Category: Materials & Teaching Ideas

Writing EAP Materials: Keeping Academic English Lessons Engaging (Tania’s Tips)

Writing EAP Materials: Keeping Academic English Lessons Engaging (Tania’s Tips)

Back in May, I was lucky enough to attend Tania Pattison’s talk at the IATEFL conference in Belfast. The underlying message of her talk was that materials for teaching and learning academic English do not have to be as dry and dull as some people might have in mind. And I think that’s an important message to get out there! Tania’s talk presented some useful tips and reminders for those of us in EAP and materials writing fields, which I’d like to summarise in this post. 

TL;DR Summary

In order to be effective and engaging, EAP materials, especially at higher levels where students have done a lot of the same topics several times, need to be:

  • fresh,
  • relevant,
  • inspirational,
  • challenging,
  • and manageable.

FRESH Topics & Perspectives

Academic (and all?) English materials should include fresh or new topics so that they are engaging and interesting when students become engrossed in a topic and start exploring all the many directions that you can go with the information or perspectives on it. In this way, students are likely to want to discuss it, and thus use and practise useful language and skills to do so. Even if the topic isn’t entirely new, we might still be able to come up with fresh types of activities to get our students engaged in deep learning.

RELEVANT Input & Activities

The content topics, as well as the language and skills practised, need to be relevant to students’ current and or future academic concerns, as well as their lives and professions. In popular science and science journalism, for example, we might discover new innovations or specific topics that are related to our students’ academic subjects.

Tania’s examples here include looking at what happens in the body and brain when people use digital screens excessively, for example comparing the effects to coffee, or looking at symptoms such as insomnia and negative mental health. This is probably relevant to most students, and has a clear connection to biology as an academic subject. 

The activities we ask students to do of course also need to be relevant to their academic progress. So, it makes sense to be doing things like analysing and discussing commonly held beliefs to promote critical thinking, as well as applying concepts to their own everyday lives, professions or study subjects. As I have recently written elsewhere, even activities like comparing and contrasting near-synonyms’ meanings and usage patterns activates these kinds of thinking skills while helping with vocabulary learning. 

INSPIRATIONAL Ideas

It helps with learning if materials include inspirational content. When students are impressed by the idea, person or place that they are hearing about, it can stoke their ambitions and promote deeper engagement with the topic and thus with their learning.

Tania’s examples here include reading or hearing about explorers, researchers, successful sports people, and so on. To link this with academic language and skills, students could, for example, conduct a SWOT analysis of teams or projects, and evaluate the factors in their success. This kind of activity would not only engage higher order thinking skills and promote advanced level language use/practise, but may also function to inspire the students to adopt certain elements leading to success.

CHALLENGING Different Skills

I think that most of us would agree that language learning materials need to be linguistically challenging for the students, and not too easy. Ideally, we’d like them to be working in their zone of proximal development, so there is a motivating challenge to the work that we are asking them to do. In EAP, it’s also beneficial to include challenges on thinking critically, evaluating new angles, and/or responding appropriately following academic conventions.

Thus, materials could encourage students to think outside of the box, to give and justify a stance, or to provide a critical review of something. The input could also involve an academic expression of attitude or stance, perhaps in contrast to a less formal expression of opinion, so that students are challenged not only to engage with the content, but also to identify language features that may be useful for their own work.

MANAGEABLE Expectations

Nonetheless, the level of challenge in any learning materials needs to be manageable. In EAP, this means materials being targeted at an achievable level of difficulty, both linguistically and with regard to students’ academic career – so in their academic and critical thinking skills, too.

The aim of an EAP programme is to bridge the gap between the current level the students are working at and the “real” academic texts and input that they will need to deal with in their studies, by making the topics accessible and easier to process. This may include training generally useful and relevant academic vocabulary and language – not necessarily discipline-specific terminology –  or employing things like infographics and other visuals, plus training on study skills and elements of English that are specific to academic usages.

University students face high expectations in many different areas of life, so the EAP materials we design/use should help them to progress and manage the challenge, without adding to their overwhelm.  Tania’s idea here would be to find topics that are clearly connected to students’ academic study subjects, but approached from a more everyday life perspective.

SUMMARY

In conclusion, then, EAP materials should enable students to learn something new in terms of language, facts/content, skills and perspectives. They should be fresh, relevant, inspirational, challenging and manageable. Then, the materials are likely to be motivating and help students to develop their confidence, and their language and academic skills, to face the challenges of studying at university through the medium of English.

And finally, thank you to Tania for (yet another) interesting and inspiring talk, providing these tips and reminders for us!

Learning to Listen to Lectures: How representative are EAP coursebooks?

Learning to Listen to Lectures: How representative are EAP coursebooks?

I recently had the pleasure of joining the Norwegian Forum for English for Academic Purposes (one small benefit of the Corona pandemic was that this conference took place online this year!)  and listening to Katrien Dereoy’s talk on “Setting the stage for lecture listening: how representative are EAP coursebooks?”

She has presented and published on this topic before and I think it’s very interesting for all EAP instructors and materials writers. So, this post is a summary of what I see as the key points from her talk and what I took away from it regarding what we could do better in our EAP lecture listening instruction and materials in future.

The main finding of Katrien’s corpus linguistic research is that many EAP coursebooks on listening and note-taking in lectures do not always reflect the reality of the language used by lecturers – particularly regarding metadiscourse and lexico-grammatical discourse markers that are used to highlight important points of content in lectures.

In her research on corpora of lectures given in English, namely the British Academic Spoken English corpus and the Corpus of English as a Lingua Franca in Academic Settings, Katrien looked at the word classes and patterns of phrases used to fulfil this function, such as metanouns (e.g. idea, point), verb phrases (remember that), adjectives (central idea), and adverbs (importantly). She also categorised two interactive orientations of such lexicogrammatical devices highlighting importance: one focusing on the participants and using phrases like “Now listen” (addressing audience) or “I want to emphasise” (expressing intention), and the other focusing on the content and saying things like “A key point is”. 

Overall, her research comparing lecture transcripts in the BASE and ELFA corpora showed that the frequency with which importance is explicitly marked was roughly equivalent between L1 and L2/EMI instructors. Overall, the content-focussed markers were most common, though a variety of word classes and grammatical patterns were found in both corpora. 

She found that EMI lecturers (often L2 speakers in non-English-speaking countries) were more likely to use a content focus, whereas L1 lecturers used phrases that were focused on the content or the audience in highlighting the importance of points in their lectures with roughly equal frequency.

Another slight difference was that L1 lecturers used metanouns more often than EMI/L2 lecturers. On the other hand, EMI/L2 lecturers often used adjectives (e.g. the main idea) and also deictic verb phrases such as “That’s the main point”,  which were often anaphoric/backward-referring (where the students would have to think back to whatever “that” refers to and then note it down). Apparently L1 lecturers were more likely to use verb phrases, particularly imperatives like “Remember” or “Notice” (≠ directives with second-person pronouns), which are also often cataphoric/forward-referring.

Overall, the most commonly used phrases in authentic lectures recorded in these corpora are:

 Remember/Notice xyz

 The point/question is xyz

 I want to emphasise/stress xyz

 The key/important/essential xyz is xyz

Katrien then analysed coursebooks that aim to teach lecture-listening skills to EAP students. She found that they often do not really teach these phrases that are most commonly used in lectures to fulfill the function of marking importance. Indeed, many coursebooks include tasks where students are asked to identify the key ideas from a lecture except, but do not necessarily give good training on the language that might help them to do so, such as listening out for metadiscourse and discourse markers. Some books include lists of ‘useful phrases’ here, but Katrien noticed a preference for explicit markers and listing words, directives with second-person pronouns (e.g. you need to remember) and other non-imperative verb phrases – so not entirely aligned with what the corpora show about phrases commonly used in real lectures.

Katrien suggests four sets of people who are possibly at least partly responsible for this disparity between EAP materials and authentic lectures, based on Gilmore (2015). These are: the researchers in applied linguistics who are not always good at making their research findings accessible;  language teachers who rely on coursebooks and don’t (have time to) think beyond what the books present them;  materials writers who may use their intuition and creativity rather than research to inform their materials; and publishers who may not want to to deal with having to source and and get copyright for authentic lecture recordings or who may not even see the value in doing so. [Note my use of defining relative clauses here – I absolutely do not want to imply putting blame on all researchers, teachers, writers, etc.!]

Katrien’s main recommendation for training EAP students to understand and be able to take notes on the most important content points in lectures is that EAP instructors should critically reflect on materials’ and appropriateness/relevance of the language presented for their students/context, and adapt or extend them as necessary. Supplementary materials should use language from authentic lecture transcripts, such as those found in databases and corpora like BASE or  MICASE and/or representative input materials for the context – e.g. collaborate with local lecturers and use their recordings/videos.

I agree with Katrien and would add that:

  • Materials writers need to make an effort to access the relevant linguistic (and SLA) research, corpora and word/phrase lists, etc. and use it to inform the language they include in their materials. I feel that particularly writers and instructors in the area of EAP are often in a better position to access these publications and resources than those in other contexts, due to their typical affiliation to a university (and their library, databases, etc) and the academic world in general. 
  • Giving a list of useful phrases is not enough –  students need active training, for example in decoding these phrases in fast connected speech where processes like linking, assimilation or elision are likely to happen and may be a barrier to understanding, and prosody helps determine phrases’ meaning, or training in understand how exactly they are used and derive their signalling power from the context and cotext. These phrases are likely to be helpful to students giving their own oral presentations, too, so materials teaching these discourse markers could span and combine both skills. 
  • Lecturers could benefit from training, too – Not all (in some contexts, not very many at all!) lecturers have received training in this kind of teaching presentation, and many may not be aware of the linguistic side of things that can affect how well (especially L2) students understand the content of a lecture. So, perhaps more EAP materials and users’ guides need to be targeted at the teachers and lecturers as well as ‘just’ the students. 
  • And finally, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We, EAP instructors and materials writers, need to provide numerous opportunities to deliberately engage with suitably selected, context-embedded discourse markers and academic vocabulary to help students internalise it and use it to succeed in their academic studies. 

References

Jumbled sentences: An authentic ELT task?

Jumbled sentences: An authentic ELT task?

Last week, we had the pleasure of welcoming Dr Betty Lanteigne from LCC Klaipeda as a guest lecturer at the university where I work. She gave a talk in our ‘English Linguists Circle’ with the title “Unscrambling jumbled sentences: An authentic task for English language assessment?” and it got me thinking about several questions… and so I thought it might be time for a new blog post. 

(You can read more about Dr Lanteigne’s work in the article I’ve linked to at the end.)

In this post, I’ll be writing about:

 – Are these types of tasks entirely inauthentic?

– For whom could they be helpful?

– How do/should ELT materials writers jumble sentences?

Authentic

Dr Lanteigne first showed us a few jumbled sentence tasks to see if we could unjumble them. It was quite fun(ny): We could do them, but even the ‘correct’ answer gave us rather nonsensical sentences! Here’s one for you to try, and also so you know what I / she mean/s with the term ‘jumbled sentence’:

a want Paris to do you banana take to

This amusement was followed by a quick survey of some voices from the literature that, probably quite rightly, criticise this task type with such unrealistic sentences as being inauthentic, and therefore of low value for ELT. Dr Lanteigne counters that ‘authentic’ can be taken to mean that anything about the activity is real; the people, the text/input, the situation, and/or what learners need to do with the language are aspects that could be found outside of the classroom. And by this definition, she argues, interactions in some contexts where English is used as a lingua franca do, in fact, sometimes include unjumbling sentences. To underline her argument, Dr Lanteinge has collected ‘jumbled sentences’ that she has heard in her time in Dubai and the UAE – sentences used “in the wild”, as she called them, as opposed to having been invented precisely for such unjumbling tasks. Two of the examples she provided were:

  1. How you would feel if it to you happens?
  2. Want taxi Dubai you?
Useful

Dr Lanteigne argues that because such jumbled sentences are authentic in ELF contexts, they can be a valuable part of ELT and language assessment. If someone needs to communicate in an ELF setting, ‘decoding’ such sentences and deducing meaning and knowing how to respond are very important skills; thus such tasks are authentic. This is especially true for English learners in areas where English is used as a lingua franca, such as Dubai and UAE, where Dr Lanteigne was working. I teach EAP (B2+ level) and train EFL teachers in Germany, and many of my students’ career goals are often focused on Germany. Still, the chances are fairly high that they will at some point be in a situation where the person doesn’t speak their L1 and they don’t speak the other person’s L1, and so they may need to use English as a lingua franca, and thus also use these ‘decoding’ or ‘unjumbling’ skills.

Dr Lanteigne has therefore developed some useful testing materials based on the example jumbled sentences she had gathered. These tasks are very interesting, for tests and in lessons, I think: They involve learners showing they can understand the meaning of a jumbled utterance, reconstructing it into a grammatically correct sentence or selecting the correct version from a list, and then responding to it in some way, for example ‘What would be a suitable reaction to this sentence?’. I find this kind of adaptive and reciprocal task valuable, as it moves beyond simply putting words into a correct order, or producing an utterance for no further purpose. And so I’m basically convinced that including tasks like this in my materials for my German students every so often could be a helpful thing to do.

Task Differences

However, you might have noticed, as I did, that there is a bit of a difference between the two example ‘jumbled sentences’ she gave. The first of these examples includes all of the ‘elements’ needed for a grammatically correct sentence in a Standard English. Thus, the task really is unjumbling the words to get to the standard word order for the sentence. Also, the information structure is intact, meaning it’s really just the word order that’s the problem. The second example, though, requires a bit more than that – you need to insert an article, auxiliary and preposition, and rearrange the words to get to a grammatically correct sentence in the standard sense. You might also need some contextual clues, such as who said the utterance to whom, and where. I’d therefore call it something like ‘reconstructing sentences’ rather than ‘unjumbling’, and I feel like these two task-types should be treated as different in any research or discussion on their authenticity and effectiveness.

Materials – jumbled sentences

‘Unjumbling sentences’ tasks, then, could be useful for practising word order, verb forms, colligations, collocations, etc. Helping learners to practise ‘unjumbling’ in their head may assist them in understanding such sentences when heard ‘in the wild’. There are of course different ways of presenting the activity in materials. For example, you could leave in the punctuation, as in the second version below (which many jumbling apps seem to do), and there are many different orders you could jumble the words into, keeping the information structure intact or not (it is often not intact in coursebook/app versions of ‘jumbled sentences’). This really interests me – how do materials writers decide how to jumble sentences? And is this reflective of authentic jumbles? I asked on Twitter just got responses that said ‘alphabetical’ or ‘I use an app/website for that’. I think it would be interesting to think about jumbled orders which are likely to help with specific problems with word order or sentence structure that learners have, for example due to their L1s. In example 1 above, for example, I recognise some word order issues that my German students might have due to interference. This kind of unjumbling, then, could help to remind them of English word order rules – something similar to an error correction task. Since many of my students are studying to become EFL teachers in the German state sector, this kind of activity could be seen as authentic for them – especially with these real utterances, rather than alphabetically ordered jumbled words. The example I’ve invented below focuses on collocations, alongside word order for questions with an auxiliary – but I don’t suppose this is a realistic example of anything any language learner would say; it’s just a collection of words! Although I don’t necessarily think ‘artificial’ is the polar opposite of ‘authentic’, this one is definitely not an authentic example of a jumbled sentence in the way Dr Lanteigne understands the term, and is more akin to the kinds of sentences that are most often criticised in this task type for exactly this reason. Perhaps it still has value in ELT, but again, it would be more interesting to discuss which jumbled orders are most helpful for students in which cases. Since different jumbles would probably check different things, such as lexical, morphological or syntactical knowledge, it probably depends on the specific language point you want to check, as well as students’ L1s. This sounds like something that someone who has more time than me should research 😉

ceilings men legs tall long high like do with 

ceilings? men legs tall long high like Do with 

Materials – sentence reconstruction

With example 2 above, the syntax makes me think this is not an L1 speaker of a European language; at least I don’t know any Indo-European languages that separate the subject from the verb in this way. And, as I said before, reconstructing this sentence to understand the speaker’s meaning is more than just an unjumbling activity – it will require contextual and maybe also cultural knowledge to determine the speakers’ meaning and intention, as well as knowledge of grammar and lexis. Still, as an authentic utterance and thus potentially authentic task, learning to reconstruct it would seem to have value, as Dr Lanteigne argues, especially for learners who are likely to communicate in an ELF context. In order to produce materials that help to train this competence, then, we would either need to collect more authentic examples “in the wild”, or investigate the patterns behind omitted words and ‘jumbled’ word order, in order to create our own artificial, but authentic, examples to work with. Here again, I believe that context is key – depending on the speaker’s L1, the patterns are likely to be different, so we’d need to know a lot about who said what in order to create a suitable sample base of sentences for our materials, and might then also need to select relevant examples for the materials based on the specific learners, their context and reasons for learning English (e.g. where are their future ELF interlocutors likely to come from?).

So what?

I’m slightly torn at this point, though I can’t formulate my evaluative thoughts very well. I’ll try: This sounds like very interesting and insight-rich research to do, and I’m sure the results would be valuable for ELT materials writers. But it does seem to presuppose that such decoding and understanding skills are rather high-level in terms of English language competence and need to be trained. I wonder if that’s always true? I mean, what if a few words, some gesture and context, and a willingness to negotiate meaning are enough for communication in ELF contexts? Do the conversation partners need to reconstruct a grammatically correct sentence in their head to understand or be able to respond? Again, more research… please let me know if you do it! 🙂

Further Reading

Lanteigne, Betty. 20 17. “Unscrambling jumbled sentences: An authentic task for English language assessment?”. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching (7/2). 251-273. Accessible here: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1149764.pdf

Reflections on my lesson: Is this TBLT?

Reflections on my lesson: Is this TBLT?

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m a bit confused. I think my classroom practice and teaching materials reflect a Communicative Approach to language teaching. Prompted by some debates on Twitter, though, I’ve been trying to read up on TBLT and picture exactly what it would look like in the classroom, how TBLT-type lessons and courses would be sequenced and structured, and whether my lessons are actually TBLT. I’ve just read that “[g]enerally,  [ELT] methods are quite distinctive at the early, beginning stages of a language course, and rather indistinguishable from each other at a later stage” (Brown, 1997, p. 3, in Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 249), and “[t]here are no convincing video ‘demonstrations’ with intermediate or advanced learners, perhaps because…at that level there is nothing distinctive to demonstrate.” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 250), so maybe that’s why I’m finding so hard to see whether the lesson and materials for B2-C1 learners I’ve created are actually TBLT or not.

Still, I think a lot of my lessons fit with what Willis (1996, in Richards & Rodgers, 2001, pp. 239-40) recommends as a sequence of activities in TBLT, even though I didn’t particularly plan them to be that way. Here’s an example; see what you think, I’m genuinely interested in opinions on this!

Pretask: Introduces topic & task

My lesson: T writes “food sharing” on the board and Sts brainstorm what they know about it. Any useful vocab sts use, especially if it’s new to other sts, is noted on the board. Sts are told that the overall goal for the lesson is to write a short statement showing their opinion on a food-sharing initiative.

Planning for task: Gives input on topic necessary for task

My lesson:

Stage 1 – Sts listen to a podcast on the topic, which discusses different ‘types’ of food sharing (e.g. food-sharing platforms, meal sharing, also food salvaging) and a couple of potential problems/legal issues. The two speakers basically have different views – one is very enthusiastic about food sharing and the other is wary. This is a real podcast, but I just use an excerpt so that it’s manageable within the lesson (Does this make it less authentic? And therefore not suitable for TBL?)

Sts answer some listening comprehension questions and take notes on what they learn about different sharing initiatives. Sts compare notes (e.g. in pairs) to check anything they aren’t sure they understood properly. T answer sts’ questions about any vocab or phrases in the podcast.

Stage 2 – Sts read two example comments that were left on the podcast website: again one is in favour, the other is sceptical. They both state their opinion and explain a couple of reasons for it. (I just selected two, which were well-written i.t.o. structure and no typos/language slips, and where I thought the language used would be understandable to B2 learners  – again, I wonder if this is authentic enough? Sts answer comprehension Qs: Which one is for / against food sharing & how they know (which words/phrases show the opinion). They highlight the statement of opinion and the supporting points/reasons in different colours.

Sts think about which comment they agree with most and find a partner with a similar view.

Task – Completing the task/goal of the lesson 

My lesson: In pairs (with the partner they just found), sts write a comment showing their opinion to add to the podcast website. They are told to state their opinion clearly and include supporting points/reasons.

The comments are displayed around the classroom and sts read each others’ texts. They then decide which one they think makes the best argument and why. Individual sts report back to tell the class about which comment they find most convincing and what they think makes it so good.

Language Focus – analysis and practice

My lesson: Sts look back at what they highlighted in the comments and what they wrote themselves. They are directed to find words/phrases that introduce opinion (e.g. I honestly believe, the way I see it, I’m afraid I have to disagree); these are written on the board. Sts look at their notes from the podcast and see if they can remember any other phrases – they can listen again if they wish. Sts can also be asked to discuss equivalents in their L1 (is that OK in TBLT?)

Sts discuss in small groups other things that can be shared / other sharing initiatives they’ve heard about and their opinions of them (also in comparison to food sharing) – whether they see any issues or whether they’d like to try them. I display pictures (e.g. of books, cars, couch-surfing, office space) to give them ideas, but the language they mined from the input texts remains displayed on the board.

Posttask – reporting and consolidating

Finally, Sts reflect on their use of the words/phrases for showing opinion and edit their written comments on the podcast if they wish. They tell each other what they changed and why, and evaluate each others’ edited comments.

If sts wish, they can post their comments on the real podcast website.

 

From what I’ve been reading, a lot of what makes TBLT TBLT is the priority or focus given to meaning over “language points” – if I had, for example, done the language analysis (here, the guided discovery of phrases to introduce an opinion/supporting reasons) before the actual task (here the writing of comments), then this would perhaps have not been so in-keeping with what TBLT recommends, right? Then I would be “back to” the Communicative Approach, wouldn’t I? Comments welcome!

Don’t get me wrong, this blog post is not trying to weight different methods up against each other (that’s a discussion for another time and place), but I’m trying to get my head around some criticisms of teaching and materials that claim TBLT would be better – and that got me wondering if it’s not TBLT I’m doing anyway…

 

References

Brown, H.D., “English language teaching in the ‘post-method’ era: Toward better diagnosis, treatment and assessment,” PASAA, 27, 1997, pp. 1-10.

Richards, J.C. & T.S. Rodgers, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (CUP, 2001)

Willis, J., “A flexible framework for task-based learning”, in J. Willis and D. Willis (eds), Challenge and Change in Language Teaching (Heinemann,, 1996), pp. 52-62.

 

Fun things I’ve learnt from writing one ELT coursebook

Fun things I’ve learnt from writing one ELT coursebook

I’ve recently read (am a bit slow) this post https://eltplanning.com/2018/08/03/materials-writer-elt/ and one point really stood out to me – about how being interested in lots of things is helpful for materials writers. And as I’m just going through the proof stage of a book I’ve co-written, it made me reflect on the interesting things I’ve learnt about while writing one ELT book. They include:

– foodsharing and carsharing – justifications and legal issues

– reasons for vegetariansm and other dietary choices

– Shakespeare’s legacy / influence on the English we use today, plus the fact that there is a computer game based (loosely) on Hamlet!

– tiny homes and motivations for minimalist lifestyles

– crazy competitions from around the world

– details on the origins of many holidays and the associated traditions (Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Chrismukkah,…)

– training for a marathon & health benefits of running over other sports

– origins of sports idioms

– how to fake a news story and a photo of monsters/freaks of nature/other unidentifiable objects – yes really!

– how to carve an onion into a flower – though I have to admit I’ve not yet had an occasion to try this out!

 

Writing this book has had an effect on my own life and lifestyle; I can only hope the future students find the topics as engaging!

What about you? Have you researched something to make language teaching materials and learnt something new that’s changed your life?

 

 

10+ Things to do with a podcast in ELT

10+ Things to do with a podcast in ELT

In the EAP context I work in, we’ve recently had a drive to push engagement with authentic English-language input, within the classroom and as self-study. In general, as self-study I encourage my students to do whatever they enjoy doing – but do it in English! One of things a lot of students choose to do is to listen to podcasts.  They seem to like the fact that it doesn’t feel like ‘studying’. For me, though, this is a bit of a problem. My learners are pretty advanced, and I don’t feel they benefit as much as possible from podcasts if they simply ‘kick back’, relax, and enjoy listening. Of course the exposure is beneficial, but I found that students were not necessarily improving in their ability to use English actively. And so I came up with a list of tasks they could do to engage more actively with the podcasts they were listening to – and I’ve started doing some of them with students in classes, too. I’d like to share the ideas here as inspiration for other English learners and teachers. 

Please let me know if you try them out and how it goes! And let me know if you have other ideas I could add to my list!

Step one is, of course, choosing a podcast. I’d say that topic interest is a key factor here – if students are interested, they will put in the work to understand the content. Here are some sources of podcasts in English that I share with my students:

17850234-Vector-illustration-of-global-music-concept-with-shiny-earth-and-headphones-on-it-Stock-Vector.jpg

BBC Podcasts: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts

NPR Podcast Directory: http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast/podcast_directory.php

Sky News Video Podcasting: http://news.sky.com/home/sky-news-video-podcasting/article/1208280

Podcasts Absolute Radio: http://www.absoluteradio.co.uk/podcasts/

CNN Audio and Video Podcasts: http://edition.cnn.com/services/podcasting/

 

And here are the tasks I allow them to choose from (in no particular order):

1) Reflect on the title of the podcast/episode. What do you expect to hear about? Look up any words you might expect to hear, if you don’t know them in English. Write down some questions and see if you can take notes on the podcast to answer them whilst listening.

2) Summarise the content of the podcast in 5-10 sentences. Don’t forget to use reporting language and name the source of the podcast.

2a) Make a spider diagram or flow-chart of the points covered in the podcast. What are the main points and what are the examples and explanations used to support them?

2b) Tell someone about the podcast’s content in your first language. Can you answer all of their questions about the topic? If not, listen again until you can.

English-English_and_English-Persian_dictionaries

3) Find words from the podcast that are new to you. For each word, make a note of the dictionary definition(s) from a monolingual English dictionary. Note any related words (e.g. adjective form, verb, nouns, etc.). Now find 3 synonyms that could be used in this context, and  1-2 antonym(s). Use a thesaurus to help you with this task. With this new vocabulary, rewrite the sentences from the podcast where the new words occured – using the synonyms and antonyms accurately in this context.

3a) Draw a mind-map of the key vocabulary used in the podcast. Look up words’ meanings, other word classes (e.g. nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.), and also synonyms and antonyms to include. Try to write your own example sentences on the topic of the podcast using these sentences.

4) Find grammatical structures which are new to you or you would not actively use. (If nothing is new, take the first two clauses/sentences from the text.) Write out the structures and an explanation of why they are correct. See how many other ways you can reword the sentence to express the same information. Use a reference grammar book to help you with this task, e.g. Swan, M., Practical English Usage (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2005).

5) Make up comprehension questions about the topic, and make an anwer key. You can swap with a friend to check you have both understood correctly.

6) Pick a statement from the podcast which you consider to be rather an opinion than a fact. Make a bullet-point list of points you could use to argue against this statement.

6a) Discuss the podcast’s content with a friend. Which points do you agree on and why? Where do you have different opinions? Can you convince each other of your opinions?

6b) Think about “so what?” – Now that you have learned something (hopefully!) from the podcast, what can you do with this knowledge? Does it connect to your studies? Does it make you want to change your behaviour or lifestyle?

7) Write a review of the podcast/episode. What did you like/not like and why? You might be able to post this as a comment on the podcast site and engage in a discussion with other listeners.

English_vowel_chart

8) Write the first sentence of the podcast in IPA symbols.

9) Find a section where the presenter speaks quickly, and try to transcribe exactly what they say. Reflect on how the words sound different when they are said alone and within the phrase/sentence.

9a) Use a programme such as VLC Player and make subtitles to accompany the podcast.

10) Write the reference for the podcast as if you had to include it in a bibliography.

 

 

 

Revision Week for my Materials

Revision Week for my Materials

Finally it is the last week of our semester here, which started in October. It’s been a long, hard slog, but we’ve made it! But the final week of term is a weird one. We still have classes, most of which are revision sessions or tests, and we have to make sure we get all the final assignments uploaded for students to do, but then most of the rest of the time it’s really quiet. I don’t have any marking to  do – yet! And so, although we normally think of the end of term as really stressful, actually this one final week is a bit of down time, the peace before (and after!) the storm.

That’s why I’ve decided to have my own little “revision week”. I don’t have any exams to study for (thank goodness!), so I’m using the time this week to revise and edit materials and worksheets I have written for my classes over the semester. I’m tweaking things and adding extra notes for myself, so the materials will be even better next time I use them.

Revising and editing are key steps in preparing language teaching materials for publication, but they’re often left out when we create materials for our own classes. And that’s a real shame – as teachers who write for their own classes are in the very lucky position of being able to use materials with exactly the target learners they were written for! I find reviewing and revising my materials not only helpful for the next time I use them, but also an important tool in developing as a materials writer and teacher, as I reflect and evaluate how well the materials worked.

So what kinds of things am I revising?

  • Timing: I had several lessons this semester where things I had thought of as fairly straightforward, warmer activities took my students much longer than I had envisaged. And often, these were things that were very introductory or revising previous content, so not the main point of the lesson, and then they ate into the time I had planned for whatever the main point of content was! I find revising timing estimates quite hard: Will next year’s students take a long time, too? Or was there something about this group? The decision is basically between cutting out/down the activity, or making a note to chivvy students along when we do it! It’s this kind of considerations that should go into teachers’ notes that accompany materials, though the answer is often “it depends!*”

 

  • References: I often note on my materials where students can find more information, for example in their grammar reference book or the cultural studies book we’re using. In one case, the publisher brought out a new version of the book right before our term started, so all my page/unit numbers need updating. But it gives me a chance to re-read the extra references I’m giving students and re-evaluate if they’re really as relevant as I thought when I first listed them! Doing this has made me reconsider something I’m writing for a publisher, too: We have “Info” and “Tip” boxes in the book, and I think I’ll probably go back and check them with ‘fresh eyes’ to see if they’re still as helpful as I thought when I first wrote them! Even when the materials are not for publication, time, it seems, is the best editor!

 

  • Poor examples: Sometimes examples seem to clear to us when we write, or we are writing in a rush and don’t have much time to consider how clear they are. Then, when we’re in class and students struggle to understand an example, it flashes up how poor an example it was that we wrote. So I’m looking back through all my example sentences and input texts to make them clearer. Especially the ones that seemed to confuse my students. This really highlights the need for an editor, or at least a colleague, who can read things over and notice things that we oversee when we’re in the flow of writing. imagesWith some of my examples from this semester, it’s just a case of adding a time adverbial to clarify the function of the verb form. But I’ve also discovered I had a ‘future in the past’ example of would in an exercise that was supposed to focus on the ‘habitual actions in the past’ use of would – oops!

 

  • Ordering of activities: Most of my teaching follows a deductive approach, but in some very advanced classes (like phonetics!) this turned out to be less effective than I had hoped. In a couple of other classes, too, we had moments where students suddenly understood, for example, task 4 after we had done task 5. So I’m going back and checking again which order seems best for which series of activities. I find it helpful to explicitly name the purpose of the activities in a list, e.g. discovery, gist, comprehension, personalization, production, and then see if that order makes sense. For example, did the personalization task not work because it came right after the discovery task and would it be better after the short-answer comprehension questions?

 

  • Extra explanations: At the beginning of term, I was proud to have been so organised and prepared a lot of my teaching materials in advance. 🙂 The problem was that then, weeks later, in the actual lesson, I didn’t have with me all the resources and books I’d used when I put the material together. And of course students always seem to ask about exactly that one thing that you can’t remember very well. “Does may or could express a more likely possibility?” “How many voters are in each UK constituency?” This week, I’m going back and adding notes on these and other points I hadn’t remembered. Lesson learnt: Make an answers sheet with explanations of all the answers on it at the same time you make the materials and key!

 

The more I think about it, I’m sure my revision week is just as beneficial as what my students are doing this week, and, in contrast to them (probably!), I’m actually really enjoying it! It’s good to make these edits while the memory of how things went in class is still fresh in my mind, definitely a recommendable practice. Probably even more recommendable would be to have “revision hour” at the end of each week, so things are even fresher; but will I always have the time and inclination to do that? It depends.

to-do-liste

*Note: This is at the same time a very common answer and my most frustrating answer in language classrooms! 😀

Social Class in England: A Video Project with Students

“LANG 801: Advanced British Cultural Studies (Special Topic)”

That’s the uninspiring name of a module I was teaching this summer semester. It’s part of an MEd degree programme for future EFL teachers here in Germany.

f7426343d67fa4b2c34efce4879ebeeaab4e4bf4

But not to fear – I am always on a mission to capture students’ attention with an interesting ‘Special Topic’ and get them really engaged in the content so they can develop their language and academic skills! Previously, I’ve done “Immigration and Multiculturalism,” “How United is the United Kingdom?,” and “Britain in the 1990s.”

And another thing I’ve started in recent years is getting students to work on a class project with a result that can be shared more widely than just Trier University! We’ve put on an exhibition and written an e-book so far.

This term, my students produced short documentary films, each around 15-20 minutes long, and each on one aspect that influences social class in England. They came up with the catchy title of “Social Class in England: Is it really all about the money?”

all videos

You can find the videos on YouTube here. Feel free to enjoy them all, and leave a comment or two of feedback for my students!

 

If you want to know about the Whys and Hows, read on…

 

So why do I think projects like this are a good idea?

  • I’m required to assess students on written and oral production – students writing the script and recording the audio for the videos allows me to do this.
  • If students do in-class presentations, it’s a lot of work to then only share with around 15-20 people.
  • In such stand-alone presentations in class, the content is not ‘useful’ for work other students are doing, so they are less engaged as an audience. In the video project, each ‘episode’ connects to other videos, so students actively engage with each other’s work.
  • Students develop a stronger bond to the class and their work, which helps them develop team-building skills such as politely criticising, negotiating, and arranging appointments or deadlines. And they can support each other through the film-making process!
  • It changes the class atmosphere to something akin to a collaborative business meeting and increases students’ sense of accountability.
  • Our roles change – students learn from each other and build up their understanding together. There is little to no ‘teaching’ from me, but I am asked for help or guidance by students – which also means they actually take on board what little I do then say!
  • It helps students develop a whole bunch of critical thinking skills; from finding connections between pieces of information, to drawing out key points from their research, digesting the research into concise reports, and considering the most appropriate ways to present something to different audiences.
  • It allows students to acquire other practical skills that might be useful in their future careers, such as using the filming equipment or video editing software. (We have all of this at the University but it is sadly underused!)
  • I’m sure there are more benefits I can’t think of right now, or am not even aware of!

 

How did I set up the video project?

  • The class met for 90 minutes once a week, for 13 weeks.
  • Weeks 1-2 of semester:
    • I set reading on the topic of Social Class as homework.
    • In lessons, I displayed discussion questions and let students discuss in groups.
    • We started off in smaller groups (~5 students) and by week 3 the whole class (16 students) was sitting in a circle debating together.
    • The readings and questions encouraged them to evaluate stereotypes and models of social class (e.g. Karl Marx), and to investigate the findings of the ‘Great British Class Survey’.

GBCSDuring the discussions, I provided vocabulary or phrases the students were lacking, if asked, and at the end of each lesson, I gave feedback on langauge mistakes I had heard. (I did this every lesson, but won’t keep repeating it in this list!)

 

 

  • Weeks 3-4 of semester:
    • From the previous group discussions, students formulated further questions and aspects they wanted to explore.
    • They individually chose their own homework readings, as preparation for discussions of these new questions.
    • They devised the title “Social Class in England: Is it really all about the money?” and decided on specific aspects they wanted to investigate. Pairs then took on one ‘aspect’ (e.g. housing, education, langauge, consumer behaviour) as the topic for their video, as well as one group working on a general introduction and one on a concluding video.
    • During the discussions, I prompted more analysis by throwing in questions where I thought it would be beneficial or where the discussion got ‘stuck’.
  • Week 5 of semester:
    • In small groups, students began drafting introduction scripts for their videos, highlighting the background that had led them to investigate their specific aspect and the guiding questions for their video.
    • At home, they continued reading and researching their specific topics. (Also continued every week, but not repeatedly listed here.)

money 2

  • Week 6 of semester:
    • We held a peer review session on the written scripts students had produced so far. Students worked with peer review worksheets I provided (see here).
    • We discussed differences between an academic essay and what would be appropriate for a documentary script.
  • Weeks 7-9 of semester:
    • Students gave ‘work in progress presentations’ in their pairs to share what they had learnt so far, and presenters lead discussions to find connections between topics.
    • Some students interviewed contacts / friends from England to gain more insight and check the validity of what they had read.
  • Week 10 of semester:
    • We had a session led by the technician in the University’s video lab to see the equipment available and how it works, and practised using video editing software.
    • Students devised concepts and formats for their videos, such as voice-overs on PPTs, ‘news reporter’ formats, sketches, and so on.

news reporter

  • Week 11 of semester:
    • In the video lab, students created a trailer video for the documentary series.
    • Students decided on an opening clip to use on all videos, to ‘join’ them together as a series.
    • Students investigated copyright laws and potential sources of images and video clips they could use in their own videos.
  • Week 12 of semester:Documentary_eflyer.PNG
    • We held a peer review session on the full scripts each pair had produced.
    • Students discussed overlaps and points where they should/could refer to the other videos in the series and inserted these into their scripts.
    • Students designed a basic e-flyer to advertise the documentary series.
  • Week 13 of semester:
    • We held a general discussion about what they had learnt about England and social class over the course of the semester and attempted to connect these insights to their work on other modules (e.g. American culture studies, English literature, etc.)
    • Students discussed self-evaluations and completed the obligatory module evaluation forms.
    • Students submitted the final drafts of their video scripts for assessment and feedback. I gave feedback on a separate form, and corrected language errors in their scripts so that the videos would not include (too many!) mistakes.
  • One month after semester:
    • Students recorded their audio scripts and produced their videos independently, with occasional help from the video lab technician.
    • I created a YouTube channel and uploaded the videos in the order the students had agreed upon.
    • We are now busy sharing the videos and information about the project on social media 🙂

all videos

 

 

Worksheet-free Vocab Revision Activities

Worksheet-free Vocab Revision Activities

What do you do in those last 5 minutes of class when you’ve finished everything that was planned? Or when energy levels hit a low during a lesson? Or in that lull while the next student gets ready to present, or whatever? We all know about the need to revise and recycle new vocabulary in language lessons, and in this post I want to share a few vocabulary revision activities that teachers can slot into any downtime that might occur in a lesson!

I’ve built up my repertoire of this kind of quick review activity over the years, so many are borrowed or adapted from colleagues, and others are based on popular board games. I want to give you a collection, all in one place, of collaborative and competitive activities that check students have remembered and actually understood new words (i.e. there are no rote learning activities here!) You can print out this post and take it to lessons with you – that’s the only paper you’ll need: all of these activities have one main thing in common – you don’t need to photocopy anything to do them!

1. Scategories

scategories

Choose a category of vocabulary you want students to revise, for example ‘character traits’, ‘school subjects’, ‘transition words showing contrast’. Choose 5-10 letters of the alphabet and write them, with the category, on the board. Students (in teams, if you wish) now have 1 minute to come up with one vocabulary item fitting the category which starts with each of the letters you have chosen. Compare answers. To make it into a competition, give points: Students or teams get 2 points if they’ve written a correct vocab item that no one else / no other team has written, and one point for correct vocab items that someone else wrote down, too.

2. ‘Taboo’ on the board

Like the game ‘Taboo’, but without any little slips of paper that need preparing! It works best with nouns. Get your learners to sit with their backs to the board. Option 1: Choose one student to look at the board and see the word you’ve written there. They have to explain it to the other students, who try to guess which word is being explained. The first student who guesses correctly can be the next one to explain a word. Option 2: Group competition! Students sit in teams/groups with their backs to the board. One team member turns around and looks at the word you’ve written on the board, and explains it to their team members, who try to guess which word it is. Give them a time limit (e.g. 30 secs per word). For each word correctly guessed within the time limit, the team gets one point (keep track on the board) and then the next team has a turn. To make either option more difficult, write the main word on the board (maybe put a circle around it) and add two or three ‘taboo’ words which are not allowed to be used in the explanation. For example, if the main word is “bauble”, the taboo words might be “Christmas,” “tree” and “decoration.”

3. Beep

This guessing game works best with verbs or verb phrases, but nouns can be good, too. One student is told a ‘secret word’ which is to be ‘beeped out’ (like swearwords on TV). The other students ask them yes/no questions to try to guess the secret word – each student is only allowed one question at a time. For example, “Who BEEPS?” “Do you BEEP on your own?” “What do people BEEP most often?”  As these examples show, the activity can be used with fairly low-level language, but I’ve also used it in EAP with verbs such as research, evaluate, and analyse. After their question has been answered, the student can make a guess at the secret word, if they wish – if they get it right, they can be the next one who is given a secret word. To make it more difficult, allow each student only 2 guesses at the secret word during each round.

4. Sentence editing bingo

I like using this one to revise adverbs or adverbial phrases, but nouns work, too. Students abingo-159974_960_720re asked to write down a number of vocab items that you’ve recently covered in a particular category (e.g. adverbs of manner, adverbial phrases for time/place, things you find in a classroom). Choose the number according to how much time you have and how many sentences you think you’ll get through. Usually 5 or so is enough. Students can also work in pairs. Write a simple sentence on the board, such as “I like reading.” Students tick off one of their words if they think it can fit correctly into the sentence. For example, a student might tick off ‘in the evening’ or ‘really,’ or maybe ‘books’ if you’ve gone with nouns. Repeat this with several sentences. Once a student has ticked off, i.e. thinks they’ve been able to use appropriately, all of their words/phrases, they shout ‘Bingo!’ Check their answers together as a class – if there’s time, check other students’ suggestions, too.

5. Changing corners

This activity will get students up and moving around the room! Make sure they move their chairs and bags out of the way! Nominate corners or sides of the room that are the ‘spelling zone’, ‘definition zone’,  and ‘example zone’. Call out one vocabulary item you want to revise. Students have to move and stand by the corner or wall that shows the challenge they feel comfortable doing with that word: spelling it, defining it, or using it in an example sentence. Pick one student from each zone to give their answer out loud. To make it a competition, either give points for correct answers (1 for spelling, 2 for defining, 3 for an example use), or get anyone who gives an incorrect answer to sit down, then keep going with different vocab items until only three students are left! (For this, you might need to increase the difficulty of the words as you go along!)

 

Common problems with common listening tasks

Common problems with common listening tasks

Today, at the TEASIG / CRELLA conference in Luton, I had the pleasure of hearing two talks by Dr John Field. He was focussing on creating L2 listening tests, but a lot of what he said will be useful for those of us writing ELT listening materials for teaching, too! Based on what John talked about, then, here are some common problems to bear in mind when designing listening tasks.

Multiple Choice tasks

Here, the key is finding the magic balance between not making one of the answer options too obviously wrong (or right) and not having possible answers which are too close in meaning or overlap. We often see multiple choice questions where some of the answer options are not mutually exclusive, rely on very fine lexical/semantic distinctions (therefore testing vocabulary but not listening comprehension!), can be answered from general knowledge of the world (therefore not requiring learners to understand the listening text!), or use language more sophisticated than that in the listening text we’re trying to check comprehension of! In listening tasks for lower levels, another danger is that learners may be encouraged to listen out for specific words but may not understand the overall message of the audio input, especially if the possible answers consist of only one word each.  And sometimes it seems attempts to make listening tasks harder/higher level just result in longer answer options to choose from – but this simply increases the load on learners’ working memory whilst they’re listening, therefore making it more of a memory test than one of listening comprehension.

Gap Fill Tasks

What makes this task type hard is that it makes multiple simultaneous demands on the learners, as they have to read, listen and write at the same time. Not having the right answer(s) may then be a result of this mixed demands processing, rather than a lack of comprehension. Likewise, having the right answer does not necessarily signify true comprehension of the lisening text, as learners could simply fill in the word they (think they) hear, even without knowing what it means in this context.

Multiple Matching Tasks

This kind of matching task, e.g. identify the speaker who…., can be difficult for learners to cope with when used with listening texts. This is mainly because they usually involve audio texts of conversations with several speakers, whose voices and ways of speaking the learners then have to distinguish/recognise and adjust to – in the worst case, we may end up testing voice recognition skills rather than listening comprehension! Also, if there are the same number of items in both lists to be matched up, getting one pair wrong automatically means another pair is wrong. John also warned against getting too creative with names of speakers, as lower level learners might not recognise these words as names, but mistake them for unfamiliar vocabulary items!

True / False Tasks

The most obvious argument against using this type of task is that learners have a 50% chance of answering correctly, even without understanding a word of the listening text! Some task designers add in a “not mentioned” option to decrease these odds, but listening for something that is not there is quite a tricky task! Also, there is sometimes a pretty fine line between ‘false’ and ‘not mentioned’. Interestingly, research has shown that people are more likely to tick ‘true’ than ‘false’ when given this choice (something about human nature?), so to try to ensure a learner’s good result on such a task is due to actual comprehension, it might be better to include more items where the correct answer is ‘false’.

General comments

Overall, John recommends designing listening tasks based on the actual audio, not just the transcript. This may be one way to help make sure our tasks actually test listening, and not other skills or aspects of language. Also, the focus should remain on listening, and so we need to avoid tasks which cloud the water by requiring complex reading skills at the same time, for example. Of course, the task types desribed above can be effective in checking listening comprehension and providing ‘diagnoses’ of learners’ listening difficulties, but we need to bear these potential pitfalls and problems in mind when designing them and take care to keep our tasks aligned with the learning goals of the lesson.