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Graded Readers and 21st Century Skills

Graded readers then and now

Using graded readers to help learners to improve their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills is not a recently discovered English teaching technique. In the 1920s, for instance, Dr Michael West edited a series called New Method Supplementary Graded Readers (Longman) with exactly this aim, and these were not the first simplified story books for foreign learners of English. Nowadays, most ELT publishers produce a wide range of readers designed to appeal to different age groups. Oxford University Press, for example, publishes both Bookworms and Dominoes for teenage readers.                                                                                            

21st century skills

The idea of teaching 21st century skills is relatively new. What do we mean by 21st century skills? Although there are different definitions, most people agree the following four skills areas (the four ‘C’s) are at the heart of 21st century learning:

  • Collaboration (with students working effectively in teams, groups, or pairs)
  • Critical thinking (with students questioning content, and solving problems, rather than just accepting and learning facts by heart)
  • Creativity (with students using their imagination to produce something new)
  • Communication (with students transmitting and receiving spoken, written and mixed-media messages effectively)

The following three ‘C’s are also sometimes included under the 21st century skills umbrella:

  • Computer literacy (with students undertaking online research, word-processing, the production of digital presentations, video clips, audio recordings, etc.)
  • Cultural and global awareness (with students learning about other cultures and the world)
  • Civics, citizenship and ethics (with students learning about society and social values)

Incorporating a focus on 21st century skills like these into classes based around graded readers can combine new and familiar lesson elements in fresh ways which are really engaging for students – especially teenagers!

Giving support

When designing extensive reading lessons for learners of English from other language backgrounds, we should naturally provide support. This support should enable students to complete the reading-related tasks that we set them. It can take many different forms – for instance, with a fictional text:

  • activating the language learners may need to understand the story
  • raising learner awareness of the time and place of the story, especially if these are unfamiliar
  • encouraging cognitive skills like prediction and empathy to help learners enter more fully into the story

Of course, choosing a story text which is simple enough for learners to read at speed without a dictionary can help to make the task of reading more achievable. This is where the carefully graded levels of a series like Bookworms or Dominoes can greatly help the teacher. Clear levelling helps teachers to select suitable reading materials for different classes (in a ‘class reader’ approach – where all students in a class are reading the same story). Clear levelling can also help teachers to suggest appropriate books for individual students to read (in a ‘readers library’ approach, where different students in a class are reading different stories according to level and taste).

Three different stages

The three classic stages (and stage aims) of a reading lesson – using a story text as a class reader – are as follows:

  • Before reading (aims: to arouse curiosity and prepare learners to make sense of the story)
  • While reading (aims: to help learners understand the story so far and make them curious about what comes next in the story)
  • After reading (aims: to encourage learners to respond to the story through thinking, speaking, writing, or creating something inspired by the story)

Each of these stages will naturally focus on different 21st century skills. ‘Before reading’ tasks will often involve thinking skills (hypothesizing, predicting, questioning). ‘While reading’ tasks will often involve communication and collaboration skills (discussing the story so far, or the story yet to come, in pairs, groups, or as a class). ‘After reading’ tasks will often involve creative self-expression and maybe also computer skills (for online research, making and delivering PowerPoint presentations, word processing and designing texts for poster display, etc.)

Webinar

Join me in my webinar ‘Graded Readers and 21st century skills’ to learn more – with examples from Bookworms and Dominoes – about practical ways of refreshing and varying your reading classes. Blending modern skill sets with classic graded reader techniques makes for rich teaching territory that we will explore together.


Bill Bowler is a founder series editor, with his wife, Sue Parminter, of Dominoes Graded Readers (OUP). He has authored many readers himself. He has also visited many countries as a teacher trainer, sharing ideas about Extensive Reading. Bill has contributed to the book Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom (OUP).  Two of his Dominoes adaptations (The Little Match Girl and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) were Language Learner Literature Award Finalists. Born in London, he now lives in Spain.


Further Reading:

Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom (Revised Edition) – Day, R., Bassett, J. (et al) – Oxford University Press (2016)


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5 things you need to know about Academic Vocabulary

Learning vocabulary is about so much more than ticking off words on a list as you manage to match a written word form to a surface meaning or translation. For a learner to say they really know a word, especially if they hope to count it amongst their productive vocabulary, then it takes time, repeated encounters, and digging a bit below the surface. This, of course, is true of all language learners, but for those learning English for academic purposes (EAP) the specific aspects of vocabulary knowledge differ somewhat. In this post, I pick out some of the factors that those teaching and learning academic vocabulary might need to bear in mind:

1. Form & families: With any vocabulary learning, recognising the spelling and pronunciation of a word is generally a starting point and from there, the learner needs to become familiar with inflected forms (plurals, verb forms, etc.). In an academic context, being able to switch between different parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) is also vital. When constructing (or decoding) the longer, more tightly-packed sentences typical of the genre, being able to flip between an adjective and noun form, for example, can make the difference between a smooth, coherent sentence and a slightly awkward, ambiguous one. Abstract nouns (significance, reliability, establishment), in particular, are must-knows for the academic writer. Knowing that reliability is the noun form of the more common adjective reliable is really helpful. Better still is recognising that adjectives ending –able can typically be transformed into nouns ending –ability. And being able to add the appropriate negative prefix (unreliability) might help construct that killer sentence.

2. Meaning(s): We all know that there isn’t a simple one-to-one relationship between form and meaning in English. Many words have more than one meaning; take, for example, table as the piece of furniture or the chart with rows and columns. In academic disciplines, these common words often also have specialist meanings. Some of these are clearly related to the word’s basic meanings (e.g. periodic table, Chemistry), others are further removed (e.g. water table, Geology). For the EAP student, recognizing these specialist uses and compounds is an important part of their learning journey.

3. Collocations & chunks: If students are to use words productively, then they need to understand the kind of words they are used together with: collocations, dependent prepositions and fixed phrases. Again, this is true of all vocabulary, but academic writing has its own set of specialist collocates, the correct choice of which might not just ensure a more fluent, natural style, but might affect the message the writer is trying to convey in important ways.  For example, the difference between being responsible to (the directors are responsible to shareholders) and responsible for (the manager is responsible for the safety of staff) could make all the difference in an academic essay.

4. Grammar: I’ve written before about the importance of understanding ‘word grammar’ in EAP. For example, going back to those key abstract nouns, when you need to ensure that the verb in a sentence agrees with the head noun in a long noun phrase, you need to know whether that noun is countable or uncountable. What’s more, words that are typically uncountable in everyday usage (like behaviour) can be used countably in some specialist academic contexts.

5. Register & connotation: Finally, getting a feel for which words are appropriate to use to convey your intended meaning in a particular context takes time, plenty of reading and noticing. It involves understanding formal and informal words (get vs purchase), strength of meaning (unsatisfactory vs appalling), positive and negative connotations (tough vs challenging) and appropriate terms to talk about potentially sensitive topics (e.g. patients with mental health issues).

In my upcoming webinar, Academic vocabulary: what do students need to know about a word? on Thursday 19th April at 15:30 BST, I’ll talk a bit more about these aspects of vocabulary knowledge in EAP and we’ll look are some practical ways of helping students to improve their depth of understanding as well as simply expanding their range of vocabulary.   


Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher. Her specialist area of interest is teaching vocabulary. She’s worked on a number of learner’s dictionaries and specialist vocabulary resources, including the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles. Julie is also an EAP teacher and a teacher trainer.


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Learning to Learn in the Primary Classroom | Q&A with Erika Osváth

I recently presented three webinars on ‘Learning to Learn Skills’ in the Primary Classroom. Here we collect the questions that could not be answered because of time reasons. Naturally, there were a great number of interesting thoughts that came up, so in this post we’ll reflect upon some of the most common ones.

  1. How to help children concentrate for a longer period of time?

I find this question one of the most important ones, as children’s ability to focus seems to have dramatically decreased in the past 20 years or so. It’s not just me; hundreds of teachers that I work with every year report the same thing. Discussing the cause is beyond the scope of this post, but the consequences are evident in terms of their capacity to learn. More and more psychologists express their concern in this area. One internationally known psychologist, Daniel Goleman (2013), says he is worried about children in particular because their brain continues to mature into their 20s. He worries that if young students fail to build up the neural networks that are required for focused attention, they could have problems with emotional control and empathy.

“…the children’s ability to focus seems to have dramatically decreased in the past 20 years or so…”

So what can we do in our classroom to cultivate the skill of attention? As with all things that we learn, we need to adjust the practice to the current ability of the children.  Here are a couple of ideas you can start to experiment with in your classes.

Clapping games that students could do in pairs or with the whole class following a particular rhythm require attentions, games like these help to develop this skill a great deal. Why not combine the game with some vocabulary practise? For example, if you are practising food vocabulary, start the following rhythm with the whole class standing in a circle: Clap-clap, tap (on your lap), tap (on your lap). When you tap your lap say a food item and the child on your right has to say a different food item at the next tap, keeping the rhythm. With each tap the next child on the right continues saying a new food item. If they do not manage to stay in rhythm or they repeat the same word, the cycle starts from the beginning. It is very important that nobody goes out of the game, but with every mistake the cycle is repeated.

In this way, children will want to really pay attention, either because they are getting bored and they want to finish quickly, or – and this is the case most of the time in my experience – they want to prove that they can go around the whole circle without repeating the previous word and staying more or less in rhythm. I highly recommend clapping games combined with vocabulary practice. They are very effective in terms of developing attention, and it is a lot of fun too!

Another idea is to conduct some simple mindfulness activities with your children, especially when they’re not paying attention to you or the material. Ask them to close their eyes and put their heads down on the table for a minute. Then ask them to listen to all the sounds they hear and try to work out what they are. Of course, there are a great number of other activities we could use to help children focus.

  1. How do you motivate children to learn?

This is an extremely broad question, with a seemingly simple answer that I’m sure you all know. Make the experience fun and meaningful for them without expecting children to ‘learn’ as we may do when we are older. What they want to do and can do at this age is to learn through play. One idea is to build your teaching on playful enquiry, encouraging children to explore. You could, for example, use topics in your course book to inspire children to ask their questions, before trying to find the answers to those questions together collaboratively. Project work could be utilised here.

“Make the experience fun and meaningful… [so that they] … learn through play.”

We should focus as much on our teaching content as on the language we use to describe it, as this is the part that keeps children curious and motivated in our lessons. A commonly used and extremely effective idea is to use the use the K/W/L chart. Say you are focusing on wild animals in your lesson, ask the children to write down some things they know about wild animals, and things they want to know on large post-it notes. Place the notes in two separate columns. You can use a class poster for this idea so that the children can see each other’s questions. At the end of the lesson(s), use the third column of this chart to help them reflect on what they have learnt.  The post-it notes can then be flexibly moved from one column to the other, say from want to know column to what have I learnt.

KWL chart:

K

What do I know?

W

What do I want to know?

L

What have I learnt?

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Can 6-8 year olds become independent learners?

If we mean by “independent learner” someone who has a number of learning strategies to choose from, and is able to opt for the most effective one when they need it, then the answer is ‘no, in most cases’. In my experience, although children at this age are able to, for example, assess themselves and possibly even to self-correct, it doesn’t mean that they are independent learners of English. It is not something that should be expected of them within a language classroom.  There are certain techniques and strategies you can use to develop children’s independence, however. For example, by not giving them the answers to their questions instantly, but encouraging them to find a way to work out their own answers – either through getting help from their peer, checking it in their book, checking a dictionary, or asking someone at home.

Another important thing to point out is that the level of independence may vary greatly from one child to another, and this is normal. One child, for example, never forgets to bring their English notebook to class, but another one keeps leaving theirs at home. One child turns to their desk-mate to check their answer immediately after finishing a task, while another looks straight at you, the teacher, with great big eyes, seeking confirmation. We need to treat every child as a special and unique individual, who needs our support and guidance to grow their wings, which will then help them to fly on their own when they are ready.


Erika Osvath is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of the European Language Award-winning 6-week eLearning programme for language exam preparation. She worked for International House schools in Eastern and Central Europe as a YL co-ordinator, trainer, and Director of Studies. She regularly travels to teach demonstration lessons with local children, and do workshops for teachers. Erika is co–author with Edmund Dudley of Teaching Mixed Ability.


References:

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: the hidden driver of excellence. Harper: New York.

Erika Osváth is co-author of Mixed-Ability Teaching with Edmund Dudley.


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Minds matter: Psychology of language learning

Psychology of language learning

‘It’s all in the mind!’ – How true when it comes to learning a foreign language. Every teacher knows that you can have the best resources in the world, but if the learner is not in the right frame of mind to engage with the new language and use the opportunities before them, then they are unlikely to do so. There are all kinds of reasons why a learner may put obstacles in their own way or simply avoid engaging, but many of these reasons often lie in how learners view themselves, their competences, and their relationship to the language, classroom, peers, and the teacher.

Our psychologies are complex, and care must be taken not to oversimplify, but I have chosen to focus on 5 key areas of learner psychology which I think can make a difference to learning and which we as language educators can work on developing. Introducing the two Gs and the three Cs!

Have they got Grit?

Firstly, learners need to have a Growth mindset and become Gritty about their language learning. It is a well-known adage that learning a foreign language is like a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time, progress is slow and incremental, and there can be many setbacks along the way. Language learners need to develop persistence and even in the face of challenges, be able to roll up their sleeves undeterred and tackle problem areas all over again with renewed vigour – that is grittiness.

Learning a foreign language is like a marathon, not a sprint.

Growth Mindset

To have grit, language learners first need to have a growth mindset. This is when they believe that their abilities in learning a language are not fixed but can be developed. Not all learners will reach the same level of proficiency, but with the right kind of effort, strategies, and investment of time and will, every learner can improve. However, if a learner holds a fixed mindset, believing that language learning competences stem primarily from a fixed ability, then they are more likely to give up easily, and in some cases not even try to succeed. These learners feel helpless, believing there is little they can do to improve or overcome difficulties. In contrast, those with a growth mindset are typically willing to put in the effort to improve and explore a range of possible pathways to proficiency.

With a growth mindset, learners believe that their abilities can be developed.

What are the 3 Cs?

In terms of the three 3 Cs, learners need to feel a sense of Competence, Control, and Connectedness.

Competence

Learners need a sense of ‘I can’ in respect to learning a language. Much of this can stem from their mindset; however, they also need to feel that they are personally able to manage and cope with learning a language.

Control

A key part of that feeling can be generated when learners are empowered with a sense of control. Learners benefit from being able to intentionally and proactively select and initiate approaches to learning where possible in their contexts. A sense of control also concerns how learners explain their perceived successes and failures to themselves and others. Do they attribute these outcomes to factors within their control or to external factors beyond their control? With internal attributions, learners are likely to be motivated and willing to expend effort on learning, knowing that they can make a difference.

Connectedness

The third C refers to learners feeling connected not only to their teachers, but also their peers, their institution, and the language per se. When learners feel they belong in a group or institution and when they feel cared for as people and in terms of their learning progress, they are much more likely to engage and be active in their own learning. However, learners also need to build a personal connection to the language itself. Even if they feel competent and able, without a compelling reason to engage with the language, they might not bother! Help your learner’s to find a purpose, why are they learning a language and what value could it have for them and their future lives – be that in terms of relevance, importance, utility, and/or interest.

Want to learn more? Join me in my upcoming webinar on the 17th and 18th April.

In this webinar, I will outline the character and importance of the two G’s and three C’s and consider practical ideas for fostering these to ensure our learners are in the best frame of mind for learning a language and engaging with the opportunities we offer them as educators.

 


Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT methodology and Deputy Head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books in this area including, ‘Psychology for Language Learning’.


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Teaching more than English – giving students the professional skills to succeed

Image by © Laura Doss/Corbis

Disrupting our definition of Business English in the 21st Century

In a recent Washington Post article entitled ‘The surprising thing Google learned about its employees – and what it means for today’s students’, it was reported that Google had carried out a survey into the key characteristics for achieving success as a Google employee. Surprisingly, knowledge of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) did not appear first. Instead, the survey placed skills such as coaching, insight, empathy, critical thinking, problem solving, dealing with complex ideas at the top of the list.

As a Business English teacher and course book author, I have a natural interest in these emerging ‘soft skills’ which reflect the needs of the 21st century workplace skills. I feel it’s my job to make sure my course materials and the contents of my lessons reflect the English needed to support these emerging skills. However, I also feel that for sometimes Business English materials have resisted integrating these skills into course programmes because they don’t easily fit into our longstanding definition of what Business English is.

If we go back about 25 years, the prevailing definition of ‘Business English’ has been:

  • Language: Like General English course it covered grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, the four skills etc.
  • Communication Skills: Unlike General English, Business English aimed to train students in how to present more effectively, how to run a meeting, how to negotiate etc.
  • Professional content: Business English books also dealt with topics such as production processes or marketing and sales; in other words, we taught business concepts alongside the vocabulary required to talk about them.

Since then, this three-part definition has dominated the contents and structure of most Business English classrooms and courses. And yet, some of the new skills don’t fit comfortably into the definition. Where exactly would you place ‘insight’ or ‘empathy’ into the three categories? Do thinking skills (critical or creative) require their own category? Is it even the job of a Business English to ‘teach’ these items alongside English?

These were just some of the questions that confronted me when I returned to work on the second edition of Business Result. The first edition of Business Result was published exactly ten years ago and so it naturally reflected the three-part structure of language, communication skills and professional content. But on returning to re-author the materials a decade later, it was apparent to me that we needed to incorporate the demands of newer 21st Century workplace skills. It’s the same challenge that faces many Business English teachers today – that we strive to prepare our learners not only with English but also with the professional skills they will need in the next few decades.

On March 16th Oxford University Press holds its first Business English Online Conference and my webinar, entitled ‘Teaching more than English’, will assess the kinds of professional skills needed to succeed in the 21st century. We’ll consider how we might integrate them into our course design and lessons, and our approach to teaching and training our students to operate more effectively. The session encourages you to participate and comment based on your own experiences and I’ll also share some practical ideas to include in your Business English lessons.

Register now for Oxford’s first Business English Online Conference where John Hughes will be presenting a webinar on Teaching more than English – giving students the professional skills to succeed.


John Hughes is an award-winning author with over 30 ELT titles including the course book series ‘Business Result’ (Oxford) and the resource series ‘ETpedia’ (Pavilion). He has trained teachers at all levels of experience and background. In particular, he specializes in materials writing and offers consultancy and training in this area. His blog is www.elteachertrainer.com.