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A positive learning environment: establishing expectations (Part 3)

Eager children in classThis is the third of a four-part series of articles from Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, about establishing a positive learning environment in the classroom. Here he shares some exercises to help establish expectations of general behaviour from students. 

We have shown our students what kind of behaviour we expect from them as they enter the classroom. Now, let’s discuss what kind of behaviour we expect from them in general.

When I first walked into a class of 36 10-year-olds armed with my knowledge of EFL and many good intentions, I was not aware how completely unprepared I was for the experience. Looking back, I am happy to say, “I survived.” I can also say that I learned a lot. I went into that classroom as their English teacher, when I should have gone in as their teacher. I thought behaviour was someone else’s responsibility. It wasn’t. So, I needed to establish what I expected from my students in our classroom. So, how do you want your students to behave in your class? What do you expect them to do? How will you let them know of your expectations?

Talk to them about it.

Having shown them what I expected in the first 10 minutes, it was time to talk to them about it. Keep the conversation positive. Avoid the words “rules” and “don’t”. Tell them that you consider them responsible people, that they are part of a group, and that every group needs to know what is expected of them in order to work better. With some laughter and wicked smiles, they all agreed.

When students understand why they are doing something, they can do it better. So, talk to them about that routine in the first 10 minutes of class.

- Exercise on the board

By having the exercise on the board, they have something to do when they come in. Tell them that you’ve been a student too and you know that the more time they take to start, the less work they will have. Wasting time means less work. You want to take away that waste of time.

- Warm up to the language

By working individually on a simple exercise they start thinking in English and stop thinking in their own language. It is like warming up slowly before playing a sport or a musical instrument. Remind them that the exercise is easy, based on language they have done and seen before.

- Revision of language learned

As the exercise and the language are both familiar, it is good revision of the language before starting on new material. Tell your students that it is normal to forget. Everyone forgets. But, everyone forgets different things. As a group they know the material, so as a group, they can help each other remember.

- Working as a group

As everyone is working on the exercise, students who know the answer say it to the rest of the class. If they don’t know an answer, or they are not sure, all they have to do is listen. Together, everyone will have the right answers at the end of the activity.

- Opportunity to practice speaking

Tell them you understand that speaking in English is not always easy for everyone. By beginning the class with a simple exercise in which everyone has the answers, they have an opportunity to speak using simple language. This will give them confidence for more complex speaking activities later on in the lesson. It is like training during the week before a big football game on Sunday, or practicing a musical instrument before playing at a concert.

- Everyone can do it

Remind them that the activity at the beginning of the class is based on effort, not on knowledge. Everyone can do it. What they don’t know, they will get by listening to others in the class. They can improve their pronunciation in the same way – listening to others who give the answers. Reinforce the idea that, if they want to, everyone can do this.

 “I am a responsible person.”

When you have finished the discussion, take out a piece of blank , white paper and write in large letters, “I am a responsible person” in the centre of the page. For older students, at a higher level of English, I would write, “I am a responsible person and deserve to be treated as one.” Ask them to sign it, if they agree with the sentence. Some students may not sign just to see if you will notice, some to see what you will do, and others, (especially teenagers), because they enjoy having a “rebellious” nature. At this point, simply collect the paper and put it up in the classroom.

By discussing what you do in class and why, you are already treating your students as responsible people. You are showing them that what you do is to help them, because you believe they can do it. You are establishing a positive learning environment because you believe all of them can and will learn.

Next week I will be covering establishing expectations for the lessons in general.


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The rewards and challenges of Content-Based Language Teaching

content based language teaching and instructionAhead of her webinar on Content-based Language Teaching, Patsy Lightbown, Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Applied Linguistics) and OUP author, shares her thoughts on its the role in the ESL and EFL classroom.

“Content-based language teaching” (CBLT) refers to a variety of contexts where students learn both academic content and a second or foreign language. CBLT characterizes the classroom experience of immigrant and minority-language children who, of necessity, learn a new language and age-appropriate academic content at the same time. It also applies to foreign-language programs such as “immersion” and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), where the inclusion of academic content increases the amount of time that students spend in learning and using a foreign language. CBLT can provide greater motivation for student engagement because lessons focus on topics that are more interesting and important than those that are typical of traditional foreign language lessons.

CBLT may be seen as an efficient way to deliver second- or foreign-language instruction. In CBLT, students do not learn a language in order to use it later to talk about new and interesting things. Rather, students are placed in the situation of learning and talking about new and interesting things while they are learning the new language. Different academic content offers different opportunities and challenges for language learning. For example, science lessons are often rich with demonstrations and hands-on activities that make it possible for students to understand, even when their language skills are limited. Lessons in the social sciences may be enhanced through the use of questionnaires and surveys, creating valuable opportunities for interaction.  Practice in mathematics can involve students in activities where multiple repetitions are natural and effective for developing fluency and confidence. Readings in history and English language arts challenge students to enrich their vocabulary and to learn more complex syntactic patterns, metaphoric expressions, and a variety of language registers.

CBLT has been used successfully in many classrooms. We must acknowledge, however, that it requires considerable effort on the part of both teachers and students.  Contrary to some claims, we cannot expect that students will acquire the new language “automatically” or that all teachers will know how to provide instruction that gives adequate attention to both the academic content and the foreign or second language itself. One important finding from the many research studies that have looked at CBLT is that students may not acquire the ability to use the new language fluently and accurately, even when they are able to learn the academic content that is delivered in that language. Similarly, some students may give the impression of easy, fluent conversational ability while failing to master the academic content that is appropriate to their age and grade level. To be successful, CBLT instruction must make complex academic content comprehensible and draw students’ attention to aspects of the language that they may not learn without intentional effort.

Finding the balance between instruction focused on meaning and instruction focused on language itself is a challenge for all second- and foreign-language teachers. It is an especially great challenge for CBLT teachers who bear the responsibility for ensuring that students learn both academic content and a new language.

Join the webinar Content-based Language Teaching on 28th – 29th October to find out more.


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A positive learning environment: the first 10 minutes (Part 2)

Eager children in classThis is the second of a four-part series of articles from Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, about establishing a positive learning environment in the classroom. Here he shares some exercises to engage students before the lesson begins. 

Following on from last week’s post, we have our students working on a simple exercise, in this case, simply writing words from the board whose letters have been scrambled. We have set the pace of their work and eventually, you can get them to do such a simple exercise within about 5 minutes. Once students have completed the exercise, you can use it to start working on their speaking skills at a very basic level.

Let’s use this exercise as an example. Students have a list of words that they have written correctly.  Usually I aim for a list of between 8 and 10 words to make it challenging.

  1. retrohb – brother
  2. tanu – aunt
  3. nusico – cousin
  4. rsites – sister
  5. ehrtom – mother
  6. aefhtr – father
  7. celnu – uncle
  8. eehnpw – nephew
  9. ceein – niece
  10. adeguhtr – daughter

1.

Confirm that everyone in class has the right answer. Ask a volunteer for number 1, another volunteer for number 2, and so on. At the end, there is no excuse for anyone in the class not to have the answer. You can go around the class until everyone has heard the words twice.

2.

Then, pick up the pace a little. Go around the class again asking for the answers, but this time a little faster. Start with volunteers, but then start choosing the students to answer. Again go through the list about 2 times, or even only once, if it becomes very easy for them.

At this point you are telling your students 2 things: One, that they should know the answers. Two, by choosing some of the students to answer, you can choose any that are distracted or talking to someone else. They will soon understand that they can easily be a target. If a student does not answer, do not wait for them too long. You want to keep the pace of the exercise challenging.

3.

For large classes there may be some students who have not yet said a word. Start again with number 1, choosing a student to say it. Point to a student and say number 2. Then, point to a student and simply say “next”. Then, point to another student and again say “next”. By simply saying “next” all students in class will need to listen in order to know which word to say. Keep a challenging pace, so they don’t get distracted.

At this point you can divide your class into 2 – 4 groups. Say “next” to a student in each group. If the student cannot say the word, they must sit down. Go through the list twice. The group with the most students standing, wins. As it is a game, don’t wait too long for them to say the word.

4.

Finally, have the students “build” a memory chain with the words.

- Ask a student to say any word they want from the list.

   Student1: “mother”

- Ask the student sitting next to them to repeat the word and add another.

   Student 2: “mother, uncle”

- Ask the student sitting next to them to repeat the first words and add another.

   Student 3: “mother, uncle, niece”

- Continue until the chain is broken, or students have completed a chain of six words.

A chain of six words can be challenging for younger teens. You can challenge older students by asking them to complete a chain of 8 words. If a student cannot continue the chain, then it begins again from the next student.

Each step in the activity has challenged students a little more than the previous, even though the language itself remained the same. Weaker students listen in order to have the answer. By simply saying “next” students have to listen to each other in order to know what word to say. Doing the activity in groups and the memory chain adds memory to further challenge the students, as well as continuing to encourage them to listen to each other. While stronger students may find the language easy, remembering the order of the words keeps them interested in the activity. More importantly, for any student or group to be successful, they depend on others to be able to say their word and continue the chain. When a student is not listening and so cannot continue, the whole group loses. In this way, students who are distracted in class are encouraged to listen not only by the teacher, but by their classmates too, in order for all of them to complete the chain.

In this simple way, all students have had an opportunity to speak in class, albeit only one word. But this is important, because through these simple activities, you are telling your students that:

  • you will help them get the right answer,
  • you will confirm the right answer for everyone,
  • you will give them an opportunity to practice the language,
  • you will make it challenging and, hopefully, fun.

Everyone can participate.

My aim is to be able to do this in the first 10 minutes of class. Then, I am ready to begin my lesson.


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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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