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Getting English language students to practice outside of class

College student using computerFor many teachers the extension of language learning outside the classroom can really benefit their students, but how can you be sure they’re using the right materials to further their practice? Freelance teacher trainer, Zarina Subhan-Brewer, looks at how Oxford Online Practice can complement their classroom activities.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”   

        – Aristotle

How do we get students to continue practicing the things we want them to learn outside of the classroom? Normally, we give them homework and hope they do it. We no longer only have workbooks to depend upon for further practice, we have online material nowadays too. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to learn a language online, but there’s a lot out there.

Parents, understandably, will assume that if their child is on an educational website that they don’t need to be monitoring their child and will feel happy that their child is learning. However, much of what is out there seems very ad hoc, with materials jumping about from grammar point to grammar point and sometimes with a very strange focus on some obscure vocabulary. The quality and suitability of some visual imagery out there being used for educational purposes, may not be ideal. So why and how can students use online learning safely and effectively?

Firstly, Oxford Online Practice is not random – it is designed to complement, but not duplicate, what is being studied in the book. It looks like the book, with similar or identical images, but the activities are additional to those in the textbook and workbook. The units cover the same topics and language content, with an opportunity to extend language and interact with it on the screen, for example clicking for further information, or dragging to match a response to a question / vocabulary / grammar item.

Grammar

Grammar practice in the Engage edition of Oxford Online practice.

 

When it comes to differentiated learning, online textbooks are very powerful tools. I’ve always found that it requires a lot of preparation and organisation to constantly have something up my sleeve for the students who are picking up language quicker. While helping those requiring more time to grasp things, you have to keep the others occupied, right? All this with the dilemma that you don’t want the quicker ones getting too ahead in the book/workbook, while at the same time you don’t want your slower students to feel they’re having less fun and are ‘behind’. The beauty of online textbook material is that not only is it relevant and related to the topic of the book, your students can also do additional activities without the knowledge of whether their peers are ‘better’ than them or not. Because of the nature of the technology, a simple click of the mouse in a computer lab, or a tap on the tablet in the classroom gives them access to further practice of any sort.

Previously, reading and writing were the only skills that could be practically improved outside class, which meant students rarely heard any English outside the four walls of the classroom. Nowadays it is possible to assign an additional listening activity, without controlling a CD player or standing at the computer at the front of the class. So if you feel some students could do with going over a listening activity again in more detail, you can assign it to them.

Did you know students can even record themselves if they’re working on a computer / tablet? This means that students get the chance to really listen to their own pronunciation and compare it to the native speaker recordings on the Online Practice platform, so they learn much more in terms of both listening and speaking.

Online Practice takes homework to a whole new level, with students assuming more responsibility for their learning – autonomous learning at its best. But this isn’t to say that the students are simply left to their own devices – teachers can allocate particular activities, tailoring each class or student’s progress to suit their needs.

You can also organize your students into particular online groups. You can then monitor which exercises have been completed by which students and also what scores they achieved on each activity they try. Without collecting in physical work and marking it (because it is marked as soon as the student clicks on the ‘Submit’ button), you have a record of names, activities completed and grades for each student. This will save you from hours of administrative tasks, leaving you more energy for the actual teaching.

So your students will find varied and engaging activities that allow them to practice exactly the same language areas that you have been working on in class, with the added bonus of it being visually familiar. By allocating activities to students, they feel their individual needs are being met. Parents can breathe easy knowing that their children are on carefully designed websites that are entirely appropriate learning tools. And you as a teacher have more time to assess, monitor and actually teach. I’d say that was a win-win-win situation, wouldn’t you?!

These features are all available on the Online Practice components for the courses pictured below. Features and/or capabilities may differ for other Oxford courses.

engage-teen2teen-covers

 


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The power of pronunciation in Business English

Business English pronunciation ESLELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes, shares some classroom ideas for teaching pronunciation in your business English classes ahead of his webinar on 19th February. Register now.

Is there any essential difference between teaching pronunciation in business English and teaching pronunciation on a general English course? In many ways the answer is ‘no’. After all, in any type of ELT classroom we need to work on pronunciation in two ways: firstly, to help students with receptive pronunciation; in other words, to help them recognise features of pronunciation which affect their ability to listen and understand. And secondly, to help students improve their productive or spoken pronunciation; this doesn’t mean that they need to sound like a native speaker but that they are intelligible to a wide range of other people when communicating in English.

However, when we teach pronunciation in business English I do think our approach should be tailored to learners’ business needs and that they should have plenty of time to practice pronunciation for specific events. In addition, your business students can also use pronunciation to make their communication skills more effective. Let’s take a closer look.

Tailored pronunciation

Typically on a business English course (especially with one-to-one or small groups) we ask students about their needs for using English. Part of this will include asking them who they need to communicate with in English. If they answer, ‘colleagues working in our China offices’ then we already know that the students will need to listen to recordings of Chinese speakers in class. If, on the other hand, my students make phone-calls to the United Kingdom, then I might spend time focussing on the features of different accents within the UK.

Prepared pronunciation

In business English we also have to prepare a student for speaking at particular events; for example, if your student has a meeting in English coming up soon then you can predict the type of language he/she will need to use. You can practice using that language and identify any pronunciation problems that may affect the student’s intelligibility for the other participants. One useful technique is to role play the upcoming situation with the student and record the conversation. Then listen back to the recording and then pick out potential pronunciation difficulties.

Powerful pronunciation

Many effective presenters and speakers in the world of business also use pronunciation to make their message more powerful. So in my presentation skills classes I help students to work on stressing certain words and adding pauses for emphasis. Take this example which shows an extract from a presentation in which the stressed words are underlined and the / indicates short pauses between words and phrases. Try reading it aloud as you think the presenter said it:

Now I’d like to present the figures / for our most recent quarter / and / I’d like us to consider / the implications / for the rest of our financial year.

The speaker stresses the content words in the presentation and adds short pauses to break the sentences down. In particular, the separation and stressing of the word ‘and’ in the middle emphasises that the presenter has two distinct aims to the presentation. Having students mark transcripts of their own presentations like this can really add power to their communication.

To consider more of the issues behind teaching pronunciation in business English and to get more classroom ideas for teaching pronunciation in your business English classes, join me for my webinar on 19th February. Register now.

John Hughes is a teacher trainer and course book writer. For Oxford University Press he has co-authored on the Business Result series and the video courses Successful Meetings and Successful Presentations.


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insight Top 10 Tips: Reading

2 teens readingStudents often find it difficult to engage with reading and writing instruction and practice, particularly when large, intimidating texts are involved. This is the first in our series of insight blog posts, aimed at helping teachers to overcome this problem. Here are the Top 10 Tips for Reading, from teacher-trainer Zarina Subhan.

What does reading really mean? To your elementary students it involves letter recognition and decoding the letters so they can decode words. To your advanced students it’s a process of decoding ideas which may be stated directly, or a process of ‘reading between the lines’. Either way, your students are practising a form of decoding.

This decoding is a perfect way to expose them to vocabulary because it’s embedded in a context. This technique is similarly useful for grammar study, but whether it is vocabulary or grammar that we highlight, this is a chance for students to see models of language that they can then put to use in conversation or writing tasks.

In our L1 we read for information, whether it’s following signs at an airport, or doing an internet search to find a relevant article online. When reading in English, it’s important to maintain a purpose for reading the information. We need to remind ourselves as ELT teachers that our students are not English language specialists; 9 out of 10 are very likely studying English because it’s on the school timetable, or someone has decided for them that it’s best they take English classes. So don’t treat reading as the teaching of vocabulary and grammar structures, because that won’t be what persuades them to read.

So what can we do to encourage our students to read? Try these top 10 tips:

  1. Get that schema warmed up

    Always warm up students’ background knowledge (known as ‘schema/schemata’) first. We cannot guarantee that our students all have the same knowledge on a topic or theme, so it is important to get everyone to the same point. Images are an ideal way to gather together what your students know – and allow time for a quick brainstorm where they can discuss their thoughts first.

  1. Get them using all the clues, in true Sherlock Holmes style

    Focus on headings, images and subheadings (if there are any) to help students to predict what the topic or content might be about. This stimulates ideas further and prepares them to read, allowing for a subconscious awareness of what type of vocabulary might be found. This also illustrates that a handful of words can help us understand and that we don’t need to know every single word to appreciate a piece of text.

  1. Peer checking

    After their first reading of a text, get students to discuss it with each other. Speaking about something you have just read helps to clarify your understanding because you can’t explain something until you’ve understood it. You’ll also find that students voluntarily re-read sections to make sure they’re explaining their thoughts correctly. It also allows them to get help with sections they may not have understood well when they read it themselves.

  2. Question their understanding

    To reinforce the main ideas of a text, ask questions that check understanding of the context, rather than finer details. If we focus on overall comprehension, we encourage students to skim the text to find areas that are relevant to questions, rather than them reading in detail.

  1. Word recognition

    The quicker we learn to read, the more efficiently we can get information, so it is helpful to encourage this in L2 as well. Have a competition to train students to ‘see’ a word/collocation/phrase in the text. Project a text onto your whiteboard and bring a group of students to the front of the class. You say a word that is in the text and they have to point to it.

  1. Speed them up

    Get students to time themselves reading a text so they have a record of how many words they read per minute. Then, at intervals throughout the academic year, give them a similar text, in both length and complexity, to see how they progress. In each instance, ask questions that bring out the main points of the text after, so you know that they are not simply glancing at the words, but actually reading them!

  1. Recall and highlight words

    Once the context has been understood, highlight vocabulary by using flashcards. Use different coloured cards to differentiate between different parts of speech – main verbs could be on a green coloured background; auxiliary verbs on yellow; nouns on blue, etc. If students are in groups, get them to take turns to give a definition, synonym or antonym.

  1. Recall and highlight structures

    Take sentences from the text and write each word on a separate card, jumbling them up into the wrong order. Then, get students to place them in the correct order. This could be done in groups or on large flashcards at the front of the class. Do these with useful sentences, or ones that include important phrases so that they are subconsciously reinforced.

  1. Lure them into reading

    Have lots of reading material available – pamphlets, brochures or graded readers for students to pick up and read. This can play on students’ curiosity and encourage reading in L2 for pleasure as well as for information.

  1. Nurture a love of reading

    Finally, get students to find a piece of text on a topic of their choice and have them talk to you about it and why they chose it. If you don’t have time to do face-to-face interviews with each student, they could record themselves talking about it and send it to you as an mp3 recording, along with a link to the text.

As Krashen said, “Reading is good for you…Reading is the only way we become good readers, develop a good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammar and the only way we become good spellers.” (1993:23)

With all these benefits, reading is something we need to ensure is developed, but without necessarily making students aware that all the above is going on. It’s like enjoying a meal – who wants to be told about all the nutritional value of everything you eat when you can enjoy the taste?!

Reference

Krashen, S. (1993) The power of reading: Insights from the research. Englewood, Co.: Libraries Unlimited.


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Coming of Age as a Teacher

Teacher in classroomAnna Parisi is course tutor and materials designer for teacher development courses at ACCESS, in Greece. Anna has extensive experience in syllabus design and producing supplementary materials for private language institutions in Greece. Ahead of her webinars on 27th and 28th January, she gives us a preview of what she will be talking about…

I envy new teachers!

When you are a new teacher, everything you do is new. While ‘learning the ropes’, you constantly take risks and experiment, evaluate and take decisions. There are so many surprises: your students surprise you, you surprise yourself. It can be highly stressful but exciting because it’s an on-going process of observation and discovery.

We call this ‘enthusiasm’.

And then, routine starts settling in. We know we have to cover the curriculum no matter what, finish the book, and after so much trial and error we know what works best ( well, most of the time) so why take risks?  We change our routines when something goes seriously wrong or when we are bored out of our wits.

We call this ‘experience’.

Occasionally, both enthusiastic new teachers and experienced old-hands attend conferences, listen to experts and take notes. Later, we may use 1 or 2 ideas in class but generally we find ’there is no time’, ‘you can’t do this in the real world’ as real students often respond in a different way to what we want them to.

We also share fabulous ideas and photographs on the social media; we follow gurus and mentors online in search of general truths and successful practices. But still most of our issues in the classroom remain unresolved, and out of date or over-demanding curricula remain in place.

In the meantime, there is so much that goes unacknowledged, devalued or ignored: teachers’ tacit knowledge, the knowledge that teachers have acquired through the years but find it difficult to articulate or transmit.

While PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) have helped in this respect with sharing lots of ideas, thoughts and insights, teaching lives as depicted online have left a lot feeling they are missing out on developments or even with undeserved feelings of inadequacy. This wealth of ideas from teachers, trainers, authors is a host of wonderful recipes but not a better diet overall.

The gap between theory and practice remains as large as ever, published material sometimes seems to come from a parallel universe, and although everything takes place for the good of students, they are not part of the decision making and are not even asked what they think some or most of the time.

For teachers to take control and have greater professional responsibility over what we do, small scale teacher-led research is the next step in teacher development.

Why research?

Research is by definition questioning, challenging preconceptions, discovering, experimenting. Teacher-led research is action taking place where the action is: in the EFL classroom. If we, teachers, would like to see change and improvement then we are the best placed to initiate and undertake it. If we want greater autonomy, we will have to seek and welcome greater responsibility.

If we believe that we, teachers, should be involved in curricula change then we ‘need to take a critical and experimental approach to our classrooms’ (Nunan 1989). Solutions to practical problems in the classroom can rarely be imported from outside the classroom. It’s the teacher who is best placed to investigate and resolve issues by taking some course of action.  By researching our own classes we can better understand our own classroom procedures. We can become better able to assess what actually happens in the classroom as opposed to our own assumptions about what happens.  Teacher-led, classroom based research also means consulting our students, understanding and catering for their differences.

But what does teacher-led classroom based research involve?

Carrying out research should be a collective project, not a solitary task.  It’s really about discovering, sharing and transmitting knowledge, problem-solving. It’s an integral part of teacher development. Carrying out such a project can be a collective experience inclusive of all teachers in all stages of professional development. Teachers being part of this experience is the heart of a collective, teacher-led research project.

In the upcoming webinar, we’ll look at some of the basics of teacher-led classroom based research and how it can transform our teaching lives. You’ll be surprised! You can register for the webinar here.

References

Nunan, D.  and Bailey, K.M. 2008 . Exploring Second Language Classroom Research : A Comprehensive Guide. Boston: Heinle

Nunan, D. 1989. Understanding Language Classrooms . Cambridge : Prentice Hall International


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What are the building blocks of skills teaching?

What are the building blocks of skills teaching and how can these help your learners listen and read for tomorrow?

Take a look at this infographic to find out more.

Navigate Infographic

Navigate is a brand new General English course that takes an innovative approach to reading and listening based on this academic research as to how adults best learn languages. It teaches reading and listening from the bottom up, giving learners the skills they need to understand the next text they will read and hear, not just the one they are reading or hearing now. The course content also has been extensively piloted and reviewed in ELT classrooms across the world, giving teachers the confidence that it really works. Find out more at www.oup.com/elt/yourdirectroute

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