Rivers, Goals and Stickies…

So the last week or so I’ve experimented with two ideas for isolating and identifying learner goals, and exploring ways of encouraging learner involvement in planning. I tried two main ideas this week…

The first of these methods was fairly traditional in concept, but more up to date in execution. I used a website called linoit.com to set up a virtual notice board for learners to post their responses to the question “why are you learning English?”. This worked really well in a room full of computers as I was where each learner could add to their ideas individually and then watch their colleagues’ thoughts appear all around them. The resulting comments, of course, gave me a splendid source for ideas around course content and plans, especially when I combined it with comments from “what do you want to do on the course?”.

The second method was less traditional conceptually but used the more old school materials of pen and paper. This Involved Me drawing own journey of learning French on board using a river as a metaphor. The students were then challenged to ask questions about key events and stages (I stretched the metaphor to show how my learning stopped by drawing ithe river slowing down to a thin trickle, then sporadic pools for example in 2004 when I ran some training in Toulouse and 2010 on holiday in Brittany). I also left a space at the end to show the future as a blank stretch of river.

The learners then drew their own similar rivers of English, before sharing with the rest of the group, encouraging as much discussion and questioning as possible: who was your favourite teacher? Why?

I followed this up some vocabulary work on phrases the students and I had used to describe learning language, for example: I just picked it up (as I went along), it’s a bit rusty, I never got the hang of …, get to grips with, I worked it out, pretty fluent, make mistakes, …. Really helped, learned a lot by…. We also had an extended aside discussing university education and learning at different levels.

The final task was then to draw where the learners would like the “river” to go, using the prompt “where do you see the river of English taking you?”

In comparison, then, the first method produced clearer, neater, and predictable goals (with some surprises) but very little extra language, partly because I was quite strict about getting learners to be productive rather than necessarily accurate, but also because of the restrictions of the medium: there’s only so much you can write on a virtual post it note. It was, however, very effective in sharing ideas, so that when the students came to record their own goals on their ILPs, they could draw on other ideas as well.

I think the benefit of the second activity was not only did it produce a richer range of language (and therefore language knowledge “gaps”) but it also got the students thinking about their language use in the wider world. I’m planning some sessions on “learning English” in the coming weeks, so may well try it with the other group and see what they think. I definitely got the feeling that the learners enjoyed the second activity more (that’s not to say the other group didn’t enjoy the first activity, of course) and they enjoyed the language learning opportunities the activity threw up.

Both lessons got to the same end, writing goals on ILPs, but the second gave us a rich range of language and ideas, and actually enabled me to learn more about the group in some respects. Then again, the former was easier to use from a course planning perspective! Devil and the deep blue sea maybe, but definitely for me the river worked best, and was more productive and interesting for the learners.

Here, by the way, is my river….




  1. I use visual tools a lot in my teaching. I draw on Reflect for ESOL. For course planning, I use a matrix to control and progress a whole class discussion. Students write their names alongside the content and or skills they want to work on. Then we use the matrix as visible dispaly of content we want to cover in the course. We tick off stuff as we feel we’re done.

    1. The river theme was definitely from the Reflect project, although pinched as an idea rather than followed through, but it proved really productive on so many levels. I have a colleague who is using the Reflect tree as a planning tool to great success. I like the idea of the matrix to check things off – and with the OFSTED focus on ILPs as canonical good practice, individual targets could easily be incorporated. I know a lot of my colleagues are using various visual metaphors for tracking progress this year – a “race” where learners track their progress on a chart using various pictures of vehicles and others using a mountain metaphor.

      1. The river may have been most recently from the Reflect project but it has been around since before I started in 1978! It is a great visual tool, though, so it doesn’t really matter where it started and I can’t even recall where I picked it up. Hopefully, Sam’s having shared it will inspire others.

      2. Thanks Tessa, it is a good idea and works well as a means of getting learners to think about their own learning. I only wish I’d taken a picture of the learners’ rivers. One learner changed his metaphor and drew a flower at various stages of growth (including “wilting” when he stopped studying for a time). This was esecially lovely because he thought of his own metaphor.

    1. Probably. It’s the joy of not having an editor to tell you these things. My most recent post is littered with typos! But glad you read the post.

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