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insight Top 10 Tips: Using Literature

insight-top-10Students often find it difficult to engage with reading and writing instruction and practice, particularly when large, intimidating texts are involved. This is the second in our series of insight blog posts, aimed at helping teachers to overcome this problem. Here are the Top 10 Tips for Using Literature (Part 1), from teacher-trainer Edmund Dudley.

For many English teachers, love of the language and love of English literature go hand in hand. But is it the same for our students? Sadly, most teenage learners of English do not seem too excited about the topic of literature, associating it with dusty texts and tedious book reviews. In this article, we will look at some tips for using literature in simple and motivating ways in the EFL classroom.

  1. Do judge a book by its cover!

lostworldHaving a large collection of graded readers, short stories or novellas in your classroom is a great way to make literature available to your students, but in itself it does not guarantee that students will be fighting to get their hands on the titles. Many of them may not even take the trouble to look at the books. That is the first thing to tackle. Design simple quizzes that get students to make predictions about a book’s content based on the cover.

Example: The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The book tells the story of a scientist who discovers that some dinosaurs are still alive and living in…

  • a) Africa
  • b) Asia
  • c) South America

(Oxford Dominoes / Literature Insight, Insight Pre-Intermediate p.92)

In these activities, the students do not have to read anything – in fact they do not even have to open the book. You can, of course, get them to look through the book quickly to find the answer. In any case, by asking them to make a prediction we can focus their attention on the books available and, with luck, generate some interest in reading.

  1. Make the most of blurbs

The blurb is the text on the back cover of a book. It provides key background information and a summary of the plot. Activities that get students working with blurbs can be an effective way to continue the process of generating interest in titles and encouraging students to get the books in their hands – even if they do not actually open them up.

Again, remember that a successful classroom activity about literature does not have to involve forcing your students to read books in class. Activities such as reading blurbs and matching them to titles help the students to practise language while also tempting them to look closer at the titles available in your class library.

  1. Work with short extracts

Sometimes, less is more. Resist the temptation to give reluctant students long passages to read – there is actually a lot that you can do with a short extract. One simple activity is to show students a single line from a story they have not read and get them to use their imagination to make sense of the gaps in meaning. For example, you could take this line from The Railway Children:

“Tell him the things are for Peter, the boy who was sorry about the coal, then he will understand.”

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

(Oxford Dominoes / Literature Insight, Insight Pre-Intermediate p.90)

Who is Peter? What things does he need? Why? What happened with the coal? And who ‘will understand’? Students have not read the book, so they have no way of knowing the answers to these questions. Instead, encourage them to think creatively. In class, get students working in small groups to come up with imaginative answers to the questions. Once you have listened to all the suggestions, the students are likely to be curious about the actual answers contained in the story.

  1. Reading for pleasure? Make sure it’s not too difficult

Be aware of the language level when selecting a text. It is important to make sure that the texts we use are at an appropriate level and that the activities connected to the text are as engaging as possible. When it comes to reading for pleasure – also known as ‘extensive reading’ – we should make sure that the language level of the texts we use is below the level the students are actually at. That way, they will be able to read faster and also focus on the story without having to stop at regular intervals in order to look up the meaning of new words in a dictionary. By contrast, if the texts we use contain too many new words or structures then the experience of reading them stops being pleasurable and begins to resemble hard work.

  1. Analysing language? Make the challenge enjoyable

The activity of analysing language can be made more engaging if we use extracts from literature to introduce the features of language we would like to focus on. For example, the following short extract from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland contains two examples of antimetabole (the repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed order). Ask students to read the text and identify the two examples:

‘Then you must say what you mean,’ the March Hare said.

‘I do,’ Alice said quickly. ‘Well, I mean what I say. And that’s the same thing, you know.’

‘No it isn’t!’ said the Hatter. ‘Listen to this. I see what I eat means one thing, but I eat what I see means something very different.’

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

(Oxford Dominoes / Literature Insight,  Insight Pre-Intermediate p.87)

Ask students to explain the difference in meaning between say what you mean and mean what you say, and between see what you eat and eat what you see. They can provide a spoken explanation, put something down in writing, or even demonstrate the difference by drawing pictures. As a follow-up, collect further examples of antimetabole on the board or on a specially made poster, complete with illustrations.

Note that although in this lesson we are focusing students’ attention on the language and how it works, by the end of the class you might find yourself with some students who are suddenly more interested in finding out more about Alice…


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The Writing Paradox

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBGareth Davies, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer gives his thoughts on the second of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: ‘My students don’t want to write’.

I was sitting on the tram this morning watching at least three teenagers talking to each other. I didn’t know the exact number, why? Well there were two girls standing in front of me but the conversation was taking place in two ways – one was a face-to-face conversation and one was a text message conversation with person or persons unseen. The texter was revealing information that was making the girls giggle and laugh and then they were composing replies together, carefully choosing the right words. After pressing send they would chat to each other while impatiently waiting for the next text.

When I got home I started looking at the responses of the survey that OUP ran regarding writing in the classroom, the comments from around the world had a similar theme, ‘they don’t even write in their own language’, ‘pace of life is very fast and they don’t have time to write’, ‘writing is a bore’.  This created a curious paradox in my mind.

The written word is becoming more and more important in terms of communication – emails, texts, tweets, Facebook updates, YouTube comments all require writing skills. Yet students don’t see a link between these and what they are doing in class.  So what are the differences?

Possibly in class or as homework writing is seen as a solitary task, a task to do alone, but as the girls showed on the tram writing became fun when they were working together, crafting the perfect line to send to their friend. So can we make class writing a collaborative task and would this increase motivation?

The girls were writing on a screen, maybe pen and paper seems old fashioned to teenage students, they probably never write a note or a letter. So can we save writing activities for our hour in the computer room or allow students to do their writing tasks on their mobile phones or tablets?

The girls on the tram were communicating but do classroom writing tasks feel like a communicative activity or just a chore, an exercise to be marked? For writing to have meaning it needs an audience. So can the students write to each and reply to each other in class? Or do we as teachers need to reply to the content of the piece of writing as well as assess it and correct it? I like to reply with a list of questions that the text left unanswered, this might encourage the student to write back or rewrite the text.

Are students too worried about the mistakes being there in black and white for the world to see? I think it is important for teachers to set criteria for the writing assessment and not focus on every little mistake. So for example, for this task I will be looking at your articles. Also calling the writing ‘a draft’ helps students to understand that they can make mistakes as long as they are willing to redraft and improve.

Even worse than mistakes for teenagers might be that they are writing their hopes and feelings down in black and white for the world to see. One of the benefits of asking students to work alone is that they might open up and share things, but they won’t do that if they fear the teacher will make their writing public. The girls on the tram knew exactly who their audience was, so let the students know who the audience will be – other students, the whole school or just the teacher. Maybe allow them to choose themselves whether the writing is public or private.

So we can see that a few changes to our classroom management techniques can help to make writing a more enjoyable activity but we still need to show students how important writing is. An easy way to do this is to do this quick 5 minute activity.

Write the following on the board –

Whatsapp message, Facebook comment, text message, phone call, tweet, email, face to face.

Call each one out and ask students to put their hand up if they’ve communicated with that tool in the last 24 hours. Then ask students to categorise if they are writing or speaking tools.

This shows them that writing is something they do all the time in their own language whether they realise it or not. So it might be a skill they want to practise in English too.

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Solutions Writing Challenge: Writing – the new Speaking

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBTeacher and teacher trainer, Gareth Davies, explores how we can motivate students to improve their writing skills ahead of his upcoming webinar on Solutions Writing Challenge #2: “My students don’t want to write”.

Is writing the new speaking, do we communicate now more through text messages, Facebook chats and tweets than we do through face-to-face communication? If the answer to this question is yes, then writing should be at the top of the list of 21st Century skills that we are teaching our students. Yet students view writing as a bore, a chore, something to be set as homework so they have time to find an excuse for not doing it.  Even if your answer to my question is no, I still think writing has an important part to play in developing students’ language skills. Writing gives students time to put into practice what they have learnt and, if they are confident, to experiment with the language. It also gives English teachers a unique insight into the lives of their students.

So how do we motivate our students to write? 

I think as teachers we often throw our students into the deep end with writing tasks. When we ask them to speak they often only have to say one or maybe two sentences that are quickly forgotten but when writing they have to build whole texts that are there in black and white for all to see. So maybe we need to get our students happy in the shallow end and lead them to deeper waters when they are ready. In other words writing can be developed in stages, allowing students to experiment with language and building up their confidence to put longer pieces of text together.

We can do short activities to help them tap into their creativity and help them structure sentences appropriately. We can do collaborative writing tasks to give students a chance to help each other. We can develop interactive writing tasks that allow students to see how writing is communication and has a relevance to their lives and we can study songs or prose to allow students to see how to use words and phrases imaginatively in the classroom. Finally we can make sure that the feedback that students get on their writing tasks focus as much on the content as on the accuracy of the language used.

In my webinar, I will show examples of these kinds of tasks and show how the process of learning writing skills can be fun and help students to enjoy writing.

writing-the-new-speaking

Register for Gareth’s webinar ‘Solutions Writing Challenge #2: Writing – the new Speaking’ on either Thursday 19th or Friday 20th of March to explore this challenge further.

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Mother Language Day: Why learning a foreign language is important

answering questions in classPrior to becoming an ELT Editor for Oxford University Press, Mexico, Lysette Taplin worked as an English language teacher and ELT author for a number of primary and secondary series. In this post she discusses the importance of learning a foreign language to foster linguistic and cultural diversity and the positive effects it has on the cognitive process.

International Mother Language Day has been celebrated every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism in an increasingly globalized world is vital to achieve meaningful communication between nations and strengthen the unity and cohesion of societies. Today, there are around 7,000 languages in the world, and an increasing number of situations in which two or more languages co-exist and are indispensable in everyday communication. UNESCO’s decision to celebrate International Mother Language Day derives from the importance of linguistic diversity and the need to maintain and revive minority languages.

Through learning languages, even just by mastering a second language, we develop a fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions (UNESCO, n.d.). And besides the obvious practical benefits learning a foreign language provides, it has been demonstrated to improve memory and brain power and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, can have a positive effect on the brain. Students who speak more than one language tend to outperform peers in math and reading (French Immersion School of Washington, n.d.; Anne Merritt, 2013), and are more adept at focusing on relevant information by ignoring irrelevant and misleading stimuli. This can be due to the fact that by learning another language, we have to switch back and forth between two distinct systems of rules, challenging the brain to recognize and work out meaning. For this reason, bilingual students learn to become critical thinkers and perform better at problem-solving tasks. The brain has also been likened to a muscle since it is said to function better with exercise. Language learners need to memorize rules and vocabulary and thus strengthen their cognitive muscles, making them better at memorizing lists and sequences (Anne Merritt, 2013).

Learning a second language can also develop mother tongue skills. Generally, not much attention is paid to the grammatical structures of our native tongue, but once we start to focus on the mechanics of a second language: grammar, conjugations and sentence structure, our awareness of our L1 improves. These transferable skills give bilingual students a greater insight into their mother tongue, thus making them more effective communicators as well as better writers.

Bilingualism’s effects also extend into later life. Recent studies have shown that bilingual patients were more resistant to the onset of dementia. On average, individuals with a proficiency in two or more languages developed dementia 4.5 years later than monolingual ones (Suvarna Alladi et al., 2013; Anne Merritt, 2013).

But aside from the positive effects on our cognitive process, learning a second language opens the door into a particular culture, broadening our understanding of a race and culture, and making us more appreciative of other perspectives. Once I started to learn a second language, I began to experience how learning about another culture, in my case Mexico, has enabled me to achieve a significantly more profound understanding and appreciation of my own. As a Brit living in Mexico, I feel a stronger connection to my heritage which I took for granted when living in England. Not only that, I now have access to an assortment of literature, movies and music in their original form, giving me the opportunity to view the world from different vantage points.

Learning a second language has been a truly rewarding experience, and has enabled me to build deep and meaningful relationships with people in foreign communities as well as becoming more flexible and creative in my ways of thinking. It has also opened up a whole world of opportunities when it comes to travel and I have been lucky enough to have had the chance to visit local indigenous communities where Spanish is not their first language. Without a doubt, bilingualism and multilingualism provide the possibility to bridge both the linguistic and cultural gap between countries as well as being a great asset to the cognitive process.

References

UNESCO, International Mother Language Day, 21 February 2012, (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/strengthening-education-systems/languages-in-education/international-mother-language-day/

French Immersion School of Washington, (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.fisw.org/admission/BilingualBenefits.cfm; Anne Merritt, Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html

Anne Merritt, Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html

Suvarna Alladi, DM, Thomas H. Bak, MD, Vasanta Duggirala, PhD, Bapiraju Surampudi, PhD, Mekala Shailaja, MA, Anuj Kumar Shukla, MPhil, Jaydip Ray Chaudhuri, DM and Subhash Kaul, DM, Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.neurology.org/content/early/2013/11/06/01.wnl.0000436620.33155.a4.abstract; Anne Merritt, Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html


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insight Top 10 Tips: Writing

insight-top-ten-writingStudents often find it difficult to engage with reading and writing instruction and practice, particularly when large, intimidating texts are involved. This is the second in our series of insight blog posts, aimed at helping teachers to overcome this problem. Here are the Top 10 Tips for Writing, from teacher-trainer Olha Madylus.

Writing is the most difficult of the four language skills. In order to write well, students need to not only have mastery of grammar, a large bank of vocabulary, know how to structure texts, and be able to plan and edit their own writing – they also need to have ideas, opinions and imagination. They are also expected to write things they would never normally write in their own language, let alone in English. Little wonder that so many students don’t like writing and find it hard to see any progress in this skill.

Here are 10 tips to help you teach writing in the classroom.

  1. Start small

Initially do short writing tasks in class. Writing even one good sentence is a great start. All too often, teachers ask students at low levels to produce long texts, which they have not been prepared for. Students will become confident with a step-by-step approach based on the success of mastering skills one by one.

Whatever the focus of the lesson, encourage students to produce their own sentences which incorporate the target language.

  1. Provide good models and discuss what makes them good

Students need to see what they are aiming for. Ensure that lessons focusing on reading texts include a discussion on what makes it an effective text – why is a particular description good? Maybe because it uses vivid adjectives and builds up a picture that can easily be visualised by the reader. Remember: just reading a lot of texts is not enough – students have to notice how they work in order to then reproduce those skills.

  1. Plan to develop different aspects of writing separately

There are so many different skills which students need to develop in order to become proficient writers in English, they cannot be developed simultaneously. So, plan tasks in class which develop these skills separately. Course books often have lots of writing tasks to develop grammatical accuracy, but what about other writing sub-skills? You could create a gapped text of a story with no adjectives and ask students to add powerful adjectives to see how they add colour and tone to the text i.e. using different adjectives could make it funny, serious or even frightening.

Note which writing sub-skills your students have problems with and create tasks to address these problems.

  1. Brainstorm and input ideas

Before setting writing tasks, brainstorm in class. You can brainstorm ideas, vocabulary, appropriate grammar etc. Encourage students to record mind maps and to use this technique when they have to write independently or in an exam.

Often, a problem students have when writing is that they don’t have the background, experience or knowledge to write on that particular topic, even in their Mother tongue. Exploit the texts in your course book by asking students to underline ideas they find interesting and then use them later in their own writing. They should not be hampered by lack of general knowledge in a class that is aimed to develop their language skills.

Use videos from websites such as Youtube or texts from the internet, English language newspapers, or magazines to introduce the topic.

  1. Provide a reason to write

All too often there is no real reason to write in class other than to have the teacher mark it! This is not very motivating for students.

Could the class create their own chat room or blog for sharing ideas about lessons, jokes, interests or news? What about getting students to write dialogues based on a unit topic, before recording them with sound effects?

  1. Collaborative writing in class

By always setting writing for homework, students are left isolated with little support to develop writing skills. This means that writing rarely improves and students lose motivation and confidence. Do writing in class and ensure that students work together, sharing both their ideas, vocabulary and grammar knowledge.

  1. Make it creative and fun

Writing doesn’t always have to take the form of examination-style texts like ‘Advantages and disadvantages of living in a city’, or ‘A letter of application for a job’.

Creative writing can encourage interesting and effective language use. For example, find interesting pictures of pairs or groups of people (e.g. famous paintings which can be found online) and ask students to imagine what they are thinking or saying to each other.

Writing poems is a great way to allow students to focus on quality of writing rather than worrying about quantity. (Have a look at Creative Poetry Writing by Jane Spiro, Resource Books for Teachers, Oxford University Press).

  1. Include writing in every lesson

Plan to have at least some writing in every lesson, so that it becomes more natural and easier for your students to write in English.

You could create a graffiti wall in class and ask students at the end of each lesson to write on post-its / small pieces of paper the things they liked about it. They could even write requests for future lessons or a note of praise to a student they have noticed has worked particularly well that day. These can be put up on the wall and read by all the class, while you can mention any comments. Knowing that people will read your writing makes it more real and interesting.

  1. Sometimes focus on accuracy and at other times on fluency

If students feel that when they write for you, you will focus on their mistakes, they may well lose sight of the message.

Plan writing tasks so that some just focus on fluency, encouraging students to express their ideas and what vocabulary they know. Why not have students write regular texts, emails or letters, telling you about things going on in their lives? Don’t correct these, but send back short replies that address the message of the text.

  1. Mark positively

There is nothing more disheartening than getting back your writing covered in red pen, with a bad mark at the bottom and the comment ‘Try harder!’

Avoid using a red pen to highlight all the mistakes. Why not highlight everything the student has done well, so they know to keep doing that in the future and make them feel good about the effort they have put into the text. You can also be selective in marking mistakes: choose the three most common / serious errors and focus on those. But always mention the good points in the writing.

Remember how hard it is to write well even in your own language and that students need as much help as possible in developing this complex skill. Encourage and don’t over-correct to make writing a positive experience for students in class.

For more ideas on writing in class, see Writing by Tricia Hedge, Resource Books for Teachers, OUP.

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