Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


15 Comments

Teach less to help young students learn more

School girls playing repetitive gameBarbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, outlines the benefits of only teaching young learners one new thing at a time by recycling, reinforcing, and building on new language.

How can you get your students to learn more English? Teach less! It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

Teachers are often pressured to teach more – more vocabulary, more grammar, more content – to satisfy parents and administrators. Moving through a coursebook quickly becomes the measure of success. However, the classes in which I see students making the greatest progress are those in which teachers introduce relatively little new language and actively recycle previously learned language, spending the majority of class time reusing both new and familiar language in new contexts.

The measure of a successful lesson isn’t how much you teach; it’s how much students can do with the language they’ve learned.

There are certainly times when you might choose to throw students into the deep end of the language pool – when asking them to work at understanding the gist of a listening or reading task, for example. But, it should be a choice that works toward your lesson goals, not the standard approach. If you need to spend most of your class with books open, explaining the language on the page, then students are unlikely to remember much for the next class. You end up teaching the same things over, and over, and over again without much feeling of progress.

In contrast, when we recycle language in class, we’re teaching students how to use the language they already know to figure out language that they don’t. It’s one of the most important abilities that skilled language users employ.

There’s no way we will ever be able to teach our students all the English they’ll ever need to know, so instead let’s teach them how to be confident in their ability to figure things out for themselves. One of the easiest ways to model this skill is to introduce new language in the context of familiar. Another way of looking at this is to make sure you maximize the value of any language your students spend the time learning. Here’s one simple example of how using familiar language to introduce new language can help students learn more effectively.

Let's Begin example unit

If you teach without recycling familiar language, this looks like a dense lesson – eight new vocabulary words and two question and answer patterns. However, actively recycling previously learned language can make the lesson more manageable. For example, students have already learned the concept of plurals, and how to add an –s to the end of words to indicate more than one item. They may need to be reminded, but they don’t need to learn it again. That reduces the vocabulary load to four new words (and their plurals). What’s this? It’s a (CD) is also a very familiar pattern. It’s the first question students learned to ask and answer in the first book of the series to which this page belongs (Let’s Begin). It was recycled in a lesson two units prior to this lesson.

Let's Begin example unit

By recycling the familiar pattern with the singular vocabulary words, it’s a small step for students to understand that the new pattern, What are these?, is the same question but for asking about more than one of something. By reducing the amount of new language to be taught, students now have more time to practice the language they’ve learned. They can use the questions and answers with vocabulary from earlier lessons, or apply their plural-making skills to topics that interest them, or personalize the language and build new skills by using the language to write about things in their own lives (e.g., This is my bedroom. These are my CDs. This is my cell phone. etc.) and then to read what classmates have written. Language becomes a tool for communicating about things students want to talk about, and because language is constantly recycled, students are unlikely to forget it.

Active recycling plays a big part in Let’s Go, so the Teacher’s Book lists what language is being recycled in each lesson, and the ‘Let’s Remember’ lesson at the start of each level highlights familiar language from the previous level that will be built upon in the new one. You can do the same sort of recycling, with the same benefits, with any coursebook or even with no coursebook at all. You simply need to keep track of the language being taught so that you know what you can recycle to help students learn new language or build new skills.

A simple guideline is to teach one new thing (new pattern or new vocabulary, but not both) in each lesson, or for longer lessons or older students, in each section of a lesson. Reducing the amount of time spent on introducing new language creates more time for students to use language:

  • to use it in games and activities that provide the repetition necessary for memory
  • to add it to their language repertoire in order to talk about new things
  • to learn to read what they can say and understand
  • to use language they can read to write about their own unique lives and experiences
  • and to use language to connect with other students in order to share their own and learn about others’ lives and experiences.

If you are interested to see how active recycling works in Let’s Go, you can download a variety of sample lessons from the Oxford Teachers’ Club Let’s Go teaching resources page.


3 Comments

Help your young learners to remember new language

Young girl leaning against brick wall

Photo courtesy of Jenn Durfey via Flickr

Ritsuko Nakata, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at why children forget what they’ve learned and shares her top tips for getting young learners to remember new language. Ritsuko will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 13th February 2014.

Teachers are often puzzled and dismayed to find that their students have forgotten what they learned in the last lesson, not to mention lessons from a few weeks or months before. However, if we look back on our own school days, I think we can say that we also had a similar experience: often forgetting what we had learned. We also crammed for tests and tried to memorize everything, forgetting most of it after the test.

Children tend to forget things

Why do you think you forgot your lessons? Was it the way the teacher taught you or was it your own attitude towards learning? It might have been a combination of both. There might have been other factors as well, like the way you felt at the time, or the environment in which you were living and learning. There are many reasons why students forget.

As teachers, we have a great responsibility to get our students to learn as much as possible. When I first started out teaching, I worked very hard in every lesson and the children were able to repeat after me quite well. However, I was shocked when I saw them again at our next lesson. They had forgotten almost everything! They could repeat well after me, but could not say a single word on their own. I was beginning to think my students were just not good at learning English.

I started to think very carefully about what and how I was teaching the children, and why they couldn’t remember much even after working so hard in each lesson. I realized that it was the way I taught them! I was teaching them to become parrots, repeating all the time and speaking like robots. The children were satisfied just to repeat rather than trying to remember what to say, because I did not teach them how to retain what they learned and actually use the language themselves.

So what are some other reasons children forget what they have learned? Perhaps they were not paying attention during the lesson or were bored. It’s possible that they did not understand the lesson. They may not have been given enough of a chance to internalize the language. Or they might have not practiced it enough to react spontaneously to it.

So what is remembering and being able to retain new language? It is NOT memorization. How many times have we memorized things, only to forget them fast? Since English is a communication tool, we want our students to use the language they learn in class. If children use the language, they will remember it because they are the ones talking, not the teacher. Children need a little time to process the new items we teach them. They need more time to practice saying them aloud in order to become independent speakers. As teachers, we need to make time for practice in our lesson plans.

How can we help them remember?

One way to get students to remember their lessons is to make the lessons active and student centered, where the students do the work together. They will want to learn more, and will be more active in class, concentrate better and enjoy your lesson. This leads to retention of the lesson, gives the children confidence, and will surely bring a sparkle to their eyes (and the teacher’s, too)!

We should give children lots of practice time in class. If your students do not have exposure to English outside of class, this is the only time they will be able to practice. In Japan our once-a-week lessons are only 35 to 45 hours a year. This means that a year’s worth of lessons do not even amount to two days! Therefore we have to make every lesson an intensive one so that they can remember each one six days later when we meet again.

An intensive lesson does not mean study, study, study!

An intensive lesson can be a lot of fun and even more interesting than a slow-paced lesson. Children concentrate better when there is rhythm to the lesson. They speak out more when they get a chance to do quick, short drills instead of one long one. They are more active when they can talk to each other and not only to the teacher. They are motivated, concentrate more and enjoy their lessons. Emotions affect learning and, if they are having fun, learning and concentrating, they will remember the lesson! Motivation and a sense of progress play a big part in student attitudes. Once children are able to remember their lessons, they will have more confidence and will be motivated to learn (and remember) more.

Output is important!

To help our students remember better, our lessons should concentrate on a lot of output from the students. Not only speaking naturally with speed, rhythm, good intonation and pronunciation, but also reading and writing. Listening is also important, as it is an active skill that requires concentration and understanding. With a balanced lesson, that teaches the four skills, we can cover the learning needs in a way that fits the students’ ages. With a variety of techniques, we can cover the different learning styles of the students as well.

It’s easy to get into the “textbook trap”

This means that when the lesson starts, everyone opens their textbook, all heads are looking down and it is difficult to get the children to look at the teacher. Instead, it is more interesting to pre-teach the lesson before looking at the text. This way, the students will pay attention to the teacher, and the cards and other materials that are used. Visual aids will help slower learners by allowing them to see as well as hear the words. Adding the sentence pattern will provide context to the vocabulary, and therefore meaning to what the children are learning. Without meaning, memory will not be well formed. After the sentence is learned, the question form can be practiced. Putting the Q&A together, the students can ask and answer each other instead of being asked individually by the teacher. They will have fun and will have to THINK of the words themselves, instead of just repeating after the teacher.

It’s important to present the language in a variety of ways

Using actions while talking stimulates both sides of the brain and improves memory. Songs and chants with gestures also are important to bring rhythm into speech. Picture and word cards provide the visual stimuli necessary for students to grasp the meaning of what you are teaching. Putting the students into groups and pairs will encourage them to start speaking on their own, to each other, creating their own dialogs instead of relying on the teacher.

If you teach new language step by step, with children putting together new chunks of language to build meaningful short dialogs, the students will remember what they say and will be ready to read and write what they have learned. Their memory will be built up gradually. With plenty of review, their language bank will be expanded throughout the lessons and they will be able to retain most of what they learn.

Join me for my webinar on 13 February to find out more. I’ll be sharing some of the techniques we can use to build our students’ confidence and get them motivated as they have fun learning. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

Get more free articles, videos and lesson plans from Ritsuko and her Let’s Go co-authors.


8 Comments

Academic Language and School Success

Student raising hand in classCheryl Boyd Zimmerman is the series director of Inside Reading, Second Edition and Inside Writing. In this article, she describes the characteristics of academic language that pose challenges for English learners and proposes several essentials to include in the classroom. 

Academic language has been referred to as a “power code” in academic and professional circles; those unable to use it are at a social and academic disadvantage (Corson, 1985). As teachers, many of us are so fluent in academic and colloquial varieties of English that we flip back and forth with little thought. We adapt to the language of a formal lecture or a job interview, for example, and don’t think about the adjustments we make when using language in other settings. To help learners master academic varieties of English, we need to first raise our own awareness of the differences. What is academic language? Which characteristics are especially different from less formal varieties? Then we can consider: How can we help learners acquire academic language?

What is academic language?

The language of school is different from the “language of home” because its purposes are different. School introduces new ways to interact with people, different types of written text and new ways to relate with the world. Therefore, for learners of all ages, a school textbook or lecture will include features such as abstraction, authoritativeness, rich and complex meanings and technicality (Schleppengrell, 2010). To facilitate these functions, academic English contains features such as embedded sentences, passive voice, technical vocabulary (the words used in one discipline such as science or math) and more general academic vocabulary (words that are frequent in all content areas, but less frequent in everyday language).

Both technical and academic vocabulary are rare in non-academic settings; therefore, learners don’t have enough exposure to “pick them up” unless they have a lot of encounters with people who use them. Technical words are challenging in part because they often have everyday meanings that are different from the meaning in the content area (mean and constant in math). Academic words are challenging because by nature they feature multiple meanings (primary election vs. primary purpose), subtlety of meaning (consider the subtle differences between survive and live), and one word with several parts of speech (system, systematically, systematize and systematic).

How can we help learners acquire academic language?

Academic language is not likely to be easily “picked up” in the same way that colloquial language is because of its technical nature and its infrequency. The essentials for learning it include adequate exposure, personal involvement along with authentic practice, direct vocabulary instruction, and an environment in which situated academic language is used and learners see its place in their futures.

Essentials for Academic Language Learning

Examples of Classroom Strategies

Adequate exposure
  • Write one academic word on the board each day (include its word family members). Use it often throughout the class in instructions, comments, questions, etc.
  • Don’t over-simplify vocabulary; use repetition and synonyms instead of omitting difficult words
Learner involvement and authentic practice
  • In class discussions, revisit course material by focusing on short segments of interesting content with activities such as word-contrast discussions (“Which informal word could you use in place of terminate here?”) and paraphrasing (“Can you re-state that sentence using termination instead of terminate?”)
Direct vocabulary instruction
  • Scaffolded instruction needs to draw attention to language forms
  • Technology (e.g., See an online lexical tutor for resources including glossed readings with hypertext, tools to create content rich exercises, frequency lists and much more)
A motivating situated learning environment
  • Research indicates that learners are motivated when shown that the material is relevant to their future (Hirai, Borrego, Garza, & Kloock, 2010)

Keep in mind that learners are not always as enthused about words as teachers might be; we need to communicate that academic language is an asset worth an investment.

References

Cobb, T. (n.d.) Complete lexical tutor. http://www.lextutor.ca
Corson, D. (1985). The lexical barOxford: Pergamon Press.
Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list.  TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213-238.
Hirai, D.L., Borrego, I., Garza, E., & Kloock, C.T. (2010). Academic language/literacy strategies for adolescents: A “how-to” manual for educators. New York: Routledge.
Schleppegrell, Mary J. (2010). Language and mathematics teaching and learning. Language and Mathematics Education: Multiple Perspectives and Directions for Research, pp. 73-112. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing


3 Comments

Style and Substance: Teaching EAP at Advanced Level

Lecturer assisting students during classJulie Moore, co-author of the recently launched Oxford EAP Advanced / C1 level, looks at how to prepare students for the challenges of postgraduate study.

A proportion of students arrive on an EAP course with an already very high level of general English, especially those planning to study at postgraduate level. In the class I taught this summer at Bristol University, for example, all the students arrived with a score of 7.0 at IELTS. Yes, they were good, and some of them were clearly very smart cookies, but that didn’t mean they were quite ready to cope with demanding postgraduate courses in law or economics which require a really high level of language skill.

Academic style

One of the most obvious areas in which many of these students fall down is the style of their writing. They may be able to write about simple, everyday topics relatively clearly and fluently, but their style is often far from academic. Their first attempts at writing are more akin to a high school essay, full of short simple sentences, rather informal language and awkward fixed phrases and formulae learnt in high-school English classes.

The task of making their style more academic involves a two-pronged strategy.  Firstly, they need to look at just what it is that academic writers do that makes them sound academic. By analysing specific features in reading texts, they start to get a feel for what academic style is all about. You might, for example, take a short section of a text which you’ve already worked with and get students to first underline all the verbs, then identify and classify the subject of each verb. Chances are they’ll find lots of impersonal, non-human subjects, often expressed as noun phrases – recent research findings show…, more flexible working practices allow… – or where people are subjects, they’re more likely to be presented as a general group, expressed through a plural noun: consumers, critics of this approach, the majority of hospital outpatients, etc.

The next step is to work on transferring these features to students’ own writing. This will involve some nitty-gritty language work on, say, constructing noun phrases, a key feature of academic English that recurs through several units of Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 in the form of academic language boxes followed by practice activities. This process of raising awareness followed by practice helps students to develop the skills to move from:

As new media develop so fast, we are bombarded by a huge amount of information and we don’t even have time to filter them.” (example from a student essay)

To:

With the rapid development of new media, the public are bombarded by a huge amount of information, from news media, TV, social networking and online advertising, which is becoming increasingly difficult to filter.” (edited version rewritten in class)

Content

But style is nothing without substance. At this level, students really need to be challenged cognitively as well as linguistically. In an academic context, what you say is as important as how you say it. So it’s vital to give students real content to work with, not just in receptive tasks, but in productive activities as well. You can’t expect a student to produce an intelligent, well-argued piece of writing if they’re simply coming up with ideas off the top of their head.

Academic writing is not about personal opinions and experiences, it’s about drawing on academic arguments backed up by evidence from sources, and that means writing and speaking tasks based on meaty academic input. For this reason, the writing and speaking modules in Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 all build on authentic input sources on a wide range of topics, from drugs in sport to teamwork in academic research.Students work with these in a structured way towards an output task (an essay, a summary, a discussion or a presentation), incorporating evidence from these sources to support their points at every stage, just as they will be expected to do in their postgraduate studies.

And of course, the added bonus of challenging students intellectually is that it should not only prepare them for their future studies, but also make it more likely that the language they encounter will stick. The deeper mental processing required by these higher-level thinking skills has been shown to aid language acquisition, which makes really stretching these students at the top end a win-win situation.

To find out more about Oxford EAP C1/Advanced, watch Julie Moore’s video interview.


10 Comments

Productive Skills: Resources for Independent Learning

Girl with headset looking at computer monitor smilingHelen Stepanova is an English language teacher, teacher trainer and author, currently working as a Business English teacher in Latvia. In this guest post, she looks at some of the resources available for improving students’ productive language skills.

Nowadays the Internet provides numerous possibilities for students to improve, polish and master their English language skills. In my lessons I introduce these options, explaining how my students can use them and inspiring them with my own personal experience.

I have divided these resources into two main groups:

1. for receptive skills, with 2 subgroups: reading and listening
2. for productive skills, with 2 subgroups: writing and speaking

In each group there are several useful resources. Choose the most appropriate ones for your class.

Receptive Skills

Productive Skills

Reading

Listening

Writing

Speaking

1.Fiction literature 1.Radio 1. Social networks 1. Social networks
2.Professional literature 2.Audio books 2. Language learning communities 2. Language learning communities
3.Bilingual parallel texts 3. Films  3. Writing Clubs 3. British Council
4.Newspapers, magazines, online news 4.Podcasts  4. Private journal 4. Speaking Clubs
5. Blogs 5. Conversations 5. Couchsurfing
6. Scripts 6.Music 6. International learning and volunteer programs

In this post, I’ll be looking at Productive Skills. I covered Receptive Skills in my previous post.

Writing

1. Social networks

Skype, Twitter and Facebook are examples of free resources to communicate in written English as you would orally. Write in your Skype profile that you are looking for a native speaker to improve your English. When someone contacts you, explain your needs and offer to correspond on a regular basis. You can then chat with them through Facebook chat, on Twitter, through blogs, etc. The disadvantage of this approach is that people are unlikely to correct your mistakes (unless you ask them to); however as the correspondence is very informal and friendly, the learner can relax and express himself/herself freely. Twitter messages make you formulate your thoughts very concisely, as the maximum length of the post is 140 characters. It teaches you to write the core idea. Blogging is also a good way to present your ideas to a wide audience and invite comments and corrections to your writing.

2. Language learning communities

Language learning communities, such as Lang-8, Phrase Base are specialized sites to help you polish your language skills, where native speakers from 180 countries will correct your writing for free. First you have to log in, and then write your text, publish it and wait until a native speaker (possibly even a teacher) checks it and gives a detailed explanation of any mistakes. You can write your own blog, correct posts of other participants if they are in your native language, make friends, create your own community, and expand your network.

3. Writing Clubs/Classes

These are a very popular form of mastering the language. The teacher gives you a theme for your writing and a deadline to submit your work. The goal is to write an essay, to develop writing skills and to monitor your mistakes, both grammatical and stylistic. Sometimes writing clubs can include written debates on a particular topic. When the discussion is over the teacher individually comments on mistakes, or a peer assessment is provided. Different Universities offer such courses, and there are several such classes on Coursera.

4. Private journal

This resource demands a higher level of motivation, as the student has to commit to keeping a regular journal. It can be a fictitious or simply a record of everyday events. The habit of writing regularly promotes a habit of thinking in English. There are several online journal tools, such as Life Journal. Nobody monitors your mistakes, but Life Journal’s password and encryption system keeps your information safe and private, unless you choose to share it to get feedback on your writing.

Speaking

1. Social networks and 2. Language learning communities

The same principle as with writing, with one difference – you have to talk with your new native language friends. Speaking demonstrates any gaps in your language knowledge. Corresponding with pan-pals through social networks, ask them to have a conversation via Skype or another service. Regular real-life conversations will put what you’ve learned into practical application. The best practice will come from conversations with a native speaker, but even if he/she is not, you will learn to speak spontaneously and across a variety of different topics.

3. British Council

The representative office of the British Council is in every country. The main aim of the British Council is to help to share British expertise and knowledge with over 100 countries worldwide. You can attend seminars and workshops in English, meet English-speaking partners and master your speaking skills.

4. Speaking Clubs

This is a very popular forum to improve your speaking skills. Clubs are often organized to discuss the latest news and talk about different subjects.

5. Couch Surfing

Participating in a ‘’Couch Surfing’’ club allows you to host travellers at your house and to connect with new friends all around the world by staying at their houses while travelling. You can offer your guide services in your home town and invite the foreign visitors just for a cup of coffee, which will definitely involve and improve your speaking skills. Some examples are CouchSurfing, HomeExchange, and The Hospitality Club.

6. International learning and volunteer programs

Participation in different learning and volunteer programs, such as archaeological excavations, building projects, medical volunteering, wildlife conservation or life-long learning programs, such as Grundtvig practical learning for adults, gives you the opportunity to improve your speaking skills significantly.