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Making the Impossible Possible – Q&A session


shutterstock_299889014Last month, we hosted Gareth Davies’ webinar,
‘Making the Impossible Possible: How to get your students writing’. During the webinar and on his previous blog post, we called for questions for Gareth that we could ask him post-webinar, to delve deeper into creative writing in the EFL classroom. Here’s the full transcript of this interview:

What is your opinion on teachers writing a sample text for students to get used to writing?

This is a good question, reading and writing go hand in hand and there is evidence to suggest that the more reading a student does the better their writing will become, so in general having as much exposure to different texts can only help students.  Having or not having a model is often the cited as the major difference between process and product writing. In process writing the students study a sample text and use it as a model and is a good approach for students who are preparing for an exam or who need to write formulaic emails or reports. However, sometimes I think this can impose restrictions on students. So if I am doing a creative writing exercise I might avoid giving students a model at the start of the activity, to allow their creative juices to flow.

Have you ever tried to channel the positive energy of these creative writing tasks and turn them into positive academic writing performance?

How could we use these ideas to writing for exams? I mean, IELTS, Cambridge exams?

Thanks for this question, let me try to give you an analogy. When someone trains to run a marathon, they don’t only run long distances. They do some gym work, some short runs, and perhaps they change their diet. For me it is the same with preparing for an exam. You need to do some exam practice, but you also need to hone your skills and prepare in different ways. Creative writing tasks can allow students to practise their writing in an interesting way, but they are still using the skills they will need for academic purposes. When I was teaching an EAP course in the summer I did several storytelling and writing activities just to free the students up, and they found it very helpful.

How you would evaluate or share the poems?

This is a very interesting point. When I ask my students to do creative writing activities, I try to focus as much as possible on the content rather than the accuracy. I see it as a fluency activity. Therefore, on their first draft, I might comment on how the story or poem made me feel, how I enjoyed it, etc., and only point out errors where the meaning is confused. I might also ask the students to peer correct each other’s work and ask me if they are not sure about something. As for sharing their work I ask the students to decide if they are public or private, they mark the top of the paper. If they are public then I will ask them to read them out or put them on display. If the students have marked it as private then only I will look at it. With creative writing, it is often personal, I don’t think it is fair to share the students’ work if they are not ready.

What do you think of beginning with more concrete descriptive language?

In one of my previous webinars, I talked about the following activity, which looks at descriptive language.

Write a sentence on the board

e.g. The boy walked up the stairs.

Tell the student the boy was scared, ask them where they would put that word in that sentence. e.g. The scared boy walked up the stairs.

Now ask them how he walked up the stairs. Elicit an adverb and ask them where it goes in the sentence.

e.g. The scared boy walked quickly up the stairs.

Next ask them to describe the stairs, (narrow? steep? dark?) and ask them where their adjective goes. e.g. The scared boy walked quickly up the dark stairs.

Finally, ask them to think of a different word for ‘walked’, (ran? climbed? tip-toed?)

e.g. The scared boy tip-toed quickly up the dark stairs.

Now it is time to edit. You’ve gone from a simple sentence to a much too complicated one. Which words leave the best impression on the reader, which are not needed?

 e.g. Perhaps you don’t need scared because ‘tip-toed’ and dark imply this.

Put the students into pairs and ask them to do the same for other adjectives, excited, happy, sad, angry etc.

You can help them with the words by translating or filling in gaps in their knowledge.

Which do you prefer? Poet or Teacher.

Actually, I love both and they are not that different. Both require you to plan and prepare carefully, both make you bring your personality to the work. Both encourage you to be creative. With both, you hope to leave a positive influence on your audience. And finally, with both sometimes things go wrong and you have to reassess and start again.


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7 ways to bring Creative Writing into the #EFL classroom

shutterstock_336098690Creative writing can add value to your classroom by taking students out of the ordinary structure of grammar books and allowing them more freedom to practice what they have learned in a creative way. It can also be very entertaining for the teacher, as they get to exercise their creative muscles with some fun and entertaining classroom ideas.

Here are 7 ways to bring creative writing to your classroom from teachers all over the world:

1. Bag of Props 

Stefan Chiarantano – Stefan has taught English in Taiwan, Japan and China for several years and in his hometown of Toronto, Canada.

To make learning English fun for my students I would bring in a bag of props that I could incorporate into my lessons. My bag of tricks included CDs of children’s songs, chants and pop music. I would use a chant with Total Physical Response (TPR) to begin a class with young learners or a pop song with adolescent junior high school students as a means to teach idioms, vocabulary or grammar. My bag also included puppets, which allowed me to teach target language such as greetings by acting out a dialogue skit with the puppets. I varied my voice for the puppets and soon discovered that it had introduced another native speaker in the classroom.. . It included stuffed animals, which I used to teach prepositions of place. There were coloured plastic balls to teach colours but which I also used in playful activities. . As silly as it sounds, I would be lost without my bag of tricks. It has infused creativity into the way I teach but more importantly it has made learning English an enjoyable experience for my students. 

2. A Sense of Adventure

Ezekiel Yerimoh Ezekiel is a Certified Supply Chain Officer and the CEO of Tonell & Cole. He is also the National Coordinator of Quizzing Nigeria (a member of the International Quizzing Association – IQA) and the President of Knowledgefield International. 

Creative writing can bring a spirit of adventure into the classroom. Thinking about an unusual, exciting and dangerous experience or event is not only a great way to widen the horizons of students but also to give them great exposure to new vocabulary. Moreover, students’ talents, gifts, skills, environment, background and personality will play a major role in its ability to function effectively in creative writing. Basically, students should be well trained to undertake the task of creative writing.

A good example of an unusual event is for one to imagine the sunlight when it is supposed to be dark or a wild animal that speaks like a human being. Students can become more engaged if they use their personality traits and experiences to come up with their own unusual events and then perform free writing based on the event, letting their stories becomes more and more unusual.

3. Debates and Quotes

Tatyana Fedosova  – Tatyana has a PhD in English Philology, and is Professor of English at the Department of German Philology of Gorno-Altaisk State University, Altai, Siberia, Russia.

My favorite written task for intermediate-level students is to write an expert viewpoint on a challenging real-life situation or problem for a column in a magazine, for example, how to behave in a new school. I like to provide students with a quotation of a famous person on some hot topic and have them write a short argumentative passage on it. I also have my students debate a proposed amendment to the constitution by writing a speech for the TV debates or write the presidential pledge for the elections. I find it useful to ask students to make up an ending to a story, to complete the beginning of a sentence, or to write a report about an exotic place that they visited or a cultural/sporting event that took place in their region. These tasks help to reinforce key concepts under study, develop critical-thinking, cognitive, and creative skills and have practical applications as well. 

4. Mad-Libs

Peter Winthrop – Peter has been teaching kindergarten and primary school students in Shanghai, China since 2009. In addition to teaching he also assists in teacher training and mentoring.

Bringing creative writing into the classroom can be difficult, most textbooks do not focus on that part of learning another language. I like to start with Mad-libs, funny word substitutions. This allows students to have fun with the language and slips in a lesson on the importance of word choice. My big tip is to celebrate originality and learning language learned outside the classroom as much as using correct grammar. We want to show students they can use the language they have learned and can make their own sentences. They don’t just have to rely on the sentence patterns they drill in class.

I always base the Madlibs on whatever the lessons content is, so even while being silly we are practicing and using the lessons language. An example would be:

“Tim is going to the ___ because he wants to eat ___ .”  

Student One will pick the location, say library, then Student Two pick the object, say books. That gives us the sentence:

 “Tim is going to the library because he wants to eat books .”

The grammar is correct, the vocabulary is in its correct place but the meaning is silly, so everyone gets a laugh.

5. Shared Writing

Amira Shouma – Amira is a certified ESL teacher in Quebec and Ontario. She is also currently an MA graduate student in Applied Linguistics at Concordia University.

I found the article “Activities for Writing Instruction” by Sharon M. Abbey a good resource for teachers in their writing classes. The author offered various activities to activate students’ sense of writing, including shared writing. With shared writing, the teacher teaches students writing by writing with them. The process of writing starts with brainstorming ideas in a shared writing session. For example, at the beginning of the session, a teacher can establish the purpose of the shared writing session with his/her students. Then, he/she brainstorms ideas with the group. Next, the teacher selects one of the ideas and invites students to develop it. At the time of composition, the teacher and students start writing together. Finally, the teacher and his/her students revise their text together. Shared writing helps students gain their confidence, build their motivation, and also enrich their ideas. 

6. Alternate Endings

Anna Klis is an experienced English teacher and has worked for several renowned language schools. She holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Wroclaw and a bachelor’s degree in Film Production from the University of Wales, Great Britain.

Students (at least intermediate level) are asked in advanced by a teacher to watch a famous/popular film (or choose a  chapter from a well-known book) and choose one important and meaningful scene. At home they prepare a short description of a continuation of the scene but the way they want it to be, so that it is completely different from the original, and they work on a new version that would possibly lead to a different ending. When working on such a piece of writing students are supposed to use newly-learned grammar and/or vocabulary structures to practice them. Then during the lesson they can guess the alternate endings or compare their versions to decide which one is the best and how it fits the original story.

7. Writing with the Senses

Rachel Playfair – Rachel is a teacher-trainer and language coach working in Barcelona, Spain.

From time to time I like to use a short writing activity as a ‘Warm-Down’ end of class activity to help balance the ‘Warm-Up’ oral activities I do. One of my favourite ones is “Respond With Your Senses”: I will give students a sensory prompt (i.e. show them a picture, play them some music, put an object in a bag that they can’t see and let them feel it, let them smell something like peppermint extract), then students do free-writing about the prompt for about 3-5 minutes, depending on their level. I can also use the prompts to preview or review classroom topics. For further creative and/or collaborative writing activities, I will then put students together into small groups to combine and develop their paragraphs, which we can then share together or put up on the classroom wall. This activity can be adapted to a wide range of levels and ages as long as you make sure they have had previous vocabulary input. 


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7 ways Creative Writing can help your EFL students

shutterstock_176605295Having graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Jonathan returned to his native Malta to get a TEFL Certificate before going to Korea for 4 years to travel and teach English. He has now returned to Toronto where he started CreatEng Cafe – a creative writing website for English learners. Each year they host a Creative Writing Competition where students from all over the world participate for a chance to win prizes and get published.

Learning phrases and studying grammar will help students understand the foundation of English, but they can only truly become fluent once they are able to construct their own sentences freely and independently, and what better way to do that then by telling a story?

Here are 7 ways creative writing can help your students learn English:

  1. Puts Your Grammar Lessons Into Practice

So they get pretty good marks on their grammar test, but what about their ability to communicate their thoughts? Sometimes students spend so much time with their heads in books they do not get the opportunity to share their own stories. This can help them practice all the grammar they learned and put it together into an entertaining story.

  1. Improve Confidence

Having someone else read a story you wrote is very empowering, but even if they don’t share it, students will build confidence having the freedom to create their own story and not having to worry about being perfect.

  1. Inspiring and Motivational

Grammar books can be a little rigid, and creative writing gives students a little more time in the playground. Having been able to write a full story, no matter how long or short, will give them a sense of accomplishment and the motivation to push themselves further.

  1. Exercise their Creativity

Some words or phrases can have several different meanings, and creative writing gives students the ability to think about the words they use differently. This new perspective on words will let them be adventurous and it will lead them to more discoveries.

  1. Accessible Anywhere and Anytime

Some students will not have anyone to practice their English with outside of the classroom, but creative writing can be a great outlet for students who want to continue practicing at home or at school.

  1. Think in English

When students learn how to communicate their ideas, thoughts and feelings in English they will feel more in control. They will eliminate that step of translating or thinking in their head and it will become more natural for them.

  1. Become More Fluent

There is a sense of accomplishment having learned how to think in English and communicate a story confidently. Practice makes perfect and with each story they write they become more and more fluent.

Do your students have a story to tell?

They can enter the CreatEng Cafe writing competition for their chance to
win prizes and get published.


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The Many Challenges of Academic Writing for ESL

The challenges of academic writing in ESLDr. Ann Snow, writing consultant for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, discusses the particular challenges of writing in an academic context.

This month I will be teaching a new academic writing course for second language students at my university. I am thus thinking a lot about writing these days and looking forward to helping my students become better academic writers. I’ve promised a lot in my course proposal. I will:

  • Cover characteristics of expository writing and help students apply them to their own academic disciplines;
  • guide them through a cycle of awareness and analysis leading to self-assessment; expose them to different text types (e.g. problem-solutions, methods, discussion sections) and genres (e.g. critiques, case studies, literature reviews, research papers);
  • help them improve their sentence and discourse-level grammar and be better proofreaders of their own writing.

In addition, I am determined to go outside the traditional boundaries of a writing class because I think that writing cannot and should not be taught in isolation from the other skills that students need in order to be effective writers. Therefore, I have added academic vocabulary and strategic reading skill components. I also plan to integrate critical thinking skills so my students improve their abilities to make inferences, synthesize, develop arguments and counter-arguments, and evaluate sources in their writing. My task feels a little overwhelming right now, but also helps me as the instructor appreciate the complexities of academic writing and understand better the challenges our second language students face.

Finding the writer’s voice

Stepping back from the details of my new course, let’s consider the big picture of what writing entails. Writing is a complex language form practiced by users of all languages (both native and non-native) for everyday social and communicative purposes and, for many, for vocational, educational, and professional needs. It has been variously described as a product – a piece of writing with a particular form and the expectation of “correctness.” And as a process – a journey that takes writers through stages where they discover they have something to say and find their “voice.” From the cognitive perspective, it is seen as a set of skills and knowledge that resides within the individual writer and from the sociocultural perspective as a socially and culturally situated set of literacy practices shared by a particular community (Weigle, 2014). With these perspectives in mind, all teachers of writing must ask: How can I help my students improve their writing and what are best practices in the classroom? As I design my new course I am asking myself these same questions.

Needs assessment

An important first step is undertaking a needs assessment, whether informal or formal, to learn what kinds of writing students need. From this assessment, a syllabus or curriculum can be developed or a textbook series selected that is a good match with your students’ needs. Typically, the instructional sequence starts with personal/narrative writing in which students have to describe or reflect on an experience or event. This usually leads to expository writing in which students learn to develop a thesis statement and support this controlling idea in the body of their writing. Analytic or persuasive writing is the most challenging type of academic writing because students must learn to state and defend a position or opinion using appropriate evidence (Ferris, 2009).  These kinds of academic writing tasks require students to become familiar with a variety of text types and genres, one of my course goals.

Improving vocabulary and grammar

The academic writing class also provides the opportunity for students to fine-tune their grammar and expand their academic language vocabulary. Typically, by the time our second language students are engaged in academic writing, they have been exposed to the majority of grammatical structures in English (e.g. complete tense system; complex constructions such as relative clauses and conditionals), but they still may need to learn how to integrate these structures into their writing. They also need to match text types with the kinds of grammatical structures needed. For example, in order to write a cause/effect essay, students need to use subordinating clauses with because and since and they need to use the appropriate transitional expressions like therefore and as such. Student will most likely have learned these structures in isolation but now need extensive practice and feedback to use them accurately in their writing. In terms of academic vocabulary, students need to differentiate the types of vocabulary found in everyday usage (e.g. the verbs meet and get) with their more formal academic counter-parts encounter and obtain (see Zimmerman, 2009, for many other examples.)

In sum, the English for Academic Purposes curriculum must integrate reading and writing skills, and, as mentioned, grammar and vocabulary. Cumming (2006) points out that a focus on reading can lead to writing improvement and an opportunity to learn discipline-specific vocabulary. It also gives students something to write about. Combining reading and writing also provides needed practice in analyzing different text types so students see the features of these models. These kinds of activities create opportunities for more complex tasks such as summarizing and synthesizing multiple sources. A curriculum that integrates reading and writing also exposes students to graphic organizers for reading comprehension which student can recycle for pre-writing (Grabe, 2001). Finally, students need many exposures to similar tasks in order to master the complexities of academic writing and build confidence in their abilities.

I look forward to teaching my new academic writing course and I hope this brief glimpse inspires others to undertake this challenge as well.

References and Further Reading

Ferris, D. (2009). Teaching college writing to diverse student populations. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press

Grabe, W. (2001). Reading-writing relations: Theoretical perspectives and instructional practices. In D. Belcher & A. Hirvela, (Eds.), Linking literacies: Perspectives on L2 reading-writing connections.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Weigle, S. C. (2014). Considerations for teaching second language writing. In M. Celce-Murcia, D. M. Brinton, & M. A. Snow (Eds.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (4th ed., pp. 222-237). Boston, MA:  National Geographic Learning Heinle Cengage.

Zimmerman, C. (2009). Work knowledge: A vocabulary teacher’s handbook. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


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Why Language Learners Should Take Notes

Why Language Learners Should Take NotesMargaret Brooks, a co-author of Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, offers some tips to help your students take notes in class.

Whether in the context of taking a phone message or listening to an academic lecture, note-taking is an essential skill for most language learners. In order to help learners acquire this skill, it is important to consider first the special challenges language learners face when trying to listen and take notes.

Short-term memory

One of the most self-evident issues is that it takes a language learner longer to process audio input than it does a native speaker.  One reason for this is that a person’s short-term memory is shorter in L2 than in L1. People employ short-term memory (usually measured in seconds) when processing audio materials. For example, when listening to a long sentence, the listener may need to hold the whole utterance in his mind and review it in order to comprehend it adequately. For the L1 listener this happens naturally, without the person being aware of it.  However, for the language learner, this mental review process may not always be possible in the available time.1

Language structure

Another factor is the need for a mental map of the language, an internalized knowledge of the vocabulary and structures. A native speaker is grounded from childhood in the structures of the language and knows what to expect. We know, in fact, that people do not actually hear every word when they listen. But they hear enough to be able to parse out the meaning or reconstruct the sense quickly.  They can “fill in the blanks” with words not actually heard.

Cultural expectations

Finally, in addition to being familiar with the semantic and syntactic aspects of the language, a listener may need to know of certain cultural expectations. Names of people and places and knowledge of events or history familiar to the average native speaker may be unfamiliar to the learner.  All of these are things that may cause the listener to hesitate, stop listening, and try to think about what was said, while in the meantime the speaker continues.  The listener then loses the thread and finds it difficult to bring attention back to the task.

How note-taking can help

In the face of these challenges, it may seem that adding note-taking to the listening tasks in the classroom may be a step too far for many. How, for example, can we expect high beginning students to listen and write at the same time? However, when the tasks are appropriate for the learners’ level and carefully implemented, note-taking can actually improve comprehension.

Taking notes helps the student maintain focus and attention. It encourages a more engaged posture, such as sitting forward in the seat. The act of handwriting also aids in attention. Interestingly, studies have shown that students taking handwritten notes performed better on comprehension tests than those taking notes with an electronic medium such as a laptop or tablet.  The reason for this is that handwriting is slower than typing. The writer has to summarize content, which involves more mental processing than faster typing. This in turn leads to better understanding and retention.2

The following are some examples of note-taking practice activities for the language classroom:

  • Preparing to listen: Although this is not a note-taking skill in itself, it is a necessary first step in the classroom. In real life, people do not usually approach something like a lecture or other listening context without some idea of what they will hear. They will have read assignments leading up to a lecture, received the agenda for a meeting, or at the very least know something about the topic.  We often put learners at an unfair disadvantage by starting a listening task by just saying, “OK, now listen to this.” Pre-listening activities level the playing field by giving learners realistic preparation for the task. These can consist of things like pre-teaching key words, exploring students’ prior knowledge of the topic, or short reading selections related to the topic.
  • Focusing on main ideas and key words: Some students have a tendency to equate note-taking with dictation and set out to try to write every word – something impossible even in L1. Activities that focus on writing only main ideas and key content words address this issue and help develop short-term as a well as long-term memory. When students write down a few important words as they listen, seeing the words is a memory aid and helps them follow the flow of the ideas.  This strategy is essential when dealing with authentic listening texts at higher levels of language study and, by extension, in real world situations. Authentic texts are likely to contain chunks of unfamiliar language that become “roadblocks” if students are not able to move past them and keep listening for key words.
  • Using a variety of organizational systems such as outlining, the Cornell Method, or even word webs: This enables students to follow the development of a speaker’s ideas and “remember” them from start to finish as they listen. Presenting several ways of organizing notes shows that note-taking is essentially a personal task. Each person has to find a system that works for them.
  • Reviewing and adding to notes soon after a lecture or presentation: The purpose of note-taking in an academic setting is to provide students with a tool for study and review. In a business setting, notes from a meeting might be used to write a report or prepare a task list for a project. Notes consisting of just words and short phrases will not serve the purpose as the note-taker will quickly forget how to put these together into a coherent record of a lecture or meeting, for example.  In the classroom, students can review notes and expand what they have written. Also, even though there is no “rewind” function in a real-world lecture hall, it is useful practice for students to listen again and add to their notes.
  • Collaborating with others: Students often suffer from the mistaken notion that asking questions or getting help from others somehow diminishes them, makes them seem “stupid.” They forget that even native speakers do this all the time and it probably comes naturally to them in their first language. In the classroom, students can compare notes with classmates, ask questions about things they didn’t understand, and listen again to verify information.

Providing students with an opportunity to practice note-taking in a controlled and “safe” environment not only gives them a skill that will be useful in a variety of settings from the lecture hall to the meeting room, or even a doctor’s office but also helps them become more attentive listeners and improves general comprehension.

References and Further Reading

1Rost, Michael. Research in Second Language Processes and Development in Eli Hinkel (Ed). Handbook of Research on Second Language Learning and Teaching, Part IV. , Chapter 35: L2 Listening, Routledge, Nov. 11, 2005.

2Mueller, Pam A and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking. in Psychological Science, published on line 23 April, 2014.

Martin, Katherine I and Nick Ellis. The Roles of Phonological Short-term Memory and Working Memory in L2 Grammar and Vocabulary Learning. in Studies in Second Language Acquisition, Vol. 34, Issue 03, September 2012, Cambridge University Press, 2012.