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Researching the classroom | Martyn Clarke

In this OUP blog post from March 2017, we briefly described 5 key stages that we could usefully take when carrying out action research into what happens in our own classrooms.

  1. Finding the focus
  2. Identifying the tools
  3. Carrying out the research
  4. Analysing the information
  5. Taking action

In this webinar we will be exploring the options we have at each stage and how they might be suited to different kinds of investigations. Let’s look at an example.

Sara is a teacher in a secondary school and is concerned that her Year 9 group (13-14 year olds) are not meeting the requirements of the speaking exam that they are studying for.     

Finding the focus

There are 3 key things to bear in mind here.

  • Is it reasonable? In our example, it would be unreasonable for Sara to explore how she could change the requirements of the exam. It is out of her control. But it would certainly be reasonable to explore what happens during speaking activities in the classroom.
  • Is it focused appropriately? If Sara were to ask ‘what motivates my students?’, then the possible answers would be very general and too complex to be useful immediately. But if she were to ask, ‘when do students actually speak in English?’ then this is a more manageable focus with clear outcomes.
  • Is it bias-free? If Sara asks, ‘Why do my students hate speaking?’ she will end up looking for data that confirms her preconceptions. Research should hopefully help us explore our own perceptions as well as the realities of our classrooms. So, a question such as, ‘how do my students feel about specific speaking activities?’ might be more useful.

How can we get to these questions? Working on our own, applying the tests above might help. Writing a question down, editing, leaving it for a while, and then coming back for review and re-editing is a useful process. If we have colleagues, then asking them for feedback on this process is always helpful.

In the webinar… we’ll evaluate some questions for their usefulness and suggest possible changes.

Identifying the tools

There are so many:

  • Field notes
  • Audio recordings
  • Student journals
  • Questionnaires
  • Photographs
  • Teacher journals
  • Videos
  • Interviews
  • Group interaction maps
  • Observations (by colleagues or students)

As we pointed out earlier, it all depends on the information you want to get. For Sara, a questionnaire or an interview might help her discover what her students feel about different speaking activities. If she wants to understand what students actually do during speaking activities, she should try video recordings, field notes, or even colleague observation.

In the webinar… we’ll look at a reading activity that Sara gives to her students to explore their feelings towards speaking, and we’ll look at some examples of other tools in action.

Carrying out the research

A potential problem with research is that it might interfere with the lessons themselves. It’s important to minimise this either by being as discrete as possible with your research tools or, as we mentioned above, carrying out the research in a way that combines the exploration with language learning itself. In Sara’s project, she might do the questionnaires and interviews herself, or have the students write and administer them as part of a class project – combining research with language learning.

In the webinarwe’ll look at some examples of Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activities (PEPAs) which combine language learning with research activities.

Analysing the information

So, we’ve identified the focus, chosen our tools, and collected our information. What do we do with it? This stage of analysis needs frameworks of categorisation, synthesis, evaluation, and many other cognitive processes found in the higher order thinking skills of Bloom’s taxonomy (or lots of HOTS, if you like a nerdy joke).

Sara might ask the following questions:

  • What categories of speaking activities do the students tend to enjoy more?
  • Are there any particular themes that they enjoy more than others?
  • Is there any information on the impact my behaviour has on their attitude to speaking?
  • How does the behaviour of their peers affect their engagement with speaking activities?
  • Have we collected any unexpected date? Do I need to change my mind on anything?

In the webinarwe’ll look at a variety of analysis questions that we can use to gain insights into the data we discover, and also examine the possible pitfalls of leaping to conclusions without checking our biases.

Taking action

The first point to make is that there doesn’t actually have to be any action in the actual teaching we do. It’s possible that your research suggests what you thought was an issue isn’t, in fact, such a problem. In this situation the change will come not so much in your classroom practice but in how you see things as a teacher. Sara might discover that her students are actually better at speaking than she thought.

It’s also possible that your research has led you to more questions and you decide that it is important to find the answers to these in order to identify a strategy to address the situation. Sara might find that her students are demotivated by her correction techniques, and so needs to read up on ways of responding to spoken contributions in the lesson.

But it’s possible, however, that we decide to try something new as a result. Sara might decide to increase her use of pair-work as students find this less threatening than speaking in groups or in front of the class. She might decide to trial using their phones to record these interactions for later review.

In the webinarwe’ll evaluate actions for their appropriateness to different data analysis outcomes.

Whatever strategy we try, it’s useful to then continue the research and obtain data on what happens as a result. In other words, action research can become a cycle of development into learning about our teaching. Does that sound like a good idea?

I look forward to seeing you at the webinar in November.


Martyn Clarke has been an ELT professional for 30 years. As a consultant teacher-trainer, he has experience in education development projects in more than 15 countries around the world. He has designed and taught on under- and post-graduate teacher and trainer development programmes for universities in the UK across Europe and the Middle East. He’s also a trainer development course writer for the British Council.


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Learning and teaching pragmatics | Anna Krulatz

Successful communication entails much more than following the rules of grammar, having a large lexicon, and speaking in a way that is intelligible to the listeners. What language learners also have to attend to is how meaning is constructed in context. They have to select appropriate language forms depending on the situation and the person they are speaking with. Pragmatic competence (sometimes also called pragmatic ability) refers to using language effectively in a contextually appropriate way. People who interact with each other work jointly to co-construct and negotiate meaning depending on factors such as their respective social status, the social distance between them, the place of interaction, and their mutual rights and obligations.

Cross-cultural and cross-linguistic differences in pragmatics

Pragmatic norms vary across languages, cultures and individuals. They are so deeply intertwined with our cultural and linguistic identities that learning pragmatics norms of another speech community, especially in adulthood, can be quite challenging. This is because culturally appropriate linguistic behaviours in the target language may differ in many ways from those in the first language (or languages). Think about the language and culture you identify with most closely (it can be your first language or another language that you use extensively in your daily life). If your language is like Russian, German or French, and makes a distinction between formal and informal ways of addressing another person (i.e., ты/вы, du/sie, tu/vous), it may be difficult for you to use informal ways of addressing people of higher status such as your boss, supervisor or professor. Conversely, if your language makes no such distinction and you are learning a language that does, it may be unnatural for you to differentiate the forms of address you use depending on whether you speak to a friend or to someone of a higher social status. Languages also differ in regards to speech acts, or utterances that are intended to perform an action, such as apologies, requests, invitations, refusals, compliments and complaints. Think about compliments. How would you respond in your first or strongest language if a good friend complimented you in the following way?

Friend: “Your hair looks great! Did you just get a haircut?”

You: “…?”

A native speaker of American English is likely to say something along these lines, “Oh thanks, I just styled it differently today. I’m glad you like it.” On the other hand, a Russian may say something like, “Oh really? It’s a mess. I spent a whole hour this morning trying to style it, and that’s the best that came out of it.” It is all good if these speakers are interacting with someone of the same language background or someone who is well versed in the pragmatic norms of the same language. But put an American and a Russian together, and the interaction may end in an awkward silence because the compliment was turned down (if it’s the Russian responding to the compliment), or a bewilderment at the other person’s immodesty (if it’s the American who is responding). This and other instances of pragmatic failure can cause much more misunderstanding than grammatical or lexical errors.

 Why teach pragmatics?

I first started to realise the importance of focusing on pragmatics in language teaching when I worked with international students at the University of Utah. Email use on campus was just beginning to gain in popularity as a medium of communication, and I would get emails from international students that came across as very informal. In fact, I started wondering if these students thought there was no difference between emailing a friend and emailing a professor. Here is a typical example:

Clearly, the goal of this message is to make a request for an extension on a deadline and a meeting during office hours. Although the email is mostly grammatically correct, it contains want- and need-statements, both of which are very direct ways of making requests. The student is also not using any hedges such as “please,” “thank you” or “would you.” Because of the context of the interaction (university campus in the United States), and the social distance between the two parties involved (student – professor), the message comes across as overly direct, bordering on impolite. As I received similar emails very frequently, I decided I had to do something to help my students develop their pragmatic competence. If your own students also struggle with the rules of netiquette, you may find this lesson plan by Thomas Mach and Shelly Ridder useful.

Unfortunately, few language courses and fewer textbooks focus explicitly on the development of pragmatic competence. Research shows, however, that language learners may not be able to notice that target language pragmatic norms are different from those in their first language, and can, therefore, benefit from pragmatics-focused activities. We are going to look at several examples of those in my webinar! Click the link below to register.

Do you have any examples of embarrassing or funny moments caused by pragmatic failure? Or ideas on how to teach pragmatics? If yes, please share your thoughts in the comments! 


Anna Krulatz is Associate Professor of English at the Faculty of Teacher Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, where she works with pre- and in-service EFL teachers. Her research focuses on multilingualism with English, pragmatic development in adult language learners, content-based instruction, and language teacher education.


References

Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Mahan-Taylor, R. (2003, July). Introduction to teaching pragmatics. English Teaching Forum, 41(3), 37-39.

Rose, K. R., & Kasper, G. (2001). Pragmatics in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ishihara, N., & Cohen, A. (2010). Teaching and learning pragmatics. Where language and culture meet. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Limited.


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10 top tips to help you connect with your student’s parents

Parents and carers sometimes can be difficult to deal with; they didn’t learn English like their children, none of the current digital tools were available to them. Many don’t understand the benefits of modern methodology. For this reason, it would be helpful for you and your students to start the year with a parent meeting. Show them the course book and all of the associated digital resources, and in doing so, gain their confidence. This is your chance to answer their questions, clarify their doubts, and give them the clarity they need surrounding your teaching methods.

Here are 10 tips to help you make that meeting a success!

1. Start by telling participants how varied your class is in terms of mixed-ability and learning disabilities, give them numbers for context. It is important that parents are aware that all students learn in different ways and at a different pace. Once they understand that, they’ll appreciate why it’s important to have such a wide variety of resources, including digital ones, to appeal to different learning styles and cater to differing special needs.

2. Walk parents through a unit, get them to listen to the dialogue, read the text, watch the video, and if the material you’re using has Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) resources try a couple of them too! This will give parents an understanding of the methodology. As well as this, showing parents the type of content and resources their children can use will show them that learning a language nowadays can be fun and effective at the same time. If you have a YLE course, do a song, a game, or a craft activity from the book with them in the same way you would do with your students. You only need to spend fifteen minutes or half an hour at the most on this. It’s a small investment in time but the benefits are vast. This will let parents feel the pleasure kids have working this way in class. Hopefully, then they will understand that although it seems that they are “doing nothing” because they sing songs and play games, they are actually learning and most importantly, they are enjoying learning.

3. Homework time can be tricky for parents for various reasons. Showing them which pages and resources are useful for supporting kids with homework is a great help. Walk parents through the course book, paying special attention to the pages where they will find resources like the Irregular Verb List, Pronunciation Guide, Grammar Reference, Vocabulary Bank, Glossary, Key Phrases Bank, and so on. Parents will focus on those pages when supporting their children with homework.

4. Our students may be digital natives (born after the year 2000), but that doesn’t mean that they are digitally literate as a study run by MediaSmarts (Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy) has demonstrated: “Young people are mistakenly considered experts in digital technologies because they’re so highly connected, but they are still lacking many essential digital literacy skills”. It’s important to support students at home and parents will play an important role here. Nowadays, most courses have online practice components on platforms, apps and/or e-books. Show parents how to download the e-book or app, and show them how to access and use the platforms. Parents must know how to do this. Navigating these digital materials is usually intuitive, but for the sake of clarity, you might want to show them the main navigation tools.

5. If you’re going to use the Learning Management System (LMS) functionality of the course, explain to parents the benefits. For example, you will have more time in class to get students to practise language.

6. If students are going to use the online course materials autonomously, then you might want to give them an Online Learning Record like the one below (I was inspired by the “website learning record” of Headway and English File). Stress to parents how important it is that their kid’s keep this updated! This will help students to develop their study skills and to stay focused.

Example of an Online Learning Record

ACTIVITY DATE SCORE ACTION
U2 ex3 Vocabulary 12th Oct 4/10 Revise vocabulary bank
 

 

7. Remember that students with learning disabilities will benefit enormously from using content in digital format. You might want to inform parents of SEN students what aspects of the digital content you have are especially good for them. For example, if you have content on the Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf the audio functionality gives you the possibility to slow down the speed. Karaoke-style scripts of the listening found on some coursebook e-books are also an excellent tool for some types of SEN students. If you are in Italy, the student’s website of OUP course books used in the country will have a dyslexic-friendly version of the readings in the course book. Click here for an example for English File Pre-Int. Also, some OUP eBooks offer the course book readings in a dyslexic-friendly format. When this option is active, you will see an icon and you just need to tap it to get the dyslexic-friendly version of the reading. I’ve added this information. This function is available on selected OUP courses, like English File, Headway or Insight.

8. Another important point to consider before you decide to implement the use of online resources is how parents feel about their kids being online. Some parents have reservations about internet safety so they prefer kids not to use the internet or have a negative attitude towards digital. This could be an obstacle for the student’s digital skills development which is crucial for the future of any child. It could also be an obstacle for you to carry out your lessons with online content. For this reason, it is a good idea to run parents through the online activities their children will be participating in, acknowledging their concerns along the way. Fortunately, there are ways to protect them online. Sometimes local internet providers will have free parental controls that filter out inappropriate content. Make sure you understand the concept of parental controls, and how parents can utilise them. Widespread concerns from parents on internet safety can be a real blocker, if you’re facing this you should dedicate time to walk through the above with parents.

9. To raise awareness of internet safety, why not join the hundreds of activities done globally on the occasion of the Safer Internet Day (SID)? It is celebrated every year in February to promote the safe and positive use of digital technology by students. The next SID will be on 5th February 2019 so save the date and start planning ahead. The UK Safer Internet Centre has a resourceful website where you can find online safety activities and more free resources for download. Do check for Safer Internet Day activities in your own country and join the bandwagon!

10. Finally, I would give parents a handout with platform URLs, links to tutorials (always check on YouTube to see if your digital tools have tutorials), info of online parental controls by local internet providers, information about the Safer Internet Centre in the area (if there is one), the online learning record, and the list of student’s resources (e.g. student’s website, vocabulary app, verb tables, etc). Think of this handout as a reference for parents to have handy when they need to help their kids with homework or revising for a test.

 Use the above information as you see fit. If you have other ideas, please take a moment to share them with me in the comments section, or send me an email.


Gina Rodriguez is a Senior Educational Consultant for OUP in Italy. She is a CELTA qualified teacher, teacher trainer and speaker. She generated the idea to have the existing “Genitori Studenti”  page (“Parents and Students” page) on the OUP Italian website as a way to support parents and students in managing their digital resources and supported the marketing team with the content. She firmly believes that being a digital native does not mean being digitally literate. Students need support on developing digital literacy both from school and home. Getting parents and carers involved in it will increase the chances of school success and reduce digital issues.


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Too many to talk! Helping students interact in large classes

As ELT teachers we aim to create purposeful communication in the classroom because for many of our students it is their only exposure to the language. Institutions may, for a variety of reasons, try to get as many students into a single classroom as possible, inevitably creating large class sizes. So how do we manage to give students in such a setting the opportunity to really interact orally in the target language (TL)?

How large is large?

Firstly, it is worth considering whether size actually matters:

“the size is relative and a matter of perception that varies from teacher to teacher.” (Shamin et al, 2007)

I went from a relatively small class size of 15 in the UK (feeling it was a large class when asked to teach 17/18), to teaching classes of 60-80 in rural Nepal, which felt truly daunting.

In order to do the teacher training required, I needed to experience and understand the difficulties of the teachers to try to help them find solutions. One such solution was to divide the class into units: 10 groups of 6 students were somehow easier to deal with mentally than 60 students. If you are going to break the class down in this way, you do not need to have them all doing the same thing at the same time.

It’s not only the what, but the how

Various studies have been carried out over the years on the effects of class size upon learning, but the conclusions are mixed. Interestingly, the disagreement is often over whether the main factor is the class size or methodology.

I would dare to suggest that the key is to adapt our methodology. If we use the same methodology that we would use with 15 students, with 60-80, then we’ll forever be fighting to keep all our students attention. The class takes on a controlling environment, for the teacher to be able to get the same message across to everyone at the same time.

When you change the methodology, you also change the role of the teacher. You may need some adjustment. I have found that it takes a lot more preparation, for example, for the different groups to be getting on with their task smoothly. Clear instructions that are written down (either on the board, a slide, or on a worksheet) allows students to double-check should they forget along the way, what it was that they were supposed to focus on. This frees up the teacher because students don’t need to keep checking with them, thus allowing some quality time to be spent with each, or a select group of students. The teacher gets regular snapshots of the students’ language abilities, as well as being able to add relevant input if required to keep students on the right track. The teacher, therefore, becomes a source of advice/suggestions and needs to think on their feet according to the task/the students in the group/the difficulties.

If the teacher knows their students well and has carefully planned the tasks around them, many of the issues can be anticipated. Which brings me on to a crucial question, how do we get to know our students if there are so many of them? I’ll be talking about this and more on encouraging oral interaction in particular in my upcoming webinar “Too many to talk!” on the 13th and 14th September! Places are limited to register today, and I’ll see you there.


Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels and in both private and government institutions in over fifteen different countries as well as in the UK. Early on in her career, Zarina specialised in EAP combining her scientific and educational qualifications. From this developed an interest in providing tailor-made materials, which later led to materials writing that was used in health training and governance projects in developing countries. Since 2000 she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina is published and has delivered training courses, presentations, spoken at conferences worldwide, and continues to be a freelance consultant teacher educator.


Reference:

Shamin. F., N. Negash, C. Chuku, N. Demewoz (2007) Maximizing learning in large classes: Issues and options. Addis Ababa, British Council.


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Don’t look now – the CEFR is in your classroom

Getting your exam results

Working in language education, it’s quite hard to escape from the CEFR, or Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. It crops up in courses at language schools and in publishers textbooks. International testing bodies label their products as suitable for levels called A2, B1+, or C1.

Ministries of education around the world are vying with each other to set the most demanding targets for the percentage of school children who will reach B2 in the languages they study by the time they graduate. People applying for a Tier 2 visa to do skilled work in the UK need a B1 level certificate in English in reading, writing, speaking and listening. If looking for work using their German language skills, applicants might be asked by their future employer to demonstrate at least an A1 level for unskilled work, B1 for a service role, or C1 for a professional level job involving meetings and negotiations.

Although it’s clearly important that people involved in language education should have a good understanding of such an influential object, there seems to be a lot of confusion around where the CEFR comes from and even about what exactly it is. Let’s start with the first of those points. The CEFR is not a product of the European Union, but was developed by the Council of Europe, an entirely different organisation which is both older (it was founded in 1949) and much bigger (it has 47 member states, many of which are not EU members, including Norway, Russia and Turkey). Its mission includes protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law, promoting diversity, and combating discrimination against minorities. It has carried out successful campaigns among its members to end the death penalty and to support the rights of people with disabilities. Its work in language education involves promoting linguistic human rights and the teaching and learning of minority languages.

The Council of Europe and language education

As part of this work, the Council of Europe was pioneering in promoting one of the most revolutionary ideas in language education: the communicative approach. Instead of focussing (as teachers usually did before the 1970s) on what learners knew about a language – how many words or how much grammar – the Council of Europe focussed attention on what learners might actually want to do with the language they were learning – the activities they might need to carry out, and the ideas they might want to express. In 1975 the Council of Europe published Jan van Ek’s Threshold Level. This book defined a level (to become “B1” in the CEFR) that a language learner would need in order to be able to live independently for a while in a country where that language is spoken. In 2001 (the European year of languages) twenty-five years of further work involving extensive consultation with language teachers and academic experts culminated in the publication of the CEFR. This year, the Council of Europe has published a Companion Volume, available online that updates and expands on the original publication.

It is part of the Council of Europe’s educational philosophy that learners should be able to move easily between informal learning, schools, universities, and workplace training courses to pick up the practical skills that they need. Of course, doing this is much easier if everyone shares the same basic terms for talking about teaching and learning. If a ‘Beginner’ level class in school A is like an ‘Elementary’ level class in school B or a ‘Preliminary’ class in school C, and the ‘Starters’ book in textbook series X is like the ‘Grade 2’ book in series Y, life in the English classroom can soon get very confusing for the uninitiated. The CEFR provides a shared language to make it easier for teachers, learners, publishers, and testers to communicate across languages, educational sectors, and national boundaries.

School A School B School C
Beginner Elementary Preliminary

Table 1 shows the need for a shared ‘language’ for talking about levels.

Language learning levels, activities, and contexts

One contribution of the CEFR has been to provide terms for levels – running from Basic (pre-A1, A1 and A2), through Independent (B1 and B2) up to Proficient (C1 and C2) – that are defined in terms of what learners at each level can do with the language they are learning.  For example, at the A1 level a learner, ‘can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where he/she lives and people he/she knows’, but at B2 ‘can present clear, detailed descriptions on a wide range of subjects related to his/her field of interest’.

CEFR level A1 CEFR level B2
‘can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where he/she lives and people he/she knows’ ‘can present clear, detailed descriptions on a wide range of subjects related to his/her field of interest’

Table 2 gives examples of what students ‘can do’ at two CEFR levels.

Although levels are important, they are only a small part of what the CEFR offers. In fact, the Council of Europe suggests that levels are too reductive and that it is better to consider learners and learning in terms of profiles of abilities. For example, learners may be very effective speakers and listeners (B2 level), but struggle with the written language (A2 level). The CEFR does not follow the traditional “four skills model” of Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking, but divides language use activities into reception, interaction, production and mediation. The framework also considers the contexts in which people use languages, recognising that learning a language to keep in touch with one’s grandparents is rather different (and suggests a different skills profile) from learning in order to pursue a career in Engineering.

Describing and explaining, not prescribing or imposing 

The CEFR is not a test or a syllabus, it is not limited to the learning of indigenous “European” languages and it does not set out what learners should learn. There is no consensus view on what should be learned or what methods should be used and the CEFR is not a recipe book that recommends or requires its users to adopt a certain teaching method. Educational objectives and standards will inevitably differ according to the target language and the learning context; teaching methods will vary according to the local educational culture. What the CEFR does offer is sets of key questions that encourage educators to think about, describe and explain why they choose to learn, teach or test a language in the way that they do. As part of this process, they are encouraged to question their current aims and methods, but selectivity, flexibility and pluralism are seen to be essential. Users choose only those parts of the CEFR scheme that are seen to be relevant in their context. If the illustrative descriptions in the CEFR are not suitable for a particular group, it is clear that they are free to develop alternative descriptions that work better for them – and the CEFR suggests ways of doing just that. Indeed, the new Companion Volume brings together many of the Can-Do descriptors that have been developed since 2001 to fill gaps and expand the scope of the CEFR descriptive scheme.

If you think it’s time you found out more about the CEFR and Companion Volume and how they affect your work, visit the CEFR website to learn more.


Professor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. He has published widely on language assessment and is a former President of the International Language Testing Association (ILTA). His most recent book Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (Routledge, 2014) provides trainee teachers and others with an introduction to this field. Professor Green’s main research interests concern relationships between language assessment, teaching and learning.


Further reading

Need further support, or just want to learn more about language assessment? We recommend that you take a look at these two titles: ‘Language Assessment for Classroom Teachers‘, and ‘Focus on Assessment‘.