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Q: Why do projects? – A: Relevance & educational values

Group of children gathered around a globeProject author, Tom Hutchinson, continues a series of posts on the benefits of project work in the classroom, this time exploring how projects can help bring relevance to students’ learning and promote cross-curricular learning.

In looking at the question of motivation in my last post, I have been most concerned with how students feel about the process of learning, that is, the kinds of activities they do in the language classroom. An equally important and related question is how the learners feel about what they are learning.

A foreign language can often seem a remote and unreal thing. This inevitably has a negative effect on motivation, because the students don’t see the language as relevant to their own lives. If learners are going to become real language users, they must learn that English is not only used for talking about things British or American, but can be used to talk about their own world. Project work helps to bridge this relevance gap.

Real needs of language learners

Firstly, project work helps to make the language more relevant to learners’ actual needs. When students from Athens or Barcelona or Milan use English to communicate with other English speakers, what will they want to talk about? Will it be London, New York, Janet and John’s family, Mr Smith’s house? Surely not! They will want, and be expected, to talk about aspects of their own lives – their house, their family, their town, and so on. Project work thus enables students to rehearse the language and factual knowledge that will be of most value to them as language users.

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Six steps to writing transactional letters in the FCE Exam – Part 2

Young woman working and smiling in classroomIn Part 1 of this article, Michael Duckworth shared his first three steps towards writing the perfect transactional letter in the FCE Exam. In this second installment, he shares steps 4-6 and a useful summary.

4. USING YOUR OWN WORDS

When it comes to the exact words and phrases that you use, you should avoid copying too many words and phrases from the original letter.  If you can use your own words and phrases, then you will demonstrate your ability to use a range of structures and show your breadth of vocabulary.

5. CHOOSING THE RIGHT STYLE

Another way of doing well in this part of the paper is to make sure that you use the appropriate style.

If it is an email to a friend about a party, you will want to keep the language informal; if it is a letter to a company, you will need to keep the language formal or neutral.

Sometimes it is difficult to remember the differences between formal and informal English, so here is a short checklist of how to write informal English, for example in an email to a friend.  A lot of these differences are very small, but if you use all of them together, they make a big difference.

In informal English:

a) Use short forms like isn’t, won’t, it’s, I’ve instead of is not, will not, it is, I have, etc.   This is because we tend to use these forms when we are speaking, and using them in written English makes it sound more informal.

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Six steps to writing transactional letters in the FCE Exam – Part 1

Young woman thinking in examMichael Duckworth, a teacher and author of several courses for preparing students for Cambridge ESOL examinations, gives a two-part guide to writing the perfect transactional letter in the FCE Exam. Part 2 explores steps 4-6..

The first question in Paper 2 of the First Certificate in English (FCE) Exam is one that all candidates have to answer. This is the transactional letter or email – the word transactional simply means that it is a response to a letter or email and some notes.

I’ve found it helpful to give students a checklist to go through when they write their answer in the exam, and to give them key vocabulary for the types of reply they may need to write. Here are the first three steps of my six step process that will help your students write their best answer. There will be a summary at the end of the next post.

1. GET OFF TO A GOOD START

Before you do anything, read the question carefully and find out the following:

  • who you are writing to
  • why you are writing (e.g. to ask for information, to complain, etc.)
  • what you are writing about

When you have worked out what the purpose of your letter or email is, you should be able to work out what kind of style you will need to use.

2. PLANNING

Remember that the transactional letter needs to be between 120-150 words, so can be quite short. Take advantage of this and use the extra time for planning – a well-planned answer will be much easier to write and will get a much better mark.

There are three things to consider when you are thinking about a plan:

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Gems on the Web – Storybird

Storybird.com design screenRussell Stannard, winner of the British Council Innovations Award 2010 and owner of teachertrainingvideos.com returns with another useful web tool for language teachers and learners. This time it’s a website that enables you to create your own illustrated stories.

I dedicate half my life to looking for interesting websites for language learning. Just like London buses, the good websites all seem to come along at the same time. The last few months have been amazing but I think there is one site that really stands out.

The website in question is Storybird.com. In its simplest form it is a website that allows you to create short illustrated stories or books. There is nothing much new about that, but the actual tools and illustrations that the site provides are what make it stand out from anything similar I have seen.

Storybird provides whole collections of artwork around a theme or topic. The artwork is by amazing artists and the collections are linked. So all the pictures have the same ‘look and feel’ and can be easily fitted together to create a very professional looking story.

A student can visit the site, choose a certain artist or topic and then use the pictures to build up a story. The student can build up his/her story by dragging pictures they like into the centre of their screen and then writing the story in the space provided. The artwork is simply breath-taking and the tools allow the students to easily add pages, add and delete pictures and edit the text.

The resulting books can then be saved on the website for others to read or for the teacher to view. What’s more, the whole site is free! The stories can also be printed out and a cover is even provided.

Writing stories is not for all students. The key, in my opinion, is to give students help with the writing process. So, for example, if you are going to get the students to write a story around the theme of “parks”, you might start by thinking of a series of exercises you could do to get them to brainstorm and focus on ideas. It might include listing related vocabulary, putting students into pairs and giving them an image of a park to describe together. You might provide the students with a list of activities and ask them which ones they would do in a park. The idea is to get them thinking about the topic, building up their vocabulary and generating ideas.

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Q: Why do projects? – A: Motivation

Smiling child holding colored pensProject author, Tom Hutchinson, continues a series of posts on the benefits of project work in the classroom, this time examining the motivational benefits to learners.

It is not always easy to introduce a new methodology, so we need to be sure that the effort is worthwhile. What benefits does project work bring to the language class? This teacher from Spain expresses it very well:

[With project work] pupils don’t feel that English is a chore, but it is a means of communication and enjoyment. They can experiment with the language as something real, not as something that only appears in books.
(Marisa Cuesta, Spain)

As this teacher indicates, project work captures better than any other activity the two principal elements of a communicative approach. These are:

a. A concern for motivation, that is, how the learners relate to the task.

b. A concern for relevance, that is, how the learners relate to the language.

We could add to these a third element:

c. A concern for educational values, that is, how the language curriculum relates to the general educational development of the learner.

Over the next month or so, I will examine each of these concerns in turn, starting with motivation:

Motivation

If I could give only one piece of advice to teachers it would be this: Get your learners to enjoy learning English. Positive motivation is the key to successful language learning, and project work is particularly useful as a means of generating this. If you talk to teachers who do project work in their classes, you will find that this is the feature that is always mentioned: the students really enjoy it. But why is project work so motivating?

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