Tag: English language

My first MOOC – A Reflection

I have just completed my first ever MOOC! It was “Professional Practices for English Langauge Teachers” offered by the British Council on FutureLearn.com. The topic is not really important for this blog post, apart from the fact that one of the professional practices that was preached was reflection. So here it is, my reflection on participating in my first ever MOOC!

MOOCsDefinition

Actually, the “Professional Practices for ELT” turned out to be something different from what I was expecting. A lot of the points were very basic, almost like an initial training course for people interested in becoming ELT teachers, but the title and course description had led me to expect something else – professional practices in terms of activities to keep up professional development after having trained as a teacher and already working in the field. In the end, these CPD activities were touched on in just one week at the end of the course. I think this could have been made clearer in the title and course descriptions. Or maybe I need to get better at reading between the lines when it comes to interpreting course descriptions!
Not one to give up on things, I decided to continue anyway, and my perserverence paid off! Although a lot of things weren’t new to me, I did come to enjoy the opportunity to refresh my knowledge and get re-inspired as a teacher! The comments (“discussions” – more on that later!) also encouraged me to think about teachers working in other contexts, which often brought new insight, and sometimes I was able to give advice and tips to other teachers, which also gave me a good feeling of satisfaction at helping others. Also, the course and ‘instructors’ provided me with a lot of references and ideas for further reading (though mainly British Coundil, and not published research, which i would have preferred), as well as some links and concrete tips for classroom activities etc. So I can extend my learning beyond this course, which is always a bonus! For me, these are two of the biggest benefits of such enormous MOOCs – being inspired by colleagues that I would normally have no contact to, and collecting ideas, links and materials!
One other thing that I found hard to deal with was the lack of real discussion in the discussion forum. Early on I refelcted on my feelings towards the course, and I have to say I found it a bit de-motivating that so many people had already zoomed ahead and were commenting and discussing sections that were planned for weeks ahead, so by the time I got there (I kept up the suggested pace of the course), I felt like everything had already been said and I couldn’t really add much. I still left my comments, but there was very little discussion then, as people had apparently already moved on and didn’t reply to what I posted. In general, the ‘discussions’ mainly consisted of individual comments, where each person shared their thoughts, but didn’t necessarily spend time engaging with others’ ideas and what had already been posted. This meant that comments were often repetitive, and for my liking rather too superficial.
MOOC_for_Free_Education
I did manage, with the ‘follow’ function to find and get involved in a few discussions that went a little deeper, but considering the number of participants (around 16,000 who added a marker on the interactive map, so probably more over all), it was rather limited, I thought. Sadly, if I’m self-evaluating here, I think I ended up tending to be more superficial myself, and only reading some of the comments that had been made, ‘liking’ a few, but not bothering to write long responses as I felt they wouldn’t be read or responded to anyway. I think it would have been good if the weeks’ tasks were ‘unlocked’ as the course progressed, so that everyone would have proceeded at the same pace, and then participants could have been encouraged more to actually engage with each others’ comments and discuss, rather than simply posting what they think and moving on. Also, on reflection, perhaps the number of participants is just too high to enable good discussion and community feeling within the forums.
One thing that was interesting, at times amusing, and needed some getting used to, was the different way people wrote their comments and posts. Generally, the tone was friendly, using first names and trying to be constructive. Some posts were slightly more informal than I would expect in an “educational” setting, but maybe that has something to do with it being online and free…? (Discuss!). And so many participants from all around the world means that people are adhering to different cultural and social norms when they post comments online; some of the comments were, from a British perspective, overly adoring and flowery, and one or two seemed plagiarised/simply copied from someone else – apparently this is a sign of respect or agreement in some cultures (I learnt that from this MOOC!), but it caused a bit of a hoo-hah as you can imagine! Still, though it just served as a reminder of cultural diversity on the internet and intercultural communication strategies.

800px-Macro_Biro_writing2So what would I do differently next time?

 – Read the course description in detail, try to read between the lines, perhaps contact the course provider about the target audience if unclear.
 – Take a course on a topic I know nothing about, to see how it feels to be a real learner again. Even if the topic itself is not part of my CPD, the whole experience of being a learner is definitely an enriching one for developing as a teacher.
 – Set myself clear times for different tasks or aims, for example 20 mins for doing a task myself, and then 20 mins to respond to others’ posts and comments. (In attempt to lead by example, and not be part of the problem I’m complaining about! 🙂 )
 – Ask more questions (and more directly – so that participants from different cultures perceive them as such) in my posts and comments to prompt discussion.
 – Ask a colleague or two to join the course with me and set up times for us to discuss the points off-line, so that we can go into more depth. Alternatively: Try to make contact with a couple of people from the course who seem to be working at the same pace as me and find a way to discuss the week’s points outside of the MOOC’s forum, in a smaller group.
Actually, as I read these points of what I intend to do differently next time, i feel like I’ve actually written a list of points to bear in mind for people who are about to take their first MOOC! If you like, those are my tips for making the most of your MOOC experience!
And you can find even more tips here (I wish I had read this in advance): British Council Magazine How to Make Best Use of MOOCs
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#BridgingtheGapChallenge – Coping with Academic Reading

**GUEST POST**

As part of the #BridgingtheGapChallenge, here is a summary of: Hirano, Biana. ‘I read, I don’t understand’: refugees coping with academic reading. ELT Journal, Vol. 69/2, April 2015: 178-187. written by my dear colleague Carol Ebbert!

This study collected data over two semesters via interviews, class observations and written documents on seven refugee students who despite not being ‘college ready’ were attending a small liberal arts college in the USA in order to identify coping strategies they developed to deal with academic reading.

Findings
Overall, the students found many aspects of academic reading at the college level challenging. They were expected to read independently and to be able to apply what they had read, not just recite facts from the readings. The amount of reading was also challenging, as well as the language issues they had, often relating to vocabulary and older texts (such as Shakespeare or texts from the 18th and 19th century). Finally, many felt that they had insufficient background knowledge to understand the texts fully.

The students developed several strategies to cope with the readings, which included relying on the lectures and PowerPoint slides in lieu of completing the reading either because they did not see the readings as important, it was too complex, or they lacked time. They also employed selective reading strategies such as skimming, reading according to the PowerPoint slides, or reading according to the study guides (i.e. using either the PowerPoint slides or study guides to help them identify which sections of the readings were most important). Finally, they also worked on finding places that were conducive to reading, read with peers, used a dictionary while reading, reread texts after lectures, sought tutor support and asked professors when they had specific questions after reading.

These strategies had different levels of usefulness. After the first exams, the strategy of relying on the lectures and slides was found to have resulted in poor grades. Rereading texts and reading with dictionaries were considered to be too time-consuming and were therefore rarely done. Other strategies seemed to have helped the students succeed in their courses.

Conclusion
While this research was carried out with refugee students, it can be applied to all students who start higher education while still in the process of learning English. In a broader sense, EAP instructors can use these findings to encourage students to try out various reading strategies and to discuss with their students strategies that may be more effective than others at helping students master the course material and successfully pass assessments.

My Own Thoughts
Reading strategies are perhaps a skill often ignored in EAP teaching, as we perhaps assume that having finished secondary school, students will know strategies for reading (e.g. from reading in their native language) that they can apply to reading in English. This does not always seem to be the case. Students should be made aware of the role of reading in higher education, that they will not be able to rely solely on lecture content, and what strategies exist to help them master the complex texts they are being assigned.

Summary by C. Ebbert, Trier University.

The Role of Wikipedia in EAP – Take Two

I realised after publishing my previous post, and turning on my critical thinking brain a little too late, that I had actually written about using Wikipedia in university/academic essays – and had (*embarrassed cough*) actually ignored the EAP aspect altogether. So I sneakily changed the previous post’s title… and am writing this new post now to address the EAP issues in the Wikipedia debate!

So, what are the aspects of using Wikipedia that might be specific to EAP students?

In the previous post, I made the point that Wikipedia can function as a good starting point for some initial research. However, EAP students are perhaps more in danger than other students of not continuing their research from Wikipedia to proper academic sources; depending on their educational and cultural background, and English language competence, they may see no reason, or also no way for them to find further, more academic sources for their work. I don’t think a ‘one size fits all’ explanation works here, and each teacher will know their own students and the potential traps or hurdles they might face. From my own experience and a few stories from colleagues, I can share the following possible dangers of Wikipedia for EAP or EFL students:

– Some students use it somehow as a translation tool, believing that the article on their research topic in their native language is simply a translation of the English article. This, as you can imagine, can cause all sorts of problems, and can make students’ essays practically unreadable!

– Some students see the fact that there is no author stated as a free ticket to copy and paste as much as they like (–> “It’s not plagiarism because I haven’t stolen another author’s work” !!) [Note: I have only experienced this with students who have a weak understanding of plagiarism anyway, and who come from a culture where it is regarded somehow as less serious.]

– Some students, perhaps those really new to academic study in a culture that values critical thinking and students’ own voice in their writing, believe that the summary of published research provided by Wikipedia is so good (i.e. it makes the key concepts in the area clear to them as non-experts) that they don’t need to read the original sources and can ‘blindly’ trust Wikipedia to give them the information that they need.

– Some, perhaps lower-level, EAP or EFL students may be impressed by how ‘well written’ the Wikipedia article is and think that they could never hope to do a better job, especially with their limited language skills, and therefore end up over-relying on the wording of the Wikipedia text when writing their own work.

– It may be hard for some students to find academic sources such as journal articles due to limited vocabulary: in order to use a library catalogue or search a digital article database successfully, it is helpful to know a few key items of vocabulary on your topic, but also synonyms for these words that might also have been used in titles or tags – this may represent a challenge for EAP students.

– Some EAP students understand (sole?) the purpose of their EAP classes to be improving their English language skills, and not study-skills which they intend to learn within their degree subject/discipline. Therefore, they prioritise the actual writing of their essay (for example) over doing sound, academic research, when it comes to assignments for their EAP classes. It may be the case that they know how to research properly and that Wikipedia is perhaps not ideal as a source, but for these ‘minor’ (?) assignments which will usually not count towards their grades, they choose to take the ‘easy route’ when researching, and concentrate on writing an essay in their best English.

 

Reading this list of students’ difficulties, mistakes and misunderstandings highlights once again, I think, the actual root cause of the problem: Lack of Understanding. Some of the points above bear witness to some students’ misunderstanding of the aims of academic work as ‘knowledge gathering’, rather than striving to understand arguments and engage with the evidence in order to critically assess it. Moreover, they demonstrate a lack of understanding of what Wikipedia is and aims to do. That is the point that I also wanted to make in my first blog post on the topic – that it is important to know what Wikipedia is and to use it accordingly. You can find the previous post explaining that here.) EAP tutors have an important role to play in nurturing this understanding; especially if working with students from academic cultures and traditions where critical thinking is perhaps not stressed as strongly as in Anglo-American academia.

In an ideal world, then, perhaps we as teachers would not be banning Wikipedia with no explanation of why, but bringing Wikipedia into the classroom and encouraging our students to explore, and critically assess its usefulness and limitations for their work. I would say that Wikipedia is perhaps even more useful as a research starting point for EAP students than for native or proficient English speakers, as they can use the article not only as an introduction to the topic, but also to the vocabulary and language used to talk about the topic. Once they have encountered these vocabulary and langauge items in the Wikipedia article and understood them in context, they will be in a better position to access and comprehend academic sources on the topic of their research.  In fact, EAP tutors could even plan to employ Wikipedia articles in this way – though introductory text-books also do the job of introducing vocab, they don’t open the door for the discussion on using Wikipedia in academic work; and that, to me, seems to be the key aim that has emerged from my ponderings and posts on the role of Wikipedia in academic writing. 

The Role of Wikipedia in Academic Essays

My essay class are doing their first assessed essay this week and they’re a bit nervous. They’ve got lots of questions. But one question really struck me. A student asked ‘Is it OK to cite Wikipedia?’ My standard answer is, ‘if you use it, you should cite it’ – as with any source. But this simply prompted the next question:

‘Is it OK to use Wikipedia for a university essay?’

The answer to that one is slightly longer and requires a bit more cautious language! This question, and a few blog posts I’ve read recently on the topic, inspired this post; on understanding role of Wikipedia in academic essay writing.

I’ve often heard stories of colleagues who ‘ban’ students from using Wikipedia. The argument I hear most commonly against using Wikipedia for essays is that ‘anyone can write anything they like on Wikipedia’. Well, yes, that is true, it is a community-written and community-edited resource; but really I think the number of people reading Wikipedia means that any nonsense will quickly be edited out, so actually the risk of finding incorrect information is probably comparatively low.

For me, the bigger issue that anyone (Especially students!) using Wikipedia needs to understand is that it is not an academic source. Wikipedia even says this about itself! (See ‘Wikiepdia: Academic Use’) And students (and teachers) need to understand why not:

it’s an encyclopaedia!

As far as encyclopaedias go, it’s actually probably a pretty good one; with up-to-date information and a huge variety of entries, presumably (although that in itself is of course a problem) written by people who know something about the topic. But just as we wouldn’t expect academics to cite the Encyclopaedia Britannica, because its target audience is not academics in a certain field but the general public wanting a brief introduction to a range of topics, so we rarely find academics citing from Wikipedia. There are of course some more specific encyclopaedias aimed specifically at certain academic audiences, where the question of being an ‘academic source’ has different considerations, but Wikipedia is not one of these. No matter how good, an encyclopaedia is not necessarily the best source for academic writing; it can’t substitute for reading the original research and discussion publications in the field.

–  it (usually) presents things as fact:

One of the fundamental bases of academia is that published academic sources are basically all arguments, i.e. the authors are arguing in favour of their approach/view/procedure/findings/etc. As text-books and encyclopaedias are generally expected to do, Wikipedia presents ‘neutral’ (well, ish) overviews or summaries of topics, which are often presented as fact, but which are arguably always an interpretation of the original arguments by the person who has written the overview or Wikipedia text. If an essay, or any piece of university work, is to engage in and contribute to academic discourse, it needs to demonstrate an analytical treatment of the previously published arguments, which can really only be achieved through a close, critical reading of the original sources, and not from an encyclopaedic overview.

– it lacks systematic review:

Academic publications are usually subject to some sort of editorial process or peer review by other experts in the field before they are printed or published. This is especially true of journal articles, where peer review aims to ensure that the most sound, best-quality research and scholarly inquiry is published. Now, you could argue that this quality control is given in Wikipedia, as other users edit articles to remove ‘incorrect’ information. The problem is rather that we can never be sure whether the version of the article we are reading has been written and reviewed by an expert in the field – and that is a fundamental criterion for a source to be considered as academic.

it lacks attribution:

The ides in an academic source can be attributed to certain authors, and most academics would agree that the value of uncredited information is rather dubious. Since there is no named author of a Wikipedia article, it doesn’t fulfil the criteria of an academic source. That said, most Wikipedia articles do a good job of citing their sources and linking to further reading (actually, quite an academic quality for an encyclopaedia; praise where it’s due!), and so can provide a wealth of resources that are more suitable for academic writing.

It therefore comes down to not WHETHER Wikipedia can/should be used, but HOW it should be used. People need to understand what Wikipedia IS, and then make informed decisions about how to use it for their work. In my view, a ‘ban’ does not lead to a full understanding of the points I’ve made here (and probably ineffective anyway, since students will probably continue to use Wikipedia, uncritically, despite any ban!). Wikipedia can/should be used as what it is: an encyclopaedia. Encyclopaedias, just like text-books, can function as a starting point when someone is researching a topic new to them; they can provide a good place to start finding the key debates or latest research and ideas in the field.

And yes, I think it is OK for an academic essay to cite from Wikipedia, if there is a justified reason for doing so, and if the author does so in full understanding of the points above. This may not yet be particularly common in published academic articles, but it is not unheard of. But it is important to remember, though, that Wikipedia should  not be cited as an academic source, but perhaps used for background information or a rationale for discussing the topic. Just as dictionary definitions can be used to delimit the scope or approach to a certain topic (e.g. ‘aggression’ – are we including in our definition and essay only verbal, or also physical aggression?), so Wikipedia, and perhaps more interestingly the edits, can be used to demonstrate the actuality, relevance, and/or controversial nature of the essay’s topic. The fact remains, though, that it is not an academic source in our general understanding of the term and its usage in academic work should be limited accordingly. 

 

FURTHER READING

This website provides a great demonstration of things to look for in an academic source before deeming it suitable for scholarly work: “Anatomy of a scholarly Article”

For more discussions on Wikipedia and other ‘myths’ surrounding EAP, see here: “20 Myths about EAP”

#BridgingtheGapChallenge Hand-Written vs Emailed Corrective Feedback on Writing

As part of the #BridgingtheGapChallenge, here is a summary of:

Farshi, S.S. & S.K. Safa, ‘The Effect of Two Types of Corrective Feedback on EFL Learners’ Writing Skill’, Advances in Language and Literary Studies, Vol 6/1, February 2015.

This study aimed to compare the effectiveness of giving hand-written or electronic (via email) feedback on EFL learners’ written work.

Participants & Procedure

Thirty-five adult participants were involved in the stud; Azeri-Turkish speakers, who were learning English at a language institute in Iran. They were divided into three separate class groups, which met twice a week for 7 weeks and taught by the same teacher. All groups covered the same material in class and were given a writing task each week based on the lesson’s focus. Depending on which group participants they were in, they received feedback on their work in a different format: Group A: Submitted paper-versions of their work and received hand-written feedback. Group B: Submit their work by email and received their feedback electronically. Group C: Submitted their work either on paper or by email, but received no feedback from the teacher. Groups A and B revised their paragraphs using the feedback they received. Before the study, students completed pre-test writing tasks (writing two separate paragraphs), graded by three teachers, and the KET proficiency test and were found to have comparable levels of proficiency in English. They post-test score was also based on two written paragraphs, graded by three teachers. The pre-test and post-test scores were given in numerical format, on a scale from 0-20 (where 20 is good).

Findings

A paired-samples T-test (test of significant difference) was used to compare participants’ pre-test and post-test scores. On the pre-test scores, there was no significant difference between the three groups. On the post-test scores (i.e. the grades students achieved on the assessment after having received the various feedbacks on their work for 7 weeks), both Group A’s and Group B’s scores were significantly higher than those of Group C, who had received no corrective feedback on their writing. The researchers conclude that both hand-written and electronic feedback therefore have a positive impact on students’ writing skill. The key finding, though, is the significant difference between the improvements shown by participants in Groups A and B; where Group B (who had received electronic feedback) scored significantly higher than Group A (hand-written feedback), which would seem to show that feedback received electronically is more effective at improving students’ writing than hand-written feedback is.

My Own Thoughts

I can postulate various explanations for the benefit of giving feedback electronically: it feels more personal to the students, the teacher can perhaps include more detailed feedback, it is motivating for students to use their electronic devices for the English learning, etc. It would have been interesting to see what the researchers thought were the explanations for their findings.

It would also be good to know what kind of level their learners were at in their English proficiency – perhaps the effectiveness of certain feedback formats depends on level?

And also, what kind of feedback exactly was given – actual corrections? simply underlining? Comments to start a dialogue? Use of a correction code? I wonder whether these differences might have an even more significant effect on students’ improvement than simply the mode of delivery of the feedback?

#BridgingTheGapChallenge: Bridging the Gap between Researchers and Teachers

There is SO MUCH research going on into language teaching methods, approaches, etc. But the sad fact is, it has turned into a big jumble of research strands, hard to untangle and find the right connections!
An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015.
An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015.

Let’s be honest, how many classroom teachers have access to it? And time to read and digest it all? Probably very few! SO where do teachers get their inspiration and lesson ideas? Well, online a lot of the time. And so I came up with a blog idea, which will hopefully turn in to a challenge which lots of people participate in… #BridgingTheGapChallenge

THE CHALLENGE: Teachers or researchers reading this: grab (or click on!) one ELT-related journal you have access to. Read one article that interests you, and post a quick, readable summary for other teachers to read, who are too busy to read the full article or do not have access to that journal or magazine! 

The aim is for us to build up a nice bank of summaries that are easy to access and bridge the gap between published research and classroom practitioners!

You can post the link to your blog post in the comments section below, or tweet your blog posts @Clare2ELT or with the #BridgingTheGapChallenge  If you don’t have your own blog, please feel free to add your summary to the comments below, or send it to me and I’ll publish it as a guest post on my blog! 🙂

Let the bridge-building begin!

Questions for Readers – Where are you coming from? Where are you going?

Once again, I’ve been inspired by Joanna Malefaki’s post with an idea for using my blog for a bit more active / interactive networking. So instead of just writing and putting my thoughts “out there”, I’m using this post to ask questions to get to know the wonderful people who read my blog…! Please post your answers in the comments section below, I look forward to hearing from you!

(And yes, this is a piece of unashamed “market research” so I know who I’m writing for in future!! 🙂 )

I would love to know…

… your current teaching context

… your teaching/career background

… what you like to read on my blog and what you do with the thoughts I share.

Continue reading “Questions for Readers – Where are you coming from? Where are you going?”

Practising English through Reading Fiction

Those of you who’ve been following my recent posts, will notice that I’m going through a phase of thinking about how I can help students make their free-time English activities more effective for their learning. My general addage has always been: Whatever you like to do in your free-time, just do it in English! But the realisation that relaxing in front of ‘How I met your mother’ with a beer and a bag of crisps might not actually be helping improve students’ English as much as it could, has lead to me think up ideas for tasks that could further the learning that occurs through these free-time activities. Recently, I posted some ideas for practising English with news items (see here: https://clareseltcompendium.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/practising-english-with-news-items/ )  And then I asked some students what it is they do in their free time. The number one answer: Reading (fiction) books.

So here’s the next list: This time, activities that learners can do once they’ve read a book, in order to practise their productive skills in English (since reading is a passive skill). I’m sure teachers also use fiction as part of their courses and have a whole host of comprehension and discussion questions etc. These ideas could also complement those. But my main aim is to give students who are reading fiction for fun some ideas on how they can make this even more helpful for improving their English.

  • Write a short summary of the plot of the novel. You could also start a blog where you post summaries of novels you have read – other people may comment on your summaries and start a discussion.

 

  • Write a review of the novel. You could also discuss your review with a friend who has read the same book – or set up your own book club with friends to read and discuss novels together. Or again, post your reviews to a blog for discussion with other. Alternatively, you can slso post your reviews on sites like Amazon for others to read when they’re looking for something to read.

 

  • Pretend you work for the publisher, and write a blurb for the novel. You can look at blurbs for books on websites such as Amazon to see what kind of language they use and the techniques used to entice the potential reader to read the book.

 

  • Take on the part of a character and a) act out a scene , b) re-write a scene from that character’s perspective (using a first-person narrator).

 

  • Write a letter to one character explaining why you find their behavior unacceptable.

 

  • Watch the film adaptation of a novel, and write a review of the film comparing it to the original book version, or discuss your comparison with a friend who has also read the book and watched the film.

 

  • Pretend you are a teacher and  going to work on this novel with your students. Compose comprehension and/or discussion questions (and answers) based on the text. 

 

  • Pretend you are recording an audio version of the book and read some parts aloud. Record yourself, making sure to check the pronunciations and word-stress of any unknown vocabulary (e.g. using the online OALD). You can then listen to the recording (or play it to a friend) and check that your pronunciation and intonation are fluent and accurate. An official audio-book may be available – then you can compare your recording to that!

For more ideas on using literature to teach & learn English, please see the following websites:

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/using-literature-introduction?utm_source=facebook-teachingenglish&utm_medium=wallpost&utm_campaign=bc-teachingenglish-facebook

 

Explicit Grammar Teaching: The what and how

Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)

Introduction – A sense of relief

At the weekend, I attended a talk by Michael Swan entitled “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” at an event hosted by ELTA Rhine in Cologne. The talk was not just interesting and informative, but gave me an enormous sense of relief. Basically because he argued in favour of explicit grammar teaching. I realise that this will not bring a sense of relief to all EFL teachers, and in some it may even incite mild panic! But let me explain. For a long time (for me it seems a long time, in actual terms its been a few decades), the explicit teaching of grammar has (had) been out of fashion, as other aspects of language have come into the focus of ELT writers and teachers. Particularly Task-Based Learning and the Lexical Approach are largely against the presentation of grammar rules. Many teachers also understand Communicative Language Teaching to have little place for the explicit teaching of grammar. In my teaching context (in the English Department at a German university), we actually teach a whole separate module called “Grammar”, more recently called “Advanced Grammar”. Yes, it’s been pretty standard in Germany for the whole time that other ELT fashions have come and gone. For most of the seven years that I’ve been working here, I’d been led to feel almost a sense of shame that we were teaching this class – seeing the horror on colleagues’ faces when I’ve mentioned it at conferences and the like. Most of their responses began with ‘but’: But what about Krashen’s theories? But that’s not very communicative! But lexis is what helps learners to create meaning! But fluency is more important!

At the start of my teaching career, I was, I suppose understandably, rather unsure of myself. Actually, a few times I probably agreed, embarrassed, with the criticisms, and extracted myself from responsibility by blaming this ‘poor’ syllabus decision on the institution; putting myself in the role of dutiful pawn in the great game of ELT. Over the years, though, I’ve grown and developed as a teacher, and my sense of confidence in my teaching decisions and practices has matured. This has occasionally meant having to defend my explicit grammar teaching to a few, what I would call, hard-core TBL, Lexical Approach or extreme Communicative Approach advocates. That’s OK: I can handle it better now than I could in my early twenties when I started teaching. Nonetheless, you can imagine my relief to hear from Michael Swan, and indeed whole host of other researchers in this area, that teaching grammar is OK: Not only OK, but actually rather effective. (See published research evidence below.) Phew! Of course I’m not, and I don’t suppose anyone is, claiming that explicit grammar teaching without any communicative practice is a good idea, nor that teaching grammar rules openly always ‘works’ 100% of the time (but then, honestly, can we really expect that of any method/approach?!). But, I wholeheartedly agree with the quote above from Michael Swan.

So that explains my sense of relief. But ‘teaching grammar’ is still a very broad term that barely brings us any closer to knowing what exactly to do in the classroom. I’m also aware that some teachers, maybe mostly the native English-speakers that have ‘fallen’ into a teaching job, may not be so relieved to hear that grammar is back on the menu. Maybe because they themselves have little formal grasp on English grammar (for this there is a simple cure; read a grammar book! See below for my recommendations), or maybe because they are unsure how to translate ‘teaching grammar’ into practical classroom activities. The rest of this post will therefore deal with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of grammar teaching; in a bid to remove any impending sense of panic from other teachers who are less used to and less comfortable with the explicit teaching of grammar rules in the ELT (or any modern language) classroom.

What? ~ It depends.

Of course, teaching ‘all’ the rules of English grammar would, for a number of reasons beyond the scope of this post, be an impossible task; and anyway a rather ineffective approach. And so we need to select which aspects of English grammar to include in our syllabi. I believe there is no fits-all answer to the question of what to teach; it will unavoidably depend on the learners and their needs and goals. It depends. I actually don’t like this answer to questions, and I’m sure many learners don’t either. Alas all EFL classrooms and learners are different, and so it depends. But what does it depend on? Well Michael Swan suggests the following selection criteria, which do fit to my experience and understanding of our profession:

– comprehensibility

– acceptability

– frequency and scope

– teachability/learnability

Just a brief clarification here, to ensure we all understand the same things when reading these criteria. ‘Comprehensibility’ refers to the question of whether not having mastered this language point could lead to misunderstanding or lack of understanding. For example, the sentence *I start school last week* does not follow standard English grammar patterns, but is clearly comprehensible. In contrast (and I’m borrowing this example from Michael Swan), *John didn’t told about the meeting* is more difficult to de-code, as it could mean either that John WASN’T told about the meeting, or that he didn’t TELL us about it. As this mistake could lead to a lack of comprehension, it would be advisable to teach/revise the points of the passive, or the simple past in negative statements. ‘Acceptability’ looks at other people’s reactions to what a learner says. How negatively will a learner be judged who says *I start school last week*? Phrased more positively, how accepted would this non-standard form be? (Again, the answer I suggest is ‘it depends’ – on your learners’ context, goals, etc; so individual answers all around, I’m afraid!) Note that I’ve used the same example twice here, in order to highlight the discrepancies that may occur between the comprehensibility and acceptability criteria – more on that later.

Moving on, ‘frequency’ and ‘scope’ are rather self-explanatory. The frequency with which a learner is going to encounter or need to use a certain structure should help us judge whether to teach it or not. The ‘scope’ of a grammar rule describes how much of the language it helps to explain. A clear example here, again showing how these two criteria may also be in conflict, is the word ‘children’. ‘Children’ is a rather frequently used word. However, the rule of making irregular plurals with -ren does not cover many items (I can’t actually think of any other right now!), so teaching it as a rule would seem less worthwhile. And finally, teachability and learnability refer simply to how straightforward it is to teach or learn an aspect of English grammar. Again, it depends.

Clearly, if an item impairs comprehension, negatively affects acceptability, and has a high frequency and broad scope, as well as being fairly straightforward to teach, then we should go head an teach it. One thing Michael Swan didn’t touch on in his talk is how to make a decision based on these criteria when the details conflict, so I’d like to discuss that briefly here. We’ve seen that the same sentence may be perfectly comprehensible, but not particularly acceptable. And that the high frequency of an item may not mean that the rule has much scope. In this case, I would advice teachers to weight the criteria based on their knowledge of the learners’ context and goals. This will include considerations of who the learners are likely to interact with in English, what kinds of topics they are likely to speak/talk about, the format of the communication (formal written, informal spoken, etc), and the likely goals of that interaction (purely communicating information, making a high-stakes sale, etc). Teachers may also consider the kinds of input their learners are likely to be exposed to, and potential interference pitfalls caused by the learners’ L1. That said, I would say that comprehensibility has to be criteria numero uno in any case.

If we have, then, agreed that we are going to teach grammar, and have selected points of grammar to be taught, the next step is to think about what we are actually going to do in the classroom in order to teach these points.

How? ~ Just three Exes

Michael Swan said in his talk that he sees grammar teaching as consisting of “three exes”. Not to worry, he’s not talking about broken partnerships, but rather EXplanation, EXamples, and EXercises. Now, you may think this sounds suspiciously like a re-worded recipe for a PPP lesson (Presentation, Practice, Production – which was the standard lesson structure taught on most preparatory TEFL certification courses for a long time), but fear not – his clarification highlights the input of ‘examples’ and ‘explanation’ as less valuable in grammar teaching than the ‘output’ from exercises. Nonetheless, they are not unimportant, and so we should still make them as effective as possible. Note that I think the order of explanations and examples should be seen flexibly – in many cases a more inductive approach (examples first) may be more appropriate, though that is a subject for another post!

Explanations, according to Swan and I’m inclined to agree, should be economical, take one step at a time, be clear to the learner, use visual support, and possibly even the learners’ L1. I suppose only the last point there might cause discussion. To my mind, though, it is logical that a grammar explanation in English may make use of language that is above the learners’ current level and therefore be more confusing than it is helpful. If the teacher is able to speak the L1 of their learners, then this can be a simpler and more efficient way of explaining the rule. Of course, not all teachers have this luxury, but where appropriate I’d be all in favour of brief grammar explanations in the L1 for lower-level students.

There’s nothing really surprising in the characteristics Swan says good examples should have, although I find it good for us teachers to refresh these things in our minds, particularly just before embarking on a new term and a new “Advanced Grammar” course! Good examples should be realistic, memorable (perhaps through humour), in context, and taken from various topic areas/text genres. I don’t know about you, but I find looking for or inventing examples that fit all of these criteria actually rather time-consuming. And I sometimes feel that teachers neglect this part of their preparation, perhaps because of the time it takes, or perhaps other teachers are really able to spontaneously create realistic, memorable examples from various topic areas in context when they reach this point in their lesson. Lucky them! – I know I’m not! There are several potential sources of example sentences, but sometimes the examples they provide just do not fulfil these criteria satisfactorily (for example, corpora/concordances, dictionaries, grammar references or course books). I find the best examples by just going about my every day life attentively. Paying attention to the structures and language my colleagues and I use to talk to each other, to email, to make posters, to recount anecdotes, and so on – that’s realistic language in a context our students are familiar with, with a range of genres and topics, and often rather memorable due to our humour! Or what about news articles or websites you read, radio broadcasts you listen to, TV programmes you watch – all of these can be sources of interesting and effective example sentences. Maybe I can mention just a couple of lessons I’ve recently planned: A lesson on simple present/progressive – I used a blurb from a novel found on Amazon. A lesson on referring to the future – I used an episode of “Tomorrow’s Word” (BBC).

Ok, so once we’ve got our explanation neatly formulated, and our examples duly noted, we need to move on to the most important part of the lesson (I hope no disagreement here?): the output, or exercises. I have to say, Sorry Mr Swan, but I’m not keen on the term ‘exercises’ here – although it fits nicely in the “three exes” category. For me, and I checked with my colleagues that I’m not alone, the word ‘exercises’ is perhaps somewhat misleading, conjuring up images of monotonous gap-fill or sentence transformation worksheets, maybe some text-based or listening tasks if we’re lucky. This is all reminiscent of the second P in a PPP lesson; not particularly exciting, and not really the kind of thing I believe to be the most effective for learners to really make use of the new language. For me, the third P – Production – is more the output we should aim for, as it is most similar to the kinds of things learners will want and need to do in English in the future. Again, though, Michael Swan ‘saves himself’ so to speak, by describing his characteristics of a good ‘exercise’ – and if I understand correctly, he is actually using ‘exercises’ to capture both controlled practice tasks and, even more importantly, freer production and encouraged use of the target structure. His characteristics include the tasks being interesting, empowering, personalised, imaginative, and possibly involving physical activity, visual or audio elements. These tasks should also help learners to connect the grammar point to other aspects of langauge such as vocabulary, skills, pronunciation, and so on. Of course, whether a task is ‘interesting’ etc. will… you guessed it… depend on your learners!

 Conclusion – Is it worth the effort?

My assessment of all of this is that explicit grammar teaching is easier said than done. Doing it badly is probably quite straightforward, but then it’s probably not worth the effort. Bearing in mind all of the points and issues discussed here makes explicit grammar teaching a rather time-consuming and preparation-heavy thing to do. So is it worth the effort? I believe so. And I believe that there are plenty of academic studies which support this view. The way I see it, if we don’t bother with grammar teaching, then it definitely can’t work. If we give it a go, then at least it has a chance of working! As always, Michael Swan has expressed this thought slightly more eloquently than I can, so let’s close his words which I used as an opener to this post: Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)

 

Sources

Swan, M., “Teaching Grammar – Does Grammar Teaching work?”, Modern English Teacher, 15/2, 2006.

Swan, M., “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” Talk given at ELTA Rhine, Cologne, on 19th October 2014.

Recommended grammar references for teachers

Carter, R. et al, English Grammar Today: An A-Z of Spoken & Written Grammar (Cambridge: CUP, 2011)

Leech, G., Grammar and the English Verb (Longmann, 2004)

Swan, M., Practical English Usage. (Oxford: O.U.P., 2005)

Research publications on teaching grammar

Gass, S. & L. Selinker.  2008.  Second Language Acquisition: an Introductory Course (Third Edition).  New York: Routledge/Taylor.

Norris, J. M. & L. Ortega.  2000.  ‘Effectiveness of L2 instruction:  a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis’.  Language Learning 50/3: 417-528.

Spada, N. & Y. Tomita.  2010.  ‘Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature:  a meta-analysis’.  Language Learning 60/2: 1-46.

 

 

This blog post waas featured in “My TESOL Daily”: http://paper.li/Stephen_Hofstee/1327126879

Practising English with News Items

Many EFL teachers tell their learners to watch/listen to the news as a way of practising their English. I’ve come to realise that simply watching/listening is less helpful than engaging with the news item on a more productive level. That’s why I had a bit of a think and came up with some activities that learners can do with news items – either listening texts or written news items. The list can be used by teachers looking for classroom/homework ideas, or by students themselves in need of inspiration for self-study activities. Please feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below!

It is usually easy to fit catching up on the news into one’s daily routine, as you can get news…

 Simply watching, reading or listening to the news may provide you with current information, but here are some activities that can extend that learning:

  • Analyse the headline – what do you expect the story to be about? What style of language is used? Why? Could you phrase the headline another way? Would this change the implication or feeling?
  • Prepare a short written or oral summary of the news item. Make sure you answer the questions Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? in your concise text. You can compare your summary to friends’ summaries, or each summarise a different news item to present to the others, then ask comprehension questions or start a discussion on the topic(s).
  • Compare two reports on the same event: Do you notice any differences in the information they give or in the attitude they express towards the event? Can you explain why these differences may exist? How can you avoid believing biased news items?
  • Give 10 bullet points of background information someone would need in order to understand why this news story is important.
  • Invent interview questions you would ask one of the people involved in the story. You can either try to remain neutral, like a journalist, or try to present a certain image of that person, like a lawyer.
  • Pretend to be one of the people mentioned in the news report and re-tell the story from their perspective (using first-person narrator).
  • Pick a statement from the news report that you feel is more of an opinion than a fact, and make a list of examples and evidence that you would use to argue against it.
  • Draw a mind-map of the key vocabulary used in the news report. Look up words’ meanings, other word classes (e.g. nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.), and also synonyms and antonyms to include.