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Learn English with Virtual Environments | Hidekazu Shoto

Students playing computer games to learn english

Communication with native English language speakers is one of the most effective ways to learn English, and using technology makes this possible. I teach English based on my “collaborative-communication model”, one that’s very effective for motivating my students. I use a wealth of technologies with my class such as Skype, Minecraft, and AI robots. I find them useful for not only teaching English, but for teaching 21st century skills as well!

Virtual environments

From my experience, virtual environments can be very effective language learning tools for students of English; they allow students young and old to experience new worlds, communicate, make friends, and build relationships. There are a wealth of tools out there that you can use, but I’m happy to say that I’ve had real success with my students using a combination of Skype and Minecraft (a game many students may already be familiar with). These digital environments offer students engaging opportunities to use English with native speakers and to use the language to achieve a common goal, such as constructing a digital building. Through these activities, students also develop their 21st Century Skills of communication, collaboration, imagination, and logical thinking. These four skills are necessary assets for learners that will help them to succeed in the modern world.

A typical lesson

Typically, students grouped together to make a team of four people, and they are given a task. I might ask the groups to construct a building, like the Kyoto World Heritage Site in Minecraft, before asking them to introduce it to students from overseas. To build something in Minecraft, students need to exercise their imagination, and think logically about the build and their resources. Each student is then given a role; Minecraft Leader, Programming Leader, English Leader, and Building Designer. Finally, they are given a deadline.

Most groups start off by discussing a plan, each student offering an opinion. These discussions continue throughout the duration of the build. Once completed, the group welcome overseas visitors to their digital environment, giving them a tour of their build and gathering their opinions on their work, all in English!

The simplicity and global appeal of Minecraft make it extraordinarily easy to introduce to the class. As a tool, it allowed me to break down subject barriers, combining English, 21st Century Skills, and programming. This is something I’m especially proud of achieving as from 2020 in Japan, the Ministry of Education plans to make ‘English’ and ‘Programming’ compulsory across all Primary schools. The techniques I’ve described combine these two educational programmes, which is great for teachers! And through the “collaborative-communication model”, students can improve their English proficiency in an engaging and motivating way. 


Hidekazu Shoto was born in Osaka, Japan, and is an English Teacher and Head of ICT at Ritsumeikan Primary School. After graduate school, he joined Ritsumeikan Academy as an English teacher, introducing ICT and technology into his English classes.

Hidekazu Shoto was a top 10 Finalist for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2019. Here’s why!


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Creating an inclusive learning environment | Dr Bimali Indrarathne

Inclusivity in the classroom

Inclusive education is defined as “recognition of the need to work towards ‘schools for all’ – institutions which include everybody, celebrate differences, support learning, and respond to individual needs” (United Nations Children’s Fund, 2011, p. 3). When inclusive practices are introduced into a school system, usually teachers are trained and they are expected to make necessary changes in the teaching-learning process. However, teacher training itself cannot create an inclusive environment in the school. All relevant parties such as school administration, parents, and other social institutions should also play an active role. Therefore, it is important to understand how these different groups contribute to create an inclusive environment. 

Challenges in creating an inclusive environment

Negative attitudes and lack of awareness: One of the main challenges in introducing inclusive practices into an education system is the negative attitudes and/or misconceptions of teachers, school management, parents and society on issues such as disabilities. This is due to their lack of awareness of such issues. Research in different parts of the world has shown evidence of teachers’ (e.g. Alawadh, 2016) and parents’ (Scorgie, 2015) lack of awareness of learning difficulties such as dyslexia. A recent study (Indrarathne, in press) has shown that English language teachers find it difficult to implement inclusive practices to accommodate learners with dyslexia at classroom level due to lack of support from their colleagues, parents and school management (or the education system).

Poor collaboration: If educational changes are to be successfully implemented, there should be healthy and regular collaboration between professionals within the education system (Alur & Timmons, 2009). For example, when inclusive practices are introduced into a school system to accommodate learners with learning difficulties, there need to be changes introduced to the assessments as well. However, in certain contexts, assessments are designed by external bodies and teachers have minimal influence on the decisions taken by those who design assessments. On such occasions, teachers are in a dilemma as changes that they introduce may have negative consequences on learners when it comes to assessments. 

Lack of resources: Lack of physical resources (e.g. sufficient classroom space, facilities for preparing learning aids), lack of awareness-raising programmes aimed at teachers, principals, parents and society at large, lack of specific teaching-learning materials/resources and lack of administrative support within the school system can also be challenging when creating an inclusive environment.

Ways to overcome challenges

Awareness raising: One of the most important steps that need to be taken when creating an inclusive environment is awareness-raising. This should be aimed at:

  • Everybody in the education management system including teachers, principals, teacher educators, policy planners and administrators. This can be realised through either short-term or long-term programmes and by including components related to inclusion into existing CPD programmes.
  • Parents – both of learners with and without special needs. It is important that parents of learners without special needs understand the reasons for accommodating learners with special needs and parents of children with special needs understand which accommodations their children need. Involving the parents in creating an inclusive environment will bring more positive results. This can be done through regular discussions with parents, through parents’ meetings and through other means such as leaflets.
  • Society – as social institutions need to fully participate in creating an inclusive environment, it is important to design ways and means to reach them. Awareness- raising programmes such as newspaper articles, leaflets, short TV/radio programmes, public talks and seminars would be useful in this context. At school level, events such as school visits and open days can be arranged.
  • Learners – it is also vital to make learners aware that some of their peers need special accommodations in the learning process.

Agenda for creating an inclusive culture: The institution needs to identify the steps that need to be taken to create an inclusive environment and design a programme to realise it. This needs to include a clear vision, short-term and long-term goals and ways to make changes sustainable. This should be designed in collaboration with all parties (i.e. teachers, administrators, students and parents) and should also be communicated to all parties concerned.

Collaboration and communication: It is important to create an environment where all relevant parties within the school system (i.e. teachers, administrators, students and parents) engage in regular communication and collaborate in creating an inclusive environment.

Legislation: Eleweke and Rodda (2002) identify the absence of enabling legislation as a major problem in implementing inclusive education particularly in developing countries. Therefore, a country/education system needs some enabling legislation of inclusive practices, for example, giving extra time in exams for learners with learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

Resources: Providing teachers with necessary training and physical resources to implement inclusive practices and providing learners with special needs the resources that they need would make the school environment more inclusive.

I spoke about creating and Inclusive Classroom at ELTOC 2019, click here to watch the recording!


Dr Bimali Indrarathne is a lecturer in the Department of Education, University of York. She researches second language acquisition/pedagogy and teacher education. She has been involved in several teacher training projects on dyslexia and inclusive practices in South Asia. She is also an educator on the Lancaster University’s MOOC on Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching.


References

Alawadh, A. S. (2016). Teachers perceptions of the challenges related to provision of services for learners with specific learning difficulties (dyslexia) in Kuwaiti government primary schools. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of York.

Alur, M., & Timmons, V. (Eds.). (2009). Inclusive education across cultures: Crossing boundaries, sharing ideas. India: SAGE Publications India.

Eleweke, C., & Rodda, M. (2002). The challenge of enhancing inclusive education in developing countries. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 6(2), 113-126.

Indrarathne, B. (In press). Accommodating learners with dyslexia in ELT in Sri Lanka: teachers’ knowledge, attitudes and challenges. TESOL Quarterly.

Scorgie, K. (2015). Ambiguous belonging and the challenge of inclusion: parent perspectives on school membership. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 20(1), 35-50.

United Nations Children’s Fund (2011) The right of children with disabilities to education: a rights-based approach to inclusive education. Geneva, Switzerland: UNICEF Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEECIS).


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Enquiry Based Learning in the Primary classroom | Derry Richardson

The term ‘Enquiry Based Learning’ (EBL) was first coined back in the early 1900s when two esteemed psychologists, Vygotsky and Piaget, took a closer look at the mechanics of how we learn, or more accurately, how children learn.

This surfaced a debate: is learning something you do, or something you’re taught?

Around 1936 Piaget undertook a systematic study of cognitive development. Piaget was intrigued by the reasons children gave for wrong answers to questions that required logical thinking. He believed that these incorrect answers revealed striking differences between the thinking of adults and children. What Piaget sought to understand was the way in which fundamental concepts like the very idea of number, time, quantity, causality, justice and so on emerged.

‘Discovery learning’ was one outcome derived from his work in the 1960s. The idea that children learn best through doing and actively exploring was seen as central to the transformation of the primary school curriculum in England.

Although crucially the work of these two great minds contributes to the EBL practices we see today, it was Vygotsky’s work which is more recognisable in the primary classroom today.

According to Vygotsky, adults are an important source of cognitive development. Sometimes also referred to as ‘The More Knowledgeable Other’ (MKO), they have a higher ability or a better understanding of the subject being investigated/ researched. While it is implied this is the role of the adult Piaget stressed the importance of peer to peer support and collaboration on successful learning.

The ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) is a crucial concept linking together this work to form the basis of EBL we recognise in today’s classrooms: The ZPD is the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner, such as a more knowledgeable peer, an expert, via scaffold or specific instruction.


Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development – where we set the learning for most progress.

How does EBL benefit you as a teacher and facilitator of learning?

When you become a facilitator for children to take responsibility for what and how they learn, you help them gain a deeper understanding of the work they are covering, as well as building and developing skills required for tackling issues that will arise in the real world. Through this facilitation, you will be encouraging them not to just seek information and facts based on the initial outcomes, but to search further into their own interests and relate these to real life contexts.

As they take more ownership of their learning, you will see an increase in ownership and participation. They get to see the work as more relevant to their needs, which will enthuse and inspire them to apply themselves more in lessons.

EBL allows for independent and differentiated learning, group and peer-to-peer, meaning the children are able to work at their own pace, realise their own abilities and challenge in a positive learning environment, when well established and integral to the teaching and learning.


Derry Richardson is an outstanding classroom practitioner and leading mathematics teacher, with experience teaching across the primary phases and early years. Currently, she is the Head of Professional Development for Oxford University Press’s Education Division.


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Selecting, Adapting and Designing Materials for Learners with Dyslexia | Jon Hird

ELT publishers are more and more producing material appropriate for learners with dyslexia. This mainly consists of ‘dyslexic-friendly’ reading texts and tests, which are available from teachers’ resource sites. However, to gain maximum benefit from such material, it is important for us as teachers to have an awareness of what dyslexia actually is, how it can impact on learning, and the implications of this for material design.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is primarily a result of issues with working memory, which put simply is the ability to hold and recall information long enough to perform an operation using this information. There may also be issues with other related functions such as focus (avoiding attention displacement and distraction) and effort (remembering to remember). As a result, the fundamental issue for most learners with dyslexia is difficulty processing and remembering information. Other typical characteristics include difficulties with maintaining concentration and remaining on task. As well as affecting many everyday activities, dyslexia affects general learning and in particular the acquisition of literacy skills.

Issues with literacy

Literacy issues tend to manifest initially mainly at word level in terms of word recognition and spelling. However, in most cases, a typical learner with dyslexia will over time ‘catch up’ with his or her non-dyslexic peers in terms of word recognition and spelling. However literacy issues may remain, but are more likely to be with sentence and then paragraph and essay level processing, planning, and organisation. Reading can also be hindered in a number of other ways. A dyslexic learner may find his or her eye drawn to other letters or words, or other distracting elements on the page, and he or she may easily lose their place in a text. Long multi-clause sentences may be problematic in terms of maintaining focus and remembering and processing the content. And the actual design, layout and font may be distracting and make the text difficult to follow and process.

Material selection, design, and adaptation

Modifying and adapting page design and the layout and format of texts and other language exercises can be a real help for a learner with dyslexia. However, while the majority of dyslexic learners are likely to have broadly similar issues, an adaptation to material that may work for one learner may not work for another and indeed may even have a negative effect. For example, for every dyslexic learner who finds images or other graphics on the page helpful in providing context, there may be another for whom they are a distraction. But however we adapt the material, one key principle that will benefit almost all dyslexic learners is to reduce the processing load. This can be done in a number of ways such as providing the learner with shorter and simplified reading texts and reducing the word count for their written work. For language activities and exercises, we can reduce the number of items in an exercise and/or the number of exercises or activities the student needs to do. We can also simplify the items by removing any extraneous content and focusing more just on key language or by modifying the item in other ways. Changing the exercise or activity type or its format can also help.

In my ELTOC webinar, we considered in more detail approaches to the design of materials such as texts, exercises and tests suitable for dyslexic learners of English. We looked at examples of available dyslexic-friendly ELT materials (such as those below) and also considered how we as teachers can identify potential difficulties with material and if necessary adapt existing materials and produce our own.

Click here to watch a recording of my webinar!

High Spirits, Oxford University Press.
High Spirits, Oxford University Press.
Grammar and Vocabulary for the Real World, Oxford University Press.
English Grammar for Italian Students with Dyslexia, Oxford University Press.

Jon Hird teaches English at the University of Oxford and is a teacher-trainer and ELT materials writer, with a particular interest in grammar, EAP and dyslexia, and learning English. As well as adapting material for learners with dyslexia, his recent books include Oxford Learner’s Pocket Verbs and Tenses, Oxford EAP, Grammar and Vocabulary for the Real World and English Grammar for Italian Students with Dyslexia. Jon has a dyslexic son.


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Where there is well-being… there will be learning

Being a language teacher is not an easy job… I know that now. But, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, when I first started out as a teacher, I really did think that it was going to be easy. Of course, I knew that I had a lot to learn about the technical side of language teaching, but I was confident that with a little experience, I would be able to master this in time. And when it came to the personal, emotional side to teaching, I was confident that I was a ‘natural’ and that I did not need any real training or work in this area. The point of this confession—and its relevance to my talk—is that I just wasn’t prepared for the long haul, the inevitable bumps in the road. And this lack of preparedness—resulting in feelings of stress and low professional well-being—affected my teaching. There were times when I began my working week feeling like the teacher in this photo.

In my webinar, I want to think about the importance of teacher well-being in the language classroom and consider practical steps teachers can take to enhance their feelings of well-being. I will begin by keeping in mind the words of the famous psychologist Kurt Lewin, who held the view that “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.” This means that I will look at some of the major recent developments in thinking about well-being, and in particular, I want to focus on the concept of mindsets, which is most closely associated with the American psychologist Carol Dweck. Mindsets have been receiving a lot of popular and positive attention in recent years, but most of this has focused on the role of mindsets in learning. In my webinar, I want to turn the tables and look at mindsets in teaching.

At its simplest, the concept of mindsets is based around two distinct worldviews. Some people tend to believe in the fixed nature of humans, that we are all essentially born with certain talents and characteristics and there is little we can do to change them. In contrast, other people see more potential for growth and change; if we work hard enough at something we will eventually succeed. Of course, people may have different mindsets for different areas of their lives, but in education, most of the discussion around mindsets has concentrated on ideas of natural ability and the power to grow through sustained, focused efforts. But what about teachers and teaching? Do mindsets play a role here? I will argue that an understanding of our ‘teaching mindsets’ can help our overall sense of professional well-being.

Teaching is about so much more than the simple transfer of mental knowledge but the interpersonal side to teaching receives relatively little attention, leaving teachers feeling that they lack control or the power to change things. While many teachers are very supportive of growth mindsets for academic learning, they can have very fixed mindsets when it comes to the stressful aspects of teaching. And one reason for this is that we rarely discuss these topics in a way that empowers teachers. One aim of my webinar is to get teachers thinking and talking about what they can do to develop their own growth mindsets. As a concrete example, let’s take the area of time management. One of the major causes of stress for teachers is the feeling of being pulled in several directions, always under pressure to meet deadlines, of simply not having enough hours in the day. However, teachers often see poor time management as a personality feature, just ‘who I am’, and something they cannot change.

I hope to show that there are simple practical steps teachers can take to reduce feelings of stress, to feel more positive and enthusiastic about their work, to essentially change themselves. I also hope to stress the point that thinking about teacher well-being is not an optional extra, but it is an essential responsibility for practicing teachers. Thinking about oneself is not selfish. Professional well-being makes teachers perform to a higher level, it encourages learners to take on bigger challenges, and it results in improved learning outcomes.


Stephen Ryan has been involved in language education for over 25 years and for most of that time he has been based in Japan. He is currently a professor in the School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University in Tokyo. His research and publications cover various aspects of psychology in language learning, including the award-winning OUP book Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching, co-authored with Marion Williams and Sarah Mercer.