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Getting the words off the page: an insight into vocabulary

Ahead of his webinar on 7th and 12th February on the same topic, Gareth Davies looks at how to make vocabulary learning inspring and motivating.

I was sitting on a train late last year and I watched a girl do her English homework. She got out a course book, turned to the back and started memorising a list of words for Unit 4. The word list had a date above it, as did previous word lists, suggesting to me that the girl was revising for a test that was coming on Monday morning. The girl read the words, occasionally writing in a translation or stopping to look one up on her phone. This made me a little sad. Obviously to her, (and her teacher?) vocabulary was just a list of words to be learnt for a test; but vocabulary is so much more than that. It’s a bundle of words to be used and consumed, a tool to help you express yourself and your imagination, the very key to successful communication in a language.

How can we change this perception of vocabulary? How can we make vocabulary learning more inspirational? What tools can we give our students to allow them to learn and grow their vocabulary autonomously and not just trudge through a list of words? How can we make vocabulary feel like a bundle of joy, each word like a Christmas present to be unwrapped and discovered?

We are lucky as English teachers that we have so much more than just a school subject on our hands; we have a tool for creativity. But if we are not careful we can turn English into another subject to be endured by the students. In my webinar ‘Getting the words off the page’ I will look at some answers to the questions posed above and think about some practical ways to teach and review vocabulary so the students actively enjoy learning words.

To find out more about teaching vocabulary, register for Gareth’s webinar on 30th January.


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How do I stop students from using their mother tongue?

Solutions Speaking ChallengeGareth Davies, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer gives his thoughts on the first of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: reducing the use of L1 in class.

In a recent survey on speaking challenges run by Oxford University Press, teachers were asked to vote on their top speaking challenge. The problem that received the most votes was ‘in group or pair speaking activities, my students chat in their mother tongue’.

I am not sure if this is good or bad news, in some ways it is comforting to know that teachers all around the world have similar problems to ones I am facing, but on the other hand I know that speaking is an important part of the learning process and the final exams, so I know my students need as much practise as possible. So how do I get my students to stop using the comfort blanket of their mother tongue and encourage them to speak in English?

Taking away the comfort blanket

My first answer to this question is don’t worry about it. This might sound controversial but in my experience the more you nag teenagers, the less likely they are to do what you ask them to do. There’s an old expression: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. So our job is to explain why it’s a good idea to use English and create the right environment but not to force the students to do it. So I suppose the question could be: how can I create the right environment to encourage my students to stop using the comfort blanket?

If we know what is stopping the students from using English then we might be closer to the answer. I think there are three main reasons why students don’t use English in pair work and group work.

1. They are scared to make mistakes

School culture often makes students scared to make mistakes; it might not be what we are doing in our English lessons but what is going on when they are not being taught languages. That means we need to work hard to overcome their resistance to error rather than highlight every error the students make. Often students are scared that if they make mistakes they will be marked down, so let’s let them know that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process.

To do this we could have ‘quantity not quality’ days where we tell the students they will be marked on how much they say not on how they say it. Also we could have a dice or spinning wheel with typical mistakes written on it. For each speaking activity we spin the wheel and whatever it lands on is the mistakes the teacher listens for and corrects. This shows students they can learn from their mistakes. Finally, as a teacher it is really important to respond to the content of what is being said. So if your student says “I went in Rome”, initially respond to the fact they were in Rome rather than the fact they have their preposition wrong.

2. They don’t have any ideas

An oft heard quote is that students don’t have any ideas, but in the feedback to the survey many teachers said the students were on task but just not using English. So can we use this to our advantage? Could we allow the preparation time to be in the students’ L1? Allow them time to come up with ideas and then translate them. Would this give them the tools to give more than just one- or two-word answers?

Whatever we do, I think for speaking activities to work, preparation time is a necessity not a luxury. I also think it is important to give students a chance to work in pairs to plan what they are going to say before changing pairs and asking them to do the activity. It is often a nice idea to repeat the activity with a new partner, the students will feel the first one was a rehearsal and they feel more relaxed second time around, (maybe even stealing some of their previous partner’s ideas.) Finally, you could give the students opinions; maybe students are too shy to say what they really feel for fear of being ridiculed, so if we tell them they have to argue against X or in favour of Y then they can hide behind the ‘role’ they have been given.

3. They don’t see the point

I often hear teachers say that students don’t see the point. Maybe a reason for this is that if they are in a class of twenty then they realise the teacher can’t listen to all of them at the same time, so they only feel they are learning when the teacher is listening. One thing we could try is to ask the students to record themselves using their phones or other recording devices. They could send us their recordings so we can use something from it in the next lesson and they can keep a record for themselves.

A lot of respondents to the survey said their students don’t listen to each other. This is a common problem, turning speaking into a series of monologues. One way to combat this is to have an activity within an activity. For example, ask your students to answer as a famous person or as another student in the class, or try to get random words into the speaking activity, or to slip in a lie. Their partner has to listen and guess who they are, or guess what the word was or what the lie was, training them to listen.

So throw away your ‘No L1’ signs, stop worrying when L1 pops up, and allow students to have their comfort blanket when they need it. But let them know why you want them to speak English, let them know that you actually welcome mistakes not frown on them, they are part of the process of learning, and encourage students to listen to each other by bringing fun to speaking activities and hopefully you’ll soon have them leaving their comfort blankets behind by themselves.


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Webinar: Changing with the Times: The 21st Century Classroom

Ahead of his webinar on 30th January on the same topic, Gareth Davies asks: How can we as teachers adapt to the changing needs of learners in the 21st Century?

Next time you are on public transport have a look at the range of technology on show. People will be playing computer games, reading from e-books, checking the internet, messaging their friends, listening to music, watching video, or if we are lucky, actually doing some English homework. The world has changed; our students have become digital.

How does this digitalisation of life affect our students when they come into our classrooms? Have their expectations changed or their behaviour patterns? Should we be looking to adapt our methodology to meet the modern challenges of 21st Century teaching?

I am not suggesting that we should completely revolutionise our teaching, it is not realistic to go completely digital; there is not the equipment available for a start. But what I am suggesting is that we can observe our students’ behaviour patterns to see how we can tinker with our methodology to allow the students to get the most out of our teaching.

Let’s take Social Media / texting as an example. Teachers who claim their students don’t even read or write in their own language are wrong. Students might not read long novels or write descriptive prose but they communicate frequently through this medium, making reading and writing an essential part of our syllabus. But students are used to dealing with messages of around 140 characters, so we need to adapt what we do in class so the reading and writing texts don’t seem too daunting for them.

In my webinar I will be looking at this and other examples of students’ digital behaviour to see what we can learn as teachers and how we can harness their new learning styles to bring success to their English learning. Remember: changing with the times does not mean throwing the baby out with the bath water and completely changing our teaching, it just means learning from our students and responding to them to help prepare them for the 21st Century.

To find out more about adapting your teaching to suit 21st Century learners’ needs, register for Gareth’s webinar on 30th January.


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Translation tool or dictionary?

Closeup on dictionary entry for educationGareth Davies is a teacher and teacher trainer based in Czech Republic. His students are typical of many language learners, preferring to use a translation tool rather than a dictionary. Gareth shares the ideas he uses to change their minds…

In a recent teacher training session I asked a group of teachers what their favourite book was and I told them that if anyone matched my answer, they would win a prize – none of them did. My answer was my dictionary. I love my dictionary. I love the smell as I leaf through the well-thumbed pages. I love the weight of knowledge the book carries and I love the unique insights it can give me.

But how can my dictionary become a useful classroom tool? In the past when I’ve asked students to look something up in their dictionaries they’ve rolled their eyes and complained that it was a ‘waste of time’. They preferred to get a translation from me or look up the word in a translation dictionary. But I persevered; I wanted my students to appreciate dictionaries even if they didn’t love them as much as I did.

I suppose the first question is why isn’t a translation tool sufficient?

If it provides students with the language they need then surely that’s enough? That’s true to some extent but translation does not provide any detail about meaning and the usage of the word, the nuances and connotation; a good dictionary will have all of these. Take a word like childish for example. A simple translation would tell you that the word means behaving like a child but that would miss the connotation that it is usually used in a negative or disapproving manner. Therefore, a translation is a quick fix, whereas a dictionary can be a virtual teacher.

So the second question is: how do I get my students interested in dictionaries?

I am sure it’s not just my experience that students roll their eyes when you ask them to look something up in a dictionary. I think it’s important as a teacher to model the behaviour you want from your students. So for me it was essential for them to see me using a dictionary and this is where technology really helped. Using digital dictionaries on CD-ROMs I can quickly and effectively show definitions of words on the screen whenever a student has a question. This could be either as a whole class or just when one student has a question. The genie function is especially useful as you can roll your cursor over any word in a ‘live’ document to bring up an instant definition. This helps students to see the value of the dictionary and helps us to discuss how to use them.

Another way to inspire students is to do small activities using dictionaries. My favourite is a spelling test where the students have to write words in one of two columns – sure how to spellnot sure how to spell. After I’ve read out the words the students check them themselves in the dictionary. On a whim in one lesson I gave one group a paper dictionary to check their answers and the other the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) app on my phone. The students with the app finished quicker and it wasn’t long before others were asking to use it.

A second activity I’ve used is a quiz race. I ask the students 3 or 4 questions and tell them to find the answer in the dictionary; for example: how many meanings does pick have? What’s the difference in pronunciation between record as a verb, and record as a noun, etc. For this I give one group the phone with the OALD app, one the computer, and one a paper dictionary. They then have to race to see who can find the answers first. These types of activities show students how useful dictionaries can be to help them become less reliant on the teacher.

My students’ willingness to use the dictionary app is something I can build on. Rather than using the CD-ROM in class, I have my phone at the ready in all lessons. It’s easy to pass it to one group then the next when the need arises. I make sure that they add the word to the Favourites when they look it up so we can see as a class all the words we’ve looked up at the end of an activity or lesson. Now instead of rolling their eyes when I suggest looking something up in the dictionary, my students are actively asking for it and when the phone is in someone else’s hands they reach for the paper version.

I was worried about using digital dictionaries in my class because not all the students could have access to them at the same time. But what I’ve discovered is that asking students to share the resources and asking them to use a combination of paper and digital, helps students to see what a valuable learning tool dictionaries are.


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It’s a Digital World

Mother and son using digital tabletTo celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, teacher trainer, Gareth Davies looks at three ways to make the digital world work for you in your upper primary classroom.

Over the past few years, technology has gradually become a valuable part of my teaching armoury. My essential teaching tool kit used to be a good course book, a ball, some pictures and coloured pens but now it includes a computer and a Wi-Fi connection as well. Using digital tools in the classroom was a logical progression for me. I had used cassette players and then CD players, video and then DVD so as soon as I got a laptop computer I started to think how it could work for me in the classroom.  Below I outline the three areas that technology has helped to enhance my teaching.

Digital Presentation Tools

The first area where I embraced digital in my teaching was using digital presentation tools. I started with a data projector and later started using an interactive whiteboard.

Using a data projector or an interactive whiteboard I can prepare some of my board work before the lesson, which is especially good for grammar or vocabulary presentations. My board work has became clearer and easier to follow, helping my students to make better notes. I can also save board work and revisit it later in the lesson or in a following lesson, this is really useful if the students haven’t understood a concept or need a reminder. On my computer I have all the listenings and videos I want to do in class as well as access to a range of pictures, this means I can appeal to a wide range of learning styles and bring variety to my lesson.

At first, I was worried that this pre-planning would make my lessons more structured, but I actually find having a computer and the internet in the classroom makes me more flexible. It means I can respond to students’ questions by looking things up on the internet or a dictionary CD-Rom as we go along. Also because part of my board work was ready prepared I find I have more time in my classes. This means I can be monitoring my students more and can help those in need. Also having the video on hand all the time means I can change the dynamic of the lesson quickly and easily if I feel the students need something different.

Getting students using technology

These presentation tools were really my toys but I soon found myself asking students to use technology for themselves in and out of the classroom.

I have found that my students are more than willing to look up definitions or translations using their smart phones. When doing pre-reading tasks they sometimes use their access to the Internet to find out information about the topic. This means students become more independent learners and realise that English is not just a school subject but it opens up the world of the web to them.

Computers also became tools for collaborative works such as projects. As well as doing paper projects, we use a range of web tools like blogs or fotobabble that students work on together. I think the fact that they can edit their work if they notice mistakes makes them more willing to take risks digitally and also more willing to comment on each other’s work.

Outside the class for homework or self-study I can use a range of digital tools.  For example I ask students to find music videos or clips from English language films that they like and that we discuss in class. Or ask them to record themselves speaking and email it to me. Students also seem to enjoy doing things on computers that they don’t like to do on paper. For example downloading and reading a graded reader on their phone seems more appealing than turning real pages. Similarly doing controlled practice activities digitally, on the OUP website or the course book CD Rom was more enjoyable for students because it allows them to have more immediacy, they get instant feedback which means they don’t have to wait for the teacher to check their answers. The ‘try again’ function also means they can do the activities again and again.

Professional Development

Finally the new digital world makes professional development so much easier. As you are reading this, I can assume that you have already discovered the power of blogs. Blogs are fantastic ways to learn about teaching methods and the ideas of people who we would never get a chance to meet.

As well as reading blogs I often attend webinars which gives me a chance to listen to teachers talk about what they are passionate about and discuss those ideas with other participants. I am also a member of a Facebook group that is like a virtual classroom, a place where I can share ideas with other teachers.

Finally, I can access the OUP website to access teaching ideas and resources that help me to change the dynamics in the classroom and supplement the course book I am teaching from.

I’ve come a long way since my early attempts at using PowerPoint to present grammar and I still wouldn’t say I have fully integrated technology into my teaching. But I have found that digital tools help to engage and motivate students and have helped me to make the time I spend with my students much more profitable. How is technology affecting your teaching? What benefits has it brought to your classrooms?

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