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English File author Christina Latham-Koenig answers your questions!

English File third editionCo-author of English File third edition, Christina Latham-Koenig will be answering your questions in a live webinar on 27 May. You can register and send in your question now.

We are often asked where the idea for English File first came from. The truth is we felt that none of the coursebooks that we had used up to that point really provided what we needed as teachers. It seemed that these books were designed to work in a teaching environment that was very different from ours, and while there was a lot of imaginative, well-planned, and well-organised material to choose from, there was little to help us address the main challenges that we faced day-to-day.

How do you keep students motivated when they are fitting their class into the middle, or at the end, of a busy day at work? How do you maintain students’ attention when they have so many other things going on in their lives? And, what was always most important for us, how can you get students to talk to each other in English if they all speak the same first language, live in the same town, and have often shared many of the same experiences?

And so we needed to spend a huge amount of our preparation time adapting and supplementing the books we were using to make them more appropriate for our classes. We felt that we needed a greater variety of material to help change the focus and the pace of the lessons, we needed activities that helped to get the students’ heads out of their books, and we needed topics where students really would have something to say. The ideas that shaped the original English File series came directly from our own teaching experience and from talking to our friends and colleagues in the staff room about what worked and what didn’t work in the classroom.

Over the last twenty years in the course of researching and presenting English File, we have had the opportunity to go beyond the confines of our own staffroom and have met thousands of teachers from around the world (and had contact with thousands more via emails and questionnaires) and it has been truly enlightening to have been able to share experiences and to hear about the wide variety of challenges they face teaching English to their students as well as hearing their inspiring stories of success.

They have always been very honest in their feedback, telling us about English File lessons that they and their students have enjoyed, but also suggesting changes and improvements, anything from a text that never seemed to work with their group of students to an activity type that they find difficult to set up because of the arrangement of their desks or the acoustics of their classroom. They have shared their views on perennially divisive topics such as celebrities, sport, and fashion, pointed out why particular areas of grammar or pronunciation are especially difficult for their students, and given us a wide range of cultural insights from their countries.

This exchange of information has helped us to grow as writers and has been the inspiration for the second and third editions of English File. We are extremely grateful for the time teachers have taken to speak to us.

On Tuesday 27 May 2014, I will be hosting an English File Question and Answer webinar. If you would like to participate in this event, please visit the Registration Page. I will try to answer as many questions as I can in the time available – and I really look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Christina Latham-Koenig


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‘Mind the gap’ – Supporting students beyond Intermediate

Robin Walker, freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer, looks at ways of supporting students who are beyond Intermediate but not yet ready for Upper Intermediate level. Robin discussed this topic in his webinar on 20th February, entitled ‘Mind the gap’ – Helping your students to cross the intermediate threshold with confidence. View the recording here.

When I started teaching English in the early 1980s, adult coursebooks from all of the leading publishers ran to three or four levels – Beginner, Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced. This 4-level learning was a reflection of the limited strength of the then emerging ELT publishing industry, rather than the reality for the learner in the English language classroom, and inevitably there was a gap between what was available and what learners needed.

To bridge the gap that most students encountered between the four ‘official’ levels, one of the strategies we used as teachers was to change publishers. If a group was struggling at Elementary level and wasn’t ready to go on to Intermediate, for example, we would look around for an Elementary-level coursebook from another publisher. This worked up to a point, but often brought with it the disadvantage of changing from a style that learners had become used to, and which generated a sense of security, to a style that was new and that provoked different reactions from different students.

The new style was not necessarily better or worse, but it definitely felt different. For the more adventurous students this unfamiliarity often acted as a stimulus, and they took to the new book with few if any problems, and, initially at least, with genuine enthusiasm. But the learners in a group that were less sure of themselves (and who were usually the students that were finding it difficult to move up to the next level), would often tell you that they liked the old book better, and would even ask if it wasn’t possible to repeat the year with the same book.

Another problem with trying to bridge the gap with a coursebook from a different publisher was that the new book, quite correctly, assumed that the users were coming to the level for the first time. There is no reason to write a coursebook aimed at learners who have been using materials from a competing publisher. The only possible strategy is to assume that students adopting a coursebook at a given level, will be arriving at that level after successfully completing the previous one with a book from the same series.

The outcome of this situation in class was that material would, logically, be presented to learners as if they had never seen it before. This wasn’t the case, of course, and students often lost motivation when they embarked upon a unit that presented an area of language that they had already studied only the year before. I can clearly remember a strong sense of We’ve already done this! invading the classroom during these ‘repeat’ years.

As the teacher, I knew only too well that the group needed to go back to the language areas in question in order to, on the one hand, consolidate any previous learning, and, on the other, successfully cover what the class had demonstrably failed to learn the year before. In general, it takes a lot of skill to overcome the demotivating effect of going back in order to go forward, and often the new coursebook ends up being supplemented by original materials provided by the teacher. This is a solution that a) raises the question as to why the students have been required to buy a book they seldom use, and b) eats up serious amounts of a conscientious teacher’s free time.

Over the intervening 30 years since I began teaching, major coursebooks have expanded from running at three or four levels, to offering teachers and learners five or even six levels. The Common European Framework of Reference, whose influence has extended way beyond the shores of even the widest concept of Europe, started off with six levels, from A1 to C2, although the use of the ‘+’ sign to generate even more precise gradings is increasingly common. Theoretically, we can now talk about a 12-level system that progresses from A1 through A1+ to A2, and then on to A2+, and so on.

Although it is interesting to be able to refer to individual students with this almost mathematical precision, it is not feasible in practical terms to run a language school with as many as twelve different levels. In that respect, the six levels from Beginner to Advanced, the current default system in many private and public ELT institutions, constitute a strong basic structure. The progression from one level to another, whilst not without its problems, is realistic and generally motivating for learners.

There is, however, one level where again and again learners seem to struggle, and this is the step up from Intermediate to Upper-Intermediate. This is a critical step for many learners, and handled badly, it can lead to them becoming demotivated, and even abandoning their studies.

Learners abandoning English is a highly undesirable outcome. But as we saw at the beginning of this blog, neither changing publishers to repeat at the same level nor repeating at the intermediate level with the same coursebook, are very adequate solutions. Just as inadequate is the strategy of pushing Intermediate learners into an Upper-Intermediate class and hoping they’ll survive if we give them enough support.

The fact is that if we are really going to ‘Mind The Gap’ that Intermediate students face, what is needed is an Intermediate Plus coursebook. This will be a coursebook that:

a) is from the same publisher as the book the group used at intermediate level,

but that:

b) tackles material from this level in fresh and engaging ways.

This is precisely why OUP and authors Christina Latham-Koenig and Clive Oxenden and co-author Mike Boyle have created English File Intermediate Plus. In my webinar on 20th February I’ll be looking at this especially in terms of grammar, vocabulary, listening and speaking, four key areas for learners hoping to progress to Upper-Intermediate.


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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?


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Best ways to support intermediate students

Hikers walking on a mountainRobin Walker takes a look at how teaching Intermediate level students differs from teaching students at other levels.

I’ve spent most of my life climbing mountains, first as an adventure-loving schoolboy, then later as a serious participant in a sport that has taken me all over the world. They’re an interesting phenomenon. They figure constantly in our lives, even if we don’t live near them, or contemplate ever climbing them. Advertising uses images of mountains constantly, and we refer to them without even realising it in our every-day language – I’ve got a mountain of work to do. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

They come, of course, in many sizes, and can be easy or difficult to climb because of that. Not unnaturally, the bigger they are, the harder they generally are to climb. It’s similar to learning languages, especially if we look at the process in terms of where we start from. Learning English if you are Dutch or German, isn’t as difficult as learning English starting from a first language like Japanese or Farsi, where you don’t even share the same alphabet.

But apart from absolute size, I’ve noticed that the shape of a mountain can strongly influence your chances of success, especially when you haven’t taken this factor into account. Even if two mountains have the same size, one can be more difficult than the other because of the ‘shape’ of the journey from the bottom to the top.

Some mountains, for example, are like the Matterhorn. Their shape is one of constant, challenging technical difficulty. I’m desperately trying to learn Polish at the moment, and this is the shape it has taken on for me. It has started steep and technical, and there is no indication that it’s going to get any easier. In fact, right now, I’m heading back down to base camp to rest and recover.

Other mountains are really steep to start with, but then they ease off, and if you’ve got over the first, very demanding section, you know that you’re going to make it to the summit. There’s a mountain very close to where I live here in Spain that has exactly this profile, and when I first climbed it, it was an incredible feeling to get halfway up and to realise that the worst was over.

It’s been like that for me with Spanish, as well. At first, with all the verb endings, the tenses, the masculine and feminine, and the (to an English speaker) bewildering subjunctive, it seemed as if I’d never get off the ground. And then suddenly it was happening, I was making progress (most of it upward), and the ground was receding into the distance. No one was holding my hand now. I’d become autonomous – using and learning, learning and using, but with the climb under control and the summit within my grasp.

There is a third mountain shape I’d like to describe, because it concerns us a great deal when it comes to teaching English. It’s the mountain that is not too steep to start, and not too steep to finish, but that has a huge plateau area somewhere around the middle. A plateau is a large, flat area of high land. The highest summit in the Pamir mountain range of Central Asia, Ismoili Somoni Peak, has a very large plateau just over halfway up.

At 7495m high, Ismoili Somoni is a big mountain. But for most mountaineers, it’s not its size that makes it so difficult to climb. Rather it’s the plateau, which is wide and featureless, and takes a full day to cross. You can easily get totally lost on it if you’re not careful. Worse, still, although it’s taken a huge effort to get up to the plateau, the summit still feels a lifetime away.

For many learners of English, the intermediate plateau is equally huge. And different things can happen when they get there. A few will go on without any problem, and will finally reach their chosen goal. Others will abandon their attempt as soon as they spot the magnitude of the task ahead. Many, however, will struggle bravely, but not effectively, to get across the plateau, keen to get to the other side, but not sure how best to do so.

I actually failed to get across the plateau during my attempt at climbing Ismoili Somoni Peak. Nobody had told me about it, so mentally I wasn’t prepared for the work that was required of me. It was disappointing, but it didn’t stop me loving mountains, and in a life spent climbing them you have to learn to accept occasional failures.

But as an English teacher I’m not happy if I see students struggling to get across their personal intermediate plateau, and I want to help them. I can’t carry them, of course. They still have to do all of the climbing. It’s them who have to put one step in front of the other and deal with the altitude. But what I can do is to guide them so that their efforts are rewarded with a real chance to tackle the summit. In my webinar on July 17th, we’ll be sharing ways of guiding our students across the plateau. It would be great if you could join me.


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Oxford Teachers’ Academy 2012 – Reflections

Teachers working togetherMirjana Podvorac, an attendee of the Oxford Teachers’ Academy: Teaching English for Adults course in July 2012, talks about this life-changing experience.

I feel really privileged to have been a part of the Oxford Teachers’ Academy course Teaching English to Adults 2012. Being able to meet people from all over Europe and beyond, who are in the same profession of teaching, who are really dedicated to what they do and are experts in their area of interest, is inspiring and makes me personally want to learn more and push my own limits.

These few days in Oxford have really been rewarding in many ways; famous Oxford University and prominent Keble College provided a perfect setting for the course, stirring our imagination and taking us back to the times of Tolkien, C.S Lewis and other prominent Oxford scholars.

The course consisted of 18 hours of intensive teacher training divided into 9 sessions over the course of three days. Tim Ward, the tutor, professionally covered all language skills providing lots of useful tips, techniques and ready-to-use activities to make our teaching more efficient, varied and fun. Personally, I admired his calm, friendly, and engaging attitude. At the end of each day there was some time left for reflection, going through our notes and handouts, summing it all up, which have proved to be very useful now that I want to use the activities and ideas in my class.

We were also given the opportunity to meet the editors of Oxford University Press Adult course book classics, English File and Headway, which enriched with the new, inventive iTutor and iTools digital features, continue to be teachers’ favourites worldwide. Being able to convey our opinion to people who are engaged in the process of the development of new courses and to assist with the usability testing of the online test project was really rewarding. The OUP team have proved once again to be trustworthy ELT partners who truly value teachers’ feedback encouraging all the participants to continue working together and contribute to future projects.

Meeting fellow colleagues from different countries was another benefit; 36 enthusiastic people who like this tricky, yet wonderful profession. We spent most of our free time together as well, sightseeing, taking photos, buying souvenirs and getting to know each other over dinner and a pint in famous Oxford pubs or, again thanks to the OUP, enjoying fabulous Lebanese food. We continue to keep in touch exchanging ideas, useful books and links. Hopefully, the OUP OTA 2012 will result in some inspiring international partnerships as well.

In conclusion, although Oxford is known as the City of Dreaming Spires suggesting the melancholy, poetic echo of the rich history, we have found the City and the University itself to be vibrant, stimulating and fully awake.

Finally, I give my appreciation to the Croatian OUP team in Zagreb, who have been reliable partners for more than thirteen years, for their support and this memorable experience.

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