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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.


10,000 hours of English – how do you teach yours?

students critical thinkingToday, we feature a post from a guest blogger. Irina Lutsenko is a teacher of English from Saint Petersburg, Russia. Over her 10 years in the profession, Irina has taught teenagers, university students and adults. The courses she has taught include General English, Business English, IELTS preparation and TOEFL preparation. In this post, Irina explores how learning English can be much more than just following a course book, and how to fit ‘extra hours’ of English into the learning practice. 

Being a teacher of English, I deal with piles of course books on a daily basis. Course books are really engaging these days, and I inevitably draw a lot of inspiration from them. Sometimes, a single sentence can start a long train of thought. In this post, I’m exploring one such instance, which led to a surprising realization! Lesson 9A in English File Intermediate (Third Edition) centers around the topic of luck. In this lesson the students read a text called ‘A question of luck?’ which explains why certain people become extraordinarily successful, and what factors contribute to their success.

Have a look at the final paragraph of the text:


I don’t know about the specific number – 10,000 hours seems a little excessive! – but the theory behind it makes a lot of sense for language learning.

When deciding to embark on the journey of learning English, many students pin their hopes on the teacher and the course book. Unfortunately, just going to classes and following a course book is not enough. You do need to put in a lot of extra hours to become a successful language learner.

So how can you increase the amount of time you spend on English?

We’ll need to do a little maths here. Let’s say you have English classes twice a week and each class is one and a half hours long. That’s three hours of English a week. If you don’t do anything else – that’s just three for you. However, you can (and should) add the following:

Do your homework. That’s at least one hour per week. I love giving my students ‘enormous’ (in their words) homework. That’s at least one to two hours more. Add: three hours.

Start your day with a TED talk. These are short – 15 minutes on average, which gives you around two hours more per week if you start every day from listening to a TED talk. Add: two hours.

Read or listen to something in English on your way to work / school. Read a book if you go by metro or listen to an audio book if you go by car. Optimistically speaking, your way to work / school takes 30 minutes, multiply it by 2 and then by 5. Add: five hours.

Watch a series and/or a film in English. Most episodes of most series are only 20-30 minutes long. One episode each day multiplied by five working days gives you two and a half hours. At the weekend, watch a film. Add: four and a half hours.

Do some speaking. Find an English-speaking partner online, speak to your friends, join a Speaking Club. Add: one and a half hours.

Let’s throw in an additional hour for times when you check some vocabulary and/or make notes. Add: one hour.

Adding these together comes to seventeen additional hours of English – plus three hours of classes with a teacher. Combined, they total twenty hours of English a week!

It is overwhelmingly obvious that students who put in twenty hours of English a week will be more successful than those who put in just three. The extra hours – tens turning into hundreds, hundreds turning into thousands before you know it – they truly work wonders!


Continuing language learning: the role of L1 literacy in secondary L2 language and literacy development

Frustrated student at work in classroomMany secondary second language learners face numerous challenges as they develop language and literacy in a second language at the same time they are learning subject area content in that second language. Fortunately, L1 academic literacy is not separate from L2 academic literacy. They are both manifestations of a common underlying proficiency. In this post Dr. Marylou M. Matoush, introduces her forthcoming webinar highlighting the ways that academic language and literacy proficiency can be developed through active reading, writing, speaking and listening in either or both languages.

Secondary schools are commonly structured as if all students need the same type of instruction, for the same amount of time, across the same curriculum. While this is far from ideal, it may not seem too problematic in some second language and literacy instructional settings, such as foreign language classrooms, where second language (L2) learners share somewhat similar first language (L1) language and literacy knowledge.  However, the structure of secondary most schools can be very problematic in where diversity reigns.

Many teachers of second languages are painfully aware of the fact that the emphasis on “sameness” built into most secondary schools is at odds with the needs of L2 language and literacy learners, who are remarkably diverse. They know that it is not uncommon to find secondary school settings where L2 learners who have never been to school may be sitting, in at least some classes, among L2 learners who are partially literate in one or more languages, L2 learners who are fully literate in L1 but not in L2, bilingual students who are also fully biliterate, and native English speakers who also display a wide range of literacy development.

These teachers of second language learners also know that there are often notable differences between individual learners who happen to fall in each of those categories. Learners may begin second language instruction with very different first languages. Then, first language and literacy use is gradually mixed with second language and literacy use, in ways that are necessarily unique to each individual.  As learners develop their abilities to use their languages and literacies, the varied effects of cultural backgrounds, life experiences, personal interests, academic background, linguistic understandings, and literacy skills accumulate with each passing school year.

Fortunately, becoming biliterate involves developing an interlanguage that is flexible enough to be useful in various L1 or L2 language and literacy contexts and the process underlying that development takes place in a generalized fashion, although not in the synchronized or linear fashion suggested by school structures.  Therefore, despite considerable diversity among students, academic language and literacy learning that must occur alongside content learning can be grounded in single set fundamental principles:

  • Languages and literacies and the strategies associated with meaning making are interdependent, not separate. Reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing are all meaning based ways to communicate and compliment one another. Integrating them enables students to make flexible use of them as they make meaning of academic content.
  • Academic learning in one’s first language and academic learning in one’s second language are also interdependent, not separate or isolated from each other. Instead, they are manifestations of a common underlying proficiency that can be developed and applied to reading, writing, speaking and listening about content in either language. Further, since the use of L1, mixed language, or a student’s developing interlanguage represent varying manifestations of a common underlying proficiency, affording students opportunities to choose among them as they learn academic content enhances L2 academic language and literacy learning.
  • Active participation in actual language and literacy activity serves the needs of all students as they acquire language and literacy, but is particularly valuable for L2 students who may need the active support available from both teacher and peers that collaboration affords. Further, active languaging drives thinking just as thinking drives languaging and literacy. Therefore, carefully designed collaboration among flexibly grouped students can work to create an age-appropriate, cognitively compelling setting and exposure to diverse ideas and perspectives for diverse learners.

The forthcoming webinar will briefly discuss that interdependence among languages and literacies and the transferability of L1 literacy strategies to L2 learning. It will also present specific strategies and techniques that are effective for supporting academic second language learning during active languaging while reading, writing, listening, speaking and viewing.



Helping students to organise their ideas in writing tasks

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBIn January we asked over 450 teachers from around the world to vote for the biggest writing challenge they face in their classroom. Since then we’ve dedicated a month to each of the top three voted for challenges with a series of webinars and blog posts from some of Oxford’s top teacher trainers. During our survey we also received some fantastic comments from teachers telling us about other writing challenges they’ve encountered. Join us as we take on 3 extra challenges raised by teachers like you. In this blog Elna Coetzer addresses the first of these challenges:

‘My students struggle to organise their ideas on the page’.

I wish I were Stephen King then I could also spend weeks and months writing my first line, but realistically speaking… So here goes!

Today we are going to look in more detail at a number of ways that we can help students organise their ideas more successfully through targeted practice tasks. I have also included some brainstorming techniques.

Firstly, what are targeted practice tasks?

Let’s think of lessons in which we expose our students to specific reading sub-skill practice:

– in these lessons we focus on helping students develop a specific sub-skill like guessing meaning from context, and
– the aim if achieved, is that our students are then better equipped to perform this type of reading sub-skill.

Linking this with targeted writing tasks, a lesson might focus on writing a blog post and the targeted tasks would then focus on using extreme adjectives. Another lesson could be writing an online profile in which the targeted writing task could be focused on working with the layout of profiles and the type of information that needs to be included. Over a period of time you can then help your students develop a whole range of writing skills or writing-related skills like structuring ideas or organising outlines, one targeted practice task at a time.

Why are these tasks so useful?

1. They allow students to focus on one achievable aspect of the writing process,
2. they raise students’ awareness of a specific facet of writing a certain type of text and
3. this is a more memorable way of helping students with specific writing challenges.

In addition to the above-mentioned, it also gives students a greater chance of success, because it only focuses on a certain part in the writing process.

Now let’s turn to the ‘how’ of these tasks!

This time around we are going to look at ways to help students with organising their ideas. Here are my tips…

TIP 1: Exposure

In order for our students – many of them coming from a very different L1 writing background – to organise their ideas into an effective whole, they need to be shown many examples of texts. For this reason we need to:

– make sure that we expose our students to a variety of text types and overtly discuss the components and ideas that make up the text. This type of activity is often part of Solutions writing lessons where students are prompted to answer questions about the content and layout of said text.
– use a content checklist which can raise our students’ awareness of the variety of ideas within a text and how these ideas are organised into a whole. These kinds of checklists can be compiled for any text type.

For example if you are looking at an online blog post about a hotel recommendation (your text type), you could include the following points:

1) Put the following in order: information about the staff, where did you find the hotel, information about the location of the hotel, how to make a reservation, reason for the visit, the facilities at the hotel, a short recommendation;
2) Did the writer include a description of the hotel?
3) Did the writer remember to mention all the details that are necessary for a specific type of traveller? Etc.

Students look at the text and by discussing the various items on the checklist, they are helped to notice how texts are organised and how ideas are combined to form these texts.

TIP 2: Deconstruct

For this type of activity one can use graphic organisers, flow charts and mind maps. In this tasks students again look at a text and take it apart, transferring the ideas onto a graphic display of some kind. One could use a text of any type for this activity, just make sure that you choose the best graphic display for your text type. In other words if you are working on writing stories, then using the following graphic organiser would be the best:

Solutions Blog 3

In this way the students deconstruct the story focussing on both the outline and the ideas included in the story. This can then lead to tip 3…

TIP 3: Reconstruct

Here the students use a given outline, either prepared by you or by the students (using the brainstorming techniques and graphic representations you have already taught them) to write their own text making sure that they include all the details mentioned in the outline. When they have completed this task, the students are given the original text for comparison. Again the purpose of the activities in both tip 2 and 3 is to help students notice the various building blocks which combine to form a well-written text.

TIP 4: Highlighters and colours

Introduce your students to a variety of brainstorming techniques – see some examples below:
– using the journalists technique: you answer the questions (what?, where?, when?, who?, why?, with whom? etc.) in order to gather all the information which should be included in the text.
– using mind mapping

Every time when you introduce a new technique, make sure that you also show your students how to link the ideas into a logical order by using highlighters or different colours. You could highlight ideas that belong together or underline ideas supporting the same main topic using the same colour. In this way students can organise their writing in a more visual way. What students then need to do is combine their ideas that are colour-coded in order to form a text.

Remember as with other targeted practice tasks, the purpose of these activities is to help students actively and overtly develop a specific skill: that of how to organise and structure their ideas to form a coherent text. Thus the students do not necessarily have to actually do the writing when doing tasks focussing on tips 1,2 and 4. By practising the specific tasks over and over again, the students will be able to structure and organise their writing better.

All that is left for me to say is: try these ideas, make them your own and let us know how it went! And as I said, you do not have to write a complete text to be working on your writing. In terms of writing with our students, it is about one focussed task at a time! Good luck!

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Teaching formal writing

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBIn January we asked over 450 teachers from around the world to vote for the biggest writing challenge they face in their classroom. Since then we’ve dedicated a month to each of the top three voted for challenges with a series of webinars and blog posts from some of Oxford’s top teacher trainers. During our survey we also received some fantastic comments from teachers telling us about other writing challenges they’ve encountered. Join us as we take on 3 extra challenges raised by teachers like you. In this blog Olha Madylus addresses the first of these challenges:

‘My students find formal writing challenging and keep using informal vocabulary’.

Maybe this is something you have experienced? Teenage learners in particular can struggle with formal writing. They rarely use formal vocabulary even in their first language, and don’t see the relevance of formal writing. However, for most teenagers this will prove an important skill when they come to take their end of school exams. Beyond school, formal writing will also be useful in a number of contexts, such as essays, job applications, reports and letters.

Firstly students need to be made aware of the difference between formal and informal English (I am sure they will understand this in their L1). Secondly they need to appreciate when either is appropriate to use and finally they need opportunities to practise both.

  1. Awareness-raising

Write or project two example sentences like this on the board:

  1. After careful consideration, Michael Morris decided to purchase the vehicle, as he had decided the price was reasonable.
  2. Mike bought the car because he thought it was an ok price.

Ask students to work in pairs and answer the following questions

Do you think the sentences were said or written?

Who do you think said or wrote the sentences and why?

How would you translate each sentence into L1.

Which words in each sentence are synonyms or near synonyms? (consideration=thought, purchase=buy, reasonable=ok etc).

Clarify the terms formal and informal, using L1 as needed.

Give out large pieces of paper to groups of about 4 students and ask them to divide the paper into two sections and write formal at the top of one section and informal on the other. Ask students to brainstorm their ideas about when we use each kind of language (they should use their experience of L1 as well as English). Prompt them as necessary.

Hopefully they will have ideas like this. You can show them this on a slide, so they can compare their ideas.

Formal Informal
Usually written
Spoken in official, public and smart situations like speeches
Usually spoken in everyday, personal conversations, films, games, talk shows
Written in songs, dialogues in stories, texts, emails

Then ask your students to come up with three ways in which the language is different. They can look back at the original two sentences. Compare their ideas to your list and add any they have which are not included here.

Formal Informal
Usually planned, edited Usually spontaneous
Official, academic Conversational
Longer sentences Shorter sentences
Longer and less common words More commonly used words
Some words are only used in writing Some words are only spoken
Grammatically correct May include some grammar mistakes
Reader often not known to the writer Listener usually known to speaker
Needed in exam tasks  Not appreciated in exam tasks
  1. Using language appropriately


Show the students the following dialogue:

A: Hi! What’s up?

B: Nothing much. How are things?

A: Not bad. Take it easy.

B: You too. See ya later.

Ask students to discuss

  1. The relationship between the speaker (friends)
  2. Their age (teens or young adults)
  3. The tone (informal)

Now ask your students to ‘translate’ the dialogue so the speakers are (a) strangers (b) older and the tone is formal.

It will look something like this:

A: Hello. How are you?

B: I’m fine. How are you?

A: I’m very well, thank you. Have a good day.

B: You too. Good bye.

Ask pairs of students to practise reading out the dialogues with the correct voices and body language.

They can do such short and focussed ‘translation’ tasks from informal to formal and formal to informal from time to time to remind them of the differences.


When preparing students to write a formal letter you could do a task like this, which helps them think about and distinguish appropriate language to be used in the task.

Dear Sir Hi there
To consider To think about
Firstly To begin
We regret to inform you I’m sorry to say
I wish to enquire I want to ask
Consequently So
However But
We have pleasure in announcing I’m happy to say
Sufficient Enough

Then they could (a) take the formal words and phrases and write sentences which include them so the tone is formal throughout or (b) create a dialogue using the informal phrases or (c) when writing the formal letter try to include as many of the formal words or phrases in it.Cut up the cards and give a set to each group of 3 or 4 students. Ask the students to work together and match the formal to the informal equivalents of the phrases or words.

  1. Next steps

Make sure your students practise both formal and informal English in class and constantly think about why they use different levels of formality. They can practise informal English by writing and acting out dialogues or sketches, writing songs in speaking tasks.

They can also create posters and collect new vocabulary phrases in three categories – formal, informal and slang. It’s all English but they should be aware of when to use it and why.


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