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Making the Impossible Possible – Q&A session


shutterstock_299889014Last month, we hosted Gareth Davies’ webinar,
‘Making the Impossible Possible: How to get your students writing’. During the webinar and on his previous blog post, we called for questions for Gareth that we could ask him post-webinar, to delve deeper into creative writing in the EFL classroom. Here’s the full transcript of this interview:

What is your opinion on teachers writing a sample text for students to get used to writing?

This is a good question, reading and writing go hand in hand and there is evidence to suggest that the more reading a student does the better their writing will become, so in general having as much exposure to different texts can only help students.  Having or not having a model is often the cited as the major difference between process and product writing. In process writing the students study a sample text and use it as a model and is a good approach for students who are preparing for an exam or who need to write formulaic emails or reports. However, sometimes I think this can impose restrictions on students. So if I am doing a creative writing exercise I might avoid giving students a model at the start of the activity, to allow their creative juices to flow.

Have you ever tried to channel the positive energy of these creative writing tasks and turn them into positive academic writing performance?

How could we use these ideas to writing for exams? I mean, IELTS, Cambridge exams?

Thanks for this question, let me try to give you an analogy. When someone trains to run a marathon, they don’t only run long distances. They do some gym work, some short runs, and perhaps they change their diet. For me it is the same with preparing for an exam. You need to do some exam practice, but you also need to hone your skills and prepare in different ways. Creative writing tasks can allow students to practise their writing in an interesting way, but they are still using the skills they will need for academic purposes. When I was teaching an EAP course in the summer I did several storytelling and writing activities just to free the students up, and they found it very helpful.

How you would evaluate or share the poems?

This is a very interesting point. When I ask my students to do creative writing activities, I try to focus as much as possible on the content rather than the accuracy. I see it as a fluency activity. Therefore, on their first draft, I might comment on how the story or poem made me feel, how I enjoyed it, etc., and only point out errors where the meaning is confused. I might also ask the students to peer correct each other’s work and ask me if they are not sure about something. As for sharing their work I ask the students to decide if they are public or private, they mark the top of the paper. If they are public then I will ask them to read them out or put them on display. If the students have marked it as private then only I will look at it. With creative writing, it is often personal, I don’t think it is fair to share the students’ work if they are not ready.

What do you think of beginning with more concrete descriptive language?

In one of my previous webinars, I talked about the following activity, which looks at descriptive language.

Write a sentence on the board

e.g. The boy walked up the stairs.

Tell the student the boy was scared, ask them where they would put that word in that sentence. e.g. The scared boy walked up the stairs.

Now ask them how he walked up the stairs. Elicit an adverb and ask them where it goes in the sentence.

e.g. The scared boy walked quickly up the stairs.

Next ask them to describe the stairs, (narrow? steep? dark?) and ask them where their adjective goes. e.g. The scared boy walked quickly up the dark stairs.

Finally, ask them to think of a different word for ‘walked’, (ran? climbed? tip-toed?)

e.g. The scared boy tip-toed quickly up the dark stairs.

Now it is time to edit. You’ve gone from a simple sentence to a much too complicated one. Which words leave the best impression on the reader, which are not needed?

 e.g. Perhaps you don’t need scared because ‘tip-toed’ and dark imply this.

Put the students into pairs and ask them to do the same for other adjectives, excited, happy, sad, angry etc.

You can help them with the words by translating or filling in gaps in their knowledge.

Which do you prefer? Poet or Teacher.

Actually, I love both and they are not that different. Both require you to plan and prepare carefully, both make you bring your personality to the work. Both encourage you to be creative. With both, you hope to leave a positive influence on your audience. And finally, with both sometimes things go wrong and you have to reassess and start again.


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Making the ‘Impossible’ Possible – How to get your students writing

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Gareth Davies is a writer, teacher, teacher trainer, and storyteller. He has been in the ELT industry for 21 years teaching in Portugal, the UK, Spain and the Czech Republic. Since 2005 he has worked closely with Oxford University Press, delivering teacher training and developing materials. Gareth joins us today to preview his webinar ‘Making the Impossible Possible… How to get your students writing’.

Writing’s a Chore?

When I was on a recent short-term teaching assignment in Northern Spain, I decided to ask my students to do some creative writing. I gave them some prompts and asked them to write a story. Far from being a joyous activity, the students rolled their eyes. There was a lot of grumbling and sighing and the finished versions were no more than four or five lines long. They had written stories, but they had not written creatively. Why did my students have such a negative reaction to writing and how could I encourage them to enjoy it?

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Why is writing an essential 21st century communication device? Well, take a brief look around in any town in any country you will see people hunched over their phones or tablets or laptops sending texts, emails or WeChat messages. Writing is in vogue. But it is more than that. It is argued that encouraging students to create in a foreign language helps them to internalise it more effectively. This is because they need to think about how language works and what they know, in order to be able to use the language successfully.

Merril Swain argues that input, being taught the language and being asked to manipulate it in controlled exercises, is useful, but it doesn’t produce the cognitive processing required to internalise language. Whereas:

“output pushes learners to process language more deeply – with more mental effort… With output, the learner is in control. In speaking or writing, learners can ‘stretch’ their interlanguage[1] to meet communicative goals.”

  • Swain

[1]Interlanguage is the learner’s current, work in progress version of the language. 

Thus when producing language, whether it be writing or speaking, students are being cognitively challenged which is helping them to internalise the language, and get better at it. Therefore, the work we do on writing in the classroom can be seen as work done on language development, helping students to improve their linguistic ability.

So how do we get our students writing?

One complaint I often hear from students is that they don’t know what to write about. Here are a couple of solutions.

Sit the students in circles of six. Ask students to write the topic they want to write about on the top of an A4 sheet of paper and then pass the paper around in the circle. Each student writes a question on the sheet about the topic at the top. Now each student has the subject they are going to write about and five questions to answer in the text.

Task: You are on a shopping trip to a big city with friends. Write a blog entry about your experience.

Instruction to Students: Decide which city you are visiting write it on top of the piece of paper.

Examples

Paris

Are the shops expensive?

Are there any street markets?

Is there a department store?

London

Are the shops expensive?

Is it crowded?

What is the food like?

If you want the students to all write about the same topic, write the topic on the board and draw two columns. Elicit all the things the students know about the topic and write them in the first column. Then give them time to think of what they would like to know about the topic. Elicit the questions they have thought of and write them in the second column. Now ask the students to do the writing task. The weaker or more cautious ones can rely on the information in the first column the more adventurous ones can try to find answers to the questions in the second column.

Task: Prepare a small advert for tourists about your home town.

Prague

What do we know?

Traditional markets at certain times of the year.

Best time to come is spring

Two castles

What would we like to know?

How much is it to stay in a hotel?

How much to taxis cost?

How do you take a boat trip?

Where’s the best place for a view of Prague?

If you want your students to do some creative writing, you might want to start by asking them to adapt an existing story. For example, you could take the story of Aladdin and ask the students to write a fifty-word summary or to write a 21st Century version or a version that would be more specific to their own country. This allows the students to work within an existing structure, but create their own ideas. An alternative might be to take a song or poem with regular repetitions and ask students to write their own version. Ian Dury’s I Believe is a good song for this kind of activity and can be found in Headway Intermediate.

Call a draft a draft

It is a good idea to encourage students to call their work drafts, to give them a sense that they can, and should, make changes. Asking questions is a really good way of giving feedback. The questions can help create a richer piece.  Some example feedback questions for a piece of creative writing might be: what happened next? why did this happen? how did the people feel? What did the street look like? This shows that the teacher has read the piece with interest and is keen to know more about the story, and was not just looking for mistakes and errors to correct.

In my webinar on the 25th and 26th of January, I will discuss some of these ideas in greater detail and suggest other ways to make the impossible possible and to get your students to enjoy their writing tasks.

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References

Tasks mentioned are taken from Solutions Pre-Intermediate 2nd Edition.

Swain, M., ‘The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue’ in Sociocultural theory and second language acquisition ed. James P. Lantolf (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 97- 114 p. 99.


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Teaching with Web 2.0 Tools (Part 2)

DeathtoStock_Medium5Magali Trapero Turrent is an ELT Editor at Oxford University Press, Mexico. She is the co-author of several books published by OUP as well as a teacher and former OUP Educational Services teacher trainer. In her posts, she shares her ideas for using Web 2.0 tools to develop learner’s language skills.

Listening is a difficult skill to develop for ELLs or any other foreign language learner. And yet, it is critical for language acquisition. In the past, we mostly used the audio materials included in textbooks to help our learners develop listening skills. However, with the advent of new technologies and the Internet, we have been able to add richness to our lessons by using podcasts, short videos or live radio programs from stations in other countries. Despite this, there are times when we want to create specific audio materials to suit our learners’ needs without having to record our voices. Fortunately, using Web 2.0 tools can give us the opportunity to create our own engaging and fun listening materials without having to record our voice or, better yet, we can engage our students in the process of creation. Text-to-Speech (TTS) technology is extremely helpful because we can select the speech rate, the gender and the accent of the voice that will be created from our text. iSpeech and Voki are examples of tools that employ TTS technology.

iSpeech can be used with computers or with tablets and smart phones through the mobile apps. Voki allows you, or your students, to generate fun listening activities through the creation of avatars to represent you, a fictitious character, or your students. You can use TTS, upload audio files or use your smart phone to record. You can place your listening activity (avatar) in your social network site or blog, or even email it for homework.

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Figure 1: Sample Voki development page—Text extract from the OUP series Discover Science Level 3 Student’s Book

In designing a lesson, we can apply the pre-listening, while-listening and post-listening framework. Once the topic of the lesson is decided and after the instructional goal of the activity is established—top-down or bottom-up skill development (Rost, 2011)—we can begin developing our listening materials.

During the pre-listening stage, learners can begin work on top-down processing skills. Top-down processing takes place, for example, when learners use their previous knowledge on a topic to interpret a message. If they do not have any knowledge on the topic, regardless of how fluent they are, it will render a listening activity quite challenging. This principle applies even to native speakers. Imagine having to listen to a conversation about astrophysics—if you are not an astrophysicist, having to answer comprehension questions based on that conversation can be an overwhelming challenge. Therefore, establishing a context, pre-teaching vocabulary or sociocultural elements and activating previous knowledge are needed for comprehension of aural input (Ur, 1999).

In preparing a science lesson, I can use Google Earth to engage my learners and activate their previous knowledge on ecosystems and biomes during the pre-listening stage. As they engage in their virtual exploration of the Earth, I can begin eliciting content-specific vocabulary and teaching any lexis they will need to successfully complete their listening task.

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Figure 2: Image courtesy of Google Earth

Moving on to the next stage of the lesson, besides top-down processing skills, more skills will need to be developed that are just as necessary—namely, bottom-up processing skills. The while-listening stage provides a great opportunity to develop decoding or bottom-up processing skills. In bottom-up processing, some degree of phonological, grammatical and lexical competence is needed. This is because when learners engage in bottom-up processing, they attempt to make sense of the message based on chunks of input, such as sounds, words, clauses or sentences—to name a few. Top-down and bottom-up processes do not happen in isolation—they interact (Vandergrift, 1999).

Continuing with the example of a science lesson, for the while-listening activity, I can use Woices to develop a guide to different biomes and the services they provide. I can embed the guide in a blog or a social network page, or use it directly from the site. Woices can be used with computers or with tablets and smart phones through the mobile apps. In a while-listening activity like this, depending on the instructional goal, I can have my learners complete a mind map in Mind42 with information from the aural input or follow the information on Google Earth as they capture images mentioned in the Woices guide for the post-listening activity.

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Figure 3: Image courtesy of Woices

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Figure 4: Images courtesy of Mind42 and Tiffany @Making the World Cuter

In fact, Woices, iSpeech and Voki can be used for the post-listening stage. You may decide, for example, to have your learners create their own Voki as a response. The advantage of using TTS technology is that if students have memorized words with the wrong pronunciation, once their text is converted to speech, they will notice the difference. After all, research shows that learners have consistently reported that memorizing words with the wrong pronunciation greatly interferes with their listening comprehension performance (Goh, 2008). The downside of TTS is that it may not provide the desired intonation if that is one of the instructional goals of a lesson.

In the next article in this series, we will explore the use of Web 2.0 tools for writing activities.

 

References and Further Reading

Goh, C. (2008). Metacognitive Instruction for Second Language Listening Development: Theory, Practice and Research Implications. RELC Journal: A Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 39(2), 188–213.

Rost, M. (2011). Teaching and Researching Listening (2nd ed., pp. 132-133). New York, NY: Pearson Education Limited.

Ur, P. (1999). Module 8 – Teaching listening. A Course in Language Teaching (pp. 41–47). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vandergrift, L. (1999). Facilitating Second Language Listening Comprehension: Acquiring Successful Strategies. ELT Journal, 53 (3), 168–176.


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Using video content effectively in your EFL classroom

DeathtoStock_Creative Community3Ten years ago today, the first YouTube upload was made live on the platform. Entitled ‘Me at the zoo’, it was uploaded by one of the platform’s co-founders, Jared Karim, and can still be seen on the site today. With over 19 million views on this video alone, and users in excess of 1 billion, YouTube and the influence of video content on our lives is undeniable. But how do we translate this medium into a practical learning tool for the classroom, without losing out on efficiency? Is the integration of digital content into language learning falling victim to fads, or a step towards the future?

In recognition of an upload which changed the landscape of social and digital content sharing, here are some of our favourite articles dealing with the use of video in the EFL classroom.

Using video for Business English

The Power of Business Video Part 1 – Using ‘graded video’ in Business English teaching
John Hughes examines the case for using graded video in the first of two posts on using video in the Business English classroom.

The Power of Business Video Part 2 – Key uses of video for Business English teaching
Taking the Business English classroom as context, John Hughes explores the most effective uses of video for learning.

Practical ideas for the Business English classroom Part 2 – Making the most out of video
In this blog post John Hughes looks at practical ideas as to how the use of video can support business English teaching.

Using video for language skill-building

Integrating video content in the EFL classroom with International Express – Part 1
Keith Harding shares some ideas and video resources for Elementary Unit 6 – Santiago, Chile, focusing on comparative and superlative adjectives.

Integrating video content in the EFL classroom with International Express – Part 2
Rachel Appleby explores a video clip from Pre-Intermediate Unit 10 – Selexyz bookstore, which focuses on using ‘will’ to talk about the future, Zero Conditional and 1st Conditional.

Using video and ICT to present grammar
David Mearns, a teacher in Turkey, discusses the benefit of using video to show grammar in an authentic context and gives a few tips on how to teach grammar using video.

Developing critical thinking by using video to teach essay writing
Vanessa Medina is an English teacher, freelance ELT consultant and writer. Here she explores using videos to teach different writing structures.

How and when to use video in the classroom

Flipping and creating video presentations
Thomas Healy explores the concept of ‘flipping’ in the classroom, aided by the use of video and video presentations.

Video cameras in the hands of learners
Jamie Keddie, author of Bringing Online Video into the Classroom, looks at the benefits of handing over control of the video camera to students.

Using video in the classroom
Christopher Graham, teacher and teacher trainer, looks at the benefits of using video in the classroom.

What a 2 minute video clip can teach us…
Annie Tsai, a teacher in Taiwan, writes about how music and the video-based Everybody Up Global Sing-along changed the lives of her students last year.

Where’s the video?
Rachel Appleby, co-author of the Business one:one series, looks at some of the benefits and drawbacks of using video in the classroom.

Teaching and learning with video Part 1 – Video in the classroom
Bruce Wade considers how and why video should be used in the ELT classroom of today.

Teaching and learning with video Part 2 – The use of reportage and mini documentary
In this blog post, Bruce Wade considers how reportage can be used as a visual and factual aid to learning.

Teaching and learning with video Part 3 – Interviews, vox pops and beyond
Can video interviews be used for contextual language learning? Bruce Wade explores how different formats of video can be used to support EFL training.

 


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Teaching with Web 2.0 Tools (Part 1)

Educational-Computer-Games-For-KidsMagali Trapero Turrent is an ELT Editor at Oxford University Press, Mexico. She is the author of several series published by OUP as well as a teacher and former OUP Educational Services teacher trainer. In her post, she shares her ideas for using Web 2.0 tools to develop learner’s language skills.

Having the opportunity to expand the horizon of my traditional EFL classroom has been just as exciting for me as for my students. However, I must admit that, as a digital immigrant, it was not simple at the beginning. It took many hours of focused as well as playful hours of dedicated inquiry to find the link between the learning goals of a CLIL lesson and the potentiality of different Web 2.0 tools to support them. I also had to determine how much scaffolding learners would need before engaging in web-based activities and how to integrate elements of the outside world that could enrich our lessons.

In preparing a science lesson, for example, the integration of international celebrations, such as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Health Day or the United Nations Observances, can bring the real world into the classroom. This, along with Web 2.0 tools, becomes a way of integrating the world of our learners with the real world—right there in our classrooms or as a home-school link.

Using Voice Thread for speaking activities

tools1tools2The typical classroom has learners that gladly engage in communicative activities and those that, given the chance, will avoid the task altogether. Creating speaking activities in Voice Thread, besides adding novelty and variety to lessons, can provide a formative assessment record. Voice Thread is a user-friendly tool that can integrate audio, video, images, text, documents and presentations—providing a multisensory, non-threatening environment where collaborative learning can flourish, even for learners that would otherwise not take part in communicative activities. Voice thread can be accessed using tablets, computers and mobile devices.

Once you have made a decision about the speaking function to focus on (performance, transaction or interaction) and given the language support needed by your learners, you can upload models for the speaking activity directly into your Voice Thread page for your students to view prior to doing the task.

In setting up activities, give learners an opportunity to personalize their experience. After all, that is what students do in the real world through social media, such as Facebook.

The following example presents materials for a science lesson. In the exploration stage of the lesson, learners can talk about what they think a healthy meal is. In a Voice Thread activity, learners can do the following using computers, tablets or their smart phones:

  • Take pictures and create a healthy food poster to present in the recording.
  • Make a video of healthy foods found in vending machines while they narrate.
  • Take selfies next to healthy food street stands and describe why it is healthy.
  • Make a video of their favorite home-made healthy meal and talk about it.
  • Take a picture of their refrigerator and describe its contents.

Additionally, students can ask questions based on classmates presentations or add information to a previously posted presentation before they move into the next stage of the lesson.

As learners get more knowledge on the topic—healthy food, in this example—they can then work with information from international organizations, such as the World health Organization, to learn more about healthy or unhealthy food and its impact on other communities throughout the world.

Using again the science example, and to celebrate International Health Day 2015, a question is added to the activity to activate students’ previous knowledge on food safety—the focus of the celebration. Students proceed to record their current knowledge. Examples of activities that can be created in Voice Thread to activate previous knowledge are the following:

  • Create a cloud with the words you associate with food safety and explain to your classmates the ones you think are the most important.
  • Record an acrostic poem using food safety.
  • In pairs, create a video for a community announcement on what you think food safety is.

tools4tools3 These activities, of course, can be adapted for other core subjects. The advantage of creating speaking activities in Voice Thread is that you can choose the type of speaking function to focus on (performance, transaction or interaction) and monitor each learners’ skill development as well accuracy issues that may arise. It also provides you and your learners with a form of digital portfolio or formative assessment record. Furthermore, it gives learners a reason to communicate in English in a way that it is used in the real world—as much of today’s communication happens through the use of digital tools.

In the next article in this series, we will explore the use of Web 2.0 tools for listening activities.

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