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Collaborative Learning Online And In The Socially Distanced Classroom

Cut-out paper-chain of children holding handsWhat is collaborative language learning?

One of the most satisfying experiences that I have as an instructor is when I have my class make pairs or groups and then, after a few moments, I hear lively chatter. Moving around the classroom, I hear students using the vocabulary and structures that we studied in class. Yet they are doing more than just reciting what they learned in this lesson; they are combining the learning goals of the lesson with the language that they already know in a personalized and creative manner. A casual observer might think that this was break-time or an opportunity for the class to relax. But while I hope they are having fun, I know that they are actually hard at work. This is the culminating activity that we have worked towards together as a class. It is collaborative learning in action.

The key principles of collaborative learning

Having students work in pairs and groups of three or four are key strategies in the collaborative learning approach. Together, they practice the target language and to establish meaning, in a carefully sequenced set of achievable, unintimidating, activities. From our own experience, we know the value of learning by doing. This is even more critical in language learning, where the production of new sounds, new words and new structures is so vital. To be a successful language user, it is not enough to know; students have to adapt their knowledge to create meaning and communicate with someone else. Increasing our students’ opportunities to do something meaningful in class is one of the main aims of collaborative learning.

So, what is the role of the teacher in all of this?

At the start of a sequence of activities, for example, when presenting the target language of the lesson, the method of instruction can look quite traditional; often the teacher speaks and the students listen. After the presentation phase, however, the class transitions in a way that makes the learners, and not the teacher, the focus of the class. The first step often focuses on accuracy. In pairs or groups, the students manipulate the language mechanically. They learn from each other. Crucially, the teacher moves from group to group, evaluating the progress, and correcting the learners as necessary. The subsequent activities in the sequence encourage the learners step-by-step to use the target language in more creative and open-ended ways, with activities that encourage students to combine what they have just learned with the language that they already know.

The collaborative approach is highly motivating because it allows students to communicate about things that matter to them, to be more active, and indeed, more successful learners.

Collaborative learning in the COVID-19 era

Only a few short months ago, the notion that teleconferencing technology would become an essential tool in our professional lives would have been unimaginable. Along with my colleagues, I have struggled to adjust to this new reality. What, now, are the most effective classroom management techniques? Does the collaborative language learning approach even make any sense?

When we went into lockdown in New York City, where I teach, my classroom practice probably resembled a traditional, lecture approach. Eventually, however, I was able to adapt what I typically did in a physical classroom to the virtual classroom.

4 key ways to conduct collaborative language learning in cyberspace:

  1. At the start of the lesson, I present the goals of the class and the target language. I could share my screen, where I could have a PowerPoint presentation, but instead I send my presentation materials to the students earlier. Since unconscious lip reading is such an important part of listening comprehension, I want my students to be able to see my face full size. Instead of sending a file of slides, I use the screen capture feature of QuickTime to record my computer screen and voice at the same time. (I am a low-tech person, but I have found it easy to use). Students, therefore, get a video of my presentation, which they can watch before or after class, multiple times.
  2. Most teleconferencing tools allow the host to make breakout groups. I set these up before class. It is a simple thing to conduct pair work and group work using this feature, and as in a physical classroom, I can monitor them as they work. One added advantage is that my students can video their work, (using any screen capture tool) which we can use later for student self-analysis or peer-reviewing.
  3. Many of the activities that my students do in the physical classroom involve completing charts, matching, and checking items, together. Now, I have students take a photo of their work using their smartphone, and then share it with me and their classmates using email, social media, or our school Learning Management System (LMS). We do collaborative writing activities in a similar way.
  4. In a physical classroom, I can’t imagine teaching in a room without a whiteboard. Almost all teleconferencing tools have a whiteboard feature. I find this feature cumbersome. It takes me a lot of time to write and then erase the digital whiteboard. When teaching online, I find it much more effective to use the chat function when I want my students to see something in writing. For more extended notes or hand-drawn charts, I much prefer to use a small, handheld physical whiteboard, which I hold up to my laptop screen. Some students take photos of this with their smartphone, just like they do in my regular classroom, while others take screenshots.

The Hybrid Classroom

What will happen when we move to a hybrid classroom model, where we combine socially distanced in-class learning and distance learning? Can we have collaborative learning when students must be apart from each other?

Before the pandemic, I frequently had students take photos of their work with their phones, which they posted on a social media platform, and I then projected to the class. Now, I will have them share with each other, in socially distanced pairs and groups.

What activities to do online or in the socially distanced classroom will be an important decision. Right now, I am planning to present new language (vocabulary and grammar) online, in the manner that I described earlier. Writing activities, including collaborative ones, can be successfully conducted online, as can listening activities – my students can access the content on their mobile devices. But since speaking is by its very nature performative, I will prioritize the physical class time for open-ended pair work, group discussions, and role-playing. But at a distance.

 

For more practical tips, and two free activities for running pair work and group work with adult learners, visit our collaborative learning page!

Get Expert Advice On Collaborative Learning


Thomas Healy is one of the authors of Smart Choice as well as an Assistant Professor in the Intensive English Program at the Pratt Institute, New York City. He has given several webinars for Oxford University Press on how to use smart devices and social media to encourage collaborative learning including The potential of smart devices, How to use mobile technology in class and How learners can use mobile technology outside of classFind these recordings in our webinar library.


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How to take your students on a virtual field trip | Mireille Yanow

field tripMany of us recently have had to take our classrooms online. Learning the basics of virtual teaching is hard enough! Like me, you’ve probably had connection issues and are making do with limited equipment. These challenges are all part of your daily routine and you’re meeting them head-on. As teachers, we want to continue delivering the same quality education during lockdown as we were in the classroom, but are wondering how. You might have found that many of your tried-and-tested lesson plans no longer work in an online setting, and keeping primary students engaged can pose a particular problem! Thankfully, as the rest of the world adapts, some new, innovative, and engaging options are emerging. There are learning platforms with educational games (e.g. education.com) and interactive stories, however my favourite lessons right now are virtual museum tours.

Take your students on a virtual adventure

There are a plethora of museums around the world that you can virtually visit with your students. All of these ‘virtual excursions’ can be turned into fun lessons. You can take your students anywhere in the world and truly see the world’s best museums! Personally, I’ve been taking students on weekly ‘trips’ to some of my favourite museums (details below). Before any of my class visits, I put together a few easy pre-questions, level adjusted to ensure that my students are learning English while having fun. Here are some ideas to inspire you.

  • For younger or lower-level students, I want to make sure they understand the word ‘museum’, thus I start the lesson like this: We’re going to a museum today. What is a museum? If students know what a museum is, you can have a short conversation about museums they’ve been to, or their favourite kind of museum. After the visit ask students if they were correct about what a museum was or if they liked this museum as much as ones they’ve been to before.
  • Put together a list of vocabulary you want the students to find while we are at the museum. Then, during the visit ask the students to find the objects and describe them g. Find a mammoth. What colour is it?
  • Museum visits can be tied into any lessons, for example:
    • Numbers: Count how many animals we see at the museum [for natural history or science museums, or zoos!].
    • Colours: Find xxxxx – what colour is it?
    • Adjectives: Describe what a mammoth looks like.
  • Most of the virtual museums have online floor maps that can be used for teaching directions. I love this aspect of museum tours!

Now, on to my top 5 museum tours to visit virtually (I’ve also added some teaching ideas that you could try, but make it your own)!

  1. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

There really is so much to see here! Animals, gems (including the Hope Diamond), dinosaurs, plants, geological history, etc. Teachers can use it for directions (there are arrows that lead the way virtually), naming animals, colours, comparisons, Wh questions, past tense.

  1. The Vatican, Sistine Chapel

This museum is beautiful. There are 7 other Vatican museums that can be visited virtually, but the Sistine Chapel is one we all know. Teachers can use this tour for teaching colours, adjectives, special awareness (it is huge – even online you can sense it), body parts, and again, Wh- questions.

  1. Pretend City, Children’s Museum

This museum is awesome! It is what it says on the tin: a pretend city. Teachers can use it for teaching directions, signs (lots of stop signs), names of buildings in a town, colours, measurements (there is a neat feature where you can measure the size of the room), Wh-questions (see a pattern with all the museums?), imperative, comparisons, likes/dislikes.

  1. Balenciaga y la Pintura Española exhibition at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

This exhibit is where fashion and art meet! Great for teaching clothing vocabulary and comparisons, especially “same” and “different”.

  1. Lego House Tour (Youtube Video – more advance can be used for listening)

Although this isn’t an actual virtual visit to the museum, this video takes you on a tour of the Lego House museum. The tour guide speaks at a moderate level, so it can be used for more advanced students. Younger and less-advanced students will get a lot out of this tour also: colours, size, likes/dislikes (actually all of the museums are good for this!), vocabulary, numbers, etc.

We hope that these ideas are useful! If you know of any other virtual tools or places to visit, please do add them to the comments.


Mireille Yanow spent 6 years teaching English to primary and secondary students in Greece and Spain before embarking in her publishing career. Mireille spent 4 years as an editor leading the development of a primary English Language course before moving back to the United States. She is currently Senior Publisher at Oxford University Press and volunteers at the local library as an ELT teacher.

 

 

 


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Girls and Autism: Tips and Activities to Support Your Learners

group of girls and boys at school

What is autism? You may or may not have taught individuals in your English language teaching classrooms with autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is linked to brain development and can affect the way learners socialise, communicate, and behave.

Did you know? Many girls go undiagnosed with autism or are diagnosed later in life because they present differently to boys. By this, I mean they behave in a different way that may cover up the signs. For boys, their autism is often externally expressed, whereas girls tend to conceal or internalise what is worrying them.

 

Masking or camouflaging: what do they mean?

When a girl ‘masks’ or ‘camouflages’ she essentially modifies her behaviour. This might be in an attempt to fit in with her peers, for example copying the behaviour or voice of a classmate, in order to be similar to the group. It may also be her way of hiding her autism or the anxiety she is feeling in order to appear calm on the surface. This means girls can spend a lot of time covering up their emotions, which must be extremely exhausting (and as teachers we certainly know how this feels!)

In fact, girls with autism are often very good at making eye contact and holding conversations, which you don’t typically expect with autism. And unlike boys, their special interest subjects tend to be similar to their ‘neurotypical’ peers, for example horses or boy bands, making it difficult at times to spot autistic traits.

 

A few tips for including learners with autism: 

1) Listen

Every girl (and boy) with autism is different. They often say their brains are wired differently so they may learn in unconventional ways. It is important to remember that what works for one learner might not necessarily work for another.

2) Support

Statistically, learners with special educational needs are more likely to develop mental health issues. As we know, there are a multitude of pressures on young girls, so openly discussing mental health and managing anxiety is essential.

3) Strengthen

Girls with autism tend to struggle with self-worth and self-belief. Helping girls become aware of their sensory issues and emotions and how to regulate these helps them understand themselves and others.

4) Talk, talk, talk…

As teachers, we’re pretty good at this one! In order to overcome the lack of knowledge in this area, we need to discuss autism. We need to speak to colleagues and parents/carers, search for and share information, but most importantly we need to talk to our students and learn from them.

 

Practical activities (expanded from Into the Classroom: Special Educational Needs)

REMEMBER: Not every activity works for every student, it’s important to get to know your learners and understand what works best for them.

1) You’re the expert

Ask students to prepare a presentation on their special interest subject. Ask the rest of the class to ask questions. If learners don’t feel comfortable presenting to the class, why not get them to video and edit a short clip? Or run a Facebook Live, you could direct the conversation, but this may be less daunting for those who are anxious as they can join from elsewhere.

2) Name the feeling

Make pairs of cards with 1) photos of people expressing different feelings (according to students’ age and ability and 2) cards with the words that best describe the feelings.

Older students can play this game as ‘pelmanism’.

3) Pelmanism: Create pairs of cards where one card has a picture of a vocabulary item, and the other has the written word. Students place the cards face down on the table and take it in turns trying to find a matching pair by turning over two cards at a time. If players find a match, they keep it and have another go. If they don’t, they turn the cards face down again. Older students can practise homophones or homonyms, or match verbs with their tense forms.

 

Bonus activity: Tell me a story

Social stories and/or comic strips are a great way to engage learners. They can help children with autism in a number of ways, from teaching them how to behave in certain situations to developing their social skills. Why not get your students to draw or design stories of their own?

 

Want to find out more about autism and special educational needs? Get your hands on our Inclusive Practices position paper:

Download the position paper

 


References

  • Autism.org.uk.(2020) Autism Support – Leading UK Charity – National Autistic Society [online]. Available at: https://www.autism.org.uk
  • Carpenter, B, Happé, F, and Egerton, J. (2019) Girls and Autism: Educational, Family and Personal Perspectives. New York: Routledge
  • Delaney, M. (2016) Into the Classroom: Special Educational Needs. 1st ed: Oxford University Press
  • Sutherland, R, Hodge, A, Bruck, S, Costley, D, Klieve, H (2017) Parent-reported differences between school-aged girls and boys on the autism spectrum. Volume: 21 issue 6: 785-794.

 

Leanne Atherton is a further education lecturer with experience of teaching both in the UK and internationally. She qualified in post 16 education at City of Bath College and has ELT experience teaching young learners in Thailand and aboriginal students in Australia. She holds a TEFL qualification, a PCGE PCET and is currently studying for her Masters of Education (Special Educational Needs) in Oxford.


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Blended Learning: From Theory to Practice

blended learning

I have long been interested in ‘Blended Learning’ (BL). It remains a ‘buzz’ term in language teaching, although it means different things to different people. This blog post explores some key aspects of BL.

A good place to start unpacking the various definitions of BL is the ELTJ article ‘Key concepts in ELT: Blended Learning’ (2010). Common definitions include:

  • combining traditional teaching with e-learning
  • combining different methodologies
  • combining different technologies

Despite the range of definitions, it is generally understood that the term refers to a course which combines face-to-face (f2f) classroom teaching with web-based learning. This is the definition I will use in my webinar: Blended Learning: from theory to practice.

Flexibility

BL is fascinating because the concept is based on being responsive to individual contexts. There is no single ‘solution’, but rather many ways to blend classroom teaching and online learning.

Flux

The term is constantly changing. The term ‘virtual blend’ has recently been applied to 100% online courses which use ‘face-to-face online’ teaching in ‘live’ webinars. New, somewhat exotic incarnations of BL have evolved, such as f2f + Virtual Reality (VR). Students away from the class use a headset to do further language practice which complements their lessons.

Why blend?

There are many reasons for transitioning to BL. One common reason is to combine the well-known positives of classroom teaching with the advantages of online learning, considered to be studying at your own pace, at a place of your choice; and ‘differentiation’ – using the online platform as a way of delivering personalized, individual learning.

‘Time’ is another frequently cited reason. There is simply not enough time for language learners to cover everything within the constraints of the class timetable. Indeed, some language areas are best suited to self-study, such as extensive reading and practising difficult phonemes.

Can BL save money? There is huge disagreement on this point. Many commercial organizations cite ‘cost-saving’ as a major argument for blending; however, schools who have moved part of the curriculum online often report additional and unexpected costs including remuneration for online moderation.

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges in setting up a BL course is that the course fails to satisfy anyone’s learning preference. The students who enjoy the class may not contribute to the knowledge building occurring in the online environment, while those who enjoy working online may dislike the time restrictions imposed by the timetable. Learners may not see the link between their lessons and online work. They sometimes perceive the online components to be of lesser value and fail to do the online work. Technical problems can prove de-motivating.

Which LMS?

In recent workshops, I have asked the question: “Which platform do you use?” The range of answers shows the immense diversity of what happens in classrooms around the world. Common is an ‘open-source’ platform like Moodle which is essentially empty unless you create and upload your own materials. Some private language schools have created their own LMS. If you use a coursebook, a sound entry point is the publisher platform, such as Oxford Online.

Comparing LMSs rarely compares ‘like for like’. The platform you know and love may well be disliked or unknown to a colleague. Much depends on your own preferences, familiarity and of course, your school.

The power of data

This summer, I taught with a publisher-produced platform linked to a coursebook. It included tracking tools which allowed me to see data on student performance, such as their scores for each exercise. It was quite a revelation for me, a classroom teacher, to see just what students do on the platform. I’m keen to share my insights in the webinar.

Success with BL

There are four critical factors in working towards a successful BL course appropriacy, complementarity, attitude and training:

  • Appropriacy

Successful BL teachers plan activities which are appropriate to each mode: classroom and online.

Imagine working on a controversial topic. It is appropriate to develop oral fluency in the classroom, through real-time discussion. It is appropriate to work on ‘critical thinking’ through an online forum, giving students more time to reflect, draft and re-compose their written arguments.

  • Complementarity

This refers to the genuine integration of the ‘in-class’ and ‘online’ elements. Sending students individual messages via the platform is a great way to personalise a printed activity in the student coursebook.

  • Attitude

“Apparently, we now have to use this learning platform, so here is your password!”

 This overheard comment evinces a disconnect between a teachers’ beliefs and their practice. The success of a BL course may well ultimately depend on both teachers and students holding positive beliefs about BL itself.

  • Teacher training

Both teachers and students need time to become familiar with online materials and procedures. Teacher training represents an investment in time and money, yet it is an essential factor in making BL work.

Do you run BL courses? If so, which platform do you use? What is your experience? 

The concept of BL is rich and multi-layered. As technology changes, so does BL. Nevertheless, no matter how fast the technology changes, it is principled pedagogy which lies at the heart of a good language course and underlies BL. I’m very much looking forward to exploring this fascinating, key concept in ELT and sharing ideas with teachers around the world.

Missed Pete’s Blended Learning webinar? Here’s a recording.

Please note – this article was written prior to the more widespread impact of the Coronavirus on schools and is therefore focused on blending online and classroom teaching.

Please visit our Learn at Home page to find online resources and activities to help teachers, parents and students get the most out of learning at home.


Pete Sharma is a Director of Pete Sharma Associates Ltd, a consultancy and training organisation: www.psa.eu.com  He works as a pre-sessional lecturer in EAP (English for Academic purposes) at Warwick University, UK. Pete has co-written many books on educational technology in ELT. Click here to visit Pete’s blog.


References

Sharma, P. (2010). Key Concepts in ELT: Blended learning. ELTJ, 64(4), 456-458

Sharma, P. and Barrett, B. (2018) Best Practices for Blended Learning (2018) Hove: Pavilion Publishing and Media Ltd

Whittaker, C., and Tomlinson, B. (Eds.). (2013). Blended learning in English language teaching: Course Design and Implementation London, UK: British Council.


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Assessment activities that help students show what they know | ELTOC 2020

Assessment Activities Most teachers include informal, ongoing assessment as an integral part of their lessons. Noticing what students know and don’t yet know helps us adapt our lessons and teaching strategies. Sometimes teachers hesitate to tell students when they are being assessed because they don’t want students to become anxious. However, if we present these assessment activities as a chance for students to see (and show us) how much they can do in English, they can be something that students look forward to.

Colin Finnerty writes about the importance of providing students with the ‘right level of challenge’ in formal assessment. This is equally important in informal assessment activities, especially in young learner classrooms where teachers are juggling students’ cognitive and physical development, language levels and global skills objectives. Matching assessment activities to student levels can make the difference between a student feeling like a success (and working enthusiastically toward even more success) and feeling like a failure (and giving up on English in frustration).

The simplest way to make sure that your assessments are at an appropriate challenge level is to repurpose activities students are already familiar with. Students can focus on the language or skill you are assessing rather than figuring out what it is that they are supposed to do.

In my ELTOC webinar, we’ll look at different types of activities to assess both language and global skills, but in this blog post, let’s look at how these activities might work for assessing writing. First language writing development commonly categorizes children as emergent, transitional, or fluent writers (Culham, 2005). In foreign language writing development, these levels are determined more by literacy level than by age, because children begin studying English at different ages, some are already literate in their first language, and some are coming from a first language that has a writing system very different English. While writing skills may develop a bit differently in a second or foreign language, the categories are still useful for describing stages of growth.

Assessment activities for pre-literate learners

At this stage, students don’t really write. They are typically developing phonemic awareness of English sounds, and perhaps developing awareness of how the English writing system differs from their own. While you can’t assess a skill they haven’t yet developed, you can give them a picture or photograph and ask them to tell you what they would write if they could. If you want something to add to a portfolio to document growth, you can also record them talking about their pictures.

My name is Max English Assessment

Watch the video on YouTube. Created using Chatterpix.

What is Ririko showing us that she can do? She uses the English she knows in a creative way to talk about the dog, including using a relatively low-frequency word from a phonics lesson (bone). It’s easy to identify areas I might want to focus on in class, I also want Ririko to see what she is able to do so that she can learn to notice her own growth.

Assessment activities for emergent writers

Emergent writers can write with a model that provides a lot of structure, for example personalizing sentences from lessons, like I can _____ in the following example. In writing, they still convey most of their meaning through drawings. To assess their progress, you can ask them to draw a picture and then write using the model to bring the writing challenge to an appropriate level.

Emergent Writers Assessment

Kanna clearly understands that I can ___ is prompting her to talk about abilities. She was able to correctly spell two relatively challenging words (swim and jump) because those were important to her. They helped her communicate something meaningful about her own abilities.

Assessment activities for transitional writers

Students at this level can write somewhat independently when using familiar patterns and words, but often use invented spelling. They may still need illustrations to support what they’re trying to communicate in writing. An appropriate assessment activity is to ask them to draw a simple picture and write what they can about it.

Transitional Writers Assessment

Interestingly, Natsuru can spell ‘like’ correctly on a spelling test and uses plurals with the verb in practice activities but loses that accuracy when she’s writing to communicate. But I am impressed that she created a conversation for her drawing, especially since she hasn’t been explicitly taught any of the conventions that go with writing dialogue.

Assessment activities for fluent writers

Fluent writers can do a lot. They can organize their thoughts in a logical order and their writing usually has a beginning, middle, and end. They are willing to take risks with structures and words they aren’t confident with. Give them a specific topic, and a time limit, and ask them to write as much as they can during that time. Satoshi’s class was asked to write about something that happened during their summer vacation.

Fluent Writers Assessment

Errors like Satoshi’s with prepositions and verbs show his developing understanding of the English language system. These types of errors are sometimes called ‘developmental’ errors “because they are similar to those made by children acquiring English as their first language” (Lightbown and Spada, 2013). I can also see that Satoshi is ready to learn how to use transitions like on the fifth day in his writing. He hasn’t explicitly learned how to use ordinals for telling a story in chronological order so I’m happy to see him include them. I’m thrilled that he was willing to write about something that was meaningful to him, even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to do it perfectly.

If we create a learning environment where assessment activities are opportunities for students to see their own growth, we can also help them learn how to become reflective learners.


Barbara spoke further on this topic at ELTOC 2020. Stay tuned to our Facebook and Twitter pages for more information about upcoming professional development events from Oxford University Press.

You can catch-up on past Professional Development events using our webinar library.

These resources are available via the Oxford Teacher’s Club.

Not a member? Registering is quick and easy to do, and it gives you access to a wealth of teaching resources.


Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto is co-author of the bestselling Let’s Go series, and director of the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi.pro). She is an English Language Specialist with the U.S. State Department and has conducted teacher training workshops in Asia, Europe, the Americas, and online.


References

Culham, R. (2005). The 6+1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for the Primary Grades. New York: Scholastic.

Lightbown, P. and Spada, N. (2013). How Languages are Learned. Fourth edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.