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Encouraging ESL learner independence

Man sat at desk smiling while workingLara Storton has seventeen years of experience in ESL, teaching English for Academic Purposes and teacher training, and has recently written the Milestones in English Student’s Book and Teacher’s Book at B1+ level. She joins us today to outline steps towards encouraging language learners to continue their study outside the classroom and how to make use of technology and online resources to promote independent learning.

The student-centered approach is becoming more common as teachers realize the benefits of being a facilitator in the classroom, encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning in collaborative tasks and discussions. Of course, as a teacher you decide what happens in the classroom, but how can you extend learner independence outside it?

Set learning goals

Students come to class with their own individual learning goals. Often their motivation for learning will be goal-oriented: geared towards a specific exam, career or university placement and so getting them to spend time on skills development outside of class – rather than cramming for an exam – can be a challenge. And it can also be difficult for students who do want to develop their independent study skills to decide what to study outside the classroom.

What you want is for your students to become confident in organizing their own learning, studying what they want or need to study in order to achieve their long-term goals so that when they pass that exam or get into university, they can go on working independently and with confidence.

So first of all you need to get them thinking about their own learning goals in more detail. Do some needs analysis in class using questions. For example: Why am I studying English now? What do I hope to achieve in the future by learning English? What are my main strengths? How can I build on them? What are my weaknesses? How can I improve my skills and turn my weaknesses into strengths?

Students can then write down a list of individual learning goals and some suggestions of how to achieve them. Make this an interactive activity to highlight its importance and promote independence from the beginning – get students to discuss their learning goals and make suggestions in pairs or small groups. Take time to review these both as a whole class and individually with each student. This way you can help guide learners towards independent study in a way that requires them to take the initiative.

Get students to think about how to extend their learning in class

Once your students have established their learning goals, you can support them further by making references to independent study during lessons. Get them thinking about how they could extend their learning and build on the skills they have practised in lessons, saying for example, ‘How could you practice this at home?’ ‘Has anyone got any ideas about how you could extend what you’ve learned in this lesson?

At first your students may need some support with thinking of ideas so you could give them suggestions such as, ‘Read a newspaper and find two more examples for each dependent preposition we studied today.’ ‘Read a short text on a topic you are interested in and prepare to summarize it to a partner tomorrow’. ‘Read an article on a subject you’re interested in, underline all the present tenses and consider why the writer has used each one.

Over time these suggestions will give students an awareness of a range of independent study techniques and strategies and increase their confidence and motivation to move towards independence.

Take advantage of technology

In terms of motivation, we are lucky to live in an age where technology offers a wide range of self-study options. Most students will have a smartphone, laptop or tablet and are likely to be very adept at using it! This means that they can access a wealth of online study opportunities.

When online practice first became available, technology and programming was limited so exercises tended to be very short. Often they were gap-fill or choose-the-correct-option type tasks which required little ‘thought’. Of course there is a benefit to these more automatic types of exercise but nowadays online study programmes and resources can offer students so much more in terms of skills development. Features such as high quality images, games, audio, video, writing walls and discussion forums add to learner experience helping them to stay motivated and engaged.

From a teaching perspective, online study programmes also act as a ‘first step’ to guiding your students towards independent study – they can work on achieving their learning goals at their own pace and at a level that they feel comfortable with. They tend to be progressive, so once a student is has mastered the necessary language and skills, they can move on to the next level.

One example is the Oxford Online Skills Program. The programme runs at all CEFR levels and offers students the opportunity to work on either General or Academic English. Students can log on in their own time and choose what they want to study in whatever order they like in order to achieve their learning goals. An advantage is that the study material is generic – each module is based around a specific language focus, skill or topic so it can be used alongside any course and to suit varied interests.

Tapping into those interests is extremely motivating so encourage your students to engage with online material as much as possible not only on official study programmes but also through authentic websites and social media.

Build independent skills online

Once your students start to become motivated to study independently, encourage them to adopt a systematic approach to build their skills. In class, have regular discussions about how students can use technology for independent study, for example by listening to podcasts or online lectures, or by reading articles on their subject or area of special interest.

You could set aside a regular time in class where students discuss how they have studied independently this week and say what they have learned, what they have practiced, what they feel they gained from the study and how they will continue to develop those skills in future.

An online study programme can also help to guide students towards a systematic approach which they can then use with authentic materials. For example, in the Oxford Online Skills Program, modules are set up like mini-lessons giving students the opportunity to raise schema (activate their own knowledge and ideas and relate these to their experiences) by looking at an image or watching a video, and then complete a series of exercises including language, vocabulary or form focus. These build up to a final productive ‘task’, either written or spoken, and finally a ‘reflective’ task prompts students to consider their own learning experience and performance.

A2 Listening Engage

Engage activities activate schma. (Screenshot from Oxford Online Skills Program Academic A2)

This type of structure helps students to get into good independent study habits which they can then apply in the future at home or at college or university with authentic texts on subjects that are interesting to them or important to their course of study or career.

 


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Perspective, Pace and Passing: Teaching English in a Foundations Programme

 

shutterstock_306641441Gary Pathare has been an English teacher since 1990 and has taught at Dubai Men’s College, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) since 2001.  He is author of the forthcoming Milestones in English B1 and B2 Student’s Books, publishing in January and August 2016.

A decade and a half.  That’s how long I have been teaching on a Foundations programme in Dubai, and it has been, from a teaching and career perspective, an amazingly positive experience. When I arrived fifteen years ago, I had been teaching general English in Barcelona, and teacher training. The Middle East was as yet unknown to me, and I soon found out that teaching here was a massive change from fun and language games to a serious, high-stakes, assessment-driven academic context. As time passed and I changed my teaching style and persona, I started to find the challenges really absorbing, and my focus changed to developing methodology that worked, writing materials to support this methodology, and sharing my insights. All in all, it has been very satisfying.

However, it hasn’t been an easy ride, for reasons that have become clearer to me as the years have passed. Why not? Anyone who has tried it will have their own answers, but these are mine.

‘Motivation to pass’

To understand the challenges, we should first consider what Foundations programmes actually are. As the name suggests, they are generally preparatory courses for college degrees. Students who need to improve their English skills in order to enter a degree course may be placed in a Foundations programme, or they may opt for this themselves. The course may cover subjects other than English language, such as mathematics and IT, as well as helping students make the transition from school to academia and develop an academic approach that incorporates independent learning and critical thinking skills.

Unfortunately – and here is where the challenges come in – the fact is that, from the students’ perspective, being in a Foundation programme is likely to be simultaneously high-stakes and undesired. If they did not opt in themselves, they will be understandably eager to get into their ‘real’ programme, their Bachelor’s for example, and may be less concerned about their weaknesses in English that have resulted in them being placed in the Foundations program than with how to leave as quickly as possible. So on the one hand, many Foundations students have a strong extrinsic motivation to pass, but on a day-to-day basis they may not be particularly motivated by the actual content. They want out!

A tall order

Another challenge comes from their prior learning. The fact that they find themselves in a Foundations programme may be either because they didn’t do too well at school, or their school did not sufficiently prepare them for academic study (depending on the context, of course). If this is the case, they probably lack not only English language skills but also the required study, critical thinking, independent learning and other academic skills.

In my own context, much of the teaching work involves helping students develop the skills both to pass the Foundations exit exam (in my case, to get a specified IELTS band) and to succeed later on when they enter a Bachelor’s programme. So my daily work involves paying attention in every lesson to building students’ world knowledge and ability to recognize different perspectives, helping them take control of their own learning, encouraging them to improve time management and planning skills, and urging and training them to develop the stamina required for in-depth, academic reading and study. It’s a tall order!

Efficiency vs effectiveness

And then there is the time factor. As time is of the essence – after all, who wants Foundations to go on too long? – a key to success as a teacher is efficiency. Why not teach reading skills from a text which helps develop students’ world knowledge at the same time as teaching them to recognize inference, for example? Why not expose them to written models that they can use for their own writing development? Why not show them how many connectives for writing can also be used in their speaking? And overall, why not make sure that study and critical thinking skills are an intrinsic, systematic and planned part of the curriculum and materials, rather than add-ons? In my own experience, the more intensity that can be brought to bear on each hour of learning, the more satisfying and ultimately successful the course will be.

Quick tips for teaching Foundations programmes

So my top four pieces of advice for teachers starting in a Foundations programme are these:

  • Don’t expect life to be easy, for you or your students; accept the challenges and be sensitive to the students’ frustrations.
  • View the role as a wide-ranging one, even though language teaching is at its core.
  • Maximize the efficiency of the work you do in class – when you have students’ attention, make sure you fully exploit it with multiple levels of learning.
  • Finally, being academic doesn’t mean being serious all the time. Keep a sense of humour! The students – and you – deserve it, with everything else that is going on.

And keep your perspective. Not everyone will pass – some students are simply not suited to the academic life; their talents lie elsewhere. But one of the great pleasures of teaching on a Foundations programme is meeting students who have passed through into their program of choice, and seeing how they have developed both their English and their academic demeanor. I can’t imagine going back to General English.


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Online Learning Platforms: Helping your students engage

Learning onlineLindsay Warwick offers four ways to persuade students to make use of an online learning platform. Lindsay Warwick is a teacher and trainer at Bell and a materials writer. She is co-author of the forthcoming Milestones in English A2 and B1+ Student’s Books, publishing in January 2016.

Many English coursebooks come with access to an online learning platform full of material to help learners develop their language skills further. These can be particularly beneficial for academic English learners who need to achieve a certain level of English within a limited time period. But I wonder how many students (and teachers) fully exploit these materials.

For me, the greatest benefit of education technology is that it provides learners with the opportunity to extend learning beyond the classroom, work at their own pace and at a level appropriate to them. Online learning platforms allow all of those things as well as provide a tool for students and teachers to keep a record of progress made. Essentially, they allow learners to have more ownership of their learning which helps them learn better. According to Benson (2011), “controlling one’s own learning processes is an essential part of effective learning”.

However, encouraging students to use such a resource is not always easy as some students overlook the value of it. I’d therefore like to suggest four ways to help those students appreciate this value better and encourage them to fully exploit the resource.

Persuade the teacher, persuade the student

I believe that before students can be convinced, their teacher needs to be convinced. Once the teacher sees the benefits, they can encourage students to do the same. One possibility is to explore the platform as a class together. Students can familiarise themselves with the platform, with their own learning goals in mind. As Dudeney and Hockly (2007) say, when using educational technology “Your learners’ needs, likes and learning goals need to be taken into account”. By getting students to critically analyse the platform, the benefits will be more apparent to them. The class can also discuss limitations and how those limitations can be dealt with.

Make connections

Research suggests that better outcomes are achieved when online learning and face-to-face learning happen together (Vega, 2013) and linking the two in some way adds more importance to the online platform. Learners will be better encouraged to do online tasks if they have to bring some kind of feedback on the tasks to class e.g. their view on something said in a recording or two new words they learnt. With speaking tasks, the online material could help students prepare for the actual speaking task done in class, rather than recording it at home and emailing it to the teacher. And students could be asked to peer correct each other’s writing work in class.

Set regular deadlines

Some teachers link online material to the course through assessment, making completion of online tasks compulsory. While this can motivate students to do tasks, it can also result in students leaving all the tasks until the very last minute to satisfy course requirements. This means students neither use the online tasks to develop their skills throughout the year nor use the results of the tasks to help inform future learning. As a result, teachers may want to set regular deadlines on the platform.

Give students choice

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, asking students to make choices about their learning helps them to develop autonomy. “For learners to become more autonomous they must recognize their own preferred ways of learning, and students have to make conscious decisions about what works for them” (Painter, 2004). By giving students the opportunity to choose which material to study and when, they can feel more motivated to do the tasks and learn more about their learning preferences. For some students, however, too much choice can be overwhelming and so a choice of two or three sets of tasks each time may be a good place to start.

To sum up, online learning platforms offer much potential and the above suggestions can help learners to see this potential. There will always be students who choose not to participate but this is also part of being autonomous. There will also always be students who will exploit the material and learn from it with encouragement from the teacher.

Please note that not all titles are available in every country. Please check with your local office about local title availability.

Bibliography and further reading

Benson P, Teaching and Researching: Autonomy in Language Learning, 2013

Dudeney G & Hockly N, How to teach English with technology, Pearson, 2007

Painter L, Homework, Oxford University Press, 2003

Stanley, G, Language Learning with Technology, Cambridge University Press, 2013


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Speaking Essays: An Idea to Help L2 Academic Writers

 

woman using megaphoneMark Searle is a lecturer, teacher trainer and course designer working in EMI and EAP contexts. He has designed and delivered EAP programmes in pre-sessional and in-course contexts both in the UK and abroad. He advised on the writing syllabus of the forthcoming Milestones in English, publishing in January 2016.

Academic writing is difficult in your first language. It is even more demanding in a second language. Many of the difficulties experienced by L2 writers stem from having to convert abstract ideas and difficult content into linear, logically connected prose. This is particularly challenging for the learner as it can be extremely difficult to solve local vocabulary and grammar issues while maintaining a secure sense of the text as a whole.

Because of this it is useful to regard the pre-writing, or planning stages as preparation for discourse and to include either un-assessed free writing or other discourse based exercises. The exercise below is based on producing language at whole text level and can be used at various stages of the pre-writing process depending on the language proficiency and academic experience of your learners.

The idea of this exercise, which is an adaptation of Paul Nation’s 4-3-2 spoken fluency exercise, is to give your learners the opportunity to speak their essay before they write it. This should help your learners to formulate the words and grammar needed to transform their ideas and content into connected language. It is a transitional practice exercise so perfection is not required at this point – indeed you should expect and allow your learners to produce some faulty language.

Learners may experience issues with cohesion and even coherence but it is important that you allow them to test hypotheses and to experiment with ways of expressing their ideas and content. Do not be tempted to step in and spot-correct as this would defeat the purpose of the exercise, which is to provide un-assessed practice and to give learners the opportunity to learn from output. Remember that learners do not only learn to speak, they speak to learn. Your learners will notice any deficits or lacks in their output and so will become more aware of areas that need attention and improvement.

So, it is a good idea to regard this exercise as one in which your learners produce spoken drafts of their essays and to regard it as part of the iterative process of written production. Naturally, this exercise is part of a process which will develop into producing written drafts for self- and peer-review.

Stage 1

  • Organise your class into pairs, preferably with the whole class sitting in a circle or horseshoe.
  • Designate a speaker and a listener in each pair.
  • The listener must be an active listener and should give lots of encouraging non-verbal signals to the speaker, but cannot ask questions or engage in conversation at this stage.
  • The speaker must try to speak their essay using, as far as possible, language they might possibly use in the final written version.
  • Give your listener 4 minutes to speak their essay.
  • At the end of the time – ask the listener to give some brief positive feedback to the speaker.

Stage 2

  • Ask all of the speakers to stand up and move clockwise to the next listener.
  • Repeat stage one but only allow 3 minutes for the speaker to deliver the same content as in stage one.

Stage 3

  • Ask all of the speakers to stand up and to move round to the next listener.
  • Repeat stage two but only allow 2 minutes for the speaker to deliver the same content as in stage two.

Stages 4-6

  • Repeat the process but change learner roles so speakers become listeners and listeners become speakers

Variations

  • You can do this exercise with or without essay plans depending on the experience and proficiency of your learners.
  • You can condition this exercise differently according to the written output you wish to prepare for. You could, for example, work with just an introductory paragraph and reduce the time to 60 seconds- 45 seconds- 30 seconds. This could then work as a warm up to a class.
  • To help your speakers monitor the time you can use an online stopwatch and display it with a digital projector.
  • With more experienced learners you can condition the listener feedback to a condensed form of peer review. You may wish to restrict listener feedback to specific aspects of the speaker’s output such as vocabulary or linking words.
  • Error correction and mistake management exercises should be delayed so as not to inhibit the spoken output. It is perhaps best to note any significant problems and design remedial work into your future teaching programme.

Please note that not all titles are available in every country. Please check with your local office about local title availability.

References:

Nation, I.S.P. (2009) Teaching ESL/EFL Reading and Writing. Abingdon: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.

Swain, M. (1985) Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In Gass, S.M. and Madden, C.G. (eds.), Input in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, pp. 235-53.


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How teachers can give students the confidence to succeed at university

teenagers celebratingAs a teacher, one of my greatest pleasures is seeing my students finish their course of study at school and move on to bigger and better things. For many of them, this means going on to university – an opportunity to study their area of special interest, pursue their dreams and gain the qualifications they need for a successful career. I am proud to say that many of my students have done just that, gaining desirable jobs in finance, marketing, aeronautics, design and tourism to name a few. The key to success is confidence.

Making that initial leap from school to university education in your own language is challenging enough, even more so when you are doing it in a second language. Not one of my former students has said that it was easy, but they all agree that it was worthwhile. You want your students – so packed with potential – to walk into their first university seminar brimming with confidence and enthusiasm, ready to engage, question and share their views. So how can you help them achieve that?

Can you teach confidence?

Of course some people have more confidence than others when it comes to putting their opinions forward. At university, your students will be expected to contribute to seminar discussions, workshops and debates, discuss ideas and theories with their peers and respond appropriately to their contributions. This is something that you can encourage your students to do in every lesson, building their confidence gradually as they move through their course of study.

Take every possible opportunity to engage and involve the students personally in the lesson content:

  • Raise their ‘schema’ (knowledge and interest) on a topic by asking them questions, e.g. Do you know anything about this topic? Have you ever read/heard about this? What do you know about it?
  • Ask them whether the content of a text or listening relates to their own experiences and to give their personal responses – do they agree/disagree with the writer/speaker and why?
  • To promote independence, put them into pairs to have mini-discussions on these points and then report back to the class.

Every opportunity you give your students to engage personally with a topic will fire their imagination and enhance their motivation.

More than words

A challenge for non-native students at university is understanding the underlying (hidden) meaning in academic texts whether they are written or spoken – in lecture or discussion form. In English, so much meaning is conveyed through how something is written or said (or in some cases not written or said).

Where possible, draw your students’ attention to the more subtle discourse features such as:

  • understanding the writer’s intention or purpose
  • inferring meaning from context
  • considering whether a source is valid or biased
  • encourage them to be curious, to delve deeper to find hidden meaning and intentions.

At first, your students may not be used to questioning or constructively criticising the work of a published academic. However, this is acceptable and even encouraged in at university level in many countries. Your students may need time and practice to come around to this way of working, but that’s OK, these things take time.

Say it right

That first university seminar is a great milestone in academia for native and non-native speakers alike. When to speak? What to say? Who to say it to? How to respond if someone speaks to me? Will I say the right thing? What will my tutor/lecturer/peers think of me and my opinions? That brings us back to confidence again.

To help your students get it right first time you can:
  • Draw attention to how they should give and respond to opinions appropriately.
  • Remind them that it isn’t just what you say, it’s the way you say it – being too direct might cause offence while being indirect could lead to confusion or misunderstanding.
  • Encourage them to watch debates, current affairs programmes, podcasts and lectures on TV or online.
  • Teach useful phrases for softening responses, e.g. That’s a valid point but I’m afraid I disagree. / I’m inclined to disagree with you because …
  • Highlight hedging phrases such as tend to / seem to to avoid making generalisations.
  • Remind your students that conversations are a two-way thing – you don’t just wait for your turn to speak – you listen and respond both verbally and physically – with appropriate body language such as a nod of the head or politely indicating another speaker to go ahead if you accidentally interrupt them
  • Give students plenty of opportunities for collaboration and interaction during lessons in order to help them practise and hone these essential conversation skills.
  • Most importantly, encourage them to have a go and say what they want to say because their contributions are as valuable as any other person in the room.

The leap to university is only the beginning but at least with your help they will have started on the right foot.


Lara Storton has seventeen years of experience in ESL, teaching English for Academic Purposes and teacher training, and has written the Milestones in English Student’s Book and Teacher’s Book at B1+ level.

Please note that not all titles are available in every country. Please check with your local office about local title availability.