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What are the building blocks of skills teaching?

What are the building blocks of skills teaching and how can these help your learners listen and read for tomorrow?

Take a look at this infographic to find out more.

Navigate Infographic

Navigate is a brand new General English course that takes an innovative approach to reading and listening based on this academic research as to how adults best learn languages. It teaches reading and listening from the bottom up, giving learners the skills they need to understand the next text they will read and hear, not just the one they are reading or hearing now. The course content also has been extensively piloted and reviewed in ELT classrooms across the world, giving teachers the confidence that it really works. Find out more at www.oup.com/elt/yourdirectroute


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Bottom-up decoding: reading and listening for the future

Mark Bartram, a teacher trainer and materials writer, explores different approaches for processing written and spoken text, and how they can be integrated into the English language classroom. 

Are you a top-downer or a bottom-upper? The debate as to the relative importance of these two approaches to understanding spoken or written text has been going on for decades. Most people would agree that both approaches are useful at different times and for different reasons. In this blog I will attempt to explain why the bottom-up approach should not be neglected.

First, some definitions.

Top-down processing starts from the reader or listener. It assumes that the learner brings to the text certain knowledge – of the world, of texts (including how certain types of conversation typically unfold), and of language. This knowledge is likely to be useful in understanding a text (whether written or spoken), but it often needs to be activated, and activities such as discussions, questionnaires, quizzes, brainstorms, and vocabulary-anticipation can all be used to do this.

For example, when you saw the title of this piece, you probably started thinking about what it might mean, what the arguments in the piece were likely to be, whether you wanted to read it, and so on.

So assuming you still do want to read it…

Bottom-up processing starts from the text. It assumes that by working on a combination of different aspects of the written or spoken text, the learner can increase their ability to comprehend it. These might be very “micro-” elements, such as the fact that we tend to insert a “w” sound between certain vowels; or they could be at a more “macro-” level, such as searching for synonyms within a text. The key idea here is decoding.

For example, in order to understand the second sentence of this piece (the one that starts “The debate…”), you needed to work out that the first 17 words are the subject (a complex noun phrase), that the verb comes next (“has been going on”), followed by an adverbial (though unless you are a grammar geek, you won’t have used these terms). Identifying the verb is a key aspect of decoding complex texts.

Improving the ability to decode

Most people would agree that we use a combination of the two approaches when we are processing a text. We tend to switch from one to another as is needed. But whereas it used to be thought that we revert to bottom-up processing when we are unable to use top-down (for example, if we are unable to predict the content, we have to listen to the actual words!), research suggests that in fact the reverse is true. If you are in a noisy café, and can’t “decode” what your friend is saying (bottom-up), you tend to fill in the gaps with your knowledge of the world, or your friend’s usual speech habits.

Within this framework, the idea of “comprehending a text” needs to be defined. Many activities in coursebooks are essentially asking the learners: “Did you understand this text?” – i.e. the one in front of them. This can work as an assessment or diagnostic tool, but the danger is that it does not prepare the learners for the next text. In other words, we need to train learners in transferable skills that can be used for any text in the future.

We can do this to a limited extent with top-down activities – for example, we can train learners to use prediction techniques to anticipate the content and language of a text. Furthermore, classroom research and teacher experience tell us that top-down activities such as the ones listed above can be integrated easily into lessons, are motivating and fun, and enhance the overall experience for the learner. So we should not discount top-down activities entirely.

However, common sense tells us that we are often in situations where we are less able to use top-down skills, for example, in exams, or simply when we turn on the radio at random. At this point, our ability to decode becomes key. And it is with bottom-up approaches that the training aspect comes into its own.

Vocabulary, of course, is vital. The wider your vocabulary, the more fluent your reading or listening is likely to be. However, bottom-up skills remain important because they work on aspects of the text that are useful even when the learner’s vocabulary level is high. We have all heard learners say plaintively “Well, I know all these words, but I still didn’t get what they were saying!” For this reason, reading and listening activities need to include work on decoding text.

Subsequent blog articles will explore how training in bottom-up decoding can be introduced painlessly into the classroom.


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12 Ways to Boost Language Skills with Independent Learning

Young woman reading a bookNowadays 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 Receptive Skills. I’ll cover Productive Skills in my next post.

Reading

1) Fiction literature

This is the best option for those who love reading. The choice of books is enormous, from historical adventures to mainstream and children books. It’s possible to relax and learn new vocabulary and grammar constructions simultaneously. Project Gutenberg is a free online library.

2) Professional literature

If your students are learning English for a specific purpose (e.g. Engineering), reading professional literature is a great way of improving students’ knowledge in that professional area, and in English at the same time. You could also try reading the lectures of world-renowned academics, which are now uploaded to the websites of many leading universities. MIT’s Open Courseware and Coursera are two examples.

3) Bilingual parallel texts

On one side you’re given English text, on the other there is a translation in your native language. This option is convenient for those who like to read original texts of any complexity, without having to stop to look up unknown words. This resource is very helpful, as the structure and ability to look at the translation immediately allow students become more confident in reading and lessen their fear of long texts.

4) Newspapers, magazines, online news

Nowadays there are plenty of news websites and online resources for reading, e.g. BBC News, Daily Telegraph, Reuters, and CNN. By reading online news, students kill two birds with one stone – they read articles that are interesting and relevant to them, and learn a lot of new words that are common in press reporting. Reading these daily and writing down any unknown words will help students develop their vocabulary.

5) Blogs

There are thousands of blogs on the Internet dedicated to different themes – travelling, fashion, gardening, children, phychology, etc. Use a service like Technorati to find relevant blogs. Several times per week bloggers update their pages with new stories. Like with online news sites, students will be interested in keeping up with new posts and will learn at the same time.

6) Scripts

This is one of the most amazing resources for improving reading skills. We all have our favourite films, and reading the script can be a great way of entertaining students and showing the use of English in more natural, informal settings. The same will apply to plays. Sites like AwesomeFilm, and The Daily Script have loads of movie scripts available as PDFs.

Listening

1) Radio

There is possibly no better source for listening practice than radio. There are hundreds of different radio stations where you can listen online, so try listening to a station from a different country to your own. It also helps to listen to different dialects and accents, e.g. British English – BBC Radio, American English – Voice of America, Canadian English – CBC Radio, Australian English – ABC Radio Australia.

2) Audio books

There are advantages and disadvantages to listening to audio books. The lexis can be learned quite easily, however not everybody likes listening to books. It is a matter of preference. Audio books can be downloaded for free from, for example, the University of South Florida’s Lit2Go program, New Fiction, and LibriVox. Or they can be purchased from sites such as Audible and AudioGo.

3) Films

This is an ideal way to master listening skills, as all three VAK styles are used: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. If something is unclear, it is easy to rewind back and re-watch that section of the film until it becomes clear. Reading the script before watching, or watching the film in students’ native language first, will also help. Repeat words and phrases, imitating the actors’ intonation, will help to get students’ kinaesthetic memory working.

4) Podcasts

Short audio lessons or stories recorded by native speakers are what will really help students. Choosing podcasts at the right language level for your students, and with themes that are interesting and relevant to them, is crucial to maintaining students’ interest and motivation. You can even subscribe to podcasts to be sent the most recent episodes automatically. Try a service like ESL Podcast.

5) Conversations

Encourage students to find a friend – either a native speaker or someone with a good level of English – and to talk with them in English. Thanks to social networks such as Facebook, Skype, Google+ and Lang-8, it’s very easy now for students to connect with native speakers and improve their English effectively.

6) Music

Listening to music is a great way to develop English skills. When you are listening and singing your kinaesthetic memory is working. Even if it is difficult to understand the lyrics, music is poetry and is often very idiomatic. Students will pick up key phrases and words to add to their vocabulary.


Helen 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’ receptive language skills.


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Something old, something new … Part 3

Exam takerMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the last one of a series of blogs on the topic.

For the revised Cambridge English: Proficiency. We have already delved into the Reading and Writing components, so today’s post consists of ideas on preparing the Listening and Speaking papers. Enjoy!

Approaching the Listening Paper

The Listening paper has not suffered great changes. It is only Part 4 that became a straightforward multiple matching task; there are 30 questions (instead of 28) to be answered during 40 minutes of recording.

This type of task presents students with the difficulty of solving two tasks at the same time, as both of them refer to the same recording. While listening to a speaker, they have to focus on several statements to figure out which one relates entirely to him/ her. What teachers have to stimulate in their students’ abilities is distributive attention. Here are some ideas for the classroom.

  • For slower students, in the beginning ask them to solve Task 1 the first time they listen and Task 2 the second time they do so. However, this way, they will have no opportunity to go back on their answers. It is, therefore, important to encourage “multi-tasking”, as the exam draws closer.
  • A useful activity might also be staging seemingly real-life social interactions, light conversations. While two students carry out the dialogue, another one has to match a list of several statements to either one of the two participants in the conversation. For a successful task, it is important that you prepare a specific outline of the conversation for the two students to follow. This way, you may manage to develop active listening in a friendly manner, and at the same time enhance distributive attention. As students master multitasking among statements regarding two participants in the conversation, enlarge the chatting crew to three and even four members. The benefits are two-fold: students improve both their speaking and their listening skills. Two birds, one stone!
  • Another idea would be to use the actual tape script. Assign the roles of each speaker to random members of your working group. They will become the team of ‘actors’, while the others will be called the team of ‘spectators’. Hand out the statements included in both tasks for the ‘spectators’ to become familiar with. Allow up to a minute for the ‘actors’ to get into character and to feel comfortable reading the script at a natural pace, as if they were using their own words. Each ‘actor’ takes the floor and delivers the speech, as the ‘spectators’ try to find a match for both Task 1 and Task 2 in the list of statements. This activity ensures that students are fully engaged in the listening process, they perceive it as real and lively and, most importantly, they understand that intonation and overall tone may also offer clues towards the statements that are best suited for each speaker.

Approaching the Speaking Paper

This part of the examination is the one that changed the least. It is shorter by three minutes, on account of reducing the individual stages.

The main difficulty usually encountered by candidates is speaking endurance. Nervousness may deter them from gathering their thoughts on the given topic and rendering a speech worthy of level C2. At this level, everything matters, from posture, to fluency, stress, suprasegmentals, variety and complexity in organization. Fortunately, students already have a comprehensive grasp of the English language, so the teacher’s job is to help them brush up on their spoken discourse.

  • Help students become aware! One way would be to record students, play the recording back and ask them to assess their own performance.
  • As follow-up, I recommend that students do the same thing at home, by using a device: the mobile phone. It may come as a shock to some students that the camera on their mobile phone might as well be their most objective assessor. By solving a Speaking task in front of the camera, not only do students become aware of their voice inflexions, pauses and facial expression, but they recreate an uncomfortable, rather stressful environment in which they must try to control their nervousness. Keep yourself in check!
  • Also, organising debates in class, in which arguing a viewpoint is essential, will most certainly increase students’ confidence in speaking publicly. Arguments make the discourse go round!
  • What has been tremendously successful among my students is staging talk-shows, in which all the guests need to approach the same matter from different angles, thus becoming aware of the variety of approaches they might use in the real Speaking test, in order to make their speech more complex.

This being written, let’s gather as many useful ideas as we can! Do you have any tips and tricks on preparing students for any of the papers and challenges of the Cambridge Proficiency?


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Shadowing: a useful technique for autonomous practice of listening and speaking

Teen boy wearing headphonesIn this post, Arizio Sweeting, a Cambridge ESOL Oral Examiner, shares a simple learner training approach to listening and pronunciation development using a shadowing technique.

Start by selecting a short audio text for your learners to work with. You will find a wide range of Creative Commons audio materials which can be downloaded as an MP3 file for educational purposes at www.elllo.org. The following transcript accompanies an audio text about Australia and is a good example in terms of its delivery, content and length:

The Australian flag has the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner. The rest of the flag is dark blue and then it has six white stars on it. I think they represent six different states in Australia, but I’m not really sure. My favourite city in Australia is Sydney. I lived there for about 6 months and it’s a really lively city. There are lots of young people and lots of things to do. There are also lots of tourist sites to visit, for example, the Sydney Opera House. Most people when they think about Australia, they think about the Outback. Very few people in Australia live in the Outback really, which is why it is so empty. There are huge empty spaces, like deserts, sometimes, where you can go for hours without seeing even one other person. When I was in the Outback, the most amazing sight I saw was Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it’s called now, which is its Aboriginal name. So Uluru is the biggest rock in the world, and it really is amazing when you travel through the Outback and then suddenly, out of nowhere, you see a huge rock that looks like a mountain. It’s an amazing sight, one of the best I saw in Australia.

Downloaded from www.elllo.org on 14/01/13

Analyse the vocabulary in the transcript to identify which items you would need to clarify for your learners. For instance, the words in bold would be items I would clarify if I was using this audio material with a group of pre-intermediate learners, for example. I have chosen these words not for their linguistic complexity but for the fact that they may be too cultural for some learners. Prepare copies of the transcript for the class.

Get the learners to put the MP3 file onto a USB or iPod. Before the shadowing practice, encourage the learners to listen to the audio text as many times as possible to become familiar with the speaker’s pronunciation. Prompt the learners to listen to the audio text on the bus, train or when walking to school. Instruct them to also focus on particular nuances of the speaker’s speech, such as the way the person pronounces certain individual sounds, the rhythm and the pace of the person’s voice, and so on.

Allow the learners at least two days of listening practice before you take them to a computer lab for shadowing practice. If possible, conduct some whole-class discussion about the audio text and what the learners can or can’t hear.

In the computer lab, demonstrate to them how the technique works. To do this, play the audio text in segments and simultaneously repeat what the speaker says trying to copy the person’s pronunciation with as much precision as possible. It is important that the learners notice that the technique is not a listen-and-repeat exercise. Allow the learners time for individual practice, but make sure they have small breaks during the process so that learners don’t lose motivation or get too tired.

Finally, when the learners feel that their pronunciation matches the audio text naturally, get them to record themselves using an audio-recording editor, such as Audacity, which can be downloaded for free at http://audacity.sourceforge.net/.

During the practice, get the learners to focus on the segments of the audio text which they are having problems with until they have fixed these problems. To do this, learners should listen back to the MP3 file as many times as necessary until they are satisfied with their pronunciation. Tell learners that they should continue the practice outside class for several weeks until they feel they have incorporated this pronunciation into their speech.

What do you think of this technique? Do you have any tips and tricks for teaching listening and pronunciation that you’d like to share?

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