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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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Using tablets in the EFL classroom: Why & How

tablet e-book english language classroomVerissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, joins us today to explore the benefits of using tablets in the language learning classroom.`

Whenever someone mentions using technology in the classroom, my first reaction is “Why?” And that was my recent reaction to using tablets. Why should students use tablets in the EFL classroom? How does it help them learn better? For me, the key is not the technology, it is learning.

Many teachers already use technology in the classroom. Many also use technology to take learning beyond the classroom. In this environment, I was curious about the role of the tablet in the EFL classroom. So, being a teacher trainer with Oxford University Press, I got some e-books, downloaded them onto my tablet and sat down to answer my own question: How do tablets help students learn better?

A few days and many hours later I had an answer; using a tablet can make learning more personal. The teacher can better appeal to the individual learner, to individual interests, individual learning styles, and individual difficulties.

So, knowing why, the next obvious question is “How?” There are many different activities. Here are two to introduce the use of tablets to your students:

  1. Writing their own notes

Students can add their own personal notes to different parts of the coursebook or the lesson. For vocabulary or grammar, each student can write their own sentence relating the language to their lives. 25 students in the classroom will have 25 different sentences. This will make the language relevant to each one, expanding on the work done in class. For a reading or listening text, students can write comments or ask questions, individually interacting with the text.

Classroom activity:

After reading a text, ask your students to use the note and write 5 – 10 important words from the text. One week later, ask them to look at the words in the note. Do they remember how the words relate to the topic? If they do, it confirms their reading ability (and memory). If not, they can go back to the text. They may choose to change some of the words, keeping the total to no more than 10.

Equally, students can write 5 – 10 questions about the text, or 5-10 True/False statements. One week later they can use these as a comprehension exercise as they re-read the text. For me, what is important here is that using a tablet, each student is focusing on their own words, their own sentences, their own questions. They are interacting with the language at their own level, based on their individual needs.

Students can also record comments. Instead of writing 5-10 words or sentences related to a text, students can record the words or sentences related to a picture. Later, they look at the picture and listen to their words/sentences. Since the picture is connected to the topic of a lesson, students learn when they choose the words or sentences, when they record them, and when they listen to them later.

  1. Using the pen tools

Students can use the pen tools to circle, underline, or highlight. In this way, they can focus on specific aspects of a text or language exercise. Again, 25 different students would focus on different words and sentences, personalising their work. For me, the pen tools help students bring out language patterns. Let me give you an example:

Students circle the subject and relate it to the verb, “George and I are”. By highlighting “going to”, students reinforce the “to”, which is something my students easily forget. They can then use another colour to highlight the verb, “throw”. Some students will use the pen to draw an arrow from the subject to the verb.

Classroom activity:

Ask students to do this with the grammatical structures they are learning. This will get them used to using the pen tools. Then, ask them to write sentences about themselves and their life using the structure they are learning. Having highlighted the form of the structure, students will probably make fewer mistakes.

Then, ask them to highlight the different parts in their sentences. This will lead students to notice any mistakes they have made and to be able to correct them.

Conclusion

These are only two activities to get you and your students started. There are many more you can explore as you and your students get used to using tablets in the classroom.

As your students use their tablets, they are personalizing their learning, adding to their lessons. Each student begins from the same starting point, but develops individually, adding their own content, and thus meeting their individual needs and learning preferences.

The key is to focus on learning, to help your students learn better with their


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Online Learning Platforms: Helping your students engage

Learning onlineLindsay Warwick offers four ways to persuade students to make use of an online learning platform. Lindsay Warwick is a teacher and trainer at Bell and a materials writer. She is co-author of the forthcoming Milestones in English A2 and B1+ Student’s Books, publishing in January 2016.

Many English coursebooks come with access to an online learning platform full of material to help learners develop their language skills further. These can be particularly beneficial for academic English learners who need to achieve a certain level of English within a limited time period. But I wonder how many students (and teachers) fully exploit these materials.

For me, the greatest benefit of education technology is that it provides learners with the opportunity to extend learning beyond the classroom, work at their own pace and at a level appropriate to them. Online learning platforms allow all of those things as well as provide a tool for students and teachers to keep a record of progress made. Essentially, they allow learners to have more ownership of their learning which helps them learn better. According to Benson (2011), “controlling one’s own learning processes is an essential part of effective learning”.

However, encouraging students to use such a resource is not always easy as some students overlook the value of it. I’d therefore like to suggest four ways to help those students appreciate this value better and encourage them to fully exploit the resource.

Persuade the teacher, persuade the student

I believe that before students can be convinced, their teacher needs to be convinced. Once the teacher sees the benefits, they can encourage students to do the same. One possibility is to explore the platform as a class together. Students can familiarise themselves with the platform, with their own learning goals in mind. As Dudeney and Hockly (2007) say, when using educational technology “Your learners’ needs, likes and learning goals need to be taken into account”. By getting students to critically analyse the platform, the benefits will be more apparent to them. The class can also discuss limitations and how those limitations can be dealt with.

Make connections

Research suggests that better outcomes are achieved when online learning and face-to-face learning happen together (Vega, 2013) and linking the two in some way adds more importance to the online platform. Learners will be better encouraged to do online tasks if they have to bring some kind of feedback on the tasks to class e.g. their view on something said in a recording or two new words they learnt. With speaking tasks, the online material could help students prepare for the actual speaking task done in class, rather than recording it at home and emailing it to the teacher. And students could be asked to peer correct each other’s writing work in class.

Set regular deadlines

Some teachers link online material to the course through assessment, making completion of online tasks compulsory. While this can motivate students to do tasks, it can also result in students leaving all the tasks until the very last minute to satisfy course requirements. This means students neither use the online tasks to develop their skills throughout the year nor use the results of the tasks to help inform future learning. As a result, teachers may want to set regular deadlines on the platform.

Give students choice

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, asking students to make choices about their learning helps them to develop autonomy. “For learners to become more autonomous they must recognize their own preferred ways of learning, and students have to make conscious decisions about what works for them” (Painter, 2004). By giving students the opportunity to choose which material to study and when, they can feel more motivated to do the tasks and learn more about their learning preferences. For some students, however, too much choice can be overwhelming and so a choice of two or three sets of tasks each time may be a good place to start.

To sum up, online learning platforms offer much potential and the above suggestions can help learners to see this potential. There will always be students who choose not to participate but this is also part of being autonomous. There will also always be students who will exploit the material and learn from it with encouragement from the teacher.

Please note that not all titles are available in every country. Please check with your local office about local title availability.

Bibliography and further reading

Benson P, Teaching and Researching: Autonomy in Language Learning, 2013

Dudeney G & Hockly N, How to teach English with technology, Pearson, 2007

Painter L, Homework, Oxford University Press, 2003

Stanley, G, Language Learning with Technology, Cambridge University Press, 2013


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Using e-books to enhance the learning experience for your students

webinarpic Stacey Hughes, an Oxford teacher trainer with 20 years teaching experience, looks at how using e-books can enhance the learning experience for your students.

As e-books become more popular, you may find yourself asking what all the hype is about. After all, an e-book is just a book on a screen, right?

Not anymore. While early e-books just replicated the print book, today’s e-books have enhanced features.  Video and audio plays straight from the page, and some e-books let students slow down the audio, record their own version, and compare to the original.  Students can answer questions, and then check if they’ve got the answers right straight away with automatic marking.  They can create written or voice recorded notes, draw on the page, and highlight words they might be struggling to pronounce so they can go back later to practice them. And if you set your students a page to complete for homework, once they’ve finished the student can email the page to you for marking.

All these interactive features are great, but pose a challenge for teachers who are new to e-books. How do you teach with an e-book?  How do you manage the class?  How do you balance the activities in class to include pair and group work alongside the e-book?

In my webinar I talk about different types of e-book and how you can start using them. I highlight common interactive features and tools and give practical ideas on how to exploit these for learning. I also give tips for how to effectively manage the use of e-books in a class.

e-Books have been shown to increase student motivation and their popularity is on the rise, so now is a great time to see what they’re all about and whether they’re right for you and your classes.

Watch my webinar recording entitled ‘Using e-books in class: practical tips and ideas’.


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21st Century Skills in ELT Part 2: the question-centred approach

classroom_students_teenagersShaun Crowley has worked as an EFL teacher and a marketing manager for an international ELT publisher. He is the founder of www.linguavote.com, an e-learning platform for learners of English that features social learning and gamification. Follow Shaun on Twitter: @shauncrowleyIn Part 1 of this series, Shaun Crowley considered the importance of 21st Century Skills in ELT, concluding that the group of competencies that define this term are indeed important to English language learning. In the next four posts, Shaun continues by offering ideas to help you integrate some of these skills into your classes.

Critical thinking skills are some of the key “21st Century” competencies, so it’s no surprise that we’re starting to see publishers position their course books with this benefit up-front, from primary to tertiary level.

Here is an idea to help you maximize opportunities for critical thinking, so that your students are better prepared for the rigours of university education and the professional workplace.

Adopt a “question-centred” approach to your classes

Since the recent curriculum reforms in the US, a question-centred approach to teaching has been gaining popularity in schools. Teachers start a module with a big question. Students consider this question critically, and over the course of the module they synthesize information to form a conclusion in the form of a final homework assignment.

This approach first made its way into ELT with the publication of Q Skills for Success. But whatever course you are using, so long as you have enough time to step out of the materials, it should be possible to customize your lessons to feature an “essential question”.

For example, Headway Elementary Unit 4 is called “Take it easy” and follows the topic of leisure activities. Before you start this unit, you could write this question on the board:

“What makes the perfect leisure activity?”

Perhaps search for a YouTube video that offers a nice way-in to thinking about the question… here’s one I found following a quick search:

Pre-teach some of the main vocabulary items that fit into the question theme. Then spend a few minutes discussing the question and gauging students’ opinions before you open the book.

As you go through the unit, use the various listening and reading texts as opportunities to return to the big question, encouraging students to synthesize and evaluate the different input.  For example, in the “Take it easy” unit, there’s a text called “My favourite season.” Here you could ask:

Is the perfect leisure activity one that you can do in any season?

Return to the big question any time you see a link to the course material you are using. Then at the end of the unit, have students write an answer to the question for homework. If students are not in the routine of doing homework, round off the question with a class discussion.

Have you adopted a similar approach to your classes? If you have, we’d love to hear how you apply the question-centred method.

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