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Writing tests for teenagers – where to begin!

teen doing school work on a laptopCreating items (test questions) for English language assessments is a tricky business, particularly for teens. You need to ensure that the item produces an accurate and valid measurement of the skill you are trying to test while providing the best possible experience for a test taker. In this blog, we’ll look at two important considerations when writing items: context and content. If this whets your appetite, be sure to join me in my Oxford English Assessment Professional Development session where we’ll be exploring in more detail how to write good test items.

Context

Here’s an example of the kind of item you might get in an adult speaking test. But it’s not suitable for teens. Why not?

Some people say that the perks of a job, such as working from home, are more important than the salary. Do you agree or disagree?

As you might have guessed, a 13-year-old may well have some of the linguistic competences required to tackle this question (describing advantages and disadvantages, making comparisons between ideas, or offering their opinion on the topic), but how many teens will have enough experience of work to actually be able to demonstrate these competencies?

So, when it comes to writing items, context is key. Let’s take a look at an alternative question that takes the teen context into consideration.

What are the advantages of homeschooling?

Even for teens who don’t have direct experience of homeschooling, this context is still more accessible to them, meaning they are more able to demonstrate their linguistic competence.

Content

As well as getting the context correct, we also have to get the content correct. Consider this: in our lives, some of us have had landline phones, mobile phones, and smartphones. I bought a Nokia 3210 in 2001, and for the first time ever was able to make phone calls, send messages, and play Snake with one device, all while on the move. When telling my friends about it, I would refer to it as my mobile phone to distinguish it from my landline. And then, much later, I would reference my smartphone to distinguish it from my old phone.

However, for most teenagers, a phone is just a phone, and any talk about non-smart phones will probably just draw blank looks. It might not sound major, but imagine being a teenager in an exam suddenly faced with a phrase that might cause confusion.

In summary

As a test provider, our goal is to solve some of the challenges outlined above. Some of these same challenges exist for teachers who write assessments for their students, and we’ll be talking more about these in the Writing tests for teenagers webinar.

Get practical support and guidance for delivering effective English language assessment online!

Register for our series of webinars delivered by leading OUP ELT Assessment experts:

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Robin Lee has been working for Oxford University Press for five years and is the product manager for the Oxford Test of English and the Oxford Test of English for Schools. Before joining OUP, he worked as a teacher, teacher trainer, and item writer, mostly in East Asia and Southeast Asia. His interests include data analysis and the use of technology in assessment.


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How to understand and teach adolescents effectively | OUP

Do you remember when you were a teenager, arguing with your parents, thinking that adults ‘just don’t get it’! It’s a typical behaviour, it’s a stage that we all go through (well, most of us anyway)!

Adolescence is the phase of life between late childhood and early adulthood. It is a time not only of physical maturation but also of mental and emotional development. The major developmental tasks of adolescence include the establishment and nurturing of intimate relationships and the development of identity, independence, self-confidence, self-control, and social skills.

The Psychology

The beginning of adolescence is loosely anchored to the onset of puberty, which brings alterations in hormone levels and a number of consequent physical changes. Puberty onset is also associated with profound changes in drives, motivations, psychology, and social life; these changes continue throughout adolescence. New findings in developmental psychology and neuroscience reveal that a fundamental reorganization of the brain takes place in adolescence. In postnatal brain development, the maximum density of grey matter is reached first in the primary sensorimotor cortex, and the prefrontal cortex matures last.

Subcortical brain areas, especially the limbic system and the reward system, develop earlier, so that there is an imbalance during adolescence between the more mature subcortical areas and less mature prefrontal areas. This may account for typical adolescent behaviour patterns, including risk-taking. Developmentally, adolescents also tend to be more impulsive and emotional—they are more inclined to make impulsive decisions, engage in impulsive behaviour, and act recklessly compared to adults.

Adolescence is a time of amazing creativity, intensive emotionality, social engagement but also a time of taking risky decisions and behaviour. How can we use this capacity as teachers?

Seize the opportunity

First of all, we need to see the potential of this period of life of our students and treat it as an opportunity, not a curse. As teachers, we can take advantage of teenagers’ risky mindset to help them perform better at school and achieve better results. Risk taking and selecting difficult tasks is associated with having a growth mindset. Teachers can guide this risky behaviour by encouraging pupils to take chances in a safe and secure environment, the students could face more challenges without a fear of failure. It is extremely important to provide an environment for teenagers where they feel safe to make mistakes and explore reality without being criticised.

Working with teenagers may also be difficult because many of them cannot cope with emotions and they experience teen depression or social anxiety syndrome. Sometimes it is difficult for a teacher to understand that irritable or apathetic adolescents might be experiencing depression. Teenagers easily develop feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, often they are oversensitive to their peers’ opinions and how they perceive to be perceived.

We all know that most teens may feel unhappy and withdrawn at times as their moods swing unpredictably, but if you notice that your student’s unhappiness lasts more than two weeks and he or she displays other symptoms, it is necessary to react and seek a professional help. Teens with depression will have a noticeable change in their thinking and behaviour. They may have no motivation to learn or do anything, difficulty with concentration and memory loss. You may also see such symptoms as apathy, difficulty with making decisions, irresponsible behaviour, sadness, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, and regular complaints of pains (headaches, stomach-aches), and compulsive overeating.

What can we do as teachers? Firstly be understanding, supportive, and patient. There is nothing more important for a teenager as having a supportive adult. Teachers play a vital role in this developmental period because often teenagers are more likely to listen to them than their parents who are perceived as enemies. Teachers should utilise their need for creative exploration and novelty by running interesting, engaging, and inclusive lessons; allowing students to explore and build their sense of autonomy and internal locus of control. Providing a psychological safety and inclusive climate in the classroom helps teenagers learn. Investing in positive relations with teenagers will improve learning outcomes. Remember that teenagers will not learn from teachers they dislike!  

Interested in this topic? Missed November’s webinar? Click here to catch-up and watch the recording!


Alicja Gałązka is a psychologist, linguist, ICI Vice President for Coaching in Poland, trainer and international educator. Lecturer and researcher in the university setting, and in multiple private institutions. A graduate of the University of Silesia and the School of Education at the University of Exeter, UK. Alicja is also a speaker and trainer in the field of international communication, creative thinking and problem solving, the development of social and emotional intelligence and the optimization of each individual’s potential, drama etc. She is also a regular event speaker for Oxford University Press Poland!


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Easy, motivating and meaningful ways of using digital tech in the classroom

shutterstock_287594936James Styring taught English and Spanish to students of all ages and levels. He also ran teacher-training sessions and was an oral examiner for the Cambridge PET, FCE and CAE exams. James worked for ten years in editorial roles at OUP before becoming a freelance author. He has written more than 50 ELT titles. He joins us today to preview his upcoming webinar, ‘Easy, motivating and meaningful ways of using digital tech in the classroom’, taking place on August 24th and 25th.

How do ‘screenagers’ learn?

Everyone born in the last 15–20 years (AKA Generation Z) has grown up in the digital age. Tablets and smartphones are not an add-on but an essential part of daily life, something Generation Z has never lived without. Generation Z expects wifi and 4G as a basic need, the same as an expectation of running water and electricity for older generations. Trying to engage a classroom of Generation Z students doesn’t always hit the mark if a vital component of their life is missing: their digital side. ‘Screenagers’ and young adults miss the devices through which their life is mediated. Success with this generation depends on appropriating the students’ digital world and deploying it in valid ways in the classroom.

As teachers, what’s of interest to us are the character traits of Generation Z. What do we know about Generation Z and their learning style? They may have less-developed social skills than older generations, as they stumble along the pavement catching Pokémon. They like communicating in bite-sized messages and they’re masters of multi-tasking. This means they respond well to classes which involve a variety of inputs and a varied pace.

How can teachers help screenagers?

The webinar looks at how teachers can vary interaction patterns and pairings, mimicking students’ everyday communicative experience of flitting between Instagram and Twitter and WhatsApp within seconds and without missing a beat. Mimicking these patterns in class can stop itchy feet and dispel boredom. One way of achieving this is bringing classes to life digitally. Most teachers know this but many feel overwhelmed by the proliferation of ‘digital’ in TEFL. The blogosphere is alive with talk of LMSs and MOOCs and big data. ‘Digital’ can quite quickly start to feel alienating and off-putting, not to mention time-consuming and expensive to implement, as you imagine your school spending thousands on tablets or on access to a digital platform.

Well, the good news is that you don’t need any of that. There are lots of classroom activities that you can do for free and often with zero preparation utilising the phones or tablets that most students already have in their schoolbags. You can achieve meaningful outcomes from students taking out their tablets or smartphones (or even older ‘feature’ phones) and using them as a natural part of the lesson. All you need is an open mind and a little imagination. The reason for doing this is not some sort of gimmick. It’s a reaction to who we’re teaching. On average, Generation Z-ers reach for their device every seven minutes during the day to check status updates, to read messages, to post comments, and so on. There are pedagogically worthwhile reasons for having students get their phones out during class for a range of activities. So rather than battling through lessons with students feeling twitchy because they’re desperate to look at their phones, free the phone instead.

To hear more, join my webinar on 24th and 25th August. I hope you’ll also feel comfortable in sharing your own experiences of digital and contributing ideas for making it work.


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Writing – Solutions to Mistakes

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBFreelance teacher trainer, Olha Madylus, looks at some of the issues related to improving students writing skills ahead of her upcoming webinar on Solutions Writing Challenge #1: My students keep making the same mistakes.

Many teachers voice concerns about their students’ inability to improve their writing and learn from their mistakes. Why is it so difficult to improve? Is it the approach we take to writing? We don’t like to write in our own language so why would our students want to write in English?

There are a number of ways to help students overcome their difficulties. Students jump very quickly from producing short texts, which are often written in order to practise a particular grammar item, to writing compositions which require a lot more than simply getting the ‘grammar right’ to be successful. They need to consider how to address the composition title, come up with arguments and ideas, use rich vocabulary, structure the text appropriately and even be imaginative.

So, it’s a good idea for writing tasks to be ‘scaffolded’. This is a term we use a lot with early years’ language learning. ‘Scaffolding’ means that tasks include a lot of support so that learners aren’t overwhelmed and can be successful. Gradually the support is withdrawn as students’ ability and confidence increases. It’s like teaching a child to swim: once they are ready, you take away your hands from under their tummy and off they go alone. Within scaffolded tasks learners can still be allowed enough freedom for their imagination and creativity, which adds to motivating them to write.

Writing is a process and teachers can help their students by focussing on different parts of that process individually. Tasks can focus on various sub-skills, as teachers help their students improve the communication, the language, even the register of their writing.

Teachers can also drive their students toward success by taking a more positive approach to marking writing tasks. Getting back your homework covered in red ink and negative comments is very demoralising. Success is a key element in the classroom. If learners, particularly teens, whose egos are quick to bruise, feel they are failing at something, they tend to avoid it and rather than making more effort, make less or none at all.

We should also reflect on where students do their writing. Much is done at home, but teachers can also encourage their students to collaborate when they write. Working in pairs or small groups encourages learning writing skills to take place and not just testing these skills.

Register for Olha Madylus’s webinar ‘Solutions Writing Challenge #1: Solutions to mistakes’ on either Tuesday 24th or Thursday 26th February to explore this challenge further.

register-for-webinar


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The joys of teaching teenagers in the EFL classroom

Group of teenage friendsJean Theuma, a freelance teacher trainer, shares her thoughts on the challenges of teaching teenagers in the EFL classroom.

“Why does Giovanni always ruin my lesson.”

“Sarah just doesn’t seem to care or even want to be here.”

“Pedro insists on disrupting the lesson.”

“How can they do this to me?”

If any of these sound familiar, then I’ll bet you’ve taught teens! If the thought of summer give you a sinking feeling knowing that most of your students will be between the ages of 14 and 17, then it’s time to stop and have a rethink before the season is truly upon us.

I think that teaching teens is frustrating, depressing and downright tiring but I also know that some of my favourite classes have been with teenagers. They can also be motivating, rewarding and masses of fun!

Motivating

Teaching teens stretches me to look into areas that I wouldn’t normally. Trying to keep my teen classes engaged and focussed, I have delved into project work and task-based learning. I have learned new approaches to teaching that I wouldn’t have tried without the fear instilled by the thought of going into a teen class with a boring course-book and a 3-hour-stretch ahead of you (let’s be honest now)!

In an effort to find common ground, I have explored material that I didn’t think I was interested in; sports, the latest singers and whatever the ‘next big thing’ is. And I’ve learned the hard way never to try to ‘get down with the kids’ and be their friend. They want a teacher, leader, manager, and inspiration – they will find their own friends amongst their peers.

Rewarding

Teens are teens. I think it’s important to remember that these are not fully formed adults and that they are coming to terms with so many changes in their lives, feelings, moods, and so on. In her book “Why are teenagers so weird?” B. S draws on studies which show that the teenage brain undergoes much greater changes than thought previously. What we interpret as laziness, pig-headedness or lack of concentration might all be linked to a process rewiring and remodelling in the very structure of the brain. MRI research in teenage brains have shown that behaviour thought to be controlled by hormone imbalances are actually related to the break-down and reconstruction of neurons. I think that puts classroom behaviour issues into some perspective. Some of our students are dealing with processes which result in mood swings, lack of self-control and general difficult behaviour – they don’t understand what’s going on in their brain, they don’t do it on purpose and here we are getting angry because they feel sleepy or uncooperative. With that said, it seems that any tiny amount of progress we make in class with our students is a great achievement and we should congratulate ourselves and our students for it.

Fun

Who better to have fun with in class than a group of teenagers? Most of them have had formal lessons all year and been drilled to know the grammar and vocabulary of English; however, very few of them actually get the chance to practice and produce the language in any free or spontaneous way. We are lucky that in EFL, activities which foster genuine communication and fluency are often also very good fun. Communicative tasks change the dynamic in the class and can lighten the mood considerably. Teenagers are old enough to see the purpose of these kinds of activities but young enough to also really appreciate the game-like structure of the task.

So yes, I know – teaching teens can be a challenge, right? But it doesn’t have to be that way. It can also be fun!

 

References:

Strauch, B. Why are teenagers so weird? Bloomsbury 2003