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Encouraging ESL learner independence

Man sat at desk smiling while workingLara Storton has seventeen years of experience in ESL, teaching English for Academic Purposes and teacher training, and has recently written the Milestones in English Student’s Book and Teacher’s Book at B1+ level. She joins us today to outline steps towards encouraging language learners to continue their study outside the classroom and how to make use of technology and online resources to promote independent learning.

The student-centered approach is becoming more common as teachers realize the benefits of being a facilitator in the classroom, encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning in collaborative tasks and discussions. Of course, as a teacher you decide what happens in the classroom, but how can you extend learner independence outside it?

Set learning goals

Students come to class with their own individual learning goals. Often their motivation for learning will be goal-oriented: geared towards a specific exam, career or university placement and so getting them to spend time on skills development outside of class – rather than cramming for an exam – can be a challenge. And it can also be difficult for students who do want to develop their independent study skills to decide what to study outside the classroom.

What you want is for your students to become confident in organizing their own learning, studying what they want or need to study in order to achieve their long-term goals so that when they pass that exam or get into university, they can go on working independently and with confidence.

So first of all you need to get them thinking about their own learning goals in more detail. Do some needs analysis in class using questions. For example: Why am I studying English now? What do I hope to achieve in the future by learning English? What are my main strengths? How can I build on them? What are my weaknesses? How can I improve my skills and turn my weaknesses into strengths?

Students can then write down a list of individual learning goals and some suggestions of how to achieve them. Make this an interactive activity to highlight its importance and promote independence from the beginning – get students to discuss their learning goals and make suggestions in pairs or small groups. Take time to review these both as a whole class and individually with each student. This way you can help guide learners towards independent study in a way that requires them to take the initiative.

Get students to think about how to extend their learning in class

Once your students have established their learning goals, you can support them further by making references to independent study during lessons. Get them thinking about how they could extend their learning and build on the skills they have practised in lessons, saying for example, ‘How could you practice this at home?’ ‘Has anyone got any ideas about how you could extend what you’ve learned in this lesson?

At first your students may need some support with thinking of ideas so you could give them suggestions such as, ‘Read a newspaper and find two more examples for each dependent preposition we studied today.’ ‘Read a short text on a topic you are interested in and prepare to summarize it to a partner tomorrow’. ‘Read an article on a subject you’re interested in, underline all the present tenses and consider why the writer has used each one.

Over time these suggestions will give students an awareness of a range of independent study techniques and strategies and increase their confidence and motivation to move towards independence.

Take advantage of technology

In terms of motivation, we are lucky to live in an age where technology offers a wide range of self-study options. Most students will have a smartphone, laptop or tablet and are likely to be very adept at using it! This means that they can access a wealth of online study opportunities.

When online practice first became available, technology and programming was limited so exercises tended to be very short. Often they were gap-fill or choose-the-correct-option type tasks which required little ‘thought’. Of course there is a benefit to these more automatic types of exercise but nowadays online study programmes and resources can offer students so much more in terms of skills development. Features such as high quality images, games, audio, video, writing walls and discussion forums add to learner experience helping them to stay motivated and engaged.

From a teaching perspective, online study programmes also act as a ‘first step’ to guiding your students towards independent study – they can work on achieving their learning goals at their own pace and at a level that they feel comfortable with. They tend to be progressive, so once a student is has mastered the necessary language and skills, they can move on to the next level.

One example is the Oxford Online Skills Program. The programme runs at all CEFR levels and offers students the opportunity to work on either General or Academic English. Students can log on in their own time and choose what they want to study in whatever order they like in order to achieve their learning goals. An advantage is that the study material is generic – each module is based around a specific language focus, skill or topic so it can be used alongside any course and to suit varied interests.

Tapping into those interests is extremely motivating so encourage your students to engage with online material as much as possible not only on official study programmes but also through authentic websites and social media.

Build independent skills online

Once your students start to become motivated to study independently, encourage them to adopt a systematic approach to build their skills. In class, have regular discussions about how students can use technology for independent study, for example by listening to podcasts or online lectures, or by reading articles on their subject or area of special interest.

You could set aside a regular time in class where students discuss how they have studied independently this week and say what they have learned, what they have practiced, what they feel they gained from the study and how they will continue to develop those skills in future.

An online study programme can also help to guide students towards a systematic approach which they can then use with authentic materials. For example, in the Oxford Online Skills Program, modules are set up like mini-lessons giving students the opportunity to raise schema (activate their own knowledge and ideas and relate these to their experiences) by looking at an image or watching a video, and then complete a series of exercises including language, vocabulary or form focus. These build up to a final productive ‘task’, either written or spoken, and finally a ‘reflective’ task prompts students to consider their own learning experience and performance.

A2 Listening Engage

Engage activities activate schma. (Screenshot from Oxford Online Skills Program Academic A2)

This type of structure helps students to get into good independent study habits which they can then apply in the future at home or at college or university with authentic texts on subjects that are interesting to them or important to their course of study or career.

 


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Bottom-up decoding: listening

female earMark Bartram has been a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer for more than 30 years. His titles for OUP include Venture and Think English for Italian high school students, High Spirits on Holiday for middle school students, and a Business Result Teacher’s Book. 

In a previous post I explained some of the reasons why we should focus on bottom-up strategies for listening and reading. In this post, I’d like to show how this might work in practice for the skill of listening.

Even learners who have a good range of grammar and vocabulary can struggle with understanding natural speech. And the same is true even for listeners who have a reasonable grasp of the topic and good prediction skills (usually associated with top-down strategies). There could be a number of reasons for this, but one essential reason is that they have difficulty in decoding the “signal” which is coming at them. By “decoding”, I mean perceiving the sounds of English and linking them mentally to words and phrases that they have in their store of language. (Even so-called native speakers struggle with this – for example, the recent case of a man who thought the phrase “as opposed to” was “as a pose to” until he was nearly 20.)

English is often described as a particularly difficult language to understand in this respect, as

(a) the sounds we hear don’t always correspond to what we think is the spelling

(b) certain sounds change when spoken quickly and/or in groups of words. In the example above, the schwa sound at the start of “opposed” could be spelt as an O or an A, and the /d/ sound at the end of “opposed” gets lost (elided?) in the following /t/ sound

(c) it is sometimes difficult to work out where one word ends and another starts, as in “I scream/ice cream”.

Our learners’ stories confirm this: a classic example from my own experience was a B2 level class asking me at the end of a course why I kept talking about festivals, when I had just been giving instructions: “First of all….”

So what kinds of activities would help our learners with this problem? Firstly, learners need to be made aware of these features – in my experience, even high level learners may be unconscious of them. Features might include:  connected speech, including weak forms, elision, assimilation and so on; the use of reference words like it and this to refer back to something mentioned previously (very difficult even for advanced learners); the use of stress to carry meaning (as in “I didn’t want to GO” vs “I DIDN’T want to go”); interpreting auxiliary verbs (“Where did you live?” Vs “Where do you live?”)

Teachers often feel that the practice of these features helps in awareness-building.  That is, if the learners try saying these forms (even if they do not wish or need their own pronunciation to reach “native-speaker” level), they are likely to be in a better position to recognise them.

Secondly, learners need to work on the best strategies for successful listening. For example, it is very important for learners to understand the topic of a conversation, but they often interpret a key word wrongly and mis-interpret the topic. This could be because the word has multiple meanings (a student of mine went through a whole lesson thinking we were talking about people from Poland when in fact we were discussing the coldest parts of the Earth) or because the word is close in sound to another (eg track/truck). Students can be asked to listen to snippets of natural speech and choose between different words (“did she say track, truck or trick?”), or different meanings of the same word (“is she talking about a party as in a celebration or a political party?”).

Another important point is how we check comprehension. John Field and others have rightly criticised materials for focussing too much on assessing comprehension as opposed to training learners. But if our comprehension activities focus on the features above, then we can assess how successful our skills training has been. For example, we might ask learners “why does the speaker stress DIDN’T?” or “what does these refer to in John’s last sentence?”. This will help learners become aware of issues they had not previously been aware of.

We said in the previous post that we should not ignore top-down strategies, partly because the kind of knowledge and schemata that we activate before learners listen help to compensate for the various hurdles they face (not least, the poor quality of some recordings). Also, prediction and activation activities are usually fun, and motivate the learners into the listening. But top-down approaches will only take you so far: learners need to become skilled at decoding as well.

To see bottom-up decoding in practice in the classroom, watch Navigate author Rachael Roberts’ video demonstration here.

This article first appeared in the January edition of Teaching Adults newsletter. If you’d like to receive more articles like this and resources for teaching adult language learners, sign up here.


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Perspective, Pace and Passing: Teaching English in a Foundations Programme

 

shutterstock_306641441Gary Pathare has been an English teacher since 1990 and has taught at Dubai Men’s College, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) since 2001.  He is author of the forthcoming Milestones in English B1 and B2 Student’s Books, publishing in January and August 2016.

A decade and a half.  That’s how long I have been teaching on a Foundations programme in Dubai, and it has been, from a teaching and career perspective, an amazingly positive experience. When I arrived fifteen years ago, I had been teaching general English in Barcelona, and teacher training. The Middle East was as yet unknown to me, and I soon found out that teaching here was a massive change from fun and language games to a serious, high-stakes, assessment-driven academic context. As time passed and I changed my teaching style and persona, I started to find the challenges really absorbing, and my focus changed to developing methodology that worked, writing materials to support this methodology, and sharing my insights. All in all, it has been very satisfying.

However, it hasn’t been an easy ride, for reasons that have become clearer to me as the years have passed. Why not? Anyone who has tried it will have their own answers, but these are mine.

‘Motivation to pass’

To understand the challenges, we should first consider what Foundations programmes actually are. As the name suggests, they are generally preparatory courses for college degrees. Students who need to improve their English skills in order to enter a degree course may be placed in a Foundations programme, or they may opt for this themselves. The course may cover subjects other than English language, such as mathematics and IT, as well as helping students make the transition from school to academia and develop an academic approach that incorporates independent learning and critical thinking skills.

Unfortunately – and here is where the challenges come in – the fact is that, from the students’ perspective, being in a Foundation programme is likely to be simultaneously high-stakes and undesired. If they did not opt in themselves, they will be understandably eager to get into their ‘real’ programme, their Bachelor’s for example, and may be less concerned about their weaknesses in English that have resulted in them being placed in the Foundations program than with how to leave as quickly as possible. So on the one hand, many Foundations students have a strong extrinsic motivation to pass, but on a day-to-day basis they may not be particularly motivated by the actual content. They want out!

A tall order

Another challenge comes from their prior learning. The fact that they find themselves in a Foundations programme may be either because they didn’t do too well at school, or their school did not sufficiently prepare them for academic study (depending on the context, of course). If this is the case, they probably lack not only English language skills but also the required study, critical thinking, independent learning and other academic skills.

In my own context, much of the teaching work involves helping students develop the skills both to pass the Foundations exit exam (in my case, to get a specified IELTS band) and to succeed later on when they enter a Bachelor’s programme. So my daily work involves paying attention in every lesson to building students’ world knowledge and ability to recognize different perspectives, helping them take control of their own learning, encouraging them to improve time management and planning skills, and urging and training them to develop the stamina required for in-depth, academic reading and study. It’s a tall order!

Efficiency vs effectiveness

And then there is the time factor. As time is of the essence – after all, who wants Foundations to go on too long? – a key to success as a teacher is efficiency. Why not teach reading skills from a text which helps develop students’ world knowledge at the same time as teaching them to recognize inference, for example? Why not expose them to written models that they can use for their own writing development? Why not show them how many connectives for writing can also be used in their speaking? And overall, why not make sure that study and critical thinking skills are an intrinsic, systematic and planned part of the curriculum and materials, rather than add-ons? In my own experience, the more intensity that can be brought to bear on each hour of learning, the more satisfying and ultimately successful the course will be.

Quick tips for teaching Foundations programmes

So my top four pieces of advice for teachers starting in a Foundations programme are these:

  • Don’t expect life to be easy, for you or your students; accept the challenges and be sensitive to the students’ frustrations.
  • View the role as a wide-ranging one, even though language teaching is at its core.
  • Maximize the efficiency of the work you do in class – when you have students’ attention, make sure you fully exploit it with multiple levels of learning.
  • Finally, being academic doesn’t mean being serious all the time. Keep a sense of humour! The students – and you – deserve it, with everything else that is going on.

And keep your perspective. Not everyone will pass – some students are simply not suited to the academic life; their talents lie elsewhere. But one of the great pleasures of teaching on a Foundations programme is meeting students who have passed through into their program of choice, and seeing how they have developed both their English and their academic demeanor. I can’t imagine going back to General English.


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The art of juggling: developing the language learner’s vocabulary


Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994.  She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus, and today looks at why and how language learners use a thesaurus ahead of World Thesaurus Day on January 18th.

The word ‘thesaurus’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘treasure’ or ‘storehouse’ and the traditional thesaurus is a kind of storehouse of language. Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases lists over 70 synonyms for fast, including zippy, fleet and nimble-footed. The editors have made no judgement about how useful each word is. The thesaurus marks words that are particularly formal or informal, but otherwise gives no information about how to use each word. The purpose of a thesaurus such as Roget is to remind native or expert speakers of the language of words they already know, but cannot quite bring to mind. It does not teach.

The needs of language learners are rather different. Even if they use a smaller thesaurus than Roget, with fewer synonyms, they may still not know which word to choose, without information on the exact meaning and use of each word. The result? According to teachers we interviewed, ‘Even high-level students use the same basic words again and again.’ ‘They need to be able to juggle synonyms.’ What information, precisely, do learners need to help them with this juggling act?

No two words are exactly the same

Consider the following pairs of sentences:

I used a very simple method to obtain the answer.

I used a very easy method to obtain the answer.

This encyclopedia is designed for quick and easy reference.

*This encyclopedia is designed for quick and simple reference.

I didn’t find it easy to persuade them to come.

*I didn’t find it simple to persuade them to come.

Say what you need to say, but keep it simple.

*Say what you need to say, but keep it easy.

In the first pair, either sentence sounds fine. But in the three following pairs, the second sentence sounds increasingly odd. Why is this? There are two main reasons: first, it is a question of meaning; and secondly, of collocation. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines each word thus:

easy not difficult; done or obtained without a lot of effort or problems

simple not complicated; easy to understand or do

These are good, brief definitions, which do in fact get at the essential difference between the words, as well as the essential similarity. Nonetheless, probably for most learners looking up simple, it is the similarity and not the difference that will register. So what is the difference? The definition of simple in the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus expands a little on the Oxford Advanced Learner’s definition to explain in what way something simple is ‘easy to understand or do’:

simple easy to understand or do because it contains very few, very basic parts or actions

There is also a note which clearly and simply compares and contrasts the two words, explaining exactly that difference between ‘not difficult’ and ‘not complicated’ which the Advanced Learner’s hints at but does not have space to explain.

Some of the collocational differences also become more intelligible: you can find something easy (or not!) according to your nature; but you keep something simple, according to its nature.

A more expressive vocabulary

There are two main ways in which students can improve their knowledge of synonyms. In the first place, they need to distinguish better between words they already partly know. Secondly, they need to learn new words. Consider these interesting sentences:

It was interesting to learn about daily life in Roman times.

The documentary makes interesting viewing.

We had an interesting discussion over lunch.

The book is an interesting adventure story.

The word interesting here may not fully convince you that these things are interesting. A far greater level of conviction is conveyed simply by substituting another word for interesting:

It was fascinating to learn about daily life in Roman times.

The documentary makes compelling viewing.

We had a stimulating discussion over lunch.

The book is a gripping adventure story.

Learners at upper-intermediate level may well have encountered some of these words in their reading. But how can they really access such words when they need them and become confident enough to use them?

A traditional thesaurus, as we have seen, does not really offer much help. Fascinating, compelling, stimulating and gripping can substitute for interesting in the contexts above, but not in all contexts, and they mostly cannot substitute for each other. What learners need is not just lists of synonyms, but a true dictionary of synonyms, a combination of thesaurus and learner’s dictionary. This is exactly what is offered by the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus.

Look up any word and you will find a manageable group of 4-10 near-synonyms, all defined, but with the differences in meaning and usage carefully explained and illustrated with plenty of example sentences. Learners using this thesaurus can be much more confident of choosing exactly the right word.

Learning more words will not be completely easy, but it will improve your writing.

Let’s rephrase that: acquiring a broader vocabulary is never going to be completely painless, but it will enrich your writing.


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Perspectives on Lesson Planning

lessonplanELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes, looks at different approaches to lesson planning and their effectiveness as teaching tools ahead of his webinar on the subject on the 19th and 22nd of January.

Here’s a photograph of a colleague’s lesson plan. It’s written on a piece of note paper taken from a hotel room and was used with a class of students at a business college. In many ways it breaks the rules of what we might call ‘lesson planning’. After all, where are the aims, the timings, the class profile, the anticipated problems and all those other things we expect of a formally written lesson plan? The only thing we can really tell from it is that the lesson had something to do with CV writing.

The lack of detail in this particular lesson is of course because the teacher in question didn’t write it for anyone else to read. As she explains, it was for her own personal use: “I treat lesson plans like shopping lists – I write them at home in preparation for the task ahead and then don’t look at them after that. The helpful part for me is writing it down, not sticking to it.”

I think her ‘shopping list’ approach to planning is probably true for most teachers at a day-to-day level. We don’t have time to write long detailed documents with every step described in detail and – especially if we’re experienced – we don’t need to. As she says above, the ‘writing it down’ is not an end in itself, it’s just part of a longer thought process.

Because most teachers tend to plan in this less formalised way, there is often debate about – and sometimes criticism of – the more formalised type of planning that is expected on teacher training courses or when teachers are formally observed and assessed. Teachers sometimes wonder if the long hours spent writing detailed documents which predict what they might (or might not) do at every stage is time well spent.

I’d argue that on training courses it can be time well spent – especially for new and inexperienced teachers – because it’s a way to develop your thought process. However, I’d question whether a formally prepared lesson plan always has to take the shape of a page with rows and columns that a teacher is expected to fill in and rigidly follow.

In my webinar on this topic, I’ll propose that we take some fresh perspectives on lesson planning by varying our approaches and thought processes at the planning stage. I’ll present some alternative ways to develop lesson planning skills and I’ll demonstrate how visual thinking can help to aid your planning. Participants will also be invited to give their own perspective(s) on lesson planning.

If you’d like to sign up to join John Hughes’ free webinar on the 19th or 22nd of January, please follow the link below. We hope to see you there!

register-for-webinar

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