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What Learners Can Do with Texts

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachersNigel Caplan, assistant professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute, holds degrees from Cambridge University and the University of Pennsylvania, and is finishing his PhD in Education. His research focuses on genre theory and collaborative writing. He has presented at TESOL as an invited speaker, the European Association of Teachers of Academic Writing, and the Symposium on Second Language Writing. He is the co-author of Q: Skills for Success and Inside Writing (OUP).

As a teacher and writer, I believe that two of the main questions we face in the classroom can be summarized as: How do our students learn, and how do our lesson plans and materials promote learning?

I’m especially interested in how this applies to our use of texts. And I say texts not readings to emphasize my belief that the articles, reviews, websites, essays, and textbooks that we assign can be used for more than teaching reading.

Here are four of the ways I use texts in my teaching:

  • To challenge students to reconsider the world. For example, in the second edition of Q: Skills for Success Reading/Writing 5, we have a fascinating new reading about how graphs can lie: what appear to be hard numbers may turn out to be visual distortions!
  • To encourage critical thinking by presenting multiple viewpoints. When we were writing Q: Skills, we were always looking for two different ways to answer the unit question, often from very different academic fields. So, for instance, how do we define a private space after reading articles about shared spaces such as roads and public buildings?
  • To model written genres. We all learn to write by reading other texts in the target genre. That’s how we know what a wedding invitation, or a conference proposal, or a blog post should look like. In Inside Writing, we present one or more models for every genre we ask students to write and invite them to discover how and why it is written.
  • To focus on language. Reading widely is certainly important for language acquisition, but research has shown that it’s not enough. Learners also need to focus on the structure of the new language. After reading a text for meaning, I like to dig into the language and help students discover useful vocabulary and grammar structures that they can use in their own speaking and writing. For example, why does a summary of a research article begin with “The author claims that poor exercise routines can be dangerous” rather than “The author presents the dangers of poor exercise routines”?

At the JALT 2015 conference in Shizuoka, Japan (November 20-23), I’ll be talking about these ideas in more detail, including a language-based approach to teaching critical thinking, and a genre-based approach to teaching writing through the Teaching/Learning Cycle.

The Teaching/Learning Cycle

The Teaching/Learning Cycle (Rothery, 1996)* is a well-developed method for helping students to write in target genres. The Teaching/Learning cycle starts with an activity called “Deconstruction,” which is basically a teacher-led analysis of several writing models to help students deduce the staging (the typical structure of information) and language used (especially for ESL or other linguistic minority populations). For example, we teach the online product review as a genre that requires students to describe an item in detail and evaluate it, giving specific reasons. So, first we have students read several reviews, adapted for the level, and then together we figure out that reviews typically follow a predictable pattern: establishing the writer’s expertise, describing the product, giving opinions with specific support, and then closing with a recommendation. You can find this assignment in Inside Writing 2.

The trick with deconstruction is to avoid structural labels and focus on functions. For example, if I ask my students what the structure of any genre is, they will invariably reply “introduction, body, conclusion” because that’s what they’ve been taught. But pretty much every piece of writing has a beginning, middle, and end, so it’s just not very helpful to students learning how to write. In the case of argument writing, for instance, “claims” and “evidence” are much more useful than “introduction” and “body.”

At this point, we also need to focus on language. How are adjectives used to strengthen a description? What shifts in tense do you see? What verbs do the authors use to introduce evidence? What tenses do they use? Do you see certain types of grammar in the claims and opinions but not the evidence and support (e.g. modals)? How do the writers use relative (adjective) clauses? Once you start asking these questions, you’ll be amazed what you and your students notice about your genres!

Join me at JALT to practice the other stages of the Teaching/Learning cycle, Joint Construction and Independent Construction. I’m also going to discuss teaching critical thinking by using thought-provoking texts as prompts for discussion and writing.

Nigel will present at JALT on Saturday, November 21st and Sunday, November 22nd. Click here for more details.

 

* Joan Rothery’s chapter, “Making Changes: Developing an Educational Linguistics” is in the book Literacy in Society (Hasan & Williams, 1996). The pedagogy is also summarized in my essay, “From Generic Writing to Genre-Based Writing,” available from the OUP website.


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5 Ways Your Young Learners of English Will Change the World

shutterstock_247739401Kathleen Kampa and Charles Vilina have taught young learners in Asia for over 25 years. They are co-authors of Magic Time, Everybody Up, and Oxford Discover, primary ELT courses published by Oxford University Press. Their inquiry-based teaching approach supports a differentiated classroom environment that builds the 21st Century skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

If you teach English to young learners, take a moment to consider the role you play in shaping their futures. To begin with, you are providing the building blocks of a skill that they can use meaningfully and productively throughout their lives. You are offering the opportunity for global communication, for relationships and careers that will shape who they are and what they do. Most importantly, you can help them change the world for the better.

In essence, the English language classroom exists to prepare students to communicate across cultures, across borders, across perspectives. As the world evolves and becomes even more interconnected, it is our students to whom we entrust the responsibility of building a better global society.

So how will your young learners of English change the world as adults in the future?  Here are five ways:

  1. By communicating effectively in English. Your students will have the ability to read, write, listen and speak with a strong degree of fluency. They will have the social and academic language skills necessary to consider differing points of view, and to persuade and inform others. Here are some tips on how to help your students develop good communication skills in English.
  1. By thinking critically about knowledge and information. Your students will think deeply about issues, and will connect what they learn with what they already know. They will be able to organize and prioritize the information they receive, in order to make sense of it and achieve new goals with it. How do you bring critical thinking skills into your classroom? Here is a video with some easy-to-use ideas.
  1. By thinking creatively. Your students will have the ability to take knowledge and create something completely new with it. They will connect information from various fields to arrive at solutions to old and new problems. They will personalize new knowledge, adapting it to create something that is uniquely their own. You can develop and nurture creativity in your classroom with some of these simple strategies.
  1. By working together, also known as collaborating. Your students will have the social language skills necessary to work with people from other cultures and perspectives. They will learn to share ideas and compromise to achieve the needed results.
  1. Finally, by caring about the world. Your students will be curious and connected adults who will be able to identify problems and seek out solutions with others. They will strive to make a difference in the world. Try some of these approaches to create a classroom environment in which students are encouraged to collaborate and show caring attitudes towards each other.

Some of these qualities have been listed under the label of “21st Century Skills”. We’re happy to look at them as prerequisites for success.  Students who communicate well, who think critically and creatively, and who work well with others, have the tools they need to find success in any field. And it all begins in our classrooms.

How do we build these skills? The links above will take you to a small sample of video tips on using and developing 21st Century Skills in your English classroom. To view all 56 videos available on this topic, visit this 21st Century Skills playlist on YouTube.

If you’re in Japan, join us on Sunday November 22 at the 2015 JALT conference in Shizuoka, where we will present our workshop entitled A Practical Guide to Building 21st Century Skills. Using examples from our new primary course Oxford Discover*, we will demonstrate how the building of 21st century skills can be incorporated into every language lesson. We’ll show how these skills can help your young learners develop English fluency and increase their motivation at the same time.

*2015 ELTon award winner for Excellence in Course Innovation.

Kathleen and Charles will present at JALT on Sunday, November 22nd. Click here for more details.


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A pre-JALT interview with Kristin Sherman, co-author of Network

Kristin ShermanKristin Sherman, co-author of Network, OUP’s first adult course book to use social media, sits down with us to talk about using social media and technology in the ELT classroom. Kristin is the author of several ELT materials including the hit series Q: Skills for Success, and has extensive teaching and training experience.

1. What do you think is the greatest challenge ELT teachers face in the near future? How can they prepare to overcome that challenge?

I think definitely one of the greatest challenges that ELT professionals face is trying to adapt to new technology. So many changes have been created by technology, and trying to figure out what it means for our teaching is the biggest nut to try to crack. The way that people communicate and access information has changed dramatically which has a lot of implications for both language teaching and learning.

Students and learners can be exposed to a greater variety of English with new technology. For example, if they are using online discussion forums or using social networks they’re going to see not only American English or British English, but a wide variety of English. That’s good because it’s authentic and the learners are going to be exposed to the kind of language that they will need to practice in their professional careers and so forth. But on the other hand, all of this input is a considerable challenge for them and for the teacher.

In addition to exposing us to a greater variety of language, technology is also changing our brains and the way that we learn. Research shows that all kinds of things are changing from how we read to how we process information, and even our learning style preferences. I think that teachers are really going to have to take these changes into account, and if they’re going to be successful and effective they need to adapt their teaching to address what’s happening with learners.

Another big challenge with technology is bridging the gap between younger learners – who are much more skilled at using the internet and who have grown up with it – and the instructors who are a maybe a bit older and are not as tech-savvy. Bringing these instructors up to speed is an interesting challenge because if they don’t adapt they’re not going to be as effective as they could be as instructors.

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A pre-JALT interview with Ken Wilson, author of Drama and Improvisation

Ken Wilson with teachersKen Wilson is a teacher trainer as well as the author of over 30 ELT materials including the course book Smart Choice and a compilation of drama activities entitled Drama and Improvisation. He has extensive experience with the English Teaching Theatre as a performer, writer, and artistic director and has written countless plays, radio, and TV programmes. Ken will be attending his fourth JALT national conference this October where he will be giving talks on improvisation and communication. He joined us for a short interview to talk about drama and improvisation in the ELT classroom as well as what he expects from this year’s conference.

1. What do you think is the greatest challenge ELT teachers face in the near future? How can they prepare to overcome that challenge?

For me, it all comes down to technology. I think the biggest challenge is the correct, sensible and useful employment of technology in the ELT classroom, and I think it’s a different thing for new teachers and for more experienced teachers.

When I was in Japan last time, I noted that – as in most countries – some teachers are a little bit uncertain about the use of technology. Some of them feel that the publishers are introducing the use of technology at quite a fast rate. What I would say to those teachers is that there are some terrific advantages to technology, but what you’ve been doing yourself successfully over the last five, ten, twenty years is equally valuable. And as an experienced teacher, you shouldn’t feel any pressure from anybody to use technology. Just remember that what you’ve been doing successfully up until now is still valuable – technology is just there to help you with it.

For new teachers who are being trained with technology, it might look like Christmas. All these techno toys look so fantastic, but you should remember that at the end of the day, the classroom is first and foremost about the relationship between you and the student. The technology is there to help your students, but you‘re the person there who is teaching. Don’t put the technology between you and your students. My worry about new teachers who get really excited about technology – who walk into a classroom, switch something on, ask people to use something on their tablets – is that they are losing an important aspect of their relationship with their students. Students still need to know that they’re relating to a person and the technology is there to help that relationship, not become a barrier to it.

2. One of your presentations for the JALT conference this year is titled “Can improvised activities work in Japanese classrooms?” Can you give us a teaser of what you will be talking about?

About three or four years ago, I wrote a book called Drama and Improvisation and the reason I finally got around to writing this book was that I had been doing activities in the classroom that were really, really simple and they involved very basic language, but they still involved improvisation activities. Drama must be used in a way that is accessible for low-level students, and that uses activities that work for all levels of students from elementary to advanced levels. When I wrote Drama and Improvisation, the series editor Alan Maley told me “All these activities are really simple! They’re all elementary.” I said, “I know, but the fact is I’ve done them with advanced students and they find the intellectual requirement quite interesting and quite a challenge even though the basic language is quite simple.”

Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve seen drama workshops at conferences, where I found myself thinking, that’s a sensational activity but it only works with somebody who speaks a lot of English already. A lot of people who give drama workshops will say that drama is essential because students need to take flight, use their imagination etc. etc. which is great if you have the language to do it, but most of the students can’t do this because they don’t have that framework.

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20 years of learning and playing with Let’s Go

Let's Go authorsIt’s hard to believe, but the Let’s Go series is nearly 20 years old. We recently had a chance to talk with the series authors, Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, Ritsuko Nakata and Karen Frazier, about the changes they’ve seen in publishing, and in teaching English to children, over the past two decades.

As a special thank you, Barb thought it would be nice to share a short video with you, as a little flavour of the last 20 years of working on Let’s Go. Thanks also to Barb for conducting the following interview.

Barb: Let’s Go was one of the first course books for teaching English as a foreign language to children. Quite a few features that are commonplace in young learner courses now started with Let’s Go. What were some of the “firsts”? Please complete this sentence: Let’s Go was the first English course to _____.

Ritsuko: It was the first English course to expose children to the Roman alphabet at such a young age. Let’s Go was also the first English course to include so many verbs. If you know plenty of verbs, you can talk a lot!  Also, it’s written so that children can actually use the dialogues they are learning.

Karen: It was the first English course to include full answers and question forms to get kids talking. With Let’s Go, kids don’t just learn one word answers to teachers’ questions, they learn the words to ask the questions, too. It’s so common now that it’s hard to believe that it was a pioneering approach back in the 1990s.

Ritsuko: I’m pretty sure it was the first book to include chants, and to include movement to help children remember sentences as well as the verbs.

Barb: What’s something teachers may not know about Let’s Go?

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