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Collaborative Learning Online And In The Socially Distanced Classroom

Cut-out paper-chain of children holding handsWhat is collaborative language learning?

One of the most satisfying experiences that I have as an instructor is when I have my class make pairs or groups and then, after a few moments, I hear lively chatter. Moving around the classroom, I hear students using the vocabulary and structures that we studied in class. Yet they are doing more than just reciting what they learned in this lesson; they are combining the learning goals of the lesson with the language that they already know in a personalized and creative manner. A casual observer might think that this was break-time or an opportunity for the class to relax. But while I hope they are having fun, I know that they are actually hard at work. This is the culminating activity that we have worked towards together as a class. It is collaborative learning in action.

The key principles of collaborative learning

Having students work in pairs and groups of three or four are key strategies in the collaborative learning approach. Together, they practice the target language and to establish meaning, in a carefully sequenced set of achievable, unintimidating, activities. From our own experience, we know the value of learning by doing. This is even more critical in language learning, where the production of new sounds, new words and new structures is so vital. To be a successful language user, it is not enough to know; students have to adapt their knowledge to create meaning and communicate with someone else. Increasing our students’ opportunities to do something meaningful in class is one of the main aims of collaborative learning.

So, what is the role of the teacher in all of this?

At the start of a sequence of activities, for example, when presenting the target language of the lesson, the method of instruction can look quite traditional; often the teacher speaks and the students listen. After the presentation phase, however, the class transitions in a way that makes the learners, and not the teacher, the focus of the class. The first step often focuses on accuracy. In pairs or groups, the students manipulate the language mechanically. They learn from each other. Crucially, the teacher moves from group to group, evaluating the progress, and correcting the learners as necessary. The subsequent activities in the sequence encourage the learners step-by-step to use the target language in more creative and open-ended ways, with activities that encourage students to combine what they have just learned with the language that they already know.

The collaborative approach is highly motivating because it allows students to communicate about things that matter to them, to be more active, and indeed, more successful learners.

Collaborative learning in the COVID-19 era

Only a few short months ago, the notion that teleconferencing technology would become an essential tool in our professional lives would have been unimaginable. Along with my colleagues, I have struggled to adjust to this new reality. What, now, are the most effective classroom management techniques? Does the collaborative language learning approach even make any sense?

When we went into lockdown in New York City, where I teach, my classroom practice probably resembled a traditional, lecture approach. Eventually, however, I was able to adapt what I typically did in a physical classroom to the virtual classroom.

4 key ways to conduct collaborative language learning in cyberspace:

  1. At the start of the lesson, I present the goals of the class and the target language. I could share my screen, where I could have a PowerPoint presentation, but instead I send my presentation materials to the students earlier. Since unconscious lip reading is such an important part of listening comprehension, I want my students to be able to see my face full size. Instead of sending a file of slides, I use the screen capture feature of QuickTime to record my computer screen and voice at the same time. (I am a low-tech person, but I have found it easy to use). Students, therefore, get a video of my presentation, which they can watch before or after class, multiple times.
  2. Most teleconferencing tools allow the host to make breakout groups. I set these up before class. It is a simple thing to conduct pair work and group work using this feature, and as in a physical classroom, I can monitor them as they work. One added advantage is that my students can video their work, (using any screen capture tool) which we can use later for student self-analysis or peer-reviewing.
  3. Many of the activities that my students do in the physical classroom involve completing charts, matching, and checking items, together. Now, I have students take a photo of their work using their smartphone, and then share it with me and their classmates using email, social media, or our school Learning Management System (LMS). We do collaborative writing activities in a similar way.
  4. In a physical classroom, I can’t imagine teaching in a room without a whiteboard. Almost all teleconferencing tools have a whiteboard feature. I find this feature cumbersome. It takes me a lot of time to write and then erase the digital whiteboard. When teaching online, I find it much more effective to use the chat function when I want my students to see something in writing. For more extended notes or hand-drawn charts, I much prefer to use a small, handheld physical whiteboard, which I hold up to my laptop screen. Some students take photos of this with their smartphone, just like they do in my regular classroom, while others take screenshots.

The Hybrid Classroom

What will happen when we move to a hybrid classroom model, where we combine socially distanced in-class learning and distance learning? Can we have collaborative learning when students must be apart from each other?

Before the pandemic, I frequently had students take photos of their work with their phones, which they posted on a social media platform, and I then projected to the class. Now, I will have them share with each other, in socially distanced pairs and groups.

What activities to do online or in the socially distanced classroom will be an important decision. Right now, I am planning to present new language (vocabulary and grammar) online, in the manner that I described earlier. Writing activities, including collaborative ones, can be successfully conducted online, as can listening activities – my students can access the content on their mobile devices. But since speaking is by its very nature performative, I will prioritize the physical class time for open-ended pair work, group discussions, and role-playing. But at a distance.

 

For more practical tips, and two free activities for running pair work and group work with adult learners, visit our collaborative learning page!

Get Expert Advice On Collaborative Learning


Thomas Healy is one of the authors of Smart Choice as well as an Assistant Professor in the Intensive English Program at the Pratt Institute, New York City. He has given several webinars for Oxford University Press on how to use smart devices and social media to encourage collaborative learning including The potential of smart devices, How to use mobile technology in class and How learners can use mobile technology outside of classFind these recordings in our webinar library.


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How we think as (language) teachers

shutterstock_159772340Donald Freeman is a professor of education at the University of Michigan, where he works with undergraduate and post‐graduate teacher preparation in all subjects K‐12. Today, he joins us to preview his webinar How we think as (language) teachers which he will present on March 29th and 30th.

I can imagine my title raises questions. Of course people think when they teach, just like they breathe or they use language. It may be surprising, therefore, to learn that studying how teachers think only became a part of second language teaching about 25 years ago.  Before the 1990s, teacher thinking was part of methodology: When you learned a particular way of working in the classroom, the thinking went along with it. Learning how to do specific things in teaching– like how to conduct a substitution drill or set up a listening activity for example—included the reasons for why and how to do these activities.  In this way, theory was part of practice; the activity embedded the reasoning.  However, with the growth of research in the ‘parent disciplines’ of language teaching, second language acquisition and applied linguistics, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, what we called ‘theory’ took on a life of its own. There emerged theories about how people learned languages, and what languages were, that the teacher needed to somehow combine with understanding of pedagogy.

This changed the role of the teacher. Beyond learning teaching methodologies, and how to do things in the classroom, teachers were also expected to know these general ideas about teaching and learning. But these theories lived in ‘academic’ worlds that seemed very far removed from the messy, complicated work that language teachers do with their students in their classrooms on a daily basis. So to counteract this distance, it makes sense that interest in understanding how people actually think as language teachers increased —the kinds of thinking they do, what factors shape the thinking, how the thinking evolves over time through a teaching life, and how that thinking can be ‘taught’ to (or developed in) new teachers.

I was very fortunate to be part of this work in second language teaching. As we started to investigate how people think as language teachers, we drew from similar work on teacher thinking in general educational research. Like any borrowing, this process had positive and negative implications. On the positive, studying language teachers as teachers focused us on what might be true about the work in general. For example, our understanding of how teachers learn in their first five years in the classroom are anchored in research on the development of teaching expertise generally. A negative was that these general understandings of teaching distracted from examining how language works differently from other subjects (like math or science) when it becomes classroom content. The fact that we do not have a clear view of language as classroom content that is based in research in classrooms and documented in how language teachers actually work has presented major challenges. Too often, the profession has relied on proxies and shortcuts, rather than truly examining how language works in teaching.

Let me give two examples. First,  for years, language teaching has used the concept of the ‘native speaker’ as a reference point for teaching qualifications, although the concept itself is not linguistically definable. This geo-political idea has been substituted for various reasons, for a clear definition of the language that teachers need to know for classroom teaching.

This connects to a second example: the principle of teaching English in English, which is directly connected to how we define language as classroom content. Using the target language in teaching makes a lot of sense pedagogically—it can provide students with exposure and input, and perhaps most importantly it makes the target language real.  But how to teach English in  English is complicated. It depends on the students’ language level, the content the teacher is expected to teach, as well as the culture of the school and the wider society.

This webinar will examine how understanding teacher thinking has evolved in ELT. We will review the ‘generations’ of language teaching and use that generational framework to consider how people learn to teach languages. Participants who are teachers will have the opportunity to frame their own development; those who are teacher trainers, supervisors, or educators will be able to apply the framework to their work with teachers.

If you’re interested in attending the full webinar, simply follow the registration button below.

Register for the webinar


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Teaching changes lives – exponentially!

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Ms. Motta (front row, far right) with her class

Eneais Magalhaes is a former English teacher, who now works as a Marketing Manager at OUP Brasil. Today he shares a story with us about how #TeachingChangesLives, ahead of the closing of the competition later this month.

When I learned about the campaign “Teaching Changes Lives” I was excited – because it invites teachers from around the world to tell their stories, which will certainly be inspiring and encouraging for many others.

As a former teacher of English, I love knowing that what I’ve done professionally has had a positive impact on peoples’ lives. I also like that I have contact with other people who see their work as a mission – their stories inspire and motivate me.

Some time ago I met this kind of teacher during a seminar for English teachers and I learned about her work in a public institution. Her story is worth telling.

Her name is Mônica Motta, and the institution is called CIUG.

The school has been operating for over 20 years now, sponsored by the São Gonçalo Secretary of Education, a city in the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro.

CIUG provides free English courses to over 1,600 students who would not be able to afford to study the language in a private school. This exemplary initiative of São Gonçalo’s municipality represents a passport for a better future for their students, once speaking English is a requirement for higher level positions.

As we were talking, I heard several interesting stories about CIUG, but I was particularly struck by one of them. Mônica told me she was approached by a student of a preparatory course saying she had been a student there some years before, and that her experience as a student at CIUG triggered off a deep passion for English, and ultimately, for teaching it, which made her choose to be a teacher of English. After graduating from university she decided to become a student again (at CIUG, of course) in a course to enable her to get an international certificate of proficiency in English. She was impacted in such a way by the work developed at the institution that she decided to become a teacher and change people’s lives as well!

Teachers touch peoples’ lives. Fortunately, some of them will also go on to become teachers, and carry the mission out, perpetuating the cycle. The number of people impacted by a teacher’s work is not possible to measure as it grows exponentially.

Mônica and her fellow teachers, as well as all the people committed to keeping CIUG operating are real agents of social change. I was fortunate in meeting Mônica and getting to know her story. It was touching. The sense of purpose, mission and commitment to their students makes hers an example to be followed. I felt compelled to write about it and share this story with as many teachers as possible, as a way to remind them all of the importance and impact their work has in peoples’ lives.

Teaching does change lives – actually, it changes lives exponentially!


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#TeachingChangesLives – Verissimo Toste

Children in playgroundAt Oxford University Press, we believe that education changes lives for the better. Every day, we aim to enrich the lives of individuals and communities through education and learning English.

We can’t do this without you – the teachers in the classroom! That’s why we have just launched our #TeachingChangesLives campaign – to hear how your English Language Teaching has changed lives for the better.

Verissimo Toste, who has taught English as a Foreign Language for 30 years and is now a teacher trainer working in the Professional Development Team at Oxford University Press, kicks us off with his story about how English teaching changed one of his student’s lives in particular.  A student in one of his classes was having trouble getting his father to sign his school projects. His father went to work before he got up and arrived back home after he had gone to bed. Watch the video below to hear the idea that Verissimo had to help this student, which not only improved the student’s English but also the relationship with his father.

It’s stories like these that remind us how teaching can changes lives. Have you ever thought about how your own teaching has helped to change lives for the better? The   #TeachingChangesLives competition has been created for that purpose: to hear your stories. Enter today and you could win a two-week all-expenses paid Professional Development scholarship in Oxford in summer 2016!

To enter, show us how your English language teaching has changed lives for the better by submitting a short presentation (no longer than 15 slides) or video (no longer than 5 minutes). Your story can focus on an individual student, a class, or an entire institution.

We look forward to hearing how your teaching changes lives! Find out more here and don’t forget to share your stories on Twitter using the hashtag #TeachingChangesLives.

If you want to hear more stories and teaching tips from Verissimo, why not take a look at his videos on our YouTube Channel.


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insight Top 10 Tips: Writing

insight-top-ten-writingStudents often find it difficult to engage with reading and writing instruction and practice, particularly when large, intimidating texts are involved. This is the second in our series of insight blog posts, aimed at helping teachers to overcome this problem. Here are the Top 10 Tips for Writing, from teacher-trainer Olha Madylus.

Writing is the most difficult of the four language skills. In order to write well, students need to not only have mastery of grammar, a large bank of vocabulary, know how to structure texts, and be able to plan and edit their own writing – they also need to have ideas, opinions and imagination. They are also expected to write things they would never normally write in their own language, let alone in English. Little wonder that so many students don’t like writing and find it hard to see any progress in this skill.

Here are 10 tips to help you teach writing in the classroom.

  1. Start small

Initially do short writing tasks in class. Writing even one good sentence is a great start. All too often, teachers ask students at low levels to produce long texts, which they have not been prepared for. Students will become confident with a step-by-step approach based on the success of mastering skills one by one.

Whatever the focus of the lesson, encourage students to produce their own sentences which incorporate the target language.

  1. Provide good models and discuss what makes them good

Students need to see what they are aiming for. Ensure that lessons focusing on reading texts include a discussion on what makes it an effective text – why is a particular description good? Maybe because it uses vivid adjectives and builds up a picture that can easily be visualised by the reader. Remember: just reading a lot of texts is not enough – students have to notice how they work in order to then reproduce those skills.

  1. Plan to develop different aspects of writing separately

There are so many different skills which students need to develop in order to become proficient writers in English, they cannot be developed simultaneously. So, plan tasks in class which develop these skills separately. Course books often have lots of writing tasks to develop grammatical accuracy, but what about other writing sub-skills? You could create a gapped text of a story with no adjectives and ask students to add powerful adjectives to see how they add colour and tone to the text i.e. using different adjectives could make it funny, serious or even frightening.

Note which writing sub-skills your students have problems with and create tasks to address these problems.

  1. Brainstorm and input ideas

Before setting writing tasks, brainstorm in class. You can brainstorm ideas, vocabulary, appropriate grammar etc. Encourage students to record mind maps and to use this technique when they have to write independently or in an exam.

Often, a problem students have when writing is that they don’t have the background, experience or knowledge to write on that particular topic, even in their Mother tongue. Exploit the texts in your course book by asking students to underline ideas they find interesting and then use them later in their own writing. They should not be hampered by lack of general knowledge in a class that is aimed to develop their language skills.

Use videos from websites such as Youtube or texts from the internet, English language newspapers, or magazines to introduce the topic.

  1. Provide a reason to write

All too often there is no real reason to write in class other than to have the teacher mark it! This is not very motivating for students.

Could the class create their own chat room or blog for sharing ideas about lessons, jokes, interests or news? What about getting students to write dialogues based on a unit topic, before recording them with sound effects?

  1. Collaborative writing in class

By always setting writing for homework, students are left isolated with little support to develop writing skills. This means that writing rarely improves and students lose motivation and confidence. Do writing in class and ensure that students work together, sharing both their ideas, vocabulary and grammar knowledge.

  1. Make it creative and fun

Writing doesn’t always have to take the form of examination-style texts like ‘Advantages and disadvantages of living in a city’, or ‘A letter of application for a job’.

Creative writing can encourage interesting and effective language use. For example, find interesting pictures of pairs or groups of people (e.g. famous paintings which can be found online) and ask students to imagine what they are thinking or saying to each other.

Writing poems is a great way to allow students to focus on quality of writing rather than worrying about quantity. (Have a look at Creative Poetry Writing by Jane Spiro, Resource Books for Teachers, Oxford University Press).

  1. Include writing in every lesson

Plan to have at least some writing in every lesson, so that it becomes more natural and easier for your students to write in English.

You could create a graffiti wall in class and ask students at the end of each lesson to write on post-its / small pieces of paper the things they liked about it. They could even write requests for future lessons or a note of praise to a student they have noticed has worked particularly well that day. These can be put up on the wall and read by all the class, while you can mention any comments. Knowing that people will read your writing makes it more real and interesting.

  1. Sometimes focus on accuracy and at other times on fluency

If students feel that when they write for you, you will focus on their mistakes, they may well lose sight of the message.

Plan writing tasks so that some just focus on fluency, encouraging students to express their ideas and what vocabulary they know. Why not have students write regular texts, emails or letters, telling you about things going on in their lives? Don’t correct these, but send back short replies that address the message of the text.

  1. Mark positively

There is nothing more disheartening than getting back your writing covered in red pen, with a bad mark at the bottom and the comment ‘Try harder!’

Avoid using a red pen to highlight all the mistakes. Why not highlight everything the student has done well, so they know to keep doing that in the future and make them feel good about the effort they have put into the text. You can also be selective in marking mistakes: choose the three most common / serious errors and focus on those. But always mention the good points in the writing.

Remember how hard it is to write well even in your own language and that students need as much help as possible in developing this complex skill. Encourage and don’t over-correct to make writing a positive experience for students in class.

For more ideas on writing in class, see Writing by Tricia Hedge, Resource Books for Teachers, OUP.

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