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Writing tests for teenagers – where to begin!

teen doing school work on a laptopCreating items (test questions) for English language assessments is a tricky business, particularly for teens. You need to ensure that the item produces an accurate and valid measurement of the skill you are trying to test while providing the best possible experience for a test taker. In this blog, we’ll look at two important considerations when writing items: context and content. If this whets your appetite, be sure to join me in my Oxford English Assessment Professional Development session where we’ll be exploring in more detail how to write good test items.

Context

Here’s an example of the kind of item you might get in an adult speaking test. But it’s not suitable for teens. Why not?

Some people say that the perks of a job, such as working from home, are more important than the salary. Do you agree or disagree?

As you might have guessed, a 13-year-old may well have some of the linguistic competences required to tackle this question (describing advantages and disadvantages, making comparisons between ideas, or offering their opinion on the topic), but how many teens will have enough experience of work to actually be able to demonstrate these competencies?

So, when it comes to writing items, context is key. Let’s take a look at an alternative question that takes the teen context into consideration.

What are the advantages of homeschooling?

Even for teens who don’t have direct experience of homeschooling, this context is still more accessible to them, meaning they are more able to demonstrate their linguistic competence.

Content

As well as getting the context correct, we also have to get the content correct. Consider this: in our lives, some of us have had landline phones, mobile phones, and smartphones. I bought a Nokia 3210 in 2001, and for the first time ever was able to make phone calls, send messages, and play Snake with one device, all while on the move. When telling my friends about it, I would refer to it as my mobile phone to distinguish it from my landline. And then, much later, I would reference my smartphone to distinguish it from my old phone.

However, for most teenagers, a phone is just a phone, and any talk about non-smart phones will probably just draw blank looks. It might not sound major, but imagine being a teenager in an exam suddenly faced with a phrase that might cause confusion.

In summary

As a test provider, our goal is to solve some of the challenges outlined above. Some of these same challenges exist for teachers who write assessments for their students, and we’ll be talking more about these in the Writing tests for teenagers webinar.

Get practical support and guidance for delivering effective English language assessment online!

Register for our series of webinars delivered by leading OUP ELT Assessment experts:

Register for the webinar

 


Robin Lee has been working for Oxford University Press for five years and is the product manager for the Oxford Test of English and the Oxford Test of English for Schools. Before joining OUP, he worked as a teacher, teacher trainer, and item writer, mostly in East Asia and Southeast Asia. His interests include data analysis and the use of technology in assessment.


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Girls and Autism: Tips and Activities to Support Your Learners

group of girls and boys at school

What is autism? You may or may not have taught individuals in your English language teaching classrooms with autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is linked to brain development and can affect the way learners socialise, communicate, and behave.

Did you know? Many girls go undiagnosed with autism or are diagnosed later in life because they present differently to boys. By this, I mean they behave in a different way that may cover up the signs. For boys, their autism is often externally expressed, whereas girls tend to conceal or internalise what is worrying them.

 

Masking or camouflaging: what do they mean?

When a girl ‘masks’ or ‘camouflages’ she essentially modifies her behaviour. This might be in an attempt to fit in with her peers, for example copying the behaviour or voice of a classmate, in order to be similar to the group. It may also be her way of hiding her autism or the anxiety she is feeling in order to appear calm on the surface. This means girls can spend a lot of time covering up their emotions, which must be extremely exhausting (and as teachers we certainly know how this feels!)

In fact, girls with autism are often very good at making eye contact and holding conversations, which you don’t typically expect with autism. And unlike boys, their special interest subjects tend to be similar to their ‘neurotypical’ peers, for example horses or boy bands, making it difficult at times to spot autistic traits.

 

A few tips for including learners with autism: 

1) Listen

Every girl (and boy) with autism is different. They often say their brains are wired differently so they may learn in unconventional ways. It is important to remember that what works for one learner might not necessarily work for another.

2) Support

Statistically, learners with special educational needs are more likely to develop mental health issues. As we know, there are a multitude of pressures on young girls, so openly discussing mental health and managing anxiety is essential.

3) Strengthen

Girls with autism tend to struggle with self-worth and self-belief. Helping girls become aware of their sensory issues and emotions and how to regulate these helps them understand themselves and others.

4) Talk, talk, talk…

As teachers, we’re pretty good at this one! In order to overcome the lack of knowledge in this area, we need to discuss autism. We need to speak to colleagues and parents/carers, search for and share information, but most importantly we need to talk to our students and learn from them.

 

Practical activities (expanded from Into the Classroom: Special Educational Needs)

REMEMBER: Not every activity works for every student, it’s important to get to know your learners and understand what works best for them.

1) You’re the expert

Ask students to prepare a presentation on their special interest subject. Ask the rest of the class to ask questions. If learners don’t feel comfortable presenting to the class, why not get them to video and edit a short clip? Or run a Facebook Live, you could direct the conversation, but this may be less daunting for those who are anxious as they can join from elsewhere.

2) Name the feeling

Make pairs of cards with 1) photos of people expressing different feelings (according to students’ age and ability and 2) cards with the words that best describe the feelings.

Older students can play this game as ‘pelmanism’.

3) Pelmanism: Create pairs of cards where one card has a picture of a vocabulary item, and the other has the written word. Students place the cards face down on the table and take it in turns trying to find a matching pair by turning over two cards at a time. If players find a match, they keep it and have another go. If they don’t, they turn the cards face down again. Older students can practise homophones or homonyms, or match verbs with their tense forms.

 

Bonus activity: Tell me a story

Social stories and/or comic strips are a great way to engage learners. They can help children with autism in a number of ways, from teaching them how to behave in certain situations to developing their social skills. Why not get your students to draw or design stories of their own?

 

Want to find out more about autism and special educational needs? Get your hands on our Inclusive Practices position paper:

Download the position paper

 


References

  • Autism.org.uk.(2020) Autism Support – Leading UK Charity – National Autistic Society [online]. Available at: https://www.autism.org.uk
  • Carpenter, B, Happé, F, and Egerton, J. (2019) Girls and Autism: Educational, Family and Personal Perspectives. New York: Routledge
  • Delaney, M. (2016) Into the Classroom: Special Educational Needs. 1st ed: Oxford University Press
  • Sutherland, R, Hodge, A, Bruck, S, Costley, D, Klieve, H (2017) Parent-reported differences between school-aged girls and boys on the autism spectrum. Volume: 21 issue 6: 785-794.

 

Leanne Atherton is a further education lecturer with experience of teaching both in the UK and internationally. She qualified in post 16 education at City of Bath College and has ELT experience teaching young learners in Thailand and aboriginal students in Australia. She holds a TEFL qualification, a PCGE PCET and is currently studying for her Masters of Education (Special Educational Needs) in Oxford.


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How to understand and teach adolescents effectively | OUP

Do you remember when you were a teenager, arguing with your parents, thinking that adults ‘just don’t get it’! It’s a typical behaviour, it’s a stage that we all go through (well, most of us anyway)!

Adolescence is the phase of life between late childhood and early adulthood. It is a time not only of physical maturation but also of mental and emotional development. The major developmental tasks of adolescence include the establishment and nurturing of intimate relationships and the development of identity, independence, self-confidence, self-control, and social skills.

The Psychology

The beginning of adolescence is loosely anchored to the onset of puberty, which brings alterations in hormone levels and a number of consequent physical changes. Puberty onset is also associated with profound changes in drives, motivations, psychology, and social life; these changes continue throughout adolescence. New findings in developmental psychology and neuroscience reveal that a fundamental reorganization of the brain takes place in adolescence. In postnatal brain development, the maximum density of grey matter is reached first in the primary sensorimotor cortex, and the prefrontal cortex matures last.

Subcortical brain areas, especially the limbic system and the reward system, develop earlier, so that there is an imbalance during adolescence between the more mature subcortical areas and less mature prefrontal areas. This may account for typical adolescent behaviour patterns, including risk-taking. Developmentally, adolescents also tend to be more impulsive and emotional—they are more inclined to make impulsive decisions, engage in impulsive behaviour, and act recklessly compared to adults.

Adolescence is a time of amazing creativity, intensive emotionality, social engagement but also a time of taking risky decisions and behaviour. How can we use this capacity as teachers?

Seize the opportunity

First of all, we need to see the potential of this period of life of our students and treat it as an opportunity, not a curse. As teachers, we can take advantage of teenagers’ risky mindset to help them perform better at school and achieve better results. Risk taking and selecting difficult tasks is associated with having a growth mindset. Teachers can guide this risky behaviour by encouraging pupils to take chances in a safe and secure environment, the students could face more challenges without a fear of failure. It is extremely important to provide an environment for teenagers where they feel safe to make mistakes and explore reality without being criticised.

Working with teenagers may also be difficult because many of them cannot cope with emotions and they experience teen depression or social anxiety syndrome. Sometimes it is difficult for a teacher to understand that irritable or apathetic adolescents might be experiencing depression. Teenagers easily develop feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, often they are oversensitive to their peers’ opinions and how they perceive to be perceived.

We all know that most teens may feel unhappy and withdrawn at times as their moods swing unpredictably, but if you notice that your student’s unhappiness lasts more than two weeks and he or she displays other symptoms, it is necessary to react and seek a professional help. Teens with depression will have a noticeable change in their thinking and behaviour. They may have no motivation to learn or do anything, difficulty with concentration and memory loss. You may also see such symptoms as apathy, difficulty with making decisions, irresponsible behaviour, sadness, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, and regular complaints of pains (headaches, stomach-aches), and compulsive overeating.

What can we do as teachers? Firstly be understanding, supportive, and patient. There is nothing more important for a teenager as having a supportive adult. Teachers play a vital role in this developmental period because often teenagers are more likely to listen to them than their parents who are perceived as enemies. Teachers should utilise their need for creative exploration and novelty by running interesting, engaging, and inclusive lessons; allowing students to explore and build their sense of autonomy and internal locus of control. Providing a psychological safety and inclusive climate in the classroom helps teenagers learn. Investing in positive relations with teenagers will improve learning outcomes. Remember that teenagers will not learn from teachers they dislike!  

Interested in this topic? Missed November’s webinar? Click here to catch-up and watch the recording!


Alicja Gałązka is a psychologist, linguist, ICI Vice President for Coaching in Poland, trainer and international educator. Lecturer and researcher in the university setting, and in multiple private institutions. A graduate of the University of Silesia and the School of Education at the University of Exeter, UK. Alicja is also a speaker and trainer in the field of international communication, creative thinking and problem solving, the development of social and emotional intelligence and the optimization of each individual’s potential, drama etc. She is also a regular event speaker for Oxford University Press Poland!


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Teaching young learners and teenagers English | Are we all on the same page?

This presentation draws from my experience of working as an ELT teacher, teacher educator and researcher in relatively underprivileged contexts in sub-Saharan Africa. I hope the issues I have highlighted here resonate with teachers in other parts of the world. While policymakers continue to promote Curricula changes which focus on the development of communicative competence and learner-centred pedagogies, such policies are not often matched by a concomitant provision of human, material, or financial resources. As a result, classrooms remain overcrowded (some of my examples are taken from a classroom of 235 teenagers), and there is an acute lack of textbooks and other teaching and learning resources.

Teacher educators and teachers in this context, like elsewhere, have traditionally concerned themselves with teaching methods and techniques, teaching theories, learning materials, and classroom conditions. Yet there is evidence (e.g. from work done by members of the Teaching English in Large Classes Network, which shows that learners can play a very important role in the development of good practices. My own experience of working with young learners and teenagers in large under-resourced classrooms in sub-Saharan Africa has shown me that the best policies, materials, teaching practices etc. can only be as good as the learners for whom they are designed.

My research into context appropriate ELT pedagogy in Cameroon has shown that it may be possible to develop a pedagogic partnership which takes account of learner agency in teaching and teacher education processes. In this study, 11-year-old children claimed to learn better through collaborative tasks rather than quietly listening to their teacher.

Good teaching does not necessarily lead to good learning, but good learning can be achieved sometimes in spite of teaching. In an under-resourced context, learning must be a mutually constructed endeavour; a collaborative experience between teachers and learners, striving towards common goals. Both parties should have the same answers to the following questions:

  • What do we want to achieve?
  • How shall we achieve it?
  • Where shall we find the resources we need?

This collaboration between teachers and students in the design of content and process of learning is what I call a ‘pedagogy of partnership’. The examples show that when students are involved in sourcing and or producing their own materials for the language classroom and when they are given opportunities to contribute ideas for classroom activities, they benefit from using language productively and authentically. What is more, student-generated materials become invaluable learning resources in resource-poor contexts.

Watch my webinar to learn more about my research, and the Pedagogy of Partnership.


Harry Kuchah has been involved in English Language Teacher education and materials development for 20 years. His interests are in developing appropriate learning resources and processes for English language education in under-resourced large class contexts.

 

 


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Let’s make our thinking visible!

A blog by authors Patrizia Caroti, Sarah Howell, and Lisa Kester Dodgson.

While much discourse relating to teaching in the 21st century revolves around content, programmes, methods and approaches etc. there appears to be a gap in how teachers can equip students with the skills they need to deepen their understanding of the world around them as lifelong learners.

Thinking dispositions

Learning is the outcome of thinking, and as such gaining insights into the ways students think is crucial for teachers, allowing them to alter students’ thinking dispositions. Thinking dispositions (Ritchart et al, 2011) are the habits of mind that develop:

  1. Observing closely and describing;
  2. Building explanations and interpretations;
  3. Reasoning with evidence;
  4. Making connections;
  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives;
  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions;
  7. Wondering and asking questions;
  8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things.

But how do we know what kind of thinking is taking place and how can we be sure that all our students are developing these thinking skills? What insights do we have into how our students are thinking and learning?

These questions stimulated our curiosity to experiment with Visible Thinking Routines (VTRs) in our EFL classrooms and take up the 21st century challenge: “Build a culture of thinking” in our learning community.


“Every committed educator wants better learning and more thoughtful students. Visible Thinking is a way of helping to achieve that without a separate ‘thinking skills’ course or fixed lessons.”

Visible Thinking <http://www.visiblethinkingpz.org>


But what are Visible Thinking Routines (VTRs)?

Visible Thinking Routines were developed by Project Zero, an educational research group at Harvard Graduate School of Education. The routines consist of a few short steps which scaffold and guide students’ thinking. They awaken curiosity and encourage students to dig deeper, taking their thinking to a more sophisticated level (Ritchhart et al, 2011).

We can demonstrate the potential of VTRs by illustrating our mini-research project carried out with two classes of 13-year-old students, in a state secondary school in Italy. The average English competency level of the students was A2 (CEFR) with 3 hours a week of EFL instruction using a mainstream textbook. The routines were chosen according to the thinking dispositions we were aiming to develop, the content being presented in the textbook, and how suitable we felt the routines would be in the given teaching context.

We focused on three different thinking dispositions linked to three VTRs.

Thinking Dispositions Visible Thinking Routines
Capturing the heart Headlines
Making connections Connect-Extend-Challenge
Wondering and asking questions See-Think-Wonder

Headlines

A routine for capturing essence.Headlines routine

Materials:

An article about fundraising and charity concerts.

Process:

  • Topic-specific vocabulary had been pre-taught. The students had been working on making deductions, expressing agreement/disagreement, and probability.
  • They worked individually on the texts, highlighting key phrases to help them create their headlines, and then shared their ideas on the poster.
  • They shared their thinking in small groups, read the other headlines, and made comparisons.

Reflections:

The Headlines routine encouraged students to think more deeply about the content and develop their ability to synthesise. Through sharing their thoughts they developed meaningful conversations around the content of the poster.

See-Think-WonderSee-Think-Wonder (STW)

A routine for exploring visuals and related texts.

Materials:

A photograph of a polluted river.

Process:

  • Topic-specific vocabulary had been pre-taught. The See-Think-Wonder routine raises students’ curiosity about the topic with visual stimuli.
  • First (see) they described what they could see, then (think) they expressed their thoughts about the image, and finally (wonder) they were encouraged to express what else they would like to know about the topic.
  • The students were given question stems to help them articulate their thoughts. Although they spoke in a mix of L1 and English, they wrote their responses in English.

Reflections:

This routine helped the students analyse a visual, and use elements within it to generate their own ideas related to the topic. We found this routine particularly inclusive, as listening to each other’s ideas and opinions encouraged all group members to speak up and share.

Connect-Extend-ChallengeConnect-Extend-Challenge (CEC)

A routine for connecting new ideas to prior knowledge.

Materials:

A photo, audio, and some text about the environment and recycling.

Process:

  • Topic specific vocabulary and expressions had been pre-taught.
  • The students made observations about the photograph and the dialogue by applying the (now familiar) STW routine before using the new CEC routine.
  • Using the reading text, first they made connections (connect) to what they already knew about recycling, then they discussed what new information they had gained and how this had extended their knowledge (extend), and finally (challenge) what still puzzled them. The students worked in groups and then a plenary session was held to present their thinking
    and their “challenges”.

Reflections:

The EFL classroom is often a difficult place for students to express their ideas and their knowledge about a given topic. The CEC routine helped the students tap into their prior knowledge and relate it to new content and encouraged them to go beyond the surface level of the topic.

Classroom activity 1

Thoughts…

A significant consideration which arose while reflecting with students is the importance of feeling comfortable and confident without the threat of evaluation; their thinking is not assessed in this approach! This concept needs to be highlighted at the outset of any Visual Thinking Routine and made clear that it is not just another worksheet to fill in with the right answer, but rather that it’s their thinking process that matters.

Classroom activity 2

Visual Thinking Routines need to be used regularly and systematically across the board so that students develop good thinking dispositions and habits which in turn have a positive interdisciplinary impact over time.

 

 

How could VTRs make a difference to your teaching?

 


Authors:

Patrizia Caroti is a teacher and ELT author with 30 years’ experience of teaching English in Italian Secondary Schools.
Sarah M Howell is an OUP author and teacher trainer. She has extensive experience of teaching EFL at both primary and secondary levels.
Lisa Kester Dodgson is an OUP author with a rich background in primary and secondary education.


References (recommended reading list!)

Majida “Mohammed Yousef” Dajani. (2016). Using Thinking Routines as a Pedagogy for Teaching English as a Second Language in Palestine. Journal of Educational Research and Practice , Volume 6, Issue 1, Pages 1–18. Walden University, LLC, Minneapolis, MN.

Krechevsky, M., Mardell, B., Rivard, M., Wilson, D., (2013). Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in all Schools John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., Morrison, K., & Perkins, D. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

“Thinking Palette.” Artful Thinking. Project Zero. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Feb. 2017. <http://pzartfulthinking.org/?page_id=2>

Ritchhart, Ron., Perkins, David., & Tishman, Shari. “Visible Thinking.” Harvard Graduate School of Education. Feb, 2017.<http://www.pz.harvard.edu/projects/visible-thinking>

Salmon, K, Angela. “Making Thinking Visible Through Action Research.” Early Childhood Education. The official journal of the Early Childhood Education Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Volume 39, Number 1. 2010. <https://www.academia.edu/4841813/Making_Thinking_Visible_Through_Action_Research>

Arcenas, Claire. “Bridging our Thinking.” Visible thinking across subject matters. 13 Feb 2015. <https://clairearcenas.wordpress.com/>

Ritchhart, Ron. “Cultures of Thinking.” Think! From the Middle. Rochester Community Schools. March 2017. <http://www.rcsthinkfromthemiddle.com/cultures-of-thinking.html>

Jacobson, Gareth. “Team Teaching – an all or nothing phenomenon.” I think therefore… 16th Nov. 2016. <https://makingthinkingvisible.wordpress.com/>

“Research.” Visible Thinking for the child to be and the adult to see. <http://visiblethinking.ltd.uk/research/>