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Webinar: Prepare your Foundation-level students for IELTS success

Older man interviewing young womanNick Thorner explores the challenges of preparing Foundation-level students for IELTS from his webinars on 21 February and 7 March entitled ‘Prepare your Foundation-level students for IELTS success’. Watch a recording here.

In my experience, what really worries students about the IELTS exam isn’t their grammar or their vocabulary – it’s having nothing to say. They worry about tricky Speaking Part 3 questions such as: ‘What can governments do to promote international cooperation?’ or Writing Part 2 topics with a word they haven’t studied before, such as ‘obesity’ or ‘rehabilitation’.

Often students have never thought of such questions and topics, and even if they have, they’ve never tried to discuss them in English. And of course their IELTS score suffers as a result: I find that when students are less confident or don’t have great ideas their pronunciation becomes flat and they start hesitating or repeating ideas.

The fact is that knowledge itself, or at least the confidence that comes with having it, underpins a successful IELTS performance. But do we teach students knowledge, or even how to access knowledge and express it?

I think too often the texts and materials we work with have arcane topics that don’t challenge our students to think, respond or engage personally. IELTS lessons should be a window on the world that will fill students’ minds with ideas and provoke them to respond at every turn, making them confident and enthusiastic candidates.

In my upcoming webinar, I’ll be showing you how you can help your students to build the confidence they need to express world knowledge and discuss it. I hope you can join me.


Nick ThornerNick Thorner is co-author of Foundation IELTS Masterclass. He lives and works in Oxford, where he has been teaching IELTS courses for several years. He is also an experienced IELTS examiner.


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#EFLproblems – Learning English Beyond the Exams

Disappointing exam resultsWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Raef Sobh Azab’s blog comment regarding the challenge of motivating students who are in an exam-focussed environment. Stacey Hughes from the Professional Development Team discusses how to take English beyond the focus of exams.

One major problem is that the educational system in my country is mainly exam-based. Most teachers, students, and even parents do not care at all about the quality of learning. They are mainly concerned with passing the exams. L1 is all the time used in class, real life English is not stressed, language skills are not practised at all, learning aims are not achieved, and private lessons given to students at home or in private centers are the norm. This is really frustrating for some teachers who are keen on improving their teaching skills and eager to get their students engaged in the learning process, thus, achieve a real progress and taste the beauty of language.”

Certainly, one way to ensure students are exam-focussed is to make exams central to the course. Constant reference to exams either by the teacher, parents or institution will show students that passing the exam is the goal.

But how can we make English communication skills the goal?

1. Determine personal learning goals

The first thing is to find out from students what their personal learning goals are. Do they want to just pass the exam or do they actually want to learn to communicate in English? Do they want to be able to listen to music, watch films, or search the web in English? Do they want to be able to go to an English speaking country and speak with people there? Do they want to be able to get a job where they use English to communicate via email or telephone? Or maybe they want a job that allows them to travel – in this case, English may be useful.

Help students find an intrinsic reason to learn English – one that is important on a personal level. It also must be said that there may still be students who don’t really want to learn English, and for whom passing the exams is the only goal. However, if the exams are based on reading, writing, listening and speaking in English, then maybe they will see that improving these skills will also help them pass the exams.

2. Use English as the classroom language

Create the expectation that for the time that English lessons are going on, they will be conducted in English. This change may take some time for students to get used to, so take it slowly. Maybe you could aim for half an hour at first and then build on that. Make sure you reassure students that, during the last 5-10 minutes of the lesson, they can ask questions in the L1 if they didn’t understand. Make your instructions clear and make sure you use examples, visuals and, if necessary, written support on the board to accommodate students who aren’t confident in trusting their listening skills. Finally, encourage students to use English when speaking to each other and praise them when they do.

3. Make sure each lesson has a clear communicative aim

Instead of an aim such as, to learn the present perfect, make the aim, to talk and write about things I have done before. This shift in focus lets the students know what the communicative purpose is for learning the tense – how it can be used in real communication. Scaffold tasks so that students have lots of support. So, for example, you might do a Find Someone Who… type exercise in which students have to ask each other, “Have you ever…”Write the kernel on the board, brainstorm some endings and write them on the board: …walked for more than five miles, …eaten foreign food, …run a marathon… Keep these on the board during the discussion phase so that students can refer to them for support. Stronger students will be able to make up their own, so this is an example of an activity which could work well in a mixed ability class.

4. Don’t make exams the only focus

There are lots of ways to bring in on-going assessment and even self-assessment to show students that each stage of the lesson is important. Listen to students during tasks and tell them if you think they are doing a great job at speaking in English – give them an “A” for the activity. Create a check list that students can use to self-assess: I can talk about what I’ve done. I can ask someone if s/he has ever done something. I can write about what I’ve done. (etc.). Ask them to assess themselves honestly and set review tasks if students feel they can’t really do that yet.

5. Take learning out of the classroom

Ask students to set some realistic personal language goals that are not part of the course: respond in English to a blog post, listen to a song and copy out the words, look for information about a favourite subject in English on the web – there are many possibilities.

Breaking out of the exam-based mentality can be difficult. While it is still important for students to do well in exams, there is nothing to stop them from having their own personal goals for learning English. Even if their goals don’t ‘count’ towards a grade, for the student, they may be even more important.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about teaching English beyond the exams, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday, 6 December at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.


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The pitfalls of exam preparation

Girl sat at desk writingAhead of his talk at IATEFL Liverpool, Zoltan Rezmuves looks at some of the tough choices that must be made when preparing students for exams.

What’s your main goal in teaching English? You’ll probably say something along the lines of “enabling students to communicate well in English” and perhaps also “developing students to be better people“. But have you ever had a group of students preparing for an examination? Then you know that your success or failure will be measured not by how well they can express themselves in real life, and not even by how well they fit into society. Where there is an important exam at the end of the process, you can only succeed if your students pass the exam. It’s that simple. But what does this mean in terms of classroom practice?

EXAM PREPARATION TO-DO LIST

1. You will have to cover the exam syllabus (the topics, the grammar and vocabulary, the skills and sub-skills), and make sure you don’t miss out anything.

2. You will have to familiarise your students with all the exam task types, and provide them with strategies to complete each type of task with maximum efficiency.

3. You will have to familiarise your students with the assessment criteria – so they know how to maximise their point scores, and how to avoid losing valuable points.

4. You will have to provide students with practice and rehearsal opportunities, so when they get to the real exam, it’s not their first time completing it.

The above is just a rough shortlist of tasks for you. Can you think of other things students will expect of you?

To continue with the same train of thought, what does this mean in terms of what you’re NOT going to do in the classroom?

EXAM PREPARATION NOT-GOING-TO-DO LIST

1. You are not going to cover language points that aren’t required in the exam. Students probably won’t mind. But don’t forget that often we only teach language points because we know they’re going to be tested. Throughout my career as a learner, there has always been a massive emphasis on irregular verbs. They are certainly useful, but the reason we spent so much time memorising long lists of them was merely because they were going to feature in our exams. Think about this – is there any language you’d skip or spend less time on if it wasn’t in the exam?

2. You are going to prioritise the task types that do occur in the exam over those that don’t – which means you’re probably going to reduce task type variety. You feel responsible for your students’ success, so you make sure their exposure to exam expectations is maximised. When it comes down to a choice between, say, an open personalised speaking task and another multiple-choice gap fill, perhaps you’re going to go for the gap fill… again.

3. In order to prepare your students well and to make sure you’re not leaving even your weakest student behind, you’re going to spend a lot of time focusing on what’s needed for the exam. When pressed for time, you are not going to do too many activities which have no connection to the exam. This includes games, drama, discussion of controversial / intriguing (depending on your viewpoint) subjects, jokes and humour in general… can you continue this list? Exams are neutral, non-controversial, and let’s face it, pretty bland. Which is fine because tests are measurement tools, and it’s important to reduce unwanted extra factors, like emotional responses. But bear in mind that “pretty bland” is exactly the opposite of what language classes should be! How are you going to motivate students if you’re spending so much time doing stuff that isn’t motivating?

What I’m saying is that our general aims in language teaching and the aims of exam preparation are linked, but sometimes their priorities clash, and it will be up to you to strike the right balance and to blend learning for real life and exam preparation.

Zoltan Rezmuves will be talking about Speaking and Writing in Exam Training: Blended Solutions at IATEFL Liverpool on Wednesday 10th April in Hall 4b at 11:40am.


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Preparing for Standardized English Language Tests

Students sitting an examHow can you help your students prepare for standardized tests? Lawrence J. Zwier, author of numerous books about the TOEFL iBT, offers his view.

Certain principles of test preparation are just common sense. For one thing, it is good to expose students to the form of a test before they take it. A practice run through any standardized test lessens the chance that structural surprises will skew the results of the test. This is especially true with items like the “reading-to-learn” questions on the Internet-based TOEFL (the iBT), whose format is not 4-option multiple choice. A test-taker who expects this different format won’t be so easily thrown off his or her pace. For another thing, preparation increases confidence, and a confident test-taker is more likely to show what he or she can really do.

If you are a teacher but NOT in a formal test-preparation school, can you have any role in helping students get ready for standardized tests? You definitely can. One avenue is through discrete-point preparation—targeting vocabulary and syntax in ways that mirror tasks on the IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL, or whatever. First, get a test-prep guidebook for the appropriate test from one of the major publishers. Examine the sample items. Then look at your course syllabus and at the textbooks you use—especially your reading and grammar books.  Is it possible to give students exercises in a test-like format? For example, if you know some of your students will take TOEIC and your class is working with present perfect verbs, formulate some of your tasks as TOEIC-like items: “They have lived here _____ 2009,” followed by four possible options including “since”.

Another area in which any teacher can advance test-readiness is through good contextualized teaching. With the 2005 introduction of the iBT, standardized testing took a turn toward contextualization. If you go to toefl.org, the TOEFL-related site maintained by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), you’ll see a relatively global approach to test preparation. Students are advised to engage in real-life language-learning activities that have relevance to TOEFL preparation. Mix this contextual approach with the more discrete, local slant that you find in guides to the various tests. Widening the universe of test-prep activities can only help. The more connections students see between life and testing, the more smoothly they will move through training and testing into the jobs or academic admissions they aspire to.

Lawrence J. Zwier is Associate Director for Curriculum at the English Language Center, Michigan State University, USA. He is the author of numerous books about the TOEFL iBT and many ESL/EFL textbooks and is a frequent presenter at TESOL and other conferences.


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Something old, something new … Part 3

Exam takerMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the last one of a series of blogs on the topic.

For the revised Cambridge English: Proficiency. We have already delved into the Reading and Writing components, so today’s post consists of ideas on preparing the Listening and Speaking papers. Enjoy!

Approaching the Listening Paper

The Listening paper has not suffered great changes. It is only Part 4 that became a straightforward multiple matching task; there are 30 questions (instead of 28) to be answered during 40 minutes of recording.

This type of task presents students with the difficulty of solving two tasks at the same time, as both of them refer to the same recording. While listening to a speaker, they have to focus on several statements to figure out which one relates entirely to him/ her. What teachers have to stimulate in their students’ abilities is distributive attention. Here are some ideas for the classroom.

  • For slower students, in the beginning ask them to solve Task 1 the first time they listen and Task 2 the second time they do so. However, this way, they will have no opportunity to go back on their answers. It is, therefore, important to encourage “multi-tasking”, as the exam draws closer.
  • A useful activity might also be staging seemingly real-life social interactions, light conversations. While two students carry out the dialogue, another one has to match a list of several statements to either one of the two participants in the conversation. For a successful task, it is important that you prepare a specific outline of the conversation for the two students to follow. This way, you may manage to develop active listening in a friendly manner, and at the same time enhance distributive attention. As students master multitasking among statements regarding two participants in the conversation, enlarge the chatting crew to three and even four members. The benefits are two-fold: students improve both their speaking and their listening skills. Two birds, one stone!
  • Another idea would be to use the actual tape script. Assign the roles of each speaker to random members of your working group. They will become the team of ‘actors’, while the others will be called the team of ‘spectators’. Hand out the statements included in both tasks for the ‘spectators’ to become familiar with. Allow up to a minute for the ‘actors’ to get into character and to feel comfortable reading the script at a natural pace, as if they were using their own words. Each ‘actor’ takes the floor and delivers the speech, as the ‘spectators’ try to find a match for both Task 1 and Task 2 in the list of statements. This activity ensures that students are fully engaged in the listening process, they perceive it as real and lively and, most importantly, they understand that intonation and overall tone may also offer clues towards the statements that are best suited for each speaker.

Approaching the Speaking Paper

This part of the examination is the one that changed the least. It is shorter by three minutes, on account of reducing the individual stages.

The main difficulty usually encountered by candidates is speaking endurance. Nervousness may deter them from gathering their thoughts on the given topic and rendering a speech worthy of level C2. At this level, everything matters, from posture, to fluency, stress, suprasegmentals, variety and complexity in organization. Fortunately, students already have a comprehensive grasp of the English language, so the teacher’s job is to help them brush up on their spoken discourse.

  • Help students become aware! One way would be to record students, play the recording back and ask them to assess their own performance.
  • As follow-up, I recommend that students do the same thing at home, by using a device: the mobile phone. It may come as a shock to some students that the camera on their mobile phone might as well be their most objective assessor. By solving a Speaking task in front of the camera, not only do students become aware of their voice inflexions, pauses and facial expression, but they recreate an uncomfortable, rather stressful environment in which they must try to control their nervousness. Keep yourself in check!
  • Also, organising debates in class, in which arguing a viewpoint is essential, will most certainly increase students’ confidence in speaking publicly. Arguments make the discourse go round!
  • What has been tremendously successful among my students is staging talk-shows, in which all the guests need to approach the same matter from different angles, thus becoming aware of the variety of approaches they might use in the real Speaking test, in order to make their speech more complex.

This being written, let’s gather as many useful ideas as we can! Do you have any tips and tricks on preparing students for any of the papers and challenges of the Cambridge Proficiency?

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