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How 100 teachers helped to build the Common European Framework

Glyn Jones is a freelance consultant in language learning and assessment and a PhD student at Lancaster University in the UK. In the past he has worked as an EFL teacher, a developer of CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) methods and materials, and – most recently – as a test developer and researcher for two international assessment organisations.

One day in 1994 a hundred English teachers attended a one-day workshop in Zurich, where they watched some video recordings of Swiss language learners performing communicative tasks. Apart from the size of the group, of course, there was nothing unusual about this activity. Teachers often review recordings of learners’ performances, and for a variety of reasons. But what made this particular workshop special was that it was a stage in the development of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

The teachers had already been asked to assess some of their own students. They had done this by completing questionnaires made up of CAN DO statements. Each teacher had chosen ten students and, for each of these, checked them against a list of statements such as “Can describe dreams, hopes and ambitions” or “Can understand in detail what is said to him/her in the standard spoken language”. At the workshop the teachers repeated this process, but this time they were all assessing the same small group of learners (the ones performing in the video recordings).

These two procedures provided many hundreds of teacher judgments. By analysing these, the researchers who conducted the study, Brian North and Günther Schneider, were able to discover how the CAN DO statements work in practice, and so to place them relative to each other on a numerical scale. This scale was to become the basis of the now familiar six levels, A1 to C2, of the CEFR.

This is one of the strengths of the CEFR. Previous scales had been constructed by asking experts to allocate descriptors to levels on the basis of intuition. The CEFR scale was the first to be based on an analysis of the way the descriptors work when they are actually used, with real learners.

For my PhD study I am replicating part of this ground-breaking research.

Why replicate, you might ask?

Firstly, thanks to the Internet I can reach teachers all over the world, whereas North and Schneider were restricted to one country (for good reasons).

Secondly, my study focusses on Writing. This is the skill for which there were the fewest descriptors in the original research (which focussed on Speaking) and which is least well described in the CEFR as a result.

Thirdly, I am including in my study some of the new descriptors which have been drafted recently in order to fill gaps in the CEFR in order to scale these along with the original descriptors. In short, as well as contributing to the validation of the CEFR, I will be helping to extend it.

If you teach English to adult or secondary-age learners, you could help with this important work. As with the original research, I’m asking teachers to use CAN DO statements to assess some of their learners, and to assess some samples of other learners’ performance (of Writing, this time, not Speaking).

If you might like to participate, please visit my website https://cefrreplication.jimdo.com/ where you can register for the project. From then on everything is done online and at times that suit you. You can also drop me a line there if you would like to find out more.


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The essentials of lesson planning: a Q&A session with Philip Haines

shutterstock_323995139Philip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP. Earlier this month, he delivered a webinar on ‘The essentials of lesson planning’, and today we bring you the question and answer section of the session.

Sharing aims with students

Is it a good idea to communicate the lesson aims to the students?

This is generally considered good practice and has the following benefits:

1. When used well it can involve students more in the learning process.

2. It forces us as teachers to be clear about what we want to achieve, how we hope to achieve it, and to state this as clearly as possible.

Writing detailed lesson plans

I find that writing in detail makes me distracted reading the plan in class. And I found that with detailed plans I would still forget a step.
But, doesn’t over-detailing procedure lessen the scope of emergent language?

There are two reasons for writing a very detailed lesson plan:

1. To help you be aware of all the features of as lesson that you need to take into consideration. This is a good exercise to help you develop the skill of lesson planning.

2. To enable you to prove your lesson planning abilities to another person.

In our everyday practice going into a lot of detail is often not very practical. The best plans I find are the ones that I can access quickly at a glance to get the main points. The main things I want to know are: What am I doing next?’, ‘How much time do I have for this?’ and ‘How should I do it?’

The process of writing the lesson plan forces me to do the thinking process before the class, but then when teaching, the lesson plan acts as a guide from which I can move away and return, as needed. Once I have a solid plan I can move away from it, but know it is still there acting as a safety net.

Avoiding lesson planning mistakes

What mistakes in lesson planning should I avoid as a beginner at teaching?

I hope that the suggestions above can help you with your lesson planning process. However, I would give two other pieces of advice for new teachers.

1. Go back to your lesson plan after each lesson and make a few simple notes about things that worked and things that didn’t work. Also note down the reasons why in each case. If you can, make suggestions of what you would change.

2. Try to identify any possible thing that might go wrong and think of a practical solution for each of these. This will help you remain calm when things don’t go as you expected, and there is always something that doesn’t go as planned, even for the most experienced of teachers.

Checking instructions

Even when I have checked and it seems everyone understands, if a student doesn’t perform according to what I’ve check then there’s an issue with language ability.

Instruction giving and checking is somethings that particularly interests me at the moment. I believe that if my students have misunderstood my instruction, than it is probably my fault, not theirs. I can think of four reasons why students don’t understand instructions:

1. The task might be badly constructed. No matter how good the instructions are, it will never make sense to some students because of some inherent flaw at the level of the task.

2. Your instructions might be incoherent. I have observed classed where there inconsistencies in the instructions. This is why the practice of occasionally taking an activity and writing out in full yours instructions and instruction checking questions (or ICQs) is such a powerful exercise.

3. The level of the language in the instructions or task might be too high for students. We need to make sure the language is carefully graded.

4. Students might not be paying attention because they were distracted or not interested.

If we have addressed these four points than we can assume that most students will know what to do, but we should then immediately monitor to make sure everyone is on task.

Lesson plans for dyslexic students

Can you give an example of a lesson plan/type of activity for students with dyslexia? Any sources we can use?

This question asks about lesson plans for dyslexic students. Being dyslexic myself, I feel I can give some advice about this. It is important not to expose a dyslexic student’s weaknesses but to provide them with a range of ways to process information. In two previous blog posts I gave suggestions for using audio scripts and for doing while-reading activities. The suggestions in these posts go some way to address the two points mentioned above.

• 25 alternatives to reading aloud around the class: https://oupeltglobalblog.com/2017/01/17/25-alternatives-to-reading-aloud-around-the-class/
• 25 ideas for using audio scripts in the ELT classroom: https://oupeltglobalblog.com/2016/09/20/25-ideas-for-using-audio-scripts-in-the-elt-classroom/

If you missed the webinar and want to catch up, feel free to visit our Webinar Library, for this session and previous recordings.


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Motivational Teaching in the English language classroom Q&A

teenage_students_smiling_studyingNick Thorner, author of the professional development title ‘Motivational Teaching‘ in the Into The Classroom series, reviews some of the concerns raised by teachers in his recent webinar on the subject of student motivation and offers some practical advice on how to overcome them.

I really enjoyed our Motivational Teaching webinars on 26th May. They provoked quite a few questions, which I’ve enjoyed reflecting on.

Many concerns that participants had were about the language that was being used in the webinar, and in particular the use of the concept of reward. I thought this was a really challenging response from one participant:

Maybe it’s against what we’ve been learning about motivation so far but when I learnt English myself I didn’t need any motivation at all… I just did it out of pure love for the language itself. So ‘motivation’ to me is not about rewarding… 

I really know what he means. Surely, it’s that intrinsic love of learning that we need to aim for; not a compromise solution where we are coaxing students along with promises of rewards.

But I would say that the pleasure we get from language learning is itself a reward and it’s useful to see it that way because it reflects the way our brains work. Whether we are aware of it or not, the motivation to do anything at all depends on the anticipation of some gain or fulfilment, or the avoidance of some loss. If we can understand what it is about learning that makes our brains anticipate fulfilment, we can focus our students’ minds on those aspects of learning.

For example, let’s say an aspect of enjoyment comes from the moments when we successfully apply meaning where there was once incomprehension. By exposing students to unknown words well before we reveal the meaning, we will help students anticipate that moment of pleasure.

This participant wasn’t the only one that didn’t feel comfortable with the use of the word reward, as these questions demonstrate.

Does the fact of rewarding your students all time make them dependent and lazy?

Sometimes, giving students rewards might result into them becoming competitive. Will it be detrimental for their learning?

Here again, we see how ‘reward’ is often associated with extrinsic motivators, like stickers or a promise of a break. Indeed, this is its meaning when used as a countable noun. I agree extrinsic rewards shouldn’t be over-used, for the reasons given here. But we should be aware of other forms of ‘reward’ that are not given to students. For instance, collaborative learning can be socially rewarding, a sense of progress can be psychologically rewarding, and so on. To avoid the confusion, we could simply reject the term reward and use ‘motivator’ but I think our minds find a lot of things to be rewarding that aren’t often considered motivators. These include indulging the senses, showing off skills, watching things move, etc. I thought the concept of ‘reward’ captured the idea of these smaller pleasures more effectively.

But what if the student doesn’t visualise the reward?

As this question shows us, another concept which has created discussion is the idea of visualisation. What I meant by this term was not really ‘seeing rewards’ but ‘becoming aware that an experience may be rewarding’. That said, as we generally think in images, I think the idea of ‘visualising’ a rewarding experience is very useful. Jill Hadfield, for example, proposes visualisation techniques in the book Motivating Learning. It is not enough to be told something will be fun; we have to picture a rewarding experience before we will strive for it. This is the main point of the future diary activity I proposed, which (incidentally) I didn’t explain very well…

I didn’t quite get the idea of the diary – do students just describe their future??

The idea is that by really imagining a day in their future in detail, they will become aware of a range of rewarding experiences that will follow on from their current studies. To set up the task, we should get students to think of the benefits they will derive from being language users and then to imagine themselves enjoying those benefits through the Future Diary activity. The procedures are outlined in more detail in Motivational Teaching. Drawing a picture of their future selves also helps them create a positive and goal-orientated self-image, in contrast to the relatively powerless present identity that a lot of young people experience.

Many of the other questions I got from the talk focused on specific instances of motivation, in line with the point we noted at the start of the webinar: motivation problems often manifest themselves in very challenging, specific cases. Here are a selection.

It’s quite difficult to motivate students with behaviour problems. They are not really interested in language learning, they can’t stay focused and it’s quite difficult for me, though I usually prepare different enjoyable tasks. Any ideas?

I totally agree with this. In fact, I would say behaviour is essentially a motivation issue. If we don’t wish to be in a place or to do a certain activity, then poor behaviour is a logical way of dealing with it. First, it signals our displeasure, without making us lose face or appear weak (as crying might); it makes it clear that we aren’t putting in effort so that eventual failure cannot be put down to inability; and it increases the chances that the bad experience might be avoided or delayed since it will disrupt the class. I would say what they have is a motivation problem. If we can find a way of making the classroom environment rewarding for these students, I’m sure behaviour would improve. That said, we mustn’t reward bad behaviour or suggest it’s acceptable or it will spread. But once it’s subsided then engaging with the student and building their esteem is essential.

How can we help every student as they are so different?

To respond to this question, I’d like to refer to the first point below. I personally would use the word flexibility instead of eclecticism but both work.

Eclecticism is the key word – take a little bit of what works for you and your students, try not to embarrass them, praise but just for real achievement.

(Can I have) ideas to motivate students to learn / read literature classics in English?

I’m afraid I have little experience in teaching literature but I imagine one of the issues is that students see classics as dated and less relevant to their lives. There is also a sense that classic literature is ‘chosen’ by social elites or by previous generations and so by engaging with the canon of classic literature they are upholding values that they would prefer to be rebelling against! The only solution I think is to help students see the relevance of themes and characters in the classics to their lives. For example, presenting quotes and characters in the book without explaining they are from a ‘classic’, or comparing the ideas to a contemporary performance poet or similar, may help break down resistance.

How can we motivate students to be punctual?

This is a great question. I heard a radio programme just last week about how to get meetings started on time. They recommended that meetings always start at an odd time such as 11.47 rather than on the hour and that late attenders should be made to sing a song!! I’m not sure those recommendations would work for you, but I think the fundamental thing is not to allow lateness to affect your relationship with students. In other words, we shouldn’t confront the student in the instant they walk in late. But neither should we ignore it. If we have a clear set of rules, we can take the student aside after the class and explain that we are forced to take action.

To conclude, here is a good suggestion for us and another participant takes me to task on falling into the classic teacher trainer’s trap: creating ideas that are unrealistic once we’re at the chalk face!

Do you think that writing a diary daily blog in English would be a good idea for students to practise English and find it rewarding at the same time?

Yes, I do. Writing about ourselves provides a narrator’s perspective from which to examine our fears and motivations and confront them if necessary. I think committing fears and worries to paper is especially useful as it can help us work through them sequentially (writing is an act of ordering) and prevent swirls of irrational thought from hijacking our emotions.

Nick (some of your ideas) require a lot of preparation on part of the teacher, which is sci-fi in state schools

This point (brilliantly put) draws attention to the issue of time. Does motivation always require an investment of time? To some extent the answer is yes. Students will appreciate investments that teachers make as it shows we care about them. That said, we have to be realistic and some of the resources I showed were designed to showcase general principles rather than be examples of what we should produce. My hope would be that aspects of them could be borrowed and adapted with little effort. For example, a lesson map (to increase students’ control) or Sinek’s Golden Circle (to arouse a sense of purpose) could be sketched on the board rather than prepared on paper or added to homework sheets, and streaks can be recorded the register.


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The essentials of lesson planning

female teacher lesson planningPhilip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP.  In this post he introduces his upcoming webinar on 20th and 21st June entitled “The essentials of lesson planning”.

If you type ‘lesson plan’ into your favorite search engine, you will find literally hundreds of different lesson plan formats. Such a wide range of formats illustrates that there is no fixed or perfect way to plan a lesson.

In our day-to-day teaching, most of us will not produce an extensive and detailed lesson plan. We know that by writing out a full plan we can address problems and inconsistencies that we would not otherwise see. However, in most cases this simply is not practical. Having said this, the lack of a physical plan does not mean that we avoid the process of lesson planning.

Considering the importance of lesson planning and the frequent time constraints which compromise the process, the question is, how can we create effective lessons under these conditions?

Generic lesson templates

When I am under pressure to produce a lesson I have a number of generic lesson templates which enable me to create a functioning lesson very quickly. An example of a reading comprehension lesson template is:

  • pre-teach vocabulary
  • predicting answers to comprehension questions
  • read aloud in groups
  • students discuss and check answers – then as whole class
  • students write comprehension questions for others to answer
  • activity on grammar/lexis in text

Such a lesson might not be very original, but from this I can start to adapt and improve.

Regular beats

I have so often seen lesson from in-service teacher training course where there is a good rhythm at the beginning but the rest of the lesson becomes a long string of activities with nothing to hold the students’ attention. The trick is to make sure there are ‘beats’ spaced evenly throughout the lesson every 10 minutes or so where students have to change the mode of working. This could be through moving in some way, interacting differently or a friendly challenge.

Plan from the middle or the end

A common approach that teachers take is to plan the lesson in a linear manner starting at the beginning. A more effective way is to start maybe with a text or a speaking activity that might come in the middle or end of the lesson and then build backwards from that. This tends to create a more coherent lesson.

Build in flexibility at the end of the lesson

This is something I had to learn the hard way. The fear of running out of activities at the end of class meant that I would spend longer on the earlier activities and then rush through the later ones. One solution to this is to design the last two activities in such a way that they can be expanded out to 20 minutes or squashed down to three or four minutes without any sense of compromise. This means that you can spend the necessary time on the earlier activities without that nagging fear of being left with dead time at the end.

These are just some of the tips and strategies we will be exploring in this webinar. We’ll also be looking at anticipating problems, getting your procedures and instructions right, dealing with fast finishers, among other things.


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Teaching: The good, the bad and the balance

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria and co-author of ‘Exploring Psychology for Language Teachers’. In this post she reflects on the importance of teachers’ well-being and offers some practical suggestions to help them find their own work-life balance.

Let me get this straight from the start – I absolutely love teaching. I can’t think of any other job I would like to do more. When I read the post-its from IATEFL and Andrew Diliger’s recent blog post and saw all the positivity, I felt grateful to be part of this wonderful community. Many teachers are passionate about what they do and they also get a lot energy, motivation, and inspiration from their learners and day-to-day classroom encounters. But let’s not diminish just how demanding a profession it is. Teaching requires great skill in having competence in our subjects, interpersonal skills, pedagogical knowledge, intercultural sensitivity, creativity, technological skills, and organisational skills – to name but a few. It is a profession with a long history, which we should be proud to be part of and which necessitates specialist expertise for it to function well – That’s where we come in. In fact, we are probably the most valuable resource in educational institutions and yet very often the importance of what we do goes unappreciated and undervalued – sometimes by others but also occasionally by ourselves.

Teaching can be extremely rewarding but can also be emotionally and physically draining. Like seasonal workers, during term time, many of us work evenings and weekends. It is extremely stressful on a day-to-day basis and as administration and assessment procedures mushroom, it grows ever more exhausting having to work on tasks that are a lot less rewarding than the time spent in class. The to-do list is never-ending and there is always more we could be doing. Add to this that as teachers, we tend to be other-oriented and very often we have tendencies towards perfectionism. As a result, this can lead us to keep giving to others and doing ever more not knowing when to stop and recharge our own batteries. It is easy to see the risks and why many early career stage teachers end up leaving the profession and why teaching reports such high levels of burnout.

So, how do we reconcile these two sides of teaching? The side where we love and are energised by what we do, along with the incredibly demanding, exhausting and stressful reality of a busy teaching life. Well, part of the clue lies in the fact that so many positive comments were found at an event like IATEFL. Firstly, we know that we can benefit enormously from professional development that is meaningful, relevant and worthwhile. We can enjoy spending time focusing on things that are professionally, intellectually and personally engaging. We might do this by attending conferences, workshops, webinars or by reading blogs or books of interest. However, we must take care not to fall into the trap of believing everyone is doing more than us and start to feel guilty for all the other things we ‘could’ be doing. Instead, we should find professional development opportunities to energise us and inspire us, whilst remaining realistic about what we can manage without trying to do it all. It is important for us to celebrate who we are as individuals taking time to focus on our strengths and the things we are already doing really well. We also have to remember that we are more than just our teacher selves. Having other interests and hobbies outside of education is important to keep us balanced and strengthen our overall well-being. This means we need to plan in time in our busy schedules for the other dimensions of our lives to draw energy and inspiration from them too.

The second dimension from IATEFL that gives us another clue for our positive well-being is how important it is to connect with colleagues and share stories, experiences, and ideas from the classroom and life beyond. This kind of support network and the ability to talk with people who know and understand your situation is vital. Indeed, other teachers are often the best people to share your humour about teaching life with – Indeed, laughter is one of the best coping strategies for reducing stress. However, more important than our collegial relationships are our family ties and personal friendships. These deserve our full quality attention and time. They serve as a primary source of support, happiness, and well-being and are a vital buffer against stress. No matter how packed our schedule, we must set aside time to protect and nurture these relationships.

Being a teacher is a joy and privilege. But it is also hard work and stressful. To ensure that the positive aspects of our work predominate, we need to do things that are rewarding and give us energy as well as invest in our personal and professional relationships. Once we understand that our happiness and well-being are key determinants of how well we teach and how much our learners enjoy our classes, then it becomes a lot easier to feel less selfish and guilty about putting ourselves first for a change.

Featured image credit: ‘Finding Balance’. Public Domain via Flickr