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#IATEFL – Look out! It’s the future!


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

David Pearce, a Digital Learning Manager at Oxford University Press, looks at the issues surrounding the implementation of digital technology in the classroom. David will be presenting on this topic at IATEFL 2015 on Sunday 12th April.

A charming image created in 1910, by the French artist Villemard, attempted to depict what a classroom would look like in the year 2000. To the right of the image stands a hand-cranked machine with a feeding chute at the top. A boy stands over the handle, cranking it round as the bewhiskered school master feeds books into the chute. Wires run from the machine to the ceiling of the classroom, leading eventually to headsets worn by the attentive pupils. Knowledge, ground out of the pages of the books and metamorphosed into some kind of energy, is transferred directly to their brains.

The scene says as much about the theory of knowledge at the time as it does about the imagined labour-saving transformations of technology. We are now less inclined to believe that learning is about the passive reception of knowledge. These days we think of knowledge as something actively constructed by the learner, and of knowledge as being only one part of learning, with skills like collaboration, communication and critical thinking forming as big a part, if not bigger, of what students need to learn. As for the technology portrayed, part of the charm of the image lies in how naïve the machinery seems to us, reflecting a time when the electrification of life was starting to become commonplace, it’s possibilities apparently boundless.

And yet Villemard was surprisingly accurate. A lot of the features of the 21st century classroom are as he depicted them. The classroom itself remains, there are still children seated at desks, and there is still a teacher presiding over events. And of course there are still lots and lots of books. We may not be grinding them into energy to beam straight into our students’ heads, but we are grinding their contents into data to go online, or into e-books, or onto interactive whiteboards. And perhaps we still hope that technology will somehow make the job of learning effortless – this is what the picture seems to say to me.

The centrepiece, however, is the machinery itself: for the time it is modern, bizarre, and a little bit fantastic. And isn’t this what a lot of us feel about the technology we’re expected to use with our own students? Although the technology depicted seems strange to us, is it any more bizarre than the actual technology we’ve ended up with? Just as Villemard was an artist working when electricity had become an everyday reality with boundless potential, we live at a time when the same thing is happening with digital technology. Making sense of its potential is not always straightforward.

My workshop – “Digital or Analogue: Making Choices About Technology in Lesson Planning” – is intended for those educators who want to bring modern technology into their classrooms, but who may be unsure about how or when to use it. There are lots of reasons why using technology might be difficult: a lack of expertise or confidence, inadequate equipment, poor internet connectivity – and sometimes simply not knowing where to start. In the workshop we will explore together how simple principles can be applied in our everyday teaching, and how small changes to our practice can build technology into what we do. Learning with technology may not be as effortless as Villemard suggested it might be, but teaching with it needn’t be a grind.


Technology Enhanced Language Learning 

DeathtoStock_Medium10Aisha Walker, Associate Professor of Technology, Education and Learning at Leeds University, introduces her webinar, Technology Enhanced Language Learning, hosted by Oxford University Press on February 25th and 26th.

As I lead an MA programme in TESOL and ICT I frequently see draft student assignments that open with a sentence such as: “Technology is increasingly important in the world today.” The student may then go on to say that today’s learners are ‘digital natives’, that technology motivates and engages students and that all teachers should be using more of it.  Luckily, because we offer students the opportunity to get feedback on drafts before submission, I can catch these broad statements and ask students to be more measured and more critical in their approaches to concepts such as the ‘digital native’ or ‘technology for learner motivation’.

So why should language teachers make use of digital technologies?  I see two main reasons although there may be other pressures such as institutional policies (if a school has spent a lot of money on a new online learning environment, for example, they will want teachers to use it).  The first reason is that digital media are part of the way that we use language in the real world.  Much of our day-to-day communication is mediated by digital tools including email, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, What’s App and much more.  These tools are normal sites of language use and it is as important to explore these with learners as it is to explore older media such as newspapers and radio (now often online, of course).

The second reason is that technology can provide solutions to some of the problems that we encounter as language teachers.  For example, in the context of a single-language classroom there is little reason for students to communicate in the target language except that the teacher tells them to.  Digital tools may enable them to communicate with an audience outside the classroom, for example by posting blogs or videos either to a general audience or in partnership with a class of learners elsewhere.  Whilst I do not believe that technology is intrinsically motivating, novelty and variety do engage and motivate students.  Technology offers plenty of novel possibilities from new ways of presenting material to new games for language practice.

In summary, digital tools and media are part of everyday language use and should, therefore, be part of language learning.  In addition, the range of possibilities offered by digital tools mean that there are many ways in which technology can enhance language learning. But… ‘learners are digital natives’? It’s more complicated than that!

To explore how using everyday digital tools and media can be part of language learning, join us for Aisha’s upcoming webinar Technology Enhanced Language Learning.


Assessment in the multi-level classroom

Frustrated student at work in classroomIt can be tricky to test classes of students who come from very different learning backgrounds. Stacey Hughes, teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, offers some advice.

Testing and assessment are important in any classroom. In addition to the obvious goal of finding out if students have learned what is required for the end of term or year, assessment also gives teachers information about what students might need more work on. It can also motivate students to study, giving them a sense of achievement as they learn (Ur:1996).

A multilevel class poses additional challenges to the teacher. It could be argued that all classes to a certain extent are multi-level. However, for the purpose of this article, multi-level will be defined as those classrooms with students who come from very different learning backgrounds, or those in which students have very different levels of proficiency. Assessment in these situations needs to be fair for all students and needs to provide enough challenge or support so as not to bore or overstretch students. Here are some ideas for assessment:

1. Set individualised targets

You could consider setting individualised targets (or get your students to set their own). In order to assess students on their achievement of their target, you may need different assessment criteria and this difference needs to be made clear at the outset. As long as the assessment is not part of a final grade (and instead part of ongoing assessment for the purposes outlined above), students will be unlikely to opt for an easier option than they are capable of. Here are some examples:

a) Choose the 5 key words you think are absolutely necessary for all students to learn, several more that would be good for them to learn and a final few that would be great if they could learn. Assign the words to each student (or get them to choose their own level of challenge). Assess students on the words you have assigned or that they have chosen.
b) Set different word limits for paragraphs and essays. At the lowest level, ask students to write a 50-word paragraph. The next level might be a 100-word paragraph while the highest level might be two 100-word paragraphs. A similar design can be made for speaking tasks.
c) Set different criteria for writing or speaking. If a student’s work is hard to read because of spelling, set the target of improving spelling and assess only on that. Another student might not have problems spelling, but may have poor subject/verb agreement, so instead, make this the focus of the assessment.

2. Break your targets into manageable chunks

Create a master list of targets for yourself, and assign 2-3 targets at a time for students.
This has the effect of making learning manageable. Some students may already be quite good at word stress, for example, while others, possibly from L1 interference, might need to work a lot on their pronunciation.

Your master list should be comprehensive and cover all language areas. For pronunciation, it might include:

a) Correct word stress on vocabulary words
b) Clear distinction between /s/, /z/ and /Id/ in past tense
c) Rising intonation on yes/no questions

For speaking, it might look like this:

a. Can ask and respond to questions about likes and dislikes
b. Can speak about likes and dislikes for 1 minute
c. Can give reasons or examples for likes and dislikes

3. Differentiate between assessment questions and let students choose their level of challenge

Again, this will work best if the assessment is not marked or graded.

a) For a reading or listening assessment, provide many different questions, and ask students to answer more for higher levels of challenge. For example, the Level 1 challenge could be to answer questions 1-3, Level 2 could be questions 1-5 and Level 3 could be questions 1-7. If you set this kind of task, make sure each question increases in difficulty.
b) Allow for levelling in answers. Level 1 challenge answers could be 1-2 words or yes/no questions, while level 3 challenge answers could be whole sentences or open-ended questions.
c) Provide optional hints for those who need it. Students could choose to do the assessment with or without hints, for example. This works well in conjunction with digital or online assessments.

4. Provide a place for students to go next

At the end of the term or school year, it is customary to test whether or not students have reached the learning goals for the course. For those students who aren’t yet ready to progress, make sure they have a class to go into that isn’t just a repeat of the level they have just done. Some courses provide a middle level between levels that caters for those weaker students, for example, English File 3rd edition Intermediate Plus. In this way, weaker students don’t feel penalised, but feel a sense of achievement in having completed a level.

Assessing students in a multi-level class differently according to their level can benefit all students by providing the right amount of challenge. This can be encouraging and create a positive atmosphere of achievement in the classroom. I hope you enjoy trying out some of these ideas.

References & Further Reading

English club. (n.d.). Teaching multilevel classes. Found at: https://www.englishclub.com/teaching-tips/teaching-multi-level-classes.htm.
Accessed 30/04/14.

Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching: practice and theory. Cambridge: CUP.

This article first appeared in the May 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


Skills for effective communication at work

Skills for effective communication at workRachel Appleby, co-author of two levels of the new International Express, looks at ways to help your students to communicate more effectively at work, ahead of her webinar on this topic on 3rd December.

The other day I had a meeting with a restaurant manager, Anna, about language classes. Her English was passable, but clearly not as good as she wished, and she felt embarrassed that she couldn’t express herself more eloquently. Phrases didn’t seem to come to her mind, and she kept apologizing for the little mistakes she was making. It reminded me of another of my students, who once complained that he sounded like a six-year old in English, and it didn’t help him do a good job at work at all!

What is it that such people need? Anna is adult and sophisticated, and can run a meeting more than adequately in her own language, but in English, it seemed to bother her that she had so many difficulties, and – as a result – little confidence. I really felt for her.

In a nutshell, her passive knowledge wasn’t bad, but she didn’t have those stock phrases we use in conversation to negotiate a topic (for example, how to add information, give an example, or move on.) – those phrases which help us sound fluent, make it easier for the listener, and ensure communication is effective. When she emailed me later that day, her writing illustrated a similar lack in conventions we use in semi-formal correspondence, those phrases which clarify the message, and orientate the reader.

So how can we help these students? They want to be able to function as easily in English as in their own language, even if they’re not at native-speaker level. Our students want to ‘be themselves’ in English, and behave as they would in their own language. The good news is that some work skills are transferable, even if we have to raise students’ awareness of what they are.

So let’s have a look at the main problems are, and what we need to do. Students, especially at lower levels, may have difficulties with grammar, but if we can focus on chunks of language, with an emphasis on intonation and sentence stress, this will help them communicate a clear message. Additionally, students often find that they have the technical language for talking about their area of work, but need help with putting it together. Functional language, phrases which have a purpose, are what they need here.

With writing, obviously we need to highlight standard conventions in emailing, and work with models to help students. I also think when writing that it’s useful to pare down content: it can be easy to write too much in another language in order to try to explain yourself, when it fact you just cause more confusion (I know I do this!) We need to help them keep their writing focused, and avoid unnecessary complications.

In my webinar on 3rd December, we’ll look at some examples of how we can increase students’ confidence, so that they can operate professionally within a work environment. We’ll look at chunks of language to use in meetings, conventions for writing clear emails (in particular, ways of handling difficult emails), tips for creating focused PowerPoint slides, and, finally, how to get your to-do list ticked off – in other words, ways of setting clear work objectives. And I think all these are things which Anna would benefit from!

I’ll be using materials from the Pre-Intermediate, and Upper Intermediate levels of the new edition of International Express. I look forward to seeing you soon!

Register now.


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.


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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