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What Learners Can Do with Texts

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachersNigel Caplan, assistant professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute, holds degrees from Cambridge University and the University of Pennsylvania, and is finishing his PhD in Education. His research focuses on genre theory and collaborative writing. He has presented at TESOL as an invited speaker, the European Association of Teachers of Academic Writing, and the Symposium on Second Language Writing. He is the co-author of Q: Skills for Success and Inside Writing (OUP).

As a teacher and writer, I believe that two of the main questions we face in the classroom can be summarized as: How do our students learn, and how do our lesson plans and materials promote learning?

I’m especially interested in how this applies to our use of texts. And I say texts not readings to emphasize my belief that the articles, reviews, websites, essays, and textbooks that we assign can be used for more than teaching reading.

Here are four of the ways I use texts in my teaching:

  • To challenge students to reconsider the world. For example, in the second edition of Q: Skills for Success Reading/Writing 5, we have a fascinating new reading about how graphs can lie: what appear to be hard numbers may turn out to be visual distortions!
  • To encourage critical thinking by presenting multiple viewpoints. When we were writing Q: Skills, we were always looking for two different ways to answer the unit question, often from very different academic fields. So, for instance, how do we define a private space after reading articles about shared spaces such as roads and public buildings?
  • To model written genres. We all learn to write by reading other texts in the target genre. That’s how we know what a wedding invitation, or a conference proposal, or a blog post should look like. In Inside Writing, we present one or more models for every genre we ask students to write and invite them to discover how and why it is written.
  • To focus on language. Reading widely is certainly important for language acquisition, but research has shown that it’s not enough. Learners also need to focus on the structure of the new language. After reading a text for meaning, I like to dig into the language and help students discover useful vocabulary and grammar structures that they can use in their own speaking and writing. For example, why does a summary of a research article begin with “The author claims that poor exercise routines can be dangerous” rather than “The author presents the dangers of poor exercise routines”?

At the JALT 2015 conference in Shizuoka, Japan (November 20-23), I’ll be talking about these ideas in more detail, including a language-based approach to teaching critical thinking, and a genre-based approach to teaching writing through the Teaching/Learning Cycle.

The Teaching/Learning Cycle

The Teaching/Learning Cycle (Rothery, 1996)* is a well-developed method for helping students to write in target genres. The Teaching/Learning cycle starts with an activity called “Deconstruction,” which is basically a teacher-led analysis of several writing models to help students deduce the staging (the typical structure of information) and language used (especially for ESL or other linguistic minority populations). For example, we teach the online product review as a genre that requires students to describe an item in detail and evaluate it, giving specific reasons. So, first we have students read several reviews, adapted for the level, and then together we figure out that reviews typically follow a predictable pattern: establishing the writer’s expertise, describing the product, giving opinions with specific support, and then closing with a recommendation. You can find this assignment in Inside Writing 2.

The trick with deconstruction is to avoid structural labels and focus on functions. For example, if I ask my students what the structure of any genre is, they will invariably reply “introduction, body, conclusion” because that’s what they’ve been taught. But pretty much every piece of writing has a beginning, middle, and end, so it’s just not very helpful to students learning how to write. In the case of argument writing, for instance, “claims” and “evidence” are much more useful than “introduction” and “body.”

At this point, we also need to focus on language. How are adjectives used to strengthen a description? What shifts in tense do you see? What verbs do the authors use to introduce evidence? What tenses do they use? Do you see certain types of grammar in the claims and opinions but not the evidence and support (e.g. modals)? How do the writers use relative (adjective) clauses? Once you start asking these questions, you’ll be amazed what you and your students notice about your genres!

Join me at JALT to practice the other stages of the Teaching/Learning cycle, Joint Construction and Independent Construction. I’m also going to discuss teaching critical thinking by using thought-provoking texts as prompts for discussion and writing.

Nigel will present at JALT on Saturday, November 21st and Sunday, November 22nd. Click here for more details.


* Joan Rothery’s chapter, “Making Changes: Developing an Educational Linguistics” is in the book Literacy in Society (Hasan & Williams, 1996). The pedagogy is also summarized in my essay, “From Generic Writing to Genre-Based Writing,” available from the OUP website.

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Winning the Headway Scholarship – could you be next?

Natalia with the other 2015 winners and Liz Soars, Headway author. From left to right: Inanc Karagoz (Turkey); Svetlana Kandybovich (Montenegro); Natalia Valentini (Argentina); Liz Soars (Headway author); Elena Ryabova (Russia); Erika Orban (Hungary); Xiaoyan Deng (China).

Natalia with the other 2015 winners and Liz Soars, Headway author.
From left to right: Inanc Karagoz (Turkey); Svetlana Kandybovich (Montenegro); Natalia Valentini (Argentina); Liz Soars (Headway author); Elena Ryabova (Russia); Erika Orban (Hungary); Xiaoyan Deng (China).

Ever wanted to know what it’s like to win the Headway Scholarship, and spend two weeks on an all-inclusive teacher training course at Exeter College in Oxford?

Natalia Valentini, one of our 2015 winners, and Gloria Rossa, one of our 2014 winners, reveal how they found the experience.

This could be you next year – enter today!

Natalia Valentini – Headway Scholarship 2015 winner from Argentina

Every August just after the winter holidays, I’ve been experiencing this burning desire to explore what it is like to live, study or work in a foreign country. As a teacher and translator there came a point in my professional life when I started thinking that in my local context there were no further opportunities for me to make progress in my career.

Anyway, it was not until this summer when I came across this post on the Oxford University Press Facebook site when my luck began to change. The Headway series written by Liz and John Soars were opening a competition for teachers who used the series. I didn’t hesitate to take part in it and I worked for two weeks on my video and PowerPoint® presentation to submit them in due time. And after waiting for 3 months I got an email. The subject line was: “Headway scholarship. Winner!.” The email went on like this: “Congratulations – you are a winner of this year’s Headway Scholarship competition! On behalf of Liz Soars and the Headway Scholarship Foundation, we are delighted to tell you that you have been awarded one of the Headway Scholarships for 2015 which means that you are entitled to a place on the 2-week English Language Teachers’ Summer Seminar at Exeter College in Oxford. Now I couldn’t believe my eyes. It actually said I was entitled to a place -a proper scholarship I would say! And I was one of the lucky ones, together with 5 more teachers from Europe and Asia.

So there I went, off to Oxford for 2 weeks on a Teacher Summer Seminar where I would meet colleagues from over 30 countries to share our experiences and to learn from the best tutors, those whose names we’ve been reading on the covers of the coursebooks we use. I know, I know… lucky me!

Read Natalia’s full blog here

Gloria in Oxford

Gloria in Oxford

Gloria Rossa, Headway Scholarship 2014 winner from Argentina

I have a confession to make: I fell head over heels in love with England the moment I set foot in it. I must say tears ran down my cheeks when the plane landed. The flight had been long – 13 hours! – yet quiet and interesting.
It was a night flight, but I didn’t get to sleep much – I was so excited! I arrived at Heathrow Airport at 6:30 am on Sunday, 27th July, 2014. I went through Customs and Passport Control very quickly. Friendly staff, documents and letter of recommendation from Exeter College OK, no problem at all.

The trip from London to Oxford was charming. It was a nice summer morning and there wasn’t much traffic due to the early hour.

I’m a quite shy person. Many people don’t know this, but I have to overcome a series of personal obstacles whenever I want to approach someone and say “Hello!” -and when you are in an English-speaking country for the first time in your life and you´re not a native speaker, this is even harder! However, I must have turned into a completely different person on arrival at Exeter, for it was so easy for me to start talking to the others. Everybody seemed so friendly and happy to be there! Anyway, getting used to the variety of accents was particularly difficult for me: there were 60 teachers attending the seminar, and we were from 20 different countries. Pretty impressive, don’t you think? I had never lived such a cosmopolitan experience in my whole life!

Read Gloria’s full blog here

The Headway Scholarship 2016 is open now. You could win a 2-week all-inclusive teacher training course in Oxford in July 2016. Enter today!

The Headway Scholarship is made possible through the generosity of John and Liz Soars.

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Strategies for teaching IELTS: Part Three – Get ready for exam day

webinarpicStephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He joins us on the blog today for his final article in a series ‘Strategies for teaching IELTS’.

In the first article in this series, I discussed some things to consider at the very beginning of an IELTS course, and then in article two I explored how to tackle some of the more problematic parts of the exam. Here, I will look at some strategies you can use at the end of your course to make sure your students are as prepared as possible for the exam day.


It is important that students have at least one full mock before the exam day. Make sure you find some practice tests – such as the free ones which support IELTS Masterclass on the OUP website. When you set up the mock, it’s a good idea to imitate the exam conditions as fully as possible. This will help prepare students for the real thing, and it will give them a sense of how important timing is. Students need to realise that the Listening, Reading and Writing papers take 2 hours 40 minutes – with no breaks in between! When you run the full mock it is a good idea to use the answer papers like the ones that will be used in the exam. When a student is working quickly and misses a question out to come back to it later, it can be very easy to forget about this when completing the answer sheet. This can mean that all of the remaining questions have the wrong responses.

For the Speaking paper, as well as conducting mock tests, make sure students get to watch an example of somebody else taking the test. Outside of language exams, students rarely have a spoken test so many are understandably nervous about what the whole procedure entails. You can find examples of spoken IELTS tests on YouTube.

On the day

Discuss what students should do on the day of the exam. Here’s what I advise my classes:

  • Get to the exam centre early – this gives people time to calm down, find their room, have a bite to eat and make sure they are not rushing due to traffic problems.
  • Use English before the exam – listening to a podcast, reading a book or having a conversation in English before the exam puts students in the right frame of mind.
  • Prepare for a long exam – As mentioned above, students will have to sit in the exam for over two and a half hours, so they should make sure they have had refreshments and visited the bathroom before the exam starts. Candidates can ask to leave the room to go to the bathroom, but this will take up valuable time.

At the exam centre

This may sound obvious, but make sure that students know where the exam centre is and how to get there. In many cities it is possible to sign up for the exam in a different place from where it actually takes place, so point this out to students if necessary.

Go through the regulations with regards to the identification that candidates need to provide, highlighting the fact that they must have the same identification that they provide when enrolling. To ensure a high standard of security, centres are required to take photographs of candidates and scan their fingerprints. Reassure students that all images are dealt with according to the local laws and that there are procedures in place for candidates who might be uncomfortable having their photograph taken in the presence of other people. If you or your students would like more information about the security procedures on the day it is best to check with your local centre. I’d suggest talking about these kinds of logistical things before the very last class, as this will give you and your students the chance to find out the answers to any difficult questions.

I hope you have found this three-part IELTS series useful, and I wish you and your students the best of luck in preparing for the test.

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here

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Strategies for teaching IELTS: Part Two – Overcoming the challenges

shutterstock_257788978Stephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He joins us on the blog today for his second in a series ‘Strategies for teaching IELTS’.

In my first article in this series, I looked at some of the things that are important to consider before the course starts in order to hit the ground running and develop some good momentum. In this article, I’ll explore how to help your students with some key areas, specifically lexis, Part One of the Writing paper and the Yes/No/Not given question commonly found in the Reading paper.


There are two types of IELTS test; the Academic Test and General Training Test. 80% of candidates take the Academic Test and if this is the case for your students then lexis will hold the key to getting a good grade. If candidates are comfortable with academic-type language, even if they don’t understand every detail, it can make all the difference. Of course, there is so much language that could be deemed ‘academic type’ that it is impossible to teach every lexical item that could come up in an exam. There are, however, a number of strategies we can use to maximise the amount of time we have available:

  • Encourage students to use a lexical notebook. I have found that students who take a little bit of time to organise their lexis in this way improve their language very quickly.
  • Create a lexical wall in your classroom and add, or get your students to add, useful lexis from each class. Alternatives to this might include a blog, wiki or a notice board.
  • Focus on certain areas of language that are vital, for example conjunctions, lexis to describe trends (see Writing Part 1 below) and formal versus informal language.
  • Expose students to academic language outside the classroom. There are a number of free resources, for example from the BBC, that you can ask your students to use in their own time.

If your students are taking the General Training Test then the first three ideas from the list above are still vital for expanding their lexis and ensuring a better result.

Writing Part 1

There is no getting around it, but for most candidates (and teachers), this can be a very boring question. It can also be a challenge because a lot of students rarely have to write anything like this even in their own language, never mind doing it in English. It also demands that candidates can both identify important pieces of information, and write about them. Some useful strategies I have used for this question include:

  • Make the data relevant. Find raw data about the cities or countries where your students come from. A lot of countries will have the equivalent of the UK’s Office for National Statistics which will be relevant to your students.
  • Ask your students to carry out surveys with people they know to gather data, and then write about it.
  • Focus on the very specific language that your students will need. The main area is the language of describing trends and one thing I have found very useful is to show how one phrase can be used in two different ways. For example, if you introduce unemployment rose sharply you should also highlight how students could alternatively say there was a sharp rise in unemployment.
  • Expose students to good practice. I use the Daily Chart from The Economist magazine, which provides up-to-date and relevant graphs for students to describe.

Yes/No/Doesn’t say

From my experience, this is the question that causes the most problems for a number of reasons: it is an unusual question type; candidates can spend a lot of time trying to find information that isn’t in the text because they don’t trust themselves; the questions themselves are often purposefully misleading. There is no silver bullet for answering this type of question, but there are a few helpful hints that we can give.

  • Yes/No/Not given questions are usually looking for the writer’s opinion. True/False/Not given questions are usually looking for facts from the text.
  • The questions usually follow the same order in the text. This means if you have found the information for questions 7 and 9, the information for question 8 is between those two. If you can’t find the information then the answer is probably Not given.
  • If you don’t know the answer, guess Not given because you there is a good chance the reason you don’t know is because it isn’t in the text.
  • Look carefully at the question, especially for words like often, always, sometimes because these will sometimes make the difference between True/False and Not given.
  • Give students a text and ask them to write their own Yes/No/Not given questions. By going through the mechanics of writing this type of question, candidates often get an insight into how to answer them in the exam.
  • Ask students to underline the information in the text that they think provides the Yes/No answer. This will make feedback easier as well as helping you identify why your students are making mistakes.

I hope these tips prove to be helpful in preparing your students for the IELTS exam. Just focusing on these tricky areas will not be enough, but I have found that this is a good starting point, after which the rest becomes easier. In my next article, I’ll be looking at some strategies we can employ just before the exam.

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here


Strategies for Teaching IELTS: Part One – Where to start?


continuous learning assessment

Image courtesy of Colin K on Flickr

Stephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He is now based in Curitiba in the south of Brazil where he writes a blog about bringing up a bilingual child at headoftheheard.com. This is the first article of a three-part IELTS series, exploring the basics of helping your students through their IELTS exam.

As with most things in life, the key to a successful IELTS course is in the preparation. If you have a clear idea of what you and your students need to do from the outset then you are far more likely to help your students achieve their goals than if you have no plan at all. Likewise, as the expression goes, first impressions last, so if you can impress your students in the first few classes, then they are more likely to trust you for the rest of the course.

It is important to have as much information at your disposal as possible before the course actually starts. This will help you to prepare properly and show your students that you really do know what you are talking about. I have added a number of questions for each of the points listed below, but the answers will often depend on your own context. Where possible, I have included some links which might help you to start finding your own answers.

Know the exam

If this is the first time your students have attempted the IELTS exam then they are likely to be very anxious about what it entails and what they will be required to do. Some questions students might have include: How many papers are there? How does the scoring system work? Which is the most difficult part of the exam? What’s the difference between the General exam and the Academic one?

As well as knowing the ins and outs of the exam, you will also need to know how students go about taking it. Questions they might have include: Where is the nearest exam centre? When are the exams being held? When is the registration deadline? How long does it take to get the results? How much does it cost?

The official IELTS site has some excellent information for both teachers and students, as does the British Council site.

Know your students

It isn’t always possible to find out a lot of information about your students until the course actually starts, so you will probably need to do some fact finding in the first few classes. As well as the usual information about the number of students in the class, their ages and backgrounds, some questions you might want to ask yourself include: Have they taken the exam before? What score do they need? Why are they taking the exam? Where do they hope to study after the exam? What do they hope to study?

Know your timetable

There is a lot to cover in an IELTS course, so make sure you have enough time to pack everything in. While your school might have its own natural rhythm, this might not fit with the dates of exams in your local centre. Questions to ask include: When are the exams? How long is the course? What do I need to focus on?

Find your local exam centre and get in touch to find out their exam dates and requirements.

Know your material

Whatever course you are running, you will need to be very familiar with the material you are using. With IELTS, this is even more key as time is such an issue. As well as a coursebook, you might need to use extra material, such as practice tests (which you can find here) or online material. Some questions to answer include: Is the material relevant to your students? Where can I find supplementary material? In my next article (on the blog next week), I’ll be sharing some of the free online material I use in my classes. Specifically, I’ll explore lexis, Part One of the Writing paper and the Yes/No/Not given questions commonly found in the reading paper.

This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here


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