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Using Authentic Materials in the ESL Classroom

EAP English for academic purposesJennie Cadd is an ELT all-rounder. Since starting her teaching career in 1995, she has worked in Spain, Cambodia and the UK in a number of different teaching environments. She has taught general English, EAP, ESP and exam preparation to a wide range of nationalities, ages and proficiency levels. She has also been a teacher trainer for trainee teachers and an academic manager in a busy language school in Oxford. Her main areas of interest are teacher development (both for trainee teachers and in-service teachers) and how to use technology in the classroom. Ahead of her webinar ‘Using Authentic Materials in the ESL Classroom’, Jennie previews her discussion on the blog today. 

The use of authentic materials for English language teaching is a topic which has been discussed for many years by experts in the field and teaching professionals. Most teachers have their own opinions about their use and practicality in the classroom. Many like the idea of using authentic materials but avoid using them due to lack of knowledge of how to select an appropriate text (either written or audio), doubt about how they can be exploited and the belief that students may not find the material stimulating or may find it too difficult. Some less experienced teachers may, after an unsuccessful attempt at using material from an authentic source, decide that it is safer and less time consuming to stick to the prescribed course book.

However, it is generally accepted that learners need to be exposed to language which is representative of the actual language produced by users of that language, so many argue that using real examples is the most beneficial way to do this. It goes without saying that learners should be prepared and able to deal with authentic examples of the target language outside of the classroom. Therefore, if we are not doing this as teaching professionals, are we doing them a disservice?

On the other hand, most would agree that there are some pitfalls which arise when using authentic materials as opposed to specifically designed ESL/EFL materials such as textbooks, audio recordings and video. Some of these could be:

  • Time required to look for an appropriate text – teachers are busy people!
  • Cultural references in authentic materials – how interesting and relevant would this be to my learners?
  • Authentic materials may contain difficult structures and lexical items, which learners have not been exposed to before.

In this session we will focus on the benefits and drawback of using authentic materials in language teaching and discuss whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. We will also look at ways to mitigate these drawbacks so that they can be used successfully in the classroom. Following this, we will consider different ways that we can exploit authentic texts and I will discuss different types of authentic materials and provide some actual examples of materials that I have used in my teaching.

The session is intended to be part lecture but also part discussion and therefore whether you are a teacher, researcher or student, I hope you will feel comfortable in sharing your experiences of using authentic materials and by the end of the session we will all feel motivated to tap into the wealth of authentic material which advances in technology and globalisation have made available to all of us.

To register for Jennie’s free webinar on the 6th and 7th of August, follow the link below.

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Helping students to organise their ideas in writing tasks

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBIn January we asked over 450 teachers from around the world to vote for the biggest writing challenge they face in their classroom. Since then we’ve dedicated a month to each of the top three voted for challenges with a series of webinars and blog posts from some of Oxford’s top teacher trainers. During our survey we also received some fantastic comments from teachers telling us about other writing challenges they’ve encountered. Join us as we take on 3 extra challenges raised by teachers like you. In this blog Elna Coetzer addresses the first of these challenges:

‘My students struggle to organise their ideas on the page’.

I wish I were Stephen King then I could also spend weeks and months writing my first line, but realistically speaking… So here goes!

Today we are going to look in more detail at a number of ways that we can help students organise their ideas more successfully through targeted practice tasks. I have also included some brainstorming techniques.

Firstly, what are targeted practice tasks?

Let’s think of lessons in which we expose our students to specific reading sub-skill practice:

– in these lessons we focus on helping students develop a specific sub-skill like guessing meaning from context, and
– the aim if achieved, is that our students are then better equipped to perform this type of reading sub-skill.

Linking this with targeted writing tasks, a lesson might focus on writing a blog post and the targeted tasks would then focus on using extreme adjectives. Another lesson could be writing an online profile in which the targeted writing task could be focused on working with the layout of profiles and the type of information that needs to be included. Over a period of time you can then help your students develop a whole range of writing skills or writing-related skills like structuring ideas or organising outlines, one targeted practice task at a time.

Why are these tasks so useful?

1. They allow students to focus on one achievable aspect of the writing process,
2. they raise students’ awareness of a specific facet of writing a certain type of text and
3. this is a more memorable way of helping students with specific writing challenges.

In addition to the above-mentioned, it also gives students a greater chance of success, because it only focuses on a certain part in the writing process.

Now let’s turn to the ‘how’ of these tasks!

This time around we are going to look at ways to help students with organising their ideas. Here are my tips…

TIP 1: Exposure

In order for our students – many of them coming from a very different L1 writing background – to organise their ideas into an effective whole, they need to be shown many examples of texts. For this reason we need to:

– make sure that we expose our students to a variety of text types and overtly discuss the components and ideas that make up the text. This type of activity is often part of Solutions writing lessons where students are prompted to answer questions about the content and layout of said text.
– use a content checklist which can raise our students’ awareness of the variety of ideas within a text and how these ideas are organised into a whole. These kinds of checklists can be compiled for any text type.

For example if you are looking at an online blog post about a hotel recommendation (your text type), you could include the following points:

1) Put the following in order: information about the staff, where did you find the hotel, information about the location of the hotel, how to make a reservation, reason for the visit, the facilities at the hotel, a short recommendation;
2) Did the writer include a description of the hotel?
3) Did the writer remember to mention all the details that are necessary for a specific type of traveller? Etc.

Students look at the text and by discussing the various items on the checklist, they are helped to notice how texts are organised and how ideas are combined to form these texts.

TIP 2: Deconstruct

For this type of activity one can use graphic organisers, flow charts and mind maps. In this tasks students again look at a text and take it apart, transferring the ideas onto a graphic display of some kind. One could use a text of any type for this activity, just make sure that you choose the best graphic display for your text type. In other words if you are working on writing stories, then using the following graphic organiser would be the best:

Solutions Blog 3

In this way the students deconstruct the story focussing on both the outline and the ideas included in the story. This can then lead to tip 3…

TIP 3: Reconstruct

Here the students use a given outline, either prepared by you or by the students (using the brainstorming techniques and graphic representations you have already taught them) to write their own text making sure that they include all the details mentioned in the outline. When they have completed this task, the students are given the original text for comparison. Again the purpose of the activities in both tip 2 and 3 is to help students notice the various building blocks which combine to form a well-written text.

TIP 4: Highlighters and colours

Introduce your students to a variety of brainstorming techniques – see some examples below:
– using the journalists technique: you answer the questions (what?, where?, when?, who?, why?, with whom? etc.) in order to gather all the information which should be included in the text.
– using mind mapping

Every time when you introduce a new technique, make sure that you also show your students how to link the ideas into a logical order by using highlighters or different colours. You could highlight ideas that belong together or underline ideas supporting the same main topic using the same colour. In this way students can organise their writing in a more visual way. What students then need to do is combine their ideas that are colour-coded in order to form a text.

Remember as with other targeted practice tasks, the purpose of these activities is to help students actively and overtly develop a specific skill: that of how to organise and structure their ideas to form a coherent text. Thus the students do not necessarily have to actually do the writing when doing tasks focussing on tips 1,2 and 4. By practising the specific tasks over and over again, the students will be able to structure and organise their writing better.

All that is left for me to say is: try these ideas, make them your own and let us know how it went! And as I said, you do not have to write a complete text to be working on your writing. In terms of writing with our students, it is about one focussed task at a time! Good luck!


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Teaching formal writing

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBIn January we asked over 450 teachers from around the world to vote for the biggest writing challenge they face in their classroom. Since then we’ve dedicated a month to each of the top three voted for challenges with a series of webinars and blog posts from some of Oxford’s top teacher trainers. During our survey we also received some fantastic comments from teachers telling us about other writing challenges they’ve encountered. Join us as we take on 3 extra challenges raised by teachers like you. In this blog Olha Madylus addresses the first of these challenges:

‘My students find formal writing challenging and keep using informal vocabulary’.

Maybe this is something you have experienced? Teenage learners in particular can struggle with formal writing. They rarely use formal vocabulary even in their first language, and don’t see the relevance of formal writing. However, for most teenagers this will prove an important skill when they come to take their end of school exams. Beyond school, formal writing will also be useful in a number of contexts, such as essays, job applications, reports and letters.

Firstly students need to be made aware of the difference between formal and informal English (I am sure they will understand this in their L1). Secondly they need to appreciate when either is appropriate to use and finally they need opportunities to practise both.

  1. Awareness-raising

Write or project two example sentences like this on the board:

  1. After careful consideration, Michael Morris decided to purchase the vehicle, as he had decided the price was reasonable.
  2. Mike bought the car because he thought it was an ok price.

Ask students to work in pairs and answer the following questions

Do you think the sentences were said or written?

Who do you think said or wrote the sentences and why?

How would you translate each sentence into L1.

Which words in each sentence are synonyms or near synonyms? (consideration=thought, purchase=buy, reasonable=ok etc).

Clarify the terms formal and informal, using L1 as needed.

Give out large pieces of paper to groups of about 4 students and ask them to divide the paper into two sections and write formal at the top of one section and informal on the other. Ask students to brainstorm their ideas about when we use each kind of language (they should use their experience of L1 as well as English). Prompt them as necessary.

Hopefully they will have ideas like this. You can show them this on a slide, so they can compare their ideas.

Formal Informal
Usually written
Spoken in official, public and smart situations like speeches
Usually spoken in everyday, personal conversations, films, games, talk shows
Written in songs, dialogues in stories, texts, emails

Then ask your students to come up with three ways in which the language is different. They can look back at the original two sentences. Compare their ideas to your list and add any they have which are not included here.

Formal Informal
Usually planned, edited Usually spontaneous
Official, academic Conversational
Longer sentences Shorter sentences
Longer and less common words More commonly used words
Some words are only used in writing Some words are only spoken
Grammatically correct May include some grammar mistakes
Reader often not known to the writer Listener usually known to speaker
Needed in exam tasks  Not appreciated in exam tasks
  1. Using language appropriately

A.

Show the students the following dialogue:

A: Hi! What’s up?

B: Nothing much. How are things?

A: Not bad. Take it easy.

B: You too. See ya later.

Ask students to discuss

  1. The relationship between the speaker (friends)
  2. Their age (teens or young adults)
  3. The tone (informal)

Now ask your students to ‘translate’ the dialogue so the speakers are (a) strangers (b) older and the tone is formal.

It will look something like this:

A: Hello. How are you?

B: I’m fine. How are you?

A: I’m very well, thank you. Have a good day.

B: You too. Good bye.

Ask pairs of students to practise reading out the dialogues with the correct voices and body language.

They can do such short and focussed ‘translation’ tasks from informal to formal and formal to informal from time to time to remind them of the differences.

B.

When preparing students to write a formal letter you could do a task like this, which helps them think about and distinguish appropriate language to be used in the task.

Dear Sir Hi there
To consider To think about
Firstly To begin
We regret to inform you I’m sorry to say
I wish to enquire I want to ask
Consequently So
However But
We have pleasure in announcing I’m happy to say
Sufficient Enough

Then they could (a) take the formal words and phrases and write sentences which include them so the tone is formal throughout or (b) create a dialogue using the informal phrases or (c) when writing the formal letter try to include as many of the formal words or phrases in it.Cut up the cards and give a set to each group of 3 or 4 students. Ask the students to work together and match the formal to the informal equivalents of the phrases or words.

  1. Next steps

Make sure your students practise both formal and informal English in class and constantly think about why they use different levels of formality. They can practise informal English by writing and acting out dialogues or sketches, writing songs in speaking tasks.

They can also create posters and collect new vocabulary phrases in three categories – formal, informal and slang. It’s all English but they should be aware of when to use it and why.


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#IATEFL – “The difference is academic”

Using L1 in the ELT ClassroomAhead of his talk at IATEFL 2015 about developing elementary English for Academic Purposes (EAP) students’ academic language, Edward de Chazal, co-author of Oxford EAP, considers the increasing relevance of EAP teaching for elementary students and younger learners. Have you ever used the saying “The difference is academic”? The fact that it means “There is no meaningful difference”, says something about the negative historical attitude of the British towards academics! But for the purposes of EAP I’d like to propose using the saying literally. In other words, EAP is different to other English language teaching contexts and the main difference, of course, is that it’s academic in focus. At IATEFL Glasgow I was one of the conference reviewers and I used this saying as the title of my review – what I argued was that over the years IATEFL itself has become increasingly academic. Sure, there’s still a lot of fun to be had, but an increasing number of the sessions are academically-inspired, covering research, serious ideas and theories, and EAP. Ideally, sessions should be both academic and fun! If one discernible trend in English language teaching is towards more specificity including EAP, there’s another important trend too: towards teaching ever-younger learners and lower levels. And in EAP the two trends come together. Going back, many would argue that you can’t teach EAP at lower levels, like elementary / A2. Looking forward, that’s exactly what’s happening, around the world and on an increasingly massive scale. I argue that as EAP teachers we should engage with this process and shape it. Let’s start by looking at EAP. What is the essence of EAP, and can it happen at A2? Big questions, short answers: at its heart EAP is about using academic language in a meaningful way; and yes, A2 is a great place to be doing this. For the first question, remember that the ‘E’ in ‘EAP’ stands for ‘English’, and the ‘A’ is for ‘Academic’. EAP students may be at an elementary level in terms of their English language, but they’re not elementary in cognitive terms. When we start teaching them they will already have had many years of schooling, usually have chosen a subject to study, and are planning to do so in English. We do them no favours by dumbing down the content and skills, provided these are achievable. So, what language can A2 EAP students learn? Time is limited, and we need to spend much less time on verbs, and more on nouns. Verbs are useful and necessary, but it’s inefficient to work through all the tenses; instead let’s stick to the present and past tenses, plus the passive as it’s widely used in academic texts. Nouns are far more frequent in academic texts, and a particular feature of such texts is the large proportion of noun phrases. The latter are all but absent from general English coursebooks, but should form a major part of EAP materials at this level. There are other key language areas too, including working with different sentence patterns, linking language, and specific areas like the language of evaluation. Above all, language learning needs to be contextualized and meaning-driven. In my IATEFL Manchester presentation I’ll be investigating what academic language we can focus on with our A2 EAP students. In doing so, we’ll see how language, context, and meaning are crucial for successful learning. Participants will identify and analyse the target language in different graded authentic academic texts, and will be empowered to follow these principles with new texts with their own students. In short, as I wrote in the IATEFL 2012 Glasgow Conference Selections, English language teachers are working towards educating our students for their own education. The difference is academic.


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The Writing Paradox

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBGareth Davies, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer gives his thoughts on the second of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: ‘My students don’t want to write’.

I was sitting on the tram this morning watching at least three teenagers talking to each other. I didn’t know the exact number, why? Well there were two girls standing in front of me but the conversation was taking place in two ways – one was a face-to-face conversation and one was a text message conversation with person or persons unseen. The texter was revealing information that was making the girls giggle and laugh and then they were composing replies together, carefully choosing the right words. After pressing send they would chat to each other while impatiently waiting for the next text.

When I got home I started looking at the responses of the survey that OUP ran regarding writing in the classroom, the comments from around the world had a similar theme, ‘they don’t even write in their own language’, ‘pace of life is very fast and they don’t have time to write’, ‘writing is a bore’.  This created a curious paradox in my mind.

The written word is becoming more and more important in terms of communication – emails, texts, tweets, Facebook updates, YouTube comments all require writing skills. Yet students don’t see a link between these and what they are doing in class.  So what are the differences?

Possibly in class or as homework writing is seen as a solitary task, a task to do alone, but as the girls showed on the tram writing became fun when they were working together, crafting the perfect line to send to their friend. So can we make class writing a collaborative task and would this increase motivation?

The girls were writing on a screen, maybe pen and paper seems old fashioned to teenage students, they probably never write a note or a letter. So can we save writing activities for our hour in the computer room or allow students to do their writing tasks on their mobile phones or tablets?

The girls on the tram were communicating but do classroom writing tasks feel like a communicative activity or just a chore, an exercise to be marked? For writing to have meaning it needs an audience. So can the students write to each and reply to each other in class? Or do we as teachers need to reply to the content of the piece of writing as well as assess it and correct it? I like to reply with a list of questions that the text left unanswered, this might encourage the student to write back or rewrite the text.

Are students too worried about the mistakes being there in black and white for the world to see? I think it is important for teachers to set criteria for the writing assessment and not focus on every little mistake. So for example, for this task I will be looking at your articles. Also calling the writing ‘a draft’ helps students to understand that they can make mistakes as long as they are willing to redraft and improve.

Even worse than mistakes for teenagers might be that they are writing their hopes and feelings down in black and white for the world to see. One of the benefits of asking students to work alone is that they might open up and share things, but they won’t do that if they fear the teacher will make their writing public. The girls on the tram knew exactly who their audience was, so let the students know who the audience will be – other students, the whole school or just the teacher. Maybe allow them to choose themselves whether the writing is public or private.

So we can see that a few changes to our classroom management techniques can help to make writing a more enjoyable activity but we still need to show students how important writing is. An easy way to do this is to do this quick 5 minute activity.

Write the following on the board –

Whatsapp message, Facebook comment, text message, phone call, tweet, email, face to face.

Call each one out and ask students to put their hand up if they’ve communicated with that tool in the last 24 hours. Then ask students to categorise if they are writing or speaking tools.

This shows them that writing is something they do all the time in their own language whether they realise it or not. So it might be a skill they want to practise in English too.

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