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Bottom-up decoding: reading

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachersMark Bartram has been a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer for more than 30 years.

In a previous post, we looked at some of the areas we might explore when training our learners in bottom-up strategies for listening. In this post, I’d like to do the same for reading.

(We take it as read that reading fluency depends on the learners’ general linguistic competence. So all of the following discussion assumes that any training programme will also include work on building up this, especially vocabulary.)

It was suggested previously that top-down approaches (where the learners use their knowledge of the world to help understand a text) can provide enjoyable ways “into” a text, especially for the reluctant or weaker reader. These might lead into useful work on sub-skills such as skimming and scanning.

Bottom-up approaches, on the other hand, encourage the learners to develop their ability to understand the text at a deeper or more intensive level. These are designed to help learners “decode” the text in front of them and, crucially, to give them transferable skills to allow them to comprehend the next text they read.

Certain types of activity will be appropriate for all levels, even if the actual language items will differ. These might include work on referencing within the text. For example we ask learners to underline a number of pronouns like it/they or demonstratives like this/these in the text and then work out what they refer to. Ideally, the referent will not always be the most recent noun in the text! Another area is conjunction: we might blank out a few conjunctions in a text and ask learners to suggest a suitable conjunction (or choose between options) for each space. The learners should also explain their choice, as this encourages them to explain the relationships between different parts of the text.

Other activities will depend on the reading level of the learners. Early readers will work more on building up fluency through work on word recognition, and recognising correspondences between spelling and sounds, eg that “ph” is pronounced /f/. Developing readers might focus on ellipsis (sentences with missing words) eg identifying the missing words in “They’re going to write a blog  and post it on their website”1 or paraphrasing/lexical variation, as in

Some education specialists recently put on a festival to encourage children to make mistakes! Yes, it’s true. The experts were worried that young people are not creative and innovative enough for the modern world.

The learners look for examples where the writer has used synonyms to describe the same thing (specialists/experts, children/young people).  The aim here is not primarily to extend the learners’ vocabulary (though this may happen incidentally) but to train them in looking for such variations in future texts.

Advanced readers, especially those in academic contexts, might concentrate on decoding complex sentences. For example, let us imagine that learners are working on a text which contains this sentence:

Developed countries, like those in Europe and North America, waste around 650 million tonnes of food each year and so do developing countries.

The activity might involve the learners answering these questions:

1. What is the verb? (answer: waste)

2. What or who is doing the wasting (or, with learners who have the necessary terminology, “what is the subject of the verb?”)? (answer: developed countries)

3. What do they waste? (answer: 650 million tonnes etc)

4. What does the word “so” refer back to? (answer: the verb “waste”)

5. How could you make this a sentence on its own? (answer: developing countries also waste food)

Learners should recognise that these questions form a process:  locating the verb is a good way to start decoding a sentence, followed by subject and then (if there is one) the object. As the sentences the learners encounter become progressively more complex, this skill becomes more automatic.

Another example might be summary words (very common in academic writing). In the following text, learners might be asked to say what “this process” refers to.

As early as the sixteenth century, English had already adopted words from around fifty other languages, and today the figure stands at over 120. But how did this process happen?

Finally, they may be asked to look for words and phrases that demonstrate the writer’s stance towards the information they are describing. Modal verbs, sentence adverbs like significantly, and “think and report” verbs like claim) can be noted and interpreted.

Even when a text (for example, in a coursebook) is being mainly used for other purposes such as grammar work or discussion, the teacher can always introduce the ideas above, just by asking learners “What does the word ‘they’ in line 22 refer to?” or “Why does the writer use the verb ‘confirm’ rather than ‘say’? How would the sense change if she used ‘claim’ instead?” and so on. These kinds of questions only take a minute or two, but focus the learners’ attention on important details in the text that top-down activities may skip over.

To see bottom-up decoding in practice in the classroom, watch Navigate author Rachael Roberts’ video demonstration here.

This article first appeared in the February edition of Teaching Adults newsletter. If you’d like to receive more articles like this and resources for teaching adult language learners, sign up here.


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Bottom-up decoding: listening

female earMark Bartram has been a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer for more than 30 years. His titles for OUP include Venture and Think English for Italian high school students, High Spirits on Holiday for middle school students, and a Business Result Teacher’s Book. 

In a previous post I explained some of the reasons why we should focus on bottom-up strategies for listening and reading. In this post, I’d like to show how this might work in practice for the skill of listening.

Even learners who have a good range of grammar and vocabulary can struggle with understanding natural speech. And the same is true even for listeners who have a reasonable grasp of the topic and good prediction skills (usually associated with top-down strategies). There could be a number of reasons for this, but one essential reason is that they have difficulty in decoding the “signal” which is coming at them. By “decoding”, I mean perceiving the sounds of English and linking them mentally to words and phrases that they have in their store of language. (Even so-called native speakers struggle with this – for example, the recent case of a man who thought the phrase “as opposed to” was “as a pose to” until he was nearly 20.)

English is often described as a particularly difficult language to understand in this respect, as

(a) the sounds we hear don’t always correspond to what we think is the spelling

(b) certain sounds change when spoken quickly and/or in groups of words. In the example above, the schwa sound at the start of “opposed” could be spelt as an O or an A, and the /d/ sound at the end of “opposed” gets lost (elided?) in the following /t/ sound

(c) it is sometimes difficult to work out where one word ends and another starts, as in “I scream/ice cream”.

Our learners’ stories confirm this: a classic example from my own experience was a B2 level class asking me at the end of a course why I kept talking about festivals, when I had just been giving instructions: “First of all….”

So what kinds of activities would help our learners with this problem? Firstly, learners need to be made aware of these features – in my experience, even high level learners may be unconscious of them. Features might include:  connected speech, including weak forms, elision, assimilation and so on; the use of reference words like it and this to refer back to something mentioned previously (very difficult even for advanced learners); the use of stress to carry meaning (as in “I didn’t want to GO” vs “I DIDN’T want to go”); interpreting auxiliary verbs (“Where did you live?” Vs “Where do you live?”)

Teachers often feel that the practice of these features helps in awareness-building.  That is, if the learners try saying these forms (even if they do not wish or need their own pronunciation to reach “native-speaker” level), they are likely to be in a better position to recognise them.

Secondly, learners need to work on the best strategies for successful listening. For example, it is very important for learners to understand the topic of a conversation, but they often interpret a key word wrongly and mis-interpret the topic. This could be because the word has multiple meanings (a student of mine went through a whole lesson thinking we were talking about people from Poland when in fact we were discussing the coldest parts of the Earth) or because the word is close in sound to another (eg track/truck). Students can be asked to listen to snippets of natural speech and choose between different words (“did she say track, truck or trick?”), or different meanings of the same word (“is she talking about a party as in a celebration or a political party?”).

Another important point is how we check comprehension. John Field and others have rightly criticised materials for focussing too much on assessing comprehension as opposed to training learners. But if our comprehension activities focus on the features above, then we can assess how successful our skills training has been. For example, we might ask learners “why does the speaker stress DIDN’T?” or “what does these refer to in John’s last sentence?”. This will help learners become aware of issues they had not previously been aware of.

We said in the previous post that we should not ignore top-down strategies, partly because the kind of knowledge and schemata that we activate before learners listen help to compensate for the various hurdles they face (not least, the poor quality of some recordings). Also, prediction and activation activities are usually fun, and motivate the learners into the listening. But top-down approaches will only take you so far: learners need to become skilled at decoding as well.

To see bottom-up decoding in practice in the classroom, watch Navigate author Rachael Roberts’ video demonstration here.

This article first appeared in the January edition of Teaching Adults newsletter. If you’d like to receive more articles like this and resources for teaching adult language learners, sign up here.


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The power of pronunciation in Business English

Business English pronunciation ESLELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes, shares some classroom ideas for teaching pronunciation in your business English classes ahead of his webinar on 19th February. Register now.

Is there any essential difference between teaching pronunciation in business English and teaching pronunciation on a general English course? In many ways the answer is ‘no’. After all, in any type of ELT classroom we need to work on pronunciation in two ways: firstly, to help students with receptive pronunciation; in other words, to help them recognise features of pronunciation which affect their ability to listen and understand. And secondly, to help students improve their productive or spoken pronunciation; this doesn’t mean that they need to sound like a native speaker but that they are intelligible to a wide range of other people when communicating in English.

However, when we teach pronunciation in business English I do think our approach should be tailored to learners’ business needs and that they should have plenty of time to practice pronunciation for specific events. In addition, your business students can also use pronunciation to make their communication skills more effective. Let’s take a closer look.

Tailored pronunciation

Typically on a business English course (especially with one-to-one or small groups) we ask students about their needs for using English. Part of this will include asking them who they need to communicate with in English. If they answer, ‘colleagues working in our China offices’ then we already know that the students will need to listen to recordings of Chinese speakers in class. If, on the other hand, my students make phone-calls to the United Kingdom, then I might spend time focussing on the features of different accents within the UK.

Prepared pronunciation

In business English we also have to prepare a student for speaking at particular events; for example, if your student has a meeting in English coming up soon then you can predict the type of language he/she will need to use. You can practice using that language and identify any pronunciation problems that may affect the student’s intelligibility for the other participants. One useful technique is to role play the upcoming situation with the student and record the conversation. Then listen back to the recording and then pick out potential pronunciation difficulties.

Powerful pronunciation

Many effective presenters and speakers in the world of business also use pronunciation to make their message more powerful. So in my presentation skills classes I help students to work on stressing certain words and adding pauses for emphasis. Take this example which shows an extract from a presentation in which the stressed words are underlined and the / indicates short pauses between words and phrases. Try reading it aloud as you think the presenter said it:

Now I’d like to present the figures / for our most recent quarter / and / I’d like us to consider / the implications / for the rest of our financial year.

The speaker stresses the content words in the presentation and adds short pauses to break the sentences down. In particular, the separation and stressing of the word ‘and’ in the middle emphasises that the presenter has two distinct aims to the presentation. Having students mark transcripts of their own presentations like this can really add power to their communication.

To consider more of the issues behind teaching pronunciation in business English and to get more classroom ideas for teaching pronunciation in your business English classes, join me for my webinar on 19th February. Register now.

John Hughes is a teacher trainer and course book writer. For Oxford University Press he has co-authored on the Business Result series and the video courses Successful Meetings and Successful Presentations.


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Practical ideas for the Business English classroom: Part Three – Teaching successful networking

teaching successful networkingThis is the final article of a three-part Business English series by ELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes. Here, he looks at ideas and exercises for successful networking.

We often think of successful business networkers as people who enjoy being the centre of attention. However, effective networking is about using normal conversation to meet new people and build positive business relationships.

At its core, networking requires a business person to be interested in the other person, to be positive and to be interesting. Let’s look at these three aspects of networking in terms of the language your students will require. I’ll share ways to develop each part of the skill with three classroom activities.

Be interested

It’s important for the other person to know you are interested in what they are saying. That means using techniques to show you are listening and interested. Clearly, use of body language is crucial here such as regular eye contact with the other person and nodding your head in agreement. But the language you use will make a huge difference to how the other person feels. We can teach phrases to respond such as ‘Really?’, ‘I see’ and ‘That sounds interesting’. However, these phrases alone are not enough. Work on asking questions which follow on so, for example, you might build a dialogue like this:

Person A: I’m based in London but I’m working on a new project in California.

Person B: Really? How often do you go out there?

Note that the question following ‘Really?’ is an open question because this will always be more effective for networking than a closed question. Open questions beginning with what, why, who, where, when or how draw out a more interesting detailed response. A closed question such as ‘Do you work here?’ only demands a Yes or No response. One simple exercise to practise this is to give students a list of closed Yes/No questions that you might ask in a social situation. For example:

1 Do you work here?

2 Do you do any sport?

3 Can you speak any languages?

Tell students to work in pairs. Student A asks one closed question and Student B answers with a Yes/No answer. Then Student A has to transform the same question into an open question and Student B responds with an open answer. So they might produce a four line dialogue like this:

Student A: Do you work here?

Student B: No, I don’t.

Student A: Who do you work for?

Student B: I work for a large multinational company based in Bonn….

By working through the list of closed questions and creating dialogues with open questions, the exercise demonstrates how useful open questions are for networking and it provides good speaking practice with revision of question forms.

Be positive

In general, we prefer to do business with positive, friendly people. When we are positive, we tend to connect with the other person and making connections is what networking is all about. One activity you can use in class to practise making positive connections is the following. It’s also very good for practising the past simple and present perfect.

Write the following on the board:

– Companies you’ve worked for

– Subjects you’ve studied

– Places you’ve visited

– Jobs you’ve done

– Recent films/concerts you’ve seen

Students stand in groups of four or five as if they are talking at a conference. You set a time limit of three to five minutes and explain that the students can talk about any of the topics on the board.

During the conversation, they give themselves a point every time they find they have something in common with another person. So part of a conversation might go like this:

A I’ve worked for a few companies. My last employer was Microsoft.

B: Really? I’ve worked for Microsoft too. [Receive a point.] When did you work for them?

A: In 1999. I was based in New York.

C: Me too. I worked in New York. [Receive a point.]

The activity is great for fluency and a lot of fun. Students become very competitive to receive points so this encourages them to make conversation. It also highlights the benefits of being positive and finding things in common with the other person.

Be interesting

Of the three aspects of networking, the third and final is the one people find strange; after all, can you really train someone to ‘be interesting’?! In fact, what this means is that to be a successful networker, you need to give the other person plenty of information about you (i.e. be interesting) so that they can respond (i.e. be interested). In language terms, it means that introducing yourself like this isn’t enough: ‘My name’s John. I’m a sales manager.’ Instead, give more information about you such as: ‘My name’s John and I’m in charge of our sales teams across Central and Eastern European regions.’ You can give students further practice with ‘being interesting’ by putting them in pairs. Write a series of topics on the board such as: Job, Location, Company, Hobbies. Each student takes turns to talk non-stop for one minute about themselves on each topic. The other student listens and times the minute. Obviously a student wouldn’t normally talk non-stop for a minute without the other person responding but the aim is for students to practise saying much more about themselves.

For more ideas and exercises on successful networking, take a look at John’s video-based course, Successful Meetings, co-written with communications expert, Andrew Mallett. This contains eight units on different aspects of meetings skills including a unit on networking.

 

This article first appeared in the August 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Practical ideas for the Business English classroom: Part Two – Making the most of video

Business English classroom Making the most of videoThis is the second article of a three-part Business English series by ELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes. Here, he looks at how the use of video can support business English teaching.

One survey into the use of video in education reports that teachers increasingly welcome this tool as a means to support learning. For example, 68% of teachers believe video stimulates discussion, 66% say video increases motivation and 62% think their teaching is more effective by using video. Please see the link provided at the end of the article for more details of this survey.

These figures are all based on responses to education in general, but I’d suggest that if you were to research similar figures for Business English teachers, you’d probably find the percentages were even higher. That’s simply because video lends itself in so many ways to Business English teaching.

Here are five examples of how to integrate video into your Business English lessons, with suggestions for classroom activities.

Presentation skills

The internet is full of videos showing different types of business presentations. They range from the highly professional presentations we associate with speakers on TED to much more basic material. With all of these we can assess the presenters’ performances with our students and decide what techniques and language will help improve their presentations. In addition, we can also video our own students giving presentations. By using the video recorder on a basic mobile device, you can record a student’s performance, use it to give them feedback, and let them self-assess their own presentation.

Watch this presentation taken from TED talks. It’s called ‘The magic washing machine’ and gives students a masterclass in how to use visual aids in a presentation.

Workplace and process videos

I once taught business and technical English in a factory instead of a language school. This was much easier than being in a normal classroom because I could take the students onto the factory floor and have them talk about their workplace. However, we don’t always teach students at their workplace, so video can help. For example, ask your students to make short videos of their workplace and film the key stages of a process. Then they can bring these into class and describe what is happening on screen. You’ll also find a range of videos online that showcase different companies and how they work. These are a great resource to teach the language for describing workplaces and their processes.

This process video shows how IKEA produces its furniture. Students can watch and note down the different stages or information about the company and its structure.

Infographic video

One modern genre of video is the ‘infographic video’ (also called ‘kinetic typography video’). It shows animated text on screen which merges with images and may have narration or simply some background music. You can write comprehension questions for students to answer whilst they watch. Many business infographic videos tend to include lots of numbers and figures, so I give students the numbers shown in the video and ask them to note down what these refer to.

This infographic video looks at the importance of using video in business.

Interviews

One of the simplest video formats is the interview or a business person talking directly to the camera. If you want to teach the language of specific business area, then find an interview with an expert in the field. Alternatively, make your own video by preparing a set of questions and interview a real business person to show in class. If you teach very experienced business people, then interview them and ask their permission to show their video to another class. In particular, if you teach different one-to-one classes, interview each of your students with the same set of questions. Then show the videos of the students to each other. It’s a nice way to bring other people into your one-to-one lessons and for students to share their knowledge.

Take a look at this interview with an expert talking about cultural differences in business. It’s taken from the videos in the Business Result series.

Short films

Using short films in a lesson can add some fun and variety. For example, one short video called ‘The Black Hole’ looks at what happens when an office worker photocopies a black hole which has magical properties. Play it to students and ask them to think what they would use a ‘black hole’ for at work. Another short film called ‘Signs’ lasting about twelve minutes offers all sorts of opportunities for use in the classroom. The first two minutes show a young man going through the same work routine every day – a perfect springboard into the use of the present simple, and for getting students to talk about their routines.

Here is the ‘The Black Hole’ video, and here is ‘Signs’.

And finally, here is the survey I mentioned at the beginning of the article about using video in education.

 

This article first appeared in the July 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.