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Blended and cooperative learning in EAP

Stacey HugBlended and cooperative learning in EAPhes, a teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, offers some practical ideas for blended learning in EAP.

Although the idea of blended learning is not new, most people now associate it with including computer or tablet and internet use in the classroom. These tools can be used to expand the range of possibilities for communication between students and teachers. Here are some ideas to experiment with.

Train your students to use internet

It may seem odd to think about training students to use technology – after all, they are digital natives. However, many students have not yet developed a critical mind-set when it comes to assessing whether or not information gleaned from websites is reliable or valid. They also may not be very adept at using key words to search for academic articles and books – resulting in either too many or too few hits or information that is not relevant to their research.

1. Teach students to recognise which sites are reliable for their purposes. Show them Google Scholar as a starting point and teach them to recognise more generally reliable URL endings: .org; .ac; .gov; .edu. Teach them to think about who wrote the page and why.

2. Train students to use the university library search engine to look for information. They will need to understand how articles are kept in the databases and how to narrow or broaden their searches using key words and limiters: and, or, not, “…”, etc.

3. Teach students how to use online bibliography tools to create their lists of references. You could start by referring them to Education Technology and Mobile Learning which lists a number of bibliography tools. The university librarians may also have some ideas for good ones to use.

Using technology for collaboration

There are a multitude of resources that teachers and students can use for collaboration. They can help make teacher-student communication more efficient and can help students work together. If your university has a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Moodle or Blackboard, the tools will already be available for you to use. If not, you can find resources on the internet which can be used for similar purposes.

1. Set up a discussion forum. Post a relevant question or topic and ask students to contribute to the discussion. Make sure they respond to each other rather than just posting their own views – this will make it much more valuable as a forum.

2. Create group or class wiki pages. Use the university platform or a wiki space such aswww.wikispaces.com to set up a virtual space for news, collaborative project work and assessment. Wiki spaces are also useful for uploading handouts for students who were absent from the lesson.

3. Give audio and video feedback on papers to save marking time, give fuller feedback and add listening practice. Visit the University of Edinburgh page to read some case studies.

4. Flip the classroom once in a while. Use screencasts to teach a point, then use the class time for a seminar discussion or debate.

5. Ask students to work in groups to create a video documentary about university culture and the changes new students will have to adjust to.

Using technology in the classroom

Many students will have tablets or laptops and may prefer to work from them in the classroom. A majority may also have smartphones that can be used for learning.

1. Encourage those students using laptops or tablets to look up information on the internet while engaging in the lesson. Post information on the class wiki that they can access while in class as part of the lesson.

2. Point students to useful apps that they can use for learning: the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, Practical English Usage, Headway Phrase-a-day and English File Pronunciation are all excellent apps for independent study or they can be incorporated into the lesson. Find out more here.

3. Ask students to record decisions made in a group discussion using their smart phone. Then ask them to email it to another group to listen to as a way of comparing information between groups.

This article barely scratches the surface of how blended learning can be used in EAP settings. Remember to think first of the pedagogical aim, then look around to find the right technological tool that could help forward that aim. If you are interested in exploring blended learning further, these resources provide plenty of additional information:

1. White paper for support, guidance and best practice ideas on implementing tablets in teaching and learning

2. British Council Report with 24 international case studies which illustrate different blended learning scenario

And finally, for some tips on ways to use technology in the classroom, visit the digital resources pages on the Oxford University Press blog. In particular, you may find the following helpful:

1. Edmodo: Introducing the virtual classroom

2. 5 Apps every teacher should have in 2014

3. Using blogs to create web-based English courses

 

This article first appeared in the April 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults,subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Authenticity and autonomy – for learners and teachers

young asian teenagerKeith Morrow, an ELT consultant and trainer, reflects on how ‘authentic’ activities can provide an effective learning and teaching experience in the ELT classroom, ahead of his webinar on the subject. 

Two buzz words in one title. Not bad! How authentic are you feeling today? Will the real you be going into class to do real things? And are you feeling autonomous? A free spirit or a cog in the machine?

For a long time we have thought about ‘authenticity’ mainly in terms of materials. Let’s use real material from the real world in class. Down with stilted dialogues about John and Mary, up with real texts from magazines – or of course from the Internet. They are bound to be more interesting, because they are real. Umm, well – are they? Last weekend I got a notice from the tax authorities reminding me that I owe them some money. This was pretty boring even for me, but for a learner of English in a classroom anywhere in the world, being made to read my tax demand would be absolutely deadly. It has no connection to their world, and so they how could they engage with it? To use a distinction that Henry Widdowson made nearly 40 years ago, the text is ‘genuine’ – but the only person in the world for whom it is ‘authentic’ is me.

I think that finding ways to make activities ‘authentic’ for learners is at the heart of good teaching. But what does this involve? How can we do it?

Comments and suggestions are welcome. I’ll be exploring this and making some suggestions in the webinar I am leading next week on Tuesday 15th July and on Wednesday 16th July, so please come and join in.

And while you are at it, what about ‘autonomy’? What can we do in the classroom to help learners to take charge of their own learning? And equally intriguing – what can we do to help teachers to develop their own skills? Again, please share your comments and suggestions.

In the webinar I’m going to be drawing on two articles from ELT Journal to illustrate some ways of doing both of these, and I hope to be able to share links with you so that you can access the articles free of charge.


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How to survive in the freelance market – Part 3

woman using megaphoneThis is the third of a six part series of articles from two ELT professionals who have successfully done just that: Mike Hogan and Bethany Cagnol. Here, they share advice on mapping out a marketing strategy.

Following on from our previous articles, once you’ve thought about your income and expenditure needs, defined your services, carried out a SWOT analysis and researched your potential market and competitors, the next step is thinking about how to market and sell your training to clients and differentiating yourself from similar organizations.

Where to start?

Your business strategy is essential and also provides your starting point. You need to know where you are now, where you’re going and why. Your marketing strategy must then match your business strategy.

The Market Mix 4 Ps is a good starting point. Get ready to define your Product, and in the case of ELT, your service. The place, promotion and price are the other three Ps. When thinking of the place, consider whether you’ll offer your services virtually or face-to-face, and whether you’ll offer them from home, a hired training room, the clients’ premises or elsewhere. Promotion refers to the channels you’ll use to communicate what you have to offer; researching your market and potential competitors can help you define these. With regard to price, you’ll need to think of the value of what you’re offering in its own right, but also relative to current market conditions, your competitors, and other factors.

Getting noticed

There’s no single ‘best’ way to market your ELT services. First, think about your prospective clientele and where they turn for information. If they read industry-specific journals, why not submit an article that draws on your expertise in this field. If they go to conferences, consider presenting some research or running a workshop. Conferences can also be useful in developing contacts with your peers, which in turn can lead to future project collaboration. Professional-looking business cards are essential, as is an online presence. Do you have a website or at least an online profile? Can you or your services be easily found online when doing a search for your area? How are you building a brand around your name? It’s not something which can be done overnight and requires patience and a step-by-step approach and a great deal of patience.

Building relationships and serving needs

Marketing is all about serving needs. Serving your customers’ needs requires skills in building relationships, finding out what they need and considering how you can meet those needs. You might even be able to create a need that a client was previously unaware of, which you, of course, can fill.

When you meet with potential clients, focus on listening to what’s important for them, rather than trying to push your services. When you truly understand their needs, you’ll be better positioned to package what you can offer in a more suitable way.

Get involved in ‘the business’ of language teaching. If you’re a freelancer, you’re the service provider and the school/client is your customer. Treat them like one. Care for them. Remember: they aren’t obliged to fill your schedule.

Sales

Sales and Marketing are inextricably linked. It’s essential that you’re comfortable presenting, negotiating, and talking about prices and money if you’re going to be selling your services. This doesn’t come easy to many, but you can actually find tips in coursebooks in the sales, marketing, presentations and negotiations sections. Remember all those roleplays you’ve done with your learners? Apply the same principles to your meetings with clients. With practice, it gets easier!

If a potential client schedules a meeting with you, they’re probably also talking to your competitors. Don’t wait to reply to that email or draft that offer until tomorrow. Do it today. Complacency and overconfidence can be deadly. And even if your client is a long-standing and satisfied one, always assume that could change at any moment. Fend off competitors by continuing to offer tailored, top-quality services that differentiate you from the rest.

Sometimes you may get a training contract with more training than you can deliver. This is when it becomes necessary to hire / subcontract other freelancers to work on your behalf. Remember they’ll be delivering the training under your name and your brand, and this can be pretty scary at first. So the importance of continued quality control in such instances can’t be stressed enough.

Finally, a marketing plan is always in a state of flux. You need to monitor it regularly and adjust as necessary to react to changing market conditions and stay aligned with your overall strategy.

This article first appeared in the January 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.

 

© Mike Hogan and Bethany Cagnol, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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Bottom-up decoding: reading and listening for the future

Mark Bartram, a teacher trainer and materials writer, explores different approaches for processing written and spoken text, and how they can be integrated into the English language classroom. 

Are you a top-downer or a bottom-upper? The debate as to the relative importance of these two approaches to understanding spoken or written text has been going on for decades. Most people would agree that both approaches are useful at different times and for different reasons. In this blog I will attempt to explain why the bottom-up approach should not be neglected.

First, some definitions.

Top-down processing starts from the reader or listener. It assumes that the learner brings to the text certain knowledge – of the world, of texts (including how certain types of conversation typically unfold), and of language. This knowledge is likely to be useful in understanding a text (whether written or spoken), but it often needs to be activated, and activities such as discussions, questionnaires, quizzes, brainstorms, and vocabulary-anticipation can all be used to do this.

For example, when you saw the title of this piece, you probably started thinking about what it might mean, what the arguments in the piece were likely to be, whether you wanted to read it, and so on.

So assuming you still do want to read it…

Bottom-up processing starts from the text. It assumes that by working on a combination of different aspects of the written or spoken text, the learner can increase their ability to comprehend it. These might be very “micro-” elements, such as the fact that we tend to insert a “w” sound between certain vowels; or they could be at a more “macro-” level, such as searching for synonyms within a text. The key idea here is decoding.

For example, in order to understand the second sentence of this piece (the one that starts “The debate…”), you needed to work out that the first 17 words are the subject (a complex noun phrase), that the verb comes next (“has been going on”), followed by an adverbial (though unless you are a grammar geek, you won’t have used these terms). Identifying the verb is a key aspect of decoding complex texts.

Improving the ability to decode

Most people would agree that we use a combination of the two approaches when we are processing a text. We tend to switch from one to another as is needed. But whereas it used to be thought that we revert to bottom-up processing when we are unable to use top-down (for example, if we are unable to predict the content, we have to listen to the actual words!), research suggests that in fact the reverse is true. If you are in a noisy café, and can’t “decode” what your friend is saying (bottom-up), you tend to fill in the gaps with your knowledge of the world, or your friend’s usual speech habits.

Within this framework, the idea of “comprehending a text” needs to be defined. Many activities in coursebooks are essentially asking the learners: “Did you understand this text?” – i.e. the one in front of them. This can work as an assessment or diagnostic tool, but the danger is that it does not prepare the learners for the next text. In other words, we need to train learners in transferable skills that can be used for any text in the future.

We can do this to a limited extent with top-down activities – for example, we can train learners to use prediction techniques to anticipate the content and language of a text. Furthermore, classroom research and teacher experience tell us that top-down activities such as the ones listed above can be integrated easily into lessons, are motivating and fun, and enhance the overall experience for the learner. So we should not discount top-down activities entirely.

However, common sense tells us that we are often in situations where we are less able to use top-down skills, for example, in exams, or simply when we turn on the radio at random. At this point, our ability to decode becomes key. And it is with bottom-up approaches that the training aspect comes into its own.

Vocabulary, of course, is vital. The wider your vocabulary, the more fluent your reading or listening is likely to be. However, bottom-up skills remain important because they work on aspects of the text that are useful even when the learner’s vocabulary level is high. We have all heard learners say plaintively “Well, I know all these words, but I still didn’t get what they were saying!” For this reason, reading and listening activities need to include work on decoding text.

Subsequent blog articles will explore how training in bottom-up decoding can be introduced painlessly into the classroom.


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How to survive in the freelance market – Part 2

freelance teacher business planThis is the second of a six part series of articles from two ELT professionals who have successfully done just that: Mike Hogan and Bethany Cagnol. Here, they share advice on producing a business plan, goal-setting, and planning actions to achieve them.

As a freelancer you are a business, albeit a one-person business, but you still need a plan. It doesn’t have to be a formalised plan, but a simple overview of your finances, your goals, and how you plan to achieve them. This process can help keep you on track and stay focused.

Finances

The first step in writing a business plan is often carrying out a basic financial analysis of your current situation. It can be very helpful to create a spreadsheet (e.g. Excel) with all of your regular expenses, broken into columns representing weekly, monthly and yearly expenses. For example, on the left-hand side, put:

Fixed expenditure: Rent or mortgage payments, car insurance, public transport card, gym or association membership, phone bills etc.

Variable expenditure: Estimates of items such as food, clothing, entertainment, etc.

Sundry items: Regular savings, donations, a new computer, further training, and an emergency fund you can dip into in case you have a few quiet weeks or months.

Add up the columns and divide by ten to give you an idea of the monthly income needed to sustain your current lifestyle. Why ten rather than twelve?

a) There will always be quiet months
b) You may need a few sick days
c) Everyone deserves a holiday!

In another column on the right, type your expected, realistic, monthly income and review it every 14 days or so to check that you are still on track with relation to the expenses listed on the left. As your income grows you can increase your expenditure, or conversely, if your expenditure grows you’ll either need to earn more, or cut back on spending.

Goals

Once you have an overview of your financial standing, move on to evaluating your short-, medium- and long-term goals. Creating SMART goals can help you stay on track; these are Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. As with your finances, goals need to be realistic and defined; avoid statements such as “I’d like more clients.” or “I want to work less for language schools.” Set quantifiable targets: “I want to get three new clients by the end of this year.” or “I’d like to increase my income by 10% / reduce my working hours by 10%.” Once you’ve set realistic targets you can then focus on any investment in marketing, further training, quality control, etc. in order to reach those targets.

A SWOT Analysis

Whether you are teaching, editing, translating or doing other ELT-related work, we suggest you carry out a SWOT analysis on yourself and the services you provide. A SWOT analysis looks at the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats associated with a proposed course of action, project or plan.

Your strengths are the areas in which you excel as an ELT professional. Strengths can be skills and services that are exclusive to your business, that no one else can provide. Use this differentiation to your advantage.

Keep a close eye on your weaknesses. Don’t worry, we all have them! But don’t take on tasks you aren’t fully capable of carrying out or services for which you aren’t qualified. Doing so might get you that first contract, but probably not the second; and it certainly won’t help your reputation.

In order to identify the opportunities, you’ll need to do some market research. Find out what your potential clients are looking for and what your competitors are offering. Keep your eyes and ears open so that you don’t miss opportunities. If you focus on your strengths, opportunities will find you, so be ready!

And finally, as Lao Tzu wrote in the Art of War, “If you know yourself and know your enemy you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.” Know your threats. When assessing your competitors, don’t concentrate on taking their business or being better than them. It’s healthier and more beneficial to think about how you can differentiate yourself from companies offering similar services to yours. You can do this in a number of ways: price, quality, and simple things such as reliability and professionalism. Be prepared to lose a client every now and then through no fault of your own and have the financial safety net set up to catch you.

Further to your financial plan and SWOT analysis you should also create a checklist to:

  1. Define your customer (even if this is a language school)
  2. Define your services
  3. Define your added value
  4. Conduct market research into potential clients and competitors

In the next article in this series we’ll look at implementation and how to put your plan into practice with a clear sales and marketing strategy.

This article first appeared in the November 2013 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.

 

© Mike Hogan and Bethany Cagnol, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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