SAC Shock! Tips for Self Access Centres
Having a school Self Access Centre is hardly a new idea, and many well-established schools have managed to build up quite a supply of Self Access materials of various ages and levels of interest. Unfortunately, what seems like a lucky position to be in can turn into a disadvantage when students walk into the SAC and are greeted by a cliff face of books and tapes bearing down on them. In fact students can suffer from "SAC shock" when faced with the choice between just two books. Often, the best we can hope for is that they take the one with the nice new cover. The worst-case scenario is that they give up the whole idea.
Here, then, are some ideas we have tried to take that glazed look out of the eyes of our students, and so to help them do more work (and more useful work) outside the classroom. While SAC shock tends to be greater the more material you have, most of the tips should be useful for any SAC, big or small, or if you're thinking of setting one up. Most of the ideas are also about making the most of what you've got, so cost little or no money to implement, and don't rely on high technology. In fact we have managed to increase the amount of materials borrowed from the school by 300% without even starting on our shopping list for new materials.
The tools in your armoury against SAC shock are:
Simply put, putting the books in order so it's easy to find what you want. The system that seems to work for us is dividing the books by skill and then "easy readers", "exam books", "original texts (novels etc.)", and "business". How you arrange these sections with respect to each other also makes a difference. For example, exam students will make the effort to find FCE practice papers even if they are tucked away in a corner, but grammar books might need a bit more selling by being put somewhere they can't be ignored.
Within each section you can divide again, for example arranging the grammar books by level or the business books by skill. Two ways that work well to split up a mass of books are dividing the graded readers into genre (e.g. thriller, classics), and putting easier to read original texts (George Orwell/short stories) in a separate section from the others.
Clearly labelling the materials will firstly help you keep it in that lovely order you've put it in, and secondly make certain materials stand out. Coloured stickers on the spine to indicate level work well (and look nice). This can be reinforced by a sticker on the front indicating clearly what skill and level it is for, whether students can take it home (in big letters to persuade them to do so), and if there is an accompanying tape. Again, it could be used to give a bit more information such as "easier novel", "individual sounds" or "science fiction". The front cover of the books can also be used to help the students distinguish between the various ones on offer. We have put a "highly recommended" sticker on the front of what we consider to be our best books, with some pretty little yellow stars from "ClipArt". This system of recommendations seems to have made the most impact of everything we have done on the amount of materials used by the students.
The other part of the "recommended" system that we have found works is posters giving students our recommendations for each of the various skills and levels. The books can be made to really stand out by photocopying their covers (shrunk down) and using them as part of the poster. The same can be done for any CD ROMs you might have. They can be made to stand out even more by having colour photocopies made if you're feeling flush, or you could cut out the ones from publishers' catalogues and posters.
Photocopying the cover is also a nice way of advertising whatever is new in the SAC, something that is particularly useful for someone who's been in the school for a long time. Alternatively, you can just advertise such stuff by displaying them cover first like in the window of a bookshop.
The latest poster we've added starts simply with the words "Start Here". It then goes on to make some recommendations by interest, e.g. "If you like sport...try the graded reader about Pele." The idea is to draw in the "browsers", people waiting for the Internet in our case, though we haven't had time to see if it actually works. The idea is to eventually extend it to a whole folder.
We have two types of handout to help students choose what to use. The first is an A4 sheet for each language group pointing them towards the common pronunciation problems of, for example, French speakers. This information is easily obtained from Learner English¹, Headway Pronunciation², or just the combined experience of the teachers. The second is a worksheet specifically designed to supplement the day's lessons - basically extra homework. These get hung up on the noticeboard with "Today's practice - please take one" above them in big letters. "Please take one" is also liberally sprinkled across the rest of the SAC, hoping to catch that reflex reaction that kicks in when people see something for free.
It might seem strange to leave this to last, but as important as it is can be to have someone always in the SAC to help people, it unfortunately doesn't meet the "costs little or nothing" criterion I set myself above. There are some ways, however, of guiding students around the SAC without taking up too much time. The first is just a whistle stop tour of the "this is here, that is also available" variety. It's important to finish this with, "And if you need any help, please ask..." We've found it helps if that person is someone the students have lots of contact with for some other reason, in our case the social programme organiser, as it makes them less shy about asking. This can be reinforced by "Please ask" posters in the SAC, maybe even including a photo of the relevant person. If this person has a desk elsewhere, you can usefully add a little sign to their desk giving their position as "SAC(wo)man" or even a badge if they don't mind. The idea of a T-shirt has just popped into my mind too, but maybe that's going a bit far.
The SAC tour can quite easily be given in a large group, especially if you can get them all together under another pretext, such as welcome drinks. People probably won't feel too comfortable asking questions in a large group on their first day, however, so we've set up a system of free tutorials (with the word free in big capitals on the poster, of course) where students can book a 15 minute slot with the SACman/a teacher to discuss their personal study needs. The take-up hasn't been huge, but it could be another way of making up for not having someone permanently there. We've found that people are more comfortable signing up on a list left somewhere in the SAC rather than having to go up and ask someone for an appointment.
© Alex Case 2002