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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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Promoting speaking in the mixed ability classroom

Solutions Speaking ChallengeFreelance teacher trainer, Edmund Dudley looks some of the issues related to promoting speaking skills in mixed-ability groups ahead of his upcoming webinar on Solutions Speaking Challenge #3: “It’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in”.

Mixed-ability groups present a particular challenge for teachers when trying to promote speaking skills. For every student who gets actively involved in class, there is another who does as little as possible. For every student who speaks, there is another who stays quiet. For every hand that goes up, there is another which stays down.

Naturally, our aim is to get all the students involved. In reality, however, when a lesson is not going as well as hoped we tend to modify our goals. Unable to involve everyone, we settle for what we can get.  Rather than noticing that only the stronger students are getting involved, we are simply grateful that at least somebody is saying something. The fact that weaker students are getting a free ride in the lesson can pass us by.

So how can we get the weaker students to join in speaking tasks?

The following questions are crucial to a full understanding of the challenge:

What do we mean by weaker students?

In most cases we mean students whose level of spoken English is below that of the other members of the group.  What we need to be careful of, however, is making the assumption that level of spoken language proficiency matches strengths and weaknesses in other areas. A student who is weaker at speaking may have strengths in other areas which can be capitalised on when it comes to speaking.

What do we mean by a mixed-ability group?

The groups we teach are ‘mixed ability’ not only in the sense that they are heterogeneous but also in the sense that the students themselves are simultaneously proficient at some things and weak at others.

Every student we teach has strengths, talents and skills. The first thing we need to do if we are to encourage weaker students to speak in class is to boost their confidence. And the best way we can do that is to find their strengths and focus on them in a real, relevant and constructive way.

Can’t speak or won’t speak?

When we open our mouths to speak we become vulnerable. In many situations, when weaker students decide not to join in, they are making an entirely understandable decision. Why risk making a mistake or looking foolish in front of the rest of the class?

This is where teachers come in. We need to create a classroom dynamic which nurtures confidence. We need to be attentive, appreciative, sensitive, supportive and – where necessary – protective.  The only way students will find the confidence to speak is if they feel they can put their trust in the teacher and the learning environment s/he creates in the classroom. Before we rush to experiment methodologically, it is vital to remember that the ideas and techniques we implement will only be effective if the essential foundations of trust and confidence are already in place.

That brings us to the practicalities of the lesson: how we set up, manage and review speaking tasks. We have already established that it is hard to get weaker students to join in. Is there anything practical we can provide them with that will make a positive difference?

- Time

This has both a micro- and a macro-dimension. In the context of a single lesson, students need to be given enough time to formulate a response or utterance, as well as a chance to plan it and rehearse it. At the start of a course, meanwhile, we should not expect students to start speaking a great deal in the very first lesson – they need to be given enough time to acclimatise and feel secure in the classroom.

- Options

Speaking tasks tend to work best when they have options built in – options regarding roles, tasks and outcomes. For example, providing different speakers with a number of different communicative roles to choose from is an effective way of ensuring that all students feel confident and in control.

- Variety within tasks and modes of interaction

Differentiated activities can enable weaker students to complete speaking tasks at a level appropriate to their abilities. This does not necessarily mean segregating the weaker students from the stronger ones: in fact, as we shall see, some of the best differentiated speaking activities are based on weaker and stronger students working together to complete a joint task.

- Resources

Less confident speakers are more likely to lose their nerve before a speaking activity begins. We need to provide them with three important resources: information, language and encouragement. They need to have a clear idea of what to do and how to do it. They need to know how much time is available to prepare and for how long they have to speak. They need plenty of language resources, such as useful phrases and expressions. And as they prepare, they need to have someone they can ask for help, someone to encourage them.

Yes, it’s hard getting the weaker students to join in. There are days when it cannot be done. With the right strategies in place, however, we can expect to see some positive changes over time.

Register for Edmund Dudley’s webinar ‘Solutions Speaking Challenge #3: Promoting speaking in the mixed ability classroom’ on either Wednesday 25th July or Friday 27th July to explore this challenge further.

Register for the webinar


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Critical Thinking in Business English

Critical thinking businessmanAhead of his forthcoming webinar on the subject, John Hughes, ELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, looks at the growing need for critical thinking skills to be integrated into Business English teaching.

In a recent article on the subject of technology and the 21st century workplace, The Economist (January 18th, 2004) made the following demand: “Schools need to change, to foster the creativity that humans will need to set them apart from computers. There should be less rote-learning and more critical thinking.” As teachers and educators, many of you will be familiar with this viewpoint; after all, the calls for more critical thinking in education grow louder all the time. But the fact that this comment appears in a business magazine like The Economist reflects a growing view from the world of work that ‘critical thinking’ is a key skill.

Critical thinking in the workplace

Employers, Human Resource recruiters and business schools globally also report a lack of suitable graduates and candidates with ‘critical thinking skills.’ A recent article in The Wall Street Journal highlighted the problem and looked at the high number of business schools that now include critical thinking as a key course component. In other words, you are increasingly likely to see the term ‘Critical thinking skills’ listed on the syllabus of a business course programme next to course components such as ‘Presentation skills’ or ‘Negotiating Skills’.

Fostering sub-skills to develop critical thinking

So if companies require critical thinking skills and business schools are teaching these skills, is it time for Business English teachers to consider how critical thinking skills might be integrated into their Business English courses? After all, we readily teach the skills and language for presenting, negotiating, meetings and so on. So why not critical thinking

In fact, some language schools specialising in business English and corporate training ARE already offering critical thinking in English as part of their courses. And I suspect that many Business English teachers probably help students to develop this skill as part of their typical Business English lessons without realising it. Take the use of Case Studies, for example. A case study requires students to identify evidence, recognise different perspectives, express opinions with supported arguments and negotiate a final outcome. These are all sub-skills that go towards developing critical thinking as well as improving language fluency.

In my forthcoming webinar on the 25th & 26th June I’ll be going into much more detail on this topic. We’ll define the sub-skills of critical thinking in Business and what language we need to teach students in order to support those skills. I’ll also suggest a variety of practical activities that you can use in your lessons to start developing the skills whilst at the same time – of course – improving students’ business English.

 

Register for the webinar

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