Supporting Diversity through Targeted Skills Development: Helping Students to Speak a New Language by Alison Fenner SFHEA (Institution Wide Language Programme, ISLI)

Context

As the student population becomes increasingly international, the IWLP language class cohorts are becoming ever more diverse. It has become evident to tutors in IWLP (as throughout the University) that the linguistic, educational and cultural aspects of a student’s background can play an important role in their language acquisition, often helping some aspects while hindering others. In language learning, they may experience varying success in the development of the four language skills of listening, reading, speaking and writing, performing well in some skills while experiencing difficulty in others.

The Language Learning Advisor scheme and the development of a PLanT project

With this in mind, in the Autumn Term of 2016 I successfully applied for PLanT (Partnerships in Learning & Teaching) funding to provide targeted support sessions in oral work and pronunciation for those students who found these areas more challenging. The aim of the project was to improve their performance, motivation and, crucially, confidence. PLanT funding is awarded by CQSD and RUSU for projects involving both staff and students, and I invited three Language Learning Advisors (two undergraduates from the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies and one multi-lingual undergraduate from Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences) to deliver the sessions. Since these sessions had a particular focus, they were delivered on a small-group basis rather than the one-to-one basis more usual for Language Learning Advisors. They were delivered to students studying German at beginner level.

The three Language Learning Advisors were part of the peer-to-peer Language Learning Advisors scheme, which I have run since 2012. In the scheme, I train students who are successful language learners (usually languages undergraduates in the DMLES or students from the higher stages of IWLP) to advise their peers in DMLES and IWLP on the acquisition of effective language learning strategies, including the development of particular language skills and independent learning. The Advisors help students to develop effective self-evaluation, to reflect on their learning styles and to set achievable long-term and short-term goals in their language learning. Students also benefit from the support and encouragement offered by their Advisors in the continued dialogue of follow-up sessions in which progress is monitored.

Before the PLanT-funded sessions began, I and the Advisors discussed the needs and strategies involved. I monitored the progress of the sessions, and at the end of the academic year the Advisors submitted records of activities completed and materials used, and reflections on their experience. Two Advisors worked with me on preparing a presentation for the LTRF (Learning and Teaching Research Forum) of the International Study and Language Institute in June; the third had already left the University by then but helpfully recorded her contribution on video. The presentation met with a positive response and was a valuable experience for the Advisors, enabling us to inform a wider audience about the PLanT project and about the Language Learning Advisor scheme in general. It also gave the Advisors the opportunity to present at a staff forum.

Project outcomes

This project was a very positive experience. I was able to harness the enthusiasm and creativity of the three Advisors to develop a new student-based initiative which, in at least one case, confirmed an Advisor’s choice of teaching as a career path. The students receiving the support benefited through increased fluency, improved pronunciation and greater confidence; this was clear from their feedback comments, which included: ‘The small-group oral session is helping me a lot, [X] is very kind and patient’, ‘The [tutor] is very friendly. There is an obvious improvement in my pronunciation.’

I intend to continue to run these small-group skills-based sessions in future years, since I believe that they address a clearly-perceived and increasing need. The experience gained this year, together with the Advisors’ reflections and information about materials and activities employed, will be of great value in achieving this end.

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