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#EFLproblems – Facing your technology fears

Close-up of frightened man with dramatic lightingWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Stacey Hughes addresses a common fear: using technology in English language classes.

At the recent IATEFL conference in Harrogate, I spoke with many teachers who are still on the fence about using technology in their classes, and it is this EFL problem I would like to address in this blog.

For some experienced teachers, technology was seen as a gimmick. They couldn’t see any benefit technology could offer because the tried and tested activities they use had already proven successful. Other teachers I spoke with were nervous about the technology itself. Faced with the onslaught of apps, digital products and a host of crusading digital zealots, they retreated to the comfortable safety of books, pen and paper. For them, it was all too much too fast and they were overwhelmed.

I’d like to address the first of the two issues raised above before looking at ways teachers can ease into using technology.

Is technology a gimmick? It certainly can be, especially when it is used without thinking about how its use can enhance the pedagogical aim. There are many arguments for using technology: it is part of everyday life for many students, so it is natural to include it in lessons; it can make administrative tasks less time-consuming, freeing up class time or a teacher’s out-of-class work time; it renders some activities more motivating; it can put students in charge of their own learning; it provides access to information that wouldn’t be available otherwise; it allows students to practice and get feedback on language use… the list goes on. In essence, whether or not technology is a gimmick rests in the way it is used and for what purpose.

Here are some tips and things to think about when beginning your foray into using technology:

1. Start slow

You don’t have to use everything at once. Choose one device, tool or app to try this term or this year. It could be something as simple as asking students to email you their written paragraph or essay first drafts, writing comments on the papers in a different colour, using the highlighter to point out mistakes you want them to correct, then emailing the papers back to the students to correct for their final draft. For me, this method of feedback is preferable to handwriting comments because: I can write more; type-written comments are easier for my students to read (especially those whose L1 script is not Roman-based); I have a record of the feedback; students can’t lose their work (or if they do, I can simply email it to them again).

If you are feeling braver, try giving oral feedback on written work using Jing. My students responded positively to oral feedback because it gave them more listening practice. Have you always wanted to set up a class wiki, but baffled by the endless possibilities wikis provide? Start small: post up a text with questions you want students to read and answer for homework. Build the wiki over time.

2. Use the technology supplied with course books, workbooks and teacher’s books

If you are using CDs or DVDs, you are already using technology! Experiment with any online workbooks, student or teacher websites, learning games or mobile content. The benefit here is that everything is linked up, so teachers don’t have to think about how to relate the activity to the lesson aims. Don’t be afraid to let students take the lead with some of this – students are generally happy to help the teacher with the technology side of things. Course books also come with a degree of technological support from the publisher.

3. Use technology that is already in the room

Look at what you have available and then how you might use it. Be sure to include student cell phones and smartphones in your assessment. If you have a projector and internet access, for example, you can access interactive pronunciation charts for in-class pronunciation activities, or you can have an online dictionary at the ready for any vocabulary or collocations that come up in class. Keep these two open and running in the background (shrink them down) for easy access. Do quick image searches for vocabulary that comes up that can’t be explained easily – I once had the word badger in a text. I did a quick Google Images search, followed by a Wikipedia explanation projected on the wall – much more memorable than a simple explanation and I didn’t have to find a photo beforehand to bring to class.

4. Start with the learning aim

This is undoubtedly the most important thing to keep in mind. Put learning first and look for the best tool to use to aid that learning. Let’s imagine that you are teaching a Pre-Intermediate class and you want students to practice asking and answering questions. If students do this in pairs, it is hard to monitor everyone. Technology is beneficial here: students can video or audio record themselves (e.g. on their phones or tablets) and email you the recordings. You then have a record, can assess which students are able to ask and answer correctly, and can give directed feedback.

The added benefit of using technology in this way is that students are more likely to feel the task is purposeful and try to do it well. Creating a realistic context will add to the learning experience by showing students how the language they are learning in class relates to the real world: interviews ‘on the red carpet’, for example, provide a context and students can then do a blog write-up of the answers.

5. Ask yourself these questions:

What do I want my students to do or learn? Can technology help? If so, which technology? Is there something I can use that I already have or do I need to find something that I can use? Will using this technology benefit the students? If so, how? (If not, don’t use it!) How much time will it take me to learn this and is it time well invested? (i.e. Will students benefit proportionally? Once I have learned it, will I use it again and again?)

Invitation to share your ideas

What’s your technology story? Have you tried something out that you would like to share? Do you have any advice for those just beginning to take that first step into using technology? Please tell us about it by commenting on this blog.


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Creative Writing in the Language Classroom: 8 Collected Poems

Group of teenagers studyingFollowing a webinar entitled “Creative Writing in the Language Classroom” on 9th and 15th March, Jane Spiro, author of Creative Poetry Writing (2004) and Storybuilding (2007), presents 8 Collected Poems generated by the participants of the webinar over both dates.

During our two webinars we experimented with language and language play, and ‘wrote’ together 8 poems, which I am delighted to share with you in this blog.

The poems here have all been generated by you the participants, coming from 52 different countries and writing your lines and ideas online during the sessions. I have merely organised them, pared down words here and there where less might express more, cut out repetition where several of you said the same thing, sometimes grouped ideas together that seemed to fit semantically, creating verse forms of 2 or 3 or 4 lines. So, although I have acted here as editor, every word in these poems comes from you, the participants.

Download the full PDF of Collected Poems generated from the webinar.

We started by sharing and comparing ways in which we write ourselves, and use creative writing with our learners. I have collated some of these comments into the first poem Writing Creatively.

We then experimented with the different components of language, starting with the phoneme, the smallest unit of language. Here we tried to ‘describe’ to one another in writing, the sounds participants were hearing all around the world in their rooms and classrooms. This led to the second poem Our sounds with spring and summer sounds from Brazil, Italy, Portugal, India.

We then looked at the next biggest component of language, the morpheme, with our example being the prefix ‘man’. This idea comes from a poem by Andy Brown which we used as a starting point. Which words can be constructed with the prefix ‘man’? Participants wrote their ‘man’ words and built this into the sentence ‘It’s a man—– world’, as in the poem by Andy Brown. Our results are in the poem Mankind World – just as good as the published one, which became part of the UK school exam syllabus!

Next we looked at negative and positive connotations in words: how do we interpret words and where do our associations come from – our experience of life, stories, cultural influences? We compared responses to the words ‘red’ and ‘rose’, and all these associations formed the poem Rose Red.

Our next activity looked at the way words collate – or do not naturally collate – with one another. So, for example, if we compare someone human to something inanimate, we have immediately generated a metaphor – ‘finding similarities in dissimilarities’ as Coleridge said in his treatise on poetry. We listed people in our lives: then objects in the natural world, and joined the two with the verb form ‘is like’. Participants very rapidly joined in with this idea, creating metaphors about mothers, boyfriends and girlfriends, wives and husbands, sons and daughters. The results are in the poem My mother is like a flower.

Another way to create a metaphor is to compare something abstract – for example, ‘learning a language’, with something concrete such as seashells, a white room, or a mountain. Participants were asked to choose which metaphor they related to most from a choice of three, and to explain their choice. The results are in the poem Learning a language is like

Next we moved onto  sentence patterns. The first pattern ‘I remember’ was used to trigger memories of schooldays, and in particular first days at school. This very simple sentence opening could be completed by just a single noun or noun phrase, or a whole clause – but all convey past memories and even a sense of nostalgia. The results are in the poem I remember schooldays.

Finally we looked at complex sentence patterns, and the structure ‘If I were ____, I would’. When we introduce ‘language play’ and allow ourselves to ‘be’ inanimate as well as animate, abstract as well as concrete, this sentence structure yields all kinds of interesting metaphors. You can read these in the poem If I were, I would.

These ideas and examples are offered to you, the reader, so you can try them out for yourselves, in the  classroom and outside, and compare and add your own results to those we have here as our poems become more and more international. Happy writing!

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Creative Writing in the Language Classroom

Jane Spiro, author of Creative Poetry Writing (2004) Storybuilding (2007), looks at how, why, and with what effect we can include creative writing activities in the language classroom. Jane will be hosting a webinar entitled “Creative Writing in the Language Classroom” on 9th and 15th March. You can find more information and register to attend here.

Why introduce creative writing activities?  

Our use of the mother tongue is full of the same ‘creative’ strategies that poets use when they are shaping a poem. When we tell jokes we are often playing with puns and the shape and form of words: when we use idioms we are often invoking a metaphor or simile that has become part of the language. The names of products, or the nicknames we use for people we like and dislike often play with the sound of words – alliteration and internal rhymes, the connotation of words, or multiple meanings.  So one reason that creative activities in the language classroom are worthwhile, is because they mirror the strategies we use in our mother tongue.

Another, perhaps even more important reason, is that an effective creative writing strategy brings the whole learner into the classroom: experiences, feelings, memories, beliefs. Of course other activities can do this too – but the creative writing activity can lead to an outcome which is memorable, which the learner may want to keep, or even ‘publish’ to others: a Valentine poem, a poem of thanks to a parent, a birthday poem for a sibling or friend.

How do creative writing activities fit with language learning?

Many teachers say there is no time for poetry activities, or creative activities, alongside all the language goals of the classroom. Another objection, is that the language of poems and stories is quite different from the everyday language students really need.

This webinar will answer these two concerns.  We will explore the ways in which creative writing activities can be developed as part of the language syllabus, helping to make vocabulary, structures and patterns memorable and engaging.  We will also consider how creative writing activities allow opportunities for connecting language skills so that writing leads to informed reading, and vice versa. Our discussions and activities will also prove that these strategies are within the capacity of all learners (and teachers too!) and do not require special ‘genius’ or talent to be achievable.

Don’t forget to find out more information and register for Jane’s upcoming webinar.

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Towards incorporating learner autonomy in language classes for children

Annamaria Pinter is Associate Professor of ELT/ Applied Linguistics at the Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick, UK. Annamaria will be hosting a Global Webinar entitled ‘Towards incorporating learner autonomy in language classes for children’ on February 22nd and 24th. You can more information and register to attend here.

Autonomy is an undisputed educational goal for all. But does this apply to children as well? How can it be applied in language classrooms across different age groups? What can teachers do to help children become more autonomous learners? How does the teacher’s role change?

Why we can’t avoid autonomy:

Each year ever greater numbers of young children in various parts of the world start learning English, and by the time they become teenagers and/ or adults, the world around them will change beyond recognition, and they will need to adjust to new ways of learning. Training them to think for themselves is therefore an essential skill to teach today.

What benefits will this training come with?     

Autonomy goes hand in hand with motivation. If your learners are highly motivated, they will be learning English enthusiastically. Autonomy is also linked to making choices. When children make choices, they will invest more responsibility and effort into whatever they do.

This webinar will be devoted to ideas/ techniques and activities that can be adapted for any classroom. Teachers can incorporate as much or as little as they see appropriate into their practice, and these ideas will work in any classroom because there is also a strong link between developing learner autonomy and attention to individual needs and differences in different contexts.

Here is one idea:

  • Get the children to work in groups and take some photos ( for postcards)
  • Get each child to choose their favourite picture to write about (with a purpose, e.g. my favourite place to show a friend )
  • Get the children to compare their picture stories/cards within the group. Having seen/ read other cards, ask the children to add at least one more idea/ sentence/ to their original writing and/ or improve the writing in any other way.

Autonomous learners  – autonomous teachers?

If we expect children to become more autonomous, should we expect the same of ourselves?    What about ‘Teachers as learners’ and ‘teachers as role models’?              

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