Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


2 Comments

Bottom-up decoding: reading

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachersMark Bartram has been a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer for more than 30 years.

In a previous post, we looked at some of the areas we might explore when training our learners in bottom-up strategies for listening. In this post, I’d like to do the same for reading.

(We take it as read that reading fluency depends on the learners’ general linguistic competence. So all of the following discussion assumes that any training programme will also include work on building up this, especially vocabulary.)

It was suggested previously that top-down approaches (where the learners use their knowledge of the world to help understand a text) can provide enjoyable ways “into” a text, especially for the reluctant or weaker reader. These might lead into useful work on sub-skills such as skimming and scanning.

Bottom-up approaches, on the other hand, encourage the learners to develop their ability to understand the text at a deeper or more intensive level. These are designed to help learners “decode” the text in front of them and, crucially, to give them transferable skills to allow them to comprehend the next text they read.

Certain types of activity will be appropriate for all levels, even if the actual language items will differ. These might include work on referencing within the text. For example we ask learners to underline a number of pronouns like it/they or demonstratives like this/these in the text and then work out what they refer to. Ideally, the referent will not always be the most recent noun in the text! Another area is conjunction: we might blank out a few conjunctions in a text and ask learners to suggest a suitable conjunction (or choose between options) for each space. The learners should also explain their choice, as this encourages them to explain the relationships between different parts of the text.

Other activities will depend on the reading level of the learners. Early readers will work more on building up fluency through work on word recognition, and recognising correspondences between spelling and sounds, eg that “ph” is pronounced /f/. Developing readers might focus on ellipsis (sentences with missing words) eg identifying the missing words in “They’re going to write a blog  and post it on their website”1 or paraphrasing/lexical variation, as in

Some education specialists recently put on a festival to encourage children to make mistakes! Yes, it’s true. The experts were worried that young people are not creative and innovative enough for the modern world.

The learners look for examples where the writer has used synonyms to describe the same thing (specialists/experts, children/young people).  The aim here is not primarily to extend the learners’ vocabulary (though this may happen incidentally) but to train them in looking for such variations in future texts.

Advanced readers, especially those in academic contexts, might concentrate on decoding complex sentences. For example, let us imagine that learners are working on a text which contains this sentence:

Developed countries, like those in Europe and North America, waste around 650 million tonnes of food each year and so do developing countries.

The activity might involve the learners answering these questions:

1. What is the verb? (answer: waste)

2. What or who is doing the wasting (or, with learners who have the necessary terminology, “what is the subject of the verb?”)? (answer: developed countries)

3. What do they waste? (answer: 650 million tonnes etc)

4. What does the word “so” refer back to? (answer: the verb “waste”)

5. How could you make this a sentence on its own? (answer: developing countries also waste food)

Learners should recognise that these questions form a process:  locating the verb is a good way to start decoding a sentence, followed by subject and then (if there is one) the object. As the sentences the learners encounter become progressively more complex, this skill becomes more automatic.

Another example might be summary words (very common in academic writing). In the following text, learners might be asked to say what “this process” refers to.

As early as the sixteenth century, English had already adopted words from around fifty other languages, and today the figure stands at over 120. But how did this process happen?

Finally, they may be asked to look for words and phrases that demonstrate the writer’s stance towards the information they are describing. Modal verbs, sentence adverbs like significantly, and “think and report” verbs like claim) can be noted and interpreted.

Even when a text (for example, in a coursebook) is being mainly used for other purposes such as grammar work or discussion, the teacher can always introduce the ideas above, just by asking learners “What does the word ‘they’ in line 22 refer to?” or “Why does the writer use the verb ‘confirm’ rather than ‘say’? How would the sense change if she used ‘claim’ instead?” and so on. These kinds of questions only take a minute or two, but focus the learners’ attention on important details in the text that top-down activities may skip over.

To see bottom-up decoding in practice in the classroom, watch Navigate author Rachael Roberts’ video demonstration here.

This article first appeared in the February edition of Teaching Adults newsletter. If you’d like to receive more articles like this and resources for teaching adult language learners, sign up here.


3 Comments

Perspectives on Lesson Planning

lessonplanELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes, looks at different approaches to lesson planning and their effectiveness as teaching tools ahead of his webinar on the subject on the 19th and 22nd of January.

Here’s a photograph of a colleague’s lesson plan. It’s written on a piece of note paper taken from a hotel room and was used with a class of students at a business college. In many ways it breaks the rules of what we might call ‘lesson planning’. After all, where are the aims, the timings, the class profile, the anticipated problems and all those other things we expect of a formally written lesson plan? The only thing we can really tell from it is that the lesson had something to do with CV writing.

The lack of detail in this particular lesson is of course because the teacher in question didn’t write it for anyone else to read. As she explains, it was for her own personal use: “I treat lesson plans like shopping lists – I write them at home in preparation for the task ahead and then don’t look at them after that. The helpful part for me is writing it down, not sticking to it.”

I think her ‘shopping list’ approach to planning is probably true for most teachers at a day-to-day level. We don’t have time to write long detailed documents with every step described in detail and – especially if we’re experienced – we don’t need to. As she says above, the ‘writing it down’ is not an end in itself, it’s just part of a longer thought process.

Because most teachers tend to plan in this less formalised way, there is often debate about – and sometimes criticism of – the more formalised type of planning that is expected on teacher training courses or when teachers are formally observed and assessed. Teachers sometimes wonder if the long hours spent writing detailed documents which predict what they might (or might not) do at every stage is time well spent.

I’d argue that on training courses it can be time well spent – especially for new and inexperienced teachers – because it’s a way to develop your thought process. However, I’d question whether a formally prepared lesson plan always has to take the shape of a page with rows and columns that a teacher is expected to fill in and rigidly follow.

In my webinar on this topic, I’ll propose that we take some fresh perspectives on lesson planning by varying our approaches and thought processes at the planning stage. I’ll present some alternative ways to develop lesson planning skills and I’ll demonstrate how visual thinking can help to aid your planning. Participants will also be invited to give their own perspective(s) on lesson planning.

If you’d like to sign up to join John Hughes’ free webinar on the 19th or 22nd of January, please follow the link below. We hope to see you there!

register-for-webinar


Leave a comment

Strategies for teaching IELTS: Part Three – Get ready for exam day

webinarpicStephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He joins us on the blog today for his final article in a series ‘Strategies for teaching IELTS’.

In the first article in this series, I discussed some things to consider at the very beginning of an IELTS course, and then in article two I explored how to tackle some of the more problematic parts of the exam. Here, I will look at some strategies you can use at the end of your course to make sure your students are as prepared as possible for the exam day.

Mocks

It is important that students have at least one full mock before the exam day. Make sure you find some practice tests – such as the free ones which support IELTS Masterclass on the OUP website. When you set up the mock, it’s a good idea to imitate the exam conditions as fully as possible. This will help prepare students for the real thing, and it will give them a sense of how important timing is. Students need to realise that the Listening, Reading and Writing papers take 2 hours 40 minutes – with no breaks in between! When you run the full mock it is a good idea to use the answer papers like the ones that will be used in the exam. When a student is working quickly and misses a question out to come back to it later, it can be very easy to forget about this when completing the answer sheet. This can mean that all of the remaining questions have the wrong responses.

For the Speaking paper, as well as conducting mock tests, make sure students get to watch an example of somebody else taking the test. Outside of language exams, students rarely have a spoken test so many are understandably nervous about what the whole procedure entails. You can find examples of spoken IELTS tests on YouTube.

On the day

Discuss what students should do on the day of the exam. Here’s what I advise my classes:

  • Get to the exam centre early – this gives people time to calm down, find their room, have a bite to eat and make sure they are not rushing due to traffic problems.
  • Use English before the exam – listening to a podcast, reading a book or having a conversation in English before the exam puts students in the right frame of mind.
  • Prepare for a long exam – As mentioned above, students will have to sit in the exam for over two and a half hours, so they should make sure they have had refreshments and visited the bathroom before the exam starts. Candidates can ask to leave the room to go to the bathroom, but this will take up valuable time.

At the exam centre

This may sound obvious, but make sure that students know where the exam centre is and how to get there. In many cities it is possible to sign up for the exam in a different place from where it actually takes place, so point this out to students if necessary.

Go through the regulations with regards to the identification that candidates need to provide, highlighting the fact that they must have the same identification that they provide when enrolling. To ensure a high standard of security, centres are required to take photographs of candidates and scan their fingerprints. Reassure students that all images are dealt with according to the local laws and that there are procedures in place for candidates who might be uncomfortable having their photograph taken in the presence of other people. If you or your students would like more information about the security procedures on the day it is best to check with your local centre. I’d suggest talking about these kinds of logistical things before the very last class, as this will give you and your students the chance to find out the answers to any difficult questions.

I hope you have found this three-part IELTS series useful, and I wish you and your students the best of luck in preparing for the test.

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here


Leave a comment

Strategies for teaching IELTS: Part Two – Overcoming the challenges

shutterstock_257788978Stephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He joins us on the blog today for his second in a series ‘Strategies for teaching IELTS’.

In my first article in this series, I looked at some of the things that are important to consider before the course starts in order to hit the ground running and develop some good momentum. In this article, I’ll explore how to help your students with some key areas, specifically lexis, Part One of the Writing paper and the Yes/No/Not given question commonly found in the Reading paper.

Lexis

There are two types of IELTS test; the Academic Test and General Training Test. 80% of candidates take the Academic Test and if this is the case for your students then lexis will hold the key to getting a good grade. If candidates are comfortable with academic-type language, even if they don’t understand every detail, it can make all the difference. Of course, there is so much language that could be deemed ‘academic type’ that it is impossible to teach every lexical item that could come up in an exam. There are, however, a number of strategies we can use to maximise the amount of time we have available:

  • Encourage students to use a lexical notebook. I have found that students who take a little bit of time to organise their lexis in this way improve their language very quickly.
  • Create a lexical wall in your classroom and add, or get your students to add, useful lexis from each class. Alternatives to this might include a blog, wiki or a notice board.
  • Focus on certain areas of language that are vital, for example conjunctions, lexis to describe trends (see Writing Part 1 below) and formal versus informal language.
  • Expose students to academic language outside the classroom. There are a number of free resources, for example from the BBC, that you can ask your students to use in their own time.

If your students are taking the General Training Test then the first three ideas from the list above are still vital for expanding their lexis and ensuring a better result.

Writing Part 1

There is no getting around it, but for most candidates (and teachers), this can be a very boring question. It can also be a challenge because a lot of students rarely have to write anything like this even in their own language, never mind doing it in English. It also demands that candidates can both identify important pieces of information, and write about them. Some useful strategies I have used for this question include:

  • Make the data relevant. Find raw data about the cities or countries where your students come from. A lot of countries will have the equivalent of the UK’s Office for National Statistics which will be relevant to your students.
  • Ask your students to carry out surveys with people they know to gather data, and then write about it.
  • Focus on the very specific language that your students will need. The main area is the language of describing trends and one thing I have found very useful is to show how one phrase can be used in two different ways. For example, if you introduce unemployment rose sharply you should also highlight how students could alternatively say there was a sharp rise in unemployment.
  • Expose students to good practice. I use the Daily Chart from The Economist magazine, which provides up-to-date and relevant graphs for students to describe.

Yes/No/Doesn’t say

From my experience, this is the question that causes the most problems for a number of reasons: it is an unusual question type; candidates can spend a lot of time trying to find information that isn’t in the text because they don’t trust themselves; the questions themselves are often purposefully misleading. There is no silver bullet for answering this type of question, but there are a few helpful hints that we can give.

  • Yes/No/Not given questions are usually looking for the writer’s opinion. True/False/Not given questions are usually looking for facts from the text.
  • The questions usually follow the same order in the text. This means if you have found the information for questions 7 and 9, the information for question 8 is between those two. If you can’t find the information then the answer is probably Not given.
  • If you don’t know the answer, guess Not given because you there is a good chance the reason you don’t know is because it isn’t in the text.
  • Look carefully at the question, especially for words like often, always, sometimes because these will sometimes make the difference between True/False and Not given.
  • Give students a text and ask them to write their own Yes/No/Not given questions. By going through the mechanics of writing this type of question, candidates often get an insight into how to answer them in the exam.
  • Ask students to underline the information in the text that they think provides the Yes/No answer. This will make feedback easier as well as helping you identify why your students are making mistakes.

I hope these tips prove to be helpful in preparing your students for the IELTS exam. Just focusing on these tricky areas will not be enough, but I have found that this is a good starting point, after which the rest becomes easier. In my next article, I’ll be looking at some strategies we can employ just before the exam.

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here


4 Comments

Strategies for Teaching IELTS: Part One – Where to start?

 

continuous learning assessment

Image courtesy of Colin K on Flickr

Stephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He is now based in Curitiba in the south of Brazil where he writes a blog about bringing up a bilingual child at headoftheheard.com. This is the first article of a three-part IELTS series, exploring the basics of helping your students through their IELTS exam.

As with most things in life, the key to a successful IELTS course is in the preparation. If you have a clear idea of what you and your students need to do from the outset then you are far more likely to help your students achieve their goals than if you have no plan at all. Likewise, as the expression goes, first impressions last, so if you can impress your students in the first few classes, then they are more likely to trust you for the rest of the course.

It is important to have as much information at your disposal as possible before the course actually starts. This will help you to prepare properly and show your students that you really do know what you are talking about. I have added a number of questions for each of the points listed below, but the answers will often depend on your own context. Where possible, I have included some links which might help you to start finding your own answers.

Know the exam

If this is the first time your students have attempted the IELTS exam then they are likely to be very anxious about what it entails and what they will be required to do. Some questions students might have include: How many papers are there? How does the scoring system work? Which is the most difficult part of the exam? What’s the difference between the General exam and the Academic one?

As well as knowing the ins and outs of the exam, you will also need to know how students go about taking it. Questions they might have include: Where is the nearest exam centre? When are the exams being held? When is the registration deadline? How long does it take to get the results? How much does it cost?

The official IELTS site has some excellent information for both teachers and students, as does the British Council site.

Know your students

It isn’t always possible to find out a lot of information about your students until the course actually starts, so you will probably need to do some fact finding in the first few classes. As well as the usual information about the number of students in the class, their ages and backgrounds, some questions you might want to ask yourself include: Have they taken the exam before? What score do they need? Why are they taking the exam? Where do they hope to study after the exam? What do they hope to study?

Know your timetable

There is a lot to cover in an IELTS course, so make sure you have enough time to pack everything in. While your school might have its own natural rhythm, this might not fit with the dates of exams in your local centre. Questions to ask include: When are the exams? How long is the course? What do I need to focus on?

Find your local exam centre and get in touch to find out their exam dates and requirements.

Know your material

Whatever course you are running, you will need to be very familiar with the material you are using. With IELTS, this is even more key as time is such an issue. As well as a coursebook, you might need to use extra material, such as practice tests (which you can find here) or online material. Some questions to answer include: Is the material relevant to your students? Where can I find supplementary material? In my next article (on the blog next week), I’ll be sharing some of the free online material I use in my classes. Specifically, I’ll explore lexis, Part One of the Writing paper and the Yes/No/Not given questions commonly found in the reading paper.

This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,936 other followers