurrently with the very early stages of mobile learning.

  1. Individual differences matter

Although Terras and Ramsay consider this as a different point to the previous one, I believe the two are  very closely related. What the authors mean here is that students need to understand how technology best suits their personality, age, gender, learning preferences, personal set of skills, aptitudes and attitudes. Teachers often take it for granted that mobile learners, simply because (in their daily life) spend hours on mobile devices will know how to use them for learning. Being able to use mobile apps, social and learning platforms in a way that best suits one’s own personality attributes, skills and academic goals is not easy – it is a complex skill to acquire. How many teachers, I wonder, have the know-how to effectively impart on their mobile learners training in this kind of competence? This implies that professional development in this area ought to be focused on by education providers so as to equip teachers with the necessary knowledge and skills to address this crucial aspect of learners’ metacognition.

I would add a sixth psychological challenge to the five that Terras and Ramsay have identified: Depth of processing. Young mobile learners are exposed in the social media (e.g  Facebook and Twitter) to an overload of information, much of which is ‘fast’, ‘sloganised’ (forgive my ‘neologism’, here) and tend to be ‘sensationalistic’ and ‘eye-catching’ in nature. This ‘high-impact’ / ‘high speed’ culture has created a mindset amongst youngsters which encourages a superficial approach to information and cognition. This mindset, in my view, engenders shallow processing and the skin-deep acquisition of facts and notions unsupported by substance and/or reliable and referenced evidence. The challenge is for teachers to engage students, through mobile learning, in deeper processing of facts, notions and ideas. It is no easy challenge in a fast-paced society like ours, where the digital world creates on a daily basis such a wide and divergent pool of information and entertainment opportunities. We need to always bear in mind, as educators, that it is depth of processing that, after all, creates effective learning.

In conclusion, mobile learning has an enormous potential for the enhancement of MFL learning and of learning in general. This potential, however, has to be effectively harnessed and channelled. Education providers have to be aware of the 5 challenges pointed out by Terras and Ramsay as they are central to the construction of our learners’ cognition and may affect learning. In a highly interconnected world where social networking dictates a fast-paced, scarcely regulated and rich flood of information, the 21st century mobile learners need to be trained effectively to become competent autonomous learners versed not just in digital literacy but, more importantly, in generic life-long skills which enable them to analyze, synthesise and evaluate judiciously, productively and safely the masses of information available online.

Of SAMR and SAMRitans – How the adoption of the SAMR model as a reference framework may be detrimental to foreign language learning

The Language Gym

Of SAMR and SAMRitans – How the adoption of the SAMR model as a reference framework may be detrimental to foreign language learning

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I was about to write an article about the SAMR model when I stumbled into a blogpost that encapsulated most of what I meant to say – http://ictevangelist.com/samr-is-not-a-ladder-purposeful-use-of-tech/. What the article points out is that far too often Puentedura’s model is used as a ladder, with Redefinition as the level of student engagement with technology we should aspire to in lessons. The most crucial point the author makes is that App Smashing every day in order to hit the Redefinition level can be a waste of valuable learning time. Another great point is that technology is only as good as the person who uses it; technology will not make you a more effective teacher.

In this article I will discuss, why, in the light…

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Digital learning and Oral fluency in the MFL classroom – Rescuing the neglected skill through an integrated framework

The Language Gym

downloadA pivotal principle of language learning which must be at the heart of any methodology one decides to implement in the MFL classroom, is that – as posited by Cognitive Skill Theory (e.g. Anderson, 2000) – the four main language skills (listening, reading, speaking and writing) are learnt exactly in the same way as any other cognitive skill, through lots of practice and formative feedback on performance. Yet, in 25 years of teaching, in the majority of lessons I have seen speaking and listening skills are practised insufficiently and definitely not to the same extent as reading and writing are. When speaking occurs, it is usually within the context of teacher-to-student  rather than student-to-student interaction.

I still recall vividly the uproar I caused amongst some colleagues when, a few years back, as Head of French, I proposed to them that every lesson should include at least 15 minutes of student-to-student…

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