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#NationalStorytellingWeek – Top 10 Tools for Expression in the EFL Classroom

writing booksIn recognition of National Storytelling Week, we thought it might be helpful to gather some of our resources and articles on the blog for aiding language learners in expressing themselves, either through written or spoken work. We’ve come up with our ‘top 10’ to share with you today.

Focusing on pronunciation and writing skills, equip your class with the techniques and skills to make telling their stories in English less of a challenge.

‘The Writing Paradox’ – Gareth Davies explores a quick writing exercise to overcome the common hurdle – ‘My students don’t want to write’.

Insight Top 10 Tips: Writing – Useful, practical tips for making writing accessible in the language learning classroom, both as a creative exercise, and more formally.

Ideas to get your students writing – A piece on helping to break down the barriers around writing tasks with quick practical exercises for the classroom.

Creative Writing in the Language Classroom: 8 Collected Poems – Following a Creative Writing in the Language Classroom webinar, Jane Spiro shares some of the output of poems collected from webinar attendees, along with a list of activities to help spark creative writing.

#qskills – What can I do to improve my students’ pronunciation and fluency? – Tamara Jones shares a quick video with some helpful hints around improving fluency.

Poetry in the ESL Classroom – Lysette Taplin shares some activities for using poetry to help with both writing and pronunciation in the language learning classroom.

You’ve got to have a system: vocabulary development in EFL – This article explores tips for building a broader vocabulary for language learners to draw upon when speaking in class.

#qskills – How do I motivate my students to speak in English instead of their native language in class? – A quick video run-through on encouraging students to use English to express themselves as opposed to relying on their native tongue.

Speaking in the monolingual classroom – Focusing on the most common problems learners have around expressing themselves in spoken English in class, this article comes up with practical tips to help fluency.

Why is Writing so hard? – Olha Madylus runs through some of the more common challenges around writing for language learners.

Are you planning to celebrate #NationalStorytellingWeek in your classroom? Let us know in the comments if you’ll be taking part!


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Bottom-up decoding: listening

female earMark Bartram has been a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer for more than 30 years. His titles for OUP include Venture and Think English for Italian high school students, High Spirits on Holiday for middle school students, and a Business Result Teacher’s Book. 

In a previous post I explained some of the reasons why we should focus on bottom-up strategies for listening and reading. In this post, I’d like to show how this might work in practice for the skill of listening.

Even learners who have a good range of grammar and vocabulary can struggle with understanding natural speech. And the same is true even for listeners who have a reasonable grasp of the topic and good prediction skills (usually associated with top-down strategies). There could be a number of reasons for this, but one essential reason is that they have difficulty in decoding the “signal” which is coming at them. By “decoding”, I mean perceiving the sounds of English and linking them mentally to words and phrases that they have in their store of language. (Even so-called native speakers struggle with this – for example, the recent case of a man who thought the phrase “as opposed to” was “as a pose to” until he was nearly 20.)

English is often described as a particularly difficult language to understand in this respect, as

(a) the sounds we hear don’t always correspond to what we think is the spelling

(b) certain sounds change when spoken quickly and/or in groups of words. In the example above, the schwa sound at the start of “opposed” could be spelt as an O or an A, and the /d/ sound at the end of “opposed” gets lost (elided?) in the following /t/ sound

(c) it is sometimes difficult to work out where one word ends and another starts, as in “I scream/ice cream”.

Our learners’ stories confirm this: a classic example from my own experience was a B2 level class asking me at the end of a course why I kept talking about festivals, when I had just been giving instructions: “First of all….”

So what kinds of activities would help our learners with this problem? Firstly, learners need to be made aware of these features – in my experience, even high level learners may be unconscious of them. Features might include:  connected speech, including weak forms, elision, assimilation and so on; the use of reference words like it and this to refer back to something mentioned previously (very difficult even for advanced learners); the use of stress to carry meaning (as in “I didn’t want to GO” vs “I DIDN’T want to go”); interpreting auxiliary verbs (“Where did you live?” Vs “Where do you live?”)

Teachers often feel that the practice of these features helps in awareness-building.  That is, if the learners try saying these forms (even if they do not wish or need their own pronunciation to reach “native-speaker” level), they are likely to be in a better position to recognise them.

Secondly, learners need to work on the best strategies for successful listening. For example, it is very important for learners to understand the topic of a conversation, but they often interpret a key word wrongly and mis-interpret the topic. This could be because the word has multiple meanings (a student of mine went through a whole lesson thinking we were talking about people from Poland when in fact we were discussing the coldest parts of the Earth) or because the word is close in sound to another (eg track/truck). Students can be asked to listen to snippets of natural speech and choose between different words (“did she say track, truck or trick?”), or different meanings of the same word (“is she talking about a party as in a celebration or a political party?”).

Another important point is how we check comprehension. John Field and others have rightly criticised materials for focussing too much on assessing comprehension as opposed to training learners. But if our comprehension activities focus on the features above, then we can assess how successful our skills training has been. For example, we might ask learners “why does the speaker stress DIDN’T?” or “what does these refer to in John’s last sentence?”. This will help learners become aware of issues they had not previously been aware of.

We said in the previous post that we should not ignore top-down strategies, partly because the kind of knowledge and schemata that we activate before learners listen help to compensate for the various hurdles they face (not least, the poor quality of some recordings). Also, prediction and activation activities are usually fun, and motivate the learners into the listening. But top-down approaches will only take you so far: learners need to become skilled at decoding as well.

To see bottom-up decoding in practice in the classroom, watch Navigate author Rachael Roberts’ video demonstration here.

This article first appeared in the January edition of Teaching Adults newsletter. If you’d like to receive more articles like this and resources for teaching adult language learners, sign up here.


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Speaking Essays: An Idea to Help L2 Academic Writers

 

woman using megaphoneMark Searle is a lecturer, teacher trainer and course designer working in EMI and EAP contexts. He has designed and delivered EAP programmes in pre-sessional and in-course contexts both in the UK and abroad. He advised on the writing syllabus of the forthcoming Milestones in English, publishing in January 2016.

Academic writing is difficult in your first language. It is even more demanding in a second language. Many of the difficulties experienced by L2 writers stem from having to convert abstract ideas and difficult content into linear, logically connected prose. This is particularly challenging for the learner as it can be extremely difficult to solve local vocabulary and grammar issues while maintaining a secure sense of the text as a whole.

Because of this it is useful to regard the pre-writing, or planning stages as preparation for discourse and to include either un-assessed free writing or other discourse based exercises. The exercise below is based on producing language at whole text level and can be used at various stages of the pre-writing process depending on the language proficiency and academic experience of your learners.

The idea of this exercise, which is an adaptation of Paul Nation’s 4-3-2 spoken fluency exercise, is to give your learners the opportunity to speak their essay before they write it. This should help your learners to formulate the words and grammar needed to transform their ideas and content into connected language. It is a transitional practice exercise so perfection is not required at this point – indeed you should expect and allow your learners to produce some faulty language.

Learners may experience issues with cohesion and even coherence but it is important that you allow them to test hypotheses and to experiment with ways of expressing their ideas and content. Do not be tempted to step in and spot-correct as this would defeat the purpose of the exercise, which is to provide un-assessed practice and to give learners the opportunity to learn from output. Remember that learners do not only learn to speak, they speak to learn. Your learners will notice any deficits or lacks in their output and so will become more aware of areas that need attention and improvement.

So, it is a good idea to regard this exercise as one in which your learners produce spoken drafts of their essays and to regard it as part of the iterative process of written production. Naturally, this exercise is part of a process which will develop into producing written drafts for self- and peer-review.

Stage 1

  • Organise your class into pairs, preferably with the whole class sitting in a circle or horseshoe.
  • Designate a speaker and a listener in each pair.
  • The listener must be an active listener and should give lots of encouraging non-verbal signals to the speaker, but cannot ask questions or engage in conversation at this stage.
  • The speaker must try to speak their essay using, as far as possible, language they might possibly use in the final written version.
  • Give your listener 4 minutes to speak their essay.
  • At the end of the time – ask the listener to give some brief positive feedback to the speaker.

Stage 2

  • Ask all of the speakers to stand up and move clockwise to the next listener.
  • Repeat stage one but only allow 3 minutes for the speaker to deliver the same content as in stage one.

Stage 3

  • Ask all of the speakers to stand up and to move round to the next listener.
  • Repeat stage two but only allow 2 minutes for the speaker to deliver the same content as in stage two.

Stages 4-6

  • Repeat the process but change learner roles so speakers become listeners and listeners become speakers

Variations

  • You can do this exercise with or without essay plans depending on the experience and proficiency of your learners.
  • You can condition this exercise differently according to the written output you wish to prepare for. You could, for example, work with just an introductory paragraph and reduce the time to 60 seconds- 45 seconds- 30 seconds. This could then work as a warm up to a class.
  • To help your speakers monitor the time you can use an online stopwatch and display it with a digital projector.
  • With more experienced learners you can condition the listener feedback to a condensed form of peer review. You may wish to restrict listener feedback to specific aspects of the speaker’s output such as vocabulary or linking words.
  • Error correction and mistake management exercises should be delayed so as not to inhibit the spoken output. It is perhaps best to note any significant problems and design remedial work into your future teaching programme.

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

References:

Nation, I.S.P. (2009) Teaching ESL/EFL Reading and Writing. Abingdon: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.

Swain, M. (1985) Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In Gass, S.M. and Madden, C.G. (eds.), Input in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, pp. 235-53.


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5 Thanksgiving Resources for your Classroom

shutterstock_6453091Thanksgiving, a national holiday celebrated for the most part in North America and Canada, falls on Thursday November 26th this year. This holiday is seen as a day to give thanks, traditionally for the harvest of the previous year. Traditionally this holiday is spent with family and it is traditional to have a special meal to celebrate the occasion. To help mark Thanksgiving for our English language teachers, we’ve created some free resources for download and use in your classroom, designed for language learners of mixed abilities.

These worksheets were produced by our own Oxford teacher-trainer, Stacey Hughes. To see more of Stacey’s work on the blog, click here.

Free worksheets:

Cultural Perspectives – A high-level worksheet designed for intermediate level language learners and above, this explores the history of Thanksgiving and how the narrative of the story can change when viewing the event from different perspectives.

Giving Thanks – This is a multi-level activity sheet which covers suggestions for both young learners as well as adults – suggestions for both low level learners of English as well as intermediate upwards.

Thanksgiving Menu – A ‘fill in the blanks’ interactive work sheet designed for young learners and pre-intermediate language learners.

Thanksgiving Webquest – A Thanksgiving-themed information gathering exercise suitable for intermediate level learners and upwards.

What’s for Dinner? – Two activity sheets designed for elementary upwards, the first matching exercise could also be suitable for some young learners.

 

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our teaching community that celebrate the holiday!


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What Learners Can Do with Texts

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Teaching/Learning Cycle

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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