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Help! My students think their course book is too easy

ESL course book too easyWhat can you do if some of your students find the course book you are using too easy? Ken Wilson, the main author of Smart Choice Second Edition, shares his ideas.

I recently got this message from a teacher:

Hello Ken. I was wondering if you could answer a question. How can a teacher deal with using a course book that the students find too easy? My colleague is using Smart Choice Starter (an excellent series, by the way), but some of the students think it’s too easy. What advice do you have for her? Thanks in advance!

I imagine a lot of teachers find the book they are using too easy or too difficult for their class. Or for some of the class. So here are a couple of ideas to do something about it, assuming that changing the book or moving certain students to a different level are not options.

The book seems too easy for all/most of the class

Let’s imagine that you realise after a couple of weeks that the book you are using seems to be ‘too easy’, which basically means that the students already ‘know’ the new vocabulary and grammar content, or at least they think they do. A possible solution may be for pairs or groups of students to take responsibility for presenting some of the ‘new’ material to the rest of the class. Let’s say there are twelve units in the book and you’ve reached Unit 2, so there are ten to go. It’s clear by now that the book isn’t challenging them enough. Tell them – in their own language if necessary – that from now on, you would like them to be responsible for the presentation of some of the new material in the remaining units.

Put the students in pairs or groups of three, you decide which is best. Ask them to work together in their groups and look at all the remaining units in the book – give them 10-15 minutes to do this. Tell them to choose a unit that they would like to present. They should then tell the rest of the class what the new vocabulary is and POSSIBLY what the new grammar point is. It really doesn’t matter if there are too many or not enough students for each pair/group to have their own unit to present. The process is more important than the end product.

I have met teachers who express concern about their students looking at units later in the book. What if they’re too difficult? To these teachers I say – do you REALLY think you students haven’t already looked at every page in the book? They usually do it as soon as they get it, mainly to see if there are any interesting images. So stop worrying about that.

After they’ve had a chance to look at all the units, ask them which one they would like to present. Often more than one group will want to present the same unit, so they have to decide who does it. Let them decide by tossing a coin, arm-wrestling, whatever.  There will be some units that no one wants to present. Ask them why. If the answer is that the material looks boring, then you are well within your rights not to do those units. You should find alternative material to present the lexis, grammar and skills practice. And send a note to the publisher telling them what your students thought. Authors and publishers need lots of feedback, and teacher feedback is an essential part of the process of improving material for the next edition. It’s even better if the teachers are passing on the thoughts of their students. But let’s imagine at least some of the groups agree to present the material in different units. How should they do it? My suggestion is that they do it without the book.

In Smart Choice, the first page of each unit is devoted to presenting a new lexical set. Ask the students to find images of the key vocabulary from another source – Google images is a good place to start. Another excellent source of freely available photographic material is ELTpics (http://www.eltpics.com), a collection of thematically arranged photographs compiled and curated by ELT professionals. The point is, you should encourage your students to start the presentation with some graphics as back-up, preferably using PowerPoint, keynote or Prezi – whatever the students are familiar with. Some of the lexical sets may be more easily presented using mime or acting out techniques. Encourage the students to explore that possibility, too.

Let’s imagine a group of students have agreed to present the vocabulary from the next unit. Remind them at the end of the previous class and check that they have prepared the material for their presentation. The class begins. You ask the two or three students to take over. It’s an interesting moment – the presenters are a bit nervous and the rest of the class are a bit curious. The atmosphere is already much more interesting than it might be if you were doing all the teaching yourself! For guidance, tell the presenters to try to find out what the other students already know, showing them images or acting out/miming to illustrate the new words. Explain that ‘eliciting’ new words/phrases is a good way to start.

If the class is a monolingual class, there is every chance that the presenters will occasionally use L1 as part of their presentation. My feeling is that this is fine, particularly at lower levels. You may have a different opinion, but I feel that the occasional use of translation is very helpful, especially for beginners. If the presenters struggle at any point, step in and help them. But give them a chance to do it themselves. They will never forget the experience.

Objections

When I have presented these ideas in a talk or workshop, teachers have the following objections.

  1. You’re asking people to teach who have not been trained to teach.
  2. Some students might think – you’re the teacher, I’m the student, YOU should be teaching ME. There could be a rebellion.
  3. In a PLS or other institution where the students are paying, they may object and ask for their money back!

These are important issues to deal with. Regarding the first point, the fact is that your students may not do a very good job of presentation, in which case you have to step in and help. Don’t take over the class, just add some ideas and help to elicit information from the rest of the class. Regarding the second and third points, in the end it’s all about belief and trust. If you believe that what you’re doing is right and the students trust that you are doing things because they will benefit from them, they will accept any of the crazy methods you’re using. I tried this method of students teaching their peers many times when I was a teacher at a PLS, and I never had a single complaint from students about my methods. I hope it will work for you too!

The book is too easy or too difficult for a proportion of the class

This is a classic mixed-ability class scenario. In this case, I’m going to suggest that you get your best students to help you with the less able ones. Let’s imagine again there are fifteen people in the class. When you have a new class, how long does it take you to decide who are the ‘good’ students? Not long, right? So here’s an idea.

During the first two or three classes, make a mental note of who the top third of the students are. In a class of fifteen, this means five students. Ask them to see you at the end of the class. When the rest of the students have left the room, you tell the top third that they are really good – the best in the class. This is very nice for them to hear. But, you go on to explain, with this ability comes a responsibility. From now on, when you do group work, these ‘good’ students will make a group of three with two of the other students, ie not with another ‘good’ one.

So now, one ‘good’ student is helping two more challenged students. Three is much better than two, because the two can learn together from the better student. Meanwhile, you go from group to group, monitoring the work they are doing.

I hate to use words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to describe students, because all students bring something positive to the classroom, but I think you will see the advantage of this idea. At no point have I indicated to the class why the five are taking over, it will just happen.

Final thought

If the book is too difficult for ALL the class, then you do have a problem. If your feedback suggests that this is something that happens, and there is nothing you can do to change the book, then I will come back with some ideas to help with that situation, too.


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You’ve got to have a system: vocabulary development in EFL

vocabulary development in ESLJulie Norton, a university lecturer and materials writer, considers the benefits of adopting a systematic approach to vocabulary development and suggests a checklist for evaluating the vocabulary included in teaching materials.

Takeaway Value

All learners want to feel that they are making progress, so it is important for them to take away something at the end of each lesson. Learning new vocabulary is very motivating, particularly for adult learners, because they often feel they have learnt a great deal of grammar at school. Vocabulary is an area where they can make tangible gains relatively quickly, provided they are given appropriate guidance and support.

Vocabulary learning is more effective when it is focused and systematic rather than incidental (Nation and Newton, 2009). For example, explicitly teaching the form and meaning of a word, including its spelling, pronunciation and grammatical requirements (e.g. irregular plural, countable noun, phrasal verb etc.) is more effective than leaving vocabulary learning to chance or dealing with it on an ad hoc basis as it arises in class. Learners usually need to encounter a vocabulary item several times before they can recall it. It also helps them to see a word or phrase in a variety of contexts and to have the opportunity to use it to express their own meanings, so practice is crucial.

Coursebooks have several advantages when it comes to presenting vocabulary in a systematic way. For example, they aim to teach a certain number of words per lesson and per unit. These words are recycled in revision sections and in consecutive units of the book. Word lists and extra practice activities are often included at the end of the book.  There are also other components, such as workbooks, online practice, and apps which can usefully support and extend vocabulary development inside and outside class.

Knowing you are learning the right words

Coverage of the most important words should be a priority of a language course. Learners have a finite amount of time, so it seems sensible to focus on the most useful lexical items and the most frequent or prototypical meanings of these items first. A systematic approach to vocabulary development can assure learners that they are focussing on the right words and help them gain control over essential, high frequency items.

In recent years, computer corpora (electronically held collections of spoken and written texts) have been drawn upon to inform the development of language teaching materials to ensure coverage of the most frequent words and phrases.  The Oxford 3000™ is a corpus-informed list of the three thousand most important words for language learners which have been selected according to three criteria: frequency, range and familiarity. The keywords in the Oxford 3000 are frequent across a range of different text types and from a variety of contexts. The list also includes some words which are not highly frequent but which are familiar to most users of English (for example, parts of the body or words used in travel).

Developing awareness of vocabulary as a system

Words do not exist in isolation: they form partnerships and relationships with other words and pattern in certain ways (e.g. regular spellings and sound patterns). Presenting vocabulary as a system by focussing on word-building (e.g. affixes); the underlying meanings of words; and collocations (words that often occur together), for example, can make aspects of this system more explicit for learners, speed up vocabulary learning and develop greater language awareness.

A check-list for evaluating systematic vocabulary development

Here is a list of questions that teachers can ask to engage more critically with the vocabulary content of their teaching materials.

  1. Can you easily identify the target vocabulary in the lesson?
  2. Why are students learning this vocabulary?
  3. Is it useful and appropriate for their level?
  4. How much new vocabulary is taught in each lesson/ in each unit?
  5. Have students been presented with enough information to use the new vocabulary? (e.g. context; collocation)
  6. How many opportunities do students have to use the new vocabulary in the lesson/in the unit? Is this enough?
  7. What strategies are included for learning and developing knowledge of vocabulary (e.g. developing awareness of vocabulary as a system; recording and recalling vocabulary)?
  8. What opportunities do students have to revise and study this vocabulary outside class? Does the course package provide other components to facilitate vocabulary development?

Reference

Nation, I.S.P. and Newton, J. (2009) Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking, New York and London: Routledge.


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How to survive in the freelance market – Part 5

Quality control and maintaining satisfied clientsThis is the fifth of a six part series of articles from two ELT professionals who have successfully done just that: Mike Hogan and Bethany Cagnol. Here, they share advice on how to develop long-lasting relationships with your clients.

In the four previous articles, we discussed conducting market research, reflecting on your strengths and weaknesses as a business owner, how you can market your services to your clients and how much to charge. In this part five we will discuss what goes into maintaining satisfied clients. The exhilaration you feel when you sign with a new client is great indeed. Your business is now officially growing and it’s time to celebrate. But the honeymoon should be quick because you’ll have to jump into quality-control-mode right from the start.

In a 2013 webinar, James Schofield listed the three most common ways to annoy the training manager of a company.

  • Lack of professionalism
  • Lack of appearance
  • Lack of time keeping

These three elements are crucial in order to build and maintain relationships, and make sure your clients are satisfied with your services. From day one of the training, show up on time (or a bit early just in case), prepared, and looking like a true professional.

Communicating with HR

Don’t hesitate to frequently report to HR on how it’s going. Stop by their office or send an email and say, “Today went great. We covered these topics …” If you do stop by, and it’s been a long day, be sure you check yourself in a mirror before knocking on the door. Freshen up first, and don’t let your appearance give them reason to worry about the quality of the lessons.

If there’s ever an issue in or with your training, you need to take care of it immediately. For example, your clients want to get the best Return possible On their Investment (ROI), and they’re not getting that if your participants are either absent or not focused. It’s good business practice to inform the company when these or other factors that may affect their ROI happen; they will genuinely appreciate that you understand the importance of this. Transparency is key to building trust and relationships, and your honesty is an extra plus the client may or may not have gotten with a previous service provider.

Quality Control Methods

Questionnaires, handed out at the end of the training, are the most common form of quality control. Standardised corporate feedback forms are generally the same for any type of training delivered within the company, e.g. IT training. You could ask if you can adapt these to include specific questions about the course content, the materials and the methodology used. Most of the time, HR will agree to this, but if they are unable to, you could ask if you could also create your own, personal feedback form.

Secondly, ask the training manager if you can hand out the questionnaire half way through the training instead of at the end. This will help catch any issues that might develop into dissatisfaction before they get out of hand and affect your chances of signing on with that client in the future.

Thirdly, don’t hesitate to show HR the results of the questionnaire. Don’t hide from positive and negative feedback, and explain how you will modify the training to better meet the needs of their employees next time.

And finally, keep copies of the questionnaires because they can be an excellent source of praise for your company to put on your website (with the client’s permission, of course). Of course, in addition to the formal feedback and quality control of questionnaires, you should also always be carrying out informal verbal feedback by just talking to people. Ask them how they’re getting on and if you can be doing anything more/less/differently to be helping them reach their goals, and adapt accordingly.

Tough situations

Satisfaction can come at a price. Some clients may ask for things that are in contradiction with your company policy. One common example is a client insisting on having native-speaker-only trainers while your company uses a more inclusive approach. In such cases, you could sit down with the client to explain the benefits of both types of trainers and suggest a trial period with a non-native speaker. Another example is with issues surrounding downward price pressure. In the previous article, we warned against clients trying to set the price far below the local market value. In the end, you will waste an enormous amount of time on admin and/or commuting and it will have a negative effect on the quality of training you offer if you accept such contracts. Sometimes it’s best to maintain your own sense of integrity and know when to decline such training requests.

Be Referral-Focused

Depending on the country in which you live, obtaining new clients often depends on the referrals of others. Therefore, the more you concentrate on the needs, goals and satisfaction of your clients, the more likely they will refer you both internally and to other companies.

Bearing these factors in mind will help you lay the foundations for solid and long-lasting relationship with your clients.

Reference:
Schofield, J. 2013. What are the issues training managers face. February 27th webinar. Cambridge English Teacher.

 

This article first appeared in the March 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.

 

© Mike Hogan and Bethany Cagnol, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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The value of continuous assessment

continuous learning assessment

Image courtesy of Colin K on Flickr

How do you check your students’ comprehension of a concept or skill? Stacey Hughes, former teacher and current teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, shares some ideas for checking students are on the right track.

Aren’t students tested enough?

Surely the last thing students need is more tests! Continuous assessment is not the same as testing. For one thing, tests are marked or graded whereas continuous assessment isn’t. Continuous assessments are quick checks for the purpose of letting the teacher and student know if more revision is needed. They are also useful for keeping track of progress between more formal tests.

Ideas for continuous assessment

Below are some ideas for quick checks teachers can use throughout the year.

  1. Reading speed quick check: Give students a text to read from the course book or a graded reader. Make sure it is the right level for the class or student. Ask the students to read for exactly one minute. Stop them and ask them to mark the last word they read. Ask them to count the number of words they were able to read in one minute and note it down. Repeat this several times during the term so that students can see if their reading speed is increasing. If it is not, remind them of reading strategies: guessing unknown words from context, skipping unknown words, reading groups of words rather than single words, etc.
  2. Listening for gist quick check: Give students a short listening that is at their level. Play the listening once, ask students to discuss what they understood, then play it again. This time, ask students to write a short (1 sentence) summary of what the listening was about. For example: The listening was about the dangers of mountain climbing. At first, students will find this difficult to do and the focus is not on grammatically correct sentences, but on conveying the main idea. Repeat this many times during the term to see if students are improving their ability to understand the main idea of things they listen to. This will also show students if they need to do more listening outside of class and if they need to work on their listening for gist skills.
  3. Vocabulary quick check: Write any new vocabulary from the lesson on the board for students to copy down. Ask them to put a tick next to words they feel they can remember the meaning of, a cross next to words they can’t remember and a star * next to words they feel they know really well and can use in a sentence. This will let students know which words to study more and, if you collect the papers, you will quickly see which words need revision in the next lessons.
  4. Grammar quick check: Grammar quick checks can focus on form or use. So, for example, if you were teaching present continuous for making arrangements, you could ask the students to write the answers to your questions:a. What do I need to remember about the form of the present simple? (e.g. BE + base form + ing)
    b. Are there any spelling rules to remember? (e.g. drop the -e and add – ing)
    c. What have we been using the present continuous for today? (e.g. making arrangements to do something together)

    These could be collected and checked by you or you could give the answers and ask students to check their own. Ask students if they were able to answer. If they could they can feel like they have learned something and if not, they know what to study.

  5. Ticket out the door: Any of the above assessments can be used as a student’s ‘ ticket out the door’.

Continuous assessment isn’t new. Teachers naturally assess whether or not their students have understood or mastered a concept or skill before moving on. This non-graded formative assessment is also valuable for students for several reasons. Firstly, it clarifies what content or skills the teacher thinks are important to learn which enables students to review relevant material. Secondly, it shows students the relevance of classroom activities. If performance on tasks is assessed – even informally – then students are more likely to understand why the activity was important. Finally, continuous or formative assessment helps students realise where they are in relation to where they should be in terms of skills and abilities.

 

This article first appeared in the January 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.


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Animal Talk: Animal-related adjectives in the English language

The origin and use of animal adjectives in English language

Image courtesy of Kapa65

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the origins and use of animal-related adjectives in English.

The names of animals are probably among the first things learnt by a student of a language, yet knowing the names of animals doesn’t always help when it comes to their associated adjectives—in fact, sometimes it can be downright confusing.

Most of the formal adjectives that relate to animals are not derived from the common English names but are taken instead from the Latin name of each animal. So when you are talking about things to do with dogs, you use the adjective canine (from the Latin word canis) and when you are talking about things to do with horses, you use the adjective equine (from the Latin word equus). There is one of these Latin-derived adjectives for just about every animal you can think of, and some of them can be quite obscure even to native speakers. (Not many dictionaries bother to record ‘murine’, which is the Latin-inspired adjective that refers to mice, or ‘vespertilionine’, which refers to bats.)

In a few cases the Latin name of an animal is similar to the common English name, and so it is easy to guess the meaning of adjectives such as elephantine. In most cases, however, there is not an obvious connection between the Latin-derived adjective and the English noun.

Yet the common names of animals also give rise to adjectives: ‘horsey’, ‘doggy’, ‘catty’, ‘fishy’, and ‘ratty’ are perfectly respectable—if somewhat informal—English words. A few of these can be used to refer to the animals themselves, so you can talk about ‘a doggy smell’. On the whole, however, they are more likely to be applied to people or things that exhibit qualities associated with animals.

In fact, it is possible to identify two distinct groups of adjectives that are formed from the common names of animals. Adjectives formed by adding the combining form -like to the name of an animal are usually neutral or even positive in tone (depending on the typical associations of the animal involved). Someone who moves in a stealthy manner might be called ‘catlike’, while a gentle person might be ‘lamb-like’. A more negative example is the use of ‘ostrich-like’ for people who ignore what is going on about them (a term that comes from the ostrich’s proverbial habit of burying its head in the sand).

On the other hand, adjectives formed by adding the suffixes -y or -ish to the names of animals are predominantly negative: someone who is catty tends to say unkind and spiteful things about other people; someone who is sheepish is embarrassed because they have done something wrong; someone who is sluggish moves slowly and lazily; spidery handwriting has long, thin strokes that appear unattractive; someone who is waspish is aggressive and bad-tempered.

So if you come across an adjective that looks as though it is derived from the name of an animal, the first thing to be aware of is that these words usually don’t refer to the animals themselves: people might be sheepish, but sheep are not. It is also worth noting that when these words are used to describe people, the comparison is often not a complimentary one.

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