Category Archives: Teaching methodology

What are reading skills? –They’re not (only) what you think

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When we talk about reading skills, what usually comes to mind? Prediction, reading for gist, reading for specific information and skimming and scanning?

If you’ll forgive the clickbait style title of this post (I couldn’t resist), the fact is that there’s a lot more to the skill of reading than this.

Let’s start by looking at these commonly referred to skills, and then look at what else we could (and should) be teaching our students.

Prediction

Students are very often encouraged to use the title of the text, or any accompanying pictures to make predictions about the content. There are good reasons for teaching students to do this; the idea is to activate whatever students may already know about the topic and help them to start creating a context. Without context, comprehension is much harder. Think about those moments when you turn on the radio and have no idea for a few moments what is being discussed. It only starts to make sense once you realise what the basic topic is.

Reading for gist

This doesn’t mean telling the students , ‘read the text to get a general idea of what it’s about’. That is never a very helpful task because it doesn’t give the students any reason to read, or any orientation to the topic or context. A gist question should mean that the students have to read the whole text, though not necessarily very thoroughly, in order to answer the question. For example, students might choose which title or picture most closely matches the content of the text. The idea is for students to get an overview of the text, which can help them when they return to the text to find more detailed information.

Reading for specific information

In contrast, reading for specific information means setting questions or a task which require the students to read the text much more carefully. This isn’t really a skill so much as a way of testing comprehension.

Skimming and scanning

These two words sound nice together, and make a memorable pair, but most people are a little vague about what they actually mean. Skimming has some crossover with reading for gist, because they are both about getting an overview. However, I would suggest that skimming and scanning are more properly called strategies rather than skills. They were originally both methods of speed reading. Skimming strategies are often taught as part of EAP (English for Academic Purposes) because these students have to read a great deal of content in English. So students may be taught, for example, to read just the first line of every paragraph, as this is often the topic sentence, which contains the main idea of the paragraph.

Scanning is a way of reading text quickly by only looking for specific bits of information, and not reading everything. For example, looking at the index or contents page of a book to find a specific topic you’re interested in, or picking out the figures in a text to see what the results of a piece of research were.  Again, this strategy can be particularly useful in academic contexts.

Understanding that we read different texts in different ways, using different strategies, is very important for learners. The way we read a novel on the beach is very different from the way we read a legal contract. We probably read the novel much faster, with more of a skimming/gist approach, whereas we are likely to read the contract carefully and slowly, checking that we understand the details. Students reading in a second language often fail to transfer these different ways of reading across from their first language.

Teaching reading skills

However, while looking at different ways of reading, and different reasons for reading,  is important, to what extent are these traditional reading activities actually helping students to read more effectively or fluently? Aren’t we mostly just giving them practice and/or checking their comprehension?

A reading lesson usually goes something like this:

  1. Set the scene/pre-teach vocab/elicit predictions.
  2. Read for gist (hopefully by setting a suitable gist question)
  3. Read again to answer for detailed comprehension questions.
  4. Discuss the content/focus on language in the text.

By encouraging students to predict and to read for gist first, we are perhaps helping them to develop their top-down skills- using context and their previous knowledge to make sense of what they are reading. However, there is a lot more to the reading skill than this.

According to Grabe and Stoller (2011:23) in each and every two seconds of reading fluent readers:

‘1 focus on and access 8-10 word meanings

2 parse a clause for information and form a meaning unit

3 figure out how to connect a new meaning unit into the growing text model

4 check interpretation of the information according to their purposes, feelings, attitudes and background expectations as needed

5 monitor their comprehension, make appropriate inferences, shift strategies and repair misunderstanding, as needed.

6 resolve ambiguities, address difficulties and critique text information, as needed.’

Fluent reading means that readers must be able to carry out all of these reading comprehension processes simultaneously and very quickly.  Just like driving a car, some of the processes taking place simultaneously must be automatized. If the reader is struggling to decode the words, or understand how the words fit into the sentence, or how the sentence fits into the discourse as a whole, their working memory will become overloaded, and they won’t be able to hold onto the overall meaning of the text.

So helping students to develop their reading skills must, I believe, include specific and conscious work on bottom up or decoding skills as well as top down skills, such as predicting.

Decoding skills

Whereas top down skills start from the reader and what the reader already knows or understands, bottom up or decoding skills start from the text. At the lowest level, students need to recognise alphabetic letters and then the words formed from these letters. Clearly, recognising and understanding written words is a key part of reading, even though we would usually deal with it under the heading of vocabulary. According to Paul Nation, in order to understand a written text without any assistance, students need to comprehend 98% of the words. So, if we want to work on developing reading skills (rather than using the text as a way of introducing new language) it is important that students aren’t getting stuck on too many unknown words.

Assuming that students recognise and understand enough of the vocabulary, the next layer of difficulty comes in putting those words together, understanding sentences, how those sentences fit together, and how what we are reading links with what we’ve already read. This is an area where there is huge potential to help students, and yet, outside academic reading courses, it is rarely a focus.

This is why I was so excited to work on Oxford University Press’s new series, Navigate. In this series, there is a clear syllabus and focus on these kinds of decoding skills. At lower levels, this might be understanding conjunctions or pronoun reference. At higher levels, we also focus on understanding complex sentences, ellipsis, paraphrasing and so on.

If we don’t focus on these kinds of skills, we are only teaching students part of what they need to know in order to improve their reading skills, and most of our focus is on testing comprehension rather than teaching.

Other posts on reading:

Learning vocabulary through reading

A lesson from my great-grandfather’s ELT coursebook- extensive reading and vocabulary

Developing meaning-building skills in reading

Repeated reading- some activities to build reading fluency

Listening while reading: can it actually help develop reading skills?

What kind of reading tasks might be worthwhile?

Creating effective reading tasks

Should we pre-teach vocabulary before reading, and if so how?

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under classroom ideas, Materials development, Reading, Teaching methodology, Uncategorized

Realia

@janetbianchi for eltpics.

@janetbianchi for eltpics.

A link to my new post for the British Council Blog, on using realia, or real, physical objects, in class. Find out why a trainee teacher brought a chicken pie and a beef pie into class…

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Filed under classroom ideas, Different ways to use a coursebook, Planning, Teaching methodology

Seizing the moment: when to correct students’ spoken language

Photo Credit: [phil h] via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: [phil h] via Compfight cc

Assuming you believe that there is some value in teacher corrections (see my last post), the next question might be when to correct.

In my initial teacher training, I was taught that the teacher should correct during stages which focus on accuracy, and not interrupt while students are producing language in a ‘fluency’ stage (though you could note down errors to focus on in a group feedback stage at the end of the lesson).

Broadly speaking, I still think that’s good advice, but, as we have moved away from very rigidly PPP lessons, with clear stages which first focus on accuracy/controlled practice and then have a final fluency or free speaking stage, it has become harder to always judge exactly where the focus is at any given moment. And, anyway, is it always a ‘no-no’ to correct during a fluency stage?

I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer as to when to correct, but here are some factors I think are worth considering, in no particular order. You might have some more, or vehemently disagree. If so, please do comment.

1 Is it actually an error (something they haven’t yet properly understood or assimilated) or just a slip of the tongue? You might wait and see if it appears again.

2  Is the error quick and easy to correct, or to get the student to correct? If it will require a lot of explanation, maybe the student isn’t ready for it yet, or it might not be worth taking them and the class off topic (though see point 6).

3 Is the error something which the class is currently focusing on? If you have been looking at, say, past simple irregular endings, and the error is one of the verbs you looked at earlier, then correcting (or eliciting correction) might be useful for everyone, even if it’s in a nominally ‘fluency’ stage.

4 Is the error something that really impacts on communication? If no-one can understand what they are trying to say, or they are likely to completely misunderstand, then it probably needs dealing with- either immediately or later.

5 Is the error something that a lot of students habitually make, or are likely to make- will the correction be generally useful for the class?

6 Following on from that point, if a lot of students are making similar mistakes, it might be better not to correct them immediately and, instead, plan a new lesson around the area of difficulty, or, if you’re confident about it, change the direction of the lesson in order to focus on that point.

7 Finally, consider how this particular student is likely to react to being corrected. If they are shy or don’t usually speak out, you might decide to let something go in order not to knock their confidence.

In my next post, I’ll look more at how to correct, including who can make the correction and some different techniques for correction.

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Filed under Correction, Speaking, Teaching methodology

Oral correction- insensitive or vital?

It’s a cliche, but there’s also some truth in this video. As Mark Bartram and Richard Walton point out in their seminal book,  Correction, ‘You don’t correct a mistake, you correct a person.’

If teachers always jump on every little mistake, and fail to even vaguely listen to the message that the students are trying to communicate, the emphasis in the classroom will not be on communication at all, but on producing correct forms. And, surely, language is first and foremost about communicating? The students are also likely to stop trying to take risks with language, or produce anything original, and may even stop speaking altogether. The balance of power will be weighted firmly on the side of the teacher, who appears to be the only person ‘in the know’.

Perhaps this is why so many ESOL teachers that I observed while tutoring on a Diploma in teaching ESOL were happy/proud to say that they never corrected students. They seemed to feel that there was something inherently authoritarian and negative about correction.  Incidentally, I specify ESOL teachers because, probably unsurprisingly, I’ve never found teachers who have been through the CELTA/Cert TESOL route who feel this way.

I started to wonder what it was about the way these teachers had been trained which had led to the formation of this belief. In some cases they hadn’t really been trained at all, but had got into teaching through volunteer work. Perhaps, in that case, it was, at least sometimes,  a combination of not really knowing the language systems well enough to have the confidence to correct, and the slightly patronising and protective approach to students which can occasionally come as a result of well-intentioned volunteering. [Oops, I can see some angry comments winging their way already- note how tentatively I’ve phrased that point!]

Or perhaps it was the teacher training methodology, firmly rooted in the principles of andragogy, with its emphasis on self-direction and learning from experience.

However, while adult students (and not just adults) clearly need to be self-directed and learning from their experience, that doesn’t mean, I believe, that the role of the teacher is simply to present them with input or opportunities to speak and then step back. ESOL students in particular, have plenty of daily opportunities to read, speak or listen in English, but what they don’t have is anyone to give them feedback. I remember feeling really frustrated as a learner of Polish, living in Poland, when I finally realised that I had been confidently using the wrong case ending to buy something every day for about three years..and no-one had ever corrected me.  Ultimately isn’t feedback (or judicious correction) the most important thing that we can do for our students?

In my next post, I plan to take a look at what exactly we might mean by ‘judicious correction’- when and how- but I’d be very interested in any comments on the whole idea of whether we should correct, and if I’m alone in thinking that it’s a particular issue in ESOL teaching?

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Correction, Speaking, Teaching methodology

Supporting ELT or ESOL students with Aspergers

The video is designed to show us what it’s like to live with sensory over-sensitivity. Not everyone on the autistic spectrum will experience this to this degree, or even at all, but it does give a sobering insight into the difficulties that some people face.

It is estimated that about 1 in a 100 people are on the autistic spectrum so the chances are very good that some of your students are, whether you, or even they know it or not.  In fact, because it’s a spectrum we are actually ALL on the autistic spectrum, it’s just a question of how pronounced those features are.

If you work with people with more severe forms of autism you probably already know plenty about how to support them , but many, often highly intelligent, people have traits of ASD without ever realising it. What they do realise is that life, and by extension learning in a classroom setting, is just that bit harder for them.

I’m by no means an expert on all of this, but since my son was diagnosed a few years back, my awareness has grown significantly and I realise how under-prepared/informed I think many language teachers are (me included).  Looking back, I can remember quite a few students that I would now recognise as probably having been on the autistic spectrum, and I now know that there are a lot of things I could have handled differently and more successfully.

There are three main areas where people with Aspergers or high functioning autism (not the same thing, technically, but similar) have difficulty :

Social communication

  • Being very literal. They may have difficulty in understanding jokes, metaphor or sarcasm. Generally speaking, these are things that most foreign language learners have problems with in a second language, but if you have Aspergers, you may also feel like that in your first language.
  • It can be hard for them to tell if someone is affectionately teasing, or being nasty, partly because of the being literal, but also because they may find it hard to read facial expressions of tone of voice.
  • Turn-taking and spotting when someone has lost interest can also cause difficulties.

So, if you have a student who easily takes offence or gets upset, for example, it might be worth considering whether what was said might have been mis-interpreted in this way. You could also try being more careful in your use of metaphor etc.

Turn-taking skills can be taught and practised- and most students can benefit from this, so no need to single anyone out. You could try some of the ideas in Jill Hadfield’s excellent book, Classroom Dynamics, such as passing round a ball of wool so that you can see the pattern of interaction in wool at the end of a conversation, or allowing the person to simply listen and take notes before feedback to the whole class at the end.

Social interaction

  • Many people with Aspergers have difficulty in starting conversations or interactions with others, or in sustaining them by asking questions.
  • They may find others unpredictable and confusing, leading to withdrawing and preferring to work alone.

I think as a language teacher, we need to respect that some students, whether with ASD or not, may sometimes prefer to work alone.  People on the spectrum can often be very sensitive to noise as well, and this combined with the unpredictability of others’ behaviour can be absolutely exhausting. So, despite what you may have learned on your CELTA course😉 , don’t force people to work with others.

When you do ask them to work in pairs or groups, think about how you can structure the task to make it more predictable and less overwhelming. For example, getting the group to make a list of five points, or ranking things in order of preference etc makes the task more concrete and manageable. It’s also good for everyone else, and having a clear outcome tends to produce a better quality of interaction.

Make sure that your instructions are absolutely crystal clear, and only give one instruction at a time. Again, this is useful for everyone, but people with ASD can find it particularly difficult to hold more than one instruction in their head at a time.

Because the world can be confusing and overwhelming, people with ASD often like to stick to routines. Again, this is generally good practice with all classes, especially young learners, but you might like to remember that changing the routine radically might have a negative impact on someone on the spectrum.

Social imagination

  • This is sometimes characterised as lack of empathy, but I think that’s not a very useful way of putting it as, in my limited experience, people with Aspergers definitely do feel for others, they’re just not always very good at imagining how others might feel.

So role-play type activities might cause problems for some students, as this involves imagining yourself in another person’s position. This certainly isn’t true of everyone with Asperger’s, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for such difficulties, and having an alternative up your sleeve.

A couple of other points

People with Aspergers often have what are known as special interests- subjects they are fascinated by and love to talk about. While you need to set up a clear structure- as otherwise they may find it hard to judge when they have lost their classmate’s interest- allowing a bit of space for the to talk about these subjects can also be rewarding, and gives these students a chance to show off their knowledge on the area.

As mentioned before, people with Aspergers may find noise difficult, so a calm atmosphere really helps.  They may also have other sensory difficulties with things such as bright lights. Obviously you don’t want to make the whole class work in silence, but it’s worth being aware that a student might be finding the atmosphere stressful so that you can change it or give them options.

Obviously if any of this is ringing bells with you in regard to a particular student I am NOT suggesting that you should be rushing in to offer a diagnosis! But you could try some of the tips and see if they have a positive effect. If nothing else, it might help you to empathise more with the student.

As I said at the beginning, I am certainly not an expert, so if anyone would like to offer any further ideas or corrections in the comments, that would be very welcome.

Links

http://www.autism.org.uk/

http://www.autism.org.uk/working-with/education/education-professionals-in-fe-and-he/guidelines-for-teaching-students-with-asperger-syndrome-in-further-education-colleges.aspx

 

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Filed under Differentiation, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

Motivating students, staying motivated as a teacher and other things

Thin on the ground?

Thin on the ground?

As you may have noticed, my posts have been a little thin on the ground lately. I’m planning to remedy this when the project I’m working on slows down enough for me to catch my breath!

In the meantime, here are some posts I’ve written for my British Council blog:

Staying motivated and avoiding burnout as a teacher

Motivating students to write

Thoughts on using a coursebook

An activity I use again and again

I also thoroughly recommend checking out the other blogs in the series. There are some great posts by Lizzie Pinard, Larry Ferlazzo, Sandy Millin, Ceri Jones and many many more..

 

 

 

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Filed under Planning, Teaching methodology, Working with groups, Writing

Teacher echo, teacher echo: helpful, or greedy and controlling?

Photo Credit: Natasja Valentijn via Compfight cc

Recently listening to Cecilia Lemos’ great talk on recasting as a form of correction, and how she had decided it was not always very effective,  I started thinking again about teacher echo.

Recasting is repeating an utterance which is incorrect, in the correct way, hoping that the student will notice it. As a technique, it has its roots in the ‘strong’ communicative approach, and is based on what parents tend to do with young children, as they are learning. However, there is quite a lot of evidence that students rarely do notice recasts. For example, Havranek (1999) recorded 1,700 examples of recasts and found that:

–          Half the errors were committed again shortly afterwards

–          Less than a third of learners even remembered the correction (and if they did, it didn’t mean that they later produced the language correctly)

–          Peers did not notice the correction of others

So, if repeating an incorrect utterance correctly is probably of quite dubious benefit, why would teachers ‘echo’, or repeat correct utterances?

The most common reason given is that it provides learners with another opportunity to be exposed to the language. This comes from the same roots as the notion of recasting, and assumes that learners learn a second language in the same way as children learn their first language. But, as we have seen, learners don’t tend to notice or respond to the teacher’s repetition, even when there’s something salient in it.

The second reason teachers give for echoing is that it helps other students to hear what the first student said, as students are often prone to mumbling. This may certainly be true, but does it encourage the students to speak up and make the effort to communicate with each other? Or, rather, does it give the impression that the only communication which counts has to go through the teacher?

Which brings me to my third point (which, to be fair has never been offered to me as a reason for using echo). Habitual teacher echo massively increases the amount of teacher talking time. Now, I’m not against teacher talking time, per se. Good quality input from teachers is a wonderful resource. However, automatically repeating every utterance like a parrot is not good quality input. It just takes up valuable space and time.

And furthermore, people do not actually communicate in this way in real life, so it gives the impression that the interaction is not real in anyway, that it’s simply a mechanical exercise.

So, in answer to my own question, I would say that teacher echo is very rarely helpful, and that, while it may be a deliberately contentious over-statement, it is quite controlling and greedy. There are also a lot of much better things you could be doing to provide high quality interventions (more on this in a future post).

If you do want to see how much echoing you actually do, it’s really worth recording yourself teaching. This is pretty easy to do unobtrusively with a mobile phone, and may surprise you.  It’s also likely to improve the quality of your teaching, as raising awareness is the first step towards making conscious decisions about the kind of interactions you want your class.

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Filed under Speaking, Teaching methodology, Working with groups