Tag Archives: constructivism

You, the expert: my experiment in constructivist, tech-enhanced learning. Part 1

Blogging has taken a backseat in the last year as I’ve been focusing on being a student again myself. Today my post is an outline of my last assignment, which actually came about through my interest in blogging and the role it can play in learning English.

The project, called ‘You, the expert’, was designed to help students develop their writing skills by producing a short e-book. Different digital tools were used for support during the writing process and to create finished texts which could be used as resources for later lessons. The group I worked with consisted of 6 students at level B2 to C1, consultants in the energy industry. They have weekly lessons of 90 minutes at their office, but attendance is irregular, with 2 or 3 students present each week.

Unable to find a course book linked to their business field, the students had been choosing news articles relevant to their jobs, which we read and discussed in class. To help them develop a wider variety of skills, we decided to use the ‘can do’ statements from the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), to discuss their strengths, weaknesses, and needs. They then chose a number of C1 descriptors to work on, identifying the types of real life activities that they were likely to engage in. In one example, the students linked the descriptor ‘Interviewing and being interviewed’ to situations where they are required to advise international colleagues on topics related to the German energy market. For ‘Turntaking’, one student mentioned an upcoming project with the European Commission and the types of meetings he would be taking part in. The result was a list of descriptors, tasks and situations suggested by the students. In this way, we created a type of negotiated syllabus.

One advantage of the negotiated syllabus approach, as mentioned by Nation and Macalister (2009), is that when students have greater control over decisions about what and how they learn, their motivation, satisfaction and commitment to the course is enhanced.

We planned a 3-week project where each student would write a report on a topic of their choice related to their job or industry, be interviewed on this topic by a classmate, and finally use the text and audio recording of their interview to create a short e-book. The multimedia materials they created would be presented to the group at the end of the project and used as content in future lessons.

Digital Tools

1. just-the-word.com, a corpus tool useful for checking collocations and how specific vocabulary is used. Students could refer to this site to find out how to use some of the language they discover when doing their research. Chambers (2005), in a study on the training of language learners in corpus consultation, notes that students reacted positively to concordancing tools, believing that discovering lexical or grammatical patterns by themselves could be more effective for retention that explicit teaching in traditional textbooks.

2. vocaroo.com Students could use this simple voice recorder to record themselves and save recordings as mp3 files. Students can listen to the recorded interview to help them produce their final draft, and can later add the recording to their ebook.

3. www.atavist.com Students would use Atavist to create a simple e-book or long journalistic essay, integrating their audio and images. To find images, students could use www.stockvault.net (or similar sites). This website has thousands of images free to use for educational purposes. The terms of use are read and discussed in class to ensure that everyone is clear on correct usage.

Every stage of the project is carried out in English, including any training in the use of tools. Students read guidelines and FAQs on the websites, watch video tutorials if needed, ask the teacher or classmates questions, and give each other feedback. This focus throughout is on the process rather than the end product, with students learning new skills as they go along.

Project Design

The type of course I describe does not fulfil all the requirements of a negotiated syllabus as set out by Breen (1987). Clarke (1989) admits that in most teaching situations achieving a fully negotiated syllabus may be impractical. However, he asks educators not to reject the concept entirely, but instead to consider introducing an element of negotiation into each stage of course design.

One disadvantage of the Negotiated Syllabus is that without guidelines as to which types of skills or tasks are available, students’ choices may be restrictive from a learning perspective (Nation and Macalister, 2009). As Clarke says ‘few learners, indeed, would have any clear awareness of what they need or want to learn, let alone how they would wish to go about it.’ (1991, p19)  This is particularly a danger when working with adults returning to education after a longer absence, as their knowledge of activities derives from language learning experiences in their own school days, and methods may have changed since then. I believe the CEFR level descriptors can alleviate these problems as they clearly set out competencies in different skill areas (e.g. addressing audiences or sustained monologue) and also include descriptions of the strategies language users can utilise to achieve these tasks, such as planning, compensating, and monitoring and repair. With this information at hand, negotiating a syllabus becomes a less daunting and more satisfying process.

Nation and Macalister (2009) mention a major obstacle to implementing a negotiated syllabus from the teacher’s standpoint, that is the fact that creating individualised lesson plans and resources requires a greater investment of the teacher’s time than if a course book was used. Clarke (1991) also discusses the difficulty in finding sufficient materials, stating that it would only be possible if there was a large selection of local resources available combined with ‘ideas books’ of ready-made modules that could be used as required.

These authors focus on the challenges a teacher faces in creating or locating adequate materials. However, if we take a constructivist approach or the constructionist approach advocated by Papert & Harel (1991) which links making or developing a product to deeper learning, then the problem of insufficient materials is eliminated as students create their own. The act of creating something becomes part of learning and the process, rather than the end product, takes the spotlight.

Having read about the benefits blogging has on language learning (Sun & Chang, 2013; Bloch 2007; Sun, 2009), I wondered if a similar type of task would be possible with this group. Would producing and publishing shorter stand-alone texts be feasible and if so, would this have the same effects on learner motivation and language development as blogging?

Although previously this group had shown little interest in writing tasks, writing ‘reports and essays’ was something they identified as requiring attention. Bloch (2007) says that instead of wondering what we can do with blogs, we should consider what problem might blogging be the solution for. With this in mind, I hoped that a writing project involving research and peer feedback, with a published product at the end, might encourage student participation and perhaps even have a positive effect on attendance.

What happened? Well, there were highs and there were lows, but I’ll have to wait for another post to fill you in on all that.

To be continued…


Bloch, J. 2007. Abdullah’s blogging: A generation 1.5 student enters the blogosphere. Language Learning and Technology. 11(2), pp.128-141.

Breen, M., 1987. Learner contributions to task design. Language learning tasks, 7, pp.23-46.

Chambers, A. 2005. Integrating corpus consultation in language studies. Language Learning and Technology, 9(2), 111–125.

Clarke, D.F., 1991. The negotiated syllabus: what is it and how is it likely to work?. Applied Linguistics, 12(1), pp.13-28.

Nation, I.S.P. and Macalister, J., 2009. Language curriculum design. Routledge.

Papert, S. and Harel, I., 1991. Situating constructionism. Constructionism, 36, pp.1-11.

Sun, Y.C., 2009. Voice blog: An exploratory study of language learning. Language Learning & Technology, 13(2), pp.88-103.

Sun, Y.-C. and Chang, Y.-J. 2012. Blogging to learn: Becoming EFL academic writers through collaborative dialogues. Language Learning and Technology. 16(1), pp.43-61.