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How tablet devices can help with mixed ability classes

Indian woman a tablet PCShaun Wilden, a freelance teacher trainer and materials writer for OUP, considers how tablets and apps can help you encourage the less confident students in your class.

As a teacher trainer, I’ve often been asked how to deal with mixed ability classes. The asking teacher is generally of the opinion that mixed ability is something unusual. To me, it’s always seemed the norm, perhaps best summed up by this near twenty-year old quote.

We do not teach a group but (up to) thirty separate people. Because of this the problem of mixed abilities in the same room seems absolutely natural, and the idea of teaching a unitary lesson – that seems odd.”
Rinvolucri 1986, quoted in Podromou: Mixed Ability Classes

Mixed ability classes bring with them a whole manner of challenges for teachers to overcome. Students who perceive themselves as weak are often the ones that go unnoticed, the ones that are too shy to ask, the ones that don’t ask for the listening exercise to be played again and the ones who feel the pace of the lesson is too fast for them. Of course, should a teacher try and slow it down then those who are more confident complain the pace is too slow. Teachers have always been creative in finding ways to overcome the mixed ability issue. Be it through adjustment of course materials by subtle adaptations and grading or imaginative regroupings during exercises.

If, like me, you spend a large amount of your time reading about and using tablets in education, you’re bound to have run across the idea that tablets are the saviour to all things mixed ability. This, of course, is not true. However, perhaps tablets do offer some genuine alternatives for a teacher and their class. While we’re still a long way from most schools having class sets of devices, over the last couple of years we have seen a slow move towards tablet-based course materials. While some view this negatively, there are immediate advantages for the mixed ability class. Take for example, a listening lesson. Typically, such a lesson is more akin to a listening test.

The teacher establishes context, does a variety of pre-listening exercises and then presses play. Playing a few times but generally working with the class as a whole. Here’s where the mixed ability student falls behind: not getting all the answers and not asking for it to be played again. A tablet-based coursebook and set of headphones are a step towards overcoming this. Since every student has a copy of the listening, control can be handed over to them and they can listen as much as they like (and no one will know how much they needed to listen).

In this example from English File Pre-Intermediate you can see how the student is able to control the listening themselves

In this example from English File Pre-Intermediate you can see how the student is able to control the listening themselves.

Staying on the topic of listening, adding audio to reading texts is another way to help some students. In a class you’ll have students who enjoy reading, some who enjoy listening and some who have difficulty with one or both. A tablet-based coursebook gives them the chance to do both, giving the students a choice they wouldn’t necessarily have. Having the choice makes such a task more amenable to a mixed ability class.

In this example from Solutions Pre-Intermediate, you can see how a student is able to listen and read.

In this example from Solutions Pre-Intermediate, you can see how a student is able to listen and read at the same time.

A tablet-based coursebook also gives every student a voice. Not literally, of course, but a voice when it comes to working with, for example, pronunciation. As a digital book can do more than simply have the printed word, the students at appropriate times can record themselves and listen to their own pronunciation when compared to a model. In a large class, it is difficult for a teacher to be able to hear and react to everyone. Recording also builds the student’s confidence as it acts as rehearsal time, so if they are then asked to say something in front of the class they feel more able to speak.

As you can see in this example, from English File pre-Intermediate, a student is able to record and play back their pronunciation.

As you can see in this example from English File Pre-Intermediate, a student is able to record and play back their pronunciation.

All these tools allow for self-pacing. The ability to work at one’s own pace is a key element of differentiated learning. However to be able to measure and then tailor learning, the teacher needs to be able to get feedback on how a student is doing. A tablet combined with cloud storage can add a digital equivalent to material adaptation; for example, a teacher can use a word processor to create individualised questions for a reading comprehension. Saving a copy of the questions for each student to access them, do the text and re-save via a cloud link on their tablet.

There are a number of apps that can be used on a tablet to achieve this. For example, Socrative, a student response system, is an app that allows a teacher to create exercises, quizzes and games that they can then get each student to do on their device. As they do it, Socrative gives feedback on each student and how they are doing. It provides the digital equivalent of ‘Do you understand?’. However, unlike when asking the question to the whole class, feedback is telling you exactly how each student is doing. Or to put it another way, the shy struggling student is not put on the spot in front of everyone. In a similar vein, an app such as Nearpod allows a teacher to create presentations that cater for a mixed ability classroom, creating lessons that include listening, video and presentations. The presentation is sent to the students’ device and while they are working the teacher can get instant feedback on how the student is doing.

Once a teacher has this feedback, they know who needs what help and where. They perhaps then can use a tablet’s screen recording ability to produce personalised instruction.

By this point you might be thinking that using the tablet in this way is turning the classroom from a place of communication into one where the students sit silently staring at tablet screens. However, that is assuming I am advocating these things are done for the whole lesson, which is not the case. In the listening, the individualised listening is a small portion of a larger lesson. With perhaps the pre- and post-listening tasks taking place as they usually would. Using the student response app is only done selectively, perhaps taking up only a few minutes of lesson time. Furthermore, such assumptions overlook a third way tablets can help address mixed ability: project work.

Project-based learning (PBL) is coming back into fashion as a result of what a tablet and its apps can do.

In most books on the subject of projects you’ll find reference to mixed ability:

…they allow learners with different levels of competence to co-operate on an equal basis in the completion of the tasks the project requires. This goes some way to solving the problems of mixed-ability classes.”
Projects with young learners: Phillips, Burwood and Dunford, p7.

Project work leads to personalisation – another factor known to help confidence in mixed ability classes. All tablets can record sound, take pictures, and record video, giving the students tools that were previously difficult to get either in or out of the classroom. Collaborative projects involving things such as podcasting, film making, and digital stories need more than language skills to be successful. They involve good direction, a steady hand with the camera and an eye for design, so those that lack confidence in language can gain it by bringing those skills to the project.

An article in the Times educational supplement lists three categories of differentiation to help deal with mixed ability:

  • differentiation by task, which involves setting different tasks for pupils of different abilities
  • differentiation by support, which means giving more help to certain pupils within the group
  • differentiation by outcome, which involves setting open-ended tasks and allowing pupil response at different levels.

While teachers have been finding ways to do these things in the language classroom for years, using tablets can perhaps do this to levels previously never considered. Used effectively, and at the right moments in a lesson, they can help overcome what many teachers see as the difficulty of teaching mixed ability students.


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10 (mostly) free apps for creative language learning

Girl in park with tablet computerHaving shown us 10 free apps for teachers to use for planning and classroom management, Shaun Wilden returns with 10 more apps to aid language learning in creative ways.

More and more teachers and schools are using mobile devices and tablets as a tool in and out of the classroom.  While the use of mobile assisted language learning is not just about using apps, it would be remiss to ignore the wealth of resources that are available.

Apps, if chosen wisely, can provide not only engagement and language practice but also create new ways of doing tasks. Utilising either the teacher or school’s tablet or employed as part of a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy, apps provide an excellent addition to a teacher’s toolbox. Actually, like any tool, it is not the app that matters but what you do with it. If chosen for clear educational purposes, apps can be motivational, lead to creativity and enhance student collaboration.

With thousands to choose from, coming up with a list of ten is quite challenging. We’ve tried to choose a range from those that give a new spin on an old activity, e.g. Bill Atkinson’s photocard that allows you to create postcards, through to those such as HP Reveal which brings augmented reality to the classroom.  While some of you might complain not all the apps are free, those that do have a price are chosen because of their versatility and ability to be used time and time again.

Bitsboard app iconBitsboard

Free. Available on iOS.

Bitsboard is an example of a flashcard app. It is a very easy way for you and/ or the students to create flashcards of the vocabulary topics in a course book. Either by using images in the app library or by adding your own, you can create flashcards on any topic. As well as using images, the app allows you to record the word so the flash card is both visual and aural. Having created the flashcards the app provides nine mini-games for the students to practice the vocabulary.

Camera app iconCamera apps

Available on iOS (as default) and Android.

Creativity is not all about the apps. All tablets have at least one camera in them and the power of images and video should not be overlooked. Using the camera makes for a simple but effective piece of homework. For example, taking a photo of your free time, turning vocabulary lists into visual dictionaries or taking a photo to contextualise a language point. The video camera can be used to bring role plays to life.

Comic Life

£2.99. Available on iOS and desktop.

This app is an excellent way to get students creatively writing. Using photographs the students have taken on their phones or digital cameras, they can create comics. The students simply drag and drop the photos they wish to use into a template and then use speech bubbles and captions to create the text for the story. Once finished, the comic can be read on the tablet or saved as a PDF.

HP Reveal

Free. Available on iOS and Android.

Augmented reality is tipped to be “the next big thing”. This app is an easy introduction to augmented reality providing a unique way to bring students work to life. The easy-to-use app works by overlaying video on a chosen image. By doing this students can bring written work to life. This can be used, for example, to create video book reviews of school readers, give audio commentary to a piece of written work and even be used to develop student created information guides for school.

PhotoCard app iconPhotoCard by Bill Atkinson

Free. Available on iOS.

Many course books include postcard writing in them though in reality, it is likely that our students haven’t sent a postcard in a long while. This app is an engaging way for students to send a digital postcard. Though there are many postcard apps for both iOS and Android, they often involve a cost for printing and sending of the postcard. In this app you can simply email your postcard. Being able to use your own photographs and also include voice recording make this a versatile app for creative students.

Pic Collage

Free. Available on iOS and Android.

Pic collage is an example of a collage maker, of which there are many in both stores. A collage maker allows you and the students to gather photos together into one image. .  A student can use their mobile device to take photos on a topic for example, ‘English words in their town’.  The photos are then put into a collage to make a poster.  Students can be tasked to make tasks similar to those that appear in oral exams by again taking photos then combining them into a collage. Handing task creation over to the students is an excellent way to increase motivation and engagement.

Puppet Pals 2 app iconPuppetpals 2

£2.99 (though you can download the original for free). Available on iOS.

This is a very popular app with teachers who teach children though its charm will spark creativity in anyone. Basically, the app allows you to make an animated movie. You can choose from a wide variety of characters, locations, vehicles and music. You can also take a photograph of yourself and animate that. Using the characters in the app, students can tell and record their stories. These can be saved and shared.

Rory’s Story Cubes

£1.49. Available on iOS and Android.

This is the app of the long-established cube story game.  By shaking your devise you get a random selection of 9 cubes.  These can be used for a number of classroom activities.  The cubes provide prompts for language practice e.g. linking two of the cubes together using a grammatical structure. The 9 cubes can be used as prompts for story writing or collaborative storytelling.

Socrative

Free. Available on iOS and Android.
NB: there are two apps you need for Socrative – student and teacher.

Socrative describes itself as a smart student response system. In real terms socrative is a way to set quizzes for your class. The quizzes can be answered on the students’ mobile devices or if a student doesn’t have a device, via the website. The quizzes can be multiple choice, written responses and also be image-based. The app can be used to review revise vocabulary and language points. The app aids differentiation as each student is responding through their own device and at their own pace. The teacher app provides you with a report of how each student did and allows you to get feedback from each student.

Spreaker

Free. Available on iOS and Android.

Spreaker is an app that turns your mobile device into a simple recording studio. It allows you to create an off-line recording for a podcast or even broadcast live online. Each recording can be up to 30 minutes in length. This is an excellent app for making podcasts. It can be used in many activities from creating audio dictionaries through to a weekly class radio podcast.


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10 free apps for teachers to use for planning and classroom management

We know teachers can find it hard to make time to plan their lessons, or to manage their classes both in and out of the classroom, so Shaun Wilden has compiled a list of his top 10 free apps to help make your planning more productive and time-efficient. You may also find some of our apps for learning English useful.

Over the last year there has been a large growth in the number of apps aimed at educators. There are now apps that can do everything from helping you plan your lesson to helping you take attendance. Though your school might not yet be ready to move into a paperless world; given you are likely to be carrying your mobile device with you to and from school there are a number that can make your life easier.

The apps I have chosen are ones you can use with a class on your own device. While you might not want to use all of the apps suggested, I hope the ones I have chosen will provide you with some useful tools as well as whet your appetite to discover others for yourself. The apps have been chosen to highlight the range of possibilities for a teacher. Some, like ‘Too nNisy’ provide a simple classroom management tool while others, like the ‘Evernote’ and ‘Dropbox’ help you keep track of notes and plans by synching with your computer or cloud. Apps like ‘Skitch’ allow you to write on photos, while an app like ‘iBolt’ can be a life saver when you want to use an online video but find yourself in a classroom without a connection.

ClassDojo app iconClassDojo

Available on iOS and Android.

ClassDojo is a classroom tool designed to help teachers improve student behaviour. It is particularly effective in young learner classes and is, essentially, the 21st-century version of a reward system. A teacher sets up their class, giving each student an avatar. Using your mobile device you can easily reward student behaviour, task completion and homework.  ClassDojo allows you to save, analyse and print reports on the class.

Dropbox app iconDropbox

Available on iOS and Android.

Dropbox is an example of cloud-based storage. If you use dropbox then rather than have your documents scattered over many devices, you can store them online and access them anywhere. It is also a great way to share files, photos and so on with students.

Edmodo app iconEdmodo

Available on iOS and Android.

Edmodo is becoming increasingly popular with teachers who want to collaborate with their students outside of the classroom. Edmodo provides a secure network for teachers and their students to collaborate and share content. Though also accessible from a computer, the Edmodo app allows you to access the network from anywhere.

Evernote app iconEvernote

Available on iOS and Android.

Many teachers have turned to this app as an effective way to lesson plan.  It is a note taking app that allows you to create notes that include text, photos, video and audio. Once created, Evernote synchs the note between your devices and your computer.  This makes it ideal for a teacher to plan their lessons, create to-do-lists and even store copies of documents that can be accessed anywhere.

iBolt app iconiBolt Video Downloader & Manager

Available on iOS.

This app is the solution to no Wi-Fi in the classroom when wanting to watch a video online. Ibolt allows you to download a video from a webpage. It is easy to use; simply type the URL into the Ibolt browser and press the download link.

Screen Chomp app iconScreenchomp

Available on iOS.

Screenchomp is an example of a screen recorder. You can find a number of examples of screen recorders on iTunes and each teacher has their favourite. Screenchomp is made by the same people who created Jing. I prefer it as there is no need to create an account and after recording you are given a link to your recording, which you can share with your students.  By recording your screen you can create personalised tutorials for your students or video explanations of language points. Screen recording is popular at the moment due to the interest in the ‘flipped classroom’ approach to teaching.

Skitch app iconSkitch

Available on iOS and Android.

A stand-alone app that is part of the Evernote suite of tools. Skitch allows you to annotate photographs, charts and PDF. This makes the app useful for highlighting, explaining, and for creating language practice activities. For example, the students can use the app to illustrate both grammar and vocabulary.

TeacherKit app iconTeacherKit

Available on iOS.

TeacherKit is an app that covers most teachers’ classroom administration. TeacherKit manages everything from attendance records and grades through to seating charts. It also allows importing and exporting your files and synchs with dropbox. It’s an excellent way to keep track of all your students and reduce paperwork.

Too Noisy app iconToo Noisy

Available on iOS.

Too Noisy is an app to control noise levels in the classroom. Particularly affective for young learner classes, this app shows if there is too much noise. The app is simply a display of the noise level in a room. When there is a smiley face the levels are acceptable but if the noise becomes too loud the smile turned to a frown. However, in speaking activities, the teacher can encourage noise by asking the class to make sure the smile disappears.

Stop Go app iconStop Go! / Traffic Light Timer

Available on iOS and Android.

An app such as traffic light gives the teacher a different way to control and time activities. Setting the timer and the colour of lights shows to students if and how long they should be doing an activity. The red light is also useful for controlling when things can and can’t be used in the classroom. For example, putting the light on red when a student is not allowed to use their mobile phone. This can be particularly effective if the tablet is being projected.

Have you found other apps that have helped your lesson planning or classroom management? Let us know what they are in the comments below.


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The digital age of teaching: It’s time to evolve!

Woman looking at computerHaving taught us that you don’t need to be a digital expert to teach with digital, Shaun Wilden, a freelance teacher trainer and materials writer for OUP, discusses how embracing the digital age can help you and your students.

As teachers, our role needs to evolve from being the ‘fount’ and the ‘model’ to that of helper and guide. We need to link our classroom practice with the wider world, accept that the four walls are gone, and show students how to extend coursebook topics into the real world.  At the same time, we should acknowledge that for students to attain their full language learning potential it is important to let them loose on their own. Let them find out what works best for them.

I am sure we all agree that no matter how good a teacher we are, learning doesn’t take place solely within one lesson; we’d be fooling ourselves if we finished a 60-minute vocabulary lesson thinking our students would remember every word. Research indicates that 80 percent of learning is lost within 24 hours of the initial learning and yet, no matter how often we try to convey to students that opening their notebooks a little each day will help, we often seem to be fighting a losing battle.

But that’s understandable. With busy lives, students can be forgiven for not always opening their notebooks to study, or for not having their notebooks with them when they do have a moment. That’s life.

However, this is another area where digital material can help. Publishers now provide support to students in different ways. With workbook materials on CD-ROMs or online, students can load the material on to their computers and do the exercises in a five-minute break instead of having to remember where they put their paper notebook. Even the student who says they are too busy to study is running out of excuses. Listening materials, for example, can now be put on to mp3 players and Smartphones so students can learn on the move. And, of course, there’s a myriad of mobile learning apps now available.

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The digital age of teaching: You don’t need to be a digital expert

College student using computerShaun Wilden, a freelance teacher trainer and materials writer for OUP, gives us an insight into the role of the teacher in the digital age, as well as a reminder that you don’t need to know everything!

Twenty-first century teaching is no longer about the four walls of the classroom. There was a time when a learner of English had to rely almost solely on what went on within those walls. A really motivated learner might have been able to listen to the BBC World Service, see a film in English and, if they could afford it, buy an English newspaper or book, but the teacher’s role in the students’ language learning was key – they were the fount of all knowledge, the model for the language, the ‘one true source’. The classroom provided the space for the once, perhaps twice weekly, forays into an English-speaking world.

But that was before the coming of the digital age. Now, thanks to the Internet and the advent of digital media, a shift is happening in language learning and it’s a time for teachers to be excited, to embrace their new roles, and to watch and help as learning English moves into a new era.

Any technophobes out there might be tempted to stop reading, but before you do, consider this. Teaching has always adapted to its circumstances methodologically and physically, moving from lecture to pair work and from translation to communication, for example. Likewise, we have always tried to make the best use of any materials that we could get our hands on – from slate to whiteboards, from hand-written postcards to authentic magazine articles, from radio recordings through to DVDs.

Why do we do this?  Because we realize our students have needs and interests that run beyond the classroom. If we can spark that interest, we spark motivation. A motivated student is a better learner. And the digital age has given us the greatest opportunity yet to motivate our learners so they will engage with English in a way that most interests them and best suits the way they learn.

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