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Developing Reading and Writing Skills | Q&A

Thinking back on the Developing Reading and Writing Skills webinars, it was wonderful to see so many teachers participating from all around the world. Thank you all for your participation, sharing your own ideas, and all your wonderful questions. While we managed to discuss a number of your questions during the sessions, this blog post is here to answer some of those that we did not manage to get through.

Webinar Activities

Could the activities we looked at be used with other age groups?

The content of the webinar was focused on young learners, however all the activities we looked at work just as well with teens and even adults. The ‘Who? What? Why?’ activity where students analyse the writer’s purpose, for example, can be used in exactly the same way with all age groups, the only thing that would change is the text you use in class.

Similarly, the activity below, designed to encourage students to respond to the text by sharing facts, ideas and questions that have occurred to them, can be used with very little variation. If you are working with older students you may wish to take out the visual prompts of the book, light bulb and question mark and replace them with question prompts, such as ‘What have you learned?’, ‘What ideas does the text give you?’, ‘What questions do you have?’ However, this is in no way necessary, and many adult learners will find the images just as useful for prompting their ideas as the young learners do.

reading and writing activities

How frequently we should use these activities in class?

My answer to that is as often as you can! Getting into the habit of looking at reading texts as pieces of writing is important, and these activities are designed to help your students to do just that. I recommend repeating these tasks at least once every couple of weeks. By doing this, the students will quickly learn what is expected of them, and because the texts we are using in class are different every time, the students don’t get bored. If you are worried about repeating the same activities with your class you can always vary the way the students are working (pairs, groups, individual, or whole class discussion), or the way they present their answers: Oral presentations, mind maps, graphic organisers, or written paragraphs would all be good alternatives.

Error Correction

There were quite a few questions regarding correcting mistakes in our students’ writing, so I shall attempt to answer them all together. When and how we correct our students’ writing will depend on the objective of the writing task that you set. A free writing task, for example, would typically not be corrected at all, as these tasks are usually a tool for thinking. However, if we are practicing specific skills or writing task types then we will need to factor in some level of error correction.

One of the biggest benefits of written English is that students can go back over their work, and think about and correct what they have written. Like many teachers, in my classroom I use error correction codes to enable students to self-correct their writing. Allowing students to correct themselves gives them the opportunity to think about their writing, and put all that they have learned in class into practice. Of course, before you start using a correction code you need to let your students know that this is what you will be doing. Make sure that the correction code you use is on the wall of the classroom and that your students have their own copies for working at home, that way they will become familiar with it.

Of course, what we correct is a more complicated question. Younger learners, and those who are just starting to learn English are likely to make many mistakes in their writing, and when our students get their work back from the teacher it can seem very disheartening to find that there are many errors to correct. One way to avoid this is limit the type of errors you are correcting. If you are using a course book, or a writing skills book with your students then it can also work as a guide for your error correction.

Let’s say you are working through Oxford Skills World with your students, unit by unit they will be learning new writing skills, and these are the areas that we should focus on in our marking. So, if they are learning how to use full stops and capital letters in unit one, then when we take their writing homework in we would correct only the mistakes connected to this skill. When the student has corrected these errors, you can choose to move onto another type of mistake for the second draft, or save other error types for a later piece of writing. You can change the number of error types you look at per draft depending on the needs of your students and the class objectives.

Recommended Reading

Finally, several of you asked for some recommended reading and books for further information. If you are looking for guidance for teachers, then the OUP ELT blog is a great place to start! You will find plenty of interesting and useful articles right here, like Gareth Davies article Making the ‘Impossible’ Possible – How to get your students writing  or Philip Haines’ 25 Alternatives to Reading Aloud Around the Class.

There are also plenty of great professional development books available with ideas for improving your students reading and writing. I really like the Into the Classroom series from OUP, as it has plenty of practical activities which are easy to use in class.

Thank you again to those of you who attended the webinars, and good luck with your reading and writing!


Charlotte Rance is a freelance teacher trainer and consultant based in Brighton. She has worked in the English Language Teaching industry for over a decade, and has worked in China and Turkey, as well as her native UK, where she completed her Diploma in TESOL at the University of Brighton. Charlotte’s key areas of interest are young learners and the use of reading as a tool for language learning.


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Helping students to organise their ideas in writing tasks

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBIn January we asked over 450 teachers from around the world to vote for the biggest writing challenge they face in their classroom. Since then we’ve dedicated a month to each of the top three voted for challenges with a series of webinars and blog posts from some of Oxford’s top teacher trainers. During our survey we also received some fantastic comments from teachers telling us about other writing challenges they’ve encountered. Join us as we take on 3 extra challenges raised by teachers like you. In this blog Elna Coetzer addresses the first of these challenges:

‘My students struggle to organise their ideas on the page’.

I wish I were Stephen King then I could also spend weeks and months writing my first line, but realistically speaking… So here goes!

Today we are going to look in more detail at a number of ways that we can help students organise their ideas more successfully through targeted practice tasks. I have also included some brainstorming techniques.

Firstly, what are targeted practice tasks?

Let’s think of lessons in which we expose our students to specific reading sub-skill practice:

– in these lessons we focus on helping students develop a specific sub-skill like guessing meaning from context, and
– the aim if achieved, is that our students are then better equipped to perform this type of reading sub-skill.

Linking this with targeted writing tasks, a lesson might focus on writing a blog post and the targeted tasks would then focus on using extreme adjectives. Another lesson could be writing an online profile in which the targeted writing task could be focused on working with the layout of profiles and the type of information that needs to be included. Over a period of time you can then help your students develop a whole range of writing skills or writing-related skills like structuring ideas or organising outlines, one targeted practice task at a time.

Why are these tasks so useful?

1. They allow students to focus on one achievable aspect of the writing process,
2. they raise students’ awareness of a specific facet of writing a certain type of text and
3. this is a more memorable way of helping students with specific writing challenges.

In addition to the above-mentioned, it also gives students a greater chance of success, because it only focuses on a certain part in the writing process.

Now let’s turn to the ‘how’ of these tasks!

This time around we are going to look at ways to help students with organising their ideas. Here are my tips…

TIP 1: Exposure

In order for our students – many of them coming from a very different L1 writing background – to organise their ideas into an effective whole, they need to be shown many examples of texts. For this reason we need to:

– make sure that we expose our students to a variety of text types and overtly discuss the components and ideas that make up the text. This type of activity is often part of Solutions writing lessons where students are prompted to answer questions about the content and layout of said text.
– use a content checklist which can raise our students’ awareness of the variety of ideas within a text and how these ideas are organised into a whole. These kinds of checklists can be compiled for any text type.

For example if you are looking at an online blog post about a hotel recommendation (your text type), you could include the following points:

1) Put the following in order: information about the staff, where did you find the hotel, information about the location of the hotel, how to make a reservation, reason for the visit, the facilities at the hotel, a short recommendation;
2) Did the writer include a description of the hotel?
3) Did the writer remember to mention all the details that are necessary for a specific type of traveller? Etc.

Students look at the text and by discussing the various items on the checklist, they are helped to notice how texts are organised and how ideas are combined to form these texts.

TIP 2: Deconstruct

For this type of activity one can use graphic organisers, flow charts and mind maps. In this tasks students again look at a text and take it apart, transferring the ideas onto a graphic display of some kind. One could use a text of any type for this activity, just make sure that you choose the best graphic display for your text type. In other words if you are working on writing stories, then using the following graphic organiser would be the best:

Solutions Blog 3

In this way the students deconstruct the story focussing on both the outline and the ideas included in the story. This can then lead to tip 3…

TIP 3: Reconstruct

Here the students use a given outline, either prepared by you or by the students (using the brainstorming techniques and graphic representations you have already taught them) to write their own text making sure that they include all the details mentioned in the outline. When they have completed this task, the students are given the original text for comparison. Again the purpose of the activities in both tip 2 and 3 is to help students notice the various building blocks which combine to form a well-written text.

TIP 4: Highlighters and colours

Introduce your students to a variety of brainstorming techniques – see some examples below:
– using the journalists technique: you answer the questions (what?, where?, when?, who?, why?, with whom? etc.) in order to gather all the information which should be included in the text.
– using mind mapping

Every time when you introduce a new technique, make sure that you also show your students how to link the ideas into a logical order by using highlighters or different colours. You could highlight ideas that belong together or underline ideas supporting the same main topic using the same colour. In this way students can organise their writing in a more visual way. What students then need to do is combine their ideas that are colour-coded in order to form a text.

Remember as with other targeted practice tasks, the purpose of these activities is to help students actively and overtly develop a specific skill: that of how to organise and structure their ideas to form a coherent text. Thus the students do not necessarily have to actually do the writing when doing tasks focussing on tips 1,2 and 4. By practising the specific tasks over and over again, the students will be able to structure and organise their writing better.

All that is left for me to say is: try these ideas, make them your own and let us know how it went! And as I said, you do not have to write a complete text to be working on your writing. In terms of writing with our students, it is about one focussed task at a time! Good luck!


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Teaching formal writing

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBIn January we asked over 450 teachers from around the world to vote for the biggest writing challenge they face in their classroom. Since then we’ve dedicated a month to each of the top three voted for challenges with a series of webinars and blog posts from some of Oxford’s top teacher trainers. During our survey we also received some fantastic comments from teachers telling us about other writing challenges they’ve encountered. Join us as we take on 3 extra challenges raised by teachers like you. In this blog Olha Madylus addresses the first of these challenges:

‘My students find formal writing challenging and keep using informal vocabulary’.

Maybe this is something you have experienced? Teenage learners in particular can struggle with formal writing. They rarely use formal vocabulary even in their first language, and don’t see the relevance of formal writing. However, for most teenagers this will prove an important skill when they come to take their end of school exams. Beyond school, formal writing will also be useful in a number of contexts, such as essays, job applications, reports and letters.

Firstly students need to be made aware of the difference between formal and informal English (I am sure they will understand this in their L1). Secondly they need to appreciate when either is appropriate to use and finally they need opportunities to practise both.

  1. Awareness-raising

Write or project two example sentences like this on the board:

  1. After careful consideration, Michael Morris decided to purchase the vehicle, as he had decided the price was reasonable.
  2. Mike bought the car because he thought it was an ok price.

Ask students to work in pairs and answer the following questions

Do you think the sentences were said or written?

Who do you think said or wrote the sentences and why?

How would you translate each sentence into L1.

Which words in each sentence are synonyms or near synonyms? (consideration=thought, purchase=buy, reasonable=ok etc).

Clarify the terms formal and informal, using L1 as needed.

Give out large pieces of paper to groups of about 4 students and ask them to divide the paper into two sections and write formal at the top of one section and informal on the other. Ask students to brainstorm their ideas about when we use each kind of language (they should use their experience of L1 as well as English). Prompt them as necessary.

Hopefully they will have ideas like this. You can show them this on a slide, so they can compare their ideas.

Formal Informal
Usually written
Spoken in official, public and smart situations like speeches
Usually spoken in everyday, personal conversations, films, games, talk shows
Written in songs, dialogues in stories, texts, emails

Then ask your students to come up with three ways in which the language is different. They can look back at the original two sentences. Compare their ideas to your list and add any they have which are not included here.

Formal Informal
Usually planned, edited Usually spontaneous
Official, academic Conversational
Longer sentences Shorter sentences
Longer and less common words More commonly used words
Some words are only used in writing Some words are only spoken
Grammatically correct May include some grammar mistakes
Reader often not known to the writer Listener usually known to speaker
Needed in exam tasks  Not appreciated in exam tasks
  1. Using language appropriately

A.

Show the students the following dialogue:

A: Hi! What’s up?

B: Nothing much. How are things?

A: Not bad. Take it easy.

B: You too. See ya later.

Ask students to discuss

  1. The relationship between the speaker (friends)
  2. Their age (teens or young adults)
  3. The tone (informal)

Now ask your students to ‘translate’ the dialogue so the speakers are (a) strangers (b) older and the tone is formal.

It will look something like this:

A: Hello. How are you?

B: I’m fine. How are you?

A: I’m very well, thank you. Have a good day.

B: You too. Good bye.

Ask pairs of students to practise reading out the dialogues with the correct voices and body language.

They can do such short and focussed ‘translation’ tasks from informal to formal and formal to informal from time to time to remind them of the differences.

B.

When preparing students to write a formal letter you could do a task like this, which helps them think about and distinguish appropriate language to be used in the task.

Dear Sir Hi there
To consider To think about
Firstly To begin
We regret to inform you I’m sorry to say
I wish to enquire I want to ask
Consequently So
However But
We have pleasure in announcing I’m happy to say
Sufficient Enough

Then they could (a) take the formal words and phrases and write sentences which include them so the tone is formal throughout or (b) create a dialogue using the informal phrases or (c) when writing the formal letter try to include as many of the formal words or phrases in it.Cut up the cards and give a set to each group of 3 or 4 students. Ask the students to work together and match the formal to the informal equivalents of the phrases or words.

  1. Next steps

Make sure your students practise both formal and informal English in class and constantly think about why they use different levels of formality. They can practise informal English by writing and acting out dialogues or sketches, writing songs in speaking tasks.

They can also create posters and collect new vocabulary phrases in three categories – formal, informal and slang. It’s all English but they should be aware of when to use it and why.