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The Power Of Proficiency: How English Changed My Life

Valeria: "It has given me confidence."Valeria, a 22-year-old computer engineer and programmer, first started learning English from her father at home in Costa Rica.

“He spent time in Canada and the States. But I think I’m better at English than him now – don’t tell him, though!”

English proficiency for a brighter future

Her father saw the opportunities that can come from learning English during his travels overseas, and now Valeria has seen them firsthand too. “I have better job opportunities, and I get paid more because I can prove I have a great level of English.”

This became clearer when she landed her dream job — working for a company whose headquarters are based in Atlanta, making English language skills a must for any member of staff. “Most of our clients and vendors are in Atlanta, so we have to use English every day.” Luckily, she was able to get her B2 certificate while at university. Knowing she could prove that she had a good level of English gave Valeria the confidence to apply for the role in the first place.

It was all made possible when her professor arranged for her class to sit the Oxford Test of English at the end of their course. She found the experience of taking the online test quite relaxing and was able to complete all the modules in two hours. And, unlike other English proficiency tests, the students didn’t have to learn a particular way to answer the questions, which Valeria appreciated.

“I could focus on my English instead of learning how to take a test.”

It also didn’t hurt when she learnt that her Oxford Test of English certificate is valid for life.

“Whenever I need evidence of my English proficiency, I can show my Oxford Test of English certificate. You can use it for business or travelling – the possibilities are endless. It’s amazing for anyone who needs to prove they have a good level of English.”

Like Francisco, for example – a Mechanical Engineering Student & Basketball Coach from Spain.

Proving English proficiency to study abroad

Francisco: "It takes just two hours."Francisco needed to prove he had a B2 level of English when he was applying to spend a year studying abroad in Finland, as all his classes there were in English.

Once he arrived, he found his English also came in handy when he was socialising too, as not that many of the locals or other foreign students spoke Spanish.

“I realized that if you can speak English, you can communicate nearly everywhere you go.”

Just like Valeria, Francisco certified his English level with the Oxford Test of English, and also enjoyed the fact that it was online and adaptive.

“The structure of the test is great; it adapts to your ability, getting harder or easier depending on your answers. It’s nice because you’re being tested during the whole exam.”

So would he recommend it?

“Yes, absolutely! The test takes just two hours, and then the certificate endorsed by the University of Oxford stays with you and remains useful for your whole life. It’s ideal for people who need to prove to a company they can operate in English, and it looks great on a CV.”

Not to mention, it helped open the doors to a once in a lifetime experience of studying in Finland –

“I think it was probably the best period of my life. It was just four months, but they were so special. I travelled around the Nordic countries and Russia and met people I’d never meet in any other situation. I’m so glad I was there – and all because of the Oxford Test of English!”

 

You can read other students’ success stories and find out more about the Oxford Test of English on our website.

Find out more

Don’t forget to share this link to our Learning Resources Bank with your students – where they can find additional tips and support to guide them through their English learning journey.


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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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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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Rigor, Routines and the Real (Global) Skills

The five Global SkillsAdvanced-level English language instruction focuses on helping adults achieve the language proficiency they need to transition out of their English language lessons onto their educational or career paths, engage with their communities, and advocate successfully for themselves and their families. One of the gifts of teaching at this level is the ability to communicate the adult education principles at the heart of our instructional design.

We can overtly demonstrate respect for learners’ prior knowledge and build upon that knowledge to address essential questions that transcend basic skills. We can provide the tasks and projects that support self-directed and rigorous inquiry alongside the development of language strategies that are critical to learners’ successful language skill development.[i]  We can also share evidence of the direct connection between learners’ future goals, 21st-century adult life, and essential language strategies along with an array of global skills (i.e., communication and collaboration, creativity and critical thinking, intercultural competence and citizenship, emotional self-regulation and well-being, and digital literacies.)

Routines and Rigor

Of course, even with all the opportunities and advantages of the advanced-level class, instructors have the universal challenge of finding the time to plan for—and teach—units of instruction with rigorous, relevant, high-interest, skill- and strategy-building lessons. One workaround is to look at task-types and routines that naturally incorporate a number of the language strategies and global skills advanced learners need. Routines that accompany task types help learners be intentional in their use of skills and strategies and, with a few tweaks, a routine can also provide additional rigor.

Consider a lecture and note-taking task. This type of task typically includes a wealth of language strategies, e.g., focusing on the speaker’s opening and closing statements to identify the gist of the lecture, using clues in the oral text to identify key ideas for note-taking, paraphrasing information in notes, summarizing the speaker’s ideas, and using the content of the lecture to address a question or problem. This task process is rigorous in its own right. However, if we add the routine of comparing and clarifying the lecture notes with a classmate through a Turn and Talk, we can increase the rigor of that routine by requiring that learners:

  1. use academic language during the exchange,
  2. reach consensus on the most important points in the lecture, and
  3. cite evidence to support their view,

and now we’ve incorporated opportunities to use English to demonstrate collaboration, clarification, consensus building, and critical thinking skills—real skills for the world outside the classroom.

A research-and-report task is another example that incorporates numerous language strategies, e.g., previewing complex text to determine if it meets the reader’s needs, scanning text for necessary information, note-taking to record sources, outlining or organizing ideas for an oral report, using intonation to help the listener identify important information, etc.  Not surprisingly, this task requires critical thinking to select, analyze, and evaluate information. Some routines that would increase learners’ use of other global skills and heighten the rigor of the task include having learners:

  1. take on roles requiring decision making,  team management, and resource management,
  2. use a checklist as they research to confirm the validity of their sources and build information literacy skills, or
  3. use a mobile device to record, rehearse, and upload team reports to increase digital skills.students in class asking questions

Rigor and Scaffolds

Of course, all classes have learners at different levels of proficiency. Even if the class level is fairly homogeneous, learners experiencing a task or routine for the first time will need support to be successful. The following scaffolds are just some of the ways to support learners as they engage with the rigorous requirements of a task:

  • provide graphic organizers with prompts and/or some sections filled in to help learners organize their thinking,
  • post charts with academic language stems and frames for use in discussions and writing tasks,
  • create checklists with the task instructions for learners to reference as they work,
  • reveal the steps of a task in stages rather than all at once, and
  • show examples of the task product created in previous classes.

Routines and Novelty

Using a repertoire of routines and task-types can streamline planning and allows advanced learners to regularly cycle through the skills and strategies they need, rather than approaching global skill development as a “one and done” process.  When we add rigor to our routines and tasks, we ensure a connection between the academic, civic, and work-place routines and tasks our advanced learners will perform outside the classroom. The rigor in the routines and tasks gives learners a global skills “work out.”

Even with these benefits, some instructors might equate routine with a lack of novelty—knowing that novelty is an important factor in learning.[iii] The trick is to employ tasks and routines to help learners engage with an array of essential questions, complex and high-interest texts and media, and thought-provoking prompts. This juxtaposition of rigorous routines and complex content encourages learners to make novel connections between ideas: the learners and content provide the source of the novelty essential to motivation and retention.[iv]

Advanced level learners have a wide variety of transition goals. When they have the opportunity to demonstrate and refine global skills such as strategic thinking, planning, problem-solving, creativity, and collaboration, alongside their language skill development, they are more likely to see the connection between their classwork and their future goals. When they engage with rigorous routines and tasks, they are better prepared to apply their global and language skills in the complex world outside their classroom’s walls.

In her webinar “Picture This: Promoting English Language Learners’ Access to Online Language Teaching” on April 1, Jayme will discuss tools to teach your students online and how to incorporate global skills.

Register for the webinar

 



Jayme Adelson-Goldstein is a teacher educator and curriculum consultant. Her work focuses on supporting adult English language instructors with rigorous and contextualized task-based, problem-based, and/or project-based instruction. She is currently working with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) on The Skills That Matter project. Jayme’s publications include The Oxford Picture Dictionary and Step Forward. She also hosts the podcast Oxford Adult ESL Conversations. 


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Inquiry-based Learning: 4 essential principles for the ELT classroom

teenagers laughing and working togetherAllowing students greater agency in their learning can be a liberating experience. Rather than the teacher as expert, inquiry-based learning allows learners to assume the responsibility of becoming experts of the knowledge they are constructing through a process self-discovery and trial and error, while the teacher’s role is to monitor their students’ process of constructing new meaning and step in when they need help.

This is the very core of inquiry-based learning (IBL), a form of learning where students pose their own research questions about a topic and set out on a journey to answer them. The benefits of inquiry-based learning are many, such as:

  • Supporting students to build their own initiative.
  • Encouraging a deeper understanding of the content.
  • Motivating students to form their own connections about what they learn.
  • Students taking more ownership of their learning and a sense of reward not just from a final product, but from the process of knowledge-making itself.
  • Helping students develop the critical thinking and life skills necessary to be competitive in the 21st century, from problem-solving to effective collaboration and communication (Ismael & Elias, 2006).

IBL is often employed in math and science classrooms, which naturally lend themselves to a problem-solving approach.  (Amaral et al. 2002, Marshall & Horton, 2011). However, the framework certainly has potential for other disciplines as well, including English (Chu et al., 2011). Of course, balancing inquiry-based learning with language learning means that teachers must also attend to the language and vocabulary skills students need to be effective inquisitors. Tweaks to the traditional model can make this become a reality.

Below are four key principles that distinguish an inquiry-based approach, and suggestions on how teachers can scaffold them for the English language classroom.

 

1) Students as Researchers

In a typical inquiry-based learning framework, students are introduced to a topic and tasked with developing their own research questions to guide their process of discovery (Pedaste et al., 2015). In an English language setting, one way to model this is to provide a leading question for the students, choosing one that is open-ended and can lead students in more than one direction. Even yes-no questions can provide such ambiguity, for by doing deeper research, students begin to realize that the answer is not always black-and-white.

Take the question, Are you a good decision maker? We can encourage students to ask related questions that encourage more informed responses:

  • How do people solve problems differently?
  • What emotional and biological factors influence people’s decision making?
  • What role does personality play?  

Students can use WebQuests to find relevant articles and videos to look at the question from multiple perspectives. In a more scaffolded setting, instructors can provide articles and videos to discuss as a class, and ask students to draw out the relevant ideas and identify connections. Either way, the goal is to have students revisit the question each time new information is learned so they can elaborate on and refine their answers, and in doing so, slowly become experts on the topic.

 

2) Teachers as Research Assistants

An inquiry-based learning model often flips the roles of the teacher and student. Students become the researchers, and teachers assume the role of the assistant or guide to their learning (Dobber et al., 2017). One way to encourage this is to flip the classroom itself so that instructional lessons are delivered online, and class time is devoted to students applying what they have learned through practice and collaborative activities.

As language teachers, we can direct students to instructional videos on skills they’ll need to understand and respond to the texts they encounter. An instructional video on how to classify information could support a text about different kinds of problem solvers, for example. Videos on relevant grammatical and language structures can also be assigned. Teachers can then use class time not to present the material, but to attend to students’ questions and curiosities.

 

3) Peer-to-Peer Collaboration

Learning from peers and sharing ideas with others is another core principle of inquiry-based learning. Students in an IBL classroom become each other’s soundboards, which gives them an authentic audience from which to draw alternative perspectives from their own and test the validity of their ideas (Ismael & Elias 2006). Students are meant to collaborate throughout the entire process, from their initial response to the question to the final project. To do this, teachers can pose the leading question on an online discussion board and require peers to respond to each other’s ideas. To scaffold, teachers can provide language used to respond to posts, such how to acknowledge someone else’s ideas (I think you’re saying that…) or show agreement or disagreement (I see your point, but I also wonder…).

Collaboration also takes places through the final project. IBL classrooms typically have students complete the cycle with group projects, such as debates, group presentations, newsletters, and discussions. Even if students are working independently on personal essays, teachers can have them conduct peer reviews for further feedback, and to present their findings and insights to the class, thereby providing them with a wider audience than just the teacher.

 

4) Reflecting on Learning

The final principle is asking students to reflect on their learning (Pedaste et al., 2005). This can be achieved by posing the leading question on the discussion board at the end of the cycle, to see how students’ responses have evolved based on what they’ve learned. Language teachers can also encourage reflection through assessment feedback. If giving a test on the language and skills students have studied, they can go a step further by posing questions about the experience:

  • How difficult did you find the test?
  • Why do you think you made mistakes?
  • What can you do to improve your learning?
  • What can your teacher do?

This helps students identify areas for improvement, and it gives teachers guidance in tailoring their instruction in the future.

In the IBL classroom, students are in the driver’s seat, but teachers are not sitting alone in the back. They’re upfront, in the passenger seat, watching students navigate their way and giving direction when they get lost. The teacher knows that the path of inquiry can take multiple routes and that students will need different tools to get to their final destination. With proper scaffolding, teachers can make the voyage for English language learners more successful, and in the process, create a cohort of lifelong inquisitors.

 

For a demonstration of how Q: Skills for Success Third Edition uses IBL to create independent and inquisitive learners, please join my Webinar on the 20th February 2020, where we will be looking at how the series and its resources scaffold the four principles of IBL both in and outside the classroom.

Register for the webinar

 


 

References

  1. Amaral, O., Garrison, L. & Klentschy. M. (2002). Helping English learners increase achievement through inquiry-based science instruction. Bilingual Research Journal, 26(2), 213-239.
  2. Chu, S., Tse, S., Loh, K. & Chow, K. (2011). Collaborative inquiry project-based learning: Effects on reading ability and interests. Library & Information Science Research, 33(3), 236-243.
  3. Dobbler, M., Tanis, M., Zward, R.C., & Oers, B. (2017). Literature review: The role of the teacher in inquiry-based education. Educational Research Review, 22, 194-214.
  4. Ismael, N. & Elias, S. (2006). Inquiry-based learning: A new approach to classroom learning. English Language Journal, 2(1), 13-22.
  5. Marshall, J. & Horton, R. (2011). The Relationship of teacher-facilitated, inquiry-based instruction to student higher-order thinking. School Science and Mathematics, 93-101.
  6. Pedaste, M., Maeots, M., Silman, L. & de Jong, T. (2015). Phrases of inquiry-based learning: Definitions and the inquiry cycle. Educational Research Review, 14, 47-61.

 


 

Colin Ward received his M.A. in TESOL from the University of London as a UK Fulbright Scholar. He is Department Chair and Professor of ESOL at Lone Star College-North Harris in Houston, Texas, USA. He has been teaching ESOL at the community-college level since 2002 and presented at numerous state, national, and international conferences. Colin has authored and co-authored a number of textbooks for Oxford University Press, including Q: Skills for Success Reading and Writing 3.