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The EFL Classroom: Teaching more than English

Teens in Classroom Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at some different ways the language learning experience can be enriched.

More and more, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is being taught in mainstream schools around the world. As part of a larger curriculum of general education, EFL teachers have an opportunity to focus on aspects of learning beyond grammar, vocabulary, and the traditional four skills. With the aim of enriching the language learning experience, I would like to focus on some of these aspects. For the experienced EFL teacher, these will not be new, but I hope that by focussing on them here, it will encourage teachers to give them more importance in their classrooms.

Encourage questions

This may seem obvious, but it is not always easy, especially when a lot of education leads many students to become passive recipients of information.

Before beginning a lesson or a unit of work on a topic, ask students what they already know about it. Make sure they do this individually first in order to get input from everyone. Have them share their knowledge. Then, tell them the next unit is on this topic. What do they want to know? Ask each student to write 1 or 2 questions. If you can, display the questions in the classroom. In this way you can refer to them as you work through the unit.

Encouraging questions from the very beginning tells your students that you expect them to be actively involved in the work of the class. Further, it tells them that what they are learning should be meaningful and useful to them. It is the best way to learn.

Bring their world into the classroom

Think about the lives of your students, at school, at home, their neighbourhood, city, country. Now think about what you will be teaching them during the term or the school year. How can you bring their world into the classroom? Let me give you a simple example. When teaching “can” for abilities, consider involving the physical education teacher. Students can do some of the activities in the physical education class, like jumping, running, throwing, etc. Once they have done the tasks, you can use the information in the English class as students express what they can do. This can be in the form of graphs or tables, individual or class posters. The important point is that students will be learning and using the language to communicate real information. The language they learn is not simply an end in itself, but a means to communicate.

Students can make a timeline of historical events to practice the past tenses based on work in their History lessons, explain the process of an experiment from the Science class, use skills from their Art classes to create displays of their work, as well as critical thinking skills from Maths classes to organise their language learning. The key is to involve other school subjects, and the teachers of those subjects, in the students’ language learning experience.

Once you have considered the school, move on to life outside school. How can you involve family and friends? One of my favourite activities with my students was when I was teaching “used to” to teenagers. I asked each student to talk to their grandparents and bring to class 2 – 3 things that were very different now from the time their grandparents were teenagers. I then would use the information to introduce the language point, “used to”. The students were so interested in the information that the language quickly became secondary, and easy to use.

Stories

I am a big fan of stories. Someone once told me that stories may have been the first form of education, as people communicated important information around the camp fire. I have little trouble believing this. There is something about the structure of stories that makes learning easier. For this reason, stories are a great medium for language use.

Stories are everywhere: what happened on a holiday is a story, how a student begins his day is a story, what happened on the way home is a story. We tell each other stories every day. The key is the structure – beginning, middle, and end. The story develops, leading us to the end. It is by nature interesting, otherwise we wouldn’t be telling it.

When considering the topics and language you will be teaching, think about how these can be included in a story. The story may provide the basis for the language you want students to learn, or it may be the vehicle for the topic of the unit. When stories become a part of your teaching, you will naturally begin to collect them. Don’t forget local stories, stories from your students, and traditional stories of the country you live in.

Sense of achievement

Too many times education focusses on what students don’t know. Rarely do we have the opportunity to show students how much they have learned. Just as students learn the present simple, we move on to the present continuous. Just as they grasp past simple with regular verbs, we introduce them to irregular verb forms. Education focusses on what students don’t know. So, giving students a sense of achievement based on how much they have learned is important to raise students’ self-esteem and confidence in their ability to learn more.

Brief, unit-based projects can offer students the opportunity to show what they have learned, as well as give many students a second chance to learn what they have forgotten. Encourage your students to see the project as a learning opportunity: What language are they using? What mistakes are they still making? What are their weaknesses? Their strengths? How could they improve? The aim is not simply to learn more, but also to get students used to reflecting on their learning. In this way short projects can help students become better learners.

These four points may seem obvious, but it is not always easy to make them an integral part of our classes. However, as they do become a part of your lessons, you will find your students becoming more active in their learning. You will also find that learning itself will have more meaning and become more rewarding.

Image is taken from Flickr under the Creative Commons license


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Approaches to culture with 21st Century teens

Ahead of his webinar on 28th and 30th May, Edmund Dudley looks at why it is important for our teenage students to learn about culture in their English lessons.

Millions of young people around the world are currently learning English, making it a truly international language. In addition, many teenagers regularly use English to communicate and interact with others online. This raises a number of questions about the cultural content of any English course for teenagers.

What do we mean by culture in the context of a language lesson?

Let’s begin by thinking about English-speaking countries. Take Britain as an example. When you think about British culture, what springs to mind? What examples could you give? Take a moment to think of three things.

So what did you say? Your answers reveal something about what you think culture is.

Perhaps you chose traditional rituals or ceremonies, such as the Changing of the Guard or carol singing in December; you might have gone for annual events, such as the FA Cup Final, the Notting Hill Festival or Hogmanay.

On the other hand, your examples of British culture might have been more linked to the day-to-day habits and behaviour of ordinary people: leaving the house with wet hair in the morning, queuing at bus stops, or buying ‘rounds’ in pubs.

All of these various aspects of culture are of potential interest to students. Day-to-day activities can be just as revealing as special occasions. If we want to get the full picture of life in English-speaking countries and communities, then thinking about how people eat soup can be just as interesting and revealing as learning about how people celebrate New Year’s Eve.

Whose culture are we talking about?

Given that English is used around the world, should we only be concentrating on the culture of English-speaking countries? Not exclusively. Any meaningful discussion of culture involves comparison and reflection. So, although in the lesson we might be looking at an aspect of life in Ireland, New Zealand, Canada or another English-speaking country, ultimately, however, students are being encouraged to think about themselves and their own culture. And besides, being able to describe aspects of life in your home country to others is a crucial part of sharing cultures and making friends when you are away from home or welcoming guests from abroad.

How can culture get students thinking – and talking?

Culture can be subjective. Think about words such as cold, sweet, crowded, angry, quiet, and dangerous: they are culturally loaded and so it is easy to disagree about what they mean. Take cold, for example. Two people from different countries might have very different views about whether a child playing on a playground swing on a spring afternoon should be wearing a coat or not.

Examples like this can be used as the basis for classroom discussions, role-plays, drama activities – even creative writing tasks. Does the child need a coat or not? Who is right? What does it depend on? And how can the situation best be resolved?

By looking at the situation as a cultural puzzle, we can challenge our students to try and interpret the situation from different cultural perspectives. Promoting empathy with others is not only a great way to promote tolerance and understanding, it also shines a new light on our own beliefs and assumptions. This is what makes dealing with cultural topics so interesting: we sometimes begin to see how the attitudes and values below the surface influence the way we see the world.

Is there now a global teen culture?

Young people are more connected today than ever before – even if they live on different continents. The internet is enabling today’s teenagers to create a shared global cultural identity. What do a teenager in South America and a teenager in Eastern Europe have in common? Well, for starters they are both probably comfortable using technology and also learning English at school. Then you have movies, computer games, apps, pop music and sport – all of which are probably shared tastes. The result is a new kind of international cultural identity: young, online and learning English.

Putting it into practice

In my upcoming webinar, I will be trying to find the connection between the topic of culture and rewarding learning experiences. In addition to addressing the questions raised in this article, I will be showing some practical classroom ideas for approaching the topic of culture with teenage students.

Culture is there to be exploited, and our students are the ones who can benefit. Hopefully, they will not only learn something about various parts of the world, but will also gain fresh insights into their own culture and new perspectives on who they are, what they value, and what they aspire to.

To find out more about teaching culture in English classes, register for Ed’s webinar on 28th or 30th May.

 


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#EFLproblems – Facing your technology fears

Close-up of frightened man with dramatic lightingWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Stacey Hughes addresses a common fear: using technology in English language classes.

At the recent IATEFL conference in Harrogate, I spoke with many teachers who are still on the fence about using technology in their classes, and it is this EFL problem I would like to address in this blog.

For some experienced teachers, technology was seen as a gimmick. They couldn’t see any benefit technology could offer because the tried and tested activities they use had already proven successful. Other teachers I spoke with were nervous about the technology itself. Faced with the onslaught of apps, digital products and a host of crusading digital zealots, they retreated to the comfortable safety of books, pen and paper. For them, it was all too much too fast and they were overwhelmed.

I’d like to address the first of the two issues raised above before looking at ways teachers can ease into using technology.

Is technology a gimmick? It certainly can be, especially when it is used without thinking about how its use can enhance the pedagogical aim. There are many arguments for using technology: it is part of everyday life for many students, so it is natural to include it in lessons; it can make administrative tasks less time-consuming, freeing up class time or a teacher’s out-of-class work time; it renders some activities more motivating; it can put students in charge of their own learning; it provides access to information that wouldn’t be available otherwise; it allows students to practice and get feedback on language use… the list goes on. In essence, whether or not technology is a gimmick rests in the way it is used and for what purpose.

Here are some tips and things to think about when beginning your foray into using technology:

1. Start slow

You don’t have to use everything at once. Choose one device, tool or app to try this term or this year. It could be something as simple as asking students to email you their written paragraph or essay first drafts, writing comments on the papers in a different colour, using the highlighter to point out mistakes you want them to correct, then emailing the papers back to the students to correct for their final draft. For me, this method of feedback is preferable to handwriting comments because: I can write more; type-written comments are easier for my students to read (especially those whose L1 script is not Roman-based); I have a record of the feedback; students can’t lose their work (or if they do, I can simply email it to them again).

If you are feeling braver, try giving oral feedback on written work using Jing. My students responded positively to oral feedback because it gave them more listening practice. Have you always wanted to set up a class wiki, but baffled by the endless possibilities wikis provide? Start small: post up a text with questions you want students to read and answer for homework. Build the wiki over time.

2. Use the technology supplied with course books, workbooks and teacher’s books

If you are using CDs or DVDs, you are already using technology! Experiment with any online workbooks, student or teacher websites, learning games or mobile content. The benefit here is that everything is linked up, so teachers don’t have to think about how to relate the activity to the lesson aims. Don’t be afraid to let students take the lead with some of this – students are generally happy to help the teacher with the technology side of things. Course books also come with a degree of technological support from the publisher.

3. Use technology that is already in the room

Look at what you have available and then how you might use it. Be sure to include student cell phones and smartphones in your assessment. If you have a projector and internet access, for example, you can access interactive pronunciation charts for in-class pronunciation activities, or you can have an online dictionary at the ready for any vocabulary or collocations that come up in class. Keep these two open and running in the background (shrink them down) for easy access. Do quick image searches for vocabulary that comes up that can’t be explained easily – I once had the word badger in a text. I did a quick Google Images search, followed by a Wikipedia explanation projected on the wall – much more memorable than a simple explanation and I didn’t have to find a photo beforehand to bring to class.

4. Start with the learning aim

This is undoubtedly the most important thing to keep in mind. Put learning first and look for the best tool to use to aid that learning. Let’s imagine that you are teaching a Pre-Intermediate class and you want students to practice asking and answering questions. If students do this in pairs, it is hard to monitor everyone. Technology is beneficial here: students can video or audio record themselves (e.g. on their phones or tablets) and email you the recordings. You then have a record, can assess which students are able to ask and answer correctly, and can give directed feedback.

The added benefit of using technology in this way is that students are more likely to feel the task is purposeful and try to do it well. Creating a realistic context will add to the learning experience by showing students how the language they are learning in class relates to the real world: interviews ‘on the red carpet’, for example, provide a context and students can then do a blog write-up of the answers.

5. Ask yourself these questions:

What do I want my students to do or learn? Can technology help? If so, which technology? Is there something I can use that I already have or do I need to find something that I can use? Will using this technology benefit the students? If so, how? (If not, don’t use it!) How much time will it take me to learn this and is it time well invested? (i.e. Will students benefit proportionally? Once I have learned it, will I use it again and again?)

Invitation to share your ideas

What’s your technology story? Have you tried something out that you would like to share? Do you have any advice for those just beginning to take that first step into using technology? Please tell us about it by commenting on this blog.


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

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

Colin Ward responds.

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

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


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#EFLproblems – Revising, reflecting, adapting, improving

Teenage students in classWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Verissimo Toste responds to Juliana Mota’s Facebook comment about how to connect one lesson to the next.

Juliana wrote:

How should we review lessons learned and make a connection with the new class?”

The first obvious answer is, “It depends.” But that’s not very useful. So let me propose some ideas and activities which you can adapt to the age of your students, their learning preferences, and their different abilities.

It’s their responsibility

From the very beginning, I try to make any revision the students’ responsibility. Once we have finished work on a unit or a module, I give them time to go back through the work we have done and ask any questions. This, of course, is easier when the class is based on a course book. Students leaf through the pages and are reminded of the work done. I then ask them to assess how they feel about the work in grammar, vocabulary, and the different skills. This assessment differs from class to class depending on the age and level of the students.

Students make a test

I ask students to make the test for the work we have done. Usually students leaf through the pages and suggest activities from the class book and the workbook. I ask each student to do this individually then compare their suggestions in pairs. Then, I ask them to work in groups of four. At this point, they compare their suggestions, but they must also agree on one test for the group. This generates a good discussion on the length of the test and what content is most important. More importantly, however, is that it creates a context for students to revise the work done, to prioritise that work, and to assess how they feel they are doing.

With the test based on their suggestions, students get a clearer idea of what they need to do in order to prepare. Giving them time to revise the work done generates more questions, leads to some revision exercises, and helps them notice their strengths and weaknesses. This is further reinforced when they get their test back.

Connect learning

When possible, connect new learning with language students have already learned. For example, you can base presenting the past simple on a daily routine. The daily routine gives the teacher an opportunity to revise the present simple, both the grammar and the vocabulary. Teaching adverbs can present opportunities to revise adjectives, as well as verbs. A text on the events of a very bad day can revise past forms and lead to teaching the conditional, “If they hadn’t …”

Skills lessons

Lessons with the aim of developing skills can, and should, focus on language learned. A listening or reading text will, most likely, use language students have learned. Once you have worked on the skill itself, guide your students to notice the language used in the text. Noticing language is an important learning tool that will help students improve their English.

Developing the productive skills of speaking and writing, will also provide students with an opportunity to revise language they have learned. Speaking activities are usually based on language students have just learned. Controlled practice activities will give them a chance to correct any mistakes. Writing tasks can give students an opportunity to use the language they have learned. Unlike speaking, students have more time to reflect on their mistakes and opportunities to correct through the writing process.

Project work        

I am a big fan of project work, whether the projects are small, taking little time, or larger projects spread over a greater length of time. Project work offers students the opportunity to use the language they have learned. As they share their work with others in the class, they will be exposed to the language in different contexts to communicate real information, usually about them and their experiences. The project will give them opportunities to reflect on the language they need. As the projects are meant to be shared, students are careful about mistakes, motivated to correct them before the project is presented to others.

The activities I mention here are based on making revision an integral part of the class and not necessarily based on any particular language point or skill in which students have difficulty and thus need more work. The activities give students the opportunity to revise what they have learned, reflect on their progress, adapt their learning based on the reflection, and finally, improve their English.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of revising language? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.

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.

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