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Free your mind – the power of taking a risk

shutterstock_415618444Adrian Leis is a full-time tenured Associate Professor at Miyagi University of Education in Sendai, Japan. Originally from Australia, he has now been teaching English in Japan for close to 20 years. He obtained his Ph.D from Tohoku University and his main fields of research are L2 learning motivation and computer-assisted language learning.

I recently found myself with a couple of hours to relax at home and so decided to watch an old movie. When I was looking through my DVDs, I stumbled across the 1999 science fiction film, The Matrix. At one stage in the movie, the main character, Neo, is told to “free his mind” in order to jump from one building to another while in a computer program. This reminded me of the idea of Mindsets – if we want to reach our full potential, we need to learn to free our minds.

The idea of Mindsets was proposed by Dr. Carolyn Dweck of Stanford University. Ever since, it has received a lot of attention in the field of psychology and, more recently, in the field of second language acquisition (SLA).

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

Dweck (2006) looked at the thought processes of humans, or Mindsets, describing these two traits: the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset. So which are you? Try answering the following questions:

  1. Imagine you see your friend eat something a little unusual, like inago (locust) or escargots. Your friend says, “Yuck!” Would you still try it?
  2. Imagine you have a chance to play tennis against a very strong player. You will most likely lose. Would you still take on the challenge?
  3. Your English teacher gives you an assignment to read a difficult 500-word passage from your textbook in front of the class. If you read straight from the textbook, you can get a maximum score of 80%. If you memorize the passage, you can get a maximum score of 100%. Would you choose to memorize the passage?

If you answered “Yes” to the above questions, you probably have a Growth Mindset. Dweck describes a person with a Growth Mindset as someone who sees intelligence not as innate, but something that can be developed and improved on over time. These people are flexible in that they are willing to take the risks of difficult challenges, even at times when failure may be inevitable, in order to reap the benefits of learning from such experiences.

On the other hand, people with Fixed Mindsets, who would probably answer ‘No’ to the three questions, are those who believe intelligence is innate and regardless of how hard they study or work, their intelligence will not change. They prefer to take easier classes and avoid the risks of failure, even if they could benefit from participating at a slightly higher level. Sound familiar?!

Anxiety, self confidence, and language learners

So, what does this mean for you, and your English classes?

Well, Dweck also wanted to find ways of promoting attitudes to learning similar to the Growth Mindset. One way was to look at the effects of praise on students’ approaches to learning. Mueller and Dweck (1998) concluded that when children were praised for the efforts they had made in their studies (e.g. “You thought really carefully about this question!” or “I can see how hard you practiced!”), the children became more willing to take on challenging tasks – the Growth Mindset. However, when children were praised for their intelligence (e.g. “You are really smart!” or “You are a natural athlete!”), they tended to avoid challenging problems in which they might fail, because they were afraid that they may not be praised the next time – the Fixed Mindset.

This suggests that in the classroom, teachers should think carefully about the way they talk to their students. In my own research, I have recommended teachers think about the timing of when they praise students (Leis, 2014). Rather than saying, “Well done!” after a student has given the correct answer, which is praising for her intelligence, teachers could say, “Thank you!” after the student has raised her hand but before she has given her answer. This puts value on the effort and willingness to solve the problem given by the teacher rather than whether her answer was correct or not.

Anxiety and self-confidence have been proven to be vital factors in the success of language learners. The studies mentioned above verify how important it is to look at the behavior of teachers in the classroom and how it influences the mindsets of our students. Students’ mindsets, in turn, affect the confidence with which they approach challenging tasks. When teaching languages, we should be encouraging students to choose the risks of making mistakes in order to achieve the ultimate goals of communicating with others in the language of their choice.

Adrian will be presenting on the growth mindset at Oxford ELTOC 2017 – our first ever online conference for teachers in Asia. Find out more about the conference here.

References

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Dweck, C. S., & Reppucci, N. D. (1973). Learned helplessness and reinforcement responsibility in children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25(1). pp. 109-116.

Leis, A. (2014). The self-confidence and performance of young learners in an EFL environment: A self-worth perspective. JES Journal, 14. pp. 84-99.

Mueller, C. M., & Dweck. C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s performances. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1). pp. 33-52.

 


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Why teach values in the Primary classroom?

shutterstock_408187930Susan Banman Sileci is an American ELT author. She has written materials for pre-primary, primary, secondary, and adult levels, including textbooks, activity books, graded readers, resource packs, and digital practice materials and is the author of Everybody Up, Super Stars, and Shine On.

I’m an American living in Brazil and I’ll be honest: it’s been a rough year. Brazil is going through a corruption scandal that included the impeachment of a president and, of course, there was this month’s presidential election in the United States. The world has seen just how much Americans don’t agree and how ugly the discussions can become.

It’s been hard and the adults have been fighting. But guess what? Now more than ever we need to teach values to the little ones. That doesn’t mean that we impose our political views on our students, much as we might want to. School is about lots of things including learning to read and write, learning subject matter, learning to get organized, and learning to listen to and respect one another.

In the past six months, through all of this, I’ve been struggling to listen and be respectful. I’m learning too! Home is often a place where we all believe the same thing, and school is where we gather up the beginnings of life in a larger community. Certainly, most primary students aren’t talking about impeachment in Brasília and the American elections (and I rather hope they’re not!), but English classrooms can easily be places where we help our little ones learn to listen and respect one another.

How? I have a few ideas.

Set a good example

First, we need to look at ourselves and realize that we’re models to our students. They’re watching us closely and whatever we’re asking of them, we need to be sure to do ourselves. It’s not always big things… have we taught “please” and “thank you” to our students? Do we use those words ourselves at every opportunity? Have we finished a lesson about being on time but they see us racing into class, not quite prepared and a little frazzled? I know my students have.

And to me this one is a big thing. We need to say “I’m sorry.” We teach the language for this – it’s common functional language in many primary books. Do we require them to apologize to one another for mistakes and impolite things they’ve done, yet they never hear us apologize?

Share our values

We can share more about our lives. We teach simple language and basic values to primary kids: be polite, be fair, share your things, work together, be helpful, respect nature, among others. I suggest we look for opportunities of good values, or failed values, in our lives and spend a few minutes once in a while talking about them in class. In fourth grade, our teacher told us about a racist incident she’d seen on a city bus. It wasn’t in the lesson plan but my teacher needed to share something she’d seen. Why do I remember it 45 years later?

Provide opportunities for good citizenship

Finally, we can look for opportunities for our students to do good. They’re young, yes, but they’re still critical to one another and to our community. More than anything else, showing them how to do good and then doing it teaches them values. There are so many ways even our youngest English students can make a difference. They can work in the school garden (or start one!) and talk about what they’re harvesting in English. They can make holiday cards or write letters to be delivered to older people or others in need. They can listen, and offer solutions, when a classmate is struggling.

It feels like the world is upside-down sometimes, but our classrooms can be places where we teach, discuss, and then live out the best we can be.

In my webinar, I’ll be examining some of the ways we can introduce values into our classrooms. We’ll talk about where we can find examples of values and how we can make the most of values opportunities in our textbooks. We’ll also discuss a few concrete ways to help students practice what they’ve learned and be important members of their larger communities. I hope you will join me!

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The what, why and how of writing teacher’s books

shutterstock_147470255In this post, the course book author John Hughes looks at the role of teacher’s books and how they are written. This is based on a workshop he ran at the recent IATEFL BESIG conference in Munich. As well as writing numerous teacher’s books, John is one of the lead authors on the new Business Result Second Edition coming out in 2017 and 2018.

When you think of a series of published ELT materials, you probably imagine course books, online components and workbooks – all the parts for students to use in class and at home. However, there is also the teacher’s book. I’ve always enjoyed writing the teacher’s book for courses because it’s a chance to connect with teachers, to explain the background, and to add practical ideas that support the exercises on the page. I also train teachers in materials writing and recommend that they write notes for other teachers to accompany their classroom materials; it’s one way of scrutinising your materials before you use them in class and if you want to share your materials with other teachers, a set of teacher’s notes will help them.

What do you expect from a teacher’s book?

The starting point for any teacher’s book or set of teacher’s notes is an answer key but most teachers also like to have an introductory overview of the language aims. When you describe each of the stages and exercises in your classroom materials, avoid simply repeating what the instructions say in the student book or on the worksheet. Instead, teacher’s notes should offer advice on classroom management or suggest ways to vary an exercise according to the teacher’s own context. So whether you are working with one student or fifty students, the teacher’s notes need to make it clear how the material can be adapted accordingly.

Popular teacher’s books also include photocopiable pages to supplement the course book materials with extra practice. Activities that you copy and cut up such as board games, domino or matching activities, information gaps, and questionnaires bring a change of pace and dynamics to the lesson. As Business Result teacher’s book author Lyn White says, “All teachers are generally pressed for time, so a good teacher’s book should help them plan their lessons more efficiently and effectively.”

Who uses a teacher’s book?

When you write notes and resources for teachers, it’s important to understand that you are writing for a vast range of different backgrounds and experiences. Some teachers will follow everything through step-by-step and use all the supplemental activities. Other teachers prefer to follow their own instincts with the classroom materials but refer to the notes to check answer keys and audio scripts.

Nicola Meldrum writes resources for teachers and gives the following advice: “I always put myself in the teacher’s shoes and try to imagine different contexts teachers could be working in. I consider low and high tech environments for example, and try to include activities that will work anywhere.”

And Lyn White adds: “New teachers need clear staging and notes to help them gain more experience in working on their own lesson plans… more experienced teachers need a very clear layout so they can find the bits of the teacher’s notes they are looking for easily.”

How do you write for teachers?

Writing for teachers with such a wide range of experience in different teaching contexts also affects the writing style. Business Result author Nina Leeke suggests that materials writers have to be “consistent, comprehensive, and empathetic” in teacher’s books. The author is attempting to communicate ideas in a very condensed and concise way but can’t lose the human touch.

To illustrate this, read this introductory extract from some teacher’s notes accompanying some classroom materials on the topic of Energy.

You might want to start the lesson with the books closed and write the title of the unit, ‘Energy’, on the board. You could put students in pairs and give them two minutes to brainstorm different types of energy, e.g. solar, oil, etc. Write their ideas on the board and help with any pronunciation problems. Next, ask students to turn to the picture on page 20 and look at the image of smoke rising from factories. Discuss the two questions about the picture as a class. If you have a large class, you could ask students to discuss the questions in small groups and then summarise their answers to the rest of the class afterwards. Allow about five minutes for this part of the lesson.

Notice how the writer tries to balance straightforward instructions with the tone of a helping colleague, and covers everything from how to approach the lesson, to additional tips, to guidance on timing. There is some language in the paragraph that is direct and uses imperative forms (write…, ask…, discuss…), sequencers (next, then etc.) and references (turn to page 20). In addition, the writer also gives options, alternatives and suggestions (you might want to…, you could…, if you have a large class…). In this way, the material attempts to reach every type of teacher.

Your views?

If you have views on what should appear in a teacher’s book or how they could be improved to support teachers more effectively, why not post a comment here? Or perhaps you have written teacher’s notes or teacher resources for your colleagues – what was your experience like? Please share your thoughts below.

 

References and further reading

Business Result Second Edition is a forthcoming six-level course for Business English students and teachers, published by Oxford University Press.

Part of this article also appeared in a blog for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group. You can read the full post at http://mawsig.iatefl.org/mawsig-blog-guest-post-the-voice-of-the-teachers-notes/

John Hughes also has his own blog with a section on materials writing at https://elteachertrainer.com/for-materials-writers/ .

 


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Do learning technologies actually help students learn?


shutterstock_198926996Do learning technologies actually help students learn? Nicky Hockly’s latest book,
Focus on Learning Technologies, takes a look at research that has been carried out with primary and secondary school learners using technology, and weighs up the evidence.

Although digital technologies in the field of EFL may feel like a recent thing, they have been around for a while. We have a rich research tradition in CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) going back several decades, and teachers and researchers have been trying to find out whether technology actually supports learning for some time. However, although we are mostly in agreement upon the question – Do learning technologies actually help students learn? – the answer is less clear.

The short answer is ‘it depends’. It depends, because it is very difficult to make comparisons across studies, when research is carried out in different contexts with very different groups of students, with different teachers, using different technologies and tools, and with widely differing aims and task types.

For example, imagine a US study carried out with a group of primary students that examines whether using blogs improves their literacy and writing skills (1). Imagine a study in Iran that examines whether a group of university students learn academic vocabulary better through regular SMS texts rather than with dictionaries (2). And imagine a research project in China and Scotland based on a computer game that provides adolescent students with oral prompts in order to develop their speaking skills (3). These are all real research projects, and they have widely different aims, tools, and research methodologies. They take place in very different teaching and learning contexts with very different students and teachers. Some seem to show technology supporting learning but others don’t. At the same time, trying to generalise results from what can be very small-scale, one-off action research projects that may be underpinned by more or less robust research methods, is questionable.

Each of the three studies described above had very different objectives, followed different research procedures, and yielded different results. The blog project used a case study methodology to look at the writing skills development of one English language learner in a class of elementary students in the USA. The researchers found that the blogging curriculum developed her writing skills, increased her confidence as a writer, and improved her written language. So a positive result (for one student) overall.

In the Iranian SMS vocabulary study, a class of 28 EAP students received 10 words and example sentences twice a week via SMS, and were exposed to a total of 320 new words. A control group studied the same vocabulary using a dictionary. Post-test scores showed an improvement in vocabulary learning for all students, but there was no significant difference between the two groups. But a later test showed that the SMS group were able to recall more vocabulary than the dictionary group. So a partly positive result, although one wonders how much vocabulary the two groups would remember a couple of months later.

The study in China and Scotland compared the uptake and response of two separate groups of teenage students to specially-designed game software for speaking practice. The two groups showed different levels of motivation. The group of Chinese EFL students reported increased positive attitudes, whereas the Scottish students learning French reported increased anxiety levels and decreasing positive attitudes during the study. A follow-up study (4) highlighted important limitations in the software. So mixed results overall in this study.

Sometimes studies on exactly the same area (such as learning vocabulary via SMS) show differing results – in some cases it appears to be effective, while in others it doesn’t seem to make any difference. But it’s worth bearing in mind that research studies tend to be self-selective. Researchers will often only publish studies that show positive results – those that show negative or contradictory results may never make it to publication. And although researchers try to avoid it, they are inevitably biased towards positive outcomes in their own studies. All of this means that it’s difficult to make sweeping generalisations such as ‘technology helps students learn English better’ or even ‘regular SMS texts help university students learn academic vocabulary better’.

Where does this leave us? For me, the important point is that we need to be critical users of digital technologies, and critical readers of research in the field. We need to be particularly wary of techno-centric views of technology that claim that the latest hardware/software/game/app/program will somehow magically help our students learn English ‘better’. In short, we need to be critically aware consumers of new technologies – both as users ourselves, and as teachers interested in using digital technologies with our own learners.

References

(1) Gebhard, M., Shin, D. S., & Seger, W. (2011). Blogging and emergent L2 literacy development in urban elementary school: A functional perspective. CALICO Journal, 28, 2, 278-307.
(2) Alemi, M., Sarab, M., & Lari, Z. (2012). Successful learning of academic word list via MALL: Mobile assisted language learning. International Education Studies, 5, 6, 99–109.
(3) Morton, H., & Jack, M. (2010). Speech interactive computer-assisted language learning: A cross-cultural evaluation. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 23, 4, 295-319.
(4) Morton, H., Gunson, N., & Jack, M. (2012). Interactive language learning through speech-enabled virtual scenarios. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction. Available at http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ahci/2012/389523/


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Bringing Grammar to Life

Word grammar spelt in scrabble lettersBriony Beaven is an ELT consultant, teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher. She is a NILE Associate Teacher Trainer and teaches Classroom Language to trainee teachers at the Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich. Today, she joins us to discuss bringing grammar to life in the EFL classroom ahead of her upcoming webinar, Bringing Grammar to Life.

The big problem with teaching grammar

The big problem with grammar, familiar to all English teachers, is that many ways of teaching grammar produce learners who KNOW ABOUT grammar; for example, they can tell you the rules for using the present perfect. But they often don’t KNOW HOW because when they speak or write these supposedly ‘known’ rules do not seem to be operating. In other words, the learners fail to make use of the rule they know so well in the language they actually produce. What can we do about this?

Approaches to grammar teaching

Three main ways of introducing new grammar are the deductive, the inductive and the guided discovery approaches. They all have their advantages and disadvantages and in the webinar we will consider how these might play out in your context.

In deductive grammar teaching the teacher explains or gives the rules for the target language items and then provides practice for the learners. In inductive grammar teaching the teacher provides some examples of the target language in a realistic context and lets the learners ‘notice’ the rules. The third approach, guided discovery, is a modified version of inductive teaching. In this approach the teacher provides some examples of the target language in context and supports the learners in ‘noticing’ the rules.

grammar1

Support, scaffolding, mediation

To say that you are going to ‘support’ the learners is easy. To provide genuinely useful support needs a bit more thought. In the webinar we will consider the relationship of ‘support’ to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the related concepts of ‘scaffolding’ and ‘mediation’.

In guided discovery grammar teaching we can support, for example, by ensuring that learners meet the new grammar item in a lively, engaging and lifelike context. We can also support them by questioning and monitoring while learners try to ‘notice’ the target rules. What kinds of questions are helpful to ensure learners internalise and can use grammar rules? Good concept questions and focused questions about timelines can work a kind of magic. Finally, in our efforts to support our learners, we need to take care that the rules are summarised by the teacher so that learners know if their suppositions were right or not. That is, we offer feedback, another key component of ‘support’.

grammar2

Use of the learners’ first language

For a long time we neglected a wonderful resource in the teaching of grammar in a foreign language, namely the learners’ mother tongue.

grammar3

In their L1 learners have learnt to think, to communicate, to speak and use their voice. They have acquired an intuitive understanding of grammar, become aware of some finer points of language and have acquired the skills of reading and writing. These days a number of experts suggest that if a class is monolingual we can beneficially make use of their first language. What do you think about this?

Practice

Learners can produce new grammar items only after plenty of practice. This practice needs to be engaging and lively, but also challenging and likely to lead to long-term learning. ‘Three times practice’ (Scrivener 2014) is one way to do this.

Well, all in all it seems we need to do more than ‘cover material’ if most of our learners are to ‘know how’ to use the grammar we teach them, not just ‘know about’ it. No one approach will succeed with all of the learners all of the time because different learners understand in different ways. We will need to make use of different approaches and techniques both for introducing new grammar and for practising it effectively.

Join me for my webinar where I will suggest some engaging ways to help students learn ‘how’ to use grammar to communicate successfully.

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References:

Butzkamm, W. 2003. We only learn language once. The role of the mother tongue in FL classrooms: death of a dogma. Language Learning Journal, 28, 29-39.

Scrivener, J. 2014. Demand-high teaching. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 3(2), 47-58.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. and Ross, G. 1976. The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving. Journal of Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 17, 89–100.