Category: Reviews

Review: Writing – Learn to write better academic essays

Review: Writing – Learn to write better academic essays

I teach a lot of EAP and particularly essay writing classes, but have as yet not found a textbook to work with that I’m entirely happy with. Ever on the look-out, I came across the Collins EAP series, winner of the ELTon 2014 Innovation in Learner Resources Award, and more specifically:

Van Geyte, E., Writing: Learn to write better academic essays (Collins, 2013)

As we can see from the title, this is actually a self-study guide (with an answer key), but it seemed suitable for my students as it’s aimed at those on pre-sessional EAP courses or in their first year of undergraduate study. The word ‘better’ in the title also highlights that this is a book aimed at building students’ writing skills, for example moving from tests like IELTS or TOEFL to ‘proper’ academic papers.

The book is set up so that students, or classes, can work through it from start to finish, or dip in to the chapters most relevant for their current learning goals. In total, there are 11 chapters, which cover various study skills related to academic writing and language points relevant for written expression. The chapters are consistently structured, which makes for easy orientation, each including brief aims, a self-evaluation quiz, information on the chapter’s writing focus, practical exercises, and key reminders. Throughout the chapters, there are also ‘Tips’, and some more advanced vocabulary is explained in glossary boxes. The author estimates that it would take about 3-4 hours to complete one chapter. There are also lists of useful phrases and annotated sample essays at the end of the book, which are authentic examples of students’ work from a variety of subject areas.

Overall, this book takes a process approach to composition, though it also includes sections on evaluating and improving essays as a product. There is a nice emphasis on the development of learning and growing as an academic, fitting writing in to the students’ progression through their degree. It’s also good that the author highlights the importance of students informing themselves about the requirements and expectations at their specific institution / within their specific department, and not merely relying on this book for reference. I find this particularly important with regard to certain conventions. For example, the ‘Thesis Statements’ shown in the book are more statements of intention and outline, which may not be in-keeping with some disciplines and stand in contrast to most American published writing textbooks.

Within the chapters, the practical exercises, e.g. re-capping key terms, analysing example texts, are neatly spread throughout the sections, so they’re not only at the ends of the complete chapters. Nonetheless, these exercises are sometime rather short and perhaps slightly too specific, so they don’t always seem to be checking understanding of the whole section. Many of the example texts included are students’ answers to IELTS/TEOFL-type exams, and are authentic student-written texts, though I worry that these are not necessarily the best models for the ‘real’ academic papers students will have to write at university.

From the very first chapters, the focus is on writing essays, thus mimicking the process students will likely follow when dealing with coursework writing tasks. However, paragraph structure is touched on only briefly, and elements such as Topic Sentences and ‘one main idea per paragraph’ are somewhat lacking emphasis for my liking. Likewise, the ‘narrowing down the topic’ in an essay’s introduction, or the functions of a good conclusion (vs. summary) are not really emphasized. I think this is where we can see that the book is really aimed at those students who have some initial academic writing experience, perhaps in their main language, and need to expand on this to be successful at university. For an introductory EAP course there may be too little emphasis on these aspects of writing, though this might be less problematic if the book is used to supplement other teaching materials, as it could then function as homework preparation or a summary of the points covered in class.

A definite advantage of this book over composition textbooks aimed at native-speaker undergraduates is the good level of focus on the language of academic writing. I particularly like the ‘modesty’ (=cautious language) section and the ‘Authority’ chapter, though students will need some understanding of the metalanguage used to talk about language in this way. I have to say, I’m not entirely convinced that the general ‘Accuracy’ chapter is necessary in a book on writing, since these are language points that perhaps belong more in general EFL textbooks or other reference works. Instead, the critical thinking section may warrant more attention, and it also is important to note that the ‘Reading Comprehension’ chapter focuses mainly on sentence structures. Still, the ‘Research’ chapter does a very good job at clearly explaining and demonstrating note-taking from sources and making decisions about what information to include in an essay. Similarly commendable is the chapter on ‘Integrity’, which takes a more positive approach to using sources effectively for one’s writing, rather than simply avoiding plagiarism. It frames citing, quoting, and paraphrasing as one of many academic conventions to follow, thus removing students’ fear of plagiarism.

At the end of the book, chapter 11  – ‘Essay process and presentation’ – came as a slight surprise, as the entire book leads the students through the process of writing, though it does include some further information on drafting (which could come earlier?) and using tutors’ feedback – though this last point is also covered in Appendix 2. Appendix 1 presents full sample essays annotated with positive and negative comments, which are undoubtedly useful models for students. In Appendix 3, we find a list of ‘Useful Phrases’. I’m not generally a fan of such lists, as I prefer to encourage students to notice useful language from the source texts they read in their field/subject area, though these phrases may provide comforting scaffolding for students writing their first academic papers.

In general, then, this book provides a clearly-written and practical guide through the process of writing a university essay. I’m not convinced that it would be most effectively employed as the main text of an essay writing class, though it definitely includes elements very beneficial helping students to develop into academic writers, and I would absolutely recommend it as a supplementary resource for EAP learners.

Review: 50 Activities for the First Day of School

Review: 50 Activities for the First Day of School

Front-Cover-210x300

There are lots of websites full of ‘icebreakers’ out there. A simple Google search, though, shows me that they often compile activities taken from everywhere, including corporate training and party games. Clearly, not all of these ‘getting to know you’ games will work in a classroom to engage learners or fulfill a teacher’s aims for the first day of class. In this book, Walton Burns has therefore collected and written down activities that he has tried and tested in his own classrooms, and feels achieved their goals including learning student names, building rapport, or establishing classroom rules. You can find more of what Burns says about his book here. The information also includes his Author Bio:

Walton Burns is a teacher and award-winning materials writer from Connecticut who began his career in 2001, teaching in the Peace Corps in the South PaciHeadshotWaltonBurns600x600-150x150fic. Since then, he has taught in Central Asia and in his native country. His students have been a diverse group, including Russian oil executives, Afghan high school students, and Chinese video game champions. As a writer, he has been on the author team of two textbooks and written lesson plans and activities for private language schools. He is currently chair of the Materials Writing Interest Section of the TESOL Association, the international association for English language professionals. For more information, including projects he has worked on, go to Walton’s blog and his website.

The activities are good because they enable teachers to create positive atmospheres with their new classes whilst often also fulfilling some purpose and making some of the organisational aspects of a first lesson more interactive. Because of this, and despite what the book’s title says, many of the activities could also be used throughout the term, to re-energise the class group, strengthen the sense of community, or deal with organisational matters.They could also be used by substitute teachers jumping in to cover a class they’ve not taught before, as they often require very little preparation.

That said, the majority of the activities are of the ‘getting to know you’ type. To make these even more useful, I would suggest that the teacher makes notes about what the learners say, for example mistakes they make or their interests and goals, so that these can form the basis of a rough needs analysis at the beginning of a course. Within this section, there were no activities that were entirely new to me, although a few interesting variations. Still, for novice teachers the collection might contain new ideas, and for us more experienced teachers having all of these activities collected in one place is a good selling point for this book.

The instructions on how to set up and run the activities are formulated very clearly with illustrative examples, and also include ideas for possible adaptations or variations of the activities – so the book would be helpful for anyone new to teaching, as well as experienced teachers looking to re-jig their first-lesson activities.

The activities are specifically aimed at ELT classrooms, often beginner levels learners. Still, the adaptations and variation Walton Burns suggest allow teachers to use them with more advanced learners, too, and they’ve all been tested by Walton Burns in his various classes of English learners. A lot of them are probably more appropriate in classes of students from different countries and backgrounds, but again possible adaptations are explained so that teachers with mono-lingual groups can also employ the activities. Many of them would also be suitable for other subjects’ classrooms.

One or two of the activities here will need to be handled with care, such as English Names, and I Have Never, but this is also highlighted in small notes at the beginning of the instructions for the activity.

It is in the “Assessing and Evaluating” section of the book where activities with a clear classroom-organisation focus are presented. These cover matters such as needs analysis, goals, basic classroom vocabulary e.g. for items or instructions, class rules. Some of the ideas here seems less like ‘first-day’ activities, and fall more in the category of interesting ways to check and review language; though in the first lesson they could form part of a needs analysis.  The “Setting the Tone” section includes activities which are perhaps more suitable for the beginning of a course, and clearly have the purpose of establishing the class rules or lesson routines, encouraging self-study, or introducing the textbook or materials.  For me, these sections are the  most interesting in the book, as they all have a clear aim, which is more than just ‘having fun’ and ‘breaking the ice’.

Overall, for just ~€7, I’d say this book is well worth a look, and would be a worthwhile addition to any staffroom bookshelf!

Review: Oxford EAP (Upper-Intermediate/ B2)

Review: Oxford EAP (Upper-Intermediate/ B2)

With many thanks to my colleagues with whom I have had endless discussions about this textbook!

This series of attractively-designed textbooks piqued our interest as soon as we heard about it! My review focuses on: de Chazal, E & McCarter,S ( 2012) Oxford EAP A Course in English for Academic Purposes. Upper Intermediate/B2. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 

OEAP Up Int

The books are divided into units, which are each further divided into four sections (reading, writing, speaking, listening) plus a vocabulary page. Each unit deals with one topic, and audio and video materials are provided on a DVD which accompanies the student’s book as standard. The student’s books also include a very useful language reference section, glossary, and a key to the exercises.

The official description of the series from the OUP website states that:

Oxford EAP provides a course that is inclusive and international with a strong focus on the core skills needed for academic study, catering for the needs of EAP teachers and students across the globe.

One issue we faced, though, was that the range of topics was really very wide, thus a number of sections dealt with topics too far off what our students study, so they were less able to engage with them to achieve good language-learning results. Nonetheless, the topics and materials are accessible to non-experts, and the reaction may be different with another cohort of learners. This may also be less of an issue in EAP groups preparing students for study in different disciplines. As a further note, some examples show conventions more acceptable in some fields than others (such as use of first person in writing, or explicit Thesis Statements), so tutors will need to highlight this for students.

The series sells itself on its modular structure, which OUP says will enable teachers (and learners) to be flexible in selecting the relevant units for their own goals and priorities. They also suggest that this flexibility makes the books appropriate for both pre-sessional and in-sessional EAP courses. In my experience, this is true only to a limited extent, depending on the context. Most university terms run for 15-20 weeks, and unless they are intensive courses I doubt that any group would manage to complete a book in this time. In my context, we used the listening & speaking sections in one term and the writing (and some reading) for another 15-week term. I personally felt quite pressured to get through the units I had chosen, since there are so many exercises, which often build on each other and cannot be omitted. And indeed, students won’t want to omit too much if they have paid out for a textbook!

That said, the exercises are on the whole very worthwhile and provide a straight-forward introduction to key academic skills, with the majority of the input being authentic materials from OUP’s other academic textbooks – a major selling point of this series! The skills, for example presenting, reading academic texts, listening in academic contexts, essay writing, and seminar speaking skills, are introduced and practised progressively throughout various units, and the language and skills are well integrated, for instance by using example sentences which pertain to the unit’s topic to demonstrate the language structures. The vocabulary pages seemed to be targeted accurately at the B2 level, and are ideal for self-study.

Our students have a pretty strong command of English (good upper intermediates) but need to cover the basics of academic working. With this goal in mind, my colleagues and I liked many of the listening activities, particularly listening to lectures in units 1 & 9. The sections on presentations and speaking on seminars were also all worthwhile. Some of the videos exemplifying presentations are held by other EFL students – this makes them highly authentic, but our students did notice some mistakes in their speech, and sometimes took them into their own language production. Therefore, it is important to note that these videos are not always a good model for language, though of the skill being trained (e.g. presenting). The language activities in the B2 book were sometimes a bit too easy for our students, though most probably benefited from the re-cap of previously learnt lexis and structures.  Indeed, one colleague commented:

It wasn’t really clear to me whether users of this book would be aiming for B2 on the CEFR, or whether the aim was to take them from B2 up to the linguistically dizzy heights of C1!

However, I’d say the skills presented are definitely appropriate for this level. In fact, the C1 (Advanced) book, in comparison, is more aimed at students entering doctoral programmes. (As for rest of the series, I’m not sure A2 learners need an EAP book! But that is a discussion for another time!) For undergraduates, the writing sections in this Upper Intermediate book do a commendable job of introducing and expanding on essay writing, particularly: starting the process, topic sentences, paragraphs, essay introductions, essay conclusions, comparison essays, citation and referencing, and argument essays. Some further practice on paraphrasing, or some longer example essays would also be helpful, though these are probably found in other levels within the series.

Overall, the Oxford EAP textbooks have a large number of good selling points, and the Upper Intermediate book ranks among the best I’ve seen for EAP at this level. In general, it does a good job at achieving its aim of preparing students for academic work in English at university. Nonetheless, the length and scope may turn out to be drawbacks for some contexts, and, as with any coursebook, working with it will require some pretty detailed planning and materials selection on the part of the teacher.

 

You can find other reviews of this book / series here:

de Chazal, E & McCarter,S ( 2012) Oxford EAP A Course in English for Academic Purposes. Upper Intermediate/B2. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=340359669608147;res=IELHSS

 

Review (part 1) – Keynote

Review (part 1) – Keynote

I’ve recently been given two inspection copies of the “Keynote” series by National Geographic Learning / Cengage and am considering whether I should adopt it as a set text for my EAP classes. In case anyone else out there is thinking about using it, here are my first thoughts of a review!

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The series, like Cengage’s other title “21st Century Reading”, takes TED talks as the basis for the topic of each unit. The “Keynote” books train all four skills, as well as pronunciation and grammar. They include authentic listening tasks and critical thinking exercises, which I think make them quite appropriate for university classes, but actually the series seems to be targeted at a rather broad audience, especially regarding topic choice. I’ve been informed that National Geographic won the tender to use TED talks commercially thanks to their previous materials based on authentic input, and I do think that “Keynote” continues this tradition of good work. Each book has 12 topic-based units, and the topics are based on TED talks.  The talks are mostly by native speakers of different varieties English, though in the more advanced books some talks by non-native speakers have been included. These all have very clear diction, and thus provide some (though rather limited for such advanced levels!) practice at understanding various accents. The talks are not slowed down at all, but they are sometimes abridged, especially for the lower-level books. My initial impression is that the talks and excerpts are well chosen and well prepared for use in this textbook series.

In what I’d describe as ‘classic textbook manner’, the units start off by focusing on the TED talk, and then develop the language beyond this. The structure of all units is the same, which may be good for learners who like to have a common routine, though could also become repetitive. The first section of any unit focuses on comprehending the main idea and supporting evidence from the TED talk. This is followed by grammar and language noticing and practice, with activities which work towards spoken production and include some well-conceived communicative practice. The third section of each unit focuses on extensive reading, which often incorporates critical thinking skills and vocabulary work. And finally, each unit closes with functional oral/aural exercises, which move towards writing skills with some nicely modern and motivating tasks such as writing blog posts or  online profiles. After every two units there is a review section, which usually takes a case-study approach. For my taste this is a few too many ‘review sections’, but this may be appropriate in other contexts. I think it’s important to mention here that only the first section of each unit really uses the TED talk – far less than I was expecting from the adverts for this series! The rest of the sections work with authentic materials adopted from National Geographic publications, in a similar manner to their other textbook “Life”.

What I like about the “Keynote” series is that every student’s book comes with a DVD containing all of the video and audio material, sometimes with sub-titles. This is definitely a bonus over other series where there is just one DVD included in a class-set of books, and makes the series particularly appealing for those of us teaching classes where the number of credits requires a substantial amount of work from learners beyond the lesson time. The tape-scripts are also included at the back of the books, as are some role cards for extension activities, and a brief grammar reference section. The textbooks really feel like textbooks and not like workbooks – so learners can’t really write their answers into their books, in contrast to other series such as “21st Century Reading”. For university classes and adult education I find this more appropriate anyway, though that might just be personal taste. “Keynote” is also available as an e-book, and there is also an interactive workbook and other additional e-materials which can be purchased separately (I think a licence is for 12 months). What I find frustrating with the teacher’s book is that the answers to tasks are interspersed with other input and instructions in the description of each unit, which makes them sometimes time-consuming to locate and not practical for photocopying to allow learners to check their own work.

keynote 2

Overall, the “Keynote” series has more of a feel of preparing learners for professional use of English, so I’m not convinced that it is the best choice for academic settings, though the skills and grammar practised are generally appropriate. The amount of time a class would need to complete one level of “Keynote” would probably be about a year, at one-two lessons per week, depending on the amount of homework given; sadly this is another factor making it impractical for use on one-semester university modules. I am also a little disappointed that the biggest selling point – working with TED talks – has turned out to make up only about a quarter of the textbook. So I think my initial decision will not be to adopt this as a set textbook, though for Part 2 of my review I plan to try out some of the units with different class groups, and perhaps the students will convince me to use “Keynote” after all! Watch this space!

Review: A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education

Fry, H., S. Ketteridge & S. Marshall (eds), A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education, 4th edition (Routledge, 2015).

Thoughhandbook it is like a collection of essays each covering a different area or current debate in HE, this book neatly fits the ‘handbook’ genre, since it is easy to navigate and doesn’t need to be read cover-to-cover. It also includes practical examples and case studies of the principles explored in the chapters.  Those new to teaching in HE are the main target audience, but those with more experience will also benefit from reflecting on the issues presented. Each chapter is written by an expert in that area and is supported by references to research and relevant literature. Almost all chapters are lucidly written, avoid jargon, and explain acronyms and specialist terms with contextualised examples. There is also a reader-friendly glossary of such terms. Overall, the handbook has a very practical focus, informed by theories which are concisely explained, so as to facilitate direct application to one’s own work.

Particularly valuable are the ‘interrogating practice’ boxes, which encourage reader reflection and lead to critical thinking about one’s own work. Some of the points might be rather basic for more experienced lecturers, but may function as a welcome reminder to (re-)consider the concept of one’s teaching approach, and make these beliefs clear in one’s own mind, especially before jumping in to a new academic term.

Since the chapters are set in a UK context, some of the more detailed points may be less relevant to readers working in other countries (e.g. the effect of tuition fees) – this is especially true of Part 1, ‘The current world of teaching and learning in higher education.’  Still, most points are applicable much more widely. Indeed, this fourth edition explicitly aims to be more accessible to a wider international audience: an aim I feel has been well achieved overall.

Part 2 of the book, ‘Learning, teaching and supervising in higher education’, will likely be of most interest and use to all teachers, regardless of subject area, country of work, etc.  It guides the reader on a brief journey from theories on the psychology of learning, to practical considerations in different types of teaching set-up, and the different roles an HE lecturer might cover. The overarching aim seems to be shifting the readers’ focus from teaching to facilitating learning.

Chapter 5, ‘Describing Learning’ by Sue Matheison, is said to be the most key essay in the book; the introduction recommends reading this before moving on to later essays, though the theoretical background is probably only new to academics without any teacher training. The chapter encourages reflective teaching, for example guiding readers to address the mismatch between expected outcomes and employed teaching methodology.  Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy is presented, but the example tasks given are rather vague. The socio-cultural approach to learning is discussed in addition to constructivist ideas, and all key terms and names are clearly explained, as are very recent developments in this field.  Overall, a comprehensive introduction to how learning works. My only reservation is that the chapter presents multiple ideas which may be new to untrained academics, but there is little hedging language in the evaluations and not always concrete examples for illustration. I wonder whether this might confuse new teachers trying make their own decisions regarding teaching. Nonetheless, the overarching message rings true: We need to understand learning in order to provide good teaching.

The chapters that follow are more practical, step-by-step guides, preparing the reader for various tasks they will face in their role as an HE teacher. Chapter 6, by Chris Butcher, for example, explains how best to create a module outline or curriculum with clear learning outcomes. In chapter 7, Ruth Ayres provides tips and references to research on lecturing, working with groups, and supporting learners. The information is up-to-date, though some ideas involve technology which may not be available at all institutions. Sam Brenton’s chapter 10 provides an astute assessment of the state of online education and demonstrates how to make blended teaching most effective without an over-investment of time and energy, reminding us not to neglect set learning outcomes when choosing to integrate online components.

Chapter 8, ‘Assessing assessment’ by Sue Bloxham problematizes summative, high-stakes assessment in HE, and advises readers to find chances for learning-oriented progress-checking and feedforward. Though the concept is not particularly innovative, the chapter gives sound advice on establishing learning-oriented assessment, as well as on avoiding some common difficulties. Assessment and feedback remain areas of substantial research which no one book chapter could really ever do justice to, but Bloxham provides a sound introduction for new teachers, and does encourage further reading and discussion with experienced peers.

In Chapter 9, Camille B. Kandiko Howson focuses on using student evaluations to engage them in developing an active learning community with responsibility for their own learning. She mentions some standardised surveys which may be of interest, though these seem to only be relevant for UK institutions and such generalised feedback may be far less helpful for specific teachers. Still, the concept of autonomous learning is picked up again by Martyn Kingsbury in Chapter 12, which explores why it is effective and how teachers can facilitate it by cultivating the relevant skills, such as critical thinking or self-reflection. The suggested activities are mostly concrete examples and the chapter provides ample food for thought for new and experienced HE tutors, though the explanations are occasionally repetitive.

Stan Taylor and Margaret Kiley, in chapter 13, shift the spotlight back onto the teacher, presenting a readable assessment of the ever-changing demands on doctoral candidates, and some fairly concrete advice for lecturers in supervisory positions. Likewise, in an age of diversifying student populations, chapter 11 on ‘Enabling inclusive learning’ is worth a read. Here, Bamber and Jones include considerations from both lecturers’ and students’ points of view, and present a framework to help address potential mismatches in expectations.

To close Part 2, Chapter 14 provides an overview of significant points which must be understood if we are to facilitate maximum learning progress among our students – which is the general aim of this handbook. It draws out central aspects presented in the preceding chapters and discusses them in light of published empirical findings. At points Gibbs mentions areas in which change is necessary, but is somewhat vague on what kind of change; similarly, the Bologna Agreement is mentioned only passing. Still, the recommendations in this chapter, and indeed all of Part 2, are sound and mostly explicitly stated so as to be implementable by teachers at all stages in their careers.

Part 3 focusses on ‘Teaching and learning in the disciplines’, so I feel qualified only to comment on only one chapter: Modern Languages. Here, Michael Kelly problematizes the situation regarding language degrees today and the diverse backgrounds of students who may be learning languages at university. He highlights recent developments including a stricter separation between the study of language and culture, and a boost in linguistics and translation studies. Designing modules and materials to accommodate this increasing variety of need and interest among students is rightly highlighted as a key issue in MFL teaching, with the added point of semester-abroad requirements in university degrees. The case studies here clearly show different universities approaches to dealing with such developments, and provide the reader with some inspiration for their own practice. As well as these organisational matters, the chapter discusses pedagogical issues, whereby key language acquisition assumptions are presented in an accessibly brief manner. Kelly still mentions the concept of learning styles, though, which in EFL teaching has been largely discredited.

Overall, all the chapters of this book are interesting to read and all provide the audience with well-informed and justified advice on how to approach various aspects of teaching in HE. Despite some minor weaknesses of some individual essays, this book seems valuable to new and experienced teachers in HE; I would recommend its installation in staffrooms and libraries in all HE institutions!