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Too many to talk! Helping students interact in large classes

As ELT teachers we aim to create purposeful communication in the classroom because for many of our students it is their only exposure to the language. Institutions may, for a variety of reasons, try to get as many students into a single classroom as possible, inevitably creating large class sizes. So how do we manage to give students in such a setting the opportunity to really interact orally in the target language (TL)?

How large is large?

Firstly, it is worth considering whether size actually matters:

“the size is relative and a matter of perception that varies from teacher to teacher.” (Shamin et al, 2007)

I went from a relatively small class size of 15 in the UK (feeling it was a large class when asked to teach 17/18), to teaching classes of 60-80 in rural Nepal, which felt truly daunting.

In order to do the teacher training required, I needed to experience and understand the difficulties of the teachers to try to help them find solutions. One such solution was to divide the class into units: 10 groups of 6 students were somehow easier to deal with mentally than 60 students. If you are going to break the class down in this way, you do not need to have them all doing the same thing at the same time.

It’s not only the what, but the how

Various studies have been carried out over the years on the effects of class size upon learning, but the conclusions are mixed. Interestingly, the disagreement is often over whether the main factor is the class size or methodology.

I would dare to suggest that the key is to adapt our methodology. If we use the same methodology that we would use with 15 students, with 60-80, then we’ll forever be fighting to keep all our students attention. The class takes on a controlling environment, for the teacher to be able to get the same message across to everyone at the same time.

When you change the methodology, you also change the role of the teacher. You may need some adjustment. I have found that it takes a lot more preparation, for example, for the different groups to be getting on with their task smoothly. Clear instructions that are written down (either on the board, a slide, or on a worksheet) allows students to double-check should they forget along the way, what it was that they were supposed to focus on. This frees up the teacher because students don’t need to keep checking with them, thus allowing some quality time to be spent with each, or a select group of students. The teacher gets regular snapshots of the students’ language abilities, as well as being able to add relevant input if required to keep students on the right track. The teacher, therefore, becomes a source of advice/suggestions and needs to think on their feet according to the task/the students in the group/the difficulties.

If the teacher knows their students well and has carefully planned the tasks around them, many of the issues can be anticipated. Which brings me on to a crucial question, how do we get to know our students if there are so many of them? I’ll be talking about this and more on encouraging oral interaction in particular in my upcoming webinar “Too many to talk!” on the 13th and 14th September! Places are limited to register today, and I’ll see you there.


Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels and in both private and government institutions in over fifteen different countries as well as in the UK. Early on in her career, Zarina specialised in EAP combining her scientific and educational qualifications. From this developed an interest in providing tailor-made materials, which later led to materials writing that was used in health training and governance projects in developing countries. Since 2000 she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina is published and has delivered training courses, presentations, spoken at conferences worldwide, and continues to be a freelance consultant teacher educator.


Reference:

Shamin. F., N. Negash, C. Chuku, N. Demewoz (2007) Maximizing learning in large classes: Issues and options. Addis Ababa, British Council.


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Meditate your way to better teaching | Q&A with Ushapa Fortescue

Recently, I presented webinars for OUP entitled “Meditate your way to better teaching” The focus was on how teachers need to take care of themselves to avoid excess stress and burnout and how meditation and mindfulness are successful techniques for this. We explored many different techniques that teachers can use in their everyday teaching lives.

Here I respond to some of the questions I couldn’t answer during the webinar.

I’ve read lots about mindfulness but beyond ‘being more focused on the present, I’m still not sure what it is, because everyone is using the term for everything. Any definition for our purposes?

 This is an important question as we really need to understand meditation and mindfulness if we want to practice them.

The question came near the start of the webinar and I hope that I explained it later on, however there are so many misconceptions that I would like to take this opportunity to give a definition.

A definition of mindfulness from Mindful is “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

People often think that meditation is focusing or concentrating on something, but this is not meditation. A definition of meditation is relaxed awareness.

An analogy that I was once told to help understand the difference between focused, concentration and relaxed awareness was to imagine you are on a train reading a book. The skill of reading takes concentration (and as teachers we know many sub skills) and a focus. So as the train is moving along you are focusing your attention on the words in the book.

After a while you put the book down and just look out of the window. As the countryside is passing by you’re not looking at anything in particular but you are seeing everything. You are relaxed and aware of what is passing by. This is the difference between concentration and relaxed awareness.

As mentioned in the webinar, meditation and mindfulness have enormous health benefits and this may be largely due to the relaxation that is involved. It’s really an opportunity to “turn up” for your own life, to not miss what is happening around you, because life, like most activities, works better when we turn up for it.

I’ve got a distraction problem. E.g. when I am listening to a tape or video I get distracted for some seconds and miss that part. Can meditation do something for this problem? What’s the solution for getting distracted?

Distraction is something we all have experience of. Especially in the modern world we live in, we are almost encouraged to multitask, and so many things are vying for our attention that it’s no wonder we get easily distracted.

In the “watching the natural breath” technique, we used the things that may normally be seen as distractions (feelings, sounds, thoughts) to actually help us relax. Instead of fighting them or trying to ignore them, we used all those things to bring awareness to what was happening in the present moment. So instead of taking us away from the task they actually helped us to engage with it.

The likelihood is that we will get distracted and that’s natural. When it happens, use one of the senses to bring your awareness back to the present. The sounds, bodily sensations, sights, smells that are around you. And be kind to yourself when it happens. If you feel bad when it happens you will become tense, meditation needs relaxation, so when you notice you are distracted, be thankful you have realised you are distracted, and then you can come back to the present moment.

Can you also mention how to stay focused and mindful whilst actually teaching a class?

Like any new skills, it needs a lot of practice.

One of my meditation teachers used to say “If you were going to parachute out of a plane, you wouldn’t start sewing the parachute while you are in the plane! You would make it while you’re on the ground, check it, do some more test runs, make sure it works before you jump out of plane with it.”

The same is true for meditation and mindfulness. As for many it’s a new skill, so practice where and when you are most likely to have success. Teaching in a classroom is a very focused and involved activity, so trying to meditate for the first time in the class perhaps isn’t the best idea. Practise the techniques while you are relaxed and conducting a simple activity, such as walking or clearing up the classroom. Then once you’ve found a technique that works for you, use it while doing more complex activities.

Some techniques that work perfectly and can have powerful results in the classroom are neutral gear, breathing into your centre and changing the focus techniques, as these can all be done while doing other activities.

Can we ask the students to do the relaxing technique too?

Many schools are introducing meditation to students with amazing success levels.

If you find a technique that works for you and feel it would be beneficial for your students, then you can try it out. The important step is that you first use the technique so you have an experience and understanding of it.

Jamie Bristow, Director of The Mindfulness Initiative, says “You wouldn’t ask a teacher who can’t swim to teach a swimming class from a textbook,” if we are interested in bringing meditation and mindfulness into the classroom, we have to start with ourselves.

So yes, a relaxing technique might work very well for older or adult students.

Make sure the exercise or technique you choose is age appropriate. Remember that sitting silently might be a pleasure for us, but it’s potentially not so for younger learners.

In the webinar I explained a mindful walking technique. If you would like to try something similar for young leaners, you can use the famous superhero Spiderman to engage them and help them to understand. Spiderman uses his “spidey senses” to feel when he is in danger, or when someone needs his help.

To help young leaners become aware of their surroundings, ask the students to turn on their “spidey senses” for 30 seconds to a minute and then report back what they saw, felt, heard in that time. This can be done while sitting or while quietly moving around the classroom. This way it feels like a game, helping them to become aware of the present moment.


Ushapa Fortescue has taught for over 14 years both in the UK and abroad in a variety of contexts including primary and secondary schools, post 16 adult education, private language schools, Further Education colleges and Universities. She trains teachers and presents worldwide. Chloe is a qualified meditation facilitator who has lived and worked in meditation centres around the world for the last 13 years. She loves to show teachers how to stay relaxed, engaged and light-hearted in the classroom.


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Meditate your way to better teaching

Can meditation and mindfulness really make us better teachers?

Well the mounting evidence suggests yes!

Regular meditation can improve your immune system, energy levels, lower blood pressure, and enhance your sleep. And don’t forget its power to reduce feelings of anxiety or depression!

Over the last decade, various organisations have championed mediation and mindfulness to reduce stress, increase productivity, create calmer working environments, and improve the well-being of their employees. The educational sector is no exception. Meditation programs are now offered in schools worldwide. Many of these programmes focus on the learners, often boasting phenomenal results. A paper published by ‘Carry the Vision (2017)’ found a link between students that practiced meditation and positive emotions, self-identity, greater self-acceptance, and higher optimism. They also experienced lower stress levels, anxiety, and depression (Carry the Vision, 2017).

So the results are promising, but what do they mean practically for teachers? According to the Carry the Vision report, teachers found that meditation practice led to:

  • a more positive learning environment
  • more attentive children who were ready to learn
  • increased working memory, creativity and concentration
  • a way for students to reduce test-related stress and anxiety
  • less anger and aggression (as reported by the students themselves).

What about when the programmes are offered to teachers. According to research, teachers that practise meditation experience a myriad of benefits, including elevated levels of self-compassion, a decrease in anxiety, depression, and improved overall health (which means fewer unexpected sick days). Notably, teachers said that they were better able to concentrate and focus on their job duties.

In a study conducted with 224 teachers in high poverty schools across New York City, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, Jennings (2016) found that teachers trained in meditation reported fewer feelings of anxiety, depression, burnout, and perceived stress. Perhaps even more interestingly for teachers is what came from classroom observations. “Yelling went down,” says Jennings (2016). Classrooms were rated more emotionally positive and productive; overall students were much more engaged.

If teachers know how to reduce stress, stay relaxed and be more present in the classroom, there can be positive effects on personal well-being and the teaching environment.

So, how can we introduce mediation into our classes? Well, to quote Jamie Bristow (2017), “You wouldn’t ask a teacher who can’t swim to teach a swimming class from a textbook,” (2017). If we are interested in bringing meditation and mindfulness into the classroom, we have to start with ourselves!

Missed the webinar? Click here to hear me talking meditation and mindfulness in this webinar recording, and see for yourself the positive effects that they can have on your professional and private life.


Ushapa Fortescue has taught for over 14 years both in the UK and abroad in a variety of contexts, including primary and secondary schools, post 16 adult education, private language schools, Further Education colleges, and Universities. She trains teachers and presents worldwide. Chloe is a qualified meditation facilitator who has lived and worked in meditation centres around the world for the last 13 years. She loves to show teachers how to stay relaxed, engaged, and light-hearted in the classroom.


References

Bristow, J. (2017). How to Avoid A Poorly Designed School Mindfulness Program [online]. Mindful. Available at: www.mindful.org/4-signs-poorly-designed-school-mindfulness-programs/ . Accessed 13/4/18.

Carry the Vision. (2017). Benefits and Research of Meditation in Schools. [online] Available at: http://carrythevision.org/meditation-research-and-benefits/ Accessed 13/4/18.

Jennings, P. (2016). When Teachers Take A Breath, Students Can Bloom. [online]. nprEd. Available at: www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/19/488866975/when-teachers-take-a-breath-students-can-bloom. Accessed 13/4/18.


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Minds matter: Psychology of language learning

Psychology of language learning

‘It’s all in the mind!’ – How true when it comes to learning a foreign language. Every teacher knows that you can have the best resources in the world, but if the learner is not in the right frame of mind to engage with the new language and use the opportunities before them, then they are unlikely to do so. There are all kinds of reasons why a learner may put obstacles in their own way or simply avoid engaging, but many of these reasons often lie in how learners view themselves, their competences, and their relationship to the language, classroom, peers, and the teacher.

Our psychologies are complex, and care must be taken not to oversimplify, but I have chosen to focus on 5 key areas of learner psychology which I think can make a difference to learning and which we as language educators can work on developing. Introducing the two Gs and the three Cs!

Have they got Grit?

Firstly, learners need to have a Growth mindset and become Gritty about their language learning. It is a well-known adage that learning a foreign language is like a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time, progress is slow and incremental, and there can be many setbacks along the way. Language learners need to develop persistence and even in the face of challenges, be able to roll up their sleeves undeterred and tackle problem areas all over again with renewed vigour – that is grittiness.

Learning a foreign language is like a marathon, not a sprint.

Growth Mindset

To have grit, language learners first need to have a growth mindset. This is when they believe that their abilities in learning a language are not fixed but can be developed. Not all learners will reach the same level of proficiency, but with the right kind of effort, strategies, and investment of time and will, every learner can improve. However, if a learner holds a fixed mindset, believing that language learning competences stem primarily from a fixed ability, then they are more likely to give up easily, and in some cases not even try to succeed. These learners feel helpless, believing there is little they can do to improve or overcome difficulties. In contrast, those with a growth mindset are typically willing to put in the effort to improve and explore a range of possible pathways to proficiency.

With a growth mindset, learners believe that their abilities can be developed.

What are the 3 Cs?

In terms of the three 3 Cs, learners need to feel a sense of Competence, Control, and Connectedness.

Competence

Learners need a sense of ‘I can’ in respect to learning a language. Much of this can stem from their mindset; however, they also need to feel that they are personally able to manage and cope with learning a language.

Control

A key part of that feeling can be generated when learners are empowered with a sense of control. Learners benefit from being able to intentionally and proactively select and initiate approaches to learning where possible in their contexts. A sense of control also concerns how learners explain their perceived successes and failures to themselves and others. Do they attribute these outcomes to factors within their control or to external factors beyond their control? With internal attributions, learners are likely to be motivated and willing to expend effort on learning, knowing that they can make a difference.

Connectedness

The third C refers to learners feeling connected not only to their teachers, but also their peers, their institution, and the language per se. When learners feel they belong in a group or institution and when they feel cared for as people and in terms of their learning progress, they are much more likely to engage and be active in their own learning. However, learners also need to build a personal connection to the language itself. Even if they feel competent and able, without a compelling reason to engage with the language, they might not bother! Help your learner’s to find a purpose, why are they learning a language and what value could it have for them and their future lives – be that in terms of relevance, importance, utility, and/or interest.


 

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT methodology and Deputy Head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books in this area including, ‘Psychology for Language Learning’.


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Everyday development activities for busy teachers | Learning in the rush

Development activities

Martyn Clarke has led education development projects all over the world, and has written numerous blogs for OUP! In this article, he examines the everyday development opportunities that teachers could be missing out on. 

When I work with groups of teachers, we often build a concept map of what has influenced us in our development as teachers. What do you think are the most influential factors? Our pre-service courses? INSET? Methodology books? OUP webinars?

 

Well, it’s none of those. Whether in Djibouti, the Ukraine, Vietnam, or anywhere in between, the two most influential factors are consistently:

  1. Our own experience of teaching;
  2. Our colleagues.

Surprised? Probably not. In fact, given the amount of time we spend in the classroom and with our colleagues in comparison to how much time we spend on training courses and reading methodology books, it’s quite obvious that this should be the case.

If this is true, we should be learning all the time. We teach all day. We talk to colleagues in-between lessons. We have all we need to develop just by doing the job, don’t we?

I’m not sure we do. You see, experience just isn’t enough.

This is because we only tend to notice certain experiences. Simply, we don’t see things as ‘they are’; we see things as ‘we are’ (Anais Nin). We have a tendency to interpret information so that it fits into our existing frameworks of understanding. So, if I think my students are generally unmotivated, I will tend to notice behaviour which I believe proves this. I might miss things that show otherwise.

I see what I expect to see. I experience what I expect to experience. And then I get tremendous satisfaction when I can say ‘I told you so’ or ‘I knew’ that would happen’.

It’s a little like living in a box. Clearly you can’t go far if you stay in a box! But to be successful, I’m in no way suggesting that you must leave the box.

Boxes are comfortable places to be. They’re safe. You can focus on what you’re happy with; you can enjoy yourself and increase your confidence. It’s great to be able to do what you do, do it well, and then celebrate that certainty. I know I’ve had many happy ‘box periods’ in my career where I focused on the enjoyment of honing my existing skills. And when our professional lives are busy, and we teach and work in a constant rush, it’s sometimes good to have that security.

Yet we can’t escape the fact that we’re teachers. We believe in learning. And if we believe in learning, we believe in change. So, there are times when we should use development activities to open the box and look at the world around us with different eyes. Even in the rush.

I’ll be showing you how to do this in my upcoming webinar on the 15th-16th November. Some of the practical learning activities for teachers can done alone, some can be done with colleagues. And none take more than 30 minutes.

Here’s one development activity you can do on your own:


Why it Worked

Reflection often starts with problems or areas of difficulty, but this activity focuses on the learning’s we can gain from our successes, and possible applications to other areas of our practice.

Suggested Activity Procedure

  1. Set aside 30 minutes.
  2. Use the Recalling Prompts to guide your exploration.
  3. Use the Reflective Questions to guide your analysis of the data and record your conclusions and future actions.

Recalling Prompts

Identify something you are involved in that was successful this week.

  • Where did this happen and who was involved?
  • How do you know you were successful?
  • Have you tried the activity before with different results?
  • What effect did the success have on the people involved?

Reflection Questions

  • How do you measure the success?
  • Does everybody involved share your evaluation? If not, why?
  • How replicable is this success – can you repeat the activity with the same results?
  • If you’ve tried this before with different results, how do you account for the change?
  • What aspects of the activity (in planning or in delivery) could you use with other activities?

Action

  • Write down one action you will take as a result of this reflection.

Here’s one development activity you can do with colleagues:


Me time

Find two other colleagues.

One of you has ‘Me Time’ on a specific afternoon for 30 minutes after school each week.

What this means is that the other two colleagues focus completely on you. You may have a problem with a student, or with a language point, or with a task you have to do, or with how you are feeling, or with ANYTHING you want to talk about – as long as it’s something to do with your job.

Because you are the focus, they have to spend at least 15 minutes just listening to you and can only ask questions.

After the first 15 minutes, they can describe possible alternative actions that you could take, but they can’t say what they think is right or wrong.

You control the conversation completely, and if you want to talk you just raise your hand and the other speaker stops.

Then – wherever you are in the conversation you ALWAYS stop at 30 minutes – and the next week it’s someone else’s turn for Me Time.


The ideas are simple, but good ideas often are! In the webinar, we’ll be exploring 12 more teacher-focused learning activities that you can use for your own professional development.  

Click here to register your place on the webinar.

Hope to see you there!