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Motivational Teaching in the English language classroom

Nick Thorner, author of the professional development title ‘Motivational Teaching‘ in the Into The Classroom series, explores some of the issues that cause low motivation among students and methods to overcome them. You can join Nick for his upcoming webinar ‘Motivational Teaching: Engaging young people in learning behaviour’ on 26th May.

Few issues in education are as troubling as low student motivation. It leaves countless individuals unable to achieve their potential, and many teachers feeling demoralised. But perhaps more serious than low motivation is the lack of understanding we have of its causes, which can be complex and deep-seated. If we can’t understand our students’ lack of commitment, it’s difficult to identify strategies to deal with it and easy to blame individuals. And if students themselves feel puzzled by their apathy, they can become very frustrated. The effect can be a classroom atmosphere of resentment and mistrust.

That’s why I believe we cannot deal with the issue of low learner motivation unless we explore its causes. So we’ll begin our discussion by looking into some of the latest research on the psychology of motivation, and understand how our brains respond to the prospects of rewards, sanctions, and perceived threats. This will then lead us towards three clear approaches for raising motivation.

  1. Increasing task commitment

How often have you set students’ homework in the dying moments of lessons as they pack away their things? All too often, time pressure leaves us setting learning tasks quickly, without much thought to learner motivation. Yet there is so much we can do to help students increase their  commitment to tasks, for example:

  • Explain the reasons for the task to help students value it more.
  • Discuss stages of the task in the lesson so learners can visualise doing it.
  • Get students to decide when they’ll do the task to make procrastination less likely.

The image below shows what a task designed with motivation in mind might look like on paper. We’ll be explaining some of the other features shown below in the webinar. Presenting tasks in this way may seem a lot of work, but getting learners to engage fully with one task can help improve their self-image as learners more generally and build motivation.

  1. Breaking down barriers

No matter how attractive we try to make learning experiences, there is often deep resistance to learning on the part of our students. It’s important that we understand the psychological barriers that can stand in the way of engagement with learning behaviour. These can include:

  • low expectations of learning outcomes
  • negative associations connected with study
  • images of themselves that don’t sit comfortably with study

These psychological barriers are often firmly entrenched, but we can slowly wear them down in the way we speak with students and through exercises that help students connect learning with their own personal values and ambitions. An example might be producing a real vlog that they can post online, or doing visualisation exercises to help them imagine the life they might enjoy as proficient users of English.

  1. Creating reward-rich experiences

Finally, we all know that if we make lessons fun and interesting we can help motivate our learners. This is because memories of enjoyable learning experiences help students to predict rewarding outcomes. But labels like fun and interesting are a little too vague to be useful: in fact, there are lots of specific ways to make learning seem rewarding. So, we’ll finish our discussion by considering how we can fill learning experiences with psychological rewards, from novelty and sensory stimulation to play and revelation, and see why techniques like back-chaining can transform classroom experiences.

I hope you can join my webinar and leave it believing that motivational teaching is not about following general principles, but about practical day-to-day steps we can take as teachers. And by increasing our understanding of the factors that lie behind motivation, we can start discussing it honestly with students and create trusting classroom relationships.


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Bringing Grammar to Life

Word grammar spelt in scrabble lettersBriony Beaven is an ELT consultant, teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher. She is a NILE Associate Teacher Trainer and teaches Classroom Language to trainee teachers at the Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich. Today, she joins us to discuss bringing grammar to life in the EFL classroom ahead of her upcoming webinar, Bringing Grammar to Life.

The big problem with teaching grammar

The big problem with grammar, familiar to all English teachers, is that many ways of teaching grammar produce learners who KNOW ABOUT grammar; for example, they can tell you the rules for using the present perfect. But they often don’t KNOW HOW because when they speak or write these supposedly ‘known’ rules do not seem to be operating. In other words, the learners fail to make use of the rule they know so well in the language they actually produce. What can we do about this?

Approaches to grammar teaching

Three main ways of introducing new grammar are the deductive, the inductive and the guided discovery approaches. They all have their advantages and disadvantages and in the webinar we will consider how these might play out in your context.

In deductive grammar teaching the teacher explains or gives the rules for the target language items and then provides practice for the learners. In inductive grammar teaching the teacher provides some examples of the target language in a realistic context and lets the learners ‘notice’ the rules. The third approach, guided discovery, is a modified version of inductive teaching. In this approach the teacher provides some examples of the target language in context and supports the learners in ‘noticing’ the rules.

grammar1

Support, scaffolding, mediation

To say that you are going to ‘support’ the learners is easy. To provide genuinely useful support needs a bit more thought. In the webinar we will consider the relationship of ‘support’ to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the related concepts of ‘scaffolding’ and ‘mediation’.

In guided discovery grammar teaching we can support, for example, by ensuring that learners meet the new grammar item in a lively, engaging and lifelike context. We can also support them by questioning and monitoring while learners try to ‘notice’ the target rules. What kinds of questions are helpful to ensure learners internalise and can use grammar rules? Good concept questions and focused questions about timelines can work a kind of magic. Finally, in our efforts to support our learners, we need to take care that the rules are summarised by the teacher so that learners know if their suppositions were right or not. That is, we offer feedback, another key component of ‘support’.

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Use of the learners’ first language

For a long time we neglected a wonderful resource in the teaching of grammar in a foreign language, namely the learners’ mother tongue.

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In their L1 learners have learnt to think, to communicate, to speak and use their voice. They have acquired an intuitive understanding of grammar, become aware of some finer points of language and have acquired the skills of reading and writing. These days a number of experts suggest that if a class is monolingual we can beneficially make use of their first language. What do you think about this?

Practice

Learners can produce new grammar items only after plenty of practice. This practice needs to be engaging and lively, but also challenging and likely to lead to long-term learning. ‘Three times practice’ (Scrivener 2014) is one way to do this.

Well, all in all it seems we need to do more than ‘cover material’ if most of our learners are to ‘know how’ to use the grammar we teach them, not just ‘know about’ it. No one approach will succeed with all of the learners all of the time because different learners understand in different ways. We will need to make use of different approaches and techniques both for introducing new grammar and for practising it effectively.

Join me for my webinar where I will suggest some engaging ways to help students learn ‘how’ to use grammar to communicate successfully.

webinar_register3

References:

Butzkamm, W. 2003. We only learn language once. The role of the mother tongue in FL classrooms: death of a dogma. Language Learning Journal, 28, 29-39.

Scrivener, J. 2014. Demand-high teaching. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 3(2), 47-58.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. and Ross, G. 1976. The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving. Journal of Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 17, 89–100.


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Bottom-up decoding: reading and listening for the future

Mark Bartram, a teacher trainer and materials writer, explores different approaches for processing written and spoken text, and how they can be integrated into the English language classroom. 

Are you a top-downer or a bottom-upper? The debate as to the relative importance of these two approaches to understanding spoken or written text has been going on for decades. Most people would agree that both approaches are useful at different times and for different reasons. In this blog I will attempt to explain why the bottom-up approach should not be neglected.

First, some definitions.

Top-down processing starts from the reader or listener. It assumes that the learner brings to the text certain knowledge – of the world, of texts (including how certain types of conversation typically unfold), and of language. This knowledge is likely to be useful in understanding a text (whether written or spoken), but it often needs to be activated, and activities such as discussions, questionnaires, quizzes, brainstorms, and vocabulary-anticipation can all be used to do this.

For example, when you saw the title of this piece, you probably started thinking about what it might mean, what the arguments in the piece were likely to be, whether you wanted to read it, and so on.

So assuming you still do want to read it…

Bottom-up processing starts from the text. It assumes that by working on a combination of different aspects of the written or spoken text, the learner can increase their ability to comprehend it. These might be very “micro-” elements, such as the fact that we tend to insert a “w” sound between certain vowels; or they could be at a more “macro-” level, such as searching for synonyms within a text. The key idea here is decoding.

For example, in order to understand the second sentence of this piece (the one that starts “The debate…”), you needed to work out that the first 17 words are the subject (a complex noun phrase), that the verb comes next (“has been going on”), followed by an adverbial (though unless you are a grammar geek, you won’t have used these terms). Identifying the verb is a key aspect of decoding complex texts.

Improving the ability to decode

Most people would agree that we use a combination of the two approaches when we are processing a text. We tend to switch from one to another as is needed. But whereas it used to be thought that we revert to bottom-up processing when we are unable to use top-down (for example, if we are unable to predict the content, we have to listen to the actual words!), research suggests that in fact the reverse is true. If you are in a noisy café, and can’t “decode” what your friend is saying (bottom-up), you tend to fill in the gaps with your knowledge of the world, or your friend’s usual speech habits.

Within this framework, the idea of “comprehending a text” needs to be defined. Many activities in coursebooks are essentially asking the learners: “Did you understand this text?” – i.e. the one in front of them. This can work as an assessment or diagnostic tool, but the danger is that it does not prepare the learners for the next text. In other words, we need to train learners in transferable skills that can be used for any text in the future.

We can do this to a limited extent with top-down activities – for example, we can train learners to use prediction techniques to anticipate the content and language of a text. Furthermore, classroom research and teacher experience tell us that top-down activities such as the ones listed above can be integrated easily into lessons, are motivating and fun, and enhance the overall experience for the learner. So we should not discount top-down activities entirely.

However, common sense tells us that we are often in situations where we are less able to use top-down skills, for example, in exams, or simply when we turn on the radio at random. At this point, our ability to decode becomes key. And it is with bottom-up approaches that the training aspect comes into its own.

Vocabulary, of course, is vital. The wider your vocabulary, the more fluent your reading or listening is likely to be. However, bottom-up skills remain important because they work on aspects of the text that are useful even when the learner’s vocabulary level is high. We have all heard learners say plaintively “Well, I know all these words, but I still didn’t get what they were saying!” For this reason, reading and listening activities need to include work on decoding text.

Subsequent blog articles will explore how training in bottom-up decoding can be introduced painlessly into the classroom.


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Teach less to help young students learn more

School girls playing repetitive gameBarbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, outlines the benefits of only teaching young learners one new thing at a time by recycling, reinforcing, and building on new language.

How can you get your students to learn more English? Teach less! It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

Teachers are often pressured to teach more – more vocabulary, more grammar, more content – to satisfy parents and administrators. Moving through a coursebook quickly becomes the measure of success. However, the classes in which I see students making the greatest progress are those in which teachers introduce relatively little new language and actively recycle previously learned language, spending the majority of class time reusing both new and familiar language in new contexts.

The measure of a successful lesson isn’t how much you teach; it’s how much students can do with the language they’ve learned.

There are certainly times when you might choose to throw students into the deep end of the language pool – when asking them to work at understanding the gist of a listening or reading task, for example. But, it should be a choice that works toward your lesson goals, not the standard approach. If you need to spend most of your class with books open, explaining the language on the page, then students are unlikely to remember much for the next class. You end up teaching the same things over, and over, and over again without much feeling of progress.

In contrast, when we recycle language in class, we’re teaching students how to use the language they already know to figure out language that they don’t. It’s one of the most important abilities that skilled language users employ.

There’s no way we will ever be able to teach our students all the English they’ll ever need to know, so instead let’s teach them how to be confident in their ability to figure things out for themselves. One of the easiest ways to model this skill is to introduce new language in the context of familiar. Another way of looking at this is to make sure you maximize the value of any language your students spend the time learning. Here’s one simple example of how using familiar language to introduce new language can help students learn more effectively.

Let's Begin example unit

If you teach without recycling familiar language, this looks like a dense lesson – eight new vocabulary words and two question and answer patterns. However, actively recycling previously learned language can make the lesson more manageable. For example, students have already learned the concept of plurals, and how to add an –s to the end of words to indicate more than one item. They may need to be reminded, but they don’t need to learn it again. That reduces the vocabulary load to four new words (and their plurals). What’s this? It’s a (CD) is also a very familiar pattern. It’s the first question students learned to ask and answer in the first book of the series to which this page belongs (Let’s Begin). It was recycled in a lesson two units prior to this lesson.

Let's Begin example unit

By recycling the familiar pattern with the singular vocabulary words, it’s a small step for students to understand that the new pattern, What are these?, is the same question but for asking about more than one of something. By reducing the amount of new language to be taught, students now have more time to practice the language they’ve learned. They can use the questions and answers with vocabulary from earlier lessons, or apply their plural-making skills to topics that interest them, or personalize the language and build new skills by using the language to write about things in their own lives (e.g., This is my bedroom. These are my CDs. This is my cell phone. etc.) and then to read what classmates have written. Language becomes a tool for communicating about things students want to talk about, and because language is constantly recycled, students are unlikely to forget it.

Active recycling plays a big part in Let’s Go, so the Teacher’s Book lists what language is being recycled in each lesson, and the ‘Let’s Remember’ lesson at the start of each level highlights familiar language from the previous level that will be built upon in the new one. You can do the same sort of recycling, with the same benefits, with any coursebook or even with no coursebook at all. You simply need to keep track of the language being taught so that you know what you can recycle to help students learn new language or build new skills.

A simple guideline is to teach one new thing (new pattern or new vocabulary, but not both) in each lesson, or for longer lessons or older students, in each section of a lesson. Reducing the amount of time spent on introducing new language creates more time for students to use language:

  • to use it in games and activities that provide the repetition necessary for memory
  • to add it to their language repertoire in order to talk about new things
  • to learn to read what they can say and understand
  • to use language they can read to write about their own unique lives and experiences
  • and to use language to connect with other students in order to share their own and learn about others’ lives and experiences.

If you are interested to see how active recycling works in Let’s Go, you can download a variety of sample lessons from the Oxford Teachers’ Club Let’s Go teaching resources page.


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How to Teach English Infographic

Over at Kaplan International, they’ve been finding out how people learn English.

They surveyed more than 500 ESL teachers from around the world to discover what tools they use to enhance their lessons.

Take a look at the results in this infographic, originally posted on the Kaplan blog.

Do the results surprise you? Leave a comment below.

How to Teach English Inforgraphic