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How good a teacher are you?

Teacher writing on blackboardRobert McLarty, Head of Professional Development at OUP, gives a brief introduction to the European Profiling Grid (EPG) project to help improve the quality and effectiveness of language training.

I play golf in the most average way possible.  I have been at the same level of golf since I left school around forty years ago. If I were learning English, my teacher would already have placed me right in the middle of the intermediate plateau. Luckily, golf is only a hobby so I don’t have to justify my level to anyone but myself.

Language teachers, on the other hand, have always found it hard to assess themselves. For a long time we have had the debate about native speakers as opposed to non-native speakers. Then there have been disputes as to whether knowledge of the language or ability to illustrate that knowledge and pass it on is the more important skill.

There are a number of initial teaching qualifications for language teachers, others for more experienced ones, and then a wide range of post-graduate qualifications. But how much do they improve the quality of someone’s teaching? Experience seems valued until the teacher has been somewhere too long; inexperience is valued because it is usually added to with zest and vigour. But there is always a question mark over the rookie teacher, despite the fact that they innovate without meaning to and often bring genuine passion to the classroom.

Within teaching establishments there is usually a wide range of teacher profiles with a completely individual mix of talents and qualities, strengths and occasional weaknesses. That is what’s so engaging about language teaching – but it also brings its own risk. Other professions can increase the value and the price of their service simply by having a linear progression of qualifications. This will never work for education. There are too many other factors to take into consideration.

So, when a school claims that their teaching staff is qualified and experienced, what does this mean? Does it necessarily add value? Why are they better than the competition or better than the new school, which is lowering its prices but offering the same level of service?

EPG Project logo

Image courtesy of EPG

Against this backdrop, a very exciting project has been run by a group of institutions from across Europe who have developed the European Profiling Grid. This is a framework of competences for language teachers available as an online assessment tool. The same tool can be used by the teachers themselves, their trainers or their managers.

By plotting your level to a range of descriptors in four main areas, you arrive at a profile (often jagged) of your teaching as it is today. You are encouraged to assess your training and experience, including observed teaching, your teaching skills along with other life skills such as intercultural competence, your digital literacy, and your professionalism.

Discussing it with a group of managers, trainers and teachers at the recent IATEFL BESIG conference, a number of conclusions were drawn. There was consensus that it will be a useful tool for professional development in that it shows where a teacher needs further training; it will act as a good starting point for an appraisal conversation; it is a useful official document confirming a teacher’s competence at any given time, and; as a collection of records it will give an accurate profile of an institution’s professional knowhow and experience – very useful when bidding for new business or preparing for inspections.

The same discussion raised doubts about the lack of personal skills areas in the grid – communication, collaboration, charisma, creativity and so on – and it’s hoped that these will be addressed at some stage. It was also noted that schools could misuse the grid in a judgmental way, which might actually be damaging for a particular teacher.

As part of a professional development portfolio, however, the grid got a big welcome. In much the same way as the CEFR was greeted with caution and grew into a vital benchmarking system for language learners, I expect the EPG will be in common parlance in the teaching world within a short space of time.

The first iteration is now available on the EPG Project website. Try it out and submit feedback to the project team.


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EAP – daunting, dry, difficult, and dull?

Bored studentRobert McLarty, Head of Professional Development at Oxford University Press, considers why English for Academic Purposes is often perceived as dull and difficult, and presents some tips for overcoming that perception.

I was recently asked to do a talk in Turkey to a group of university teachers. The organisers wanted me to talk about English for Academic Purposes but to make it interesting! Apparently EAP has a bit of a reputation with both learners and teachers for being Daunting, Dry, Difficult and Dull. I talked to one of our leading EAP authors, Edward de Chazal, and together we found a way of beating the four Ds with the five vowels – A, E, I, O, U.

As the framework for the talk developed it also became clear that one of the main reasons for this perception of EAP is due to the abundance of long reading texts at the core of many courses. Reading is important but there are many other skills needed. Let me take you through what we came up with.

A is for Authenticity

Not just in texts, but in tasks. One of the overriding messages of Oxford’s approach to EAP is to introduce our learners to authentic texts and in particular the types of text they will encounter in a further education setting. This does not mean newspaper articles, short stories and amusing blogs – it does mean academic texts from textbooks and, at higher levels, abstracts and journal articles. It also means authentic lectures and for our new series we filmed Oxford University lecturers talking on a wide range of subjects for up to thirty minutes. Our authors built interesting tasks around the lectures which our users get on a DVD packaged with the books. What is amazing is how a totally authentic lecture on, for example, stroke medicine, the United Nations, community ecology, etc. can be made accessible with well thought-out scaffolding. Unscripted lectures have all the features of speech our future students will have to deal with if they do their degree course in English.

E is for Engagement

So many learners in EAP classes are not motivated. They are keen to do the preparatory year to enter university but aren’t necessarily interested in the English language. It was often a subject they struggled with, or didn’t like (or both) at school and it is difficult sometimes for teachers to rid them of those memories and that baggage. One way of engaging them is to make them think about a subject, an issue or a problem and to encourage them to think critically by asking the next logical question, bringing in their own knowledge of the world, challenging the ideas the text or the lecture provokes.

A simple exercise for this is to take some sentences from a range of topics such as this:

  1. Deforestation can be caused by soil erosion
  2. The clinical trial failed because the incorrect dosage was given.
  3. Lack of energy is one possible effect of a low-calorie diet.
  4. Unemployment and poverty are likely to result in serious social problems.
  5. Dodos were fat, slow and easy to shoot, which is why they became instinct.
  6. Musicians can develop hearing problems such as tinnitus, owing to repeated exposure to amplified music.

Students choose the sentences which interest them most and analyse them for cause and effect. Later on in the lesson get them to recall the meaning of the sentences – sometimes they will remember them word for word, but what you actually want is for them to recall the facts and paraphrase them. This is proof that they have fully understood the ideas behind the sentence. You can then look at the cause/effect language such as because, owing to, which is why, results in, etc. knowing that their brains are fully engaged.

I is for Independence

The ultimate aim is to encourage autonomy in our learners. They won’t be around forever and you certainly won’t be there to help them later, so you need to prepare them, train them to study independently, to take and organize notes, use dictionaries, store vocabulary, think for themselves, evaluate things and do research without always resorting to Google. Encouraging them to do project work, reporting back, peer teaching are all ways of building this feeling of independence. Making their own videos or infographics with engaging, memorable content or creating a class blog are other ways of developing independence.

O is for Objectives

The good thing about many EAP classes is that the objectives are very transparent. If we make the objectives realistic and attainable then we have more chance of succeeding. The problem arises when the department, the faculty teachers, the parents, and the learners themselves have a different take on the objectives. You, as the language teacher, are often stuck in the middle. Overambitious IELTS targets, overemphasis on grammar in the end of year test, a reluctance to work outside of class are just three examples of factors that can make your teaching difficult and the objectives unattainable. Quantitative objectives which only deal with end of course results without any qualitative data mean that the course can also become too rigid.

We had too much choice for U.

Unique, Useful, Universal. Each learner in an EAP class is unique, with a different set of abilities and goals to his or her peers. How can teachers find tasks and activities which are useful to such a wide range? This is one of the secrets to successful teaching and I think it often happens by chance. An activity can sometimes take on a life of its own and a group sees its usefulness immediately. Feedback on such activities is useful. Why did that lesson work? What was its value? Would you like more of this type of lesson? These are really useful feedback questions. We are always seeking lessons and activities that have universal appeal. It is difficult to get topics, skills, new language items that have guaranteed universal appeal but that doesn’t stop us looking.

As you wrestle with making EAP more appealing, think of A, E, I, O, U. Nobody wants to be thought of as dull, difficult or dry!


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If there were no books…

Student with iPadRobert McLarty, Publishing Manager for Business English and ESP at Oxford University Press, explores the increasing use of digital media in education, the effect it has on students, and how it will affect teachers in the future.

A couple of years ago a group of schools in California decided to pilot a new approach to the teaching of algebra. Providing the students with iPads along with an interactive full curriculum app, the year-long pilot was to compare the results of a print-driven approach and a tablet-led one. Both groups had experienced teachers but the results were convincing. Over 78% of the “digital” students scored A or B compared with 59% using the “old school” approach.

Let us not worry how similar algebra and English are – they are both subjects which most students will need at some stage in their careers. They are also both subjects where some students “get it” immediately and others don’t. They are also often taught by experts who find it hard to understand why learners struggle with some basic concepts. Why is a tense continuous? When do we need to use brackets?

What the application clearly does is help the teachers explain, illustrate, practise and correct in a more effective way than print materials. It hasn’t replaced maths teachers, it has actually enhanced them and made them more effective, interesting and, probably, productive. Obviously the gadget itself has more immediate appeal to most sixteen year olds than a book would have. What we cannot deny, however, is that the modern generation of both learners and new teachers are used to the richness and range which digital offers us. If we can harness that technology and marry it to an efficient teaching methodology then surely we will have moved English Language Teaching on in much the same way the OALD, Headway or Practical English Usage did at different times?

The algebra app offers a personalized learning experience; in other words, each student doing an appropriate task for their level at the right stage of the lesson. It offers video tutorials where the new point is explained so that those who didn’t get it, or missed the lesson or want to go through it again, can do just that. It offers step-by-step examples and quizzes to test learning. It offers homework tasks with instant feedback prescribing remediation or intervention as required. It also offers a community approach to learning where you learn from your peers as much as from your teacher. Its three stage approach is based around teaching, review and assessment, a very similar methodology to our standard direct method approach. So what will it take to provide a similar course for English language learning?

A lot of good content has been developed for English language practice and reference but there is less which can be effectively used by teachers actually in the classroom during the teaching stages of their lessons. I don’t believe this would actually be a book on screen. It might well borrow the aims, objectives, activities and syllabus of a book but would probably deliver them in a way which suited a modern digitally equipped classroom where the tablet will replace the book.

Some weeks ago I asked a group of teachers what they would do if they were trying to teach a language point but there were no books. The stages they opted for, and the methodology they chose sounds very familiar. First select an image, video, dialogue or text which contextualises the language. Next engage the class, check their current knowledge and introduce the new items. After that they would provide useful extra practice at a variety of sub-levels before encouraging the students  to experiment and find further opportunities, texts or examples to help them personalise and remember.

A lot of great content is available on the internet but there is too much for a busy teacher to deal with and most of it is raw and unedited. What a good teacher of the future will need, and can then provide to their learners, is enough coherent learning objects to suit the needs of their learners, to keep the class engaged, to help them learn and practise new language all within a well-tested and graded framework provided by an expert in the provision of learning materials. These objects will be for use both in and out of classroom, allowing us finally to arrive at the ultimate course, designed to fit each individual learner with the perfect combination of print and digital publishing.

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English is coming home

Robert McLarty is Publishing Manager for Business English and ESP at Oxford University Press. In this post he discusses English language teaching in the world of football.

It’s summer, the sun is occasionally shining between showers, and there is a pan-European economic crisis.  Yet for Europe this summer only one thing matters: football. At Oxford University Press’  Headquarters in Oxford, every office seems to have its own sweepstake. Editors, administrators and designers talk of little else. Watching the players on the pitch, everyone in publishing is wondering, “So what language do they all speak out there?”

Is the Slovenian referee B2? As the players shake hands or whisper in ears at corners, what language are they speaking? Did the French team understand Mr Hodgson’s instructions shouted from the sideline? How does an Italian coach deal with his Irish team? What do the Dutch call a stepover or a nutmeg? As the players talk to the press, have treatment, sign autographs or simply order coffee in the team hotel, how much English do they need?

As Sir Alex Ferguson says in the foreword to English for Football, “Football today is a truly global phenomenon. Just as in business or science, in football too, people increasingly tend to use English to communicate”. So just like any other form of ESP, if you are going to operate within this industry, there is a particular lexical set to learn, there are contexts for grammar which make learning more memorable and there are idioms and expressions used within the game which have to be understood.

Before a player’s first training session he needs to know the English for all the kit, equipment and pitch markings such as bibs, cones and box.  He needs to know the parts of the body so that he can describe any aches, pains or injuries. He needs to understand “Drop back! Man on! or Cut inside”. He also needs a context for grammar. For years we have struggled to teach the present perfect with the concept of unfinished time. In football, a season or a tournament is a perfect example of finished or unfinished time. Compare “How many goals has Messi scored this season?” with “How many goals did Messi score last season?”

Anyone who likes football will enjoy learning English through football, just as many kids learn music or maths through other languages. For once we have a book where age does not matter. Whether they are seven or seventy people can enjoy it. As I came through Frankfurt airport last week an official came across a copy in my bag. He took it out and started looking through it.  I offered it to him. “For my son,” he said. “Sure,” I thought.

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Welcome to Brazil

Businesswoman against the Sao Paolo skylineRobert McLarty, Publishing Manager for Business English and ESP at Oxford University Press, discusses the language challenges facing Brazil with the upcoming World Cup and Olympics in 2014 and 2016.

From the minute I arrived at passport control at Guarulhos airport in Sao Paulo earlier this year I acted rather like the stereotypical British tourist assuming that everyone speaks English and if they don’t, then all I have to do is say the words slowly or loudly and they will get my drift. It doesn’t work.

At my hotel I was shown to my room but language problems began as soon as the explanation for the air-conditioning started. When the chambermaid wanted to clean my room I resorted to hand gestures to make myself understood (I will leave in 10 minutes!). In the supermarket the check-out assistant pointed out that my three pack of yoghurt was a broken six-pack and wondered whether I wanted the other three. This particularly difficult conversation held the queue up for a good five minutes but no one got impatient as they might just have done in Oxford if my equivalent (zero beginner Portuguese) had been holding up the line at Tesco. Ironically the worst breakdown came in McDonalds where I pointed to a McChicken, and said “McChicken”. Unfortunately the McWorker was so overcome by the sight of a gringo in her restaurant that she lost it completely and started to giggle. When I took a taxi to the airport the next day to fly to Belo Horizonte, the driver was extremely polite and friendly but even “forty reais” was beyond his active vocabulary.

All of the above will be repeated a million times over by other tourists with both the World Cup and the Olympics to be hosted by Brazil in 2014 and 2016. So how can a country of over 190 million people improve the English language ability of this key segment of employees particularly when so many of them do not have high school education and are probably not our typical language learner? What kind of training do they need? How will they respond to a direct or a communicative method? How important will translation be? How much can they cope with in one lesson? These are important questions which must be answered and acted upon – soon.

Our new series, Welcome to Brazil, tries to address some of these issues. With teachers in Brazil we have talked about the need for very small doses of new language, the need for continual revision and recycling, the need for drills and constant controlled practice, the anxiety students will feel if the lesson is too difficult and the very real question of how long it will take them to get to a respectable level of English where they can ask and answer simple questions, give little bits of information, explain basic procedures and essentially add a little zest of the English language to their innate sociability and charm.

In many ways Brazil is in a fabulous position. They are the major country in South America, have a growing economy, are among the world leaders in aviation, beverages, coffee, oil and gas, are innovators in recycling and ecofuels and have enormous growth potential as a tourist destination. To be totally successful, however, they will need to find the solution to their English language conundrum.

What do you think? Should English-speaking tourists expect a certain level of English language proficiency among the native service industry workers of another country? Share your thoughts below.

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