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Do learning technologies actually help students learn?

shutterstock_198926996Do learning technologies actually help students learn? Nicky Hockly’s latest book,
Focus on Learning Technologies, takes a look at research that has been carried out with primary and secondary school learners using technology, and weighs up the evidence.

Although digital technologies in the field of EFL may feel like a recent thing, they have been around for a while. We have a rich research tradition in CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) going back several decades, and teachers and researchers have been trying to find out whether technology actually supports learning for some time. However, although we are mostly in agreement upon the question – Do learning technologies actually help students learn? – the answer is less clear.

The short answer is ‘it depends’. It depends, because it is very difficult to make comparisons across studies, when research is carried out in different contexts with very different groups of students, with different teachers, using different technologies and tools, and with widely differing aims and task types.

For example, imagine a US study carried out with a group of primary students that examines whether using blogs improves their literacy and writing skills (1). Imagine a study in Iran that examines whether a group of university students learn academic vocabulary better through regular SMS texts rather than with dictionaries (2). And imagine a research project in China and Scotland based on a computer game that provides adolescent students with oral prompts in order to develop their speaking skills (3). These are all real research projects, and they have widely different aims, tools, and research methodologies. They take place in very different teaching and learning contexts with very different students and teachers. Some seem to show technology supporting learning but others don’t. At the same time, trying to generalise results from what can be very small-scale, one-off action research projects that may be underpinned by more or less robust research methods, is questionable.

Each of the three studies described above had very different objectives, followed different research procedures, and yielded different results. The blog project used a case study methodology to look at the writing skills development of one English language learner in a class of elementary students in the USA. The researchers found that the blogging curriculum developed her writing skills, increased her confidence as a writer, and improved her written language. So a positive result (for one student) overall.

In the Iranian SMS vocabulary study, a class of 28 EAP students received 10 words and example sentences twice a week via SMS, and were exposed to a total of 320 new words. A control group studied the same vocabulary using a dictionary. Post-test scores showed an improvement in vocabulary learning for all students, but there was no significant difference between the two groups. But a later test showed that the SMS group were able to recall more vocabulary than the dictionary group. So a partly positive result, although one wonders how much vocabulary the two groups would remember a couple of months later.

The study in China and Scotland compared the uptake and response of two separate groups of teenage students to specially-designed game software for speaking practice. The two groups showed different levels of motivation. The group of Chinese EFL students reported increased positive attitudes, whereas the Scottish students learning French reported increased anxiety levels and decreasing positive attitudes during the study. A follow-up study (4) highlighted important limitations in the software. So mixed results overall in this study.

Sometimes studies on exactly the same area (such as learning vocabulary via SMS) show differing results – in some cases it appears to be effective, while in others it doesn’t seem to make any difference. But it’s worth bearing in mind that research studies tend to be self-selective. Researchers will often only publish studies that show positive results – those that show negative or contradictory results may never make it to publication. And although researchers try to avoid it, they are inevitably biased towards positive outcomes in their own studies. All of this means that it’s difficult to make sweeping generalisations such as ‘technology helps students learn English better’ or even ‘regular SMS texts help university students learn academic vocabulary better’.

Where does this leave us? For me, the important point is that we need to be critical users of digital technologies, and critical readers of research in the field. We need to be particularly wary of techno-centric views of technology that claim that the latest hardware/software/game/app/program will somehow magically help our students learn English ‘better’. In short, we need to be critically aware consumers of new technologies – both as users ourselves, and as teachers interested in using digital technologies with our own learners.


(1) Gebhard, M., Shin, D. S., & Seger, W. (2011). Blogging and emergent L2 literacy development in urban elementary school: A functional perspective. CALICO Journal, 28, 2, 278-307.
(2) Alemi, M., Sarab, M., & Lari, Z. (2012). Successful learning of academic word list via MALL: Mobile assisted language learning. International Education Studies, 5, 6, 99–109.
(3) Morton, H., & Jack, M. (2010). Speech interactive computer-assisted language learning: A cross-cultural evaluation. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 23, 4, 295-319.
(4) Morton, H., Gunson, N., & Jack, M. (2012). Interactive language learning through speech-enabled virtual scenarios. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction. Available at http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ahci/2012/389523/


Linking Your Classroom to The Wider World

shutterstock_247739401In this blog, Patrick Jackson shares his experiences of learning as a child.  His insights illustrate some important elements of engagement and motivation that often get overlooked in the day-to-day busy classroom and curriculum.

What do you remember from your school days? Forty years on, I can remember:

  • Some of the faces
  • Many of the feelings
  • Much of the fun
  • Very few of the facts
  • The times the wider world came into our classroom
  • The times we weren’t actually at school

As a teacher, I’ve learned to incorporate those early memories of school into my own teaching. I’d like to share some of those lessons learnt with you.

Lesson #1: Exploit opportunities that you can build a lesson around.

My first experience of education took place in a wonderful Montessori school that occupied a room in a local racecourse. In return for allowing the school to use the room, the students had to pick up the litter on a Monday morning after race meetings. We loved collecting the colorfully numbered betting tickets that littered the ground. One day, a student found a pound note. That led to a discussion as to what should be done with it. In the end, half went to charity and half to a bag of sweets for the whole class. I’m sure that this early experience led to my lifelong interest in litter picking although you won’t find many pound notes these days. I can’t remember much of what happened in the classroom but I do remember how much we’d look forward to those Monday mornings

Lesson #2: Bring the outside world into your classroom

The clearest memories are of the days when we escaped from the classroom or when the wider world came to see us. We had a teacher who brought his Labrador to school every day. It would sit under his desk. One morning, a pigeon flew through the open window and flew around and around, to be eventually caught and released accompanied by much barking and excitement. There was the day we received a package from a school on the other side of the world. It was full of stickers and interesting snacks. We were fascinated. There were the happy days when a visiting speaker would come and talk to us about something wonderful and different and new. Those were the best days. When something different and new happened.

Lesson #3: Take your class out into the world

Then there were the delicious days we spent away from school – the trips off campus. There was the day we went to Stratford Upon Avon and the theatre had to be evacuated because of a smoke alarm (nothing to do with us, promise). There were museum trips where invariably somebody would get lost and we’d all have to wait for them to turn up at the meeting point. There were nature field trips, and visits to the local old folks home where we would sing the residents Puff the Magic Dragon and songs from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Most heavenly of all was the annual three-day trip to an outdoor activity centre where we would rediscover our true calling as children – to get wet, dirty and exhausted. Outside.

Lesson #4: Don’t be afraid to go off topic

In the classroom, more than any syllabus or curriculum, I remember the red herrings. By that I don’t mean smoked fish. I mean the times when we could distract our teachers to tell us all about their favorite things – those lovely moments when they would drift far away from the task in hand and enthuse about their own interests. Those were the teachers we loved the most and the teachers I can remember now. There was a Mr. Green who supported Derby County Football Club and would always tell us in detail about the previous weekend’s match. There was a Mr. Sanderson who loved Motown and could never resist playing us one or two of his favorite tracks. There was a teacher of some forgotten subject who had a collection of ceramic owls in her classroom. It wouldn’t take much to get those teachers started talking about their pet passions and a good red herring could last to the end of the lesson.

Lesson #5: Share your passions

There was a history teacher who came into class one day with a silver spoon. He held up this spoon for the class to look at. It was an antique Georgian Irish Silver ladle. He started to talk about it, full of enthusiasm. I am ashamed to say that my friends and I sniggered at the back of the class. But the more he spoke about his spoon, the more we became engaged. He told us about how the spoon had been passed down through his family. He enthused about the design of the spoon, about the elegant curve of the handle, about the process of making a spoon like that two hundred years ago. He passed the spoon around the class so that we could all see the little silver marks on the underside of the handle. He taught us how we could identify the maker, the date and the place where the spoon had been made. He spoke of the type of home that this spoon was used in in Georgian times. I can’t remember the rest of that lesson. To be honest, I can’t really remember the teacher that well but I can remember his spoon.

I am very pleased to invite you to join my webinar this month. Together, we will look at some ways in which all teachers can create links between the classroom and the wider world. By opening up to our students and opening the doors, windows and hearts of our classrooms, we can become more memorable and more effective teachers.


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Bringing Grammar to Life

Word grammar spelt in scrabble lettersBriony Beaven is an ELT consultant, teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher. She is a NILE Associate Teacher Trainer and teaches Classroom Language to trainee teachers at the Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich. Today, she joins us to discuss bringing grammar to life in the EFL classroom ahead of her upcoming webinar, Bringing Grammar to Life.

The big problem with teaching grammar

The big problem with grammar, familiar to all English teachers, is that many ways of teaching grammar produce learners who KNOW ABOUT grammar; for example, they can tell you the rules for using the present perfect. But they often don’t KNOW HOW because when they speak or write these supposedly ‘known’ rules do not seem to be operating. In other words, the learners fail to make use of the rule they know so well in the language they actually produce. What can we do about this?

Approaches to grammar teaching

Three main ways of introducing new grammar are the deductive, the inductive and the guided discovery approaches. They all have their advantages and disadvantages and in the webinar we will consider how these might play out in your context.

In deductive grammar teaching the teacher explains or gives the rules for the target language items and then provides practice for the learners. In inductive grammar teaching the teacher provides some examples of the target language in a realistic context and lets the learners ‘notice’ the rules. The third approach, guided discovery, is a modified version of inductive teaching. In this approach the teacher provides some examples of the target language in context and supports the learners in ‘noticing’ the rules.


Support, scaffolding, mediation

To say that you are going to ‘support’ the learners is easy. To provide genuinely useful support needs a bit more thought. In the webinar we will consider the relationship of ‘support’ to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the related concepts of ‘scaffolding’ and ‘mediation’.

In guided discovery grammar teaching we can support, for example, by ensuring that learners meet the new grammar item in a lively, engaging and lifelike context. We can also support them by questioning and monitoring while learners try to ‘notice’ the target rules. What kinds of questions are helpful to ensure learners internalise and can use grammar rules? Good concept questions and focused questions about timelines can work a kind of magic. Finally, in our efforts to support our learners, we need to take care that the rules are summarised by the teacher so that learners know if their suppositions were right or not. That is, we offer feedback, another key component of ‘support’.


Use of the learners’ first language

For a long time we neglected a wonderful resource in the teaching of grammar in a foreign language, namely the learners’ mother tongue.


In their L1 learners have learnt to think, to communicate, to speak and use their voice. They have acquired an intuitive understanding of grammar, become aware of some finer points of language and have acquired the skills of reading and writing. These days a number of experts suggest that if a class is monolingual we can beneficially make use of their first language. What do you think about this?


Learners can produce new grammar items only after plenty of practice. This practice needs to be engaging and lively, but also challenging and likely to lead to long-term learning. ‘Three times practice’ (Scrivener 2014) is one way to do this.

Well, all in all it seems we need to do more than ‘cover material’ if most of our learners are to ‘know how’ to use the grammar we teach them, not just ‘know about’ it. No one approach will succeed with all of the learners all of the time because different learners understand in different ways. We will need to make use of different approaches and techniques both for introducing new grammar and for practising it effectively.

Join me for my webinar where I will suggest some engaging ways to help students learn ‘how’ to use grammar to communicate successfully.



Butzkamm, W. 2003. We only learn language once. The role of the mother tongue in FL classrooms: death of a dogma. Language Learning Journal, 28, 29-39.

Scrivener, J. 2014. Demand-high teaching. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 3(2), 47-58.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. and Ross, G. 1976. The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving. Journal of Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 17, 89–100.


Using smart devices in class – challenge or opportunity?

smartdevices1Thomas Healy is one of the authors of Smart Choice as well as an Assistant Professor in the Intensive English Program at the Pratt Institute, New York City. A full time instructor, he presents regularly on how to adapt traditional classroom materials to meet the needs of the Selfie Generation, and how to use widely available and easy-to-use digital tools in language learning.

In a survey of Smart Choice teachers conducted by Oxford University Press this year, 55% of teachers reported that they use smart devices regularly in class. In addition, 84% of teachers said they encourage learners to use the devices to extend learning outside of class. While the use of mobile technology in class is becoming more accepted, it is not without its challenges. Many of these challenges relate to practical matters of classroom management. How can we engage large classes, and make sure everyone is participating? How can we keep students on track? Can we use the devices in places without Wi-Fi?

When to use a smart device

I always feel that the challenges that I face in class, rather than just a decision to use digital devices for the sake of it, should be the determining factor whether I use smart phones in my class or not. With some classes it’s an easy decision, particularly in classrooms without any installed technology. Learners’ own devices enable me to incorporate videos, illustrations, and even texts into every lesson. Before class, I upload the content that I want students to view onto our Learning Management System- I use Facebook for this – and I can have students access the content during class.

If I am concerned about the focus of a particular class, I’ll have students use their devices for relevant parts of the lesson only. The rest of time, I’ll have them turn off their devices, or even better, put them away. With other classes, often smaller groups were I can be surer of each individual’s level of engagement, I’m more comfortable having learners use their devices at any time, especially to access online dictionaries. In this case, am I absolutely sure what a learner is doing online? No, but I know now that lack of focus demonstrates itself quite rapidly, and I can take appropriate action.

Keep it focused

For me, the key to keeping learners focused when working with smart phones is to [1] have time limits, and [2] insure that they have to create or complete something as part of the activity. Students, therefore, do not just observe something: they must do something too. This might mean commenting (for example, in the comments section of where I’ve posted a video) on what they’ve seen. My favorite activity is to have learners write something in their notebooks in a response to some online content, and then take a photo of their notes and share it on our LMS. This has several advantages. Firstly, knowing that they have to share their work with the class, students are more likely to complete an activity properly rather than engaging in inappropriate online behavior. I’m often concerned that if they don’t regularly write with a pen or pencil on paper, their basic writing skills, including handwriting and spelling, may suffer. In addition, the shared writing samples are very useful for peer reviewing and self-analysis. Videos of presentations and classroom discussions are equally useful to share. Content that has been uploaded by me or by my students in class can be accessed later. This is a very efficient and easy-to-implement way of extending the classroom into the virtual world. Activities like giving feedback to presentations can now be done outside of class. Additional activities can also be uploaded to provide specific practice for individual learners.

smartdevices2With the availability of mobile-optimized online practice materials, such as the On the Move material that accompanies Smart Choice Third Edition, online dictionaries and a whole range of English Language Learning apps, encouraging our students to use their smart phones outside of class is something we should all embrace. Having activities in class that involve the devices provides us with an opportunity to assist students on how to use them successfully. What, for example, do students do once they’ve looked up a word or phrase online?

I recommend that students make flashcards, either with apps such as StudyBlue or homemade cards which students can make by screen capturing the target vocabulary item in a sample sentence (together with a translation in L1) and an image. This approach is based on I.S.P. Nation’s meta-analysis of the use of flashcards and vocabulary.


Make learning relevant

Another advantage of smart phones is the potential for bringing the real world into the classroom. Students have an abundance of photos of places, people, food and activities that we can readily link to the content of our textbook. Students can show images and videos to their classmates, and this content allows us to extend and personalize the target language in a way that motivates students and makes learning sticky. This kind of activity is ideal for settings without Wi-Fi.

As I figure out how to use mobile technology in class, I’ve become more interested in exploring the basic features of the devices, rather than using apps. For me, the ability for students to access content online, and their ability to record, share and comment on work that we’ve done together, provides an invaluable opportunity to extend learning beyond my classroom, to have content-rich lessons in every room, and to encourage students to learn by analyzing their own and their peers’ output. In doing so, I’m hoping to create an environment that reflects the interactive, collaborative and networked world which has become their natural habitat. In time, I’m hoping that smart devices will become indispensable tools for them in their English language acquisition process, both outside of the classroom and long after our shared time together is over.

Want to find out more? Join Thomas for a live webinar on how to use mobile technology in class on 12th or 13th October.

In this free-to-attend webinar you can expect to:

  • Learn practical tips and ideas on how to use smartphones purposefully with your students in the classroom
  • Look at ways in which students own smart devices can make every classroom a technology enhanced classroom
  • Bring along your own questions to ask Thomas




  • Smart Choice teacher survey, Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Nation, I.S.P. Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques Heinle ELT, 2008.


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Rigor, Relevance, and Respect for Beginning Adult English Learners

oup_58388-1Oxford Picture Dictionary Author, Jayme Adelson-Goldstein, shares tips for laying the foundation of college and career readiness skills in beginning level adult instruction.  

The Relevance of Rigor

 “I think the next century will be the century of complexity.”

Stephen Hawking, January 23, 2000.

Stephen certainly called it. Coping with complexity is integral to our success as learners, workers, parents, caregivers, engaged citizens, and community members. If the tasks, texts, and technology we navigate in the 21st century can be challenging and even maddening for the fluent English speaker, imagine the situation of the adult English learner! Given the limited amount of time most adult learners have for language learning and the time needed to learn English, it makes sense to help learners develop strategies they need to tackle complexity right from the start. With this in mind, U.S. instructors are looking at ways to introduce their adult beginners to:

– reading tactics and foundational vocabulary they’ll need to navigate training materials, websites, textbooks, their children’s school documents, etc.

– listening strategies to help them “get the message” whether it’s delivered from a lectern or at a staff meeting

– a professional (or academic) register that supports discourse in any context

– writing frames to insure learners can convey their thoughts in a variety of formats.

In my work with teachers across the U.S., I’ve experienced an understandable pushback when I speak about introducing text complexity and language strategies in beginning-level classrooms. There are concerns that lessons won’t match the needs of learners at this level, some of whom have little or no prior education, or whose goals do not include career training or college courses. It’s not difficult to imagine why some would say that rigorous instruction is not appropriate until the high-intermediate level or later. It’s absolutely true that, as our beginning learners engage with more rigorous instruction, they’re likely to struggle —but it’s a good struggle. (Dweck, 2007) In fact, mind, brain and education (MBE) research has shown that our brains learn more when we make mistakes. (Moser, et.al., 2011) If we provide the good struggle (sans extreme frustration) within a safe and supportive environment, learners know they have permission to risk, fail, and try again. Safe and supportive means scaffolding instruction: breaking a task down step‐by‐step, demonstrating learning strategies, providing practice with models, using sentence frames, posting word lists, supplying reference materials, etc.

The three examples below, show how, with scaffolds in place, learners with limited language proficiency can tackle complexity and enjoy the process. 

1. Pictures with a Purpose

Visuals can serve as the basis for rigorous learning tasks that simultaneously support and enhance learners’ comprehension. Learners can focus on how best to express the information they see and already understand. Through the teacher’s text-dependent questions, learners can then dive deeper into the visual to make inferences, explore points of view within the picture and look at features in the image that give additional clues to meaning. In this way, the images serve as an “on ramp” to navigating text complexity.

blog2blog3 Sample questions a teacher might ask:

  • Is this a restaurant? (Y/N)
  • This is Ben Lu’s home. Point to Ben. (nonverbal response)   
  • Is the food from a restaurant or Ben’s kitchen? (Why do you say that?)
  • What type of event is this? How do you know? 
  • What do you see in the picture? 
  • What does the woman in red say to the woman in pink? Who is she? How do you know? What is the woman in pink thinking? 
  • What are the children doing? Which children are misbehaving? Explain.  Etc. 

2. Charts that Challenge

We can also use charts with pictures and classroom tasks to increase the level of rigor. Learners can work together to chart the information they see in a picture. For example, in the picture above, learners could chart the ages and gender of people at the party and use a language frame to describe their chart.

blog-1_bar-graph                   blog-1_pie-chart

‘Based on our observations, the young adult group is the largest at the reunion.’ 

‘According to our calculations, there are 54% more females than males at the reunion.’

Using this same picture, learners could use a plus/minus/ interesting chart to brainstorm what’s good, bad, and or interesting about having a large group of people in your home.  As learners respond, the teacher can guide them to the picture to support their “claims.”

Sample exchange

T: What’s good about having a party in your home?   

S: Food. 

T: What about the food? 

S: People with food. 

T: People bring food?


Learners could also survey teammates based on the picture topic; e.g. Do you like small parties or large parties? Once they have their data, they can chart it and share the results:  Based on a survey of ___ students, we found that ____% prefer large parties to small parties.


Sentence frames (like the ones shown above) are an effective tool to help all learners practice using an academic or professional register to express their ideas. Beginners can engage in academic discourse with teacher support. First, prompt teams or the whole class to reflect on a situation within the picture, then provide sentence frames for their responses.

blog-1_page-45_little-boyFor example,

PROMPT: Imagine you are at the party and you see this little boy. 

                 What do you do? What do you say?    

FRAMES:  In this situation, I would talk to him and say….

I would speak to his parents and say…

I would do nothing because….

Practice various responses using the frames and then direct learners to take turns expressing their ideas in teams, using the frames you’ve provided. Be sure to give learners examples of the language to agree or disagree, so that they can respond to their teammates.  And don’t forget to set a time limit!

Treating visuals as complex text, giving learners opportunities to chart or graph information, and using sentence frames to practice a professional or academic register are just a few ways we can infuse rigor in beginning level instruction, demonstrating our respect for our learners’ abilities and insuring relevance in the century of complexity.

Join me for a live webinar on October 14 to further explore how visuals and scaffolded tasks can launch our beginning learners towards their educational career and civic goals.



Chui, G. (2000, January 23). ‘UNIFIED THEORY’ IS GETTING CLOSER, HAWKING PREDICTS. San Jose Mercury News, p. 29A.

Boaler, J. (n.d.). Mistakes Grow Your Brain [Web log post]. Retrieved September 24, 2016, from https://www.youcubed.org/think-it-up/mistakes-grow-brain/

Dweck, C. (n.d.). Carol Dweck on Struggle . Retrieved September 24, 2016, from https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/embracing-struggle-exl

Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y. H. (2011). Mind Your Errors Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments. Psychological Science, 0956797611419520.