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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Six – Motivate your students with cognitively-challenging tasks

students critical thinkingZarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the final article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she proposed improving listening skills as teachers to better support your students. This week, Zarina introduces cognitively-challenging tasks to engage and involve your students.

“Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.” Voltaire

When students are busy in an English class thinking about how to go about saying something, they can become weighed down by the need to produce perfect linguistic patterns. So they focus too much on accuracy, rather than really communicating. So how can we get them to communicate if they don’t have enough language? We set tasks at a low language level. This can, however, create another problem: these kinds of activities can fail to challenge learners cognitively. Although our students cannot yet express complex thoughts and ideas in English, they can of course do so in their native tongue (and possibly in other languages too), so the activities we give them need to bear this in mind.

One way of making lessons more intellectually stimulating is to introduce more variety. A new report in the UK by the Sutton Trust touches on research in cognitive psychology by Bjork and Bjork, which found that varying the types of task, practice and context of learning improves later retention, even though it makes learning harder in the short term. In other words, we can stimulate students with new and alternative ways to practise language, rather than sticking to the same type of activities.

It’s also useful to look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, which has helped teachers to monitor the level of difficulty of task types for many decades.

Have you tried applying Bloom’s Taxonomy in class? Here are a variety of activities based around the different stages of learning. They all use the same text – a blog entry written by an events organiser, taken from International Express Elementary. Download the text, then try out some of these activities for yourself.

Activity 1: Remembering

Remembering is the basic level of cognition, and this is a good stage to deal with new language. For example, if we look at Claudia Oster’s blog (exercise 5), the comprehension questions below the text are at the basic level of thinking because the answers can easily be found in the text and involve a simple referral and repetition. As the questions asked are cognitively unchallenging, any new language found can be easily dealt with at this stage. This is where the teacher is helping students to start with an equal footing – by establishing the main theme of the text and ensuring all students have understood new key words.

Activity 2: Understanding

Once your students have completed the above activity, you can move them on to the understanding stage: the second level of cognition. So, to return to Claudia’s blog, exercise 6 encourages students to skim the text looking for examples. In this case, they need to identify the expressions with do, have, make and take, and use these to complete the word maps on the previous page (exercise 3). Because the students have a second chance to understand the context, identify and select the correct examples, they will have moved up a level of cognition.

Activity 3: Applying

The next stage is applying, which involves using given information in a new context. This is dealt with in exercise 7, which asks students to consider additional collocations to the ones in the text. They have to choose a correct verb, where some of the phrases are from the text or similar to them, but others are new.

Activity 4: Analysing

Analysing involves comparing and questioning differing ideas. You could go back to the quiz (exercise 4) that appears on the previous page to Claudia Oster’s blog, and ask your students to analyse how stressed Claudia is, according to the quiz. Here is answer key:

answerkey

Activity 5: Evaluating

In the evaluation phase of cognition you could ask students to decide if Claudia is going to burn out from her stressful job. Ask students to look at the advice given in exercise 1, and get them to decide on four pieces of advice they would give her. Ask students to work in groups, and get each group to evaluate the other’s advice in terms of how realistic it is and whether Claudia would be likely to act upon it.

Activity 6: Creating

Creating is the stage where something new is formed, designed and produced. To round off this series of activities, why not get your students to write a questionnaire? Ask them to work in groups of three or four to carry out a class survey of whether people find their work stressful. They must produce six questions with multiple choice answers. Encourage them to carefully consider what the responses might be in order to create good multiple choice options.

Make sure different group members taken turns at doing the actual interviewing. If you like, the others could video or record the process – or simply listen. You could ask learners to record the results in a graph, write a short paragraph, or present them to the class, depending on language level.

I hope the above has shown that it is possible to design cognitively-challenging tasks that boost understanding, and make learning interesting for students of all levels!

This is the final article in my series of six ways to boost classroom participation. I hope you have enjoyed the series, and if you have missed any of the previous articles, please visit the OUP website to catch up.

Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world (Greece, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, China, Peru and the UK, where she is from). Since 2000, she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina now spends her time divided between teacher training, materials writing, trainer training and presenting at conferences.

 

References

http://www.suttontrust.com/researcharchive/great-teaching/

http://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/pubs/EBjork_RBjork_2011.pdf Willingham, D. T. (2008).

What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?. American Educator, 32(4), 17- 25.

 

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here


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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Five – Get better at listening


shutterstock_271719515Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the fifth article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she explored asking better questions and improving questioning style to allow for different learning styles in class. This week, Zarina focuses on improving your own listening skills as a teacher.

“Are you really listening…or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?” Robert Montgomery

Last week in the previous article in this series, I explored how you can get more out of your students by improving your questioning technique – but it’s just as important to work on how you listen and respond to their answers.

In an average, busy lesson when the teacher has planned a set of activities, it is easy to ask questions of our students, knowing what the answers should be. This sometimes results in ‘half listening’ to their responses. Students often answer with a lack of confidence in themselves, so they speak quietly, or purposefully mumble certain vocabulary that they feel they can’t pronounce properly. As teachers, we sometimes fill in the gaps of what we have heard, or think we have heard.

This may appear to save time in the short-run, but it does not build the trust required to help students gain confidence. In the long-run, students who don’t fully trust their teacher and lack confidence in their abilities in another language take much longer to answer oral questions or offer opinions. It is in this kind of situation that a language lesson can often seem like a monologue and lack that important two-way communication. We therefore need to practise active listening.

What is active listening?

We can demonstrate that we are listening actively by the way that we respond to what someone is saying.

  1. First, how can we respond more positively to correct answers?
    If we just accept the answer as correct or acceptable and move on, we haven’t let the student know what we heard. Instead, show that you think the answer is a good one, by saying things such as “Exactly!” “Well done, you really thought about that” “Just what I was looking for”. Ask the rest of the class “Did everybody hear x’s answer?” then ask the student to repeat it, adding “What you said is really important, I’d like everyone to hear it.” This values an answer, boosts confidence and gives recognition to those who give it a try. It should also encourage others within the group to get involved too.
  1. But what do you do if you can’t hear, or don’t understand what a student is saying?
    Don’t move on after guessing what they meant, thinking that you are saving them from embarrassment. Tell them you couldn’t hear their answer and ask them to repeat it. If it’s the meaning that’s the problem, when they repeat the answer then it is useful to rephrase their response and ask them “Did you mean _______?” Surprisingly, rather than dying of embarrassment, the student will probably realise you actually want to know what they mean, and try to communicate their idea differently. If you follow with an apology for misunderstanding them (and state that you now understand what they mean), rephrase if necessary or restate the answer for the rest of the class. This demonstrates that you are willing to work with them on an answer and that you are truly interested in understanding their response.
  2. What can we do if students are struggling to answer?
    Students may try very hard to answer a question or give an opinion, but struggle to get their idea across in another language. In such cases we need to try to piece together and summarise what they are trying to say, with their consent. This illustrates that the message being conveyed is more important than accuracy of language and that inaccuracies don’t make an idea or opinion invalid. So if they stumble over whether to include an article or not, for example, quickly add “That’s right, we say on THE street,” then bring them back to the content of what they were saying. “So what was happening on the street?”
  3. How can we explore students’ answers in more detail?
    It’s also important to check that the thought processes behind students’ answers are correct – in fact, this part is actually more important than the final answer! We can do this by asking questions such as “Tell me why you think that?” or “Where did you find that answer?” This also has the benefit of helping students who have been struggling to come to an answer, because they will hopefully be able to follow the thinking behind their classmate’s answer.

In summary, teachers who listen actively do so by clarifying and rephrasing their students’ answers, and reflecting on their students’ thought processes. By concentrating on the thinking behind students’ answers, not just the answers themselves, we can foster a more trusting relationship between ourselves and our students, giving them greater confidence, and reducing their fear of making mistakes. After all, active listening leads to active communication, which should be every language teacher’s goal.

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here


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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Four – Improve your questioning technique

answering questions in classZarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the fourth article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she covered embracing different learning styles to widen your reach in class. This week, Zarina examines how changing your questioning technique can boost interest and interaction in your EFL classroom. 

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers” – Voltaire

The above quotation can also be applied to teachers, whatever their gender! Questioning is a vital part of most language lessons, but this essential technique can be difficult to master. Do you find that some students never answer? Do you avoid singling out members of your class who find direct questions intimidating? And what do you do when your questions are met with resounding silence? In this article, I’ll be suggesting some creative ways to get around these common problems.

Accepting non-verbal responses

When asking questions to a class, we can often rely on the same students to participate and hope the rest are paying attention so that they learn from others’ answers. To encourage participation from as many students as possible, you could consider accepting responses in other ways:

  • Use a voting system which encourages students to offer a kinaesthetic, rather than a spoken response. For example, stick a “Yes”/ “No”; “True”/“False”; “Agree”/“Disagree” label on opposite sides of the room and ask students to move and stand under the correct answer.
  • If you have access to mini-whiteboards held by each student, ask your class to write down their answers in response to your question. This is useful if multiple choice answers are possible, when asking for synonyms/antonyms, investigating parts of speech or grammar, and for brainstorming ideas as well as voting.
  • Distribute cards labelled ‘true’ and ‘false’, and ask students to hold up their responses. If you use a colour code, for example, making ‘true’ cards green and ‘red’ cards false, it makes it easier to quickly assess the opinion of the group.

Provide more thinking time

We all know the feeling when we ask a question and no one answers – but what do you do about it? Silences can feel uncomfortable, and one common occurrence is that the teacher ends up answering themselves, without giving students enough thinking time. Studies have shown that on average a teacher waits 1-3 seconds for a response. Thinking time in the first language actually takes 7-10 seconds, so for students who are studying a foreign language, we need to be giving 10-15 seconds at the very least for a response. Otherwise they will be unable to process the question and consider the answer in English before saying it out loud. (Boyes and Watts, 2009)

Here’s a technique you can use in class to allow for more thinking time. It also has the advantage of bringing more students into the discussion.

  • Choose a student (student A) to answer your question, but don’t say whether you think they are right or not.
  • Ask a second student (student B) if s/he agrees with student A.
  • Still not saying what your opinion is, open it up to the whole class to get more involved, and only then give the ‘correct’ answer.

This provides much more thinking time and keeps students on their toes as they may be asked next. It works particularly well if students have had time to consider the questions in pairs or groups beforehand. They can then test out possible answers in the safer environment of their small group first. Also, if you monitor your students during this discussion time, you can pick two opposing answers which the whole class can then go on to exploit. This should encourage a flurry of agreements and disagreements, as the other students reconsider their answers.

When you single out individuals, be sure to create a safe atmosphere. If teachers randomly choose a student to provide an answer without providing the chance to discuss things, it can cause a lot of anxiety. Another way of creating a feeling of safety is to praise all answers, not only the correct ones. Praise the participation or the fact that they are thinking about a different point that you weren’t considering, before rephrasing the question and throwing it out there again. So for an incorrect answer:

  • Accept the incorrect answer.
  • Add some additional questions (which may seem like baby steps) until the student who got it wrong can see what you were expecting from the original question.
  • Go back to the student who got it wrong, to give them a second chance.

If students are embarrassed in public, they are far less likely to answer next time, so we need to avoid this at all costs.

Why ask questions?

And finally, it’s worth thinking about why asking questions is so important. The 2012 handbook of the UK Office of Standards in Education says inspectors must decide whether teachers use questioning to assess the effectiveness of their teaching and promote pupils’ learning. By using questions to guide our students towards particular answers, we are checking that what we are teaching has been understood. Just in case some students have slipped through the net of understanding, questions should be a way of catching them and preventing them from falling into the waters of confusion. By encouraging more students to respond to questions, we promote the expectation that we require our students to contribute, and that we won’t accept “Don’t know” as an answer. By thinking carefully about how we set questions up and how we phrase them, we can help our students to reach the answers that they previously thought they couldn’t. And from their answers, you learn a lot about your teaching!

Look out for my next article in the series next week – I’ll be exploring the benefits of really listening carefully to your students.

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here

References

Boyes, K. and G. Watts (2009) Developing Habits of Mind in Elementary Schools. ASCD http://www.fromgoodtooutstanding.com/2012/05/ofsted-2012-questioning-topromote-learning


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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Three – Embracing different learning styles

shutterstock_264026564

This is the second article of a six-part series on boosting classroom participation. Last week, we heard about overcoming both teacher and student anxiety in the EFL classroom. In this article, Zarina discusses different learning styles and how to support those students who may not be as receptive to our usual forms of teaching.

“There are no difficult students – just students who don’t want to do it your way.” Revell, J. and Norman, S. (1999): p.65.

In the previous article in this series, I looked at the presence of anxiety in the EFL classroom, and the various techniques you can employ in order to reduce it. I explored how you can stage competitions and games to help students to overcome fears of making mistakes. These kinds of activities are also beneficial for the way that they often provide for more than one learning style, and so engage a diverse range of students.

First let’s start by thinking about the many different tasks involved in playing a game, whether it’s simple or complex. There is often something visual to look at, there will be instructions to listen to, and usually there is something to do, which could involve moving around the room, or moving things around (for example, a counter on a board). If we look at this in terms of learning styles we can categorise the same things into: Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic learning styles. Some like to refer to these styles as VAK, others add ‘R’ for Reading / Writing and refer to it as VARK. If you are interested in finding out about you or your students’ preferred learning styles are, try this online questionnaire.

Of course, we can’t simply put individuals into such narrowly defined categories, and it’s impossible to teach to suit each and every student’s personal learning style (even if you knew what it was). More pragmatically, however, I think we can provide an array of activities to engage a range of learning styles.

Who is being difficult – the learner, or the teacher?

Whether you are a believer in the theory that we have preferred styles of learning or not, you have to admit that being exposed to only one style (for example, concentrating solely on an audio input, such as a lecture) can be exhausting, both for the teacher and the learner. It seems quite feasible that in such a situation, rather than the learner being ‘difficult’, they simply ‘don’t want to do it your way’.

The more years we teach, there is a danger that we tend to fall back on activities and methodologies that we believe work well or feel safe with. There is a possibility that our lessons get a bit ‘samey’, with the same kind of pace, the same type of activities, the same students taking an interest, and the same students not really engaging in the lesson. One reason this can happen is that we will often end up teaching according to our preferred style, which may be strongly influenced by our own learning styles. (Note I say styles, because the likelihood is that we are a blend of them, with certain preferred tendencies; we can never completely have only one learning style.) Moving out of our comfort zone takes more effort and energy. So how about trying something slightly different?

Things to try

  1. Take a photocopiable text that has clear paragraphs and subheadings. Make copies for several groups of students (one per group) and cut up the paragraphs. Depending on the level of your students, you could cut up the subheadings as well. Students have to figure out the gist and topics of each paragraph to match it to a subheading, before putting the paragraphs in order.By taking this reading activity ‘onto the table,’ it instantly becomes kinaesthetic. It encourages more discussion, collaboration and cooperation, and a spatial/visual element comes into play, as the students move the paragraphs into the correct order. This kind of activity uses all three of the learning styles. By giving points for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd quickest teams, you have a competition that adds more impetus and incentive to the activity.
  2. Using sticky labels, you can review vocabulary and definitions (either pictorial or written); verbs and prepositions; collocations; present and past forms of a verb; or two halves of an idiom.
    a. Write out enough stickers so there is one for each student and stick it on each of their backs. The stickers need to be written in pairs, so for example, you need to have a word on one, and its definition on the other. If you have an odd number of students, consider joining in yourself or make one a group of three (for example, water – bottle – bank, where water collocates with bottle, and bottle collocates with bank.)
    b. The idea is that each person finds their partner. Students must read each other’s cards out loud. Thus reading, speaking and listening occur – using auditory, reading and kinaesthetic learning styles simultaneously. Students often help one another by reminding each other of the meaning of their own card or answering queries about their sticker. Because by the end, with help if necessary, everyone has found their partner(s), you can use this as a review exercise that randomly mixes the class. You can form new groups, or use it as a lead-in to an extensive reading, writing, listening or speaking activity. NOTE: Be prepared for some noise, but good noise!
  1. If you have more serious students who you think may be averse to game-like activities, try this one.
    a. Set a piece of writing work and collect it in to mark, as you normally would.
    b. Correct it using a correction code, rather than making the corrections for them. By correction code I mean writing: sp – indicates a spelling error; vt – indicates the wrong verb tense but correct verb; sv – the subject and verb of the sentence don’t agree, etc.
    c. Now make a list of nine sentences with mistakes that you think the whole class will benefit from discussing. Make sure that you only use one sentence from one student’s work, i.e. sentences from nine different students.
    d. Place students into two groups. Provide a handout with the list of nine sentences that you noted, with mistakes. Give the students time to mull over the sentences and to try and spot the errors. It is important that each sentence contains common mistakes that everyone can benefit from seeing, but also not too many mistakes to have to think about – so you may want to change the sentences slightly from how they were originally written.
    e. After they’ve had enough time, draw up noughts and crosses lines; number each box 1-9; make one team noughts (o) and the other crosses (x)
    xsandos
    f. Students have to try and get a straight line of either noughts or crosses, depending on which team they are in, while trying to block the opposing team. The numbers correspond to the sentences on the handout. They have to strategically choose a sentence and try to correct it. If they don’t manage to do so, the opposing team gets a bonus point if they can successfully correct it.
    g. Give their actual marked written work back (with your correction code) at the end of the game. I guarantee you will have a group of earnestly competitive students who are suddenly interested in written corrections!

Look out for Part Four in this series, next week. I’ll be exploring how you can experiment with different questioning techniques to get more out of your students.

References

Fleming ND (2001) Teaching and Learning Styles: VARK Strategies. Honolulu Community College.
Revell, J. and Norman, S. (1999) Handing Over: NLP-based Activities for Language Learning, Saffire: p.65.

 

This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here


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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.

register-for-webinar

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