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The extended essay: Essential skills for English language learners

Student looking confused

Lindsay Warwick discusses the challenges that students face when writing essays, and how the process writing approach can help to prepare for extended writing assignments. Lindsay Warwick is a teacher, trainer and materials writer. She is co-author of the forthcoming Milestones in English A2 and B1+ Student’s Books, publishing in January 2016.

As those of you working with students learning to study in English know, it requires many more skills than those covered by academic English exams. Of course students need to have effective English language skills and learning strategies to enable them to understand and produce academic material.  But my time teaching business studies on a university foundation course has taught me that young adults may not have developed academic skills in their own language and often need the time and space to learn these in addition to their English skills.

Part of my role was to set and mark business assignments written by a group of international students. My focus was on the content assessment rather than the language assessment (for a nice change) which was done by a colleague. Students had had a lot of input on how to source appropriate information and include a bibliography but these still proved an issue for some students. Online cheat essays were used as sources and students were surprised that these were not academically acceptable. After all, they’d referenced the site, they said.

Writing is not a standalone skill and in an academic context, often follows listening or reading in English. Another big challenge for my students was thoroughly understanding written material in order to be able to paraphrase it and synthesize it into their own work; a challenging skill even for native speakers.

Despite having been made fully aware of issues of plagiarism and having had practice in researching and synthesizing information in more controlled tasks, not all students seemed readily able to apply these techniques to extended writing in subject topics. In light of this, I believe that adopting a process writing approach to preparing students for writing extended assignments can be very beneficial; specifically, building up from short to longer texts that require researching and writing about other author’s points of view.

There are three key stages to the writing process: Pre-writing, drafting and redrafting, and editing (Hedge, 2005). Advocates say that it encourages learners to engage with the writing process more fully as well as learn to write as they write.

For me the most important advantage of this approach is that it allows students to receive feedback from their tutor and classmates at each stage of their writing rather than only at the end. Feedback has one of the most significant, positive effects on learning (Hattie 2013) and helps students to improve their approach and techniques as they write. In addition, students learn to peer and self-assess which are also key components of learning (Black & William, 2001) and useful skills for university students.

A process writing approach to an extended piece of writing might involve the following.

  1. Generating ideas: students share and question each other’s ideas in order to generate further ideas and develop higher order thinking skills. Techniques such as ‘cubing’ can be very useful here i.e. looking at a topic from six different perspectives. You can start with a simple What? Where? Why? When? Who? How?
  2. Research: students check that each other’s sources are academically acceptable to avoid referencing issues from the start. Encouraging students to use a free online citation tool from the beginning (e.g. zotero) means they can bookmark reference material and have it create a bibliography for them at the end. Students no longer have to scrabble around in their browser history to find an article they vaguely remember seeing three weeks ago.
  3. Planning: teacher/students assess plans to pre-empt issues of organisation and synthesis. Teachers may also wish to add their own comments, either to each student’s plan or by taking one or two (anonymous) plans and discussing them with the whole class.
  4. Draft 1: teacher/students offer feedback on content, organisation, synthesis and referencing so far to help move the student forward in their next draft.
  5. Final draft: students peer assess for accuracy to aid final editing.

If students are paired with the same student throughout this process, they can really support each other and see how each other’s work has developed. It will encourage a lot of reflection, both self- and peer, that will help develop metacognition. However, in my experience, for self- and peer assessment to be successful, assessment criteria should be made clear to students so they have something to assess against when giving feedback e.g. Other author’s work will be referenced appropriately. Language prompts will also help students provide constructive feedback (e.g. You referenced XXX well. I think you need to reference…next time).

Whether a teacher will be able to spend time offering feedback to all students at all stages depends very much on the number of students and time they have. But by using self- and peer assessment, students can learn from each other, develop meta-cognition and develop important extended writing skills as they write and not have to wait until their next assignment to put feedback into practice when it may have been forgotten.



References and Further Reading

Black P & William D, Inside the Black Box, GL Assessment Ltd, 1990

Hattie J, Visible Learning for Teachers, Routledge, 2011

Hedge T, Writing, OUP, 2005

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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.


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