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Mixed-ability teaching: Preparing for a class and managing the classroom

School children writingEdmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 20 years of classroom experience. Ahead of his webinar on the subject, Ed joins us today to discuss mixed-ability teaching and setting learning goals for language learners of differing levels of skill. 

What do we mean by mixed-ability?

Mixed-ability classes are the norm, rather than the exception. Whether or not a class has been streamed according to language level, there are still likely to be big differences between individual learners in every group. I’ll be exploring some of these differences in the webinar.

What about differentiated learning?

Differentiating the learning activities in class is a good way to make language more accessible to learners at different levels – without losing a sense of togetherness.

Here are three ways that classroom activities can be differentiated:

Differentiating the input

For a reading comprehension activity, create two alternative versions of the text beside the original: one version adapted to make it more accessible, and another version made more challenging. Learners each tackle one of the three texts and then answer the same comprehension questions.

Differentiating the process

Alternatively, provide students with identical input (e.g. a set of questions) and then choose one of a number of options for finding out the answers (e.g. by reading a text, by doing individual research, or by completing a spoken information-gap activity.)

Differentiating the output

Open-ended questions can turn a narrow activity into something more accessible and flexible. Students all get the same prompt, but can respond in their own way. For a writing task, provide a ‘menu’ of prompt questions from which learners can choose the one they find most interesting. And why not set a time limit instead of a word limit? Then students write as much as they can within the allotted time.

How can we set appropriate learning goals?

A successful learning environment is one that is goal-oriented, but we should remember that setting ill-conceived or unrealistic goals is counter-productive. Achievable and desirable goals, on the other hand, lead to a healthy learning environment where students’ efforts are rewarded – triggering further motivation.

It’s not all about language – identifying personal goals and groups goals that are not related to language can have a beneficial effect on the group dynamic and individual achievement. Examples might be remembering to switch off phones in class, or finding a different partner to work with for every pairwork activity.

Grouping learners within lessons

When learners in mixed-ability groups are given activities to tackle in small groups and pairs there are more opportunities for personalized learning than in frontal teaching.

Pair work and group work also offer greater variety within activities, allowing individual students to work together with a number of different classmates in the same lesson and, over the course of a term, with everyone in the class.

There are many techniques for grouping learners and a number of different criteria that can be applied – I’ll be exploring some of these in the webinar.

Managing the mixed-ability classroom

Managing the classroom is the responsibility of the teacher – but that does not mean that students should be completely excluded from the process. In fact, there are many ways that we can involve students meaningfully in the day-to-day running of the classroom by finding a variety of appropriate, self-affirming and constructive roles for them to perform. I’ll be sharing some examples in the webinar.

If you’re interested in learning more about the subject and gaining practical ideas for managing mixed ability in the classroom, please register below for this free webinar, taking place on 19th and 21st January.

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Perspectives on Lesson Planning

lessonplanELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes, looks at different approaches to lesson planning and their effectiveness as teaching tools ahead of his webinar on the subject on the 19th and 22nd of January.

Here’s a photograph of a colleague’s lesson plan. It’s written on a piece of note paper taken from a hotel room and was used with a class of students at a business college. In many ways it breaks the rules of what we might call ‘lesson planning’. After all, where are the aims, the timings, the class profile, the anticipated problems and all those other things we expect of a formally written lesson plan? The only thing we can really tell from it is that the lesson had something to do with CV writing.

The lack of detail in this particular lesson is of course because the teacher in question didn’t write it for anyone else to read. As she explains, it was for her own personal use: “I treat lesson plans like shopping lists – I write them at home in preparation for the task ahead and then don’t look at them after that. The helpful part for me is writing it down, not sticking to it.”

I think her ‘shopping list’ approach to planning is probably true for most teachers at a day-to-day level. We don’t have time to write long detailed documents with every step described in detail and – especially if we’re experienced – we don’t need to. As she says above, the ‘writing it down’ is not an end in itself, it’s just part of a longer thought process.

Because most teachers tend to plan in this less formalised way, there is often debate about – and sometimes criticism of – the more formalised type of planning that is expected on teacher training courses or when teachers are formally observed and assessed. Teachers sometimes wonder if the long hours spent writing detailed documents which predict what they might (or might not) do at every stage is time well spent.

I’d argue that on training courses it can be time well spent – especially for new and inexperienced teachers – because it’s a way to develop your thought process. However, I’d question whether a formally prepared lesson plan always has to take the shape of a page with rows and columns that a teacher is expected to fill in and rigidly follow.

In my webinar on this topic, I’ll propose that we take some fresh perspectives on lesson planning by varying our approaches and thought processes at the planning stage. I’ll present some alternative ways to develop lesson planning skills and I’ll demonstrate how visual thinking can help to aid your planning. Participants will also be invited to give their own perspective(s) on lesson planning.

If you’d like to sign up to join John Hughes’ free webinar on the 19th or 22nd of January, please follow the link below. We hope to see you there!

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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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The extended essay: Essential skills for English language learners

Student looking confused

Lindsay Warwick discusses the challenges that students face when writing essays, and how the process writing approach can help to prepare for extended writing assignments. Lindsay Warwick is a teacher, trainer and materials writer. She is co-author of the forthcoming Milestones in English A2 and B1+ Student’s Books, publishing in January 2016.

As those of you working with students learning to study in English know, it requires many more skills than those covered by academic English exams. Of course students need to have effective English language skills and learning strategies to enable them to understand and produce academic material.  But my time teaching business studies on a university foundation course has taught me that young adults may not have developed academic skills in their own language and often need the time and space to learn these in addition to their English skills.

Part of my role was to set and mark business assignments written by a group of international students. My focus was on the content assessment rather than the language assessment (for a nice change) which was done by a colleague. Students had had a lot of input on how to source appropriate information and include a bibliography but these still proved an issue for some students. Online cheat essays were used as sources and students were surprised that these were not academically acceptable. After all, they’d referenced the site, they said.

Writing is not a standalone skill and in an academic context, often follows listening or reading in English. Another big challenge for my students was thoroughly understanding written material in order to be able to paraphrase it and synthesize it into their own work; a challenging skill even for native speakers.

Despite having been made fully aware of issues of plagiarism and having had practice in researching and synthesizing information in more controlled tasks, not all students seemed readily able to apply these techniques to extended writing in subject topics. In light of this, I believe that adopting a process writing approach to preparing students for writing extended assignments can be very beneficial; specifically, building up from short to longer texts that require researching and writing about other author’s points of view.

There are three key stages to the writing process: Pre-writing, drafting and redrafting, and editing (Hedge, 2005). Advocates say that it encourages learners to engage with the writing process more fully as well as learn to write as they write.

For me the most important advantage of this approach is that it allows students to receive feedback from their tutor and classmates at each stage of their writing rather than only at the end. Feedback has one of the most significant, positive effects on learning (Hattie 2013) and helps students to improve their approach and techniques as they write. In addition, students learn to peer and self-assess which are also key components of learning (Black & William, 2001) and useful skills for university students.

A process writing approach to an extended piece of writing might involve the following.

  1. Generating ideas: students share and question each other’s ideas in order to generate further ideas and develop higher order thinking skills. Techniques such as ‘cubing’ can be very useful here i.e. looking at a topic from six different perspectives. You can start with a simple What? Where? Why? When? Who? How?
  2. Research: students check that each other’s sources are academically acceptable to avoid referencing issues from the start. Encouraging students to use a free online citation tool from the beginning (e.g. zotero) means they can bookmark reference material and have it create a bibliography for them at the end. Students no longer have to scrabble around in their browser history to find an article they vaguely remember seeing three weeks ago.
  3. Planning: teacher/students assess plans to pre-empt issues of organisation and synthesis. Teachers may also wish to add their own comments, either to each student’s plan or by taking one or two (anonymous) plans and discussing them with the whole class.
  4. Draft 1: teacher/students offer feedback on content, organisation, synthesis and referencing so far to help move the student forward in their next draft.
  5. Final draft: students peer assess for accuracy to aid final editing.

If students are paired with the same student throughout this process, they can really support each other and see how each other’s work has developed. It will encourage a lot of reflection, both self- and peer, that will help develop metacognition. However, in my experience, for self- and peer assessment to be successful, assessment criteria should be made clear to students so they have something to assess against when giving feedback e.g. Other author’s work will be referenced appropriately. Language prompts will also help students provide constructive feedback (e.g. You referenced XXX well. I think you need to reference…next time).

Whether a teacher will be able to spend time offering feedback to all students at all stages depends very much on the number of students and time they have. But by using self- and peer assessment, students can learn from each other, develop meta-cognition and develop important extended writing skills as they write and not have to wait until their next assignment to put feedback into practice when it may have been forgotten.

 

 

References and Further Reading

Black P & William D, Inside the Black Box, GL Assessment Ltd, 1990

Hattie J, Visible Learning for Teachers, Routledge, 2011

Hedge T, Writing, OUP, 2005


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Gamifying your way to Fluency: Read and Be Rewarded

Screenshot2015-04-24-16-44-34Dr Charles Browne is Professor of TESOL and Applied Linguistics at Meiji Gakuin University in Japan,  a recognized expert in vocabulary acquisition and extensive reading, especially as they apply to online learning environments. In addition to creating two well known high frequency word lists for second language learners (known as the New General Service List and New Academic Word List), he has created several free online learning sites including an extensive reading and listing website known as ER-Central, and has helped advise many publishers and companies working in these areas including SecretBuilders, who recently launched a set of ER reading apps using graded readers published by Oxford University Press.

Did you ever notice how whenever you try a new online game, that the first level is almost ridiculously easy to complete but the final levels are incredibly hard? This is done for several reasons, and some of the basic principles of online gaming can be usefully applied to online learning environments as well.

First, most online games provide a way of leveling up – for example if you kill enough monsters in Warcraft, you will gain enough experience points to go up to the next level. Games usually have many levels and make the first level(s) purposely easy both to help gamers to build confidence and interest in the game, to teach them how to use the basic features of the system, and to instill a desire to play the game more to reach higher levels.  Second, most good RPG (role playing games) as well as many other types of online games, provide players with an interesting or compelling storyline which helps to pull them deeper into the world of the game, as they become motivated to find out what happens next. And third, online games usually give players a way to accumulate points as well as to rank themselves against other players. This, too, leads to higher levels of motivation and commitment since most players want to achieve the highest score, or at least higher than others around them.

When we try to apply the use of game thinking and game mechanics to learning environments such as second language learning it is called “gamification”, something which, when done correctly, can lead to higher levels of learner motivation, engagement and time-on-task.

Interestingly, one popular approach to second language acquisition, extensive reading (ER), echoes many of these ideas.  In 2002, Day and Bamford wrote a very influential article on the 10 most important principles of a successful extensive reading program, with the following 3 principles often cited as the being the most important:

1) reading materials should be easy
2) learners should be able to choose what they want to read
3) learners should read as much as possible

First, if the reading material is easy, it instills leaners with a confidence at being able to read well, as well as the desire to read more and more in order to reach higher levels, very similar to the principles of gaming. Second, when learners are able to choose whatever story they want to read, they get pulled into the book’s storyline and become motivated to find out what happens next in a very similar way that gamers are pulled into the storylines of RPG games. And third, when teachers have students keep track of how many pages they’ve read and post those numbers to the whole class (which is common in many ER programs), it leads to higher levels of motivation through a friendly spirit of competition in much the same way this is achieved in the gaming world.

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