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The EFL Classroom: Teaching more than English

Teens in Classroom Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at some different ways the language learning experience can be enriched.

More and more, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is being taught in mainstream schools around the world. As part of a larger curriculum of general education, EFL teachers have an opportunity to focus on aspects of learning beyond grammar, vocabulary, and the traditional four skills. With the aim of enriching the language learning experience, I would like to focus on some of these aspects. For the experienced EFL teacher, these will not be new, but I hope that by focussing on them here, it will encourage teachers to give them more importance in their classrooms.

Encourage questions

This may seem obvious, but it is not always easy, especially when a lot of education leads many students to become passive recipients of information.

Before beginning a lesson or a unit of work on a topic, ask students what they already know about it. Make sure they do this individually first in order to get input from everyone. Have them share their knowledge. Then, tell them the next unit is on this topic. What do they want to know? Ask each student to write 1 or 2 questions. If you can, display the questions in the classroom. In this way you can refer to them as you work through the unit.

Encouraging questions from the very beginning tells your students that you expect them to be actively involved in the work of the class. Further, it tells them that what they are learning should be meaningful and useful to them. It is the best way to learn.

Bring their world into the classroom

Think about the lives of your students, at school, at home, their neighbourhood, city, country. Now think about what you will be teaching them during the term or the school year. How can you bring their world into the classroom? Let me give you a simple example. When teaching “can” for abilities, consider involving the physical education teacher. Students can do some of the activities in the physical education class, like jumping, running, throwing, etc. Once they have done the tasks, you can use the information in the English class as students express what they can do. This can be in the form of graphs or tables, individual or class posters. The important point is that students will be learning and using the language to communicate real information. The language they learn is not simply an end in itself, but a means to communicate.

Students can make a timeline of historical events to practice the past tenses based on work in their History lessons, explain the process of an experiment from the Science class, use skills from their Art classes to create displays of their work, as well as critical thinking skills from Maths classes to organise their language learning. The key is to involve other school subjects, and the teachers of those subjects, in the students’ language learning experience.

Once you have considered the school, move on to life outside school. How can you involve family and friends? One of my favourite activities with my students was when I was teaching “used to” to teenagers. I asked each student to talk to their grandparents and bring to class 2 – 3 things that were very different now from the time their grandparents were teenagers. I then would use the information to introduce the language point, “used to”. The students were so interested in the information that the language quickly became secondary, and easy to use.

Stories

I am a big fan of stories. Someone once told me that stories may have been the first form of education, as people communicated important information around the camp fire. I have little trouble believing this. There is something about the structure of stories that makes learning easier. For this reason, stories are a great medium for language use.

Stories are everywhere: what happened on a holiday is a story, how a student begins his day is a story, what happened on the way home is a story. We tell each other stories every day. The key is the structure – beginning, middle, and end. The story develops, leading us to the end. It is by nature interesting, otherwise we wouldn’t be telling it.

When considering the topics and language you will be teaching, think about how these can be included in a story. The story may provide the basis for the language you want students to learn, or it may be the vehicle for the topic of the unit. When stories become a part of your teaching, you will naturally begin to collect them. Don’t forget local stories, stories from your students, and traditional stories of the country you live in.

Sense of achievement

Too many times education focusses on what students don’t know. Rarely do we have the opportunity to show students how much they have learned. Just as students learn the present simple, we move on to the present continuous. Just as they grasp past simple with regular verbs, we introduce them to irregular verb forms. Education focusses on what students don’t know. So, giving students a sense of achievement based on how much they have learned is important to raise students’ self-esteem and confidence in their ability to learn more.

Brief, unit-based projects can offer students the opportunity to show what they have learned, as well as give many students a second chance to learn what they have forgotten. Encourage your students to see the project as a learning opportunity: What language are they using? What mistakes are they still making? What are their weaknesses? Their strengths? How could they improve? The aim is not simply to learn more, but also to get students used to reflecting on their learning. In this way short projects can help students become better learners.

These four points may seem obvious, but it is not always easy to make them an integral part of our classes. However, as they do become a part of your lessons, you will find your students becoming more active in their learning. You will also find that learning itself will have more meaning and become more rewarding.

Image is taken from Flickr under the Creative Commons license


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Reading for pleasure – Inviting a Character to Class

Interviewing a character helps your students learn the language, gives them an opportunity to be creative and use their imagination, and, whilst having fun, allows them to share their reading experiences.

As with previous activities, you can see the steps to actually do the activity with your class here. Beyond the fun and imagination, there is serious language work taking place. Let’s look at it a bit more closely, taking the example of Becky Thatcher from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

First, reading for pleasure helps students improve their language skills. In this case, students improve vocabulary and grammatical structures when they are writing the questions for the interview, as well as when they listen to the answers. Whether it is simple questions like, “What’s your favourite colour?” or “How did you feel on your first day at school?”, you can help your students write their questions correctly. You can also focus their questions on the language you are working on in class. For example, if you are working on past tenses, you can focus the questions on Becky’s last holiday or weekend. Questions might be, “Where did you go?” or “What did you do?”

The activity also helps students improve their listening and speaking skills. Since every student has a question, it is important not to repeat the same question for the interview. This means students will need to say their questions out loud to the class to make sure there is no repetition. In a controlled way, they are beginning to speak. Weaker or shy students can do this in a safe environment, focussing only on their own question. The person who will play Becky in the interview is listening to the questions from the class and so can prepare her answers in advance. The interview itself further improves listening and speaking. Students will ask their questions, listen to the answers, and some may even have follow-up questions.

There are great opportunities for students to be creative and use their imagination. First, students should be encouraged to ask questions they want an answer to. Any student who knows the story a little may ask questions about Tom, which usually raises a few giggles in the class. The student playing Becky is free to imagine some of the answers that are not directly in the story. Becky’s favourite colour is not in the story, nor is there anything about who buys her clothes. To answer these questions, “Becky” is free to use her imagination and the information in the story. This will certainly make it more interesting for everyone. Questions concerning Becky’s opinions may even raise a few interesting discussions. The language in the activity can quickly become secondary as students focus on the “Becky’s” answers.

This is a fun activity that can easily lead to students being curious about the story and wanting to read it. It is important to encourage students to enjoy the interview. Would they ask the same questions in their own language? If not, then they are focussing on the language more than on the interview itself. Help them ask the questions they really want to ask. Questions about her relationship with Tom, how she feels about school, living in the small town, or her family can raise interesting discussions.

The interview allows “Becky” to share her reading experience with the class. She will expand on the parts she enjoyed more, talk about events in the story, like being lost in the cave. In this way, many students will become curious about the book and want to read it.

By helping students with the language, encouraging them to use their imagination, and allowing them to have fun with the activity, they will become more personally involved in their reading. This will help them learn more effectively.


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Reading for pleasure – Making puzzles, improving comprehension

JigsawThis month’s activity will have your students fully engaged in their stories. Your students may be familiar with solving word search puzzles, but in this activity they will be asked to make their own puzzles for other students to solve.

In making their own puzzles, students will be improving their reading comprehension in various ways. Let’s take a look at the different steps of the activity to see this more clearly. You can see the steps to actually do the activity here.

When students are looking for the words or the sentences for their puzzle they will be reading the story, each student choosing language at their own level. For stronger students you may want to frown at some of their choices. Don’t discard them completely, but question them. This will encourage your student to go back to the story to find a more interesting word or sentence. In this way they are encouraged to read the text at a deeper level. Also, encourage them to show their words or sentences to someone else in the class who has read the book. By asking for the opinion of others, students have a context to discuss the stories and get different points of view.

As students complete the words in the grid, they will be thinking how these words fit into their story. In this way, they are revising the story, the words helping them remember the parts they enjoyed most. But the words may not fit into the grid. They may be too long, or the last words may not fit with the words already written. Don’t make the grid bigger. This is on purpose. By reworking the words, students are once again revising the context of the story. They may have to return to the story to choose a shorter word. This is great, as it increases reading time with the story. Although they have not used a word they had chosen, they still worked with it, which helped them remember that part of the story.

Make sure that your students understand that their puzzles are to be solved by other students, either in their class or in another class. This will motivate them to reduce mistakes and to make their writing legible. They easily understand that their friends can be more critical than their teacher. This will also have another interesting effect – they will try to make their puzzles a little more difficult. In making their puzzles more difficult, they will read for details and specific information. This will improve their reading comprehension.

Solving the puzzles helps students in many different ways. First, it is a revision of the story for those students who have read the book during the year. Some students may be able to find all the words without needing to go back to the story. Others may find 3 or 4 words difficult to find. This may encourage them to talk to the person who made the puzzle. Notice how, once again, the puzzle has created a context for students to discuss a story. By the way, rarely do students simply give the answers. This means the discussion helps both students revisit the story.

In solving the puzzles, students also become aware of how interesting it is to solve. For puzzles to be interesting they must be challenging – too easy and they are boring, too difficult and the student gives up. In this way, students reinforce the language and comprehension at the general level of the class. Especially important is that students who consider themselves weak in English will be motivated to make their puzzles for students they consider better. This will help to raise their own level of English. Since the puzzles are based on the story, the student reading and making the puzzle knows that it is simply a matter of copying words or sentences. Weaker students see that, through effort, they can make their puzzles challenging to any student in the class.

And finally, when the puzzles are solved by another class, students will usually talk about their experience outside of class. Comments like, “Hey, I did your puzzle today.” will become common.


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Reading for pleasure – setting up the class library

Young boy in libraryVerissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, outlines the steps involved in setting up a class library to encourage reading in English for pleasure.

Having talked the talk, it is time to walk the walk. In other words, having challenged my students with the class library, it was time to put books in their hands and have them start reading.

The first consideration is choosing the right level. Reading at the right level is very important for the success of the library. As their teacher, I knew what level was right for them, or at least I thought I did. But it was important for them to see this too.

I choose two readers from what I thought was their level. Then, I chose two readers from the level above and the level below. Finally, I choose one page from each of these readers and put them up around the class. I ask my students to stand up and read the texts. Their aim is to choose a text they enjoy. They cannot use a dictionary or ask for translation from me or another student. They should read as if they were reading in their first language. Based on this, they choose a text. In this way they have also chosen their level.

When reading for pleasure students should read at one level below the level they are studying. In this way, they can focus on enjoying the story, rather than worrying about the language. Their reading will also act as revision for the English they have already learned, showing them grammatical structures and vocabulary in context. They will not necessarily be aware of this. It is like going to the gym that I mentioned in my previous blog post: you don’t need to know anatomy to benefit from going to the gym. Likewise, you don’t need to know the grammatical tenses to be able to benefit from reading.

Now they are ready to choose the book they want to read. Choice is very important for a student. It helps my students believe that they are an integral part of the class library.

My favourite activity is to use the readers’ catalogue to allow them to choose the reader they want. I give each student a catalogue and ask them to turn to the pages for their level.  They are surprised by the number of readers they can choose from. Their task is to read the brief summaries and choose two they would like to read. They write their titles on the board. They check that there are few or no duplicates and each student decides which reader they will buy.

Writing the titles on the board is to avoid two students buying the same reader. As the readers will be part of our class library, students will be able to read them all, if they want. So a class of 30 students could have 30 different titles. Once they have agreed on the list, I send the order in.

At this point I also send a letter to parents to explain our class library. You can find this letter as part of the Oxford Big Read. Getting support from parents will greatly motivate a student to read.

Then, the day comes when the books arrive. Each student writes their name in their book, as they will get it back at the end of the school year. Every book will now become part of the class library. Using a large poster with a grid, I ask students to write their name along the top of the grid. Then, I ask them to write the title of their book along the left hand column. As students finish reading their books, they will draw a happy or sad face, depending on whether they liked the story or not. This poster is very important. It motivates the class to read by recording what each one is reading and what they feel about it. It is student to student communication.

As students read their stories, the first reaction in almost all of my classes is surprise that they were able to enjoy a story in a foreign language. Their sense of achievement is evident, and most important, contagious. They start talking to each other about the stories. Students who have not yet begun are motivated to pick up their books and read. Smiley faces start appearing on the poster, further encouraging more hesitant students to get involved and pick up their books.

As the class library begins to take shape, I begin to focus on the next stage – keeping their interest. We establish a goal for the term, as well as for the school year. This goal will largely depend on your students’ expectations and the amount of time you have. In my classes we usually set a goal of reading 10 books during the school year. That comes to about a book a month.

My next posts will focus on the different activities that will keep my students reading. In the meantime, learn more about getting your students passionate about reading with the Oxford Big Read.

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