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21st Century Skills and the Path to Fluency

Students Talking In A ClassroomKathleen Kampa and Charles Vilina are American ELT authors and teacher-trainers who have taught young learners in Japan for 25 years. They are co-authors of Magic Time, Everybody Up, and Oxford Discover, courses for young learners published by Oxford University Press. Kathleen and Charles are active teachers who promote an inquiry-based approach to learning, where students develop English language fluency as they discover the world around them.

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning in Washington D.C. strongly endorses the development of 21st century skills in modern education.[1] This coalition of educators and business leaders has created a framework of skills considered to be essential for a student’s future success in the 21st century.

Along with strong content knowledge and interdisciplinary themes, the Partnership stresses the need for the following “learning and innovation skills” among students to prepare them for the future:

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Though originally intended for students in the US, the framework has been successfully adopted by hundreds of educational agencies and organizations globally.

Not surprisingly, 21st century skills have become an important focus in English language learning (ELL) classrooms as well. In fact, it could be argued that effective English language educators have been incorporating these skills in their curriculum for many years, for the very reason that they contribute to language fluency among their students.

Let’s look at each “learning and innovation skill” as it applies to ELL classrooms, and how it offers opportunities for increased fluency.

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Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking is a student’s ability to move from the lower-order thinking skills of remembering and understanding to the higher-order skills of applying, analyzing, and evaluating (see Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy below).

Through critical thinking, students process information in a variety of ways – for example, through prioritizing, comparing/contrasting, and classifying/categorizing. Learning is real and relevant, and offers many opportunities for students to discuss the content meaningfully.

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Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy[2]

Example:

A Venn diagram is one way to challenge students to think critically about information. A Venn diagram involves comparing and contrasting, and can be used effectively when introducing topics. For example, students could place a vocabulary list of sports into a Venn diagram labeled “played indoors,” “played outdoors,” or “played both indoors and outdoors.”

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The teacher could provide the following language prompt to guide students:

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Creativity

Creativity is closely associated with critical thinking, and is placed at the top of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy as one of the highest-order thinking skills. Creativity allows students to make new connections, to take what they have learned to solve problems, and to express themselves in unique ways.

Example:

Problem-solving offers opportunities for students to be creative. For example, if the lesson’s topic is about plants, students can be asked for ideas on how to use plants in or around school. Students work in small groups to brainstorm ideas and draw illustrations, with the teacher moving around the room offering language support. Then, in a whole-class activity, ideas are listed and prioritized on the board.

Possible language prompt:

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Collaboration

Collaboration is the ability to work with others, to share ideas, to discuss options, and to compromise. Working in pairs or small groups is one of the most effective ways for students to build their social language skills while reinforcing newly learned vocabulary and grammar.

Example:

Collaborative projects often involve groups of four students. Students can work together to create a time capsule, present energy-saving ideas, or report on school news.

Possible language prompts for collaborative dialogue:

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In many class activities, teachers can lead students through the following progression to build collaborative skills:

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This gives students the opportunity to first work on their own, then to share their answers or ideas with a partner, then again in groups of three or four. As the target language is practiced at each step, students become more able and willing to participate and contribute when the activity reaches the whole-class stage.

Communication

Communication is the means through which critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration reach their full potential. As students work together to analyze, solve, and create, their receptive and productive language skills are continually challenged and strengthened.

 

Incorporating 21st century skills into an ELL classroom offers opportunities for students to listen, speak, read, and write in ways that are meaningful and intrinsically motivated. Language is learned and used to achieve individual and group goals. English becomes a means to an end, a tool through which the world is questioned, discovered, evaluated, and constructed. This process creates self-motivation, promotes cooperation, and encourages real communication. Fluency is fostered each and every step of the way.

Kathy and Chuck will be presenting on 21st century skills at our first ever online conference, Oxford ELTOC 2017, taking place between 24-26th March.

If you’re a teacher in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China Thailand, Vietnam or Indonesia you can find out more and register here.

References

[1] http://www.p21.org/our-work/p21-framework

[2] https://oupeltglobalblog.com/2014/03/03/creativity-in-the-young-learner-classroom/


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Does pronunciation matter?

shutterstock_297003296Robin Walker is a freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer. He has been in ELT for over 30 years, and regularly collaborates with Oxford University Press and Trinity College London. Today he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar ‘Pronunciation Matters’, on December 6th and 7th.

At first glance it would seem that it is not really possible to question the idea that pronunciation matters. How can you learn a language without learning its pronunciation? Who will understand you if your pronunciation is poor? And will you understand them? Yes, the case for teaching pronunciation seems pretty solid, but the reality in classrooms around the world is often very different. Time and time again, when I give talks and workshops on pronunciation, teachers confess to me that what I’ve said has been enlightening, but that sadly they don’t have time for pronunciation in a syllabus that is already busting at the seams. It’s logical, then, that if they are short of time something will have to give, and pronunciation is an obvious choice, especially with courses that focus more on written than on spoken English.

Teachers say they don’t have time to teach pronunciation in their syllabus.

But can we really push pronunciation out to the margins of ELT like this? Surely it does matter. The connection between pronunciation and speaking, for example, is immediately apparent to anyone who has started learning a new language. But pronunciation is also about listening; it is not enough to recognise a word in writing, because if you don’t know how it’s pronounced you won’t recognise it when listening to someone using the word. Spanish learners of English can fail to recognise the word ‘average’ even though it is spelt the same way in both languages. This is because they are expecting a four-syllable word and so fail to make sense of the correct, two-syllable pronunciation.

Pronunciation is also an issue for listening because of the way that words that are pronounced one way when said in isolation can sound quite different when they are part of a sequence. My own students kept using ‘Festival’ to start their essays. I couldn’t work out why and until they explained that it was the way I started any instructions I gave them in class. It wasn’t, of course. What I’d been saying was ‘First of all’ but because of their poor pronunciation they completely misheard what I was saying.

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Vocabulary, too, has a pronunciation element if we want to use a new word when speaking, and there are many examples of the connection between pronunciation and grammar. A rising tone at the end of an affirmative sentence, for example, turns it into a question to the ears of the listener. Thus:

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Speaking, listening,  vocabulary – yes. But writing?

Less obvious, admittedly, is the link between pronunciation and writing, and it was clear to me for a long time, and to all of my colleagues, that pronunciation and reading are simply not connected. Or at least that is what I thought until I heard Michael Swan and Catherine Walter speak at the 2008 IATEFL conference in Exeter. Their session was about the problems learners face when reading in English. Poor pronunciation, Catherine explained, often lies undetected behind the poor reading skills of many students. If we want them to get better at reading, she proposed, help them to improve their pronunciation.

I listened to this concluding remark in amazement. Suddenly everything fitted into place. Pronunciation does matter. And rather than being marginal to the core elements of ELT, it lies at the very heart of teaching English. Grammar, vocabulary, speaking, listening, writing and reading – what holds them all together, what is common to them all, and what is central to ELT, is the very same pronunciation that got pushed out onto the margins some time in the mid-80s.

Pronunciation is the glue that holds everything else in teaching together.

How this is, how pronunciation operates as the glue that holds everything else in teaching English together, I’ll explain in my webinar in December. I’ll also look at goals for learners, because if the goal in the past was to sound like a native speaker, the situation today, with English being used the world over as a lingua franca, is not so simple. I’ll be looking at priorities for our learners’ pronunciation, too, because if there isn’t much time to fit everything in, we need to focus on what matters most.

So if you accept that pronunciation matters, and you want to find out more about what matters in pronunciation, join me in December, and we’ll put pronunciation in its proper place at the heart of ELT.

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Why teach values in the Primary classroom?

shutterstock_408187930Susan Banman Sileci is an American ELT author. She has written materials for pre-primary, primary, secondary, and adult levels, including textbooks, activity books, graded readers, resource packs, and digital practice materials and is the author of Everybody Up, Super Stars, and Shine On.

I’m an American living in Brazil and I’ll be honest: it’s been a rough year. Brazil is going through a corruption scandal that included the impeachment of a president and, of course, there was this month’s presidential election in the United States. The world has seen just how much Americans don’t agree and how ugly the discussions can become.

It’s been hard and the adults have been fighting. But guess what? Now more than ever we need to teach values to the little ones. That doesn’t mean that we impose our political views on our students, much as we might want to. School is about lots of things including learning to read and write, learning subject matter, learning to get organized, and learning to listen to and respect one another.

In the past six months, through all of this, I’ve been struggling to listen and be respectful. I’m learning too! Home is often a place where we all believe the same thing, and school is where we gather up the beginnings of life in a larger community. Certainly, most primary students aren’t talking about impeachment in Brasília and the American elections (and I rather hope they’re not!), but English classrooms can easily be places where we help our little ones learn to listen and respect one another.

How? I have a few ideas.

Set a good example

First, we need to look at ourselves and realize that we’re models to our students. They’re watching us closely and whatever we’re asking of them, we need to be sure to do ourselves. It’s not always big things… have we taught “please” and “thank you” to our students? Do we use those words ourselves at every opportunity? Have we finished a lesson about being on time but they see us racing into class, not quite prepared and a little frazzled? I know my students have.

And to me this one is a big thing. We need to say “I’m sorry.” We teach the language for this – it’s common functional language in many primary books. Do we require them to apologize to one another for mistakes and impolite things they’ve done, yet they never hear us apologize?

Share our values

We can share more about our lives. We teach simple language and basic values to primary kids: be polite, be fair, share your things, work together, be helpful, respect nature, among others. I suggest we look for opportunities of good values, or failed values, in our lives and spend a few minutes once in a while talking about them in class. In fourth grade, our teacher told us about a racist incident she’d seen on a city bus. It wasn’t in the lesson plan but my teacher needed to share something she’d seen. Why do I remember it 45 years later?

Provide opportunities for good citizenship

Finally, we can look for opportunities for our students to do good. They’re young, yes, but they’re still critical to one another and to our community. More than anything else, showing them how to do good and then doing it teaches them values. There are so many ways even our youngest English students can make a difference. They can work in the school garden (or start one!) and talk about what they’re harvesting in English. They can make holiday cards or write letters to be delivered to older people or others in need. They can listen, and offer solutions, when a classmate is struggling.

It feels like the world is upside-down sometimes, but our classrooms can be places where we teach, discuss, and then live out the best we can be.

In my webinar, I’ll be examining some of the ways we can introduce values into our classrooms. We’ll talk about where we can find examples of values and how we can make the most of values opportunities in our textbooks. We’ll also discuss a few concrete ways to help students practice what they’ve learned and be important members of their larger communities. I hope you will join me!

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The what, why and how of writing teacher’s books

shutterstock_147470255In this post, the course book author John Hughes looks at the role of teacher’s books and how they are written. This is based on a workshop he ran at the recent IATEFL BESIG conference in Munich. As well as writing numerous teacher’s books, John is one of the lead authors on the new Business Result Second Edition coming out in 2017 and 2018.

When you think of a series of published ELT materials, you probably imagine course books, online components and workbooks – all the parts for students to use in class and at home. However, there is also the teacher’s book. I’ve always enjoyed writing the teacher’s book for courses because it’s a chance to connect with teachers, to explain the background, and to add practical ideas that support the exercises on the page. I also train teachers in materials writing and recommend that they write notes for other teachers to accompany their classroom materials; it’s one way of scrutinising your materials before you use them in class and if you want to share your materials with other teachers, a set of teacher’s notes will help them.

What do you expect from a teacher’s book?

The starting point for any teacher’s book or set of teacher’s notes is an answer key but most teachers also like to have an introductory overview of the language aims. When you describe each of the stages and exercises in your classroom materials, avoid simply repeating what the instructions say in the student book or on the worksheet. Instead, teacher’s notes should offer advice on classroom management or suggest ways to vary an exercise according to the teacher’s own context. So whether you are working with one student or fifty students, the teacher’s notes need to make it clear how the material can be adapted accordingly.

Popular teacher’s books also include photocopiable pages to supplement the course book materials with extra practice. Activities that you copy and cut up such as board games, domino or matching activities, information gaps, and questionnaires bring a change of pace and dynamics to the lesson. As Business Result teacher’s book author Lyn White says, “All teachers are generally pressed for time, so a good teacher’s book should help them plan their lessons more efficiently and effectively.”

Who uses a teacher’s book?

When you write notes and resources for teachers, it’s important to understand that you are writing for a vast range of different backgrounds and experiences. Some teachers will follow everything through step-by-step and use all the supplemental activities. Other teachers prefer to follow their own instincts with the classroom materials but refer to the notes to check answer keys and audio scripts.

Nicola Meldrum writes resources for teachers and gives the following advice: “I always put myself in the teacher’s shoes and try to imagine different contexts teachers could be working in. I consider low and high tech environments for example, and try to include activities that will work anywhere.”

And Lyn White adds: “New teachers need clear staging and notes to help them gain more experience in working on their own lesson plans… more experienced teachers need a very clear layout so they can find the bits of the teacher’s notes they are looking for easily.”

How do you write for teachers?

Writing for teachers with such a wide range of experience in different teaching contexts also affects the writing style. Business Result author Nina Leeke suggests that materials writers have to be “consistent, comprehensive, and empathetic” in teacher’s books. The author is attempting to communicate ideas in a very condensed and concise way but can’t lose the human touch.

To illustrate this, read this introductory extract from some teacher’s notes accompanying some classroom materials on the topic of Energy.

You might want to start the lesson with the books closed and write the title of the unit, ‘Energy’, on the board. You could put students in pairs and give them two minutes to brainstorm different types of energy, e.g. solar, oil, etc. Write their ideas on the board and help with any pronunciation problems. Next, ask students to turn to the picture on page 20 and look at the image of smoke rising from factories. Discuss the two questions about the picture as a class. If you have a large class, you could ask students to discuss the questions in small groups and then summarise their answers to the rest of the class afterwards. Allow about five minutes for this part of the lesson.

Notice how the writer tries to balance straightforward instructions with the tone of a helping colleague, and covers everything from how to approach the lesson, to additional tips, to guidance on timing. There is some language in the paragraph that is direct and uses imperative forms (write…, ask…, discuss…), sequencers (next, then etc.) and references (turn to page 20). In addition, the writer also gives options, alternatives and suggestions (you might want to…, you could…, if you have a large class…). In this way, the material attempts to reach every type of teacher.

Your views?

If you have views on what should appear in a teacher’s book or how they could be improved to support teachers more effectively, why not post a comment here? Or perhaps you have written teacher’s notes or teacher resources for your colleagues – what was your experience like? Please share your thoughts below.

 

References and further reading

Business Result Second Edition is a forthcoming six-level course for Business English students and teachers, published by Oxford University Press.

Part of this article also appeared in a blog for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group. You can read the full post at http://mawsig.iatefl.org/mawsig-blog-guest-post-the-voice-of-the-teachers-notes/

John Hughes also has his own blog with a section on materials writing at https://elteachertrainer.com/for-materials-writers/ .

 


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Managing Classroom Dynamics

critical thinkingMartyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He joins us on the blog today to preview his upcoming webinar, Managing Classroom Dynamics.

What are classroom dynamics?

I suspect that for the great majority of teachers around the world the most important characteristic of a ‘good’ class is not how hard the students work, but how well they work together.  If a teacher is handing over a class to another, in my experience one of the first things they say is something like “they are a really nice group”, or “there’s a really friendly atmosphere in there”. Of course, it’s not always good news, and comments such as “it’s like teaching a wall” or “they’re just really difficult” are also common. The truth is the atmosphere in each class is hugely important to our job satisfaction.

This is classroom dynamics. It’s about the ways the people within a class interact with each other. It’s how they talk and how they act; it’s how they show their feelings and opinions; and it’s how they behave as a group.

Why are classroom dynamics important?

Managing classroom dynamics is also something that takes up significant lesson time. We all do things in class that are not directly related to learning English, but rather are focused on the social aspects of the group, such as managing behaviours, reacting to tensions, and generating interest, for example. But so much of what we do is instinctive and happens ‘in the moment’.  It might be useful however to take a moment and look at the issues in a more structured way.

In other words, in addition to our competences of content knowledge (grammar, lexis, etc.), and teaching skills, what skills, attitudes and strategies exist that can help us to ‘generate a psychological climate conducive to high quality learning’ (Underhill 1999: 130)?

There are good reasons for focusing on this:

  1. The cooperative skills and attitudes that we encourage in our students are among those most frequently demanded by today’s employers.
  2. A supportive, warm atmosphere helps people take the risks they need to in order to learn.
  3. Working with and in a more comfortable setting is simply more enjoyable for everyone. Life is a little better.

What can we do about classroom dynamics?

There is no one size that fits all. To a large extent, a classroom dynamic is a product of its own context as defined both internally with the uniqueness of its members, and externally in the cultural settings of the institution, and the society in which it is located.

Nevertheless we can identify certain features and characterise useful classroom dynamics across most, if not all contexts – even if these are represented by different behaviours according to the setting. For example, the visible behaviours of cooperation in a Brazilian high-school classroom might be different to those in a Dutch university or private evening class in Thailand, but cooperation remains key. Here are some aspects of classroom dynamics that a teacher may work to influence the chemistry of the group, and make it more ‘bonded’ (Senior 1997).

  1. a) The cohesiveness of the class.

Groups of people are very much brought together when they are aware of what they have in common. Shared experiences, values, and objectives lie at the heart of successful communities.  As teachers we can foster this awareness with activities that identify such commonalities, and then use them to enhance learning. In the webinar we will look at practical language learning activities and teaching techniques that can develop a sense of community within a class.

  1. b) The variety of interaction within a class.

A class that has a flexible approach to how its members talk to each other is likely to have a more inclusive, and therefore participative climate. In the seminar we will identify different modes of classroom talk, what each brings to learning, and how we can create variety.

  1. c) The amount of empathy class members have for each other.

Successful group activities involve members compromising in order to support each other. In the webinar we will look at activities and practices that encourage peer support and greater sharing of learning within the group.

How can I find out about the dynamics in my classroom?

As we have already said, classroom dynamics are local. What works in one class might not work in another. So we also need to know how to find out what is happening in our classes, so we can take the most appropriate actions. In the webinar we will also look at ways we can examine the realities of our classrooms by using:

  • Peer observations
  • Recordings
  • Student research activities

Finally…. when we teach all spend time on the social aspects of our classes. This webinar will provide a framework of analysis that can help us make more principled decisions when considering how we manage classroom dynamics. Hope to see you there!

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Useful reading

Gil, G. (2002) Two complementary modes of foreign language classroom interaction. ELT  Journal, 56/3

Hadfield, J (1992) Classroom Dynamics.. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Senior, R. (1997) Transforming language classes into bonded groups. ELT Journal, 51/1.

Senior, R.  (2002) A class-centered approach to language teaching. ELT Journal, 56/4 Underhill, A. (1999) Facilitation in Language Teaching. In J. Arnold (ed.) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wright, T. (2005) Classroom Management in Language Education, Palgrave Macmillan