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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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Bring on Utopia! Make us all equal! How mixed ability plagues my life…

Diverse elementary students working in the classroomKenna Bourke, co-author of Levels 5 and 6 of the new Primary series, Oxford Discover, offers some practical tips for making the most of your mixed ability Primary classroom.

About a hundred years ago, when I was six, my Belgian primary school teacher wanted me to crochet a poncho: ‘M’enfin! Un poncho, Kénna! C’est facile!’ Crochet! Crochet??? As I remember it, this involved manipulating a weird-looking needle, and some balls of wool: sky blue, navy blue, and white. That poncho haunts me to this day. My long-suffering mother crocheted it in the end. And I had to confess that I hadn’t crocheted it. And six-year-old life wasn’t good for a while.

Also at the age of six, I was promoted to top of the class in Flemish, above all the Belgian kids (dank u wel), and close to bottom in Math because 213 divided by 7 = (well, I have no idea and why does it matter?).

By the time I was twelve, studying at a school in England that shall remain nameless, I was put in the bottom set for English (this requires you to have read Dickens’s Christmas Carol and be able to recite it backwards), and the top set for French (this requires you to be able to say ‘M. et Mme. Dupont ont deux enfants’). I spoke French far better than my teacher, which turned out to be a major disadvantage. I also spent vast tracts of time wondering why lacrosse – a sport – wasn’t banned under the Dangerous Sports Act, and being quite good at … swimming.

Aren’t we all to some extent ‘mixed ability’? Does it matter?

It may or may not matter. The debate rages on. Some contend that all students should be streamed according to ability. But the fact is that people aren’t equally able, and it’s not always possible. As has been said endlessly, if you have a class of two students, you automatically have a mixed ability class. Utopia is a briefly entertaining fiction – we live in a mixed ability world, which we can choose to think of as something to be celebrated.

Imagine how boring it would it be if we all excelled at everything. There’d be little point in competition sports, or comedy shows, or concerts, or art, or literature … It wouldn’t really be worth cooking a great meal for friends because (yawn) everyone can do that. And don’t even think about solving a mathematical puzzle while you’re commuting to work, because we’re all equally good at it, and the person sitting to your left has probably already completed it.

Of course no two students are the same, but there you are, faced with your mixed ability class, and you can’t change that. So what do you do?

Move the benchmarking goalposts?

More often than not, we take a curriculum or set of standards and benchmark all students’ abilities against them, which is fine. But how about also benchmarking student achievement against that individual’s potential? Successful learning usually happens when you hit the tipping point between frustration and challenge. At university, I got bored and frustrated because French was too easy. At school, I was miserable and frustrated because Maths classes were difficult. Had I been pushed much harder in one direction and given more appropriate tasks in the other, I might have been more successful in both subjects.

Differentiate for success?

There’s a danger, also, of setting tasks that scream ‘advanced’, ‘normal’, or ‘remedial’. Not a good thing. It can result in making one student feel superior, another feel average, and the third feel stupid. Used tactfully, differentiated activities can build on each other. A below-level activity provides support and scaffolding for less confident students before they move to a task that is at- or on-level. The at-level task then provides support for students to deal with the greater challenge of an above-level task. Alternatively, you might differentiate learning by setting different tasks to different groups simultaneously so that all students are collaborating on discrete aspects of the whole, as in some L1 classrooms. No one really likes to stand out, except perhaps for the captain of that dreadful lacrosse team.

As my co-author on Oxford Discover, Kathleen Kampa, suggests in this video, there are some ingenious ways of giving all students the same task, yet letting them determine how to do that task at exactly their own level.

Motivate by focusing on what’s good and fun?

Call me a quitter, but I didn’t pursue crochet beyond the age of six, or Math beyond 15, though today, self-taught, I can do Math perfectly adequately. As adults, most of us very sensibly choose to do what we’re good at and what we actively enjoy. Too often, children aren’t given that freedom of choice.

We can create meaning in class and foster an atmosphere in which successful learning will take place by allowing students different ways to respond, and by giving them activities that appeal across a range of intelligences. Some of us are natural listeners; others love reading. Some of us wouldn’t dance or sing if our lives depended on it; others dance and sing till they drop. Some of us react to visual stimulus; others are oblivious to it. But we all do something well. Multimodality, in the form of video, audio, posters, spoken and written language, music and movement, is invaluable in helping students build 21st Century skills in an unthreatening, equalizing environment.

How? To put this idea in its most basic form, try, for example, to give:

  • classifying and problem-solving tasks to students who show logical or mathematical intelligence
  • physical, tactile, TPR-style tasks to kinesthetic learners
  • groupwork, classwork, and games to students who demonstrate interpersonal skills and intelligence
  • reading and writing tasks to learners whose verbal or linguistic intelligence is evident
  • and tasks centred around posters, pictures, and diagrams to children who show signs of visual or spatial intelligence.

As I write this on a January afternoon from my flat in New York City, it’s 11 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus-something horrifying Centigrade, and nothing would please me more than being able to crochet my own poncho to keep warm. But I refuse to get despondent. After all, aged 1, I was so mixed ability that I could drive a car! Who knows what else I might achieve if pushed?

Kenna Bourke as a toddler 'driving' a car

Kenna Bourke as a toddler ‘driving’ a car

If you’d like more ideas on teaching mixed ability classes, why not register for a free webinar led by my colleagues at OUP? Making the most of mixed-ability young learner classes will be held on 18th February and repeated on 20th February 2014.

Would you like practical tips on teaching mixed-ability classes 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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Mixed up by mixed abilities?

Chinese school studenr with class behind herKate Read, co-author of the new Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips for making the most of your mixed-ability Kindergarten classroom.

Kindergarten classrooms can be busy and confusing places at the best of times, but when you (like most of us) have to cope with a wide range of abilities, it throws an extra challenge into the mix. We love the fact that each child is an individual, with his or her own quirky little personalities, but it sure makes teaching effectively a challenge! Don’t despair! Here are a few simple steps to unmix you!

1. Be prepared

As with so many things in life, the secret is in the preparation. Think about what you want to achieve and what it is reasonable to achieve on both a class and individual level. Set a range of achievable goals: begin from the same starting point then vary the level of difficulty. Remember that mixed abilities do range upwards – you want to keep the most able children challenged and interested too.

When creating or adapting activities, chose ones which can be approached in a number of ways, especially in regards to oral or written abilities. Think of ways to exploit a variety of skill sets. For example, if you were going to introduce a new song, you might look at doing the following with it:

  • acting out the words with no production, but focusing on creating interesting movements to illustrate understanding
  • a singing/production element
  • a drawing element
  • a simple reading/writing element (e.g. a gap fill or a create a new verse) for those most able to cope with written text.

Make sure that your instructions are very clear, structured and achievable when you present the tasks. Be very clear about what you hope they will achieve by the end of the class or activity – include the range of outcomes in this. When you give instructions, demonstrate the whole process from beginning to end.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of review. Creative reviews give the lower-ability children a chance to take stock and gain confidence while providing a springboard for other children to attempt higher-level activities.

2. Use the children’s strengths

It’s very important for each child to know that he or she is a valued member of your classroom community. Each contribution is important. For example, someone with good motor skills but poor linguistic skills could make a different but equally important contribution to a project or activity and you need to make this clear. Most tasks will be enhanced by mixing abilities within a group and encouraging peer co-operation. Many children enjoy taking the teacher role and this can be usefully exploited!

Using the children’s different strengths also benefits their social development. Be sensitive to how far you can push the children, but at the same time do mix things up by changing groups, dynamics and procedures when you think they can handle this.

Teaching a mixed–ability class is a great opportunity to

  • develop cooperative learning and peer teaching
  • appeal to different strengths and learning styles
  • support the less able and challenge the more able
  • train children to work both independently and in groups.

3. Be flexible

As you will know, teaching mixed abilities draws on all your multi-tasking skills – but it is worth it when it works well. At times there might be a bit more confusion than with a single approach, but keep calm, aware, and in control, and you will often hear that sweet hum of concentrated activity. Just in case things don’t go perfectly to plan, try to keep a good ‘Plan B’ activity in the sidelines, even if it is just a quick break in the form of an action song or a chant before settling them back into the task. If you see their interest flagging, don’t be afraid to change your approach.

4. Appreciate the achievements of all learners

All children need praise, particularly when navigating the unknown waters of a new language. Find things to praise in all the children’s efforts. If you can’t find something, then deliberately help them do something that is praiseworthy. Remember to think of the individual’s learning path and compare what they’ve done to their own past achievements as opposed to the achievements of others. Demonstrate and reward success – post their efforts on the wall, or in folders, and hand out congratulations stickers, etc. In a very simple way, go back to the objectives you discussed at the beginning of the class. Show the children how they achieved them and how well they did.

Challenge question for fast finishers: how many times did I manage to insert ‘mix’ into this blog?

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


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Don’t gobblefunk around with words!

Don't gobblefunk around with wordsKenna Bourke is a full-time author of ELT and children’s literacy books with a special interest in English grammar. She is the author of Oxford Discover levels 5 and 6, and many more. In this article, she looks at three reasons why reading makes students better writers.

Reading makes you a better writer. And it’s fun! But why?

Because when we write, we naturally incorporate what we’ve learned about lexis, style, syntax, and spelling.

My all time hero is not a pop star, not a president, not a philosopher, not a painter, not a pirate, not a private detective, or even – dare I say it – a primary school teacher. No, my all-time hero is Roald Dahl, a writer who gobblefunked better than anyone. Dahl instilled in me a love of words – real words and invented words – and a love of twisting words; making words do things they’re absolutely not supposed to do … not in any circumcrackles! He also made me understand that, in writing, anything can happen if only you’re brave enough and curious enough to allow it to.

I devoured his books as if they were delicious snozzcumbers.

Now, I realize you may never have gobblefunked, and perhaps you haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting a snozzcumber, but I’ll bet you know which of these two words is a verb and which is a noun, don’t you? And how many of you have students who’d be among the first to put up their hand and correct the Big Friendly Giant’s grammar?

The Big Friendly Giant, the title character in Dahl’s The BFG, spends his life kindly and gently blowing happy dreams to children. But he has no one to teach him English, so he borrows a novel (Nicholas Nickleby, by the well-known author Dahl’s Chickens) from a little boy who happens to be asleep, and he reads it again and again and again, for ‘about 80 years’. This, he explains to his tiny friend Sophie, is how he learns to write English – by discovering new words and teaching himself how to write them. And yes, sometimes he gets his words frack to bunt, but that’s OK because context – fizzwiggling, wonderful context – helps us figure out what he means.

Reading non-fiction is just as valuable to writers as reading fiction. But why?

Because sometimes we feel a need to explain things to people.

Or we want to inform or teach someone how to do something. Or we have to persuade a friend that our way is the right way. Or maybe we’re just bursting to express an opinion on a subject. And here, non-fiction is our friend! Good non-fiction models teach you how to tell a factual story; how to build a solid argument; and how to convey information concisely, logically, and comprehensibly. Well-written informational texts can help students realize that very often our world is every bit as intriguing as the invented world of fiction. I mean, who would believe that 2,000 years ago, a country would bury 8,000 beautifully crafted clay soldiers?

Hidden Army - a page from Oxford Discover 4

Extract from Oxford Discover, Level 4 © Oxford University Press

Reading makes you think; and thinking helps you write. But why?

Because reading forces us to reflect on our own experience; make comparisons with other, often different, realities; build analytical skills; and generate new ideas for writing. 

Imagine a planet without wheels. How on earth would you know what the time was? How would you get to school each day? Where would you get food from if there were no trucks, trains, or planes to bring it to you? What would people  read if there were no printing presses (because yes, printing presses need wheels)? A wheel-free world? How ridiculous!

No, but seriously … What if there really was a planet with no wheels?

Planet SinRota - page from Oxford Discover 5

Extract from Oxford Discover, Level 5 © Oxford University Press

So … would I have become a writer had I not read Roald Dahl? Quite possibly not. I think, on balance, I might have grown up to become a grossgreener and lived on scrambled dregs.

But WHY?

Because, as my all time hero said,

When you’re old enough to write a book for children, by then you’ll have become a grown up and have lost all your jokeyness. Unless you’re an undeveloped adult and still have an enormous amount of childishness in you.”
Roald Dahl

Would you like practical tips on teaching writing 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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