Tag Archives: coursebooks

Adapting ELT resources for ESOL

With thanks to @senicko and #eltpics

I was really sorry to miss the recent Twitter chat under #ukesolchat , not least because it’s a pet topic of mine! It looks to have been an interesting discussion, and there were plenty of different views aired. However, I don’t think anyone really made much of a case for using coursebooks, and I think there is often a rather knee-jerk reaction against using them in ESOL contexts. I hasten to say that this wasn’t apparent in this chat, but it is a common perception.

As you may know, a large part of my ‘job’ these days involves writing coursebooks, so I admit to a bias. But my convictions don’t come from this, but from 10 years teaching ESOL in an FE College, and a further three years training ESOL teachers from a wide variety of contexts, at Warwick University.

I would never argue that an ELT coursebook should form the syllabus for an ESOL course. It’s obvious that some of the material will be unsuitable or inappropriate, and many good points on this were made in the twitter discussion I mentioned. A lot of coursebooks (and I’ve written some) are specifically designed to be ‘aspirational’, which means they refer to foreign holidays, the latest technology and so on. There may be culturally inappropriate topics, such as dating or divorce. There will probably be topics about family, childhood or home, which may bring up painful issues for refugees. There may be (who am I kidding, there will be) an assumption that the learners’ literacy skills are at the same level as their listening and speaking skills. There will probably be an emphasis on grammar rather than functions (which is one of the reasons I agree with @SamShep when he says that older coursebooks are often better for ESOL)

So, no, I wouldn’t suggest taking a coursebook and using it willy-nilly (and that goes for any context).

But, …there will also be a lot of activities that will work perfectly well just as they are, and/or that can be adapted. Coursebook writers generally have a lot of experience, and can write materials which work, and which have been through a long process of being written and rewritten after feedback from editors and often focus groups of teachers as well.

Writing all your own materials is very time-consuming, it can lead to a lack of variety, and it isn’t that easy. In my experience, a lot of ESOL teachers (present company probably excepted) have not had much training in either language awareness or materials development (a point also made in the discussion), and they may well struggle to produce materials which are pitched at the right level, deal with language accurately and clearly, and which flow well. I have observed a lot of teachers using a series of unconnected worksheets printed from websites, or authentic articles which are waded through slowly and painfully. Using a coursebook as a basis can be a good way of learning to produce your own materials, as you see how activities can be sequenced effectively. It’s certainly how I learnt.

Specific ideas for adapting ELT materials for ESOL

The first point being, if an activity is really unsuitable, obviously, do something else instead!

But if it has potential..

Reading/listening

  • If your students have low levels of literacy, but better listening skills, then why not read a text aloud to them instead of making them read it?  You should be able to significantly aid understanding through intonation, mime, quick comprehension checks and so on.
  • Differentiate texts by setting different questions (the more closed, the easier), or use them as a dictation and remove more words/chunks for more confident learners.
  • Replace unsuitable texts with something more appropriate, but which covers similar vocabulary/functions. For example a text about dangerous sports which highlights ‘Have you ever?’ could be replaced by you telling the students about something unusual you have done, that is still within their experience. This means you can probably still use the follow-up activities.
  • Use the recordings to work on decoding skills, rather than just comprehension questions.  This can be a stepping stone to work on more challenging authentic listenings and videos.
  • Let students look at the transcript while they’re listening. This can be really helpful in raising awareness of the sound-spelling relationships in English, and it’s something you usually can’t do with authentic material.

Language focus

  • Use the grammar exercises selectively, when students have demonstrated a need for a particular language point to provide practice, rather than feeling you need to work through the grammar syllabus.
  • Make good use of functional language, as this is often far more relevant for ESOL students than it is for the majority of the book’s target users, living in a non-English speaking community.

Speaking/writing

  • Use the communication activities/tasks as the basis for a Language Experience Approach activity, where students work together to create a text about the activity they have carried out. This text can then be used as the basis for future work.
  • ESOL students may be less likely to need academic style essays (though some will of course), but there are usually plenty of practical writing activities. For example, in any PET level  coursebooks, students will learn how to write emails to friends with a variety of functions- apologising, thanking, inviting. And why assume that ESOL students don’t want to write creatively?

So, while recognising all the drawbacks of the ELT coursebook in an ESOL context (or rather different ESOL contexts), can I make a plea not to chuck out the baby with the bath-water?

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Teaching methodology

How to activate the ‘Useful Language’ box in your coursebook.

From New Total English Intermediate- Pearson 2011

A common feature in many coursebooks is the ‘Useful Language’ box. This is usually a collection of phrases which the authors consider may be useful for an upcoming speaking activity. A ‘useful language’ box is potentially a great idea because the tendency in speaking activities can be for students to simply stay safe and just use what they already know. Providing this language gives us the opportunity to scaffold their learning and encourage the learners to stretch themselves a bit.

However, in practice, there are two recurring problems.

  1. What do you actually do with the Useful Language box? Just getting students to read through it certainly isn’t enough to get them using the language.
  2. There seems for many students to be a reluctance or inability to use the language straightaway (see this recent conversation on Pearson ELT Community). And if they don’t use it straightaway, what are the chances of them locating and using it at a later date?

I think most people would agree that for students to use new language:

– They need to process the language in some way, work with it, not just be shown it.

– They need to know exactly how to use it in and in what context.

– They need to need to use it.

A good place to start with ‘useful language’ is by having it come out of a recording, rather than just being on the page. With the example above, from New Total English Intermediate, students have been listening to a short presentation, with follow up questions, and, after carrying out other comprehension based tasks, they listen again and tick the phrases they hear being used. They then prepare and give their own mini-presentations.

This approach works in terms of providing context, and it also means that there is a model for pronunciation, which is often very important with functional language (more later). However, there is still, I feel, something missing between identifying the phrases and being expected to use them.

Contextualisation

If the ‘useful language’ came from a recording, students will already have some idea of how they can be used in context. If not, you will, I think, need to provide some. Live listening can be good way of doing this (see my previous post for details). Essentially, you provide the model, ideally recording yourself so that it can be replayed. With the example of useful language given here, you might ask a confident student to give a short presentation on a very familiar and unthreatening topic and warn them that you will ask lots of questions! You can then play the recording back and start to work with the language, as discussed below.

Other ideas for processing the language

Categorisation

Exactly how you do this obviously depends on the language, but, for example, with the language box above, you could ask students to divide the first section into phrases to use when you don’t understand, and phrases to use when you want more information. If the categories aren’t clear-cut, so much the better as this will force students to discuss why they have chosen to put a phrase in that category- and thus create more processing.

Phrase completion

Useful language boxes often have phrases with elllipses (…….), so that students can complete them however they choose. Fine, if they have the faintest idea how to complete them! So, one task could be to give them a context, and ask them to write a completion for each phrase. For example, with this useful language box, you could give a short talk yourself, or use the recording, or use a short video and ask students to prepare questions using the stems. This will also help you to see whether they are able to use them grammatically. As an example, I think many students might struggle with completing ‘What I’d like to know is…’ because of the emphatic structure used.

Dictation

Rather than showing them the useful language box, try closing the book and dictating the phrases. You could add some challenge by mixing up the phrases and asking them to decide where in the box they belong (in this example, in ‘Asking for clarification or more information, or in dealing with difficult questions)

You should make sure that you dictate the phrases in a natural way, as complete phrases, with appropriate intonation, and normal features of connected speech. This will then have the added bonuses of providing a further model of how to say the phrase, and raising awareness of connected speech. For example, some students may well write down ‘What I like to know is..’, rather than ‘What I’d like to know is..’, giving the opportunity to focus on the ’ ‘d’ they didn’t hear.

Writing dialogues

You may have noticed that the activities so far are more focused on writing than speaking, which may seem odd when these phrases are provided for a speaking activity. However, writing can be a good way of bridging the gap between new language and speaking. In ‘How to teach Speaking’, Scott Thornbury points out, ‘Inevitably, because of the constraints placed on mental processing by the demands of real-time speaking, learners tend to rely on a very narrow repertoire of memorized expressions in face-to-face interaction…it may sometimes help to reduce the processing demands on them..one way of slowing down processing is to turn the speaking task into a writing one.’

The following two ideas both come from this book:

–          Paper conversations. Learners have a conversation, but, instead of speaking, they write the conversation on paper. The teacher can then easily monitor and make suggestions for improvement.

–          Rewriting. Students can be given a simple dialogue and asked to rewrite or modify it to use the new language.

Work on pronunciation

As mentioned above, pronunciation is particularly important in using functional-type phrases. They need to be delivered fluently, as a chunk, or they are likely to sound a bit odd and artificial. Intonation is also often extremely important. Think about the phrase, ‘Are you saying…?’  This needs to be delivered with the right intonation, or it could sound pretty aggressive!

So students need a good model- either a recording, or the teacher- and they need to practise drilling the phrases, getting their tongues round the connected speech and using the right intonation.

A fun way of working on intonation is to ‘say’ the phrases using just ‘Mmmm, mmmm’. Students have to guess which phrase you are saying. As they become more confident, they can do this themselves in pairs.

Using the ‘useful language’ in a speaking activity

After time spent processing and preparing, students should be much more likely to use the language in a follow-up speaking activity anyway. However, there are a few ways to encourage this further.

– As described by Antonia Clare in the Pearson ELT discussion I mentioned earlier, you can write phrases on cards and hand out a few to each student. They need to try to put ‘their’ phrases into the conversation as naturally as possible. If the other students feel it wasn’t natural, they could have to take the card back.

– A certain amount of pressure, such as recording the conversation or giving a presentation to the class can encourage students to focus more on using the new language.

– Similarly having an observer in the group, whose job it is to notice when people use the ‘useful language’ can help to focus the mind.

– Depending on the language and the teaching context, students can be asked to go away and ‘notice’ any of the phrases being used in conversation over the next week (on TV, eavesdropping at the bus-stop etc).

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Speaking, Vocabulary

Do something different with the coursebook listening

When teachers talk about ‘doing a listening’, what they usually mean is that they will set the scene, pre-teach as (and if ) necessary, then set some questions before pressing play.

This kind of teaching routine can work very well, and I’ve certainly written plenty of listening sections following that kind of format.

However, in the spirit of John Fanselow, I also believe that it is always a good idea to question such routines, and consider how we could do things differently.

Listening from the middle

In this article (thank you to Frances Eales for drawing it to my attention), John Madden explains how, rather than playing a recording from the beginning, students can benefit from starting in the middle. In real life we often start listening in the middle of a conversation, or when we turn on the radio or TV in the middle of a programme. Starting in the middle helps learners to develop the confidence and skills to deal with this.

Madden starts by discussing times when learners have ‘started in the middle’ in real life and then plays a section from the middle of the recording. Learners tune in as best they can, then discuss with a partner what they understood, and what they think might have been said before they started listening. They can then listen to the entire recording to check their predictions.

Pausing and predicting

Rather than always beginning by asking students to predict the content of a recording, another way of encouraging prediction might be to pause the recording while playing and ask for predictions.

There are several ways I can think of to do this:

1. If the recording is a dialogue, stop the recording after each utterance by person A, and ask students to either say, or write down what they think person B might say. They can then continue listening to check their ideas.

2. Stop the recording about halfway through, and ask students to either continue the conversation they have been listening to, or, if a monologue, to write down what they think the person will say in the rest of the talk.  This could work very well with a well-signposted monologue of the kind found in more academic English

Pausing and focusing on language

These activities would work better after using the comprehension activities in the coursebook, as a way of encouraging students to notice certain aspects of language. For more on this kind of bottom up activity, you might like to read John Field, and my article on Decoding Skills

1. Having previously picked out some useful expressions from the listening, pause the recording halfway through the expression, and ask students try and complete it from memory.

E.g. I had to learn the poem……by heart.

2. Using only a short part of the recording, pause at the end of each sentence or longer phrase, and ask students to write down what they hear. This can work really well for identifying students’ difficulties in decoding connected speech.

3. Pause the recording after referring expressions and ask students to identify what they refer to.

E.g. Albert Einstein is widely considered to be a genius. However, his education did not start off so well (pause-who does his refer to?). He didn’t learn to speak fluently until six or seven and one of his teacher wrote on his school report (pause-who does his refer to?) ‘He will never amount to anything.’, meaning he would never be successful. How wrong he was! (pause- who does he refer to?)

[extract taken from New Total English Intermediate]

Focusing on strategies

Rather than providing a follow-up related to the content of the text, you could carry out a protocol activity. After carrying out your comprehension activity, play the recording again and ask students to write down (in L1 if lower level students), as far as they can remember, what they were thinking at each point of the listening. What exactly did they understand or not understand, what strategies did they use, did they switch off (when and why?). This can then become the basis of a fruitful class discussion about how to listen.

To finish, you might like to watch this short (7 minute) TED talk by Julian Treasure, on How to listen better. It isn’t specifically about ELT listening, but it’s an inspiring reminder of how doing things differently can indeed lead to something exceptional.

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Listening, Teaching methodology

What kind of reading tasks might be worthwhile?

In my first reading related post, I looked at things you might consider when selecting authentic reading texts. There’s quite a lot to consider, I think, and I can sometimes spend several hours searching for the right text. As Ray Williams said, back in 1986 (ELTJ 40(1)), ‘in the absence of interesting texts, very little is possible.’

Having spent all that time, the last thing you want is to only end up with a 20 minute activity in class, so I think it’s really worth considering how you can maximise what students get out of the text . Clearly, a major reason for using texts in class is in order to provide students with the opportunity to ‘notice’ language in context. However, can texts also be used to develop students’ actual ability to read effectively and efficiently?

Some of the reading skills which teachers and materials commonly aim to develop include:

  • Skimming
  • Scanning
  • Reading for gist
  • Predicting content
  • Identifying point of view and tone
  • Identifying main points
  • Guessing meaning from context
  • Recognising the organisation of a text

In recent years there has been some debate about the whole idea of developing  students’ reading skills. Walter and Swan point out  that there is perhaps an assumption that the learner does not already have these skills and that, if they do have them, that they are unable to transfer them into their first language. Thornbury  gives the example of how he was able to apply his L1 reading skills to reading in Spanish, and how, as his Spanish improved, so did his reading. I think these are both very valid points. However, I do slightly wonder if Thornbury should consider himself typical of a language learner, as he was clearly very aware of his own language learning process. In my experience, many learners do not always have good reading skills in their first language and many do not seem able to automatically transfer them.

I certainly agree that it can be patronising to make students jump through hoops of skimming and scanning and I also agree with Swan and Walter that guessing meaning from context activities are too often impossible. That said, that if we reduce reading texts to no more than vehicles for useful language, we are selling our students short. What about the information and/or pleasure that can be gained from a text? We don’t read in our daily lives in order to notice language.

Of course, we don’t usually set ourselves a task either!

But we do need to give our students a reason to read, and a well designed task can provide that, as well as the opportunity to develop reading skills if they need to be developed. In order to be able to use a text as a source for language, the text needs to have been understood first and a task can also help to ensure this.

The question, perhaps, is not so much whether we should be setting reading tasks, but what kind of tasks we should be setting. Ideally, I think that the task should bear some resemblance to the way we might naturally read that genre of text. So, if you want students to read a set of food labels, there is not much point in setting a gist task! If it’s a carefully argued article, on the other hand, you might want to set a task which helps learners to identify these arguments and how they link together

Research has found (Carrell 1984, 1985), that understanding how different types of texts are organised is a key factor in understanding a text. This is something which is often focused on in EAP, but, I think, much less so in General English. Obviously this is partly because academic writing tends to have more clearly defined text types (cause and effect, problem-solution etc). However, I think all students can benefit from being able to recognise the organisation and development of a text. Here are a few prediction type activities which might help with this:

1 Get students to look at the visual clues- how the text is laid out, any pictures, any headings or sub-headings. Where do they think the text came from?

2 For a newspaper article, try getting students to read the title and the first paragraph. This is often a summary of the rest of the article, so students could predict what will be found in the rest of the article.

3 Ask students to read just the first sentence of each paragraph. This is often the topic sentence (sentence with the main idea), so this can give a good overview of the content of the text, and its organisation.

4 If the text already has comprehension questions (i.e. an exam practice text), give out the questions before the text and ask them to use the questions to predict the content of the text. Exam questions should go in the same order as the text, so it should be possible to make some predictions about the organisation of the text as well.

In my next post, I’d like to look more carefully at some different types of tasks and questions, the aim behind them, and some tips for creating them. If you want to receive this through your email, the button is on the right.

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Filed under Exploiting authentic reading materials

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

Photo Credit: Chris JL via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Chris JL via Compfight cc

Pre-teaching vocabulary is something that many of us were taught to do on our CELTAs or other pre-service course. I hold my hand up to having trained other teachers to do it- and to having, as a result, sat through an excruciating 20 minutes plus while trainee teachers laboriously explained word after word until the students had lost the will to live, never mind the will to read the text.

Another argument against pre-teaching is that it doesn’t train students for real-life encounters with language; that we’re spoon feeding them rather than teaching them the skills to deal with unknown words.

I am sure this is true, and I would certainly not recommend pre-teaching as a way of explaining all the words in a text that students are unlikely to know. However, done sparingly, I think it can have some value both in terms of practicality (making sure they can actually do the task you set, and that you don’t have twenty people all asking the same question, one after another) and in terms of helping to raise interest and motivation.

The questions you need to ask yourself are, I think:

–          Do the students actually need to know this word/phrase to do the task?

–          Could they guess it from context?

–          Can this word or phrase be used productively within this lesson?

Selecting what vocabulary to pre-teach

1. Look at what vocabulary the students will need to know to do the task you set, rather than what they probably won’t know in the text.

2. Look at vocabulary which is directly related to the topic of the text, so that it can be used to activate schema.

To illustrate what I mean, here is a scan of three pages from IELTS Foundation 2nd edition Macmillan 2012, with a set of activities around a reading text. Looking at the tasks set on the third page, there are certain words which the students will need to know to carry out these tasks. I would suggest:

current    reluctant    short term effects   essential   reduce   prevent   tend to  encourage   efficient

congestion charge  higher parking charges  public transport  pay per mile

The first set of words could be looked at, as necessary, when the teacher is setting the tasks. Many of them are very typical of IELTS questions and so might well be already known. If not, a matching activity with synonyms might work well with these words, especially with synonyms in the text (most IELTS questions will use a synonym rather than the words in the text itself)

The second set of words however are all linked to the topic, so provide scope to act as a lead in to the text as well as a pre-teaching activity. If you look at the first page of the extract, you can see that these and other related words from the text are given to students to categorise into traffic problems and possible solutions. The students then use the words in a personalised way, to talk about problems in their city before reading the text and comparing with their ideas and opinions.

One of the major problems with pre-teaching vocabulary is dealing with a set of seemingly disconnected words, with no context. Choosing words which relate to the topic of the text is a good way round this issue, and the words can also be used productively.

Ideas for pre-teaching vocabulary

1 Categorising is often a good approach, as it should get the learners to engage with the meaning of the words. If the words aren’t related in terms of meaning you could always get them to categorise into ‘words I know’, ‘words I am not sure about ‘and ‘words I don’t know’. Done in pairs, this should lead to peer teaching and you can monitor and then help with any still causing difficulties.

2 Connecting words: ask students to choose two or more words and phrases  from those you want to pre-teach and write a sentence using them. This will only really work if the words are at least half known though.

3 Predicting: Ask students to make predictions about the text using the words given. Depending on the words and the students this could range from guessing the topic, to guessing the attitude of the writer, to guessing the answers to the questions they are going to answer.

4 Using the context of the text: Pull out some sentences which contain the words you want to pre-teach and put them up on the board with gaps. Get the students to decide which words go in which gaps.

5 If appropriate, matching the vocabulary you want to pre-teach with pictures. Relatively easy these days, pictures are a great way of providing the context which would otherwise be missing.

If you do decide to pre-teach (and there are, as we have seen, arguments against it), make sure that the words and phrases are useful and contextualised and that the time spent pre-teaching is worth it for what the students will get out of the process.

Please see the previous post on selecting authentic reading materials if this is an area which interests you, or the next one on reading tasks.

If you are currently taking CELTA, can I suggest my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, available from Amazon and Smashwords, containing everything you need to know for CELTA teaching practice.

celta compendium cover

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic reading materials

Some thoughts on teaching and learning

Taking part in this weeks’ ELTChat (www.eltchat.com) on the future of coursebooks, has got me thinking, once again, about the seeming stand off between those that like and use coursebooks and those that hate them.

At the risk of sounding like Tony Blair ;), I’m sure there must be a third way. I’d like to explore this a bit further in subsequent posts, but to kick off I just wanted to share this set of images:

Imagine, if you will, that this first picture represents a teacher’s lesson plan. The steps could, perhaps represent the ‘target language’, the boulders and plants, other elements of the lesson that he or she intends to weave in.

This second picture could represent the experience of the lesson from one student’s point of view. They get so far up the steps, but not as far as the teacher anticipated, and one of the steps is partly missing. On the other hand, there’s a nice little collection of boulders and plants in there!

For another student, the lesson might be all about the language explicitly taught. They’ve doggedly marched up those steps- and haven’t even noticed that they’re in a garden.

And this student is enjoying the garden, but hasn’t noticed the steps. And maybe he (or she) doesn’t need to if they’re getting something out of that part of the garden…..

 Now, this metaphor has been couched in terms of a more traditional language lesson, where the teacher imagines (and I use that word advisedly) that they can decide in advance what the learners are going to learn. They can’t of course, because there is no way to stop the learners from wandering where they will in the garden, or even curling up in a sunny corner and going to sleep.

But, I would argue, even if a lesson is completely unplanned, organic and student led, it’s still going to be a different experience for every student in the class.

I wonder therefore if the key issue isn’t less about whether we’re using pre-prepared material or not, and more about what we are doing with it, or how we are helping the students to explore the material and take from it what they individually need?

Equally, teachers are all different and work in different ways and need varying levels of support. For some, I believe it will be very helpful for the coursebook to suggest what language could be highlighted in a text and provide clarification and practice. I know I learnt an awful lot about how to exploit texts from using coursebooks. But the coursebook certainly shouldn’t be used as a bible; at least I would hope any material I have written is not used this way. It’s a resource, pure and simple, just like any other resource, such as a newspaper or a recording. The only real difference is that someone has already thought about ways that you could choose to work with the material and, if you find it helpful, you could benefit from their experience and knowledge.

Use it, don’t use it, use part of it, use it in a different way… whatever you do the learners will undoubtedly be learning what they are ready to learn and what they choose to learn.

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook