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Get ready for the 2015 Cambridge English: First exam

Open water by mountain rangeSage Stevens, Assessment Support Manager in the Assessment Materials division of ELT at OUP, looks at the main changes to the 2015 specifications of the Cambridge English: First exams. Sage will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 23rd May.

As many of you will be aware, the specifications for Cambridge English: First (FCE) and Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) are changing in 2015. For those of you feeling somewhat at sea about just how these changes will impact on your teaching I will be hosting a webinar which will hopefully leave you feeling less ‘Lost at Sea’ and more ‘Fancy a swim?’. In other words, I hope to help navigate you through the changes so that you can prepare your students with confidence to sit these examinations in 2015 and beyond.

I am an Assessment Support Manager in the Assessment Materials division at OUP, but prior to this role I was a writing examiner for Cambridge ESOL CAE, FCE, BEC (Vantage) and others for a number of years.

I hope to share with you my experience in assessment and also my knowledge of Oxford’s new preparation and practice materials for the Cambridge English: First exam from 2015, which I have been actively involved in developing.

My webinar on the 23rd May will cover the following areas:

  • An overview of the main changes to the 2015 FCE exam. This will include looking at how the previously separate Reading and Use of English papers have been combined into one, without losing any of the integrity of the separate papers.
  • We will then focus in a bit more on changes to the Writing and Speaking papers. We will explore what teachers and candidates can expect with the new format, word count and rubric for the Writing paper, and we’ll look at the changes to interaction patterns and stimuli in the Speaking paper.
  • Throughout, I’ll be using examples of activities from the new editions of Cambridge English: First Masterclass and Result Student’s Books, and the Online Practice material that accompanies these courses – all designed to help you to prepare your students successfully for the tasks in the 2015 exam.

The webinar will be vibrant and informative. Participants will have the opportunity to put forward their views, participate in polling activities, and answer questions to ensure that the information is understood and clear. I look forward to meeting you!

To find out more about the changes to the Cambridge English: First exams, register for Sage’s webinar on 23rd May.


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Helping students to use good grammar when they speak

Word grammar spelt in scrabble lettersHow can we help students speak and learn grammar at the same time? Susan Earle-Carlin, author of Q: Skills for Success Listening and Speaking 5, provides tips for helping students use good grammar in their speaking.

Speaking, like writing, requires good grammar in order to communicate a message clearly. I sometimes use an analogy with my students to compare readers and listeners with passengers on a tour bus. Too many grammar mistakes, like too many bumps and detours in the road, will turn their attention away from what’s important towards how uncomfortable they feel and whether they will ever reach the end. So the question is, how can we help students use good grammar while not inhibiting them while they are speaking?

Control the grammar output

  • Make activities appropriate for the grammar level of the students. Ask beginners to describe the food in their home country, but have advanced students compare their class in English with one in another field.
  • Direct the students to target a certain grammar point in speaking. For example, ask students to talk about the objects in the classroom (singular/plural nouns and determiners), explain what is going on in their school at the moment (present progressive), or describe a scene using three adjectives and three adverbs (word form). Review the grammar first to optimize success and follow-up with some global comments on that grammar point, not singling out any particular student.

Provide practice

  • Give students lots of opportunities to speak in small groups without teacher intervention. However, remind listeners to ask questions if they don’t understand something the speaker says.
  • Allow students to practice a presentation with peers to help reduce the stress most ELLs have about speaking in front of the class. Less nervousness usually results in better grammar.
  • Encourage students to record and listen to their presentations for practice. Tell them to write down a sentence they have grammar questions on and give them the opportunity to ask you or the class for advice before presentation day.

Provide feedback

  • Interrupting students who are speaking to provide feedback is too negative. Instead, record their small group discussions or presentations. Listen to the recordings in conferences with individual students to discuss problems and suggest ways to improve grammar.
  • If students can have access to the recordings, assign a transcript for homework and tell students to circle and correct their grammar errors. Check them over and make suggestions on grammar areas to review.


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#EFLproblems – Monitoring pair work

Two men talkingWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Stacey Hughes responds to Susanna’s blog comment about monitoring pair work.

Susanna wrote:

I wonder what the best way is to monitor pair work effectively. I use pair work because it helps students get used to speaking; however, I am aware that they may be making a lot of mistakes which I don’t have the opportunity to correct. Not all students are willing or able to correct their partner’s errors. Have you any advice on how to ‘listen in’ to six pairs of speakers?”

Susanna’s question is a common one: we put our students in pairs to discuss a topic, but we can’t monitor what they are saying, so we don’t know if they are making mistakes that we need to correct.

To answer the question, we first need to establish why we ask students to discuss something in pairs to begin with. At the heart of the matter is whether the purpose of the pair work activity is for speaking practice. The majority of the time, the purpose of discussion in pairs is for students to get more practice speaking in English, to build their fluency. In this case we need to ask ourselves: Do I need to correct every problem?

Since pair work discussion is primarily for fluency, not accuracy, the best thing to do is to let the students communicate with each other without the interference of the teacher. This can make some teachers (and students) uncomfortable. They may feel like they aren’t doing their ‘job’ properly if they aren’t correcting or seen to be correcting.

Here are some tips for pair work:

1.Outline the benefits of pair work

Make it clear to the students when they are meant to be practicing their accuracy and when they are meant to be working on fluency. Better yet, make the communication task so engaging that students will want to try to contribute something meaningful to the conversation.

2.Encourage clarification-seeking

Teach students some communication strategies such as asking for clarification (Sorry, did you mean….?; Can you explain….please?) and checking understanding (Do you see what I mean?). These phrases can be posted on the wall for students to refer to during communication activities.

3. Let them talk

Students need to learn to solve communication problems on their own – this is part of the learning speaking process. They also need to learn to do it on their own – to build their confidence in their speaking abilities.

4. Monitor but don’t interfere

One strategy many teachers use is eavesdropping – listen to the conversations and make a note of any important errors or vocabulary issues. Make a note of good use of language, too. At the end of the activity, write the mistakes on the board (without saying who said the sentence!) and get the students to correct. This will be much more memorable to the students than stopping them in mid thought will be, when their focus is on trying to get their message out. By doing it at the end, students can be more focused on correcting the mistake.  Be sure to point out any good language use so that students can also see what they did right!

5. Develop your eavesdropping technique

If you are standing near one pair, listen to another. Do this so that the pair you are nearest doesn’t get nervous and stop talking.

6. Answer student questions quickly, then move away

If a student has a question about how to say something, help him or her out, then move on so that the pair can continue their conversation.

7.Let them know that mistakes are OK

Teach students the importance of trying to say something even if it’s not completely accurate. Some students don’t want to say anything unless it is correct. This may mean they are accurate, but not able to say much at all. Help them understand the importance of getting their message across. Make sure the classroom is a ‘safe’ place to try out language and make mistakes.

8. Ask students to reflect on their own performance

After the activity, ask students to make a note of anything they wanted to say but couldn’t. At this point you can help them create the phrase they needed. Ask students if they noticed when they made a mistake and if they were able to self-correct at any time. This kind of reflection on performance can help students be more self-aware and independent.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of monitoring pair work? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.  You can also take part in our live Facebook chat on Thursday 6th March from 12:00 – 13:00 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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Creativity in the young learner classroom

Young girl filming with iPhoneCharles Vilina and Kathleen Kampa, authors of the new Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, share teaching ideas on an important 21st Century skill: creativity.

Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
Albert Einstein

We’re very happy to be sharing our thoughts and ideas about creativity with you, because it is such a natural and motivating skill to develop in our young learners. Creative activities are fun and engaging for our students. They take learning far beyond the simple tasks of understanding and memorizing. In fact, it is the highest order thinking skill, as Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy illustrates below:

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy

Creativity is an essential skill (along with critical thinking, collaboration, and communication) that students need in order to be successful in the 21st Century. Creative students are better at making changes, solving new problems, expressing themselves through the arts, and more.

How important is creativity?

In one of his TED talks, education scholar Sir Ken Robinson says:

Creativity now is as important in education as literacy. We should treat it with the same status.”

Creativity is a natural ability that is found in every young learner. Unfortunately, traditional classrooms don’t always value creativity, and sometimes even hold it back. Our role as teachers is to nurture creativity at every opportunity.

Consider the following:

  • Creativity develops when students are able to analyze the information they’ve learned, make new connections with that information, come up with new ideas, and evaluate their choices.
  • To nurture creativity, students need the freedom to offer ideas and express themselves without judgment. In a creative classroom, all contributions from students are welcomed.
  • Creativity requires the courage to make mistakes. Sir Ken Robinson states, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
  • Creativity and innovation go hand-in-hand. David Hughes, founder of Decision Labs and professor at UNC Chapel Hill, feels that innovation is essential for our global economy.

What are the qualities of a creative classroom?

  1. Teachers and students ask open-ended questions that encourage curiosity and creativity.
  2. Students brainstorm as many ideas as possible without fear of being judged or being wrong. Students then go on to choose the best ideas and improve upon them.
  3. Students demonstrate creativity not only individually, but with partners and in small groups. Ideas are generated and assessed collaboratively.
  4. Students lead the learning and work together to complete projects. These projects help students take the information they have learned and present it in new and creative ways.

How can you nuture creativity in your classroom?

Let’s look at some specific ways to nurture creativity in your classroom, starting with one of the building blocks of language learning:

Phonics

Learning about letter shapes and names can be creative! When your young learners are introduced to letters, try this activity to build their creativity. Write the letters one by one on the board and ask the following questions:

Can you make the letter _(b)_ with your fingers? With your hands? With your whole body? With a partner?

When you first do this task, you might model how students could do this. Think out loud. Let’s see. Letter b is round and straight. How about like this? Or like this? Then your students are ready to try their own ideas.

Words

Vocabulary words can be taught in many creative ways. For example, verbs such as walk, tiptoe, and skate can be learned more deeply by inviting students to move in creative ways. Questions might include:

  • Show me what it’s like to walk in deep snow. Show me how you might walk on hot sand.
  • Imagine that you’re tiptoeing past a sleeping polar bear.
  • We’re on a frozen lake in Antarctica. Let’s skate with the penguins!

As you can see, creativity and imagination are closely related.

Other words such as nouns and adjectives can be presented creatively through facial expressions and body language, through movement, and even through dramatic skits.

Grammar

Grammar is often considered to be a logical and unimaginative part of English. However, grammar can be very creative as it is expressed in songs, poetry, and storytelling. Look for opportunities to build creative skills along with grammar skills.

Here’s a fun and creative way to teach not only grammar and speaking skills, but math as well! It’s taken from Oxford Discover Student Book 2, Unit 8:

Oxford Discover SB2 Unit 8 speaking activity

The above activity combines the logical thinking from math with the imaginative thinking from poetry. Students have a great time substituting the animals and numbers in the poem with their own creative ideas, while at the same time presenting a logical math problem.

Big Questions

Oxford Discover offers an inquiry-based approach to learning that allows students to consider big questions with many answers. Students are allowed to come up with their own additional questions. This process is creative as well as motivating for students.

Consider this Big Question from Oxford Discover Student Book 3: How do people have fun?

Students explore the many ways that people have fun around the world. The discussion may turn to the subject of celebrations. Students may explore the following questions:

  • What is a celebration?
  • What are some ways that people celebrate around the world?
  • What do people celebrate in your area? How do they celebrate?
  • What is needed to make a celebration successful?

As students explore these questions and find answers, they process the information by analyzing and evaluating what they have learned. Finally, they should be given an opportunity to create.

One suggestion is to get students working together to plan a celebration. They must determine:

  • What are we celebrating?
  • What is our celebration called?
  • Who is invited?
  • How will we celebrate?
  • What will we need to prepare?

As students plan, they also create. Students might create a poster, gather materials for their celebration, or even write a short play. Finally, they share what they have planned with the rest of the class.

In summary

A creative classroom is a joyful and motivating place where children feel empowered to learn, where all ideas are welcomed, and where learning is deep and meaningful. Children who are allowed to be creative are better learners, and they are more aware of their own learning styles. Creativity is a lifelong skill that our students will take with them into their adult lives to solve problems and help build a better world.

We’d like to conclude with a powerful quote from Robert Fisher in his IATEFL address entitled, “Expanding Minds: Developing Creative Thinking in Young Learners”:

What promotes creativity is a questioning classroom where teachers and pupils value diversity, ask unusual and challenging questions; make new connections; represent ideas in different ways – visually, physically and verbally; try fresh approaches and solutions to problems; and critically evaluate new ideas and actions.”

Thank you, and happy teaching!

Would you like more practical tips on developing 21st Century skills in 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 How to use creativity in the classroom on 18 and 20 March 2014.


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Webinar: Prepare your Foundation-level students for IELTS success

Older man interviewing young womanNick Thorner explores the challenges of preparing Foundation-level students for IELTS from his webinars on 21 February and 7 March entitled ‘Prepare your Foundation-level students for IELTS success’. Watch a recording here.

In my experience, what really worries students about the IELTS exam isn’t their grammar or their vocabulary – it’s having nothing to say. They worry about tricky Speaking Part 3 questions such as: ‘What can governments do to promote international cooperation?’ or Writing Part 2 topics with a word they haven’t studied before, such as ‘obesity’ or ‘rehabilitation’.

Often students have never thought of such questions and topics, and even if they have, they’ve never tried to discuss them in English. And of course their IELTS score suffers as a result: I find that when students are less confident or don’t have great ideas their pronunciation becomes flat and they start hesitating or repeating ideas.

The fact is that knowledge itself, or at least the confidence that comes with having it, underpins a successful IELTS performance. But do we teach students knowledge, or even how to access knowledge and express it?

I think too often the texts and materials we work with have arcane topics that don’t challenge our students to think, respond or engage personally. IELTS lessons should be a window on the world that will fill students’ minds with ideas and provoke them to respond at every turn, making them confident and enthusiastic candidates.

In my upcoming webinar, I’ll be showing you how you can help your students to build the confidence they need to express world knowledge and discuss it. I hope you can join me.


Nick ThornerNick Thorner is co-author of Foundation IELTS Masterclass. He lives and works in Oxford, where he has been teaching IELTS courses for several years. He is also an experienced IELTS examiner.

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