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A positive learning environment: the first 10 minutes (Part 1)

Eager children in classVerissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at some different ways to establish a positive learning environment in the classroom.

Behind every activity in the classroom is the question of behaviour. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to think about it, as your students are motivated to learn and behave accordingly. However, as the teaching of English as a foreign language moves beyond the smaller classes of private language schools into the larger classes of mainstream education, teachers know that student behaviour becomes a key aspect of every lesson and every activity. Mixed abilities, different learning preferences, intrinsic motivation, and varying attitudes towards learning become more important considerations for the teacher, and activities that would work in smaller classes don’t in larger ones.

In this series of blog posts, I will focus on establishing a positive learning environment, taking into consideration the nature of larger classes in a mainstream environment, where English may be seen as another subject like Maths or Science. In these circumstances, many students see success as a good grade on a test rather than the ability to communicate that is implicit in communicative language teaching (CLT).

I have always found that the best way to communicate with my students is to show them what I want rather than to tell them. So, in my larger classes, where motivation to communicate was low and the difference in competencies was very high, I focussed on the first ten minutes of class.

1.

As students entered the classroom, I wrote on the board what I expected them to do. It was a simple exercise, maybe words we had learned the previous lesson with the letters scrambled. I might simply write the page number and exercise from their workbook.

My aim was for them to have something to do when they walked into the classroom. No more aimless talking until I told them to sit down and take out their books. No initial explanations that led to using L1 to get them seated and quiet. More importantly, students who were ready to work would have something to do and could simply get on with it. They didn’t need to wait for everyone else.

I didn’t need to repeat instructions. To those who had not yet started working, I simply looked at them and then looked at the board. The message was clear. Of course, some protested that I had not told them we had already started. I patiently ignored them, not falling into the trap of explaining what we already knew.

2.

About a minute into the exercise, when I knew some students had the first answers, I would simply say, “Number 1. Does anyone have number 1?” Before any student said the answer there would be protests from some students who had not yet started, that I was rushing them, that this was not fair. I smiled and said, “Relax, I’m only asking for number 1.” A student would say the answer to number 1 and I would wait for them to continue the exercise.

It is important for teachers to set the pace of an exercise in their classrooms. Students quickly learn that the longer they take to do something the less material they will have to do in class; in essence, taking longer means less work. By asking for the answer to number 1, I am simply setting the pace of the activity for them. I am telling them they should have started the exercise, that they should already have the answer to number 1. If they don’t someone has just given it to them. All they have to do is to listen. I wait another few seconds and ask if anyone has the answer to number 2. Again, there will be protests, but fewer this time.

Beginning my classes in this way I have communicated some very important points to my students.

First, they all have something to do when they walk into the classroom. There is no need to wait for the teacher to repeatedly tell them to sit down, take out their books, and turn to a certain page to do a certain exercise.

Second, I can focus on the students who are working and not on those who are not. By asking for the answer, I allow students who have worked to participate more in class.

Equally important, I have taken away any reason for weaker students to hold up the class with excuses and poor working habits. The exercise is simple and clear. I usually begin with scrambled words on the board based on vocabulary we have been learning. I even write the page number on the board. In this way, they can use their books to find the words in order to write them correctly. In essence, the activity is based on effort, not on knowledge. Anyone who wants to do it can, no excuses.

Also important for today’s students whose attention span is getting shorter is that I have not had to explain the exercise. It is obvious what they are expected to do. If I need to, I can even ask a student who knows the answer to come up to the board and write the word, thus demonstrating to everyone what is expected. There is no need for lengthy explanations.

Finally, I have provided students a transition from using their first language when they came into the classroom to focussing on English. The exercise acts as revision of a previous lesson, helping theme to focus on the upcoming lesson.

My initial aim is for students to finish the exercise in 5 to 10 minutes. Eventually, I will want them to finish the exercise in less than 5 minutes so that I can go on to use the language of the exercise in order to work on their speaking skills. That will be the subject of my next post. Then, we will move on to the lesson itself.

As you try this in your classes, remember to make the exercise simple, clear, quick to complete, and quick to correct. Your aim is not only the language. Your aim, at this point, is also to have the class work better so that everyone can learn better.


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Vocabulary in your students’ writing: the Bottom Line

WritingCheryl Boyd Zimmerman is the series director of Inside Writing and vocabulary consultant for Q: Skills for Success. In this article, she takes a look at vocabulary development in the classroom.

Isn’t it obvious?  In order to write well, we need to know a lot of words, and we need to know a lot about each word so we can use it to say what we mean.  In fact, without the knowledge of many words, our writing is stymied – or should I say crimped? impeded?  blocked? snookered? A word choice transmits not only meaning, but tone and subtleties of meaning such as familiarity or distance, precision or vagueness, certainty or ambiguity, earnestness or light-heartedness and more.  For academic writing, this becomes especially challenging. In order to communicate as I intend, I need to know the ways in which words vary and then I need a wide variety of words from which to make my choices.

Why isn’t vocabulary development included in every writing class?  Perhaps we underestimate the difficulty of this task and prefer to spend precious classroom time on other issues.  Or perhaps we don’t know how to integrate word learning into writing in a way that is relevant to the writing task.  But by not spending time developing our students’ vocabulary, we are hindering their writing development and academic success.

This article suggests some techniques that address vocabulary development at each stage of the writing process: pre-writing, drafting, revision and editing, and gives you the bottom line when it comes to explaining the role of vocabulary to your students.

Pre-writing

This is the stage in which we gather ideas, develop thoughts and analyze the writing task.  First, what type of writing (genre) is to be used:  newspaper article? persuasive essay? summary? blog?  This helps sort through the topic, choose how to focus attention and be clear about purpose and audience.  Next, focus on finding a topic and exploring it with a purpose in mind. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. To help students with both genre identification and topic development, use high-interest readings to provide clear models and to spawn ideas.

A focus on vocabulary can illuminate the topic and guide the planning.  Pre-writing activities with a lexical focus might include:

  • Brainstorming:
    • Students read the writing prompt or a short passage about the topic, and identify 1-2 words that stand out as central to the topic. For each one, students generate as many related words in 5-10 minutes without censoring themselves.
    • Pairs or small groups compare lists, and explain their choices, keeping the topic and genre in mind. Encourage students to share words and add to their lists.
  • Freewriting:
    • Students write non-stop for 5-10 minutes about whatever comes to mind that might relate to the topic, again without censoring themselves. Next, students reread what they wrote and circle words that seem important to what they want to say. Include words that describe facts, important names, opinions and feelings.  Include synonyms that are related words in different registers.
    • Using these selected words, describe your plans to a partner.
  • Paragraph Analyses:
    • Select a paragraph that is written in the same genre or on the same topic as the assignment. Provide copies or project on a screen.  Read  together as a class, drawing attention to vocabulary with questions such as:
      • Which academic words are used here? (See examples here).
      • Which everyday words are used here?
      • Focus on one well-used word at a time; what is behind the author’s choice of each word? Select another paragraph and repeat this activity. Pairs work together to answer the same questions as above.  Compare answers.

        Bottom Line for Your Students
        Different types of writing use different types of words.  Even very academic papers don’t use a large number of academic words, but they use them effectively.   Academic texts contain an average of 10% academic words (Coxhead, 2006).

Drafting Stage

In this stage, vocabulary activities can evolve from a focus on meaning to a refinement of meaning, always related to whom you are writing for and why you are writing.

  • As your students begin their first draft, refer to the words they identified during prewriting. Organize the way these words relate to each other as they develop their first draft.
  • Return to the source text for the assignment or other relevant articles on the same topic. Identify words that stand out to your students as interesting and important to the message.  Use these words in the writing.

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    Word learning doesn’t just mean to learn new words, but also to learn to have confidence to use words that you recognize but don’t use often.  Writing gives you a chance to use partially-known words and to build your knowledge of these words.

Revision Stage
The revision stage is a time to check that your students’ writing responded to the prompt, and that it focused on the purpose and audience as intended.  Examples of doing this with a focus on vocabulary include:

  • Ask your students to re-read the prompt and then re-read their papers. Do they address the prompt? Are there any words in the prompt that can be added to their papers for the purpose of congruity?
  • Read through the papers and look for vague words (good; nice; very). With purpose and topic in mind, change them to be more specific and clear.

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    A study of 178 university professors found that the greatest problem with the writing of non-native speakers in their classes was vocabulary.  They said vocabulary (more than grammar) kept them from understanding the meaning.  (Santos, 1988)  Your word choices are very important.

Editing Stage

The editing stage can be used as a guided opportunity to check for details of word-use including subtleties of meaning, lexical variety, grammatical features, derivatives and collocations. With this stage, students work with a final or near-final draft.  Guide students to read through all or part of the paper, focusing on one task at a time.

  • Lexical variety: Did they over-use any words?  Did they repeat the same word in the same sentence?
  • Noun use: Check their accuracy: Are they plural? singular? countable?  uncountable?
  • Verb use: Do they “agree” with the nouns in plurality? Check for verb completion.  Do the verbs need to be followed by an object?  Do they need a “that clause?”
  • Academic word use: Underline each academic word used.  Has the student used them correctly?  (when in doubt, check a dictionary)  Do they have enough? Too many?

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    You may have been taught to focus on grammar when you edit your paper, but grammar and vocabulary often overlap. Take time to focus on individual words; do they say what you mean and say it accurately?

Please leave your ideas in the comments below.Writing instruction and word learning belong together.  These are some examples of ways to engage vocabulary development in writing. As you reflect on your writing classroom, what else can you add about vocabulary and writing?

References

Coxhead, A. (2006).  Essentials of teaching academic vocabulary.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Santos, T. (1988). Professors’ reactions to the academic writing of nonnative-speaking students. TESOL Quarterly 22(1), 69-90.


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10 Ways to Ensure That Your Quiet Students Never Speak Out in Class

woman_holding_finger_to_her_lips_shhAngela Buckingham, language teacher, writer and teacher trainer, introduces her upcoming webinar on 24th & 26th September entitled: “Oral Error Correction in the English Language Classroom.”

As part of my role as a teacher trainer, I have observed many ELT lessons over the years: some given by new and inexperienced trainees, others by experienced members of staff who have been teaching language for many years. One area that interests me is the teacher response to learner mistakes in a lesson and what steps are taken towards oral error correction. Even if we haven’t thought about this consciously, our stance is usually writ loud and clear. What is evident to the observer is that teacher attitudes to learner mistakes can have a profound impact on behaviours in class.

Here’s my Top Ten list for ensuring that your quiet language students will be even quieter, simply by adopting some or all of these simple classroom techniques:

  1. Always correct every error you hear
  2. Ensure that you correct in a stern way; Do Not Smile
  3. Make sure that you never praise your learners for answers given in incorrect English
  4. Don’t give thinking time – where possible, make sure you supply the answer yourself
  5. When learners do answer, respond to the language only, not to the content of the response
  6. Spend most of your lesson facing the board, computer, or looking at the textbook. Avoid eye contact with your students
  7. Ask questions to the whole class but always accept early answers from the most confident students, who should get the answer right
  8. If a student is hesitant, don’t give them time to finish. Show in your body language that you are bored listening to their attempts
  9. Seize every error as a teaching opportunity – don’t move on until everyone in the class is absolutely clear what the mistake was
  10. Be prepared to interrupt your students’ interactions at any time, so that they are using Perfect English

Or… you might want to think about doing things differently.

Error correction in the language classroom is important – my students definitely want to be corrected, and can feel irritated if they aren’t. But for teachers, what to correct, when to correct, and how to go about it are issues we grapple with on a day-to-day basis.  How can we help our learners in an encouraging way?

In my upcoming webinar we’ll explore how to categorise oral language errors and examine strategies for dealing with them, as well as evaluating practical ideas for immediate use in class.

Join the webinar, Oral Error Correction in the English Language Classroom on 24th and 26th September to find out more.


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Why Teachers Should Introduce Presentation Practice into English Language Classes

Why Teachers Should Introduce Presentation Practice into Language ClassesBen Shearon, the Presenting Skills consultant for our brand new course Stretch, shares his thoughts on the benefits of integrating presenting skills into EFL and ESL classes.

Many people are terrified of speaking in public, even though it probably isn’t true that it edges out death at the top of the list of most common fears.  My first presentation was over ten years ago at a local conference for English teachers. I was very nervous and not at all confident speaking in front of my peers. I don’t really remember much about the presentation, but since then I’ve gone on to give more than 100 talks at conferences, events, and seminars. I’m now pretty happy in front of a room full of strangers, and presenting has become one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.

There are several good reasons to introduce presentation and public speaking practice into our EFL and ESL classes. The first and most important is that effective presentation and public speaking skills are a valuable life skill. Many of our learners will need them in the future, and appreciate the chance to practice them now. Presentation practice also allows teachers to introduce personalisation and different topics into classes. Learners can choose the content they present, and this brings a variety of information and ideas into the classroom. Learners can learn more about each other, and presentations can also be an easy way to break up a course and provide a change of pace.

Before giving a presentation, learners will have to spend time drafting, editing, memorizing, and practicing their content. This allows them to really internalize the language without the tedium or staleness sometimes associated with drilling and memorization. In addition, learners are able to listen to their classmates talking about variations on a topic, giving them useful extensive listening practice. Becoming an effective presenter requires awareness of effective presenting techniques, having meaningful content to deliver, and most of all, lots of practice. We can provide our learners with the first and third of these, and guide them as they attempt to provide the second.

Developing presentation skills

One of the most practical ways to teach presenting skills is to break the complex and sometimes overwhelming experience down into discrete skills. This makes it easy to introduce and practice them gradually.

Some examples of these skills would be posture (standing in a confident and open manner), making eye contact, using appropriate volume and speed when speaking, choosing content, use of rhetorical techniques, planning and structuring the talk, and use of visual aids.

The presenting sub-skills can be introduced one at a time and students can focus on certain skills as they gain more experience presenting.

In general, the physical skills are easier to explain and harder to get right, so I usually recommend students start there in order to get the most practice with them. After that they can go on to content selection and organization, visual aids, and rhetorical techniques. Some teachers might hesitate to introduce presentation skills into language classes, especially if they don’t have experience teaching them, but in my experience it is well worth attempting and your students will probably thank you for it!

For more ideas on how to integrate presentation into your classes, take a look at Stretch, the new course that features a dedicated presenting skills strand.

To celebrate the launch of Stretch I’m asking students all over the world to enter The Stretch Presenting Skills Competition by submitting a two-minute presentation – and I’d love to see your students taking part! Get your students presenting in class and one of them could win a two-week scholarship to Regent Oxford, a renowned English school in Oxford, as well as a classroom set of Stretch for you.

Watch my video below to find out more:


Why not get your students presenting in class by entering The Stretch Presenting Skills Competition 2014-15? One of your students could win a two-week all-expenses paid scholarship to Regent Oxford, a renowned English school in Oxford, as well as a class set of Stretch for you. Closing date: January 2, 2015. Enter today!


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The value of continuous assessment

continuous learning assessment

Image courtesy of Colin K on Flickr

How do you check your students’ comprehension of a concept or skill? Stacey Hughes, former teacher and current teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, shares some ideas for checking students are on the right track.

Aren’t students tested enough?

Surely the last thing students need is more tests! Continuous assessment is not the same as testing. For one thing, tests are marked or graded whereas continuous assessment isn’t. Continuous assessments are quick checks for the purpose of letting the teacher and student know if more revision is needed. They are also useful for keeping track of progress between more formal tests.

Ideas for continuous assessment

Below are some ideas for quick checks teachers can use throughout the year.

  1. Reading speed quick check: Give students a text to read from the course book or a graded reader. Make sure it is the right level for the class or student. Ask the students to read for exactly one minute. Stop them and ask them to mark the last word they read. Ask them to count the number of words they were able to read in one minute and note it down. Repeat this several times during the term so that students can see if their reading speed is increasing. If it is not, remind them of reading strategies: guessing unknown words from context, skipping unknown words, reading groups of words rather than single words, etc.
  2. Listening for gist quick check: Give students a short listening that is at their level. Play the listening once, ask students to discuss what they understood, then play it again. This time, ask students to write a short (1 sentence) summary of what the listening was about. For example: The listening was about the dangers of mountain climbing. At first, students will find this difficult to do and the focus is not on grammatically correct sentences, but on conveying the main idea. Repeat this many times during the term to see if students are improving their ability to understand the main idea of things they listen to. This will also show students if they need to do more listening outside of class and if they need to work on their listening for gist skills.
  3. Vocabulary quick check: Write any new vocabulary from the lesson on the board for students to copy down. Ask them to put a tick next to words they feel they can remember the meaning of, a cross next to words they can’t remember and a star * next to words they feel they know really well and can use in a sentence. This will let students know which words to study more and, if you collect the papers, you will quickly see which words need revision in the next lessons.
  4. Grammar quick check: Grammar quick checks can focus on form or use. So, for example, if you were teaching present continuous for making arrangements, you could ask the students to write the answers to your questions:a. What do I need to remember about the form of the present simple? (e.g. BE + base form + ing)
    b. Are there any spelling rules to remember? (e.g. drop the -e and add – ing)
    c. What have we been using the present continuous for today? (e.g. making arrangements to do something together)

    These could be collected and checked by you or you could give the answers and ask students to check their own. Ask students if they were able to answer. If they could they can feel like they have learned something and if not, they know what to study.

  5. Ticket out the door: Any of the above assessments can be used as a student’s ‘ ticket out the door’.

Continuous assessment isn’t new. Teachers naturally assess whether or not their students have understood or mastered a concept or skill before moving on. This non-graded formative assessment is also valuable for students for several reasons. Firstly, it clarifies what content or skills the teacher thinks are important to learn which enables students to review relevant material. Secondly, it shows students the relevance of classroom activities. If performance on tasks is assessed – even informally – then students are more likely to understand why the activity was important. Finally, continuous or formative assessment helps students realise where they are in relation to where they should be in terms of skills and abilities.

 

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.

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