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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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Using Twitter with your Students

Twitter birds on a wire

Image credit: StartBloggingOnline.com CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Sean Dowling, an Educational Technology Coordinator, looks at how teachers can continue to support their students’ learning outside of the classroom through the use of Twitter.

Twitter is an online social network website and microblogging platform that allows users to post and read text-based messages (often with attached images), called tweets, up to 140 characters long. According to Statistic Brain (2013, May 7), there are over 554 million active registered Twitter users who tweet 58 million times per day, and projected revenue for 2013 is almost $400 million. In this post, I will make some suggestions as to how to use Twitter with your students.

Getting Started

To use Twitter, both you and your students will need to set up Twitter accounts. Once set up, get your students to start following you and their classmates’ Twitter accounts. Figure 1 below shows a typical Twitter home page. There are areas for composing new tweets, keeping track of who follows you and who you are following, viewing trending tweets, and viewing a stream of your tweets and the tweets of people you are following.

Sample Twitter home page

Figure 1: Sample Twitter home page

Using tweets for teaching and learning

Starting conversations: Ask a question. Get students to reply.

A sample conversation initiated by teacher

Figure 2: A sample conversation initiated by teacher

Encourage your students to start conservations. These could be about their learning, but could also be about their daily lives and fun things. One of the advantages of using a tool like Twitter is that it introduces an element of fun into learning, so use this to motivate students. Another advantage of using Twitter conversations rather than open classroom discussions is to give all students, particularly those who are perhaps shy about speaking in English, more opportunities to participate.

A sample conversation initiated by a student

Figure 3: A sample conversation initiated by a student

Posting links to learning materials: Long links will soon use up most of the available 140 characters, so use a service like bitly to create much shorter links. These posts could also be the starting point for more conversations.

A post with two shortened bitly links

Figure 4: A post with two shortened bitly links

This use of Twitter is an effective way to blend the longer, more static posts in traditional blogs with the shorter, more dynamic posts of a microblog. A traditional blog could be used to set up and deliver the learning content of an actual lesson, but Twitter could be used for real-time interaction during the lesson.

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