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If there were no books…

Student with iPadRobert McLarty, Publishing Manager for Business English and ESP at Oxford University Press, explores the increasing use of digital media in education, the effect it has on students, and how it will affect teachers in the future.

A couple of years ago a group of schools in California decided to pilot a new approach to the teaching of algebra. Providing the students with iPads along with an interactive full curriculum app, the year-long pilot was to compare the results of a print-driven approach and a tablet-led one. Both groups had experienced teachers but the results were convincing. Over 78% of the “digital” students scored A or B compared with 59% using the “old school” approach.

Let us not worry how similar algebra and English are – they are both subjects which most students will need at some stage in their careers. They are also both subjects where some students “get it” immediately and others don’t. They are also often taught by experts who find it hard to understand why learners struggle with some basic concepts. Why is a tense continuous? When do we need to use brackets?

What the application clearly does is help the teachers explain, illustrate, practise and correct in a more effective way than print materials. It hasn’t replaced maths teachers, it has actually enhanced them and made them more effective, interesting and, probably, productive. Obviously the gadget itself has more immediate appeal to most sixteen year olds than a book would have. What we cannot deny, however, is that the modern generation of both learners and new teachers are used to the richness and range which digital offers us. If we can harness that technology and marry it to an efficient teaching methodology then surely we will have moved English Language Teaching on in much the same way the OALD, Headway or Practical English Usage did at different times?

The algebra app offers a personalized learning experience; in other words, each student doing an appropriate task for their level at the right stage of the lesson. It offers video tutorials where the new point is explained so that those who didn’t get it, or missed the lesson or want to go through it again, can do just that. It offers step-by-step examples and quizzes to test learning. It offers homework tasks with instant feedback prescribing remediation or intervention as required. It also offers a community approach to learning where you learn from your peers as much as from your teacher. Its three stage approach is based around teaching, review and assessment, a very similar methodology to our standard direct method approach. So what will it take to provide a similar course for English language learning?

A lot of good content has been developed for English language practice and reference but there is less which can be effectively used by teachers actually in the classroom during the teaching stages of their lessons. I don’t believe this would actually be a book on screen. It might well borrow the aims, objectives, activities and syllabus of a book but would probably deliver them in a way which suited a modern digitally equipped classroom where the tablet will replace the book.

Some weeks ago I asked a group of teachers what they would do if they were trying to teach a language point but there were no books. The stages they opted for, and the methodology they chose sounds very familiar. First select an image, video, dialogue or text which contextualises the language. Next engage the class, check their current knowledge and introduce the new items. After that they would provide useful extra practice at a variety of sub-levels before encouraging the students  to experiment and find further opportunities, texts or examples to help them personalise and remember.

A lot of great content is available on the internet but there is too much for a busy teacher to deal with and most of it is raw and unedited. What a good teacher of the future will need, and can then provide to their learners, is enough coherent learning objects to suit the needs of their learners, to keep the class engaged, to help them learn and practise new language all within a well-tested and graded framework provided by an expert in the provision of learning materials. These objects will be for use both in and out of classroom, allowing us finally to arrive at the ultimate course, designed to fit each individual learner with the perfect combination of print and digital publishing.

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English for Specific Purposes – Getting the balance right

Businesspeople shaking handsLewis Lansford discusses the four key elements of success for teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP). Lewis has written a wide range of ESP teaching materials, including Engineering 1 and Oil and Gas 1 in the Oxford English for Careers series, and English for Cabin Crew.

Most teachers come to ESP teaching with no specialist background in the field they’re teaching (English for medicine, robotics, aviation, law, the military, etc.) It can be intimidating teaching experts in a field that you yourself know little about. The key to success is getting a good balance of four basic elements: special lexis, general English language/grammar, special context and pedagogy.

Special lexis

This is generally the most intimidating part of ESP for teachers and learners. Teachers, who are used to being the expert, find themselves trying to help students communicate clearly using words that they – the teachers – don’t understand. That’s tough. Here are three ways that teachers overcome this feeling of lack:

  1. They learn as much as they reasonably can about the field;
  2. They are honest with themselves and their students about the things they don’t know, demonstrating that their expertise is in language teaching, not engineering or medicine or aviation;
  3. They remember that special lexis is only one part of the whole picture.

English language/grammar

This is an area of ESP teaching where the teacher is the expert. Think of ESP as a pyramid. Special lexis is the small pointy part at the top. The wide foundation of the pyramid is the English that everyone needs every day – the grammatical building blocks of sentence structure, verb tenses, adverbs and so on. Special lexis is important, but is useful only with the support and structure of English sentences to put it into. This holds up the whole pyramid.

Specialist context

Getting things done in English involves discourse – conversation, extended texts, and negotiations. Like grammar, this is familiar territory to the teacher: asking for information, clarifying, interrupting, making suggestions and all the other familiar functions. People in almost any professional or academic situation must do these things. Some specific situations differ across fields. Students of English for medicine need to develop an understanding of the discourse of the hospital, which involves communicating in a very hierarchical environment, often under intense pressure, sometimes with lives at stake. Business people need to learn non-linguistic negotiation skills, and often must learn about how these differ across cultures. The teacher’s job in this case is to develop the best understanding possible of their learners’ target context and to create lessons that give students the opportunity to use English appropriately.

Pedagogy

This is where it all comes together. The key to learners’ success is well-crafted lessons that provide exposure to authentic language, but not too much; allow for plenty of practice and recycling; give the teacher and the learner opportunities to measure and mark progress. Without sound pedagogy – well-planned and well-executed lessons – language learning and development are unlikely to take place. When the teacher gets it right, the other elements fall into place, and balance is achieved.

Teachers often start their first ESP job feeling intimidated by what they don’t know and worried about their ability to deliver useful lessons. Those who stay with it discover that their own expertise in running effective classes using appropriate materials balances perfectly with their students’ knowledge and experience in their own field. Many go on to relish the expertise they develop in teaching pilots, nurses, or engineers – comfortable with what they know, but also confident in what they don’t – which may be the hardest lesson for a teacher to learn.

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Glue sniffing and classroom technology

Hands holding an iPadPaul Davies, co-author of Solutions second edition, takes a look back at when technology first appeared in the classroom and offers a warning about its use in today’s classrooms.

Visiting my children’s primary school the other day, I picked up a bottle of PVA glue from a table and gave it a little sniff. I’m not a habitual glue-sniffer, but I’d noticed that it was the same type of adhesive we used to have at my own primary school decades earlier and I knew the smell would be evocative. For a moment, I was reliving my schooldays.

I left secondary school in 1984, around the time when computers were beginning to have an impact in education. That year, the eminent British semiotician Daniel Chandler wrote: “The mirocomputer is a tool of awesome potency which is making it possible for educational practice to take a giant step backwards.”

What did he mean? Chandler was no Luddite: he embraced new technology and worked to develop early educational software in collaboration with the BBC. His fear, however, was that educators might be so beguiled by the novelty of the latest classroom technology (in those days, a PC the size of a fridge) that they failed to pay enough attention to the underlying pedagogy. He warned that computers should be viewed not as potential teaching machines but as aids to student expression because, put bluntly, computers can’t teach. They deal in information, not knowledge.

More than a quarter of a century later, Chandler’s warning still applies. Even today, many on-screen language games are basically stimulus and response, often with canned applause or some other audio/visual reward for a correct answer. Short of locking students in a box and dispensing food pellets through a chute if they pull the right lever, this is about as close to Skinnerian behaviourism as you can get. It is an approach to education that has been out of vogue for over half a century.

While Skinner deliberately excluded as irrelevant anything which goes on inside the mind so that he could focus solely on directly observable behaviour, subsequent theories of learning have taken the mind as a starting point: constructivism, brain-based learning, NLP, and so on.

Today, educationalists talk about how students construct knowledge through their interaction with information; they don’t talk about how best to condition students to respond in a certain way (except perhaps with certain aspects of classroom management). However, with the advent of new technology, unbounded behaviourism has re-emerged in the classroom – not because the pedagogy involved has been reconsidered but because, more often than not, it hasn’t been considered at all.

Leaving aside distinctions between the various platforms (PC, laptop, tablet, phone) which in any case appear to be converging, you can divide technology-based activities into two broad categories: A) things which simply couldn’t be done before the relevant technology was on offer, and B) things which have a more traditional equivalent. We shouldn’t assume that activities in either category are necessarily worthwhile, although they might well be.

In category A, a live chat with a class of children on another continent could prove a rich learning experience, while a video game in which you zap adjectives with a ray gun may do little more than keep students quiet for a while. In category B, the key question is whether the technology-based activity is a clear improvement on its precursor. Using an app to plan and monitor your revision timetable makes a lot of sense. But why should we always opt for PowerPoint projects over physical posters? ‘Because we’ve just bought a load of iPads’ is not a good enough reason.

And what about the children whose learning styles are better suited to physical, rather than on-screen, cutting and pasting? Shouldn’t they have the opportunity to put the electronic devices away for a while and get out the scissors and glue? After all, you can’t sniff an iPad.

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Why use a Teacher’s Book? (Part 1)

Teacher holding a book in classIn the first of a two-part series, Julietta Schoenmann, a teacher and teacher trainer, presents the benefits of using a Teacher’s Book to help plan and execute your lessons. Please note, this article contains references to the New English File Teacher’s Book series.

Do you remember when you first started teaching? Were you like me and treated your teacher’s book like a bible – the all-knowing, multi-purpose guide to all things pedagogical? Did you follow its advice carefully and rarely deviate from what it suggested for….ooh……the first year of your teaching career?! Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t. But there’s no doubt that a good teacher’s book can:

  • save us time when it comes to lesson planning
  • offer ideas for bringing a topic alive
  • provide a wealth of extra materials to give our students practice in the areas of language they find challenging.

What’s more, the introduction to a teacher’s book often has a detailed outline of the methodological approach that the course book takes – very handy for those potentially awkward moments when students come up to you at the end of the lesson and ask why you don’t teach more grammar, etc. You can explain your rationale for teaching in the way that you do, supported by the evidence found in the introduction.

Also useful is the information included on how the student’s book is organised – what you can find in each unit, what other materials are available like CD-ROMs or workbooks and what resources are included at the back of the book. I cringe every time I remember a student who came up to me after about three months of classes and said he hadn’t realised there was a grammar reference section at the back of his course book. After that embarrassing experience I decided to help students on the first day of term find their way round their new course book with an orientation quiz. E.g. What topic can you find on page 76? Or What useful section is located on pages 157-158? This sort of quiz is quick and easy to make if you use the teacher’s book to help you.  

So what do you use your teacher’s book for and how can it help you to plan and deliver effective lessons? Let’s think about lesson planning first….

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Teaching CLIL: Classroom Benefits

Wall-mounted map with woman pointing to a townIn her first guest post for OUP, Maria Rainier, a freelance writer and blogger, talks us through some classroom benefits of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).

Sometimes, just thinking about developing a CLIL program or even teaching one CLIL lesson can be intimidating, overwhelming, and confusing. But don’t let the tough appearance of CLIL fool you – it can be a very intuitive, natural way to teach and learn. Like any instructional method, though, it requires a certain amount of understanding and dedication from you. It also helps if you’re willing to learn through the process of teaching, as I’m sure you are – being teachable is one of the keys to successful pedagogy. CLIL can be successfully implemented by one teacher, but often, two teachers collaborate before developing lesson plans – and that means learning from each other. By expanding the knowledge available to your students, you’re also expanding your own understanding, learning new material so that you can teach it well. Although it can be a difficult process, it’s often rewarding to teach CLIL. But no matter what you have or haven’t heard about this method, the following description of CLIL and its benefits and challenges can help you decide whether or not it has a place in your classroom.

The pedagogical intentions behind CLIL

You’re probably well aware that Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) is a way of approaching foreign language instruction subtly through subject-oriented teaching. For example, you might focus on teaching the geography of Spain, but the secondary learning objective would be Spanish vocabulary associated with geography. It might not sound like the most logical approach, but why has it been growing in popularity? – And what’s the point of CLIL?

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