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Using Authentic Materials in the ESL Classroom

EAP English for academic purposesJennie Cadd is an ELT all-rounder. Since starting her teaching career in 1995, she has worked in Spain, Cambodia and the UK in a number of different teaching environments. She has taught general English, EAP, ESP and exam preparation to a wide range of nationalities, ages and proficiency levels. She has also been a teacher trainer for trainee teachers and an academic manager in a busy language school in Oxford. Her main areas of interest are teacher development (both for trainee teachers and in-service teachers) and how to use technology in the classroom. Ahead of her webinar ‘Using Authentic Materials in the ESL Classroom’, Jennie previews her discussion on the blog today. 

The use of authentic materials for English language teaching is a topic which has been discussed for many years by experts in the field and teaching professionals. Most teachers have their own opinions about their use and practicality in the classroom. Many like the idea of using authentic materials but avoid using them due to lack of knowledge of how to select an appropriate text (either written or audio), doubt about how they can be exploited and the belief that students may not find the material stimulating or may find it too difficult. Some less experienced teachers may, after an unsuccessful attempt at using material from an authentic source, decide that it is safer and less time consuming to stick to the prescribed course book.

However, it is generally accepted that learners need to be exposed to language which is representative of the actual language produced by users of that language, so many argue that using real examples is the most beneficial way to do this. It goes without saying that learners should be prepared and able to deal with authentic examples of the target language outside of the classroom. Therefore, if we are not doing this as teaching professionals, are we doing them a disservice?

On the other hand, most would agree that there are some pitfalls which arise when using authentic materials as opposed to specifically designed ESL/EFL materials such as textbooks, audio recordings and video. Some of these could be:

  • Time required to look for an appropriate text – teachers are busy people!
  • Cultural references in authentic materials – how interesting and relevant would this be to my learners?
  • Authentic materials may contain difficult structures and lexical items, which learners have not been exposed to before.

In this session we will focus on the benefits and drawback of using authentic materials in language teaching and discuss whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. We will also look at ways to mitigate these drawbacks so that they can be used successfully in the classroom. Following this, we will consider different ways that we can exploit authentic texts and I will discuss different types of authentic materials and provide some actual examples of materials that I have used in my teaching.

The session is intended to be part lecture but also part discussion and therefore whether you are a teacher, researcher or student, I hope you will feel comfortable in sharing your experiences of using authentic materials and by the end of the session we will all feel motivated to tap into the wealth of authentic material which advances in technology and globalisation have made available to all of us.

To register for Jennie’s free webinar on the 6th and 7th of August, follow the link below.



Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Two – How to reduce anxiety

Close-up of frightened man with dramatic lightingThis is the second article of a six-part series on boosting classroom participation. Last week, Zarina took us through using peer observation to reflect on your teaching style. In this article, she considers a different challenge: what do you do about the nerves that can interfere with your students’ performance? This article aims to look at the presence of anxiety in our classrooms and what we can do to reduce it.

When a student gives an answer in a foreign language in front of their peers, anxiety is a reality that cannot be ignored. It directly interferes with the task in hand. It appears, almost gremlin-like; to want to disrupt the very activity or question the student has been asked to deal with. So what can be done? Here are some ideas.

Minimise the threat of direct questions

Be very careful about directing questions at specific students in front of a group. Before doing so, it’s usually better to allow learners to discuss their thoughts in groups or pairs. Don’t always ask your questions orally. You could give written questions to groups of students seated at different tables and get them to discuss their answers before they write them down. If the groups have different questions, you can rotate the students round the tables, so there is some movement in the class. Then, at the very end, the questions can be covered orally. Now everyone has had the chance to think and discuss answers before writing them down, it is not nearly as stressful to direct questions at particular individuals.

Create an atmosphere where errors become unimportant

Creating an atmosphere where errors become insignificant, and almost an expected part of the class, helps to lessen students’ fear. But how can we achieve this? Usually, if you introduce a competitive element to an activity, anxiety begins to take a back seat as students tend to focus more on winning points than on the stress of making mistakes. Why not devise a competition where students win points for correct answers, and there are no penalties for mistakes? Or, you could give one point for a reasonable answer and two points for a completely correct answer. This encourages greater participation, creates the mindset that there is (literally) nothing to lose, and reinforces the notion that fluency is more important than accuracy.

As teachers, we can also help by highlighting our own mistakes and making fun of them, so that errors are not seen as a terrible mark on what should be perfect language. When students make errors we need to ensure that we praise the very act of trying to provide a response in English. We need to nurture the idea that there is courage in risking losing face, but no actual loss of face.

Draw up some ‘House Rules’

Why not draw up a very explicit set of ‘House Rules’, and negotiate them with the class? For example, you could include things such as “Respect the opinions of others”; “Listen to others”. At the same time there need to be one or two rules that cannot be negotiated. For example, “No name calling”; “No laughing at the ideas of others” or “No ridiculing”.

Celebrate your students’ work

Displaying students’ work is another way of getting them to feel proud of their contributions. Why not put up poster presentations, flipcharts, or visual reminders of discussions? I have even used this technique on short courses and it is amazing how people respond to seeing their own work, handwriting and creativity in a public place. I find it also helps bonding within groups, with students praising one another’s efforts.

But what about the teacher?

Now let’s not forget the teacher in all of this. We suffer from stress and anxiety too, probably never more so than when we teach under observation. As we saw in part one of this series, observations between peers are extremely useful forms of reflective practice. Therefore, we need to consider ways of reducing the stressful side of this process.

As discussed, having a meeting before the observation can allay fears and ensure that the observer is going to comment on the things that you wish to receive feedback on. In addition, if you plan exactly how you are going to greet your students and introduce the lesson, it will reduce your anxiety at the start. A confident beginning will make you feel at home and relaxed with your students. Also, don’t ignore the person observing – make sure your students are aware of who they are and why they are there. It’s important your students understand that the observer is there to see how you teach, and not to comment on the performance of the class. This will lessen the anxiety of a ‘stranger’ being in the room and may encourage them to be sympathetic towards how you might be feeling. This all-round recognition of the situation will put everyone concerned at ease and you can then get on with ‘business as usual’. Remember that peer observation is a choice to help you, therefore there is nothing to lose. This also illustrates to your students that you are not afraid of making mistakes in front of your peers. A perfect way of teaching by example, don’t you think?!

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here. Next week’s blog post will be exploring how you can get more out of your students by keeping different learning styles in mind.


Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part One – Using peer observation

Peer reviewZarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. Since 2000, she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina now spends her time divided between teacher training, materials writing, trainer training and presenting at conferences.

 “When we originally went to the moon, our total focus was on the moon, we weren’t thinking about looking back at the earth. But now we’ve done it, that may have been the most important reason we went.” – reported by David Beaver, co-founder of Overview Institute.

Similarly, when we go into the classroom, as teachers, our total focus is to help our students to learn. But unlike the astronaut, who was quoted, many of us fail to look back. We can become so focused on the job of teaching that we don’t reflect often enough on how we can develop ourselves.

Let’s consider a question. What’s your ultimate goal as a teacher? Many would say they want to help their students be the very best they can be. However, the reality that many language teachers face is that they cannot always engage their students in what they are teaching. They feel they have to teach to the test, or cannot cover everything in the book in the time allocated. Not enough feel like they may be ‘making a difference’.

This is the first of a series of six articles designed to help teachers develop themselves, in order to make a real difference to their students. I’ll be suggesting ways you can boost class participation, and encourage your students to really experiment with the language they are learning.

So, where to start? It can be very helpful to begin by objectively considering how you teach, by being observed. Classrooms are a teacher’s territory and if observations are done as a form of inspection or prerequisite to promotion, it can be very stressful. However, if you invite a close teacher friend into your territory, it is quite a different matter. It allows you to ‘see yourself’ through another professional’s eyes, and a professional who is non-threatening at that.

I suggest asking a colleague (preferably in the same school as you) if they would be willing to partner up with you. It could be as informal as “I don’t really think I teach p.68&69 in the Grade 6 book very well. Would you be interested in seeing how I do it? Could you share any of your ideas with me?”

Although it won’t be assessed, it will still probably cause a bit more anxiety than if it were just you and your students. So be sure to plan to do it a little way into the future and not just “next Tuesday”, only to realise it is parents’ evening the same night…

When discussing and arranging your time to be observed, you should also negotiate when you can observe your colleague in return. If you make it a two-way observation, you are effectively both agreeing to be open and honest with each other and discarding all barriers. It is also fair.

More importantly, observing, mentoring and listening to, as well as giving feedback can be a very beneficial process that leads to some reflective time and consideration on how to do things differently. When you see how others teach exactly what you teach, it provides a real chance for you to try out new things. These changes you make, however small, refresh your teaching.

Before observing someone, there are certain things that need to be in place. Make sure you understand what the other teacher is hoping to gain from the experience and also what they hope to achieve for their learners. It can be helpful to ask them to write a lesson plan, even if they don’t normally do so for every class they teach. This is because it is good to understand what led to the lesson you observe. A lesson plan also gives the teacher the chance to point out ‘known difficulties’, whether these are particular students, or specific things about the class the observer needs to be aware of.

In addition, a lesson plan allows the observer to have some questions in mind before the lesson begins. For example, “Why is this activity not happening till the end? I would’ve used it at the beginning!” They are questions that shouldn’t be asked before the observation because you could make the teacher feel unsure of themselves, but hopefully will be answered by what is evident in the classroom. And of course, a lesson plan is equally important to provide for your teacher friend who is going to observe you. Remember to keep things equal.

Make sure you always thank the person you observe at the end, and highlight the positive things that you saw. If they asked you for constructive criticism, give it, but remember it should be useful and more constructive that critical. Be sure to take notes and get yourself organised before speaking to them.

What kind of things should you note? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Level of anxiety / stress in the classroom
  2. Levels of differentiation and learning
  3. Method of questioning to increase student participation
  4. Listening to students and clarifying what is said
  5. How cognitively challenging are activities for the students?

It’s a good idea to also provide some points that you would like the other teacher to look for in your lessons, so when you are observed, you too benefit from the experience. When this is done effectively and efficiently, both teachers usually benefit so much that they implement it at other times and it becomes a peer observation tool for self-development. It works when all things are fair and equal.

This way, we can deal with our students’ learning and also our own, by putting into place a method of looking back and reflecting like the astronaut who went to the moon. Ours is just as epic a journey and I hope you will join me in my next blog post. I’ll be exploring anxiety in the classroom, both for teachers and students, and how you can reduce it to improve class participation.

This article first appeared in the June 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


21st Century Skills in ELT Part 2: the question-centred approach

classroom_students_teenagersShaun Crowley has worked as an EFL teacher and a marketing manager for an international ELT publisher. He is the founder of www.linguavote.com, an e-learning platform for learners of English that features social learning and gamification. Follow Shaun on Twitter: @shauncrowleyIn Part 1 of this series, Shaun Crowley considered the importance of 21st Century Skills in ELT, concluding that the group of competencies that define this term are indeed important to English language learning. In the next four posts, Shaun continues by offering ideas to help you integrate some of these skills into your classes.

Critical thinking skills are some of the key “21st Century” competencies, so it’s no surprise that we’re starting to see publishers position their course books with this benefit up-front, from primary to tertiary level.

Here is an idea to help you maximize opportunities for critical thinking, so that your students are better prepared for the rigours of university education and the professional workplace.

Adopt a “question-centred” approach to your classes

Since the recent curriculum reforms in the US, a question-centred approach to teaching has been gaining popularity in schools. Teachers start a module with a big question. Students consider this question critically, and over the course of the module they synthesize information to form a conclusion in the form of a final homework assignment.

This approach first made its way into ELT with the publication of Q Skills for Success. But whatever course you are using, so long as you have enough time to step out of the materials, it should be possible to customize your lessons to feature an “essential question”.

For example, Headway Elementary Unit 4 is called “Take it easy” and follows the topic of leisure activities. Before you start this unit, you could write this question on the board:

“What makes the perfect leisure activity?”

Perhaps search for a YouTube video that offers a nice way-in to thinking about the question… here’s one I found following a quick search:

Pre-teach some of the main vocabulary items that fit into the question theme. Then spend a few minutes discussing the question and gauging students’ opinions before you open the book.

As you go through the unit, use the various listening and reading texts as opportunities to return to the big question, encouraging students to synthesize and evaluate the different input.  For example, in the “Take it easy” unit, there’s a text called “My favourite season.” Here you could ask:

Is the perfect leisure activity one that you can do in any season?

Return to the big question any time you see a link to the course material you are using. Then at the end of the unit, have students write an answer to the question for homework. If students are not in the routine of doing homework, round off the question with a class discussion.

Have you adopted a similar approach to your classes? If you have, we’d love to hear how you apply the question-centred method.

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Back to basics: can we teach ‘unplugged’?

shutterstock_248203858Andrew Dilger is a freelance teacher, trainer and editor. He graduated from Oxford University and has 25 years’ experience working in ELT. He is a CELTA- and DELTA-qualified teacher. He has taught English in Italy, Croatia and the UK and has given training sessions in over 10 different countries. He has also edited a wide range of materials for major ELT publishers, as well as having been Managing Editor of the Professional Development list at Oxford University Press. Ahead of his webinar ‘Published resources vs. teaching unplugged’ on July 23rd, Andrew summarizes what he’ll be covering during the session.

Published resources these days are incredibly useful … and SO multimodal! But do you sometimes hanker for something a bit more simple and ‘unplugged’? This webinar will consider ideas for creating more learner-centred moments in your lessons to sustain motivation in both you and your students – all with a minimum of preparation!

As the well-earned summer break approaches, perhaps you’re looking to re-evaluate how you teach. Maybe even restore some of that idealism you had at the start of your career? Or perhaps you’re looking to simply get a handful of cracking new ideas to try out when you start up again in September. Both of these options are possible in this webinar, which will focus firmly on practical issues arising from our continuing ‘journey’ as English language teachers.

We’ll evaluate why published resources are so important but also what their potential limitations are. In addition, we’ll assess how possible or advisable it is to ‘unplug’ your lessons completely in an age when our students (and school management) expect us to be technologically up-to-date.

Topics which will be covered include:

  • Your ‘desert-island’ coursebook
  • What does ‘unplugged’ really mean?
  • The teaching-learning space
  • Grammar (the ‘G-word!)
  • The mother of all lesson plans
  • Activities guaranteed to put learners at the centre
  • The power of the infographic
  • Digital-only resources

During the webinar, there’ll be opportunities for you to share experiences, insights, tips (and even grumbles!) with teaching colleagues and members of the ‘OUP family’ from around the world.

To find out more and join Andrew at this free webinar, please follow the link below and register.




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