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Topic knowledge and IELTS success

Girl on sofa with laptop and papersLouis Rogers, author of Skills for Business Studies and an EAP teacher, discusses whether topic knowledge and fluency is key to performing well in IELTS testing. He speaks on the subject at this year’s IATEFL.

Prior to the internet we had limited sources of information and limited access to it. Therefore if we wanted to access the information we had to develop ways to store it in our minds so that we could easily access it at a later date. With the internet we have fast access to a range of information and we have such instant access to the internet that we do not need to exert such energy on encoding it in our minds. According to Sparrow et al ‘No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can ‘Google’ the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. When faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it’. For example, when participants in the study were asked to think of the Japanese flag many would think of a computer rather than try to picture a flag.

How is this all relevant to the IELTS exam? Many students express concern at not knowing anything about a topic. In particular, they worry about part 3 of the speaking test and part 2 of the writing. They fear facing something they feel they have nothing to say on. There could of course be a number of reasons for this. It is not necessarily the case that students commit less general knowledge to memory. Some studies such as Moore, Stroup and Mahony (2009) found that some of the IELTS topics were perceived too Eurocentric in nature. If students feel the topics are not related to them or they have never considered them, then they undoubtedly will feel disadvantaged when encountering them. To a certain extent this lack of confidence could make students hesitate, repeat ideas and even have a flatter pronunciation.

Creating materials and activities that challenge students to think and respond personally in common IELTS areas could help reduce some of their fears. IELTS lessons can provide an insight into some of this knowledge and give students the confidence to respond to such topics.


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Oxford ELT shortlisted for two ESU Awards

ESU President's Award 2013 ShortlistedWe’re delighted to have been shortlisted for two English Speaking Union (ESU) Awards.

The Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf app for our enhanced e-books has been shortlisted for the prestigious ESU President’s Award, which celebrates the use of technology in the teaching and learning of English worldwide.

The app offers enhanced e-books of many of our most popular courses for use on iPad and tablets for Android™. Courses include English File, Solutions, Incredible English, Q: Skills for Success, and many others. The e-books turn the traditional Student’s Book and Workbook into a highly interactive and personal learning experience making the most of what tablet technology has to offer. Features that support language learning include integrated split-screen video, record and compare pronunciation practice, the ability to slow down audio for improved listening practice, automatic marking, written or spoken note-taking, and more.

The ESU judges were impressed with the range of accessible material and commented:

The design and quality of the software is strong and the interactive capabilities within the ebooks are beneficial to the learner.”

English for Football and Oxford EAP: A Course in English for Academic Purposes (B1+) have been shortlisted for the HRH The Duke of Edinburgh ESU English Language Book Awards, which recognise innovation and good practice in the field of English Language and English Language teaching. The judges assessed submissions based on their originality, practicality and presentation.

English for Football, written by Alan Redmond and Sean Warren, and described by the judges as “a handy, simple and effective guide”, is written for students who want to communicate better in English in the world of football. Part of the Express Series of short, specialist courses, English for Football features international players’ experiences of learning English, key topics such as narrowing the angles and cutting inside, and a forward by Sir Alex Ferguson. Each book comes with an interactive MultiROM, containing realistic listening extracts and interactive exercises for self-study.

Oxford EAP B1+, written by Edward de Chazal and Louis Rogers, is part of Oxford EAP, a three-level course which develops the essential skills and academic language for students preparing to study in English at university, whatever their chosen subject. Praised by the judges for being “clear and professional in design”, the course integrates the four main skills and academic language, and features authentic texts from Oxford textbooks, as well as videos of lecture extracts.

We look forward to the announcement of the winners, which will be on 2nd December 2013.

iPad is a trademark of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.
Android is a trademark of Google Inc.


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Critical Thinking – Teaching Tips from Around the World

Adults sharing ideasFollowing his webinar on Teaching Critical Thinking in EAP, Louis Rogers looks back at the participants’ tips and ideas on the subject.

In my recent webinars on critical thinking in EAP I asked participants to write in the chat box any definitions of critical thinking and any teaching tips they had. The aim was to then analyse the definitions and to try and pick out any commonalities. I also asked everyone to share teaching tips for encouraging students to think critically.

With around three hundred participants across the two sessions I did wonder what I had let myself in for, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss with such a diverse range of cultures involved. One of the great things about these sessions is that they bring together people from all over the world in one forum to discuss issues relevant to all of us in our teaching contexts. Whether it was six in the morning for some people or midnight for others it certainly did not stop the ideas flowing. In all, there were just under one hundred definitions and a whole host of ideas. So what ideas stood out?

Before moving on I should probably point out that this was not the most scientific collection method or analysis and I certainly won’t be awarded a PhD on the basis of it; however, hopefully it will prove of interest.

One of the first things I decided to do was to look at the frequency of individual words in the definitions. I was about to cut out function words and look at the content words when fortunately the alphabet intervened. The first word I noticed in the alphabetical list was the final word: ‘you’. When I highlighted this along with other pronouns and words related to the concept of ‘self’, one thing that stood out strongly was the interaction of the person with many other things. As we might expect there were a lot related to the interaction of the reader with the ideas in the text, but also the interaction of the individual with concepts such as society, culture and our own past influences. Other words that had a particularly high frequency were; think, inform, critic, analyse, evaluate, culture, difference.

One other thing that stood out quite strongly as a feature of the definitions was that I felt many could be categorised in two ways. One set could be perhaps defined as ‘interpretation of information’. These tended to focus on analysis, evaluation, interpretation and challenging ideas. The second set could perhaps be defined as ‘using information’. These tended to contain more concepts along the lines of synthesising, organising, using and applying.

In terms of teaching ideas many people seemed to feel that the ideas of self-reflection, peer evaluation and the use of video work well in encouraging critical reflection. For recording and sharing presentations for peer review one participant suggested the use of www.mybrainshark.com

Another suggestion was that The CRAAP test would help many students as a useful set of transferable questions. These focus students with questions related to issues of:

Currency: the timeliness of the information

Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs

Authority: the source of the information

Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content

Purpose: the reason the information exists

Many examples of the test can be found online.

Other ideas included using definitions as a discussion tool as they are often open to debate. For low language levels, ideas that were suggested were the analysis of images and the different meanings of a word.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the chat room transcript afterwards. As a presenter you try to follow and join in with the lively discussions but you’re often too preoccupied remembering the points you want to make so it’s really beneficial to be able to take time to analyse the contributions after the event.

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Transferability between Academic English and Business English

Young woman with laptopLouis Rogers, author of Skills for Business Studies and an EAP teacher, discusses the special language skills pre-work Business English students need. Louis will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 12th February.

It is often debated as to what the aim of Higher Education is. Is it to simply further knowledge or is its main aim to put students in a position to gain employment? Many universities now provide Academic and Professional Skills modules that aim to develop students’ skills that meet both their immediate study needs, and also develop skills that are transferable to their future work place. Perhaps the one area where this is most apparent is studying within the field of Business. Consequently, this can leave students and teachers in the position of trying to meet both current academic needs but also future professional needs.

The wide variety of options available to students can also lead to a range of learner needs in the classroom. When teaching in Germany I had classes in a University that focused on Business English; however, the students’ aims varied greatly. Some were intending to take a year in the UK as part of the ERASMUS programme, some intended to take a postgraduate course via the medium of English, and others were there to enhance their CV before entering employment. Although there are differing needs there are also areas where goals overlap.

If we compare EAP materials or Pre-work materials with Business English materials for those in work we find that all are determined by clear contexts and goals. All sets of materials tend to take a skills-based approach, but there is a greater emphasis on grammar development in the Pre-work materials. Additionally, the focus and time spent on each skill means that the pre-work learner is perhaps not having all their needs met if a General Business English course is used in isolation. The speaking skills focus on presentations and meetings is perhaps comparable to the EAP focus of presentations and seminars. There are also similarities in listening skills with a focus on interactive dialogues and extended monologues. Yet in reading and writing skills the approach differs significantly.

In terms of the language focus, the needs and aims differ greatly with a much greater focus on lexis in EAP rather than the wide range of tenses found in most General Business courses. Arguably, a pre-work Business English course can partly claim to meet students’ immediate academic needs but a significant amount of supplementation of Reading and Writing Skills development is required, and a change in focus on the language is required as well. My upcoming webinar will explore some of the commonalities and differences between the In-work and Pre-work learner needs with particular reference to Skills for Business Studies.


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Critical Thinking in EAP

Students working outdoorsLouis Rogers, co-author of the new Oxford EAP series, looks at the much-debated topic of teaching critical thinking in Academic English (EAP) courses. Louis hosted a webinar on this topic on the 1st February 2013.

Critical Thinking has been a buzz term in recent years within EAP and is not without its controversies. The one thing that most people would agree on is that it is integral to academia no matter what country, culture, institution or course the students are based in. However, what much of the discussion of critical thinking revolves around is: What is critical thinking? Who is responsible for teaching it? Can it be, and does it actually need to be, taught?

Critical thinking is one of those terms, like culture, that can have numerous definitions as it means so many things to different people. In fact it is so intertwined with culture, whether of a nation or an institution, that it is hardly surprising that many people find it hard to define. The Higher Education Academy in the UK is not supportive of the idea that critical thinking is a western cultural phenomenon, and as Yoshino (2004) points out it hardly demonstrates good critical thinking skills from those who argue that there is the existence/absence of critical thinking in entire cultures. In the case of some cultures this would mean saying that hundreds of millions of people are unable to think critically. The challenge for an EAP practitioner is that institutions, courses and lecturers will have certain expectations as to what they mean by critical thinking.

Not to say that we have the right or perfect definition in Oxford EAP, but we have chosen to define it in this context: ‘students need to question what they read, look for assumptions and weaknesses, make connections, respond, and evaluate’. For us it was also integral that such tasks were integrated alongside other activities. It is obviously a challenge for students to understand what is expected of them critically but to also do this in a second language raises the bar considerably. In particular, when they are expected to decode individual words, put them back together into a proposition that makes sense and to then see how these relate to other ideas and propositions within a text while at the same time engaging on a critical level, it is incredibly challenging.

In webinar I looked at some of the controversies related to Critical Thinking and the approach we have taken in Oxford EAP.

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