Andrew D. Tweed, Meijo University, Japan
Tweed, A. D. (2019). What learning advisors bring to speaking practice centers. Relay Journal, 2(1), 182-189. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/020122
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Speaking practice centers are spaces where students can practice conversation in the L2 one-on-one with a language educator. While in some self-access learning centers (SALCs) the conversations in these spaces are facilitated by language teachers, at my SALC in Japan, this role is performed by trained learning advisors (LAs). This paper will discuss the speaking practice service at my SALC and, in particular, the unique perspectives and skills that LAs bring to this pedagogical practice. I employ Mynard’s (2012) dialogue, tools and context model of advising in language learning to frame the discussion.
Keywords: speaking center, advising in language learning, self-access learning centers
I work as a learning advisor (LA) at a self-access learning center (SALC) at a university in central Japan. The learning support desk in our SALC includes three main services: advising, the English writing center, and the English speaking center (referred to as speaking practice in our SALC). All of these are conducted one-on-one and students can arrange to meet by appointment or they may simply drop in when an LA is available. While other universities in Japan also offer one or more of these services, a unique feature of our learning support desk is that LAs who are trained in advising in language learning (ALL) provide all three of these. At other universities, for example, EFL teachers, rather than LAs, offer support in the form of speaking or writing centers.
As with many other SALCs, the one in which I work actively promotes autonomous learning. By and large, the learners who come to the SALC choose to do so themselves, and there is support available for them in the form of learning resources, spaces and people. Advising is the one service we provide that is most closely linked with promoting autonomy. Mynard and Carson (2012) explain that “advising in language learning involves the process and practice of helping students to direct their own paths so as to become more effective and more autonomous languages learners” (p. 4). In addition to advising, speaking practice is conducted in a way that supports the development learners’ autonomy. Below, I will focus on speaking practice and discuss some of the unique ways that trained LAs can bring to this service. In this discussion, I adopt Mynard’s (2012) dialogue, tools and context model for ALL.
Dialogue, Tools and Context Model of ALL
Mynard’s (2012) dialogue, tools and context model of ALL is based on the theories of constructivism and sociocultural theory. Mynard explains that this model presents three underlying components for those individuals primarily involved with the advising process, including the LA and the learner. As will be noticed below, these three concepts overlap with one another, and each one is composed of smaller components. In an attempt to demonstrate how dialogue is situated with respect to tools and context, I present the components of ALL in the following order: tools, context and dialogue.
Three kinds of tools are discussed in this section– theoretical, cognitive and practical. Theoretical tools have a strong influence on the ways that LAs facilitate speaking practice encounters. Carson and Mynard (2012) state the LAs draw on the discourse practices of humanistic counseling as well as language teaching. According to Kelly (1996), humanistic counseling is based on the foundational values of unconditional positive regard, genuineness and empathy. These are values that LAs embrace and which are realized through dialogic strategies in a session. Later in this paper, I discuss specific advising strategies which can be applied to speaking practice.
Various theories from language learning and teaching also underpin advising and speaking practice. Willingness to communicate (WTC) is one which clearly applies to speaking practice. WTC, “the probability of initiating communication when free to do so,” was originally a theory about L1 communication related to one’s personality traits (McIntyre, 2014). MacIntyre, Clément, Dörnyei and Noels (1998) further developed this theory to include a situated perspective on WTC, including the specific occasion and the people who are involved in communicating in the L2. Research has shown that greater opportunities for contact with the L2, low levels of anxiety, and perceived communication competence are all factors related to higher levels of WTC (McIntyre, 2015). Our SALC, which adopts an English-first policy, provides immersive opportunities with English. Furthermore, LAs can effectively use advising skills, such as body language and specific kinds of dialogue to lower learners’ anxiety, and they can offer constructive feedback so that students develop greater self-confidence in speaking. WTC is just one example of how trained LAs bring particular knowledge of applied linguistics to bear on their speaking practice encounters.
Cognitive tools are also important in ALL. As with our other advisory services, speaking practice in our SALC is done with a handout designed to facilitate the dialog and learning that takes place at the learning support desk (see Appendix). The left side of the handout contains three sections, including general information and a conversation topic, a speaking preparation section, and a conversation question section. Before coming to the learning support desk, students choose a topic for their 15-minute speaking session, write some words, phrases or sentences to help them with ideas and language, and then write a couple of conversation questions so that they can ask and listen to the responses of the LA about the topic in question. On the right side of the handout, there is a large space where the learner and LA can take notes about mistakes or new language that arise in a session. I also use this space to introduce specific conversation strategies. Finally, there is space at the bottom right-hand corner for the LA to give some general feedback about the session. This could be something very general, such as expressing enjoyment or interest in the day’s topic, or it can be more specifically related to language development, as in a reminder to use more English thinking words to avoid long pauses.
The speaking practice handout functions as a kind of scaffold to help students perform better during their meetings with LAs. It helps students to prepare for speaking practice with ideas and language and this provides them confidence to speak for 15 minutes–something that would otherwise be difficult for many lower level Japanese English learners. Furthermore, the language notes and feedback provided by the LA ensure that, in addition to practicing speaking and listening skills, students finish the session having learned something related to language or culture.
Practical tools also contribute to the effectiveness of speaking practice. LAs have a set schedule during which students can schedule appointments or drop-in for a session. And there is an online system that students can access online so that they can easily reserve sessions. Upon completing speaking practice, the LA enters in the the details of the session into a database. These include the name of the student, the length of the session, the topic of the conversation, and other relevant notes. Some LAs also keep their own written records about students which they can conveniently access before and after sessions. From both student’s and LA’s perspective, these practical tools make it easy to make appointments and to save and retrieve important information related to them.
Another key component of Mynard’s (2012) ALL model is context, which includes physical and personal context. Regarding physical context, the learning support desk is located in our SALC, which gives it less of an institutional feeling than if it were in a classroom or teacher’s office–spaces more commonly associated with formal education. Within the SALC, we have taken care to position the learning support desk in a way that makes learners feel comfortable. For instance, book shelves border the desk on two sides to give the learner and LA some privacy. In addition, a teardrop-shaped desk is utilized so that an oppositional seating arrangement is avoided. The decision about which desk to use was made with theories from communication theories in mind. Commenting on the relationship between spaces and communication, Hickson, Stacks and Moore (2004) explain that, “Corner or adjacent seating preferences are found normally in cooperative task situations. Opposite seating arrangements are usually found in competitive situations, where a greater distance keeps other people from surveying one’s progress” (p. 105). The creation of barriers and the utilization of a uniquely designed desk help to make the learner feel more at ease, and we believe that this in turn aids in lowering the learners’ affective filter when she is communicating in the L2.
Mynard (2012) also discusses the personal dimension of context, saying that it “. . . informs how a learner might view advising and how an advisor approaches the encounter” (p. 35). Considering the speaking practice meetings between the learner and the LA, the two will often have established a relationship and mutual understanding that supports their conversation sessions. They may have had previous advising sessions which led to the student’s decision to join speaking practice, and an understanding of specific learner goals often arise from such sessions. These realities can continue to influence how speaking practice is conducted. For example, some students decide to come to speaking practice regularly in order to prepare for their study abroad experiences. In such cases, it is common for the LA and learner to decide on topics which might frequently come up while abroad, such as talking about one’s family, country, hometown, hobbies, university studies etc. These kind of sessions can provide students with increased confidence and enhanced fluency ahead of their sojourns, and in the process, can help to relieve some of the anxiousness that they have about these experiences.
Dialogue is a cognitive tool which is essential to the advising process (Mynard, 2012, p. 34). Various authors have discussed the role of dialogue in advising. Kelly’s (1996) oft-cited paper presents a number of macro skills associated with the longer term process of supporting learners toward achieving particular self-directed learning goals (e.g., goal-setting and giving feedback) as well as micro-skills that are involved in the moment-to-moment interaction of advising sessions (e.g., attending and paraphrasing). Mozzon-McPherson (2012) demonstrates how particular dialogic techniques, including paraphrasing, echoing and mirroring, function to communicate empathy and understanding. Thornton (2012) discusses the role of L1 and L2 in advising, suggesting that while the use of learners’ L2 may be motivating for some students, the use of the L1 may help the advisor to demonstrate empathy and to promote better understanding. Kato and Mynard (2016) focus on reflective dialogue and its transformative potential. They present a variety of tools and strategies which LAs can employ. I agree with Kato and Mynard’s (2016) point that strategies only represent one dimension of advising, and that this complex process should not be reduced simply to a set of strategies. However, these strategies serve as a useful intersection between ALL and speaking practice.
Speaking practice is more concerned with language development, in particular, oral proficiency, than with reflection or promoting learner autonomy. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider strategies which are cited in the advising literature that can be effectively employed during a speaking practice session. Below I briefly discuss several strategies from the literature that I believe can be effectively employed during speaking sessions.
Kelly (1996) notes how empathy can be expressed by employing sub-skills, including nodding, smiling, and responding in encouraging ways (p. 96). Kato and Mynard (2016) include mirroring and summarizing among those strategies that can communicate empathy to the learner. They explain that empathizing “is understanding a person’s internal state and imagining how she is thinking” (p. 22). In speaking practice, empathy can arise from the advisor’s understanding of the challenge of speaking a foreign language, or while listening to a learner’s personal story. An LA can mirror her body language to signal support and understanding, or summarize what has been said to indicate that she has carefully listened and understood the learner. By expressing empathy, the advisor can reduce the learner’s anxiety and help him to feel more at ease when practicing speaking.
Another skill mentioned by Kelly (1996), attending, refers to “showing the learner your undivided attention” in order “to show respect and interest [and to] focus on the person” (p. 96). Kelly goes on to explain that, as with empathizing, attending is also composed of smaller skills, including using comfortable eye contact, pausing, silence, as well as adjusting one’s body or face to the learner (p. 96). Attending can help to show the learners that they are being listened to. And an appropriate amount of silence and pausing can send the message that the advisor is patient and okay with learners taking the time they need to express themselves.
Questioning is a strategy listed by Kelly (1996), and this particularly pertains to the use of open questions that encourage the learners to express themselves more fully (p. 96). While acknowledging this as a strategy, Kato and Mynard (2016) caution that questioning can be overused in advising (p. 28). They include the use of alternative language, including the phrase, “tell me more about …” I have often adopted this phrase in speaking practice as it encourages the learners to speak more about a topic but allows them to decide exactly how to proceed. The use of phrases can help to avoid discourse patterns that sound more like an interview than a conversation.
Finally, it is important to point out that, as it is LAs who conduct speaking practice sessions at my university, we can employ macro-skills that are associated with supporting the learning process. Some of our students regularly come to speaking practice, and many of them have also attended advising sessions. These connections give us the opportunity to employ strategies like giving feedback and linking (Kelly, 1996, p. 95). For example, we can provide feedback by commenting on the effort that students are making to come to the SALC and join speaking practice, and we can also use language to link these speaking practice sessions to their goals, such as improving fluency and confidence ahead of a study abroad sojourn. In short, the dialogue we have with students can be used to situate speaking practice within their ongoing learning and goals.
Above I have discussed how the skills of LAs overlap with the practices of speaking practice. By utilizing Mynard’s (2012) dialogue, tools and context model of ALL, I have attempted to show how trained LAs offer a particular set of skills and knowledge that can benefit the learners who comes to these conversation sessions. Speaking practice can certainly be carried out in other ways which offer a different set of advantages. Nevertheless, it is hoped that this article has shared some useful perspectives and effective approaches that can be adopted by others working in self-access and related language education contexts.
Notes on the Contributor
Andrew is a learning advisor at the self-access learning center at Meijo University in central Japan. His research interests include learning beyond the classroom, motivation, advising and study abroad. Andrew has also worked as a teacher trainer in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
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