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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


Have your voice heard! Become a guest blogger for @oupeltglobal

guest-contributors-oupWe like to keep this blog as up-to-date and relevant to you, our readers, as possible.  We strive to keep our list of guest bloggers fresh and varied, as well as give people a chance to share their opinions and knowledge. Now we’d like you to share yours!

Whether you’re an experienced blogger, a complete novice, or just want more exposure for your work, we’re welcoming submissions from anyone for the chance to be featured here. Plenty of people have already written for us and (we hope!) they’ve all enjoyed the experience.

What’s in it for me?

There are lots of reasons why blogging for a big publisher like Oxford University Press is great for your personal and professional development.

  • The opportunity to reach out to a huge audience of teachers and language professionals around the world – our blog is read over 1,000 times a day; every article is shared with our Twitter audience of over 31,000 ELT professionals and our Facebook audience of over 166,000 teachers worldwide; and our ELT website receives approximately 1.5 million views per month.*
  • It’s great publicity for both you as a professional, and your website or blog. It could help you attract new readers to your work and connect with like-minded individuals around the world.
  • It’s valuable experience for your personal and professional development. Teachers and language professionals who take an active role in online professional development feel far more supported and enthused to take what they’ve learned into the classroom.
  • Become a guest writer for our industry-leading blog

*Audience numbers accurate as of 04/02/2015.

How can I get involved?

If you’ve written an article that you think might be suitable, or you have examples of previous work that you’d like to show us – even if you just have an idea for an article – you can get in touch with us at elt.marketing.uk@oup.com with ‘Guest blogging’ in the subject line and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Are there any rules I must stick to?

There are no rules, as such, but here are a few guidelines as to what we’re looking for and what we think works best on an ELT blog:

  • Articles must be related to English language teaching or learning, education in general, technology in education, etc. If in doubt, take a look at our Categories page to see if your idea fits in with our themes.
  • Articles should be helpful and provide something of value to the readers. We won’t publish anything that is promotional or commercial in nature.
  • Posts should be about 300-600 words and have an interesting title.
  • If you want to include images in your post, please make sure that you either own the images, or you have permission to use them. Creative Commons search is a great website where you can find images that are licensed for commercial use.
  • Please check your spelling and grammar. Of course, we’ll work with you to improve anything that isn’t quite right, but the more accurate your post is to start with, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to use it.
  • If your article is chosen to be published on the blog, we’ll ask you to provide a short biography and a photo for our Guest Bloggers
  • Send your article to elt.marketing.uk@oup.com with ‘Guest blogging’ in the subject line to help us find and respond to your message as quickly as possible.

We look forward to receiving your articles.


A positive learning environment: establishing expectations (Part 4)

Eager children in classThis is the last of a four-part series of articles from Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, about establishing a positive learning environment in the classroom. Here he shares some practical ways to minimise disruptions during classes. 

What do you expect from your students? Sit down for a few moments and think about your classes. Think about where you are as the class begins. What are you doing? Where are the students? What are they doing? As you think about the class, note down anything you would like to improve. Don’t worry if it’s easy or difficult. Just note it down. Then, look back at your notes and decide on 3 to 5 points you want to work on immediately.

After reflecting on my classes of about 25 teenagers, these were the four aims I came up with:

– The classroom is in order.

– Students are ready for class.

– Classes begin more efficiently.

– Students participate actively during the lesson.

Remember, these are aims. I took them to my classes and wrote them on the board. I told my students this is what I expected from them. I got a lot of blank looks. They had heard this before. There was nothing they could really disagree with. But what do they mean? What does “the classroom is in order” mean? Can you picture it?

It is important to be able to visualise the difference between how things are now and how you expect them to be. Why is the classroom not in order? Define each aim so that students can see when it is not being met. For my classes, “the classroom is in order” meant that:

– The chairs are in their places.

– The desks are clean and in their place.

– The board is clean.

Anyone looking at the classroom can see if these 3 aims are being met.

Having the classroom in order based on these 3 aims may seem very simple and obvious. Let me explain why it was important. My students came into my class with the results of the previous class still evident. Having left in a hurry, there were fallen chairs, desks at different angles, books and other materials from previous lessons on their desks, notes still written on the board. This was affecting the beginning of my lessons, so it became important to begin the class with the classroom in order.

With the idea of making each aim visually clear, discuss each one with your students. These are the results of the discussion with my students:

Students are ready for class  

– There are no materials on the desk, except those needed for the English lesson.

– The student has his class book, workbook, and notebook.

– The student has pen, pencil, and rubber.

The reason for these aims was the number of disruptions in class based on not having the materials they needed. Equally important, materials from other lessons meant that many students’ desks were disorganised. This was affecting their focus on the material in my lessons. My students already had a problem focussing on the lesson with these distractions.

Classes begin more efficiently

– The student is on time.

– The student enters in an orderly way.

– The student leaves in an orderly way.

What does “on time” mean? This greatly depends on the situation in your school. Some schools use a two-bell system and, in this case, being on time is being in class before the second bell rings. Many schools use the bell to call students (and the teacher) into class. Some schools do not use a bell system, at all. What is important is that you and your students agree and that it is obvious to all when a student is late. Based on the one bell system, my students arrived in the classroom at about the same time I did, walked in as I did, and went to their desks, as I did.

What does “in an orderly way” mean? Again, discuss this with your students. It could mean no running. It could mean going straight to their desks. It could even mean, not using their own language when they enter the English classroom.

Students participate actively during the lesson

– The student listens actively.

– The student works when necessary.

Initially, listening “actively” was difficult for my students to visualise. “How do you know we are listening actively?” they asked me. But based on the routine I wrote about here in a previous blog post, “A positive learning environment: the first 10 minutes (part 2)”, they quickly understood that they would need to listen to each other in order to participate in the class.

“when necessary” also became a point of discussion. Originally the aim was for students to be engaged in the lesson. This proved very difficult for larger classes with a greater degree of mixed abilities and learning preferences. My students felt they should not be punished if they had finished an exercise and were waiting for others. I accepted this, and so I took on the responsibility of keeping them all engaged. It was a challenge.

Responsibility Skills

Rather than calling them classroom rules, I labelled them “responsibility skills”. I made a poster with the aims and put it up in my classrooms. By having the poster with the aims in the classroom, I did not need to repeat or remind. I could simply look at the poster, and then look at the student. They understood what was wrong, because they could see it as easily as I could.

Then, it was a matter of being patient as students adjusted to the new expectations. Over time, about 3 months for me, these became part of the class routine, for which I congratulated them.


Is it always preferable to employ only native English speaking teachers?

Is it always preferable to employ native English speaking teachers?

Image courtesy of Flazingo Photos

There are widely-held perceptions that numerous language schools refuse to hire non-Native English Speaker Teachers (nNESTs). In this guest article, teacher, teacher trainer, and founder of TEFL Equity Advocates, Marek Kiczkowiak, shares his thoughts on how this can have negative effects on students and teachers alike, and looks at an alternative, more egalitarian hiring model, that emphasises qualifications and experience, regardless of their mother tongue.

Dear Student,

I would like to tell you a few things about your English teachers which you might not have been aware of. As a teacher, I really care about your language progress and I would like you to understand what characteristics make certain teachers unforgettable, so that you can make an informed choice and pick the best language school.

It is very common for language schools to advertise only for and hire exclusively native speakers (NSs). I am sure that you have come across (or perhaps even studied in) institutions that boast having only native English speaker teachers (NESTs), who will teach you the ‘real’ English. In theory, this sounds fantastic. After all, who wouldn’t like to speak like a NS? In practice, however, there is a catch. Numerous non-native English speaker teachers (nNESTs), that is teachers for whom English is not their first language, have been rejected out of hand, not for lack of qualifications or poor language abilities, but simply for not being a NS.

It is very likely, then, that among those rejected nNESTs there were numerous teachers with higher qualifications and more experience than the NEST who was hired. The recruiter might have based their choice on the assumption that all nNESTs speak ‘bad’ English. While I certainly agree that language proficiency is very important for a successful teacher (I certainly wouldn’t like to be taught by somebody who doesn’t speak the language well enough), I agree with David Crystal, one of the ultimate authorities on the English language, who in this interview said that “Fluency alone is not enough. All sorts of people are fluent, but only a tiny proportion of them are sufficiently aware of the structure of the language that they know how to teach it.”

In addition, there are language tests (e.g. IELTS, TOEFL, CPE) which can be taken to prove a teacher’s proficiency. And there is no doubt that you can reach native-like level in a language – people did that even in the dim and distant past when teaching (and certainly language schools) was almost non–existent, or simply backwards by our standards. Take Joseph Conrad, for example. Born, bred and baptised in Poland as Józef Korzeniowski, he only emigrated to England in his late teens. Yet, he still managed to outwrite most of his contemporaries, introducing the English to the beauty of English.

So yes, of course, a successful teacher should be highly proficient in the language. There is no question about that. You need a good language model. However, it is a mistake to assume that only a NS can provide it, and to dismiss any nNEST out of hand.

What is more, being proficient in a language is not the only characteristic of a good teacher. For if it were, there would be no need for teaching courses and university degrees in pedagogy. Successful language teaching is so much more than merely knowing the language and I think this should be reflected in the way language schools hire their staff.

So, if as a student you want to know whether a particular school is worth investing your money and time in, ask them how they recruit teachers. On the whole, more trustworthy and renown schools select successful candidates based on logical and measurable criteria which are independent of and irrelevant to being a NS or not. For example:

  1. Qualifications
  2. Years and variety of teaching experience
  3. Language proficiency
  4. Personal traits

As a teacher, the best staff rooms I have worked in, and the best language schools with the happiest students, all have a healthy mix of NESTs and nNESTs, an opinion confirmed by many Academic Directors such as Varinder Unlu, who works for International House London. This is because the two groups can bring different characteristics into the classroom, learning from each other and improving as teachers. So while NESTs might be experts in language use, nNESTs have many important strengths which should not be overlooked.

For example, having mastered the language themselves, a nNEST can serve as an excellent learning role model. They can give you numerous tips that will help you learn faster based on their practical insights. They might also be more aware of the difficulties you are having since they have been through them too. And empathy and understanding are vital for successful teaching to take place. Many nNESTs have also studied the language on university level and can therefore bring a deep understanding of its mechanics.

I suggest then that as a client you question how your school chooses its teachers. Do not be swayed by slogans such as: We employ only NESTs because we care about your progress.

If they did, they would be employing the best teachers out there: native and non–native alike. And you have the right to receive the highest quality of education. So get involved and support equal teaching opportunities for all teachers.

Best regards,

Marek Kiczkowiak, TEFL Equity Advocates


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Four Oxford titles shortlisted for ESU Awards

PSU_shortlistWe are delighted to announce that four of our titles have made it to the shortlist for the English-Speaking Union’s English Language Awards 2014!

The Oxford Online Skills Program has been shortlisted for the ESU President’s Award which celebrates and encourages the widespread use of technology in the teaching and learning of English. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, Focus on Content-Based Language Teaching and International Express have been shortlisted for the HRH The Duke of Edinburgh English Language Book Awards, which recognise the best book published each year in the field of English language teaching and learning.

The Oxford Online Skills Program supports and develops Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing skills online using a sequence of media-rich activities, enhanced with video, animated presentations, interactive info-graphics and striking photography, to engage students. The judges commented, The Oxford Online Skills Program contains high quality content for students, across a range of different topics. This resource is easy to use, including the function of tracking student progress.  The program is an ideal companion to any Adult English course, and gives students plenty of support to study independently, including cultural glossaries, automatic marking and instant feedback.  Teachers can use the management tools to communicate with students outside class, and monitor progress.

The judges were also impressed by the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, which they described as providing clear and useful information for students both in the classroom environment and as a reference text for essay writing.  Focusing exclusively on Academic English, this dictionary is specifically designed for learners studying, or preparing to study academic subjects on English-medium university courses. Based on the 85-million-word Oxford Corpus of Academic English, it provides all the tools students need to develop their academic writing skills.

Focus on Content-Based Language Teaching, written by well-known language educator and applied linguist, Patsy Lightbown, is described by the judges as “an innovative resource” which “gives a clear representation of ideas in an increasingly important sector of the ELT market”. Following on from the success of How Languages are Learned (now in its fourth edition), it is the flagship title in a new series which bridges the gap between research and classroom practice.

The all new, five-level International Express is specifically designed for adult professionals who need English for life and work.  The judges commented that the course “displays sound practice in the field of English Language Teaching”, and praised it for its “interesting texts” and “good amount of digital content”.  This new third edition retains the popular student-centred approach and strong communicative focus of earlier editions, while adding a range of new features.

We are obviously thrilled with this news and looking forward to the announcement of the winners in December.


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