Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Developing receptive skills for exams

I recently presented two workshops at the Swiss Exams 2017 Spring Seminar in Horgen, near Zürich, on the subject of preparing students for B1 exams in receptive skills. Once I have a bit more time, this note will be expanded into a more substantial article on the topic.

For now, here is a link for participants at the seminar if they would like to download the materials we worked with in our workshops.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

10 uses of Teacher's Books in the English classroom

Having written, adapted or edited countless Teacher's Books in my ELT career, I've often wondered just how much teachers (and, indirectly, students) appreciate the work that goes into developing these components and whether they really make full use of all the services they have to offer.

Here is a list of just 10 key uses of coursebooks, off the top of my head:

1. Answer keys

When I started out teaching, I didn't use a Teacher's Book. (Firstly, I didn't know or believe that I was supposed to. Secondly, penniless young teacher that I was, I economised by not buying any expensive components - just the essentials: a Student's Book and a Workbook for each course I taught.) When it came to checking correct answers at the end of an activity, I therefore always faced a challenge. At lower levels (Beginner, Elementary), I bravely improvised my own answers at the same time students were offering theirs. Which is all well and good if there is only one obvious correct answer. At higher levels, I basically had to do the exercises myself while the students were doing them - to produce an answer key for myself. 
Answer keys in Teacher's Book are enormous time-savers. And since they have passed through multiple hands during their development, they likely cover all, or at least most, of the possibilities - as well as advice for the more problematic items.

2. Audio script

Yes, a listening task is not really a listening task if you give students the text to read. And which skill do they find more challenging? Occasionally, you may want to exploit printouts of audio scripts for their language - but normally, you would prefer your students to really listen to complete their assignments. But this doesn't mean you'll also have to catch the specific details yourself - while you're also busy operating the equipment, monitoring the students' progress, providing help where necessary and watching the timing... not easy, even for a fluent speaker. 
However, if you give yourself a bit of an advantage by allowing you to read the text that your students are listening to, you'll be able to read ahead and better anticipate any issues that need extra scaffolding, and you'll also be more likely to catch the more problematic phrases (like homonyms, proper nouns, words with unexpected pronunciation - English has many of those, doesn't it?) - which means you'll be able to feel superior that you know even those bits that your students couldn't quite catch...
You'll also be able to use the text of the audio script itself for creating your own tasks (deleting words to make gap fills, jumbling paragraphs for ordering, or just using the text to provide grammar or vocabulary models) by simply photocopying them out of the Teacher's Book. 

3. Background information

Let's face it, our students and we are usually from two different generations. Which means our interests and our knowledge may not fully be in sync. This is OK. There are some things they know a lot more about - as there are things that you know more about, like English itself. But have you ever been in a situation where your students asked you a question about something in the coursebook that you felt you ought to know the answer to but didn't? Or ran into a text on culture, which mentioned something you never heard of? Or taught a CLIL lesson and - being an English teacher - you had only vague recollections of what you were taught in Science or Art class? 
We're not expected to know everything, of course. But to feel we are in control, it's good to be reassured that when unexpected things come up, as they inevitably do in our classes, we know where to turn. And what would be a better place for providing that background information than right next to the teaching notes for the exercise where they are likely to come up?

4. Lesson planning

Many teachers probably spend more time planning their lessons than delivering them. Teaching is a complex endeavour. You don't just have to devise a coherent, logical and varied chain of activities for each class - but you have to anticipate difficulties and plan solutions for them, and you have to justify (to yourself, to other stakeholders, and so on) why you are doing what you're doing. 
This is just another thing Teacher's Books usually take care of for us. The lesson objectives, the timing for each class and each activity, the interconnected activity sequences - they are all worked out for us. All we have to do is prepare ourselves, think things through and maybe rehearse before we stand in front of a class, delivering the lesson.

5. Methodology overview

And since we're on the subject of justifying our aims and methods, wouldn't it be reassuring to find out that the practices we follow routinely or instinctively in class work because there IS an underlying theoretical foundation below them? Does a typical teacher have the time and energy to catch up on the academic literature to find such theories and relate it to their teaching practices? Not usually - they're too busy teaching (and doing the paperwork that goes with teaching... but that's beside the point). 
Which is why Teacher's Books begin with a theoretical introduction - outlining the philosophy and its practical applications for the course. To help us, teachers, understand why we're following one methodology rather than another to achieve our objectives. 

6. Optional activities

Teaching the same material over and over again can get quite tedious after a while. In order to keep the lessons well-planned but also fresh for ourselves, we need some pre-planned variety. (Spontaneity is good, but have you ever done a fun activity to replace, say, a boring grammar drill, then realised you actually needed the output of that boring drill later on - and so you had to squeeze that in anyway, toppling over your whole carefully constructed lesson plan?) And not just that, each of our classes is different - consisting of different individuals, with diverging interests and skill sets. 
So, we occasionally need optional activities that cover the same ground, linguisticially speaking, but do it differently. Yes, we can devise our own, and yes, we can find supplementary activites from a range of printed and online sources - but can we really be sure the replacement will do exactly what's needed in the lesson sequence? Well, if the optional activity comes from the Teacher's Book for our course, it was written to fit exactly - so there's the well-planned variety for you that you needed.

7. Mixed-ability solutions

Have you ever taught a class that was NOT mixed-ability? In my opinion, there's no such thing! So when you are faced with a whole group of learners at mixed levels and with mixed abilities, who do you deliver your classes to? The "average student"? The "typical B1 learner"? Both may exist as an ideal - a figment of our professional imagination, but I'm not convinced you always have a single person in your classrooms that fit either of those descriptions completely. In other words, when you are teaching at an average level, you aren't actually teaching any single person with maximum efficiency. Weaker learners or lower-level learners (not the same thing!) need more support than the average and need to slow down from time to time - while stronger learners or higher-level learners (again, not the same thing!) need more challenges to keep stretching their limits, as that's the way we all learn. 
Which means in a mixed-ability class (that is, as we established, in ALL classes) you'll need to prepare a lesson for your "average/typical" learners + extra support and extra activities for the lower half of your group + extra challenges and extra activities for the higher half of your group = three entire lessons for each lesson delivered! (I'm exaggerating the point here, before you're tempted to interrupt me here to say "Hang on"!) 
You can't NOT cater for all your learners, so you do need to do this to some extent all the time. But a Teacher's Book (and these days, most other course components) will take some of that burden from you by planning activites at different levels, and providing you with ideas for dealing with the complicated issue of mixed ability.
(If you'd like to find out more about mixed-ability teaching, I'd really recommend an excellent resource book on the subject by Erika Osváth and Edmund Dudley, published by OUP, 2016.)

8. Ways to adapt the material

No matter how carefully you planned, there will always be times when you'll need to take shortcuts or to extend the material. Or you may sometimes have learners in your class with particular needs your plans didn't cater for. A teacher needs to be flexible, but how can you be flexible and still deliver optimum content? 
And just as much as every learner is different, every teacher is unique. The more we have pre-planned and provided for us by other people, the less it will all reflect our own personality. How can we tailor what's in the coursebook already to become more like us?
A good Teacher's Book will tell you where the key language or key skills are in the lesson sequence, which exercises can be dropped or set as homework or used with a different class dynamics. It will tell you (or at least give you pointers on) how to adapt (and what to adapt) to fit specific needs and requirements. It will also help you use the course material creatively, to better reflect your own personality through offering different paths through the material. 

9. Supplementary materials

And let's not forget photocopiables and Teacher's Resource Discs. Language teachers spend countless hours printing, cutting up, assembling stuff to use in their classes. Of course, there are many great activity books, resource books, websites, grammar books, and so on, to provide us with an infinite source of supplementary materials.
But a Teacher's Book offers these supplementary materials - with the added benefit that every photocopiable and every resource disk material has been developed alongside the main coursebook. Which means that every supplementary there matches the level, the topic, the language focus, the skills focus, the age range and so on of the coursebook itself. Which means that if the coursebook was suitable for your group, all these supplementaries will be suitable, too. And you don't have to go out of your way to look for them, either!

10. Inspiration for ideas

And finally, Teacher's Books offer us the insights, suggestions and ideas of at least one other teaching professional (but normally several others) - making us think, reflect on, evaluate our own ideas, beliefs, practices, and hopefully inspiring us to fresh ideas.

Conclusion

So, have I left out anything important? Are there other great uses of Teacher's Books that I didn't think about? If you'd like to read more on this subject, visit the OUP ELT Global Blog, where Julietta Schoenmann posted an article in two parts (part 1 and part 2). A more recent post by John Hughes offers another Teacher's Book author's perspective - and his article was directly responsible for making me write this one.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The pitfalls of exam preparation


What’s your main goal in teaching English? You’ll probably say something along the lines of „enabling students to communicate well in English” and perhaps also „developing students to be better people”. But have you ever had a group of students preparing for an examination? Then you know that your success or failure will be measured by not by how well they can express themselves in real life, and not even by how well they fit into society. Where there is an important exam at the end of the process, you can only succeed if your students pass the exam. It’s that simple.

What many of your students (and their parents) will expect you to do is to get them through the exam – which for them may also well mean the end of learning. Which, of course, should not be the end of the process. Learning is for life.

But what does this mean in terms of classroom practice?

EXAM PREPARATION TO-DO LIST


1. You will have to cover the exam syllabus (the topics, the grammar and vocabulary, the skills and sub-skills), and make sure you don’t miss out anything.

2. You will have to familiarise your students with all the exam task types, and provide them with strategies to complete each type of task with maximum efficiency.

3. You will have to familiarise your students with the assessment criteria – so they know how to maximise their point scores, and how to avoid losing valuable points.

4. You will have to provide students with practice and rehearsal opportunities, so when they get to the real exam, it’s not their first time completing it.

The above is just a rough shortlist of priorities.

To continue with the same train of thought, what does this mean in terms of what you’re NOT going to do in the classroom?

EXAM PREPARATION NOT-GOING-TO-DO LIST


1. You are not going to cover language points that aren’t required in the exam. Students probably won’t mind. But don’t forget that often we only teach language points because we know they’re going to be tested. Throughout my career as a learner, there has always been a massive emphasis on irregular verbs. They are certainly useful, but the reason we spent so much time memorising long lists of them was merely that they were going to feature in our exams. Think about this – is there any language you’d skip or spend less time on if it wasn’t in the exam?

2. You are going to prioritise the task types that do occur in the exam over those that don’t – which means you’re probably going to reduce task type variety. You feel responsible for your students’ success, so you make sure their exposure to exam expectations is maximised. When it comes down to a choice between, say, an open personalised speaking task and another multiple-choice gap fill, perhaps you’re going to go for the gap fill... again.

3. In order to prepare your students well and to make sure you’re not leaving even your weakest student behind, you’re going to spend a lot of time focusing on what’s needed for the exam. When pressed for time, you are not going to do too many activities which have no connection to the exam. This includes games, drama, discussion of controversial / intriguing (depending on your viewpoint) subjects, jokes and humour in general... can you continue this list? Exams are neutral, non-controversial, and let’s face it, pretty bland. Which is fine because tests are measurement tools, and it’s important to reduce unwanted extra factors, like emotional responses. But bear in mind that „pretty bland” is exactly the opposite of what language classes should be! How are you going to motivate students if you’re spending so much time doing stuff that isn’t motivating?

FINDING A BALANCE


The difficult solution is to prepare students in a way that teaches them all the real-life communication skills rather than focuses on mechanical test task preparation. For example, instead of aiming to practise a format like four-option multiple choice cloze, your aim could be on the communicative goal of the text you use, but using the mcq format to highlight some of the cohesive devices of that type of text. Or instead of comparing and contrasting two arbitrarily chosen coursebook photos, your aim could be sharing personal experiences of special occasions – through comparing and contrasting family photos of, say, weddings or graduation ceremonies. The trick would be to always aim to do both: exams as well as real life.

What I’m saying is that our general aims in language teaching and the aims of exam preparation are linked, but sometimes their priorities clash, and it will be up to you to strike the right balance and to blend learning for real life and exam preparation.


This article was originally published on the OUP ELT Global Blog on 7 April 2013 as a preview of my workshop at the 2013 IATEFL conference in Liverpool, and appears here in an updated form.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Learning in the 21st century

The topic of 21st century skills has become a buzzword in English Language Teaching recently, and although more and more people are talking about it, there is a bit of uncertainty about whether they are anything new - anything specific to the 21st century. 
Well, they are and they aren't. Learning is learning: acquiring new skills, building on and expanding knowledge, gathering experiences and so on. This has always been true, and it is still true in the 21st century. People in the past certainly used all four Cs: the four essential learning skills that are the cornerstones of 21st century learning: Communication, Collaboration, Critical thinking and Creativity. (You see? Nothing new.)
What has changed in recent decades, and certainly in my own lifetime, is the pace of change: by the time we acquire knowledge, it may well be obsolete. By the time we learn skills, we already need to update them (a bit like the shiny new software package you buy and install, which then insists on updating itself immediately before it's even willing to run, as it's already 'critically out of date'). 
So, what is to be done? What we need to become good at, and what we, teacher, need to train our students to become good at is the skill of learning itself. The skill to adapt. And that's what we talk about when we talk about 21st century learning skills. In a very tight nutshell, obviously. It's more complicated than this, but should you wish to learn more, I suggest you look up my previous related post on the subject with more details. Or download the materials I used in my recent workshop at the IATEFL Hungary Creative Café event (on 1 July, Budapest at the Libra Bookshop) with some practical suggestions for classroom activities to develop each of the four skills. (Although it goes without saying that a language class aimed at developing communication skills is already well-equipped to develop one of the Cs: Communication...)
There's still another 84 years of this century left, so I'm sure we'll have some further opportunities to explore the issue of 21st century learning - I'll keep you posted.

Monday, 31 August 2015

How to train students for success in speaking exams


Training for speaking exams is always a challenge. In an average-size class (which, for many of us, means ’a class with too many students’), we never have time to devote individual attention to all our learners during speaking practice. We may either opt for trying to simulate the exam tasks as closely as possible, and therefore train only a handful of students at a time (during which what are the other students in class going to do?) – or we do speaking exam practice as pairwork or groupwork, which allows more students to speak, but of course, makes it more difficult for us, teachers to monitor what they are doing and provide support or feedback as needed. It’s a balancing act, there’s no denying that. All the time.

In this post, I’m describing a few activity ideas that I used recently for a teacher training tour. If you like them, feel free to try them with your own students in class, then perhaps you might also like to share your experience here. Each activity targets a specific skill or strategy needed for typical speaking exam tasks.

Conversation lead-in


Most speaking exams start with a short conversation with the examiner, more often than not focusing on some personal subjects or themes immediately connected to the candidate’s own experience. This part of the exam is not always assessed, but it is the learner’s first opportunity to make a good impression on the examiner. And first impressions are important, even in a tightly controlled exam situation.

The problem with learners is that their fear of making mistakes is so strong that they begin playing a game of language avoidance – they say as little as possible to limit the chances for error. But of course that’s entirely the wrong thing to do in an exam. A speaking exam is about taking a sufficient sample of the candidate’s communicative abilities to make a reliable assessment of their competence. A learner who doesn’t speak enough is more likely to fail than a learner who speaks fluently but with a lot of mistakes.

Activity 1: Expanding your answers


1.       Give students a list of typical conversation questions/prompts together with some (again, typical) limited learner responses. For example:
How do you usually spend your weekend mornings? A: Sleeping late.
How are you planning to celebrate your next birthday? A: With a party.
What is the most unusual present you have ever received? A: A hammer.
What is your best friend like? A: She’s nice.

2.       Put students in pairs or small groups, and ask them to brainstorm what kind of information they could add to each answer so it makes a better impression on the examiner. Ask them to consider expansions that don’t make the language content any more challenging. (In other words, they shouldn’t simply rephrase the answers with more sophisticated vocabulary, but think about extra details they might be able to add easily.)

3.       In open class, elicit some ideas for the types of things added. For example: examples, reasons (why?), details of circumstances (where? when? with whom?). Students may also be able to add more adjectives (which are safe to use as they have no impact on the grammar) where they were going to use just one.

4.       Encourage students to use these ideas in the speaking exam to ensure their answers are as detailed as they can make them, without making them sound like unnatural mini-essays. 

Situational role-play


Another common exam task type is the situation role-play, either one-on-one with the examiner – where the candidate plays the more active role, and initiates exchanges, or in a paired exam format – where two candidates talk to each other.

One of the problems with practising role-play in class is that students are too familiar with each other. This means, role-playing as themselves often creates no information gap – their partners can already predict their most likely answers to most questions. Without an information gap, there is no interest, and therefore little motivation for paying close attention to each other.

Activity 2: Constructing a persona


1.       Before setting any exam practice role-play tasks, prepare a series of background questions to help students create a different persona for the task.

2.       Ask students to imagine they are someone else, then make very brief notes of their answers for your questions as that imaginary person. Encourage them to take on a character as different from their own as they like. Read out the questions one by one, allowing sufficient time for students to think about their persona and write down their answers. Questions may include things like:
- Are you a man or a woman?
- How old are you? When and where were you born?
- What’s your dream job? What’s your actual job?
- What makes you happy? What makes you sad?
(Mention just one thing for each question here.)
- How did you sleep last night?
- How are you feeling right now?
- What are your favourite items of clothing? What are you wearing today?
- What’s your favourite dish? What did you have for breakfast this morning?

3.       Choose a role-play task from the coursebook, and ask students to do it in pairs as their imaginary persona. As they do the activity, ask them to listen carefully to each other and try to work out what their partner’s imaginary character might be like.

4.       If you ask any pairs to perform in front of the class, you can set the same listening task for the rest of the class (and therefore ensure they keep quiet and pay attention to the speakers – which doesn’t always happen automatically otherwise, does it?) – that is, to listen and guess who the characters might be.


When students use a constructed persona, they can break down a psychological barrier which sometimes prevents them from opening up in conversation with a stranger (i.e. the examiner). In exams, we often have to talk about fairly personal subjects: personal experiences, significant people in our lives, and so on – and this makes some speakers more reluctant to speak at length about them than ideal in an exam setting. And, as I said before, it creates an element of unpredictability and interest during practice.

(Thanks to Csilla Járay-Benn for sharing this activity idea with me at the IATEFL Hungary conference in 2014.)

Picture description / Picture comparison and contrast


Almost all speaking exams feature either a picture description (working with a single image) or a picture comparison (working with two or more related images) task. One of the challenges for learners is the ’blank sheet syndrome’ – it can be incredibly difficult to decide where to begin, and then find things to say. The problem, of course, is that in this setting, there is no real communication need: the examiner can see the pictures just as vividly as the candidate, so what’s the point in telling him about what’s in them?

The other great challenge for learners is the fact they have to continuously speak about the topic at length. Again, the most typical learner strategy to avoid errors and failure is to stop speaking: that is, to stop providing sufficient evidence of their speaking skill. This is quite possibly the worst strategy to apply.

One way of helping students to overcome the ’blank sheet syndrome’ is to allow them to brainstorm ideas about images before they begin the exam task proper individually. Remind students to seek answers to the four basic questions: Who? (Who are in the picture?) Where? (Where are they?) What? (What are they doing?) Why? (Why do you think they are doing it?) This is where all good descriptions begin, and once students have answered these, it is much easier to move on to speculate about what else the image might suggest.

Activity 3: Comparing the incomparable


1.       Choose two UNRELATED photos. They can come from, say, two different units of your coursebook, or from your own collection. The point here is that they should not be connected in any obvious way.

2.       Instead of asking students to identify and describe the differences between them, ask them to work in pairs and find and describe 5 similarities between the two images. The more different the photos are the more students will need to rely on their creativity to come up with similarities.


These two images were taken from Oxford Matura Trainer (basic level) published by Oxford University Press for Poland in 2014 (copyright OUP). 




This activity helps students to notice key details in images, and therefore to get them started with their descriptions. It also makes the picture task more involving, and potentially more interesting for students to do.

(This suggestion is based on an activity idea by my fellow teacher trainer, Shaun Wilden.)

Activity 4: Just a minute


1.       Put students in groups to work. Ask them to toss a coin or roll a die, or use any other method you like to decide in what order they should do the task.

2.       One student has to speak on the specified subject for 60 seconds. This can be the subject from the current coursebook unit, one of the topics from the exam specifications (either chosen by yourself, or written up on prompt cards for students to select from at random). Or, to make the task slightly less difficult, students may choose their own topic.

3.       The point is to speak continuously and meaningfully at the same time. If the speaker hesitates, repeats a key point she has already mentioned, uses her mother tongue, or says something irrelevant/off-topic or something completely untrue, another student can challenge. The clock is stopped.

4.       The challenger, if the challenge is accepted by the group as valid through a quick vote, must then continue speaking for the remainder fo the 60 seconds.

5.       The winner in each group is the student left speaking when the clock runs down.

6.       Repeat the activity with another students until everyone in each group had a turn.


Doing this activity helps students to develop conversational strategies for gaining thinking time, and for building a coherent response. In order for the first speaker to win the point in each round, they must learn how to keep up the conversation without pauses, repetition or digression. The right to challenge, in the meantime, provides the rest of each group with a reason to listen and be involved.

(I learned this activity idea from my good friend and colleague, Jeremy Bowell.)

Stimulus-based discussion


This task type is specific to the Polish Matura exam (taken at the end of upper secondary studies, normally at the age of 18), but similar tasks appear in other examinations. In the task, students must consider two (or more) stimuli, including images, complex visuals like posters, web pages or leaflets, or text input, and select and justify the selection of one of them that in their opinion best meets the task parameters. There is no correct answer – the task focuses on the learners’ ability to consider alternatives and reason persuasively about their choices.

Activity 5: Reverse engineering


1.       Choose a suitable task (as described above) from your coursebook.

2.       Ask students to cover the task instructions and look only at the stimulus provided.

3.       Put them in pairs to speculate on what might connect the two (or more) alternatives. Ask them also to find and describe similarities as well as differences.

4.       Based on their brainstorming in the previous stage, ask them to write down what they think the exam task may be.

5.       Ask them to reveal the instructions, check their predictions, and then do the exam task.

6.       Alternatively, you may like to allow students to choose whether they want to do the actual exam task as printed, or the task they wrote down as their own idea. This gives learners a bit of freedom in selecting their challenge, and it makes them more personally engaged (and more motivated) to complete the task. Also, students completing slightly different tasks with the same stimulus makes it more interesting for the rest of the class to listen to their performances when you ask some pairs to perform the task in front of the whole class.

Controversial statement


Some higher-level language exams feature a task where candidates are required to argue for or against the ideas given as a statement, as a short text quote/extract expressing someone’s opinion or other form of text input.

Many learners find it very stressful to defend an opinion against someone who disagrees with everything they say. Which is exactly what happens in an exam setting, as the examiner’s goal is to provoke/inspire as much discussion as possible by disagreeing with the arguments given. Students should perhaps therefore train themselves not to argue automatically for the side of the issue they personally believe in, but for the side that they can introduce more arguments for.

Activity 6: Random opinions


1.       Ask students to read the input. Give them a minute to think about about some possible arguments for and against each statement.

2.       Put them in pairs to work.

3.       Students in each pair (Student A and B) take turns to start discussing the input.

4.       Give the following instructions.
Student A: Use a coin. Before you discuss a statement, toss the coin. If it lands on tails (the number side), you must give an argument FOR that statement. If it lands on heads (the picture side), you must give an argument AGAINST the statement.
Student B: Disagree with whatever your partner says, and use one of your own ideas to support the opposing view.

5.       Ask students to swap roles and repeat the task the other way around.

6.       As a variant, you may like to act as the playmaster. Allow a minute or so for the students to do the discussion one way around, then simply announce: Switch!, and ask pairs to switch sides in the argument, and start defending their partner’s previous position – and vice versa. Encourage stronger students to try to come up with new arguments rather than reiterate what they have already heard from their partner previously. (You may even like to ask them to switch more than once.)


This activity helps students anticipate counter-arguments better. It also reduces the element of personal involvement, and turns the task into a demonstration of communicative ability – rather than a battle of views.


As I said at the start, feel free to try any of these ideas in your exam preparation classes, and perhaps you might even like to share your own speaking exam preparation ideas with me? 

Good luck with your classes, and all the best for the new school year – if you’re one of my colleagues in the Northern Hemisphere, facing the imminent start of the 2015/2016 school year!