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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.


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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