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5 Ways Graded Readers can Motivate your Students

_MG_1827Jacqueline Aiello PhD (New York University, New York) specializes in research concerning Curriculum Theory, Teacher Education and Teaching Methods. Jacqueline was the lead qualitative researcher in an impact study on the Read On! class library project in Italy.

English is widely featured in students’ entertainment and social media platforms: in Hollywood movies, worldwide gaming communities, celebrity Twitter accounts, Facebook, music and so on. This English – cool, dynamic and exciting – is different from the English students are confronted with in school. For many students, English is just another school subject and, often disengaged, they approach English learning sluggishly or even reluctantly. Bridging this divide, then, is a challenge worth tackling.

An effective way to motivate students to work hard to learn English is by implementing extensive reading projects in language classrooms. As extensive readers, students get to freely choose from a wide variety of graded readers that are at the right level for them. How does it work?

Here are the 5 ways that graded readers motivated students who participated in the Read On! class library project in Italy to learn, use and study English:

1. Love of Choice: As participants in the Read On! project, students chose what they wanted to read from a library that offered a selection of 90+ graded readers of different genres and topics. When students have choice in learning, they become more motivated to do it. One student said: ‘I really liked this project because we could choose the books that we wanted to read, and read them at our own pace, without anyone rushing us. The Read On! library was stocked very well and it included every genre that I could imagine. In short, there was something for everyone!’

2. Authentic English: The fact that English is an instrumental international language might be enough to motivate some students, but research has shown that motivation really kicks in when students feel that their English classroom provides access to the English they can actually use for the things they want to do. Undoubtedly, communicative competence in English is a necessary skill. Reading books at the right level provides students access to both standard written English and real interactions in English, which may include authentic colloquial and informal language. The audio that accompanies each graded reader allow listening practice of this real-world English.

3. Reaching attainable goals: Graded readers make it possible for students to find books at the right level. One Read On! participant explained: ‘It is truly satisfying to be able to finish a book, at whatever level, without needing translators or dictionaries to understand the words or the whole text.’ Unlike other more challenging reading materials, students were quickly reassured that finishing multiple books – even in a foreign language – was an attainable goal and a doable feat. Not only did students feel a sense of accomplishment when they completed an entire book in a foreign language, but they were able to track their progress from one level to the next level as they read more graded readers.

4. Perks of Reading: Before beginning their extensive reading experience, the idyllic image of curling up to a great book on a rainy Saturday afternoon wasn’t quite vivid for Italian Read On! students. Participation in the Read On! class library project allowed students to discover the perks of reading. For example, one student realized that through reading, learning occurred: ‘thanks to the project I started reading the books, and I learned many things.’ Others explored the new worlds – both actual in non-fiction and imagined in fiction – described in the graded readers. Ultimately, as one student said: ‘[Read On!] was able to reawaken in me the desire to read, which I thought was long gone.’

5. Confidence boost: Seeing improvement in performance and outcomes is one of the most powerfully motivating forces. The better you are at something, the more likely you will dedicate yourself to it. Students were surprised to find that by reading extensively, their vocabularies, implicit knowledge of grammar and automaticity in their target language improved. As one student remarked, ‘I believe that [the Read On!] project has helped me learn and develop in a number of ways. It gave me the chance to learn English differently, by having fun. It has also enriched me. Above all it has really improved my English. There isn’t a better way to learn!’ Together, by listening and reading authentic English, students gained knowledge of English and their confidence grew.

Want to set up a class library and get your students motivated? Watch this video by reading expert, Verrisimo Toste, on how to get started.


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The EFL Classroom: Teaching more than English

Teens in Classroom Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at some different ways the language learning experience can be enriched.

More and more, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is being taught in mainstream schools around the world. As part of a larger curriculum of general education, EFL teachers have an opportunity to focus on aspects of learning beyond grammar, vocabulary, and the traditional four skills. With the aim of enriching the language learning experience, I would like to focus on some of these aspects. For the experienced EFL teacher, these will not be new, but I hope that by focussing on them here, it will encourage teachers to give them more importance in their classrooms.

Encourage questions

This may seem obvious, but it is not always easy, especially when a lot of education leads many students to become passive recipients of information.

Before beginning a lesson or a unit of work on a topic, ask students what they already know about it. Make sure they do this individually first in order to get input from everyone. Have them share their knowledge. Then, tell them the next unit is on this topic. What do they want to know? Ask each student to write 1 or 2 questions. If you can, display the questions in the classroom. In this way you can refer to them as you work through the unit.

Encouraging questions from the very beginning tells your students that you expect them to be actively involved in the work of the class. Further, it tells them that what they are learning should be meaningful and useful to them. It is the best way to learn.

Bring their world into the classroom

Think about the lives of your students, at school, at home, their neighbourhood, city, country. Now think about what you will be teaching them during the term or the school year. How can you bring their world into the classroom? Let me give you a simple example. When teaching “can” for abilities, consider involving the physical education teacher. Students can do some of the activities in the physical education class, like jumping, running, throwing, etc. Once they have done the tasks, you can use the information in the English class as students express what they can do. This can be in the form of graphs or tables, individual or class posters. The important point is that students will be learning and using the language to communicate real information. The language they learn is not simply an end in itself, but a means to communicate.

Students can make a timeline of historical events to practice the past tenses based on work in their History lessons, explain the process of an experiment from the Science class, use skills from their Art classes to create displays of their work, as well as critical thinking skills from Maths classes to organise their language learning. The key is to involve other school subjects, and the teachers of those subjects, in the students’ language learning experience.

Once you have considered the school, move on to life outside school. How can you involve family and friends? One of my favourite activities with my students was when I was teaching “used to” to teenagers. I asked each student to talk to their grandparents and bring to class 2 – 3 things that were very different now from the time their grandparents were teenagers. I then would use the information to introduce the language point, “used to”. The students were so interested in the information that the language quickly became secondary, and easy to use.

Stories

I am a big fan of stories. Someone once told me that stories may have been the first form of education, as people communicated important information around the camp fire. I have little trouble believing this. There is something about the structure of stories that makes learning easier. For this reason, stories are a great medium for language use.

Stories are everywhere: what happened on a holiday is a story, how a student begins his day is a story, what happened on the way home is a story. We tell each other stories every day. The key is the structure – beginning, middle, and end. The story develops, leading us to the end. It is by nature interesting, otherwise we wouldn’t be telling it.

When considering the topics and language you will be teaching, think about how these can be included in a story. The story may provide the basis for the language you want students to learn, or it may be the vehicle for the topic of the unit. When stories become a part of your teaching, you will naturally begin to collect them. Don’t forget local stories, stories from your students, and traditional stories of the country you live in.

Sense of achievement

Too many times education focusses on what students don’t know. Rarely do we have the opportunity to show students how much they have learned. Just as students learn the present simple, we move on to the present continuous. Just as they grasp past simple with regular verbs, we introduce them to irregular verb forms. Education focusses on what students don’t know. So, giving students a sense of achievement based on how much they have learned is important to raise students’ self-esteem and confidence in their ability to learn more.

Brief, unit-based projects can offer students the opportunity to show what they have learned, as well as give many students a second chance to learn what they have forgotten. Encourage your students to see the project as a learning opportunity: What language are they using? What mistakes are they still making? What are their weaknesses? Their strengths? How could they improve? The aim is not simply to learn more, but also to get students used to reflecting on their learning. In this way short projects can help students become better learners.

These four points may seem obvious, but it is not always easy to make them an integral part of our classes. However, as they do become a part of your lessons, you will find your students becoming more active in their learning. You will also find that learning itself will have more meaning and become more rewarding.

Image is taken from Flickr under the Creative Commons license


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Webinar: Having fun with festivals

A celebration of Holi Festival of Colors

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Vanessa Reilly, teacher, teacher trainer and OUP author, introduces her upcoming webinar on 27th and 28th May entitled: Having fun with festivals – cultivating interest in the target culture in your young learner classroom.

Just how important is the target culture to you when teaching English as a foreign language to young learners? Looking at a language from the point of view of speakers of that language and how they live makes the target language more real, not just a collection of words and sentences to be learnt.

All learners need to be introduced to the target culture, no matter how young or early on in their language learning experience, in order to provide them with the optimum conditions for success.

My webinar will provide an overview of the following:

Target culture in the very young learner and young learner classroom

Very early on in my teaching career, I remember reading Claire Kramsch’s book Context and Culture in Language Teaching, and this statement stuck in my mind:

If… language is seen as social practice, culture becomes the very core of language teaching. Cultural awareness must then be viewed as enabling language proficiency… Culture in language teaching is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading and writing.”

So I started to explore:

→ What are the implications for primary age children?

If, as Kramsch proposes, cultural awareness needs to be an integral part of language learning, then I believe that as teachers of English we need to explore the many aspects of English-speaking culture appropriate for all learners, however young the children we teach.

→ What can we do as primary teachers?

We need to look at culture through a child’s eyes and consider what will motivate a Primary child to want to know more about the target culture. Having worked with children for nearly 25 years, I have found even young children are really interested when I talk about what children in English-speaking countries do that is the same or different to their world. I find activities based on festivals very motivational and the children quickly become engaged in the colourful, fun activities; so festivals are usually where I begin to introduce culture into the Pre-school and Primary classroom.

In my upcoming webinar we will look at bringing cultural awareness to young learners through festivals that are important to the everyday lives of children in English-speaking countries. In this very practical session we will investigate stories, songs, games and other mysterious things to enjoy with our Primary children.


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9 Questions for iPad Party Poopers

Potato Pals tablet in schoolPatrick Jackson, author of the popular Potato Pals series, questions the assumption that there’s an app for everything – especially where young learners are concerned.

My son Kai went for a sleepover with his best friend Aedan last night. As we were packing his bag, he asked if he could take his iPad with him. We said he couldn’t. “You’re going to play with Aedan. You don’t need an iPad”. Shock! Horror! As far as Kai is concerned, we are totally wrong about this and have done him a great injustice. He reckons that it’s just another toy and playing with an iPad with Aedan is just like playing with Lego or running around in the garden. I think not. I even rang Aedan’s mum and asked if Aedan was going to be using his iPad. I was delighted to hear that he had already been banned for a week for some unspeakable and unnamed crime earlier in the day. I didn’t ask what. I tell you – digital parenting in suburban Dublin is a mine field!

Thank goodness technology has not yet managed to replace most of what happens in old-style play. Where it replicates it we have a poor cousin to the real thing. There are apps that you ‘run’ on and apps that you ‘paint’ on but unless you are stuck on a long car journey, neither will be as fun or valuable as the real thing.

There are well-understood reasons why kids need to play ‘naturally’. They need to socialise. They need to move. They need to be creative. They need fresh air. They need to communicate in the wonderful way that kids do when they are playing and they need to get dirty. They need to be dancing to their own wild inner drums and until the unlikely day that technology catches up with the ‘real’ world, Kai’s iPad is staying on my desk (where I can play with it) for most of the day and particularly when his friends are around.

Apps are all around though and aren’t going anywhere soon. Parents, teachers and educational administrators are dealing with these issues all over the world. In our home, we deal with it with a sophisticated and continually negotiated system of time limits, rewards, checks and balances. We hardly even understand the system ourselves.

To make it more confusing, we distinguish between educational apps and those that we consider to be a pretty good waste of time or ‘just fun’. There are many that are virtually impossible to distinguish. We are totally aware that we could be wrong about many of the calls we make. We may indeed be denying our son a future in a world where a key skill will be catapulting different types of birds at distant pigs. Anyway, our current rules allow Kai a 30-minute iPad session in the morning before school during which he is allowed to do creative or educational things. Then he gets 30 minutes of free iPad time after his homework when he can do whatever he wants. The only things we forbid completely are games that show graphic violence. Incredibly, that is not the case for all of his classmates.

For language educators, apps are a hugely valuable resource. They will increasingly become part of how languages are learned. We are now just at the beginning of the mobile age in ELT and, for better or worse, it’s only going to become a larger part of what we do. Being able to sort out the digital chaff from the grain is going to be a key skill for the language educator. Knowing when to say “No. We can do this activity better in the real world” will be important.

The danger is that educational systems will err by replacing real world activities with cheaper, cleaner, more addictive tech alternatives. The irony is that in many cases in the ‘developed’ world, giving a classroom of children more time on tablets will save the system the time, money and the trouble of organising and cleaning up after real play while creating the illusion that this is preparing them better for the 21st Century.

We need to be able to recognise when an app can do the job better and in a more compelling way, and when it can’t. Some apps definitely enrich and support learning in a valid way. Some are really just addictive eye-candy or one-offs without any real lasting depth.

So what questions should we be asking when we look at an app? What should app authors and developers be aiming for as they work on the latest educational apps? What should teachers and administrators be asking as they make these important decisions?

I’ve found myself asking a few questions while working on an app for young learners that’s just arrived at the big party going on over on the App Store.

Does this app allow students to interact with the target language in a way that would be difficult or impossible to replicate in traditional ways?

Does the app offer students opportunities to communicate with friends and family beyond the classroom using the target language; opportunities that would not exist otherwise?

Can the app deliver authentic language in a more efficient way than by traditional methods?

Can students use this app to create personalised learning that puts them at the centre of the target language and helps them to tell the story of their own lives?

Is the app going to support home study and take-home sharing, building a bridge between the classroom and the home?

Will this app develop student autonomy; helping them to take responsibility for their own learning?

Does this app deliver existing materials in a more efficient or more compelling way and does it supplement and enrich those materials?

Is the target language delivered through the app in an integrated and linked way?

Does the app use a good variety of skills and engage those skills meaningfully?

It’s great fun at the app party now but it’s wrong to believe there’s an app for everything. As parents and educators we need to be able to think clearly; know when to be party poopers and know when to jump in and join the fun.

Patrick Jackson is an ELT author and teacher. He is author of the popular Potato Pals series, which has just been released as an app for iPad. You can download one story for free from the Apple App Store, with the option to purchase 6 more stories from within the app.


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Are your young learners getting their five a day?

Mother and Son in supermarketIn the light of recent food industry scandals, Everybody Up co-author Patrick Jackson asks some questions about what we are putting on the table for our young learners.

When I was little, breakfast was spent listening to our budgie Jacob telling my sister to wake up. I drew faces on boiled eggs, poor souls, then executed them with the whack of a spoon. Above all, I read the back of the cereal box from which you’d often get a small plastic toy. Nowadays, because I eat boring grown-up cereals, the backs of cereal boxes only give me nutritional information and charts showing me how I have made the right choice and will live for 100 years. To be honest, the magic has gone. No more mazes, jokes, cartoons or collectible plastic figures for me.

As educators, we are responsible for providing our students with a healthy balance of activities to make up a good all-round educational diet from source to table.

The recent food industry scandals have made us all think a bit harder about where our food comes from and who we trust to supply it. We should have the same rigour when choosing what we bring into the classroom. Home-grown and home-cooked are the most delicious but not everybody has the time or the expertise to prepare tasty food day in day out. When the ‘family’ consists of 40 or more with ‘meals’ running all day long, it is time to reach for something that has been prepared for you. Do your materials come from trusted suppliers and are those suppliers providing what they say on the packet?

The other day in the supermarket I was struck by how, down the whole length of the aisle, I could only see plastic, paper and glass. I could not see any actual food at all. What a shame it would be if we allowed our education system to become like that: depersonalised, delegated and always covered in expensive and unnecessary packaging.

Patrick in the supermarket

So what are you bringing to the table? Are your lessons nice and fresh or a bit stale and mouldy? Is your presentation crisp and crunchy or a getting rather tired and floppy? Do you use enough organic local ingredients? Are your lessons colourful and attractive or bland and uninviting? Do they change with the seasons or is it the same thing all year round? Do you even get to choose what is on the menu and do your students get to feel like they have choice too? Are there some tasty treats and snacks to brighten things up now and again? Is there enough variety and balance? What utensils do you use to prepare, serve and eat? Does it all come to the table piping hot or have your materials got the look and feel of yesterday’s cold pizza? Do your students get enough chance to ‘cook’ for themselves or is it always a one-way process?

And how about those essential five portions of fruit and vegetables we should be eating every day? What are the language teaching essentials that young learners absolutely need? Everybody will have their own ideas on this but I believe that the diet should include the following:

  • Music and movement
  • Links to real world wonder and discovery
  • Creative and imaginative activities
  • Stories and values
  • Personalisation moments

We owe it to our students to give them fresh and healthy produce. When we need to reach for processed fare, we should do everything we can to ensure it does what is says on the tin. What sort of meals are you laying on for your students?

Try the Everybody Up Global Sing-along for free animated songs, lesson plans and a great learning opportunity for your students.

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