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Using outside materials in the classroom

Young adults in classMike Boyle has taught English to adult learners in Japan and the United States, and is now a materials writer in New York City. He is the co-author of the Starter level of American English File Second Edition. In this article, he shares his thoughts on using outside materials to make your lessons more relevant, effective, and memorable.

For the last two years, I’ve had the great privilege of working with Clive Oxenden and Christina Latham-Koenig on the second edition of American English File. One of the best parts of this experience has been seeing firsthand how these great authors find and adapt outside texts, topics, and stories for the course.

I think Christina and Clive’s approach to outside materials not only makes for a great coursebook, but can also be helpful for teachers who use outside articles, videos, songs, and other materials in their lessons. Here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned.

The “train test” and the “wow factor”

Clive and Christina always say that the readings in a textbook must pass the “train test.” If you picked up the coursebook on a train, would you read the texts with interest?

We know that students are going to learn more, and retain more, if they are interested in what they’re studying. For the same reason, the best materials have memorable facts or characters which make your learners think, “Wow!” and which stay in their minds after the lesson has ended.

Very few texts truly pass this test, which is why so much of a writer’s time is spent reading newspapers, magazines, advertisements, news sites, social media, blogs – anything and everything – in search of the next great idea.

The “so what?” test

The best texts (or audio recordings, or videos) do more than grab your learners’ interest. They also lead to genuine speaking and communication. It’s vital to use texts that your learners would be stimulated to read and talk about in their own language. Because if they wouldn’t be, they certainly won’t be very motivated to do it in a foreign language.

The best topics are usually ones that you and your class have some experience of or an opinion about. A text about a totally unfamiliar topic (tornadoes in the American Midwest, for example) can be very interesting, but might go nowhere in class. It would be better to find a text that lets the class see something familiar in a fresh, new way.

For these reasons, when considering a text, a good test is whether you can think of three great discussion questions that would follow it. If you can’t, it might not work in class. Your learners might only shrug and think, “That’s interesting, but so what?”

Google-ability

We know how disappointing it can be when you Google the people in a text and discover the authors simply made them up. That’s why we’re very proud that the people, places, and stories in American English File are real. You can Google them and find out more about them – and maybe even find photos or videos of them to share with your students. In many cases, we’ve gone to great lengths to interview these people ourselves and get their stories firsthand.

Teachers can do the same to bring real, interesting people and their stories into the classroom. Blogs are a great place to look. Bloggers who are doing interesting things are often quite easy to reach and happy to be interviewed over email or even Skype. Knowing that they’re hearing from a “real” person will make your lessons much more motivating and rewarding for your learners.

Humor and suspense

Anything that makes your class laugh (or even smile) can be a huge benefit in the classroom. Laughter creates a relaxed, stress-free classroom, and this will make everyone more comfortable about speaking English and participating in the lesson. Humor can also be a great check of comprehension – if they didn’t understand, they won’t laugh.

Another great way to engage a class and keep their attention is to use texts and stories that have surprising endings or unexpected results. Give the class everything but the ending and have them guess before you reveal it to them.

The text comes first, and the target language follows

Some writers and teachers begin their search for a text by thinking: “This is the simple past unit, so let’s find a text with lots of regular -ed verbs.” The problem with this approach is that it often leads to texts that don’t get your learners’ attention and don’t get them talking.

It’s more effective to find something truly interesting and then dig into the text for the appropriate vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation points. When your learners are eager to discuss the text they will be much more motivated to master the new language that’s already in it.

To hear more from Mike on using outside materials in the classroom, sign up for one of the following webinars:

24 October 2013: 02:00 BST / 10:00 Japan / 23:00 Brazil / 21:00 New York (-1 day)
25 October 2013: 16:00 BST / 11:00 New York / 12:00 Brazil / 00:00 Japan (+1 day)

Register for the webinar now!


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10 attack strategies for teaching the text in Business English

Business woman reading reportAhead of his webinar on the same topic (click on Adult > Teaching the whole text in Business English), Business English expert John Hughes shares his top tips for approaching a piece of text in Business English or ESP.

If you are teaching Business English or ESP students, then analysing a text from their place of work is an invaluable part of determining their needs. You can also turn such texts into classroom materials which will help them to read and possibly write similar texts. It’s a fundamental skill for any teacher of Business English or English for Specific Purposes.

When I first look at an authentic text, I analyse for it ten features and decide which ones are most prominent and lend themselves to classroom exploitation.

1. Visual clues

The first thing we notice about a written text is any kind of accompanying image. For example, it might have a photograph, a chart, a graph, a map or even a table of figures. This will often act as a useful point of focus for students as it helps them predict what the text will be about.

2. Shape and layout

I also look for a shape or layout to the text type. Texts with an overt shape (typically formal texts such as letters and reports) help students to recognise what kind of text it is, which helps build their schema before reading. It also allows for exercises which draw students’ attention to the conventions for layout or to how the writer organises the content.

3. Overt title

A text with an overt title is like a text with a good photograph. You can use it with students to make predictions about the content of the text. In business texts, an overt title might be title to a company report or the title to a set of instructions. In emails, a clear subject line is the equivalent to an overt title.

4. Overt openings

Some texts don’t have overt titles but they do use opening sentences or phrases that indicate what kind of text it is and its purpose. A phrase like ‘I am writing to inform you…’ suggests that we are about to read a semi-formal letter from someone we haven’t met before or don’t know very well.

5. General meaning

Before any further textual analysis, I see if the text lends itself to reading for gist so that I can set some general gist comprehension questions. This is particularly necessary if the text doesn’t contain an overt title or overt opening (see 3 and 4).

6. The writer and reader

With some texts it’s useful to ask students to identify the writer and reader. For example, in the case of a departmental report, students can say who wrote it and who received it. With less obvious texts such as an informal message from a social media site, students might need to speculate who posted the text and why.

7. Detailed information

Having analysed the text for its general purpose and meaning, I start preparing comprehension questions to help students search for and understand more detailed information within the text. This is especially true of long texts.

8. Fixed expressions

Having understood the content of the text, I can start to analyse language which students might be able to use in their own writing. Formulaic texts often make use of fixed expressions. For example, reports might include expressions such as ‘The aim of this reports is to…’, ‘Please refer to figure 8.1…’, ‘It is recommended that…’.

9. Lexical sets

Texts that are related to very specific areas of industry may not fit into a typical pattern or fixed expressions but they will usually have their own specific lexis. For example, within a text related to shipping you might come across terms such as lading, container, pallet, abatement, in bond and ship demurrage. Once you identify a lexical set, you can create vocabulary exercises to help students with them.

10. Grammar

As with lexical sets, certain texts might contain frequently-used grammar. For example, in the recommendations section of an internal company document you might see the it is +passive form structure commonly used; i.e. it is recognised, it is recommended, it is advised… Help students to discover this grammar in the text and identify its form, meaning and use.

So those are my ten strategies for attacking a text in Business English or ESP. Do you have any more to add?


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EAP – daunting, dry, difficult, and dull?

Bored studentRobert McLarty, Head of Professional Development at Oxford University Press, considers why English for Academic Purposes is often perceived as dull and difficult, and presents some tips for overcoming that perception.

I was recently asked to do a talk in Turkey to a group of university teachers. The organisers wanted me to talk about English for Academic Purposes but to make it interesting! Apparently EAP has a bit of a reputation with both learners and teachers for being Daunting, Dry, Difficult and Dull. I talked to one of our leading EAP authors, Edward de Chazal, and together we found a way of beating the four Ds with the five vowels – A, E, I, O, U.

As the framework for the talk developed it also became clear that one of the main reasons for this perception of EAP is due to the abundance of long reading texts at the core of many courses. Reading is important but there are many other skills needed. Let me take you through what we came up with.

A is for Authenticity

Not just in texts, but in tasks. One of the overriding messages of Oxford’s approach to EAP is to introduce our learners to authentic texts and in particular the types of text they will encounter in a further education setting. This does not mean newspaper articles, short stories and amusing blogs – it does mean academic texts from textbooks and, at higher levels, abstracts and journal articles. It also means authentic lectures and for our new series we filmed Oxford University lecturers talking on a wide range of subjects for up to thirty minutes. Our authors built interesting tasks around the lectures which our users get on a DVD packaged with the books. What is amazing is how a totally authentic lecture on, for example, stroke medicine, the United Nations, community ecology, etc. can be made accessible with well thought-out scaffolding. Unscripted lectures have all the features of speech our future students will have to deal with if they do their degree course in English.

E is for Engagement

So many learners in EAP classes are not motivated. They are keen to do the preparatory year to enter university but aren’t necessarily interested in the English language. It was often a subject they struggled with, or didn’t like (or both) at school and it is difficult sometimes for teachers to rid them of those memories and that baggage. One way of engaging them is to make them think about a subject, an issue or a problem and to encourage them to think critically by asking the next logical question, bringing in their own knowledge of the world, challenging the ideas the text or the lecture provokes.

A simple exercise for this is to take some sentences from a range of topics such as this:

  1. Deforestation can be caused by soil erosion
  2. The clinical trial failed because the incorrect dosage was given.
  3. Lack of energy is one possible effect of a low-calorie diet.
  4. Unemployment and poverty are likely to result in serious social problems.
  5. Dodos were fat, slow and easy to shoot, which is why they became instinct.
  6. Musicians can develop hearing problems such as tinnitus, owing to repeated exposure to amplified music.

Students choose the sentences which interest them most and analyse them for cause and effect. Later on in the lesson get them to recall the meaning of the sentences – sometimes they will remember them word for word, but what you actually want is for them to recall the facts and paraphrase them. This is proof that they have fully understood the ideas behind the sentence. You can then look at the cause/effect language such as because, owing to, which is why, results in, etc. knowing that their brains are fully engaged.

I is for Independence

The ultimate aim is to encourage autonomy in our learners. They won’t be around forever and you certainly won’t be there to help them later, so you need to prepare them, train them to study independently, to take and organize notes, use dictionaries, store vocabulary, think for themselves, evaluate things and do research without always resorting to Google. Encouraging them to do project work, reporting back, peer teaching are all ways of building this feeling of independence. Making their own videos or infographics with engaging, memorable content or creating a class blog are other ways of developing independence.

O is for Objectives

The good thing about many EAP classes is that the objectives are very transparent. If we make the objectives realistic and attainable then we have more chance of succeeding. The problem arises when the department, the faculty teachers, the parents, and the learners themselves have a different take on the objectives. You, as the language teacher, are often stuck in the middle. Overambitious IELTS targets, overemphasis on grammar in the end of year test, a reluctance to work outside of class are just three examples of factors that can make your teaching difficult and the objectives unattainable. Quantitative objectives which only deal with end of course results without any qualitative data mean that the course can also become too rigid.

We had too much choice for U.

Unique, Useful, Universal. Each learner in an EAP class is unique, with a different set of abilities and goals to his or her peers. How can teachers find tasks and activities which are useful to such a wide range? This is one of the secrets to successful teaching and I think it often happens by chance. An activity can sometimes take on a life of its own and a group sees its usefulness immediately. Feedback on such activities is useful. Why did that lesson work? What was its value? Would you like more of this type of lesson? These are really useful feedback questions. We are always seeking lessons and activities that have universal appeal. It is difficult to get topics, skills, new language items that have guaranteed universal appeal but that doesn’t stop us looking.

As you wrestle with making EAP more appealing, think of A, E, I, O, U. Nobody wants to be thought of as dull, difficult or dry!