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Making the ‘Impossible’ Possible – How to get your students writing

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Gareth Davies is a writer, teacher, teacher trainer, and storyteller. He has been in the ELT industry for 21 years teaching in Portugal, the UK, Spain and the Czech Republic. Since 2005 he has worked closely with Oxford University Press, delivering teacher training and developing materials. Gareth joins us today to preview his webinar ‘Making the Impossible Possible… How to get your students writing’.

Writing’s a Chore?

When I was on a recent short-term teaching assignment in Northern Spain, I decided to ask my students to do some creative writing. I gave them some prompts and asked them to write a story. Far from being a joyous activity, the students rolled their eyes. There was a lot of grumbling and sighing and the finished versions were no more than four or five lines long. They had written stories, but they had not written creatively. Why did my students have such a negative reaction to writing and how could I encourage them to enjoy it?

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Why is writing an essential 21st century communication device? Well, take a brief look around in any town in any country you will see people hunched over their phones or tablets or laptops sending texts, emails or WeChat messages. Writing is in vogue. But it is more than that. It is argued that encouraging students to create in a foreign language helps them to internalise it more effectively. This is because they need to think about how language works and what they know, in order to be able to use the language successfully.

Merril Swain argues that input, being taught the language and being asked to manipulate it in controlled exercises, is useful, but it doesn’t produce the cognitive processing required to internalise language. Whereas:

“output pushes learners to process language more deeply – with more mental effort… With output, the learner is in control. In speaking or writing, learners can ‘stretch’ their interlanguage[1] to meet communicative goals.”

  • Swain

[1]Interlanguage is the learner’s current, work in progress version of the language. 

Thus when producing language, whether it be writing or speaking, students are being cognitively challenged which is helping them to internalise the language, and get better at it. Therefore, the work we do on writing in the classroom can be seen as work done on language development, helping students to improve their linguistic ability.

So how do we get our students writing?

One complaint I often hear from students is that they don’t know what to write about. Here are a couple of solutions.

Sit the students in circles of six. Ask students to write the topic they want to write about on the top of an A4 sheet of paper and then pass the paper around in the circle. Each student writes a question on the sheet about the topic at the top. Now each student has the subject they are going to write about and five questions to answer in the text.

Task: You are on a shopping trip to a big city with friends. Write a blog entry about your experience.

Instruction to Students: Decide which city you are visiting write it on top of the piece of paper.

Examples

Paris

Are the shops expensive?

Are there any street markets?

Is there a department store?

London

Are the shops expensive?

Is it crowded?

What is the food like?

If you want the students to all write about the same topic, write the topic on the board and draw two columns. Elicit all the things the students know about the topic and write them in the first column. Then give them time to think of what they would like to know about the topic. Elicit the questions they have thought of and write them in the second column. Now ask the students to do the writing task. The weaker or more cautious ones can rely on the information in the first column the more adventurous ones can try to find answers to the questions in the second column.

Task: Prepare a small advert for tourists about your home town.

Prague

What do we know?

Traditional markets at certain times of the year.

Best time to come is spring

Two castles

What would we like to know?

How much is it to stay in a hotel?

How much to taxis cost?

How do you take a boat trip?

Where’s the best place for a view of Prague?

If you want your students to do some creative writing, you might want to start by asking them to adapt an existing story. For example, you could take the story of Aladdin and ask the students to write a fifty-word summary or to write a 21st Century version or a version that would be more specific to their own country. This allows the students to work within an existing structure, but create their own ideas. An alternative might be to take a song or poem with regular repetitions and ask students to write their own version. Ian Dury’s I Believe is a good song for this kind of activity and can be found in Headway Intermediate.

Call a draft a draft

It is a good idea to encourage students to call their work drafts, to give them a sense that they can, and should, make changes. Asking questions is a really good way of giving feedback. The questions can help create a richer piece.  Some example feedback questions for a piece of creative writing might be: what happened next? why did this happen? how did the people feel? What did the street look like? This shows that the teacher has read the piece with interest and is keen to know more about the story, and was not just looking for mistakes and errors to correct.

In my webinar on the 25th and 26th of January, I will discuss some of these ideas in greater detail and suggest other ways to make the impossible possible and to get your students to enjoy their writing tasks.

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References

Tasks mentioned are taken from Solutions Pre-Intermediate 2nd Edition.

Swain, M., ‘The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue’ in Sociocultural theory and second language acquisition ed. James P. Lantolf (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 97- 114 p. 99.


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Back to School Activities for your EFL Classroom

shutterstock_275971190Happy New Year! To celebrate another successful year ahead of language learning, and to welcome you and your students back to class, we asked three of our former contributors Vanessa Esteves, Christopher Graham, and Julietta Schoenmann to devise a series of lesson plans and activity worksheets for your EFL classrooms. From adult through to primary, enjoy these mixed-level and mixed ability free resources as a gift from Oxford University Press this January.

Have a productive, fun and inspiring year!

Primary Level

Lesson Plan

Activity Worksheet

Secondary Level

Lesson Plan

Activity Worksheet

Tertiary/Adult Level

Lesson Plan

Activity Worksheet


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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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4 Christmas Activities for your Classroom

DV-00039118-001Stacey Hughes is a teacher trainer for Oxford University Press. She has written a number of articles for the OUP blog and Teaching Adult Newsletter. Stacey gives talks and workshops around the world – both face-to-face and via webinar. 

The festive season is officially upon us, so we thought we’d share some classroom
resources to help you and your class get in the spirit of Christmas!

Our teacher trainer Stacey Hughes from the Professional Development team here in Oxford has prepared some multi-level activities for you to use in your classroom. Enjoy a round robin writing activity, practice some seasonal vocabulary revision, and plenty more!

ROUND ROBIN LETTER (Writing)
Level: pre-intermediate to advanced
Any age group

ADVENT CALENDAR (Vocabulary)
Level: any
Young Learners

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS or 12 DAYS OF WINTER (Vocabulary revision)
Level: any
Young learners, teens, (adults)

CRAZY GAPPED TEXT (Grammar, collocation, text cohesion)
Level: pre-intermediate and above
Teens, adults


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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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