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#IATEFL – Language Learning Psychology: Getting into the ‘right mind’ for teaching and learning

EAP English for academic purposes

Leading up to IATEFL Birmingham from 13th – 16th of April, we asked our delegates to preview their scheduled talks for our blog readers. Today we’re joined by Sarah Mercer who will discuss ‘Exploring psychology in language learning and teaching’ at the conference on Wednesday April 13th.

How we approach language learning, whether as a learner or a teacher, is crucially defined by our psychology; the way we view ourselves and our abilities, our motivation for engaging with or persisting in tasks, our beliefs about how the language should be learned and taught, our emotional experiences of the undertaking, and our relationships with others. It is important that we understand how our thoughts, motives and feelings can affect how we learn and teach. As such, the field of psychology represents a rich and important source of information for teachers to enhance their practice and their sensitivity to their own and their learners’ needs.

In my own work to date, I have focused largely on the psychology of language learners. As teachers, it is important that we reflect on how we understand our learners as individuals. How an individual engages with learning a language is less dependent on the materials and subject knowledge of their teacher, but is rather more connected with their teacher’s interpersonal skills and ability to create motivating and enabling learning conditions in the classroom. As an example, a key facet of language learners’ psychology is their self-concept, which is what they believe and feel about themselves as language learners – do they feel confident in their skills? Do they feel comfortable using the language? Do they believe they are able to improve their skills? All of these beliefs and emotions impact on the learner’s motivation and behaviours. As teachers, we can work on creating the right kinds of conditions in our classrooms for our learners to develop healthy self-related beliefs which ensure they are in the best position to learn a language to the best of their ability.

However, one thing I have increasingly become aware of is that teacher and learner psychology are in fact two sides of the same coin. As social beings, we are all aware of the moods, emotions and beliefs of those around us, especially those we are close to or respect. For classroom life, this means the teacher has an enormous influence on the psychology of the students they work with. In turn, teachers are influenced by the moods of their learners and the atmosphere in the group. To start a positive cycle of interactions in the classroom, we need to ensure that as teachers we have high levels of professional well-being alongside positive personal and professional psychology. Only when we are in the right frame of mind for teaching can we ensure our learners are provided with the best conditions in which to develop their own positive attitudes, emotions, motivations, and engagement.

In the end, psychology for language learning is not just about the psychological well-being of our learners, although this will always remain a prime focus, but it is also about the psychology of teachers and how we can ensure that they thrive in their jobs, for their own sake as well as for that of their learners.


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#IATEFL – CLIL: the 3 Dimensions of Content

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Ahead of his talk at this year’s IATEFL conference in Birmingham, Phil Ball previews Improving language education through content: the “3 dimensions” of CLIL today on the blog. If you’re unable to attend this year’s conference, be sure to register for our exclusive webinar with Phil on the topic on 19th and 20th April.

It remains an interesting irony that subject teachers have been exhorted, ever since the famous Bullock Report in 1975, to become ersatz-language teachers in the ‘Language across the curriculum’ movement, whilst language teachers have never been exhorted to understand the world of content.  They remain in the dark when it comes to subject teaching, and rarely observe teachers in ‘normal’ classrooms.  The closest they often get to that world is by practising ‘Soft CLIL’ (allegedly ‘language-led) but this is something of a misnomer.  Why would we want to make something ‘language-led’?  Why not make it ‘concept-led’?  Just use the language to help.  If subject teachers are being asked to understand language, why cannot language teachers be asked to understand (and use) content?  After all, there is a huge smorgasbord of the stuff out there, just waiting to be used.

Nevertheless, if language teachers want to understand and contribute to CLIL, for example in a bilingual school context or in any school dabbling with the approach, then it’s useful to understand the three-dimensional aspect of ‘content’.  The world of CLIL is basically conceptual, procedural and linguistic.  Language is also content, when viewed from this perspective. At any point in a lesson, the teacher may find that one of these dimensions is more prominent than the other.  If the conceptual dimension (demand) is high then the linguistic demand is probably similar. In this case, the teacher, as in a mixing-studio, can turn down the procedural volume, and make the ‘how’ the quieter/easier of the three dimensions.  The combinations are various, but this is good teaching –adjusting the ‘volumes’ according to the shifting demands.

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It’s a powerful idea – that we employ conceptual content, by means of procedural choices (cognitive skills), using specific language derived from the particular discourse context.  It is the interplay amongst the dimensions that lies at the heart of CLIL practice.  The concepts are ultimately understood by doing something, using a certain type of discourse.

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A good way to combat scepticism (and thus spread the good word) is to emphasise that the twin core features of CLIL are basically these:

  • supporting language learning in content classes (Hard CLIL)
  • supporting content learning in language classes (Soft CLIL)

If these things happen, all the rest can follow.  And it may even be worth changing the above two sentences to read:

  • supporting language awareness in content classes
  • supporting content awareness in language classes

Successful CLIL, whether taught by a language or a subject teacher, tosses its learners into the deep end of the conceptual and procedural swimming-pool, then throws in the linguistic arm-bands.  Language teaching has for decades carefully taken learners to the shallow end, in the vague hope that someday they might swim.  Far too many never get anywhere near the deep end.

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70 years of ELT Journal: continuity and change

Business meeting

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.

There are few things in ELT which are quite as long-standing as ELT Journal. This year marks its 70th anniversary, and, over those 70 years, the Journal has published well over 2,000 articles, over 1,000 books reviews, and countless other feature items (in 1967, for example, we find the announcement of a new venture, the Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, now known as IATEFL: issue XXI: 3).

So what continuities can we see between the first issue and ELT Journal in 2016, and what has changed over time to stay relevant to teachers today? One constant is the overall aim of the Journal. In the language of the times, the opening editorial in 1946 stated that ‘our new periodical, it is hoped … will enable the teacher in the classroom to know what has been done and is being done to help him in his task and to exchange with fellow workers his own experiences and findings’ (issue 1/1). And today, the Journal ‘aims to provide a medium for informed discussion of the principles and practice which determine the ways in which English is taught and learnt around the world’ (ELT Journal’s aims are outlined in more detail on its website). That first issue also created the template for all subsequent editions – an editorial (although now, in the interests of space and readers’ patience, not in every issue!); a range of articles; book reviews; and a feature item.

Of course, there are also differences between ‘then and now’. As well as providing the editorial, the then editor A.S. Hornby also wrote two of the articles; this reflected the relatively small number of people involved or interested in ELT at that time, in comparison to today’s global profession. And the papers and reviews themselves – with their focus on Britain and British culture (by British authors), on the work of de Saussure, and on ‘Books you should know’ – strike a different tone to those in today’s ELT Journal; they aimed to chart a course and establish a field, perhaps, whereas today we hope to share knowledge and draw on common understandings, albeit as we engage in our professional discussions, debates and disputes.

From 1946, let us fast-forward 35 years, to 1981. A key event in ELT Journal’s development was its reconfiguration that year, to reflect the growth of our field and the increasing range of insights from relatively new academic disciplines such as applied linguistics, sociology and psychology. In his editorial (issue 36/1), incoming editor Richard Rossner, reflected upon the increasing diversity of the profession and the range of contexts in which English was taught, and emphasised that it is not ‘good for the profession if individuals see themselves as mainly concerned with ‘theory’ or only involved in ‘practice’ ’. The Journal aimed, overtly, to bridge the ‘theory-practice’ gap; similarly, today, ELT Journal ‘links the everyday concerns of practitioners with insights gained from relevant academic disciplines’.

And what of the content of ELT Journal 35 years ago, half way through its 70 year span? In issue 36/1, both the topics and titles of articles and of books reviewed are perhaps more familiar – debates surrounding the role of teaching materials, student autonomy and authenticity appear; language skills as well as language structures or systems are discussed; different learner age groups are recognised. And authorship throughout the publication is more international and no longer solely the preserve of men. We can see these trends maintained and developed further in the Journal today.

So in fact, this year marks two notable points in ELT Journal’s development – its founding 70 years ago, and its re-launch 35 years ago in 1981, when it became even more recognisably the journal we see today. To celebrate this, both the first issue of English Language Teaching (1/1; 1946) and the first re-launched ELT Journal (36/1; 1981) are freely available on ELT Journal’s website throughout 2016, and, if you have the opportunity to read them, you can track the developments I have briefly summarised here. You can also compare these past issues of the Journal with papers from the present day, through the online ‘Editor’s Choice’ feature, in which an article from each recent issue of the Journal is made freely available online, in many cases alongside short videos in which their authors discuss their paper and the ideas behind it.

Join us at IATEFL, Birmingham for the annual ELTJ Debate, taking place Thursday 14th April. The motion of this year’s debate is: This house believes that teacher training is a waste of time. Proposing: Peter Grundy / Apposing: Penny Ur.


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Making online language learning safe

shutterstock_312877391Aisha Walker is Associate Professor of Technology, Education and Learning at the University of Leeds. With a background in linguistics, language learning and primary education her research areas include digitally-mediated communication, academic language and childrens’ engagement with digital technologies. Today she joins us ahead of her webinar Online risk and safety for language learners and teachers to preview what she will discuss at this online event.

The online digital world offers huge benefits to language learners and teachers.  Much of our everyday language use takes place in digital environments and is mediated by digital tools.  This means that it is sensible for language teachers use these tools with their students.  After all, students will need to be able to communicate in the target language using digital tools as fluently as, say, handwriting (if not more so).  Nowadays, we are likely to write business emails rather than letters; to send Facebook messages rather than birthday cards and to check the news using social media rather than the daily newspaper.  Language learners need to be able to negotiate all of these new contexts and to use appropriate language in digital spaces.

Digital tools and media also offer opportunities for authentic communication with people across the globe.  However specialised our interests we can look online to find people who share them.  For example, the digital world is full of keen hobbyists sharing their ideas or patterns and showing off their newly completed work.  Gamers meet in multiplayer online games where they plan and discuss strategies or they play casual online games such as ‘Words with Friends’.  People use Twitter to talk about current events. Indeed, sometimes Twitter is the news!  Learners no longer have to write work that will languish in exercise books to be read only by teachers and parents; their work can be published to a genuine audience through blogs or sharing  sites such as YouTube or SoundCloud.  The audience can, and will, respond by ‘liking’ the work or through the comment system.

The opportunities offered by the online digital world are undoubtedly exciting but there is also a dark side.  Children may be exposed to inappropriate content or may use online shopping sites to buy goods that they are not legally old enough to purchase.  Extremist groups use social media to publicise themselves and this may draw young people towards extremism.   There are legitimate concerns about mental-ill health issues such as ‘thinspiration‘.  Criminals may use social media or games to find and groom victims; two such cases were recently featured in BBC documentaries (Alicia Kozakiewicz and Breck Bednar) showing that the dangers are real.

Teachers have to navigate the benefits of the online digital world whilst avoiding the risks both for their learners and for themselves.  For some teachers (and schools) this is too intimidating and so they avoid social media in their classes and do not encourage students to publish their work online.  In this webinar we will talk about some of the fears that participants have about using online digital tools and media with their learners.  We will discuss some of the options for safe online working and strategies that teachers might use such as setting ground rules for their learners.  I hope that in this webinar we can draw upon our collective wisdom and that participants will be willing to discuss their own fears and ideas although I will, of course, have some suggestions to offer!

If you’re interested in learning more about safety for language learners and teachers online, please register below for this free webinar, taking place on 23rd and 24th March.

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Vocabulary gap-fills: from testing _____ teaching

shutterstock_225810664Philip Kerr is a teacher trainer and materials writer with over 30 years of experience in ELT. He lives in Vienna where he is part of the team that has developed the Oxford English Vocabulary Trainer. He joins us today to explore the ________ of gap-fills.

The potential of gap-fills

When it comes to vocabulary learning, gap-fills are everywhere. But do they have a place in communicative language learning? They are often criticized for being boring and for promoting only a passive knowledge of words. It is not unreasonable to see them as better suited to testing than to teaching. Research, however, may cause us to rethink.

Learning new words involves a degree of memorization. For new words to be stored in their long-term memories, learners will need to be exposed to them many times. The best-known way of making this possible is through the use of flashcards. Flashcards work best when they are used with increasing intervals of time between each period of study (i.e. one hour later, then one day later, the one week later, etc.). This is known as spaced repetition.

We also know that this kind of memorization works best when learners are not simply given words and their definitions or translations, but have to generate the word they are trying to remember. The most usual way of doing this is to get them to fill in gaps.

The value of gap-fills, then, is greatest when they are used repeatedly, and not just once. Unfashionable though it is, repeated practice testing is known to work[1]. In vocabulary learning, a gap-fill repeated a number of times is likely to lead to more learning in the same amount of time than a more creative or imaginative exercise, such as getting students to make up sentences including the target word[2].

Exploiting gap-fills

I’m not suggesting, of course, that teachers simply ask their students to do gap-fill exercises again and again. That really would be too dull! The exercises need to be rewritten so that the target words are presented in new contexts. This approach is taken by the Oxford English Vocabulary Trainer, a vocabulary learning app which uses spaced repetition and gap-fills. But for teachers and students who are not using technology like this, there are a number of simple things that can be done. Here are a few suggestions:

  • After completing a gap-fill exercise, tell the students to translate it into their own language. Collect in these translations, and, in a subsequent lesson, get the students to translate them back into English.
  • Return to a gap-fill exercise some time after the students have already done it, and give it to them this time orally.
  • Select a gap-fill that the students have already done. Write it on the board (it doesn’t matter if your writing is not very legible). Tell the students that their task is to memorize all the sentences and, to do this, they must read the sentences aloud, in order and repeatedly. After about a minute, begin making more or less random swipes across the board with the board cleaner. All the time, the students should continue memorising / reading aloud. Continue making swipes with the cleaner until very little of the exercise is still visible.
  • Select four or five gap-fills that the students have already done. Write the page numbers of these exercises on the board and give the students an impossibly short time limit (for example, five minutes) to do as many of these tasks as they can. (You’ll need to make sure that the answers are not still written in their books.) The activity should be managed as a game: who can complete the most items?
  • Select two or more gap-fill exercises that the students have already done and return to them some time later. With different students working on different exercises, get them to copy out the exercises on sheets of paper, but tell them to gap different words from the original. Ideally, they should gap collocating words or dependent prepositions. The papers are then passed around the classroom to be completed.

Gap-fills and feedback

As with any language learning activity, learners will benefit from getting feedback[3] – not just on what was right or wrong, but why incorrect answers were incorrect. And, after getting this feedback but without being given the correct answer, they will benefit from having another attempt. Vocabulary mistakes broadly fall into four categories: meaning (the word that students have entered in the gap does not have the meaning that is needed), grammar (students have found the right base form of the missing word, but have used singular instead of plural, the wrong tense or the wrong part of speech), spelling, and word choice (students have entered a word which does not collocate with other words in the sentence).

The Oxford English Vocabulary Trainer provides this feedback automatically in the form of a butterfly, where the size of the wings indicates where the learner has had a problem. It would be useful for teachers who are not using technology in class to collect in gap-fill work that students have done, from time to time, and provide feedback of a similar kind, perhaps using the same four categories.

References:

[1] Dunlosky, J. et al. 2013. ‘Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology’ Psychological Science in the Public Interest Vol. 14 No. 1 pp. 4-58

[2] Folse, K. 2006. ‘The Effect of Type of Written Exercise on L2 Vocabulary Retention’ TESOL Quarterly Vol. 40 No. 2 pp.273 – 293

[3] Ellis, R. & Shintani, N. 2014. Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research. (Abingdon: Routledge) chapter 10