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Giving children more agency in class

shutterstock_336098690Annamaria Pinter is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics in the University of Warwick and she is the author of Teaching Young language Learners (2nd edition, 2017). To find out more about Annamaria Pinter’s work, you can download sample material from ‘Teaching Young Language Learners’.

Agency and Structure

In all situations of life, at work, at home, on holiday or on a shopping trip, we can exercise some choice or ‘agency’ about what we wish to do. At the same time, however, we are usually constrained by systems around us. For example, when driving home from work, the route we take is our decision, but our choices will be constrained by systems such as the traffic, the layout of the road system or by how much time we can devote to the journey.

In schools too, children as well as teachers, can exercise some agency but they are also controlled by the systems in place. Children are told when they can sit down and stand up, when they can leave the classroom, how long each break is and when it is their turn to answer a question. In fact, children traditionally have very little agency because teachers and adults control almost all the aspects of their lives.

This control is because schools are highly structured organisations and look like pyramids. In a pyramid or ‘coercive’ structure there is inequality of power and those at the top impose their order.   Less structured or ‘normative’ organisations look more like networks where there is less hierarchy and engagement is more voluntary.



Children taking more control

In this webinar I will be exploring what teachers can do to move away from classrooms that look like pyramids to classrooms that function more like networks of learners. I will be suggesting that when teachers are ready to give over some agency and control, children are very much capable of making informed choices for themselves about their learning and taking responsibility for their actions. More agency in learning comes with higher levels of motivation, self-awareness and a sense of accomplishment.

I will be sharing some real classroom examples from a variety of contexts and countries where children have been encouraged to take more control. Some examples indicate how giving children just a little more agency than usual can make a big difference.

I will be taking examples that illustrate how some children may become interested in exploring their own classrooms and their learning and given the agency and the opportunity, they can become co-researcher or researchers. In doing so, we will look at the differences are between academic research in universities, teachers’ research undertaken in classrooms and children’s research.


Small changes can lead to big outcomes

It is important to acknowledge that different teachers may want to offer more or less agency to their learners depending on their circumstances and there are no rules to follow. Encouraging children to become researchers is not a feasible goal for everyone and certainly not every child will be interested in this. Giving children more agency in some classrooms might just mean offering some opportunities of choice between different activities or regularly encouraging children to recommend materials and ideas to the teacher. Many teachers are constrained heavily regarding how much agency they can offer in their classrooms but even a small first step can eventually go a long way!

If you are interested in exploring these ideas in more detail and you would like to see the practical examples please join us on 20/21 April 2017.



Further reading

Pinter A and S Zandian 2014 I don’t ever want to leave this room- researching with children ELT Journal  68/1: 64-74.

Kellett M 2010 Rethinking Children and Research London: Continuum


Assessment for the Language Classroom – Q&A Session

proofreading for English language students in EAPProfessor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. He is a Past  President of the International Language Testing Association (ILTA). He has published on language assessment and in his most recent book Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (Routledge, 2014) provides teachers with an introduction to this field. Professor Green’s main research interests are teaching, learning, and assessment. Today, we share some of the questions and answers asked of Tony during his recent webinar, Assessment for the Language Classroom.


Should placement tests be given without students’ doing any preparation so that we can see their natural level in English?

Ideally, placement tests should not need any special preparation. The format and types of question on the test should be straightforward so that all students can understand what they need to do.

How should the feedback from progress tests be given? Should we give it individually or work with the whole class?

It’s great if you have time for individual feedback, but working with the whole class is much more efficient. Of course good feedback does not usually just involve the teacher talking to the class and explaining things, but encouraging students to show how they think. Having students working together and teaching each other can often help them to understand concepts better.

Besides proficiency exams, are there any tools to compare the students’ level to the CEFR? How I can evaluate them according to the CEFR? For example, a B2 student should be able to do this and that.

One of the aims of the CEFR is to help teachers and students to understand their level without using tests. Students can use the CEFR to judge their own level, to see what people can use languages for at different levels of ability and to evaluate other peoples’ performance. The European Language Portfolio (http://www.coe.int/en/web/portfolio) is a great place to start looking for ideas on using the CEFR in the classroom.

Practice tests can be practice in class, where students are asked to practice with new points of language…right?

I think this kind of test would be what I called a progress test. Progress tests give students extra practice with skills or knowledge taught in class as well as checking that they have understood and can apply those skills.

Ideas for testing lesson progress?

Course books and their teachers’ guides have a lot of good suggestions and materials you can use for assessment. There are also some good resource books available with ideas for teachers. I would (of course) recommend my own book, Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (published by Routledge) and (a bit more theoretical) Focus On Assessment by Eunice Jang, published by Oxford University Press.

Why does level B1 always take a longer time to teach? I notice from the books we use…there is B1 and B1+.

The six CEFR levels A1 to C2 can be divided up into smaller steps. In the CEFR there are ‘plus’ levels at A2+, B1+ and B2+. In some projects I have worked on we have found it useful to make smaller steps – such as A1.1, A1.2, A1.3. Generally, real improvements in your language ability take longer as you progress. Thinking just about vocabulary, the difference between someone who knows no words and someone who knows 100 words of a language is very big: the person who knows a few words can do many more things with the language than the person who knows none. But the difference between someone who knows 5,000 words and the person who knows 5,100 words is tiny.

Could you please tell us more about assessment?

I’d love to! At the moment I am working with some colleagues around Europe on a free online course for teachers. Our project is called TALE and you can follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TALEonlinetrainingcourse/

What CEFR aligned placement test would you recommend?

The best placement test is the one that works most effectively for your students. I’m happy to recommend the Oxford Online Placement Test (OOPT), but whatever system you use, please keep a record of how often teachers and students report that a student seems to be in the wrong class. If you find one placement system is not very useful, do try to find a better one.

How reasonable is to place the keys to the tests in students books?

In the webinar I said that different tests have different purposes. If the test is for students to check their own knowledge, it would be strange not to provide the answers. If the test results are important and will be used to award grades or certificates, it would be crazy to give the students the answers!

Is cheating an issue with online placement tests?

Again, the answer is ‘it depends’. If cheating is likely to be a problem, security is needed. Online tests can be at least as secure as paper and pencil tests, but if it is a test that students can take at home, unsupervised, the opportunity to cheat obviously exists.

Could you please explain how adaptive comparative judgement tests work? Which students are to be compared?

Adaptive comparative judgement (ACJ) is a way of scoring performances on tests of writing and speaking. Traditionally, examiners use scales to judge the level of a piece of student work. For example, they read an essay, look at the scale and decide ‘I think this essay matches band 4 on the scale’.

ACJ involves a group of judges just comparing work produced by learners. Rather than giving scores on a predetermined scale, each judge looks at a pair of essays (or letters, or presentations etc.) and uses their professional judgement to decide which essay is the better of the two.

Each essay is then paired, and compared, with a different essay from another student. The process continues until each essay has been compared with several others. ACJ provides the technology for the rating of Speaking and Writing responses via multiple judgements. The results are very reliable and examiners generally find it easier to do than rating scales. Take a look at the website nomoremarking.com to learn more.

Besides the CEFR, what we can use to evaluate students in a more precise way?

See my answer to the last question for one interesting suggestion. A more traditional suggestion is working together with other teachers to agree on a rating scale to use with your students. Then have training sessions (where you compare the marks you each award to the same written texts or recordings of student work) to make sure you all understand and use the scale in the same way.

Can you suggest applications for correcting MCQ tests?

Online test resources like the ones at www.oxfordenglishtesting.com include automatic marking of tests. For making your own, one free online system I like is called Socrative.

How can placement tests be applied in everyday classrooms where they are split-level classes and students with disabilities learning together with others? What about people with some sort of disability/impairment (eg. dyslexia)

Sometimes there are good reasons to mix up learners of different levels within a class – and tests are not always the most suitable means of deciding which students should be in which class. Where learners have special needs, decisions about placement may involve professional judgement, taking into consideration the nature of their needs and the kinds of support available. In most circumstances placement should be seen as a provisional decision, if teachers and learners feel that one class is not suitable, moving to another class should be possible.

What about just giving a practice test before a major summative assessment at the end of a semester?

Yes, that seems a good idea. If students aren’t familiar with the test, they may perform poorly because they get confused by the instructions or misjudge the time available. Having a little practice is usually helpful.

If you missed Tony’s or any of our other PD webinars, why not explore our webinar library? We update our recordings regularly.


#WorldBookDay – 5 steps to becoming an effective storyteller

shutterstock_357633884Gareth Davies is a writer, teacher, teacher trainer, and storyteller. He has been in the ELT industry for 21 years teaching in Portugal, the UK, Spain and the Czech Republic. Since 2005 he has worked closely with Oxford University Press, delivering teacher training and developing materials. Today, to celebrate World Book Day, he joins us to discuss why being an effective storyteller matters in the EFL classroom, and how you can employ tactics to become a better storyteller yourself.

Extensive reading, the idea of reading for pleasure and not just as a school subject is believed to have wide ranging benefits. Professor Richard Day claims that Extensive Reading not only improves students reading skills but it also improves their vocabulary skills, their grammar skills, their listening and speaking skills. But how do we get our students interested in reading for pleasure. It’s the teacher’s job to motivate and facilitate reading. What we do in class can influence the students. That’s where storytelling comes in. Storytelling can be students first exposure to literature, and effective storytelling can capture the students’ imagination and help them fall in love with stories.  This blog looks at how you can become an effective storyteller in the English language classroom.

  1. The better you know a story the more you can improvise and the more you can involve the students. Read it to yourself two or three times and then practise telling it in front of a mirror. It is much better if you can tell the story rather than reading it, but don’t feel you have to completely memorise it; I often have the book in my hand as a crutch and look at it when I need to.
  2. The work you do before you tell the story can be as important as the story itself. For example, I was telling Rumpelstiltskin from Classic Tales recently. In this story there is a spinning wheel. This might not be a concept your students have come across. So using the pictures from the book, actions, and explanations is crucial to your students understanding. You can also use the pictures in the book to elicit different emotions. In the same book the girl is worried, then upset, then happy. Ask the students why she feels that way.
  3. Your voice is your most valuable tool. Change the tone or pitch to reflect happy and sad moments, whisper and shout if you need to. Also, try to have different voices for different characters. If you can’t do this then, change your position when you change characters. For example, when the main hero is speaking, I will stand in the middle of the room but when it’s the villain’s turn, I will move to the left or right.
  4. If your students are involved in the story, they will feel like they own it. We can involve the students in many ways. For example;
    • ask students to do actions throughout the story. For example, if it is raining in the story, they can pat their legs to show the rain. If someone is crying in the story, the students can rub their eyes. If someone is brushing their hair, etc. This total physical response story telling will help students to understand and remember the words in the story.
    • are there lines in the story that are often repeated? If so, get your students to say the lines each time they come up.
    • are there animals in the story? If so, ask your students to do the animal noises.
    • ask questions. Ask how the students would feel in the character’s shoes, ask what the weather is like, ask them to describe the animals, ask them what happens next.
  5. Enjoy yourself! If you don’t look like you are having a good time, then your students won’t enjoy it. Put energy and wonder into your voice. Look surprised how the story progresses, look happy when the main character is happy and worried when the main character is in trouble. Remember it might be the twelfth time you’ve read the story, but it is the first time for your students.

The last piece of advice I’ll offer is to be patient with yourself. No one is a faultless storyteller the first time they try. Practise makes perfect, so don’t worry, have a go. Each time you do it you will see new ways to include the students or change your voice or bring humour to the story. And remember, you don’t have to tell the story exactly how it is in the book. In fact, this can be useful, the students can then read the text later and try to spot the differences. Happy storytelling.

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Assessment for the Language Classroom – What’s on the menu?

shutterstock_271564088Professor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. Today, he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar Assessment for the Language Classroom.

What’s on the menu?

If there’s one topic in language education that’s guaranteed to get people worked up, it’s assessment. But, in truth, assessments are just tools. Like tools we use for other purposes, problems crop up when we use them to do things they aren’t designed for, when we lack the skills to operate them properly, or when they are poorly made. Knives are great tools for cutting bread, but are not so useful for eating soup. Some people are more skilled than others at using chopsticks, but chopsticks made of tissue paper are of no use to anyone.

“… different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses.”

Just like tools made to help us eat and drink, different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses. All assessments help us to find out what people know or can do with language, but they are designed to tap into different aspects of knowledge at different levels of detail.

Assessment ‘bread and butter’

The best known English language tests are the national examinations taken in many countries at the end of high school and international certificates, like the TOEFL© test, or Cambridge English examinations. For many students, these tests can seem make or break: they may need to pass to get into their chosen university or to get a job offer. Because of their importance, the tests have to be seen to be fair to everyone. Typically, all students answer the same questions within the same time frame, under the same conditions. The material used on the best of these tests takes years to develop. It is edited, approved and tried out on large numbers of students before it makes it into a real test.

‘Make or break’ testing

The importance of these tests also puts pressure on teachers to help their students to succeed. To do well, students need enough ability in English, but they also need to be familiar with the types of question used on the test and other aspects of test taking (such as the time restrictions). Taking two or three well-made practice tests (real tests from previous years, or tests that accurately copy the format and content of the real tests) can help students to build up this familiarity. Practice tests can show how well the students are likely to do on the real test. They don’t generally give teachers much other useful information because they don’t specifically target aspects of the language that students are ready to learn and most need to take in. Overuse of practice tests not only makes for dull and repetitive study, but can also be demotivating and counterproductive.

Home-cooked, cooked to order, or ready-made?

“What’s good for one [exam] purpose is not general good for another.”

When teachers make tests for their classes, they sometimes copy the formats used in the ‘big’ tests, believing that because they are professionally made, they must be good. Sadly, what’s good for one purpose (for example, judging whether or not a student has the English language abilities needed for university study) is not generally good for another (for example, judging whether or not a student has learnt how to use there is and there are to talk about places around town, as taught in Unit 4).

Many EFL text books include end-of-unit revision activities, mid-course progress tests and end-of-course achievement tests. These can be valuable tools for teachers and students to use or adapt to help them to keep track of progress towards course goals. When used well, they provide opportunities to review what has been learnt, additional challenges to stretch successful learners and a means of highlighting areas that need further learning and practice. Research evidence shows that periodic revision and testing helps students to retain what they have learnt and boosts their motivation.

Getting the right skills

Like chefs in the kitchen or diners using chopsticks, teachers and students need to develop skills in using assessments in the classroom. The skills needed for giving big tests (like a sharp eye to spot students cheating) are not the same as those needed for classroom assessment (like uncovering why students gave incorrect answers to a question and deciding what to do about this). Unfortunately, most teacher training doesn’t prepare language teachers very well to make, or (even more importantly) use assessments in the classroom. Improving our understanding of this aspect of our professional practice can help to bring better results and make language learning a more positive experience.

In the webinar on 16 and 17 February, I’ll be talking about the different kinds of assessment that teachers and students can use, the purposes we use them for, the qualities we should look for in good assessments and the skills we need to use them more effectively. Please feel free to ask Anthony questions in the comments below.


Green, A.B. (2014) Exploring Language Assessment and Testing. Abingdon Oxon: Routledge: Introductory Textbooks for Applied Linguistics.


Managing Classroom Dynamics

critical thinkingMartyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He joins us on the blog today to preview his upcoming webinar, Managing Classroom Dynamics.

What are classroom dynamics?

I suspect that for the great majority of teachers around the world the most important characteristic of a ‘good’ class is not how hard the students work, but how well they work together.  If a teacher is handing over a class to another, in my experience one of the first things they say is something like “they are a really nice group”, or “there’s a really friendly atmosphere in there”. Of course, it’s not always good news, and comments such as “it’s like teaching a wall” or “they’re just really difficult” are also common. The truth is the atmosphere in each class is hugely important to our job satisfaction.

This is classroom dynamics. It’s about the ways the people within a class interact with each other. It’s how they talk and how they act; it’s how they show their feelings and opinions; and it’s how they behave as a group.

Why are classroom dynamics important?

Managing classroom dynamics is also something that takes up significant lesson time. We all do things in class that are not directly related to learning English, but rather are focused on the social aspects of the group, such as managing behaviours, reacting to tensions, and generating interest, for example. But so much of what we do is instinctive and happens ‘in the moment’.  It might be useful however to take a moment and look at the issues in a more structured way.

In other words, in addition to our competences of content knowledge (grammar, lexis, etc.), and teaching skills, what skills, attitudes and strategies exist that can help us to ‘generate a psychological climate conducive to high quality learning’ (Underhill 1999: 130)?

There are good reasons for focusing on this:

  1. The cooperative skills and attitudes that we encourage in our students are among those most frequently demanded by today’s employers.
  2. A supportive, warm atmosphere helps people take the risks they need to in order to learn.
  3. Working with and in a more comfortable setting is simply more enjoyable for everyone. Life is a little better.

What can we do about classroom dynamics?

There is no one size that fits all. To a large extent, a classroom dynamic is a product of its own context as defined both internally with the uniqueness of its members, and externally in the cultural settings of the institution, and the society in which it is located.

Nevertheless we can identify certain features and characterise useful classroom dynamics across most, if not all contexts – even if these are represented by different behaviours according to the setting. For example, the visible behaviours of cooperation in a Brazilian high-school classroom might be different to those in a Dutch university or private evening class in Thailand, but cooperation remains key. Here are some aspects of classroom dynamics that a teacher may work to influence the chemistry of the group, and make it more ‘bonded’ (Senior 1997).

  1. a) The cohesiveness of the class.

Groups of people are very much brought together when they are aware of what they have in common. Shared experiences, values, and objectives lie at the heart of successful communities.  As teachers we can foster this awareness with activities that identify such commonalities, and then use them to enhance learning. In the webinar we will look at practical language learning activities and teaching techniques that can develop a sense of community within a class.

  1. b) The variety of interaction within a class.

A class that has a flexible approach to how its members talk to each other is likely to have a more inclusive, and therefore participative climate. In the seminar we will identify different modes of classroom talk, what each brings to learning, and how we can create variety.

  1. c) The amount of empathy class members have for each other.

Successful group activities involve members compromising in order to support each other. In the webinar we will look at activities and practices that encourage peer support and greater sharing of learning within the group.

How can I find out about the dynamics in my classroom?

As we have already said, classroom dynamics are local. What works in one class might not work in another. So we also need to know how to find out what is happening in our classes, so we can take the most appropriate actions. In the webinar we will also look at ways we can examine the realities of our classrooms by using:

  • Peer observations
  • Recordings
  • Student research activities

Finally…. when we teach all spend time on the social aspects of our classes. This webinar will provide a framework of analysis that can help us make more principled decisions when considering how we manage classroom dynamics. Hope to see you there!


Useful reading

Gil, G. (2002) Two complementary modes of foreign language classroom interaction. ELT  Journal, 56/3

Hadfield, J (1992) Classroom Dynamics.. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Senior, R. (1997) Transforming language classes into bonded groups. ELT Journal, 51/1.

Senior, R.  (2002) A class-centered approach to language teaching. ELT Journal, 56/4 Underhill, A. (1999) Facilitation in Language Teaching. In J. Arnold (ed.) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wright, T. (2005) Classroom Management in Language Education, Palgrave Macmillan