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Bubbling under – Helping ideas surface in speaking classes

students talking speaking smiling in classroomEdmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 20 years of classroom experience. In this article he looks at ways to create the right environment for effective speaking classes and offers some practical advice to manage them, ahead of his webinar on the subject on 12th and 13th July.

When they go well, speaking activities can bring life, laughter and energy to the language classroom, providing a real sense that the language is being put to use in an enjoyable and authentic way. When they go badly, however, speaking activities can be immensely frustrating – and not only for the students. Have you ever set up a speaking task with confidence, only to find it fizzle out before it even begins? Are you familiar with the experience of scanning the faces of your silent students, trying to read the thoughts they are struggling to put into words? Have you ever wished you could find a way to help them express all the thoughts and ideas that are clearly bubbling under the surface?

Helping students find the confidence

With teenage students, the first thing to be aware of is that difficulties with speaking are very often exacerbated by inhibitions that they have about themselves as learners – and as members of the group. Speaking is an inherently ‘social’ skill: everything that is said is heard – and judged – by the teacher and the rest of the class, making already self-conscious teens reluctant to put themselves in a position where they can lose face in front of their peers. Putting students at ease and providing a supportive atmosphere in the classroom is essential if speaking activities are going to work.

Responding to seemingly simple prompts often requires a lot of confidence on the part of the student. Think about questions such as “What’s your favourite pop group?” or “What did you get for your birthday?” Giving an answer requires not only marshalling language but also sharing private information which might cause others in the class to sneer or laugh. It’s hardly surprising that these kinds of questions often produce only mumbled, one-word answers. In order to avoid such situations, we need to think hard about the kinds of questions we ask and be sensitive to the potential difficulty of certain topic areas. A simple tweak to the question is often enough. The same teenagers who hate talking about things they like often love talking about things they hate. Try asking “What’s the worst song on YouTube?” instead of “What’s your favourite pop group?” and watch the hands go up.

Creating space and time for language and ideas to emerge

The feeling that they are being ‘put on the spot’ is another factor that can make speaking activities challenging for students. Unless they are given adequate time to think and prepare, it’s unreasonable to expect a typical student to be able to give a spontaneous, extended answer to a spoken question. For short answers, one simple idea is to give students the chance to ‘speak, pass, or nominate.’  Those who do not wish to speak can instead choose to ‘pass’ – in which case we move on to someone else, or ‘nominate’ – in which case they can bring a classmate with a good idea into the discussion.

How can students best make use of the time they are given to prepare a spoken answer? Well, it depends on whether they are stuck for language or ideas. If it’s language they need, having access to appropriate reference materials and task models can make a big difference. They might just be stuck for ideas, though.  ­­At intermediate level and above, it is surprising how often students say “I wouldn’t know what to say about this in my mother language, let alone English.” That’s when collaborative, pre-speaking planning and brainstorming activities can help.

Managing speaking activities

Once they have the confidence, the language and the ideas, it should be much easier for students to tackle speaking tasks effectively. There’s still a lot that can go wrong at the production stage, though. From a classroom management point of view, it’s important to remember that good speaking requires good listening. Unless there is an attentive and sympathetic audience for a speaker, s/he will see no reason to take the task seriously. That’s why we need to set up speaking tasks in such a way that they include a focused listening element. One simple way to provide this focus for listening is to give students the option of not telling the truth in speaking tasks: it then becomes the job of their partner to listen and decide whether they were lying or not. When our students speak in class, we should also strive to pay attention ourselves, to really listen. Too often I catch myself ‘waiting’ rather than listening.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to join in the discussion and learn some practical ideas for the classroom, join me for the webinar.


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Motivational Teaching in the English language classroom Q&A

teenage_students_smiling_studyingNick Thorner, author of the professional development title ‘Motivational Teaching‘ in the Into The Classroom series, reviews some of the concerns raised by teachers in his recent webinar on the subject of student motivation and offers some practical advice on how to overcome them.

I really enjoyed our Motivational Teaching webinars on 26th May. They provoked quite a few questions, which I’ve enjoyed reflecting on.

Many concerns that participants had were about the language that was being used in the webinar, and in particular the use of the concept of reward. I thought this was a really challenging response from one participant:

Maybe it’s against what we’ve been learning about motivation so far but when I learnt English myself I didn’t need any motivation at all… I just did it out of pure love for the language itself. So ‘motivation’ to me is not about rewarding… 

I really know what he means. Surely, it’s that intrinsic love of learning that we need to aim for; not a compromise solution where we are coaxing students along with promises of rewards.

But I would say that the pleasure we get from language learning is itself a reward and it’s useful to see it that way because it reflects the way our brains work. Whether we are aware of it or not, the motivation to do anything at all depends on the anticipation of some gain or fulfilment, or the avoidance of some loss. If we can understand what it is about learning that makes our brains anticipate fulfilment, we can focus our students’ minds on those aspects of learning.

For example, let’s say an aspect of enjoyment comes from the moments when we successfully apply meaning where there was once incomprehension. By exposing students to unknown words well before we reveal the meaning, we will help students anticipate that moment of pleasure.

This participant wasn’t the only one that didn’t feel comfortable with the use of the word reward, as these questions demonstrate.

Does the fact of rewarding your students all time make them dependent and lazy?

Sometimes, giving students rewards might result into them becoming competitive. Will it be detrimental for their learning?

Here again, we see how ‘reward’ is often associated with extrinsic motivators, like stickers or a promise of a break. Indeed, this is its meaning when used as a countable noun. I agree extrinsic rewards shouldn’t be over-used, for the reasons given here. But we should be aware of other forms of ‘reward’ that are not given to students. For instance, collaborative learning can be socially rewarding, a sense of progress can be psychologically rewarding, and so on. To avoid the confusion, we could simply reject the term reward and use ‘motivator’ but I think our minds find a lot of things to be rewarding that aren’t often considered motivators. These include indulging the senses, showing off skills, watching things move, etc. I thought the concept of ‘reward’ captured the idea of these smaller pleasures more effectively.

But what if the student doesn’t visualise the reward?

As this question shows us, another concept which has created discussion is the idea of visualisation. What I meant by this term was not really ‘seeing rewards’ but ‘becoming aware that an experience may be rewarding’. That said, as we generally think in images, I think the idea of ‘visualising’ a rewarding experience is very useful. Jill Hadfield, for example, proposes visualisation techniques in the book Motivating Learning. It is not enough to be told something will be fun; we have to picture a rewarding experience before we will strive for it. This is the main point of the future diary activity I proposed, which (incidentally) I didn’t explain very well…

I didn’t quite get the idea of the diary – do students just describe their future??

The idea is that by really imagining a day in their future in detail, they will become aware of a range of rewarding experiences that will follow on from their current studies. To set up the task, we should get students to think of the benefits they will derive from being language users and then to imagine themselves enjoying those benefits through the Future Diary activity. The procedures are outlined in more detail in Motivational Teaching. Drawing a picture of their future selves also helps them create a positive and goal-orientated self-image, in contrast to the relatively powerless present identity that a lot of young people experience.

Many of the other questions I got from the talk focused on specific instances of motivation, in line with the point we noted at the start of the webinar: motivation problems often manifest themselves in very challenging, specific cases. Here are a selection.

It’s quite difficult to motivate students with behaviour problems. They are not really interested in language learning, they can’t stay focused and it’s quite difficult for me, though I usually prepare different enjoyable tasks. Any ideas?

I totally agree with this. In fact, I would say behaviour is essentially a motivation issue. If we don’t wish to be in a place or to do a certain activity, then poor behaviour is a logical way of dealing with it. First, it signals our displeasure, without making us lose face or appear weak (as crying might); it makes it clear that we aren’t putting in effort so that eventual failure cannot be put down to inability; and it increases the chances that the bad experience might be avoided or delayed since it will disrupt the class. I would say what they have is a motivation problem. If we can find a way of making the classroom environment rewarding for these students, I’m sure behaviour would improve. That said, we mustn’t reward bad behaviour or suggest it’s acceptable or it will spread. But once it’s subsided then engaging with the student and building their esteem is essential.

How can we help every student as they are so different?

To respond to this question, I’d like to refer to the first point below. I personally would use the word flexibility instead of eclecticism but both work.

Eclecticism is the key word – take a little bit of what works for you and your students, try not to embarrass them, praise but just for real achievement.

(Can I have) ideas to motivate students to learn / read literature classics in English?

I’m afraid I have little experience in teaching literature but I imagine one of the issues is that students see classics as dated and less relevant to their lives. There is also a sense that classic literature is ‘chosen’ by social elites or by previous generations and so by engaging with the canon of classic literature they are upholding values that they would prefer to be rebelling against! The only solution I think is to help students see the relevance of themes and characters in the classics to their lives. For example, presenting quotes and characters in the book without explaining they are from a ‘classic’, or comparing the ideas to a contemporary performance poet or similar, may help break down resistance.

How can we motivate students to be punctual?

This is a great question. I heard a radio programme just last week about how to get meetings started on time. They recommended that meetings always start at an odd time such as 11.47 rather than on the hour and that late attenders should be made to sing a song!! I’m not sure those recommendations would work for you, but I think the fundamental thing is not to allow lateness to affect your relationship with students. In other words, we shouldn’t confront the student in the instant they walk in late. But neither should we ignore it. If we have a clear set of rules, we can take the student aside after the class and explain that we are forced to take action.

To conclude, here is a good suggestion for us and another participant takes me to task on falling into the classic teacher trainer’s trap: creating ideas that are unrealistic once we’re at the chalk face!

Do you think that writing a diary daily blog in English would be a good idea for students to practise English and find it rewarding at the same time?

Yes, I do. Writing about ourselves provides a narrator’s perspective from which to examine our fears and motivations and confront them if necessary. I think committing fears and worries to paper is especially useful as it can help us work through them sequentially (writing is an act of ordering) and prevent swirls of irrational thought from hijacking our emotions.

Nick (some of your ideas) require a lot of preparation on part of the teacher, which is sci-fi in state schools

This point (brilliantly put) draws attention to the issue of time. Does motivation always require an investment of time? To some extent the answer is yes. Students will appreciate investments that teachers make as it shows we care about them. That said, we have to be realistic and some of the resources I showed were designed to showcase general principles rather than be examples of what we should produce. My hope would be that aspects of them could be borrowed and adapted with little effort. For example, a lesson map (to increase students’ control) or Sinek’s Golden Circle (to arouse a sense of purpose) could be sketched on the board rather than prepared on paper or added to homework sheets, and streaks can be recorded the register.


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The essentials of lesson planning

female teacher lesson planningPhilip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP.  In this post he introduces his upcoming webinar on 20th and 21st June entitled “The essentials of lesson planning”.

If you type ‘lesson plan’ into your favorite search engine, you will find literally hundreds of different lesson plan formats. Such a wide range of formats illustrates that there is no fixed or perfect way to plan a lesson.

In our day-to-day teaching, most of us will not produce an extensive and detailed lesson plan. We know that by writing out a full plan we can address problems and inconsistencies that we would not otherwise see. However, in most cases this simply is not practical. Having said this, the lack of a physical plan does not mean that we avoid the process of lesson planning.

Considering the importance of lesson planning and the frequent time constraints which compromise the process, the question is, how can we create effective lessons under these conditions?

Generic lesson templates

When I am under pressure to produce a lesson I have a number of generic lesson templates which enable me to create a functioning lesson very quickly. An example of a reading comprehension lesson template is:

  • pre-teach vocabulary
  • predicting answers to comprehension questions
  • read aloud in groups
  • students discuss and check answers – then as whole class
  • students write comprehension questions for others to answer
  • activity on grammar/lexis in text

Such a lesson might not be very original, but from this I can start to adapt and improve.

Regular beats

I have so often seen lesson from in-service teacher training course where there is a good rhythm at the beginning but the rest of the lesson becomes a long string of activities with nothing to hold the students’ attention. The trick is to make sure there are ‘beats’ spaced evenly throughout the lesson every 10 minutes or so where students have to change the mode of working. This could be through moving in some way, interacting differently or a friendly challenge.

Plan from the middle or the end

A common approach that teachers take is to plan the lesson in a linear manner starting at the beginning. A more effective way is to start maybe with a text or a speaking activity that might come in the middle or end of the lesson and then build backwards from that. This tends to create a more coherent lesson.

Build in flexibility at the end of the lesson

This is something I had to learn the hard way. The fear of running out of activities at the end of class meant that I would spend longer on the earlier activities and then rush through the later ones. One solution to this is to design the last two activities in such a way that they can be expanded out to 20 minutes or squashed down to three or four minutes without any sense of compromise. This means that you can spend the necessary time on the earlier activities without that nagging fear of being left with dead time at the end.

These are just some of the tips and strategies we will be exploring in this webinar. We’ll also be looking at anticipating problems, getting your procedures and instructions right, dealing with fast finishers, among other things.


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(Reads, reading, has read): 5 smart tips for teaching grammar through extensive reading

extensive reading teenagersNigel A. Caplan, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute in the United States and the co-author of Q: Skills for Success and Inside Writing. In this post he provides some useful tips for teaching grammar skills through your reading program.

We often encourage language learners to read for pleasure, read for comprehension, and read for vocabulary. But reading is also an excellent way to learn and practice grammar. It is important for teachers and learners to recognise that grammar is not a separate skill divided into discrete chunks (or textbook chapters!), but rather the resources which make meaning in a language. In other words, grammar is everywhere, and everything a learner does with the language is an opportunity to improve their grammar.

Here are some activities you can suggest to your students to help them discover the grammar of their reading beyond the classroom walls.

1. Read for meaning first and grammar next

We have limited attentional resources as we read, so it is natural to read first and foremost for meaning. However, language learners benefit from multiple readings of the same text. So, once they have understood the text and checked the meaning of any important new vocabulary, encourage your students to read all or part of the same text again and pay attention to the language use.

2. Start with verb tenses

One of the most interesting questions readers can ask is which tenses are used in the text. This will tell you a lot about the type of text you are reading. For example, we would expect to find a lot of present tenses in scientific texts because they describe facts and phenomena, but a sudden shift to the past tense might indicate a discussion of the history of an idea or a particular scientist. Meanwhile, historical texts unsurprisingly use mostly past tenses, but they may nonetheless contain present tense verbs to discuss the current significance of past events.

Also encourage your students to look for less frequent verb tenses; if there’s a present perfect progressive verb, why is it used? Could the writer have chosen a different tense?

3. Learn the grammar of new vocabulary

We want learners to notice new and useful vocabulary when they read, but the context of the text is an opportunity to learn more about the word than its meaning. When encountering a word, in particular a word that the student understands but doesn’t yet use, ask questions about its use in the sentence. For a noun, is it countable or uncountable? What verb goes with it? For a verb, is it transitive or intransitive? What prepositions go with it? What kinds of nouns are its subject? This approach will encourage learners to see words in collocations and phrases, which will expand both their receptive and productive vocabularies.

4. Play with the Grammar

Grammar is a system of choices, and for every choice a writer makes, there are others which could be made. These choices are worth exploring.

We can encourage learners to rewrite texts using alternative grammar patterns. For example:

  • If the writer repeats the same nouns a lot, could pronouns be used instead?
  • If there are many short sentences, how could they be combined?
  • If an advanced text uses a lot of reduced clauses, what would the full (finite) clause be?
  • If the text is academic, how could you rewrite it for a different audience, such as magazine readers?
  • If it’s written in a less formal register, what changes would you make for formal, academic writing?

The last example exercise benefits both reading comprehension and writing development. Readers of sophisticated and academic texts, such as those in Q: Skills for Success, may need to “unpack” long noun phrases and reduced relative clauses in order to understand the structure and ideas.

Meanwhile, when writing for academic purposes, students can draw on the techniques they see in their reading, such as nominalisation, demonstrative pronouns (this, those), and reductions.

5. Keep a Grammar (B)Log

In order to develop their grammar, students need to notice the language they are reading and internalize it, not just move on to the next page, show, or app. A great way to develop independent study skills is to have students keep a grammar log, journal, or blog to complement their extensive reading.

In my classes, I ask students to post an entry on the discussion board in our learning management system in which they write about an interesting phrase or sentence that they’ve read. They have to either explain the grammar or ask a question about it (I don’t allow them to focus only on word meanings: there are dictionaries for that!). I then encourage students to answer their peers’ questions before I provide an answer. Students might wonder why a verb has a third-person ending, why an uncountable noun has been unexpectedly used in the plural, what a new clause connector means, or what a pronoun refers to. This works at all proficiency levels! Most importantly, the grammar log helps students develop the habit of looking for new and interesting structures while reading, and the discussions allow for the kinds of negotiations over language that can promote acquisition.

These simple techniques can be used for homework or self-study to turn any reading activity into a grammar lesson! If you try these with your students, let me know in the comments how they worked.

Get a sneak peek at the exciting free resources being made available for Q: Skills for Success from August, including new Skills Videos and a new Extensive Reading program in which every unit has been matched with a free, downloadable chapter from Oxford Graded Readers.


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Teaching: The good, the bad and the balance

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria and co-author of ‘Exploring Psychology for Language Teachers’. In this post she reflects on the importance of teachers’ well-being and offers some practical suggestions to help them find their own work-life balance.

Let me get this straight from the start – I absolutely love teaching. I can’t think of any other job I would like to do more. When I read the post-its from IATEFL and Andrew Diliger’s recent blog post and saw all the positivity, I felt grateful to be part of this wonderful community. Many teachers are passionate about what they do and they also get a lot energy, motivation, and inspiration from their learners and day-to-day classroom encounters. But let’s not diminish just how demanding a profession it is. Teaching requires great skill in having competence in our subjects, interpersonal skills, pedagogical knowledge, intercultural sensitivity, creativity, technological skills, and organisational skills – to name but a few. It is a profession with a long history, which we should be proud to be part of and which necessitates specialist expertise for it to function well – That’s where we come in. In fact, we are probably the most valuable resource in educational institutions and yet very often the importance of what we do goes unappreciated and undervalued – sometimes by others but also occasionally by ourselves.

Teaching can be extremely rewarding but can also be emotionally and physically draining. Like seasonal workers, during term time, many of us work evenings and weekends. It is extremely stressful on a day-to-day basis and as administration and assessment procedures mushroom, it grows ever more exhausting having to work on tasks that are a lot less rewarding than the time spent in class. The to-do list is never-ending and there is always more we could be doing. Add to this that as teachers, we tend to be other-oriented and very often we have tendencies towards perfectionism. As a result, this can lead us to keep giving to others and doing ever more not knowing when to stop and recharge our own batteries. It is easy to see the risks and why many early career stage teachers end up leaving the profession and why teaching reports such high levels of burnout.

So, how do we reconcile these two sides of teaching? The side where we love and are energised by what we do, along with the incredibly demanding, exhausting and stressful reality of a busy teaching life. Well, part of the clue lies in the fact that so many positive comments were found at an event like IATEFL. Firstly, we know that we can benefit enormously from professional development that is meaningful, relevant and worthwhile. We can enjoy spending time focusing on things that are professionally, intellectually and personally engaging. We might do this by attending conferences, workshops, webinars or by reading blogs or books of interest. However, we must take care not to fall into the trap of believing everyone is doing more than us and start to feel guilty for all the other things we ‘could’ be doing. Instead, we should find professional development opportunities to energise us and inspire us, whilst remaining realistic about what we can manage without trying to do it all. It is important for us to celebrate who we are as individuals taking time to focus on our strengths and the things we are already doing really well. We also have to remember that we are more than just our teacher selves. Having other interests and hobbies outside of education is important to keep us balanced and strengthen our overall well-being. This means we need to plan in time in our busy schedules for the other dimensions of our lives to draw energy and inspiration from them too.

The second dimension from IATEFL that gives us another clue for our positive well-being is how important it is to connect with colleagues and share stories, experiences, and ideas from the classroom and life beyond. This kind of support network and the ability to talk with people who know and understand your situation is vital. Indeed, other teachers are often the best people to share your humour about teaching life with – Indeed, laughter is one of the best coping strategies for reducing stress. However, more important than our collegial relationships are our family ties and personal friendships. These deserve our full quality attention and time. They serve as a primary source of support, happiness, and well-being and are a vital buffer against stress. No matter how packed our schedule, we must set aside time to protect and nurture these relationships.

Being a teacher is a joy and privilege. But it is also hard work and stressful. To ensure that the positive aspects of our work predominate, we need to do things that are rewarding and give us energy as well as invest in our personal and professional relationships. Once we understand that our happiness and well-being are key determinants of how well we teach and how much our learners enjoy our classes, then it becomes a lot easier to feel less selfish and guilty about putting ourselves first for a change.

Featured image credit: ‘Finding Balance’. Public Domain via Flickr