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Getting the words off the page: an insight into vocabulary

Ahead of his webinar on 7th and 12th February on the same topic, Gareth Davies looks at how to make vocabulary learning inspring and motivating.

I was sitting on a train late last year and I watched a girl do her English homework. She got out a course book, turned to the back and started memorising a list of words for Unit 4. The word list had a date above it, as did previous word lists, suggesting to me that the girl was revising for a test that was coming on Monday morning. The girl read the words, occasionally writing in a translation or stopping to look one up on her phone. This made me a little sad. Obviously to her, (and her teacher?) vocabulary was just a list of words to be learnt for a test; but vocabulary is so much more than that. It’s a bundle of words to be used and consumed, a tool to help you express yourself and your imagination, the very key to successful communication in a language.

How can we change this perception of vocabulary? How can we make vocabulary learning more inspirational? What tools can we give our students to allow them to learn and grow their vocabulary autonomously and not just trudge through a list of words? How can we make vocabulary feel like a bundle of joy, each word like a Christmas present to be unwrapped and discovered?

We are lucky as English teachers that we have so much more than just a school subject on our hands; we have a tool for creativity. But if we are not careful we can turn English into another subject to be endured by the students. In my webinar ‘Getting the words off the page’ I will look at some answers to the questions posed above and think about some practical ways to teach and review vocabulary so the students actively enjoy learning words.

To find out more about teaching vocabulary, register for Gareth’s webinar on 30th January.


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Getting Young Learners to Write

Young boy smiling and writingCharles Vilina, co-author of the forthcoming Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, shares some tips on helping young learners to write well in English. Charles will discuss this topic in more depth in his upcoming webinar, taking place on 21st and 23rd January.

I teach writing to primary students almost every day. Fellow teachers often ask me, “Isn’t it difficult to teach students to write well? I couldn’t do it!”

I understand the sentiment. Of the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), writing is often the most challenging to teach… and to learn. Many people find writing to be difficult even in their native language, so the challenge is even greater for our EFL and ESL students.

Why isn’t writing an easy task?

  • Writing is a productive skill that requires concentration and effort, even for those who write professionally throughout their lives.
  • Writing, like playing a sport or a musical instrument, requires regular practice to do it well. The more often students write, the more likely they are to improve.
  • Writing is a process. Revision is always part of good writing (which is why pencils have erasers), and revision takes patience and effort.
  • Good writing has a very important companion: good reading. Without daily reading across many literary genres and text types, it is difficult for students to develop strong writing skills.

Now for the good news.

There are strategies teachers can apply to make the task of writing easier, clearer, and even enjoyable for our students! Here are three that work especially well in my classes, for both fiction and non-fiction writing tasks:

1. Introduce students to good writing

Fiction:

A good story has the ability to send us on amazing journeys, create strong emotions, and even change the way we look at life. Children need to read good works of fiction, and then always consider the question, “What makes this story so good?” In every class I teach, I try to introduce good fiction, and the love of reading, to my students.

Non-fiction:

In the world of non-fiction, clear and organized writing makes all the difference when learning something new. My students and I read examples of excellent explanatory writing about topics they find interesting. In this way, students learn the best ways to inform others through writing.

2. Motivate students to write about the world around them

Fiction:

“Write what you know about” is excellent advice for a fiction writer. I encourage students to choose a setting that they are familiar with. In this way, they can focus on creating strong characters and an interesting plot within that familiar setting. They are also more able to describe the scenes with greater detail. Later, they go on to create stories in other times and places of their choosing.

Non-fiction:

I first ask my students to write about what they have seen and experienced in their everyday lives, through a personal narrative written in the first person (I). This task teaches them to be observant and aware. They learn to consider all the information that might be useful to the reader (who, what, when, where, why). Students focus on presenting what they know in a clear and organized fashion. Later, they use these skills of clarity and organization to write about subjects outside of their personal experience.

Suggestion:
One simple activity is to think of a clear topic sentence on a theme students know well, such as “I really like English class.” Write this on the board. Then, invite students to give reasons why they like English class, such as, “My teacher is always helpful.” Write these reasons on the board as students say them. After many reasons are listed on the board, ask students to write a paragraph that begins with “I really like English class,” followed by three or four of their favorite reasons.

Mind maps can help students brainstorm what they know, while organizing the information at the same time. For example, students can write and circle the words my school in the center of a sheet of paper. From this circle, lines can be drawn out to subheadings such as my friends, my classes, and my activities. Examples can branch off from those subheadings. This activity can give students a physical profile of what they can write about.

3. Emphasize that good writing is a series of steps

As I mentioned before, writing is a process. We can teach our students to achieve their writing goals more efficiently by following a specific series of steps that will lead them to a stronger piece of writing.

Here are the steps I ask my students to follow in both fiction and non-fiction writing tasks:

  • Brainstorm your ideas first!
    This means to write freely, allowing your ideas to flow without judging or thinking too hard. Fill the page with anything that comes into your mind. This step should be fun and creative.
  • Organize your ideas into groups
    Each group of ideas should center around one main idea. This step also allows you to arrange your ideas in order of importance, and eliminate those ideas you don’t need.
  • Write a paragraph around each group of ideas
    A good paragraph will have one clear main idea, usually stated at the beginning. Continue the paragraph with three or four sentences that support the main idea.
  • Revise your work
    As you read through your paragraphs, ask yourself, “Can I make my topic sentences clearer? Can my supporting sentences be stronger? Are they listed in the best order? Can I find nouns and verbs that are more specific, and adjectives that are more descriptive? Is my grammar and spelling free of errors?”

A final step is often referred to as “publishing” the piece of writing. This step means that students have revised and edited their writing to the best of their abilities, and are now ready to share what they’ve written with the class.

Because each of the above steps is unique, and has specific outcomes, students do not become bored or frustrated with the process. It is best to do the steps over a number of days, so that students can begin each step refreshed and ready to continue.

Suggestion:
After “publishing,” one very effective activity is called peer review. Students read each other’s pieces of writing and then write comments about them. By giving students the responsibility of looking critically at another’s writing, they are able to look more objectively at their own writing.

In closing, I would like to add some final thoughts for teachers:

  • Don’t expect perfection at any level. Writing is a lifelong pursuit, and even the most gifted writers know that they can always do better.
  • Always emphasize the more important writing goals for your students: creativity, clarity, organization, and conciseness.
  • When giving feedback, focus on one area that needs improvement per writing task. For example, does each paragraph have one main idea? Circling every error with red ink will only frustrate students.
  • Whenever possible, for every weakness you point out in a student’s writing, also point out two strengths. Confidence is a prerequisite for all great writing, and we never want to dishearten our students. Stay patient and focused, and you will see real progress over time.

With my best wishes,

Charles Vilina

Would you like more practical tips on encouraging your students to write and developing 21st Century skills with your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

Sign up for a free webinar with Charles Vilina and Natasha Buccianti on getting young learners to write in English on 21 & 23 January 2014.


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#EFLproblems – Motivating Young Learners

Japanese girlWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. In this week’s blog, Verissimo Toste responds to Sylwia’s blog comment about motivating young learners.

I’m interested in the idea of participation points for the class. How does it work? Is it a motivation for the whole class? Are there any awards? I’m asking because I mainly have a problem with involving students in the lesson, especially the weaker ones. They fell behind with grammar and vocabulary and they became discouraged. They are also very lazy.”

Sylwia brought up an interesting issue: involving young learners in the lesson, or more specifically “the weaker ones”. According to Sylwia, these weaker learners “fell behind with grammar and vocabulary and they became discouraged.”

The first point I would like to bring up here is that success motivates, and equally, failure demotivates. If a learners’s previous experience with English has been negative, it is natural that they will give up. So, an important objective for the teacher of young learners is to make everyone feel successful. This is not as difficult as it may seem. Here are some ideas:

1. Focus on what has been learned

Praise learners for their achievements. When teaching colours, for example, focus on the colours each child has learned, not on the ones they still don’t know. Don’t compare them to one another. Relate to each learner individually. Focus on what each learner has achieved and the improvements they have made.

2. Make your classroom safe and supportive

Strive to make your classroom a place your learners enjoy being in. Equally, make your lessons a time your learners look forward to. Encourage them to enjoy the songs they sing, the games they play, the projects they share with each other. Make your lessons fun and have fun with them. When an activity is on the verge of being too difficult or uninteresting, step back. Save it for another time. Children do not learn when they feel stressed or when they don’t like what they are meant to learn.

3.  Children like learning

This is an important point, so I will repeat it: children like learning. It is what they do all day, every day. Children learn what they need to learn. Your learners will enjoy learning a new song. If you ask them to teach that song to their parents, you create a need for them to learn the lyrics. You also create a situation in which they are motivated to learn the song in order to teach someone else. This may create a need for reading the lyrics, or to memorise the song well enough for when they arrive home. Notice how, in this situation, you have also created a need to play the song more than one time, as your learners will need to know it well in order to teach it.

4. Children are natural language learners

Everyone has learned a language. There is no language in the world that is too difficult for a child to learn as their mother tongue. So, children are natural language learners. They will make the effort to learn the new words you are teaching, or some new language structure. They simply need to feel safe, to enjoy it, and to believe they can do it.

Now, more specifically, what can a teacher do to involve all of their learners in the lesson?

5. Personalise the learning

Whatever language you are teaching, see how your learners can use it to talk about themselves and their world. When teaching words associated with the house, relate it to their houses. When teaching abilities with “can”, or possessions with “have got”, relate it to their abilities and their possessions. Young learners like to talk about themselves. When they see English as a way to talk about their interests, they will become more motivated and will make a greater effort.

6. Each according to their ability

As your learners are learning the language, relate to each according to their ability. Antonio may tell you a lot of things he has got and, in this way, use most of the language you have been teaching. Ana, however, may only tell you about a few things. In both cases, praise them for what they have done. This will encourage Ana to continue learning. She will notice how others communicate more and be encouraged to learn more. Remember, success leads to success. If Ana feels successful, she will continue to make an effort.

7. Praise them! Reward them!

Establish a system for rewarding your learners for their efforts. Rewards should be based on effort and not knowledge. Make sure that everyone is able to get the reward if they try. For example, in my classes I create an honour board called, “I Am Special”. Let’s imagine I am teaching likes and dislikes, with the vocabulary related to food. The first week anyone who can name 5 different food items without looking at the book gets their name on the board. Two weeks later it might be those who can tell me 3 food items they like and three they don’t like.

8. Give them the opportunity to succeed.

Give your learners a second and third opportunity to succeed. Maria may not be able to name 5 food items the first week, but during the second week she is able to. That’s when you put her name on the honour board. Eventually, you may see everyone’s name on the board. Great! Congratulate the class on how well they are doing – all of them!

9. Establish routines

Establish a routine in class. This will help communicate to your learners what is expected of them. How should they enter the classroom? What is the first thing they should do as they come in? What do you want to see on their desks? What do you not want to see? Do they put away their books? Establish some definitions for working together, raising hands, etc.

10. Use project work

Finally, since Sylwia mentioned weaker learners and the idea of mixed ability, I always recommend that teachers use project work for these situations. I mentioned that personalising learning helps motivate children to learn. Using project work can give learners a basis to use the English they are learning. For example, when learning “can” for abilities, learners can make a poster of what they can do. Using images will reinforce learning. The project gives everyone an opportunity to show what they have learned. Making it personal and sharing the information with others in the class will engage them in their learning and make the language real.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about getting young learners involved, so please comment on this post.

Please keep your challenges coming. You can let us know by commenting on this post, on Twitter using the hashtag #EFLproblems, or on our Facebook page. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.

Here are the topics for the next two blogs:

04 December 2013: Learning English beyond the exams
18 December 2013: Written self-correction for younger learners


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Getting the hares back in the race

Student asleep in classAhead of his talk at IATEFL Liverpool, Edmund Dudley looks at ways of motivating certain difficult types of teenage learners.

I have two types of teenage student.

First, there are the tortoises. They feel they do not have enough English lessons in a week. Whatever their level of English might be, they feel it is not good enough – or that they will never be good enough to have a conversation with a native speaker or to enjoy a film in English. They feel slow and awkward.

I know how to work with this kind of student – and how important it is to be patient, encouraging and supportive. I think we all do.

What about the second type?

The second type are the hares. They are the ones who feel that they have too many English lessons in a week. They are happy with their level of English – in fact, they are in a kind of comfort zone. They can speak well in class – when they feel like it. They watch films and TV series in English outside class without much difficulty. They like and value English. They just don’t want to spend time studying  English in class. They would rather sleep!

Does that sound familiar?

If so, here are some questions to consider. What is the best way to work with teenagers like this? How can we get them out of their comfort zone? Is there any way to help them rediscover their appetite for learning English? How can we get them back in the race?

Over the years I have had to work with a lot of hares. It is quite a challenge.

Tortoises tend to be pretty hard on themselves; hares, on the other hand, give themselves an easy ride. In order to motivate them, we need to be able devise tasks and activities that appeal to their sense of challenge, relevance, value and novelty.

My session will consider these key concepts in the context of the classroom and will illustrate  them with practical examples taken from my own classroom in Pécs, Hungary.

So what can you expect?

Challenge

We will look at an innovative way of getting students to give presentations in class. Prepare for PowerPoint shows as you have never seen them done before!

Relevance

Can I get a witness? How accurate would you be if you had to give an eyewitness account? There will be a chance for you to test your own powers of observation – and hear about an idea that will put your students in the witness box.

Value

‘What do you want to do?’ is a question frequently associated with the learner-centred teacher. I will be trying to put a new spin on this question, to give it new significance by sharing a simple but striking way to highlight community connections and promote real awareness among students.

Novelty

Try talking about learning strategies and study skills to your students – and watch their eyes glaze over. I will be sharing a novel technique for displaying notes and answering language questions that help students to go with the flow.

So whether your teenage students are tortoises, hares – or a combination of both – I hope there will be something in the workshop to help keep them in the race!

Ideas and activities in the session will be linked to OUP’s insight series.

Edmund Dudley will be talking about High-Achieving Secondary Students: An Insight into Motivation and Challenge at IATEFL Liverpool on Thursday 11th April in Hall 13 at 2:45pm. You can also find him at Ed in the crowds, his personal blog.


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Recognition and motivation

Audience applaudingFiona Thomas is an EFL blogger and Director of Education at Net Languages, a large online language school. Here she considers the importance of recognition and motivation for teachers to excel at their jobs.

How appreciated do you feel in your job? It doesn’t matter what position you hold, everybody likes to feel that their colleagues, boss and people they are responsible for appreciate them when they work hard and do their job well. However, too many teachers and managers suffer from the frustration of feeling that what they do goes unrecognised and unappreciated.

Why is recognition so important? Frederick Herzberg spent much of his professional life researching what motivates people in the work place. His findings show that when a person is recognised for a high level of performance at work, this has a powerful effect on motivation (Herzberg, 1987).

He distinguished between what he classified as hygiene factors and motivational factors. Hygiene factors are those factors which need to be in place for us to be able to do our job.  If these factors are not satisfactorily covered, they will cause anxiety, distract us from our job and lead to demotivation and general dissatisfaction – e.g. if we do not earn enough money to cover our general needs and expenses, we will not be able to focus on our work. However, these factors do not actually motivate us – e.g. if we are given a pay increase (money is a hygiene factor), the effect of the pay rise on our motivation is, in theory, very short-lived. We soon get used to earning more money and as a consequence, its effectiveness in terms of motivation is soon lost.

Motivational factors, on the other hand, are factors which make a difference to how the worker feels about their job in a longer lasting way. Herzberg cited the following areas as motivational: achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, and advancement. These, therefore, are the areas that language schools need to focus on in order to motivate the people who work there. And of these factors recognition is arguably one of the easiest to apply.

Recognition needs to happen all the way down the hierarchical ladder of any organisation, from Directors to DOSs and other managers, to level coordinators and to teachers. If the person who is directly responsible for us does not seem to notice or care when we perform outstandingly, we understandably feel unappreciated. This in turn can affect our work performance to the detriment of the organisation we work for.

Recognition from colleagues or those higher up the ladder can also be very effective at motivating us. This, I believe, tends to happen most in a climate where there is a general sense of well-being and appreciation within an organisation. People who work in an environment where recognition is part of the institutional culture are much more likely to reciprocate in kind.

Interestingly, people often receive more recognition from their PLNs (personal learning networks) than from the place where they work. The growth in online PLN communities has helped to provide the support and recognition which helps teachers and managers to develop as professionals, especially when this is lacking in the institutions that employ them. It seems, however, such a wasted opportunity that this potential is not exploited positively by these organisations.

It is somewhat ironic that teachers are trained to give praise, recognition and encouragement to their students (sometimes in excess, according to Jim Scrivener, but this is part of a different debate). However, when these teachers are promoted to management positions, they tend to forget to apply the same good practice to the people they are now responsible for. Managers seem to have become so busy directing or managing in their new positions that they forget to apply the same basic effective principles they used when managing students in a class.

If we strive to have vibrant, high-quality language organisations, the motivation of students, teachers, managers, and all other staff is an essential part of good management practice. If we accept that taking the time to recognise good work can make a significant difference to people’s levels of motivation, then language organisations would be well advised to make sure that the recognition of people’s merits, initiatives and hard work becomes part of their institutional culture.

Reference:

Herzberg, F.I. 1987, ‘One more time: How do you motivate employees?’, Harvard Business Review, Sep/Oct87, Vol. 65 Issue 5, p109-120

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