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Do learning technologies actually help students learn?


shutterstock_198926996Do learning technologies actually help students learn? Nicky Hockly’s latest book,
Focus on Learning Technologies, takes a look at research that has been carried out with primary and secondary school learners using technology, and weighs up the evidence.

Although digital technologies in the field of EFL may feel like a recent thing, they have been around for a while. We have a rich research tradition in CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) going back several decades, and teachers and researchers have been trying to find out whether technology actually supports learning for some time. However, although we are mostly in agreement upon the question – Do learning technologies actually help students learn? – the answer is less clear.

The short answer is ‘it depends’. It depends, because it is very difficult to make comparisons across studies, when research is carried out in different contexts with very different groups of students, with different teachers, using different technologies and tools, and with widely differing aims and task types.

For example, imagine a US study carried out with a group of primary students that examines whether using blogs improves their literacy and writing skills (1). Imagine a study in Iran that examines whether a group of university students learn academic vocabulary better through regular SMS texts rather than with dictionaries (2). And imagine a research project in China and Scotland based on a computer game that provides adolescent students with oral prompts in order to develop their speaking skills (3). These are all real research projects, and they have widely different aims, tools, and research methodologies. They take place in very different teaching and learning contexts with very different students and teachers. Some seem to show technology supporting learning but others don’t. At the same time, trying to generalise results from what can be very small-scale, one-off action research projects that may be underpinned by more or less robust research methods, is questionable.

Each of the three studies described above had very different objectives, followed different research procedures, and yielded different results. The blog project used a case study methodology to look at the writing skills development of one English language learner in a class of elementary students in the USA. The researchers found that the blogging curriculum developed her writing skills, increased her confidence as a writer, and improved her written language. So a positive result (for one student) overall.

In the Iranian SMS vocabulary study, a class of 28 EAP students received 10 words and example sentences twice a week via SMS, and were exposed to a total of 320 new words. A control group studied the same vocabulary using a dictionary. Post-test scores showed an improvement in vocabulary learning for all students, but there was no significant difference between the two groups. But a later test showed that the SMS group were able to recall more vocabulary than the dictionary group. So a partly positive result, although one wonders how much vocabulary the two groups would remember a couple of months later.

The study in China and Scotland compared the uptake and response of two separate groups of teenage students to specially-designed game software for speaking practice. The two groups showed different levels of motivation. The group of Chinese EFL students reported increased positive attitudes, whereas the Scottish students learning French reported increased anxiety levels and decreasing positive attitudes during the study. A follow-up study (4) highlighted important limitations in the software. So mixed results overall in this study.

Sometimes studies on exactly the same area (such as learning vocabulary via SMS) show differing results – in some cases it appears to be effective, while in others it doesn’t seem to make any difference. But it’s worth bearing in mind that research studies tend to be self-selective. Researchers will often only publish studies that show positive results – those that show negative or contradictory results may never make it to publication. And although researchers try to avoid it, they are inevitably biased towards positive outcomes in their own studies. All of this means that it’s difficult to make sweeping generalisations such as ‘technology helps students learn English better’ or even ‘regular SMS texts help university students learn academic vocabulary better’.

Where does this leave us? For me, the important point is that we need to be critical users of digital technologies, and critical readers of research in the field. We need to be particularly wary of techno-centric views of technology that claim that the latest hardware/software/game/app/program will somehow magically help our students learn English ‘better’. In short, we need to be critically aware consumers of new technologies – both as users ourselves, and as teachers interested in using digital technologies with our own learners.

References

(1) Gebhard, M., Shin, D. S., & Seger, W. (2011). Blogging and emergent L2 literacy development in urban elementary school: A functional perspective. CALICO Journal, 28, 2, 278-307.
(2) Alemi, M., Sarab, M., & Lari, Z. (2012). Successful learning of academic word list via MALL: Mobile assisted language learning. International Education Studies, 5, 6, 99–109.
(3) Morton, H., & Jack, M. (2010). Speech interactive computer-assisted language learning: A cross-cultural evaluation. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 23, 4, 295-319.
(4) Morton, H., Gunson, N., & Jack, M. (2012). Interactive language learning through speech-enabled virtual scenarios. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction. Available at http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ahci/2012/389523/


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A very brief history of ELT Journal

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachersRichard Smith is a Reader in ELT and Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick, where he founded and has continued to develop the Warwick ELT Archive, a unique collection of materials connected with the history of English Language Teaching. He also edits the ‘Key concepts’ feature in ELT Journal, whose seventy-year history he writes about here.

ELT Journal celebrates its 70th birthday in 2016. It has been published since 1961 by Oxford University Press, but the first issue was produced in October 1946 by the British Council and distributed worldwide from its offices in Hanover Street, London. The journal was the brainchild of A.S. Hornby (1898-1978), and the idea for it came from his pre-war experience editing the Bulletin of the Institute for Research in English Teaching in Japan (see Smith 2007 and/or listen to this  interview with A.S. Hornby for more on the journal’s origins). Hornby edited the new journal for four years until he left the Council to devote himself full-time to dictionary- and materials-writing. His best-known work is undoubtedly the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (which has sold more copies than any other OUP publication apart from the Bible) but his single-handed creation of ELT Journal was an equally influential achievement. The journal rapidly became a focal point for the nascent ELT profession and industry. Indeed, it is a little-known fact that ‘ELT’ is itself an abbreviation of the original title of the journal, English Language Teaching. A look at this sequence of covers will show how the title has evolved over the years, with ‘Journal’ being added in 1973 to prevent confusion of ELT, the journal, with ELT, the wider profession.

For a long period of twenty-three years, 1958 to 1981, which saw the transformation of ELT – the profession and industry – from a relatively small-scale operation into something more akin to the level of activity we see today, the journal was edited by W.R. (‘Bill’) Lee (1911–1996). Lee’s other major claim to fame was that in 1967 he founded ATEFL, now known as IATEFL – the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language. The journal continues to enjoy a particularly close relationship with IATEFL, as with the British Council, and both of these organizations are represented on the journal’s Advisory Board, while the ELTJ editor is also on IATEFL’s Advisory Council.

In 1981, exactly 35 years after the journal’s foundation, its format was modernized, and a new editor, Richard Rossner, was appointed. The journal also became more open to applied linguistic insights and to an influx of ‘communicative’ ideas (see Hunter and Smith 2012). Since then, a succession of editors – all of them also well-known in the ELT profession for other achievements – have ensured that ‘ELTJ’, as the journal now tends to be known, remains at the forefront of developments in English language teaching theory and practice. 1981 also saw the introduction of an Editorial (Advisory) Panel, on which almost all of the ‘names’ in ELT have at one time or another served. This has been responsible for reviewing submissions and ensuring that the journal maintains its leading reputation. Special mention needs to be made, too, of Cristina Whitecross, who, from the 1980s until her retirement as Chair of the journal’s Board of Management  in 2009, was its mainstay and consistent ‘champion’ on the OUP side.

After Lee, the editor with the longest period in office was Keith Morrow, who edited the journal for 17 years, from 1995 to 2012. Philip Prowse took over from Morrow as Reviews editor and remained in this role for the same long period. This was a time when many previous certainties were overturned, with a large number of articles being accepted for publication which were critical of over-privileging native speaker teachers’ linguistic, cultural and methodological norms. Under Morrow and Prowse an increasingly wide variety of voices began to be heard, both in the journal itself and within the Editorial Panel, which became more international and diverse.

Bringing this very brief account up to date, innovative features under the present editor, Graham Hall, have included making one article per issue open access (as an ‘editor’s choice’ article), associating this with a short  video presentation by the authors, and encouraging themed issues. Alessia Cogo, the Reviews editor, has introduced new ‘Review Forum’ and ‘Authors respond’ features.

The past 70 years – and especially the last three decades — have witnessed an explosion of interest in ELT around the world.  Throughout, ELT Journal has remained a major focal point for interested professionals and practitioners, maintaining and nurturing a continuous tradition of principled exploration, in which theorization relating to practical experience, much more than top-down application of background research or theory, has been at the centre of concern. Over the years, alongside the British Council and IATEFL, ELTJ has contributed immensely to the professional image of teaching English as a second or foreign language, providing a space for the serious reflection and, above all, the maintenance of quality on which any profession depends.

 

References

Hunter, D and Smith, R. 2012. ‘Unpackaging the past: “CLT” through ELTJ keywords’. ELT Journal 66/4: 430-439.  Online: http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/66/4/430.full

Smith, R.C. 2007. ‘The origins of ELT Journal’. Online (Oxford University Press website): http://www.oxfordjournals.org/eltj/about.html

 


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#TeachingChangesLives – Winning a scholarship at Oxford

Worcester College QuadThis year we are giving English Language teachers across the globe the chance to win a two-week all-expenses paid scholarship to attend the Oxford English Language Teachers’ Academy Summer School, held at Worcester College, Oxford. Simply create a short presentation or video to show how your English language teaching has changed lives for the better, and you could be joining us in Oxford in July 2016! Find out more here.

What would it be like to win the scholarship? Two teachers who attended the Summer School last year share their experiences with you here.

giovanna

Giovanna at her end of course awards ceremony

Giovanna Gullì – Secondary teacher in Reggio Di Calabria, Italy

I stayed two weeks at Worcester College where The Department for Continuing Education holds its teacher training courses. There’s so many things to tell you about the beauty of this College where in its wonderful gardens you get rid of  worries and stroll , with squirrels , birds, swans and ducks as friendly companions and blow off steam.

I attended “Raising the Bar: challenging & inspiring” course the first week  and  “Engaging teenage learners beyond the classroom”  for  the second  week. We were introduced to topics such as creative writing, the flipped classroom, and achieving success with teenager learners, through a variety of activities that put into practice the best techniques for teaching English as a second language.

We always worked in groups, used visuals and photos on walls, we did all the activities to use in class with our students, all in a very natural and pleasant way. The atmosphere   was magic, very informative, collaborative, stress-free but at the same time involving and thought-provoking; the workshops were very well presented plus enjoyable, I have learned so much from the training.

I have already started to use some of the strategies and tools the tutors suggested with my  students and they are working remarkably well. I so much appreciated the passion and care the tutors and all people involved at the Oxford Teacher’s Academy demonstrated to us.

Felipe de Jesús Canul Schwietrs  – teacher in Mexico City, Mexico

During the welcome speech we were told: “These are going to be the two most wonderful weeks of your entire life” – and guess what, it was true. Every detail was extraordinarily taken care of. I was really impressed with the professionalism and warmth of every member of the staff.

And what to say about the courses: excellent teachers, amazing curricula and most of all a very practical approach which of course helps teachers refresh knowledge and acquire useful new ideas.

Time flew, before we knew it two weeks had gone by. But the friendship of all the companions from so many different countries sharing common problems enriched the courses and the activities planned outside the courses were great. I’m forgetting the meals, superb! And the country specially Oxford stunning and divine; stunning for all the history behind each of their buildings and places to visit, stunning for the kindness of its people. If I could, without a doubt, I’d do it again.

This could be you next year! Enter the #TeachingChangesLives competition for your chance to win an all-expenses paid scholarship to attend the Oxford English Language Teacher’s Academy Summer School in July 2016.


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Teacher training: a waste of time?

Group of teachers working togetherGraham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.

It is fair to say that teacher training is one of the central pillars of ELT. Anyone who attends an ELT conference is likely to hear about teacher training in one way or another – maybe in a talk or presentation, or maybe through marketing information and advertising. If we browse through an ELT book catalogue, we will find texts which discuss teacher training. The International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) has a Special Interest Group focused on Teacher Training and Education. ELT Journal publishes articles about it. And, of course, the majority of teachers have experienced some teacher training at some point, maybe on a pre-service course before taking up a job, or maybe on an in-service programme in the course of their working lives. Alongside, for example, materials writing, testing and assessment, and, of course, teaching itself, teacher training is one of *the* core activities of the ELT profession.

At this point, we should distinguish between the kind of teacher training being talked about here, the more formal kind which tends to involve participating in a course and contrasts with teacher development, which can be characterised as informal, collegiate, probably independent of any formal qualification or programme of study (although it may be coordinated by workplaces or teacher associations) and so on. And obviously, training courses for teachers vary enormously. Pre-service programmes might range from degree-level programmes lasting a number of years to short taster courses lasting a few hours or days; in-service courses can vary from a day’s training on a specific aspect of pedagogic or professional practice to a month or even year-long course involving observations, reflective discussions, further study and written assignments.

Yet what teacher training seeks to do is to equip teachers with the skills and abilities they need to help them, or help them develop, in their work. If we are talking about beginner teachers, these skills and abilities could perhaps be labelled ‘professional competencies’, perhaps the ability to analyse and explain language, or key techniques and approaches for managing classrooms (we should note, however, that the label ‘professional competency’ arguably has a discourse of its own, conveying an impression of teaching as a body of knowledge and activities that can be learned – see below!). More experienced teachers might develop reflective skills as well as ‘higher level’ insights into classroom practice.

And yet… although many people assume that a training course is an important – even essential – preparation for and part of professional English language teaching, does training really help or is it just a waste of time and money? Don’t we learn much more through experience, and by reflecting on what we do in the classroom? How can a training course, which inevitably will be one-step-removed from our teaching, capture the diversity and complexity of classrooms which we might eventually or currently teach in? Is teaching ‘just’ a body of knowledge and competencies that can be passed on in a course? Aren’t teacher training course, by their very nature, going to be somewhat prescriptive, pointing us towards certain ways of teaching and of thinking about teaching, rather than truly encouraging us to think through for ourselves the full range of possibilities for our classrooms?

These are some of the key concerns which surround teacher training, and many readers and bloggers will have valid responses and retorts to these questions.

But the issues will be discussed and debated again and in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Birmingham (UK) on Thursday 14th April, 2016. There, Peter Grundy will propose the motion ‘This house believes that teacher training is a waste of time’; Penny Ur will oppose the motion. For more information about the conference, go to http://www.iatefl.org/.


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Winning the Headway Scholarship – could you be next?

Natalia with the other 2015 winners and Liz Soars, Headway author. From left to right: Inanc Karagoz (Turkey); Svetlana Kandybovich (Montenegro); Natalia Valentini (Argentina); Liz Soars (Headway author); Elena Ryabova (Russia); Erika Orban (Hungary); Xiaoyan Deng (China).

Natalia with the other 2015 winners and Liz Soars, Headway author.
From left to right: Inanc Karagoz (Turkey); Svetlana Kandybovich (Montenegro); Natalia Valentini (Argentina); Liz Soars (Headway author); Elena Ryabova (Russia); Erika Orban (Hungary); Xiaoyan Deng (China).

Ever wanted to know what it’s like to win the Headway Scholarship, and spend two weeks on an all-inclusive teacher training course at Exeter College in Oxford?

Natalia Valentini, one of our 2015 winners, and Gloria Rossa, one of our 2014 winners, reveal how they found the experience.

This could be you next year – enter today!

Natalia Valentini – Headway Scholarship 2015 winner from Argentina

Every August just after the winter holidays, I’ve been experiencing this burning desire to explore what it is like to live, study or work in a foreign country. As a teacher and translator there came a point in my professional life when I started thinking that in my local context there were no further opportunities for me to make progress in my career.

Anyway, it was not until this summer when I came across this post on the Oxford University Press Facebook site when my luck began to change. The Headway series written by Liz and John Soars were opening a competition for teachers who used the series. I didn’t hesitate to take part in it and I worked for two weeks on my video and PowerPoint® presentation to submit them in due time. And after waiting for 3 months I got an email. The subject line was: “Headway scholarship. Winner!.” The email went on like this: “Congratulations – you are a winner of this year’s Headway Scholarship competition! On behalf of Liz Soars and the Headway Scholarship Foundation, we are delighted to tell you that you have been awarded one of the Headway Scholarships for 2015 which means that you are entitled to a place on the 2-week English Language Teachers’ Summer Seminar at Exeter College in Oxford. Now I couldn’t believe my eyes. It actually said I was entitled to a place -a proper scholarship I would say! And I was one of the lucky ones, together with 5 more teachers from Europe and Asia.

So there I went, off to Oxford for 2 weeks on a Teacher Summer Seminar where I would meet colleagues from over 30 countries to share our experiences and to learn from the best tutors, those whose names we’ve been reading on the covers of the coursebooks we use. I know, I know… lucky me!

Read Natalia’s full blog here

Gloria in Oxford

Gloria in Oxford

Gloria Rossa, Headway Scholarship 2014 winner from Argentina

I have a confession to make: I fell head over heels in love with England the moment I set foot in it. I must say tears ran down my cheeks when the plane landed. The flight had been long – 13 hours! – yet quiet and interesting.
It was a night flight, but I didn’t get to sleep much – I was so excited! I arrived at Heathrow Airport at 6:30 am on Sunday, 27th July, 2014. I went through Customs and Passport Control very quickly. Friendly staff, documents and letter of recommendation from Exeter College OK, no problem at all.

The trip from London to Oxford was charming. It was a nice summer morning and there wasn’t much traffic due to the early hour.

I’m a quite shy person. Many people don’t know this, but I have to overcome a series of personal obstacles whenever I want to approach someone and say “Hello!” -and when you are in an English-speaking country for the first time in your life and you´re not a native speaker, this is even harder! However, I must have turned into a completely different person on arrival at Exeter, for it was so easy for me to start talking to the others. Everybody seemed so friendly and happy to be there! Anyway, getting used to the variety of accents was particularly difficult for me: there were 60 teachers attending the seminar, and we were from 20 different countries. Pretty impressive, don’t you think? I had never lived such a cosmopolitan experience in my whole life!

Read Gloria’s full blog here

The Headway Scholarship 2016 is open now. You could win a 2-week all-inclusive teacher training course in Oxford in July 2016. Enter today!

The Headway Scholarship is made possible through the generosity of John and Liz Soars.