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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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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.