I recently participated in a LIVE event on social media to discuss questions about Classroom management and group dynamics for teenagers with Montse Costafreda. This topic has always been important because of the challenges it presents, and opportunities for development it provides. Over the years the idea about our role as a teacher has changed in terms of classroom management, from a set of actions to maintain discipline, to ways of creating a positive atmosphere. Continue reading
Every teacher would love to see their students totally engrossed in the task at hand, asking meaningful and pertinent questions, and then looking for the answers themselves. Sound like an impossible dream? Perhaps not! Inquiry-based learning seeks to do just that – engaging students in their learning process by having them asking questions that are meaningful for them and then helping them to find the answers.
What is inquiry-based learning?
We all know that engaging students in their learning process improves their learning. Having students listening quietly to our explanations and then asking questions usually produces complete silence, and maybe another long explanation on our part. Inquiry-based learning turns this process around, presenting students with an interesting topic, helping them identify what they already know, and then having them ask the questions that are important to know more.
What is the teacher’s role?
This doesn’t mean that the teacher’s role ends with presenting a topic. On the contrary, there is an important and central role for the teacher to play. It simply has been removed from center stage to the side or back of the room, a role more of monitor and facilitator than only that of a provider of information. It is important to identify where the students’ questions are taking them and make sure that they aren’t coming up with misinformation or a wrong idea about how the world, and English, work!
Empowering students to shape their future
What will students need more in the future, the ability to take notes and repeat what the teacher tells them, or to be able to find answers to questions that are important for them? I think we can all agree on the second reason.
Part of this involves having students work together collaboratively, to develop the skills needed to work with others, with each person making key contributions to solving the task.
Many teachers find it difficult to let go of control in the class, perhaps thinking that their students don’t have the necessary level of maturity or motivation to work in a more self-directed way. This might come from our previous experience when we have tried to encourage greater student autonomy and not found a very positive response.
Large classes and strict supervision from authorities might strengthen this idea that a more student-centered class is not possible.
I would encourage you to try an inquiry-based approach in developing a learner-centered environment. It doesn’t have to be a choice of all or nothing at all but can be done in small steps. Try starting by having your students be the ones to ask a question about the topic the lesson centers on. If the topic is Wild animals, have them each write down something they know about wild animals and something they would like to find out about them. Using K-W-L charts is an excellent way to help them visualize the information.
Seeing the benefits
Using inquiry-based learning in the classroom will help your students feel more engaged in the class, and more in charge of their own learning process. They realize that they are learning things they want to know, rather than just mechanically repeating what someone else thinks they should know. This will encourage them to see learning as a life-long activity, rather than just some boring classroom requirement.
Inquiry-based learning in the Secondary classroom
Secondary age learners are more mature and aware of their learning than younger learners. This can help develop greater autonomy in these learners. Providing opportunities to reflect on their learning is also important at this age. This can be done through self-assessment activities, or specifically designed questions that allow students to see their progress, and how they made that progress. Fostering these aspects (autonomy and reflection) can increase their motivation for learning in general, and learning English in particular. They can also see a closer link to what they are learning and what happens in their lives outside of school, opening their awareness of global skills that they need to acquire. Providing our learners with more opportunities to experiment with the language, and make decisions themselves also shifts the responsibility of learning to the learners themselves.
Are you interested in teaching with a course that uses an inquiry-based approach? You can find our new title, Oxford Discover Futures, here:
Barbara Bangle is originally from the United States but has lived and worked in Mexico for many years. She is the former director of the CELe language institute at the University of the State of Mexico (UAEMex) and has spent the past 35 years both teaching English and working in the field of Teacher Education.
Graded readers then and now
Using graded readers to help learners to improve their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills is not a recently discovered English teaching technique. In the 1920s, for instance, Dr Michael West edited a series called New Method Supplementary Graded Readers (Longman) with exactly this aim, and these were not the first simplified story books for foreign learners of English. Nowadays, most ELT publishers produce a wide range of readers designed to appeal to different age groups. Oxford University Press, for example, publishes both Bookworms and Dominoes for teenage readers.
21st century skills
The idea of teaching 21st century skills is relatively new. What do we mean by 21st century skills? Although there are different definitions, most people agree the following four skills areas (the four ‘C’s) are at the heart of 21st century learning:
- Collaboration (with students working effectively in teams, groups, or pairs)
- Critical thinking (with students questioning content, and solving problems, rather than just accepting and learning facts by heart)
- Creativity (with students using their imagination to produce something new)
- Communication (with students transmitting and receiving spoken, written and mixed-media messages effectively)
The following three ‘C’s are also sometimes included under the 21st century skills umbrella:
- Computer literacy (with students undertaking online research, word-processing, the production of digital presentations, video clips, audio recordings, etc.)
- Cultural and global awareness (with students learning about other cultures and the world)
- Civics, citizenship and ethics (with students learning about society and social values)
Incorporating a focus on 21st century skills like these into classes based around graded readers can combine new and familiar lesson elements in fresh ways which are really engaging for students – especially teenagers!
When designing extensive reading lessons for learners of English from other language backgrounds, we should naturally provide support. This support should enable students to complete the reading-related tasks that we set them. It can take many different forms – for instance, with a fictional text:
- activating the language learners may need to understand the story
- raising learner awareness of the time and place of the story, especially if these are unfamiliar
- encouraging cognitive skills like prediction and empathy to help learners enter more fully into the story
Of course, choosing a story text which is simple enough for learners to read at speed without a dictionary can help to make the task of reading more achievable. This is where the carefully graded levels of a series like Bookworms or Dominoes can greatly help the teacher. Clear levelling helps teachers to select suitable reading materials for different classes (in a ‘class reader’ approach – where all students in a class are reading the same story). Clear levelling can also help teachers to suggest appropriate books for individual students to read (in a ‘readers library’ approach, where different students in a class are reading different stories according to level and taste).
Three different stages
The three classic stages (and stage aims) of a reading lesson – using a story text as a class reader – are as follows:
- Before reading (aims: to arouse curiosity and prepare learners to make sense of the story)
- While reading (aims: to help learners understand the story so far and make them curious about what comes next in the story)
- After reading (aims: to encourage learners to respond to the story through thinking, speaking, writing, or creating something inspired by the story)
Each of these stages will naturally focus on different 21st century skills. ‘Before reading’ tasks will often involve thinking skills (hypothesizing, predicting, questioning). ‘While reading’ tasks will often involve communication and collaboration skills (discussing the story so far, or the story yet to come, in pairs, groups, or as a class). ‘After reading’ tasks will often involve creative self-expression and maybe also computer skills (for online research, making and delivering PowerPoint presentations, word processing and designing texts for poster display, etc.)
Bill Bowler is a founder series editor, with his wife, Sue Parminter, of Dominoes Graded Readers (OUP). He has authored many readers himself. He has also visited many countries as a teacher trainer, sharing ideas about Extensive Reading. Bill has contributed to the book Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom (OUP). Two of his Dominoes adaptations (The Little Match Girl and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) were Language Learner Literature Award Finalists. Born in London, he now lives in Spain.
Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom (Revised Edition) – Day, R., Bassett, J. (et al) – Oxford University Press (2016)
ELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes, looks at different approaches to lesson planning and their effectiveness as teaching tools ahead of his webinar on the subject on the 19th and 22nd of January.
Here’s a photograph of a colleague’s lesson plan. It’s written on a piece of note paper taken from a hotel room and was used with a class of students at a business college. In many ways it breaks the rules of what we might call ‘lesson planning’. After all, where are the aims, the timings, the class profile, the anticipated problems and all those other things we expect of a formally written lesson plan? The only thing we can really tell from it is that the lesson had something to do with CV writing.
The lack of detail in this particular lesson is of course because the teacher in question didn’t write it for anyone else to read. As she explains, it was for her own personal use: “I treat lesson plans like shopping lists – I write them at home in preparation for the task ahead and then don’t look at them after that. The helpful part for me is writing it down, not sticking to it.”
I think her ‘shopping list’ approach to planning is probably true for most teachers at a day-to-day level. We don’t have time to write long detailed documents with every step described in detail and – especially if we’re experienced – we don’t need to. As she says above, the ‘writing it down’ is not an end in itself, it’s just part of a longer thought process.
Because most teachers tend to plan in this less formalised way, there is often debate about – and sometimes criticism of – the more formalised type of planning that is expected on teacher training courses or when teachers are formally observed and assessed. Teachers sometimes wonder if the long hours spent writing detailed documents which predict what they might (or might not) do at every stage is time well spent.
I’d argue that on training courses it can be time well spent – especially for new and inexperienced teachers – because it’s a way to develop your thought process. However, I’d question whether a formally prepared lesson plan always has to take the shape of a page with rows and columns that a teacher is expected to fill in and rigidly follow.
In my webinar on this topic, I’ll propose that we take some fresh perspectives on lesson planning by varying our approaches and thought processes at the planning stage. I’ll present some alternative ways to develop lesson planning skills and I’ll demonstrate how visual thinking can help to aid your planning. Participants will also be invited to give their own perspective(s) on lesson planning.
If you’d like to sign up to join John Hughes’ free webinar on the 19th or 22nd of January, please follow the link below. We hope to see you there!
Students often find it difficult to engage with reading and writing instruction and practice, particularly when large, intimidating texts are involved. This is the third in our series of insight blog posts, aimed at helping teachers to overcome this problem. Following on from last week’s post, here are the Top 10 Tips for Using Literature (Part 2), from teacher-trainer Edmund Dudley.
- Exploit audio and video
Using literature in class does not always have to involve reading. Exploiting adaptations of literary classics on DVD or listening to extracts from audio books can be more motivating than working with texts only, especially if your students have negative associations with reading as an activity.
Alternatively, consider combining text and video in the same activity. For example, choose a short extract (max 2 min) from the DVD version of a work of literature, making sure it contains no dialogue. Play it to the class and ask them to describe what is happening and what they think is going to happen next. Then provide a gapped text from the book which corresponds to the scene the students have just watched. See if they can fill the gaps with an appropriate word. In each case, there can be more than one acceptable answer for any one gap.
- Get in the act
Experiment with different ways of responding to an extract, text or clip. For example, why not encourage students to perform a mini-drama or re-enactment of the scene you have been studying? Drama activities can be extremely motivating for students, especially if a variety of roles are made available which exploit the strengths and skills of different students. For example, not everyone has to be an actor; some students might prefer to work on the script, to design scenery illustrations, or to be the director.
You could even make a movie. These days, we do not need expensive camera equipment and the help of technicians in order to shoot film – many students have smartphones, which they can be encouraged to use in order to film performances. Upload the results to YouTube or a private data sharing site, and enjoy.
- Encourage students to write creatively
Does this sound too ambitious an aim? Well, if we ask our students each to write an entire short story in English, then perhaps it might be. On the other hand, a simple activity like ‘Write the first line’ works extremely well in class as an initial creative-writing task. Here is how it works:
Show the students the cover of a book and elicit some information about its plot, perhaps by using quiz questions (see tip 1). Do not let students open the book. Ask everyone in the group to imagine how they think the story begins. Provide them each with a slip of paper and ask them to write ‘their’ opening sentence. Meanwhile, write the actual opening line on another slip of paper.
When the students are ready, collect all the slips of paper, mix them up and read them out one by one. Students vote for which opening sentence they think is the best. The most gratifying feature of this activity is that the ‘real’ first line is rarely the one that gets the most votes. In this way, students gain a lot of confidence, which can be further harnessed in subsequent creative-writing activities.
- Get them talking
When we work with texts there is always a temptation to focus too much on comprehension; in extension activities, however, we need to make sure that we fire up students’ imagination as well. Design follow-up activities based on open-ended prompts. Aim to get students working together and give them plenty of scope to express their thoughts and opinions.
Try simple speaking activities which explore the possible opinions and motives of characters in the story you are looking at. Interviews, fishbowl debates and ‘empty chair’ activities can all motivate students to get involved and express their ideas, while also activating the language explored in the text. In the case of The Railway Children, for example (tip 3), the question ‘Was Peter right to steal the coal?’ could be the starting point for a whole-group follow-up speaking activity using one of these techniques.
- Make the most of art, illustrations and drawings
The illustrations contained in graded readers can be shown to students before reading as a way of generating interest in what happens. Encourage students to make speculations based on the illustrations and, if several illustrations from the same book are being used, invite students to order them and explain the possible chain of events.
Alternatively, get the students to respond to a text by creating artwork and illustrations of their own. For example, ask students to listen to an extract from the audio version of a story and get them each to sketch what is being described. Or you could ask students to design a poster for a film-version of the book, based on a striking incident in the text they have been working with.
As we have seen, bringing literature into the EFL classroom does not necessarily mean dull and difficult lessons. Nor does it guarantee that students will be motivated and engaged. We need to choose texts, topics and tasks carefully, bearing in mind our students’ language level, needs and interests. Most of all, we should be careful about overdoing it: often the best way of raising interest in literature is leaving students wanting a little bit more.
We hope that you have enjoyed reading our series of Top 10 Tips.
To access the rest of the series or to find out more about insight, click here: https://elt.oup.com/feature/global/insight/