Tag Archives: teaching

The Gap between Classroom and Online Learning – Closing the Circle

I’m back from an inspirational few days at the IATEFL Conference in Birmingham and ready to report on my own workshop ‘The Gap between Classroom and Online Learning – Closing the Circle’ which took place on Saturday, the final day.    

The workshop looked at the Common European Framework of Reference and ways in which its descriptors can be used to link online activities to classroom tasks. The topics that interest me most at the moment, as well as all things tech, are task-based learning and communicative language teaching. The latter has been keeping me awake at night since I heard Bill Vanpatten say (controversially) that most language programmes ‘may claim to be communicative, but they really aren’t, and they never have been.’ (SLA Podcast: Tea with BVP, episode 1)  

Vanpatten says that without a valid definition of communication we can’t understand what communication is. His preferred definition is  ‘communication is the expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning in a given context.’  What I took away from that podcast was that not all pairwork is necessarily communicative, and communicative tasks should always have a purpose. This led me to analyse what I was doing with authentic materials in class and I realised that I was relying heavily on comprehension questions or tasks that involved students sharing their opinions, but not a lot else.

So I turned to the CEFR, or rather returned, as we have an on-again, off-again love affair. From giving training courses on the CEFR, I know that many teachers are not really familiar with the descriptors. They may know the global scale or the self-assessment grid, but not much else. So my goal was to get people thinking about how they could take advantage of the CEFR to create their own lessons, particularly tasks built around online materials.

I used modules from telc’s English Practice Material Online B1-B2 to create a variety of communicative tasks.

So here’s my summary…

When it comes to using blended learning or self-study materials as homework, many teachers worry that students won’t actually do the activities.  If this happens, it can be very de-motivating and can disrupt the entire lesson plan. If it happens a few times, the teacher might soon decide that the ‘tech’ experiment just isn’t worth the effort.

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To ensure that students carry out the online work we set them, we need to create a stronger link between online activities and the classroom. Instead of ending our lesson with the instruction to go online and do task X for homework, we need to take the process full circle. To do this we can add a pre-task to spark interest and motivation and then follow-up tasks to build on what was done online.  This shows students that online homework is not just ‘busy work’ but essential to progress. If they don’t complete the tasks, they are at a disadvantage in the face to face lesson.

You might think this is obvious, but because online learning materials are created for self-study, giving immediate feedback, we tend to think ‘they did the task, we can move on’. But then we miss out on an opportunity to really knit the course together. We want to make sure that students see it as one course, rather than two parallel streams that are loosely linked, with the second stream being less important, or possibly optional.

We could take the online material and check comprehension or vocabulary, ask for opinions or predictions, but these are things we already do. The CEFR, with its action-oriented, communicative approach, can help us come up with creative tasks that are communicative, personalised and appropriate.

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In the workshop, we looked at modules from telc’s English Practice Material Online B1-B2. Here is what we did with a module from the unit Gratitude, involving a radio show where listeners rang in and spoke about the people who made a difference to their lives. To create some follow-up tasks, we first used the descriptors for Correspondence.

Correspondence
B2  Can write letters conveying degrees of emotion and highlighting the personal significance of events and experiences and commenting on the correspondent’s news and views.
B1 Can write personal letters giving news and expressing thoughts about abstract or cultural topics such as music, films. Can write personal letters describing experiences, feelings and events in some detail.

Using these and the idea of Gratitude, International Thank You Day (the topic of the listening activity) and the person you are grateful to, you could come up with a task like this:

‘It’s International Thank You Day, the day we are reminded to thank those who’ve helped us and made a difference in our lives.’

Who would you like to say a special thanks to? Why? Take a minute to think about your answer, then tell your partner. Write an email to a special person for International Thank You Day.

‘Happy International Thank You Day!  I’m sending you this email to say thank you.’

Explain why you want to thank them. You can write about some experiences you’ve shared, where you both first met, or how you felt when they helped you out or supported you.

I have highlighted the words that link directly back to the CEFR descriptor, to show that the task really focuses on what the CEFR says students at those levels should be doing.

What can you do with the finished emails? Note the descriptor for B2 mentions commenting on the correspondent’s news and views. B2 students could be given a new email at random, and asked to read and respond in character.

Other ideas participants came up with included composing letters to thank specific people, designing thank you cards for family and friends, writing facebook posts and even a song about gratitude.

But to be honest, that one was kind of easy, so I decided to try something more challenging. I asked the participants to match the topic of gratitude to two other descriptors that were not as obvious as perhaps correspondence was.

SUSTAINED MONOLOGUE: Describing Experience INFORMAL DISCUSSION (WITH FRIENDS)
B2 Can give clear, detailed descriptions on a wide range of subjects related to his field of interest. B2 Can take an active part in informal discussion… commenting, putting point of view clearly, evaluating alternative proposals and making and responding to hypotheses.
B1 Can reasonably fluently relate a straightforward narrative or description as a linear sequence of points. Can give detailed accounts of experiences, describing feelings and reactions. B1 Can make his/her opinions and reactions understood as regards solutions to problems or practical questions of where to go, what to do, how to organise an event (e.g. an outing).

What would you come up with?

For Sustained Monologue, I suggested a task based on a speech at your best friend’s wedding or birthday party and for Informal Discussion, a task that focuses on planning a surprise party for your best friend.

Other ideas for Sustained Monologue from the participants included having students create their own radio show talking about people who were special to them at different points in their lives, giving a thank you speech at an award ceremony, and presenting a Pecha Kucha on the topic of gratitude. For Informal Discussion, the radio show idea again, but this time as a dialogue or interview, a discussion about who to award a prize to, or which song expressing gratitude you would choose as you theme tune. Other ideas were informal discussions to decide on the best birthday gift for a mutual friend, or to plan a day out for a friend who’s feeling a bit down. I was delighted by the participants’ enthusiasm. Their suggestions were really creative and would definitely make exciting communicative lessons.

We looked at other modules and came up with lots of great ideas and hopefully I achieved my goal of sharing my love of the CEFR. Not only can it help students assess their abilities, it can also be used by teachers as a tool for planning a course, creating lessons and as in the case here, designing communicative tasks to use with online materials.

What should we do with these descriptors? I ended with my workshop with a challenge…

  • Look at the descriptors with students in class to identify some key areas students wish to work on. Use those descriptors when planning your lessons.
  • Assign descriptor/s at random to each of the units in your coursebook. Try to integrate these descriptors when planning.
  • Find interesting content online. Use the CEFR descriptors to design action-oriented tasks to link the online material to classroom learning.

What will you do?

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Resources:

http://www.teawithbvp.com

How to use telc English Practice Material Online : watch this youtube video. https://youtu.be/QBa2JtDRxZY

Eaquals Bank of Descriptions as Levels https://www.eaquals.org/resources/revision-and-refinement-of-cefr-descriptors/

The CEFR handbook

http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/Source/Framework_EN.pdf

Why I’m using Chat tools in face-to-face ELT

Online tutorials are a weekly fixture on the distance learning MA  I’m currently doing. Contrary to my expectations, these are not carried out in a video conferencing setting to replicate a face-to-face environment. Instead, a synchronous chat tool is used. Students and tutor are online at the same time, in a ‘meeting room’ where they discuss a topic by typing out their comments to each other.

My initial feelings towards chat were very mixed.  The approach is very student-centred and I was at times frustrated by the slow pace of discussion and the tendency of the participants to go, as I felt, off topic. I enjoyed the interaction and felt it was a nice way of getting to know classmates, but was sceptical about how beneficial it would be for me from a learning standpoint.

I quickly noticed that my class mates didn’t feel as I did. Some of the benefits they mentioned were

  • there’s a written record/transcript of the tutorial (useful if a student is called away)
  • the transcript can be used for revision or to help you catch up if you missed a discussion
  • non-native speakers of English may feel more confident about participating in writing
  • multiple people can ‘talk’ at the same time

Within a few sessions, I’d completely changed my mind. Two factors I found particularly impressive were increased participation and inclusion. Because communication is being carried out via text, participants don’t have to wait for their turn to respond. So there’s no real limit to the number of comments they can make within the hour-long tutorial. As more people are commenting simultaneously, participation is higher than it would be in face-to-face tutorials.

Many students mentioned that they feel more confident making a written contribution to the discussion, as they have time to formulate their comments and reflect on grammar and vocabulary choice. As a result, chat tutorials are more inclusive than tutorials where spoken communication is required. This was really something I had never thought about and it encouraged me to assess how I facilitate communication in my own classes, with the realisation that, be it through the context I work in or an unconscious bias based on learning styles or preferences, oral communication is prioritised over written communication. So my new goal is to try to introduce text-based communication to some of my lessons to see if it could help increase participation and ensure all students have a voice.

Of course from using chat weekly, I see that there are some disadvantages. Due to the fast pace of participation, there are often spelling and grammar mistakes, from native-speakers as well as non-native speakers. As many people are communicating simultaneously without the presence of turn-taking conventions typical in face to face communication, the discussion can be hard to follow.

This means the tutorial scripts can be confusing, particularly to those who didn’t take part.  However, I think that errors in syntax and spelling, and confusion arising from comment overlap can become valuable learning opportunities, especially as students are analysing their own mistakes. So this main disadvantage is actually a benefit in a language learning context.

After some research, I have found the site TodaysMeet.com a free site that allows you create ‘rooms’ for chat comments and discussions.

So far I’ve used it with a group of six B2-C1 business students in an advertising agency, as a backchannel for comments and questions while we watched a TED talk (I paused at regular intervals to allow them to read and comment on what the others had written).

I also tried it with a group of 20 university students (mixed levels B1- C1) studying tourism. I created 4 rooms, assigned 5 students to each room and with the students scattered around the room, gave them a problem to solve. No speaking, just typing. Of course, the silence was broken by occasional laughs, but all in all, I was very impressed with how they got stuck in. With the adults, on the other hand, all aged between 30 and 50, a few had to be ‘disciplined’ for messing around (which I admit was funny in itself, especially their expressions when I gave them homework as ‘punishment’. They had to write up a summary of the discussion using the transcript, which surprisingly for this group, most of them did!)

I intend to do more experimenting with this tool now that I have realised the benefits chat can have and plan to write up some lesson ideas soon. In the meantime, if anyone tries or has tried this out, please let me know how you got on.

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I know the link is weak, but it’s about chat communication too! 😉

Learning to appreciate Quizlet Flashcards

Adaptive Tutoring Systems – Quizlet  

I’m busy being a student again and now half way through the first year of an MA in Technology and Education with the University of Leeds. As part of the module ‘Learning with Digital Technologies’ MA, I had to reflect on my experiences with different tools and learning theories. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on the flashcard tool Quizlet.

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Quizlet allows you to create flashcards, games and quizzes which can be used to learn vocabulary, definitions, historic dates and so on. Progress is assessed automatically, giving students feedback as they make their way through the activities.

After logging in for the first time, I typed ‘English’ in the search function and found numerous flashcard sets, created and shared by users.  Many consisted of image and word combinations suitable for lower ability levels. Others sets such as ‘Junior College English Vocab’ contained words like nebulous, fetters and truculent, which would be too advanced for most ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Many sets were simply titled English and, although hovering over the title presents a view of the contents, it was often unclear what the connection between the words was. Without proper naming or tagging conventions to clearly identify the target group and type of the vocab, finding suitable sets to practice with is time-consuming and I feel this reduces the value of the set sharing function.

However, when I started practicing with a flashcard set I found the tool to be very engaging and was impressed by clever additions such as the option to listen to the words, the choice of displaying either the term or the definition first and also the fact that tests can be printed. The games are timed and once your score is revealed, you are encouraged to repeat the activity to beat your time and improve your position on the score board. Motivating messages, such as ‘Yipee, you beat your previous record’, are also given.

Having assessed Quizlet from a learner’s standpoint, I followed the steps to create a set of flashcards on English financial terms with definitions. This was very easy and, as the tool gives you the option of importing your own lists, very quick.

Quizlet does not ‘teach’ the user, being limited to simple repetition of words to help memorise spelling and meaning. However, I feel the key to its appeal is the individualisation aspect, as students can choose the type of activity they want to try and can repeat it as many times as they want, therefore defining the pace of the progress.

I had heard of Quizlet prior to this, but had assumed it would not be suitable for advanced-level adult learners. I worried they would see it as game-like or frivolous, and I also felt that prescribing lists of words for students to learn goes against the type of student-centred learning I try to practice. Having to try out different tools as part of the MA course has made me aware of the need to reflect on my own bias or preference regarding learning strategies, and now having tried Quizlet, I feel that, ironically, the tool I dismissed as being too teacher-centred could have great potential in a constructivist classroom. Allowing students to choose the vocabulary and definitions they want to practice or encouraging them to create sets themselves, which they could then share with classmates, would give them a central role in the learning process.

Padlet digital noticeboards: ideal for English teachers

As Business English teachers, travelling from company to company, we usually have to make do with the equipment available to us. In some cases, that might not even include a whiteboard or flip chart. If, however, you are lucky enough to have an interactive whiteboard, or even just a projector to hook your laptop up to, you’re ready to make that move from course books and handouts to a more creative ‘connected classroom’.

The range of websites and apps out there is staggering. You can produce everything from podcasts and word clouds to infographics and videos, but what then? You need some way of bringing it all together, a place to save and share your students’ finished work. For this, Padlet.com is ideal.

Padlet lets you create a digital wall, similar to a noticeboard or pin board. You can post content for your students, adding documents, videos and links related to a topic being covered in class or you can create a wall for collaboration and allow students post their work, comments, questions there.

I love it because it’s easy to use and because students do not need to sign up to access walls. You can have multiple padlet walls, one for each group or project. You can customise your wall, make it public or private, pick an address or url for each one and share the link easily. You can choose to be notified when students post something, which is handy if you want to give feedback on homework. I could go on and on.

Watch this video on how to get started:

Some of the many ways teachers can use Padlet:

  • Share content with your students. Have a wall dedicated to each different group. Add anything you see that might be of interest to them, related to their business or the topic being covered in class. This can be used for homework or as a source of further reading for when they have some extra time on their hands and fancy some English practice.
  • Create walls for specific topics. I have walls for things like presentation skills or CV preparation. Students and teacher add relevant content. These walls could potentially be reused again and again.
  • Students create their own walls and use them as a digital portfolio. They save their finished work there. It’s a great way of charting their development and at the end of the course, they can present a selection of their work.
  • Use a wall for team work and brainstorming. The free flow layout allows you to move posted ideas around to categorise them as good, ok or impractical.
  • Have a wall for each course book or course book unit  – students add new vocabulary, links to extra grammar practice, additional texts relating to the unit’s content.
  • Display – photos of art projects, finished essays (stream mode works well for this also).
  • Discussion (stream mode). Post a statement and students give opinions and comment on the opinions of their classmates.
  • Students can each create a wall and use it as a learning diary, a language notebook, or a resource scrapbook. Save links to websites, notes on grammar, vocab lists, inspiring quotes. As walls have no limit to their size, this makes them a great bookmarking tool.
  • Use a wall for introductions at the start of a course. Students can share information about themselves, photos, even post an audio greeting. You could also collectively create a list of everyone’s contact details, so if someone misses class, they have the chance to get in touch with fellow-classmates to find out what they missed.

Go check it out! I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I do.

www.padlet.com

Aim high with your e-portfolio

Sometimes I get the feeling my students don’t feel as enthusiastic and passionate about English as I do!! For my students pursuing degrees in Marketing and Media, or Tourism and Event Management, English is a compulsory course. Some, while acknowledging that it is the language of business or travel, don’t see the immediate relevance for them and being first years, have yet to shake off the bad studying habits they may have picked up at school, i.e. do enough to get by and cram before the test. The language levels within the groups can range from those who say they’re not very talented at languages to those who’ve spent a year backpacking around Australia or have an English-speaking parent or two. This mix of abilities can have advantages as well as disadvantages, and of course, mirrors more accurately the situation they may end up working in once they have left university. In most cases, graduates in Germany applying for office jobs are expected to speak English regardless of the position they are interested in, and some companies,  particularly those with international teams, insist that formal meetings and presentations are carried out in English rather than German. This means English is likely to become an important part of their day to day working lives. How do we prepare these students for this reality? How can we make their English course more relevant, more engaging? How do we help weaker students while still challenging those with advanced or near native skills? Oh, and while I’m at it, I might as well throw another challenge into the mix. How do we encourage students to take ownership of their work, to ensure that what they do in class is the best quality they can produce, rather than something thrown together in order to just get the task done? After mulling it over, I am going to give something new a try: An electronic portfolio. A space that allows students to record their achievements, display the work they have created or co-created and document their development. This e-portfolio can be shared with family and friends or kept private, but could also be used later when applying for jobs where English is essential, as a means of proving language skills by showcasing their original work.

Created using Pathbrite
Created using Pathbrite

I think students will be more conscientious if they see that, rather than just a text or task to be handed in, corrected and forgotten about, the work they do in class can be part of something that shows their language ability, allows them express their creativity and actually says something about who they are. (Am I being wildly optimistic here?!) I spent an hour playing around with Pathbrite and think it could work well for what I plan. It didn’t take long to figure out how to use it,  adding different types of media was easy, and I’m happy with the end result. I think it looks good, and can image my students feeling quite proud of their work when presented so stylishly. It will motivate many to take that extra step, be it one final edit or spell-check, having a classmate take a quick look over it and give feedback, or adding a nice concluding paragraph before submitting a text. At least that’s the hope… let’s see how it works in practice! If anyone has experience using e-portfolios with EFL students, I’d love to hear about it. We create podcasts and infographics, digital posters and presentations as well as writing various types of texts. The e-portfolio can link these things together and serve as a record of the hard work and effort the students put into their work. www.pathbrite.com

How to: Facebook groups EFL. Videos

How to: Facebook groups for EFL/EAP.

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on EAP 2014 at the University of Potsdam and my Facebook groups for EAP presentation, here are 2 videos to give details of how to actually go about setting it all up. This first tutorial outlines the steps you take to create a Facebook group to use with your English students. The focus is on creating a space for sharing and collaborating, while encouraging students to use English outside of the classroom using a tool that they are familiar with. All this is possible without teachers or students needing to ‘friend’ anyone.

This second tutorial gives you some quick ideas for getting started. You can post pictures, questions and tasks, create polls or add a document.

Here is the presentation as a PDF. I have included a number of suggestions that I found helped the project really get off the ground. Copy FBshort

Good luck!

 

Word Clouds: Endless Options

A word cloud is a visual representation of a text. The tool I usually  use is Word it out (www.worditout.com).  Not only do word clouds look good, they are easy to make and fun to analyse.

What can you do with a word cloud?

  • Create a word cloud of class vocabulary to be practiced or learned
  • Make a word cloud of a text you have written to see which words appear most often
  • Make a word cloud of adjectives or verbs to display as a poster
  • Use in class before reading a text to pre-teach unknown vocabulary
  • Generate interest by having students guess what topic of the unknown text is
  • Use after reading as revision
  • Tell the story of the text
  • Use word clouds to help students create summaries of the information
  • At the start of the course, students could create word clouds with words and phrases about themselves to use as introductions
  • Create a word cloud with words in two languages, English and that of the students (if working with a monolingual group). Students try to match the words.

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How to: a quick youtube tutorial on using Worditout.com

Word it out is great to start you off. There are other sites, but this is my favourite. It takes no time at all to get to grips with how it works, sharing is easy, it’s fun and the end product looks good. You have the option to choose different settings, such as removing specific words or making your chosen words larger or smaller, but even without that, the images look good, grab students’ attention and create opportunities for discussion. What’s not to love!!!