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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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Say it app: Using digital resources in the classroom

Say it! app

Digital resources are abundant these days, and their use in the classroom, and by students in their own time, is an increasing trend. But it can be difficult to know what to use, and how to use it. These apps and websites don’t tend to come with a well-researched Teachers’ Book to help you plan your lesson!

As a starting point, it can be helpful to ask your students which English learning apps and websites they use themselves. Asking them to write a review, a report, or even give a short presentation about their favourite digital resources can be a great classroom activity (particularly if they are preparing for an exam such as Cambridge Advanced). It will give you valuable insight into what they’re using so that you can select digital elements to incorporate into lessons and homework.

Once you’ve got a shortlist of digital resources you like, you can focus more on understanding how they work and how they can support your students’ learning. I’ve been really impressed with some of the feeds on Instagram, for example (although there is a lot that I find less helpful too!) English Test Channel (@english_tests on Instagram, or  youtube.com/englishtestchannel) posts pictures and videos covering different aspects of English grammar and spelling – it’s great as ‘bite-sized’ learning for students, or to give them something extra to practice at home. I also regularly point my students in the direction of flo-joe.co.uk for extra Cambridge exam tips and practice.

When we were designing the Say It: English Pronunciation app (IOS, Android), we wanted to marry a great digital learning experience with fantastic content. I use the app with my students to help them with pronunciation, but it also improves their listening comprehension and their spelling.

The broad range of vocabulary in the app – the full word list has over 35,000 entries – is incredibly helpful. Whilst teaching a Spanish nurse the other day, we looked up medical terms, such as ‘alimentary canal’, and also everyday words she uses with patients, like ‘comfortable’. She has a C1 level of English but told me she sometimes avoids using certain vocabulary when speaking because she lacks confidence in pronunciation.

We’ve also recently introduced English File content into Say It, and are delighted to be partnered with a coursebook which has such a strong focus on pronunciation. Say It contains around 250 English File words and the iconic English File Sound Bank – both use the classroom audio which English File students are familiar with.

So what are your favourite digital resources for learning and teaching English? Have you found any fantastic, engaging, learning-focused tools which work well for you and your students? Let us know in the comments below!


Classroom activities

Review of a digital learning resource.

Either in small groups or individually, students write a review/report/presentation of their favourite digital English learning resource.

1. Describe what it is

2. Talk about what you can do with it, and why it’s useful

3. What are the app/site’s USPs?

4. Are there any improvements you would make, or new features you’d like to see?

5. Why would you recommend it to friends?

*Classroom activity two – English learning app mini hack!*

In groups, ask the students to develop a concept for a new English learning app. They can:

1. Come up with a name for their product

2. Design an icon

3. Explain in words/drawings what the app does (eg does it help students with writing, spelling, grammar…?)

4. Draw out at least one ‘wireframe’ screen for the app, showing how users will interact with it and learn from it

5. Write a promotional text (around 30 words)

6. Think about pricing – how much would it cost, what model would they use (paid app, subscription, in-app purchase, advertising)


Jenny Dance runs a language school in Bristol, and published the award-winning Say It: English Pronunciation app with OUP. In this post, she talks about an approach to exploring digital resources which students and teachers can use to support learning, both in the classroom and at home.


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Animate your Classes with Video! | OUP

Videos are a great resource for language teaching and learning!

Students enjoy watching animated shows and videos on TV, on tablets, and on phones. Videos can motivate students to engage with language, so it’s easy to understand why teachers want to bring more videos into their English classrooms.

There are strong pedagogical reasons for including videos in your language teaching. Videos bring language alive. Students can see and hear language being used in context.

Animated videos are particularly accessible because they make it easy to focus on specific language, and can appeal to a wider age range of students than live-action videos. Animated videos are ideal for providing language models with enough context to support meaning, and enough humour to engage students. Research shows that students respond positively to familiar characters, so if you use videos with characters students can identify, they not only bring the language to life but may also make students want to interact with the characters they’re watching!

Even with all of these great reasons to include video in English class, many teachers don’t. Why not? Teachers tell us that it’s hard to find interesting videos that use the language their students are learning. They aren’t sure where to look for appropriate videos, and when they do know where to look, they don’t have time to search through the videos available in order to find one that will work with a specific lesson. Often, the videos won’t work because the language is too hard, or the video is too long or too fast-paced. Even if teachers are successful in finding a video they think could work with their lesson, they often aren’t sure how to make the best use of it for language learning.

One of the most important things teachers can do when using a video in class is to make the video content as interactive as the rest of their lesson. We know it’s important for students to talk to each other, to ask and answer questions, to use gestures and movement to reinforce meaning, and to use language in a meaningful way. We should use videos in the same way. There’s no reason to make video watching a passive experience in class.

Here are some ways to make video watching fun, interactive, and effective:

  • Show the video without sound first. Then see what the students can remember about the video: body/hand movements and gestures, the situation and any words or phrases that they think are in the conversation.
  • Play the video with sound. Have students listen for specific words or phrases, and do something (like raising a hand) when they hear the target language.
  • Ask students a question before playing the video with sound. Have them listen for the answer.
  • Have students take a role and act out the video.

We’re excited that the 5th edition of Let’s Go will include videos to help animate your teaching. The conversation videos show students how to extend the Let’s Talk dialogues. The song and chant videos make the language even more memorable and entertaining by adding a visual component.

Two of the new videos are available for you to try out in class.

Extended Conversation Videos

The conversation videos extend Let’s Talk dialogues by adding relevant language students already know and showing body language and gestures in context. Interestingly, if students look closely, they’ll see characters using gestures and facial expressions that may be different from what they usually do. During the video, one of the Let’s Go characters always turns to the students to ask a question, in order to make students part of every conversation.

The video from Level One Unit Six is available for you to watch.

 

Here’s the transcript so you can see how familiar language is used to extend the basic conversation. The original conversation is in black. The added language is in red. Blue highlights the question students will answer.

[Cellphone buzzes]

Jenny: Hello?

Kate: Jenny?

Jenny: Yes. Oh, hi Kate. How are you?

Kate: I’m great. How are you?

Jenny: I’m great, too. It’s so nice today.

Kate: How’s the weather?

Jenny: It’s sunny.

Uh-oh. [thunder]

Kate: What was that?

Jenny: It’s rainy now.

Kate: How’s the weather today?

How could you use this in class?

  • Show the video without sound, and ask students to tell you what the conversation is about.
  • Play the video with sound. Have students listen and tell you what language they hear.
  • Have students answer Kate’s question, and then ask each other the same question.
  • Once students are comfortable with the language, have them watch without sound again, and tell you how Jenny is feeling based on her facial expressions
  • Let students role-play the conversation in pairs.

Song and Chant Videos

The song and chant videos make lesson language visible and memorable! Combining rhythm, music, and images allow students to use three of their senses and increases the amount of language they’ll remember. “Where are the bugs?” from Level One Unit Six is available now.

 

How could you use this in class?

  • Have students call out the names of objects they recognise in the video.
  • Have students decide on gestures for on, in, under, and by (e.g., placing a fist on a palm for ‘on’,). Students do the gestures as they listen to the song.
  • Have half of the class sing the questions and the other half answer. (Sing twice so everyone gets to ask and answer questions.)

Using videos that support your lessons can make the language more exciting, and real. The best videos for teaching language will reinforce the language you’re trying to teach. They’ll be short and will match your students’ pace.

Let’s Go fifth edition videos are all of these things – pedagogically sound, student tested, linguistically appropriate, short, understandable, and funny. Having the videos included with the coursebook units makes it easy to include them in your lessons.

Have fun animating your language teaching with Let’s Go!


Ritsuko Nakata, Karen Frazier, and Barbara Hoskins have spent 25 years working to improve the Let’s Go learning experience for teachers and their students. It is the only primary coursebook series that has had the same authors for all levels, resulting in a tightly controlled grammar syllabus that makes productive use of limited class time.


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Do you speak Emoji | Q&A with Shaun Wilden

Mobile learning with emojisFirst of all, 🙏 to those that attended my webinar. I hope as well as learning a few things about emoji, you had as much fun as I did! The webinar was heavily reliant on audience participation and you certainly all got stuck in with your sharing, answering and questioning. There were a few things that I didn’t quite have the time to go into more detail with, so I’ll try and address them now.

Are ambiguous emojis good to use in class?

The hands together emoji is a good example of one of the main talking points that came up in the chat box during the sessions – the ambiguity of meaning. Is it ‘thank you’, ‘thankfulness’, ‘praying’, or ‘two hands high fiving’?

A number of you felt this ambiguity might be a disadvantage in using them in class, but actually that is one of my drivers for using them. The fact that they can be used with both an ‘official’ meaning and one given by a peer group makes many of the activities workable.  If you think about words, they have a dictionary meaning and often have a meaning given by use. Take the word ‘sick’ for example, which, as well as meaning ‘ill’, is used by teenagers to mean ‘cool’. Emojis are the same in this respect and this is why, in my opinion, they work well for the ‘agree a meaning’ type activities that we did in the session. The more ambiguous an emoji might be, the more the students have to discuss and agree.

Aren’t some emojis too hard to understand?

In answer to this question, just look at how much language generated during the webinar. Is it a name badge? A tulip? Or something on fire? The point is not what it means, but what it could mean, and how that encourages the students to put forward justification of use and negotiate with their classmates to reach consensus. Contrary to what a couple of you said there is every point in “using those which are hard for understanding”. Additionally, how do we decide what is hard for understanding? Like words, some students will know the meaning of some, and others won’t. While, roughly speaking, the 2600 Emoji are the same the world over, different nationalities and different cultures use them with different frequencies. Again, for me this is something to be embraced. Whether I am teaching a monolingual or multilingual group, there is a lot that can be gained from asking about what emoji they use. There is a personal engagement into wanting to tell the teacher something about themselves. This why activities like creating a ‘user guide’ can be successful, a chance for the students to show knowledge in areas they might be ‘wiser’ in than their teachers.

Can gifs or small videos be used for similar activities to those with emoji?

As we touched upon towards the end of the webinar, emojis are evolving thanks to new technology such as Apple’s Animoji. This led some of you to ask whether gifs or even small videos could be used for similar activities to those we did in the session. As I said then, the Emoji is the ‘hook’ on which to hang a number of activities. For example, we used pairs of them to create sentences as a way of practicing grammar. An activity like this is not dependent on the emoji themselves, but a stimulus for the sentence. As such it doesn’t really matter what the stimulus is as long as it can be used to produce language. Certainly, many gifs carry the ambiguity needed for negotiated meaning type activities and, as they are often devoid of language themselves, could be a catalyst for grammar production. I think though developments such as Animojis are in themselves more akin to using an avatar than an emoji. Since they are animated and can contain voice they are somewhat different to the two-dimensional static image of an emoji. Like emoji, there is a lot written about avatar use in language learning, not least in the psychological aspects of students being able to take on a new identity. At the end of the session we saw quick examples of how we can use Animojis – and even with augmented reality – for developing character description, clothes vocabulary, and to create ‘where am I type activities’. Hopefully in a future webinar we can address such avatar activities in more detail.

Don’t emoji erode the quality of language?

I’ll end by addressing those of you concerned about death of language. Whenever I do such a session there is always at least one person concerned that things such as emoji are eroding the quality of language. In my first blog post I mentioned the fact that it used to be text messages that got the blame.  I think it is well documented that language is always changing, and language always finds way to shorten itself or adapt to be effective in the chosen form of communication.  However, I wasn’t suggesting that we should use emojis as a replacement for language or even writing. At the end of the day we are language teachers, it is not teaching the meaning of emojis that is key but tapping into images that can help students generate and retain language.   We use pictures in our coursebook to help us teach meaning, and we use things such flashcards to help reinforce and produce. For me, emoji are simply another image that we can use. If they help students remember a word, produce a sentence or get them engaged in a piece of writing then they have done their job.

Anyway, I set the challenge for the webinar of getting you to speak emoji. I hope now that the session is over, you can happily say that you do.

Until next ⏳, 👋.


Shaun Wilden is the Academic Head of training and development for the International House World Organisation and a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer.  He currently specialises in technology and language teaching, especially in the area of mobile learning. His latest book “Mobile Learning” was published in 2017 by OUP.  He is a trustee of IATEFL and also on the committee of the Learning technologies special interest group.  He makes the TEFL commute podcast for teachers.

 


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10 ways home learning apps can boost children’s English learning

Home learning appsToday’s children are much more tech savvy than yesterday’s, and this has had a profound effect on the way that they learn languages! No wonder then that there has been an increasing interest in home learning technologies that support language learning at school and back at home.

Children are natural language learners. They love to seek out and soak up new experiences, and we can’t deny that they are much more stimulated and motivated when they interact with apps. Apps enhance their curiosity, spice up their learning, and keep them engaged as they make learning animated, fun and more appealing to children.

We want our children to learn on the go; learning apps engage them with opportunities to improve their listening, reading, writing, speaking and cognitive skills in an authentic way, wherever they may be. Apps can create an enjoyable learning atmosphere when they are used effectively.

Today, with little or no English at all, parents can be a part of their children’s language learning journey using home learning apps with them.

Home learning apps that are specifically designed for pre-primary children may include listening and pointing activities, games, singing songs, and listening to stories. Apps are designed to keep children on task, maintaining their interest and concentration by gradually increasing the level of difficulty and challenge. By using instructions and activities that reflect what children learn in the classroom, children can easily navigate apps by themselves. The educational value of home learning apps can be enhanced by simply watching, guiding, and sharing children’s enthusiasm as they navigate the app. Parental engagement transforms screen time into family time, and refocuses a child’s attention to the task at hand while simultaneously reinforcing their language learning.

There are thousands of language learning apps out there, and they all do things differently. So we’re basing our 10 tips on the Lingokids English language learning app.

Lingokids (available free via the Apple and Google Play stores) is an educational app that features materials from Oxford University Press ‘Jump In!’ and ‘Mouse and Me’ coursebooks. The curriculum has been designed by experts in early language learning development. The app targets pre-primary children who are studying ‘Jump In!’ and ‘Mouse and Me’ coursebooks at school, and aims to help parents reinforce their children’s English at home in a highly engaging and fun way. It immerses children with a wide range of vocabulary in meaningful contexts using cross-curricular topics. The app uses stories, songs, animations, games, letter tracing and interactive live-action videos of native English teachers introducing a variety of topics. The adaptive learning system also adjusts the level of difficulty according to the child’s performance, providing each child with a unique learning experience. There’s also a reward system in place to encourage and reinforce language!

The potential and success of Lingokids can be maximized with the support and the participation of parents at home. Here are ten activities for you to share with your parents using Lingokids to extend their children’s English learning outside the classroom.

Create a mini-story book: After watching the stories, parents and their children can work together to create mini-story books, encouraging children to retell the stories to other family members. If parents know how to write in English, they can write sentences or words that their children have said as they are retelling the stories. The mini-story books can be shared with teachers at school as well.

Dramatize the stories: Children love to watch videos over and over again. Parents can use their interest in the characters by making puppets that their children can use to dramatize the stories. Parents can also take part in this role-play.

Turn off the sound: After practicing with the app, parents can turn off the sound and view the topics that they have played again. They can ask their children to name the things that they see as they play the app.

What they remember: After using the app, parents can ask their children to recall what they remember from what they have just practiced. Children can describe and draw the things that they remember. The drawings can be displayed in the house to be referred to any time that parents would like to practice English with their children.

Create a picture dictionary: After practicing with the app, children and parents can draw and colour the words together in their picture dictionaries. If parents know how to write in English, they can even write the English words next to the pictures.

Picture cards: After practicing with the words in the app, parents can create picture cards of the target vocabulary. Children can help by drawing the pictures on the cards. Then, they can play flashcard games together. They can play a memory game, or they can put the picture cards in a bag before taking them out one by one and naming them. They can put the picture cards on the floor. As they play the app, children can point out the picture cards that they see and hear on the app.

Sing the songs: The app is full of songs that parents and children alike can sing along to. Singing along and performing the actions referred to in the song is a great way of embedding the language in a unique and engaging way.

Record: Parents can record their children as they are dramatizing the stories, playing with the flashcards, retelling the stories through their mini-story books, or singing along to the app. By listening to themselves speak, they can become more confident and more fluent in the new language.

Additional materials: Each topic has worksheets that parents can download, print out, and do with their children. The worksheets include song lyrics, more books and craft activities, and useful phrases that parents can integrate into their children’s daily lives.

Learn with them: Learning English with children helps to foster in them a positive attitude towards English. If parents use the app enthusiastically, children will imitate, encouraging and motivating them to learn English. Parents should practice with their children even if they’re proficient in English themselves, as it’ll help young learners to stay on task.

The activities above should not only help children to learn English, it’ll allow parents to spend quality time with their children, learning and having fun together. It’s a win-win situation!


Özge Karaoğlu Ergen is the foreign languages department K12 technology integration specialist, a teacher trainer and a course book writer.  She has been recognized by the ELTons Awards, ESU, MEDEA, Microsoft, and Telly Awards for her digital projects. She currently teaches young learners herself, and she has been developing digital games, animations and mobile applications with her learners for the last eight years.