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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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Critical Thinking in Business English

Critical thinking businessmanAhead of his forthcoming webinar on the subject, John Hughes, ELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, looks at the growing need for critical thinking skills to be integrated into Business English teaching.

In a recent article on the subject of technology and the 21st century workplace, The Economist (January 18th, 2004) made the following demand: “Schools need to change, to foster the creativity that humans will need to set them apart from computers. There should be less rote-learning and more critical thinking.” As teachers and educators, many of you will be familiar with this viewpoint; after all, the calls for more critical thinking in education grow louder all the time. But the fact that this comment appears in a business magazine like The Economist reflects a growing view from the world of work that ‘critical thinking’ is a key skill.

Critical thinking in the workplace

Employers, Human Resource recruiters and business schools globally also report a lack of suitable graduates and candidates with ‘critical thinking skills.’ A recent article in The Wall Street Journal highlighted the problem and looked at the high number of business schools that now include critical thinking as a key course component. In other words, you are increasingly likely to see the term ‘Critical thinking skills’ listed on the syllabus of a business course programme next to course components such as ‘Presentation skills’ or ‘Negotiating Skills’.

Fostering sub-skills to develop critical thinking

So if companies require critical thinking skills and business schools are teaching these skills, is it time for Business English teachers to consider how critical thinking skills might be integrated into their Business English courses? After all, we readily teach the skills and language for presenting, negotiating, meetings and so on. So why not critical thinking

In fact, some language schools specialising in business English and corporate training ARE already offering critical thinking in English as part of their courses. And I suspect that many Business English teachers probably help students to develop this skill as part of their typical Business English lessons without realising it. Take the use of Case Studies, for example. A case study requires students to identify evidence, recognise different perspectives, express opinions with supported arguments and negotiate a final outcome. These are all sub-skills that go towards developing critical thinking as well as improving language fluency.

In my forthcoming webinar on the 25th & 26th June I’ll be going into much more detail on this topic. We’ll define the sub-skills of critical thinking in Business and what language we need to teach students in order to support those skills. I’ll also suggest a variety of practical activities that you can use in your lessons to start developing the skills whilst at the same time – of course – improving students’ business English.

 

Register for the webinar


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Get the most out of group, peer, and self-assessment

Adult woman assessing another womanStacey Hughes, former teacher and current teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, shares some practical tips on getting your students to assess themselves, and each other.

We all need a fresh set of eyes sometimes. Successful writers or speakers often ask a peer for feedback. So, what is group, peer and self-assessment in the language classroom? For starters, it is not necessarily part of grading – we are not asking students to give each other a mark that will then count towards their grade. What it should involve is peer-to-peer communication about what is good about a piece of work and how it can be improved. It involves some learner training and it is important that assessment is not aimed at the individual, but at the work.

In this article, I’ll give examples of how group assessment might work for a presentation, how peer assessment might work for writing and how self-assessment might work in several contexts.

Preparing students to peer assess

Peer assessment may be new to students, so it is important to show them why it is a good idea, how it can benefit them and, most importantly, agree to some behavioural guidelines. Talk to your students about the benefits of peer assessment and get the class to draw up a list of guidelines. Some key points are below:

  • Peers can help us review our work so we can get a better grade.
  • Learning to help each other is a skill that will be used in a job.
  • Assessing a peer’s work can help us develop our own work by making us more aware of how a piece of writing or speaking affects the audience.

Example guidelines:

  • Comment on what is good.
  • Don’t make personal comments – just comment on the work.
  • Don’t judge. Be helpful.
  • Don’t just say something is bad or good. Say what is bad or good and why it’s bad or good.
  • Try to explain how it could be better.

Group assessment – group assesses group

As part of preparing for group presentations, set a date when all groups present to another group. You may need to send some groups out or if your classroom is suitable, just group them around the room. Give each member of the groups a sheet to fill in (see the example below) to help guide their comments. For a presentation, there are a number of different aspects that you might want groups to comment on. Create a feedback sheet that reflects what you have taught and what you will be grading on. The example below is fairly comprehensive and includes example student comments.

Please write a comment
Structure Is it clear?
Is there an introduction?
Is there a conclusion?
You need an introduction. I wasn’t sure what you were going to talk about. You could say what your conclusion is. The main body was clear.
Content Clear?
Engaging?
Did each person’s contribution connect with the others’?
Did each person contribute equally?
I really liked your topic. It was interesting. Maybe you could refer to each other’s section to make the presentation feel more connected. I think everyone spoke for the same amount of time.
Visuals Clear?
Did they add to the content?
The visuals were clear and made the presentation more interesting.
Body language & voice Confident?
Volume?
Eye contact?
Raul – very confident; good eye contact
Maria – I couldn’t hear you well; please speak more loudly Nida – maybe more eye contact; maybe use note cards instead of reading from a paper
Language & pronunciation Clear?
Key words pronounced clearly?
Mostly clear. Raul, I didn’t understand what you said about the water on the roads. Nida – you were reading, so it didn’t sound natural. Maybe practice in front of a mirror.
Answering questions How well did the group answer questions? You answered questions well. You have good knowledge of the topic.

Peer assesses peer

As part of the writing process, ask peers to assess each other’s written work. Sometimes students think that they can’t judge another’s work because they think their English isn’t good enough. To help students realise that their contribution can be valuable, make sure have clear guidelines for what to look for in each piece of writing. Tell them that their goal is not to find every grammar mistake, but to just comment from the reader’s perspective.

The example below (with example student comment) is based on a paragraph about a holiday.

Please write a comment
Structure Clear?
Topic sentence?
The structure is OK. You need a topic sentence. Your sentences are very short. You need to combine sentences 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. Maybe you can use and and but.
Content Does it answer the question?
Does it make sense?
Why is it interesting?
You wrote about your holiday, but not about your feelings. You need to include your feelings. It makes sense. It is interesting because I have never been to Thailand.
Language Vocabulary
Grammar
Punctuation
Spelling
You used good words like hotel reception and flew. Grammar is good, but past of take is took. You need to capitalise the city. Spelling is good.
Presentation Indented paragraph handwriting You should indent the first sentence. Your handwriting is very clear and neat.

Self-assessment

Self-assessment is not only useful as part of the writing process, but can also help students see the progress they are making.

The following simple checklist is an example of how to raise a student’s awareness of what they should be including in writing. It also gives them guidance on how to go about editing their work. It is based on writing a summary and review of a story.

  • Have you got two paragraphs?
  • Is the first paragraph a summary of the plot of the story?
  • Is the second paragraph about your views on the story?
  • Did you give reasons for your opinions?
  • Do you have topic sentences?
  • Look at your grammar: did you use present tense?
  • Look at your vocabulary: did you use some of the words you learned to describe plot? Did you use words like, because and for example?

Students can also assess their speaking performance in pair and group work. This could help motivate students to speak in English when it is often more natural to use the L1. Make a simple checklist which highlights the goals for speaking in pairs or groups:

  • I spoke in English
  • I asked another person a question
  • If I didn’t understand, I asked for clarification
  • If someone wasn’t speaking, I asked them for their opinion
  • When I didn’t know what to say, I said it another way

Can-do statements are a great way for students to assess whether or not they have achieved language aims. They should be very specific; for example, they can be directly linked to a unit. Collectively, these will help students see the progress they have made over time.

I have finished unit X and I can:

  • Use the past tense to talk about what I did yesterday
  • Use words like, last week, yesterday, a month ago in a sentence
  • Ask someone questions about what they did last week/ last month/ last year
  • Understand someone telling a story about their problems last week on the train

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.


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Getting the most value out of peer assessment

Illustration of lots of eyes looking at man holding paper

Image courtesy of AJ Cann on Flickr

Is the value of peer assessment compromised if it is used as a class control for large classes? Charl Norloff, co-author of Q: Skills for Success Reading/Writing 4, discusses how to maximize the value of peer assessment.

The value of any technique, including peer assessment, lies in having a clear idea of the purpose for using it and having realistic expectations about the outcomes you seek. Here are some factors to consider.

Structure the peer work carefully so that:

Students are using the target language

Is the class monolingual? If so, then the peer work, especially if it is being used as a control, needs to be very carefully structured so students can easily do it. Otherwise, it can have the opposite effect, leading to students speaking together in their native language, often off topic, and can actually contribute to a lack of control.

So, provide clear directions for what language you expect the students to use, including structures and vocabulary required to successfully complete the task.

The task is easy enough for the students to do with minimal supervision

The level of the students is another consideration in how the peer work is structured. The peer activity has to be such that it encourages use of the target language – in this case, English. If the task is too difficult or too open-ended for the level of the students then, again, it can lead to a situation where there is poor control.

So, make sure the task is at the appropriate level for your students, and give and practice models – including vocabulary and structures – in advance of the activity so students have the language they need. Peer tasks are often best following instruction and whole group practice or assignments.

There is a time limit

Especially where control is one of the purposes of peer work, a clear time limit is also a must. Otherwise, students waste time and can easily end up off task.

So, decide on the appropriate amount of time to complete the task, subtract five minutes and announce and post the end time. You can always add a few more minutes back in if students are clearly on task and still need more time to finish.

There is an end task with clear measurable outcomes, which can be assessed

When students work in pairs or groups, to ensure that the intended work is done, an end activity which holds the students accountable is always practical. That may be where the assessment piece comes in.

If the desired result of the peer work is to be assessment, then there need to be clear and measurable outcomes attached to the peer work in order for it serve the dual purpose of control and assessment.

Again, provide clear instructions about either a written or an oral assignment that will be due (and assessed, if that’s appropriate) at the end of the peer work. Try to keep the end task one of creating or producing something – a dialogue or brief speech presented to the whole class if you’re working on speaking or a piece of writing or analysis of writing that will be collected if writing is your focus. Avoid asking students to evaluate the quality of their partner’s work. Avoid asking yes/no questions which don’t require the use of the language. Focus rather on producing language or identifying aspects of the language rather than judging the language.

Here’s an example:

I’ve assigned, and my students have written, a paragraph giving reasons why studying a foreign language is an important part of their education. Prior to the peer work, we have worked on writing a good paragraph and have read a model and identified the topic sentence, supporting ideas, and conclusion.

My task will be for students to exchange paragraphs with a partner, read the partner’s paragraph, discuss anything that isn’t understood, then complete a worksheet on the paragraph identifying the various types of sentences.

The desired learning outcome in this example is for the students to be able to identify the structure of a good paragraph.

I will give the students five to ten minutes to read their partner’s paragraph and discuss it. Then, they will have another five to ten minutes to do the worksheet. The worksheet might ask the students to 1) find the topic sentence, write it on the worksheet and underline the topic once and the controlling idea twice, 2) list the supporting reasons, 3) circle transitions words, and 4) state whether the paragraph had a concluding sentence, and if so, whether it restated the ideas in the topic sentence or not.

The final step (and end task) would be to share the answers on the worksheet with the partner. Worksheets could be collected and be part of the overall assessment of the writing. A follow up assignment would be for students to reread their own paragraphs, using the same worksheet to analyze the paragraph, and then to revise it as needed based on the worksheet.

In any activity in a language class, including peer assessment, having control of the class is a must. If peer work is done in a way that keeps a class under control, and clear realistic outcomes are expected and measurable, then the value of the work is never compromised.

This is our last question for the Q authors. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Check out our Questions for Q authors playlist for previous answers, or see all of our Questions for Q authors articles.


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#qskills – Should I teach only grammar when my students have only written tests in exams?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: Should I teach only grammar when my students have only written tests in exams?

Colin Ward responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.

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