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Improving communication skills with online tools

student laptopMichael Man will show you how to use messaging, discussions and chats effectively with the Online Practice and Online Workbooks for your course. You can take part in his webinar ‘Messages, Discussions and Chat – improving communication skills with the Online Practice and Online Workbooks for your course’ on 8th October 2014 from 10:00 – 11:00 and 15:00 – 16:00 BST.

Communication and collaboration tools

How can we give our students more individualised instruction and feedback? How can we extend communication outside the classroom? Teachers can struggle with these issues especially when large classes and teaching demands get in the way.

Individualised instruction and feedback

All the courses with new Online Practice and Online Workbooks (listed below) have integrated communication and collaboration tools. By using the Messages tool, teachers can contact the entire class with updates or announcements. This is a useful tool for reminding students of deadlines or other classroom management issues, and is also useful for relaying information about upcoming aims and learning objectives. As well as reaching the class as a whole, teachers can contact groups of students. This is not only useful for differentiating instruction, but also during stages of project work. For example, teachers can give each group targeted guidance or further instruction. The Messages tool also allows for individual messaging so that teachers can personalise feedback. In this way teachers can direct students to exercises which would benefit them, set targets to work on and send reminders related to those targets.

Extending communication outside the classroom

Learners often struggle with finding ways to use English outside the classroom. The Discussion tool provides a way for students to do this in a non-threatening environment.  Teachers can assign a discussion task as part of assessed coursework or to continue a class discussion that students may not have had time to complete. These discussions can be monitored or viewed later by the teacher who can then use them to help students build language strategies for better interaction. The discussions are also a useful resource for assessing in which language areas students may need revision or follow-up work. The Discussion tool can also be set up for use by groups so that they can meet in a virtual space to discuss project work.

The live Chat function is another way to increase contact time with English, and many students will already be familiar with if they use social media. These can be whole class chats or set up as groups. Ideas for using the chat include setting up reading circle discussions or doing role plays. Roles can be assigned to individual students within the chat – a moderator, for example, could ensure that all the students participate by inviting comments from less ‘chatty’ participants.

Live Chat function

These tools are suitable for students at any level and are available for courses with Online Practice and Online Workbooks at oxfordlearn.com:

—   Aim High
—   American English File, second edition
—   Business Result DVD edition
—   English File, third edition
—   English Plus
—   Headway Academic Skills
—   insight
—   Network
—   New Headway, fourth edition
—   New Headway Plus, special edition
—   Oxford Online Skills Program: General English and Academic English
—   Q: Skills for Success, special edition
—   Reach Out
—   Solutions, 2nd edition (International, Nederlands and Maturita)
—   Speak Now
—   Stretch

Find out more at: www.oup.com/elt/teachonline


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Critical Thinking in your lessons – It’s easier than you think!

Pensive girlIn the second blog post in our series on 21st Century skills, (to accompany our teacher training videos on the same subject), Charles Vilina talks more specifically about critical thinking skills and how you can bring critical thinking into your lessons.

In my earlier blog, I introduced some of the main 21st Century skills, and argued that the English language classroom is a perfect environment to build those skills. After suggesting five “strategies” that I feel are essential to encourage 21st Century thinking and learning, I promised some more specifics in later blogs.

My focus for this particular post is on the skill known as “critical thinking.” I look at critical thinking as a series of abilities that take students beyond simple comprehension of information. A critical thinker uses logic and evidence to prioritize and classify information, find relationships, make judgments, and solve problems.

You might argue that our students don’t need to move beyond the simple comprehension of words and sentences. However, critical thinkers are better learners, because they explore meaning much more deeply. As English language curriculums continue to use more content to teach English, critical thinking strategies give students a chance to analyze and process the information in valuable ways.

Let’s look at one specific way in which you can begin to bring critical thinking into your lessons. It begins with vocabulary, one of the building blocks of language.

Vocabulary

In all vocabulary development, students must know a word in three ways: by its form, its meaning, and its use. Critical thinking takes this concept even further. Students should know a word as it relates to other words. For example, let’s say that you are teaching students the following lexical set about forms of transportation:

bicycle sailboat
airplane hot air balloon
rocket subway train
cruise ship bus
taxi skateboard

Once your students have a solid understanding of the above words, I’d suggest the following activity:

  1. Divide the class into groups of four students.
  2. Ask student groups to list the above forms of transportation in order from slowest to fastest.
  3. Ask each student group to discuss their list with another group.

This activity, as simple as it sounds, involves lots of logic and critical thinking. For example, students may decide that a skateboard is probably the slowest form of transportation on the list. However, it gets a bit more difficult after that. Is a bicycle faster than a sailboat? It depends on the wind speed. Therefore, does a sailboat move at the same speed as a hot air balloon, since they both move with the wind? Does a taxi move faster than a subway train? Sometimes, but then a taxi has to stop at intersections. How about a cruise ship? Perhaps we can find the average speed of one on the Internet. Is a rocket the fastest form of transportation? Yes, everyone agrees that it is.

The goal is actually NOT to arrive at a correct answer, but to get students to think more deeply about words, what they represent, how they are each part of bigger systems, how they relate to each other within those systems, and so on.

By doing so, students are required to use all of their language skills in the process. The lesson is no longer about memorization and simple meaning. It has transcended this and become an experience. Students are much more likely to remember and use these vocabulary words after such an activity.

Of course, any number of vocabulary sets can be used, with a variety of other critical thinking activities. For example:

1. The lexical set is “inventions”

Activity One:  List the words on a timeline in the order in which they were invented.

Activity Two:  List the words again in the order of importance to humans.

2. The lexical set is “sports”

Activity One:  List the words in a Venn Diagram, dividing sports into those that can be played indoors only, outdoors only, and both indoors and outdoors.

Activity Two:  List the words again in the order of the amount of equipment needed to play them.

3. The lexical set is “adjectives”

Activity One:  List the words under the headings of Positive, Negative, and Neutral.

Activity Two:  List the words in a Venn Diagram, dividing the adjectives into those that can describe people, things, or both.

As mentioned before, get students into groups to collaborate and to achieve the goals of each activity. Then, get groups talking together to discuss their choices.

These types of activities are especially helpful as students later create sentences using these words. After all, they’ve had a chance to explore the vocabulary more deeply with their fellow classmates.

In coming blogs, we’ll discuss many more ways to include critical thinking in your lessons. Until then, Happy Teaching!


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5 Ways to Prepare Your Students for the 21st Century

Young boy writing equation on chalkboardIn the first in a series of blog posts about 21st Century skills, (to accompany our teacher training videos on the same subject), author and English language teacher Charles Vilina provides some great tips on why 21st Century skills are important, and how to incorporate them into your classroom teaching.

When I was a small boy in the 1960s, drawings of the 21st Century always showed the same visions. People of the future would wear shiny space clothing, travel on moving sidewalks and in flying cars, and talk on portable phones.

Isn’t it interesting that many of these visions have come true? We now have personal computers and smartphones that let us share information instantly around the world. Modern air travel can take us anywhere on the planet. And while I don’t wear space clothes, I do use those moving sidewalks in airports! I think we can all agree that the 21st Century is a very exciting time in human history.

So when I talk to teachers about new developments in English education, and go on to mention the term 21st Century skills, why do so many begin to look uncomfortable?

Let’s start by looking at these skills a bit more carefully. 21st Century skills can actually be listed as a group of words that begin with the letter “C”.

Communication          Creativity          Critical Thinking          Collaboration

To state it simply, these are the four skills that your students will need to be successful in the 21st Century.

21st Century skills are being taught in primary classrooms in many countries. Many international schools are also committed to teaching these skills. However, I would argue that your English language classroom is actually the PERFECT place to build these 21st Century skills. Here’s why:

In essence, the English language classroom exists to prepare students to communicate across cultures, across borders, across perspectives. As the world evolves toward greater interconnectedness, it is our students to whom we entrust the responsibility of building a better global society. Yes, basic language skills are essential. However, equally essential is an individual’s ability to think outside the box, find future solutions to future problems, collaborate and reach a consensus across cultural and national borders.

So let’s get to some specifics. How easy is it to teach 21st Century Skills in your classroom? Well, chances are good that you’ve already started. The English language classroom has been evolving for decades, and continues to do so.

As a general guide, however, here are five “essential strategies” I would recommend that you develop in your classroom to encourage 21st Century thinking and learning. They may involve a change in perspective about how your students learn best, so feel free to take small but steady steps toward these goals. Practical information on how to implement these strategies will follow in future blogs.

1. Let Your Students Lead The Learning

Learning takes place best in environments where students feel empowered to learn. Effective teachers are more like moderators, offering inspiration and guiding students to discover for themselves. Give students the opportunity to be self-learners, which guarantees lifelong learning. This brings us directly to the second point.

2. Create an Inquiry-Based Classroom Environment

If students are to lead the way to learning, they need to be able to ask questions – and then find the means to answer them. Students (and teachers) need to “wonder out loud” as they encounter new information. A KWL chart (What do you Know? What do you Want to know? What have you Learned?) can guide students toward true self-motivated learning.

3. Encourage Collaboration

We are greater than the sum of our parts.”  Herein is the heart of collaboration. A healthy, active classroom is a sharing classroom. Students are social beings, and even more so in a language class. Find every opportunity to allow students to form pairs and small groups. Not only does this encourage the development of speaking and listening skills, but it also teaches students how to effectively achieve goals together.

4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Learning is more than memorizing and remembering. Critical thinking skills take students well beyond simple comprehension of information. Students use these skills to solve problems in new situations, make inferences and generalizations, combine information in new patterns, and make judgments based on evidence and criteria. Introduce activities in your lessons that build critical thinking skills along with language skills.

5. Encourage Creativity

Encourage your students to be creative throughout each lesson. Creative activities allow students to express what they’ve learned in a new way. This synthesizing and personalizing of knowledge consolidates learning, and creates an experience that remains with students long after the class is over.

By keeping these strategies in mind as you plan each lesson, you will be encouraging the development of 21st Century skills. Of course, your students may also need time to adjust to this new way of learning. However, they will soon begin to feel empowered to think more critically, to ask questions and seek answers, and to express themselves creatively. Most importantly, their communication skills will become much stronger as a result, which always remains our main objective!

Keep an eye out for more in-depth blogs in the 21st Century skills series. In the meantime, I wish all of you the greatest of adventures in this wonderful vocation that is English education!


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How To Teach ´Great Openings´ for Presentations In English

Young businessman giving presentation

Photo via Dries Buytaert under Creative Commons license

Christopher Wright has worked as a Business English Teacher and a Business Trainer in the UK, US, Spain and France. In his first guest post for OUP, he outlines techniques for teaching Business English students the art of opening presentations.

Doing presentations, like anything in life, is a question of preparation, positive attitude and ´practice makes perfect´.

Just like in the popular BBC TV Show Dragon´s Den the more preparation and practice participants (students) have, either in front of an audience (no matter how small) or recording themselves on a web camera, the more relaxed and confident they will feel when they actually have to give their presentations.

So what can we do as teachers and trainers to help? Here are 6 tips:

1. Visual Aids

Visual aids such as images, objects, sculptures and models are a fantastic but under-exploited tool for making ´great openings´ in presentations in English. A visual aid immediately helps grab the audience´s attention and piques their curiosity. And once the audience starts thinking “what is it?”, “how does it relate to the presentation?” and “why have they shown me this?”, the presenter starts winning their battle to achieve their presentation objective (to inform, persuade, entertain etc.). Visual aids also act as a great support for non-native speakers who are nervous speaking in front of people, as it removes them from the spotlight. Also it helps focus their attention on the presentation opening instead of worrying about the audience´s reaction. Watch this great example, a 5 minute TED Talk by a Dutch Engineer, and how he uses a visual object to make a boring presentation really come alive. Count how long it is before he actually starts speaking.

2. Petcha Kutcha 20×20

Petcha Kutcha events are organized around the World. They were started by a group of young designers in Tokyo in 2003 and have become world famous. Their goal is to improve ´The Art of Concise Presentations´. Each presenter is allowed to show 20 images (one per slide), with each slide lasting up to 20 seconds, hence the 20×20. So how does this relate to teaching presentations in English? In an internet obsessed world that has become more visual, faster paced, and now suffers from information overload, the ability to quickly communicate your key messages is vital. Other advantages include: being a useful technique for teaching time-poor professionals and managers; helping long- winded students become more concise; and finally there is a cross-cultural aspect.

3. Storytelling

Nancy Duarte wrote an excellent book called Resonate (Wiley, 2010), which helps any person learn how to craft visual stories and present them using the techniques normally reserved for cinema and literature. With Resonate, presenters learn how to: connect with the audience empathetically; craft ideas that get repeated; use story structures inherent in great communication; create captivating content; inspire and persuade audiences. It´s a book full of quick and easy-to-use communication techniques for creating great presentation openings.

4. Power of your Voice

Following on from point 3, great story-tellers also know how to use the power of their voice to captivate, entertain and influence their audience. There´s a reason why children (and some adults) will sit quietly, attentively and listen for a long time to a good story-teller. What is it they do? They vary their tone, pitch, volume, speed, intonation, emphasis and pauses to create moments of suspense, excitement, danger and happiness. There are hundreds of good examples on YouTube you can analyse with your students to show them the effect of the power of their voice when giving a presentation. Try comparing a presenter with a monotonous tone and one who knows how to use the power of their voice to see how different they are.

5. Using Quotes

This can feel like a very American presentation style, but its appeal is much more international than you´d think. They key is to select quotes from internationally known and famous authors, figures and people both from the past and present. Here is a good source for presentation quotes. Why do presenters use quotes? For two reasons, firstly it helps them quickly frame an argument or key message for the audience. Secondly, it gives their own presentation a little more credibility as people tend not to question these quotes as much as they would if they’re the presenter´s own.

6. Evaluating and Giving Feedback

At the beginning of this post I mentioned ´practice makes perfect´ and also the TV program Dragon´s Den. Why? Both highlight the importance of ´Evaluating and Giving Feedback´ to perfect a presentation. As teachers we can work with our students to develop criteria to evaluate their own and other presentations so they can learn through watching others as well as themselves. Technology (webcams, private YouTube channels, etc.) gives students the option of peer review of their presentations, either by themselves, or by teachers and classmates.


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Using Twitter with your Students

Twitter birds on a wire

Image credit: StartBloggingOnline.com CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Sean Dowling, an Educational Technology Coordinator, looks at how teachers can continue to support their students’ learning outside of the classroom through the use of Twitter.

Twitter is an online social network website and microblogging platform that allows users to post and read text-based messages (often with attached images), called tweets, up to 140 characters long. According to Statistic Brain (2013, May 7), there are over 554 million active registered Twitter users who tweet 58 million times per day, and projected revenue for 2013 is almost $400 million. In this post, I will make some suggestions as to how to use Twitter with your students.

Getting Started

To use Twitter, both you and your students will need to set up Twitter accounts. Once set up, get your students to start following you and their classmates’ Twitter accounts. Figure 1 below shows a typical Twitter home page. There are areas for composing new tweets, keeping track of who follows you and who you are following, viewing trending tweets, and viewing a stream of your tweets and the tweets of people you are following.

Sample Twitter home page

Figure 1: Sample Twitter home page

Using tweets for teaching and learning

Starting conversations: Ask a question. Get students to reply.

A sample conversation initiated by teacher

Figure 2: A sample conversation initiated by teacher

Encourage your students to start conservations. These could be about their learning, but could also be about their daily lives and fun things. One of the advantages of using a tool like Twitter is that it introduces an element of fun into learning, so use this to motivate students. Another advantage of using Twitter conversations rather than open classroom discussions is to give all students, particularly those who are perhaps shy about speaking in English, more opportunities to participate.

A sample conversation initiated by a student

Figure 3: A sample conversation initiated by a student

Posting links to learning materials: Long links will soon use up most of the available 140 characters, so use a service like bitly to create much shorter links. These posts could also be the starting point for more conversations.

A post with two shortened bitly links

Figure 4: A post with two shortened bitly links

This use of Twitter is an effective way to blend the longer, more static posts in traditional blogs with the shorter, more dynamic posts of a microblog. A traditional blog could be used to set up and deliver the learning content of an actual lesson, but Twitter could be used for real-time interaction during the lesson.

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