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Assessing in the primary classroom

We often talk about the teaching-learning process as if it was just one thing, but we know that even though they are closely related, they are two different processes. Assessment is a third process that is intimately related to these two, so I’d like to say just a bit about learning and teaching first, and then take a look at assessment.

Understanding learning

In recent years we have all been presented with workshops, ideas, and materials that are aimed at helping to bring about changes in the way we teach, leaving behind the very “teacher-centered” classrooms of the past and working towards increasing the “learner-centeredness” that educators (and most teachers) believe will lead to greater learning.  After all, education is about learning, not what the teacher already knows. 

This change reflects a better understanding of the learning process; learning, and especially language learning, does not come about as a result of a series of rewards and punishments for certain behavior. It involves a mental effort to comprehend new information – words and structures – and connect the new to what we already know. We learn by building on our previous knowledge and using that knowledge to make sense of the new knowledge.

Changes in teaching

This understanding of learning as a construction of knowledge on the part of the student, and not a simple transmission of the knowledge from the teacher to the learner, has changed the way we teach.  We don’t base the class on rote memorization, we try to scaffold our students’ learning through activating their prior knowledge of the topic, structuring the learning tasks so that they lead to improved development of understanding.

If there are changes in our teaching practice then necessarily the way we assess the learning that is going on needs to evolve and change, also.  Reliance on an end of unit written test is not going to be the best indicator of what has been learned.

The assessment process

Assessment is how a teacher gathers information about what the students know, what they can do, their attitudes and beliefs, and what they have learned.   Gathering this information is important for a variety of reasons.  First of all, we need to inform the parents, the administration, and society in general of how much learning is going on in our classrooms, we could call this an administrative reason. 

In addition, this information is of key importance for us as teachers – it can be reliable feedback on our teaching techniques and strategies.  Does our teaching match the way our students are learning? 

Finally, and probably most importantly, assessment is a way for students to receive feedback on how well they are learning.

Assessing learning

Teachers assess before even teaching anything to have an understanding of what the students already know, both what is correct and what misconceptions they might have.  This helps by allowing the teacher to better plan the lessons – finding a starting point for the new information.  It helps the students prepare to learn new information by getting them to think about what they already know.  Putting this information up on a K-W-L chart is a good way to let everyone show what they know and find out what others know.

As the class is progressing it is important to continue to assess, to ensure that students are understanding and making sense of what is going on in the class. Asking students to put into their own words what has been going on, or explain to a classmate, while the teacher is monitoring, are just two ways to check this.

After teaching takes place there are still many options for assessing besides giving your students a test. One way is the use of portfolios.  Portfolios are examples of use or production of language that are chosen by the student as representing their best effort.

Project work is another way to assess – not only does it integrate the language skills, but it also gives students an opportunity to use their XXI century skills too.  Critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity are all incorporated in project work.  Project work allows students to see more real-world applications of what they are learning.

Using a project or a portfolio for assessment means that we as teachers need to inform students very clearly of the criteria that will be used. Having a rubric that will allow the teacher to identify how well those criteria have been met gives the assessment process more reliability.

Conclusions

Assessment is sometimes the part of the teaching-learning process that is not discussed much. We teachers put a lot of time into planning our lessons, finding or preparing the materials to be used, making sure our instructions are clear, and in general working hard to create interesting and engaging classes. Using the appropriate assessment techniques to see if all this work has been worth the effort is just as important.

I encourage you to venture beyond “tests” and try a variety of assessment techniques.


Barbara Bangle is originally from the United States but has lived and worked in Mexico for many years. She is the former director of the CELe language institute at the University of the State of Mexico (UAEMex), and has spent the past 35 years both teaching English and working in the field of Teacher Education.

In addition to currently being an academic consultant for Oxford University Press, she has been a Speaking Examiner for the Cambridge University exams, and is co-author of several English language teaching books. In addition to working free-lance for Oxford University Press, she currently holds a full-time teaching position at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Mexico.


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Eight Ways to Use Comic Strips in the Classroom

Comic strips provide a unique and exciting way to engage learners in the world of English. Check out these eight tips for making and using them in your classroom.

1) Making comic strips as a group activity

Creating a comic strip is a great group activity. Some learners can write the story, some can draw, and some can colour. Learners should speak in English and work together. Start by teaching them functional phrases like “Can I do the drawings?” and “I’d like to write the story”.

2) Using comic strips to teach vocabulary

If you’ve just given a lesson about shopping, learners can write a comic strip about ‘going to the shops’. If you’ve just taught them to use the future tense, they can write a comic strip about ‘making plans’. Encourage learners to describe what happens in each frame of their comic strip in English. They should make story notes before they start drawing.

3) Creating fun characters

Keep your students engaged by helping them to create interesting characters for their comic strips. Try asking questions about their characters like “Has he got a long or a short nose?”, “Is she wearing a shirt or a jumper?”, and “Is he happy or grumpy?”

Why not ask them to create a ‘character guide’ before drawing their comic strips? This could be a notebook where they design and describe every character using key vocabulary.

4) Drawing and colouring a comic strip

Your learners should begin by drawing the comic strip frames, speech balloons, and characters in pencil. They should then draw over these lines in ink. Afterwards, they should write words in pencil in the speech balloons. You can check these for spelling and grammar before they draw over them in ink. When the ink is dry, learners can erase the pencil lines and colour in the comic strip.

Are your students good with technology? They could also create a comic strip digitally by taking photos and adding speech bubbles with Photoshop!

5) Using comic strips to practice speaking skills

Once your learners have finished creating their comic strips, there are many follow-up activities you can use them for in the classroom. For example, you could ask each group of learners to act out their comic strips in front of the class. Each learner should choose a character and practice saying their lines before performing them with their group. This will help learners practice their speaking skills.

You could also get students to perform this activity with comic strips from a coursebook. If each group changes three words in the strip before they act it out, listening students can play ‘spot the difference’ between the text in the comic strip and the words they hear.

6) Using comic strips as reading tasks

You can use your learners’ comic strips to create a set of unique reading tasks. Ask each group to create a set of true or false questions and comprehension activities to go with their comic strips. Now you can share these out amongst the class, or save them to use later.

7) Creating more activities with comic strips

Your learners can prepare even more skills work and language tasks to go with their comic strips. For example, they can design tasks like ‘Match these six words with their synonyms in the comic strip’ or ‘Find the opposite of these seven words in the comic strip’ or ‘Look at these eight words and find places in the comic to add them’. Groups can then exchange their finished comic strips and tasks.

Why not try using coursebook comic strips to create even more fun activities. Try creating a comprehension task by photocopying a comic strip and cutting out the text from the speech balloons. Now you can give your learners the pictures from the comic strip in the correct order, and the text in a jumbled order. Ask them to match the correct text with the correct pictures and put the story together!

8) Entering the Project Explore Competition

If you like these ideas and want another way to enjoy comic strips in your classroom, try entering The Project Explore Competition!

Engage your learners and win great prizes by asking them to complete the story of The Ancient Statue with their very own comic strip!

Enter now!


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Well-being – How teachers can support themselves with meditation

Relax!

Meditation is a strange spiritual practise, sitting in funny yoga postures and humming or chanting mantras, right? How on earth can that be of any help to teachers? This was not an uncommon response I used to get when teachers were first introduced to the idea of meditation.

Thankfully nowadays, perceptions of meditation have changed, schools and teachers are embracing it as a highly successful way for improving wellbeing. Meditation can help in relation to a word we sadly hear too often when talking about teaching; stress.

Demands, targets, new initiatives, and behaviour issues all generate stress for teachers. The Educational Support Partnership charity (UK) has recently claimed that over two-thirds of teachers say their job has adversely affected their mental health.

The effects of stress

While short periods of stress are inevitable for most of us, it is prolonged and constant stress that can have detrimental effects on our physical and mental health. Most of us have heard of the “fight or flight” response. When our bodies are exposed to danger or a threat (physical or perceived) our bodies create an adrenaline rush to get us out of danger. The hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine are released from the adrenal glands resulting in increased blood pressure, faster pulse, faster breathing, and increased blood flow to the muscles. All of which are needed to help us escape from danger. However, our bodies aren’t very good at distinguishing between actual danger and the (mostly un-hazardous) challenges we face in our daily lives, so the same response is triggered.

If we experience this fight or flight response over a long period of time, it can take its toll on our physical and mental health. Long term stress can cause cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

Counteracting the effects of stress

So, before we all get totally depressed thinking about stress, let’s look at how we can counteract these affects.

It is vital to remember the old adage “You can’t pour from an empty jug”.  Teachers can’t give what they haven’t got. They need to take care of themselves first. As teachers, we often can’t change the pressures or demands on us, but we can change how we deal with them. Unsurprisingly, one of the most effective ways to combat the stress response is to elicit the relaxation response.

Easier said than done you may be thinking. We don’t all have the time to relax, as relaxation activities are sometimes time-consuming and expensive. You’ll be pleased to learn then that the relaxation response can be elicited in a variety of ways, including through meditation techniques.

Adding meditation to your everyday activities can be a remarkably successful way of de-stressing, and through regular practice, can reduce the emotional and physical consequences of stress.

What is meditation?

Meditation comes in many forms and there are numerous techniques to choose from. To clarify, meditation is simply having a relaxed awareness of the present moment. Everyone has experienced this but maybe has not recognised it as meditation. It is those times when you are fully involved in an activity and yet relaxed and aware of what is happening around you. People experience it through sport, or movement sometimes called “being in the zone”, others experience it while painting or being creative, while cooking, singing, dancing, even cleaning. It can also happen when we are more passive, sitting by a river watching the water flow past, watching the moving clouds, or on the beach watching the sea coming in.

Like any good language learner knows, practice makes perfect. As teachers we explain to students that learning English does not happen overnight, they have to keep on using the new language and practising it. The same is true for meditation. It is like a muscle, the more we use it, the stronger it gets. A single silent sitting mediation before a class isn’t going to be a cure all for all the demands placed on you. However regular meditation can act as a strong foundation on which teachers can build healthier social-emotion skills.

#MyEltoc19


Ushapa Fortescue Ushapa has worked as a teacher trainer around the world. Soon after becoming a teacher, Ushapa was introduced to meditation and for the last 14 years, alongside the teacher training Ushapa has spent time visiting, living and working in meditation centres around the world. Ushapa loves engaging and encouraging teachers so they can pass on a love of language learning to their students.


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How to work with learners with SEBD (social, emotional, and behavioural difficulties) in the classroom | Annette Igel

Where’s the turn off button?

Over the past couple of years, I have been working intensively with learners with SEBD, and it is not always the child with the most boisterous and loud behaviour that causes problems in the classroom.

Three cases

Take Katrin*, for example, who is a very quiet girl and she does not cause any problems in class. That is if she attends class at all or takes part while she is in the classroom. Over the last year her behaviour has changed dramatically. From being able to attend lessons without any major issues towards missing whole weeks of school. Due to severe anxiety she does not participate or come to school without her mother and stays in the classroom (or at least in the spare room attached to the classroom). She rarely sits at her place but might choose to sit at an extra table with her mother.  Towards her mother, she often uses quite an aggressive tone, as soon as her mother is out of sight, she descends into a meltdown.

Then there is Tom* who is at least two years behind his classmates in his social and behavioural development. His behaviour often resembles that of a pre-school learner though he is in 4th grade. If he puts his mind to a task, he can focus and work quite well, and his knowledge of vocabulary is at the upper end of the class. Unfortunately, he cannot work well in pairs and groups over a period of time and often pulls himself out of activities and disturbs others, often together with Jim*.

Jim has been officially diagnosed with SEBD and needs to spend several weeks a year in the children’s psychiatric ward. He is a learner with a very short concentration span who only works one-on-one with a teacher as he needs strong emotional support. Then he shows the ability to at least work on tasks even if slower than most other learners. In situations where the learners role play, mingle activities, and other free tasks, he withdraws himself and starts playing around, disturbing others, often together with Tylor*. The other learners are very reluctant to have him in their groups.

These are just three children I have in my English classes at a primary school in Hamburg, Germany.  

They are all in the same class and of course there are other learners with similar issues in the other classes, as all schools in Hamburg are supposed to follow an inclusive approach.

But how can you as a teacher juggle all this, especially when you do not have an assistant teacher?

What is SEBD?

It is not easy to find an umbrella to cover the immense variation that occurs in SEBD as is obvious from the three cases described. Marie Delaney (2016) gives the following characteristics of problematic behaviour to differentiate it from misbehaviour.

‘We use SEBD to describe problematic behaviour which

  • is severe
  • isn’t age appropriate
  • happens frequently
  • occurs in different situations.’

Typical behaviour includes learners being disruptive, challenging (not only towards the teacher), hyperactive and restless, but also as the case of Katrin shows, withdrawn. This does not mean, however, that they are not able to cope in the classroom, as they have to learn strategies to cope with situations that might trigger their negative behaviour.

Recommended strategies

Strategies which can be used with all learners but are very useful when working with learners with SEBD:

  • Be positive, and do not take the child’s behaviour personally.
  • Praise positive behaviour to encourage them.
  • Have clear reminders you can use in class for each learner, such as a little note stuck on their desk.
  • Give them the opportunity to have some time out when it is getting too much.
  • Show a real interest in the learners.
  • Get all stakeholders on board, including other teachers, parents, classmates, the child of course, and an assistant or special education teacher if you have one.
  • Decide together with the child what strategies can be followed when they feel stressed, anxious and when something triggers their slip into their negative behaviour.
  • Be supportive but also show them when they cross the borders.

How to cope with all of this when you are alone in the classroom

First of all, you are not the only teacher facing learners with SEBD. Talk to colleagues, support each other and think of strategies that you could use, when certain situations arise, and not only the ones that affect you. This also helps the individual learner as they can sense the system and will feel more supported and safer in the classroom.  There may come the moment when one of your learners actually comes up to you and says: ‘With you, I feel much safer.’ as happened at the end of a school year during which I had been working intensively with one boy with SEBD who had slowly learned to better control his anger and aggression.

That is when you know you have reached at least one of your struggling learners and that your efforts are rewarded.

*All names have been changed.


Anette Igel

Now based in Hamburg, Anette previously worked as a DoS, Teacher-Trainer, and a teacher specialising in English and German at International House Brno, in the Czech Republic between 2003 and 2016.  She is currently an English and Inclusion teacher at a Hamburg Primary school, and is also a tutor for IHC in the local area.


Bibliography:

Delaney, M. (2016) Special Educational Needs – into the classroom, Oxford: OUP


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There is no such thing as lazy! | Nick Thorner

It’s a word heard frequently in staff rooms whenever students are discussed. We don’t tend to use it when we’re writing their reports, but it’s often there on our lips as we compose them. The word in question is ‘lazy’, defined as being ‘unwilling to work or use energy’. It describes a feeling few of us are immune from. But perhaps it’s not a helpful way of understanding students, for three reasons.

Firstly, the word can weaken relationships between student and teacher. ‘Lazy’ is full of negative connotation and if we portray students in pejorative terms, we will resent having to teach them – no one likes helping the undeserving. Consequently, we ourselves begin to lose motivation. The problem doesn’t end there, of course. Even if we avoid calling our students ‘lazy’, they are very quick to pick on any negative attitudes we hold. There is nothing less likely to motivate a student than a demotivated teacher! So, thinking of our students as lazy creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

Second, the idea of laziness is disempowering and erodes hope of achievement. It is often seen as a fixed character trait, a flaw some people are just born with. Alternatively, we may even consider it a choice: ‘Don’t be lazy!’ we’ll exhort our students. Therefore, a student deemed ‘lazy’ will be perceived (or perceive themselves) either as incapable or naughty. Is this fair? Undoubtedly, some of us are born with passive dispositions or may acquire cynical beliefs about the value of effort. But others who seem lazy in the classroom seem anything but on a sports field or in a shopping centre. ‘Laziness’ can certainly have environmental causes.

And that brings us to our final point: that the word ‘lazy’ may prevent us from doing our jobs to the best of our ability. If we suggest through our language that lack of effort has no external causes, won’t it stop us looking for solutions? Once again, the word ‘lazy’ may make us lazy. Or perhaps we may be guilty of labelling students ‘lazy’ to escape the feeling that we ourselves could do more to motivate them? It’s a word that can seem a little too convenient at times. We might say it’s a little lazy to call someone lazy.

I therefore believe we need new ways to discuss students who lack the motivation to engage in learning behaviour. It was partly this conviction that led me in December of last year to join a research project alongside Japanese academic Keita Kikuchi into amotivation and demotivation, concepts that seemed closely linked to laziness. Over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly convinced that ‘lazy’ learners are often students who are struggling to meet psychological needs through learning and I believe there are a range of ways we can help them do this.

Nick Thorner

My early training experience included product training for primary and secondary courses in Italy. I have since given talks on extensive reading for OUP and on critical thinking and edtech for Oxdosa in recent years. For OUP, I’ve recently undertaken product training and motivation talks in Saudi and talked on motivation at IATEFL and Latvia in support of my most recent book Motivational Teaching. My experience as a writer and teacher continues to be in EAP (I teach humanities through ESL) and IELTS training. I have authored 2 IELTS course books and I have just decided to leave my IELTS examining post so can now participate in IELTS training. I am publishing an academic article in the new year on demotivation too.

Nick Thorner is also the author of ‘Motivational Teaching‘, a guide that explores how motivation works on an individual level and within a classroom environment.