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Messages, Discussions and Chats: Increasing Student Interaction

TabletsWith over 30 years of experience as a teacher and teacher trainer, Veríssimo Toste looks at how the role of a teacher is changing, ahead of his webinar on using Messages, Discussions and Chats to increase student interaction.

Today’s students are not limited to learning English in the classroom only. Through the use of technology, learning English has become 24/7 – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In this environment, what is the teacher’s role in helping their students learn? More importantly, how can technology help teachers to help their students learn better? Using messages, discussions, and chats as an integral part of their classes, is one way. Through the use of these simple features, teachers can address questions of mixed ability, customised learning and teaching, personalisation, as well as simply being able to increase contact time with the language, beyond the classroom.

Using “Messages” provides teachers with a simple means to contact their students, as well as for students to be in contact with their teacher. In this way, teachers can follow up in individual needs, without taking up valuable class time. Students can ask questions or raise doubts without the pressure of time and classmates that can be a part of the lesson. In using “Messages” teachers and students can more easily focus on their communication, as these appear within the learning management system (LMS) and so are not confused with general, personal e-mails.

“Discussions” gives teachers and students a forum in which they can continue discussing a specific topic raised in class. Students can exchange their opinions with each other over a period of time. They can participate when it is more convenient to them. They have time to consider their responses. Discussions can range from topics raised in class, to language points based on specific grammar or vocabulary, or how to prepare for a test. The options are limitless. The key is that through the use of discussions online, students can increase their contact time with English.

Whereas discussions can take place over a specific period of time, with students participating at their convenience, chats are an opportunity for the teacher to get everyone together at the same time, although not necessarily in the same place. Seeing that the class had difficulty with a specific topic or language point, the teacher can set up a chat in which the students participate online. Students have an opportunity to follow up on the topic on their own, thus preparing before the actual chat takes place.

By basing the use of messages, discussions, and chats on work done in the classroom, the teacher can provide students with a platform to expand their learning. To find out more about practical classroom activities to achieve this, join me on the 6th or 8th of October 2015 for my webinar, “Messages, Discussions and Chats: Increasing Student Interaction”.



Motivation: What is it and why does it matter?

Man shouting in celebrationStephen Ryan has been a language teacher for over twenty-five years and is currently based in Tokyo. He is interested in various aspects of psychology in language learning but particularly in learner motivation. He has recently co-authored (with Sarah Mercer and Marion Williams) the Oxford University Press book Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching.

Motivation has become a ‘hot’ topic within language education, attracting considerable attention from both researchers and teachers. There is now widespread agreement that motivation is a key factor in successful language learning and that even the very best teaching is unlikely to be effective without motivated learners. However, it is worth remembering that this has not always been the case and that such interest in the motivation of language learners is a relatively recent development.

For a very long time researchers and teachers, unsurprisingly, were focused on teaching, on understanding the most effective teaching methods and techniques. The assumption behind this approach was that if only we could find the best ways to teach then learning would occur automatically. There was very little consideration of the learner’s role in the learning process or of any variability among learners. The only real acknowledgement of learner individuality came in the form of aptitude; learners were believed to have certain innate abilities and these abilities determined both the pace of learning and the ultimate level of attainment. Fortunately, over the years, teachers have come to think more about the contributions learners make to their own learning and this learner-centred outlook places motivation at the centre of the learning process. This new, prominent role for motivation seems like a very hopeful and optimistic development, suggesting that both teachers and learners have the power to shape learning.

But what exactly is motivation and how can we as teachers enhance motivation in our learners? In the first part of this webinar I will discuss what it is we really mean when we use the word ‘motivation’. Of course, it is a word that we all use in our everyday lives, and as such it is a word we tend to use somewhat loosely. However, when we discuss ‘motivation’ in a professional sense, there is a clear need to be more focused in what we mean and in this webinar I hope to challenge some of the assumptions behind familiar, everyday understandings of motivation.

The theory of motivation is a fascinating topic, spanning a huge range of human behaviour and psychology—in fact, there is far too much to cover in a single webinar. Therefore, in this webinar I intend to concentrate on some of the more practical aspects of motivation and those most closely related to the concerns of language teachers—and learners. In particular, I would like us to think about some of the ways in which teachers use rewards in order to motivate their students and the possible motivational effects of teacher praise and feedback.

Although the webinar will be based around my own views on motivation, I will be making every effort to give you the opportunity to share your ideas. I sincerely hope that you will be ready to participate so that we can enjoy a lively and productive exchange of ideas.



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.



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


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.


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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