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IELTS & Daily Charts from The Economist

17 Apr

IELTS teachers will be glad to know that The Economist has a “Daily Chart” section on their blog pages called Graphic Detail.

Featuring “charts, maps and infographics”, not all the content is useful for those IELTS Academic writing part one tasks – the recent retrospective of Margaret Thatcher’s career in Economist covers being an example – but a lot of it is indeed very useful:  see yesterday’s exploration of changes to the minimum wage (pictured) as an example.

The sheer wealth of information that The Economist publishes in this way means that there should be something for every IELTS lesson, or at least that you can build up quite a nice collection of graphics for use with your classes.

Ways that I’ve been using these graphics with my current IELTS group include:

Lesson warmers:

A mingle activity where learners each have a different graphic, they mingle and describe their graphic to each other, thus getting a bit of additional practice in using data analysis language.  A variation:  learners swap their graphics each time, so that they get practice with lots of different graphics and information.

A dictadraw activity using two different charts where learners sit back to back and describe their graphics to each other, draw a representation of their partner’s graphic (based on that description) and when both are done, compare their efforts with the original.

Practice Tasks:

It is, of course, easy enough to design a quick IELTS academic writing part one task based on these graphics.

Task Models:

Each chart is usually accompanied by a short paragraph that describes the chart and the background to it.  It’s worth pointing out to learners that the Economist model is a journalistic one – the purpose, tone and content will be slightly different to that required by IELTS.  Nonetheless, if you have a large collection of graphics and paragraphs, learners can do a matching exercise or a reading race (where you give learners the graphic and they have to run and find the correct matching paragraph from a selection stuck to the board).

The paragraphs are also useful sources of language and, despite the caveats noted earlier, it is a useful process for learners to mine the text for any and all expressions they think they can pull out and use in their own writing.

The Economist blog can be found here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail and is also available for subscriptions via RSS or via their Twitter feed: @ECONdailycharts.

Keep Calm and Write On – #IHTOC3

5 Nov

For those that may have missed it, here are the slides (as pdf) from the webinar I gave at the IH Teachers’ Online Conference on 3rd November.

The session was a look at common problems learners have with writing for exam classes, particularly Cambridge exams (FCE etc), but also, I think, applicable to other exams and writing in general.  It then goes on to suggest a range of activities you can do with those learners to help them with these problem areas.  There’s about 36 different activities suggested – so there should be something in there for everyone!

The webinar was recorded, and if you have the time and the patience to sit through the 60 minute session, you can do so here:

Adobe Connect – Keep Calm & Write On

That should open up in a new window.  I don’t know how long that’s going to be up for, so apologies if you can’t access it.  I found the Adobe Connect software worked better in Firefox than Chrome, though that might just be me!

It’s worth taking a look at the video if you can, not just because you get an explanation of the activities, but also because there were loads of great ideas coming up in the chatbox – additions, extensions and adaptations to alternative contexts – so thanks to everyone who took part for the contributions!

Any problems, questions or queries – let me know!

Demoralising Feedback – a cautionary tale

3 Sep

It’s not often that, as teachers, we are given the opportunity to step into the shoes of our students.  Ken Wilson writes about his experiences in the German classroom on his blog and Scott Thornbury has described being a beginner in Catalan - but I gave up learning Portuguese six years ago after about two lessons,  so stepping back into the learners’ role has opened my eyes a bit.

What happened in my case was I asked my supervisor to take a look at a draft copy of my dissertation.  If you read the last post I wrote on this blog, you’ll know it’s been a bit of a struggle, but I’d had some positive feedback and I was confident in my mind that I knew where I was going with it, that I knew what I wanted to achieve and that I’d found a structure and organisation that would allow me to do it.  The draft that I emailed over to my supervisor was, I thought, near final.  A few presentational tweaks and the like, chase up a few loose references and I would be done.

Nope.  Not wanting to go into things in great detail, but it seems I’m quite a long way away from “done”.

But what has prompted this post is the realisation of what learners must occasionally feel when they get my comments scrawled all over the bottom of their written work – doom, desolation and blank incomprehension as to what exactly they need to do in order to improve.

Not all learners put all their energy into everything they do, so this is a generalisation, but a piece of written work does represent creativity, thought and effort on the part of most learners.  Most people want to do good work, get good marks and feel as though they have achieved something, that their efforts have been rewarded.  A typical comment like “some good ideas here but you need to improve your organisation – 13/20″  does not entirely meet those criteria.  Having been on the receiving end for once, I now think that if I got that back I would (a) wonder what the point in writing the damn thing in the first place was (b) have no idea what I should be doing better.

In my situation, I picked up the phone, called my supervisor and we had a chat.  It was, much more than the comments in his email, the conversation where I explained what I was trying to do and he was explaining why what I was trying to do wasn’t really a dissertation, that clarified the problems in the document I produced.  I think the idea of conversational feedback is a good one, though I understand that it might not be easy to do all the time in every context, especially with large class sizes or on courses that have a heavier focus on written work.

Having that conversation at least allows the teacher to find out whether the learner is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the work before building out of that and helping the learner to see how things can be improved.  Anyone who’s been observed by their DoS will probably be familiar with the questions:  What went well?  What went badly?  What would you do differently next time?  In some respects the process of reflective analysis is more important that creating the written work in the first place, at least in terms of seeking improvement.

So perhaps this is a conversation I need to have with my learners more often – and to try and avoid the demoralising red ink scrawl at the bottom of the page in the future.

CAE Online Resource Directory

4 Jun

For those involved with CAE exam classes – I’ve just put up a directory of online resources which you can access here:

CAE Online Resource Directory

There’s a mix of exam information, online practice exercises and teaching advice, so take a look and see what you think!

Predictably, a lot of what’s out there for “CAE” – or “Cambridge English: Advanced” as we should more properly call it – is just details for various courses run by schools and language training centres.  There isn’t as much out there as there is for FCE.

So – if you know of anything that I haven’t included – please do let me know – you can do this by leaving a comment here, or via the feedback form on the about page.

PHRAS.IN – Say this or say that?

22 Apr

This is a quite a neat tool for learners who are trying to find the right way to express something - PHRAS.IN – Say this or say that?.

You type in two choices and it comes back and tells you which of the two is more common:

I wouldn’t recommend it as a grammar checker as it would just take far too long – but it might be useful for learners struggling with phrasal verbs or idiomatic expressions.

Also – it could be a fun research tool to use in class as a way of raising learners awareness of common errors – give the learners a list of pairs of expressions, some of which could be unfortunate utterances taken from past classes or written work, and the learners discuss and choose which they think is more common / correct, before checking on the website.

Getting learners writing: FoldBooks!

19 Apr

It can be difficult to get learners writing, especially young learners who often see writing as an imposition on classroom fun and games – so fun ways to encourage learner writing are always welcome.

At the FoldPlay website, they’ve come up with FoldBooks.  As the name suggests, these are mini-booklets made out of A4 paper, which have been pre-printed with images and text.

If you go to the FoldBooks page you’ll find input boxes there to work with, once you’ve filled everything in, click the “make your book” button, then print and follow the folding and cutting instructions precisely.

There are eight boxes that need text adding to them, and consequently eight pictures that need to be included.  In order to maximise the amount of text that can be put on the page, it’s best to reduce the font size to about 12 and the text margin to about 18, which is roughly the same as the image margins.  Pictures though, can only be uploaded from the computer, so if learners want to use pictures from the internet, they’ll need to download those to the computer, before uploading them again, which is a bit of a hassle, but there you go.

I think with learners, particularly younger learners, I’d ask them to write a first draft in the classroom before adding the excitement of the computers.  All that’s needed is eight smallish – say two or three sentence – paragraphs.  It might fit nicely with some of the circle writing tasks along the lines of “describe a man  / describe a woman  /  the place they met  /  what did they say to each other / what were their dreams  /  what was the problem  /  what did they do  /  how did it end”  (for example).

Once learners have got a set of  accurate texts they’re happy with, they can think about pictures they want to illustrate their books.

That, I think, is the point to take them into the computer room and let them have a go at making their  FoldBooks.

Guest Post: Say what you see…

9 Apr

In his second guest post on this blog, Dave Cosby thinks about forcing changes on languages and considers the sound-spelling relationships apparent in English.  Above all, he admonishes, just

Say what you see…

Here in Portugal the language is undergoing a change. The new orthography is slowly being introduced and new spellings enforced by public bodies, taught in schools and universities and the older, more Latinate spellings are being phased out. The agreement between the Portuguese speaking nations was made with the best of intentions, mainly to keep the link between the spoken and written languages, and my Portuguese students tell me that it does, mostly have that effect. They have removed silent letters, such as the p from excepto, but I can’t help thinking that it’s sad to remove the link with the existing corpus of literature, and the link between Portuguese and other Latinate languages.

As an outsider though, this is not really a huge concern. What is perhaps worrying is that a  petition of more than a hundred thousand people in Portugal, complaining of the new rules, was ignored by the government of the day who pushed the law through. You might think that a hundred thousand isn’t that many, but remember that this country only has a population of ten millions or so, so we’re talking about proportionally a fair number of people.

Another couple of points strike me. As a native English speaker it feels odd that language could be imposed top down like this from a government. The English speaking world muddles along without any bodies such as the Académie française, the guardians of the French language, and seems to do alright with the informal musings of the Oxford English Dictionary and Websters.

It also seems a little bizarre that the changes were necessary at all. Portuguese, or perhaps Old Portuguese as it should now be called, is an incredibly phonetic language. Much more so than English and even French, though to be fair the main raison d’etre of the Académie these days seems to be to prevent Anglicisms creeping in such as those dangerous phrases, le weekend and le computer.

On the flip side, perhaps we in the English speaking world should take a leaf out of the Portuguese book (though using what organ I know not) and repair some of the tatty edges of our tongue. The Americans have done away with a superfluous ‘u’ here and there, as well as the simply awful ‘ough’ when a ‘w’ works much better. Even so, by ridding itself of odd spellings the Portuguese have instead landed themselves with a few more homographs.  I was reminded of this old chestnut:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead -
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
 
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose -
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!

.

Just try reading that aloud quickly… or if you’re feeling malicious get a cocky FCE/CAE/CPE student to have a crack. It might bring them down a peg or two (until they respond with a totally incomprehensible local tongue twister).

Perhaps we should reform English after all. Here’s another tract that seems to have existed as long as the internet, but perhaps there’s one or two readers out there who haven’t come across it.

Euro English
 The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the EU rather than German which was the other possibility.
As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty’s Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five year phase-in plan that would be known as “Euro-English”.
In the first year, “s” will replace the soft “c”. Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard “c” will be dropped in favour of the “k”. This should klear up konfusion and keyboards kan have 1 less letter.
There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome “ph” will be replaced with “f”. This will make words like “fotograf” 20% shorter.
In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be ekspekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkorage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of the silent “e”s in the language is disgraseful, and they should go away.
By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” with “z” and “w” with “v”. During ze fifz year, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou” and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters.
After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi to understand ech ozer. Ze drem vil finali kum tru! And zen world!

We often take the link between written and spoken language for granted. We should not. I came across this excellent article by David Moser on ‘Why Chinese is so Damn Hard!’, so here’s a link to remind you why its so important.

http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html

Like the great Mr Roy Walker used to say, ‘ Just say what you see’.

Dave Cosby is a teacher of more years experience than he cares to remember and has worked in a variety of countries around the world, in a variety of roles from teacher to Director of Studies to language school chain troubleshooter.  Currently he’s based in Coimbra, Portugal.
This is his second guest post on the blog – his first is here:  “If you look at the bottom of the screen“.

#ELTChat Summary: Teaching at a Discourse Level

15 Feb

How can we focus language teaching more at discourse level rather than sentence level?

The first #eltchat of 2012 attempted to answer this question!  I wasn’t actually there and didn’t take part in the chat and I’m still not quite sure how I’ve ended up writing the summary except that Marisa_C possesses remarkable powers of persuasion and as someone who teaches higher levels this is an area of interest!  Hopefully, this captures the key points, but I’m not a “discourse specialist”, so feel free to point out any errors or omissions.  I haven’t cited individual contributors, but the transcript is available if you’d like to know who said what.

“Teacher, what mean “discourse”?”

The initial question makes the assumption that discourse works at a higher level than merely the sentence thought the Wikipedia entry relating discourse analysis to “approaches to analyzing written, spoken . signed language use or any significant semiotic event” – which I interpret broadly as meaning “if something attempts to convey meaning, it can be analysed to see how it does so”.  A more accessible overview of discourse suggests that discourse analysts are concerned with “the construction of meaning throughout a text”.  (it should be pointed out here that the word “text” is used more to mean a linguistic event than a written document).

Thus discourse can apply to patterns of interaction, “text” structures, communication events, language within a text – usually occurring within a context of authentic language use.  There are no set “rules” of discourse per se, because discourse examines everything and the rules change depending on the context.

Stuck at the Sentence?  Problems with discourse:

Receptively, learners simply may not know enough vocabulary to access texts effectively – to fully understand a text learners need to be able to recognize 95% of the vocabulary used in the text (Laufer, 1989).  Additionally, the mechanics of textual cohesion devices like referencing, linking expressions and paragraphing need to be understood.

Receptive knowledge of these devices also form part of language tests, like FCE, CAE, CPE, IELTS (etc), and within fields like EAP.  Often these tests also require learners to demonstrate productive knowledge of these devices in structured, genre specific writing tasks.  While genre is an aspect of discourse, genre familiarity is a separate issue for learners to grapple with.

Where learners are preparing for a language test, classes tend to become very test focused, very accuracy focused and very form focused – developing a test dependency that can be difficult to move away from.  This may account for the amount of language teaching conducted at the sentence level within test preparation classes, though this is not ideal.

It isn’t helped by the general trend within published ELT materials for decontextualized, fragmented, sentence based language presentations.  Grammar teaching in particular tends to be conducted at the level of the sentence and examine items in isolation and without reference to a wider context.  The natural fluidity of language would seem to predicate against this.

Problem?  Solution! – what a bunch of Hoey!

(Bonus points to those who got the discourse analysis joke there….)

The simplest responses to the issue of isolated sentence based grammar teaching would appear to be just to teach grammar in a wider context and by making learners aware of functional aspects of language and their use – aspects of Speech Act study (which is only possible in context).  This could be facilitated by more use of authentic materials or by use of digital coursebooks (this latter point wasn’t fully expanded upon – I’m intrigued and would welcome comments!).

The other key suggestion is to move learners from receptive awareness of discourse patterns, for example making them aware of such patterns as they occur in listening and reading tasks, through to productive acts that feature and practice the target discourse structures.  This would seem to favour a product approach to writing – the exposure of learners to a model text before asking them to produce something based on that model.  There is often a reluctance amongst learners to “do writing” in class, but while instruction could take place in class, the actual practice of the writing skill need not.

(An authorial aside – just from reading through the tweets as they related to discourse and testing, in particular the learners desire just to “get through the test”, I think it’s worth pointing out to learners that often with testing, there is no “quick fix”.  Discourse features occur in many language tests precisely because they are skills to be developed and rather than something that can be sidestepped.  There are task strategies than can help fine tune learner performance, but if the underlying skills aren’t there, neither will exam performance be! )

In conclusion – Do Learners need Discourse Analysis?

A good question – do learners really need discourse analysis skills or is it just the teachers who do?  There was a general consensus that the main goal is to have learners working and using “real language”, which would seem to take us back to using authentic materials as part of the input process, both to serve for language development and provision of exponents, but also to raise awareness of discourse structures and patterns as they arise in the target texts.

Teachers therefore need training in discourse analysis so that they can effectively instruct the learners, and be able to evaluate published materials more critically.  Thus they can help the learners to not only look at language performance but also to reflect on the language they encounter, to think about aspects of discourse such as audience and purpose – to be aware of the patterns rather than actually conduct a discourse analysis.

Further Reading, References and links from the chat:

(Links given where possible)

 

An apology on behalf of #eltchat – Raquel_EFL appeared to make a large contribution to the chat with people responding with phrases like “brilliant” and “Good point!!!”  but unfortunately for some reason these contributions didn’t show up in the transcript and I fear have been lost to history….

#eltchat takes place on twitter every Wednesday at 12 noon and 9.00pm London time.  Simply sign in or sign up to twitter and search for the hashtag #eltchat.  For more information, check out the website.

Using Haiku for Summary Tasks

12 Jan

Summary task woes
Unfound ideas from the texts
Lacking clarity
 
What is a Haiku?
Distillation of ideas
Concisely worded 
 
This could go quite wrong
Haiku for summary tasks?
Might be worth a try 
 
 
 

Learners at CPE (Proficiency) level frequently have issues with the comprehension and summary task on the Use of English paper (click here for Cambridge ESOL’s candidate guide).

Answering the comprehension questions can be difficult enough, but the summary task is enough to turn teachers and students into gibbering wrecks, sobbing in the corner of the classroom and wailing at their own percieved inadequacy.  The truth is that they aren’t inadequate in any way – they just need some training!  Using Haiku is an approach I’ve used to try and help learners access the core ideas of the texts in a simple and succinct way.

Continue reading

The First day of Geekmas: A short talk on using Poetry…

20 Dec

On the first day of Geekmas, some blogger gave to me:  a short talk on using poetry…..

It’s the last / first day of the teflgeek Christmas countdown and it’s been a fun, somewhat introspective, quite stressful on occasion but ultimately I hope, useful, Christmas countdown.  I’m not sure I’ll be repeating the experience again next year – at least not in this form!  So a reminder of what we’ve had so far:

I thought that, in a twist and given how I’ve massacred the poetic form in creating spurious rhymes in attempting the twelve days of geekmas, I’d end with a short talk on poetry.  I’ve put this together as a you tube video – it’s the first video cast I’ve attempted, so any feedback on technique etc gratefully appreciated!

Any and all links referred to in the presentation, plus a load more besides, are given below.  Enjoy!

References and further ideas:

 poetryclass – “taking the fear out of poetry” – http://www.poetryclass.net/

A wealth of teaching resources, articles and ideas on how and why to use poetry with classes.  Designed more for students within the UK education system, but resources are graded by year group, so you’ll be able to find some suitable resources for most ages and levels.

The Poetry Express – poetry writing for 7-11year olds – http://www.thepoetryexpress.com/

Again, aimed more at the UK education system.  Poetry Express has a lot of stuff that’s aimed directly at the kids developing their abilities to write poetry as well as teaching resources that approach poetry from a cross-curricular viewpoint.

http://www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~tpl/workshops/exercises.html

This is a just a simple list of poetry workshop ideas – more ideas to stimulate poetry creation than developing ability per se.

http://connected.waldenu.edu/language-and-literacy/english-language-learners/item/1482-how-to-teach-english-through-poetry

This is a useful and interesting, but more theoretical, article on how and why to use poetry in the classroom.

The Poetry Zone: http://poetryzone.woodshed.co.uk/index2.htm

Another kids based site – with competitions, poetry theme ideas, a place for kids to upload their poems to and usefully, a teacher zone with further links and ideas to help you use poetry in the classroom.  Look at classroom resources and “Poetry Kit” by Jan Dean for some great ideas! ( I really liked the “mismatch” idea!)

Forms of Poetry:  http://www.tooter4kids.com/forms_of_poetry.htm

This is an excellent resource for different types of poetry and poetry ideas – from limericks to haiku, language based  (e.g. used to), shape poems, parts of speech poems – the list goes on and one.  Just scroll down to see what there is to see.  Strongly recommended!

Teaching Grammar Creatively.  Gerngross, Puchta & Thornbury, 2006 Helbling Languages.

A great grammar teaching ideas source, many of the outcomes are based around the idea of poems or poetry creation.  Repetition of a grammatical form, so it seems, can lead to some great poetry!

Poem into Poem, Maley & Moulding, 1985, Cambridge University Press.

Possibly a little dated in terms of content, but the ideas included are still very definitely worth taking a look at.  “We ignore the poetic function of language at our peril.  It is the cutting edge of linguistic creativity and innovation, and the key to a feel for the soul of a language.”  Page 134.

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/articles/text-language-classrooms-talo-tavi-tasp

Lindsay Clandfield has an excellent in-depth article on using texts in the classroom, looking at TAVI / TALO / TASP in more detail.

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