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#qskills – Could you recommend useful tips for teaching writing skills?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: Could you recommend useful tips for teaching writing skills?

Joe McVeigh 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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#qskills – Would it help if I taught phonetics symbols in the mother tongue?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: Would it help if I taught phonetics symbols in the mother tongue?

Tamara Jones 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.


11 Comments

#qskills – How can I teach a class where there is a huge gap in language proficiency among the students?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: How can I teach a class where there is a huge gap in language proficiency among the students?

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.


2 Comments

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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Something old, something new… Part 2

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 second part of a series of blogs on the topic.

Let’s continue our stroll through the changes of the new and revised Cambridge English: Proficiency examination. I have tackled the issue of the reformed Reading and Use of English Paper in a previous post but what lies ahead regarding the Writing Paper?

Approaching the Writing Paper

Students will spend only one hour and a half, instead of two hours, on this paper due to the fact that the minimum word count will be reduced from 600 to 520. There will also be less variety, in that Part 1 will only be a compulsory discursive essay, while for the second part candidates may have to choose an article, a report, a letter or a review. Good news on this front, therefore, less text types to prepare for! Further on, I am going to focus on the newest type of task, which makes for Writing Part 1.

Writing Part 1 – what’s in two texts?

Thankfully, the Proficiency examination is usually not the first Cambridge English examination students have sat. This is the reason why they may already be very familiar with what is required of them.

Part 1 has always been the compulsory one, much like in figure skating – there are certain tricks the assessors must notice in the candidate’s performance.

Preparation

The new Part 1 is a follow-up to that former Use of English task which dealt with summarising, organising information and evaluating its merits, as they are now offered by two texts of around 100 words each.

Naturally, candidates will need help pinpointing the essential information in a text and analysing it compellingly. Encourage them to use highlighters in order to stress out significant information, whether it is presented in a contrasting or complementary manner by the two given texts.

‘So, what makes an idea essential?’, your students might ask. Well, both texts are linked by a common topic, theme or subject. Whenever an idea is brought to the table by both of them, that is when students need to pay attention. The arguments may be divergent, of course, even if related to the same aspect and the dynamic between the two texts may not always be transparent. It is the students’ task to make connections, to identify the two ways in which an idea is presented.

‘What next?’, I hear students ask. Once they have broken the message of both texts down into main points and have found the connecting/contradicting viewpoint in between each pair of ideas, it is time to finally get down to the writing. What is extremely important for students in this part 1 is that they understand they must be first excellent readers and only afterwards excellent writers.

Teachers now face the challenge of having to train students to select the main pieces of information and to also use them successfully in their own written discourse.

  • Help students disintegrate a piece into its basics, into the main ideas and then reintegrate them into their own frame of thought.
  • Play detective games, where students must first identify the relevant information offered by the witnesses, then present the two sides of the story, only to conclude with their final pleading – the moment when they weigh both versions of the truth and give their own view and interpretation. There’s your piece! Now, write it down!
  • Individual or group projects are also useful in this respect; cut-outs offer the possibility of recycling what’s given into one’s own project.

Careful with the language! Accuracy and appropriateness are both of the essence. What is paramount, other than a high flexibility and versatility of language use is signposting its functions. A writing task will always ask students to comment, argue, recommend, suggest, persuade, and so on.

Make sure your students have the right tools at hand: language for making recommendations, for instance, or language for persuading. These are the “buffer”-words that will allow their writing piece to function. Concrete arguments and ideas are merely the material that revolves around the way this raw material is put to good use.

Obviously, there also needs to be diversity amongst this kind of preparatory statements. If you are trying to teach language for suggesting or recommending, set the scene for it. Ask students to picture themselves in a therapist’s office. What would they tell the therapist to make his/ her job more difficult and what would they reply, as therapists, to the requests of the patients? What would they recommend and, most importantly, how would they introduce the ideas and smoothen their way into communication?

And finally…

Writing Part 1 is challenging because of its very essence: focusing on both the WHAT  and the HOW. The greatest novelty in the revised Proficiency examination is the fact that there are two steps to solving the task: reading comprehension and relaying information in a discursive piece, while also analysing and interpreting.  It is, however, the chance for students to be personal, to weigh in their own thoughts, too. The candidate gets to feel like a true contributor to a matter of interest, therefore, as a final word of advice, ask your students to speak their mind and to think critically, with every opportunity you might have in class.

In the next post I will be looking at strategies to help students prepare for the Speaking and Listening papers. Details of the changes to the Cambridge English: Proficiency 2013 exam can be viewed here. View the title on our online catalogue.

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