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EAP in the classroom Part Three – Developing student independence

EAP in the classroom  - Developing student independenceIn the last of a three-part series on teaching EAP, Edward de Chazal, a freelance consultant, author and presenter, looks at effective strategies to help students work more independently. 

In English language teaching in general, and EAP in particular, independence is talked about a lot. Teachers say they want their students to ‘be more independent’ and ‘work more independently’. But what does this mean, and how can it happen?

Student independence is a major aim of EAP – eventually, when they are studying in their departments, students need a significant degree of independence in order to function effectively and succeed. Typically, most of their EAP input takes place before they start their academic programme, so EAP teachers need to use materials which lead to independence. For instance, rather than presenting one particular reading text for intensive focus – an inward-looking task – a more outward-looking task would enable students to learn skills and techniques which they can independently apply to other texts.

Independence is both an abstract concept – a ‘state of mind’ perhaps – and a physical concept. Ultimately, students need to become independent of their (EAP) teachers, the timetabled lessons, and the materials. Put simply, the independent student no longer needs to be told when to study, how to learn, and what to focus on. They have become skilled at searching for source texts, selecting and evaluating what they read, and processing parts of the material into their own new texts such as essays and presentations. Linguistically, cognitively, and academically, these are complex processes.

Relying on teacher input

A key point about independence is that for many students it doesn’t just happen. The role of the EAP teacher is vital: paradoxically, significant teacher input is needed for student independence to develop, especially in its early stages.

To illustrate this, I’d like to use an example from my own education. When I was studying English Literature at grammar school (an old-fashioned type of secondary school; there aren’t many grammar schools left now), we had to analyse poems. We had never seen these poems before (they were known as ‘unseen’), and they were quite difficult. Early on in the process, our teacher would try to elicit meanings, using questions like ‘What does this mean?’, ‘Why is the poet using this word here?’, and ‘What does this line suggest to you?’ Yet at this stage the teacher did most of the explaining – we listened carefully and read closely, and by the end of the lesson we were able to understand the poem pretty well. However, I remember wondering how I would ever be able to analyse a poem myself – independently – it just seemed too difficult without the support of the teacher. This story has a happy ending: gradually we did learn how to analyse an unseen poem, and most of us in the class achieved a very high grade in our A-level exam. Significantly, this skill is transferable: poems are not the only things I can analyse.

This example tells us several things. The teacher has a key role to play, and they need to use appropriate yet challenging materials. There has to be sufficient support and staging, particularly earlier on in the process of becoming more independent. Independence takes time to develop, and students will develop at different speeds and in different ways.

Developing student independence

Conversely, if the teacher continues to do too much, their students might remain over-reliant and excessively dependent. In order to become more independent, students need to be engaged with the material, and become more responsible. In this context responsibility means taking the initiative – finding new texts, and using the available resources and technologies.

We’ve incorporated many of these ideas into Oxford EAP. The theme of the final unit in Oxford EAP Upper-Intermediate/B2 is ‘Independence’, and the lecture in this unit presents many of the ideas in this article. Integrated throughout the different levels of the Oxford EAP series are Independent Study tasks, which ask students to go and find out something new. Similarly, the sequences of tasks in the skills modules are designed to be transferable, so that the student can apply the similar techniques to new contexts. The independent student has an initiating approach to their learning; they are resourceful, reflective, and critical. They like to go beyond what the teacher and the materials require them to do. In short, the ultimate goal of EAP is independence, and with good materials and teaching, it is highly achievable.

 

This article first appeared in the February 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults,subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.

 


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Help! My students think their course book is too easy

ESL course book too easyWhat can you do if some of your students find the course book you are using too easy? Ken Wilson, the main author of Smart Choice Second Edition, shares his ideas.

I recently got this message from a teacher:

Hello Ken. I was wondering if you could answer a question. How can a teacher deal with using a course book that the students find too easy? My colleague is using Smart Choice Starter (an excellent series, by the way), but some of the students think it’s too easy. What advice do you have for her? Thanks in advance!

I imagine a lot of teachers find the book they are using too easy or too difficult for their class. Or for some of the class. So here are a couple of ideas to do something about it, assuming that changing the book or moving certain students to a different level are not options.

The book seems too easy for all/most of the class

Let’s imagine that you realise after a couple of weeks that the book you are using seems to be ‘too easy’, which basically means that the students already ‘know’ the new vocabulary and grammar content, or at least they think they do. A possible solution may be for pairs or groups of students to take responsibility for presenting some of the ‘new’ material to the rest of the class. Let’s say there are twelve units in the book and you’ve reached Unit 2, so there are ten to go. It’s clear by now that the book isn’t challenging them enough. Tell them – in their own language if necessary – that from now on, you would like them to be responsible for the presentation of some of the new material in the remaining units.

Put the students in pairs or groups of three, you decide which is best. Ask them to work together in their groups and look at all the remaining units in the book – give them 10-15 minutes to do this. Tell them to choose a unit that they would like to present. They should then tell the rest of the class what the new vocabulary is and POSSIBLY what the new grammar point is. It really doesn’t matter if there are too many or not enough students for each pair/group to have their own unit to present. The process is more important than the end product.

I have met teachers who express concern about their students looking at units later in the book. What if they’re too difficult? To these teachers I say – do you REALLY think you students haven’t already looked at every page in the book? They usually do it as soon as they get it, mainly to see if there are any interesting images. So stop worrying about that.

After they’ve had a chance to look at all the units, ask them which one they would like to present. Often more than one group will want to present the same unit, so they have to decide who does it. Let them decide by tossing a coin, arm-wrestling, whatever.  There will be some units that no one wants to present. Ask them why. If the answer is that the material looks boring, then you are well within your rights not to do those units. You should find alternative material to present the lexis, grammar and skills practice. And send a note to the publisher telling them what your students thought. Authors and publishers need lots of feedback, and teacher feedback is an essential part of the process of improving material for the next edition. It’s even better if the teachers are passing on the thoughts of their students. But let’s imagine at least some of the groups agree to present the material in different units. How should they do it? My suggestion is that they do it without the book.

In Smart Choice, the first page of each unit is devoted to presenting a new lexical set. Ask the students to find images of the key vocabulary from another source – Google images is a good place to start. Another excellent source of freely available photographic material is ELTpics (http://www.eltpics.com), a collection of thematically arranged photographs compiled and curated by ELT professionals. The point is, you should encourage your students to start the presentation with some graphics as back-up, preferably using PowerPoint, keynote or Prezi – whatever the students are familiar with. Some of the lexical sets may be more easily presented using mime or acting out techniques. Encourage the students to explore that possibility, too.

Let’s imagine a group of students have agreed to present the vocabulary from the next unit. Remind them at the end of the previous class and check that they have prepared the material for their presentation. The class begins. You ask the two or three students to take over. It’s an interesting moment – the presenters are a bit nervous and the rest of the class are a bit curious. The atmosphere is already much more interesting than it might be if you were doing all the teaching yourself! For guidance, tell the presenters to try to find out what the other students already know, showing them images or acting out/miming to illustrate the new words. Explain that ‘eliciting’ new words/phrases is a good way to start.

If the class is a monolingual class, there is every chance that the presenters will occasionally use L1 as part of their presentation. My feeling is that this is fine, particularly at lower levels. You may have a different opinion, but I feel that the occasional use of translation is very helpful, especially for beginners. If the presenters struggle at any point, step in and help them. But give them a chance to do it themselves. They will never forget the experience.

Objections

When I have presented these ideas in a talk or workshop, teachers have the following objections.

  1. You’re asking people to teach who have not been trained to teach.
  2. Some students might think – you’re the teacher, I’m the student, YOU should be teaching ME. There could be a rebellion.
  3. In a PLS or other institution where the students are paying, they may object and ask for their money back!

These are important issues to deal with. Regarding the first point, the fact is that your students may not do a very good job of presentation, in which case you have to step in and help. Don’t take over the class, just add some ideas and help to elicit information from the rest of the class. Regarding the second and third points, in the end it’s all about belief and trust. If you believe that what you’re doing is right and the students trust that you are doing things because they will benefit from them, they will accept any of the crazy methods you’re using. I tried this method of students teaching their peers many times when I was a teacher at a PLS, and I never had a single complaint from students about my methods. I hope it will work for you too!

The book is too easy or too difficult for a proportion of the class

This is a classic mixed-ability class scenario. In this case, I’m going to suggest that you get your best students to help you with the less able ones. Let’s imagine again there are fifteen people in the class. When you have a new class, how long does it take you to decide who are the ‘good’ students? Not long, right? So here’s an idea.

During the first two or three classes, make a mental note of who the top third of the students are. In a class of fifteen, this means five students. Ask them to see you at the end of the class. When the rest of the students have left the room, you tell the top third that they are really good – the best in the class. This is very nice for them to hear. But, you go on to explain, with this ability comes a responsibility. From now on, when you do group work, these ‘good’ students will make a group of three with two of the other students, ie not with another ‘good’ one.

So now, one ‘good’ student is helping two more challenged students. Three is much better than two, because the two can learn together from the better student. Meanwhile, you go from group to group, monitoring the work they are doing.

I hate to use words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to describe students, because all students bring something positive to the classroom, but I think you will see the advantage of this idea. At no point have I indicated to the class why the five are taking over, it will just happen.

Final thought

If the book is too difficult for ALL the class, then you do have a problem. If your feedback suggests that this is something that happens, and there is nothing you can do to change the book, then I will come back with some ideas to help with that situation, too.


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EAP in the classroom Part Two – Focus on listening

Woman's earIn the second of a three-part series on teaching EAP, Edward de Chazal, a freelance consultant, author and presenter, looks at effective listening strategies and appropriate materials to support students in their chosen disciplines.

Listening is a core activity in EAP: when students are studying their chosen disciplines, they will have to deal with a range of spoken texts – which involve listening. For many people academic listening implies lectures, yet there many other types of spoken text: presentations and papers; seminars and discussions; tutorials and small-group events; one-to-one meetings and supervisions; collaborative activities such as group work and projects; and more informal activities like dealing with administration staff and social interaction. These can be highly varied – from informal to formal, straightforward to complex, transactional (e.g. a lecture) to interactive (e.g. a group project).

Accessing the content further

Clearly a lot of information is given through spoken texts, and students need to be able to understand them. However, understanding is just part of the story. Listening is not simply a passive activity. Two key roles of the academic listener are interpreter and recorder. The listener has to work out the meaning of what they are listening to, including the speaker’s main points, arguments, and stance. They may also have to record this information, for example by making notes. In this way the listener can access the main content – via their notes – to use in future spoken and written texts. Lectures can be highly complex, and taking notes typically involves far more than listening and writing. In short, lectures are integrated, cyclical, and multimodal. Lectures are integrated as they develop a topic which students might be reading about, talking about in seminars and discussions, and ultimately writing about in their essays and assessments. They are cyclical in that they form part of longer cycles of knowledge: the material in lectures may also be developed and presented in conferences, and then published in articles and textbooks.

Multimodality means using various ways and technologies to present information. These can include visuals (such as PowerPoint slides), embedded hyperlinks to external content such as websites and podcasts, other video and audio content, as well as other spoken and written texts including student questions and handouts. Any or all of these may be incorporated into a single lecture.

These characteristics mean that students have to work with multiple inputs of text, knowledge, and language; furthermore, while doing so they have to respond to these inputs by making notes (in a lecture) or making a relevant contribution (in a discussion). Challenges for the student include language (phonology, vocabulary, grammar), and other aspects such as reading a lecture slide while listening, or dealing with the cultural dimensions of the input.

Effective learning strategies

Given all these characteristics and challenges, how can EAP teachers facilitate effective learning? Above all, learning needs to be focused and realistic, with clear objectives. Good materials are vital. Time is limited, and students typically have a great deal to learn. It is better to follow these principles and make some measurable progress, for example by moving from B1 to B2, than adopt a ‘hope for the best’ approach through unfocused activities such as exposure to a series of difficult lectures without providing the appropriate support. Think of someone you know who has lived in a foreign country for years without learning much of the language – lots of exposure in itself is not the same as moving forward in terms of language level.

To be effective, EAP listening tasks need to be staged, scaffolded, and supported. This support can take the form of sample texts to aim for (such as student presentations), carefully selected language for intensive focus, and achievable outcomes like completing a set of notes. With lectures, the tasks can include relating the information on visuals to the lecturer’s spoken text. In addition, reading is a good preparation for listening – in authentic academic contexts students typically read something on the lecture topic before the lecture. Finally, follow-up tasks can be very useful, for example identifying and noting down material in a listening text to use in a new speaking or writing text.

What can we learn from these observations? Listening is a core activity in EAP, and it requires a complex set of skills and language. By using appropriate materials with achievable learning objectives, we can enable our EAP students to overcome these challenges and develop their academic listening skills.

This article first appeared in the January 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults,subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Authenticity and autonomy – for learners and teachers

young asian teenagerKeith Morrow, an ELT consultant and trainer, reflects on how ‘authentic’ activities can provide an effective learning and teaching experience in the ELT classroom, ahead of his webinar on the subject. 

Two buzz words in one title. Not bad! How authentic are you feeling today? Will the real you be going into class to do real things? And are you feeling autonomous? A free spirit or a cog in the machine?

For a long time we have thought about ‘authenticity’ mainly in terms of materials. Let’s use real material from the real world in class. Down with stilted dialogues about John and Mary, up with real texts from magazines – or of course from the Internet. They are bound to be more interesting, because they are real. Umm, well – are they? Last weekend I got a notice from the tax authorities reminding me that I owe them some money. This was pretty boring even for me, but for a learner of English in a classroom anywhere in the world, being made to read my tax demand would be absolutely deadly. It has no connection to their world, and so they how could they engage with it? To use a distinction that Henry Widdowson made nearly 40 years ago, the text is ‘genuine’ – but the only person in the world for whom it is ‘authentic’ is me.

I think that finding ways to make activities ‘authentic’ for learners is at the heart of good teaching. But what does this involve? How can we do it?

Comments and suggestions are welcome. I’ll be exploring this and making some suggestions in the webinar I am leading next week on Tuesday 15th July and on Wednesday 16th July, so please come and join in.

And while you are at it, what about ‘autonomy’? What can we do in the classroom to help learners to take charge of their own learning? And equally intriguing – what can we do to help teachers to develop their own skills? Again, please share your comments and suggestions.

In the webinar I’m going to be drawing on two articles from ELT Journal to illustrate some ways of doing both of these, and I hope to be able to share links with you so that you can access the articles free of charge.


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Using authentic texts in the EAP classroom

JournalsWhat exactly are authentic texts, and how should we use them? Edward de Chazal is a freelance consultant, author and presenter. In the first of three articles on the subject, Edward takes an in-depth look at authentic texts and how bring them into the EAP classroom.

Authentic texts are widely used in EAP, and clearly there are good reasons for doing so. When students are studying in their chosen disciplines, they have to read authentic academic texts such as textbooks and journal articles, so it makes sense to bring these into the EAP classroom. I have been doing this for years, which has prompted me to think more deeply about exactly what authentic texts are and how to use them.

What is an authentic text?

An authentic text is usually taken to mean a text which was not written for the language classroom, and which hasn’t been messed with – it retains its original vocabulary and grammar, and bits of the text have not been cut out. Preferably it is unprocessed, i.e. not retyped, so it still looks the same as it always did: the same font and graphics. In other words, authentic texts are written for any purpose other than language learning, and are intact rather than processed, adapted, or simplified.

Authenticity is a broader concept, however. Not only is the text itself authentic, but also its context and related tasks. For instance, in EAP an authentic text (such as an extract from a university textbook) needs to be situated to some extent in its intended academic context. This means EAP students need to read the text in order to gain knowledge and use selected parts of it in their own new text (such as an essay or presentation), just as they would in their university department.

Choosing an authentic text for your class

When you’re choosing an authentic text to use in class, there is also the question of level to consider. By ‘level’ we usually mean language level – whether a text is at B1 or B2, for example – but there’s another crucial aspect: cognitive level. Some texts are much more challenging than others in terms of how difficult their ideas and concepts are. When selecting a text, it’s important to think about what you want your students to get out of it. Do you want them to gain a comprehensive understanding of the whole text, or will they use it more superficially – for example, in order to identify key words? In this way, you can use authentic texts which are at a high linguistic level in your lower level classes, so long as you set appropriate, achievable tasks.

Let’s try and bring all these questions together in a possible scenario. Suppose our EAP students are recent high-school graduates planning to go to university. Their English language level is solid B1. They will have recent experience of high school exams such as IB (International Baccalaureate) or A-level. Using an IB text is ideal in this scenario: it is at an appropriate level, both linguistically and cognitively. These students usually approach such textbooks in order to learn something new, as well as to develop their English.

Developing tasks and learning outcomes

Similarly, in the EAP classroom we can come up with learning outcomes and tasks which engage with the content of the text and develop language. For instance, students learn to write a summary of a textbook extract (the learning outcome), and achieve this by identifying and noting down the main points (the task), which they then use to form the basis of their summary. In this way we’ve got an example of authentic textcontext, and tasks. The EAP context reflects their future academic context as they will have to read and summarize texts in the disciplines.

In short, using authentic texts means not only selecting an authentic text, but also setting up an authentic context and authentic tasks. The concept of authenticity also applies to the level of the text, including its language level and cognitive level.

In my next article I will be discussing the nature of academic listening texts and how we can use them in the EAP classroom.

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