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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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The Many Challenges of Academic Writing for ESL

The challenges of academic writing in ESLDr. Ann Snow, writing consultant for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, discusses the particular challenges of writing in an academic context.

This month I will be teaching a new academic writing course for second language students at my university. I am thus thinking a lot about writing these days and looking forward to helping my students become better academic writers. I’ve promised a lot in my course proposal. I will:

  • Cover characteristics of expository writing and help students apply them to their own academic disciplines;
  • guide them through a cycle of awareness and analysis leading to self-assessment; expose them to different text types (e.g. problem-solutions, methods, discussion sections) and genres (e.g. critiques, case studies, literature reviews, research papers);
  • help them improve their sentence and discourse-level grammar and be better proofreaders of their own writing.

In addition, I am determined to go outside the traditional boundaries of a writing class because I think that writing cannot and should not be taught in isolation from the other skills that students need in order to be effective writers. Therefore, I have added academic vocabulary and strategic reading skill components. I also plan to integrate critical thinking skills so my students improve their abilities to make inferences, synthesize, develop arguments and counter-arguments, and evaluate sources in their writing. My task feels a little overwhelming right now, but also helps me as the instructor appreciate the complexities of academic writing and understand better the challenges our second language students face.

Finding the writer’s voice

Stepping back from the details of my new course, let’s consider the big picture of what writing entails. Writing is a complex language form practiced by users of all languages (both native and non-native) for everyday social and communicative purposes and, for many, for vocational, educational, and professional needs. It has been variously described as a product – a piece of writing with a particular form and the expectation of “correctness.” And as a process – a journey that takes writers through stages where they discover they have something to say and find their “voice.” From the cognitive perspective, it is seen as a set of skills and knowledge that resides within the individual writer and from the sociocultural perspective as a socially and culturally situated set of literacy practices shared by a particular community (Weigle, 2014). With these perspectives in mind, all teachers of writing must ask: How can I help my students improve their writing and what are best practices in the classroom? As I design my new course I am asking myself these same questions.

Needs assessment

An important first step is undertaking a needs assessment, whether informal or formal, to learn what kinds of writing students need. From this assessment, a syllabus or curriculum can be developed or a textbook series selected that is a good match with your students’ needs. Typically, the instructional sequence starts with personal/narrative writing in which students have to describe or reflect on an experience or event. This usually leads to expository writing in which students learn to develop a thesis statement and support this controlling idea in the body of their writing. Analytic or persuasive writing is the most challenging type of academic writing because students must learn to state and defend a position or opinion using appropriate evidence (Ferris, 2009).  These kinds of academic writing tasks require students to become familiar with a variety of text types and genres, one of my course goals.

Improving vocabulary and grammar

The academic writing class also provides the opportunity for students to fine-tune their grammar and expand their academic language vocabulary. Typically, by the time our second language students are engaged in academic writing, they have been exposed to the majority of grammatical structures in English (e.g. complete tense system; complex constructions such as relative clauses and conditionals), but they still may need to learn how to integrate these structures into their writing. They also need to match text types with the kinds of grammatical structures needed. For example, in order to write a cause/effect essay, students need to use subordinating clauses with because and since and they need to use the appropriate transitional expressions like therefore and as such. Student will most likely have learned these structures in isolation but now need extensive practice and feedback to use them accurately in their writing. In terms of academic vocabulary, students need to differentiate the types of vocabulary found in everyday usage (e.g. the verbs meet and get) with their more formal academic counter-parts encounter and obtain (see Zimmerman, 2009, for many other examples.)

In sum, the English for Academic Purposes curriculum must integrate reading and writing skills, and, as mentioned, grammar and vocabulary. Cumming (2006) points out that a focus on reading can lead to writing improvement and an opportunity to learn discipline-specific vocabulary. It also gives students something to write about. Combining reading and writing also provides needed practice in analyzing different text types so students see the features of these models. These kinds of activities create opportunities for more complex tasks such as summarizing and synthesizing multiple sources. A curriculum that integrates reading and writing also exposes students to graphic organizers for reading comprehension which student can recycle for pre-writing (Grabe, 2001). Finally, students need many exposures to similar tasks in order to master the complexities of academic writing and build confidence in their abilities.

I look forward to teaching my new academic writing course and I hope this brief glimpse inspires others to undertake this challenge as well.

References and Further Reading

Ferris, D. (2009). Teaching college writing to diverse student populations. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press

Grabe, W. (2001). Reading-writing relations: Theoretical perspectives and instructional practices. In D. Belcher & A. Hirvela, (Eds.), Linking literacies: Perspectives on L2 reading-writing connections.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Weigle, S. C. (2014). Considerations for teaching second language writing. In M. Celce-Murcia, D. M. Brinton, & M. A. Snow (Eds.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (4th ed., pp. 222-237). Boston, MA:  National Geographic Learning Heinle Cengage.

Zimmerman, C. (2009). Work knowledge: A vocabulary teacher’s handbook. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


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How do you use OUP digital resources in your EFL or ESL classes?

Hands holding an iPadProfessional Development Services teacher trainer, Stacey Hughes, invites you to share your ideas.

In our recent travels, we’ve seen some amazing and creative uses of digital technologies in the classroom.  As e-course books and educational apps become more common and as teachers begin to see the potential of online practice, they are finding innovative ways to use these tools to help motivate students and help them learn.  We have started asking teachers, “How do you improve language skills with e-books, apps, iTools, iTutor and online practice?” Here are some of the responses we’ve had so far.

iTools:

I love working with iTools because it allows me to make new practice activities that used to take me ages to make before the digital age. One of my favourite features is the thick white pen I can use to erase the words of a text.  For example, I erase the words of a picture story, children look at the pictures only and in pairs/small groups they have to come up with a dialogue that matches the messages of the images. This can entirely the same as the original or they could add to it depending on their language level. Once they have their dialogues, they practise them in pairs and finally act it out in front of the class. As children are the ones who choose the language to be used, it motivates them immensely and it helps develop their speaking skills.

– Erika Osváth, Hungary

iTutor:

I like to get my students to prepare tasks for each other when they watch the video clips on their Headway iTutor. I ask students to choose one clip from the unit, watch the clip at home and prepare some simple questions/true or false statements/etc. about it. They then find a partner who has prepared a different clip to them and exchange tasks. They watch the clip at home and do the tasks. Some students like to give their partner feedback on the tasks e.g. language accuracy. This activity not only helps students to develop their listening skills but also allows them to create tasks that are the right level for their peers.

– Jules Schoenmann, UK.

A phrase a day app:

At the end of the lesson, we (teacher and students) decide on the words/phrases to learn, aka ‘words of the lesson’.  For homework, students have to find a phrase based on one of the words of the lesson in their ‘phrase a day‘ app .  We don’t know which phrase each student has chosen. The only thing students have to do is write it down in their notebook. Their task in the next lesson is to use the phrase naturally in the course of the lesson at any time.  So, you need to make sure you offer some opportunities for speaking.

You can do it the ‘competitive way’: the student who uses their phrase first wins. You may do it the ‘responsible way’: Each student is responsible for making sure they use it during the lesson. You nod approvingly when they do so – don’t worry, students will look at you the moment they’ve used it or even let you know loudly!

You can do it the ‘hilarious way’ as an activity in itself: pick students in pairs across the table/room, or students next to each other. The situation is this for each pair: They are travelling on a train to a distant destination (tell them where). They are complete strangers and bored to tears. There is nobody else in the compartment.   So they decide to start chatting. The thing is that they have to use their phrase naturally in the course of the chat. So they have to steer the conversation.   Students are given no time to prepare and each pair improvises their chat in front of the class in turns.  It can be slow, fast, awkward at times but always surreal and hilarious, but never embarrassing for students. Just let them improvise and allow ‘silences’.  You’ll all have a jolly good laugh!

– Anna Parisi, Greece.

Let’s create a teacher’s resource!

How do you use OUP digital resources? We are interested in your ideas! Please comment below how you use OUP ebooks, apps, iTools, iTutor, iWriter, and Online Practice. Let’s use each other as a resource and see how many new ideas we can share on this blog.


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The Cultures of EAP Online Conference

The Cultures of EAP: Celebrating and Exploring DiversityDavid Read, the Academic Director for Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Sheffield, introduces a brand new online conference for teachers of EAP.

On the 15th and 16th January 2015, Oxford University Press and the English Language Teaching Centre (ELTC) at the University of Sheffield are running a free online conference for teachers of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) with the theme of ‘The Cultures of EAP’. The idea behind the conference is to explore and celebrate the many differences in the way that EAP is taught and  learnt around the world.

In setting up this conference, we wanted to give EAP teachers across the world a chance to come together and share knowledge and experiences of teaching in different contexts. When I looked around online, there seemed to be plenty of webinars and online conferences for EFL/ESL teachers, but almost nothing available for teachers of Academic English. There are some excellent organisations and communities out there, such as BALEAP in the UK and social networking groups such as the #EAPChat hashtag on Twitter or the Google+ TLEAP group, but no chances yet for a dedicated online conference.

In fact it was the TLEAP group on Google+ I turned to when looking for a suitable theme for this conference. Several contributors suggested the idea of the Cultures of EAP. What do we mean by this? Well, it’s an acknowledgement that EAP teaching and learning is not one thing, and can vary considerably from country to country, institution to institution and student to student.

For example, what differences are there in the students we teach? I teach at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Many of our students are postgraduate students from China and the Middle East planning to study a Masters or Phd, often in engineering, management or journalism. This heavily dictates the type of language work we do with them in class. Is that the same for other centres in the UK, especially those with students planning to study different subjects, such as humanities? Does that change the style and content of teaching? And what about other English-speaking countries such as the US, Canada and Australia, what dictates the nature of EAP in those countries? And how does this differ from teaching EAP in a student’s home country?

Another area might be student differences and challenges based on their first language or educational background.  For example, what writing challenges do Chinese students face because of their L1 that students from other nationalities don’t? Is it easier for some students to give presentations because this is something that is common in their own country? How does a teacher deal with this in class?

We’d love to have a range of speakers from all across the world to give us a truly global perspective on how EAP is taught and learnt. Don’t worry if you haven’t presented online before, full help and training will be given. And even if you don’t want to present, you can just register to attend and make sure you get a spot on one of the numerous sessions that will be run over the two days. To submit a speaker proposal or to register for attendance, please go to this page on the University of Sheffield website.


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Measuring Progress in Academic ESL Classes

Measuring Progress in Academic ESL ClassesLawrence J. Zwier, testing expert and series advisor for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, looks at some strategies for measuring student progress in language learning.

Language teachers often discuss the difficulty of measuring how well their students are doing.  A typical comment goes something like, “When you’re testing in a history class (or biology, or law, etc.) it’s easy. They either remember the material or they don’t.” This oversimplifies the situation in “content classes,” where analysis might be just as highly valued as memory, but the frustrated ESL/EFL teacher has a point. Teaching in a language class does not aim to convey a body of knowledge but to develop skills—and skill development is notoriously hard to assess. It’s even harder when the skills are meant for use outside the language classroom, but the only venue in which you can measure IS the language classroom.

However, all is not lost. There are many good, solid principles to apply in measuring how your students are doing. What’s more, they don’t require the assistance of test-construction experts or the statistical skills of a psychometrician. The average ESL/EFL teacher can do the measurement and interpret the results in ways that will have immediate benefits for their students.

The idea that measurement benefits students can get lost in discussions of measuring progress. So often, we think of measurement as serving the educational institution (which needs to promote people, issue grades, and so on) or the teacher (who needs to know how well a certain objective is being met). But it’s an established principle of memory science that frequent measurement (or, more familiarly, testing) is one of the best aids in learning. Researchers at Kent State University tested the recall of several pairs of English-Lithuanian word pairs—that is, they studied how well subjects remembered not just the Lithuanian or English words but also the pairing of those words across languages. The main variable was how often a given subject was tested on the associations of the pairs. The researchers found a clear correlation between the number of “retrievals”—the number of times a participant was required to recall the pairs on tests—and the long-term memory of the pairs.

You may be sensing a dichotomy you’ve noticed before, that of formative vs. summative evaluation. Summative evaluation comes after a period of learning and is meant to see how much learning took place. Think final exams, midterms, end-of-unit tests, and so on. Formative evaluation occurs during the period of learning and is a part of that learning. The test is a teaching tool. Each type of testing has its place. There’s nothing wrong with summative testing, and the educational system would lose structure without any of it. Many students would also lose motivation, because—love them or hate them—big tests have a way of making people work. But the Kent State research we mentioned clearly shows that formative testing is not just some touchy-feely distraction. Measuring your students often is instructive—both for you and for them. You can easily find examples of formative-assessment activities through a Web search; a good link to start out with is http://wvde.state.wv.us/teach21/ExamplesofFormativeAssessment.html.

Here is a brief look at some important principles in measuring the progress of ESL/EFL students.

Use many small measures, not just a few big ones. This is just common sense. If you rely on two or three measures during the course of a semester, your measurements are much more vulnerable to factors that skew the results—the students’ health, the students’ moods, problems with classroom technology, your own fallibility in writing test items, and so on. If your program requires some big tests, so be it. Make every effort to add other little tests/quizzes along the way as well—and have them influence the students’ grades in a significant way. Also, share the results of these measurements with your students.  An especially effective technique is to make these smaller tests and their grading echo what happens in the larger tests. That way, the frequent tests offer not only periodic retrieval of language points but also practice with the format of the larger test.

Don’t administer what you can’t evaluate. You can’t give frequent assessments if it takes you five hours to grade each one. Most of your questions in measurements should be discrete-point items. This means that the questions have clearly identifiable correct answers that are limited in scope.  Yes, I love seeing my students produce essays or get in front of class to give 5-minute presentations. However, I can’t assess—or give meaningful feedback on—more than two or three such long-form outputs in a semester. Especially when I’m teaching reading or listening, I have to depend on multiple-choice questions, true/false, fill-in, matching, and all those other limited-output formats. What you may have a harder time believing is that short-form questions are appropriate in writing and speaking classes as well. A writing student can demonstrate many skills in two or three sentences. A speaking student can demonstrate a lot by speaking for 45 or 60 seconds—as they do on the Internet-based TOEFL.

Avoid unnecessary interference from other skills. This dovetails with the previous point. If I am trying to measure reading comprehension—a very abstruse target, if you think about it—I don’t want the student’s weaknesses in writing, speaking, or even listening to get in the way. I want to ask a comprehension question that can tell me something about the student even if the student cannot compose a good sentence, articulate a spoken answer, or comprehend a long, spoken introduction. Give me something that requires minimal output to indicate the handling of input. Of course, there is no perfect question, nothing that can get me inside that student’s head and point out relevantly firing neurons, but a simply worded question that requires circling a letter, or writing T/F, or drawing a line is less likely to be muddied by other factors than one that requires complex answers. Gillian Brown and George Yule noted long ago how hard it is to assess actual listening comprehension. They pointed out that a listener’s “personal representation of the content of a text” is “inside the student’s head and not directly available for extraction and objective examination.” Simplify your attempts to examine it by avoiding obscurant factors.

Beware viral items. Digital technology makes test security harder every year. And don’t assume that student lore on the Internet concerns itself only with the big boys—the large, high-stakes tests. If you’ve handed out a piece of paper with a test question on it, there’s a decent chance that it now, somewhere, roams the pastures of the Web. If you were not terribly observant during the test, a student may have snapped a cell-phone picture of it.  Even if you were hawkishly watching, many students, by the time they reach 18 or so, have prodigious memories and a tradition of getting together beforehand to divvy up the memorization of a test: “You take questions 1 – 3, Sam will take 4 -7, and I’ll take 8 -10.” My colleagues and I have adapted by just not re-using any old material in important measures of progress. For quick practices with nothing on the line, I might not care. However, each truly important measurement instrument is a new one—though perhaps based on an old one, with answers re-jigged and re-ordered. (Such reshuffling reduces the amount of writing I have to do.)

Be your own grumpy editor. I work frequently with the best item writers in the ESL/EFL field. One mark of a good item writer is that he/she assumes there’s something wrong with the first draft of anything. After you write a measurement item, let it sit for a few hours or a day. Then go back to it carrying a nice, sharp boxcutter. You’ll be surprised how often you discover that the question doesn’t really address what you want to assess, or that there are actually two possible correct answers in your set of multiple choice options, or that the reading/listening passage doesn’t clearly say whether a measurement statement is true or false.  Good measurement is impossible without good items. It’s worth the effort to slash and rewrite.

 

References and Further Reading

Association for Psychological Science. “Testing improves memory: Study examines why memory is enhanced by repeated retrieval.” ScienceDaily. 16 June 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110615171410.htm

Brown, Gillian, and George Yule. Teaching the Spoken Language: An Approach Based on the Analysis of Conversational English.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1983

West Virginia Department of Education, “Examples of Formative Assessment.” Accessed 31 October 2014, at http://wvde.state.wv.us/teach21/ExamplesofFormativeAssessment.html.

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