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Making the ‘Impossible’ Possible – How to get your students writing

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Gareth Davies is a writer, teacher, teacher trainer, and storyteller. He has been in the ELT industry for 21 years teaching in Portugal, the UK, Spain and the Czech Republic. Since 2005 he has worked closely with Oxford University Press, delivering teacher training and developing materials. Gareth joins us today to preview his webinar ‘Making the Impossible Possible… How to get your students writing’.

Writing’s a Chore?

When I was on a recent short-term teaching assignment in Northern Spain, I decided to ask my students to do some creative writing. I gave them some prompts and asked them to write a story. Far from being a joyous activity, the students rolled their eyes. There was a lot of grumbling and sighing and the finished versions were no more than four or five lines long. They had written stories, but they had not written creatively. Why did my students have such a negative reaction to writing and how could I encourage them to enjoy it?

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Why is writing an essential 21st century communication device? Well, take a brief look around in any town in any country you will see people hunched over their phones or tablets or laptops sending texts, emails or WeChat messages. Writing is in vogue. But it is more than that. It is argued that encouraging students to create in a foreign language helps them to internalise it more effectively. This is because they need to think about how language works and what they know, in order to be able to use the language successfully.

Merril Swain argues that input, being taught the language and being asked to manipulate it in controlled exercises, is useful, but it doesn’t produce the cognitive processing required to internalise language. Whereas:

“output pushes learners to process language more deeply – with more mental effort… With output, the learner is in control. In speaking or writing, learners can ‘stretch’ their interlanguage[1] to meet communicative goals.”

  • Swain

[1]Interlanguage is the learner’s current, work in progress version of the language. 

Thus when producing language, whether it be writing or speaking, students are being cognitively challenged which is helping them to internalise the language, and get better at it. Therefore, the work we do on writing in the classroom can be seen as work done on language development, helping students to improve their linguistic ability.

So how do we get our students writing?

One complaint I often hear from students is that they don’t know what to write about. Here are a couple of solutions.

Sit the students in circles of six. Ask students to write the topic they want to write about on the top of an A4 sheet of paper and then pass the paper around in the circle. Each student writes a question on the sheet about the topic at the top. Now each student has the subject they are going to write about and five questions to answer in the text.

Task: You are on a shopping trip to a big city with friends. Write a blog entry about your experience.

Instruction to Students: Decide which city you are visiting write it on top of the piece of paper.

Examples

Paris

Are the shops expensive?

Are there any street markets?

Is there a department store?

London

Are the shops expensive?

Is it crowded?

What is the food like?

If you want the students to all write about the same topic, write the topic on the board and draw two columns. Elicit all the things the students know about the topic and write them in the first column. Then give them time to think of what they would like to know about the topic. Elicit the questions they have thought of and write them in the second column. Now ask the students to do the writing task. The weaker or more cautious ones can rely on the information in the first column the more adventurous ones can try to find answers to the questions in the second column.

Task: Prepare a small advert for tourists about your home town.

Prague

What do we know?

Traditional markets at certain times of the year.

Best time to come is spring

Two castles

What would we like to know?

How much is it to stay in a hotel?

How much to taxis cost?

How do you take a boat trip?

Where’s the best place for a view of Prague?

If you want your students to do some creative writing, you might want to start by asking them to adapt an existing story. For example, you could take the story of Aladdin and ask the students to write a fifty-word summary or to write a 21st Century version or a version that would be more specific to their own country. This allows the students to work within an existing structure, but create their own ideas. An alternative might be to take a song or poem with regular repetitions and ask students to write their own version. Ian Dury’s I Believe is a good song for this kind of activity and can be found in Headway Intermediate.

Call a draft a draft

It is a good idea to encourage students to call their work drafts, to give them a sense that they can, and should, make changes. Asking questions is a really good way of giving feedback. The questions can help create a richer piece.  Some example feedback questions for a piece of creative writing might be: what happened next? why did this happen? how did the people feel? What did the street look like? This shows that the teacher has read the piece with interest and is keen to know more about the story, and was not just looking for mistakes and errors to correct.

In my webinar on the 25th and 26th of January, I will discuss some of these ideas in greater detail and suggest other ways to make the impossible possible and to get your students to enjoy their writing tasks.

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References

Tasks mentioned are taken from Solutions Pre-Intermediate 2nd Edition.

Swain, M., ‘The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue’ in Sociocultural theory and second language acquisition ed. James P. Lantolf (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 97- 114 p. 99.


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The what, why and how of writing teacher’s books

shutterstock_147470255In this post, the course book author John Hughes looks at the role of teacher’s books and how they are written. This is based on a workshop he ran at the recent IATEFL BESIG conference in Munich. As well as writing numerous teacher’s books, John is one of the lead authors on the new Business Result Second Edition coming out in 2017 and 2018.

When you think of a series of published ELT materials, you probably imagine course books, online components and workbooks – all the parts for students to use in class and at home. However, there is also the teacher’s book. I’ve always enjoyed writing the teacher’s book for courses because it’s a chance to connect with teachers, to explain the background, and to add practical ideas that support the exercises on the page. I also train teachers in materials writing and recommend that they write notes for other teachers to accompany their classroom materials; it’s one way of scrutinising your materials before you use them in class and if you want to share your materials with other teachers, a set of teacher’s notes will help them.

What do you expect from a teacher’s book?

The starting point for any teacher’s book or set of teacher’s notes is an answer key but most teachers also like to have an introductory overview of the language aims. When you describe each of the stages and exercises in your classroom materials, avoid simply repeating what the instructions say in the student book or on the worksheet. Instead, teacher’s notes should offer advice on classroom management or suggest ways to vary an exercise according to the teacher’s own context. So whether you are working with one student or fifty students, the teacher’s notes need to make it clear how the material can be adapted accordingly.

Popular teacher’s books also include photocopiable pages to supplement the course book materials with extra practice. Activities that you copy and cut up such as board games, domino or matching activities, information gaps, and questionnaires bring a change of pace and dynamics to the lesson. As Business Result teacher’s book author Lyn White says, “All teachers are generally pressed for time, so a good teacher’s book should help them plan their lessons more efficiently and effectively.”

Who uses a teacher’s book?

When you write notes and resources for teachers, it’s important to understand that you are writing for a vast range of different backgrounds and experiences. Some teachers will follow everything through step-by-step and use all the supplemental activities. Other teachers prefer to follow their own instincts with the classroom materials but refer to the notes to check answer keys and audio scripts.

Nicola Meldrum writes resources for teachers and gives the following advice: “I always put myself in the teacher’s shoes and try to imagine different contexts teachers could be working in. I consider low and high tech environments for example, and try to include activities that will work anywhere.”

And Lyn White adds: “New teachers need clear staging and notes to help them gain more experience in working on their own lesson plans… more experienced teachers need a very clear layout so they can find the bits of the teacher’s notes they are looking for easily.”

How do you write for teachers?

Writing for teachers with such a wide range of experience in different teaching contexts also affects the writing style. Business Result author Nina Leeke suggests that materials writers have to be “consistent, comprehensive, and empathetic” in teacher’s books. The author is attempting to communicate ideas in a very condensed and concise way but can’t lose the human touch.

To illustrate this, read this introductory extract from some teacher’s notes accompanying some classroom materials on the topic of Energy.

You might want to start the lesson with the books closed and write the title of the unit, ‘Energy’, on the board. You could put students in pairs and give them two minutes to brainstorm different types of energy, e.g. solar, oil, etc. Write their ideas on the board and help with any pronunciation problems. Next, ask students to turn to the picture on page 20 and look at the image of smoke rising from factories. Discuss the two questions about the picture as a class. If you have a large class, you could ask students to discuss the questions in small groups and then summarise their answers to the rest of the class afterwards. Allow about five minutes for this part of the lesson.

Notice how the writer tries to balance straightforward instructions with the tone of a helping colleague, and covers everything from how to approach the lesson, to additional tips, to guidance on timing. There is some language in the paragraph that is direct and uses imperative forms (write…, ask…, discuss…), sequencers (next, then etc.) and references (turn to page 20). In addition, the writer also gives options, alternatives and suggestions (you might want to…, you could…, if you have a large class…). In this way, the material attempts to reach every type of teacher.

Your views?

If you have views on what should appear in a teacher’s book or how they could be improved to support teachers more effectively, why not post a comment here? Or perhaps you have written teacher’s notes or teacher resources for your colleagues – what was your experience like? Please share your thoughts below.

 

References and further reading

Business Result Second Edition is a forthcoming six-level course for Business English students and teachers, published by Oxford University Press.

Part of this article also appeared in a blog for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group. You can read the full post at http://mawsig.iatefl.org/mawsig-blog-guest-post-the-voice-of-the-teachers-notes/

John Hughes also has his own blog with a section on materials writing at https://elteachertrainer.com/for-materials-writers/ .

 


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Linking Your Classroom to The Wider World

shutterstock_247739401In this blog, Patrick Jackson shares his experiences of learning as a child.  His insights illustrate some important elements of engagement and motivation that often get overlooked in the day-to-day busy classroom and curriculum.

What do you remember from your school days? Forty years on, I can remember:

  • Some of the faces
  • Many of the feelings
  • Much of the fun
  • Very few of the facts
  • The times the wider world came into our classroom
  • The times we weren’t actually at school

As a teacher, I’ve learned to incorporate those early memories of school into my own teaching. I’d like to share some of those lessons learnt with you.

Lesson #1: Exploit opportunities that you can build a lesson around.

My first experience of education took place in a wonderful Montessori school that occupied a room in a local racecourse. In return for allowing the school to use the room, the students had to pick up the litter on a Monday morning after race meetings. We loved collecting the colorfully numbered betting tickets that littered the ground. One day, a student found a pound note. That led to a discussion as to what should be done with it. In the end, half went to charity and half to a bag of sweets for the whole class. I’m sure that this early experience led to my lifelong interest in litter picking although you won’t find many pound notes these days. I can’t remember much of what happened in the classroom but I do remember how much we’d look forward to those Monday mornings

Lesson #2: Bring the outside world into your classroom

The clearest memories are of the days when we escaped from the classroom or when the wider world came to see us. We had a teacher who brought his Labrador to school every day. It would sit under his desk. One morning, a pigeon flew through the open window and flew around and around, to be eventually caught and released accompanied by much barking and excitement. There was the day we received a package from a school on the other side of the world. It was full of stickers and interesting snacks. We were fascinated. There were the happy days when a visiting speaker would come and talk to us about something wonderful and different and new. Those were the best days. When something different and new happened.

Lesson #3: Take your class out into the world

Then there were the delicious days we spent away from school – the trips off campus. There was the day we went to Stratford Upon Avon and the theatre had to be evacuated because of a smoke alarm (nothing to do with us, promise). There were museum trips where invariably somebody would get lost and we’d all have to wait for them to turn up at the meeting point. There were nature field trips, and visits to the local old folks home where we would sing the residents Puff the Magic Dragon and songs from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Most heavenly of all was the annual three-day trip to an outdoor activity centre where we would rediscover our true calling as children – to get wet, dirty and exhausted. Outside.

Lesson #4: Don’t be afraid to go off topic

In the classroom, more than any syllabus or curriculum, I remember the red herrings. By that I don’t mean smoked fish. I mean the times when we could distract our teachers to tell us all about their favorite things – those lovely moments when they would drift far away from the task in hand and enthuse about their own interests. Those were the teachers we loved the most and the teachers I can remember now. There was a Mr. Green who supported Derby County Football Club and would always tell us in detail about the previous weekend’s match. There was a Mr. Sanderson who loved Motown and could never resist playing us one or two of his favorite tracks. There was a teacher of some forgotten subject who had a collection of ceramic owls in her classroom. It wouldn’t take much to get those teachers started talking about their pet passions and a good red herring could last to the end of the lesson.

Lesson #5: Share your passions

There was a history teacher who came into class one day with a silver spoon. He held up this spoon for the class to look at. It was an antique Georgian Irish Silver ladle. He started to talk about it, full of enthusiasm. I am ashamed to say that my friends and I sniggered at the back of the class. But the more he spoke about his spoon, the more we became engaged. He told us about how the spoon had been passed down through his family. He enthused about the design of the spoon, about the elegant curve of the handle, about the process of making a spoon like that two hundred years ago. He passed the spoon around the class so that we could all see the little silver marks on the underside of the handle. He taught us how we could identify the maker, the date and the place where the spoon had been made. He spoke of the type of home that this spoon was used in in Georgian times. I can’t remember the rest of that lesson. To be honest, I can’t really remember the teacher that well but I can remember his spoon.

I am very pleased to invite you to join my webinar this month. Together, we will look at some ways in which all teachers can create links between the classroom and the wider world. By opening up to our students and opening the doors, windows and hearts of our classrooms, we can become more memorable and more effective teachers.

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Using drama role play activities in your classroom

shutterstock_286079675Ken Wilson is the author of Smart Choice and in all has written more than 30 ELT titles. We asked teachers from around the world who have been using Smart Choice what one question they would like to ask Ken. In this video blog Ken answers the question ‘How can Smart Choice be used for drama role play activities?’

To relate English language learning to their daily lives, students need the opportunity to say something about themselves or to give their opinion. We all need to find manageable activities that help students with personalization.

In this final Question and Answer video blog, Ken Wilson demonstrates how you can use coursebook material as the basis for personalization activities. He then suggests how teachers can extend language learning by asking students to play different parts in role-play activities.

References:

Wilson, Ken and Healy, Thomas. (2016) Smart Choice Third Edition, Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Ken. (2008) Drama and Improvisation, Oxford University Press.


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Changing classrooms for the better – the Hornby Scholarship

hornbyscholarVuyokazi Yolanda Makubalo has been involved with the teaching of English as a Second Language (ESL) in South Africa for 20 years. In 2015, she was awarded a scholarship from the Hornby Educational Trust to study for an MA in English Language Teaching at the UK’s University of Warwick. Vuyokazi gives us an insight into her work in South Africa, and how she sees her studies benefiting not only herself but also the teachers and children of her home country.

My career in ESL began in 1995 as an English Second Language teacher at Toise Senior Secondary School, a rural school in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. During the twelve years there, I worked as the Subject Head for English at my school and a Cluster Leader in my circuit. In 2008 I welcomed and embraced a promotion in another district, Grahamstown, as the District English Subject Advisor where I continued to work with 32 English High School teachers.

My job as an English Subject Advisor is to see to the curriculum delivery of the English syllabus. To achieve this, I visit schools to monitor the implementation of the syllabus. It is during these visits that I might take note of a recurring challenge in the teaching of English, for instance, and, based on this, I organise in-service training to remedy the situation for the teachers. When I cannot assist I call upon the Provincial Office. It is at such times that I feel most aware that I really need to develop my mastery of teaching the subject of English.

I am not the only English Subject Advisor from South Africa who has the honour of being granted an A. S. Hornby Scholarship. My colleague, Shaike Francis Sefalane, is taking the same course. He is also the vice-president of the Eastern Cape English Educators’ Association (ECEEA) which I also belong to. The ECEEA allows us to reach out to almost every English teacher in the province to share experiences and knowledge. As English Subject Advisors, we are connected to all the other advisors in the province, leading all English teachers in both the Further Education and Training and General Education and Training bands in the province at large. Our coming to the United Kingdom is part of a Provincial plan to send Subject Advisors to the UK to study for a Masters in English Language Teaching and, most importantly, to go back and share the knowledge with colleagues. The Hornby Scholarship has made this possible for us.

The 2015 cohort of Hornby scholars come from 10 different countries and everyone is so proud of where they come from. We have all come to the United Kingdom to study so we can go back home to share knowledge and make things better. The sharing of diverse experiences from our 10 different contexts, embracing each others’ cultures, and exposure to world languages are some of the things that make this group most interesting. But, best of all is the formation of relationships across the world! Today I know I have a friend in Bangladesh, Sudan and so on. I have even enjoyed some of the most delicious dishes from Bangladesh. It is all exactly what I wanted and wished for!

It  has been a life-long dream that one day I would come to the United Kingdom, the ‘Motherland of English’, where most of all the literature I ever read and taught comes from, and to receive my English Masters here! I feel so blessed and for that I will forever be grateful to the man who made it all possible,  A. S. Hornby. Truly, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me as it had afforded me the opportunity to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, see the very first edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, walk on William Wordsworth’s Westminster bridge and visit many other places of interest to an English practitioner.

A wonderful and so-true quote from our Nelson Mandela reminds us that, “Education is  the great engine of personal development. It is through education that a daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mine worker can become the head of a mine, that a child of a farm worker can become a president of a country.” Through the Hornby Scholarship we can also change the fortunes of the children in our classrooms for the better. My main focus is the disadvantaged child in our less advantaged schools, the one whose parents cannot afford to give her the opportunity to go to the affluent schools where she can learn ‘better English’  taught by ‘native English teachers’. I see it as one of my duties to ensure that, in every less advantaged and not so well-resourced school, such a child can also receive such quality English teaching that will see her having an equal share in the opportunities that the world offers. We all deserve that much. Our children’s future should not be defined by their backgrounds. Working closely with their teachers, we can ensure that their future is as bright. I want to believe that this is one of the core goals of the Hornby Scholarship that through exposure to well-taught English, the future of every disadvantaged child in the world is brightened.

To hear more about Vuyokazi’s story, watch her video interview on our YouTube channel. You can also hear from other Hornby Scholars Urmila Khaled and Shaike Francis Sefalame.

 The Hornby Educational Trust was created in 1961 by A S Hornby, an English-language specialist best known for producing the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, published by Oxford University Press. The Trust’s activities include providing scholarships in the UK for people from developing and transitional countries, funding schools and workshops around the world, and maintaining an alumni network.