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#EFLproblems – Motivating Intermediate Students

College student smiling holding booksWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Verissimo Toste responds to Ageliki Asteri’s Facebook comment about motivating Intermediate students.

Ageliki wrote:

How can I motivate a teen advanced level student to do better as this level is demanding to achieve a certificate and the students is ok with his intermediate plateau?”

This is probably a situation familiar to many teachers and my first consideration is to question why the student is satisfied with their intermediate level. If a student is in a class at upper-intermediate to advanced level, it is because that student has goals he or she wants to achieve. Tapping into these goals, and into that motivation, will enable teachers to help these students.

Set goals

I would suggest that first we need to make such students aware of what they still need to achieve. This could be in the form of informal quizzes or simple self-awareness. From this awareness, students should be encouraged to set goals for both language and skills development. Depending on the age of the students, I would make the goals short term so that students can feel they are progressing. This should give them confidence to set new goals and work to achieve them.

Focus on using the language

Students may feel they know the language, even about the language, but can they use it to communicate real information about themselves and their world? While expanding their knowledge of language, including revision of what they have already learned, encourage them to use it. It is one thing to be able to understand the present perfect, even to manipulate the different forms, but it is quite another to be able to use it to talk about life experiences and achievements.

Whenever I ask my students to talk about what they feel they have achieved in their lives, even those who are able to communicate this, do so without using the present perfect tense. They are usually surprised when I tell them and make an added effort to use it next time. Writing tasks in which they share their work, or freer speaking activities – like discussions, simulations, or debates – challenge students to use the language they have learned. Encourage students to be both more fluent and more accurate when using the language.

Challenge them to be better

I set up a class library in a class of about 25 Intermediate students with the aim of providing them with more contact with English through extensive reading. I did not test their reading, but often discussed how they were enjoying their books. They seemed very satisfied. I could have left it at that but I knew the readers series I was using was accompanied by a series of quizzes to test reading level. I told my students about this and asked if they wanted to take the quiz to see what their reading level was. They all agreed. I gave them the quiz, but before returning their scores, I asked each to write in their notebooks what mark they would be satisfied with as a percentage.

19 students out of the 25 received marks below what they expected. They were all high marks and, in general, they were very good readers. However, the quizzes showed them they were not really understanding (and enjoying) as much as they could. Equally important, they were not taking advantage of their reading to learn more.

This simple activity was enough for those students to come out of their intermediate complacency and work to improve.

Encourage independent learning

Many times students simply rely on the opinion of the teacher for how well they are doing. Too many times this attitude also includes passing the responsibility to the teacher for the whole class. However, it is important to encourage students to become independent learners.

Develop in your students the capacity to monitor their own language. Did they say what they wanted to say? Or did they avoid certain topics because they didn’t have the language? Encourage them to notice the kinds of mistakes they may be making. Are they mistakes they could correct themselves, but have left it for the teacher to do so?

As I have mentioned before, challenge them to be accurate, as well as fluent. Help them notice the difference between the English they use and the English of more advanced learners. At times, give them work that is well above their level. If students are studying for an exam, give them a mock exam at the beginning of the year. Let them see what they will be working towards in their English classes.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of motivating Intermediate students? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks.


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Webinar: Leading a horse to water and making it drink!

Olha Madylus, a teacher and teacher trainer specialising in both primary and secondary education, introduces her upcoming webinar entitled ‘Leading a horse to water and making it drink‘ on 5th and 7th March, where she will explore ways to motivate students to read and enjoy doing so.

How do we motivate our students to read long texts in course books and how do we ensure that students understand and enjoy what they read?

To our students a long text in a course book can be very off-putting. Not only does the length put them off but it may contain a lot of vocabulary they are not acquainted with and the tasks they need to do, e.g. answer comprehension questions, may seem too difficult.

Using examples from the Insight series, my webinar on reading aims to address these issues by answering the following questions:

  1. What is reading?
  2. What makes a text difficult and off-putting for students?
  3. What can we do before looking at the text to increase motivation to read and to prepare students for potential difficulties like a lot of new vocabulary
  4. What strategies can students employ to get a ‘feel’ of the text when they first meet it, putting into to context, to make reading easier
  5. How can skimming a text effectively help students understand text organisation in order to better navigate it
  6. What do students need to know about syntax, discourse markers and cohesive devices that will make reading easier
  7. How can students deal with new vocabulary within a text?
  8. How can students be encouraged to ‘read between the lines’, identifying implications in order to make inferences
  9. How can we personalise response to texts, to ensure that students do really think about its meaning, rather than just try to get to the end of the activity.
  10.  How can reading be more rewarding and more fun?

So, if you teach reading skills and want some ideas on how to make your teaching more effective and reading lessons more motivating for students, do join me in this webinar.


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#EFLproblems – Teaching the over 50s

Older man with Help Me signWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Simone’s blog comment requesting extra hints for teaching the over 50s. Stacey Hughes from the Professional Development Team responds.

Hi, My name is Simone and I run a prime school for seniors, they complain a lot about understanding and using the language abroad. Do you have any extra hints for teaching people over 50 years old?”

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or so the saying goes, though perhaps the adage, “you’re never too old to learn” is more accurate. While older learners may face some hurdles younger learners don’t, the lifetime of learning through experience that they bring to the class makes them, in some ways, better learners. They have learning skills they may not recognise – the ability to solve problems and think critically, for example. They may have a clear perception of their own strengths and weaknesses or they may have strategies from learning another language in the past.

Perhaps the biggest advantage adults have is their positive motivation: they have chosen to learn or they have an expectation of what they want to do with the language they are learning. This means that they want learning to be applicable to their lives. If, as a teacher, you can show this link, you will have very enthusiastic students!

Here are some tips for teaching older learners:

Make sure learning meets needs

Find out about your learners’ goals and expectations. What do they want English for? How fluent do they hope to be? What problems do they have when reading/ writing/ listening to and speaking English? A simple checklist and follow-up discussion can go a long way in clarifying what your students want and will show them that you are interested in making the lessons applicable to their needs.

Make lessons immediately applicable

Adult learners are unlikely to be learning for learning’s sake. They want to be able to use what they have learned in real situations, so they are unlikely to want to learn language that they don’t perceive as useful for them or that seems a waste of time.

Use activities where learners can use their strengths

Some research suggests that older learners may not be as fast at rote learning as younger learners, and they may not learn as quickly. However, they will be very good at the types of problem solving and critical thinking activities they employ in everyday life and work. Use role play and simulations to practice language and provide lots of opportunities for discussion in small groups. Older learners are also good at reflection, so after a discussion activity, ask them to say what they did well and how they think they can improve on their weaknesses.

Create a comfortable atmosphere

Older learners have a certain status, so putting them into a classroom situation where they feel belittled or where their life experience is unappreciated will hinder learning. Create a classroom where learners feel comfortable about making mistakes. Build confidence through praise and encouragement. Set achievable goals and help learners see when they have reached them. One useful strategy is to tell learners about your own embarrassing experiences when using a language abroad (we all have them!). This can help them see that everyone makes mistakes and that it is OK. It may also help to point out that most people are forgiving of language mistakes and appreciate the effort learners make when speaking their language.

Not too fast, but not too slow either

How demotivating it is to feel confident when listening in class, but find that in the ‘real world’ of films and native speakers, people just speak too quickly! By all means, build listening skills with materials in class, but teach students to listen to authentic texts, too. Help them feel confident in knowing that, even if they can’t understand every word, they can get the main ideas. Point out websites where students can listen to newscasts and podcasts, especially when they are relevant and topical. So, for example, ask students to familiarize themselves with today’s news in their L1, then ask them to listen to an international newscast giving the same news, but in English. Or point them to a podcast that gives information related to an individual student’s line of work or expertise. Encourage film buffs to watch films in English with the English subtitles on for extra support.

Capitalize on learners’ experiences and interests

Learners naturally want to talk about what they are interested in, and adults have a wealth of experience to bring to the classroom. Extend course materials when necessary so that you can bring in more vocabulary and structures students need in order to be able to talk about things they want to talk about.

Make lessons practical and authentic

If your learners need to be able to use English abroad, then teach the language they will need to use abroad. This is applicable at any level. For example, at a lower level, you might help students understand train and airline announcements, language for commercial transactions and directions, etc. Higher level students may wish to understand and be able to discuss news and current events when abroad, so build in lesson time for this. Supplement and extend course materials with relevant materials from the web. For example, supplement a unit on sports with sports news, blogs or gossip about sports figures, podcasts or news about the impact of sporting events in the local area – whatever is current and relevant and of interest to the students.

Make use of 24/7

Adult learners are generally willing to learn anywhere at any time, so provide plenty of materials for them to continue learning outside of class. Many course materials have online components, but students can also listen to English on their smartphones on the bus or to a CD/ MP3 player while driving. Those who love fiction can be given graded readers to read at home, or they can listen to downloaded audiobooks. Those who like writing can communicate by posting comments on blogs or by writing emails to another student in class.

Revise, revise, revise

Older learners may need more revision than younger ones, so build in plenty of revision. This doesn’t mean repeating lessons. Find new contexts and situations for your students to use the language they have learned. Don’t be afraid to repeat listening texts again for revision in the next lesson, especially at the lower levels.

Have fun

Adult learners are likely to be learning in their own time and may be attending classes partly for social reasons. It is obviously important to set learning goals, but you can still have fun reaching them.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about teaching the over 50s, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 24 January at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. 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.


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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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