BrELT CoLAB: Cintia Costa “Language Learning Strategies”

The secrets I tell my students about learning English

Rocket, eraser, dog, cat, pen, pencil were the first words I learned when I started learning English at the age of six and I loved repeating them to show everybody I could “speak” English. Wait, SPEAK, really?

Well, after completing the English course and getting my certificate from a language school, I was sure I was ready to use English whenever and wherever I wanted, right? W-R-O-N-G. The first time I had the chance to talk to a woman from the USA I said: “When do you use the present perfect tense? It is so difficult to memorize all those irregular verbs!”. I don’t need to tell you she didn’t know what I was talking about. On a following occasion, I tried to remember the page of one of my textbooks with a dialogue that I wanted to use in that moment.

Frustration. That was the word that came to my mind. How come I could not speak English after completing an English course? I thought I was not intelligent. I went to so many classes! I repeated after the teacher, I read the textbooks, I completed the workbooks, I did my homework, I took tests…

Taking the course Applied Linguistics in my English as a Foreign Language program (Letras) in Brazil was a turning point in my learning process. I wa s assigned to read Rebecca Oxford’s book “Language Learning Strategies – What Every Teacher Should Know”. This book presented so many practical ideas to learn a language and I started using various of them right away to study. And I developed my language skills enormously!

Rebecca Oxford (1990): Language Learning Strategies.

I then decided to share all these strategies with my students and this topic served as a theoretical background for my Master’s. I think many teachers believe their students already know how to study. In my case, I can still remember reading my textbook right before a test because I was not aware that I could (and should) have done much more than that if I really wanted to manipulate the English language.

After several years teaching languages and now teaching ESL in Canada for almost 5 years, I have reasons to believe that talking about language learning strategies with the students in the beginning of my courses makes a positive difference in their learning process.

As many adult students here in Canada did not have the opportunity to go school in their home countries, learning English is rather hard for them. However, I believe that getting them to use strategies to learn how to learn makes the learning process less challenging.

How do I share the secrets with my students in my classes?

First, I show them a funny video and use some ideas from a lesson on the website Film-English. Using this video is great because they laugh and reflect about what we have to do to learn a language. After that, I have a dialogue with my students about how to practice each skill (listening, speaking, reading, writing). As they usually participate a lot and give various suggestions, I just manage the discussion and write their ideas on the board.

Following this discussion, I give them a table I created with some ideas (which I edit according to my students’ needs). I also remind students about the strategies on a regular basis. They can include other activities or translate some of them if they want to. You can read the table here.

Creating their English learning schedule is the next step. I give them a table with the days of the week and tell them to write an activity for every day and the time they plan to spend on the activity. I tell them that even 5 minutes is enough for an activity. The important thing is to do something every day. I also make sure they include more strategies about the skill they think they need the most. If they think their listening is “weak”, for example, they must include more strategies about this skill.

Besides that, I ask my students to reflect about their own learning. They write about the things they are doing to reach their objectives. If they want to have a job interview, for example, they have to think about what they are doing to have a successful job interview. Watching videos, taking notes, reading their resume and cover letter, and rehearsing for the interview are extremely important. This practice is great because they can think about their actions to learn the language.

As soon as they learn about the strategies and realize how important they are, they start using them consciously. They demonstrate autonomous behaviours to practice English by using apps, reading books, taking notes, highlighting new words, drawing, volunteering in various organizations, talking to classmates, and even writing letters to me!

One of my student’s notes.

One of my students reading a book on her own before our class started.
One of my student’s drawings.

All these strategies helped me and my students in our adventure of learning English and I hope they can be helpful to you and your students too.

Cintia Costa holds a Master in Linguistics and a Bachelor in Teaching English as a Foreign Language from Universidade Federal do Pará, in Brazil. She has been a teacher trainer and ESL/EFL, Portuguese and Italian teacher since 1993. She was a professor for the Portuguese program at Duke University, in the United States, and for the TCP program at the University of Winnipeg. She currently works as an ESL Instructor at the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology in Winnipeg. In her free time, she loves yoga, meditation, and going to parks.

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