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Inquiry-based Learning: 4 essential principles for the ELT classroom

teenagers laughing and working togetherAllowing students greater agency in their learning can be a liberating experience. Rather than the teacher as expert, inquiry-based learning allows learners to assume the responsibility of becoming experts of the knowledge they are constructing through a process self-discovery and trial and error, while the teacher’s role is to monitor their students’ process of constructing new meaning and step in when they need help.

This is the very core of inquiry-based learning (IBL), a form of learning where students pose their own research questions about a topic and set out on a journey to answer them. The benefits of inquiry-based learning are many, such as:

  • Supporting students to build their own initiative.
  • Encouraging a deeper understanding of the content.
  • Motivating students to form their own connections about what they learn.
  • Students taking more ownership of their learning and a sense of reward not just from a final product, but from the process of knowledge-making itself.
  • Helping students develop the critical thinking and life skills necessary to be competitive in the 21st century, from problem-solving to effective collaboration and communication (Ismael & Elias, 2006).

IBL is often employed in math and science classrooms, which naturally lend themselves to a problem-solving approach.  (Amaral et al. 2002, Marshall & Horton, 2011). However, the framework certainly has potential for other disciplines as well, including English (Chu et al., 2011). Of course, balancing inquiry-based learning with language learning means that teachers must also attend to the language and vocabulary skills students need to be effective inquisitors. Tweaks to the traditional model can make this become a reality.

Below are four key principles that distinguish an inquiry-based approach, and suggestions on how teachers can scaffold them for the English language classroom.

 

1) Students as Researchers

In a typical inquiry-based learning framework, students are introduced to a topic and tasked with developing their own research questions to guide their process of discovery (Pedaste et al., 2015). In an English language setting, one way to model this is to provide a leading question for the students, choosing one that is open-ended and can lead students in more than one direction. Even yes-no questions can provide such ambiguity, for by doing deeper research, students begin to realize that the answer is not always black-and-white.

Take the question, Are you a good decision maker? We can encourage students to ask related questions that encourage more informed responses:

  • How do people solve problems differently?
  • What emotional and biological factors influence people’s decision making?
  • What role does personality play?  

Students can use WebQuests to find relevant articles and videos to look at the question from multiple perspectives. In a more scaffolded setting, instructors can provide articles and videos to discuss as a class, and ask students to draw out the relevant ideas and identify connections. Either way, the goal is to have students revisit the question each time new information is learned so they can elaborate on and refine their answers, and in doing so, slowly become experts on the topic.

 

2) Teachers as Research Assistants

An inquiry-based learning model often flips the roles of the teacher and student. Students become the researchers, and teachers assume the role of the assistant or guide to their learning (Dobber et al., 2017). One way to encourage this is to flip the classroom itself so that instructional lessons are delivered online, and class time is devoted to students applying what they have learned through practice and collaborative activities.

As language teachers, we can direct students to instructional videos on skills they’ll need to understand and respond to the texts they encounter. An instructional video on how to classify information could support a text about different kinds of problem solvers, for example. Videos on relevant grammatical and language structures can also be assigned. Teachers can then use class time not to present the material, but to attend to students’ questions and curiosities.

 

3) Peer-to-Peer Collaboration

Learning from peers and sharing ideas with others is another core principle of inquiry-based learning. Students in an IBL classroom become each other’s soundboards, which gives them an authentic audience from which to draw alternative perspectives from their own and test the validity of their ideas (Ismael & Elias 2006). Students are meant to collaborate throughout the entire process, from their initial response to the question to the final project. To do this, teachers can pose the leading question on an online discussion board and require peers to respond to each other’s ideas. To scaffold, teachers can provide language used to respond to posts, such how to acknowledge someone else’s ideas (I think you’re saying that…) or show agreement or disagreement (I see your point, but I also wonder…).

Collaboration also takes places through the final project. IBL classrooms typically have students complete the cycle with group projects, such as debates, group presentations, newsletters, and discussions. Even if students are working independently on personal essays, teachers can have them conduct peer reviews for further feedback, and to present their findings and insights to the class, thereby providing them with a wider audience than just the teacher.

 

4) Reflecting on Learning

The final principle is asking students to reflect on their learning (Pedaste et al., 2005). This can be achieved by posing the leading question on the discussion board at the end of the cycle, to see how students’ responses have evolved based on what they’ve learned. Language teachers can also encourage reflection through assessment feedback. If giving a test on the language and skills students have studied, they can go a step further by posing questions about the experience:

  • How difficult did you find the test?
  • Why do you think you made mistakes?
  • What can you do to improve your learning?
  • What can your teacher do?

This helps students identify areas for improvement, and it gives teachers guidance in tailoring their instruction in the future.

In the IBL classroom, students are in the driver’s seat, but teachers are not sitting alone in the back. They’re upfront, in the passenger seat, watching students navigate their way and giving direction when they get lost. The teacher knows that the path of inquiry can take multiple routes and that students will need different tools to get to their final destination. With proper scaffolding, teachers can make the voyage for English language learners more successful, and in the process, create a cohort of lifelong inquisitors.

 

For a demonstration of how Q: Skills for Success Third Edition uses IBL to create independent and inquisitive learners, please join my Webinar on the 20th February 2020, where we will be looking at how the series and its resources scaffold the four principles of IBL both in and outside the classroom.

Register for the webinar

 


 

References

  1. Amaral, O., Garrison, L. & Klentschy. M. (2002). Helping English learners increase achievement through inquiry-based science instruction. Bilingual Research Journal, 26(2), 213-239.
  2. Chu, S., Tse, S., Loh, K. & Chow, K. (2011). Collaborative inquiry project-based learning: Effects on reading ability and interests. Library & Information Science Research, 33(3), 236-243.
  3. Dobbler, M., Tanis, M., Zward, R.C., & Oers, B. (2017). Literature review: The role of the teacher in inquiry-based education. Educational Research Review, 22, 194-214.
  4. Ismael, N. & Elias, S. (2006). Inquiry-based learning: A new approach to classroom learning. English Language Journal, 2(1), 13-22.
  5. Marshall, J. & Horton, R. (2011). The Relationship of teacher-facilitated, inquiry-based instruction to student higher-order thinking. School Science and Mathematics, 93-101.
  6. Pedaste, M., Maeots, M., Silman, L. & de Jong, T. (2015). Phrases of inquiry-based learning: Definitions and the inquiry cycle. Educational Research Review, 14, 47-61.

 


 

Colin Ward received his M.A. in TESOL from the University of London as a UK Fulbright Scholar. He is Department Chair and Professor of ESOL at Lone Star College-North Harris in Houston, Texas, USA. He has been teaching ESOL at the community-college level since 2002 and presented at numerous state, national, and international conferences. Colin has authored and co-authored a number of textbooks for Oxford University Press, including Q: Skills for Success Reading and Writing 3.

 


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Developing listening skills with storytelling | Gareth Davies

Storytelling in ELT is often seen as the preserve of the young learner teacher. Telling a story with lots of repetition, noises, and action is considered far too childish for teen and adult learners. But stories are in our soul, we grew up with them, remember them fondly and can learn a lot from them, so maybe stories can be part of language lessons for older students.


Why storytelling?

The benefits of grading reading are well documented. Students reading for pleasure at their own level not only improve their reading skill but also their grammar and vocabulary level. But why is so little said about Graded Listening. When we do a listening activity in an English lesson there is always a task to go with it. This listen and answer approach often stresses students, no wonder then that listening is often considered by students to be the ‘hardest’ skill to master. We rarely ask students to just listen for pleasure. We rarely say don’t worry about it; there won’t be a ‘test’ at the end. But could that be beneficial for students? Could it help them to improve their listening skills and their grammar and vocabulary like grading reading does?

Case Study

I’ve been telling stories with students for about three years but at the end of 2018, I spent three months teaching young adults in Japan and decided to do a little experiment.  At least once a week I told them a story. Sometimes I did nothing with it, just told it at the beginning or the end of the lesson and moved on. Sometimes we briefly discussed the story and then moved on. Sometimes I built a lesson around the story. I told the story using actions, pictures and sounds if needed to help with the meaning but still in an adult way. The students enjoyed the stories, and they produced some really excellent work based on them. When I asked them at the end of the course if they could remember the stories, they listed them and took pleasure in retelling them to each other.

Here is some of the feedback that I’ve been receiving from students:

  • ‘Thanks to the storytelling lessons, I got skills for listening, imagination and retelling.’
  • ‘This definitely helped our listening skills…. we could communicate with each other and try to express our thoughts, ideas, and so on.’
  • ‘Those stories let me imagine the view, place, person and a lot of other stuff.’
  • ‘I learnt many expressions, including what I’ve never used to express myself.’
  • ‘It’s motivating to listen eagerly.’
  • Some activities gave me a power of understanding.’

One student even asked me if I could help her to become a storyteller like me!

Activities

The first activity I did after each story was simply to ask students to retell the story to each other. This helped them fill the gaps in each other’s knowledge, developed their understanding of the story, and gave them a chance to ask me questions. Because I had a few artistic students in my class, I encouraged them to draw the story at this stage. Here are three other activities that I will look at in my Webinar.

Newspapers

Ask the students to make a newspaper article for their story. Show them a narrative newspaper story, ask about the features, how the story is told in the newspaper, who is being interviewed etc. Then ask the students to work in small groups to create a newspaper front page based on the story.

Newspaper storytelling activity.

Prequel or Sequel?

Ask them to write a prequel or sequel to the story. Talk about films like Star Wars or Harry Potter. How did the story move on? Then, ask the students to think about the story and how the characters would develop in 5, 10, or 15 years’ time. Put them in small groups and ask them to write their new versions of the story.  

Prequel or Sequel storytelling activity.

Twitter

Get them to write a twitter feed for each of the characters. This is a bit more complicated to set up, but it worked like a charm. First you need to break the story down into factual components. Then, ask them to think how each character would respond to the event and how they would update their twitter feed. Ask them to write the Tweets and then put them in order to create a Twitter version of the story.

Twitter storytelling activity.

The last lesson

In my last lesson with the students, I asked them to tell me a story from Japan. I put the students into groups and gave them time to plan and then asked them to tell me the story. Their renditions were fun, enthusiastic and brought a tear to my eye.

I genuinely believe that listening for pleasure has a place in language learning and storytelling can give students a chance to listen to something that is enjoyable and understandable, and this takes the pressure off listening.


Gareth Davies is a writer, storyteller, teacher, and teacher trainer based in Cardiff. He has been in the ELT industry for 23 years teaching in Portugal, the UK, Spain, and the Czech Republic. Recently he has been teaching and storytelling in Japan. Since 2005, Gareth has worked closely with Oxford University Press, delivering teacher training and developing materials. Gareth is also an examiner for the new Oxford Test of English and Trinity College, London. Outside of teaching, Gareth is an author of fiction, a poet and a storyteller. His first novel “Humans, Being”, will be published by Cinnamon Press in April 2019. He is interested in developing creative writing and story-telling ideas for the classroom.

Visit Gareth’s website: www.gareththestoryteller.com


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Language teachers need motivating too! | Tammy Gregersen

In this article, I am reaching out directly to my colleagues – language teachers from around the world – to have a conversation about what motivates us. As language educators, we have many unique collective features that bind us together and forge among us a distinct identity. To demonstrate my point, I invite you to take a moment to look inward, reflect, and think about your own personal and professional experience in five different scenarios:

First, have you ever noticed the positive ways your language learners respond during those classes when you are really “on your game” (and vice versa, their apathetic sluggishness when you are less than your enthusiastic self?)?

Second, think back to the early days of your career, and even before that, when you were making decisions about what you wanted to do with your life. I’ll bet that for most of us, we thought that teaching would provide at least a modicum of meaning and purpose.

Third, when was the last time you were so engaged in something that you were passionate about that you lost all sense of time and place? Interestingly, there are conditions that must be met for us to find that state of “flow”.

Fourth, look back over the past week. Can you see dips and surges in your motivation inside the classroom? Can you attribute them to specific sources? My guess is that many of us share similar triggers.

Lastly, when was the last time you savoured a professional achievement?—not just felt a sense of pride – but really truly savoured something?  Amazing feeling, right?

If you agree to join me during my ELTOC webinar, I’m going to address the five ideas I’ve just touched upon, and just to whet your appetite and convince you it won’t be a waste of time, in continuation is a bit of a summary.

Connecting teacher and learner motivation

I will begin my talk by suggesting that the motivation we feel as teachers is not only imperative for our own wellbeing but also for that of our learners.  This is because teachers play a vital role in their students’ engagement and motivation, and in particular, our enjoyment of positive emotions and our confidence in teaching positively influence these elements in our learners. That is to say, if we are motivated and passionate about our work, the chances are much higher that our learners will be too. Concentrating on our own wellbeing and motivation is not selfish – but rather it is pivotal to being an effective teacher because it fosters the best learning conditions for our learners.

Initial Motivations: The passions

After outlining how important teacher motivation is for teachers and learners, the second part of my talk will consider the initial motivations involved in why individuals might become language teachers. An appreciation of these motives is essential to gaining insight into teacher engagement and our long-term commitment to the profession. We can draw enormous strength from reminding ourselves of the purposefulness of our initial motivation and aligning our current practices to allow us to repeatedly re-live the values of what enticed us to the job in the first place (Toward, Henley & Cope, 2015). Whereas in certain educational contexts across the world, social status and other extrinsic reasons may figure into our choice to teach, for many others, intrinsic factors dominate (Richardson & Watt, 2014). The key is to find meaning and purpose in what we do. In positive psychology, contentment springs from using our strengths in meaningful ways that also contribute to something greater than ourselves (Seligman, 2011) and teaching is idyllically suited to engendering that brand of positivity when harnessed effectively. This is a fantastic website, use it to aid you in discovering your own personal strengths.

Finding day-to-day motivation and flow

The next consideration in my talk will be to contemplate ways that language teacher motivation fluctuates on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, it is perfectly normal for our motivation to go up and down across the course of a day, week, or academic year. It is important to recognise when we are experiencing a motivational dip so we can consider strategies that incite a re-discovery of enthusiasm. Can you distinguish between temporary drops in your motivation and those originating from issues that are more fundamental? In my talk, we will identify personal and institutional threats to our motivation and ways in which we might tackle them. That motivation is highly individual is a non-starter, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

A heightened form of motivation, “flow”, is “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992, p. 3). Flow has two prerequisites: possessing the skills to do the task, and having a task that suitably challenges these skills. Flow boosts the spirit transitorily and builds psychological capital over time, which is a major component of human growth and motivation. I will focus on what flow means and how we might foster it in our professional and personal lives.

Tackling apathy and demotivation

Next, I will reflect on additional threats to motivation and specific causes of demotivation and apathy. Apathetic individuals feel they have nothing towards which to strive and, as a result, the mental, physical, or emotional energy for accomplishing what in the past they may have valued disappears (Selzer, 2016). To combat these feelings, we can engage in a variety of activities—some of which I will share in my talk. We can also look ahead and set goals for our own development and growth, including creating future visions for ourselves.

A Sense of Achievement

The final key source of motivation that I will address in my talk is a sense of achievement, which can come from successes in language teaching as well as a sense of improvement in our competences as and those of our learners. I’ll talk about different ways we can capture such feelings of accomplishment from both small day-to-day experiences as well as larger achievements. One key way of promoting this is to engage in appropriate and self-selected professional development activities. Boredom can be just as damaging to motivation and wellbeing as stress, so there is a fine balance to be struck between not taking on too much while still challenging ourselves. I will discuss individual needs for stimulation and the problems of overstretching ourselves while considering specific strategies and activities for teacher self-initiated and self-directed growth.

Concluding words….

The notion that we are all language teachers – no matter from which part of the planet – brings us together with common purposes and goals. No matter where I’ve travelled across the globe to meet up with language teachers, I have always felt the camaraderie of shared passion.  


Tammy Gregersen is currently teaching and researching at the American University of Sharjah where she also coordinates their Masters in TESOL program. She has co-authored/co-edited several books, with three more in press, on topics such as individual differences, nonverbal communication, positive psychology in the language classroom and language teacher education. 

Tammy has presented at conferences and taught in graduate programs across the globe which deems an incredible privilege because it taps into her passions for traveling and exploring new cultures.


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There is no such thing as lazy! | Nick Thorner

It’s a word heard frequently in staff rooms whenever students are discussed. We don’t tend to use it when we’re writing their reports, but it’s often there on our lips as we compose them. The word in question is ‘lazy’, defined as being ‘unwilling to work or use energy’. It describes a feeling few of us are immune from. But perhaps it’s not a helpful way of understanding students, for three reasons.

Firstly, the word can weaken relationships between student and teacher. ‘Lazy’ is full of negative connotation and if we portray students in pejorative terms, we will resent having to teach them – no one likes helping the undeserving. Consequently, we ourselves begin to lose motivation. The problem doesn’t end there, of course. Even if we avoid calling our students ‘lazy’, they are very quick to pick on any negative attitudes we hold. There is nothing less likely to motivate a student than a demotivated teacher! So, thinking of our students as lazy creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

Second, the idea of laziness is disempowering and erodes hope of achievement. It is often seen as a fixed character trait, a flaw some people are just born with. Alternatively, we may even consider it a choice: ‘Don’t be lazy!’ we’ll exhort our students. Therefore, a student deemed ‘lazy’ will be perceived (or perceive themselves) either as incapable or naughty. Is this fair? Undoubtedly, some of us are born with passive dispositions or may acquire cynical beliefs about the value of effort. But others who seem lazy in the classroom seem anything but on a sports field or in a shopping centre. ‘Laziness’ can certainly have environmental causes.

And that brings us to our final point: that the word ‘lazy’ may prevent us from doing our jobs to the best of our ability. If we suggest through our language that lack of effort has no external causes, won’t it stop us looking for solutions? Once again, the word ‘lazy’ may make us lazy. Or perhaps we may be guilty of labelling students ‘lazy’ to escape the feeling that we ourselves could do more to motivate them? It’s a word that can seem a little too convenient at times. We might say it’s a little lazy to call someone lazy.

I therefore believe we need new ways to discuss students who lack the motivation to engage in learning behaviour. It was partly this conviction that led me in December of last year to join a research project alongside Japanese academic Keita Kikuchi into amotivation and demotivation, concepts that seemed closely linked to laziness. Over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly convinced that ‘lazy’ learners are often students who are struggling to meet psychological needs through learning and I believe there are a range of ways we can help them do this.

Nick Thorner

My early training experience included product training for primary and secondary courses in Italy. I have since given talks on extensive reading for OUP and on critical thinking and edtech for Oxdosa in recent years. For OUP, I’ve recently undertaken product training and motivation talks in Saudi and talked on motivation at IATEFL and Latvia in support of my most recent book Motivational Teaching. My experience as a writer and teacher continues to be in EAP (I teach humanities through ESL) and IELTS training. I have authored 2 IELTS course books and I have just decided to leave my IELTS examining post so can now participate in IELTS training. I am publishing an academic article in the new year on demotivation too.

Nick Thorner is also the author of ‘Motivational Teaching‘, a guide that explores how motivation works on an individual level and within a classroom environment.


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Learning to learn in the primary classroom

I have been teaching a group of young teenagers of very mixed levels and ages for six months now. Half of the group comes from the state-school system and the other half attend “an alternative school”. The latter group is one-three years younger and was the weakest one in terms of language knowledge at the beginning of the year. These children were weak elementary while the rest strong pre-intermediate/intermediate. I was even wondering whether they would be able to cope emotionally with the fact that the rest of the class coming from a state-school background is so much stronger.

As time went by, however, the children who were seemingly behind caught up at an amazing speed. They were very good at using soft skills such as really listening to the teacher and to each other. They asked questions with confidence if they got stuck. They were able to work out answers for themselves by observing the clues carefully. I also watched them constantly use colors to highlight, to make mind-maps, and to make beautiful drawings in their notebooks to accompany their newly learnt language without having to draw their attention to these learning strategies. Their notebooks are not ordinary ones with the answers of exercises, lists of words and occasional grammar tables, but they look more like living books that you would want to open again and again to look at. And of course, I sometimes witnessed their frustration as well, but I saw their strategies of handling these emotions successfully too.

‘… the children who were seemingly behind caught up at an amazing speed.’

These children have learnt something important that we all need in this rapidly changing world, and these are skills that allow them to adapt to new situations, new contexts, new people, and new tasks easily. Possessing vast knowledge – most of which computers provide us with in fractions of seconds anyway – does not give us enough support in being able to rise up to new challenges at this speed. Instead we need the soft skills and learning skills that equip us with the necessary flexibility.

What are these skills? How can they be developed? From the example above – just as, I am sure, we can all list such examples from our lives – these questions have obvious answers. But it feels harder to teach these skills instead of a set of new words or a new language point as they are less tangible.

Essential skills for primary children

So what is it that children need to learn in the primary school? According to Emőke Bagdy, a renowned Hungarian clinical psychologist, at this age children need to learn the following things: To read, to write, to count, and to be confident. They need to develop a sense of self-belief that they can do it. If this fails, according to E. Bagdy, children will struggle with their learning, in managing new situations at school, and in their life as adults.  This is also supported by the PISA report (Programme for International Student Assessment) that has found that learners’ belief in their own efficacy is the strongest single predictor of whether they will adopt strategies that make learning effective or not (Artelt et al., 2003, pages 33–34).

One of the key things that influence children’s confidence is our own view of them as individuals and of their abilities. It is important to approach every single child believing that they can do it. A simple idea to do this is to catch them being good, something that can be easily done with the help of the Snakes poster – see below.

Snake Poster.

Draw one snake for every child in the class and label each one with a student’s name. Make sure the body of each snake is divided into lots of triangular sections. Each time a student does something praiseworthy (e.g. makes a helpful comment, shows determination, waiting patiently for their turn, etc.), tell them to come out and colour in one section of their snake with a pen of their choice.

Mixed-ability teaching, Edmund Dudley, Erika Osváth, OUP, 2016

Of course, we need to make sure that children progress with the colouring in their snakes approximately at similar speeds to avoid any feelings of shame, which would definitely be detrimental. Feeling good about oneself has an immense motivational power at any age, but it is imperative in the primary classroom.

Another important teaching moment that has a great impact on children’s self-confidence is our way of dealing with mistakes. In my view, there are no mistakes made in the primary classroom, but rather opportunities for children to notice something that is different or new in terms of use of words, language chunks, spelling, etc. For example, if children are copying words in their notebook from the board and there are some spelling errors, rather than overwriting these in red by the teacher, it’s a good idea to encourage children to look at the board again and discover the differences for themselves.

Naturally, there are many more soft-skills that need to be developed at this age so that children become efficient learners, such as resilience, curiosity and collaboration.

Have an idea of your own? We’d love to see it, so do share it below in the comments!


Erika Osvath is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of the European Language Award-winning 6-week eLearning programme for language exam preparation. She worked for International House schools in Eastern and Central Europe as a YL co-ordinator, trainer, and Director of Studies. She regularly travels to teach demonstration lessons with local children, and do workshops for teachers. Erika is co–author with Edmund Dudley of Teaching Mixed Ability.


References:

Artelt, C., Baumert, J., Julius-McElvany, N. and Peschar, J. (2003). Learners for life: student approaches to learning. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/education/school/programmeforinternationalstudentassessmentpisa/33690476.pdf Accessed 15/2/18.

For Bagdy Emőke, see: http://bagdyemoke.hu/beszelgetesek-emokevel/

Dudley, E. and Osváth, E. (2016). Mixed-ability teaching. Oxford: OUP.