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Action research update

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In which students reject reading on ipads … Last week, I interviewed my students about their initial experiences of reading graded readers.  At the time, they were all either some way through their first reading book or at the end of it.  If you’ve read my first blog about the extensive reading project, you’ll know that I have a mix of enthusiastic and reluctant readers taking part in the project, but without exception, my students would not choose to read graded readers. Why not graded readers? My first task was to find out the reasons behind this aversion.  Interestingly, the majority of students weren’t so much put off by graded readers as ignorant of their existence.  Seven out of eleven students didn’t know what a graded reader was, but, it turns out, were cautiously willing to ‘have a go’ at reading one (and this included the reluctant readers).  There were four students who weren’t keen, and coincidentally, they seemed to be the stronger, more enthusiastic readers.  Their responses were: I don’t mind reading graded readers, but they’re not my first choice: I couldn’t find books I like or the topics I’m interested in the range of books (2) I don’t like reading graded readers because they aren’t enough of a challenge for me.(2) I don’t like to be divided into a group which tells everyone what level I am. (1) So, it seems that a concern about level and ‘losing face’ is a factor in students’ disinclination to choose graded readers.  So too is limitation of story choice.  This is hard to believe when the range of stories offered by diverse publishers is considered.  However, many of my keen readers tend to read ‘young adult’ literature and are attracted to best-selling titles such as The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska.  Others read adult fiction, with sophisticated emotional themes such as The Shock of the Fall.  All of the novels they read are contemporary stories and offer their readers the opportunity to ‘relate’ to the characters and their experiences. Despite the continued reservations of one or two students with regard graded readers, a surprising number of students (16/22) said that they had ‘quite’ enjoyed their first graded reader experience.  They gave these reasons for doing so: I enjoyed reading the book because Number of students it wasn’t too difficult. ( I didn’t like the story much though) 3 I like the unexpected endings  of the Macmillan Readers 3 I like the genre 3 I like the subject matter 2 I like short stories, easy to digest without interruption 1 I’ve seen the book/ musical so ‘understand’ the story and can ignore the vocabulary I don’t understand. 1 I love all the small details and what they told you about the characters 1 Yes: Story is quite fun, liked the characters 2   The students’ enthusiasm for graded readers wasn’t overwhelming.  The enthusiastic readers amongst them tended to read the graded reader alongside their favoured teen literature.  In addition, most of the students had done few, or avoided altogether, the pre-reading, while reading and post-reading exercises…but more of this in the next blog in this series. All of them, however, selected their next book without complaint.  Which, in terms of teenagers’ normal enthusiasm levels needs to be viewed as a minor victory. Why not ipads? Three weeks prior to the interview, I had allocated students their books.  Most had chosen to ‘borrow’ digital copies (all Oxford University Press bookworm titles) through RM Books’ Library.  This was a logical choice as they had already taken OUP’s reading level test...

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It’s a whole other world – Task-based English teaching with machinima

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machinima /məˈʃɪnɪmə/ noun the practice or technique of producing animated films through the manipulation of video game graphics. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FY0L2R5J3Eo I have to admit that I’ve always viewed the world of Second Life and the avatars that populate it as completely alien, both to myself (Second life is just for geeks who need to get out more, surely?!) and to the ELT classroom.  This week, though, second life has entered my world in the form of a seminar delivered by Dr Michael Thomas, Reader and Associate Professor in Digital education and Learning at the University of Central Lancashire.  The talk that he gave at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge argued that ‘3-D immersive environments’ can be a very useful classroom resource, used in conjunction with video, if teachers and students can learn the skills to use it.  Despite myself, I am beginning to see the potential of machinima in the classroom, though the seminar raised more questions in my mind than it answered. Dr Thomas’ talk was wide-ranging because it attempted to bring together three strands: 1 Task-based learning, (TBL) its opportunities and challenges 2 The use of machinima in the classroom 3 Learning viewed through socio-cultural theory Somehow – though I’m still a little fuzzy on the ‘how’– TBL, used in conjunction with digital technology (in this case machinima) is seen by Dr Thomas as ‘more effective’ than TBL without the technology. This is because, it was argued, that TBL teaching has a number of challenges associated with it, particularly when used with learners and teachers from Hong Kong, Vietnam and Japan.  These are: Even when Asian students are capable of doing a task in English, they tend to resort to using their L1. Asian students seemed reluctant to initiate discussion. TBL is better suited to higher level learners than those with a lower language level. Dr Thomas argued that using TBL with virtual worlds frees students up to come up with powerful new L2 identities and so lessens the anxiety associated with speaking English.  This makes sense to me.  When students role play, the imaginary context and identities they create sometimes encourages them to say more than they would if speaking as ‘themselves’.  Creating a ‘real’ avatar that walks, talks and has the capacity to communicate with others would presumably allow for more extended, believable role play.  It would also lend a greater sense of authenticity to the role play because it’s taking place in another ‘world,’ imaged in intricate detail, other than the classroom.  This means that many of the characteristics of TBL such as meaningful communication and interaction are satisfied by process of teachers and students producing their own machinima. Through the EU-funded project Camelot, Dr Thomas (project coordinator) and his team are investigating how machinima can be best used to teach languages online.  A quick browse through the Camelot site revealed that there are some early teacher adopters of machinima who are already using them to teach or are engaged in trying to do so.  Hanna Outakoski for example, has made short films to help her students to develop their language skills.  In her video interview, she talks about wanting to make films with machinima for the following reasons: ‘with machinima you can make a film and use it many times, for example, and you can have many perspectives on it and you can design a task in different ways every time.’ It seems that making machinima allows for recycling, but it also allows for unlimited contexts. ‘If you are making a film in the real world…you can’t find all the environments you can’t...

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10 fixes for cohesion errors

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When teaching students how to write for IELTS and when writing IELTS materials, it’s very tempting to prioritise the top down approach.  This is particularly true when it comes to Task 2.  Teachers need to find ways of activating students’ existing vocabulary, of encouraging them to take a critical  perspective on a topic and of teaching them about new perspectives and lexis associated with an essay question.  It’s also perhaps most conducive to a communicative lesson to focus on ideas and opinions, rather than tackle a rather more technical – and arguably drier – aspect of writing, such as cohesion. That said, I’d argue that a focus on cohesion – albeit occasional – is worthwhile. By pointing out errors in cohesion in students’ work, a teacher can also convince their students that taking a ‘bottom-up’ approach to texts is sometimes a useful thing to do.  Here are some errors that I recently highlighted in my IELTS students’ work: 1 Misuse of linking words “There is no doubt that the growing number of refugee is a global problem. There is a strong argument that industrialised nations should help by taking in more refugees and this is not an issue which can be solved easily.” 2 Issues with non-finite clauses “However, though they may attain a sense of satisfaction and achievement, they are not responsible for themselves. After getting injured, the NHS needs to offer them free medical treatment, which is very unfair the tax payer.” 3 Unclear antecedents “People who practice extreme sports are well aware of the risks they face. As most extreme activities need professional guidance, they are definitely given warnings of potential risks and how to avoid before they start.” “Tax collected can allow the hospital to do more research on stem cells and launch advertisements on organ transplant which help to enhance medical technology and grant them a greater chance of survival.” “In this case, most people probably think the person who is innocent of his or her illness should be provided with treatment first. Also, this kind of injury is absolutely preventable as long as people are more careful.” 4 Misuse of pronouns “If someone participates in white-water rafting, it is natural to imagine the picture of they fighting the rough river and possibly rush away by it.”   5 Misuse of relative pronouns “People who practise extreme sports are well aware of the risks they face. They often have purchased insurance before participating in the sports which the bill can be either fully or partially funded by the company.” 6 Confusion with articles “Most extreme sports require a qualification from the person to ensure they are trained beforehand so that they can cope with the injuries instantaneously.  Instructors and technicians are always giving commands to guide the person.  As the person has a perfect knowledge about what risks there will be and what they are doing, they should not enjoy the free health care since the unfortunates are unable to prevent their diseases.” 7 Problems with parallelism “For example, there may be insufficient supply of food and traffic congestion.” 8 Issues with synonyms and word class “Sometimes the hospital has to make decision on giving up or stopping the treatment for somebody. Shall the self-inflicted injuries be sent to private hospital so that the NHS can provide services to the less fortunate people?” 9 Issues with tenses “People who practise extreme sports are well aware of the risks they face. For example, people who do BMX would have known that they might suffer a separated shoulder, have to have the knee drained or sustained...

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And … Action!

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An Action Research Project on Extensive Graded Reading I have a dream.  One day all of my students will be voraciously gobbling up novel after novel and excitedly sharing their views about each one.  Their reading fluency and lexical range will skyrocket and they will be left with a lasting enthusiasm for reading in English.  Sadly, this amounts to a pipe dream at the moment.  Many of my students don’t enjoy reading in English, and several of them don’t read for pleasure at all. The benefits of extensive reading Anyone who has dipped their toes into the literature surrounding Extensive Graded Reading (reading graded readers for pleasure) is aware that there’s a large body of research that outlines the benefits of EGR, or just ER.  According to many of the sources cited in the Extensive Reading Foundation’s bibliography  not only does reading for enjoyment improve reading ability and speed, but it’s also been found to expand lexical range and impact positively on writing skills.  These are all compelling reasons for me to find ways to motivate my students to read more. The focus of my action research Motivation, then, is the crux of the problem.  So, I decided that this would be the focus of an Action Research Project I’m going to be running over the next few terms.  I’ll be blogging about any significant findings along the way.   According to Cohen et al, the key features of action research are: ‘It works on and tries to solve real, practitioner-identified problems of everyday practice It is collaborative. It seeks causes and tries to work on those causes. The solutions are suggested by the practitioners involved. It involves a divergent phrase and a convergent phase. It plans an intervention by the practitioners themselves. It implements the intervention. It evaluates the success of the intervention in solving the identified problem.’ Cohen, Louis, Lawrence Manion, and Keith Morrison. Research Methods in Education. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2000. Print. So, unlike large-scale research, action research is small, focused and contextualised.  Its main aim is to find a solution to a problem by analysing existing practice and identifying steps that can bring about change.  The stages of action research are cyclical: at its simplest level, AR involves a spiral of planning, acting, monitoring and reflecting, which then feeds into a second set of planning.  According to McNiff and other action research authorities, however, the reality tends to be messier than that, due to unexpected links emerging between aspects of the research .   Ambiguity and messiness should be embraced and acted upon though; McNiff advises that we should beware of ‘happy endings’ in research.  Presumably, seeking to control the outcomes could blind a researcher to potentially interesting results. Although what constitutes each stage of action research should evolve as new findings emerge, for practical purposes, it has to be planned to a certain extent.  This is where an action research timetable comes in.  Here’s a snapshot of one I’ve devised. The Reconnaissance stage The first few weeks of most timetables, including my own, tend to be dedicated to a period of ‘Reconnaissance’: finding out more about the current situation.  In my case, this consisted of finding out about my students’ current attitudes towards reading for pleasure by means of a questionnaire and interviews.  Part of the questionnaire I wrote is pasted below. Initial findings I have to admit to being surprised at many of the results.  For example, Out of the 17 students interviewed, more students read for pleasure than I expected (12* versus 5) The majority of students read weekly (all except 2) I wasn’t so surprised to...

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Putting teachers back in the driver’s seat

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Teachers can and should become materials writers, but they need support to expand their skills set Recently, I read an article written by Kris Boulton for the TES.  Kris, a teacher at an inner-London school begins with the incendiary line: “A racing-car driver wouldn’t do an engineer’s job. So why do teachers insist on building lessons as well as delivering them?” He goes on to explain that because teachers don’t have the time or the resources to write, pilot and edit their own materials, they should content themselves with being consumers of curricula and ‘meticulously-crafted’ materials, rather than their designers.  As teachers, he argues, we shouldn’t define our professionalism by our writing skills.  Rather, our professionalism lies in our ability to select and deliver materials written by others successfully. I agree that an important part of a teacher’s job is to know how to analyse and deploy published materials judiciously; these are skills which every ELT teacher begins to learn on their CELTA course and develops during the DELTA, after all.    But there are also several compelling arguments for teachers writing their own materials. One size does not fit all When publishers are trying to specify a new product which they hope to sell globally, they often set up focus groups to which they invite the decision makers from a number of local schools.  Attending one such focus group as an editor I recall feeling bewildered at the range of responses I heard to the same set of questions.  The only word that many of the responses had in common was ‘flexibility’.  How can one coursebook or set of resources be sufficiently flexible to meet all these demands? I asked myself.  Although the blended learning solutions which are trickling onto the ELT market go some way towards offering a more flexible solution, the peculiarity of each teacher’s context means that published materials are not always a good ‘fit’.   Teachers need to supplement in order to answer their students’ particular needs. Of course, there are plenty of online resources that might plug a lexical gap or provide more productive grammar practice than the coursebook, but often it’s quicker, cheaper and more suitable to write a worksheet which addresses the systemic errors your students make or that scaffold a writing task that you know they might otherwise have difficulties with. Ownership of materials Energised, enthusiastic teachers are considered by their students to be better communicators (Coulson, 2006) and therefore tend to deliver more engaging lessons. If a teacher feels disconnected from a set of materials because they don’t suit her teaching style or relate closely to her students’ interests and context, then this is likely to result in a less enthusiastic teacher.  By the same token, a creative teacher who finds writing materials rewarding and believes in her ability to do so is likely to deliver more interesting lessons, even if the materials themselves are a little rough around the edges.  If not teachers, then who? A final argument for teachers writing materials is that they are really the only people qualified to do so.  I can’t personally think of one ELT writer who hasn’t taught at some point in their career.  Many of the experienced writers I know still keep one foot in the classroom. Publishers themselves recognise the value of recent classroom experience.  They often actively recruit teachers and teacher trainers fresh out of the classroom to write ELT materials in the full knowledge that they are likely to make the sort of mistakes which require heavy editing.  This is because new writers tend to: be full of ideas...

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What it means to be British: free, downloadable lesson materials

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As it’s the end of term at the school where I teach, Wimbledon is on the TV and the summer seems to have finally arrived, a more light-hearted blog post seems to be in order.  This one aims to provide teachers with possible ideas for approaching cultural stereotypes in class and for exploring the rather hot topic of human rights in Britain. Although the following ideas can be approached in a fun way, and so should appeal to those students suffering from ‘end-of-term-itus’, they also go some way to fulfilling the government’s advice (published November 2014) for all British secondary schools to ‘promote British values’.  All lesson ideas would be suitable for an Intermediate or Upper Intermediate class. Stereotypes Warmer 1 Students brainstorm symbols of Britain Lead-in 2 Students watch the short film made for the Olympics called Isles of Wonder and make a list of the symbols they spot.  Feedback can then be carried out using the powerpoint slides from the link below. British society for blog 3 Teacher introduces the idea of stereotypes.  One way of doing this is to give them sentence stems such as ‘All British drink ….’  ‘All British eat …’ ‘British weather is …’ etc.  They soon get the idea. 4 Teacher introduces language which can be used to make generalisations.  For example: On the whole…, It’s not normal …Generally speaking … I think people tend to …  This can be followed up with the True or False questions on the powerpoint.  Once students have decided whether ‘Everyone in Britain talks like the Queen’, they can be shown a video that gives a tour of some of the British accents.  My students enjoyed watching this video. Preparing for reading: predicting 5 To explore the idea of British stereotypes further, students can be asked to predict which of the stereotypes on the worksheets below are true or false. British stereotypes easier, with glossary British stereotypes more difficult quiz Reading for the main points 6 Students can then check their predictions against this great infographic from Brilliantly British. Extension: jigsaw reading and discussion 7 Students are divided into groups and asked to think of questions that an information sheet on a particular topic is likely to answer.   Each group is then given one of the following information sheets.  They read to check their predictions.  They are then put into different groups in order to exchange information.  A follow-up could be that students create an information sheet for their country if appropriate. The truth about British food intermediate The truth about British culture The truth about British houses intermediate The truth about British politics intermediate The truth about British pop music intermediate Alternative extension: table analysis for higher levels / IELTS students 7 Students can be asked to analyse this table from The Economist that shows the result of a new survey on public opinion in Europe.  Health warning: This could be contentious, depending on the nationality of your students and on your treatment of the topic. 8 Depending on the extension task you chose, students could either prepare a presentation on stereotypes in their country or carry out a survey. The Monarchy, the Magna Carta and Human Rights Warmer 1For a ‘fun’ take on the British monarchy, students could listen to this ‘Horrible Histories’ song and complete the ranking exercise on the worksheet: History of the British Monarchy Lead-in 2 As the Magna Carta has very recently been in the news, articles such as this one are still available and make the topic seem relevant.  An element of mystery could be injected by asking students the connection between...

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