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How 100 teachers helped to build the Common European Framework

Glyn Jones is a freelance consultant in language learning and assessment and a PhD student at Lancaster University in the UK. In the past he has worked as an EFL teacher, a developer of CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) methods and materials, and – most recently – as a test developer and researcher for two international assessment organisations.

One day in 1994 a hundred English teachers attended a one-day workshop in Zurich, where they watched some video recordings of Swiss language learners performing communicative tasks. Apart from the size of the group, of course, there was nothing unusual about this activity. Teachers often review recordings of learners’ performances, and for a variety of reasons. But what made this particular workshop special was that it was a stage in the development of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

The teachers had already been asked to assess some of their own students. They had done this by completing questionnaires made up of CAN DO statements. Each teacher had chosen ten students and, for each of these, checked them against a list of statements such as “Can describe dreams, hopes and ambitions” or “Can understand in detail what is said to him/her in the standard spoken language”. At the workshop the teachers repeated this process, but this time they were all assessing the same small group of learners (the ones performing in the video recordings).

These two procedures provided many hundreds of teacher judgments. By analysing these, the researchers who conducted the study, Brian North and Günther Schneider, were able to discover how the CAN DO statements work in practice, and so to place them relative to each other on a numerical scale. This scale was to become the basis of the now familiar six levels, A1 to C2, of the CEFR.

This is one of the strengths of the CEFR. Previous scales had been constructed by asking experts to allocate descriptors to levels on the basis of intuition. The CEFR scale was the first to be based on an analysis of the way the descriptors work when they are actually used, with real learners.

For my PhD study I am replicating part of this ground-breaking research.

Why replicate, you might ask?

Firstly, thanks to the Internet I can reach teachers all over the world, whereas North and Schneider were restricted to one country (for good reasons).

Secondly, my study focusses on Writing. This is the skill for which there were the fewest descriptors in the original research (which focussed on Speaking) and which is least well described in the CEFR as a result.

Thirdly, I am including in my study some of the new descriptors which have been drafted recently in order to fill gaps in the CEFR in order to scale these along with the original descriptors. In short, as well as contributing to the validation of the CEFR, I will be helping to extend it.

If you teach English to adult or secondary-age learners, you could help with this important work. As with the original research, I’m asking teachers to use CAN DO statements to assess some of their learners, and to assess some samples of other learners’ performance (of Writing, this time, not Speaking).

If you might like to participate, please visit my website https://cefrreplication.jimdo.com/ where you can register for the project. From then on everything is done online and at times that suit you. You can also drop me a line there if you would like to find out more.


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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.


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Coming of Age as a Teacher

Teacher in classroomAnna Parisi is course tutor and materials designer for teacher development courses at ACCESS, in Greece. Anna has extensive experience in syllabus design and producing supplementary materials for private language institutions in Greece. Ahead of her webinars on 27th and 28th January, she gives us a preview of what she will be talking about…

I envy new teachers!

When you are a new teacher, everything you do is new. While ‘learning the ropes’, you constantly take risks and experiment, evaluate and take decisions. There are so many surprises: your students surprise you, you surprise yourself. It can be highly stressful but exciting because it’s an on-going process of observation and discovery.

We call this ‘enthusiasm’.

And then, routine starts settling in. We know we have to cover the curriculum no matter what, finish the book, and after so much trial and error we know what works best ( well, most of the time) so why take risks?  We change our routines when something goes seriously wrong or when we are bored out of our wits.

We call this ‘experience’.

Occasionally, both enthusiastic new teachers and experienced old-hands attend conferences, listen to experts and take notes. Later, we may use 1 or 2 ideas in class but generally we find ’there is no time’, ‘you can’t do this in the real world’ as real students often respond in a different way to what we want them to.

We also share fabulous ideas and photographs on the social media; we follow gurus and mentors online in search of general truths and successful practices. But still most of our issues in the classroom remain unresolved, and out of date or over-demanding curricula remain in place.

In the meantime, there is so much that goes unacknowledged, devalued or ignored: teachers’ tacit knowledge, the knowledge that teachers have acquired through the years but find it difficult to articulate or transmit.

While PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) have helped in this respect with sharing lots of ideas, thoughts and insights, teaching lives as depicted online have left a lot feeling they are missing out on developments or even with undeserved feelings of inadequacy. This wealth of ideas from teachers, trainers, authors is a host of wonderful recipes but not a better diet overall.

The gap between theory and practice remains as large as ever, published material sometimes seems to come from a parallel universe, and although everything takes place for the good of students, they are not part of the decision making and are not even asked what they think some or most of the time.

For teachers to take control and have greater professional responsibility over what we do, small scale teacher-led research is the next step in teacher development.

Why research?

Research is by definition questioning, challenging preconceptions, discovering, experimenting. Teacher-led research is action taking place where the action is: in the EFL classroom. If we, teachers, would like to see change and improvement then we are the best placed to initiate and undertake it. If we want greater autonomy, we will have to seek and welcome greater responsibility.

If we believe that we, teachers, should be involved in curricula change then we ‘need to take a critical and experimental approach to our classrooms’ (Nunan 1989). Solutions to practical problems in the classroom can rarely be imported from outside the classroom. It’s the teacher who is best placed to investigate and resolve issues by taking some course of action.  By researching our own classes we can better understand our own classroom procedures. We can become better able to assess what actually happens in the classroom as opposed to our own assumptions about what happens.  Teacher-led, classroom based research also means consulting our students, understanding and catering for their differences.

But what does teacher-led classroom based research involve?

Carrying out research should be a collective project, not a solitary task.  It’s really about discovering, sharing and transmitting knowledge, problem-solving. It’s an integral part of teacher development. Carrying out such a project can be a collective experience inclusive of all teachers in all stages of professional development. Teachers being part of this experience is the heart of a collective, teacher-led research project.

In the upcoming webinar, we’ll look at some of the basics of teacher-led classroom based research and how it can transform our teaching lives. You’ll be surprised! You can register for the webinar here.

References

Nunan, D.  and Bailey, K.M. 2008 . Exploring Second Language Classroom Research : A Comprehensive Guide. Boston: Heinle

Nunan, D. 1989. Understanding Language Classrooms . Cambridge : Prentice Hall International


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So you think you can write?

Close up of pen on paperEver thought about writing your own teaching materials? Stephen Greene is an English language teacher, teacher trainer, and materials developer. Here, he takes us through the process he undertook to write his first published materials.

I have always written materials for my students. My first job was in a school in Poland where we had a grand total of two resource books to help us. The fact the course books we had ordered didn’t turn up until almost the end of the first term meant that we had very little choice but to get creative.

There are many reasons why we occasionally need to look outside the course book, but for me one of the main reasons is just the fun and the interest of doing it. I simply love writing for my students.

When OUP offered me the chance to co-write the Teacher’s Pack for Cambridge English Proficiency Masterclass with Jeanette Lindsey-Clark, I jumped at the chance. I thought to myself that all I would have to do was replicate my endeavours over the last 15 years, but on a grander scale. I could write a book, no problem. It turned out that I had a lot to learn.

Doing your research

Normally, I just wrote. I knew my students, my syllabus and my course book. I knew the strengths and weaknesses of all of them. If there was something lacking, and I felt inspired, I would sit down at my computer and write something to make up for it.

But when writing on this project I had to study. I needed to study the brief from the publisher in detail. I had to go through the Student’s Book to understand how it had been put together and the methodology that the author had used. I also had to check the changes in the Cambridge English: Proficiency (CPE) exam and ensure I understood what the new questions demanded from the candidates. And all of this before I could even start doing any writing.

Constrained creativity

A number of times I had a great idea and spent some time developing it only to realise that it didn’t fit the criteria I was supposed to be working to. I found this to be one of the more difficult aspects of writing for somebody else; coming up with ideas wasn’t the hard part. Instead, coming up with ideas that fit the requirements of the project constrained and restricted my creativity. After a while, though, this restriction actually led to a better focus.

Being disciplined

The romantic image I had of sitting down at my computer and letting the creative juices flow through me to the screen just didn’t happen. Or at least, when it did happen it was as a result of being very disciplined and working through the times when I just couldn’t think of what I was supposed to write about. Balancing writing with teaching, family and having some sort of life isn’t easy so I often had to force myself to stay up until the early hours of the morning to keep to schedule.

Deadline is king

One of my favourite (non-ELT) writers, Douglas Adams, had a thing about deadlines: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

This might be fine for a famous author, but for the likes of me, struggling to even get one book published, this was never going to be possible. If there is one thing that is going to make an editor angry with you and so not invite you back to the party it is to miss a deadline. Just don’t do it, under any circumstances.

The results

Despite the hard work and the steep learning curve the whole process was worth every minute. I learned an incredible amount about the publishing process and I believe this has made me a better teacher because I clearer insight as to why certain things have been selected in course books.

The discipline, focus and awareness of objectives have also improved the writing I do for my students and I feel sure that my personal materials are of a much higher standard now. I am a much better writer now, but I know I still have a lot more to learn.

This article first appeared in the September 2013 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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How to Teach English Infographic

Over at Kaplan International, they’ve been finding out how people learn English.

They surveyed more than 500 ESL teachers from around the world to discover what tools they use to enhance their lessons.

Take a look at the results in this infographic, originally posted on the Kaplan blog.

Do the results surprise you? Leave a comment below.

How to Teach English Inforgraphic