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Learning to learn in the primary classroom

I have been teaching a group of young teenagers of very mixed levels and ages for six months now. Half of the group comes from the state-school system and the other half attend “an alternative school”. The latter group is one-three years younger and was the weakest one in terms of language knowledge at the beginning of the year. These children were weak elementary while the rest strong pre-intermediate/intermediate. I was even wondering whether they would be able to cope emotionally with the fact that the rest of the class coming from a state-school background is so much stronger.

As time went by, however, the children who were seemingly behind caught up at an amazing speed. They were very good at using soft skills such as really listening to the teacher and to each other. They asked questions with confidence if they got stuck. They were able to work out answers for themselves by observing the clues carefully. I also watched them constantly use colors to highlight, to make mind-maps, and to make beautiful drawings in their notebooks to accompany their newly learnt language without having to draw their attention to these learning strategies. Their notebooks are not ordinary ones with the answers of exercises, lists of words and occasional grammar tables, but they look more like living books that you would want to open again and again to look at. And of course, I sometimes witnessed their frustration as well, but I saw their strategies of handling these emotions successfully too.

‘… the children who were seemingly behind caught up at an amazing speed.’

These children have learnt something important that we all need in this rapidly changing world, and these are skills that allow them to adapt to new situations, new contexts, new people, and new tasks easily. Possessing vast knowledge – most of which computers provide us with in fractions of seconds anyway – does not give us enough support in being able to rise up to new challenges at this speed. Instead we need the soft skills and learning skills that equip us with the necessary flexibility.

What are these skills? How can they be developed? From the example above – just as, I am sure, we can all list such examples from our lives – these questions have obvious answers. But it feels harder to teach these skills instead of a set of new words or a new language point as they are less tangible.

Essential skills for primary children

So what is it that children need to learn in the primary school? According to Emőke Bagdy, a renowned Hungarian clinical psychologist, at this age children need to learn the following things: To read, to write, to count, and to be confident. They need to develop a sense of self-belief that they can do it. If this fails, according to E. Bagdy, children will struggle with their learning, in managing new situations at school, and in their life as adults.  This is also supported by the PISA report (Programme for International Student Assessment) that has found that learners’ belief in their own efficacy is the strongest single predictor of whether they will adopt strategies that make learning effective or not (Artelt et al., 2003, pages 33–34).

One of the key things that influence children’s confidence is our own view of them as individuals and of their abilities. It is important to approach every single child believing that they can do it. A simple idea to do this is to catch them being good, something that can be easily done with the help of the Snakes poster – see below.

Snake Poster.

Draw one snake for every child in the class and label each one with a student’s name. Make sure the body of each snake is divided into lots of triangular sections. Each time a student does something praiseworthy (e.g. makes a helpful comment, shows determination, waiting patiently for their turn, etc.), tell them to come out and colour in one section of their snake with a pen of their choice.

Mixed-ability teaching, Edmund Dudley, Erika Osváth, OUP, 2016

 

Of course, we need to make sure that children progress with the colouring in their snakes approximately at similar speeds to avoid any feelings of shame, which would definitely be detrimental. Feeling good about oneself has an immense motivational power at any age, but it is imperative in the primary classroom.

Another important teaching moment that has a great impact on children’s self-confidence is our way of dealing with mistakes. In my view, there are no mistakes made in the primary classroom, but rather opportunities for children to notice something that is different or new in terms of use of words, language chunks, spelling, etc. For example, if children are copying words in their notebook from the board and there are some spelling errors, rather than overwriting these in red by the teacher, it’s a good idea to encourage children to look at the board again and discover the differences for themselves.

Naturally, there are many more soft-skills that need to be developed at this age so that children become efficient learners, such as resilience, curiosity and collaboration. In my upcoming ‘learning to learn skills’ webinar, we will be looking at further practical examples of how we can develop these in the primary language classroom. Click here to register, don’t miss it!

Have an idea of your own? We’d love to see it, so do share it below in the comments!


Erika Osvath is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of the European Language Award-winning 6-week eLearning programme for language exam preparation. She worked for International House schools in Eastern and Central Europe as a YL co-ordinator, trainer, and Director of Studies. She regularly travels to teach demonstration lessons with local children, and do workshops for teachers. Erika is co–author with Edmund Dudley of Teaching Mixed Ability.


References:

Artelt, C., Baumert, J., Julius-McElvany, N. and Peschar, J. (2003). Learners for life: student approaches to learning. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/education/school/programmeforinternationalstudentassessmentpisa/33690476.pdf Accessed 15/2/18.

For Bagdy Emőke, see: http://bagdyemoke.hu/beszelgetesek-emokevel/

Dudley, E. and Osváth, E. (2016). Mixed-ability teaching. Oxford: OUP.


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Everyday development activities for busy teachers | Learning in the rush

Development activities

Martyn Clarke has led education development projects all over the world, and has written numerous blogs for OUP! In this article, he examines the everyday development opportunities that teachers could be missing out on. 

When I work with groups of teachers, we often build a concept map of what has influenced us in our development as teachers. What do you think are the most influential factors? Our pre-service courses? INSET? Methodology books? OUP webinars?

 

Well, it’s none of those. Whether in Djibouti, the Ukraine, Vietnam, or anywhere in between, the two most influential factors are consistently:

  1. Our own experience of teaching;
  2. Our colleagues.

Surprised? Probably not. In fact, given the amount of time we spend in the classroom and with our colleagues in comparison to how much time we spend on training courses and reading methodology books, it’s quite obvious that this should be the case.

If this is true, we should be learning all the time. We teach all day. We talk to colleagues in-between lessons. We have all we need to develop just by doing the job, don’t we?

I’m not sure we do. You see, experience just isn’t enough.

This is because we only tend to notice certain experiences. Simply, we don’t see things as ‘they are’; we see things as ‘we are’ (Anais Nin). We have a tendency to interpret information so that it fits into our existing frameworks of understanding. So, if I think my students are generally unmotivated, I will tend to notice behaviour which I believe proves this. I might miss things that show otherwise.

I see what I expect to see. I experience what I expect to experience. And then I get tremendous satisfaction when I can say ‘I told you so’ or ‘I knew’ that would happen’.

It’s a little like living in a box. Clearly you can’t go far if you stay in a box! But to be successful, I’m in no way suggesting that you must leave the box.

Boxes are comfortable places to be. They’re safe. You can focus on what you’re happy with; you can enjoy yourself and increase your confidence. It’s great to be able to do what you do, do it well, and then celebrate that certainty. I know I’ve had many happy ‘box periods’ in my career where I focused on the enjoyment of honing my existing skills. And when our professional lives are busy, and we teach and work in a constant rush, it’s sometimes good to have that security.

Yet we can’t escape the fact that we’re teachers. We believe in learning. And if we believe in learning, we believe in change. So, there are times when we should use development activities to open the box and look at the world around us with different eyes. Even in the rush.

I’ll be showing you how to do this in my upcoming webinar on the 15th-16th November. Some of the practical learning activities for teachers can done alone, some can be done with colleagues. And none take more than 30 minutes.

Here’s one development activity you can do on your own:


Why it Worked

Reflection often starts with problems or areas of difficulty, but this activity focuses on the learning’s we can gain from our successes, and possible applications to other areas of our practice.

Suggested Activity Procedure

  1. Set aside 30 minutes.
  2. Use the Recalling Prompts to guide your exploration.
  3. Use the Reflective Questions to guide your analysis of the data and record your conclusions and future actions.

Recalling Prompts

Identify something you are involved in that was successful this week.

  • Where did this happen and who was involved?
  • How do you know you were successful?
  • Have you tried the activity before with different results?
  • What effect did the success have on the people involved?

Reflection Questions

  • How do you measure the success?
  • Does everybody involved share your evaluation? If not, why?
  • How replicable is this success – can you repeat the activity with the same results?
  • If you’ve tried this before with different results, how do you account for the change?
  • What aspects of the activity (in planning or in delivery) could you use with other activities?

Action

  • Write down one action you will take as a result of this reflection.

Here’s one development activity you can do with colleagues:


Me time

Find two other colleagues.

One of you has ‘Me Time’ on a specific afternoon for 30 minutes after school each week.

What this means is that the other two colleagues focus completely on you. You may have a problem with a student, or with a language point, or with a task you have to do, or with how you are feeling, or with ANYTHING you want to talk about – as long as it’s something to do with your job.

Because you are the focus, they have to spend at least 15 minutes just listening to you and can only ask questions.

After the first 15 minutes, they can describe possible alternative actions that you could take, but they can’t say what they think is right or wrong.

You control the conversation completely, and if you want to talk you just raise your hand and the other speaker stops.

Then – wherever you are in the conversation you ALWAYS stop at 30 minutes – and the next week it’s someone else’s turn for Me Time.


The ideas are simple, but good ideas often are! In the webinar, we’ll be exploring 12 more teacher-focused learning activities that you can use for your own professional development.  

Click here to register your place on the webinar.

Hope to see you there!

 


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Giving children more agency in class: A Q&A session with Annamaria Pinter

shutterstock_309235367Annamaria Pinter is Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick. She has published widely in the area of Young Learners ELT. She is the author of Teaching Young Language Learners (2017, second edition). Earlier this month, she delivered a webinar on ‘Giving children more agency in class’, and today we bring you the question and answer section of the session.

What do you think about the use of the mother tongue versus the use of the L2 in activities where children work in groups and actively explore something, analyse data or discuss ideas?

My general advice would be that the most important first step is that everyone should be engaged and enthusiastic about participation whatever language they are using. Then, in any one situation the teacher can judge what might be realistic for the children to say and manage in L2 and what has to be handled in the L1 or indeed bilingually or using various languages that learners speak in multilingual classrooms. It is often possible for the teacher to translate into English something that a child may have said in L1 and even more importantly, children may also be able to help each other with re-phrasing things in English. No matter what the situation is, however, it is good to insist that the final product (such as a poster, a newspaper magazine page, a recorded presentation, a questionnaire or any other product) should be in English. It is good to display these products by uploading them to a secure website or simply putting them up on the wall because making these available to external audiences this will help motivate children to work hard on their English.

How can I allow children to choose learning content within a restrictive curriculum?

This is difficult. With serious restrictions, teachers can only make very small changes.  It may be possible for some teachers to look at content and learning outcomes and see if the children can at least have some limited agency by choosing tasks (albeit very similar ones) or by being invited to design an extra task in each unit, or simply choosing the order in which they would like to tackle units in the book. If no freedom or agency is given to the teacher in a very restrictive curriculum, then it is hard to implement the ideas from the webinar. Still, some teachers in India were able to do extra work with the children outside classrooms and some allocated only a limited amount of time to research project work every week after covering the content of the book. Children were motivated to get the book out of the way to be able to progress to the ‘real projects’.

What do we do if we feel that the children’s ideas or input is not relevant or useful?

In my experience this is very rare and an important lesson for us teachers is that whenever children say or suggest something that seems unusual or at first sight irrelevant, it should never be just dismissed as such. It should always be explored further so that we can gain a better understanding of the original idea or point. It may well be relevant but in a different way compared to what we would have anticipated. In my experience children really appreciate this gesture of respecting ALL their responses.

What does this mean for the teacher’s role?

Teachers generally report that this is a more satisfying way of working, they feel alive and more enthusiastic about their jobs and the children’s motivation and intensive engagement seem infectious. In many ways when children take more control and teachers become ‘learners’, there is less pressure on the teacher to get everything right alone, but it is important to remember that teachers are also role models. If children are researchers and expected to work hard and enthusiastically, teachers must be doing the same!!

If you missed the webinar and want to catch up, feel free to visit our Webinar Library, for this session and previous recordings.


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Action research: how it can help your EFL classroom

cathryn-lavery-67852Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

A classic model of teacher development involves learning about the latest ideas on our practice, and applying them to our classrooms.

Action Research takes the opposite approach. In this process we find out what happens in our own classrooms so that we can understand them better and so make better-informed teaching decisions.  In other words, the teacher carries out the research, and if necessary as a result of what they find out, identifies possible strategies to engage with the reality.

It is different from scientific research. It doesn’t try to come to universally applicable conclusions or models of action. If you conduct an action research project, you know from the outset that you’re only looking at your own specific classroom. Any actions you take as a result are appropriate only to that classroom. Of course, it’s useful to share your experiences with your colleagues but this is more to give them ideas to explore their own classes rather than recommending particular courses of action.

Here is a five-stage model for a simple action research project.

  1. Finding the focus

First you need to identify the question you want to answer.

  • Try not to be too general. For example, the question ‘how can I improve my students motivation?’ could have many different answers. But don’t be too narrow in your focus.  If your question is ‘which students like reading activities?’ then the research will be quite short, and what you’ll be able to do with the information will be very limited.
  • Try to make your question as factual as possible. If you ask ‘why are my students so lazy in groupwork?’  Your research will be just be confirming what you already think.  If you change that to ‘what do my students do during groupwork activities?’  Then you will be not only finding out more about reality but also testing your own opinions.
  1. Identifying the tools
  • You need to do decide what information you’re looking for. This will then give you an idea of where to find it and how to find it. If you look at the question about students in groupwork activities (see above), the information we are looking for is factual, and will probably be best obtained through observing the students during the lesson. So you could use a video camera, you could ask a colleague to come in and observe, or you could do it yourself. All of these have advantages and disadvantages. If you use a camera or colleague, then you will probably need more than one lesson as students needs to become accustomed to the activity in order not to be affected by it too much.  If you do it yourself you’ll need to set it up to give yourself sufficient space and time to do so.
  • Ideally you will get information from more than one source to give you a full picture. So here in addition to the observation, you could also interview your students, or even set this up as a language learning activity during a lesson. In addition to observations, videos, and interviews, other tools include questionnaires (which are useful for larger groups), focus groups (for discovering opinions), or personal journals (which are useful for tracking changes over time).
  1. Carrying out the research
  • Try to carry out the research in away that minimizes any negative impact on the learning itself. For this reason involving colleagues to come and record data is so useful. Obviously it’s important that they do this in away that does not interfere in the lesson.
  • It’s a good idea to carry out the research in ways that will offer you as much information as possible. If you are focusing on one particular class, then consider obtaining data during different lessons rather than just one.  If you are focusing on a particular activity, then consider researching the activity with different groups.
  • It’s a good idea to record any factors that may influence the information you gain, such as the proximity of an exam or a holiday, for example, as this will help you in the next stage when you analyse the data.
  1. Analysing the information
  • In the analysis stage you try to make sense of the information you have obtained. There are a number of thinking processes you can use to help you do this.
  • What categories of data can you find?
  • What themes or patterns can you spot? What does this tell you about the relationships within the data? Are there any causes and responses?
  • Are there any pieces of information which are very different to the rest? How do you account for this?
  • Is there anything that is unexpected? Does this alter any opinions you may have had?
  • It’s extremely useful to involve a colleague in the analysis stage. Thinking critically like this is often easier when discussing ideas with someone else. Make sure, however, that you avoid just sharing your opinions. Try to focus on asking questions and using the data to find your answers.
  1. Taking action

Having gained a better understanding of what is going on in the class, it’s common to take some form of action in response. This section is usually one of three kinds:

  • Further research: Your research has led you to more questions and you decide that it is important to find the answers to these in order to identify a strategy to address the situation.
  • Change your attitude: It’s possible that your research suggests what you thought was an issue isn’t, in fact, such a problem. In this situation the change will come not so much in your classroom practice but in the way you see things as a teacher.
  • Implement a new strategy: Often, however, when we research classrooms, we decide to try something new as a result. Perhaps we decide our students need more support for group work activities. Perhaps we need to make them easier, or more difficult. We might decide to alter seating patterns so that different students work with each other.  Whatever strategy we try, it’s useful to then continue the research and obtain data on what happens as a result. In other words, action research can become a cycle of constant investigation into what’s going on in our classrooms.


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Making Reflection An Action – 5 Practical Activities You Need To Try

shutterstock_115208812Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

We learn how to be a teacher in many different ways. We have our initial qualification courses, we go on INSET training, and attend conferences. We might even read a few books on the subject. But perhaps one of the most influential sources of learning for us is in the daily experience of actually doing the job. The problem is when we are in the classroom there is no time for us to stop and think about what we’re learning.  Then between classes we are probably marking students work, gathering resources, or preparing for our next lesson. We probably all think that reflection is a useful process in our development. But many of us probably wonder when we will find the time to do it.

Making the process of reflection an explicit action can sometimes help here. These five activities are designed to help us stop and capture this elusive, but extremely important every day learning. They can be done by an individual teacher, or together with a colleague or with a group of peers. They are also very useful if you are building a portfolio of CPD activities and outcomes as evidence of your own professional development.

The procedure for each activity is the same, but of course you can change things to fit into your context.

Suggested Activity Procedure

  1. Set aside 30 minutes.
  2. Use the Recalling Prompts to guide your exploration
  3. Use the Reflective Questions to guide your analysis of the data and record your conclusions and future actions.
  4. If working with colleagues share your outcomes in weekly meeting and use the questions to explore what you have noticed.
  5. Consider recording the outcomes of your meetings on a poster in the staffroom for other colleagues, and to use as a springboard for discussion professional development sessions.
  1. What’s different?

Professional learning often involves ‘noticing’ when something changes, and reflecting on the causes and the impact this might have.

Recalling Prompts

Look back over the week and note down:

  • Something you know about your students that you didn’t before
  • Something that happened in your lessons that hasn’t happened before
  • A skill that you now have
  • A way of explaining grammar/vocabulary
  • An opinion that has changed over the last week
  • A way of working with colleagues that was different

Reflection Questions

  • What caused the change?
  • Why do you think this might be important?
  • How will this change impact on the way you teach/work?
  • What opportunities/dangers does it bring?
  • What can you do to engage with the change?
  1. Back on the Bike

The expression ‘to get back on the bike’ comes from the idea that when we are learning to ride a bicycle and we fall off, the best thing to do is to get back on the bike immediately and try again.  This way our mistakes become an impetus for renewed effort and learning.

Recalling Prompts

If you try something that doesn’t work well, note down as soon as you can what you wanted to do and what actually happened.

  • Where did this happen and who was involved?
  • What was your objective?
  • Why did you choose this action to achieve this objective?
  • Have you tried this before with different results?
  • What happened as a result of this action?

Reflection Questions

  • What made you notice that it didn’t work?
  • If you’ve tried this before with different results, how do you account for the change?
  • Why do you think the results of the action didn’t meet your expectations?
  • What do you know now that you didn’t at the time?
  • What is the next opportunity for you to try this again?
  • What changes will you make to the action to account for your new understandings?
  1. Why it Worked

Reflection often starts with problems all areas of difficulty, but this activity focuses on the learning we can gain from our successes, and possible apply to other areas of our practice.

Recalling Prompts

Identify something you are involved in that was successful this week.

  • Where did this happen and who was involved?
  • How do you know you were successful?
  • Have you tried activity before with different results?
  • What effect did the success have on the people involved?

Reflection Questions

  • How do you measure the success?
  • Does everybody involved share your evaluation? If not, why?
  • How replicable is this success – can you repeat the activity with the same results?
  • If you’ve tried this before with different results, how do you account for the change?
  • What aspects of the activity (in planning or in delivery) could you use with other activities?
  1. Needs and Wants

Our colleagues play a significant role in our daily school life and our development as a professional. In this activity you can analyse what relationships you have with your colleagues.

Recalling Prompts

Identify key colleagues from different areas of the school.

  • What does X need from you? What’s your role in X’s eyes?
  • What do you need from X?
  • What are the features of your professional relationship?

Reflection Questions

  • How much does your colleague know already about your opinions above?
  • If they answered these questions, what would you be unsure about?
  • What do you want to stop/change/continue about your professional relationship?
  • What steps could you take to make your professional relationship more productive?
  1. Ups and Downs

Teaching is an emotional activity, and even the most experienced teacher will have both good and bad moments during a week. This activity uses these responses as a way of accessing development.

Recalling Prompts

  • What moments of positive & negative emotions have you felt during the week?
  • What categories of emotions would you place the different emotions in?
  • What particular moments stand out either in a positive of negative way?

Reflection Questions

  • How did you respond to the emotion? What could you do to increase its learning impact?
  • Which emotions have been caused by external factors over which you had no control? How can you exploit these external factors in the future?
  • When were your actions responsible for your emotions? How can you avoid/repeat these?