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#EFLproblems – Teaching Monolingual Classes

Sign: English spoken here

Image courtesy of Nadeau&Barlow

We’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Harvey Chanoup’s blog comment regarding the challenge of teaching a monolingual class vs. a multilingual one. Verissimo Toste from the Professional Development Team discusses how to encourage the use of English in monolingual classes.

Harvey Chanoup sent us a simple “problem”; that of teaching monolingual classes as opposed to teaching a class of multilingual students. I have written the word in inverted commas because I think it is best not to see it as a problem. It is a characteristic of the class you are teaching that should be taken into account, as you would with mixed abilities, different interests, and motivation. The difficulty is obvious; monolingual classes communicate in their own language and so don’t need English to get a message across. Multilingual classes, however, would have English as their common language, automatically creating the need to use English to communicate.

The challenge is how to motivate students in monolingual classes to use English in order to communicate. Here are some ideas I have used in my classes, both for teenagers and adults.

Talk to your students

Most students accept that the best way to learn English is to use English. Ask them if they agree and why. Then, discuss if it is difficult to use English in class, and, if so, what makes it difficult. Ask them for some suggestions that would make it easier for them to use English. The main aim of the discussion is to raise the topic with your students. Teaching should not be a secret, so discussing this with them gives them an opportunity to be part of the solution, rather than having rules imposed. Also, knowing what their difficulty is in using English in class will give you ideas for activities that will help them use the English they are learning.

Time for English

Challenge your students to use only English for a specific period of time. For example, before beginning a grammar exercise, I would turn to the class and say, “Let’s see if we can use only English for the next 10 minutes.” Since they won’t need L1 to complete the exercise, I know this is something they can achieve. By creating a 10-minute limit, students see it as a challenge and make an effort to avoid using L1 for those 10 minutes. They also know that if they need the L1, they will be able to use it after the 10 minutes.

What happened in my classes is that students saw that they really didn’t need to use L1 to do that type of exercise. Usually, they would continue using English beyond the 10 minutes, giving me an opportunity to praise them for how well they had done. At the end, I would ask if they had any questions about the exercise. Most of the time, they didn’t. In this way they realised they had been using L1 to confirm what they already knew. It was a crutch they didn’t really need. This raised their confidence. Over time, the class was able to work on a variety of controlled activities without needing L1. Equally important, students became aware of what they could do in English and when they really needed L1.

Traffic Light

One idea that has been very helpful with my classes has been putting up a “traffic light” in class.

I print out a traffic light on an A4 piece of paper. In the red circle I write, “No Portuguese”, for example. In the amber circle I write, “Some Portuguese” and in the green circle I write, “Portuguese OK”. I display the traffic light where everyone can see it. I then explain it to the class:

I hide the red circle and the amber circle with white paper circles, leaving the green “Portuguese ok” visible. I tell the class that when the green circle is visible, they can use L1 (in this case, Portuguese).

Then, I hide the amber and green circles, leaving the red “No Portuguese” visible. I tell the class that when the red circle is visible, they cannot use L1 at all.

Finally, I hide the red and green circles, leaving the amber “Some Portuguese” visible. I tell them that, in this case, they can use L1, but only in relation to the activity we are doing at that time. I use this when they are working in pairs or small groups on an exercise and may need to use L1 to talk about the language.

The traffic light gives students a clear signal as to when they should be able to use only English, as well as when they can use their own language. As their teacher, you can choose when to use each light, and how long to leave it there. For example, I usually have “No Portuguese” as they walk into the classroom. An easy exercise for them to work on is already on the board, so they have something to do. This helps with the transition from their language to English.

Depending on the age of the students, you may want to give them a reward when they are able to use only English. Adult students will usually not need this, using the traffic light as a guide to improve their use of English in class.

Give them a reason to use English

It’s important that students have a reason to use English. If a group is organising their project work, they will probably do this more efficiently in their own language. There is little reason to use only English, especially at lower levels. However, if a pair or small group is preparing to act out a dialogue, they should be using English as they will need this to act out the dialogue in front of the class. I reinforce this idea by not allowing my students to read when they act out. The dialogues they act out are usually short and easy to remember. The pair/group work gives them an opportunity to practice before performing in front of the class. Students easily see that they need to practice their lines, as they won’t be able to read them off a sheet. Having students video their performances further increases their need to practice before actually performing.

Acting out is one example of an activity that creates a need to use English. There are many others. Information gap activities usually create a need to use English. Another activity is for the teacher, or a student, to read a text with the wrong information. Students, who have the correct information, would correct by repeating the complete sentence correctly. For example:

Teacher: (reading) “The capital of the state of New York is New York City.”
Student: (with the correct information) “Excuse me, but the capital of the state of New York is Albany.”

Using L1

Finally, it is important for your students to know when to use L1. Demanding that they use only English all the time may actually hamper their learning of English. Older students can use L1 as a viable learning strategy to better learn English. For many students, being able to discuss their learning in their own language gives them greater understanding of the learning process, and allows them to adapt in order to improve.

There are times when they are learning the language and need to use it in order to practice the pronunciation and the word order. Practicing helps them to make their use of the language automatic. Equally, there are times when they are talking about the language, comparing it to their own, discussing learning strategies. This may best be done in their own language.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about teaching monolingual classes, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 10 January at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.


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#EFLproblems – Learners noticing and correcting their own mistakes

Corrections on textWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Mark Armstrong’s blog comment regarding the challenge of helping students to self-correct their own writing. Verissimo Toste from the Professional Development Team discusses how to encourage self-correction.

I don’t know if this is my greatest challenge but I would like to see my children self-correct more when they are writing. It’s a shame to see the same kind of errors popping up again and again. Sometimes it’s L1 interference, sometimes it’s just children being children. I do for a fact, though, know that they know better. I don’t want to cover their written work with red markings but I don’t want them to continue repeating errors either. Any ideas?”

Mark brings up an interesting problem: students correcting their own writing. Or rather, not correcting their own writing. Although I will focus my ideas for younger learners, I think many of them can be adapted for older students.

Mistakes are natural

First, let me focus on an important point – mistakes are natural, they are part of learning. They are an important part of learning. Get this message across to your students. I usually ask my students to talk to their parents about the “mistakes” they made when they were young and learning their first language. This generates a fun discussion in class, usually leading to difficulties in learning to ride a bike or learning to swim. The important point in the end is that learning involves making mistakes. If they aren’t making mistakes, then maybe they are not really learning anything new.

Mistakes are part of learning

Having established an environment in the classroom where mistakes are natural, it is now important for the teachers to consider what mistakes they expect their students to be able to correct. My first consideration is, “If a student were to look at the mistake again, would they notice it?” Then, I consider, “If other students were to look at the mistake, would they notice it?” It’s important to understand what students are expected to correct. For this, I have my students practice. I give them a text or a selection of sentences with mistakes made by students in other classes, maybe even previous years. I tell them how many mistakes there are and give them time to find them. They indicate the mistakes by underlining them. I walk around, look at their work, and tell them how many actual mistakes they have found.

Then, I put students into pairs or small groups of no more than 4. I ask them to compare their work with one another. At this point, students come up with a list of the mistakes they all have found. This may add up to 10, but it usually doesn’t. Together they look for the mistakes they have missed. They discuss these as a group and come to a consensus as a group. They must agree on a list of 10 mistakes. Once again, I walk around and tell them the number of mistakes they have found.

This activity, which I may do once a month if necessary, helps my students notice the language, since the mistakes I choose are related to the language they have learnt or are learning. The activity also helps to make mistakes part of learning, reinforcing the discussion we had previously. More importantly, however, the activity creates a need for the teacher to help. The next time I do the activity, I underline where the mistakes are and ask them to correct them. I follow the same steps, going from working individually to small groups. This type of activity helps students develop their language noticing skills. Students not only learn to become aware of their mistakes, they also begin to learn how to avoid them.

Mistakes are there to be corrected

At this point students are ready to begin correcting their own work. However, why should they do this? Why correct? If students are writing, then I suggest that their writing be “published”, displayed, shared with others. This could be a simple poster displayed in the classroom or a text on a school blog. If they are writing a story or a poem, these can be made into a book. The important point is that others will see their work. This will give them a reason to correct. It will also help them to accept the teacher’s role as a facilitator, helping them to improve their work.

The next step in this process is for students to understand the idea of writing a first draft; that what they write the first time is not final. Equally important, they need to accept that it is not the teacher’s job to correct what they themselves can avoid. Students write their first draft in class and then take it home to check for mistakes. It is important for them to write their texts first in class and then to look at them again at home. Students may not notice mistakes immediately after writing them. This becomes clearer when they look at their texts again after some time has passed. For classes that are reluctant to do this, I collect their first draft and give it back to them two days later for homework.

Having looked at their own texts, I ask them to share these texts with other students in the class. At this point students work in pairs or small groups, suggesting possible mistakes to each other.  Taking the suggestions into consideration, they write the second draft of their texts. These they give to me. Depending on how confident my students are, I correct only those mistakes I feel the student will not be able to. The others I simply indicate it is a mistake by underlining it. At this point, students should be able to write their final draft, which they will share with others in the class.

In closing…

One final thought on this process. In some classes, and with parental permission, I have asked my students to write their work on Word and then to send it to me via email. I do this for a few reasons. One, they slowly learn to use the spellchecker and to react to that information. Two, they are more accepting of correcting mistakes as they don’t need to write all of the text again. Three, not needing to write all of the text helps them to focus on correcting the mistakes and avoiding them later. Finally, it makes use of their computer for classwork, a skill they will need later in their academic life.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about getting young learners involved, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 20 December at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.

Here are the topics for our next blog posts:

08 January 2014 – Teaching monolingual vs multi-lingual classes
22 January 2014 –  Teaching students over 50 years old


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#EFLproblems – Learning English Beyond the Exams

Disappointing exam resultsWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Raef Sobh Azab’s blog comment regarding the challenge of motivating students who are in an exam-focussed environment. Stacey Hughes from the Professional Development Team discusses how to take English beyond the focus of exams.

One major problem is that the educational system in my country is mainly exam-based. Most teachers, students, and even parents do not care at all about the quality of learning. They are mainly concerned with passing the exams. L1 is all the time used in class, real life English is not stressed, language skills are not practised at all, learning aims are not achieved, and private lessons given to students at home or in private centers are the norm. This is really frustrating for some teachers who are keen on improving their teaching skills and eager to get their students engaged in the learning process, thus, achieve a real progress and taste the beauty of language.”

Certainly, one way to ensure students are exam-focussed is to make exams central to the course. Constant reference to exams either by the teacher, parents or institution will show students that passing the exam is the goal.

But how can we make English communication skills the goal?

1. Determine personal learning goals

The first thing is to find out from students what their personal learning goals are. Do they want to just pass the exam or do they actually want to learn to communicate in English? Do they want to be able to listen to music, watch films, or search the web in English? Do they want to be able to go to an English speaking country and speak with people there? Do they want to be able to get a job where they use English to communicate via email or telephone? Or maybe they want a job that allows them to travel – in this case, English may be useful.

Help students find an intrinsic reason to learn English – one that is important on a personal level. It also must be said that there may still be students who don’t really want to learn English, and for whom passing the exams is the only goal. However, if the exams are based on reading, writing, listening and speaking in English, then maybe they will see that improving these skills will also help them pass the exams.

2. Use English as the classroom language

Create the expectation that for the time that English lessons are going on, they will be conducted in English. This change may take some time for students to get used to, so take it slowly. Maybe you could aim for half an hour at first and then build on that. Make sure you reassure students that, during the last 5-10 minutes of the lesson, they can ask questions in the L1 if they didn’t understand. Make your instructions clear and make sure you use examples, visuals and, if necessary, written support on the board to accommodate students who aren’t confident in trusting their listening skills. Finally, encourage students to use English when speaking to each other and praise them when they do.

3. Make sure each lesson has a clear communicative aim

Instead of an aim such as, to learn the present perfect, make the aim, to talk and write about things I have done before. This shift in focus lets the students know what the communicative purpose is for learning the tense – how it can be used in real communication. Scaffold tasks so that students have lots of support. So, for example, you might do a Find Someone Who… type exercise in which students have to ask each other, “Have you ever…”Write the kernel on the board, brainstorm some endings and write them on the board: …walked for more than five miles, …eaten foreign food, …run a marathon… Keep these on the board during the discussion phase so that students can refer to them for support. Stronger students will be able to make up their own, so this is an example of an activity which could work well in a mixed ability class.

4. Don’t make exams the only focus

There are lots of ways to bring in on-going assessment and even self-assessment to show students that each stage of the lesson is important. Listen to students during tasks and tell them if you think they are doing a great job at speaking in English – give them an “A” for the activity. Create a check list that students can use to self-assess: I can talk about what I’ve done. I can ask someone if s/he has ever done something. I can write about what I’ve done. (etc.). Ask them to assess themselves honestly and set review tasks if students feel they can’t really do that yet.

5. Take learning out of the classroom

Ask students to set some realistic personal language goals that are not part of the course: respond in English to a blog post, listen to a song and copy out the words, look for information about a favourite subject in English on the web – there are many possibilities.

Breaking out of the exam-based mentality can be difficult. While it is still important for students to do well in exams, there is nothing to stop them from having their own personal goals for learning English. Even if their goals don’t ‘count’ towards a grade, for the student, they may be even more important.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about teaching English beyond the exams, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday, 6 December at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.


8 Comments

#EFLproblems – Motivating Young Learners

Japanese girlWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. In this week’s blog, Verissimo Toste responds to Sylwia’s blog comment about motivating young learners.

I’m interested in the idea of participation points for the class. How does it work? Is it a motivation for the whole class? Are there any awards? I’m asking because I mainly have a problem with involving students in the lesson, especially the weaker ones. They fell behind with grammar and vocabulary and they became discouraged. They are also very lazy.”

Sylwia brought up an interesting issue: involving young learners in the lesson, or more specifically “the weaker ones”. According to Sylwia, these weaker learners “fell behind with grammar and vocabulary and they became discouraged.”

The first point I would like to bring up here is that success motivates, and equally, failure demotivates. If a learners’s previous experience with English has been negative, it is natural that they will give up. So, an important objective for the teacher of young learners is to make everyone feel successful. This is not as difficult as it may seem. Here are some ideas:

1. Focus on what has been learned

Praise learners for their achievements. When teaching colours, for example, focus on the colours each child has learned, not on the ones they still don’t know. Don’t compare them to one another. Relate to each learner individually. Focus on what each learner has achieved and the improvements they have made.

2. Make your classroom safe and supportive

Strive to make your classroom a place your learners enjoy being in. Equally, make your lessons a time your learners look forward to. Encourage them to enjoy the songs they sing, the games they play, the projects they share with each other. Make your lessons fun and have fun with them. When an activity is on the verge of being too difficult or uninteresting, step back. Save it for another time. Children do not learn when they feel stressed or when they don’t like what they are meant to learn.

3.  Children like learning

This is an important point, so I will repeat it: children like learning. It is what they do all day, every day. Children learn what they need to learn. Your learners will enjoy learning a new song. If you ask them to teach that song to their parents, you create a need for them to learn the lyrics. You also create a situation in which they are motivated to learn the song in order to teach someone else. This may create a need for reading the lyrics, or to memorise the song well enough for when they arrive home. Notice how, in this situation, you have also created a need to play the song more than one time, as your learners will need to know it well in order to teach it.

4. Children are natural language learners

Everyone has learned a language. There is no language in the world that is too difficult for a child to learn as their mother tongue. So, children are natural language learners. They will make the effort to learn the new words you are teaching, or some new language structure. They simply need to feel safe, to enjoy it, and to believe they can do it.

Now, more specifically, what can a teacher do to involve all of their learners in the lesson?

5. Personalise the learning

Whatever language you are teaching, see how your learners can use it to talk about themselves and their world. When teaching words associated with the house, relate it to their houses. When teaching abilities with “can”, or possessions with “have got”, relate it to their abilities and their possessions. Young learners like to talk about themselves. When they see English as a way to talk about their interests, they will become more motivated and will make a greater effort.

6. Each according to their ability

As your learners are learning the language, relate to each according to their ability. Antonio may tell you a lot of things he has got and, in this way, use most of the language you have been teaching. Ana, however, may only tell you about a few things. In both cases, praise them for what they have done. This will encourage Ana to continue learning. She will notice how others communicate more and be encouraged to learn more. Remember, success leads to success. If Ana feels successful, she will continue to make an effort.

7. Praise them! Reward them!

Establish a system for rewarding your learners for their efforts. Rewards should be based on effort and not knowledge. Make sure that everyone is able to get the reward if they try. For example, in my classes I create an honour board called, “I Am Special”. Let’s imagine I am teaching likes and dislikes, with the vocabulary related to food. The first week anyone who can name 5 different food items without looking at the book gets their name on the board. Two weeks later it might be those who can tell me 3 food items they like and three they don’t like.

8. Give them the opportunity to succeed.

Give your learners a second and third opportunity to succeed. Maria may not be able to name 5 food items the first week, but during the second week she is able to. That’s when you put her name on the honour board. Eventually, you may see everyone’s name on the board. Great! Congratulate the class on how well they are doing – all of them!

9. Establish routines

Establish a routine in class. This will help communicate to your learners what is expected of them. How should they enter the classroom? What is the first thing they should do as they come in? What do you want to see on their desks? What do you not want to see? Do they put away their books? Establish some definitions for working together, raising hands, etc.

10. Use project work

Finally, since Sylwia mentioned weaker learners and the idea of mixed ability, I always recommend that teachers use project work for these situations. I mentioned that personalising learning helps motivate children to learn. Using project work can give learners a basis to use the English they are learning. For example, when learning “can” for abilities, learners can make a poster of what they can do. Using images will reinforce learning. The project gives everyone an opportunity to show what they have learned. Making it personal and sharing the information with others in the class will engage them in their learning and make the language real.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about getting young learners involved, so please comment on this post.

Please keep your challenges coming. You can let us know by commenting on this post, on Twitter using the hashtag #EFLproblems, or on our Facebook page. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.

Here are the topics for the next two blogs:

04 December 2013: Learning English beyond the exams
18 December 2013: Written self-correction for younger learners


13 Comments

#EFLproblems – Teaching writing in the age of WhatsApp

Examples of text speakWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. In this week’s blog, Stacey Hughes responds to Klaudija Pralija’s Facebook post. Kaludija’s problem is not only getting students to write more than just short messages, but also teaching them to use appropriate language and grammar in more formal writing.

The challenge of text speak

Klaudija outlined a common problem in many classrooms. Students who are used to texting short messages full of emoticons, jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, and other non-standard English can feel it is acceptable to use these same features in more formal writing. On the plus side, if students are texting in English, research conducted by the British Academy (2010) suggests that this may have a positive impact on their language development. It is also worth noting that social media discussions can be the starting point for later articles, reports or studies.

For example, an idea brought up in a blog discussion or Twitter chat amongst EFL professionals could spark ideas that lead to a conference presentation further down the line. So students need to learn when it’s OK to use text language, and they need the flexibility to be able to switch between it and more standard or formal language.

To work on this flexibility, ask students to match common ‘text-speak’ with more formal phrases, which could then be used in whatever writing task is coming up. So, for example, in a unit where students have to write a formal letter, students could match items as below:

🙂 = I would be pleased/ delighted to…; I am happy to…
!? = Could you please clarify…
Thx = Thank you for…
i wanna = I would like to…
cu l8r = I look forward to seeing you later

Alternatively, ask students to choose a recent text message and ‘translate’ it into standard/formal English. If their texts are not in English, they could even do some research to find out the English equivalents. Discuss when text speak is an appropriate form of writing to help students begin to have an awareness of different types of writing for different purposes and audiences.

Another idea is to have a checklist that can be used for all student writing:

  • I used full sentences
  • I didn’t use abbreviations
  • I didn’t use slang
  • I used full forms rather than contractions
  • I used standard spellings

Writing in standard English

Getting students to be motivated to write longer texts can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. The key is to get students invested in the task. Let’s imagine that you are on a unit in which students need to write a report with arguments for and against something. Start by brainstorming something that the students feel strongly about. This could be related to something happening in the school (putting in a new vending machine, creating a new club, etc), in the community (building a new supermarket), or in the wider world.

Once you have decided on an issue (or issues if you want students to work in groups on different issues), ask students to use whatever social media channels they wish to discuss it. They can tweet about it, blog about it, Facebook chat about it, WhatsApp it – whatever they choose. With younger learners, issues of safety online should be addressed before this stage. Another alternative is to provide a chat wall where students can put up ‘tweets’ or messages using post-it notes. Chatting about issues via social media mirrors what happens in the real world and shows students how these channels can play a role in laying the foundation for other types of writing.

The next step is to decide who to write to about this issue – the Headmaster? The Mayor? The President? This audience awareness will help students focus on using more standard English and more serious arguments. Discuss why a headmaster or government official might want arguments for and against something and not just a one-sided viewpoint (e.g. s/he wants a clear picture of both sides of an argument, etc.). Discuss why it needs to be in more formal language (e.g. to be taken seriously; the headmaster doesn’t understand text speak, etc.).

Students then work to extract ideas from the chats and put them into more standard or formal language. They will need to evaluate the arguments to decide which can be used in their report. They will also need to decide which arguments are stronger and which they support. They may also wish to write recommendations. Finally, students write the report. If possible, allow students to write it on the computer so they can use the spell check and grammar check function built into word processors. Far from being a ‘cheat’, these tools force students to look carefully at what they have written in order to correct it (or not – computers make mistakes, too!). Typing out a report also makes it look and feel more ‘official’. Build in some peer review of the report, too. Again, this collaborative approach mirrors what happens in the real world and can lead to better work.

Ideally, if appropriate, students can send the report to the intended audience. What better motivator than to know their work is actually being read!

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about getting students to write in standard English, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 8 November at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. You can let us know by commenting on this post, on Twitter using the hashtag #EFLproblems, or on our Facebook page. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.

Here are the topics for the next three blogs:

27 November, 2013: Motivating younger learners
04 December, 2013: Learning English beyond the exams
18 December, 2013: Written self-correction for younger learners