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Making the Impossible Possible – Q&A session


shutterstock_299889014Last month, we hosted Gareth Davies’ webinar,
‘Making the Impossible Possible: How to get your students writing’. During the webinar and on his previous blog post, we called for questions for Gareth that we could ask him post-webinar, to delve deeper into creative writing in the EFL classroom. Here’s the full transcript of this interview:

What is your opinion on teachers writing a sample text for students to get used to writing?

This is a good question, reading and writing go hand in hand and there is evidence to suggest that the more reading a student does the better their writing will become, so in general having as much exposure to different texts can only help students.  Having or not having a model is often the cited as the major difference between process and product writing. In process writing the students study a sample text and use it as a model and is a good approach for students who are preparing for an exam or who need to write formulaic emails or reports. However, sometimes I think this can impose restrictions on students. So if I am doing a creative writing exercise I might avoid giving students a model at the start of the activity, to allow their creative juices to flow.

Have you ever tried to channel the positive energy of these creative writing tasks and turn them into positive academic writing performance?

How could we use these ideas to writing for exams? I mean, IELTS, Cambridge exams?

Thanks for this question, let me try to give you an analogy. When someone trains to run a marathon, they don’t only run long distances. They do some gym work, some short runs, and perhaps they change their diet. For me it is the same with preparing for an exam. You need to do some exam practice, but you also need to hone your skills and prepare in different ways. Creative writing tasks can allow students to practise their writing in an interesting way, but they are still using the skills they will need for academic purposes. When I was teaching an EAP course in the summer I did several storytelling and writing activities just to free the students up, and they found it very helpful.

How you would evaluate or share the poems?

This is a very interesting point. When I ask my students to do creative writing activities, I try to focus as much as possible on the content rather than the accuracy. I see it as a fluency activity. Therefore, on their first draft, I might comment on how the story or poem made me feel, how I enjoyed it, etc., and only point out errors where the meaning is confused. I might also ask the students to peer correct each other’s work and ask me if they are not sure about something. As for sharing their work I ask the students to decide if they are public or private, they mark the top of the paper. If they are public then I will ask them to read them out or put them on display. If the students have marked it as private then only I will look at it. With creative writing, it is often personal, I don’t think it is fair to share the students’ work if they are not ready.

What do you think of beginning with more concrete descriptive language?

In one of my previous webinars, I talked about the following activity, which looks at descriptive language.

Write a sentence on the board

e.g. The boy walked up the stairs.

Tell the student the boy was scared, ask them where they would put that word in that sentence. e.g. The scared boy walked up the stairs.

Now ask them how he walked up the stairs. Elicit an adverb and ask them where it goes in the sentence.

e.g. The scared boy walked quickly up the stairs.

Next ask them to describe the stairs, (narrow? steep? dark?) and ask them where their adjective goes. e.g. The scared boy walked quickly up the dark stairs.

Finally, ask them to think of a different word for ‘walked’, (ran? climbed? tip-toed?)

e.g. The scared boy tip-toed quickly up the dark stairs.

Now it is time to edit. You’ve gone from a simple sentence to a much too complicated one. Which words leave the best impression on the reader, which are not needed?

 e.g. Perhaps you don’t need scared because ‘tip-toed’ and dark imply this.

Put the students into pairs and ask them to do the same for other adjectives, excited, happy, sad, angry etc.

You can help them with the words by translating or filling in gaps in their knowledge.

Which do you prefer? Poet or Teacher.

Actually, I love both and they are not that different. Both require you to plan and prepare carefully, both make you bring your personality to the work. Both encourage you to be creative. With both, you hope to leave a positive influence on your audience. And finally, with both sometimes things go wrong and you have to reassess and start again.


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7 ways to bring Creative Writing into the #EFL classroom

shutterstock_336098690Creative writing can add value to your classroom by taking students out of the ordinary structure of grammar books and allowing them more freedom to practice what they have learned in a creative way. It can also be very entertaining for the teacher, as they get to exercise their creative muscles with some fun and entertaining classroom ideas.

Here are 7 ways to bring creative writing to your classroom from teachers all over the world:

1. Bag of Props 

Stefan Chiarantano – Stefan has taught English in Taiwan, Japan and China for several years and in his hometown of Toronto, Canada.

To make learning English fun for my students I would bring in a bag of props that I could incorporate into my lessons. My bag of tricks included CDs of children’s songs, chants and pop music. I would use a chant with Total Physical Response (TPR) to begin a class with young learners or a pop song with adolescent junior high school students as a means to teach idioms, vocabulary or grammar. My bag also included puppets, which allowed me to teach target language such as greetings by acting out a dialogue skit with the puppets. I varied my voice for the puppets and soon discovered that it had introduced another native speaker in the classroom.. . It included stuffed animals, which I used to teach prepositions of place. There were coloured plastic balls to teach colours but which I also used in playful activities. . As silly as it sounds, I would be lost without my bag of tricks. It has infused creativity into the way I teach but more importantly it has made learning English an enjoyable experience for my students. 

2. A Sense of Adventure

Ezekiel Yerimoh Ezekiel is a Certified Supply Chain Officer and the CEO of Tonell & Cole. He is also the National Coordinator of Quizzing Nigeria (a member of the International Quizzing Association – IQA) and the President of Knowledgefield International. 

Creative writing can bring a spirit of adventure into the classroom. Thinking about an unusual, exciting and dangerous experience or event is not only a great way to widen the horizons of students but also to give them great exposure to new vocabulary. Moreover, students’ talents, gifts, skills, environment, background and personality will play a major role in its ability to function effectively in creative writing. Basically, students should be well trained to undertake the task of creative writing.

A good example of an unusual event is for one to imagine the sunlight when it is supposed to be dark or a wild animal that speaks like a human being. Students can become more engaged if they use their personality traits and experiences to come up with their own unusual events and then perform free writing based on the event, letting their stories becomes more and more unusual.

3. Debates and Quotes

Tatyana Fedosova  – Tatyana has a PhD in English Philology, and is Professor of English at the Department of German Philology of Gorno-Altaisk State University, Altai, Siberia, Russia.

My favorite written task for intermediate-level students is to write an expert viewpoint on a challenging real-life situation or problem for a column in a magazine, for example, how to behave in a new school. I like to provide students with a quotation of a famous person on some hot topic and have them write a short argumentative passage on it. I also have my students debate a proposed amendment to the constitution by writing a speech for the TV debates or write the presidential pledge for the elections. I find it useful to ask students to make up an ending to a story, to complete the beginning of a sentence, or to write a report about an exotic place that they visited or a cultural/sporting event that took place in their region. These tasks help to reinforce key concepts under study, develop critical-thinking, cognitive, and creative skills and have practical applications as well. 

4. Mad-Libs

Peter Winthrop – Peter has been teaching kindergarten and primary school students in Shanghai, China since 2009. In addition to teaching he also assists in teacher training and mentoring.

Bringing creative writing into the classroom can be difficult, most textbooks do not focus on that part of learning another language. I like to start with Mad-libs, funny word substitutions. This allows students to have fun with the language and slips in a lesson on the importance of word choice. My big tip is to celebrate originality and learning language learned outside the classroom as much as using correct grammar. We want to show students they can use the language they have learned and can make their own sentences. They don’t just have to rely on the sentence patterns they drill in class.

I always base the Madlibs on whatever the lessons content is, so even while being silly we are practicing and using the lessons language. An example would be:

“Tim is going to the ___ because he wants to eat ___ .”  

Student One will pick the location, say library, then Student Two pick the object, say books. That gives us the sentence:

 “Tim is going to the library because he wants to eat books .”

The grammar is correct, the vocabulary is in its correct place but the meaning is silly, so everyone gets a laugh.

5. Shared Writing

Amira Shouma – Amira is a certified ESL teacher in Quebec and Ontario. She is also currently an MA graduate student in Applied Linguistics at Concordia University.

I found the article “Activities for Writing Instruction” by Sharon M. Abbey a good resource for teachers in their writing classes. The author offered various activities to activate students’ sense of writing, including shared writing. With shared writing, the teacher teaches students writing by writing with them. The process of writing starts with brainstorming ideas in a shared writing session. For example, at the beginning of the session, a teacher can establish the purpose of the shared writing session with his/her students. Then, he/she brainstorms ideas with the group. Next, the teacher selects one of the ideas and invites students to develop it. At the time of composition, the teacher and students start writing together. Finally, the teacher and his/her students revise their text together. Shared writing helps students gain their confidence, build their motivation, and also enrich their ideas. 

6. Alternate Endings

Anna Klis is an experienced English teacher and has worked for several renowned language schools. She holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Wroclaw and a bachelor’s degree in Film Production from the University of Wales, Great Britain.

Students (at least intermediate level) are asked in advanced by a teacher to watch a famous/popular film (or choose a  chapter from a well-known book) and choose one important and meaningful scene. At home they prepare a short description of a continuation of the scene but the way they want it to be, so that it is completely different from the original, and they work on a new version that would possibly lead to a different ending. When working on such a piece of writing students are supposed to use newly-learned grammar and/or vocabulary structures to practice them. Then during the lesson they can guess the alternate endings or compare their versions to decide which one is the best and how it fits the original story.

7. Writing with the Senses

Rachel Playfair – Rachel is a teacher-trainer and language coach working in Barcelona, Spain.

From time to time I like to use a short writing activity as a ‘Warm-Down’ end of class activity to help balance the ‘Warm-Up’ oral activities I do. One of my favourite ones is “Respond With Your Senses”: I will give students a sensory prompt (i.e. show them a picture, play them some music, put an object in a bag that they can’t see and let them feel it, let them smell something like peppermint extract), then students do free-writing about the prompt for about 3-5 minutes, depending on their level. I can also use the prompts to preview or review classroom topics. For further creative and/or collaborative writing activities, I will then put students together into small groups to combine and develop their paragraphs, which we can then share together or put up on the classroom wall. This activity can be adapted to a wide range of levels and ages as long as you make sure they have had previous vocabulary input. 


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7 ways Creative Writing can help your EFL students

shutterstock_176605295Having graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Jonathan returned to his native Malta to get a TEFL Certificate before going to Korea for 4 years to travel and teach English. He has now returned to Toronto where he started CreatEng Cafe – a creative writing website for English learners. Each year they host a Creative Writing Competition where students from all over the world participate for a chance to win prizes and get published.

Learning phrases and studying grammar will help students understand the foundation of English, but they can only truly become fluent once they are able to construct their own sentences freely and independently, and what better way to do that then by telling a story?

Here are 7 ways creative writing can help your students learn English:

  1. Puts Your Grammar Lessons Into Practice

So they get pretty good marks on their grammar test, but what about their ability to communicate their thoughts? Sometimes students spend so much time with their heads in books they do not get the opportunity to share their own stories. This can help them practice all the grammar they learned and put it together into an entertaining story.

  1. Improve Confidence

Having someone else read a story you wrote is very empowering, but even if they don’t share it, students will build confidence having the freedom to create their own story and not having to worry about being perfect.

  1. Inspiring and Motivational

Grammar books can be a little rigid, and creative writing gives students a little more time in the playground. Having been able to write a full story, no matter how long or short, will give them a sense of accomplishment and the motivation to push themselves further.

  1. Exercise their Creativity

Some words or phrases can have several different meanings, and creative writing gives students the ability to think about the words they use differently. This new perspective on words will let them be adventurous and it will lead them to more discoveries.

  1. Accessible Anywhere and Anytime

Some students will not have anyone to practice their English with outside of the classroom, but creative writing can be a great outlet for students who want to continue practicing at home or at school.

  1. Think in English

When students learn how to communicate their ideas, thoughts and feelings in English they will feel more in control. They will eliminate that step of translating or thinking in their head and it will become more natural for them.

  1. Become More Fluent

There is a sense of accomplishment having learned how to think in English and communicate a story confidently. Practice makes perfect and with each story they write they become more and more fluent.

Do your students have a story to tell?

They can enter the CreatEng Cafe writing competition for their chance to
win prizes and get published.


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#IATEFL – Focusing on the Creative Self in the mixed-ability classroom

close up of colors art supplies on white background with clipping path

Erika Osvath is co-author of ‘Mixed-Ability Teaching’ from Oxford University Press’ ‘Into the Classroom’ series. Today she joins us ahead of her talk on Saturday April 16th at this year’s IATEFL conference to preview ‘Focusing on the Creative Self in the mixed-ability classroom’

As many language teachers and researchers around the world attest, the self-esteem of language learners, being so fragile, is an important aspect to consider in the mixed-ability classroom.  Students with lower language level tend to be less confident, quieter and thus attempt to engage in much fewer opportunities to work with language. Meanwhile, stronger students may feel confident that they can perform well in most tasks the teacher sets and they are also likely to be more ready to take risks when using new language. The two scenarios described above are fairly typical in the mixed-ability classroom and it is easy see how they will inevitably lead to further increase of the gap in the language knowledge and abilities of these students.

So our job is to create opportunities where we support the self-esteem of all the students while at the same time reach the desired language teaching goals.  One way of achieving this in the classroom is by setting tasks that build on self-expression through flexible frameworks that can be easily used by students of mixed language levels. Through activities that involve art, music and poetry we can help students to drawn on their own content, to focus on their creative selves primarily, allowing language to emerge as a result. These forms of expression are highly personal and unique for every student, therefore they become a lot more engaged and actively involved in the learning process. Art, music and poetry become a channel for students to express themselves in meaningful ways, and the added benefit of these forms of creative self-expression is that they bring about an audience too, having a further positive effect on how students perceive themselves in the language learning process.

So let’s look at a few examples of such tasks:

Doodle exhibition

Play some soft instrumental music in class and ask students to doodle, to draw lines and shapes that the music evokes. The only rule is that they cannot pick up their pen from the paper, but let it move as the music leads it. Then post their doodles around the room and give each student a few post-it notes. Write the following stems – or anything appropriate for the level of the students – on the board to help them comment on the doodles displayed.

This is/looks … (adjective)
I like it because, …
It’s interesting because, …
It reminds me of …
I think you may have thought of …

Students should walk around the room, look at the doodles, write one positive comment on a post-it note, and stick it on the appropriate doodle. Once someone has already commented on a doodle, they should read it and put a smiley emoticon or a tick if they agree, but they cannot add a new comment until all the doodles have one, i.e. a post-it note.
Let students walk around the room, enjoy the doodle exhibition and read each other’s comments.  If you find it appropriate, as a follow up you could also ask them to share their thoughts and reactions to the doodles in speaking in small groups too, again, using the sentence stems from the board.

Poetry

There are various ways you can ask students to write poems about their own feelings and thoughts. In my experience, students respond very well to ones which contain repetitive structures. These, of course, are ideal language practice opportunities at the same time. For example, ‘I will …, but I will not … ‘ for future promises or ‘I didn’t …, but I …’ for describing their last holiday, etc. You may also want to use a short and simple model poem for them to read and be inspired by, but make sure these are not challenging linguistically. In each case, it is crucial that students are asked to brainstorm ideas based on their personal feelings and their own experiences before they see the model poem. Otherwise, the model poem may become an obstacle for students to write their own, especially to learners who might think they have to produce something similar. For an example lesson with a model poem, see here.


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Poetry and the ESL classroom: how rhyme can work for your students

Diverse Elementary ClassPrior to becoming an Editor for Oxford University Press, Mexico, Lysette Taplin worked as an English language teacher and author for a number of primary and secondary series. In this post she promotes World Poetry Day by sharing some practical tips to use in the ELT Classroom.

Poetry is an effective tool in English language teaching as it enlivens the class, giving the students a motivational buzz while stimulating their creative writing. The emphasis on the sounds and rhythm of language aids students’ phonological awareness, building a foundation for correct pronunciation and intonation, which in turn has a strong correlation to proficiency in reading and listening. In order to celebrate World Poetry Day, this blog aims to present a selected poem from the OUP series Step Inside and provide ideas for ways to exploit poetry in the English language-learning classroom.

As an ELT Editor for OUP, I had the opportunity to work on an inspiring series of reading anthologies for primary school students. The series Step Inside promotes extensive reading by using texts from a variety of genres, including poetry, fables, myths and legends, fairy tales, fiction, non-fiction, and comics.

The following excerpt has been selected from a poem included in Step Inside, level 4:

Wayne the Stegosaurus

Written by Kenn Nesbitt

Meet the Stegosaurus, Wayne.

He doesn’t have the biggest brain.

He’s long and heavy, wide and tall,

But has a brain that’s extra small.

He’s not the brightest dinosaur.

He thinks that one plus one is four.

He can’t remember up from down.

He thinks the sky is chocolate brown.

Using poetry to teach pronunciation

This humorous poem can be used to focus students on English pronunciation by working with rhyme.

In your class, put students into pairs and give each pair the lines of the poem cut up into strips. Have them work together to identify and group the lines that end in rhyming pairs. Tell students that rhyming pairs are two words that end in the same sound, for example Wayne and brain, tall and small. Highlight some of the difficult spelling patterns, for example Wayne, brain; tries, eyes; white, night, etc. while emphasizing the pronunciation of each of the sounds. Then, tell students that they are going to create a rhyming chain. Instruct students to choose four rhyming pairs from the poem and write down as many other words that rhyme as they can. Have some volunteers write their rhyming words on the board to check answers as a class. Next, read the poem aloud and have students order the lines from the poem. Ask volunteers to read the poem aloud to check answers as a class.

Rhyming Schemes

The pattern of rhymes in a poem is labelled with the letters A, B, C, D, etc. To identify the rhyming scheme, tell students to look at the last word in each line. Tell them to label the first set of lines that rhyme with A, then label the second set B, etc. In the case of the poem above, the rhyming scheme for each stanza is AABB because the first two lines in the stanza rhyme with each other as do the last two lines.

Below is an example of an ABCB rhyming scheme, excerpt taken from Step Inside, level 2:

Art Class

Written by Penelope McKimm

Art class can be lots of fun,

With so many things to do!

Cutting, coloring, painting, drawing,

Sticking things with glue!

Have students illustrate the poem

Have students work in groups of six. Encourage them to think about what happens in each of the stanzas and then, choose one of the stanzas to illustrate. When they have all finished illustrating their stanzas, have them put them in order and present their work to the rest of the class.

Writing

Give students a handout of a poem with some words missing. It could be the same poem students were working with before, or a different poem.

Wayne the Stegosaurus

Written by Kenn Nesbitt

Meet the Stegosaurus, __________.

He doesn’t have the biggest __________.

He’s __________ and __________, __________ and __________,

But has a __________ that’s extra __________.

Put students into pairs and have them brainstorm words to complete the gaps. Encourage them to include rhymes, but tell them that they can change the rhyming scheme if they wish.

Another activity which provides students with scaffolding for their poem is to tell them to write a five line poem with the following structure:

First line: a noun

Second line: four adjectives

Third line: an action

Fourth line: how you feel about the noun

Fifth line: the noun

This activity can be carried out individually or in pairs or small groups. Encourage students to use a thesaurus to think of exciting adjectives, for example superb instead of good. Below is an example of a five-line poem

T. Rex

Fierce, fast, green and scaly

Goes out hunting daily

Makes me shiver to the bone

T. Rex

Both students and teachers often tend to fear poetry, but by providing the proper scaffolding, we advocate creativity and give our students sense of accomplishment. As teachers, we need to make it clear to our students that it is okay to make mistakes. The most important thing is to let their imaginations run wild, and then have them go back and edit their work once they are finished.

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