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The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachers

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachers Texts have always played an integral part in classroom learning, for skills development and as contexts for language study. It has long been acknowledged that choosing texts that are interesting and motivating is key, but we also need to ensure rich and meaningful content. Katie Wood, teacher trainer and materials writer, suggests using four key questions to assess whether a text meets these criteria and discusses why it should.

Question 1: Does the text contain information that can be of use in the real world outside the classroom?

In today’s fast-moving and increasingly digital world students are less likely than ever before to read or listen to something solely because it’s good for them, or because it contains examples of a particular structure. They are likely to want to know which specific skills they’re working on, but also what information they can take from the text and make use of in their life outside the classroom. A good text needs to be engaging, but it also needs to contain information that remains relevant and useful to the student once the lesson is over. Texts need to provide take-away value both in terms of linguistic development and real-world knowledge.

Question 2: Does the content help students relate their experiences, situation and country to the world as a whole?

More than ever before, both students and teachers have access to information from a variety of truly international sources on a grand scale. Facebook, Twitter and the internet in general mean that students are communicating internationally both in terms of their career and social life. As a result the communications themselves have become more related to matters which cross boundaries and borders.

Question 3: Is the text generative and can productive tasks be tailored to students’ needs?

The challenge is to provide both students and teachers with texts that have universal appeal, that are relevant, yet are in some way not already worn out by digital media. Choosing texts which are content rich increases the likelihood that they will generate different responses and points of interests from different individuals, and this includes the teachers. Maintaining the enthusiasm of a teacher dealing with the material for perhaps the fifth or sixth time should not be underestimated. In addition, a large number of students learn English in a General English class, but increasingly they have a more defined purpose in learning than they did in the past. In one group for example, a teacher might find students who want to pass an exam, want to improve their English in a business environment, or want to focus more on social English. A genuinely generative text provides the opportunity to lead into productive work in more than just one of these areas.

Question 4: Is the content of the text authentic and does it lend itself to further research and exploration?

As previously mentioned, students want to feel that what they spend their time reading and listening to in the classroom, has real world application. A text that satisfies this criteria should ideally create a desire in readers or listeners to discover more. Consequently, texts need to be authentic and googleable, and this should be true for all levels. So, while a text chosen for elementary learners will need to be adapted in terms of language, we need the content to be real. A student can then go away and find out more for themselves.


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‘Mind the gap’ – Supporting students beyond Intermediate

Robin Walker, freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer, looks at ways of supporting students who are beyond Intermediate but not yet ready for Upper Intermediate level. Robin discussed this topic in his webinar on 20th February, entitled ‘Mind the gap’ – Helping your students to cross the intermediate threshold with confidence. View the recording here.

When I started teaching English in the early 1980s, adult coursebooks from all of the leading publishers ran to three or four levels – Beginner, Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced. This 4-level learning was a reflection of the limited strength of the then emerging ELT publishing industry, rather than the reality for the learner in the English language classroom, and inevitably there was a gap between what was available and what learners needed.

To bridge the gap that most students encountered between the four ‘official’ levels, one of the strategies we used as teachers was to change publishers. If a group was struggling at Elementary level and wasn’t ready to go on to Intermediate, for example, we would look around for an Elementary-level coursebook from another publisher. This worked up to a point, but often brought with it the disadvantage of changing from a style that learners had become used to, and which generated a sense of security, to a style that was new and that provoked different reactions from different students.

The new style was not necessarily better or worse, but it definitely felt different. For the more adventurous students this unfamiliarity often acted as a stimulus, and they took to the new book with few if any problems, and, initially at least, with genuine enthusiasm. But the learners in a group that were less sure of themselves (and who were usually the students that were finding it difficult to move up to the next level), would often tell you that they liked the old book better, and would even ask if it wasn’t possible to repeat the year with the same book.

Another problem with trying to bridge the gap with a coursebook from a different publisher was that the new book, quite correctly, assumed that the users were coming to the level for the first time. There is no reason to write a coursebook aimed at learners who have been using materials from a competing publisher. The only possible strategy is to assume that students adopting a coursebook at a given level, will be arriving at that level after successfully completing the previous one with a book from the same series.

The outcome of this situation in class was that material would, logically, be presented to learners as if they had never seen it before. This wasn’t the case, of course, and students often lost motivation when they embarked upon a unit that presented an area of language that they had already studied only the year before. I can clearly remember a strong sense of We’ve already done this! invading the classroom during these ‘repeat’ years.

As the teacher, I knew only too well that the group needed to go back to the language areas in question in order to, on the one hand, consolidate any previous learning, and, on the other, successfully cover what the class had demonstrably failed to learn the year before. In general, it takes a lot of skill to overcome the demotivating effect of going back in order to go forward, and often the new coursebook ends up being supplemented by original materials provided by the teacher. This is a solution that a) raises the question as to why the students have been required to buy a book they seldom use, and b) eats up serious amounts of a conscientious teacher’s free time.

Over the intervening 30 years since I began teaching, major coursebooks have expanded from running at three or four levels, to offering teachers and learners five or even six levels. The Common European Framework of Reference, whose influence has extended way beyond the shores of even the widest concept of Europe, started off with six levels, from A1 to C2, although the use of the ‘+’ sign to generate even more precise gradings is increasingly common. Theoretically, we can now talk about a 12-level system that progresses from A1 through A1+ to A2, and then on to A2+, and so on.

Although it is interesting to be able to refer to individual students with this almost mathematical precision, it is not feasible in practical terms to run a language school with as many as twelve different levels. In that respect, the six levels from Beginner to Advanced, the current default system in many private and public ELT institutions, constitute a strong basic structure. The progression from one level to another, whilst not without its problems, is realistic and generally motivating for learners.

There is, however, one level where again and again learners seem to struggle, and this is the step up from Intermediate to Upper-Intermediate. This is a critical step for many learners, and handled badly, it can lead to them becoming demotivated, and even abandoning their studies.

Learners abandoning English is a highly undesirable outcome. But as we saw at the beginning of this blog, neither changing publishers to repeat at the same level nor repeating at the intermediate level with the same coursebook, are very adequate solutions. Just as inadequate is the strategy of pushing Intermediate learners into an Upper-Intermediate class and hoping they’ll survive if we give them enough support.

The fact is that if we are really going to ‘Mind The Gap’ that Intermediate students face, what is needed is an Intermediate Plus coursebook. This will be a coursebook that:

a) is from the same publisher as the book the group used at intermediate level,

but that:

b) tackles material from this level in fresh and engaging ways.

This is precisely why OUP and authors Christina Latham-Koenig and Clive Oxenden and co-author Mike Boyle have created English File Intermediate Plus. In my webinar on 20th February I’ll be looking at this especially in terms of grammar, vocabulary, listening and speaking, four key areas for learners hoping to progress to Upper-Intermediate.


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What makes a good coursebook

esl coursebookRobin Walker, freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer offers practical examples about how a good coursebook supports effective goal setting.

In August in response to my webinar on helping intermediate students, I received an email from Alina de Palma, who teaches in Brazil. She told me:

“My students and I set goals in February this year and it was really great, they felt extremely motivated at that time, but the goal was more like a long-term goal, so now I do not feel that energy anymore. Besides, I think I have set very subjective goals with some of them and that leads to my question … about what kinds of goals to set.”

What kind of goals to set?

This is a key question and worth considering when choosing a good coursebook. In general terms, we usually relate goal-setting to something we do at the beginning of the year. We enjoy doing it but then the goals get forgotten, or they were too vague in the first place to be operational. Going to class aiming at the same ill-defined, long-term goal (Improve my English! for example), soon fails to provide much motivation. In fact, it can become a source of discouragement.

How do we get round this?

Like Alina, I ask students to set goals at the beginning of a course. I ask each student to write these down and then I collect them in. Here’s what one student wrote recently before an intensive course on pronunciation:

My goals would be to:

  • Improve my intonation.
  • Have as little Spanish accent as possible.
  • Detect and eliminate specific mistakes that I might be repeating.
  • Learn how to interpret the phonetics in a dictionary.
  • Be more confident when dealing with unknown environments (I mean when you don’t know the audience or there are other “risk” factors).
  • By better knowing the phonetics and the pronunciation I hope to improve my listening as well.

This student was exceptional. Most learners aren’t able to articulate their aims so clearly and as a result, they set goals that are too vague.

With a new group of students, it’s useful to make a summary of the initial goals they wrote down and then make the summary available to everyone. Some goals will be common to all, and it’s useful to refer back to these on a fairly regular basis as you’re teaching. For example, at the start of a lesson you can point out that the listening work you’re going to do that day ties in really well with the goal everyone had written down at the beginning of the course about “understanding colloquial native-speaker speech better”. It’s really important to tie in what you do in class each day to pre-course goals so that learners see that you have a plan, and that class activities really do serve their needs.

At a different level, I try to get learners to set short-term goals. The problem here is that most learners don’t know how to articulate these, and so one useful way to help them is to give them a list of possible short-term goals for a lesson, and let them choose two or three. These can come from the contents of the unit the class is about to start. Good coursebooks will state the language learning aims for each unit somewhere in the book, often at the start of each unit. As we begin a new unit or lesson we need to make the goals specific by talking through them with your class or writing them on the board. Without our guidance, many learners simply don’t pay any attention to them.

It’s also useful for us as teachers to clarify to our learners what we are going to do that day and why. Sometimes we are so familiar with what we are doing that we forget to tell our learners why we are doing it. But for them it is often the first time and the logic behind class activities isn’t necessarily clear to them. Adults in this situation will usually passively follow our instructions, but not really engage with the lesson. With rowdy teenagers you might have discipline problems.

At the start of the class use the coursebook to point out the lesson aims and contents. This should help learners to set personal short-term goals for that lesson. The CEFR ‘can do’ statements are useful here as they set out in objective terms what learners should be able to do (better) at the end of a class. Most good coursebooks now use these in one way or another.

The above notwithstanding, I find the best source of short-term goals comes from learners reflecting individually on performance in specific areas at the end of a class. Listening is a nightmare for most of my students, so when we finish a listening activity I get them to reflect on how they did individually. I do the same with fluency activities. After a speaking activity I might ask students to think about their performance and to ‘identify’ with one or two of the following typical problems:

  • I couldn’t find the words I needed for the activity.
  • I had problems with the pronunciation of many/some/a few words.
  • I got halfway into a sentence and then didn’t know how to finish it.
  • I didn’t always understand what my partners were saying.
  • I didn’t speak because the other people were much better than me.

Identifying an individual problem goes a long way to setting a personal short-term goal for a future lesson. These will all be specific to each learner, which is very important.

Finally, we need to be careful not to spend too much time on goal setting or it will become a chore and will de-motivate our students. What matters is to find the balance between setting goals and achieving them. It is also very important to help learners to enjoy their success when they have achieved their goals. One goal I used to set new elementary-level students was that by December I would be able to give the whole class in English (not often done in Spanish secondary schools). When we achieved this – usually by mid-November – we celebrated our progress. This was inevitably a turning point in the year for the group, and was the moment when I began to move towards the students setting their own goals, both long-term and short-term.

Like many things in ELT, goal setting isn’t natural to learners, and it requires us as teachers to take them to the point where they can do it for themselves. But we need to be patient, and we must avoid setting ourselves unrealistic goals about goal-setting.

To find out more about what makes a good coursebook why not join my webinar on 31st October?


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Bring your ELT coursebook to life!

Students with a textbook in the parkKolos Esztergályos, an Oxford ELT Consultant based in Hungary, gives his tips for how to breathe new life into your ELT coursebooks.

Most teachers would agree that no matter how attractive an ELT coursebook might look, its real strengths and hidden weaknesses will unfold only in action, that is, in actual classroom use. And then, it’s not long before teachers start saying things like “Oh, that text didn’t go down particularly well with my students” or “My group couldn’t care less about pop stars”. With the new academic year looming ahead, it looks like a good time to start thinking about your new classes, your present coursebook, and how to match the two by tweaking some elements to your and your students’ tastes.

Generation gap 1: You know the movie star? Chances are, your students won’t

You have a charming Pierce Brosnan smiling at you next to a reading text about James Bond movies. You might find that your students will have a different idea of a heart-throb. With today’s online resources it’s only a matter of a few clicks to revive the personality and put them into a present-day context through Wikipedia or IMDb facts and links. Start off with a topical bit of information or a recent photograph that can spark a discussion about a life event, a controversial topic, or the social issues a celebrity is likely to stand up for. With less advanced groups you can use the photos only: in pairs, one student describes the person in the photo from years ago, the other will do the same with a more recent one. Later, they will show their pictures to each other and find out that they have been describing the same person – with a lot of differences!

There are many various possibilities, but the main thing is to find a way to relate the person to your students’ present reality.

Generation gap 2: You can’t relate to a topic

You’ve never followed the Premier League events. You can’t see how designer brands make a difference. Your worst idea of a holiday is couchsurfing.

It’s very likely that your students will be experts on the topic, so the best thing is to own up. Argue that you don’t see why brands / clothes / having the latest gadgets / etc. are important. You’re sure to instigate a wild classroom debate, especially with the 14-18 age group.

Tom, Dick and Harry

By the very nature of coursebooks, exercises are often riddled with general, “faceless” names. You might want to try and add a little flavour by replacing these with the students in your group. “What time does Ivan get up?” will have a totally new interpretation if Ivan is the regular latecomer in your group! “What would Mr (eg. history teacher) say if he found out that you had copied your homework?” will also shed a new light on typical questions. But even without direct references, any mechanical exercise will benefit from turning fictitious names into flesh-and-blood people. Of course, it is your responsibility to avoid sensitive issues and to maintain the integrity of all people involved.

 “C, final answer”

Multiple choice tasks are prevalent in any ELT material, obviously, for good reasons. But don’t forget that any classic MC task can be turned into a ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ quiz item to involve groups of students and to increase motivation. There are some great online tools to create your own quiz show. You will have to introduce “cat mode” (ie. multiple lives) if you want to play it with more students or groups of students simultaneously; all students or groups will mark an answer, but those who get it wrong can also play on with a life lost, or, alternatively, by earning no points/”money” for that round. Even more engaging if played with toy money, where culturally acceptable.

Video killed the radio star

ELT materials today tend to cater for the fact that students are brought up in a multi-sensory environment. As a result, these materials make use of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic channels to accommodate different learner types and to make content more memorable. This, in turn, allows us to transform material by “switching off” channels to leave more to the imagination. If you have a listening text, first use the transcript only to let students make guesses about the age, sex, occupation, etc. of the characters. If you have a video, use the audio only and get students to make the same inferences. This may sound time-consuming but will help students focus on the linguistic material to make judgements and to work with the text more intensively.

My test, my learning

It is indeed very appealing and time-saving to print off a ready-made test, but you can make students part of the whole learning process by involving them in test design. Use your review lesson to get groups of learners to write tasks for an ideal test they would be happy to take. This will make them go through the material covered and they will be likely to use the task types found in the coursebook. Collate and correct the tasks, go through some of the items together. The remainder will give you the basis of a test, ideally to be used as it is. When compiling the actual test, give students credit for an extra morale booster. I’ve found that this works especially well with students who need extra support.

Naturally, this is a list of recommendations only, but I hope that these ideas will give you enough inspiration to look forward to a new academic year!


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Catherine Walter on the #ELTJ Debate at #IATEFL Liverpool

Catherine WalterThe ELT Journal debate at IATEFL Liverpool was a lively and well-attended affair. Thanks to the British Council, you can see the whole event online on the IATEFL Liverpool website. Here, Catherine Walter, who opposed the motion, gives her round up of the debate.

Scott Thornbury claimed that Published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners. Surprisingly, he did not repeat what he’s been saying for years in his Dogme / Teaching Unplugged strand – that teachers should not bother with course materials. Instead, he started from the weaker premise that course materials need improvement. Scott began by showing images of early twentieth-century books – hardly germane to the discussion, as if the nutritional value of deep-fried Mars Bars gave a picture of the contemporary diet. He maintained that there is a prevalence of employed, white, heterosexual male middle class characters in current materials. This doesn’t correspond to the regular exercises I do with students to count and classify representations in materials, where some materials do very well indeed. Scott also suggested that vocabulary syllabuses are not based on frequency, and that spoken grammar is not well represented. I would argue with both these points.

My view:

There are high quality materials available today from international and national publishers. Most learners globally learn from materials in countries where English is not a dominant language, in large classes that meet two or three times a week, where access to other materials or the internet may not be good. The book is still a valuable technology here; and it is also often doorway to different possible combinations of supplementary materials and activities, in whatever media the teachers and learners can access.

What about reflecting the lives of learners?

When I was learning a foreign language as an adolescent in a semi-rural working-class industrial town, I did not want language teaching materials to reflect my life – I wanted them to take me out of it, to show me other lives and other ways of living. Further, if materials are too firmly anchored in the here and now of the learner, how will that prepare them for the future?  Of course, there are some ways in which course materials should and do reflect learners’ lives – for example, by being based on knowledge about how people learn at different ages, or by comparing learners’ lives to those in other places.

What about learners’ needs? 

  • Learners need to learn the language, not just those bits of the language that might happen to emerge in a lesson. Teams of course developers think very carefully about the range of language learners need, and make sure this range is covered.  Individual teachers don’t have the time or resources for this.
  • Learners need classroom time to be used effectively, because typically there isn’t much of that time.  Course materials offer clear, efficient ways of teaching language – and Norris and Ortega’s (2000) and Spada and Tomita’s (2010) analyses show that this works, and results in lasting acquisition.
  • Learners need materials that will help them with the next English language situation they will meet. Course materials provide structures and contexts for out-of-classroom situations.
  • Learners need access to extra resources that can be tailored to their needs. Modern courses offer pathways and activities to suit different learners.
  • Learners need clear goals and records of progress, and they value materials because they give these.
  • Learners need teachers who are well supported: course materials scaffold teachers, giving them a base from which to replace, reinvent, innovate and fine-tune materials for learners.
  • Learners need teachers who have access to professional development activities. Few teachers around the world can come to an IATEFL conference. Teachers in the majority 3-hour-a-week context, and not only there, regularly report on how they benefit from the teacher’s materials in their course books and in their development as professionals.

There is an unprecedented choice of materials available today; teachers don’t need to feed their students deep-fried Mars Bars. Materials can give teachers something to depend on, and something to kick against; they can give teachers frameworks and ingredients to depend on and to improvise from. How teachers nourish their students’ learning will always stem from the teachers’ creativity and their awareness of learners’ needs and lives.

You can also read Scott Thornbury’s take on the ELT Journal Debate in his post “R is for Representation” and watch the recorded debate online. Which of the speakers would have won your vote?

Catherine Walter writes English language teaching materials and lectures in applied linguistics at the University of Oxford (UK). She is the convenor of the low-residency Postgraduate Diploma / MSc in Teaching English Language in University Settings (on which there are still a few places available for the coming academic year!).

References

Norris, J. M. and L. Ortega.  2000.  Effectiveness of L2 instruction:  a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis.  Language Learning 50/3:417-528.

Spada, N. and Tomita, Y.  2010.  Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature:  a meta-analysis.  Language Learning 60/2:1-46.