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Learn English with Virtual Environments | Hidekazu Shoto

Students playing computer games to learn english

Communication with native English language speakers is one of the most effective ways to learn English, and using technology makes this possible. I teach English based on my “collaborative-communication model”, one that’s very effective for motivating my students. I use a wealth of technologies with my class such as Skype, Minecraft, and AI robots. I find them useful for not only teaching English, but for teaching 21st century skills as well!

Virtual environments

From my experience, virtual environments can be very effective language learning tools for students of English; they allow students young and old to experience new worlds, communicate, make friends, and build relationships. There are a wealth of tools out there that you can use, but I’m happy to say that I’ve had real success with my students using a combination of Skype and Minecraft (a game many students may already be familiar with). These digital environments offer students engaging opportunities to use English with native speakers and to use the language to achieve a common goal, such as constructing a digital building. Through these activities, students also develop their 21st Century Skills of communication, collaboration, imagination, and logical thinking. These four skills are necessary assets for learners that will help them to succeed in the modern world.

A typical lesson

Typically, students grouped together to make a team of four people, and they are given a task. I might ask the groups to construct a building, like the Kyoto World Heritage Site in Minecraft, before asking them to introduce it to students from overseas. To build something in Minecraft, students need to exercise their imagination, and think logically about the build and their resources. Each student is then given a role; Minecraft Leader, Programming Leader, English Leader, and Building Designer. Finally, they are given a deadline.

Most groups start off by discussing a plan, each student offering an opinion. These discussions continue throughout the duration of the build. Once completed, the group welcome overseas visitors to their digital environment, giving them a tour of their build and gathering their opinions on their work, all in English!

The simplicity and global appeal of Minecraft make it extraordinarily easy to introduce to the class. As a tool, it allowed me to break down subject barriers, combining English, 21st Century Skills, and programming. This is something I’m especially proud of achieving as from 2020 in Japan, the Ministry of Education plans to make ‘English’ and ‘Programming’ compulsory across all Primary schools. The techniques I’ve described combine these two educational programmes, which is great for teachers! And through the “collaborative-communication model”, students can improve their English proficiency in an engaging and motivating way. 


Hidekazu Shoto was born in Osaka, Japan, and is an English Teacher and Head of ICT at Ritsumeikan Primary School. After graduate school, he joined Ritsumeikan Academy as an English teacher, introducing ICT and technology into his English classes.

Hidekazu Shoto was a top 10 Finalist for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2019. Here’s why!


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Creating an inclusive learning environment | Dr Bimali Indrarathne

Inclusivity in the classroom

Inclusive education is defined as “recognition of the need to work towards ‘schools for all’ – institutions which include everybody, celebrate differences, support learning, and respond to individual needs” (United Nations Children’s Fund, 2011, p. 3). When inclusive practices are introduced into a school system, usually teachers are trained and they are expected to make necessary changes in the teaching-learning process. However, teacher training itself cannot create an inclusive environment in the school. All relevant parties such as school administration, parents, and other social institutions should also play an active role. Therefore, it is important to understand how these different groups contribute to create an inclusive environment. 

Challenges in creating an inclusive environment

Negative attitudes and lack of awareness: One of the main challenges in introducing inclusive practices into an education system is the negative attitudes and/or misconceptions of teachers, school management, parents and society on issues such as disabilities. This is due to their lack of awareness of such issues. Research in different parts of the world has shown evidence of teachers’ (e.g. Alawadh, 2016) and parents’ (Scorgie, 2015) lack of awareness of learning difficulties such as dyslexia. A recent study (Indrarathne, in press) has shown that English language teachers find it difficult to implement inclusive practices to accommodate learners with dyslexia at classroom level due to lack of support from their colleagues, parents and school management (or the education system).

Poor collaboration: If educational changes are to be successfully implemented, there should be healthy and regular collaboration between professionals within the education system (Alur & Timmons, 2009). For example, when inclusive practices are introduced into a school system to accommodate learners with learning difficulties, there need to be changes introduced to the assessments as well. However, in certain contexts, assessments are designed by external bodies and teachers have minimal influence on the decisions taken by those who design assessments. On such occasions, teachers are in a dilemma as changes that they introduce may have negative consequences on learners when it comes to assessments. 

Lack of resources: Lack of physical resources (e.g. sufficient classroom space, facilities for preparing learning aids), lack of awareness-raising programmes aimed at teachers, principals, parents and society at large, lack of specific teaching-learning materials/resources and lack of administrative support within the school system can also be challenging when creating an inclusive environment.

Ways to overcome challenges

Awareness raising: One of the most important steps that need to be taken when creating an inclusive environment is awareness-raising. This should be aimed at:

  • Everybody in the education management system including teachers, principals, teacher educators, policy planners and administrators. This can be realised through either short-term or long-term programmes and by including components related to inclusion into existing CPD programmes.
  • Parents – both of learners with and without special needs. It is important that parents of learners without special needs understand the reasons for accommodating learners with special needs and parents of children with special needs understand which accommodations their children need. Involving the parents in creating an inclusive environment will bring more positive results. This can be done through regular discussions with parents, through parents’ meetings and through other means such as leaflets.
  • Society – as social institutions need to fully participate in creating an inclusive environment, it is important to design ways and means to reach them. Awareness- raising programmes such as newspaper articles, leaflets, short TV/radio programmes, public talks and seminars would be useful in this context. At school level, events such as school visits and open days can be arranged.
  • Learners – it is also vital to make learners aware that some of their peers need special accommodations in the learning process.

Agenda for creating an inclusive culture: The institution needs to identify the steps that need to be taken to create an inclusive environment and design a programme to realise it. This needs to include a clear vision, short-term and long-term goals and ways to make changes sustainable. This should be designed in collaboration with all parties (i.e. teachers, administrators, students and parents) and should also be communicated to all parties concerned.

Collaboration and communication: It is important to create an environment where all relevant parties within the school system (i.e. teachers, administrators, students and parents) engage in regular communication and collaborate in creating an inclusive environment.

Legislation: Eleweke and Rodda (2002) identify the absence of enabling legislation as a major problem in implementing inclusive education particularly in developing countries. Therefore, a country/education system needs some enabling legislation of inclusive practices, for example, giving extra time in exams for learners with learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

Resources: Providing teachers with necessary training and physical resources to implement inclusive practices and providing learners with special needs the resources that they need would make the school environment more inclusive.

I spoke about creating and Inclusive Classroom at ELTOC 2019, click here to watch the recording!


Dr Bimali Indrarathne is a lecturer in the Department of Education, University of York. She researches second language acquisition/pedagogy and teacher education. She has been involved in several teacher training projects on dyslexia and inclusive practices in South Asia. She is also an educator on the Lancaster University’s MOOC on Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching.


References

Alawadh, A. S. (2016). Teachers perceptions of the challenges related to provision of services for learners with specific learning difficulties (dyslexia) in Kuwaiti government primary schools. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of York.

Alur, M., & Timmons, V. (Eds.). (2009). Inclusive education across cultures: Crossing boundaries, sharing ideas. India: SAGE Publications India.

Eleweke, C., & Rodda, M. (2002). The challenge of enhancing inclusive education in developing countries. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 6(2), 113-126.

Indrarathne, B. (In press). Accommodating learners with dyslexia in ELT in Sri Lanka: teachers’ knowledge, attitudes and challenges. TESOL Quarterly.

Scorgie, K. (2015). Ambiguous belonging and the challenge of inclusion: parent perspectives on school membership. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 20(1), 35-50.

United Nations Children’s Fund (2011) The right of children with disabilities to education: a rights-based approach to inclusive education. Geneva, Switzerland: UNICEF Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEECIS).


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Does technology work? | Nicky Hockly

Teaching with technology

In todays’ wired world, technology is an integral part of our work and personal lives. As teachers, we are often expected to use a range of digital technologies in our English language classes.

These expectations come from a range of quarters: from educational technology vendors, Ministries of Education, school directors, students, parents, and often from teachers themselves who feel they ‘should’ use technologies, especially with younger students/teenagers.

But in our rush to use technology in the English language classroom, the question of whether a chosen technology ‘works’ or not is frequently ignored.

What does research say?

Let’s start with a short quiz. Are the three following statements true or false?

  • Younger students (e.g. teenagers) are naturally better users of digital technologies than older students.
  • Contributing to blogs can help language learners improve their writing.
  • Digital technologies can help students with special educational needs.

Do you feel confident about your answers? Let’s see what the research says about each of these statements.

  1. Younger students are naturally better users of digital technologies than older students.
    Many people believe this to be true, but the myth of the ‘digital native’ (Prensky, 2001) has been thoroughly debunked by research. Young people are not automatically effective users of new technologies, although they may be confident with these technologies and use them for a range of (primarily friendship-driven) purposes. Young people may appear to live on Instagram, but they are often not good at evaluating the source and veracity of information they find online. They often don’t know how to write an email with the appropriate structure and tone. In short, younger students tend to be confident but uncritical users of technology. A large-scale research study (Fraillon et al.) carried out with 60,000 13 to 14 year olds across 3,300 schools in 21 educations systems/countries found that the ICT skills of young learners and adolescents were fairly low, and depended on a wide range of factors. These factors included: the impact of students’ home and school contexts, students’ individual characteristics, parents’ educational level and profession, the number of books and access to ICT resources in the home. Whether students received ICT instruction in school was another factor that affected their digital literacy. The bottom line is that younger people are automatically digital literate.
  • Contributing to blogs can help language learners improve their writing.
    Blogs have long been considered good for helping students develop their writing skills. When writing blog entries, students write for a real audience and with a communicative purpose; students can also interact with blog readers in a blog’s comment section. These are all good things for writing. Research shows that blogs can increase students’ motivation to write in English, although the research is less clear on whether the quality of their writing improves through writing blog entries. For example, it has been found that students with a lower level of language proficiency may benefit less from writing blogs than stronger students do (Secru, 2013). Nevertheless, the research into using blogs to develop EFL and ESL students’ writing is positive overall.
  • Digital technologies can help students with special educational needs.
    So-called ‘assistive technologies’ are used in inclusive learning in different disciplines, not only in English language learning, so much of the research has taken place in a range of subject areas. Overall, the research is promising. Tablets, for example, have been enthusiastically taken up by teachers working with special educational needs (SEN) learners because of their multimodal and tactile assistive qualities, as well as the ever-growing range of educational apps available for SEN students. In the field of English language teaching, research suggests that, depending on the learning materials or apps used and task design, learners’ engagement with language learning materials can increase (e.g. Cumming & Draper Rodriguez, 2013). The research also suggests that language teachers usually have a positive attitude to the use of assistive technologies with their SEN language learners.

Whatever the technology and whoever the learners, one thing is clear: it is important to review the available research in order to take an evidence-based approach to using technology with English language learners.

To what extent do technologies support language learning, and lead to improved outcomes for students? Join me in April for my webinar where we’ll take a critical look at digital technologies research and ask: Does technology actually help English language students learn better?


Nicky Hockly is the Director of Pedagogy of The Consultants-E, an award-winning online training and development organisation. She has worked in the field of English Language Teaching since 1987, is an international plenary speaker, and gives workshops and training courses for teachers all over the world. Nicky writes regular columns on technology for teachers in ETP (English Teaching Professional) magazine, and in the ELTJ (English Language Teaching Journal).


References

  • Cumming, T. M., & Draper Rodriguez, C. (2013). Integrating the iPad into language arts instruction for students with disabilities: Engagement and perspectives. Journal of Special Education Technology, 28, 4, 43-52.
  • Fraillon, J., Ainley, J., Schulz, W., Friedman, T., & Gebhardt, E. (2013). Preparing for life in a digital age. The IEA International Computer and Information Literacy Study International Report. Springer Open: Springer International Publishing AG Switzerland.
  • Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9, 5. MCB University Press.
  • Sercu, L. (2013). Weblogs in foreign language education: Real and promised benefits. Proceedings of INTED2013, 7th International Technology, Education and Development Conference, Valencia, Spain, pp. 4355-66.


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Teaching the “secret” language of social interaction | Anna Krulatz

Language pragmatics

Successful communication in English entails, among other skills, the ability to use language in socially appropriate ways, also known as pragmatic competence. For example, when making a complaint about the quality of food, language learners need to consider their relationship with the other person (are they friends, or are they co-workers?), the social distance (how well you know them), and the setting of the interaction (is it at home or at a restaurant?). The answers to these questions are crucial for contextualising communication, and they help people determine the linguistic resources they select to communicate.

In a less formal context and when interacting with someone we know well, we may say, “Does the soup seem too cold to you? How about if we stick it back in the microwave for a minute?” whereas in a restaurant, when making a complaint to a server, we may instead opt for, “Excuse me, my soup is cold. Would you be able to warm it up for me?” In recent years, pragmatic competence has received increasing recognition as an important component of language instruction.

The why and the how of pragmatics instruction

Research suggests that because pragmatics is closely related to cultural norms and to individuals’ beliefs and identities, it is one of the most difficult areas for language learners to grasp (Kasper & Rose, 2002). Pragmatic nuances are also difficult to notice in the input because many of them are so salient. For instance, there is a subtle difference between “Can I sneak by?” and “Can you move?” yet the situations in which these utterances are appropriately used are quite different. Other speech events, such as interactions between doctors and patients which usually take place behind closed doors, may simply not be available in the input at all. At the same time, we now know that unlike grammatical errors, pragmatic errors tend to be interpreted on a social or personal level, and therefore “may hinder good communication between speakers, may make the speaker appear abrupt or brusque in social interactions, or may make the speaker appear rude or uncaring” (Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003, p. 38).  For these reasons, it is particularly important for language teachers to help learners develop their pragmatic skills.

However, while there is now a consensus among second language researchers and practitioners that “most aspects of pragmatics are amenable to instruction, [and that] instruction is better than non-instruction for pragmatic development” (Taguchi, 2011, p. 291), the debate on how teachers can best promote pragmatic development in the classroom is still ongoing. To date, the strongest rationale for the existing approaches to teaching pragmatics comes from Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis (1993, 2001), which states that in order to acquire certain linguistic features, language learners need to first notice them in the input. Consequently, the teaching of pragmatics often focuses on raising learners’ awareness of the linguistic forms that perform various pragmatic functions (for instance that a request can be performed using imperatives such as “Open the window!” or hints “It’s hot in here.”). However, pragmatics instruction should not be prescriptive in nature. Rather, its goal is to make learners familiar with various target language pragmatic choices and practices and to enable them to make informed decisions when interacting with different people and in different settings (Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003).

Teaching pragmatics with Wide Angle

Wide Angle, a new series for adults from Oxford University Press spanning CEFR levels A1 to C1, helps English language learners discover the “secret” rules of English and learn to say the right thing at the right time. The activities in each lesson follow the activation-presentation-production approach, with activities moving from controlled to freer. The design of the activities fulfills two important criteria for sound pragmatics teaching practices as specified by Bardovi-Harlig and Mahan-Taylor (2003):

  1. They provide models of authentic language use;
  2. Learners are exposed to input before they are expected to reflect on language use and participate in interactions.

Activity types (Activate, Notice, Analyse, and Interact) are loosely based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, with the level of linguistic and cognitive challenge increasing.

Join me in my upcoming webinar to take a look at specific examples of pragmatics-focused activities from Wide Angle and to learn how to best promote pragmatic development for adult learners in the classroom.


Anna Krulatz is Associate Professor of English at the Department of Teacher Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. She holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Utah. Her research focuses on pragmatic development in adult language learners, multilingualism with English, content based instruction, and language teacher education. She has published (and has forthcoming) articles, teaching tips, and book chapters on topics related to teaching and learning pragmatics.


References

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

Kasper, G., & Rose, K. (2002). Pragmatic Development in a Second language. Oxford, Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Taguchi, N. (2011). Teaching pragmatics: Trends and issues. Annual Review of Applied    Linguistics, 31, 289-310.


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Enquiry Based Learning in the Primary classroom | Derry Richardson

The term ‘Enquiry Based Learning’ (EBL) was first coined back in the early 1900s when two esteemed psychologists, Vygotsky and Piaget, took a closer look at the mechanics of how we learn, or more accurately, how children learn.

This surfaced a debate: is learning something you do, or something you’re taught?

Around 1936 Piaget undertook a systematic study of cognitive development. Piaget was intrigued by the reasons children gave for wrong answers to questions that required logical thinking. He believed that these incorrect answers revealed striking differences between the thinking of adults and children. What Piaget sought to understand was the way in which fundamental concepts like the very idea of number, time, quantity, causality, justice and so on emerged.

‘Discovery learning’ was one outcome derived from his work in the 1960s. The idea that children learn best through doing and actively exploring was seen as central to the transformation of the primary school curriculum in England.

Although crucially the work of these two great minds contributes to the EBL practices we see today, it was Vygotsky’s work which is more recognisable in the primary classroom today.

According to Vygotsky, adults are an important source of cognitive development. Sometimes also referred to as ‘The More Knowledgeable Other’ (MKO), they have a higher ability or a better understanding of the subject being investigated/ researched. While it is implied this is the role of the adult Piaget stressed the importance of peer to peer support and collaboration on successful learning.

The ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) is a crucial concept linking together this work to form the basis of EBL we recognise in today’s classrooms: The ZPD is the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner, such as a more knowledgeable peer, an expert, via scaffold or specific instruction.


Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development – where we set the learning for most progress.

How does EBL benefit you as a teacher and facilitator of learning?

When you become a facilitator for children to take responsibility for what and how they learn, you help them gain a deeper understanding of the work they are covering, as well as building and developing skills required for tackling issues that will arise in the real world. Through this facilitation, you will be encouraging them not to just seek information and facts based on the initial outcomes, but to search further into their own interests and relate these to real life contexts.

As they take more ownership of their learning, you will see an increase in ownership and participation. They get to see the work as more relevant to their needs, which will enthuse and inspire them to apply themselves more in lessons.

EBL allows for independent and differentiated learning, group and peer-to-peer, meaning the children are able to work at their own pace, realise their own abilities and challenge in a positive learning environment, when well established and integral to the teaching and learning.

Join Derry Richardson as she explores enquiry based learning in more detail in her upcoming webinar.


Derry Richardson is an outstanding classroom practitioner and leading mathematics teacher, with experience teaching across the primary phases and early years. Currently, she is the Head of Professional Development for Oxford University Press’s Education Division.