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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.


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Making teaching personal | How to bring client-led content into your teaching

Developing critical thinking in ESL

Teaching a group of business English students first thing on a Monday morning – short of going for a jog in sub-zero temperatures – is one of the surest ways I know of having to get out of bed and get into the swing of things snappily! I can’t say I look forward to the ordeal, but I can say that I don’t think I can remember a class which disappointed, and after which I didn’t feel energised. But perhaps I’m lucky.

However, when Kata asked me, as she always did, about my weekend on a particular Monday back in June, I really didn’t know what to say.

I’d had a nightmare of a time, spending most of it in a whirlwind filling in forms at a police station. It didn’t seem right to relate such personal issues to my students. But I knew her and the group well, and in any case, telling them would make a change from, “Great, thanks – yeah, we went hiking; I met a friend for coffee, and you?” etc. So I decided to tell them that on the Friday evening I’d had my briefcase with amongst other things my passport stolen. I told them how annoyed I was, and they were all ears!

Of course! It was only with hindsight that it dawned on me what a golden opportunity this was, and how much I could exploit it. After all, this was my upper intermediate insurance class; without hesitation, they started firing questions at me about the contents of my bag, the value of the items in question, exactly what had happened, whether I was insured, and so on. They then insisted on helping me fill in the claim form so as to get the best deal possible. I couldn’t have broken this news to a more sympathetic or expert group: They gave me insights into the industry I’d have never known otherwise! ‘In return’, we worked on form-filling, question forms, formal insurance language vs. everyday spoken English, the passive, and much more besides. My longer-term course plan was ditched for a few weeks, but during these weeks, attendance rose, and engagement and involvement was higher than it had ever been.

While I don’t intentionally generate major personal events to exploit in class, it’s surprising how, with a bit of thought, we can in some way or other gain a better understanding of what our students do through bringing our own or a friends’ experiences to class (have a think!).

With my insurance group, I found myself drawing on students’ expertise, and focusing on language relevant for them so as to reach a win-win situation. Although I ‘took’ the story to class, input over the next two or three weeks was based on the language they needed in order, in part, to be able to offer me professional advice.

 In my webinar on 16 March, I’ll be looking at how we can incorporate real-life and authentic experiences and events into a course plan in a more structured manner, in order to enhance the learning experience through better engagement and higher motivation.

I hope you’ll join me then!

Register now for the Oxford Business Online Conference where Rachel will be presenting a webinar on Making teaching personal – how to bring client-led content into your teaching


Rachel Appleby has taught English for International House and the British Council in the UK, Spain, Portugal, Slovakia, and Hungary, where she now lives. She focuses mostly on teaching English to adults, in-company students and, more recently, to University students. Rachel works part-time at ELTE University in Budapest on the BA and MA programmes. She is also a Teacher trainer specifically for Business English, but also a CELTA trainer, and British Council EMI trainer.

Rachel has also authored/co-authored a number of English Language Teaching titles with Oxford University Press, including Business one:one, and International Express,


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Flipped Classroom Approach | What is all the fuss about?

Flipped Classroom Approach

The Flipped Classroom Approach, what’s all the fuss about?

Many educators are familiar with the notion of a ‘Flipped Classroom Approach’: The Flipped Model has been adopted across a wide range of educational contexts, and English Language Teaching is no different.

So, what is it? Simply, it’s an approach that involves the reorganisation of what happens in class time and outside of class time. The traditional notion of classroom-based learning is turned on its head: One commonly-quoted definition is that homework becomes schoolwork, and schoolwork becomes homework.

In a conventional classroom, content delivery happens during the class, when learners are expected to acquire knowledge in the classroom with (from) their teacher. The time left for practice activities, assimilation and the application of new knowledge is squeezed, which means that learners are often left to do these activities as ‘follow up’ for homework by themselves – without the support of their teacher and peers.

The Flipped Classroom Approach tries to overcome these problems. It’s strongly associated with blended learning, and one basic way to flip your classroom involves putting content onto online videos (for example using screencasts), which students are invited to work through before they attend your classroom session. Proponents of the Flipped Classroom Approach argue that by inverting what happens in the classroom, in-class time can now focus on active learning and student-centred strategies, such as discussions and task-based learning, leading to an improvement in student engagement, motivation, attendance and performance.

Thus in the Flipped Classroom model, students are able to access content in their own time, at their own pace, reviewing it as many times as necessary before they come to class, armed with their own questions and ready to put their new learning into practice.

It’s clear to see that a key purpose of the flipped approach is to move students away from a passive learning experience towards active learning, with all the associated collaboration and peer learning that goes with it, coupled with a similar move away from a teacher-centred approach towards a more facilitative role.

We could argue that this is just good teaching. I’m a big fan of active learning. I’ve been involved in English language teaching since the 1990s, and even way back then, when I first set foot in the classroom, I knew that those learners who came to class having done some work in advance (“pre-reading”, anyone?), those who were happy to work collaboratively, and those that took ownership of their learning were far more likely to succeed than those that needed spoon-feeding. Surely we’ve come a long way across all educational sectors, in our move away from the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’.

Nonetheless, an increasing number case studies are emerging where flipped learning as a pedagogy is being evaluated more rigorously, and it’s clear that increasing numbers of teachers are adopting (at least some of) the practices associated with the Flipped Classroom Approach. It also becomes ever easier to create, store and share online content and blended learning is a widely accepted teaching model in itself.

So, these are interesting times for Flipping. With this in mind, I’d like to invite you to join me in an upcoming webinar: “Flipping your classroom: how to make the most of your teaching time” on Friday 16th March, 1pm. In this webinar we’ll explore what flipped learning could look like for the busy language teacher, and I’d love to hear what sort of things you’ve been doing and what the experience has been like for your students. We’ll also consider why and how you might want to try Flipping your classroom, as well as what might stop you.

I’m looking forward to seeing you then!


Angela Buckingham is an Academic Developer working in Higher Education in the UK with over twenty five years of experience in ELT as a classroom teacher, teacher trainer, and writer. Courses for OUP include the best selling Passport series for Japan, the third edition of Business Venture, level 5 and level 6 of Oxford Discover Grammar (primary) and the Beginner and Elementary levels of new edition International Express. Angela has an MA in TEFL.