Group work, and activating prior knowledge and its impact

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In my first session this term, I had two E2 consolidating/emerging to E3 learners. It has always been apparent, but I was in a position to try something new, so I have been working on developing some group aims and objectives.

I started term by asking learners if they had anything they would like to learn as a group. I often find with literacy learners that they either give a blanket statement like ‘improve reading’ or decide they don’t want to do anything as a group because they don’t like to. I started to wonder. How much of the latter is actually true?

Unusually, I decided to go against my group and ask tell them about something I wanted to try and the reasons behind it. I told them I wanted to develop some group goals because I feel that there are benefits to group work they haven’t been open to exploring before.

I asked them what they thought the benefits were. One response was ‘there’s not!’. Another response was ‘well we’ve all got different things to educate ourselves about so what’s the point?’ This was the exact attitude that I wanted to diminish. I’ve been thinking that learners in homelessness services get treated solely as individuals to the extent that it sometimes changes their expectations of classes and inhibits opportunities for development. I started to question their responses and pose some hypothetical situations such as ‘what if I was busy and you were sitting waiting for me to finish with someone else? What could you do?’ eventually this elicited that they could ask someone else because they might also have the skills. One learner even suggested that this could be a better than asking a tutor sometimes.

I also threw a couple of suggestions in such as ‘when do you think team work would be useful outside of the classroom?’ They all agreed in their futures if they find employment, then this would be a beneficial skill to have.

Whilst I agree that learning in literacy especially should be predominately learner-led, it also highlight to me that often our adult literacy learners aren’t aware of things they don’t know yet. So it is up to my confidence to try to introduce them. I have lost count of the times when I’ve felt their motivation is low and linked this mainly with their unawareness of pre-study skills, including group work. We have open access classes, and sometimes I’ve tried not to scare learners off. Sometimes, I now see this has not been particularly helpful to their progress.

It has been easy in the past to steer clear of group work because most of the times I have done it, it’s gone horribly wrong. Either one learner wasn’t happy with the content, couldn’t agree with their peers, or just plainly didn’t see the point in the activities. The only thing that’s changed is my ‘pitch’ to the class as to why I think it’s important to develop speaking and listening skills and group work, and stick to my guns. So far (touch wood!), so good.

I started with the idea of group reading for pleasure. The learners didn’t seem so impressed at first.

I started with some photocopies of the front cover and elicited what the cover told them about the story. Immediately, they said the boy on the front looked like a ‘loveable rogue’ and they felt they identified with him on some level. Learners offered their stories of being children and being naughty, but being admirable with their cheekiness.

They discussed some questions then we went onto reading. Each learner took it in turns to read aloud. With lots of encouragement from me to signal when they’d had enough, and asked the group openly who would like to read next. I was amazed when they were offering to read aloud and relieve their peers from duty. As the chapter unfolded, and we stopped to think about what was happening and I concept checked to assess how much they were concentrating on decoding/barking v following the story. A few more activities were introduced, checking comprehension.

Learners fed back that it was easier to read as a group as sometimes you were reading, sometimes you were having a break, following the story, but concentrating more on listening. At the end of the session the feedback was amazing. One learner divulged that that was the first time in her life that she’d read a chapter of a book.

I’ve also been trying to do a warmer at the start of each session. I’ve been trying to relate them to the sessions, although a few have had, as the learners fed back, tedious links. The purpose of a few were to encourage the learners to talk to each other about their experiences, choices, develop listening skills and respect turn taking. They also served the purpose of highlighting any interests they might have had which I could use for future, and as most have involved some sort of sentence starter, as a way for me to see more examples of their writing other than a project. I think the activities have been working well, but what I need to do is stipulate what I am looking for more clearly than I have done.

Sometimes learners aren’t open to ideas. Sometimes, I think we’ve got to tell them why we think something is important, why we want to try it, and do it anyway.

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