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The Solutions Writing Challenge: Using Time Effectively

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBIn this blog Elna Coetzer continues to talk about ways we can use our time more effectively (inside and outside the class) when doing writing tasks.

How does one become a successful cook? The answer really is very obvious – by cooking, of course. But does that mean just cooking dish after dish, over and over again?

No. Even if you are a successful cook, it is not about the number of dishes that you prepare, but more about the focussed attention you give to each aspect of a dish. In essence, you have to practise every step of the process over and over again. Only in this way can you know which choices are correct and what possible actions should be completed in order to create a masterpiece. And only in this way can the cook use their time effectively.

If we link this with writing, similarly our students need to make choices every step of the way. And if our students do not know what the possibilities are, they cannot make the correct or best choices at any given time in the writing process. So firstly, writing is about having knowledge available – knowledge of language and vocabulary, style, layout, genre etc. Secondly, writing is about making the best choices with what you have available in order to communicate successfully with your audience. Therefore, thirdly, writing is about making these choices (based on your available knowledge) in a timely manner. Returning to our cooking analogy: if I see that the sauce is getting too thick, I need to make a choice immediately and this choice I make on the basis of my prior knowledge and experience cooking exactly the same dish.

To summarize:

1) students need a lot of support in order to complete writing tasks (the prior knowledge),
2) students need to be aware of a variety of ways of expression etc. (choices), and
3) students need to be able to access the above-mentioned aspects easily and most importantly, quickly (retrieval time).

And all of this is accomplished by targeted practice activities.

What are targeted practice activities?

Targeted practice activities are tasks that focus on a very specific aspect of the writing process, which allows students to notice in an explicit manner how something works or how something is done. These activities can take the form of vocabulary exercises, for example brainstorming language for a suspense story (extreme weather words, adverbs, etc.). Looking at the writing sections in Solutions, you will immediately be able to notice these types of tasks. These tasks are about noticing specific aspects of writing and raising the students’ awareness of the requirements when writing a specific type of text.

Why are they so useful?

These types of tasks allow students to focus on specific aspects of writing which will help them in the overall writing process. This means that if my students have practised a specific aspect extensively, they will have the knowledge required, will be able to make the best choices in a specific writing task and retrieve the information fast. Of course this is not an immediate process, but over a period of time students will become more efficient in their writing which necessarily then means that writing lessons will not be so laborious.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Focus on only one aspect in each writing section. So instead of thinking about the layout, useful vocabulary and useful language chunks in the writing task, what about choosing one aspect to address? This would allow more time to focus explicitly on one aspect, more detailed attention given to the chosen aspect and more detailed practice for the students. This would also allow for more effective correction, because you would then focus only on the aspect discussed.
  2. Use jigsaw writing tasks. For some writing tasks it may be useful to show that the style and layout students are using can be used again for different purposes: for example notes written to say thank you, to congratulate or to take a message. In these cases one could get students in groups to only work with one type of task: group A only work on thank you notes, group B on congratulatory notes etc. When they have finished all the tasks related to their note writing task, regroup the students so that they can share what they have learnt with students from the other groups. You might want to give students some kind of grid or table in which they can take notes from the other students. (We learn better when we can teach somebody else!)
  3. Collaborative writing. If, for example, your students need to write a book review, it would be more time efficient to do all the tasks in groups. This means that the thinking and planning stages (brainstorming ideas, thinking of useful lexis and language, considering the layout, etc.), the writing stage (a draft, some editing and a rewrite) and also the feedback after the writing stage (peer correction), will be performed in groups or pairs. (Learning is a social activity!)
  4. Promote self-awareness, task-awareness and strategy awareness. This is useful because this actively encourages students to analyse, evaluate and create during writing tasks (Bloom’s revised taxonomy!). This can be done by getting students to think about the purposes of tasks (both before the writing and afterwards) and also by setting evaluative questions which prompt students to look more critically at the writing process. Questions like the following are useful:
    – who is the audience?
    – why would the audience be reading this text?
    – which register should be used?
    – what is the purpose of this text? (to advertise, to thank, to invite etc.)
    – which aspects of writing do I enjoy – which aspects am I good at or do I need to work on? etc. (Learning is a conscious process!)

In conclusion, we can offer our students more differentiated and effective writing support within our time constraints by making sure that we include more targeted practice tasks, by raising our students’ awareness of the specifics of the writing process and thinking more deeply about the planning stages of writing lessons.

Join Elna in her upcoming webinar to learn more about how we can use class time more effectively in improving students’ writing skills.

register-for-webinar


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Topic knowledge and IELTS success

Girl on sofa with laptop and papersLouis Rogers, author of Skills for Business Studies and an EAP teacher, discusses whether topic knowledge and fluency is key to performing well in IELTS testing. He speaks on the subject at this year’s IATEFL.

Prior to the internet we had limited sources of information and limited access to it. Therefore if we wanted to access the information we had to develop ways to store it in our minds so that we could easily access it at a later date. With the internet we have fast access to a range of information and we have such instant access to the internet that we do not need to exert such energy on encoding it in our minds. According to Sparrow et al ‘No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can ‘Google’ the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. When faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it’. For example, when participants in the study were asked to think of the Japanese flag many would think of a computer rather than try to picture a flag.

How is this all relevant to the IELTS exam? Many students express concern at not knowing anything about a topic. In particular, they worry about part 3 of the speaking test and part 2 of the writing. They fear facing something they feel they have nothing to say on. There could of course be a number of reasons for this. It is not necessarily the case that students commit less general knowledge to memory. Some studies such as Moore, Stroup and Mahony (2009) found that some of the IELTS topics were perceived too Eurocentric in nature. If students feel the topics are not related to them or they have never considered them, then they undoubtedly will feel disadvantaged when encountering them. To a certain extent this lack of confidence could make students hesitate, repeat ideas and even have a flatter pronunciation.

Creating materials and activities that challenge students to think and respond personally in common IELTS areas could help reduce some of their fears. IELTS lessons can provide an insight into some of this knowledge and give students the confidence to respond to such topics.


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#IATEFL – Pronunciation to Go: learning to learn from the dictionary

Teacher helping dyslexic studentMark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series introduces his forthcoming IATEFL talk on the keys to developing students’ use of dictionaries and important features that can support independent learning.

Proverbial wisdom tells us that if you give someone a fish, they can eat for a day, but if you teach someone to fish, they can eat for a lifetime. It’s a message about the long-term value of learning new skills and becoming independent. A similar thing could be said about pronunciation and dictionaries. Each time you teach a learner to pronounce a word, their English benefits a little, but they remain dependent on you. If, however, you can show your learners how to teach themselves the pronunciation of a word using the dictionary, they can improve their own English independently for ever more.

The dictionary is an immense resource, containing information about all the English words a learner is ever likely to need. In learners’ dictionaries, pronunciation information has traditionally been provided using phonemic symbols based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Nowadays, however, with the advent of online dictionaries, there are also recordings of all the headwords, accessible at the click of an icon – a wonderful resource.

It is well worth helping your learners get familiar with the IPA symbols, even though there is now an audio option. It’s a great learning investment for the following reasons:

– A knowledge of the phonemic symbols enables you to ‘see inside’ the pronunciation of the word, like an x-ray. You can see exactly what sounds are in there – and what sounds are not. Furthermore, these x-rays help you to see similarities and differences between words. For instance, your student may not be able to hear the difference between hit and heat, but they will definitely be able to see that the transcription is different.

– The ear is not always a reliable source of information. You can hear the word calm, for instance, and believe that you are hearing an L because it’s there in the spelling. When you see in the phonetic transcription that there’s no /l/, it makes it official somehow.

– The audio recording is only the voice of one person at one time. You don’t know which features of their pronunciation are essential and which are just one-off idiosyncrasies. For example, if the speaker places a glottal stop after the /k/ in document, the learner doesn’t know if this is a feature that they need to copy, or just a feature of that individual’s speech. The transcription shows it not to be essential.

If you can help your learners to be comfortable in the company of phonemic symbols, you are doing them a lasting service, because it will give them a more complete access to the information in the dictionary. It’s not that they have to memorize all the symbols – many dictionaries have a running footer across all the pages with a key to them. So it’s just a case of them getting to know the symbols little by little, as they use them.

Stress information is also provided in the transcription, by a vertical dash like an apostrophe. This is superscript for primary stress and subscript for secondary stress. If a dictionary entry does not have a transcription of its own, then these stress marks are shown in the headword itself. It’s very important for learners to become familiar with this method of marking stress.

The dictionary also provides stress information beyond single word level, for compound words, phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions. Compare, for example, the different stress patterns in the following pairs:

compound nouns:               ‘roller blind – ve”netian ‘blind

phrasal verbs:                       “look ‘on (observe) – ‘look on (regard as)

idiomatic expressions:        ‘one of these days –  one of those ‘days.

Due to the limitations of the WordPress editor, we cannot display the stress markings correctly. The single mark should be subscript (secondary stress) and the double one should be superscript, but single (primary stress).

Encourage your learners to look out for these stress markings, and try reading out loud the example sentences in the dictionary using the stress as indicated.

We do of course need to recognize the limitations of dictionaries for pronunciation work at the level of connected speech. Dictionaries, by their nature, are more focused at word-level features. However, the 9th edition of the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (OALD9) does take a step towards remedying this situation by providing pronunciation guidance for common spoken functional exponents. For instance, under the headword invite, there’s a box of exponents for inviting and responding to invitations, along with recordings of these, and even a short video of an interaction. The OALD9 also includes videos of students giving model answers in some typical speaking exam scenarios, and these exemplify some of the prosodic features of longer stretches of speech.


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The Solutions Writing Challenge #3: “It’s hard to find enough class time for writing”

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBElna is a CELTA tutor and teacher trainer based in Istanbul. She has a lot of experience working with teachers in a variety of contexts and countries. Ahead of Elna’s webinar on 22 and 24 April, she gives us a short preview of what she will be talking about…

I could have been rich, really rich by now…if I had only received 1USD for every single time I have heard the following: ‘’Oh that is such a good idea, but it will take too long…I have to finish the syllabus!’’ Now right from the start I have to say that this is the reality. However, from an educational point of view it is worrying that we feel rushed when it comes to teaching and learning.  A separate issue for another day, possibly with a double latte in hand!

The add-on:

Nevertheless, this is also what happens to writing lessons. They get treated like an extra add-on – only to be brought out when all other lessons have been completed. A shame though, don’t you think? We talk about preparing our students for the world of the 21st century in which digital literacy is key, but we find it challenging to allow time for doing those writing lessons. Those writing lessons  that could combine all the 21st century skills (communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking) and in addition, can prepare our students for a world in which we express ourselves more and more frequently in the written form. Think about it: are there some days when you actually write more than speak?

How to support the writing lesson?

We are treating the writing lesson badly because:
– writing lessons are time consuming;
– students do not enjoy writing, and
– giving feedback on students’ writing also takes time.
So we have to find ways in which we can do more writing, help our students develop their writing skills effectively and do all this without taking up too much of our precious class time. A challenge indeed! In the upcoming webinar we will look at ways that we can work with the writing lessons from Solutions and we will see if we can come up with ideas to be more effective with our time management.

I think we all agree that developing our students’ writing skills is important; we also agree that we need to include more writing in order to prepare our students for the 21st century and offering our students a variety of tasks is essential.

How to do this? Join me to explore some answers to these questions.

Register for the webinar


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‘Value for money': Helping your students get more from words and phrases they learn


Young woman wearing headphones and writingJenny Dance, who runs a language school in Bristol, UK, tells us why pronunciation training is so important for her students and what led her to find a system that would allow them to practice more effectively.

Helping learners improve their English pronunciation is a challenge for all EFL teachers – native and non-native speakers alike. English has so many unusual spellings, borrowed words and unpredictable pronunciations that even the most dedicated learners and patient teachers can find it tough to make good progress in this area.

And yet in my experience, improving a learner’s pronunciation is one of the most effective ways of raising their overall level of English. In his ‘Pronunciation Matters’ blog (5-Jan-12), Robin Walker, pronunciation expert, comments that pronunciation training helps with fluency, confidence and listening skills – all of which are at the forefront of effective communications. He goes on to quote studies showing the impact poor pronunciation has on writing, reading, vocabulary acquisition and grammar.

I wanted my students to be able to make the most of the English they had already worked hard to acquire. They may have been able to understand the word ‘comprehensibility’, and even write it with confidence – but I wanted to hear them using it fluently in their speaking, too. Improving pronunciation is, in a way, getting more ‘value for money’ from the words and phrases already learned.

It was also important to develop a more robust and objective system for helping learners assess, practice and improve their pronunciation. I felt students would benefit from seeing and having controlled access to the sounds they were producing. And with the rise of the touch screen and hand-held personal computers, I could see there was a big opportunity to enhance the way teachers and students approached pronunciation training.

Misplaced stress in a word can render it far less intelligible than an incorrect vowel sound. We aim to remedy the high frequency, high impact errors to help learners improve quickly. So with the help and feedback of a number of my students, we worked with Oxford University Press to develop Say It: Pronunciation from Oxford. The concept is simple: listen to the model sound (30,000 words, taken from the Oxford Dictionaries), record yourself, compare yourself and re-record until you’re happy you have made a good match to the model.

Using Say It in the classroom, either one-to-one or with a small group of students is a highly effective way to work on pronunciation skills. The teacher doesn’t need to listen and correct in real time – instead, you can review and discuss the sounds together, creating a real sense of partnership in the learning process. Because the assessment is clear and objective (for example, you can compare the stress placement at a glance), both teachers and students can understand the changes required to improve. Often, students are able to correct themselves to a large degree, which is a much more powerful learning experience.

sayitprintscreen

Recent research shows that pronunciation is learned at a cognitive level (Gilakjani et al, 2011), in much the same way as a tennis player will visualise hitting the baseline rather than think about all the physical, mechanical elements required to execute the perfect tennis stroke. Say It seems to produce a cognitive response, with users responding quickly to the visual signposting of key features: stress placement and syllable structure. The soundwave and visual indicators give the student the ‘access points’ to the sound they need to produce.

Using Say It, learners can visualise, touch, listen to, dissect and perfect their pronunciation. It’s a quick, fun and effective way to practise and learn. For my students, pronunciation training is not about sounding like a native speaker, but rather being confident that you’ll be understood. As Camille, an FCE student told me about her experience using Say It: ‘Now, when I get on the bus and ask for a ‘single’ ticket, the driver will understand me!’

You can find out more about the Say It app for iOS here.

Reference

‘Why is pronunciation so difficult to learn?’ A. Gilakjani, S. Ahmadi and M. Ahmadi,

English Language Teaching 4 (3), 74.

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