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Productive Skills: Resources for Independent Learning

Girl with headset looking at computer monitor smilingHelen Stepanova is an English language teacher, teacher trainer and author, currently working as a Business English teacher in Latvia. In this guest post, she looks at some of the resources available for improving students’ productive language skills.

Nowadays the Internet provides numerous possibilities for students to improve, polish and master their English language skills. In my lessons I introduce these options, explaining how my students can use them and inspiring them with my own personal experience.

I have divided these resources into two main groups:

1. for receptive skills, with 2 subgroups: reading and listening
2. for productive skills, with 2 subgroups: writing and speaking

In each group there are several useful resources. Choose the most appropriate ones for your class.

Receptive Skills

Productive Skills

Reading

Listening

Writing

Speaking

1.Fiction literature 1.Radio 1. Social networks 1. Social networks
2.Professional literature 2.Audio books 2. Language learning communities 2. Language learning communities
3.Bilingual parallel texts 3. Films  3. Writing Clubs 3. British Council
4.Newspapers, magazines, online news 4.Podcasts  4. Private journal 4. Speaking Clubs
5. Blogs 5. Conversations 5. Couchsurfing
6. Scripts 6.Music 6. International learning and volunteer programs

In this post, I’ll be looking at Productive Skills. I covered Receptive Skills in my previous post.

Writing

1. Social networks

Skype, Twitter and Facebook are examples of free resources to communicate in written English as you would orally. Write in your Skype profile that you are looking for a native speaker to improve your English. When someone contacts you, explain your needs and offer to correspond on a regular basis. You can then chat with them through Facebook chat, on Twitter, through blogs, etc. The disadvantage of this approach is that people are unlikely to correct your mistakes (unless you ask them to); however as the correspondence is very informal and friendly, the learner can relax and express himself/herself freely. Twitter messages make you formulate your thoughts very concisely, as the maximum length of the post is 140 characters. It teaches you to write the core idea. Blogging is also a good way to present your ideas to a wide audience and invite comments and corrections to your writing.

2. Language learning communities

Language learning communities, such as Lang-8, Phrase Base are specialized sites to help you polish your language skills, where native speakers from 180 countries will correct your writing for free. First you have to log in, and then write your text, publish it and wait until a native speaker (possibly even a teacher) checks it and gives a detailed explanation of any mistakes. You can write your own blog, correct posts of other participants if they are in your native language, make friends, create your own community, and expand your network.

3. Writing Clubs/Classes

These are a very popular form of mastering the language. The teacher gives you a theme for your writing and a deadline to submit your work. The goal is to write an essay, to develop writing skills and to monitor your mistakes, both grammatical and stylistic. Sometimes writing clubs can include written debates on a particular topic. When the discussion is over the teacher individually comments on mistakes, or a peer assessment is provided. Different Universities offer such courses, and there are several such classes on Coursera.

4. Private journal

This resource demands a higher level of motivation, as the student has to commit to keeping a regular journal. It can be a fictitious or simply a record of everyday events. The habit of writing regularly promotes a habit of thinking in English. There are several online journal tools, such as Life Journal. Nobody monitors your mistakes, but Life Journal’s password and encryption system keeps your information safe and private, unless you choose to share it to get feedback on your writing.

Speaking

1. Social networks and 2. Language learning communities

The same principle as with writing, with one difference – you have to talk with your new native language friends. Speaking demonstrates any gaps in your language knowledge. Corresponding with pan-pals through social networks, ask them to have a conversation via Skype or another service. Regular real-life conversations will put what you’ve learned into practical application. The best practice will come from conversations with a native speaker, but even if he/she is not, you will learn to speak spontaneously and across a variety of different topics.

3. British Council

The representative office of the British Council is in every country. The main aim of the British Council is to help to share British expertise and knowledge with over 100 countries worldwide. You can attend seminars and workshops in English, meet English-speaking partners and master your speaking skills.

4. Speaking Clubs

This is a very popular forum to improve your speaking skills. Clubs are often organized to discuss the latest news and talk about different subjects.

5. Couch Surfing

Participating in a ‘’Couch Surfing’’ club allows you to host travellers at your house and to connect with new friends all around the world by staying at their houses while travelling. You can offer your guide services in your home town and invite the foreign visitors just for a cup of coffee, which will definitely involve and improve your speaking skills. Some examples are CouchSurfing, HomeExchange, and The Hospitality Club.

6. International learning and volunteer programs

Participation in different learning and volunteer programs, such as archaeological excavations, building projects, medical volunteering, wildlife conservation or life-long learning programs, such as Grundtvig practical learning for adults, gives you the opportunity to improve your speaking skills significantly.


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Social Media and ELT

Kristin Sherman has been an ELT teacher, teacher trainer, consultant, and coursebook author for more than 15 years, and is the author of Network, a new five-level general English course that harnesses the power of social networking to help students learn English. Register for Kristin’s webinar on social media in ELT to find out more about this topic.

Another class interrupted by the chirping of a cell phone – has this happened to you? Are your students reading their cell phones or tablets under the desk, or even jumping up to leave the classroom?

Despite warnings and strict classroom rules, students still have trouble ignoring texts and Facebook updates during class. Recent brain research helps explain why. With every small burst of information the brain receives, it releases dopamine, the same pleasure chemical released when we take drugs, fall in love, or eat chocolate. In other words, the information students receive through social media can be addictive.

So how can we, as ELT professionals, harness the power of social media to our advantage?

Again, we can look to recent research for ideas on how best to use social media for language learning.

Engage students in the practice of English. Students who use social media in their courses increase their technology and communication skills, are more creative, and are more open to diverse ideas. (Greenhow). They can also master course content more efficiently. In one study, twice as many students who received a tweet about the focus question for the next class mastered the material compared to those who didn’t receive a tweet. Think about tweeting a focus question before your next class.

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A pre-JALT interview with Kristin Sherman, co-author of Network

Kristin ShermanKristin Sherman, co-author of Network, OUP’s first adult course book to use social media, sits down with us to talk about using social media and technology in the ELT classroom. Kristin is the author of several ELT materials including the hit series Q: Skills for Success, and has extensive teaching and training experience.

1. What do you think is the greatest challenge ELT teachers face in the near future? How can they prepare to overcome that challenge?

I think definitely one of the greatest challenges that ELT professionals face is trying to adapt to new technology. So many changes have been created by technology, and trying to figure out what it means for our teaching is the biggest nut to try to crack. The way that people communicate and access information has changed dramatically which has a lot of implications for both language teaching and learning.

Students and learners can be exposed to a greater variety of English with new technology. For example, if they are using online discussion forums or using social networks they’re going to see not only American English or British English, but a wide variety of English. That’s good because it’s authentic and the learners are going to be exposed to the kind of language that they will need to practice in their professional careers and so forth. But on the other hand, all of this input is a considerable challenge for them and for the teacher.

In addition to exposing us to a greater variety of language, technology is also changing our brains and the way that we learn. Research shows that all kinds of things are changing from how we read to how we process information, and even our learning style preferences. I think that teachers are really going to have to take these changes into account, and if they’re going to be successful and effective they need to adapt their teaching to address what’s happening with learners.

Another big challenge with technology is bridging the gap between younger learners – who are much more skilled at using the internet and who have grown up with it – and the instructors who are a maybe a bit older and are not as tech-savvy. Bringing these instructors up to speed is an interesting challenge because if they don’t adapt they’re not going to be as effective as they could be as instructors.

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Not Digital ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’

Laptop on legs on the grassMany of us have heard of the so-called Digital Natives / Immigrants divide (if not, read Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction?). In this post, David White, a researcher at Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL), an award-winning e-learning research and development group in the University of Oxford, introduces us to an alternative distinction: that of Digital Visitors and Residents.

At TALL, we have been taking a close look not at what technologies our students use but at how they use them. We found that our students could not be usefully categorised as Digital Natives or Digital Immigrants – i.e. this distinction does not help guide the implementation of technologies, it simply provides the excuse that “some people ‘just don’t get it’ which is why your new approach has failed so badly…”

Anyway, our students’ appropriation of online services did not seem to follow a simple pattern based on skill level. It seemed to depend on whether they saw the web as a ‘place to live’ or as a collection of useful tools. This underlying motivation led us to outline two main categories of distance learning student.

The ‘Resident’

The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have a persona online which they regularly maintain. This persona is normally primarily in a social networking sites but it is also likely to be in evidence in blogs or comments, via image sharing services etc. The Resident will, of course, interact with all the practical services such as banking, information retrieval and shopping etc but they will also use the web to socialise and to express themselves. They are likely to see the web as a worthwhile place to put forward an opinion. They often use the web in all aspects of the of their lives; professionally, for study, and for recreation. In fact, the resident considers that a certain portion of their social life is lived out online. The web has become a crucial aspect of how they present themselves and how they remain part of networks of friends or colleagues.

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Harnessing the power of Web 2.0

Network cable connectors plugging into a blue Earth globeHaving considered the impact of Computer Assisted Language Learning and Computer Mediated Communication on the EFL classroom, Zöe Handley now examines how Web 2.0 technologies are changing the way students learn.

To begin, let’s look at the two main features which distinguish Web 2.0 from Web 1.0:

The first is the possibility for any web-user to create web pages for themselves without needing access to dedicated software and without learning to code in HTML. Wikipedia is probably the best known product of the ‘user-generated content’ revolution.

The second defining feature of Web 2.0 is its ‘social dimension’ – its ability to link together networks of users with common interests. Facebook is perhaps the most popular application of this type.

But what does it mean for teachers of English as a Foreign Language?

User-generated content

The ‘writable web’ (Kárpáti, 2009) has drawn attention from EFL researchers for a number of reasons. Firstly, it makes it easier for teachers and students to publish their writing, which means it is easier for teachers to set up authentic writing activities with “a real purpose and real audience” (Mak and Coniam, 2008: 438). Secondly, outside education, the ease of publication and the social dimension of Web 2.0 have encouraged users to communicate through writing; and in large quantities, too (Kárpáti, 2009). If this can be harnessed in EFL teaching, Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, blogs, and fan fiction sites (e.g. Live Journal) have the potential to overcome one of the greatest challenges teachers face – getting students to write! Finally, technologies such as wikis, which keep a log of edits to an article, provide students with a ‘window on the writing process’ (Karpati, 2009).

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