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How good a teacher are you?

Teacher writing on blackboardRobert McLarty, Head of Professional Development at OUP, gives a brief introduction to the European Profiling Grid (EPG) project to help improve the quality and effectiveness of language training.

I play golf in the most average way possible.  I have been at the same level of golf since I left school around forty years ago. If I were learning English, my teacher would already have placed me right in the middle of the intermediate plateau. Luckily, golf is only a hobby so I don’t have to justify my level to anyone but myself.

Language teachers, on the other hand, have always found it hard to assess themselves. For a long time we have had the debate about native speakers as opposed to non-native speakers. Then there have been disputes as to whether knowledge of the language or ability to illustrate that knowledge and pass it on is the more important skill.

There are a number of initial teaching qualifications for language teachers, others for more experienced ones, and then a wide range of post-graduate qualifications. But how much do they improve the quality of someone’s teaching? Experience seems valued until the teacher has been somewhere too long; inexperience is valued because it is usually added to with zest and vigour. But there is always a question mark over the rookie teacher, despite the fact that they innovate without meaning to and often bring genuine passion to the classroom.

Within teaching establishments there is usually a wide range of teacher profiles with a completely individual mix of talents and qualities, strengths and occasional weaknesses. That is what’s so engaging about language teaching – but it also brings its own risk. Other professions can increase the value and the price of their service simply by having a linear progression of qualifications. This will never work for education. There are too many other factors to take into consideration.

So, when a school claims that their teaching staff is qualified and experienced, what does this mean? Does it necessarily add value? Why are they better than the competition or better than the new school, which is lowering its prices but offering the same level of service?

EPG Project logo

Image courtesy of EPG

Against this backdrop, a very exciting project has been run by a group of institutions from across Europe who have developed the European Profiling Grid. This is a framework of competences for language teachers available as an online assessment tool. The same tool can be used by the teachers themselves, their trainers or their managers.

By plotting your level to a range of descriptors in four main areas, you arrive at a profile (often jagged) of your teaching as it is today. You are encouraged to assess your training and experience, including observed teaching, your teaching skills along with other life skills such as intercultural competence, your digital literacy, and your professionalism.

Discussing it with a group of managers, trainers and teachers at the recent IATEFL BESIG conference, a number of conclusions were drawn. There was consensus that it will be a useful tool for professional development in that it shows where a teacher needs further training; it will act as a good starting point for an appraisal conversation; it is a useful official document confirming a teacher’s competence at any given time, and; as a collection of records it will give an accurate profile of an institution’s professional knowhow and experience – very useful when bidding for new business or preparing for inspections.

The same discussion raised doubts about the lack of personal skills areas in the grid – communication, collaboration, charisma, creativity and so on – and it’s hoped that these will be addressed at some stage. It was also noted that schools could misuse the grid in a judgmental way, which might actually be damaging for a particular teacher.

As part of a professional development portfolio, however, the grid got a big welcome. In much the same way as the CEFR was greeted with caution and grew into a vital benchmarking system for language learners, I expect the EPG will be in common parlance in the teaching world within a short space of time.

The first iteration is now available on the EPG Project website. Try it out and submit feedback to the project team.


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The whys and hows of syllabus writing

Mature woman working at her deskKaren Capel, an Academic Coordinator and teacher trainer, returns with another post for Coordinators and Directors of Study, sharing her tips for writing an effective syllabus.

More often than not teachers receive syllabi which are kept unread. I remember receiving mine at the beginning of the academic year and just archiving them after marking which pages of the Student’s Book to omit. Why? Because they were more of an outline of what to cover than a syllabus. Why is this a problem? Because as coordinators we cannot be present in every class and certainly cannot see each and every lesson plan our teachers produce and implement. As a result, syllabi are valuable tools that allow us to guide and support teachers in various ways.

First and foremost, a syllabus should inform of the teaching points needing to be covered in order for students to reach the objectives set for the course and therefore pass tests and exams. Secondly, it should instruct teachers which methodology to use and the type of lessons you expect, as well as the balance of interaction patterns, time devoted to the different skills, amount of TTT (teacher talking time), etc. A good syllabus will, as a consequence, be a benchmark that enables teaching staff to be aware of what is expected from their lessons.

How can we write a syllabus which serves such a purpose? Here are 4 tips:

1. Keep the target audience in mind

It is crucial to know the teachers on your staff and write accordingly. Syllabi for newly qualified teachers should not be the same as those for experienced ones. It is therefore essential for you to know the type of teacher in every level so as to include the necessary information and cater for every teacher’s needs. Undoubtedly, less experienced teachers will need more thorough explanations and step-by-step indications of how to work with every task in the book, as well as ideas on the kind of warm-ups they can use, ways of eliciting information from students, extra activities they can incorporate in their lessons, etc.

2. Think of the syllabus as an extended lesson plan

Explain how you would work with each unit, including links between the different activities, appropriate warm-ups and follow-ups, whether you would propose activities as pair-work, group-work or individual tasks. Think of plausible questions which may be asked to enrich the lesson and useful tips regarding the development of skills and strategies. This will help teachers save time when planning, help them embed new techniques or methods, and seek help in those areas where they are less confident. It would be expected for new teachers to stick to these plans more strictly and for experienced teachers to take bits and pieces they find helpful and use these guidelines more flexibly.

3. Use syllabi to adapt coursebooks to the target students

No matter how good a text is, it is impossible for it to cater to all students, learning styles and needs. As coordinators, it is our responsibility to make sure students feel comfortable in their classes and that the materials used are appropriate to their ages, levels and interests. Sometimes it is necessary to replace activities or texts, which may be either too childish or too complex for students, with alternative or complementary ways of presenting certain points. It may also happen that topics which are either too culture-specific or just not interesting for a particular group of students appear. Should this be the case, those activities should be replaced with more appropriate and engaging topics your students will find more relatable and enjoyable. Make sure you cover all these noteworthy elements properly.

4. Remember the final recipients

The people who will be impacted most by what you plan are the students; a vast majority of whom are likely to be ‘digital natives’. Students expect technology to be used in class, as it represents an instrinsic aspect of their lives and they see it as a natural context for learning. It is therefore of paramount importance to incorporate technology into the syllabi we produce in order for teachers to understand its relevance and utilise it in their lessons as well. Try to include links to websites that both teachers and students may find of interest, be it to read a good contextual piece or study tips, or to do some practice through interactive exercises or games.

What other aspects do you consider when writing a syllabus?


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5 Ways to Prepare Your Students for the 21st Century

Young boy writing equation on chalkboardIn the first in a series of blog posts about 21st Century skills, (to accompany our teacher training videos on the same subject), author and English language teacher Charles Vilina provides some great tips on why 21st Century skills are important, and how to incorporate them into your classroom teaching.

When I was a small boy in the 1960s, drawings of the 21st Century always showed the same visions. People of the future would wear shiny space clothing, travel on moving sidewalks and in flying cars, and talk on portable phones.

Isn’t it interesting that many of these visions have come true? We now have personal computers and smartphones that let us share information instantly around the world. Modern air travel can take us anywhere on the planet. And while I don’t wear space clothes, I do use those moving sidewalks in airports! I think we can all agree that the 21st Century is a very exciting time in human history.

So when I talk to teachers about new developments in English education, and go on to mention the term 21st Century skills, why do so many begin to look uncomfortable?

Let’s start by looking at these skills a bit more carefully. 21st Century skills can actually be listed as a group of words that begin with the letter “C”.

Communication          Creativity          Critical Thinking          Collaboration

To state it simply, these are the four skills that your students will need to be successful in the 21st Century.

21st Century skills are being taught in primary classrooms in many countries. Many international schools are also committed to teaching these skills. However, I would argue that your English language classroom is actually the PERFECT place to build these 21st Century skills. Here’s why:

In essence, the English language classroom exists to prepare students to communicate across cultures, across borders, across perspectives. As the world evolves toward greater interconnectedness, it is our students to whom we entrust the responsibility of building a better global society. Yes, basic language skills are essential. However, equally essential is an individual’s ability to think outside the box, find future solutions to future problems, collaborate and reach a consensus across cultural and national borders.

So let’s get to some specifics. How easy is it to teach 21st Century Skills in your classroom? Well, chances are good that you’ve already started. The English language classroom has been evolving for decades, and continues to do so.

As a general guide, however, here are five “essential strategies” I would recommend that you develop in your classroom to encourage 21st Century thinking and learning. They may involve a change in perspective about how your students learn best, so feel free to take small but steady steps toward these goals. Practical information on how to implement these strategies will follow in future blogs.

1. Let Your Students Lead The Learning

Learning takes place best in environments where students feel empowered to learn. Effective teachers are more like moderators, offering inspiration and guiding students to discover for themselves. Give students the opportunity to be self-learners, which guarantees lifelong learning. This brings us directly to the second point.

2. Create an Inquiry-Based Classroom Environment

If students are to lead the way to learning, they need to be able to ask questions – and then find the means to answer them. Students (and teachers) need to “wonder out loud” as they encounter new information. A KWL chart (What do you Know? What do you Want to know? What have you Learned?) can guide students toward true self-motivated learning.

3. Encourage Collaboration

We are greater than the sum of our parts.”  Herein is the heart of collaboration. A healthy, active classroom is a sharing classroom. Students are social beings, and even more so in a language class. Find every opportunity to allow students to form pairs and small groups. Not only does this encourage the development of speaking and listening skills, but it also teaches students how to effectively achieve goals together.

4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Learning is more than memorizing and remembering. Critical thinking skills take students well beyond simple comprehension of information. Students use these skills to solve problems in new situations, make inferences and generalizations, combine information in new patterns, and make judgments based on evidence and criteria. Introduce activities in your lessons that build critical thinking skills along with language skills.

5. Encourage Creativity

Encourage your students to be creative throughout each lesson. Creative activities allow students to express what they’ve learned in a new way. This synthesizing and personalizing of knowledge consolidates learning, and creates an experience that remains with students long after the class is over.

By keeping these strategies in mind as you plan each lesson, you will be encouraging the development of 21st Century skills. Of course, your students may also need time to adjust to this new way of learning. However, they will soon begin to feel empowered to think more critically, to ask questions and seek answers, and to express themselves creatively. Most importantly, their communication skills will become much stronger as a result, which always remains our main objective!

Keep an eye out for more in-depth blogs in the 21st Century skills series. In the meantime, I wish all of you the greatest of adventures in this wonderful vocation that is English education!


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The Fun in GLEE – Gamified Language Educational E-tivities

Mother and son using digital tabletNo, we’re not talking about the show choir from the hit US TV series; we’re talking about educational digital games. Karenne Sylvester, who used to write the popular ELT blog Kalinago English, shares her insights into why GLEEs bring more to the classroom than just fun.

Gamified language educational e-tivites (GLEEs) refer to modified language activities that appear to learners as if they are digital “games”. This includes e-tivities like Stress Monsters where learners shoot at parts of a word to indicate where the stress in that particular word lies. GLEEs do not, however, refer to the practice of playing non-educational digital games in educational settings. Although these are perfectly valid experiences, due to the incidental learning opportunities which may arise during game-play, this blog post focuses specifically on the educational benefits of using gamified e-tivities with language learners (rather than discussing general video games).

GLEEs as fun

The time flies!”

(Hamad, Qatari student)

This is probably the most obvious benefit: GLEEs add fun to the language classroom experience. But what exactly do we mean by this word, fun? As simple as it sounds, what one person defines as fun is not always fun for another. According to Nicole Lazzaro, the fun in digital game play tends to break down into four different types of engagement experience:

  • Easy fun – creative and relaxing activities that stimulate curiosity
  • Hard fun – activities that make you think and meet challenges
  • People fun – competitive and cooperative activities done in teams
  • Serious fun – meaningful activities that can have real word consequences

GLEEs as motivational tools

On the other hand, for Rigby (an interactive game researcher) and Ryan (an educational psychologist), games and game-like experiences actually offer quite a bit more than just adding a sprinkle of fun. For them, the motivational forces involved include how these environments naturally allow players opportunities to develop feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Their findings were backed up during my recent research into adult ESL students’ perceptions of GLEEs, with my participant-students writing:

As you know, the examples in the book are not enough for us to remind and check the grammar that we’ve learned. But using this game, we have a lot of examples and practices. It’s quite helpful for revision.  I could check and know how much I know and how much I don’t know. And it’s not all my own work. It’s a teamwork so we have to talk and discuss [with] each other. By discussing, we can help each other.”

(Mijin, Korean student)

GLEEs as tools for repetition and feedback

Other related benefits arising out of digital game-play in and outside of the classroom include opportunities for repetition and feedback. Well-designed GLEEs include possibilities for students to replay them as often as they like. The resulting points, the clapping or groaning of their avatars when the answers chosen are correct or incorrect, inform students of how they are doing. The pop-up messages of Congratulations and Try Again at the end are often acted upon; some students are willing to redo e-tivities over and over again until they manage to get all of the answers correct.

GLEEs as tools that enable noticing

Finally, one of the most important aspects of GLEEs lies in how they encourage language students to pay attention to language structure and form. This is especially so in competitive game-play scenarios where language learners have to carefully select the right answers from three or four different options. This element of “noticing” (Schmidt, 1990) is considered very important when developing language learning experiences, because this raised consciousness helps enable greater conversion of language input to language intake.

Each team had to answer five different questions about conditional (we had to choose the correct structure of the sentence among three different possibilities), and then, if the team got right the answer, a member of the team had to score a basket. Finally, the team which had more points won the game. During the game I was a little bit excited and frustrated too, because I don’t like to lose and my classmate couldn’t score a basket. However, it wasn’t important after a few minutes because I realized we were understanding the grammar and were having a good time.”

(Jose, Spanish student)

Have you ever played any gamified language educational e-tivities with your students? What did your students think of them?

References

Schmidt, R. (1990) The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning.  Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-158.
Rigby, S. and Ryan, R.M (2011). Glued to games: how video games draw us in and hold us spellbound. CA, USA:  Praeger.


Karenne Sylvester used to write the popular ELT blog, Kalinago English, before she set off to the University of Manchester to do a Masters in Educational Technology. The focus of her dissertation studies is on gamification and game-like language learning environments. Some of the “games” referred to by her students in this article can be accessed via this link. Additionally, for beginners and low-level learners she has also set up this convenient site of Games for Beginner ESL students, collating fun GLEEs from around the internet, which you are welcome to peruse and use with your own learners.


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Enhancing the PPP Model by adding an extra P for “Publish”

College student using computerSean Dowling, an Educational Technology Coordinator, looks at how to adapt the PPP model for task-based learning using digital tools.

Despite many objections from the proponents of task-based learning (TBL), the PPP model, present + practice + produce, is still commonly used in education. One of the main objections is that the PPP model is too teacher-centric; educators should be presenting less and more emphasis should be given to students to acquire the required knowledge independently. However, the reality is that for a lot of students, particularly those with weak English language skills or those in the early stages of the learning cycle, there is still a need for content to be selected and presented using traditional, focus-on-form, methods. So rather than throwing out the PPP model, I try to use technology to enhance the model by adding an extra P, i.e. Publish. Not only does publishing motivate students by giving them an audience, it also allows the produced content to become a valuable learning resource for other students. In addition, the publishing stage can be designed to use activities that are more task-based in nature.

SD_PPP and 4P models

Figure 1: PPP and 4P models

As an example, I will outline a lesson that I have used with a class of Emirati students studying in a university preparatory programme in the UAE. As the students in the class have weak English skills and the lesson is of the focus-on-form type, using the PPP model for the lesson is perhaps the most appropriate. All students in the programme have a computer (either laptop or iPad) so teachers are encouraged to use technology as part of the teaching process. My technological tool of choice is the blog. Not only do blogs allow me to present content that students can access anytime and anywhere, but the comment feature of blogs gives students an opportunity to contribute towards their learning. In the lesson outlined below (see figure 2, or click here for online version), the focus is on frequency adverbs.

Example of a lesson delivered via a blog

Figure 2: Lesson delivered via a blog

This lesson is broken into six parts: PRESENT 1, PRESENT 2, PRACTICE, PRODUCE, PUBLISH and follow up.

  1. PRESENT 1: The teacher engages the students by using the pictures and text in the course book to introduce the grammar point implicitly.
  2. PRESENT 2: A video is used to explicitly focus on the grammar point. Students can, and do, watch the video as many times as they like. (Note: I used screenr.com to record the short video, which was then uploaded to my channel on vimeo.com).
  3. PRACTICE: Students do a controlled writing activity in the course book, checking their answers when finished. I usually allow students to work in pairs at this stage – it adds variety and it also stops students from referring to the answer sheet too quickly.
  4. PRODUCE: Students do a free writing activity from the course book. I give help to individual students if necessary.
  5. PUBLISH: Students publish their free writing as a comment to the blog post (lesson). As all comments are moderated, I can help students make corrections before the comments are made public (this helps put students at ease by decreasing the risk of ridicule from their classmates).
  6. Follow up: This is done after the class is finished. If a comment contains substandard work, I will email students to resubmit. However, this is rare as I try to get all students to complete the work in class time so most mistakes have already been caught. I also let some key mistakes go through, as I can then correct these and use the corrections to raise all students’ awareness (see figure 2). I will then add a general comment highlighting some common mistakes and adding links for extra practice (see figure 3). In a later class, we read over the student submissions and my general comments, and do the extra activities, in or out of class, depending on time.
Example of correcting a student's mistake

Figure 3: Correcting a mistake

Examples of general mistakes

Figure 4: General mistakes and extra practice

There are a number of benefits to using a blog to deliver lessons in this way. First, students can proceed through the materials at their own pace; the teacher’s role becomes that of facilitator, able to spend more time personalizing the learning of both weaker and stronger students. This makes the lesson less teacher centred, a common complaint about the PPP model. Second, the comment feature of the blog enables students to become creators of learning content. As they know that their classmates will read their comments, they are thus motivated to produce better content. This content is also at the “just-right” level for their classmates, hence becoming a reinforcement of the language focus. Third, the students have anytime/anywhere access to the content, useful for review purposes or for students who are absent. Fourth, the format caters to the “flipped” classroom model. Students could watch the video and do the controlled writing before coming to class, thereby giving more time to work on freer writing activities in class. Finally, delivering lessons via a blog means that students have a record of class learning over a term or year. In addition, parents can also view what their children are learning and doing at school.

To finish off, it is important to note that lessons delivered via blogs don’t require students to have computers in the classroom. They could use smartphones to view the video and publish their work. Alternatively, as most students will have access to computers at home, flip the classroom and let them watch the video introduction at home before coming to class. During class time, students could work with the paper-based course book and other resources. The publishing of student work could also be done as homework.

Finally, publishing student work is not just restricted to PPP-style lessons; it could be used with all lesson types.

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