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Janet Enever reflects on the #ELTJ Debate at #IATEFL 2014

Janet Enever at the ELTJ Debate at IATEFL 2014At this year’s ELTJ Debate, Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) argued against the motion that ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good‘. Janet shares her thoughts on some of the points that came out of the debate. You can watch the full recording of the debate on the IATEFL Online website, or catch up on the highlights in our Storify story of the event.

Firstly, I’d like to say how pleased I was to hear so many interesting and relevant points raised at the ELTJ Debate. Together, they provided fruit for a really valuable round table event – perhaps this would be a more productive format for developing shared understandings and creating networks than the adversarial stance of a debate.

Here, I’d like to pick up on a few points raised that I felt were particularly important – just to start the ball rolling for additional perspectives to be aired.

There’s proof in the pudding

Firstly then, the exciting new evidence from Eva Wilden in Germany! A study of over 6,500 children at the end of the German primary school phase (aged 10/11 yrs). She reported clear evidence of greater progress in receptive skills by approximately 50% of the sample who began English earlier. This large scale study is very significant evidence. In addition, the study linked higher achievement with stronger reading skills in German (national language – which may or may not be the children’s first language). Can we extrapolate from this that higher level literacy in the language of schooling/L1 works hand-in-hand with higher achievements in English?

I’d like to add a note here on the broader question of literacy and politely take issue with Fiona [Copland]. There is now strong evidence on the potential of early language learning to contribute positively to literacy in L1. The references are now too numerous to list here, but perhaps I can include one quote and suggest that for anyone interested, it would be worth following up on this particular source. So: Fernandez (2008:8) summarises evidence, that:

far from detracting from the development of literacy, learning a second language actually enhances and enriches children’s language experience and offers unique insights and opportunities for the development of cognitive skills, which are unavailable to the monolingual learner.”

It seems possible that Eva from Germany has evidence of just this happening – I’m glad to say that she has now agreed to present at our conference in Umea this June – so join us if you can to hear more! Of course, OUP are one of our proud sponsors!

Political buy-in

Secondly, I’d like to mention the contribution of a colleague from Bangladesh. I haven’t had the chance to spend time there so cannot pretend to be knowledgeable on the challenges, though I’ve heard this account many times and seen many of these challenges elsewhere in the world. The current problem for Bangladesh seems to be that there are very few positive aspects to this policy decision! Here I will take up just one.

From the ELLiE study we learnt that primary English teachers need a fluency level of at least B2 if they are to be able to respond to the unplanned, informal everyday requirements of English in the primary classroom. In many contexts this continues to be a distant goal, but this does not diminish its importance. At a language planning stage we need to ‘help’ politicians to fully understand this and strategically plan to achieve this target. Years ago when I worked in Poland (soon after the political changes), I witnessed thousands of teachers of Russian losing their jobs. Some, astonishingly, managed to speedily turn their hands to rapidly learning English and became excellent English teachers instead. The shift in language choice that has occurred there over the past 24 years is certainly remarkable, with a national policy now established for introducing the first foreign language (mainly, but not only, English) from the start of schooling. However, in a country of 40 million, this has taken a generation to implement – and they are still working on it. Evidently, Bangladesh has much greater challenges – probably not only in the teaching of primary English, with large classes and a struggle for adequate resources.

How much is too much?

The final point that I’d like to discuss relates to the question of ‘how many languages are possible at primary level?’ This is indeed a difficult question to answer – probably impossible! A delegate from Switzerland outlined their current debate. Last year I attended a national discussion forum on this in Bern where I learnt that English was creeping up the agenda in a number of cantons, and concerns were rising particularly about the decline of their fourth language – Romansch. From informal coffee break conversations I gained the impression that the German speakers in particular no longer saw French as so important/valuable as English.

This topic links also to the question raised by a British Council representative from Senegal in Francophone West Africa. Similarly, there, current discussions consider whether children will suffer from overload if they have to cope with learning two languages in addition to their home language/mother tongue/language of schooling (various terms may apply in different contexts). In response to the question of: ‘How many languages are too many?’ we can cite countries such as India where it is often the norm for young children to shift between 3-4 languages in their daily lives – but these are generally languages that are widely used in the community. We can also cite smaller-scale examples where three languages are taught in schools from an early age – e.g. Luxembourg, Belgium, some regions of Spain such as Catalonia and the Basque region. However, again, at least two of these languages are widely used in the community, whilst the third (English) is seen as a high status international language.

From this and other evidence then, we know children can cope, but we have to ask whether the contextual conditions are sufficient to provide enough support for them to make progress. With good teachers, good resources and a supportive wider community (both in and out of school) I’m sure it can be done. However, achieving this on a wider scale takes substantial national/political commitment. Of course, it also takes a significant amount of class time so it’s important to consider the priorities and take care not to create a primary curriculum that suffers from overload. In Africa, I know it’s a real dilemma, with some former colonies having opted for non-local language as the medium of instruction from the start of schooling and then later recognising this might result in only limited progress in basic education. The theme of Medium of Instruction deserves a separate discussion I feel – and was not the focus of the Debate. Here, we are discussing the introduction of a foreign language, together with the teaching of a former colonial language (English or French mainly).

My expectation is that the outcome is unlikely to be balanced bilingualism. Nonetheless, the experience of learning two languages early, in addition to the first language, will certainly provide a valuable foundation for later further development – assuming the conditions are sufficient to ensure good provision. Of course, Harry Kuchah’s contribution from Cameroon serves as a salutory reminder on how difficult it can be to achieve satisfactory conditions for learning.

There are so many more points I would like to discuss, but I hope the above provides some food for thought and provokes further discussion. As you can see, there are so many perspectives to consider.

If Janet’s points on the ELTJ Debate have interested you, or you’d like to challenge them, feel free to leave a comment below. And don’t forget to watch the recording of the Debate or read our Storify highlights.


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Teach less to help young students learn more

School girls playing repetitive gameBarbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, outlines the benefits of only teaching young learners one new thing at a time by recycling, reinforcing, and building on new language.

How can you get your students to learn more English? Teach less! It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

Teachers are often pressured to teach more – more vocabulary, more grammar, more content – to satisfy parents and administrators. Moving through a coursebook quickly becomes the measure of success. However, the classes in which I see students making the greatest progress are those in which teachers introduce relatively little new language and actively recycle previously learned language, spending the majority of class time reusing both new and familiar language in new contexts.

The measure of a successful lesson isn’t how much you teach; it’s how much students can do with the language they’ve learned.

There are certainly times when you might choose to throw students into the deep end of the language pool – when asking them to work at understanding the gist of a listening or reading task, for example. But, it should be a choice that works toward your lesson goals, not the standard approach. If you need to spend most of your class with books open, explaining the language on the page, then students are unlikely to remember much for the next class. You end up teaching the same things over, and over, and over again without much feeling of progress.

In contrast, when we recycle language in class, we’re teaching students how to use the language they already know to figure out language that they don’t. It’s one of the most important abilities that skilled language users employ.

There’s no way we will ever be able to teach our students all the English they’ll ever need to know, so instead let’s teach them how to be confident in their ability to figure things out for themselves. One of the easiest ways to model this skill is to introduce new language in the context of familiar. Another way of looking at this is to make sure you maximize the value of any language your students spend the time learning. Here’s one simple example of how using familiar language to introduce new language can help students learn more effectively.

Let's Begin example unit

If you teach without recycling familiar language, this looks like a dense lesson – eight new vocabulary words and two question and answer patterns. However, actively recycling previously learned language can make the lesson more manageable. For example, students have already learned the concept of plurals, and how to add an –s to the end of words to indicate more than one item. They may need to be reminded, but they don’t need to learn it again. That reduces the vocabulary load to four new words (and their plurals). What’s this? It’s a (CD) is also a very familiar pattern. It’s the first question students learned to ask and answer in the first book of the series to which this page belongs (Let’s Begin). It was recycled in a lesson two units prior to this lesson.

Let's Begin example unit

By recycling the familiar pattern with the singular vocabulary words, it’s a small step for students to understand that the new pattern, What are these?, is the same question but for asking about more than one of something. By reducing the amount of new language to be taught, students now have more time to practice the language they’ve learned. They can use the questions and answers with vocabulary from earlier lessons, or apply their plural-making skills to topics that interest them, or personalize the language and build new skills by using the language to write about things in their own lives (e.g., This is my bedroom. These are my CDs. This is my cell phone. etc.) and then to read what classmates have written. Language becomes a tool for communicating about things students want to talk about, and because language is constantly recycled, students are unlikely to forget it.

Active recycling plays a big part in Let’s Go, so the Teacher’s Book lists what language is being recycled in each lesson, and the ‘Let’s Remember’ lesson at the start of each level highlights familiar language from the previous level that will be built upon in the new one. You can do the same sort of recycling, with the same benefits, with any coursebook or even with no coursebook at all. You simply need to keep track of the language being taught so that you know what you can recycle to help students learn new language or build new skills.

A simple guideline is to teach one new thing (new pattern or new vocabulary, but not both) in each lesson, or for longer lessons or older students, in each section of a lesson. Reducing the amount of time spent on introducing new language creates more time for students to use language:

  • to use it in games and activities that provide the repetition necessary for memory
  • to add it to their language repertoire in order to talk about new things
  • to learn to read what they can say and understand
  • to use language they can read to write about their own unique lives and experiences
  • and to use language to connect with other students in order to share their own and learn about others’ lives and experiences.

If you are interested to see how active recycling works in Let’s Go, you can download a variety of sample lessons from the Oxford Teachers’ Club Let’s Go teaching resources page.


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#IATEFL – This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good

Thumb up and thumb downAhead of the ELT Journal debate at IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate, Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, presents an introduction to the motion of the debate.

The ongoing expansion of English language teaching for Primary age learners and teenagers has been a notable feature of ELT in recent years. In many countries, English is now compulsory in primary as well as secondary education, whilst English for Pre-school learners is also increasingly common. Some estimates suggest that up to 80 per cent of English language teaching globally is directed, in diverse contexts, at students in Primary or Secondary schools. As the exact cut-off point between Primary and Secondary education varies around the world, let’s assume for this blog that we’re referring to teaching children of pre- and/or post-11 years old).

As both parents and educational authorities seek to increase younger learners’ English language skills, we can’t assume that an earlier start to learning English is automatically better. The advisability of an early start to learning English can be affected by a number of factors, ranging from the availability of suitably skilled teachers and appropriate resources to concerns about the possible implications for the teaching and learning of other languages, and from the development of suitable classroom practices and methodologies to the relationship between a child’s first language literacy skills and their English language development.

So, it’s perhaps time to step back and take a little time to reflect on the extent to which the expansion of Primary ELT is, in fact, straightforwardly ‘beneficial’. If we, the ELT profession, teach millions of Primary age children English around the world, does this automatically lead to advantages, both for individuals and societies more generally, or is it possible that Primary ELT brings with it significant problems and difficulties? Does, in fact, Primary ELT do more harm than good?

There are perhaps 3 key reasons for the growth of Primary ELT. Firstly, there is the widespread assumption that ‘the earlier a language is learned, the better’; in other words, younger children are (or are more likely to be) more successful language learners. Secondly, the expansion of Primary ELT is a response to the increasing demand for English, which results from globalization; governments and policy-makers around the world would like an English-speaking workforce, which they see as leading to economic success. And finally, parents would like their children to benefit from learning English.

Yet, although age clearly influences language learning in some way, the exact nature of this relationship is rather less clear than is popularly imagined – the actual evidence in favour of younger learners’ superiority in L2 learning is rather inconsistent, especially in non-immersion situations, where encounters with English might be limited to a few hours a week in the classroom. And we might also worry about a top-down ‘rush for English’ in which policy is not thoroughly thought through and issues such as teacher training and education, and classroom methodologies and materials for teaching Primary ELT, become problematic. Is a gap developing between policy and practice, and between our goal of how Primary ELT ‘should be’, and the realities of often under-resourced classroom life?

These issues will be discussed and debated in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate (UK) on Thursday 3rd April (11.30-12.45 BST). There, Fiona Copland (Aston University, UK) will propose the motion: ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good’; Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) will oppose the motion.

For more information about the conference and to access the debate online visit Harrogate online. You can also follow us on Twitter as we live-tweet highlights from the debate and other IATEFL speaker sessions.

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.


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Bringing English home – strengthening the school-home connection

Mother and daughter holding leavesKate Read, co-author of the new Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips for strengthening the school-home link.

We all know that most learning goes on outside the classroom. So it follows that learning English shouldn’t be limited to the classroom. Indeed, learning any language can be enhanced by bringing it into the home – after all, the home is where language begins for the young child.

There are a number of easy ways to do this but, first of all, you’ve got to have the parents on board. They can help with learning English, even if they aren’t confident about their own level of English.

There are many ways of doing this:

  • Send home regular letters (or even informal emails or texts) about the topic you are covering. Include ideas for home activities. Oxford Parents give parents simple, effective advice on supporting their children’s classroom language learning at home.
  • Invite parents for informal chats at regular intervals.
  • Give parents simple guidance documents that outline when and where it is helpful to use English at home. Encourage them to foster a positive and fun attitude when using English. Give them advice on when it is not helpful – such as when the children are tired or distracted. Here’s a video tip and free conversation card to help you do this.

1. The child as teacher

It is very empowering for a child to take on the role of the teacher. The child can ‘teach’ simple words or phrases to the family. You can systematically give them words or expressions to take home. You can also give the children tasks to do at home – teaching or telling specific things to specific people. A favourite activity is for the child to teach the whole family to sing a song in English. You can help with this by making the song or backing tracks available. Children will enjoy this process and it will do wonders for consolidation. As you already know, there’s nothing like having to teach something to make you learn it!

2. The child as performer

Allow the child to take some work home to share with the family. (Courses like Show and Tell offer special ‘take-home’ projects.) At its simplest, this can be songs to sing or chants to repeat at appropriate times. It can also be retelling a story to the people at home – or even performing it with simple puppets. In the digital age, and if you have permission to do this, sharing a video of things that they have performed at school is a great way of building confidence and consolidating knowledge. When children use the language to give a performance, they take ownership of the language.

Show and Tell - children performing

3. Making an English space

It’s really useful for children to have reminders of language learned. This helps them to keep it active. Home is a great place for putting up posters, pictures and even single word images or text. Depending on the child’s level of literacy, these can be labelled either by the child or by you. You can also suggest having an English space in the home where the child can keep English books, English games and even English toys. Creating a physical environment where English is a feature provides children with a ‘real’ place for English in their home lives – this facilitates further integration of the language.

4. Making games in English

You can create some simple games to play at home. Provide outlines of games that can be used over and over and provide updates of words/lexical sets that can be used with the games. The games can be very basic with repeated questions and answers, such as hiding things and saying “Where’s the…?” (You would need to supply the names of the objects to look for.) It could be a game to play with picture or word cards, such as concentration/pairs, or “Which card did I take away?” As the child advances, activities could include could be slightly more complex board games for counting and vocabulary.

5. Books with audio

Bedtime reading is always a very special time for the parent and child. For parents who are not confident reading in English, you can recommend books with audio so that they can look and listen with the child. Some people like using stories that the children already know in their own language, making the most of the child’s familiarity with the content. Finally, if you are using simple stories in class that have audio, such as the stories on the MultiROM in Show and Tell, send them home with the children so that they can ‘read’ it with their families.

Encouraging children and their families to do any of the above activities is very simple. The most important thing is to instil the idea of a partnership between school and home. This partnership requires clear and simple communication and lots of enthusiasm. Remember, in the immortal words of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz: There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home …

Do you have any ideas of great ways to use English at home? Share them with us in the comments section below.

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


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Creativity in the young learner classroom

Young girl filming with iPhoneCharles Vilina and Kathleen Kampa, authors of the new Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, share teaching ideas on an important 21st Century skill: creativity.

Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
Albert Einstein

We’re very happy to be sharing our thoughts and ideas about creativity with you, because it is such a natural and motivating skill to develop in our young learners. Creative activities are fun and engaging for our students. They take learning far beyond the simple tasks of understanding and memorizing. In fact, it is the highest order thinking skill, as Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy illustrates below:

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy

Creativity is an essential skill (along with critical thinking, collaboration, and communication) that students need in order to be successful in the 21st Century. Creative students are better at making changes, solving new problems, expressing themselves through the arts, and more.

How important is creativity?

In one of his TED talks, education scholar Sir Ken Robinson says:

Creativity now is as important in education as literacy. We should treat it with the same status.”

Creativity is a natural ability that is found in every young learner. Unfortunately, traditional classrooms don’t always value creativity, and sometimes even hold it back. Our role as teachers is to nurture creativity at every opportunity.

Consider the following:

  • Creativity develops when students are able to analyze the information they’ve learned, make new connections with that information, come up with new ideas, and evaluate their choices.
  • To nurture creativity, students need the freedom to offer ideas and express themselves without judgment. In a creative classroom, all contributions from students are welcomed.
  • Creativity requires the courage to make mistakes. Sir Ken Robinson states, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
  • Creativity and innovation go hand-in-hand. David Hughes, founder of Decision Labs and professor at UNC Chapel Hill, feels that innovation is essential for our global economy.

What are the qualities of a creative classroom?

  1. Teachers and students ask open-ended questions that encourage curiosity and creativity.
  2. Students brainstorm as many ideas as possible without fear of being judged or being wrong. Students then go on to choose the best ideas and improve upon them.
  3. Students demonstrate creativity not only individually, but with partners and in small groups. Ideas are generated and assessed collaboratively.
  4. Students lead the learning and work together to complete projects. These projects help students take the information they have learned and present it in new and creative ways.

How can you nuture creativity in your classroom?

Let’s look at some specific ways to nurture creativity in your classroom, starting with one of the building blocks of language learning:

Phonics

Learning about letter shapes and names can be creative! When your young learners are introduced to letters, try this activity to build their creativity. Write the letters one by one on the board and ask the following questions:

Can you make the letter _(b)_ with your fingers? With your hands? With your whole body? With a partner?

When you first do this task, you might model how students could do this. Think out loud. Let’s see. Letter b is round and straight. How about like this? Or like this? Then your students are ready to try their own ideas.

Words

Vocabulary words can be taught in many creative ways. For example, verbs such as walk, tiptoe, and skate can be learned more deeply by inviting students to move in creative ways. Questions might include:

  • Show me what it’s like to walk in deep snow. Show me how you might walk on hot sand.
  • Imagine that you’re tiptoeing past a sleeping polar bear.
  • We’re on a frozen lake in Antarctica. Let’s skate with the penguins!

As you can see, creativity and imagination are closely related.

Other words such as nouns and adjectives can be presented creatively through facial expressions and body language, through movement, and even through dramatic skits.

Grammar

Grammar is often considered to be a logical and unimaginative part of English. However, grammar can be very creative as it is expressed in songs, poetry, and storytelling. Look for opportunities to build creative skills along with grammar skills.

Here’s a fun and creative way to teach not only grammar and speaking skills, but math as well! It’s taken from Oxford Discover Student Book 2, Unit 8:

Oxford Discover SB2 Unit 8 speaking activity

The above activity combines the logical thinking from math with the imaginative thinking from poetry. Students have a great time substituting the animals and numbers in the poem with their own creative ideas, while at the same time presenting a logical math problem.

Big Questions

Oxford Discover offers an inquiry-based approach to learning that allows students to consider big questions with many answers. Students are allowed to come up with their own additional questions. This process is creative as well as motivating for students.

Consider this Big Question from Oxford Discover Student Book 3: How do people have fun?

Students explore the many ways that people have fun around the world. The discussion may turn to the subject of celebrations. Students may explore the following questions:

  • What is a celebration?
  • What are some ways that people celebrate around the world?
  • What do people celebrate in your area? How do they celebrate?
  • What is needed to make a celebration successful?

As students explore these questions and find answers, they process the information by analyzing and evaluating what they have learned. Finally, they should be given an opportunity to create.

One suggestion is to get students working together to plan a celebration. They must determine:

  • What are we celebrating?
  • What is our celebration called?
  • Who is invited?
  • How will we celebrate?
  • What will we need to prepare?

As students plan, they also create. Students might create a poster, gather materials for their celebration, or even write a short play. Finally, they share what they have planned with the rest of the class.

In summary

A creative classroom is a joyful and motivating place where children feel empowered to learn, where all ideas are welcomed, and where learning is deep and meaningful. Children who are allowed to be creative are better learners, and they are more aware of their own learning styles. Creativity is a lifelong skill that our students will take with them into their adult lives to solve problems and help build a better world.

We’d like to conclude with a powerful quote from Robert Fisher in his IATEFL address entitled, “Expanding Minds: Developing Creative Thinking in Young Learners”:

What promotes creativity is a questioning classroom where teachers and pupils value diversity, ask unusual and challenging questions; make new connections; represent ideas in different ways – visually, physically and verbally; try fresh approaches and solutions to problems; and critically evaluate new ideas and actions.”

Thank you, and happy teaching!

Would you like more practical tips on 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.

Sign up for a free webinar with Charles Vilina and Natasha Buccianti on How to use creativity in the classroom on 18 and 20 March 2014.

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