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Teach less to help young students learn more

School girls playing repetitive gameBarbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, outlines the benefits of only teaching young learners one new thing at a time by recycling, reinforcing, and building on new language.

How can you get your students to learn more English? Teach less! It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

Teachers are often pressured to teach more – more vocabulary, more grammar, more content – to satisfy parents and administrators. Moving through a coursebook quickly becomes the measure of success. However, the classes in which I see students making the greatest progress are those in which teachers introduce relatively little new language and actively recycle previously learned language, spending the majority of class time reusing both new and familiar language in new contexts.

The measure of a successful lesson isn’t how much you teach; it’s how much students can do with the language they’ve learned.

There are certainly times when you might choose to throw students into the deep end of the language pool – when asking them to work at understanding the gist of a listening or reading task, for example. But, it should be a choice that works toward your lesson goals, not the standard approach. If you need to spend most of your class with books open, explaining the language on the page, then students are unlikely to remember much for the next class. You end up teaching the same things over, and over, and over again without much feeling of progress.

In contrast, when we recycle language in class, we’re teaching students how to use the language they already know to figure out language that they don’t. It’s one of the most important abilities that skilled language users employ.

There’s no way we will ever be able to teach our students all the English they’ll ever need to know, so instead let’s teach them how to be confident in their ability to figure things out for themselves. One of the easiest ways to model this skill is to introduce new language in the context of familiar. Another way of looking at this is to make sure you maximize the value of any language your students spend the time learning. Here’s one simple example of how using familiar language to introduce new language can help students learn more effectively.

Let's Begin example unit

If you teach without recycling familiar language, this looks like a dense lesson – eight new vocabulary words and two question and answer patterns. However, actively recycling previously learned language can make the lesson more manageable. For example, students have already learned the concept of plurals, and how to add an –s to the end of words to indicate more than one item. They may need to be reminded, but they don’t need to learn it again. That reduces the vocabulary load to four new words (and their plurals). What’s this? It’s a (CD) is also a very familiar pattern. It’s the first question students learned to ask and answer in the first book of the series to which this page belongs (Let’s Begin). It was recycled in a lesson two units prior to this lesson.

Let's Begin example unit

By recycling the familiar pattern with the singular vocabulary words, it’s a small step for students to understand that the new pattern, What are these?, is the same question but for asking about more than one of something. By reducing the amount of new language to be taught, students now have more time to practice the language they’ve learned. They can use the questions and answers with vocabulary from earlier lessons, or apply their plural-making skills to topics that interest them, or personalize the language and build new skills by using the language to write about things in their own lives (e.g., This is my bedroom. These are my CDs. This is my cell phone. etc.) and then to read what classmates have written. Language becomes a tool for communicating about things students want to talk about, and because language is constantly recycled, students are unlikely to forget it.

Active recycling plays a big part in Let’s Go, so the Teacher’s Book lists what language is being recycled in each lesson, and the ‘Let’s Remember’ lesson at the start of each level highlights familiar language from the previous level that will be built upon in the new one. You can do the same sort of recycling, with the same benefits, with any coursebook or even with no coursebook at all. You simply need to keep track of the language being taught so that you know what you can recycle to help students learn new language or build new skills.

A simple guideline is to teach one new thing (new pattern or new vocabulary, but not both) in each lesson, or for longer lessons or older students, in each section of a lesson. Reducing the amount of time spent on introducing new language creates more time for students to use language:

  • to use it in games and activities that provide the repetition necessary for memory
  • to add it to their language repertoire in order to talk about new things
  • to learn to read what they can say and understand
  • to use language they can read to write about their own unique lives and experiences
  • and to use language to connect with other students in order to share their own and learn about others’ lives and experiences.

If you are interested to see how active recycling works in Let’s Go, you can download a variety of sample lessons from the Oxford Teachers’ Club Let’s Go teaching resources page.


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#IATEFL – This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good

Thumb up and thumb downAhead of the ELT Journal debate at IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate, Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, presents an introduction to the motion of the debate.

The ongoing expansion of English language teaching for Primary age learners and teenagers has been a notable feature of ELT in recent years. In many countries, English is now compulsory in primary as well as secondary education, whilst English for Pre-school learners is also increasingly common. Some estimates suggest that up to 80 per cent of English language teaching globally is directed, in diverse contexts, at students in Primary or Secondary schools. As the exact cut-off point between Primary and Secondary education varies around the world, let’s assume for this blog that we’re referring to teaching children of pre- and/or post-11 years old).

As both parents and educational authorities seek to increase younger learners’ English language skills, we can’t assume that an earlier start to learning English is automatically better. The advisability of an early start to learning English can be affected by a number of factors, ranging from the availability of suitably skilled teachers and appropriate resources to concerns about the possible implications for the teaching and learning of other languages, and from the development of suitable classroom practices and methodologies to the relationship between a child’s first language literacy skills and their English language development.

So, it’s perhaps time to step back and take a little time to reflect on the extent to which the expansion of Primary ELT is, in fact, straightforwardly ‘beneficial’. If we, the ELT profession, teach millions of Primary age children English around the world, does this automatically lead to advantages, both for individuals and societies more generally, or is it possible that Primary ELT brings with it significant problems and difficulties? Does, in fact, Primary ELT do more harm than good?

There are perhaps 3 key reasons for the growth of Primary ELT. Firstly, there is the widespread assumption that ‘the earlier a language is learned, the better’; in other words, younger children are (or are more likely to be) more successful language learners. Secondly, the expansion of Primary ELT is a response to the increasing demand for English, which results from globalization; governments and policy-makers around the world would like an English-speaking workforce, which they see as leading to economic success. And finally, parents would like their children to benefit from learning English.

Yet, although age clearly influences language learning in some way, the exact nature of this relationship is rather less clear than is popularly imagined – the actual evidence in favour of younger learners’ superiority in L2 learning is rather inconsistent, especially in non-immersion situations, where encounters with English might be limited to a few hours a week in the classroom. And we might also worry about a top-down ‘rush for English’ in which policy is not thoroughly thought through and issues such as teacher training and education, and classroom methodologies and materials for teaching Primary ELT, become problematic. Is a gap developing between policy and practice, and between our goal of how Primary ELT ‘should be’, and the realities of often under-resourced classroom life?

These issues will be discussed and debated in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate (UK) on Thursday 3rd April (11.30-12.45 BST). There, Fiona Copland (Aston University, UK) will propose the motion: ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good’; Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) will oppose the motion.

For more information about the conference and to access the debate online visit Harrogate online. You can also follow us on Twitter as we live-tweet highlights from the debate and other IATEFL speaker sessions.

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.


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Mimosa’s report card – strengthening the school-home connection

Family gathered round computerKenna Bourke, Oxford Discover co-author, shares some creative ideas for using technology to help parents support their children’s learning.

Four times a year, I get an email that contains a mysterious thing called a report card. This is a school report on the progress of a six-year-old (name changed for privacy!) who’s not my child, but who’s very important to me. It goes on for several pages, and looks like this:

Sample report card

Great! But I don’t know what Mimosa is reading or how I can help turn her into a full-time genius! What stories is she reading? Does she like them? What’s she learning in science? I’d really like to know!

Do you want one simple way to help parents support your classroom teaching in the home?

Use technology.

Like teachers, parents are busy people. They might only look at a school website a few times a year, but many of them have social media accounts, which they look at daily. How about creating a closed page for your class on Facebook, or whichever social network is popular in your country?

Here are a few ideas for using this as a tool to help parents feel more involved and excited about what’s happening in your class:

1. Try sharing a short biography of an author that the child and family can research

For example, Who is Michael Rosen? What’s he written? When was he born? What’s his daughter’s name? What do you think about the poem ‘A Dangerous Raisin?’

2. Advertise your projects

Explain what you’re going to do so your students can prepare. Or post the results of the projects once they’re done so the parents can see them.

For example, How many subtraction problems can you think of at home? In what contexts do we use subtraction every day? What’s a funny subtraction problem you can ask your friends?

3. Share the week’s lesson theme so it can be discussed at home

For example, Oxford Discover begins each new unit with a Big Question: How do we have fun? What makes birds special? How do numbers help us? Great dinnertime conversation ideas!

4. Preview a reading text so children can discuss their prior knowledge of the subject with their family

You could do this by sharing a simple three-line synopsis of what you’ll be reading in class. Provide some questions for parents to discuss with their children.

For example, What do you know about symmetry? What symmetrical objects can you find at home? What’s the most beautiful example of symmetry you can think of?

5. Follow up on reading texts or topics that have captured the students’ imaginations by posting links to sites that contain further information

For example, in Oxford Discover, you’ll find a fiction reading about a whistling language. That language also really exists! There are schools on the island of La Gomera that have made this ancient language — silbo gomero — a compulsory school subject.

6. Post a picture that relates to your lesson to stimulate discussion

This is really fun! Provide some sample questions, too.

For example, What’s going on with these cars? Why can’t you see through their windows? Where do you think the picture was taken? Who invented wheels? What would life be like if we didn’t have cars?

Completely white cars

Photo © Kenna Bourke

7. Include links to free parent support sites

Oxford Parents gives parents simple, effective advice on supporting their children’s classroom language learning at home.

Would you like practical tips on developing a strong school-home link and developing 21st Century skills in your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.


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Teaching Students with attention, concentration and hyperactivity difficulties – how to stop those spinning tops

Dice with different moods on each face

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Marie Delaney is a teacher, trainer, educational psychotherapist, and author of ‘Teaching the Unteachable’ (Worth). She will be hosting a webinar entitled “Teaching Students with attention, concentration and hyperactivity difficulties” on 11th and 14th March. Here, she explores some of the themes of the upcoming webinar.

Imagine being in a crowded shopping centre, music blaring, people shouting, laughing, talking excitedly all around you, traffic whizzing by, flashing neon signs, … and sitting in the middle of this chaos, trying to learn a foreign language.

This is what it is like for some learners in our classrooms. Information and ideas bombard their brains and they find it impossible to focus on one thing.

Joachim, a learner says.

It’s as if every room in my brain has the lights on, I don’t know which room to go into first, in case I miss something important in another room.”

Teaching these learners can make us feel quite agitated and stressed.

Agata, a teacher says

Teaching Maja gives me a headache, she is like a spinning top, never stopping. I lose my own focus when talking to her.”

The behaviour of these learners usually falls into one or more of the following categories:

Inattention

  • They are easily distracted
  • They cannot pay attention to detail
  • They do not seem to listen or follow instructions
  • They forget things all the time

Hyperactivity

  • They fidget and squirm
  • They constantly leave their seat
  • They seem constantly ‘on the go’ as if driven by a motor

Impulsivity

  • They shout out
  • They cannot wait their turn
  • They often express emotions inappropriately

Some of these learners might have been diagnosed with ADHD. However, there are many possible reasons for this type of behaviour. If we can try to understand the underlying reasons and identify the needs of the learner, we can find teaching strategies to support them.

Possible reasons for the behaviour

  • They might be tired or hungry
  • They might be preoccupied about outside worries or feel unsafe in class
  • They might lack confidence and be anxious about their ability to do the work
  • They might not understand the classroom rules
  • They might have difficulties with executive functioning – the part of the brain which we use to think and solve problems. This also includes the internal voice, the voice we use to self-regulate
  • They might have difficulties with working memory – holding information in our minds long enough to act on it

Identification of needs and teaching strategies

This leads us to the following learner needs and possible teaching strategies:

The need to feel safe and secure

  • Have a few clear classroom rules and remind learners of them
  • Have a clear reward system; involve the learners in the design
  • Set clear time limits for work; give warnings when time is nearly over
  • Have a worry box for learners to post their concerns to the teacher
  • Sit the learner near the teacher, away from distractions such as windows, heaters
  • Allow the learner to go to a designated quiet area if the classroom gets too stressful
  • Use visual prompts and timetables

The need to build self-esteem

  • Notice and praise when the learner is on-task and behaving appropriately
  • Focus on the learner’s strengths
  • Send home good reports
  • Encourage study buddies

The need for help with self-regulation

  • Use individual laminated whiteboards for learners to show their answers rather than shouting out
  • Allow the learner to work with headphones on or to imagine wearing headphones to cut out distractions

Above all, do not give up with these learners, they will benefit from your perseverance!

For other ideas on meeting the needs of these learners, particularly with regard to executive functioning and working memory, join my forthcoming webinar on 11th and 14th March entitled “Teaching Students with attention, concentration and hyperactivity difficulties“.


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Creativity in the young learner classroom

Young girl filming with iPhoneCharles Vilina and Kathleen Kampa, authors of the new Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, share teaching ideas on an important 21st Century skill: creativity.

Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
Albert Einstein

We’re very happy to be sharing our thoughts and ideas about creativity with you, because it is such a natural and motivating skill to develop in our young learners. Creative activities are fun and engaging for our students. They take learning far beyond the simple tasks of understanding and memorizing. In fact, it is the highest order thinking skill, as Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy illustrates below:

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy

Creativity is an essential skill (along with critical thinking, collaboration, and communication) that students need in order to be successful in the 21st Century. Creative students are better at making changes, solving new problems, expressing themselves through the arts, and more.

How important is creativity?

In one of his TED talks, education scholar Sir Ken Robinson says:

Creativity now is as important in education as literacy. We should treat it with the same status.”

Creativity is a natural ability that is found in every young learner. Unfortunately, traditional classrooms don’t always value creativity, and sometimes even hold it back. Our role as teachers is to nurture creativity at every opportunity.

Consider the following:

  • Creativity develops when students are able to analyze the information they’ve learned, make new connections with that information, come up with new ideas, and evaluate their choices.
  • To nurture creativity, students need the freedom to offer ideas and express themselves without judgment. In a creative classroom, all contributions from students are welcomed.
  • Creativity requires the courage to make mistakes. Sir Ken Robinson states, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
  • Creativity and innovation go hand-in-hand. David Hughes, founder of Decision Labs and professor at UNC Chapel Hill, feels that innovation is essential for our global economy.

What are the qualities of a creative classroom?

  1. Teachers and students ask open-ended questions that encourage curiosity and creativity.
  2. Students brainstorm as many ideas as possible without fear of being judged or being wrong. Students then go on to choose the best ideas and improve upon them.
  3. Students demonstrate creativity not only individually, but with partners and in small groups. Ideas are generated and assessed collaboratively.
  4. Students lead the learning and work together to complete projects. These projects help students take the information they have learned and present it in new and creative ways.

How can you nuture creativity in your classroom?

Let’s look at some specific ways to nurture creativity in your classroom, starting with one of the building blocks of language learning:

Phonics

Learning about letter shapes and names can be creative! When your young learners are introduced to letters, try this activity to build their creativity. Write the letters one by one on the board and ask the following questions:

Can you make the letter _(b)_ with your fingers? With your hands? With your whole body? With a partner?

When you first do this task, you might model how students could do this. Think out loud. Let’s see. Letter b is round and straight. How about like this? Or like this? Then your students are ready to try their own ideas.

Words

Vocabulary words can be taught in many creative ways. For example, verbs such as walk, tiptoe, and skate can be learned more deeply by inviting students to move in creative ways. Questions might include:

  • Show me what it’s like to walk in deep snow. Show me how you might walk on hot sand.
  • Imagine that you’re tiptoeing past a sleeping polar bear.
  • We’re on a frozen lake in Antarctica. Let’s skate with the penguins!

As you can see, creativity and imagination are closely related.

Other words such as nouns and adjectives can be presented creatively through facial expressions and body language, through movement, and even through dramatic skits.

Grammar

Grammar is often considered to be a logical and unimaginative part of English. However, grammar can be very creative as it is expressed in songs, poetry, and storytelling. Look for opportunities to build creative skills along with grammar skills.

Here’s a fun and creative way to teach not only grammar and speaking skills, but math as well! It’s taken from Oxford Discover Student Book 2, Unit 8:

Oxford Discover SB2 Unit 8 speaking activity

The above activity combines the logical thinking from math with the imaginative thinking from poetry. Students have a great time substituting the animals and numbers in the poem with their own creative ideas, while at the same time presenting a logical math problem.

Big Questions

Oxford Discover offers an inquiry-based approach to learning that allows students to consider big questions with many answers. Students are allowed to come up with their own additional questions. This process is creative as well as motivating for students.

Consider this Big Question from Oxford Discover Student Book 3: How do people have fun?

Students explore the many ways that people have fun around the world. The discussion may turn to the subject of celebrations. Students may explore the following questions:

  • What is a celebration?
  • What are some ways that people celebrate around the world?
  • What do people celebrate in your area? How do they celebrate?
  • What is needed to make a celebration successful?

As students explore these questions and find answers, they process the information by analyzing and evaluating what they have learned. Finally, they should be given an opportunity to create.

One suggestion is to get students working together to plan a celebration. They must determine:

  • What are we celebrating?
  • What is our celebration called?
  • Who is invited?
  • How will we celebrate?
  • What will we need to prepare?

As students plan, they also create. Students might create a poster, gather materials for their celebration, or even write a short play. Finally, they share what they have planned with the rest of the class.

In summary

A creative classroom is a joyful and motivating place where children feel empowered to learn, where all ideas are welcomed, and where learning is deep and meaningful. Children who are allowed to be creative are better learners, and they are more aware of their own learning styles. Creativity is a lifelong skill that our students will take with them into their adult lives to solve problems and help build a better world.

We’d like to conclude with a powerful quote from Robert Fisher in his IATEFL address entitled, “Expanding Minds: Developing Creative Thinking in Young Learners”:

What promotes creativity is a questioning classroom where teachers and pupils value diversity, ask unusual and challenging questions; make new connections; represent ideas in different ways – visually, physically and verbally; try fresh approaches and solutions to problems; and critically evaluate new ideas and actions.”

Thank you, and happy teaching!

Would you like more practical tips on developing 21st Century skills in your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

Sign up for a free webinar with Charles Vilina and Natasha Buccianti on How to use creativity in the classroom on 18 and 20 March 2014.

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