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Encouraging ESL learner independence

Man sat at desk smiling while workingLara Storton has seventeen years of experience in ESL, teaching English for Academic Purposes and teacher training, and has recently written the Milestones in English Student’s Book and Teacher’s Book at B1+ level. She joins us today to outline steps towards encouraging language learners to continue their study outside the classroom and how to make use of technology and online resources to promote independent learning.

The student-centered approach is becoming more common as teachers realize the benefits of being a facilitator in the classroom, encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning in collaborative tasks and discussions. Of course, as a teacher you decide what happens in the classroom, but how can you extend learner independence outside it?

Set learning goals

Students come to class with their own individual learning goals. Often their motivation for learning will be goal-oriented: geared towards a specific exam, career or university placement and so getting them to spend time on skills development outside of class – rather than cramming for an exam – can be a challenge. And it can also be difficult for students who do want to develop their independent study skills to decide what to study outside the classroom.

What you want is for your students to become confident in organizing their own learning, studying what they want or need to study in order to achieve their long-term goals so that when they pass that exam or get into university, they can go on working independently and with confidence.

So first of all you need to get them thinking about their own learning goals in more detail. Do some needs analysis in class using questions. For example: Why am I studying English now? What do I hope to achieve in the future by learning English? What are my main strengths? How can I build on them? What are my weaknesses? How can I improve my skills and turn my weaknesses into strengths?

Students can then write down a list of individual learning goals and some suggestions of how to achieve them. Make this an interactive activity to highlight its importance and promote independence from the beginning – get students to discuss their learning goals and make suggestions in pairs or small groups. Take time to review these both as a whole class and individually with each student. This way you can help guide learners towards independent study in a way that requires them to take the initiative.

Get students to think about how to extend their learning in class

Once your students have established their learning goals, you can support them further by making references to independent study during lessons. Get them thinking about how they could extend their learning and build on the skills they have practised in lessons, saying for example, ‘How could you practice this at home?’ ‘Has anyone got any ideas about how you could extend what you’ve learned in this lesson?

At first your students may need some support with thinking of ideas so you could give them suggestions such as, ‘Read a newspaper and find two more examples for each dependent preposition we studied today.’ ‘Read a short text on a topic you are interested in and prepare to summarize it to a partner tomorrow’. ‘Read an article on a subject you’re interested in, underline all the present tenses and consider why the writer has used each one.

Over time these suggestions will give students an awareness of a range of independent study techniques and strategies and increase their confidence and motivation to move towards independence.

Take advantage of technology

In terms of motivation, we are lucky to live in an age where technology offers a wide range of self-study options. Most students will have a smartphone, laptop or tablet and are likely to be very adept at using it! This means that they can access a wealth of online study opportunities.

When online practice first became available, technology and programming was limited so exercises tended to be very short. Often they were gap-fill or choose-the-correct-option type tasks which required little ‘thought’. Of course there is a benefit to these more automatic types of exercise but nowadays online study programmes and resources can offer students so much more in terms of skills development. Features such as high quality images, games, audio, video, writing walls and discussion forums add to learner experience helping them to stay motivated and engaged.

From a teaching perspective, online study programmes also act as a ‘first step’ to guiding your students towards independent study – they can work on achieving their learning goals at their own pace and at a level that they feel comfortable with. They tend to be progressive, so once a student is has mastered the necessary language and skills, they can move on to the next level.

One example is the Oxford Online Skills Program. The programme runs at all CEFR levels and offers students the opportunity to work on either General or Academic English. Students can log on in their own time and choose what they want to study in whatever order they like in order to achieve their learning goals. An advantage is that the study material is generic – each module is based around a specific language focus, skill or topic so it can be used alongside any course and to suit varied interests.

Tapping into those interests is extremely motivating so encourage your students to engage with online material as much as possible not only on official study programmes but also through authentic websites and social media.

Build independent skills online

Once your students start to become motivated to study independently, encourage them to adopt a systematic approach to build their skills. In class, have regular discussions about how students can use technology for independent study, for example by listening to podcasts or online lectures, or by reading articles on their subject or area of special interest.

You could set aside a regular time in class where students discuss how they have studied independently this week and say what they have learned, what they have practiced, what they feel they gained from the study and how they will continue to develop those skills in future.

An online study programme can also help to guide students towards a systematic approach which they can then use with authentic materials. For example, in the Oxford Online Skills Program, modules are set up like mini-lessons giving students the opportunity to raise schema (activate their own knowledge and ideas and relate these to their experiences) by looking at an image or watching a video, and then complete a series of exercises including language, vocabulary or form focus. These build up to a final productive ‘task’, either written or spoken, and finally a ‘reflective’ task prompts students to consider their own learning experience and performance.

A2 Listening Engage

Engage activities activate schma. (Screenshot from Oxford Online Skills Program Academic A2)

This type of structure helps students to get into good independent study habits which they can then apply in the future at home or at college or university with authentic texts on subjects that are interesting to them or important to their course of study or career.

 


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Perspective, Pace and Passing: Teaching English in a Foundations Programme

 

shutterstock_306641441Gary Pathare has been an English teacher since 1990 and has taught at Dubai Men’s College, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) since 2001.  He is author of the forthcoming Milestones in English B1 and B2 Student’s Books, publishing in January and August 2016.

A decade and a half.  That’s how long I have been teaching on a Foundations programme in Dubai, and it has been, from a teaching and career perspective, an amazingly positive experience. When I arrived fifteen years ago, I had been teaching general English in Barcelona, and teacher training. The Middle East was as yet unknown to me, and I soon found out that teaching here was a massive change from fun and language games to a serious, high-stakes, assessment-driven academic context. As time passed and I changed my teaching style and persona, I started to find the challenges really absorbing, and my focus changed to developing methodology that worked, writing materials to support this methodology, and sharing my insights. All in all, it has been very satisfying.

However, it hasn’t been an easy ride, for reasons that have become clearer to me as the years have passed. Why not? Anyone who has tried it will have their own answers, but these are mine.

‘Motivation to pass’

To understand the challenges, we should first consider what Foundations programmes actually are. As the name suggests, they are generally preparatory courses for college degrees. Students who need to improve their English skills in order to enter a degree course may be placed in a Foundations programme, or they may opt for this themselves. The course may cover subjects other than English language, such as mathematics and IT, as well as helping students make the transition from school to academia and develop an academic approach that incorporates independent learning and critical thinking skills.

Unfortunately – and here is where the challenges come in – the fact is that, from the students’ perspective, being in a Foundation programme is likely to be simultaneously high-stakes and undesired. If they did not opt in themselves, they will be understandably eager to get into their ‘real’ programme, their Bachelor’s for example, and may be less concerned about their weaknesses in English that have resulted in them being placed in the Foundations program than with how to leave as quickly as possible. So on the one hand, many Foundations students have a strong extrinsic motivation to pass, but on a day-to-day basis they may not be particularly motivated by the actual content. They want out!

A tall order

Another challenge comes from their prior learning. The fact that they find themselves in a Foundations programme may be either because they didn’t do too well at school, or their school did not sufficiently prepare them for academic study (depending on the context, of course). If this is the case, they probably lack not only English language skills but also the required study, critical thinking, independent learning and other academic skills.

In my own context, much of the teaching work involves helping students develop the skills both to pass the Foundations exit exam (in my case, to get a specified IELTS band) and to succeed later on when they enter a Bachelor’s programme. So my daily work involves paying attention in every lesson to building students’ world knowledge and ability to recognize different perspectives, helping them take control of their own learning, encouraging them to improve time management and planning skills, and urging and training them to develop the stamina required for in-depth, academic reading and study. It’s a tall order!

Efficiency vs effectiveness

And then there is the time factor. As time is of the essence – after all, who wants Foundations to go on too long? – a key to success as a teacher is efficiency. Why not teach reading skills from a text which helps develop students’ world knowledge at the same time as teaching them to recognize inference, for example? Why not expose them to written models that they can use for their own writing development? Why not show them how many connectives for writing can also be used in their speaking? And overall, why not make sure that study and critical thinking skills are an intrinsic, systematic and planned part of the curriculum and materials, rather than add-ons? In my own experience, the more intensity that can be brought to bear on each hour of learning, the more satisfying and ultimately successful the course will be.

Quick tips for teaching Foundations programmes

So my top four pieces of advice for teachers starting in a Foundations programme are these:

  • Don’t expect life to be easy, for you or your students; accept the challenges and be sensitive to the students’ frustrations.
  • View the role as a wide-ranging one, even though language teaching is at its core.
  • Maximize the efficiency of the work you do in class – when you have students’ attention, make sure you fully exploit it with multiple levels of learning.
  • Finally, being academic doesn’t mean being serious all the time. Keep a sense of humour! The students – and you – deserve it, with everything else that is going on.

And keep your perspective. Not everyone will pass – some students are simply not suited to the academic life; their talents lie elsewhere. But one of the great pleasures of teaching on a Foundations programme is meeting students who have passed through into their program of choice, and seeing how they have developed both their English and their academic demeanor. I can’t imagine going back to General English.


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Online Learning Platforms: Helping your students engage

Learning onlineLindsay Warwick offers four ways to persuade students to make use of an online learning platform. Lindsay Warwick is a teacher and trainer at Bell and a materials writer. She is co-author of the forthcoming Milestones in English A2 and B1+ Student’s Books, publishing in January 2016.

Many English coursebooks come with access to an online learning platform full of material to help learners develop their language skills further. These can be particularly beneficial for academic English learners who need to achieve a certain level of English within a limited time period. But I wonder how many students (and teachers) fully exploit these materials.

For me, the greatest benefit of education technology is that it provides learners with the opportunity to extend learning beyond the classroom, work at their own pace and at a level appropriate to them. Online learning platforms allow all of those things as well as provide a tool for students and teachers to keep a record of progress made. Essentially, they allow learners to have more ownership of their learning which helps them learn better. According to Benson (2011), “controlling one’s own learning processes is an essential part of effective learning”.

However, encouraging students to use such a resource is not always easy as some students overlook the value of it. I’d therefore like to suggest four ways to help those students appreciate this value better and encourage them to fully exploit the resource.

Persuade the teacher, persuade the student

I believe that before students can be convinced, their teacher needs to be convinced. Once the teacher sees the benefits, they can encourage students to do the same. One possibility is to explore the platform as a class together. Students can familiarise themselves with the platform, with their own learning goals in mind. As Dudeney and Hockly (2007) say, when using educational technology “Your learners’ needs, likes and learning goals need to be taken into account”. By getting students to critically analyse the platform, the benefits will be more apparent to them. The class can also discuss limitations and how those limitations can be dealt with.

Make connections

Research suggests that better outcomes are achieved when online learning and face-to-face learning happen together (Vega, 2013) and linking the two in some way adds more importance to the online platform. Learners will be better encouraged to do online tasks if they have to bring some kind of feedback on the tasks to class e.g. their view on something said in a recording or two new words they learnt. With speaking tasks, the online material could help students prepare for the actual speaking task done in class, rather than recording it at home and emailing it to the teacher. And students could be asked to peer correct each other’s writing work in class.

Set regular deadlines

Some teachers link online material to the course through assessment, making completion of online tasks compulsory. While this can motivate students to do tasks, it can also result in students leaving all the tasks until the very last minute to satisfy course requirements. This means students neither use the online tasks to develop their skills throughout the year nor use the results of the tasks to help inform future learning. As a result, teachers may want to set regular deadlines on the platform.

Give students choice

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, asking students to make choices about their learning helps them to develop autonomy. “For learners to become more autonomous they must recognize their own preferred ways of learning, and students have to make conscious decisions about what works for them” (Painter, 2004). By giving students the opportunity to choose which material to study and when, they can feel more motivated to do the tasks and learn more about their learning preferences. For some students, however, too much choice can be overwhelming and so a choice of two or three sets of tasks each time may be a good place to start.

To sum up, online learning platforms offer much potential and the above suggestions can help learners to see this potential. There will always be students who choose not to participate but this is also part of being autonomous. There will also always be students who will exploit the material and learn from it with encouragement from the teacher.

Please note that not all titles are available in every country. Please check with your local office about local title availability.

Bibliography and further reading

Benson P, Teaching and Researching: Autonomy in Language Learning, 2013

Dudeney G & Hockly N, How to teach English with technology, Pearson, 2007

Painter L, Homework, Oxford University Press, 2003

Stanley, G, Language Learning with Technology, Cambridge University Press, 2013


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Speaking Essays: An Idea to Help L2 Academic Writers

 

woman using megaphoneMark Searle is a lecturer, teacher trainer and course designer working in EMI and EAP contexts. He has designed and delivered EAP programmes in pre-sessional and in-course contexts both in the UK and abroad. He advised on the writing syllabus of the forthcoming Milestones in English, publishing in January 2016.

Academic writing is difficult in your first language. It is even more demanding in a second language. Many of the difficulties experienced by L2 writers stem from having to convert abstract ideas and difficult content into linear, logically connected prose. This is particularly challenging for the learner as it can be extremely difficult to solve local vocabulary and grammar issues while maintaining a secure sense of the text as a whole.

Because of this it is useful to regard the pre-writing, or planning stages as preparation for discourse and to include either un-assessed free writing or other discourse based exercises. The exercise below is based on producing language at whole text level and can be used at various stages of the pre-writing process depending on the language proficiency and academic experience of your learners.

The idea of this exercise, which is an adaptation of Paul Nation’s 4-3-2 spoken fluency exercise, is to give your learners the opportunity to speak their essay before they write it. This should help your learners to formulate the words and grammar needed to transform their ideas and content into connected language. It is a transitional practice exercise so perfection is not required at this point – indeed you should expect and allow your learners to produce some faulty language.

Learners may experience issues with cohesion and even coherence but it is important that you allow them to test hypotheses and to experiment with ways of expressing their ideas and content. Do not be tempted to step in and spot-correct as this would defeat the purpose of the exercise, which is to provide un-assessed practice and to give learners the opportunity to learn from output. Remember that learners do not only learn to speak, they speak to learn. Your learners will notice any deficits or lacks in their output and so will become more aware of areas that need attention and improvement.

So, it is a good idea to regard this exercise as one in which your learners produce spoken drafts of their essays and to regard it as part of the iterative process of written production. Naturally, this exercise is part of a process which will develop into producing written drafts for self- and peer-review.

Stage 1

  • Organise your class into pairs, preferably with the whole class sitting in a circle or horseshoe.
  • Designate a speaker and a listener in each pair.
  • The listener must be an active listener and should give lots of encouraging non-verbal signals to the speaker, but cannot ask questions or engage in conversation at this stage.
  • The speaker must try to speak their essay using, as far as possible, language they might possibly use in the final written version.
  • Give your listener 4 minutes to speak their essay.
  • At the end of the time – ask the listener to give some brief positive feedback to the speaker.

Stage 2

  • Ask all of the speakers to stand up and move clockwise to the next listener.
  • Repeat stage one but only allow 3 minutes for the speaker to deliver the same content as in stage one.

Stage 3

  • Ask all of the speakers to stand up and to move round to the next listener.
  • Repeat stage two but only allow 2 minutes for the speaker to deliver the same content as in stage two.

Stages 4-6

  • Repeat the process but change learner roles so speakers become listeners and listeners become speakers

Variations

  • You can do this exercise with or without essay plans depending on the experience and proficiency of your learners.
  • You can condition this exercise differently according to the written output you wish to prepare for. You could, for example, work with just an introductory paragraph and reduce the time to 60 seconds- 45 seconds- 30 seconds. This could then work as a warm up to a class.
  • To help your speakers monitor the time you can use an online stopwatch and display it with a digital projector.
  • With more experienced learners you can condition the listener feedback to a condensed form of peer review. You may wish to restrict listener feedback to specific aspects of the speaker’s output such as vocabulary or linking words.
  • Error correction and mistake management exercises should be delayed so as not to inhibit the spoken output. It is perhaps best to note any significant problems and design remedial work into your future teaching programme.

Please note that not all titles are available in every country. Please check with your local office about local title availability.

References:

Nation, I.S.P. (2009) Teaching ESL/EFL Reading and Writing. Abingdon: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.

Swain, M. (1985) Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In Gass, S.M. and Madden, C.G. (eds.), Input in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, pp. 235-53.


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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Six – Motivate your students with cognitively-challenging tasks

students critical thinkingZarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the final article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she proposed improving listening skills as teachers to better support your students. This week, Zarina introduces cognitively-challenging tasks to engage and involve your students.

“Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.” Voltaire

When students are busy in an English class thinking about how to go about saying something, they can become weighed down by the need to produce perfect linguistic patterns. So they focus too much on accuracy, rather than really communicating. So how can we get them to communicate if they don’t have enough language? We set tasks at a low language level. This can, however, create another problem: these kinds of activities can fail to challenge learners cognitively. Although our students cannot yet express complex thoughts and ideas in English, they can of course do so in their native tongue (and possibly in other languages too), so the activities we give them need to bear this in mind.

One way of making lessons more intellectually stimulating is to introduce more variety. A new report in the UK by the Sutton Trust touches on research in cognitive psychology by Bjork and Bjork, which found that varying the types of task, practice and context of learning improves later retention, even though it makes learning harder in the short term. In other words, we can stimulate students with new and alternative ways to practise language, rather than sticking to the same type of activities.

It’s also useful to look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, which has helped teachers to monitor the level of difficulty of task types for many decades.

Have you tried applying Bloom’s Taxonomy in class? Here are a variety of activities based around the different stages of learning. They all use the same text – a blog entry written by an events organiser, taken from International Express Elementary. Download the text, then try out some of these activities for yourself.

Activity 1: Remembering

Remembering is the basic level of cognition, and this is a good stage to deal with new language. For example, if we look at Claudia Oster’s blog (exercise 5), the comprehension questions below the text are at the basic level of thinking because the answers can easily be found in the text and involve a simple referral and repetition. As the questions asked are cognitively unchallenging, any new language found can be easily dealt with at this stage. This is where the teacher is helping students to start with an equal footing – by establishing the main theme of the text and ensuring all students have understood new key words.

Activity 2: Understanding

Once your students have completed the above activity, you can move them on to the understanding stage: the second level of cognition. So, to return to Claudia’s blog, exercise 6 encourages students to skim the text looking for examples. In this case, they need to identify the expressions with do, have, make and take, and use these to complete the word maps on the previous page (exercise 3). Because the students have a second chance to understand the context, identify and select the correct examples, they will have moved up a level of cognition.

Activity 3: Applying

The next stage is applying, which involves using given information in a new context. This is dealt with in exercise 7, which asks students to consider additional collocations to the ones in the text. They have to choose a correct verb, where some of the phrases are from the text or similar to them, but others are new.

Activity 4: Analysing

Analysing involves comparing and questioning differing ideas. You could go back to the quiz (exercise 4) that appears on the previous page to Claudia Oster’s blog, and ask your students to analyse how stressed Claudia is, according to the quiz. Here is answer key:

answerkey

Activity 5: Evaluating

In the evaluation phase of cognition you could ask students to decide if Claudia is going to burn out from her stressful job. Ask students to look at the advice given in exercise 1, and get them to decide on four pieces of advice they would give her. Ask students to work in groups, and get each group to evaluate the other’s advice in terms of how realistic it is and whether Claudia would be likely to act upon it.

Activity 6: Creating

Creating is the stage where something new is formed, designed and produced. To round off this series of activities, why not get your students to write a questionnaire? Ask them to work in groups of three or four to carry out a class survey of whether people find their work stressful. They must produce six questions with multiple choice answers. Encourage them to carefully consider what the responses might be in order to create good multiple choice options.

Make sure different group members taken turns at doing the actual interviewing. If you like, the others could video or record the process – or simply listen. You could ask learners to record the results in a graph, write a short paragraph, or present them to the class, depending on language level.

I hope the above has shown that it is possible to design cognitively-challenging tasks that boost understanding, and make learning interesting for students of all levels!

This is the final article in my series of six ways to boost classroom participation. I hope you have enjoyed the series, and if you have missed any of the previous articles, please visit the OUP website to catch up.

Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world (Greece, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, China, Peru and the UK, where she is from). 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.

 

References

http://www.suttontrust.com/researcharchive/great-teaching/

http://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/pubs/EBjork_RBjork_2011.pdf Willingham, D. T. (2008).

What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?. American Educator, 32(4), 17- 25.

 

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here

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