Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


1 Comment

What Learners Can Do with Texts

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachersNigel Caplan, assistant professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute, holds degrees from Cambridge University and the University of Pennsylvania, and is finishing his PhD in Education. His research focuses on genre theory and collaborative writing. He has presented at TESOL as an invited speaker, the European Association of Teachers of Academic Writing, and the Symposium on Second Language Writing. He is the co-author of Q: Skills for Success and Inside Writing (OUP).

As a teacher and writer, I believe that two of the main questions we face in the classroom can be summarized as: How do our students learn, and how do our lesson plans and materials promote learning?

I’m especially interested in how this applies to our use of texts. And I say texts not readings to emphasize my belief that the articles, reviews, websites, essays, and textbooks that we assign can be used for more than teaching reading.

Here are four of the ways I use texts in my teaching:

  • To challenge students to reconsider the world. For example, in the second edition of Q: Skills for Success Reading/Writing 5, we have a fascinating new reading about how graphs can lie: what appear to be hard numbers may turn out to be visual distortions!
  • To encourage critical thinking by presenting multiple viewpoints. When we were writing Q: Skills, we were always looking for two different ways to answer the unit question, often from very different academic fields. So, for instance, how do we define a private space after reading articles about shared spaces such as roads and public buildings?
  • To model written genres. We all learn to write by reading other texts in the target genre. That’s how we know what a wedding invitation, or a conference proposal, or a blog post should look like. In Inside Writing, we present one or more models for every genre we ask students to write and invite them to discover how and why it is written.
  • To focus on language. Reading widely is certainly important for language acquisition, but research has shown that it’s not enough. Learners also need to focus on the structure of the new language. After reading a text for meaning, I like to dig into the language and help students discover useful vocabulary and grammar structures that they can use in their own speaking and writing. For example, why does a summary of a research article begin with “The author claims that poor exercise routines can be dangerous” rather than “The author presents the dangers of poor exercise routines”?

At the JALT 2015 conference in Shizuoka, Japan (November 20-23), I’ll be talking about these ideas in more detail, including a language-based approach to teaching critical thinking, and a genre-based approach to teaching writing through the Teaching/Learning Cycle.

The Teaching/Learning Cycle

The Teaching/Learning Cycle (Rothery, 1996)* is a well-developed method for helping students to write in target genres. The Teaching/Learning cycle starts with an activity called “Deconstruction,” which is basically a teacher-led analysis of several writing models to help students deduce the staging (the typical structure of information) and language used (especially for ESL or other linguistic minority populations). For example, we teach the online product review as a genre that requires students to describe an item in detail and evaluate it, giving specific reasons. So, first we have students read several reviews, adapted for the level, and then together we figure out that reviews typically follow a predictable pattern: establishing the writer’s expertise, describing the product, giving opinions with specific support, and then closing with a recommendation. You can find this assignment in Inside Writing 2.

The trick with deconstruction is to avoid structural labels and focus on functions. For example, if I ask my students what the structure of any genre is, they will invariably reply “introduction, body, conclusion” because that’s what they’ve been taught. But pretty much every piece of writing has a beginning, middle, and end, so it’s just not very helpful to students learning how to write. In the case of argument writing, for instance, “claims” and “evidence” are much more useful than “introduction” and “body.”

At this point, we also need to focus on language. How are adjectives used to strengthen a description? What shifts in tense do you see? What verbs do the authors use to introduce evidence? What tenses do they use? Do you see certain types of grammar in the claims and opinions but not the evidence and support (e.g. modals)? How do the writers use relative (adjective) clauses? Once you start asking these questions, you’ll be amazed what you and your students notice about your genres!

Join me at JALT to practice the other stages of the Teaching/Learning cycle, Joint Construction and Independent Construction. I’m also going to discuss teaching critical thinking by using thought-provoking texts as prompts for discussion and writing.

Nigel will present at JALT on Saturday, November 21st and Sunday, November 22nd. Click here for more details.

 

* Joan Rothery’s chapter, “Making Changes: Developing an Educational Linguistics” is in the book Literacy in Society (Hasan & Williams, 1996). The pedagogy is also summarized in my essay, “From Generic Writing to Genre-Based Writing,” available from the OUP website.


2 Comments

21st Century Skills in ELT Part 2: the question-centred approach

classroom_students_teenagersShaun Crowley has worked as an EFL teacher and a marketing manager for an international ELT publisher. He is the founder of www.linguavote.com, an e-learning platform for learners of English that features social learning and gamification. Follow Shaun on Twitter: @shauncrowleyIn Part 1 of this series, Shaun Crowley considered the importance of 21st Century Skills in ELT, concluding that the group of competencies that define this term are indeed important to English language learning. In the next four posts, Shaun continues by offering ideas to help you integrate some of these skills into your classes.

Critical thinking skills are some of the key “21st Century” competencies, so it’s no surprise that we’re starting to see publishers position their course books with this benefit up-front, from primary to tertiary level.

Here is an idea to help you maximize opportunities for critical thinking, so that your students are better prepared for the rigours of university education and the professional workplace.

Adopt a “question-centred” approach to your classes

Since the recent curriculum reforms in the US, a question-centred approach to teaching has been gaining popularity in schools. Teachers start a module with a big question. Students consider this question critically, and over the course of the module they synthesize information to form a conclusion in the form of a final homework assignment.

This approach first made its way into ELT with the publication of Q Skills for Success. But whatever course you are using, so long as you have enough time to step out of the materials, it should be possible to customize your lessons to feature an “essential question”.

For example, Headway Elementary Unit 4 is called “Take it easy” and follows the topic of leisure activities. Before you start this unit, you could write this question on the board:

“What makes the perfect leisure activity?”

Perhaps search for a YouTube video that offers a nice way-in to thinking about the question… here’s one I found following a quick search:

Pre-teach some of the main vocabulary items that fit into the question theme. Then spend a few minutes discussing the question and gauging students’ opinions before you open the book.

As you go through the unit, use the various listening and reading texts as opportunities to return to the big question, encouraging students to synthesize and evaluate the different input.  For example, in the “Take it easy” unit, there’s a text called “My favourite season.” Here you could ask:

Is the perfect leisure activity one that you can do in any season?

Return to the big question any time you see a link to the course material you are using. Then at the end of the unit, have students write an answer to the question for homework. If students are not in the routine of doing homework, round off the question with a class discussion.

Have you adopted a similar approach to your classes? If you have, we’d love to hear how you apply the question-centred method.


4 Comments

The Many Challenges of Academic Writing for ESL

The challenges of academic writing in ESLDr. Ann Snow, writing consultant for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, discusses the particular challenges of writing in an academic context.

This month I will be teaching a new academic writing course for second language students at my university. I am thus thinking a lot about writing these days and looking forward to helping my students become better academic writers. I’ve promised a lot in my course proposal. I will:

  • Cover characteristics of expository writing and help students apply them to their own academic disciplines;
  • guide them through a cycle of awareness and analysis leading to self-assessment; expose them to different text types (e.g. problem-solutions, methods, discussion sections) and genres (e.g. critiques, case studies, literature reviews, research papers);
  • help them improve their sentence and discourse-level grammar and be better proofreaders of their own writing.

In addition, I am determined to go outside the traditional boundaries of a writing class because I think that writing cannot and should not be taught in isolation from the other skills that students need in order to be effective writers. Therefore, I have added academic vocabulary and strategic reading skill components. I also plan to integrate critical thinking skills so my students improve their abilities to make inferences, synthesize, develop arguments and counter-arguments, and evaluate sources in their writing. My task feels a little overwhelming right now, but also helps me as the instructor appreciate the complexities of academic writing and understand better the challenges our second language students face.

Finding the writer’s voice

Stepping back from the details of my new course, let’s consider the big picture of what writing entails. Writing is a complex language form practiced by users of all languages (both native and non-native) for everyday social and communicative purposes and, for many, for vocational, educational, and professional needs. It has been variously described as a product – a piece of writing with a particular form and the expectation of “correctness.” And as a process – a journey that takes writers through stages where they discover they have something to say and find their “voice.” From the cognitive perspective, it is seen as a set of skills and knowledge that resides within the individual writer and from the sociocultural perspective as a socially and culturally situated set of literacy practices shared by a particular community (Weigle, 2014). With these perspectives in mind, all teachers of writing must ask: How can I help my students improve their writing and what are best practices in the classroom? As I design my new course I am asking myself these same questions.

Needs assessment

An important first step is undertaking a needs assessment, whether informal or formal, to learn what kinds of writing students need. From this assessment, a syllabus or curriculum can be developed or a textbook series selected that is a good match with your students’ needs. Typically, the instructional sequence starts with personal/narrative writing in which students have to describe or reflect on an experience or event. This usually leads to expository writing in which students learn to develop a thesis statement and support this controlling idea in the body of their writing. Analytic or persuasive writing is the most challenging type of academic writing because students must learn to state and defend a position or opinion using appropriate evidence (Ferris, 2009).  These kinds of academic writing tasks require students to become familiar with a variety of text types and genres, one of my course goals.

Improving vocabulary and grammar

The academic writing class also provides the opportunity for students to fine-tune their grammar and expand their academic language vocabulary. Typically, by the time our second language students are engaged in academic writing, they have been exposed to the majority of grammatical structures in English (e.g. complete tense system; complex constructions such as relative clauses and conditionals), but they still may need to learn how to integrate these structures into their writing. They also need to match text types with the kinds of grammatical structures needed. For example, in order to write a cause/effect essay, students need to use subordinating clauses with because and since and they need to use the appropriate transitional expressions like therefore and as such. Student will most likely have learned these structures in isolation but now need extensive practice and feedback to use them accurately in their writing. In terms of academic vocabulary, students need to differentiate the types of vocabulary found in everyday usage (e.g. the verbs meet and get) with their more formal academic counter-parts encounter and obtain (see Zimmerman, 2009, for many other examples.)

In sum, the English for Academic Purposes curriculum must integrate reading and writing skills, and, as mentioned, grammar and vocabulary. Cumming (2006) points out that a focus on reading can lead to writing improvement and an opportunity to learn discipline-specific vocabulary. It also gives students something to write about. Combining reading and writing also provides needed practice in analyzing different text types so students see the features of these models. These kinds of activities create opportunities for more complex tasks such as summarizing and synthesizing multiple sources. A curriculum that integrates reading and writing also exposes students to graphic organizers for reading comprehension which student can recycle for pre-writing (Grabe, 2001). Finally, students need many exposures to similar tasks in order to master the complexities of academic writing and build confidence in their abilities.

I look forward to teaching my new academic writing course and I hope this brief glimpse inspires others to undertake this challenge as well.

References and Further Reading

Ferris, D. (2009). Teaching college writing to diverse student populations. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press

Grabe, W. (2001). Reading-writing relations: Theoretical perspectives and instructional practices. In D. Belcher & A. Hirvela, (Eds.), Linking literacies: Perspectives on L2 reading-writing connections.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Weigle, S. C. (2014). Considerations for teaching second language writing. In M. Celce-Murcia, D. M. Brinton, & M. A. Snow (Eds.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (4th ed., pp. 222-237). Boston, MA:  National Geographic Learning Heinle Cengage.

Zimmerman, C. (2009). Work knowledge: A vocabulary teacher’s handbook. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


1 Comment

Measuring Progress in Academic ESL Classes

Measuring Progress in Academic ESL ClassesLawrence J. Zwier, testing expert and series advisor for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, looks at some strategies for measuring student progress in language learning.

Language teachers often discuss the difficulty of measuring how well their students are doing.  A typical comment goes something like, “When you’re testing in a history class (or biology, or law, etc.) it’s easy. They either remember the material or they don’t.” This oversimplifies the situation in “content classes,” where analysis might be just as highly valued as memory, but the frustrated ESL/EFL teacher has a point. Teaching in a language class does not aim to convey a body of knowledge but to develop skills—and skill development is notoriously hard to assess. It’s even harder when the skills are meant for use outside the language classroom, but the only venue in which you can measure IS the language classroom.

However, all is not lost. There are many good, solid principles to apply in measuring how your students are doing. What’s more, they don’t require the assistance of test-construction experts or the statistical skills of a psychometrician. The average ESL/EFL teacher can do the measurement and interpret the results in ways that will have immediate benefits for their students.

The idea that measurement benefits students can get lost in discussions of measuring progress. So often, we think of measurement as serving the educational institution (which needs to promote people, issue grades, and so on) or the teacher (who needs to know how well a certain objective is being met). But it’s an established principle of memory science that frequent measurement (or, more familiarly, testing) is one of the best aids in learning. Researchers at Kent State University tested the recall of several pairs of English-Lithuanian word pairs—that is, they studied how well subjects remembered not just the Lithuanian or English words but also the pairing of those words across languages. The main variable was how often a given subject was tested on the associations of the pairs. The researchers found a clear correlation between the number of “retrievals”—the number of times a participant was required to recall the pairs on tests—and the long-term memory of the pairs.

You may be sensing a dichotomy you’ve noticed before, that of formative vs. summative evaluation. Summative evaluation comes after a period of learning and is meant to see how much learning took place. Think final exams, midterms, end-of-unit tests, and so on. Formative evaluation occurs during the period of learning and is a part of that learning. The test is a teaching tool. Each type of testing has its place. There’s nothing wrong with summative testing, and the educational system would lose structure without any of it. Many students would also lose motivation, because—love them or hate them—big tests have a way of making people work. But the Kent State research we mentioned clearly shows that formative testing is not just some touchy-feely distraction. Measuring your students often is instructive—both for you and for them. You can easily find examples of formative-assessment activities through a Web search; a good link to start out with is http://wvde.state.wv.us/teach21/ExamplesofFormativeAssessment.html.

Here is a brief look at some important principles in measuring the progress of ESL/EFL students.

Use many small measures, not just a few big ones. This is just common sense. If you rely on two or three measures during the course of a semester, your measurements are much more vulnerable to factors that skew the results—the students’ health, the students’ moods, problems with classroom technology, your own fallibility in writing test items, and so on. If your program requires some big tests, so be it. Make every effort to add other little tests/quizzes along the way as well—and have them influence the students’ grades in a significant way. Also, share the results of these measurements with your students.  An especially effective technique is to make these smaller tests and their grading echo what happens in the larger tests. That way, the frequent tests offer not only periodic retrieval of language points but also practice with the format of the larger test.

Don’t administer what you can’t evaluate. You can’t give frequent assessments if it takes you five hours to grade each one. Most of your questions in measurements should be discrete-point items. This means that the questions have clearly identifiable correct answers that are limited in scope.  Yes, I love seeing my students produce essays or get in front of class to give 5-minute presentations. However, I can’t assess—or give meaningful feedback on—more than two or three such long-form outputs in a semester. Especially when I’m teaching reading or listening, I have to depend on multiple-choice questions, true/false, fill-in, matching, and all those other limited-output formats. What you may have a harder time believing is that short-form questions are appropriate in writing and speaking classes as well. A writing student can demonstrate many skills in two or three sentences. A speaking student can demonstrate a lot by speaking for 45 or 60 seconds—as they do on the Internet-based TOEFL.

Avoid unnecessary interference from other skills. This dovetails with the previous point. If I am trying to measure reading comprehension—a very abstruse target, if you think about it—I don’t want the student’s weaknesses in writing, speaking, or even listening to get in the way. I want to ask a comprehension question that can tell me something about the student even if the student cannot compose a good sentence, articulate a spoken answer, or comprehend a long, spoken introduction. Give me something that requires minimal output to indicate the handling of input. Of course, there is no perfect question, nothing that can get me inside that student’s head and point out relevantly firing neurons, but a simply worded question that requires circling a letter, or writing T/F, or drawing a line is less likely to be muddied by other factors than one that requires complex answers. Gillian Brown and George Yule noted long ago how hard it is to assess actual listening comprehension. They pointed out that a listener’s “personal representation of the content of a text” is “inside the student’s head and not directly available for extraction and objective examination.” Simplify your attempts to examine it by avoiding obscurant factors.

Beware viral items. Digital technology makes test security harder every year. And don’t assume that student lore on the Internet concerns itself only with the big boys—the large, high-stakes tests. If you’ve handed out a piece of paper with a test question on it, there’s a decent chance that it now, somewhere, roams the pastures of the Web. If you were not terribly observant during the test, a student may have snapped a cell-phone picture of it.  Even if you were hawkishly watching, many students, by the time they reach 18 or so, have prodigious memories and a tradition of getting together beforehand to divvy up the memorization of a test: “You take questions 1 – 3, Sam will take 4 -7, and I’ll take 8 -10.” My colleagues and I have adapted by just not re-using any old material in important measures of progress. For quick practices with nothing on the line, I might not care. However, each truly important measurement instrument is a new one—though perhaps based on an old one, with answers re-jigged and re-ordered. (Such reshuffling reduces the amount of writing I have to do.)

Be your own grumpy editor. I work frequently with the best item writers in the ESL/EFL field. One mark of a good item writer is that he/she assumes there’s something wrong with the first draft of anything. After you write a measurement item, let it sit for a few hours or a day. Then go back to it carrying a nice, sharp boxcutter. You’ll be surprised how often you discover that the question doesn’t really address what you want to assess, or that there are actually two possible correct answers in your set of multiple choice options, or that the reading/listening passage doesn’t clearly say whether a measurement statement is true or false.  Good measurement is impossible without good items. It’s worth the effort to slash and rewrite.

 

References and Further Reading

Association for Psychological Science. “Testing improves memory: Study examines why memory is enhanced by repeated retrieval.” ScienceDaily. 16 June 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110615171410.htm

Brown, Gillian, and George Yule. Teaching the Spoken Language: An Approach Based on the Analysis of Conversational English.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1983

West Virginia Department of Education, “Examples of Formative Assessment.” Accessed 31 October 2014, at http://wvde.state.wv.us/teach21/ExamplesofFormativeAssessment.html.


3 Comments

Why Language Learners Should Take Notes

Why Language Learners Should Take NotesMargaret Brooks, a co-author of Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, offers some tips to help your students take notes in class.

Whether in the context of taking a phone message or listening to an academic lecture, note-taking is an essential skill for most language learners. In order to help learners acquire this skill, it is important to consider first the special challenges language learners face when trying to listen and take notes.

Short-term memory

One of the most self-evident issues is that it takes a language learner longer to process audio input than it does a native speaker.  One reason for this is that a person’s short-term memory is shorter in L2 than in L1. People employ short-term memory (usually measured in seconds) when processing audio materials. For example, when listening to a long sentence, the listener may need to hold the whole utterance in his mind and review it in order to comprehend it adequately. For the L1 listener this happens naturally, without the person being aware of it.  However, for the language learner, this mental review process may not always be possible in the available time.1

Language structure

Another factor is the need for a mental map of the language, an internalized knowledge of the vocabulary and structures. A native speaker is grounded from childhood in the structures of the language and knows what to expect. We know, in fact, that people do not actually hear every word when they listen. But they hear enough to be able to parse out the meaning or reconstruct the sense quickly.  They can “fill in the blanks” with words not actually heard.

Cultural expectations

Finally, in addition to being familiar with the semantic and syntactic aspects of the language, a listener may need to know of certain cultural expectations. Names of people and places and knowledge of events or history familiar to the average native speaker may be unfamiliar to the learner.  All of these are things that may cause the listener to hesitate, stop listening, and try to think about what was said, while in the meantime the speaker continues.  The listener then loses the thread and finds it difficult to bring attention back to the task.

How note-taking can help

In the face of these challenges, it may seem that adding note-taking to the listening tasks in the classroom may be a step too far for many. How, for example, can we expect high beginning students to listen and write at the same time? However, when the tasks are appropriate for the learners’ level and carefully implemented, note-taking can actually improve comprehension.

Taking notes helps the student maintain focus and attention. It encourages a more engaged posture, such as sitting forward in the seat. The act of handwriting also aids in attention. Interestingly, studies have shown that students taking handwritten notes performed better on comprehension tests than those taking notes with an electronic medium such as a laptop or tablet.  The reason for this is that handwriting is slower than typing. The writer has to summarize content, which involves more mental processing than faster typing. This in turn leads to better understanding and retention.2

The following are some examples of note-taking practice activities for the language classroom:

  • Preparing to listen: Although this is not a note-taking skill in itself, it is a necessary first step in the classroom. In real life, people do not usually approach something like a lecture or other listening context without some idea of what they will hear. They will have read assignments leading up to a lecture, received the agenda for a meeting, or at the very least know something about the topic.  We often put learners at an unfair disadvantage by starting a listening task by just saying, “OK, now listen to this.” Pre-listening activities level the playing field by giving learners realistic preparation for the task. These can consist of things like pre-teaching key words, exploring students’ prior knowledge of the topic, or short reading selections related to the topic.
  • Focusing on main ideas and key words: Some students have a tendency to equate note-taking with dictation and set out to try to write every word – something impossible even in L1. Activities that focus on writing only main ideas and key content words address this issue and help develop short-term as a well as long-term memory. When students write down a few important words as they listen, seeing the words is a memory aid and helps them follow the flow of the ideas.  This strategy is essential when dealing with authentic listening texts at higher levels of language study and, by extension, in real world situations. Authentic texts are likely to contain chunks of unfamiliar language that become “roadblocks” if students are not able to move past them and keep listening for key words.
  • Using a variety of organizational systems such as outlining, the Cornell Method, or even word webs: This enables students to follow the development of a speaker’s ideas and “remember” them from start to finish as they listen. Presenting several ways of organizing notes shows that note-taking is essentially a personal task. Each person has to find a system that works for them.
  • Reviewing and adding to notes soon after a lecture or presentation: The purpose of note-taking in an academic setting is to provide students with a tool for study and review. In a business setting, notes from a meeting might be used to write a report or prepare a task list for a project. Notes consisting of just words and short phrases will not serve the purpose as the note-taker will quickly forget how to put these together into a coherent record of a lecture or meeting, for example.  In the classroom, students can review notes and expand what they have written. Also, even though there is no “rewind” function in a real-world lecture hall, it is useful practice for students to listen again and add to their notes.
  • Collaborating with others: Students often suffer from the mistaken notion that asking questions or getting help from others somehow diminishes them, makes them seem “stupid.” They forget that even native speakers do this all the time and it probably comes naturally to them in their first language. In the classroom, students can compare notes with classmates, ask questions about things they didn’t understand, and listen again to verify information.

Providing students with an opportunity to practice note-taking in a controlled and “safe” environment not only gives them a skill that will be useful in a variety of settings from the lecture hall to the meeting room, or even a doctor’s office but also helps them become more attentive listeners and improves general comprehension.

References and Further Reading

1Rost, Michael. Research in Second Language Processes and Development in Eli Hinkel (Ed). Handbook of Research on Second Language Learning and Teaching, Part IV. , Chapter 35: L2 Listening, Routledge, Nov. 11, 2005.

2Mueller, Pam A and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking. in Psychological Science, published on line 23 April, 2014.

Martin, Katherine I and Nick Ellis. The Roles of Phonological Short-term Memory and Working Memory in L2 Grammar and Vocabulary Learning. in Studies in Second Language Acquisition, Vol. 34, Issue 03, September 2012, Cambridge University Press, 2012.