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Find your learner’s reading level | Andrew Dilger

Find your reading level

I have a question for you. Do you know your learners’ reading level in English – I mean, really know it? If your learners are halfway through an A2 coursebook, does that mean their reading level is A2-and-a-half?! The cautious ones among us would say ‘Not necessarily’; the bold ones would say ‘No’. But in an age when efficacy and assessment is all the rage in ELT, plenty of pressure is put on the teaching community (by itself, parents, and other stakeholders) to measure learners’ language skills accurately – down to the nth degree, in fact.

 The dark art of testing

Measuring reading level has always been something of a dark art, or at least a shadowy discipline. Part of the problem is that, as a receptive skill, it seems to take place inside learners’ heads. We can test comprehension, of course. And how we love to test it – with questions, gapfills, clozes, and multiple-choices, all of which require learners to skim and scan until they go cross-eyed! We often enjoy testing comprehension so much that we squeeze the life out of a text. It’s a wonder we don’t put learners off reading in English altogether.

There are other factors at play, of course – short attention spans in a fast-paced, device-driven world compromising the appeal of ‘deep reading’ is one of them, but that’s an easy target. The main issue is that most learners aren’t reading the right texts for them, and not in the right way.

Reading improves all-round ability

If learners want to improve their reading level – and benefit their all-round ability in English – then it’s vital we help them discover how to do this. And don’t just take my word for it. Research by luminaries like Richard Day and Paul Nation has suggested this for years. There are massive gains to be made by learners reading a lot in English – reading extensively for interest and pleasure. For more on this, see this article from El País (use Google Translate if your Spanish is rusty or non-existent).

Reading fluency over reading comprehension

So let’s go back to the question: Do you know your learners’ reading level? The important thing to appreciate is that I’m talking about reading fluency here. Can they read a text connectedly and understand the majority of words?

Most publishers have an online test which claims to tell learners their reading level. Take the Macmillan Readers Level Test, for example. In actual fact, it’s a series of grammar and vocabulary sentences with multiple-choice options, i.e. it doesn’t test reading fluency at all. It features prompt pictures for all the items but most are decorative rather than functional. In addition, some of the sentences are unnatural or misleading, e.g. I’ve got an ache in my throat; Did you hear the thunder last night? with the prompt picture showing lightning. The maximum level the test can give is Upper Intermediate and, if you retake it, the questions and options are all in exactly the same order… so you can improve instantly by virtue of having done the test already.

A tool instead of a test

Here at OUP we’ve come up with something different and something new. And we’d like you and your learners to decide how useful it is. For a start, we’re not calling it a test – it’s a tool. A semantic difference perhaps, but an important one. This isn’t a grammar check based on a random text, but something which genuinely attempts to gauge how fluent learners are at reading a page of a published story.

How does it do this? With a disarmingly simple innovation. Learners themselves decide whether they know the meanings of the words or not. They also decide whether a page of a story at a certain level is ‘Too easy’, ‘Too difficult’, or ‘OK’. This is known as the Goldilocks Principle and is common in cognitive science and developmental psychology.

‘But students will cheat!’ I hear you cry. If they do, they’re only cheating themselves because they’ll be shown a range of stories at the wrong level. It’s like buying clothes – why would you choose trousers which are two sizes too big if they fall down round your ankles? Instead, what learners need is something that ‘fits’ – something that’s right for them at that stage in their development. This means being able to read confidently at a comfortable level.

What’s the point?

After all, the point of learners finding their reading level isn’t so they can brandish it on a certificate or boast about it on social media. The point is to open up a world of texts, stories, and information which they will find digestible and rewarding – even life-changing.

If YOUR learners want to find their reading level in English, they can try our new tool here. Why don’t YOU try it, too? It’s free and takes less than 10 minutes. Because it’s a beta version, we’re also interested in getting feedback about ways to improve it, so please ask your learners to complete the survey too. Happy reading!                      

Find your reading level button

 


Andrew Dilger is a Managing Editor at Oxford University Press. He has been involved in English language teaching as a teacher, trainer, and editor for over a quarter of a century. He is passionate about the power of reading and claims to have read something every day of his life since he first went to school.


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How to bluff your way through the changes affecting English language teaching!

guide to changes in ESLAndrew Dilger and Sophie Rogers, former English language teachers, are part of the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press. In this tongue-in-cheek post, they consider some of the issues that any self-respecting ‘bluffer’ should be looking at over the long summer break.

English language teaching is changing

How many times have we heard that? This time, however, it really feels like it. With the increasing adoption of digital technologies including the use of tablets and smartphones in many schools; the emphasis on differentiating the learning experience for every student; a mass of edicts and policies from education ministries, school boards and  bandwagons, the average English language teacher – already exhausted and overstretched – could be forgiven for thinking it’s time to hang up their interactive whiteboard pen.

… and we’re not equipped to deal with it (especially in summer)

The thing is, it’s summer! One of the very few times in the calendar year when we can actually stop thinking about our students and start thinking about ourselves! Given the number of blockbuster movies to see, barbecues to go to, new recipes to try out on unsuspecting husbands/wives/partners/families (who we also need to get reacquainted with, by the way, after endless evenings of lesson planning and marking), how many of us really have the time to use the summer break to ‘skill up’?

… so here’s how to bluff it!

For this reason, here’s a bluffer’s guide for how to deal with the seismic changes affecting ELT. After all, the dream will be over in September and then it’s back to the chalk-face – or given the extent to which everything has gone digital – maybe that should be the ‘silicon-face’!

CAUTION: If your teaching is already ‘blended’, your classroom ‘flipped’ and you know your BYOD from your BYOT, then this blog post isn’t for you. For the rest of you, read on …

1) Get to grips with the terminology

Part of the problem is the terminology – we can’t bluff an issue until we know just what all the educators are actually talking about. So here are a few useful definitions to get you started:

  • Blended learning (also known as hybrid learning) – Situation in which a face-to-face classroom component is complemented and enhanced with learning technologies. For example, it could involve teachers and students communicating and interacting online as well as in class.
  • BYOD (Bring your own device; also known as BYOT: Bring your own technology) – Policy which allows students to bring their own mobile devices (tablet and/or smartphone) to school and use them in lessons.
  • Flipped classroom (also known as reversed teaching) – Situation in which students are able to watch videos of teacher-delivered presentations or lectures in their own time. This frees up more face-to-face time for interaction, discussion, collaboration, tasks, etc.
  • LMS (Learning management system) – System for managing learning and educational records or software for distributing online or blended courses with features for online collaboration
  • VLE (Virtual learning environment) – Online space where teachers and students can interact, share work, and organize online materials. VLEs are usually managed at the level of the educational institute.

Of course, the best way to keep on top of all these terms is to put up a poster-sized glossary in your teacher’s room. That way, everyone can add to it and everyone benefits.

2) Rely on experience

The good news for bluffers everywhere is that, as much as ELT is changing, the way we handle the change remains the same. We rely on our experience and wealth of teaching techniques to get us through. ‘Change management’ consists of simply adapting what we’re already doing anyway and if you don’t yet believe it, here’s a quote from someone who knew a thing or two to back it up:

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” ~ Charles Darwin

3) Get a book

With the sheer amount of published resources available – by both global and local publishers – there’s probably going to be a book about it somewhere. And chances are it’ll be written by someone who’s more immersed in the topic than we are. Some recent examples you might want to flick through include:

  • Bringing online video into the classroom – Jamie Keddie (OUP)
  • Technology Enhanced Language Learning – Goodith White & Aisha Walker (OUP)
  • Thinking in the EFL class – Tessa Woodward (Helbling)
  • Adaptive learning – Philip Kerr (theround – free!)

4) Go online

For many teachers, the internet is the equivalent of the days when we used to walk into the teacher’s room and shout out: ‘What exactly does student-centred mean?’ Or, ‘I’ve got a lesson in ten minutes with a class I’ve never taught before. Help!’ If you’re looking for shortcuts, then the following sites contain enough classroom-ready ideas and professional insights to put you right at the cutting edge of what’s hot in the ELT methodology:

5) Ask a colleague

It’s all about shaping learning together. The trick is to make sure at least one colleague we’re shaping it with is a bit more up-to-date than we are. This way, they can bring us with them into the 21st-century. If you’re looking to bluff it on an institutional scale, try setting up a ‘buddy system’ or ‘chat group’ to discuss some of the latest trends and how you can deal with them. Meet once a month/term and each take a topic – define it, summarize the implications and pool ideas for how you can bring it into the classroom. You could even put together a regular e-newsletter on the findings. Suggestions for some of the ‘buzzier’ trends affecting ELT for your first few chat groups are:

  • Mobile learning (using mobile technology such as tablet computers and smartphones; also known as ‘m-learning’ or ‘mLearning’)
  • Special educational needs provision (e.g. helping learners with ADHD, dyslexia, ASD, SEBDs, etc.)
  • Assessment literacy (understanding how all aspects of testing and assessment impact on the learning process)
  • 21st-Century skills (including the so-called ‘Four Cs’: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity)
  • Multilingualism (how communicating in more than one language affects the learning process – if you’re feeling brave, you could also tackle ‘plurilingualism’!)

So there you go. Five easy techniques for staying ‘ahead of the curve’ and bluffing your way through the changes affecting English language teaching. Now we can get back to enjoying our well-earned summer break and working on that tan. Roll on September!


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Teaching Business English to Beginner Learners

Two businessmen shaking handsTo mark the launch of International Express Beginner, Andrew Dilger writes about the main challenges involved in teaching Business English to beginner learners and suggests possible solutions for overcoming them. Andrew is a freelance teacher trainer and editor, and has been involved in ELT for over twenty years. 

First of all, it’s useful to clarify exactly what we mean by Business English (or BE). One of the simplest, most effective definitions I’ve come across is ‘the English you need to get the job done’. And that’s any job! We might be confronted with a class full of sales people, admin assistants, finance officers or even good old-fashioned managers. These days, almost all employees in an international organization are expected to have some ability in English. That leads on to the first of four main challenges I’ve identified.

1) Context

Finding out exactly what English our learners actually need to use at work can be surprisingly hard. They may be already working (‘in-service’), or in training or not yet in work (‘pre-service’). In both cases, we should start with a comprehensive needs analysis. This is usually in the form of a questionnaire about what learners need to speak about and listen to, as well as read and/or write about. It should also cover who they need to communicate with, how often, and using what media (e.g. phone, email, in person, etc.) Because of their low level, it’s far better to cut to the chase and do this in learners’ L1. At the start of my teaching career, I sometimes only discovered what learners needed to do in English part-way through a course. Too late!

2) Learners

Generally speaking, beginner learners of BE (unless they’re ‘pre-service’) will be older adults, with an average age of between 35 and 55. Younger learners of BE are ‘digital natives’, tending to have tuned into the global importance of English and already managing to have acquired the basics to lift them above beginner level. Older students may not be particularly ‘internet-savvy’ (though they won’t want to lose face by confessing this), and may even have negative associations with learning English or another language from their school days. The thing that works in our favour, however, is that BE is about communicative competence (‘getting the job done’). Most beginner learners of BE will be less concerned with how we teach them English (i.e. the methodology) than how fast and effectively we can teach it them!

3) Time

In-service learners will typically enrol on a language course for a limited period and expect results quickly. What they sometimes don’t take account of is the amount of effort they need to put in, or their language learning capability. It’s often helpful to agree a brief contract (again, in learners’ L1 – and businesspeople like contracts!) about what their expectations and goals are in the given timeframe. This can also include how much work they’re prepared to do outside class. Also, we shouldn’t forget that beginner learners need to review regularly, particularly if they’re out of the habit of language learning. I’d suggest a ratio of new to review material of 60:40, which is what happens in International Express Beginner, for example. The trick is to make the review material feel sufficiently different so learners don’t feel like they’re going over old ground!

4) Motivation

While beginner level learners can improve rapidly, they can also get demotivated by how much there is to learn. As part of the needs analysis, it’s important to establish who the stakeholder is. Are they learning because they want to (‘intrinsic’ motivation), or because the company or their boss requires it (‘extrinsic’ motivation)? If BE learners feel their job is on the line we need to take that into account by making sure our lessons have an appropriate degree of seriousness. This means the practical application and relevance of activities to their working context must be clear at all times. But that doesn’t mean lessons should be dull – liveliness and variety is particularly important for beginner learners!

So what’s your opinion? Teaching BE to beginners varies according to the exact context and profile of the learners concerned, so it’s always interesting to hear a range of viewpoints.

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