Saturday, September 24, 2011

Web-based learning and Improving English abroad - A guest post by Lindsey Wright

This time, you'll be reading a great piece by Lindsey Wright. I'm very happy to have her as my first guest blogger. And I'm positive you'll enjoy it as much as I did.

Lindsey is a writer from Seattle, US. And she is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

Web-Based Learning and Improving English Abroad

As English increasingly becomes the world language in academia and politics, more and more international students are turning to web-based learning to master this language. Many countries include English instruction as a part of mandatory public education, but there are many more people without access to in-person language instruction. This being the case, it's very important for web-based English study programs and online college courses to have a set structure, to use technology in innovative ways, to provide feedback to learners, and to be mindful of students' languages of origin and culture. Quality English instruction can help facilitate the trend towards better international relationships and communication. Without good standards for instruction, the many people attempting to learn English will have a poor grasp on the language they need to succeed, either in English-speaking countries or abroad.

To get a sense of English's status as the new world language, consider that in 2001 380 million people learned English as a first language, 250 million learned it as a second language, and around one billion people are in the process of learning it worldwide. These are consequential numbers because the resources necessary to teach English to a billion people around the globe on a face-to-face basis simply aren't available. Accordingly, computer-based language learning has seen a huge increase. It began with the use of computer-assisted language learning programs, but has now spread to an online learning experience that includes interactions between students and instructors.

One of the original critiques of web-facilitated language instruction was the lack of structure and classroom control. A study by The Open University indicated that language students learn better in tightly controlled online learning settings. Therefore, it's pivotal that online English classes have a set curriculum, avoid rolling admissions, and have distinct assignments and progress checks. Using a classroom-inspired structure allows students to reach the necessary stepping stones in a straightforward way. Open forums, message boards, or chat rooms without a schedule or set protocol are not an effective way to learn English but should rather serve for quick fact-checking or community-building among English learners.

Secondly, modern technology can allow students to interact with their fellow learners and instructors in new ways. The inability to hear students actually speak the language has been a roadblock to effective online English instruction, but with the advent of webcams, Skype, and YouTube, it's now an obstacle easily overcome. Online classrooms should utilize these technologies to ensure students are gaining the ability to speak English correctly. After all, most learners want to learn the language in order to speak it themselves, not just to understand others' speech or comprehend only written materials.

Online classes can use forums or blogs as venues for students to post video or audio of themselves reading aloud and get feedback from fellow students and their instructors. This can even be especially useful for university students and academics who can read and write in English but need extra instruction in pronunciation. It's this type of interaction in learning that's most exciting about web-based instruction.

Next, online instruction must include feedback with more depth than empty praise. Meaningful feedback is crucial to learning and understanding a language. Online instructors should highlight students' specific strengths and particular areas that need work. Web-based English instruction should include weekly instructor-student feedback focusing on specific areas of weakness for students to improve.

Finally, online English instruction should be cognizant of students' first languages. Classes should be separated by language of origin if necessary, but at the very least instructors must be particularly mindful of the varying kinds of difficulties English learners with different native languages tend to encounter. On that note, quality instruction must be challenging but not impossible. Loosely dividing classes into beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels can also ensure that students are working at the right level of competency and allow instructors to cater to specific needs more readily.

For the one billion people in the process of learning English, regarded by some as the hardest language in the world to master, online instruction offers a convenient and affordable way to learn and grow. Unfortunately, some parts of the Web have not caught up with the modern demands for quality instruction. By making small changes and having a dedication to international learners, web-based English instruction can help make the world smaller and allow for better collaboration and understanding.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

ELTchat - How to approach exam classes

This morning’s ELTchat discussion was on the experiences on how to approach exams classes. International EFL exams is an endlessly growing market in which teachers’ need to be prepared for.

Chatters started sharing their experiences in teaching exams. The range of exams was very comprehensive and included: Cambridge exams (YL – Starters, Movers, Flyers, KET and PET and Main Suite – FCE, CAE and CPE.) ; TOEFL, IELTS, OTE, Michigan, Trinity, TIE and TOEIC. Needless to say, someone pointed out that not everyone is familiar with all this acronyms. And the agreed definition of an exam class was one where the endgame is to take a pass a specific test but not leaving behind the acquisition of language as well.

In the very beginning of the discussion chatters agreed that concerning exams practice is key and should never be taken for granted. The insights were:

- * Some students can develop their own techniques to deal with tests

- * Some other students may completely turn a blind eye on the techniques you’ve taught when they actually do the exam

- * Sometimes students get bored of all the practice and just want to talk

- * Students need to be guided on how to do the test.

- * The knowledge students need to have for an exam does not come up naturally. It is about the combination of what they can learn generally and the techniques for the exam.

- * There seems to be little transfer from what students learn for the exams to real life and perhaps teaching techniques may help

- * A good way to prove that taking exams without practice can be pointless is telling them that regardless their level of the language, if they don’t have the techniques; they’re likely to face big problems.

However, it was skillfully pointed out that a lot of teachers focus on practice exercises and forget about teaching the language ad skills. And what chatters had to say about it was:

- * Sometimes students just want to talk for the sake of talking

- * It is good from time to time to tell your students to throw away the book and watch telly.

- * Teaching students the necessary skills/strategies involved is vital as well as practice

- * Concerning band exams such as IELTS, teach beyond the exam students are working and then they will be comfortable for a lower band

* The points in which teachers felt that were issues in exams were:

- * The maturity of students when taking the test. Some reported that 14 year-old-students wanted to take CPE and failed miserably for lack of experience.

- * Too much obsession in taking exams

- * The stress and pressure put on students and expectations both teachers and students have towards a great result

- * Too often students don’t have the subject knowledge depth for the exam (even in L1)

- * Some students who passed the exams can hardly speak

- * Students who don’t have a good enough level but are in exam preparation classes and intent on doing the exam anyways.

- * When asked to write an essay students can’t even think of ideas in their L1

- * Some colleagues find exams classes too serious to make fun and play

- * Lack of familiarization with the exams

- * Lack of learner autonomy – work outside classroom is necessary to do well in exams.

- * The mindset of result seekers

- * Some students only see the certificate at the end important rather than the process

- * Students can hardly find time to come to class let alone studying outside the class

- * Most of students don’t have enough linguistic resources strategies

- * Parents who only care about the certificate regardless their child’s abilities

- * Many teachers see little point to the YL exams

- * Most of the exam preparation books are not good and interesting enough

Great ideas to lessen the pressure on students, how to improve their achievements on exams were and to create a less boring environment were:

- * Have students examine the tests, then make their own projects and items for them, then ‘test’ each other

- * Have students write their own questions in the style of the exam and promote a quiz with classmates

- * Use a Task-based approach and let the exam items and formats create some parameters

- * Create pop-quizzes

- * Teaching unplugged is a great way to approach exams. Teach naturally what needs to be taught going for teaching moments.

- * Give students advice on what exams they might want to take in the future

- * It’s good for students to start up from the very first tests so that when they get to the advanced ones they are confident enough

- * Compare several descriptions of the exam, see if you can spot any contradictions, and then decide which one is the easiest to understand, most comprehensive and/or concentrates on the most important points.

- * Get exam preparation students to be responsible for themselves

- * Photocopy each text and blow them up. Put each one on a different wall and give students the questions can be very dynamic.

- * The potential vagueness/looseness of Dogme and the constrained/contrived nature of exams make for a positive mix

- * Exams have to be looked at differently depending on whether formative or summative; different psychological effects and practical purposes

- * Talk about your own experiences in taking exams with students

- * Do the "getting to know the exam" exercises for students in textbooks and self-study book

Useful links:







Resources for FCE, CAE, CPE: http://esl.about.com/od/cambridgeexams/

On-line CPE grammar: www.examenglish.com/cpe/CPE_grammar.htm

On-line CPE vocabulary: www.examenglish.com/cpe/CPE_vocab.htm

FLO – JOE place for teachers and students www.flo-joe.co.uk/cpe/students/tests/index.htm

Wyższa Szkoła Informatyki in Białystok provides the following CPE tests: www.wsi.edu.pl/dydaktyka/english/testy/przy_testy_cpe.htm

Project Gutenberg gives opportunity of reading classics: http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page

Collection of FCE and CAE tests: www.jezykniemieckinet.webpark.pl/angielski.htm

They have hundreds of classic books you can read now: www.pagebypagebooks.com/

Cambridge exam (FCE/ CAE) style exercises: www.parapal-online.co.uk/cambridge.html

Churchill House test for Cambridge exams: www.churchillhouse.com/tests/

Better writing: www.askoxford.com/betterwriting/?view=uk

Free on-line tests: www.it.uom.gr/elu/online.htm

On-line exam (KET/ PET/ FCE/ CAE/ CPE/ IELTS/ TOEFL/ tests) www.english-online.org.uk/exam.htm

Longman exam centre: www.longman.com/exams/teachers/index.html


Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Role and Function of Humor in the EFL Class

#ELTchat January 26 – The role and function of humor in the EFL class: from “Ha, ha!” to “Aha”

“Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”

I was thrilled to know that the topic I have suggested was the chosen one to be discussed at the last #ELTchat. The use of humor as a pedagogical tool is something I have always been intrigued by. The way students respond to it is like magic. Humor breaks barriers and brings students and teachers closer. Teachers use humor as a way of putting students at ease, as an attention-getter, as a way of showing that the teacher is human, as a way to keep the class less formal, and to make learning more fun.

Pedagogically speaking, it is known that humorous activities can improve students’ performance since it drastically reduces tension thus promoting an anxiety-free environment. This can be also seen in tests results. As @JoshSRound skillfully pointed out: “Humour helps to lower the affective filter – helps learners to relax”. I vividly remember that at university I’ve had a professor who taught the whole semester using cartoons and comic strips. We could not avoid having fits of laughter during the final test! The usual tension surrounded by exam days was over. And we all thanked that teacher for that.

Some teachers believe that humor is easier to be dealt with higher level students. This is something I disagree. A good sense of humor, in my humble opinion, is what every teacher should have. No one likes to be taught by that cranky person staring at you with eyes of a hungry leopard about to devour anyone who dares to raise a hand. Cracking some practical jokes every now and then are what I call a differentiator. Bearing in mind that the students at this stage are far from being proficient, only universal humor is appropriate for it would in most cases be expected that the linguistic and cultural jokes are beyond the level of competence of the students. Teachers may introduce “quips”, that is, "smart" answers or retorts to the questions or statements such as:

Are you fishing ? / No, just drowning worms?
I don't like the flies in here. / Well, come around to tomorrow. We'll have some new ones.

Like @ShellTerrell said: “Teaching humor itself is easier with upper level students, but having in humor in class, no”. With my Young Learners (YL) I often use an activity they love and have loads of fun: Change your Persona – I put up some crazy characters on the wall and they have to respond to my question using the characters either I or other colleagues choose. (eg. Old lady, rude man, stutter, typical adolescent, angry mother, deaf granpa, mute…). Another great activity is 10 Top Things You Should Know About Me – I scatter some absurd and real information about myself on the board and read them very seriously till they realize some are not true and begin to laugh. Then I invite a couple of students to do the same and try to convince their peers of the most absurdities. Sure to be a hit!

However, as some educators rightfully adverted: cultural boundaries must be respected when using humor. What might be fun in the Brazilian culture not necessarily is in the Japanese cultural context. Teachers should be aware of these differences and moreover use humor in their favor. Be careful not make offensive jokes against the most problem

atic personal issues such as body size, sexuality, race, religion and the like. In this regard, Sigmund Freud's pioneered a study on humor in which a distinction was made between "tendentious" and "nontendentious humor", the former being that which is "derogatory or ridiculing and that masks them es of hostility or aggression” whereas the later, "void of hostility, is more playful and innocent in character". The first can also be referred to as “destructive humor” and the second is “constructive humor”. In this sense, I personally believe that touchy subjects such as these can be discussed using humor. I once used the below cartoon to try
to engage my students into the search-for-the-perfect-body issue:

Not only is this a very funny cartoon, but I could also engage a great discussion with my students which led to body modification, fatness, being comfortable with yourself, the importance of loving yourself the way you are, and ultimately bullying.
Another point that deserves our attention is that laughing at someone else’s mistakes can be devastating. But If teacher shows he/she can laugh at him/herself, then learners feel more able to do so too.

Some other activities I like:

- Advanced levels: I usually have students look for Phrasal Verbs in cartoons, comic strips and sitcoms such as Friends. On another note, I like to work with the concept of Pun (double sense humorous phrases/words) – students search for them wherever they can and come to class to explain both meanings to their colleagues

- YL: Playing any kind of Mr. Bean’s short-films is always a very welcome lesson started. Whether it be to teach vocab or a specific grammar topic (e.g: What is he doing now? – present continuous / Where did he park his car? – simple past) while they burst into laughter.

- One great idea proposed on the chat was to turn coursebook dialogues into complete nonsense. Students, therefore, get the chance to play with language and discuss language cohesion, coherence and other features.

On a final note, humor is part of virtually most social encounters; the use of humor and wit is intimately related to human nature. Humorous statements are speech acts that have different functions in spoken and written discourse. I defend, therefore, the notion that the use of humor in teaching English makes lessons more enjoyable and friendly and can contribute to student proficiency. Humor is an important factor for the development of listening and reading and literacy.

And now, my favorite cartoon for all of you teachers:


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Irrational Education

By definition, irrational means that something/someone is deprived or without the faculty of reason. It has occurred to me, through an inexplicable association of ideas, that Education in Brazil is somewhat irrational.

Let me try to explain it, then.

In spite of all rationale and constant diagnosis that has been done concerning education, much still remains incomprehensible to the majority of people. One of them is how much money should (must?) be spent – please read INVESTED. 5,2% of the GDP is currently been devoted to educational investments which is obviously not enough. It is undeniable that double this figure would be sufficient. However, what society does not understand is where this money would come from. Let along if the government has this money. It goes without saying that the more money invested, the better. But the heart of the problem is not only this. We do not spend too little on education. Rather, we spend too poorly. Too recklessly.

Another irrationality is the inability to face the educational drama. Teachers get far too little or none instruction before entering a classroom and payings are far below the average, I’d dare saying of the worst among other professions. How do we intend, this way, to offer quality in education? Teaching formation courses suffer from an abyssal anachronism. What has been done for fifty years cannot be done nowadays. Giving out computers for those who don’t understand the basics of it means next to nothing. Thinking clearly: ever since these machines entered the classroom, what have been the improvements in content? The results are nowhere near to be found in the Programe for International Student Assessment classification maps.

Currently, the construction of new schools is very rare. It seems that authorities and the government got tired of the subject. The building of new premises appears to be the only possible way to achieve the so desired wish: full time schooling which is the basic grounds of any developed country. The problem is that we are all too aware of the fact that our High School students spend roughly four hours a day at school. From this point we can have a glimpse of how deep the hole is. Furthermore, there is the lack of priority. There’s too little effort on technical courses and students do not get enough formation to face university life when they leave high school.

Do our schools feature libraries? No!
Do they feature equipped laboratories? No!
The non-equivalence between age and grade is under control? No!
Did we reduce truancy and failings? No!
Is there scientific initiation during high school? No!
Are reading levels going up? No!
Is the illiteracy level next to zero? No!
Are the gratuitous textbooks distributed to schools carefully chosen/designed? No!
Are those books well distributed? No!

A lot more could have been mentioned. Deep inside, what we are sadly aware of is that education has not been privileged due to a consistent political will.
So, where do we start? We start from the boosting in investiments in teacher development, career plans and equippment in schools (labs, I.T, libraries, sports). I hope that in the near future we come to realize that the literacy process of adults cannot be made only by generous volunteers. Rather, we need fully capable teachers who are trained and love what they do.
We all wish our children had great teachers. But who dreams to see their children become teachers? In South Korea, if i'm not mistaken, where they are acknowledged and well paid as doctors and lawyers there is a famous saying: "Never step on a teacher's shadow".

It's time we gave it more credit.

:-) See you in a post.

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