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The rewards and challenges of Content-Based Language Teaching

content based language teaching and instructionAhead of her webinar on Content-based Language Teaching, Patsy Lightbown, Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Applied Linguistics), author of Focus on Content-Based Language Teaching, and co-author of How Languages are Learned, shares her thoughts on its the role in the ESL and EFL classroom.

“Content-based language teaching” (CBLT) refers to a variety of contexts where students learn both academic content and a second or foreign language. CBLT characterizes the classroom experience of immigrant and minority-language children who, of necessity, learn a new language and age-appropriate academic content at the same time. It also applies to foreign-language programs such as “immersion” and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), where the inclusion of academic content increases the amount of time that students spend in learning and using a foreign language. CBLT can provide greater motivation for student engagement because lessons focus on topics that are more interesting and important than those that are typical of traditional foreign language lessons.

CBLT may be seen as an efficient way to deliver second- or foreign-language instruction. In CBLT, students do not learn a language in order to use it later to talk about new and interesting things. Rather, students are placed in the situation of learning and talking about new and interesting things while they are learning the new language. Different academic content offers different opportunities and challenges for language learning. For example, science lessons are often rich with demonstrations and hands-on activities that make it possible for students to understand, even when their language skills are limited. Lessons in the social sciences may be enhanced through the use of questionnaires and surveys, creating valuable opportunities for interaction.  Practice in mathematics can involve students in activities where multiple repetitions are natural and effective for developing fluency and confidence. Readings in history and English language arts challenge students to enrich their vocabulary and to learn more complex syntactic patterns, metaphoric expressions, and a variety of language registers.

CBLT has been used successfully in many classrooms. We must acknowledge, however, that it requires considerable effort on the part of both teachers and students.  Contrary to some claims, we cannot expect that students will acquire the new language “automatically” or that all teachers will know how to provide instruction that gives adequate attention to both the academic content and the foreign or second language itself. One important finding from the many research studies that have looked at CBLT is that students may not acquire the ability to use the new language fluently and accurately, even when they are able to learn the academic content that is delivered in that language. Similarly, some students may give the impression of easy, fluent conversational ability while failing to master the academic content that is appropriate to their age and grade level. To be successful, CBLT instruction must make complex academic content comprehensible and draw students’ attention to aspects of the language that they may not learn without intentional effort.

Finding the balance between instruction focused on meaning and instruction focused on language itself is a challenge for all second- and foreign-language teachers. It is an especially great challenge for CBLT teachers who bear the responsibility for ensuring that students learn both academic content and a new language.

Join the webinar Content-based Language Teaching on 28th – 29th October to find out more.


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Using First Language (L1) in the ELT Classroom

Using L1 in the ELT ClassroomPhilip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP.  In this post he discusses the use of L1 in the classroom and shares some guidelines for its use.

The majority of English language teaching takes place in classrooms where both the students and the teacher share the same L1 (first language). In these contexts, the L1 is often banned from the classroom, and for many good reasons. Many teachers and heads of department forbid the use of L1 because an all-English speaking environment is prized since it actively encourages communication in English. Another reason is that the L1 can easily take over if not restricted. While there are many reasons for banishing the L1 from the classroom, there are also good reasons for using it. What I believe is needed are clear guidelines for effective use of the L1. Below I set some guidelines in three levels; from basic to more in-depth.

Level One: Functional

Level one can be used by all ELT teachers to help the class function more effectively without essentially compromising the popular principle that English should be used at all times. The use of the L1 is quite restricted and the teacher is always in complete control so there is no chance of the L1 taking over the class.

  • How do you say ____?: Students are allowed to ask how to say something from their L1 in English.
  • Can I say something in my language?: If students have something important to say but do not have the level of English to do so, they can request permission from the teacher to speak in their L1.
  • Time out: Just as in Basketball, the teacher can indicate that they will create a short space within the regular class to use the L1, and then return to the English class. This is especially useful when something needs to be discussed which could not be done in English.

Level Two: Strategic

In this second level, the teacher has at their disposal all the uses outlined in level one, but now encourages students to draw on their knowledge of their L1 and English to develop language learning strategies. This is essentially done by asking students to make comparisons between the two languages. The teacher is able to do this without the need to use the L1 themselves if they do not want to. Again, if the teacher fears losing control they can use the time out idea to create a ‘window’ from the exclusively all English atmosphere in the classroom.

  • English you already know: When there is a new word that has some relation to a word from their L1, the teacher asks students, “Does it look like a word you know in your language?”
  • Finding patterns and similarities: When there are grammatical patters or phrases that are have similarities between English and the L1, the teacher can ask, “What is the equivalent in your language?” or “Is it similar or different in your language?”

Level Three: Discourse

Level three uses the L1 to develop language awareness, higher order thinking skills, and to explore and comprehend features of discourse in English. The teacher also incorporates the ideas from levels one and two.

  • Discussing register: When looking at a phrase in context that has a particular register or degree of formality, the teacher asks students for an equivalent in their L1. This opens up discussions about appropriacy and register.
  • Just for fun: All bilinguals are aware of words and phrases that are easily mistranslated and produce funny consequences. By highlighting some of these and encouraging students to play with the language, we not only bring some light relief into the classroom, but encourage creativity and heightened language awareness.
  • Translating: Students work together and translate extracts or short texts from one language to the other. The teacher encourages students to discuss and justify their choice of words and phrases. This develops insight into features of context, appropriacy and register, develops higher order thinking skills, and promotes greater awareness of both languages.

These ideas are designed to encourage teachers to make principled use of the L1 in their classroom without feeling guilty about doing do so, while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that are often associated with its use. It is hoped that all teachers will feel comfortable using some of these ideas and will consider the possible benefits of others.


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The Vocabulary – Grammar Continuum: A third approach to activity design

The Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum: A third approach to activity designAlice Savage and Colin Ward are professors of ESOL at Lone Star College – North Harris in Houston, USA.  This article is adapted from their presentation ‘Beginning Writing Students and the Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum’ at the 2014 International TESOL Conference in Portland, Oregon.

Words are powerful things. When we look at research-based word lists, such as the General Service List or the Oxford 3000, we come across many useful words that can inform our teaching of vocabulary in the classroom.  We know these words are the most important for our students to learn. Yet, from the perspective of the student, the task of acquiring these lists of words can be daunting.

One challenge is length.  How can students learn hundreds, or even thousands, of words when learning only a select few at a time?  And once new words are introduced, how can they be internalized without a sufficient amount of recycling and repurposing?

Another and more interesting challenge is meaning.  Meaning turns out to be a complicated notion when dealing with high-frequency words. For example, the Oxford 3000 includes three main categories. The first includes content words such as red, car, fast, which are obvious and easy to teach. The meaning is sharp and clear, so it can easily be demonstrated with a white board, a photo or pantomime.

The second category includes grammar words.  The words so, is, the, of, and their high frequency siblings hold a prominent position on the list and yet resist attempts to be neatly defined as solitary words. These worker bee words have become so directly associated with specific functions that they have become grammar (Larsen-Freeman, 2013).  Their place on a word list is obvious, and they get much treatment in grammar syllabi.

Then there is a third more elusive category, which we call shadow words. Words such as join, thing, important and place are extremely useful but difficult to teach because they hide in the shadows of other words.  Rather than being specific in meaning like the content words, shadow words tend to be abstract, vague, and flexible. They may not call attention to themselves, but they are important because a great number of other words like to partner with them in collocations. (Schmitt, 2000).

As a result of their accommodating nature, shadow words can be very useful when taught in phrases. For example, become is quietly helpful.  Phrases such as become an engineer, become friends, or become rich illustrate the supportive nature of become. When become is taught with other words, learners can better pick up the meaning of both. Become does not like being alone. It needs friends.

Shadow words can also have multiple personalities.  They take on different meanings depending on their context.  Have appears on high-frequency word lists because it collocates with so many other words—have fun, have a sister, have to leave, have an idea, have enough money—yet each pairing has its own personality.

So, in looking at all these different types of words that populate high frequency word lists, it becomes clear that vocabulary is not just one thing.  While some words can meaningfully stand alone, many of the most common words prefer to be in groups. These words unleash their full power when paired with other words in collocations (word partners), lexical chunks (groups of commonly occurring words that include grammar), and prefabs (fixed expressions that allow students to frame ideas by slotting in different vocabulary) (Hinkel, 2004).

Perhaps it is possible to conceive of teaching language a third way, not to present vocabulary lists, word form charts, and grammar items separately but together on the same continuum.

There are many benefits to this approach.  If students are exposed to words in these groupings, they have more opportunities to gather and use words in their natural environments. Furthermore, these distinct environments can help classroom participants make decisions about which meaning or meanings to focus on (Hyland, 2004).  For example, play means one thing when talking about children and toys, and another when used in an academic setting as in, Teachers play a role in helping students choose vocabulary.

Teaching words in phrases also mitigates the difficulty of learning parts of speech because students see adjectives being used before nouns, and nouns as objects of verbs or the subjects of sentences. They can establish cognitive hooks for storing the words in the same manner in which they will be used (Schmitt, 2000).

Finally, words in phrases maximize vocabulary learning by providing whole unit chunks of meaning that clarify individual words at the same time.  A list of 12 phrases includes more language than a list of 12 individual words.  For example, the lexical chunk blew snow in our faces can be visually depicted in one go while teaching 5 different words, including content words, shadow words, and grammar words.

The following example activities demonstrate how vocabulary and grammar can support each other in providing useful language for specific writing tasks. While each activity has a specific aim, the basic structure can be adapted for different topics and purposes.

Activity Type: Categorizing

Activity Type: Manipulating chunks 

Activity Type: Flow Charts

Having students attend to the boundaries beyond individual words can begin to help them see vocabulary and grammar on a continuum and may be one approach to making vocabulary learning more meaningful and efficient.  Collocations, lexical chunks, and prefabs can be used to introduce not just content words, but also grammar and shadow words.  Through scaffolding, students can then learn how to mix and match these words to produce new lexical strings.   They will see that words are not just dynamic, but do in fact have many friends.

 

References

Hinkel, E. (2004).  Innovative and Efficient Construction Grammar.  Selected papers from the 21st International Symposium on English Teaching.  English Teacher’s Association, Republic of China (ETA-ROC), Taipei, 51-59.

Hyland, K. (2004).  Genre and second language writing.  Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013).  Transfer of Learning Transformed.  Language Learning 63:Suppl. 1 pp. 107-129 Language Learning Research Club, University of Michigan
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2012.00740.x

Schmitt, N. (2000).  Lexical chunks.  ELT Journal, Volume 54 (4), 400-401. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Savage, A. & Ward, C. (in press). Trio Writing.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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Teaching young learners with special needs – tips from a fellow teacher

Student with raised handKaren Frazier, co-author of Let’s Go, shares her top tips for helping children with learning disorders in the English classroom.

Every ELT teacher has experienced a moment when he or she wonders what else can be done to help a student who seems to be struggling in class. Trying new activities and methods may work, but sometimes the student continues to have problems. This may suggest the student has some underlying disability. It could also mean that the student is struggling primarily because the language is different from the student’s first language or because of issues related to acculturation.

In either case, what can a teacher do in class to help this student?

1. Get to know your student.

He or she wants to be just like the other students, not thought of as only a student with differences. Find out what the student really likes to do (favorite activities, books, music, games, etc.), and what the student wants to do (at school, outside, dreams, etc.). Then include those likes and wants in the class activities and lesson themes.

2. Find out about your student’s life experience (family, language and school experience).

A student who has had a positive school experience and who is confident in his or her first language (L1) will have better success when learning the second language (L2). He or she actually relies on knowledge from the first language to help in learning the second language.

If you are teaching students in an ESL environment, where everything in the school and the community is in English, you may have students who behave like they have learning disorders; however, we must keep in mind that a student who has just moved to a new community may be experiencing culture shock. This can have a significant effect on how the child deals with learning a new language. Feelings of being overwhelmed by sights and sounds that are different can cause the child to withdraw and/or experience ‘response fatigue’, the inability to respond because they cannot handle any more new and different stimuli. So it’s important to get to know more about your student to help you determine the best way to teach that student.

3. Create an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement where all students feel supported and can learn in different ways.

Every student should feel welcome and valued. To help a student with special needs, seat the student near your desk so you can easily give assistance as needed. When individual speaking is necessary, have that student stand near you for support. Also, encourage all your students to get to know each other through in-class activities and projects they do together. Have your class work in small groups and pairs, playing language games, creating stories and role-plays, etc. This is good for students with learning disorders as well as for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. Working together with a supportive group or partner, that can share ideas, can make a significant difference for these students. Positive pairing helps the student with a difference or disorder feel productive and confident. It minimizes that feeling of being different.

4. Use plenty of visuals in your class.

Teacher and student cards with a picture and written word for vocabulary words are ideal. This is especially important for students who have hearing disabilities. Since they do not hear well, they need to focus on the written words to help them learn right from the beginning. Have students play games, in pairs or small groups, using small cards, each with a picture and a word to build knowledge in a playful way. Place pictures around your room with words that students can refer to as needed for support.

5. Introduce and practice new language using a multi-sensory/multi-modal approach.

Students with learning disorders, and all students learning a second language, need to have visual, auditory, and kinesthetic input. This multi-modal approach can help the student practice and reinforce the new language in a variety of ways. Dialogues and songs and chants, with repetitive lyrics, that focus on the rhythm of the language are also beneficial. Students with speaking disorders tend to have fewer problems with language when they are singing or speaking rhythmically (with a chant). Students more easily learn to say new words and language in songs because most of them generally enjoy music and focus on learning the song. Clapping the rhythm also helps both those with speaking as well as hearing disorders.

6. Half-class drills are very useful when practicing new language.  

As a large group of students are talking together, no one feels as if they stand out. Have half of the class ask the questions and the other half answer.  Practicing like this, without having any student feel singled out, reduces stress and allows time for all students to develop muscle memory and confidence, before having to speak alone. This is especially important for students with learning disorders or disabilities.

7. Use fun materials, based on students’ likes and experience.

To encourage students who are struggling, find or create short stories about famous people who have overcome disabilities and setbacks. Inspire your students to believe that they can also triumph in spite of challenges they face.  Use magazine pictures of strong and inspiring characters to make popsicle-stick figures. Then place sight words on the figures and have students make sentences with them. Do projects where students create simple stories using their favorite TV or game characters. Always encourage your students to share their experience and viewpoint in what they are doing so that they link their learning to what they already know.

8. Use assistive technology to help provide differentiated learning opportunities for your students.

Digital resources for students often contain stories, which a student can listen to and read over and over, at their own pace. This gives students a chance to practice words and language that they might not be able to completely absorb during the in-class activities. Online practice also provides the students with a way to practice listening and new language on their own, in the privacy of their homes.

English Language Learners (ELLs), like the general student population, may have any one of many learning disorders, including visual impairment, hearing impairment, dyslexia or delayed language development. If they face these challenges, it will be evident in both L1 and L2. So it is important for us to carefully understand and evaluate a student’s complete language and life experience when one is struggling with learning English and provide extra support for that student when needed. As we work with our students, we must also be aware that students who are newcomers to our area, or students who did not choose to be in English classes, go through an adjustment period. During this time, they may actually exhibit behaviors that are similar to those found in a student with a learning disorder, such as distractibility, lack of focus and concentration in learning, rejection of and a distance from the new language and community. Given time and plenty of encouraging support from us, and their classmates, students with special needs will be able to learn English.

Register now for Karen’s free webinar on 12 December, 11h30 GMT to get more tips and strategies you can use when teaching students who have language learning disorders in speaking, hearing and reading.

Want more free articles, videos and lesson plans from Karen and her Let’s Go co-authors?


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What makes a good coursebook

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

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

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

What kind of goals to set?

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

How do we get round this?

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

My goals would be to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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