Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


8 Comments

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.

Want to learn more? Join me in my upcoming webinar on the 17th and 18th April.

In this webinar, I will outline the character and importance of the two G’s and three C’s and consider practical ideas for fostering these to ensure our learners are in the best frame of mind for learning a language and engaging with the opportunities we offer them as educators.

 


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’.


1 Comment

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!

 


8 Comments

(Reads, reading, has read): 5 smart tips for teaching grammar through extensive reading

extensive reading teenagersNigel A. Caplan, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute in the United States and the co-author of Q: Skills for Success and Inside Writing. In this post he provides some useful tips for teaching grammar skills through your reading program.

We often encourage language learners to read for pleasure, read for comprehension, and read for vocabulary. But reading is also an excellent way to learn and practice grammar. It is important for teachers and learners to recognise that grammar is not a separate skill divided into discrete chunks (or textbook chapters!), but rather the resources which make meaning in a language. In other words, grammar is everywhere, and everything a learner does with the language is an opportunity to improve their grammar.

Here are some activities you can suggest to your students to help them discover the grammar of their reading beyond the classroom walls.

1. Read for meaning first and grammar next

We have limited attentional resources as we read, so it is natural to read first and foremost for meaning. However, language learners benefit from multiple readings of the same text. So, once they have understood the text and checked the meaning of any important new vocabulary, encourage your students to read all or part of the same text again and pay attention to the language use.

2. Start with verb tenses

One of the most interesting questions readers can ask is which tenses are used in the text. This will tell you a lot about the type of text you are reading. For example, we would expect to find a lot of present tenses in scientific texts because they describe facts and phenomena, but a sudden shift to the past tense might indicate a discussion of the history of an idea or a particular scientist. Meanwhile, historical texts unsurprisingly use mostly past tenses, but they may nonetheless contain present tense verbs to discuss the current significance of past events.

Also encourage your students to look for less frequent verb tenses; if there’s a present perfect progressive verb, why is it used? Could the writer have chosen a different tense?

3. Learn the grammar of new vocabulary

We want learners to notice new and useful vocabulary when they read, but the context of the text is an opportunity to learn more about the word than its meaning. When encountering a word, in particular a word that the student understands but doesn’t yet use, ask questions about its use in the sentence. For a noun, is it countable or uncountable? What verb goes with it? For a verb, is it transitive or intransitive? What prepositions go with it? What kinds of nouns are its subject? This approach will encourage learners to see words in collocations and phrases, which will expand both their receptive and productive vocabularies.

4. Play with the Grammar

Grammar is a system of choices, and for every choice a writer makes, there are others which could be made. These choices are worth exploring.

We can encourage learners to rewrite texts using alternative grammar patterns. For example:

  • If the writer repeats the same nouns a lot, could pronouns be used instead?
  • If there are many short sentences, how could they be combined?
  • If an advanced text uses a lot of reduced clauses, what would the full (finite) clause be?
  • If the text is academic, how could you rewrite it for a different audience, such as magazine readers?
  • If it’s written in a less formal register, what changes would you make for formal, academic writing?

The last example exercise benefits both reading comprehension and writing development. Readers of sophisticated and academic texts, such as those in Q: Skills for Success, may need to “unpack” long noun phrases and reduced relative clauses in order to understand the structure and ideas.

Meanwhile, when writing for academic purposes, students can draw on the techniques they see in their reading, such as nominalisation, demonstrative pronouns (this, those), and reductions.

5. Keep a Grammar (B)Log

In order to develop their grammar, students need to notice the language they are reading and internalize it, not just move on to the next page, show, or app. A great way to develop independent study skills is to have students keep a grammar log, journal, or blog to complement their extensive reading.

In my classes, I ask students to post an entry on the discussion board in our learning management system in which they write about an interesting phrase or sentence that they’ve read. They have to either explain the grammar or ask a question about it (I don’t allow them to focus only on word meanings: there are dictionaries for that!). I then encourage students to answer their peers’ questions before I provide an answer. Students might wonder why a verb has a third-person ending, why an uncountable noun has been unexpectedly used in the plural, what a new clause connector means, or what a pronoun refers to. This works at all proficiency levels! Most importantly, the grammar log helps students develop the habit of looking for new and interesting structures while reading, and the discussions allow for the kinds of negotiations over language that can promote acquisition.

These simple techniques can be used for homework or self-study to turn any reading activity into a grammar lesson! If you try these with your students, let me know in the comments how they worked.

Get a sneak peek at the exciting free resources being made available for Q: Skills for Success from August, including new Skills Videos and a new Extensive Reading program in which every unit has been matched with a free, downloadable chapter from Oxford Graded Readers.


7 Comments

Teaching: The good, the bad and the balance

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria and co-author of ‘Exploring Psychology for Language Teachers’. In this post she reflects on the importance of teachers’ well-being and offers some practical suggestions to help them find their own work-life balance.

Let me get this straight from the start – I absolutely love teaching. I can’t think of any other job I would like to do more. When I read the post-its from IATEFL and Andrew Diliger’s recent blog post and saw all the positivity, I felt grateful to be part of this wonderful community. Many teachers are passionate about what they do and they also get a lot energy, motivation, and inspiration from their learners and day-to-day classroom encounters. But let’s not diminish just how demanding a profession it is. Teaching requires great skill in having competence in our subjects, interpersonal skills, pedagogical knowledge, intercultural sensitivity, creativity, technological skills, and organisational skills – to name but a few. It is a profession with a long history, which we should be proud to be part of and which necessitates specialist expertise for it to function well – That’s where we come in. In fact, we are probably the most valuable resource in educational institutions and yet very often the importance of what we do goes unappreciated and undervalued – sometimes by others but also occasionally by ourselves.

Teaching can be extremely rewarding but can also be emotionally and physically draining. Like seasonal workers, during term time, many of us work evenings and weekends. It is extremely stressful on a day-to-day basis and as administration and assessment procedures mushroom, it grows ever more exhausting having to work on tasks that are a lot less rewarding than the time spent in class. The to-do list is never-ending and there is always more we could be doing. Add to this that as teachers, we tend to be other-oriented and very often we have tendencies towards perfectionism. As a result, this can lead us to keep giving to others and doing ever more not knowing when to stop and recharge our own batteries. It is easy to see the risks and why many early career stage teachers end up leaving the profession and why teaching reports such high levels of burnout.

So, how do we reconcile these two sides of teaching? The side where we love and are energised by what we do, along with the incredibly demanding, exhausting and stressful reality of a busy teaching life. Well, part of the clue lies in the fact that so many positive comments were found at an event like IATEFL. Firstly, we know that we can benefit enormously from professional development that is meaningful, relevant and worthwhile. We can enjoy spending time focusing on things that are professionally, intellectually and personally engaging. We might do this by attending conferences, workshops, webinars or by reading blogs or books of interest. However, we must take care not to fall into the trap of believing everyone is doing more than us and start to feel guilty for all the other things we ‘could’ be doing. Instead, we should find professional development opportunities to energise us and inspire us, whilst remaining realistic about what we can manage without trying to do it all. It is important for us to celebrate who we are as individuals taking time to focus on our strengths and the things we are already doing really well. We also have to remember that we are more than just our teacher selves. Having other interests and hobbies outside of education is important to keep us balanced and strengthen our overall well-being. This means we need to plan in time in our busy schedules for the other dimensions of our lives to draw energy and inspiration from them too.

The second dimension from IATEFL that gives us another clue for our positive well-being is how important it is to connect with colleagues and share stories, experiences, and ideas from the classroom and life beyond. This kind of support network and the ability to talk with people who know and understand your situation is vital. Indeed, other teachers are often the best people to share your humour about teaching life with – Indeed, laughter is one of the best coping strategies for reducing stress. However, more important than our collegial relationships are our family ties and personal friendships. These deserve our full quality attention and time. They serve as a primary source of support, happiness, and well-being and are a vital buffer against stress. No matter how packed our schedule, we must set aside time to protect and nurture these relationships.

Being a teacher is a joy and privilege. But it is also hard work and stressful. To ensure that the positive aspects of our work predominate, we need to do things that are rewarding and give us energy as well as invest in our personal and professional relationships. Once we understand that our happiness and well-being are key determinants of how well we teach and how much our learners enjoy our classes, then it becomes a lot easier to feel less selfish and guilty about putting ourselves first for a change.

Featured image credit: ‘Finding Balance’. Public Domain via Flickr

 


45 Comments

How does teaching make YOU feel?

iatefl6howdoesteachingmakeyoufeelAndrew Dilger is Managing Editor in the Professional Development Publishing team. In this post he reflects on an activity we carried out at the recent IATEFL conference which asked teachers to describe how teaching makes them feel.

The job of teaching English has never been harder.

In today’s EFL environment, the challenges are considerable: large classes of students of differing abilities, learning styles, and special educational needs; frequent ministerial reforms and policy shifts which can transform a syllabus overnight; the need to keep up with pedagogical trends such as 21st-Century Skills, CLIL, and EMI; technological advances which require teachers to ‘integrate’, ‘blend’, and ‘flip’. Teachers are also expected to embrace the roles of facilitator and assessor but talk less and listen more – all the time encouraging students to adopt a growth mindset, become proficient at self-study, pass high-stakes exams, and generally reach an impressive level of English in less time than they themselves needed.

Yes, with all this going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking that EFL teachers must be a stressed-out and miserable bunch! Not at all, it would seem. I recently returned from IATEFL – the annual conference which sees a couple of thousand teachers from all over the world converge on the UK for five days of plenaries, workshops, talks and networking events. At the OUP stand, there was a special focus on Professional Development and a feature wall with the sentence stem: ‘Teaching makes me feel …’. Conference delegates were invited to complete the sentence on a Post-It note. Plenty of them obliged and the results were, well, surprising.

To give you a flavour of what was said, I’ve grouped the responses into seven categories. Which category describes how teaching makes YOU feel, I wonder?

#1 UPBEAT

Almost without exception, the responses were upbeat and positive – with words like ‘inspired’, ‘happy’, and ‘motivated’ occurring time and time again. Sometimes these words were written in capitals, with an exclamation mark and a smiley face as if they were being shouted from the school rooftops. If teachers weren’t ‘inspired’, then they were ‘excited’, ‘fulfilled’, and ‘alive’.

#2 TIRED

A handful of people did acknowledge that teaching can be a tiring business – but all of them were quick to qualify this with other adjectives like ‘rewarding’ and, again, ‘inspired’ and ‘happy’.

#3 YOUTHFUL

It’s not that teaching is a young person’s game, but it seems it has the power to make teachers feel young in spirit. For one respondent in particular, it was a more profound feeling of being ‘ageless’!

#4 EDUCATIONAL

Some educators like to blur the line between teaching and learning. Or, more specifically, they consider themselves on a par with their students in that they have ‘so many things to learn’ in the classroom themselves.

 #5 HELPFUL

The sense of purpose you can get in the classroom is clearly an important factor for some teachers. Several respondents described their primary function as being ‘helpful’ or ‘useful’; they are in the classroom principally to ‘support’ their students.

#6 VOCATIONAL

Some people are just born to teach. There was a handful of responses which described the profession in vocational terms as feeling ‘like home’. Others described themselves as ‘humble’ or ‘privileged’ and there was a sense of satisfaction which came from being lucky enough to do something you love, and which you’re good at.

#7 CONNECTED

There are obviously a group of professionals for whom teaching is a way of reaching out and connecting with the wider world. One respondent described teaching as making them feel ‘a part of humankind’. For others, this connectedness has a geo-political dimension: ‘contributing to a more united world’. Finally, one impressive individual described their job with missionary zeal: turning students into ‘better citizens’ because ‘it’s not only English, it’s also about humanity and values.’

So what are we to make of this outpouring of positivity? Where are all the UNhappy, Uninspired, and UNexcited teachers? Obviously not at IATEFL 2017. The conference, by its very nature, tends to attract delegates who feel both motivated and engaged (and who have the financial means to travel internationally). But are they telling us the whole truth? And what about the rest? How do they feel? I mean, really feel.

I should say at this point that I’m no educational psychologist – I’ll leave that to experts like Sarah Mercer – but I have been involved in the world of EFL for more than half my life. I’ve taught and trained in over fifteen different countries and wherever I’ve visited, there have always been teachers who have been struggling to cope. Maybe we just need to be a bit more open about that fact. How does teaching make YOU feel? I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.