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21st Century Skills in ELT Part 2: the question-centred approach

classroom_students_teenagersShaun Crowley has worked as an EFL teacher and a marketing manager for an international ELT publisher. He is the founder of www.linguavote.com, an e-learning platform for learners of English that features social learning and gamification. Follow Shaun on Twitter: @shauncrowleyIn Part 1 of this series, Shaun Crowley considered the importance of 21st Century Skills in ELT, concluding that the group of competencies that define this term are indeed important to English language learning. In the next four posts, Shaun continues by offering ideas to help you integrate some of these skills into your classes.

Critical thinking skills are some of the key “21st Century” competencies, so it’s no surprise that we’re starting to see publishers position their course books with this benefit up-front, from primary to tertiary level.

Here is an idea to help you maximize opportunities for critical thinking, so that your students are better prepared for the rigours of university education and the professional workplace.

Adopt a “question-centred” approach to your classes

Since the recent curriculum reforms in the US, a question-centred approach to teaching has been gaining popularity in schools. Teachers start a module with a big question. Students consider this question critically, and over the course of the module they synthesize information to form a conclusion in the form of a final homework assignment.

This approach first made its way into ELT with the publication of Q Skills for Success. But whatever course you are using, so long as you have enough time to step out of the materials, it should be possible to customize your lessons to feature an “essential question”.

For example, Headway Elementary Unit 4 is called “Take it easy” and follows the topic of leisure activities. Before you start this unit, you could write this question on the board:

“What makes the perfect leisure activity?”

Perhaps search for a YouTube video that offers a nice way-in to thinking about the question… here’s one I found following a quick search:

Pre-teach some of the main vocabulary items that fit into the question theme. Then spend a few minutes discussing the question and gauging students’ opinions before you open the book.

As you go through the unit, use the various listening and reading texts as opportunities to return to the big question, encouraging students to synthesize and evaluate the different input.  For example, in the “Take it easy” unit, there’s a text called “My favourite season.” Here you could ask:

Is the perfect leisure activity one that you can do in any season?

Return to the big question any time you see a link to the course material you are using. Then at the end of the unit, have students write an answer to the question for homework. If students are not in the routine of doing homework, round off the question with a class discussion.

Have you adopted a similar approach to your classes? If you have, we’d love to hear how you apply the question-centred method.


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21st Century Skills in ELT Part 1: The rise of 21st Century Skills

Blended and cooperative learning in EAP

Shaun Crowley has worked as an EFL teacher and a marketing manager for an international ELT publisher. He is the founder of www.linguavote.com, an e-learning platform for learners of English that features social learning and gamification. Follow Shaun on Twitter: @shauncrowley

In ELT we often regard our profession to be independent of teaching subjects like maths and science. That said, many of the approaches and materials we use are influenced by wider trends in education – from constructivist thinking in the 80’s that influenced the publication of Headway, to the recent “flipped learning” approach that’s inspiring some EFL teachers to rethink blended learning.

In American mainstream education there is an increasing emphasis on a concept referred to as “21st Century Skills” – a collection of various competencies that are regarded as being important for success in life, such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, digital literacy, creativity, problem solving, environmental awareness and self-expression.

Now let’s be honest – it’s a bit of a buzzword, with a meaning that’s open to interpretation. But the essential concept is pertinent: the ability to combine the subject you’re learning, with the skills and awareness that you need to apply your knowledge of the subject successfully.

In ELT terms, I would interpret 21st Century Skills as:

  • Analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating materials written in English
  • Developing a “voice” on a topic and expressing it in English
  • Researching materials and solving problems that are presented in English
  • Being creative in English and taking communicative risks in pursuit of fluency
  • Collaborating in diverse international teams, communicating in English
  • Respecting international cultures and sensitivities
  • Presenting yourself professionally in English
  • Being able to use software to express yourself in English
  • Being able to navigate software and digital content that’s presented in English
  • Having the self-discipline to study English independently, and “learning how to learn”.

This probably isn’t an exhaustive list but already it is clear how relevant 21st Century Skills are to ELT, particularly in today’s interconnected world where English is the lingua-franca.

And when we look specifically at the expected outcomes of English classes in schools and universities, it is even more evident that 21st Century Skills have increasing importance.

21st Century skills and the changing ELT landscape

When I first started promoting ELT materials 10 years ago, there was a sizable market of end-users we playfully referred to as “EFNAR” (English for no apparent reason).

These days, English is considered in most places as a foundation subject, a universal requirement for success in later life. Students are aware that English is a necessity for their CVs, particularly if they harbour ambitions to work for an international company.

In many countries, English has become a preparatory subject in universities, partly because of the rise of English medium instruction on undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

These trends have implications on the type of English students must learn, but they also have implications on the interpersonal, cognitive and technical skills that students need to apply to function effectively in English.

Meanwhile, our students’ online worlds are bringing 21st Century skills to the surface even when they are at home… in gaming (collaborating as part of an international team on the Xbox), social networking (sharing thoughts with an international audience), and internet browsing (being able to quickly evaluate the validity of English websites found on Google).

So if we ask how ELT will be influenced by future trends in mainstream education, I would suggest that 21st Century Skills will become a lot more integrated into the language learning process.

What might that look like?  In my next posts I will offer four ideas for integrating some of these competencies in class and as part of a blended learning curriculum.


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To go online or not to go online in the EFL/ESL classroom

Go online in EFL/ESL classroomHow do teachers decide whether to go online in the EFL/ESL classroom? Chantal Hemmi suggests that a hermeneutical process to finding out about student progress and future needs can help. Chantal teaches at the Center for Language Education and Research at Sophia University. She is also a series consultant for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, advising on online integration.

A hermeneutical process is all about being a good listener and observer of student progress over time: ‘Essentially, hermeneutics accords an important role to the actors and demands sensitivity and ability to listen closely to them’
(Young and Collin, 1988:154).

With increasing learner access to both authentic materials as well as materials written for language learners online, teachers are faced with a question: Shall I go online in class or not? The same goes for homework. One way to make this informed choice is for teachers to think critically about the aim of the lesson. Here are some questions we could ask ourselves:

  1. Will the activity raise interest in the new topic area?
    Is it more effective to go online to stimulate interest in the subject, or do we want in-class activities that incorporate an interactive, kinesthetic element with the use of cue cards or pictures to encourage students to brainstorm activities interactively?
  1. Do we want to go online to do a reading or listening exercise, or a vocabulary learning activity for input? Can this be done more effectively online, or are your students in need of more face-to-face scaffolding of content and language before you go online?
  2. Are we encouraging students to develop their autonomy by going online to do some research on an essay or presentation topic? Do the students have access to a library from which to borrow books or download reliable materials? Which is the better option for them, to go online or to use paper-based publications, such as books?

The choice must always link into the aims of our courses.  We have to bear in mind the strategy we want to take in order to develop students’ knowledge of the content, the language they need to function in the class, and also the opportunity for students to think critically about what they are learning. Teachers must decide what mode of input and output we want in order to scaffold the content, language and skills students need to deal with communication in our diverse global communities.

How do good teachers that I know find out about what is authentic to the learners? Some go for needs analysis questionnaires. Others opt for interviewing or focus groups where you set a list of semi-structured open-ended interview questions that you want the learners to discuss.

In my view, teaching itself is a hermeneutical process of finding out about where the students are with their learning, what they have learnt and what they are still not confident about, and how they want to get the input, online or through basic scaffolding through classroom interaction, with the teacher facilitating the construction of new knowledge or language input. A hermeneutical process is all about being a good listener and observer of student progress over time: ‘Essentially, hermeneutics accords an important role to the actors and demands sensitivity and ability to listen closely to them’ (Young and Collin, 1988:154). Not only should we be a good listener and observer, but also we should have the ability to choose tasks that best fit the class learner profile, based on our observations about where they are with their learning.

Thus, a hermeneutical process of finding out about student progress and future needs does not only look at snapshots of learners at a point in time, but looks at what happens over a term, or over the whole academic year. For example, a short speaking or writing test taken before mid-term can show a snapshot of the student’s ability at that point in time.  But we can include different modes of assessment such as group interviews, presentations, and essay writing tests to see what kind of progress is observed over time. The key to making the process hermeneutical is to construct a dialogue through online or paper based learner diaries so that students can reflect on their progress and about what they are learning. The teacher can make comments about student observations and thus sustain the dialogue over a period of time.

I myself learnt through experience that when I am still being controlled by the actual technology, blended learning cannot help to manifest the aims of the course.  The beauty of an effective blended learning journey will only be actualized when the teacher gains control over the technical as well as the methodological knowledge and skills to design courses so that in every lesson, the teacher knows why he/she is going online or choosing to stay with face-to-face input. Blended learning is a site of struggle, because the teacher has to question his/her role and to become skilled in making those important decisions that are going to play a crucial role in the design of our courses. Ultimately the aim is to conduct activities that benefit our learners with varying needs. Finally, blended learning also gives the teacher and students opportunities to explore effective modes of learning and to make the learning experience authentic to the learner.

References and Further Reading

Garrison, D. & Kanuka, H. Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education 7 (2), 2nd Quarter 2004, 95-105. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/10967516)

Young, R. & Collin, A. (1988). Career development and hermeneutical inquiry. Part I : The framework of a hermeneutical approach. Canadian Journal of Counselling 22 (3), 153-161.

 Walker, A. White, G. (2013). Technology Enhanced Language Learning  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.


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Blended and cooperative learning in EAP

Stacey HugBlended and cooperative learning in EAPhes, a teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, offers some practical ideas for blended learning in EAP.

Although the idea of blended learning is not new, most people now associate it with including computer or tablet and internet use in the classroom. These tools can be used to expand the range of possibilities for communication between students and teachers. Here are some ideas to experiment with.

Train your students to use internet

It may seem odd to think about training students to use technology – after all, they are digital natives. However, many students have not yet developed a critical mind-set when it comes to assessing whether or not information gleaned from websites is reliable or valid. They also may not be very adept at using key words to search for academic articles and books – resulting in either too many or too few hits or information that is not relevant to their research.

1. Teach students to recognise which sites are reliable for their purposes. Show them Google Scholar as a starting point and teach them to recognise more generally reliable URL endings: .org; .ac; .gov; .edu. Teach them to think about who wrote the page and why.

2. Train students to use the university library search engine to look for information. They will need to understand how articles are kept in the databases and how to narrow or broaden their searches using key words and limiters: and, or, not, “…”, etc.

3. Teach students how to use online bibliography tools to create their lists of references. You could start by referring them to Education Technology and Mobile Learning which lists a number of bibliography tools. The university librarians may also have some ideas for good ones to use.

Using technology for collaboration

There are a multitude of resources that teachers and students can use for collaboration. They can help make teacher-student communication more efficient and can help students work together. If your university has a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Moodle or Blackboard, the tools will already be available for you to use. If not, you can find resources on the internet which can be used for similar purposes.

1. Set up a discussion forum. Post a relevant question or topic and ask students to contribute to the discussion. Make sure they respond to each other rather than just posting their own views – this will make it much more valuable as a forum.

2. Create group or class wiki pages. Use the university platform or a wiki space such aswww.wikispaces.com to set up a virtual space for news, collaborative project work and assessment. Wiki spaces are also useful for uploading handouts for students who were absent from the lesson.

3. Give audio and video feedback on papers to save marking time, give fuller feedback and add listening practice. Visit the University of Edinburgh page to read some case studies.

4. Flip the classroom once in a while. Use screencasts to teach a point, then use the class time for a seminar discussion or debate.

5. Ask students to work in groups to create a video documentary about university culture and the changes new students will have to adjust to.

Using technology in the classroom

Many students will have tablets or laptops and may prefer to work from them in the classroom. A majority may also have smartphones that can be used for learning.

1. Encourage those students using laptops or tablets to look up information on the internet while engaging in the lesson. Post information on the class wiki that they can access while in class as part of the lesson.

2. Point students to useful apps that they can use for learning: the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, Practical English Usage, Headway Phrase-a-day and English File Pronunciation are all excellent apps for independent study or they can be incorporated into the lesson. Find out more here.

3. Ask students to record decisions made in a group discussion using their smart phone. Then ask them to email it to another group to listen to as a way of comparing information between groups.

This article barely scratches the surface of how blended learning can be used in EAP settings. Remember to think first of the pedagogical aim, then look around to find the right technological tool that could help forward that aim. If you are interested in exploring blended learning further, these resources provide plenty of additional information:

1. White paper for support, guidance and best practice ideas on implementing tablets in teaching and learning

2. British Council Report with 24 international case studies which illustrate different blended learning scenario

And finally, for some tips on ways to use technology in the classroom, visit the digital resources pages on the Oxford University Press blog. In particular, you may find the following helpful:

1. Edmodo: Introducing the virtual classroom

2. 5 Apps every teacher should have in 2014

3. Using blogs to create web-based English courses

 

This article first appeared in the April 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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Mimosa’s report card – strengthening the school-home connection

Family gathered round computerKenna Bourke, Oxford Discover co-author, shares some creative ideas for using technology to help parents support their children’s learning.

Four times a year, I get an email that contains a mysterious thing called a report card. This is a school report on the progress of a six-year-old (name changed for privacy!) who’s not my child, but who’s very important to me. It goes on for several pages, and looks like this:

Sample report card

Great! But I don’t know what Mimosa is reading or how I can help turn her into a full-time genius! What stories is she reading? Does she like them? What’s she learning in science? I’d really like to know!

Do you want one simple way to help parents support your classroom teaching in the home?

Use technology.

Like teachers, parents are busy people. They might only look at a school website a few times a year, but many of them have social media accounts, which they look at daily. How about creating a closed page for your class on Facebook, or whichever social network is popular in your country?

Here are a few ideas for using this as a tool to help parents feel more involved and excited about what’s happening in your class:

1. Try sharing a short biography of an author that the child and family can research

For example, Who is Michael Rosen? What’s he written? When was he born? What’s his daughter’s name? What do you think about the poem ‘A Dangerous Raisin?’

2. Advertise your projects

Explain what you’re going to do so your students can prepare. Or post the results of the projects once they’re done so the parents can see them.

For example, How many subtraction problems can you think of at home? In what contexts do we use subtraction every day? What’s a funny subtraction problem you can ask your friends?

3. Share the week’s lesson theme so it can be discussed at home

For example, Oxford Discover begins each new unit with a Big Question: How do we have fun? What makes birds special? How do numbers help us? Great dinnertime conversation ideas!

4. Preview a reading text so children can discuss their prior knowledge of the subject with their family

You could do this by sharing a simple three-line synopsis of what you’ll be reading in class. Provide some questions for parents to discuss with their children.

For example, What do you know about symmetry? What symmetrical objects can you find at home? What’s the most beautiful example of symmetry you can think of?

5. Follow up on reading texts or topics that have captured the students’ imaginations by posting links to sites that contain further information

For example, in Oxford Discover, you’ll find a fiction reading about a whistling language. That language also really exists! There are schools on the island of La Gomera that have made this ancient language — silbo gomero — a compulsory school subject.

6. Post a picture that relates to your lesson to stimulate discussion

This is really fun! Provide some sample questions, too.

For example, What’s going on with these cars? Why can’t you see through their windows? Where do you think the picture was taken? Who invented wheels? What would life be like if we didn’t have cars?

Completely white cars

Photo © Kenna Bourke

7. Include links to free parent support sites

Oxford Parents gives parents simple, effective advice on supporting their children’s classroom language learning at home.

Would you like practical tips on developing a strong school-home link and developing 21st Century skills in your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

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