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Help! My students think their course book is too easy

ESL course book too easyWhat can you do if some of your students find the course book you are using too easy? Ken Wilson, the main author of Smart Choice Second Edition, shares his ideas.

I recently got this message from a teacher:

Hello Ken. I was wondering if you could answer a question. How can a teacher deal with using a course book that the students find too easy? My colleague is using Smart Choice Starter (an excellent series, by the way), but some of the students think it’s too easy. What advice do you have for her? Thanks in advance!

I imagine a lot of teachers find the book they are using too easy or too difficult for their class. Or for some of the class. So here are a couple of ideas to do something about it, assuming that changing the book or moving certain students to a different level are not options.

The book seems too easy for all/most of the class

Let’s imagine that you realise after a couple of weeks that the book you are using seems to be ‘too easy’, which basically means that the students already ‘know’ the new vocabulary and grammar content, or at least they think they do. A possible solution may be for pairs or groups of students to take responsibility for presenting some of the ‘new’ material to the rest of the class. Let’s say there are twelve units in the book and you’ve reached Unit 2, so there are ten to go. It’s clear by now that the book isn’t challenging them enough. Tell them – in their own language if necessary – that from now on, you would like them to be responsible for the presentation of some of the new material in the remaining units.

Put the students in pairs or groups of three, you decide which is best. Ask them to work together in their groups and look at all the remaining units in the book – give them 10-15 minutes to do this. Tell them to choose a unit that they would like to present. They should then tell the rest of the class what the new vocabulary is and POSSIBLY what the new grammar point is. It really doesn’t matter if there are too many or not enough students for each pair/group to have their own unit to present. The process is more important than the end product.

I have met teachers who express concern about their students looking at units later in the book. What if they’re too difficult? To these teachers I say – do you REALLY think you students haven’t already looked at every page in the book? They usually do it as soon as they get it, mainly to see if there are any interesting images. So stop worrying about that.

After they’ve had a chance to look at all the units, ask them which one they would like to present. Often more than one group will want to present the same unit, so they have to decide who does it. Let them decide by tossing a coin, arm-wrestling, whatever.  There will be some units that no one wants to present. Ask them why. If the answer is that the material looks boring, then you are well within your rights not to do those units. You should find alternative material to present the lexis, grammar and skills practice. And send a note to the publisher telling them what your students thought. Authors and publishers need lots of feedback, and teacher feedback is an essential part of the process of improving material for the next edition. It’s even better if the teachers are passing on the thoughts of their students. But let’s imagine at least some of the groups agree to present the material in different units. How should they do it? My suggestion is that they do it without the book.

In Smart Choice, the first page of each unit is devoted to presenting a new lexical set. Ask the students to find images of the key vocabulary from another source – Google images is a good place to start. Another excellent source of freely available photographic material is ELTpics (http://www.eltpics.com), a collection of thematically arranged photographs compiled and curated by ELT professionals. The point is, you should encourage your students to start the presentation with some graphics as back-up, preferably using PowerPoint, keynote or Prezi – whatever the students are familiar with. Some of the lexical sets may be more easily presented using mime or acting out techniques. Encourage the students to explore that possibility, too.

Let’s imagine a group of students have agreed to present the vocabulary from the next unit. Remind them at the end of the previous class and check that they have prepared the material for their presentation. The class begins. You ask the two or three students to take over. It’s an interesting moment – the presenters are a bit nervous and the rest of the class are a bit curious. The atmosphere is already much more interesting than it might be if you were doing all the teaching yourself! For guidance, tell the presenters to try to find out what the other students already know, showing them images or acting out/miming to illustrate the new words. Explain that ‘eliciting’ new words/phrases is a good way to start.

If the class is a monolingual class, there is every chance that the presenters will occasionally use L1 as part of their presentation. My feeling is that this is fine, particularly at lower levels. You may have a different opinion, but I feel that the occasional use of translation is very helpful, especially for beginners. If the presenters struggle at any point, step in and help them. But give them a chance to do it themselves. They will never forget the experience.

Objections

When I have presented these ideas in a talk or workshop, teachers have the following objections.

  1. You’re asking people to teach who have not been trained to teach.
  2. Some students might think – you’re the teacher, I’m the student, YOU should be teaching ME. There could be a rebellion.
  3. In a PLS or other institution where the students are paying, they may object and ask for their money back!

These are important issues to deal with. Regarding the first point, the fact is that your students may not do a very good job of presentation, in which case you have to step in and help. Don’t take over the class, just add some ideas and help to elicit information from the rest of the class. Regarding the second and third points, in the end it’s all about belief and trust. If you believe that what you’re doing is right and the students trust that you are doing things because they will benefit from them, they will accept any of the crazy methods you’re using. I tried this method of students teaching their peers many times when I was a teacher at a PLS, and I never had a single complaint from students about my methods. I hope it will work for you too!

The book is too easy or too difficult for a proportion of the class

This is a classic mixed-ability class scenario. In this case, I’m going to suggest that you get your best students to help you with the less able ones. Let’s imagine again there are fifteen people in the class. When you have a new class, how long does it take you to decide who are the ‘good’ students? Not long, right? So here’s an idea.

During the first two or three classes, make a mental note of who the top third of the students are. In a class of fifteen, this means five students. Ask them to see you at the end of the class. When the rest of the students have left the room, you tell the top third that they are really good – the best in the class. This is very nice for them to hear. But, you go on to explain, with this ability comes a responsibility. From now on, when you do group work, these ‘good’ students will make a group of three with two of the other students, ie not with another ‘good’ one.

So now, one ‘good’ student is helping two more challenged students. Three is much better than two, because the two can learn together from the better student. Meanwhile, you go from group to group, monitoring the work they are doing.

I hate to use words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to describe students, because all students bring something positive to the classroom, but I think you will see the advantage of this idea. At no point have I indicated to the class why the five are taking over, it will just happen.

Final thought

If the book is too difficult for ALL the class, then you do have a problem. If your feedback suggests that this is something that happens, and there is nothing you can do to change the book, then I will come back with some ideas to help with that situation, too.


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Using Video in the Classroom

Christopher Graham, teacher and teacher trainer, looks at the benefits of using video in the classroom. Chris will be hosting a webinar entitled ‘It’s not just for comprehension! Using video in the classroom‘ on 22nd October.

In many ways I am not an ideal choice to do a webinar on video in the ELT classroom. It’s true I was born in Hastings on the south coast of England where, in 1924, John Logie Baird made the first demonstration of something called ‘television’. However, the funny thing is that I don’t and indeed never have owned a TV. The main benefit of this is that I have more time on my hands than most people I know; the only negative thing is that I often feel left out of social conversations.

“Did you see … last night?”

“No, I don’t have a TV.”

“Oh.”

End of conversation.

I mention this because I think many people use TV as just a time-filler, something to switch on simply because they have one or because they can’t think of anything else to do. I worry that this is also how video is sometimes used in the ELT classroom. I hope my webinar will nurture some creativity as to how we can use video with our students.

Let’s define what we mean by video. For me, it is either a short clip or a longer piece or storyline  divided into short clips to be used over a period of time. Remember that video is real time and to use it effectively takes a long time, so short is good. Do also bear in mind that video is not just from a DVD, think about YouTube, Vine and now Instagram as well. If your students are under 25 you can be sure that’s what they are thinking about!

So why use video in the ELT classroom? Here is a quick list:

  • It’s motivating – yes of course, but please do remember the platforms listed above as they are where your students will find their clips.
  • It can be made relevant – there is so much out there that it will be easy to find something that interests your students.
  • One clip can be used with different levels within your institution or within a class. Adjust the task, not the clip.
  • It’s low tech. Yes, video is educational technology (and students love technology) but, unless you get into editing clips, it is so easy to use.
  • A well-made clip covers a lot of ground in a short space of time. In other words, a short clip will give you a lot of material.
  • If your students have access to tablets or smartphones, you have huge flexibility to generate real inter-student communication. Different students can watch different parts of one clip, some with the sound on, some without, and so on.
  • It’s great for homework. Watching YouTube is what students do at home anyway.

So how can we use video in class? Well, that is the main theme of my webinar on 22nd October. I hope you can join us. If you have time, make a short list of how you have used video; shared ideas are always the best.

Anyway, I have to go now to watch the news on someone else’s TV!

To find out more about using video in the classroom, join Christopher for his webinar on 22nd October.


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Three Question Interview – Patrick Jackson (@patjack67)

We’ve asked top ELT authors the following 3 questions:

  1. What’s your favourite ELT book?
  2. What or who has had the biggest impact on ELT in the last 25 years?
  3. What do you wish you’d known when you started out in ELT?

Here, Patrick Jackson (and his dog Frosty), author of Potato Pals, Stars, and Everybody Up, answers these questions in a short interview.

Patrick Jackson is an ELT author interested in the use of songs, stories and real world connections to motivate learners. He believes that the classroom should be an enjoyable, happy and stimulating place for students as well as teachers. Passionate about Linked Language Learning, he is fascinated by the way technology, and especially social media, has the power to transform the teaching and learning experience. He is also interested in the ways in which we can help our students develop creativity and real confidence. Patrick spent 13 years in Japan teaching learners of all ages but is now based in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of Potato Pals, Stars and Everybody Up and blogs at patjack67.com.


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Five things I think I know about teaching reading

Woman teaching young girl to readBarbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, shares five principles for teaching reading effectively in the classroom.

I’ve tried quite a few different approaches to teaching literacy over the years, initially with students learning to read in their first language, and now with students learning to read English as a foreign language. Like most teachers, I’ve settled on a fairly eclectic approach that seems to work well for me, and my young learners. Here are five principles that work for me.

1. Build a strong oral foundation first

When students begin learning to read in their first language, they have a working vocabulary of between 2,500 and 5,000 words. They learn to connect printed text to words that they already know. We want to be sure that our young learners have a strong foundation of oral language before we begin asking them to attach symbols to sounds, particularly since they will be working with a much smaller vocabulary to begin with.

2. Introduce text from the beginning

I think it’s important to have students looking at printed text long before you begin working on reading skills. By the time my students begin having dedicated reading lessons, they’ve already figured out that English writing goes from left to right and from the top of the page to the bottom, big letters are about twice as big as the little letters and appear at the beginning of a sentence, and that we can tell where words begin and end because of the spaces between words. They’ve become familiar with the graphic look of English before having to deal with it.

3. Teach phonics in context

Phonics can be a useful key for students learning how to make sense of English sound/spelling patterns. Teach the patterns in the context of words that students have already learned orally. Go through your students’ coursebook looking for words they’ve learned that illustrate the patterns you want to teach. That way they only have to focus on one new thing – linking sounds and letters – rather than learning a new word in order to practice the phonics skill. Practice reading the words in the context of sentences (and later, stories) that are also made up of words your students have learned orally.

4. Teach both accuracy and fluency in reading

Both skills are important in developing independent readers. As students become better at applying sound/spelling strategies, phonics shifts into spelling practice and word study, equally important in order to keep expanding your students’ reading vocabulary. To develop fluency, students need a lot of opportunities to read, and be read to. Include reading in every class. Let your students read the lyrics of their songs, or conversations, or grammar lessons – after they’ve learned the language orally, of course! Read to them, so they can enjoy understanding stories even if they don’t understand every word. Create a class library and let them take books home between classes (with audio CDs, if they aren’t yet fluent readers and don’t have anyone at home to read to them). Help them create their own stories to share and read.

5. Engage multiple senses in teaching reading

Have students trace letter and word shapes, sing or chant to help reinforce phonics, use letter cards to build words and word cards to build sentences. Ask them to act out or dramatize stories. Let them write sentences and stories and draw pictures to illustrate them. Record them reading their stories to create audio books. Encourage students to use multiple senses to help them become more effective readers.

How about you?

What have you learned about teaching reading? It would be great to hear in your comments to this blog. I’d also love to see you at my webinar on Saturday, 23 March. You can sign up here.

Visit Let’s Share for more videos, blogs and upcoming events by our Let’s Go authors.

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An interview with the authors of English File, Clive Oxenden and Christina Latham-Koenig

English File third editionEnglish File third edition is here! We went behind the scenes to find out what makes the authors Christina Latham-Koenig and Clive Oxenden tick. They tell us about their inspirations, their own struggle with learning Polish and Spanish, and they muse about the future of English language teaching.

What made you decide to become a teacher?

Christina Latham-KoenigTo be quite honest I hadn’t actually thought of becoming a teacher. I studied Latin and Greek at university, and I knew I didn’t want to teach that. When I left university I got a job at the British Council in London, and that’s where I learned about TEFL, as we had to organise courses for people. I then decided I’d like to go and live abroad for a year, and thought that the easiest way would be to teach English. In fact I loved it right from the start, and realised that I had accidentally found the right career path.

Clive OxendenAfter university I worked as a volunteer for a while in the Middle East with a lot of young people from different countries. It showed the importance of English as Lingua Franca and I found that I enjoyed helping people with their English. When I came home I went to the local library to look up English teaching (this was a few years before the internet was invented!)

Where did the idea of writing English File come from?

Christina Latham-KoenigBasically it responded to a need – we didn’t find that the material we were using as teachers was appropriate for our context, teaching monolingual classes abroad. In particular there was very little material that helped to get students talking, which is why we have always really focused on this aspect of teaching in English File.

Clive OxendenWe wanted to write a book that reflected our view of teaching which was that while learning should, of course, be approached seriously and  in a very professional and organised way it is vital that the experience should also be fun and motivating. If not, students quickly get bored and disheartened.

When you were learning a foreign language, what did you find most challenging?

Clive OxendenPronunciation! I came to live in Spain and at first I had a lot of problems with certain sounds in Spanish, especially ‘r’ and ‘rr’. When I went shopping in the market I sometimes could not make myself understood and I spent several months ordering pork (which I could pronounce) when I really wanted steak (which I couldn’t ). It certainly showed me the importance of pronunciation and how it affects a learner’s confidence and willingness to speak. I think the fact that Christina and I wrote English File while living in a foreign country explains the emphasis we always give to pronunciation.

Christina Latham-KoenigAs I’d studied Latin at university, I have found learning Latin languages relatively easy, in fact I was convinced that I was a very good language learner. Then a few years ago I decided to learn Polish. It was a real shock to learn a language where you couldn’t rely on Latin-based words being the same. It has taken me forever to learn certain basic things, like the months, or telling the time. And the grammar, the different ending for nouns and adjectives, is a nightmare.
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