Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


3 Comments

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.


6 Comments

A positive learning environment: establishing expectations (Part 4)

Eager children in classThis is the last of a four-part series of articles from Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, about establishing a positive learning environment in the classroom. Here he shares some practical ways to minimise disruptions during classes. 

What do you expect from your students? Sit down for a few moments and think about your classes. Think about where you are as the class begins. What are you doing? Where are the students? What are they doing? As you think about the class, note down anything you would like to improve. Don’t worry if it’s easy or difficult. Just note it down. Then, look back at your notes and decide on 3 to 5 points you want to work on immediately.

After reflecting on my classes of about 25 teenagers, these were the four aims I came up with:

- The classroom is in order.

- Students are ready for class.

- Classes begin more efficiently.

- Students participate actively during the lesson.

Remember, these are aims. I took them to my classes and wrote them on the board. I told my students this is what I expected from them. I got a lot of blank looks. They had heard this before. There was nothing they could really disagree with. But what do they mean? What does “the classroom is in order” mean? Can you picture it?

It is important to be able to visualise the difference between how things are now and how you expect them to be. Why is the classroom not in order? Define each aim so that students can see when it is not being met. For my classes, “the classroom is in order” meant that:

- The chairs are in their places.

- The desks are clean and in their place.

- The board is clean.

Anyone looking at the classroom can see if these 3 aims are being met.

Having the classroom in order based on these 3 aims may seem very simple and obvious. Let me explain why it was important. My students came into my class with the results of the previous class still evident. Having left in a hurry, there were fallen chairs, desks at different angles, books and other materials from previous lessons on their desks, notes still written on the board. This was affecting the beginning of my lessons, so it became important to begin the class with the classroom in order.

With the idea of making each aim visually clear, discuss each one with your students. These are the results of the discussion with my students:

Students are ready for class  

- There are no materials on the desk, except those needed for the English lesson.

- The student has his class book, workbook, and notebook.

- The student has pen, pencil, and rubber.

The reason for these aims was the number of disruptions in class based on not having the materials they needed. Equally important, materials from other lessons meant that many students’ desks were disorganised. This was affecting their focus on the material in my lessons. My students already had a problem focussing on the lesson with these distractions.

Classes begin more efficiently

- The student is on time.

- The student enters in an orderly way.

- The student leaves in an orderly way.

What does “on time” mean? This greatly depends on the situation in your school. Some schools use a two-bell system and, in this case, being on time is being in class before the second bell rings. Many schools use the bell to call students (and the teacher) into class. Some schools do not use a bell system, at all. What is important is that you and your students agree and that it is obvious to all when a student is late. Based on the one bell system, my students arrived in the classroom at about the same time I did, walked in as I did, and went to their desks, as I did.

What does “in an orderly way” mean? Again, discuss this with your students. It could mean no running. It could mean going straight to their desks. It could even mean, not using their own language when they enter the English classroom.

Students participate actively during the lesson

- The student listens actively.

- The student works when necessary.

Initially, listening “actively” was difficult for my students to visualise. “How do you know we are listening actively?” they asked me. But based on the routine I wrote about here in a previous blog post, “A positive learning environment: the first 10 minutes (part 2)”, they quickly understood that they would need to listen to each other in order to participate in the class.

“when necessary” also became a point of discussion. Originally the aim was for students to be engaged in the lesson. This proved very difficult for larger classes with a greater degree of mixed abilities and learning preferences. My students felt they should not be punished if they had finished an exercise and were waiting for others. I accepted this, and so I took on the responsibility of keeping them all engaged. It was a challenge.

Responsibility Skills

Rather than calling them classroom rules, I labelled them “responsibility skills”. I made a poster with the aims and put it up in my classrooms. By having the poster with the aims in the classroom, I did not need to repeat or remind. I could simply look at the poster, and then look at the student. They understood what was wrong, because they could see it as easily as I could.

Then, it was a matter of being patient as students adjusted to the new expectations. Over time, about 3 months for me, these became part of the class routine, for which I congratulated them.


1 Comment

A positive learning environment: establishing expectations (Part 3)

Eager children in classThis is the third of a four-part series of articles from Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, about establishing a positive learning environment in the classroom. Here he shares some exercises to help establish expectations of general behaviour from students. 

We have shown our students what kind of behaviour we expect from them as they enter the classroom. Now, let’s discuss what kind of behaviour we expect from them in general.

When I first walked into a class of 36 10-year-olds armed with my knowledge of EFL and many good intentions, I was not aware how completely unprepared I was for the experience. Looking back, I am happy to say, “I survived.” I can also say that I learned a lot. I went into that classroom as their English teacher, when I should have gone in as their teacher. I thought behaviour was someone else’s responsibility. It wasn’t. So, I needed to establish what I expected from my students in our classroom. So, how do you want your students to behave in your class? What do you expect them to do? How will you let them know of your expectations?

Talk to them about it.

Having shown them what I expected in the first 10 minutes, it was time to talk to them about it. Keep the conversation positive. Avoid the words “rules” and “don’t”. Tell them that you consider them responsible people, that they are part of a group, and that every group needs to know what is expected of them in order to work better. With some laughter and wicked smiles, they all agreed.

When students understand why they are doing something, they can do it better. So, talk to them about that routine in the first 10 minutes of class.

- Exercise on the board

By having the exercise on the board, they have something to do when they come in. Tell them that you’ve been a student too and you know that the more time they take to start, the less work they will have. Wasting time means less work. You want to take away that waste of time.

- Warm up to the language

By working individually on a simple exercise they start thinking in English and stop thinking in their own language. It is like warming up slowly before playing a sport or a musical instrument. Remind them that the exercise is easy, based on language they have done and seen before.

- Revision of language learned

As the exercise and the language are both familiar, it is good revision of the language before starting on new material. Tell your students that it is normal to forget. Everyone forgets. But, everyone forgets different things. As a group they know the material, so as a group, they can help each other remember.

- Working as a group

As everyone is working on the exercise, students who know the answer say it to the rest of the class. If they don’t know an answer, or they are not sure, all they have to do is listen. Together, everyone will have the right answers at the end of the activity.

- Opportunity to practice speaking

Tell them you understand that speaking in English is not always easy for everyone. By beginning the class with a simple exercise in which everyone has the answers, they have an opportunity to speak using simple language. This will give them confidence for more complex speaking activities later on in the lesson. It is like training during the week before a big football game on Sunday, or practicing a musical instrument before playing at a concert.

- Everyone can do it

Remind them that the activity at the beginning of the class is based on effort, not on knowledge. Everyone can do it. What they don’t know, they will get by listening to others in the class. They can improve their pronunciation in the same way – listening to others who give the answers. Reinforce the idea that, if they want to, everyone can do this.

 “I am a responsible person.”

When you have finished the discussion, take out a piece of blank , white paper and write in large letters, “I am a responsible person” in the centre of the page. For older students, at a higher level of English, I would write, “I am a responsible person and deserve to be treated as one.” Ask them to sign it, if they agree with the sentence. Some students may not sign just to see if you will notice, some to see what you will do, and others, (especially teenagers), because they enjoy having a “rebellious” nature. At this point, simply collect the paper and put it up in the classroom.

By discussing what you do in class and why, you are already treating your students as responsible people. You are showing them that what you do is to help them, because you believe they can do it. You are establishing a positive learning environment because you believe all of them can and will learn.

Next week I will be covering establishing expectations for the lessons in general.


3 Comments

A positive learning environment: the first 10 minutes (Part 2)

Eager children in classThis is the second of a four-part series of articles from Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, about establishing a positive learning environment in the classroom. Here he shares some exercises to engage students before the lesson begins. 

Following on from last week’s post, we have our students working on a simple exercise, in this case, simply writing words from the board whose letters have been scrambled. We have set the pace of their work and eventually, you can get them to do such a simple exercise within about 5 minutes. Once students have completed the exercise, you can use it to start working on their speaking skills at a very basic level.

Let’s use this exercise as an example. Students have a list of words that they have written correctly.  Usually I aim for a list of between 8 and 10 words to make it challenging.

  1. retrohb – brother
  2. tanu – aunt
  3. nusico – cousin
  4. rsites – sister
  5. ehrtom – mother
  6. aefhtr – father
  7. celnu – uncle
  8. eehnpw – nephew
  9. ceein – niece
  10. adeguhtr – daughter

1.

Confirm that everyone in class has the right answer. Ask a volunteer for number 1, another volunteer for number 2, and so on. At the end, there is no excuse for anyone in the class not to have the answer. You can go around the class until everyone has heard the words twice.

2.

Then, pick up the pace a little. Go around the class again asking for the answers, but this time a little faster. Start with volunteers, but then start choosing the students to answer. Again go through the list about 2 times, or even only once, if it becomes very easy for them.

At this point you are telling your students 2 things: One, that they should know the answers. Two, by choosing some of the students to answer, you can choose any that are distracted or talking to someone else. They will soon understand that they can easily be a target. If a student does not answer, do not wait for them too long. You want to keep the pace of the exercise challenging.

3.

For large classes there may be some students who have not yet said a word. Start again with number 1, choosing a student to say it. Point to a student and say number 2. Then, point to a student and simply say “next”. Then, point to another student and again say “next”. By simply saying “next” all students in class will need to listen in order to know which word to say. Keep a challenging pace, so they don’t get distracted.

At this point you can divide your class into 2 – 4 groups. Say “next” to a student in each group. If the student cannot say the word, they must sit down. Go through the list twice. The group with the most students standing, wins. As it is a game, don’t wait too long for them to say the word.

4.

Finally, have the students “build” a memory chain with the words.

- Ask a student to say any word they want from the list.

   Student1: “mother”

- Ask the student sitting next to them to repeat the word and add another.

   Student 2: “mother, uncle”

- Ask the student sitting next to them to repeat the first words and add another.

   Student 3: “mother, uncle, niece”

- Continue until the chain is broken, or students have completed a chain of six words.

A chain of six words can be challenging for younger teens. You can challenge older students by asking them to complete a chain of 8 words. If a student cannot continue the chain, then it begins again from the next student.

Each step in the activity has challenged students a little more than the previous, even though the language itself remained the same. Weaker students listen in order to have the answer. By simply saying “next” students have to listen to each other in order to know what word to say. Doing the activity in groups and the memory chain adds memory to further challenge the students, as well as continuing to encourage them to listen to each other. While stronger students may find the language easy, remembering the order of the words keeps them interested in the activity. More importantly, for any student or group to be successful, they depend on others to be able to say their word and continue the chain. When a student is not listening and so cannot continue, the whole group loses. In this way, students who are distracted in class are encouraged to listen not only by the teacher, but by their classmates too, in order for all of them to complete the chain.

In this simple way, all students have had an opportunity to speak in class, albeit only one word. But this is important, because through these simple activities, you are telling your students that:

  • you will help them get the right answer,
  • you will confirm the right answer for everyone,
  • you will give them an opportunity to practice the language,
  • you will make it challenging and, hopefully, fun.

Everyone can participate.

My aim is to be able to do this in the first 10 minutes of class. Then, I am ready to begin my lesson.


3 Comments

A positive learning environment: the first 10 minutes (Part 1)

Eager children in classVerissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at some different ways to establish a positive learning environment in the classroom.

Behind every activity in the classroom is the question of behaviour. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to think about it, as your students are motivated to learn and behave accordingly. However, as the teaching of English as a foreign language moves beyond the smaller classes of private language schools into the larger classes of mainstream education, teachers know that student behaviour becomes a key aspect of every lesson and every activity. Mixed abilities, different learning preferences, intrinsic motivation, and varying attitudes towards learning become more important considerations for the teacher, and activities that would work in smaller classes don’t in larger ones.

In this series of blog posts, I will focus on establishing a positive learning environment, taking into consideration the nature of larger classes in a mainstream environment, where English may be seen as another subject like Maths or Science. In these circumstances, many students see success as a good grade on a test rather than the ability to communicate that is implicit in communicative language teaching (CLT).

I have always found that the best way to communicate with my students is to show them what I want rather than to tell them. So, in my larger classes, where motivation to communicate was low and the difference in competencies was very high, I focussed on the first ten minutes of class.

1.

As students entered the classroom, I wrote on the board what I expected them to do. It was a simple exercise, maybe words we had learned the previous lesson with the letters scrambled. I might simply write the page number and exercise from their workbook.

My aim was for them to have something to do when they walked into the classroom. No more aimless talking until I told them to sit down and take out their books. No initial explanations that led to using L1 to get them seated and quiet. More importantly, students who were ready to work would have something to do and could simply get on with it. They didn’t need to wait for everyone else.

I didn’t need to repeat instructions. To those who had not yet started working, I simply looked at them and then looked at the board. The message was clear. Of course, some protested that I had not told them we had already started. I patiently ignored them, not falling into the trap of explaining what we already knew.

2.

About a minute into the exercise, when I knew some students had the first answers, I would simply say, “Number 1. Does anyone have number 1?” Before any student said the answer there would be protests from some students who had not yet started, that I was rushing them, that this was not fair. I smiled and said, “Relax, I’m only asking for number 1.” A student would say the answer to number 1 and I would wait for them to continue the exercise.

It is important for teachers to set the pace of an exercise in their classrooms. Students quickly learn that the longer they take to do something the less material they will have to do in class; in essence, taking longer means less work. By asking for the answer to number 1, I am simply setting the pace of the activity for them. I am telling them they should have started the exercise, that they should already have the answer to number 1. If they don’t someone has just given it to them. All they have to do is to listen. I wait another few seconds and ask if anyone has the answer to number 2. Again, there will be protests, but fewer this time.

Beginning my classes in this way I have communicated some very important points to my students.

First, they all have something to do when they walk into the classroom. There is no need to wait for the teacher to repeatedly tell them to sit down, take out their books, and turn to a certain page to do a certain exercise.

Second, I can focus on the students who are working and not on those who are not. By asking for the answer, I allow students who have worked to participate more in class.

Equally important, I have taken away any reason for weaker students to hold up the class with excuses and poor working habits. The exercise is simple and clear. I usually begin with scrambled words on the board based on vocabulary we have been learning. I even write the page number on the board. In this way, they can use their books to find the words in order to write them correctly. In essence, the activity is based on effort, not on knowledge. Anyone who wants to do it can, no excuses.

Also important for today’s students whose attention span is getting shorter is that I have not had to explain the exercise. It is obvious what they are expected to do. If I need to, I can even ask a student who knows the answer to come up to the board and write the word, thus demonstrating to everyone what is expected. There is no need for lengthy explanations.

Finally, I have provided students a transition from using their first language when they came into the classroom to focussing on English. The exercise acts as revision of a previous lesson, helping theme to focus on the upcoming lesson.

My initial aim is for students to finish the exercise in 5 to 10 minutes. Eventually, I will want them to finish the exercise in less than 5 minutes so that I can go on to use the language of the exercise in order to work on their speaking skills. That will be the subject of my next post. Then, we will move on to the lesson itself.

As you try this in your classes, remember to make the exercise simple, clear, quick to complete, and quick to correct. Your aim is not only the language. Your aim, at this point, is also to have the class work better so that everyone can learn better.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,464 other followers