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#IATEFL – Adult Learners: helping them clear the next hurdle

Businessman jumping over hurdlesRachel Appleby, co-author of two levels of the new International Express (published in January 2014), looks at how to help adult learners to maintain momentum when learning a language. Rachel will be presenting on this topic at IATEFL 2014 on Wednesday 2nd April.

Over the years, I’ve made significant efforts to learn Hungarian, and have done reasonably well; however, I can now “do” what I need to do with the language, and I’m very aware that I’m forgetting it, even though I still live in Budapest. I also go through phases of learning Spanish, and try to do a little everyday, such as reading an article I’ve come across that interests me, or putting Spanish radio on while I’m cooking. OK, so I might be keeping the little Spanish I have alive, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought that I was making any real progress in doing these things.

Many students I’ve come across tell me similar stories, but they also have other difficulties: time is always the number one hurdle; in addition, some think learning a language is all about doing grammar exercises, which of course they find boring; many claim to be able to learn long lists of words, but then resent their efforts when they find they can’t really use them in conversation.

Adults learning a language today characteristically stop and then re-start learning, each time with renewed enthusiasm, yet we all have busy lives! Does this sound like you too? Somehow we expect to make progress, often with minimal effort. Some people claim they are able to keep a language going by reading, or watching films, – perhaps even by having the occasional conversation with a native speaker in that language. But, in fact, all too often we’ve reached a plateau, or perhaps our language use is even getting worse.

So what can we do to help our students? I do actually realise that I need to engage my brain and be very focused on what I want to learn if I’m going to make any progress at all, so extensive listening while chopping onions isn’t really going to do the job! But how can we translate this into the classroom? How can we really get students involved, and ensure they make progress?

Well, I think we need to be very aware of the difficulties our students are facing, as well as what they’re aiming for; in fact the more we know about them, the better we’ll be at helping them. Adult learners bring a wealth of experiences to class, and in most cases are eager to share those, and have a chance to express their opinions. But they need to be motivated and engaged. So we need to ensure that we give them the scope and range of topics to be fully involved. But we also need to focus on language, and create opportunities to help them understand and relate to new language, and make sure that they practise the language in a meaningful way.

In my session at IATEFL Harrogate we’re going find out what it is that makes learning difficult and perhaps prevents learners from getting over the next hurdle. We’ll then be looking at topics and task-types from the new edition of International Express that will engage the learners, provide them with relevant language, and ultimately enable them to communicate effectively and make progress in areas that matter to them.

As a start, why not jot down in the comments box below what it is that makes it difficult for YOU, or YOUR learners, to get over the next language hurdle. I’d be really interested to find out, and – you never know – we just might have a solution for you! Let me know!

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A Letter to My Younger Self

Young woman thinking as she writesMeghan Beler is a full-time teacher trainer for Oxford University Press in Istanbul, Turkey. In this piece she writes a letter to herself about things she wished she knew when she first started teaching.

Dear Younger Self,

As you have probably realised by now, teaching is hard work. On top of a full teaching load you have to deal with homework, exams, misbehaving students, staff meetings and (gasp!) students’ parents. You are experiencing a lot of uncertainty and ups and downs, sometimes even on an hourly basis. You may feel that you don’t have enough time to plan the spectacular lessons you dreamt of when you were training to become a teacher. I remember what it feels like to be a new teacher, so I would like to offer you some simple advice that can help you deal with some of the challenges you are currently facing.

Choice: First of all, don’t be afraid to give your students choices about their learning. As a teacher, it’s very easy to fall into a pattern of being the decision-maker, judge and jury in the classroom, but allowing choice is an important part of helping students become autonomous learners. By having your students make some decisions in the classroom, you can also increase their involvement and enjoyment of your lessons. Start with something simple, such as allowing students to choose which questions from an exercise that they would like to answer. You might also consider asking them how they would like to carry out an activity – individually, in pairs or in groups? Homework and projects are other areas where choice is a possibility. If you want them to get more practice with past simple at home, give them some options and take a whole class vote, for example:

  1. Write a short composition about your last holiday.
  2. Record yourself talking about what you did last weekend.
  3. Prepare a ‘past simple’ quiz for your classmates.

This allows you to cater to different learning styles while encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning. For learners who are not accustomed to being given choice in the classroom, this new responsibility may come as a shock to them and they may struggle to come up with ideas or even try to ‘cheat’ the system. But with a bit of persistence and optimism on your part, you will be amazed at the wonderful ideas your students can come up with.

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Teaching large classes

teenagers outside schoolAlastair Grant, a Teacher Development Manager in Buenos Aires, looks at the challenges in managing large classes of teenagers, and suggests ways to ensure successful lessons.

I shut the door behind me and realised I had made a big mistake.

No, this isn’t the starting sentence from a creative writing class that I went to when I was 12, but the feeling I got when stepping into that secondary school classroom…

Me, a first year teacher, fresh off my teaching course, and full of ideas about communicative activities, interaction patterns, etc., suddenly faced with 32 teenagers all speaking in a language which I didn’t understand, and not paying me any attention! I needed to change things fast.

Back when I started teaching (time seems to move at twice the normal speed in this profession), I found this pretty intimidating. We know that large classes can have their fair share of challenges – I’ve picked out five to get you thinking:

  1. Monitoring
    Let’s see: you have 32 students doing an activity; that means you’ll have about 12 working quietly, 6 working together, 4 talking about their weekend, and 10 calling your name in unison, demanding help. And if you’re lucky, it’ll be in that order.
  2. Environment
    There are desks in the way, bags all over the place and it can seem impossible to be able to reach your students to help with them while they’re working.
  3. Discipline
    With even the best adolescents and adults, there’s a temptation for them to speak in their native tongue, or just not to work, which is even more common in a larger class, especially as there’s less chance of you spotting it!
  4. Interaction
    Trying out a “find someone who” activity with a class THIS size can turn you into a policeman, because you have to make sure students don’t use the activity as a reason to speak in their language. It’s also hard to make sure everyone can get to speak to each other without creating chaos!
  5. Testing
    Having 32 writing, reading, listening, speaking, and grammar tests to check for only ONE of your classes, is exhausting for any teacher.

Ok, so far so bad, but strangely, six months into the job, when asked by my director which class I was enjoying the most, I found myself answering “the one at the secondary school”.

So what had changed?

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Do you use humour in the classroom?

Three school girls laughingIn this post, Jeremy Taylor, a freelance writer and teacher trainer based in Czech Republic, explores the benefits of using humour in the classroom to engage students and improve their learning.

Do you have a good sense of humour? Do you use your humour in the classroom? A class that is laughing and having fun is a relaxed class and more receptive to learning, as I have found over 25 years of teaching. Humour is a very difficult thing to get right but it is a wonderful addition to the classroom. It is a useful tool to engage your learners and make your lessons (even) more interesting. But also:

  • Students are also likely to repeat jokes and humorous stories they have heard.
  • If they know they will be rewarded with a laugh, they are more likely to be motivated to read.
  • Jokes tend to be short – so can be enjoyed by even the weakest students.
  • Jokes are memorable.
  • You can learn a lot about a nation’s culture through its humour.

Of course when using humour you should be able to laugh with your students not at them.  Laughing at your students is horribly unprofessional and I’ve only done it once in my career.

Is it possible to use jokes in the classroom? It definitely is, but you need to decide whether the joke is cultural appropriate and also whether the joke will be understood by your students. Jokes that rely on a play on words are unlikely to be understood. There are lots of jokes for children like this.

“Where do you take a horse when he is sick?”

“To horsepital!”

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Party Mix: Engaging teenage learners

Group of teenagers at a partyIn this guest post, Anna Musielak, a Gimnazjum (Lower Secondary) teacher and teacher trainer from Poland, tells us how she coped with teaching teenagers and gives her tips for how to engage this troublesome age group. Feel free to follow Anna on Twitter (@AnnaMusielak).

Teaching teens is a very challenging job. They are extremely hard to please and it is our role as teachers to provide them with tasks and activities that will be interesting, motivating and effective. Of course, our teenage students very often decide to make our life, well… living hell!

When I taught Gimnazjum students I very often felt like screaming. There were days that I could (literally) stand on my head and they would still say the lesson sucked… But there were those precious moments when I got to them, when the lesson was so interesting that they forgot to moan and complain and just took part in it!

The key, in my opinion, is to introduce a variety of animated and efficient exercises that motivate students of mixed abilities and help them learn and reinforce the material. The activities have to be engaging and directed to all students – those better at English and those who struggle with it.

Of course, it helps a lot when we have an idea what our teenage students are into. For some it will be the Twilight Saga, for others Facebook, and for some, playing Guitar Hero. It is our role to find out about their passions and hobbies – by doing so, we prove to our students that we are genuinely interested in their lives. Obviously, I don’t mean channeling your inner rock star or coming to the classroom plugged into your iPod. I just think that knowing a bit about our students’ activities outside school gives us a perception of their temperamental life and, what’s more, helps us understand them better.

There is one activity that always works with my Gimnazjum students – I call it Party Mix. It does not require a lot of preparation from the teachers (one of the biggest advantages when conducting a lesson) and gives freedom to the learners.

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