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Teach less to help young students learn more

School girls playing repetitive gameBarbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, outlines the benefits of only teaching young learners one new thing at a time by recycling, reinforcing, and building on new language.

How can you get your students to learn more English? Teach less! It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

Teachers are often pressured to teach more – more vocabulary, more grammar, more content – to satisfy parents and administrators. Moving through a coursebook quickly becomes the measure of success. However, the classes in which I see students making the greatest progress are those in which teachers introduce relatively little new language and actively recycle previously learned language, spending the majority of class time reusing both new and familiar language in new contexts.

The measure of a successful lesson isn’t how much you teach; it’s how much students can do with the language they’ve learned.

There are certainly times when you might choose to throw students into the deep end of the language pool – when asking them to work at understanding the gist of a listening or reading task, for example. But, it should be a choice that works toward your lesson goals, not the standard approach. If you need to spend most of your class with books open, explaining the language on the page, then students are unlikely to remember much for the next class. You end up teaching the same things over, and over, and over again without much feeling of progress.

In contrast, when we recycle language in class, we’re teaching students how to use the language they already know to figure out language that they don’t. It’s one of the most important abilities that skilled language users employ.

There’s no way we will ever be able to teach our students all the English they’ll ever need to know, so instead let’s teach them how to be confident in their ability to figure things out for themselves. One of the easiest ways to model this skill is to introduce new language in the context of familiar. Another way of looking at this is to make sure you maximize the value of any language your students spend the time learning. Here’s one simple example of how using familiar language to introduce new language can help students learn more effectively.

Let's Begin example unit

If you teach without recycling familiar language, this looks like a dense lesson – eight new vocabulary words and two question and answer patterns. However, actively recycling previously learned language can make the lesson more manageable. For example, students have already learned the concept of plurals, and how to add an –s to the end of words to indicate more than one item. They may need to be reminded, but they don’t need to learn it again. That reduces the vocabulary load to four new words (and their plurals). What’s this? It’s a (CD) is also a very familiar pattern. It’s the first question students learned to ask and answer in the first book of the series to which this page belongs (Let’s Begin). It was recycled in a lesson two units prior to this lesson.

Let's Begin example unit

By recycling the familiar pattern with the singular vocabulary words, it’s a small step for students to understand that the new pattern, What are these?, is the same question but for asking about more than one of something. By reducing the amount of new language to be taught, students now have more time to practice the language they’ve learned. They can use the questions and answers with vocabulary from earlier lessons, or apply their plural-making skills to topics that interest them, or personalize the language and build new skills by using the language to write about things in their own lives (e.g., This is my bedroom. These are my CDs. This is my cell phone. etc.) and then to read what classmates have written. Language becomes a tool for communicating about things students want to talk about, and because language is constantly recycled, students are unlikely to forget it.

Active recycling plays a big part in Let’s Go, so the Teacher’s Book lists what language is being recycled in each lesson, and the ‘Let’s Remember’ lesson at the start of each level highlights familiar language from the previous level that will be built upon in the new one. You can do the same sort of recycling, with the same benefits, with any coursebook or even with no coursebook at all. You simply need to keep track of the language being taught so that you know what you can recycle to help students learn new language or build new skills.

A simple guideline is to teach one new thing (new pattern or new vocabulary, but not both) in each lesson, or for longer lessons or older students, in each section of a lesson. Reducing the amount of time spent on introducing new language creates more time for students to use language:

  • to use it in games and activities that provide the repetition necessary for memory
  • to add it to their language repertoire in order to talk about new things
  • to learn to read what they can say and understand
  • to use language they can read to write about their own unique lives and experiences
  • and to use language to connect with other students in order to share their own and learn about others’ lives and experiences.

If you are interested to see how active recycling works in Let’s Go, you can download a variety of sample lessons from the Oxford Teachers’ Club Let’s Go teaching resources page.


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Help your young learners to remember new language

Young girl leaning against brick wall

Photo courtesy of Jenn Durfey via Flickr

Ritsuko Nakata, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at why children forget what they’ve learned and shares her top tips for getting young learners to remember new language. Ritsuko will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 13th February 2014.

Teachers are often puzzled and dismayed to find that their students have forgotten what they learned in the last lesson, not to mention lessons from a few weeks or months before. However, if we look back on our own school days, I think we can say that we also had a similar experience: often forgetting what we had learned. We also crammed for tests and tried to memorize everything, forgetting most of it after the test.

Children tend to forget things

Why do you think you forgot your lessons? Was it the way the teacher taught you or was it your own attitude towards learning? It might have been a combination of both. There might have been other factors as well, like the way you felt at the time, or the environment in which you were living and learning. There are many reasons why students forget.

As teachers, we have a great responsibility to get our students to learn as much as possible. When I first started out teaching, I worked very hard in every lesson and the children were able to repeat after me quite well. However, I was shocked when I saw them again at our next lesson. They had forgotten almost everything! They could repeat well after me, but could not say a single word on their own. I was beginning to think my students were just not good at learning English.

I started to think very carefully about what and how I was teaching the children, and why they couldn’t remember much even after working so hard in each lesson. I realized that it was the way I taught them! I was teaching them to become parrots, repeating all the time and speaking like robots. The children were satisfied just to repeat rather than trying to remember what to say, because I did not teach them how to retain what they learned and actually use the language themselves.

So what are some other reasons children forget what they have learned? Perhaps they were not paying attention during the lesson or were bored. It’s possible that they did not understand the lesson. They may not have been given enough of a chance to internalize the language. Or they might have not practiced it enough to react spontaneously to it.

So what is remembering and being able to retain new language? It is NOT memorization. How many times have we memorized things, only to forget them fast? Since English is a communication tool, we want our students to use the language they learn in class. If children use the language, they will remember it because they are the ones talking, not the teacher. Children need a little time to process the new items we teach them. They need more time to practice saying them aloud in order to become independent speakers. As teachers, we need to make time for practice in our lesson plans.

How can we help them remember?

One way to get students to remember their lessons is to make the lessons active and student centered, where the students do the work together. They will want to learn more, and will be more active in class, concentrate better and enjoy your lesson. This leads to retention of the lesson, gives the children confidence, and will surely bring a sparkle to their eyes (and the teacher’s, too)!

We should give children lots of practice time in class. If your students do not have exposure to English outside of class, this is the only time they will be able to practice. In Japan our once-a-week lessons are only 35 to 45 hours a year. This means that a year’s worth of lessons do not even amount to two days! Therefore we have to make every lesson an intensive one so that they can remember each one six days later when we meet again.

An intensive lesson does not mean study, study, study!

An intensive lesson can be a lot of fun and even more interesting than a slow-paced lesson. Children concentrate better when there is rhythm to the lesson. They speak out more when they get a chance to do quick, short drills instead of one long one. They are more active when they can talk to each other and not only to the teacher. They are motivated, concentrate more and enjoy their lessons. Emotions affect learning and, if they are having fun, learning and concentrating, they will remember the lesson! Motivation and a sense of progress play a big part in student attitudes. Once children are able to remember their lessons, they will have more confidence and will be motivated to learn (and remember) more.

Output is important!

To help our students remember better, our lessons should concentrate on a lot of output from the students. Not only speaking naturally with speed, rhythm, good intonation and pronunciation, but also reading and writing. Listening is also important, as it is an active skill that requires concentration and understanding. With a balanced lesson, that teaches the four skills, we can cover the learning needs in a way that fits the students’ ages. With a variety of techniques, we can cover the different learning styles of the students as well.

It’s easy to get into the “textbook trap”

This means that when the lesson starts, everyone opens their textbook, all heads are looking down and it is difficult to get the children to look at the teacher. Instead, it is more interesting to pre-teach the lesson before looking at the text. This way, the students will pay attention to the teacher, and the cards and other materials that are used. Visual aids will help slower learners by allowing them to see as well as hear the words. Adding the sentence pattern will provide context to the vocabulary, and therefore meaning to what the children are learning. Without meaning, memory will not be well formed. After the sentence is learned, the question form can be practiced. Putting the Q&A together, the students can ask and answer each other instead of being asked individually by the teacher. They will have fun and will have to THINK of the words themselves, instead of just repeating after the teacher.

It’s important to present the language in a variety of ways

Using actions while talking stimulates both sides of the brain and improves memory. Songs and chants with gestures also are important to bring rhythm into speech. Picture and word cards provide the visual stimuli necessary for students to grasp the meaning of what you are teaching. Putting the students into groups and pairs will encourage them to start speaking on their own, to each other, creating their own dialogs instead of relying on the teacher.

If you teach new language step by step, with children putting together new chunks of language to build meaningful short dialogs, the students will remember what they say and will be ready to read and write what they have learned. Their memory will be built up gradually. With plenty of review, their language bank will be expanded throughout the lessons and they will be able to retain most of what they learn.

Join me for my webinar on 13 February to find out more. I’ll be sharing some of the techniques we can use to build our students’ confidence and get them motivated as they have fun learning. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

Get more free articles, videos and lesson plans from Ritsuko and her Let’s Go co-authors.


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Teaching Writing to Young ELT Learners

Girl smiling and writingKaren Frazier, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at how to get children writing in English.

Writing, in any language, can be so much fun! It’s exciting to send messages and letters to people in a language that they understand. Everyone enjoys describing events in their lives, talking about pictures and places, and sharing their thoughts and ideas. Many also like to create stories and songs, too! So, how can we, as teachers, help our ELT students develop this type of enthusiasm for sharing and writing in English?

Children enjoy the beginning stages of writing, when they are learning the letters or characters. Young learners are very willing to work at tracing letters and words. They are usually eager to learn how to print their names and the names of their brothers, sisters and pets. It’s this interest in writing that we want to maintain as we help our students learn and continue to develop their English writing skills. Yet writing can be a challenging skill for children to learn. So what can we do to help them retain their interest in writing while they develop their skills and confidence in writing in English?

To be able to write in English, students must have a basic foundation and understanding of the spoken language. To get our students prepared to write, we need to provide opportunities for them to recycle and review the language they already know. They need to know how to identify and talk about objects and people in English in order to write something about them. Of course, they must also know how to write the alphabet letters so that they can learn to spell words that they know. Finally, they need to know some basic sentence patterns in order to write sentences that are meaningful to them.

Students must also be able to read some words and sentences because the skill of reading goes hand-in-hand with learning to write. Reading provides the opportunity for students to become more familiar with language patterns, and it develops their vocabulary. Yes, reading, as well as listening and speaking, are important in helping our students learn to write. So our writing activities should always include these skills as part of the pre-writing steps.

Steps for Beginner Writers:

1. Use pictures to stimulate comments and discussion

Have students draw their own pictures or bring in photos. Or, you can provide pictures for them from magazines, the internet and other sources.

Some of the first recognizable pictures that most children draw are pictures of themselves and their family. If they have pets, they often like to draw them. Favorite places, like houses and landscapes with the sun, are also among the first things that children like to draw. Therefore, as you prepare your young students for writing activities, primarily focus on having them draw these types of pictures.

2. Have students describe and talk about their pictures

Be sure to provide plenty of chances for your students to talk about and share pictures. Children enjoy talking about people, places and events that are important to them. Let them share their pictures and thoughts about these pictures with each other. This also gives them a great opportunity to review and practice their English. It helps them remember what they already know and builds confidence.

3. Help students write down what they have said

For young writers, this often means that you will do much of the writing at the very beginning. You write down the sentences that your students use to describe their pictures. Then you can have the students trace the sight words or the key vocabulary. As the children develop more ability and confidence in their writing, they can start writing the descriptions on their own under their pictures. They may start with one or two words in the beginning and will gradually start to write a sentence on their own. More confident and experienced students of English can write their own longer descriptions of their pictures (two to three sentences). The main goal of this step in writing is to encourage and capitalize on the natural interest that children have in describing what they see.

4. Have the students read each other’s captions and descriptions of the pictures

After they read, they can share ideas with each other in small groups. Then you can have them work together in small groups to add another sentence to the description.

5. Have students use their descriptions to create their own little books

As beginner ELT students become more skilled in writing words and sentences, they can expand on their own one-sentence descriptions by adding extra words, like adjectives, or one or two more sentences. If you have them describe several of their own pictures, they can then put them together to make their own small book. This is a great motivator for the students. They will enjoy reading their books and will be look forward to writing more. You could also let them take their books home to share their stories, and new writing skills, with their families.

You can also motivate your students of all levels to write by providing them with real-life writing exercises. For example, they can write about something that happened while they were all together in your English class. Start by talking about what happened as a class and then encourage each of the students to draw a picture and write a sentence or two about the event. Next have them share their sentences with the class and finally combine all the sentences into a story. It becomes a small book that was written by the class.

Other types of real-life writing activities include making lists of vocabulary words, making lists of things to buy at the store, and writing notes, text messages and emails to friends. You can also have your students create their own comic strips or keep a simple journal in which they share thoughts in English with you.

These are just a few of the ways you can keep your students engaged in writing in English. There are many activities that can be used which give children a realistic reason to write. Whatever activity you choose to use should be one that is motivating and that taps into your students’ interests. Doing this will help keep your students enthusiastic about writing in English.

It would be great to hear your comments on this blog. I’d also love to see you at my free webinar on teaching writing this Friday, 19 April. You can sign up here.

Visit Let’s Share for more videos, blogs and upcoming events by our Let’s Go authors.


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Five things I think I know about teaching reading

Woman teaching young girl to readBarbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, shares five principles for teaching reading effectively in the classroom.

I’ve tried quite a few different approaches to teaching literacy over the years, initially with students learning to read in their first language, and now with students learning to read English as a foreign language. Like most teachers, I’ve settled on a fairly eclectic approach that seems to work well for me, and my young learners. Here are five principles that work for me.

1. Build a strong oral foundation first

When students begin learning to read in their first language, they have a working vocabulary of between 2,500 and 5,000 words. They learn to connect printed text to words that they already know. We want to be sure that our young learners have a strong foundation of oral language before we begin asking them to attach symbols to sounds, particularly since they will be working with a much smaller vocabulary to begin with.

2. Introduce text from the beginning

I think it’s important to have students looking at printed text long before you begin working on reading skills. By the time my students begin having dedicated reading lessons, they’ve already figured out that English writing goes from left to right and from the top of the page to the bottom, big letters are about twice as big as the little letters and appear at the beginning of a sentence, and that we can tell where words begin and end because of the spaces between words. They’ve become familiar with the graphic look of English before having to deal with it.

3. Teach phonics in context

Phonics can be a useful key for students learning how to make sense of English sound/spelling patterns. Teach the patterns in the context of words that students have already learned orally. Go through your students’ coursebook looking for words they’ve learned that illustrate the patterns you want to teach. That way they only have to focus on one new thing – linking sounds and letters – rather than learning a new word in order to practice the phonics skill. Practice reading the words in the context of sentences (and later, stories) that are also made up of words your students have learned orally.

4. Teach both accuracy and fluency in reading

Both skills are important in developing independent readers. As students become better at applying sound/spelling strategies, phonics shifts into spelling practice and word study, equally important in order to keep expanding your students’ reading vocabulary. To develop fluency, students need a lot of opportunities to read, and be read to. Include reading in every class. Let your students read the lyrics of their songs, or conversations, or grammar lessons – after they’ve learned the language orally, of course! Read to them, so they can enjoy understanding stories even if they don’t understand every word. Create a class library and let them take books home between classes (with audio CDs, if they aren’t yet fluent readers and don’t have anyone at home to read to them). Help them create their own stories to share and read.

5. Engage multiple senses in teaching reading

Have students trace letter and word shapes, sing or chant to help reinforce phonics, use letter cards to build words and word cards to build sentences. Ask them to act out or dramatize stories. Let them write sentences and stories and draw pictures to illustrate them. Record them reading their stories to create audio books. Encourage students to use multiple senses to help them become more effective readers.

How about you?

What have you learned about teaching reading? It would be great to hear in your comments to this blog. I’d also love to see you at my webinar on Saturday, 23 March. You can sign up here.

Visit Let’s Share for more videos, blogs and upcoming events by our Let’s Go authors.

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Yes! No! Spaghetti!

Children in class raising their handsRitsuko Nakata, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at how to get students answering questions in full sentences.

‘Yes! No! Spaghetti!’

Are these the kind of answers you get from your students when you ask them a question? Single words, instead of ‘Yes, I do!’, ‘No, I don’t!’, or ‘I like spaghetti.’

When you were learning a foreign language, there were probably times when you were able to understand questions, but only able to answer with ‘Yes’ or No’ or another single word. I’m sure it was a very frustrating experience – you probably wanted to say much more to continue the conversation, but weren’t able to communicate effectively with just one word. We all want our students to be able to continue a conversation and not experience the same frustration we did, but our students usually don’t have much exposure to English outside the classroom.

So how can we prepare them to continue a conversation with confidence? We can do this by teaching them how to use full sentences – and by showing them, through activities and role play, how to communicate with these new sentences.

What kind of communication do you think your students could engage in with the following sentences?

  1. I like cats.
  2. It’s a green book. / The key is on the table.
  3. That’s great! / I’m sorry.

In the first sentence the student is expressing an opinion. (Almost any statement can be an opinion if you teach them to say, ‘I think…’)

In the second sentence the student is giving information.

In the third sentence the student is reacting to someone and expressing feeling or emotion.

Our students can communicate very effectively with simple sentences like those above. They can even create dialogue using question forms. In class, these may feel stilted and sound unnatural, but they form the basics of communication. When our students can use what we teach them to construct a sentence, they are able to use the language practically in conversations, instead of just repeating independent sentences.

When teaching sentences to students, I first teach the vocabulary, then show them, step by step, how to construct a sentence. (This provides a context for using the words.) I then show them how to use that sentence to create a dialog by teaching the WH- question form. You can see how questions and sentences can be taught easily and systematically in my webinar recording, Introducing new language effectively for the young learner classroom.

YES/NO questions and answers

With YES/NO short answers, we are often faced with the challenge of teaching auxiliary verbs. Teachers often say they are reluctant to teach short answers because they do not want to go into grammar explanations about auxiliary verbs. Students have a hard time remembering which auxiliary to use and often make mistakes like the following:

Do you want a cookie? Yes, I am.

Can you swim? Yes, I do.

To help my students learn and use the auxiliaries correctly, I present the WH- question forms before YES/NO questions (my co-authors and I do this in Let’s Go too).

What do you want?

What can you do?

Knowing the WH- question form helps my students to master the YES/NO questions and answers more easily. I ask them to take away the ‘what’ in the question they have learned and add the word they want to ask about. For example:

What do you want?   =  What   do you want       + a ball?

What can you do?    =  What   can you                + swim?

By removing ‘what’, my students are able to use the correct auxiliary automatically.

Do you want a ball?

Can you swim?

My students don’t have to guess what the auxiliary is and they are more confident in asking and answering YES/NO questions.

To help students overcome their habit of guessing, I give them a quick listening activity, which is like a game to them. I don’t complete the sentence, but just say the first two words. I say them quickly in rapid succession, mixing them up:

Can you xxxx?  Do you xxxx?  Are you xxxx?

My students listen for the first words to make their answers:

Can you xxxx?   Yes, I can.

Do you xxxx?    Yes, I do.

Are you xxxx?   Yes, I am.

I make the drills very quick so that my students are able to focus on the words.

Would you like to see how I do this? In my free webinar on Saturday (you can sign up here), I will give a demonstration on how to do this. I will also show you how you can use teacher cards to make learning YES/NO questions and answers lots of fun without a lot of teacher talk. I hope to see you there!

Ritsuko will be giving a free webinar on ‘Getting students to answer questions in full sentences on Saturday, 23 February. Register here.

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