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Learn English with Virtual Environments | Hidekazu Shoto

Students playing computer games to learn english

Communication with native English language speakers is one of the most effective ways to learn English, and using technology makes this possible. I teach English based on my “collaborative-communication model”, one that’s very effective for motivating my students. I use a wealth of technologies with my class such as Skype, Minecraft, and AI robots. I find them useful for not only teaching English, but for teaching 21st century skills as well!

Virtual environments

From my experience, virtual environments can be very effective language learning tools for students of English; they allow students young and old to experience new worlds, communicate, make friends, and build relationships. There are a wealth of tools out there that you can use, but I’m happy to say that I’ve had real success with my students using a combination of Skype and Minecraft (a game many students may already be familiar with). These digital environments offer students engaging opportunities to use English with native speakers and to use the language to achieve a common goal, such as constructing a digital building. Through these activities, students also develop their 21st Century Skills of communication, collaboration, imagination, and logical thinking. These four skills are necessary assets for learners that will help them to succeed in the modern world.

A typical lesson

Typically, students grouped together to make a team of four people, and they are given a task. I might ask the groups to construct a building, like the Kyoto World Heritage Site in Minecraft, before asking them to introduce it to students from overseas. To build something in Minecraft, students need to exercise their imagination, and think logically about the build and their resources. Each student is then given a role; Minecraft Leader, Programming Leader, English Leader, and Building Designer. Finally, they are given a deadline.

Most groups start off by discussing a plan, each student offering an opinion. These discussions continue throughout the duration of the build. Once completed, the group welcome overseas visitors to their digital environment, giving them a tour of their build and gathering their opinions on their work, all in English!

The simplicity and global appeal of Minecraft make it extraordinarily easy to introduce to the class. As a tool, it allowed me to break down subject barriers, combining English, 21st Century Skills, and programming. This is something I’m especially proud of achieving as from 2020 in Japan, the Ministry of Education plans to make ‘English’ and ‘Programming’ compulsory across all Primary schools. The techniques I’ve described combine these two educational programmes, which is great for teachers! And through the “collaborative-communication model”, students can improve their English proficiency in an engaging and motivating way. 


Hidekazu Shoto was born in Osaka, Japan, and is an English Teacher and Head of ICT at Ritsumeikan Primary School. After graduate school, he joined Ritsumeikan Academy as an English teacher, introducing ICT and technology into his English classes.

Hidekazu Shoto was a top 10 Finalist for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2019. Here’s why!


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Does technology work? | Nicky Hockly

Teaching with technology

In todays’ wired world, technology is an integral part of our work and personal lives. As teachers, we are often expected to use a range of digital technologies in our English language classes.

These expectations come from a range of quarters: from educational technology vendors, Ministries of Education, school directors, students, parents, and often from teachers themselves who feel they ‘should’ use technologies, especially with younger students/teenagers.

But in our rush to use technology in the English language classroom, the question of whether a chosen technology ‘works’ or not is frequently ignored.

What does research say?

Let’s start with a short quiz. Are the three following statements true or false?

  • Younger students (e.g. teenagers) are naturally better users of digital technologies than older students.
  • Contributing to blogs can help language learners improve their writing.
  • Digital technologies can help students with special educational needs.

Do you feel confident about your answers? Let’s see what the research says about each of these statements.

  1. Younger students are naturally better users of digital technologies than older students.
    Many people believe this to be true, but the myth of the ‘digital native’ (Prensky, 2001) has been thoroughly debunked by research. Young people are not automatically effective users of new technologies, although they may be confident with these technologies and use them for a range of (primarily friendship-driven) purposes. Young people may appear to live on Instagram, but they are often not good at evaluating the source and veracity of information they find online. They often don’t know how to write an email with the appropriate structure and tone. In short, younger students tend to be confident but uncritical users of technology. A large-scale research study (Fraillon et al.) carried out with 60,000 13 to 14 year olds across 3,300 schools in 21 educations systems/countries found that the ICT skills of young learners and adolescents were fairly low, and depended on a wide range of factors. These factors included: the impact of students’ home and school contexts, students’ individual characteristics, parents’ educational level and profession, the number of books and access to ICT resources in the home. Whether students received ICT instruction in school was another factor that affected their digital literacy. The bottom line is that younger people are automatically digital literate.
  • Contributing to blogs can help language learners improve their writing.
    Blogs have long been considered good for helping students develop their writing skills. When writing blog entries, students write for a real audience and with a communicative purpose; students can also interact with blog readers in a blog’s comment section. These are all good things for writing. Research shows that blogs can increase students’ motivation to write in English, although the research is less clear on whether the quality of their writing improves through writing blog entries. For example, it has been found that students with a lower level of language proficiency may benefit less from writing blogs than stronger students do (Secru, 2013). Nevertheless, the research into using blogs to develop EFL and ESL students’ writing is positive overall.
  • Digital technologies can help students with special educational needs.
    So-called ‘assistive technologies’ are used in inclusive learning in different disciplines, not only in English language learning, so much of the research has taken place in a range of subject areas. Overall, the research is promising. Tablets, for example, have been enthusiastically taken up by teachers working with special educational needs (SEN) learners because of their multimodal and tactile assistive qualities, as well as the ever-growing range of educational apps available for SEN students. In the field of English language teaching, research suggests that, depending on the learning materials or apps used and task design, learners’ engagement with language learning materials can increase (e.g. Cumming & Draper Rodriguez, 2013). The research also suggests that language teachers usually have a positive attitude to the use of assistive technologies with their SEN language learners.

Whatever the technology and whoever the learners, one thing is clear: it is important to review the available research in order to take an evidence-based approach to using technology with English language learners.

To what extent do technologies support language learning, and lead to improved outcomes for students? Join me in April for my webinar where we’ll take a critical look at digital technologies research and ask: Does technology actually help English language students learn better?


Nicky Hockly is the Director of Pedagogy of The Consultants-E, an award-winning online training and development organisation. She has worked in the field of English Language Teaching since 1987, is an international plenary speaker, and gives workshops and training courses for teachers all over the world. Nicky writes regular columns on technology for teachers in ETP (English Teaching Professional) magazine, and in the ELTJ (English Language Teaching Journal).


References

  • Cumming, T. M., & Draper Rodriguez, C. (2013). Integrating the iPad into language arts instruction for students with disabilities: Engagement and perspectives. Journal of Special Education Technology, 28, 4, 43-52.
  • Fraillon, J., Ainley, J., Schulz, W., Friedman, T., & Gebhardt, E. (2013). Preparing for life in a digital age. The IEA International Computer and Information Literacy Study International Report. Springer Open: Springer International Publishing AG Switzerland.
  • Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9, 5. MCB University Press.
  • Sercu, L. (2013). Weblogs in foreign language education: Real and promised benefits. Proceedings of INTED2013, 7th International Technology, Education and Development Conference, Valencia, Spain, pp. 4355-66.


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Teaching with Web 2.0 Tools (Part 1)

Educational-Computer-Games-For-KidsMagali Trapero Turrent is an ELT Editor at Oxford University Press, Mexico. She is the author of several series published by OUP as well as a teacher and former OUP Educational Services teacher trainer. In her post, she shares her ideas for using Web 2.0 tools to develop learner’s language skills.

Having the opportunity to expand the horizon of my traditional EFL classroom has been just as exciting for me as for my students. However, I must admit that, as a digital immigrant, it was not simple at the beginning. It took many hours of focused as well as playful hours of dedicated inquiry to find the link between the learning goals of a CLIL lesson and the potentiality of different Web 2.0 tools to support them. I also had to determine how much scaffolding learners would need before engaging in web-based activities and how to integrate elements of the outside world that could enrich our lessons.

In preparing a science lesson, for example, the integration of international celebrations, such as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Health Day or the United Nations Observances, can bring the real world into the classroom. This, along with Web 2.0 tools, becomes a way of integrating the world of our learners with the real world—right there in our classrooms or as a home-school link.

Using Voice Thread for speaking activities

tools1tools2The typical classroom has learners that gladly engage in communicative activities and those that, given the chance, will avoid the task altogether. Creating speaking activities in Voice Thread, besides adding novelty and variety to lessons, can provide a formative assessment record. Voice Thread is a user-friendly tool that can integrate audio, video, images, text, documents and presentations—providing a multisensory, non-threatening environment where collaborative learning can flourish, even for learners that would otherwise not take part in communicative activities. Voice thread can be accessed using tablets, computers and mobile devices.

Once you have made a decision about the speaking function to focus on (performance, transaction or interaction) and given the language support needed by your learners, you can upload models for the speaking activity directly into your Voice Thread page for your students to view prior to doing the task.

In setting up activities, give learners an opportunity to personalize their experience. After all, that is what students do in the real world through social media, such as Facebook.

The following example presents materials for a science lesson. In the exploration stage of the lesson, learners can talk about what they think a healthy meal is. In a Voice Thread activity, learners can do the following using computers, tablets or their smart phones:

  • Take pictures and create a healthy food poster to present in the recording.
  • Make a video of healthy foods found in vending machines while they narrate.
  • Take selfies next to healthy food street stands and describe why it is healthy.
  • Make a video of their favorite home-made healthy meal and talk about it.
  • Take a picture of their refrigerator and describe its contents.

Additionally, students can ask questions based on classmates presentations or add information to a previously posted presentation before they move into the next stage of the lesson.

As learners get more knowledge on the topic—healthy food, in this example—they can then work with information from international organizations, such as the World health Organization, to learn more about healthy or unhealthy food and its impact on other communities throughout the world.

Using again the science example, and to celebrate International Health Day 2015, a question is added to the activity to activate students’ previous knowledge on food safety—the focus of the celebration. Students proceed to record their current knowledge. Examples of activities that can be created in Voice Thread to activate previous knowledge are the following:

  • Create a cloud with the words you associate with food safety and explain to your classmates the ones you think are the most important.
  • Record an acrostic poem using food safety.
  • In pairs, create a video for a community announcement on what you think food safety is.

tools4tools3 These activities, of course, can be adapted for other core subjects. The advantage of creating speaking activities in Voice Thread is that you can choose the type of speaking function to focus on (performance, transaction or interaction) and monitor each learners’ skill development as well accuracy issues that may arise. It also provides you and your learners with a form of digital portfolio or formative assessment record. Furthermore, it gives learners a reason to communicate in English in a way that it is used in the real world—as much of today’s communication happens through the use of digital tools.

In the next article in this series, we will explore the use of Web 2.0 tools for listening activities.

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