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Giving children more agency in class: A Q&A session with Annamaria Pinter

shutterstock_309235367Annamaria Pinter is Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick. She has published widely in the area of Young Learners ELT. She is the author of Teaching Young Language Learners (2017, second edition). Earlier this month, she delivered a webinar on ‘Giving children more agency in class’, and today we bring you the question and answer section of the session.

What do you think about the use of the mother tongue versus the use of the L2 in activities where children work in groups and actively explore something, analyse data or discuss ideas?

My general advice would be that the most important first step is that everyone should be engaged and enthusiastic about participation whatever language they are using. Then, in any one situation the teacher can judge what might be realistic for the children to say and manage in L2 and what has to be handled in the L1 or indeed bilingually or using various languages that learners speak in multilingual classrooms. It is often possible for the teacher to translate into English something that a child may have said in L1 and even more importantly, children may also be able to help each other with re-phrasing things in English. No matter what the situation is, however, it is good to insist that the final product (such as a poster, a newspaper magazine page, a recorded presentation, a questionnaire or any other product) should be in English. It is good to display these products by uploading them to a secure website or simply putting them up on the wall because making these available to external audiences this will help motivate children to work hard on their English.

How can I allow children to choose learning content within a restrictive curriculum?

This is difficult. With serious restrictions, teachers can only make very small changes.  It may be possible for some teachers to look at content and learning outcomes and see if the children can at least have some limited agency by choosing tasks (albeit very similar ones) or by being invited to design an extra task in each unit, or simply choosing the order in which they would like to tackle units in the book. If no freedom or agency is given to the teacher in a very restrictive curriculum, then it is hard to implement the ideas from the webinar. Still, some teachers in India were able to do extra work with the children outside classrooms and some allocated only a limited amount of time to research project work every week after covering the content of the book. Children were motivated to get the book out of the way to be able to progress to the ‘real projects’.

What do we do if we feel that the children’s ideas or input is not relevant or useful?

In my experience this is very rare and an important lesson for us teachers is that whenever children say or suggest something that seems unusual or at first sight irrelevant, it should never be just dismissed as such. It should always be explored further so that we can gain a better understanding of the original idea or point. It may well be relevant but in a different way compared to what we would have anticipated. In my experience children really appreciate this gesture of respecting ALL their responses.

What does this mean for the teacher’s role?

Teachers generally report that this is a more satisfying way of working, they feel alive and more enthusiastic about their jobs and the children’s motivation and intensive engagement seem infectious. In many ways when children take more control and teachers become ‘learners’, there is less pressure on the teacher to get everything right alone, but it is important to remember that teachers are also role models. If children are researchers and expected to work hard and enthusiastically, teachers must be doing the same!!

If you missed the webinar and want to catch up, feel free to visit our Webinar Library, for this session and previous recordings.


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Giving children more agency in class

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

Agency and Structure

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

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

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

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Children taking more control

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

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

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

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Small changes can lead to big outcomes

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

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

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Further reading

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

Kellett M 2010 Rethinking Children and Research London: Continuum


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The iChild: Young learners and digital technologies

Girl sat at computer smilingNicky Hockly has been involved in EFL teaching and teacher training since 1987. She is Director of Pedagogy of The Consultants-E, an online teacher training and development consultancy. She is the prize-winning author of several books about language teaching and technology, most recently Focus on Learning Technologies (OUP, 2016). We look forward to hosting Nicky’s talk at this year’s IATEFL conference in Glasgow.

Children and teenagers today can mostly be found staring into screens. Mobile devices, PlayStations and Xboxs, even the occasional laptop… today’s youngsters spend a significant amount of their time interacting with and via a range of digital devices. And because of this, the argument goes, digital technologies should be increasingly present in the English language classroom. The general feeling is that teachers should be using these technologies to enhance their teaching and to increase their students’ motivation, both in and outside of class.  However, one essential question – Do digital technologies actually help students learn? – is not always asked. Arguably this is because the answer is less than clear.

Why is this? One reason is that it is very difficult to make comparisons across studies, when research is carried out in different contexts with very different groups of students, with different teachers, using different technologies and tools, and with widely differing aims and task types.

Sometimes studies on exactly the same area (such as using blogs to improve teenage EFL students’ writing skills) show differing results – in some cases blogs appear to be effective in doing this (1), while in other cases it doesn’t seem to make any difference (2). But it’s worth bearing in mind that research studies tend to be self-selective. Researchers will often only publish studies that show positive results – those that show negative or contradictory results may never make it to publication. And although researchers try to avoid it, they are inevitably biased towards positive outcomes in their own studies. All of this means that it’s difficult to make sweeping generalisations such as ‘Technology helps students learn English better’ or even more nuanced statements such as ‘Blogging helps adolescent EFL students improve their writing skills’.

Where does this leave us? For me, the important point is that we need to be critical users of digital technologies, and critical readers of research in the field. We need to be particularly wary of techno-centric views of technology that claim that the latest hardware/software/game/app/program will somehow magically help our students learn English ‘better’. In short, we need to be critically aware consumers of new technologies – both as users ourselves, and as teachers interested in using digital technologies with our own young learners and teenagers.

References

(1) Raith, T. (2009). The use of weblogs in education. In Thomas, M. (Ed.). Handbook of research on web 2.0 and second language learning (pp. 274-91). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

(2) Sercu, L. (2013). Weblogs in foreign language education: Real and promised benefits. Proceedings of INTED2013, 7th International Technology, Education and Development Conference, Valencia, Spain, pp. 4355-66.


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#WorldBookDay – 5 steps to becoming an effective storyteller

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

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

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

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


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6 Simple Ideas to Motivate Your Students using Linked Language Learning

Ideas for motivating students Linked Language Learning

To mark the launch of the Everybody Up Second Edition, author Patrick Jackson shares some practical ideas about Linked Language Learning, the concept at the heart of Everybody Up, and the reason for its success.

These days, I live and work in Ireland. Near my home, is Newgrange – a huge mound of rock and earth that’s over 5,000 years old. At dawn, on the shortest day of the year, everyone gathers to see the sun’s first light shine along a passage and light up a chamber in the mound.

This special moment reminds me of how our classrooms should be. We should connect them to the wider world beyond their walls. We should allow light to shine in from outside. And, in turn, our classrooms will become places from where light shines. They will become memorable, happy places that encourage and empower the children who are lucky to come there. That is what we hope anyway!

Young children spend rather too much time in classrooms these days, often sitting unnaturally still for hours every day. Many of them spend a lot of time after school in other classrooms before they go home. A lot of them are expected to study at home as well. They can easily become bored and lose motivation. They can become unengaged. They can become tired of the whole learning process and switch off. Our greatest challenge as educators of children in this competitive and systemised environment is to find ways of stopping them becoming burnt out and simply giving up. It’s a sad but true reality.

How are we going to create lessons that stand out and that our students look forward to and become excited by? How are we going to motivate and inspire? I believe that the best way to reboot our students is to think of ways that the classroom can be linked to the wider world. This is the thinking behind everything we did when we created Everybody Up.

Here are some ideas:

1 Teacher Show and Tell

It’s really interesting for students to see their teacher bring something curious into the classroom. This could be anything really so long as it’s something the teacher is enthusiastic about. This enthusiasm leads to students sharing their own interests and passions in turn.

2 Snail Mail

Of course, nowadays we can communicate with people all over the world so easily using the Internet. Much more exciting than an email though is an old-fashioned parcel containing snacks and stickers from a classroom in another country. Picture postcards from around the world are also really exciting for students to get. It’s very easy to arrange this sort of exchange and your students will be really motivated by it. Check out epals.com to find a classroom to twin with and get started. I have used it successfully over the years as a way of making connections with like-minded teachers around the world.

3 Decorate your Classroom

Set the scene by making your classroom a Global HQ for Linking. A notice board in the classroom is a good place to display students’ projects and you can put posters up on the walls from different parts of the world. A good way to get these is to write to foreign embassies and tourist offices in your country. They are always happy to send their publications to educators.

4 Hold an International Day

Plan and hold an International Day for your class. Students work individually or in pairs and research a country to tell their classmates about. If you can get the parents involved, it may even be possible to arrange some foods from those countries. Students can draw flags and learn a few phrases of their countries’ languages. It’s great fun and helps create an international mindset.

5 Our Town Video or Powerpoint

Students will enjoy making a video about your city, town or village in English and sharing it with other classrooms via the Internet. You can also use PowerPoint very effectively for this sort of project. This can be as simple as a series of photos of local attractions with captions in English or it could be a more sophisticated with students acting as anchors. It’s a great way to ‘Englishify’ your local surroundings.

6 English Hunting

Ask your students to find a number of examples of English in their surroundings outside the classroom. Simply by doing this they will identify the fact that English is happening all around them and is not just something that takes place in lessons. If your students are old enough to have their own mobile technology they can “hunt” English and bring it to their next lesson.

These are just a few of the many ways that you can start to connect your classroom to the wider world. As a teacher, it’s a state of mind that you get into and ideas will keep coming to you. In fact, once you become a Linked Language Learning Teacher, there’s no going back! These projects also build from year to year and become part of your classroom’s culture. It’s fun showing your new students the work of the previous year’s class. These sorts of activities are certainly the best way to get your students engaged and developing a strong sense of the purpose of learning English. They are also the best way to create memorable learning moments and experiences for our students. And of course, most importantly, they are all really fun.