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(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.


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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

 


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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.


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Giving children more agency in class: A Q&A session with Annamaria Pinter

shutterstock_309235367Annamaria Pinter is Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick. She has published widely in the area of Young Learners ELT. She is the author of Teaching Young Language Learners (2017, second edition). Earlier this month, she delivered a webinar on ‘Giving children more agency in class’, and today we bring you the question and answer section of the session.

What do you think about the use of the mother tongue versus the use of the L2 in activities where children work in groups and actively explore something, analyse data or discuss ideas?

My general advice would be that the most important first step is that everyone should be engaged and enthusiastic about participation whatever language they are using. Then, in any one situation the teacher can judge what might be realistic for the children to say and manage in L2 and what has to be handled in the L1 or indeed bilingually or using various languages that learners speak in multilingual classrooms. It is often possible for the teacher to translate into English something that a child may have said in L1 and even more importantly, children may also be able to help each other with re-phrasing things in English. No matter what the situation is, however, it is good to insist that the final product (such as a poster, a newspaper magazine page, a recorded presentation, a questionnaire or any other product) should be in English. It is good to display these products by uploading them to a secure website or simply putting them up on the wall because making these available to external audiences this will help motivate children to work hard on their English.

How can I allow children to choose learning content within a restrictive curriculum?

This is difficult. With serious restrictions, teachers can only make very small changes.  It may be possible for some teachers to look at content and learning outcomes and see if the children can at least have some limited agency by choosing tasks (albeit very similar ones) or by being invited to design an extra task in each unit, or simply choosing the order in which they would like to tackle units in the book. If no freedom or agency is given to the teacher in a very restrictive curriculum, then it is hard to implement the ideas from the webinar. Still, some teachers in India were able to do extra work with the children outside classrooms and some allocated only a limited amount of time to research project work every week after covering the content of the book. Children were motivated to get the book out of the way to be able to progress to the ‘real projects’.

What do we do if we feel that the children’s ideas or input is not relevant or useful?

In my experience this is very rare and an important lesson for us teachers is that whenever children say or suggest something that seems unusual or at first sight irrelevant, it should never be just dismissed as such. It should always be explored further so that we can gain a better understanding of the original idea or point. It may well be relevant but in a different way compared to what we would have anticipated. In my experience children really appreciate this gesture of respecting ALL their responses.

What does this mean for the teacher’s role?

Teachers generally report that this is a more satisfying way of working, they feel alive and more enthusiastic about their jobs and the children’s motivation and intensive engagement seem infectious. In many ways when children take more control and teachers become ‘learners’, there is less pressure on the teacher to get everything right alone, but it is important to remember that teachers are also role models. If children are researchers and expected to work hard and enthusiastically, teachers must be doing the same!!

If you missed the webinar and want to catch up, feel free to visit our Webinar Library, for this session and previous recordings.


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Action research: how it can help your EFL classroom

cathryn-lavery-67852Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

A classic model of teacher development involves learning about the latest ideas on our practice, and applying them to our classrooms.

Action Research takes the opposite approach. In this process we find out what happens in our own classrooms so that we can understand them better and so make better-informed teaching decisions.  In other words, the teacher carries out the research, and if necessary as a result of what they find out, identifies possible strategies to engage with the reality.

It is different from scientific research. It doesn’t try to come to universally applicable conclusions or models of action. If you conduct an action research project, you know from the outset that you’re only looking at your own specific classroom. Any actions you take as a result are appropriate only to that classroom. Of course, it’s useful to share your experiences with your colleagues but this is more to give them ideas to explore their own classes rather than recommending particular courses of action.

Here is a five-stage model for a simple action research project.

  1. Finding the focus

First you need to identify the question you want to answer.

  • Try not to be too general. For example, the question ‘how can I improve my students motivation?’ could have many different answers. But don’t be too narrow in your focus.  If your question is ‘which students like reading activities?’ then the research will be quite short, and what you’ll be able to do with the information will be very limited.
  • Try to make your question as factual as possible. If you ask ‘why are my students so lazy in groupwork?’  Your research will be just be confirming what you already think.  If you change that to ‘what do my students do during groupwork activities?’  Then you will be not only finding out more about reality but also testing your own opinions.
  1. Identifying the tools
  • You need to do decide what information you’re looking for. This will then give you an idea of where to find it and how to find it. If you look at the question about students in groupwork activities (see above), the information we are looking for is factual, and will probably be best obtained through observing the students during the lesson. So you could use a video camera, you could ask a colleague to come in and observe, or you could do it yourself. All of these have advantages and disadvantages. If you use a camera or colleague, then you will probably need more than one lesson as students needs to become accustomed to the activity in order not to be affected by it too much.  If you do it yourself you’ll need to set it up to give yourself sufficient space and time to do so.
  • Ideally you will get information from more than one source to give you a full picture. So here in addition to the observation, you could also interview your students, or even set this up as a language learning activity during a lesson. In addition to observations, videos, and interviews, other tools include questionnaires (which are useful for larger groups), focus groups (for discovering opinions), or personal journals (which are useful for tracking changes over time).
  1. Carrying out the research
  • Try to carry out the research in away that minimizes any negative impact on the learning itself. For this reason involving colleagues to come and record data is so useful. Obviously it’s important that they do this in away that does not interfere in the lesson.
  • It’s a good idea to carry out the research in ways that will offer you as much information as possible. If you are focusing on one particular class, then consider obtaining data during different lessons rather than just one.  If you are focusing on a particular activity, then consider researching the activity with different groups.
  • It’s a good idea to record any factors that may influence the information you gain, such as the proximity of an exam or a holiday, for example, as this will help you in the next stage when you analyse the data.
  1. Analysing the information
  • In the analysis stage you try to make sense of the information you have obtained. There are a number of thinking processes you can use to help you do this.
  • What categories of data can you find?
  • What themes or patterns can you spot? What does this tell you about the relationships within the data? Are there any causes and responses?
  • Are there any pieces of information which are very different to the rest? How do you account for this?
  • Is there anything that is unexpected? Does this alter any opinions you may have had?
  • It’s extremely useful to involve a colleague in the analysis stage. Thinking critically like this is often easier when discussing ideas with someone else. Make sure, however, that you avoid just sharing your opinions. Try to focus on asking questions and using the data to find your answers.
  1. Taking action

Having gained a better understanding of what is going on in the class, it’s common to take some form of action in response. This section is usually one of three kinds:

  • Further research: Your research has led you to more questions and you decide that it is important to find the answers to these in order to identify a strategy to address the situation.
  • Change your attitude: It’s possible that your research suggests what you thought was an issue isn’t, in fact, such a problem. In this situation the change will come not so much in your classroom practice but in the way you see things as a teacher.
  • Implement a new strategy: Often, however, when we research classrooms, we decide to try something new as a result. Perhaps we decide our students need more support for group work activities. Perhaps we need to make them easier, or more difficult. We might decide to alter seating patterns so that different students work with each other.  Whatever strategy we try, it’s useful to then continue the research and obtain data on what happens as a result. In other words, action research can become a cycle of constant investigation into what’s going on in our classrooms.