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Collaborative Learning Online And In The Socially Distanced Classroom

Cut-out paper-chain of children holding handsWhat is collaborative language learning?

One of the most satisfying experiences that I have as an instructor is when I have my class make pairs or groups and then, after a few moments, I hear lively chatter. Moving around the classroom, I hear students using the vocabulary and structures that we studied in class. Yet they are doing more than just reciting what they learned in this lesson; they are combining the learning goals of the lesson with the language that they already know in a personalized and creative manner. A casual observer might think that this was break-time or an opportunity for the class to relax. But while I hope they are having fun, I know that they are actually hard at work. This is the culminating activity that we have worked towards together as a class. It is collaborative learning in action.

The key principles of collaborative learning

Having students work in pairs and groups of three or four are key strategies in the collaborative learning approach. Together, they practice the target language and to establish meaning, in a carefully sequenced set of achievable, unintimidating, activities. From our own experience, we know the value of learning by doing. This is even more critical in language learning, where the production of new sounds, new words and new structures is so vital. To be a successful language user, it is not enough to know; students have to adapt their knowledge to create meaning and communicate with someone else. Increasing our students’ opportunities to do something meaningful in class is one of the main aims of collaborative learning.

So, what is the role of the teacher in all of this?

At the start of a sequence of activities, for example, when presenting the target language of the lesson, the method of instruction can look quite traditional; often the teacher speaks and the students listen. After the presentation phase, however, the class transitions in a way that makes the learners, and not the teacher, the focus of the class. The first step often focuses on accuracy. In pairs or groups, the students manipulate the language mechanically. They learn from each other. Crucially, the teacher moves from group to group, evaluating the progress, and correcting the learners as necessary. The subsequent activities in the sequence encourage the learners step-by-step to use the target language in more creative and open-ended ways, with activities that encourage students to combine what they have just learned with the language that they already know.

The collaborative approach is highly motivating because it allows students to communicate about things that matter to them, to be more active, and indeed, more successful learners.

Collaborative learning in the COVID-19 era

Only a few short months ago, the notion that teleconferencing technology would become an essential tool in our professional lives would have been unimaginable. Along with my colleagues, I have struggled to adjust to this new reality. What, now, are the most effective classroom management techniques? Does the collaborative language learning approach even make any sense?

When we went into lockdown in New York City, where I teach, my classroom practice probably resembled a traditional, lecture approach. Eventually, however, I was able to adapt what I typically did in a physical classroom to the virtual classroom.

4 key ways to conduct collaborative language learning in cyberspace:

  1. At the start of the lesson, I present the goals of the class and the target language. I could share my screen, where I could have a PowerPoint presentation, but instead I send my presentation materials to the students earlier. Since unconscious lip reading is such an important part of listening comprehension, I want my students to be able to see my face full size. Instead of sending a file of slides, I use the screen capture feature of QuickTime to record my computer screen and voice at the same time. (I am a low-tech person, but I have found it easy to use). Students, therefore, get a video of my presentation, which they can watch before or after class, multiple times.
  2. Most teleconferencing tools allow the host to make breakout groups. I set these up before class. It is a simple thing to conduct pair work and group work using this feature, and as in a physical classroom, I can monitor them as they work. One added advantage is that my students can video their work, (using any screen capture tool) which we can use later for student self-analysis or peer-reviewing.
  3. Many of the activities that my students do in the physical classroom involve completing charts, matching, and checking items, together. Now, I have students take a photo of their work using their smartphone, and then share it with me and their classmates using email, social media, or our school Learning Management System (LMS). We do collaborative writing activities in a similar way.
  4. In a physical classroom, I can’t imagine teaching in a room without a whiteboard. Almost all teleconferencing tools have a whiteboard feature. I find this feature cumbersome. It takes me a lot of time to write and then erase the digital whiteboard. When teaching online, I find it much more effective to use the chat function when I want my students to see something in writing. For more extended notes or hand-drawn charts, I much prefer to use a small, handheld physical whiteboard, which I hold up to my laptop screen. Some students take photos of this with their smartphone, just like they do in my regular classroom, while others take screenshots.

The Hybrid Classroom

What will happen when we move to a hybrid classroom model, where we combine socially distanced in-class learning and distance learning? Can we have collaborative learning when students must be apart from each other?

Before the pandemic, I frequently had students take photos of their work with their phones, which they posted on a social media platform, and I then projected to the class. Now, I will have them share with each other, in socially distanced pairs and groups.

What activities to do online or in the socially distanced classroom will be an important decision. Right now, I am planning to present new language (vocabulary and grammar) online, in the manner that I described earlier. Writing activities, including collaborative ones, can be successfully conducted online, as can listening activities – my students can access the content on their mobile devices. But since speaking is by its very nature performative, I will prioritize the physical class time for open-ended pair work, group discussions, and role-playing. But at a distance.

 

For more practical tips, and two free activities for running pair work and group work with adult learners, visit our collaborative learning page!

Get Expert Advice On Collaborative Learning


Thomas Healy is one of the authors of Smart Choice as well as an Assistant Professor in the Intensive English Program at the Pratt Institute, New York City. He has given several webinars for Oxford University Press on how to use smart devices and social media to encourage collaborative learning including The potential of smart devices, How to use mobile technology in class and How learners can use mobile technology outside of classFind these recordings in our webinar library.


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The Complete Professional Development Guide: Books You Need To Read In 2020

man reading bookTeaching during COVID-19 has challenged us to adapt quickly and learn on the go this year! But how much time have you spent on your own professional development, and how prepared do you feel for the start of next term? As the holidays approach there is a sense of relief as we get to have a well-deserved break, but it is also a chance to get ready for the new term, whatever it may bring. To help you prepare for every scenario, we’ve created an essential reading list with English language teachers in mind! Explore the pros and cons and get practical tips for teaching online, prepare to assess your students in new ways, and learn to prioritise your own wellbeing. We’ve got you covered with best-sellers and the latest professional development books and papers written by ELT experts.

 

Our Professional Development Book Of The Year

Teacher Wellbeing book cover

Teachers… have the power in their own hands to make things better and to nurture and enhance their own wellbeing. This is a welcome message at any time, but perhaps most of all now when there is so much uncertainty in the world.

– English Teaching Professional

Teacher Wellbeing

Our book of the year serves as a practical guide to help individual teachers promote and nurture their wellbeing. Discover effective tips and strategies to help you meet your needs, and improve your wellbeing by finding techniques that work for you. You’ll also find tips to help you maintain a healthy work-life balance, and nurture your personal and professional relationships.

 

Three Professional Development Best Sellers

Bestselling professional development book covers

  • Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching: This award-winning book explores key areas of educational and social psychology and considers their relevance to language teaching. Learn learners’ and teachers’ beliefs about how a subject should be learned and taught, relationships with others, the role of emotions in learning, and more…
  • How Languages are Learned 4th edition: Prize-winning How Languages are Learned shares how language learning theory works in the classroom and provides you with practical techniques and activities developed from research. Perfect for new and experienced practising teachers.
  • Teaching Young Language Learners 2nd edition: A clear introduction to teaching young learners. It covers child development, L1 and L2 learning, vocabulary and grammar, and more by combining theory and practice in an accessible way. It draws on up-to-date international research and classroom practice.

 

Support For Teaching Online

  • Mobile Learning: Get clear guidance and essential support for using mobile devices in and outside the language classroom. Full of practical ideas and activities, it emphasizes the power of the mobile device as a tool for language learning.
  • Learning Technology: Learning Technology provides a clear guide to how teachers can introduce learning technology to the classroom. Explore different ways of putting it into practice, including virtual learning environments, social learning platforms, blended learning and the flipped classroom, mobile learning, and adaptive learning.

 

Recommended Assessment Books

  • Language Assessment for Classroom Teachers: This book presents a new approach to developing and using classroom-based language assessments. The approach is based on current theory and practice in the field of language assessment and on an understanding of the assessment needs of teachers. Split into four parts, this book is the ultimate practical guide to classroom-based language assessment, with advice that can be applied in any classroom setting – both real and virtual! A professional development must-read!
  • Focus on Assessment: This book develops your ability to design, implement, and evaluate language assessment in your classroom, helping you relate the latest research and pedagogy to your own teaching context. Explore the multiple roles teachers play in language assessment such as ensuring a positive assessment experience and promoting learner autonomy, and improve your assessment competence with activities that help you to apply assessment theory to your own classroom.

 

Recommended Vocabulary Books

  • How Vocabulary is LearnedHow Vocabulary Is Learned discusses the major issues that relate to the teaching and learning of vocabulary. Written by leading voices in the field of second language acquisition, the book evaluates a wide range of practical activities designed to help boost students’ vocabulary learning, starting with ‘Which words should be learned?’…
  • Focus on Vocabulary Learning: Explore teaching vocabulary to language learners aged 5-18. Discover the considerable challenges of learning the vocabulary of a new language from a range of perspectives, and become equipped to teach with practical solutions. Find a rich variety of useful activities and examples from real classrooms, and ‘spotlight studies’ of important research, that link theory to practice.

 

ELT Position Papers

Our position papers provide expert advice and guidance on the burning issues shaping English Language Teaching today. Download them for free and you’ll also receive exclusive training and resources for your classroom.

ELT Position Paper covers

  • Global Skills:  Creating Empowered 21st Century Learners: Help every learner develop the skills they need for success in a fast-changing modern world! Get expert advice and discover the five global skills clusters that prepare learners for lifelong success and fulfilment.
  • Oxford 3000 and Oxford 5000: The Most Important Words to Learn in English: Interested in expanding your learners’ vocabulary? Discover our core wordlist of all the most important words for learners to know! Deliver a well-founded vocabulary syllabus with confidence, and encourage independent vocabulary learning at home.
  • Inclusive Practices in English Language Teaching: Create an inclusive classroom, and make learning a positive experience for each and every learner. Discover expert advice to help you identify and support students with special educational needs, and pick up practical solutions for building an inclusive classroom environment.

Professional Development On The Go!

Download our free focus papers to access bite-sized insights and practical tips for the ELT classroom! Each paper is easy to use, and immediately useful, covering topics like:

  • Online Teaching
  • Project-Based Learning
  • Mediation
  • Oracy Skills
  • Managing Online Learning
  • And more!

 

Which new teaching skills are you trying this year?

Let us know in the comments below!

 


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Mobile Learning for Language Development | Nik Peachey

As a novice teacher in North Africa in the early 90s, I remember clearly dissecting English language newspapers and magazines and scouring the local shops for bootlegged English language audio cassettes to find interesting content to base activities on for my students.

I also remember carrying around a bag of audio cassettes which my students would use to record their learning diary entries on and which I would take home to listen to before recording my reply and taking them back for them the next lesson. I guess this is why I find it baffling when I hear about schools or classrooms where students are being asked to turn off or not bring their mobile phones and devices.

I understand that competing with the screen can be a challenge. The apps that students use on these devices have been designed by people who have researched just how to distract and grab people’s attention, but I feel that the best way to grab their attention back is to start training students how to use the devices in a ways that will enhance their learning both in and out of class. One of the first things that we could do as teachers is help students take control of their devices, by turning off notifications for example (at least during lessons). Removing screen notifications as well as noises and vibrations will help prevent unwanted distractions.

Next, we need to help them put their mobile device to good use.

We can use a backchannel to connect our students and enable us to share and exchange digital materials with students during the class. A backchannel could be a simple chatroom that all students can enter. We can paste hyperlinks to articles, videos, audios, activities and worksheets into this room and then students can instantly access the content without having to type in long URLs or search Google. I use http://backchannelchat.com/ for all of my classes. They have a browser version as well as a mobile app that students can download for free. The app has been adapted for educational use, and as a teacher, I can easily control the chatroom by moderating messages and pinning tasks to the top of the room.

At the end of a lesson, students can download notes from the backchannel and save any useful links, comments, new vocabulary or documents.

We can use apps like Mentimeter to make our lessons more interactive. This is just one of many classroom response apps that enables teachers to deliver quizzes, polls Q&A sessions and even brainstorming tasks to students’ devices during the lesson. It also gives instant feedback that teachers can display on the whiteboard. I’ve used Mentimeter to get students brainstorming vocabulary into an interactive word cloud. This is great as they can see the word cloud changing as they add their words. We can also use it to do comprehension and concept checking and know exactly how many of our students are getting the answers right.

We can also start building multimedia lessons that are rich in graphics and images and which link directly to web-based resources. https://www.genial.ly is just one of many tools that we can use to create visually engaging materials that students can access on their digital devices. This is an example of a lesson I built for a group of students to get them to plan a fictional trip to Cambridge. They have a range of resources that they need to explore and which help them to find images, locations on a map, weather information, and interesting places and events. As they explore these resources, they can use the information they gather to plan a three-day trip together. Using the QR code at the beginning of the lesson, they can scan the materials directly onto their mobile device and access all of the links and instructions directly.

These are just a few of the many ways students can use their devices in the classroom to enhance their learning. In my webinar, we looked at many more and also investigated some of the apps they can use outside the classroom too. To find out more you can watch the recorded session here:

Watch the recording


Nik Peachey has worked all over the world as a language teacher, teacher trainer, technology trainer, and educational technology consultant. He is an award-winning course designer, materials writer, and author


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Say it app: Using digital resources in the classroom

Say it! app

Digital resources are abundant these days, and their use in the classroom, and by students in their own time, is an increasing trend. But it can be difficult to know what to use, and how to use it. These apps and websites don’t tend to come with a well-researched Teachers’ Book to help you plan your lesson!

As a starting point, it can be helpful to ask your students which English learning apps and websites they use themselves. Asking them to write a review, a report, or even give a short presentation about their favourite digital resources can be a great classroom activity (particularly if they are preparing for an exam such as Cambridge Advanced). It will give you valuable insight into what they’re using so that you can select digital elements to incorporate into lessons and homework.

Once you’ve got a shortlist of digital resources you like, you can focus more on understanding how they work and how they can support your students’ learning. I’ve been really impressed with some of the feeds on Instagram, for example (although there is a lot that I find less helpful too!) English Test Channel (@english_tests on Instagram, or  youtube.com/englishtestchannel) posts pictures and videos covering different aspects of English grammar and spelling – it’s great as ‘bite-sized’ learning for students, or to give them something extra to practice at home. I also regularly point my students in the direction of flo-joe.co.uk for extra Cambridge exam tips and practice.

When we were designing the Say It: English Pronunciation app (IOS, Android), we wanted to marry a great digital learning experience with fantastic content. I use the app with my students to help them with pronunciation, but it also improves their listening comprehension and their spelling.

The broad range of vocabulary in the app – the full word list has over 35,000 entries – is incredibly helpful. Whilst teaching a Spanish nurse the other day, we looked up medical terms, such as ‘alimentary canal’, and also everyday words she uses with patients, like ‘comfortable’. She has a C1 level of English but told me she sometimes avoids using certain vocabulary when speaking because she lacks confidence in pronunciation.

We’ve also recently introduced English File content into Say It, and are delighted to be partnered with a coursebook which has such a strong focus on pronunciation. Say It contains around 250 English File words and the iconic English File Sound Bank – both use the classroom audio which English File students are familiar with.

So what are your favourite digital resources for learning and teaching English? Have you found any fantastic, engaging, learning-focused tools which work well for you and your students? Let us know in the comments below!


Classroom activities

Review of a digital learning resource.

Either in small groups or individually, students write a review/report/presentation of their favourite digital English learning resource.

1. Describe what it is

2. Talk about what you can do with it, and why it’s useful

3. What are the app/site’s USPs?

4. Are there any improvements you would make, or new features you’d like to see?

5. Why would you recommend it to friends?

*Classroom activity two – English learning app mini hack!*

In groups, ask the students to develop a concept for a new English learning app. They can:

1. Come up with a name for their product

2. Design an icon

3. Explain in words/drawings what the app does (eg does it help students with writing, spelling, grammar…?)

4. Draw out at least one ‘wireframe’ screen for the app, showing how users will interact with it and learn from it

5. Write a promotional text (around 30 words)

6. Think about pricing – how much would it cost, what model would they use (paid app, subscription, in-app purchase, advertising)


Jenny Dance runs a language school in Bristol, and published the award-winning Say It: English Pronunciation app with OUP. In this post, she talks about an approach to exploring digital resources which students and teachers can use to support learning, both in the classroom and at home.


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Do you speak Emoji | Q&A with Shaun Wilden

Mobile learning with emojisFirst of all, 🙏 to those that attended my webinar. I hope as well as learning a few things about emoji, you had as much fun as I did! The webinar was heavily reliant on audience participation and you certainly all got stuck in with your sharing, answering and questioning. There were a few things that I didn’t quite have the time to go into more detail with, so I’ll try and address them now.

Watch the recording

Are ambiguous emojis good to use in class?

The hands together emoji is a good example of one of the main talking points that came up in the chat box during the sessions – the ambiguity of meaning. Is it ‘thank you’, ‘thankfulness’, ‘praying’, or ‘two hands high fiving’?

A number of you felt this ambiguity might be a disadvantage in using them in class, but actually that is one of my drivers for using them. The fact that they can be used with both an ‘official’ meaning and one given by a peer group makes many of the activities workable.  If you think about words, they have a dictionary meaning and often have a meaning given by use. Take the word ‘sick’ for example, which, as well as meaning ‘ill’, is used by teenagers to mean ‘cool’. Emojis are the same in this respect and this is why, in my opinion, they work well for the ‘agree a meaning’ type activities that we did in the session. The more ambiguous an emoji might be, the more the students have to discuss and agree.

Aren’t some emojis too hard to understand?

In answer to this question, just look at how much language generated during the webinar. Is it a name badge? A tulip? Or something on fire? The point is not what it means, but what it could mean, and how that encourages the students to put forward justification of use and negotiate with their classmates to reach consensus. Contrary to what a couple of you said there is every point in “using those which are hard for understanding”. Additionally, how do we decide what is hard for understanding? Like words, some students will know the meaning of some, and others won’t. While, roughly speaking, the 2600 Emoji are the same the world over, different nationalities and different cultures use them with different frequencies. Again, for me this is something to be embraced. Whether I am teaching a monolingual or multilingual group, there is a lot that can be gained from asking about what emoji they use. There is a personal engagement into wanting to tell the teacher something about themselves. This why activities like creating a ‘user guide’ can be successful, a chance for the students to show knowledge in areas they might be ‘wiser’ in than their teachers.

Can gifs or small videos be used for similar activities to those with emoji?

As we touched upon towards the end of the webinar, emojis are evolving thanks to new technology such as Apple’s Animoji. This led some of you to ask whether gifs or even small videos could be used for similar activities to those we did in the session. As I said then, the Emoji is the ‘hook’ on which to hang a number of activities. For example, we used pairs of them to create sentences as a way of practicing grammar. An activity like this is not dependent on the emoji themselves, but a stimulus for the sentence. As such it doesn’t really matter what the stimulus is as long as it can be used to produce language. Certainly, many gifs carry the ambiguity needed for negotiated meaning type activities and, as they are often devoid of language themselves, could be a catalyst for grammar production. I think though developments such as Animojis are in themselves more akin to using an avatar than an emoji. Since they are animated and can contain voice they are somewhat different to the two-dimensional static image of an emoji. Like emoji, there is a lot written about avatar use in language learning, not least in the psychological aspects of students being able to take on a new identity. At the end of the session we saw quick examples of how we can use Animojis – and even with augmented reality – for developing character description, clothes vocabulary, and to create ‘where am I type activities’. Hopefully in a future webinar we can address such avatar activities in more detail.

Don’t emoji erode the quality of language?

I’ll end by addressing those of you concerned about death of language. Whenever I do such a session there is always at least one person concerned that things such as emoji are eroding the quality of language. In my first blog post I mentioned the fact that it used to be text messages that got the blame.  I think it is well documented that language is always changing, and language always finds way to shorten itself or adapt to be effective in the chosen form of communication.  However, I wasn’t suggesting that we should use emojis as a replacement for language or even writing. At the end of the day we are language teachers, it is not teaching the meaning of emojis that is key but tapping into images that can help students generate and retain language.   We use pictures in our coursebook to help us teach meaning, and we use things such flashcards to help reinforce and produce. For me, emoji are simply another image that we can use. If they help students remember a word, produce a sentence or get them engaged in a piece of writing then they have done their job.

Anyway, I set the challenge for the webinar of getting you to speak emoji. I hope now that the session is over, you can happily say that you do.

Until next ⏳, 👋.


Shaun Wilden is the Academic Head of training and development for the International House World Organisation and a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer.  He currently specialises in technology and language teaching, especially in the area of mobile learning. His latest book “Mobile Learning” was published in 2017 by OUP.  He is a trustee of IATEFL and also on the committee of the Learning technologies special interest group.  He makes the TEFL commute podcast for teachers.