Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Posts tagged ‘tips’

The Proficiency Plateau (guest post)

At the beginning of my career, I was lucky enough to work with a whole range of dedicated teachers at International House Brno. One of them was Lily-Anne Young, who at that point had been teaching the same proficiency-level group for a couple of years. She worked with the same group for many years, and is therefore always the person I go to when I need help with teaching very high-level students. She has now agreed to write some guest posts for me, which I hope you will find useful. Over to Lily-Anne:

What do you do with students who already have, or don’t need, CAE/CPE but want to keep working on their English? The non-native speaker teachers, translators, business & tech people and many others? The ones who have hit the proficiency plateau?

Having taught a C2 class for 10 consecutive years, with many returning students, this is an area I have dealt with, struggled with and love. It’s demanding, challenging and potentially soul destroying, yet I, and some other people, thrive on this.

Expectations are incredibly high. It’s up to us and the learners to meet those expectations. To do this, it has to be a mutual experience: negotiated content, constant communication, reciprocal feedback, respect and the teacher as a facilitator.

In this introductory post I’m going to share some of the observations I have made over time and consider the implications for both teachers and learners.  In future posts I will share some activities which have proved successful with my students, and make further salient observations.

Who are these amazing people?

O’Maley (Advanced Learners, OUP) [affiliate link] points out that learners at this level are usually:

  • Highly educated
  • Teachers, educators, translators, academics
  • Middle or senior management

Based on my own students, past and present, they:

  • may be suffering from the Proficiency Plateau;
  • are highly motivated;
  • but may be wondering just how they can, usefully, improve their skills;
  • cannot be pigeonholed (as if we would ever consider such a thing);
  • love to challenge the teacher and to show off a bit;
  • all have different areas of language expertise, obsessions and gaps.

The Proficiency Plateau

I am coining this phrase as my own (I hope nobody else has used it). Teachers often talk about the Intermediate Plateau, yet the same situation can be hit at all stages of learning a language and once learners have achieved C1/C2 level it can seem almost impossible to measure progress and achievement.

What does it mean?

It means that you are going to work with students who, as with most learners, have a wide range of interests, from the mundane to the bizarre, but who also have much of the language needed to express complex ideas. This gives us a much wider range of available topics and scope to play with language than we have with lower levels and coursebooks.

It means that they are going to ask you questions you may not know the answer to off the top off your head or can answer but can’t explain. Hence, you need to be able to think on your feet and be willing to admit that you are not an encyclopedia, dictionary or Google.

It means that you have to adapt coursebooks, resource books, find suitable authentic materials and create lessons from them which meet the diverse needs of the learner(s). Which takes us on to:

Materials

There is a dearth of ready-made materials for advanced learners who don’t want to do CAE/CPE/IELTS  (or have it). This is mainly due to a lack of market demand and I believe/hope, based on the fact that my C1 students are getting younger every year, that this may change. (Yes, I am older but the C1 students are still in secondary school – that’s a big change from 10 years ago when my students were 30+).

In the meantime there are published resources which you can use and adapt – after all, we teachers are very skilled at that – and the CAE/CPE books can give you an idea of which language areas you may wish to target in the development of your course.

However the main resource for us has to be authentic materials.  Everybody has their favourites and I have mine, which I will reveal at a later date 🙂

Going beyond language

Push the boat out; above and beyond; the call of duty; hit the nail on the head. These are all wonderful phrases to know but you have to encourage your learners  to use them in appropriate situations, not just parrot them to show off knowledge. Likewise we have to motivate the learners to use their language effectively.  

To do this I work with authentic materials, some of which are provided by them and some by me, then use those materials to create classroom situations in which they can practise both language and skills.

So here is a, not exhaustive, list of some of the skills my learners and I work on together:

  • Humour
  • Sarcasm & irony
  • Criticism & compliments
  • Swearing (be careful with this)
  • Different accents
  • Different Englishes
  • Poetry, nursery rhymes, literature
  • Reading between the lines
  • Presentation skills
  • Marketing/negotiation/persuasive skills
  • Making appropriate choices between synonyms depending on contexts

Thus, I prefer to take the emphasis away from measuring progress and focus on encouraging my students to explore not only language, but also how English has so many variations and to develop skills which they may or may not have when using their own language.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and I have whetted your appetite for more.

Lily-Anne Young

Lily-Anne is a DipTesol qualified teacher with over 15 years experience in teaching in various locations and covering the whole gamut of teaching situations. Working as a freelance teacher trainer and senior teacher, based in Brno, CZ, she has recently decided to try to share some of her knowledge with other professionals via conferences and other peoples’ blogs.

In particular she has an interest on how to work with and help very advanced learners as this is an area she has been working in for a long time and many people find daunting.

In her spare time she plays in an amateur badminton league and tries to understand her Czech speaking boyfriend.

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Delta conversations: James E.

This is part of a series of posts showing you all the different ways you can approach the Cambridge Delta. They are designed to help you find out more about the course and what it involves, as well as helping you to choose the right way to do it for you, your lifestyle and the time you have available. If you’ve done the Delta (or any other similar higher-level teaching course, including a Masters), and you’d like to join in, let me know by leaving me a comment or contacting me via Twitter @sandymillin.

James studied French and Spanish at university before teaching in Spain for four years, during which time he completed the Delta. In 2016 he moved to Riga, Latvia to work at International House, where he is currently an ADOS. He blogs at  https://jamesegerton.wordpress.com/.

James Egerton

How did you do your Delta? How did you arrange the modules? 

I hopped around a bit: 1-3-2.

I first heard about Delta when attending an informal meeting of teachers from several different academies in May 2014 in Albacete, Spain, with the aim of training each other for the Module 1 exam in Madrid that December. We dished out several books each to look at over summer and did a couple of seminars together that September, but once the full whirlwind of term came through again it was clear our regular meetings and study sessions just weren’t going to happen, and the group somewhat evaporated.

So down to just a colleague and me, we studied with a range of resources:

  • Delta Module 1 Quizlet deck for the terminology
  • Several excellent blogs – Sandy’s [thanks!] and Lizzie Pinard’s in particular.
  • Past papers and combing through the corresponding Examination Reports for improvements.

We took the Module 1 exam in December 2014. Following the exam, we sat down with the head of teacher training at IH Madrid to get more information on how to go about taking the remaining two Modules, and I completed the Module 3 essay between January and March 2015 as a distance learner with IH Madrid. This involved regular e-mail contact, including draft edits, and only one train trip up to the capital to borrow some books I needed and speak to my supervisor face-to-face. Finally, I did Module 2 at an intensive course at IH London in July and August 2015. It was a sustained attack on the brain for 6 weeks, but that’s how it had to be (see next question)!

Why did you choose to do it that way?

In a word, practicalities.

Albacete is a small city, with the nearest Delta centre a couple of hours away in Madrid, so physically attending a course regularly just wasn’t compatible with the work schedule I had. Nor did I want to stop working full time to take the qualification, although I had to extend my summer break a little to squeeze in 6 weeks for the intensive Module 2. It was also important for me to get it done as soon as possible, as once I’ve started something I prefer to ride the wave of momentum until finishing, and 1-3-2 was the quickest route available.

What do you think you gained from doing the Delta?

Without overstating it, it was truly a fork in the road for me. Overall, the Delta marked the point that I stopped looking at being in ELT as a short-time teaching job (year to year then see how I feel each summer) and started considering it more as a career with the possibility to develop.

There was a short talk at the end of the Module 2 course in London on how we continue our professional development with a Delta certificate tucked under one arm, and I went about several of the mentioned possibilities (not all necessarily require Delta, though!):

  1. Academic management – I went back to Albacete to work as a Director of Studies for our small two-centre academy in 2015-16, then started applying for jobs in the new year with the Delta sitting on my CV, which opens a lot more doors. I got a job as Senior Teacher at International House Riga, and am just starting my second year here, this time as Assistant Director of Studies. Working at IH has in turn opened many more doors, but that’s a story for another day.
  2. Reflecting on and starting my own blog on ELT (Sandy’s blog was actually the example given)
    Post-Delta M2 advice
  3. Teacher training – This started in-house, and thanks to the Delta I got fast-tracked and have recently qualified as a IHCYLT [IH Certificate in Teaching Young Learners and Teenagers] course tutor. I’d eventually like to become a CELTA trainer when the opportunity arises.
  4. Joining IATEFL and connecting with colleagues from around the world.

What were the downsides of the method you chose?

It was hectic at times! Studying Module 1 alongside work was a relatively gentle introduction; doing Module 3 alongside work meant plenty of early mornings, late evenings and studying at weekends; Module 2 was the knockout punch just at a time of year when I needed a break.

What were the benefits of the method you chose?

It was over in a total of 10 months. This meant that I didn’t have time to forget much, and the definitions and technicalities from Module 1 came in very handy for Modules 3 and 2. I was also able to earn and learn simultaneously (except for Module 2), so although my head took a pummelling, my bank account stayed in the black.

What tips would you give other people doing the Delta?

Research all the options. There are so many ways to do it, find the one that best fits you. [Delta conversations can help you by describing lots of different ways.]

Don’t expect it to be fun. It’s useful, challenging, interesting at times, but ‘fun’ isn’t an adjective I’d ever use.

Do it with others if possible. My colleague and I really helped each other out preparing for Module 1 – good to have someone to check things over with, do study sessions and provide a bit of healthy competition (she got a Merit, I just passed!)

Climb the mountain in sections. Plan ahead, sure, but focus on your next tasks. I saw many people get overwhelmed at the enormity of the task, which either resulted in meltdowns or worse, dropping out. ‘By the end of the day I will have…’ is more than enough, especially during any intensive courses.

Be organised. The previous point just won’t work if not.

Be resilient. The Module 1 exam might not go so well first time, your teaching techniques might be pulled apart in Module 2, your essay draft might need a complete reconstruction in Module 3. There are plenty of speed humps; the key is to keep going!

If you have any further questions, feel free to get in touch at james.egerton@tiscali.co.uk.

All the best!

Delta conversations: Yuliya

This is part of a series of posts showing you all the different ways you can approach the Cambridge Delta. They are designed to help you find out more about the course and what it involves, as well as helping you to choose the right way to do it for you, your lifestyle and the time you have available. If you’ve done the Delta (or any other similar higher-level teaching course, including a Masters), and you’d like to join in, let me know by leaving me a comment or contacting me via Twitter @sandymillin.

Yuliya Speroff is originally from Russia and has lived in several countries including the UK, New Zealand and, most recently, Turkey, where she spent three years teaching English and coordinating the work of the Curriculum Design and Materials Development office at an Intensive English Program at a private university in Kayseri. Yuliya has been teaching English for over 10 years, including two years as Director of Studies at a language school. Yuliya attained her CELTA in New Zealand in 2012 and her DELTA in 2017. Currently, Yuliya is working as a freelance ESL and Russian teacher and lives in Franklin, Tennessee.  Yuliya’s research interests include developing effective materials and using technology in the classroom. She has a blog with ELT ideas, resources and tips (including for the Delta) at https://yuliyasperoffblog.wordpress.com/

Yuliya Speroff

How did you do your Delta?

I did Module 1 and Module 3 (in that order) online with ITI Istanbul and Module 2 was a blended course with AVO Bell in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Why did you choose to do it that way?

I was working full-time teaching English at an intensive English program at a university and there were no Module 2 courses (or indeed, any DELTA courses other than online ones) where I was living at the time so I went with the online option for Module 1 and 3. In addition, I needed a course that I could fit around my schedule.

As far as the next step Module 2, the course that AVO Bell offered was a bit shorter than other courses out there. Due to the fact some coursework was done long-distance prior to the beginning of the face-to-face portion of the course (namely, EPA and LSA1), the course itself was only 5 weeks long. Since I was limited in how much time off work I could take, that decided it for me.

What do you think you gained from doing the Delta?

SO MUCH!

The biggest thing for me is probably both the bigger picture and the detailed understanding of SLA (second language acquisition) I gained – that is, what it takes to learn a language and how we, as teachers, can help our students do that. I definitely feel I am better equipped to help my students choose the best strategies for learning and understand why things happen in a certain way. For example, when students ask me why it’s so hard to understand native speakers, rather than give a vague answer, I can now tell them about connected speech and how it affects pronunciation and what some strategies are for coping with that. Writing longer assignments and lesson plans for Module 2 and 3 definitely helped me improve my research and academic writing skills and, as a result, get better at writing conference proposals and presentations. Teaching all those observed lessons and writing post-lesson evaluations taught me about the value of reflection and self-evaluation and that regardless of how long you`ve been teaching there’s always room for improvement.

Is there a word limit for this? Because I have more!

DELTA gave me the confidence to teach Russian (my native language) as a foreign language. As native speakers of English can attest, teaching your own native language isn’t always easy, but I realized that everything I learned about methodology, designing courses and planning lessons in ELT can be readily applied to teaching another foreign language, namely Russian. In addition, most importantly, doing DELTA helped me get into teacher training and that is something I have been interested in for a long time.

What were the downsides of the method you chose?

There weren’t really any downsides as such but doing Module 1 online was my first such experience and it took me a few weeks to get used to the layout and the features of the LMS (ITI uses Moodle). Even though there were lots of ‘what to do first’ sort of guidelines, in the beginning I still felt like I didn’t know what I was doing and that took some getting used to.

What were the benefits of the method you chose?

After reading about DELTA I thought Module 1 would be the most logical place to start since preparing for the exam requires you to read up on so many areas in ELT and it did work out that way. I feel that all that background reading and answering exam questions, especially the ones about the purpose for textbook tasks and the assumptions underlying the design of the tasks set me up really well for designing my own course in Module 3 and writing detailed lesson plans in Module 2. Doing an online course helped me do things in my own time, although having deadlines also kept me on task. One great thing about the course that ITI Istanbul offers is that when the time comes to register for the exam, should you decide that you are not quite ready yet, you can enroll in the next online course free of charge – and that is exactly what I did when I realized I needed more time to prepare.

As for Module 2, I feel like doing some of the course work and background reading before the intensive part of the course really helped me feel like I was slightly ahead of the deadlines and removed some of the time pressure.

What tips would you give other people doing the Delta?

I actually wrote a blog post on DELTA tips and on Module 1 specifically but here are a few tips:

  • Do your background reading BEFORE the course, regardless of whether you are doing Module 1, 2 or 3. There is a lot of recommended reading and I feel like it takes a few times of reading the same information in different sources before everything truly sinks in and the overall picture forms in your head. Also, the more you read, the easier it will be for you in the following modules to go back to the books you read to look for specific information.
  • Similarly, for Modules 2 and 3, start thinking of your specialty/LSA and EPA (experimental practice assignment) topics early on so that you can start gathering materials and ideas even before the course starts and start taking notes and making bookmarks!

In retrospect, what would you have done differently?

I actually did get a do-over when I enrolled for the spring Module 1 course, realized I should have started reading about the exam and doing the background reading much much earlier so I started reading and re-enrolled in the course the following autumn.

How much time per week would you estimate you needed to spend working on the Delta in the format you chose?

Online Module 1 and 3: Probably 5-6 hours. I did the majority of the more ‘productive’ work over the weekend – e.g. actually sitting down to write assignments or lesson plans or doing practice exams, and during the week I did some reading in the evenings or studied with index cards.

Blended Module 2: The online part was similar to the above, and the face-to-face part was non-stop studying. I did take some walks in the evenings and had a few outings with fellow DELTA-ers, but I didn’t get to see that much of Sofia, which I regret. A funny detail – during one of the nights out we found a Delta Blues Bar! DELTA blues! Naturally, we proceeded to take dozens of photos and tell everyone what a coincidence it was but, nobody but us was very impressed.

Delta Blues Bar

Delta conversations: Sarah

This is part of a series of posts showing you all the different ways you can approach the Cambridge Delta. They are designed to help you find out more about the course and what it involves, as well as helping you to choose the right way to do it for you, your lifestyle and the time you have available. If you’ve done the Delta (or any other similar higher-level teaching course, including a Masters), and you’d like to join in, let me know by leaving me a comment or contacting me via Twitter @sandymillin.

Sarah May currently works in international education. She started her career when she trained as a secondary school teacher of Modern Foreign Languages in 2011. She moved into the field of English language teaching when she decided to teach English in Spain. Sarah has also taught Spanish in an international school, and since completing the Delta she is starting a new role teaching English (Middle Years and IB) in an international school near Barcelona.

Sarah May

 

How did you do your Delta? How did you arrange the modules? (i.e. in what order and did you do them in different places?)

I did my Delta in order (Modules 1-2-3) and I did the whole diploma part-time from 2015 to 2017. I did Module 1 with Distance Delta, so online. The following September, I started Module 2 on a face-to-face course at Cambridge School in Granollers, Barcelona. Every Friday from September to May we attended sessions, did our LSAs and observed each other. After Module 2 I took a six-month break as I was starting a new role, and then did Module 3 with Distance Delta again.

Why did you choose to do it that way?

I felt studying part-time would let me take in more information and assimilate everything better. This proved true – I was also able to try out different techniques as I was studying ‘on the job’. It was certainly a very busy time, as I had to fit the studying around my work schedule. However, I was still able to enjoy the course and earned merits in both Modules 1 and 2. It was also a really practical and economical option – I didn’t have to stop working and I didn’t have to travel around much as Modules 1 and 3 were completely online.

What do you think you gained from doing the Delta?

Too many things to count! Meeting other teachers on the face-to-face Module 2 course was a fantastic experience. Even though we all lived in the same province, we probably would not have met otherwise. We were a mix of native and non-native English speakers and we all had diverse experiences. Everyone was really talented and we learned loads from each other. The Delta is definitely a great way to network!

Although the Delta is a very academic, Masters level qualification, all the theory is geared towards your teaching practice. I really liked how all course content is directly relevant to lesson planning and teaching.

What were the downsides of the method you chose?

I had to study a lot on weekends, although I knew it was only temporary. However, managing this depends on the intensity of your job. By the time I got to Module 3, I had a new role helping set up a new MFL department. The added responsibility meant I could not spend as much time on Module 3 as I would have liked! I could not have foreseen this when I started the Delta, but if you study part-time it’s important to choose your timings wisely.

Also, studying certain modules online requires a lot of willpower. With the Distance Delta, the content wasn’t delivered in any type of lesson, you simply had to read, read, read! They have forums and other resources too, but it’s a lot of studying on your own. It suited me, but it isn’t for everyone!

What were the benefits of the method you chose?

Doing the modules in order really helped. Completing Module 1 puts you at an advantage when starting Module 2 – it teaches you the jargon and techniques you are expected to use in your LSA’s. There is also a particular style of writing expected at Delta (clear, report-like), which you can perfect on Module 2 before you start Module 3 (the extended assignment).

Studying Module 2 face-to-face was ideal. We were able to observe all the other course participants do their lessons (LSAs), and we all gave feedback. Everyone agreed that the post-LSA sessions were where the ‘real’ learning took place, as we compared our own views with the course tutors and with each other. We gained valuable insight as to how Delta lessons are graded (e.g. what a ‘merit’ lesson looks like compared to a ‘pass’) and this was really helpful for going forward.

Our tutors at Cambridge School were also a great mix of people, very encouraging and really experienced assessing Module 2. You hear stories about some centres who want to ‘de-construct’ and ‘put back together’ their Delta trainees, but here the course didn’t have that feel; it felt more like a learning journey which built on your experience.

As I said above, studying part-time allows you to process all the information at your own rate, in a way that is productive for your current teaching.

What tips would you give other people doing the Delta?

  • Don’t be afraid to consult your course tutor before you plan your LSAs. Course tutors are also there to advise you on your planning, as well as to give you feedback on the end result!
  • Get someone to proof-read your assignments – not necessarily a teacher. If they can’t find it easy to follow, then it probably isn’t clear enough. Ask them to highlight the bits they don’t understand. It’s easy to assume everyone knows where your essay is going, but even Delta assessors aren’t mind-readers!
  • Don’t compare yourself. Some people might seem to do everything perfectly, but just focus on your own goals. Just think – the more progress you make, the more you’ll get for your money! Everyone comes at the Delta from a different angle, and thank goodness – otherwise the course would be really boring!
If you have any further questions about how and where I trained, feel free to get in touch at sarita.ja.may@gmail.com.
Best of luck and enjoy the course!

You cannot run before you can walk – reading in Arabic EFL learners (guest post)

I’m very happy to be able to share another guest post by Emina Tuzovic with you. The first time she appeared on this blog, she wrote about how to help Arabic students with their spelling. Now she’s back to tell us more about working with Arabic students, this time focussing on helping them develop their reading skills.

In the UK, a growing number of Arabic learners are joining English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and IELTS courses as they would like to enter British universities. Generally speaking, this group of students tend to have very good communicative skills; however, they considerably lag behind when it comes to reading and writing. As in the Anglo-American educational system, these skills are paramount, Arabic learners tend to struggle with their studies here. As a teacher, I often felt I didn’t know how to cater to their needs which led me to research this topic in more detail. In this blog post, I’m going to focus on reading and give you some tips which will hopefully help your Arabic learners improve this vital everyday, as well as academic, skill.

Now, think about how many times you have asked your students to skim or scan an academic text. While most of the students get to grips with the task, our Arabic students generally struggle with this. So how to tackle this problem?

I think what we teachers need to do is break things down instead of throwing our students in at the deep end. We should start with reading words, before moving on to reading sentences, paragraphs and finally the whole text. If we build things up, reading will suddenly become a less daunting process for our Arabic learners.

There are several reasons why they find reading challenging. Firstly, how much students read in their L1 usually predicts how much reading they do in their L2. Judging from what my Arabic students tell me, they don’t read that much in their mother tongue. This is reflected in their reading habits in English, where suddenly they are faced with a different script and a different orthography, as well as a different reading direction – all of these making the reading process much more challenging. As they lack exposure to print, they often do not accumulate a sufficient range of vocabulary. This, in turn, affects their reading comprehension, which is the reason why they do not want to read in the first place! This vicious circle needs to be broken.

Let’s start from the beginning. We need to tackle words in isolation first.

Vocabulary and word decoding

As we said above, vocabulary size plays a significant role in our students’ reading comprehension. Lack of vocabulary slows down the reading process and hinders their understanding of the text. Additionally, when I ask my Arabic students to read something for homework, they will often translate a lot of words, most of which are low frequency and therefore not very useful:

Translations by an Arabic-speaking reader of English

Therefore, in order to catch up with other groups of learners, I think it’s important for a teacher to prioritise useful, higher frequency lexis and monitor what vocabulary students actually record. For instance, I usually check the words they have selected during a speaking activity. I allow my students to look up no more than ten words per text which will force them to prioritise vocabulary that is worth looking up!

Secondly, like all other learners, they need to be able to guess unknown lexis from the context. One of the most useful lexical aspects for this group to focus on is word formation. It is a very important lexical process in Arabic therefore our learners will be able to identify with it. So whenever possible, I get them to extrapolate the root, notice any affixation and derive other parts of speech:

Word formation example

I would also strongly suggest pre-teaching vocabulary before reading a text. The next day you could do a spelling exercise as vocabulary revision. You can give your students an initial letter string with the exact number of gaps and get them to produce the word they learnt the day before:

  • st_ _ _ _ _ _ _ (strenuous)
  • acc _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (accidental)
  • sl_ _ _ (slope)

[Read more about how to help students with spelling in Emina’s previous post, and find out more about why it’s a particularly difficult problem for Arabic learners in one of my posts.]

Word decoding

Another reason for poor reading skills in Arabic learners is slow and inaccurate processing of words, (word decoding). When it comes to multisyllabic lexical items, my Arabic students often read the beginning of the word and then unsuccessfully predict the rest of it. Also, it is not uncommon that words get confused with similar lexical items (negative L1 transfer). This group of learners will tend to focus on consonants so century might become country, revelation becomes reflection, etc.

To fix this problem, one of the most important exercises to recycle vocabulary would be gapping vowels. This will help them not only to improve their spelling but also their word decoding:

  • c_rt_n               (carton)
  • _xh_b_t_ _n   (exhibition)
  • _cc_l_r_t_       (accelerate)

I think it is also essential for Arabic learners to learn to divide words into syllables which will also markedly improve their word processing (e.g. con-se-quence). They can clap/tap syllables and while doing so. I ask them not to look at the words as irregular spelling patterns will only confuse them (e.g. just think about how we pronounce common words containing ‘ea’ – meat, learn and heart).

Overall, I believe, starting with vocabulary accuracy is paramount. Once the visual form of the word is consolidated, students will decode it more quickly and as a result, they will eventually get faster at reading.

Sentence level

Besides working on accurate word decoding, I get my students to focus on the sentence structure at the same time. I think it’s really important to pre-teach sentence elements (S-V-O: subject-verb-object) and parts of speech (noun (n), verb (v), adjective (adj), etc.) as this will immensely help our learners ‘decipher’ long sentences and orientate themselves in a text. ‘Grammatical labels’ might seem superfluous; however, I’ve noticed once the students get the hang of those, it’s much easier for me to give instructions and explain various grammatical structures e.g. passive, relative clauses, participles, etc. As students gain the knowledge of the sentence structure, they will start processing sentences faster.

Another thing I do is give students the beginning of a sentence which they have to finish e.g. I went to the shop (to)…; My car stopped in the middle of the road (because)…. This is how they learn to predict the content and increase their reading speed.

Last but not least, it is already at sentence level that I get my Arabic learners to start noticing punctuation. We often analyse sentences and I get my students to answer the following questions:

  • Is there a capital letter? (Where is it? Why is it there?)
  • Is there a full stop? (Where is it? Why is it there?)
  • Is there a comma? Why is it there? (How is it different from a full stop?)

Try to do it every day (or as often as possible) until you see your Arabic students use capital letters and full stops automatically in their writing. While analysing the sentence(s) in terms of punctuation, you can also ask them to find the subject, verb, etc.

Complex sentences

In EAP and IELTS classes I have noticed that it helps a lot if we break down complex sentences. I get my Arabic learners to pay special attention to subordinate linkers (if, when, in spite of; however, etc.) as these do not feature very prominently in Arabic. After they have grasped the concept of sentence elements and parts of speech, I get them to focus on complex noun groups (consisting of head nouns, prepositional phrases, (reduced) relative clauses, etc.) as well as to notice the difference between active and passive. For example, I put a complex sentence on the board:

One surprising factor is the willingness with which the public in most countries accept the by now well-known risk of developing lung cancer in spite of the evidence of its connection with cigarette smoking published by WHO.

Taken from Nuttall (1989)

They can answer these questions either individually or in pairs:

  • Mark the beginning and the end of the sentence with a double-slash.
  • Can you find the linker? What does it express?
  • Divide the sentence into two clauses.
  • Can you find the head noun? Which verb goes with it?
  • What is additional information? Use a slash (or underline it)
  • Is published by WHO active or passive?             (passive)
  • What is missing before published by WHO?     (which was)

So in the end, we get something like this:

//One surprising factor is the willingness/ with which /the public in most countries accept/ the by now well-known risk /of developing lung cancer

in spite of the evidence/ of its connection with cigarette smoking / published by WHO.//

I try to stick to colour-coding and always use one colour for nouns, another one for verbs, etc.

Afterwards I give students another complex sentence which they have to break down answering the same questions as the ones in the grid. Alternatively, you can give them the key words beforehand and get the learners to develop their idea(s) of how to build it into a sentence first:

factor…willingness…public…accept …risk…lung cancer… in spite of…connection…smoking

How to extend the activity: After they’ve received, read and analysed the complex sentence in detail, you can ask them to cover it and go back to the key words. Now they have to try to produce the complex sentence just by looking at the key words. This will additionally consolidate their awareness of the English sentence structure.

Paragraph and text level

The analysis of punctuation continues when we read paragraphs and subsequently texts. If you teach multilingual classes, you can give these questions to your Arabic students separately on a piece of paper and tell them they need to answer the questions every time they read a text for homework.

  • How many full stops are there?
  • How many sentences are there?
  • Do all the sentences start with a big letter?
  • How many commas are there? Why are they used?
  • How many linkers can you see? Circle them.
  • How many paragraphs are there?

It’s particularly important for this group of learners to become exposed to whole paragraphs and texts as soon as possible. In this way they will be able to internalise the structure of a paragraph/a text which will also help them with their writing.

In order to generate interest in a text and for Arabic students to be able to identify with the topic, I would suggest tackling familiar topics for them (e.g. family and relationships, food, technology, customs and habits, weather, travel and transport, etc). In a multilingual class, I usually get non-Arabic students to explain various cultural references to them (e.g. the Beatles).

Other elements which slow down their reading

We’ve probably all witnessed many of our Arabic students using their finger in order to read in a line. To help them drop this habit (apart from the obvious: Don’t use your finger!), I would first of all use regular typeface, such as Calibri or Arial (not the ornate ones that look like script!), as well as font size 12+ as this will genuinely improve their word decoding skills and consequently their processing speed.

In order to help them follow the text on the line as well as to monitor their speed, I would get the students to use a ‘mask’ (see below). This will also discourage them from using their finger!

Mask for reading

Taken from: Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language by Nuttall (1989)

You can make it yourself by cutting a window in a sheet of paper. Get them to place it over the line and as they read, and pull it down to uncover the remaining text.

Another prominent feature which slows down our Arabic learners is subvocalisation (pronouncing words under their breath). Reading aloud and subvocalisation are commonly used when reading in Arabic, therefore this, in many ways cultural difference, needs to be pointed out early on in their learning process.

In order to read faster, as we all know, predicting the content is vital. I have noticed that stories often go down very well with Arabic learners. I give them a text and ask them to read the first paragraph. Afterwards they need to predict what will happen in the next paragraph, etc.:

It was a cold, dark night

Taken from: New English File Pre-Intermediate by Oxenden et al. (2011)

You can also give them a series of pictures and ask them to explain to their partners what they think happened before they read the story.

Extension of this activity: Afterwards they cover the text and tell each other the same story but this time in more detail, based on what they have read.

Skimming

So we’ve finally come to the notorious skimming. This technique works well with students who are competent readers in their L1 and who can successfully transfer their reading skills into their L2. Apart from expanding lexis, if we want Arabic-speaking students to improve their skimming and pick up their reading speed, our students also need to learn to ignore non-key, usually low-frequency words and just continue reading!

I choose a text and gap every eighth word in it, next time every seventh, sixth word, etc.:

Read the text. Ignore the gaps.

Grace Simmons is only fourteen, and she speaks French, but she’s famous in Paris. She’s become a _______ model for a well-known _______ designer. Grace is from _____, Michigan. Her father is ______ car salesperson and her ______ is a teacher. Grace_____very unhappy as a _____ girl because she was _____ tall-almost six feet. _____ other children laughed at_____all the time and ______ had very few friends. ______ she was eleven years _____, Grace’s mother took her ______ a modelling school.

Taken from: More Reading Power by Mikulecky & Jeffries (2004).

How many words you gap depends on the students’ level and the lexical density of a text (the denser the text, the fewer the gaps). You can also gap grammatical words (determiners, prepositions, etc.) as well as adjectives and adverbs (basically words which are not absolutely essential to understand a text).

When we get our Arabic students to attempt to skim a text, I recommend selecting texts which are considerably below their oral level of proficiency. I don’t think there is much point in getting them to skim a text which contains a lot of lexis unknown to them. Another piece of advice would be, as mentioned before, to pre-teach new vocabulary.

I also get my students to skim a text more than once. But the most important thing is that they get into the habit of doing it on a daily basis, either in class or at home or even both! I also get them to time themselves and write down how long it took them to skim a text the first time, second time, etc.

Last but not least, it’s very useful to set up a reading routine. You can get them to choose the texts they want to read in their free time. I usually put a grid on the wall where they write down what they read the day before:

Reading grid

To recap…

Reading is a very complex cognitive process which requires a long time to ‘master’. Our Arabic speakers are in many ways disadvantaged as when reading in English, they are faced with a completely different writing system alongside considerable linguistic as well cultural differences (e.g. knowledge of the world; various cultural references) which influence their reading in English.

I believe we can help our Arabic learners a lot if we break things down, starting with words in isolation before moving on to higher levels of processing. In the same vein, I think accurate word decoding should be tackled before working on reading speed.

After skimming for the gist, I think it’s vital to do the post-reading analysis in terms of:

  • prioritising vocabulary and breaking the words down into syllables;
  • guessing key vocabulary from the context;
  • analysing the sentence structure (especially in complex sentences);
  • analysing how ideas are developed in each paragraph and in a text as a whole;
  • analysing punctuation.

All of these things will help our Arabic students improve their accuracy and speed when reading. This will build up their confidence which will motivate them to read more in their free time. And we all know developing extensive reading is paramount if you want to become a competent reader!

After employing all the strategies that I have outlined in this blogpost, the reading skills in my Arabic learners have improved significantly within a fairly short period of time. It did require a lot of time and effort on both sides but as I always say, hard work pays off! So in the end, the majority of my students got significantly higher scores in their IELTS reading as well as their writing, which got them a step closer to getting into a university of their choice. Vicious circle broken, mission accomplished! 🙂

References

  • Mikulecky, B.S. & Jeffries, L. (2004) More Reading Power (second edition) Longman
  • Nuttall, C. (1989) Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language Heinemann
  • Oxenden, C.; Latham-Koenig, C.; Seligson, P. & Clanfield, L. (2011) New English File Pre-intermediate Teacher’s Book OUP

About Emina

Emina Tuzović works as an English language teacher at the London School of English, predominantly on EAP, ESP and exam preparation courses. She has designed an online spelling module for Arabic learners of English for CUP as well as reviewed various syllabuses for spelling materials for the Middle-East market. She is currently completing the final year of a PhD on word recognition and orthographic awareness in Arabic learners of English at Birkbeck College, London.

Emina

Categorising writing mistakes

I’ve just got access to a short video made for the Teaching English British Council facebook page at IATEFL Manchester 2015 which I’d completely forgotten about! In it, I describe a method you can use to encourage students to notice mistakes they make in writing and try to reduce them. Unfortunately I can’t embed the video here, but I can give you the link to watch it. I’m not sure if you need to be logged in to facebook to see it, and I don’t know how to get around it if you don’t have a facebook account – sorry!

You can see examples of how I used this kind of error categorisation in my own Russian learning in the ‘Writing’ section of the post How I’m learning Russian (part 2).

Russian journal

Russian journal

Have you tried anything similar?

Two teaching hacks to save you time preparing your materials

Yep, clickbait title I know. Sorry. But it’s true…these two little tips have probably saved me countless seconds since I discovered them…

Making sets of cards

Before you cut up a set of cards, mark them quickly with different coloured pens. You can do it on coloured paper too if you like, but that’s more expensive and a lot more faff!

Mark paper on the back to put it into coloured sets

Once you’ve cut them up, you can then divide them quickly into separate piles. If they get mixed up, or one falls out of a set, it’s easy to see where it belongs.

IMG_5659

Folding piles of worksheets

Once you’ve printed them all, fold the whole pile in one go.

Folding piles of worksheets 1

Separate them out into a messy pile.

Folding piles of worksheets 2

Sharpen the fold, a few at a time if necessary.

Folding piles of worksheets 3

Folding piles of worksheets 4

Repeat until you’re happy with the result 🙂

Folding piles of worksheets 5

What silly little things do you do to save yourself a few seconds of precious time?

Making the most of blogs (Innovate ELT 2016)

On 6th and 7th May 2016 I attended the Innovate ELT conference in Barcelona, jointly organised by ELTjam and OxfordTEFL.

The conference started with three short plenary sessions, and in a change from the traditional conference format, anybody could apply to be a plenary speaker, in much the same way as you would for a workshop, rather than it being invited speakers only. Following on from Kat Robb and Jamie Keddie, my plenary was called Five things I’ve learnt from five years of blogging. Thanks to Laura Patsko for recording it via Periscope so that you can watch it here – the image quality is a little low, but the sound should be fine.

I followed up the plenary with a 30-minute workshop on Saturday called Making the most of blogs. You can watch a 60-minute webinar I did on the same topic last year, or read on to see the slides from this version, including some blog recommendations to start you off.

Making the most of blogs title slide

I chose this topic because blogs are a key part of my professional development, both through writing my own blog and reading those of other people. I have learnt so much from this process, and hope that I continue to do so for a long time. This presentation aims to share that love 🙂

Why do teachers blog

Teachers blog for many different reasons. Here are just a few.

Reflection
By blogging, it makes you consider your lessons, your teaching and your life in more depth. You think about what you’re going to write, and which aspects of your teaching/work/life you want to shed light on. The comments you receive help you to go further by finding out more about particular topics or reconsidering your ideas about why something did/didn’t work.

Sharing materials
You’ve produced great materials or your students really enjoyed a particular activity, but you have no idea when you can use them again. Share them with others, and inspire them 🙂 Materials, activites and ideas from my blog are all in one category.

Portfolio
When you apply for work, your blog can show prospective employers a lot about you and your interest in developing yourself professionally. If you’d like to move into materials writing, the things you’ve shared show what you’re able to produce and give editors an idea about your writing style and experience. It’s also a good way for you to keep track of what you’ve done over time. I do this through my writing, videos and presenting tabs.

Making connections
By reading and commenting on other people’s blogs, you start to build up a network of people who are interested in development. This comes in very useful when you are…

Asking for help
A blog is a great place to throw out questions and see what comes back. One example of that on my blog is when I wanted to know about what EFL teachers do when they retire, which prompted a very useful discussion in the comments and led to me setting up an ISA.

Catharsis
For me, the main reason I choose to write on my blog is to get things out of my head, whatever they may be. Sometimes I know that these posts are very personal, touching on stress, health, home, love and more, and there is no obligation for you to share anything you don’t want to – it’s your blog, and your decision. These are often the posts where the comments make me laugh and cry, and show just what an amazingly supportive bunch of people those of you who read this are. Thank you!

How do you find blogs?

OK, so blogs are useful. But how do you know where to start looking for them?

Many blogs have a blogroll, a list of the writer’s favourite blogs to read. You can find mine in the bar on the right of my blog.

The British Council Teaching English facebook page is an endless source of useful links, including many different blogs.

On Twitter, you can follow the #ELTchat hashtag, which is populated by English teachers sharing content. The ELTchat summaries page takes you to the blogs of many different contributors to the chats, and the summaries themselves are an incredibly useful source of information on a plethora of topics connected to English teaching. If you’d like to find out more about using Twitter for professional development, try this post from my blog. This post was also written a couple of days after an #ELTchat on using social media for professional development, as summarised by Lizzie Pinard.

If you’d like some more specific starting points, here are ten blogs I’d recommend. I chose these blogs when I put together this presentation as they’re ones I return to again and again, but ask me on a different day and I’d probably pick a different ten 🙂 (apologies if I’ve missed yours!)

Blog recommendations 1

ELT Rants, Reviews and Reflections
Mike Griffin is based in South Korea. He teaches and trains in universities there. His posts often make me laugh and always make me think.

Living Learning
Anne Hendler was based in South Korea for a long time, and is currently in transition to new places (looking forward to finding out where!) Her posts are a prime example of reflection in action, and are full of ways that she has worked with her teen classes to become a better teacher.

The Other Things Matter
Kevin Stein may not write very often, but when he does, it’s always worth reading. He is based in Japan and works with teenage students, many of whom have had trouble at other schools. His blog also includes some short fiction designed for language learners, accessible via a tab along the top.

Blog recommendations 2

How I see it now
Hana Ticha teaches in a Czech state secondary school. I’ve learnt so much from her about the challenges of teaching in a context very different from that of my own in private language schools. She also writes about how she keeps her own English up. If you didn’t grow up using English and think that might mean that you can’t blog, Hana’s writing is a prime example of why that shouldn’t stop you. If your mother tongue is English, read it anyway 🙂

Lizzie Pinard
Lizzie has taught in a variety of different contexts, and is now working for a British university. Her blog contains lots of information about studying for Delta and MAs, as well as helping your students to become more autonomous. She also reflects on her own language learning.

Close Up
Ceri Jones is a materials writer, trainer and teacher based in southern Spain. She shares materials and activities (often under the tabs along the top) and reflects on her lessons. A recent series I’ve particularly enjoyed has been about teaching ‘barefoot with beginners‘, without using coursebooks. If you click on the link, start with the post at the bottom and work up to get the full story.

Blog recommendations 3

Muddles into Maxims
Matthew Noble is a CELTA tutor in the USA. Reflections on how to become a better trainer and on his own lessons make his blog a go-to for all teacher trainers. He’s also recently hosted a series of interviews with Anne Hendler about the process of doing the CELTA as a teacher with experience, starting here.

ELTeacherTrainer
John Hughes is a materials writer, trainer and teacher. His posts include advice on materials design, classroom observation and business English.

Blog recommendations 4

Tekhnologic
This is quite simply one of the most useful blogs out there. It’s full of incredibly professionally designed templates and materials, and loads of easy-to-understand tips on how to get the most out of Microsoft Office, particularly Excel and PowerPoint. Before I found this blog, I thought I knew quite a lot about Office, but T never fails to introduce something I’ve never seen before in their posts. I just wish I knew who is behind the blog (though I know they’re in Japan) 🙂

Teaching Games
Mike Astbury is currently based in Spain, and if all goes to plan he’ll be coming to work with us at IH Bydgoszcz next year 🙂 He posts lesson plans and activities based around games for a range of levels and ages. They are all available as templates for you to download and adapt to your classroom.

Fear of missing out - how to get a feed

Once you’ve found a blog you want to follow (read regularly), there are a couple of ways to make sure that you don’t miss out on new content. You can choose to subscribe by email, meaning you’ll get a message every time a new post is published.

Another option is to use an RSS feed. This is a link which you put into a reader (see below) in order to automatically collect new posts. On my blog, you can find links for both of these near the top of the right-hand column. Some RSS readers don’t require the specific feed, just the normal link to the website, i.e. https://sandymillin.wordpress.com for this blog.

RSS readers

A reader is a piece of software you can use to read all of the blogs you want to in one place, instead of going to each blog individually.

I use feedly, a free subscription service, where I can add a link to any blog I want to follow and it will automatically collect all new posts from that blog as they are published. The screenshot above gives you an example of the interface: posts I have read in that session are greyed out, and posts still to read are in black. They are organised in order of date, telling me how many days old they are. To keep posts for longer than 30 days, you need to pay for the pro package. On the left you can see (some of!) the list of blogs I follow, along with how many posts are waiting for me to read from each. I don’t think I could keep track of anywhere near as many blogs as I do without using a reader! I spend about 5-10 minutes a day looking at the oldest posts, often just skimming them and saving them for later using diigo, an online bookmarking service. You can access it via your browser or through the free app.

Alternatives to Feedly which I haven’t used are the WordPress Reader and BlogLovin’. There are also many apps available. Try out a few different things and see what works for you.

Join the conversation - add comments

One of the main reasons I enjoy blogging is the conversations which happen in the comments section. Even if you decide not to write your own blog, you can still join in by adding your thoughts. It helps the writer to know their efforts weren’t in vain 🙂 and may add layers to their thinking.

And please don’t worry about sounding stupid or feeling like you don’t have anything to add (both things I think we’ve all experienced):

xkcd.com cartoon: I try not to make fun of people for admitting they don't know things. Because for each thing 'everyone knows' by the time they're adults, every day there are, on average, 10,000 people in the US hearing about it for the first time. Fraction who have heard of it at birth = 0%; fraction who have heard of it by 30 = 100%, US birth rate = 4,000,000 per year; number hearing about it for the first time = 10,000/day. If I make fun of people, I train them not to tell me when they have these moments. And I miss out on the fun.

One of my all-time favourite cartoons 🙂 Thanks xkcd!

How to start your own blog

Now that I’ve whet your appetite and you want to get involved, here are three simple steps to starting your own blog:

  1. Choose your host.
    I like WordPress because I find it quite intuitive, but I know it might not suit everybody. WordPress.com is free. WordPress.org is paid and may require a bit more tinkering, but you can use your own domain name if you want to. A couple of alternatives are blogger and edublogs, but again, take a look around and see what works for you.
  2. Design your blog.
    For me, this was one of the most fun parts. I started with one theme, then changed my mind after a couple of months because I decided it didn’t really ‘fit’ me, and then moved on to the rainbow theme you see now. If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up spending 3-4 hours doing this and head down a bit of a rabbit hole, but it’s worth it because it’s part of your professional branding.
  3. Write your first post!
    It doesn’t need to be long, and it might be as simple as telling people why you’ve decided to start your blog. Here’s my first post. Once you’ve written one post, it’s much easier to write more 😉

What to write about

But of course, you won’t always know what to write about! An important rule of thumb for me is that you should write about what interests you. Don’t feel like you must write about something in particular because that’s the way that ‘blogs are written’. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? 🙂

You can…

  • …share your materials or ideas
    Don’t worry if you think your idea is not earth-shattering or completely original. Remember that people will read your blog at different stages of their career: they might be new to teaching or in a completely different context and have never seen it before, or they might be experienced and these things have fallen out of their head (!)
    Having said that, if you are basing your idea on the work of others, please credit them and provide a link or a book reference if possible to avoid plagiarism. There’s nothing more annoying than something you’ve put a lot of work into appearing verbatim on somebody’s else’s blog with no acknowledgement. Thank you for not being that person. Here endeth the lecture.
  • …reflect on lessons or experiences.
    What worked? What didn’t work? The latter is often more fruitful and interesting – don’t be afraid to share failure, as it can result in tips from others that will help you improve. Here’s an example. Reflecting on experiences outside the classroom can also be interesting to readers, especially those who want to find out more about what it’s like to work in a particular type of school/culture/country.
  • …ask questions.
    As you build up your readers and promote your blog, you should get some interesting answers. Often just the act of posing the question yourself can help you to move closer to the answer.
  • …summarise a webinar, seminar, presentation or conference.
    This helps you to keep track of sessions you’ve attended, and brings them to the attention of other people who may have missed them or been unable to attend. It’s also interesting to see what each person’s take is on a particular session. For examples, why not explore the IATEFL Birmingham 2016 register bloggers?
  • …respond to other blogs.
    If you read something on another blog, you might like to write a longer response to it on your own. What are your thoughts on the same topic? Did you try out a particular activity? Naomi Epstein is particularly good at doing this on Visualising Ideas.

Tips - pictures, share buttons, about page

If you start writing a blog, there are three things you can do which will help your readers:

  • Include a picture with each post.
    People are more likely to engage with a link if it’s accompanied by a picture than if it’s just text. Don’t forget to acknowledge copyright by including the source of the image, and to ask for permission if necessary.
  • Add share buttons to your blog.
    On WordPress.com, this is an option in the ‘settings’ tab of the dashboard. If people can share at the click of a button without having to copy and paste links, your post should get a wider readership.
  • Create an ‘about‘ page.
    You’re putting in all the work, so tell people who you are! They’ll wonder who’s writing all this stuff. Don’t forget to update it periodically – mine was a year out of date when I put together this presentation. Oops!

Self-promotion

It can be a bit daunting to start promoting your blog, and it may feel immodest, but if you’re not going to tell people about it, why write it?

It doesn’t need to be much, but please do tell people about your writing: share a link on Twitter using the #eltchat hashtag, post it on facebook, email it to a few people who you think might be interested… Genevieve White has some great advice about self-promotion for wallflowers to help you. You can use the #shamelessselfpromotion hashtag if you want to 🙂

On the other hand, try to avoid spamming by sharing your post in twenty different places in an hour – I don’t know about other people, but I’m liable to ignore that content because it annoys me (!)

Do bear in mind that it can take a while to build up readers. I started my blog in 2010, I write quite a lot, and this is what my stats look like as of today:

sandymillin blog stats as of 21 May 2016

A lot of those views come from people returning to old content which they’ve found useful, and a new post often only gets 50-100 readers in the first couple of weeks, whatever it might look like from the number of subscribers it says I have at the top of the page 🙂 Remember, too, that stats aren’t the most important thing, although they can be pretty addictive!

Questions

I was asked two questions at the end of the presentation.

The first was ‘What do you do about negativity?’ When dealing with negative comments, of which thankfully there seem to be few, I moderate comments before posting, so they only appear if people have previously commented on my blog or I have approved them. I can then choose if I want to share a negative comment or not. Obviously I still read them, and you have to deal with it in the same way as you would negativity in any other area, for example student feedback. Consider it on balance with all of the positives, and try not to let this happen:

How negative comments echo in our heads

The other question was ‘Why blog?’, and I hope I’ve managed to answer that throughout this post. I’d love to hear your reasons for blogging (or not!) and for you to share a link if you decide to start your own blog.

Thanks for the opportunity to present, Innovate ELT!

Hopefully, you’ll also be able to read my summary of some of the other talks I attended soon.

Update

At the end of the conference Milada Krajewska from Lang LTC in Warsaw interviewed me about blogging for teachers. Apologies for the background noise as they packed up the conference!

Writing ELT materials for primary (guest post)

At this year’s IATEFL Materials Writing SIG pre-conference event, Katherine Bilsborough offered us tips on writing materials for primary-age young learners. These were really useful, so I asked her to put together a blog post summarising them for you.

Writing ELT materials for primary can be great fun but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s somehow easier than writing materials for an older age group. It isn’t. It has just as many challenges but some might be less obvious at first. Following on from the talk I did at this year’s MaWSIG pre-conference event at IATEFL, here are five things to take into consideration for anyone thinking of writing for primary.

1 What does primary actually mean?

The term primary usually covers six years – a long period in the life of a child. Materials that are suitable for a year 1 or 2 pupil aren’t suitable for a year 5 or 6 pupil – for a number of reasons. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the age group for which you are writing. The best way, of course, is to teach this age group yourself, but this isn’t always possible. The next best thing would be to observe some classes being taught – but fortunately there are a few easier things you can do too.

When you know the age group for which you are writing, check out the kind of things they are doing at school by using the UK’s Key Stage classification. Once you know the key stage, you can go to sites such as BBC Bitesizeand look at what children are doing in terms of subject matter and activity types. Remember this is a site for British school children whose first language is usually English so the language used might be more complex that the language you need to use in an ELT context. A good place to go to get an idea of the kind of vocabulary and grammar your target users need for their age group is the Cambridge English Exams website**. The word lists are very similar to word lists in the syllabus of most course books, especially since more and more course books now include exam preparation materials.

2 Primary appropriateness

The most important starting point for anybody writing materials for primary children is appropriateness. There are lots of ways to interpret this but we all know what it means. Primary materials have all the usual no-no’s and then a few more. Publishers usually provide a list of things they wish to avoid. Many of them are common sense but others might surprise you. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with all of the potential restrictions to your creativity. It’s frustrating having to completely rewrite a story, for example, because you’ve included something that needs to be cut … and the story won’t work without it. This is why it’s also a good idea to run your ideas past your editor before embarking on a writing marathon. I haven’t given any specific examples here … that’s a whole blog post in itself!

3 Illustration

Illustration is important in primary materials and once again the importance of age appropriateness needs to be considered. Look at some storybooks for five-year-olds and then at some others for nine-year-olds. You’ll notice all kinds of differences. Not only obvious things like word count or language used but also themes, genres and art styles. I have heard that more and more photos of real-life people and objects are appearing in materials for ever-younger learners. This might reflect changes in their real worlds where they are watching an increasing number of youtube videos and have much more access to photos.

It’s worth investing in a scanner if you start writing primary materials. Editors, designers and illustrators appreciate getting a scanned sketch of your perception of a page. They also like to see more detailed drawings of story frames or pages where the illustration is key to the understanding of the text. It’s worth pointing out that one of the best things about seeing the final product is seeing the brilliant work of the artists in transforming your roughly sketched ideas into work of true beauty.

4 Instructions/rubrics

When it comes to writing materials for primary I think a good rule of thumb for an instruction is ‘the simpler, the better’. That’s probably the case for all kinds of materials, for all ages and levels, but with primary it’s especially important because in the case of the youngest learners, some might not be able to read yet. Have a look at the instructions in materials for this age group. Note how they change according to the age and how simple icons are used for year 1 pupils to support the learning.

5 Useful websites for a primary materials writer

All professionals have their favourite websites and primary materials writers are no different. Here are 6 of mine. If you have any others, let us know. It’s always great to discover a new one.

http://vocabkitchen.com
Paste a text and get an instant colour-coded version, showing at a glance where each word lies within the CEFR guidelines or the AWL (academic word list) guidelines. Perfect for adapting the level of reading and audio texts.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/education
*BBC Bitesize archives for different UK curriculum key stages.

www.vocaroo.com
Easy-to-use, quick and simple recording site. Useful for sending your editor an audio of how you imagine a chant, song etc. sounding.

http://www.timeforkids.com
Age appropriate news stories from around the world (older primary).

http://www.puzzle-maker.com
Free online puzzle maker where you can create crossword grids and word searches quickly and easily. Other online puzzle makers make anagrams, jumble sentences and create other kinds of puzzles.

http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/exams/young-learners-english/
** Downloadable pdf wordlists for each level (Starters, Movers, Flyers, KET and PET).

 

Whether you are writing primary materials for your own classes or to share with others, for a blog, a website or a publisher, don’t forget the most important thing – have fun!

About Katherine

Katherine has worked in ELT since 1986 as a teacher, teacher trainer and author. She has published coursebooks and materials for all ages and contexts. Her primary materials include Dream Box, Ace! Oxford Rooftops, a new course book for OUP and a new online course for BBC English. She develops print and digital materials for the British Council and the BBC and regularly contributes to the LearnEnglish and TeachingEnglish websites. When she isn’t writing, she is gardening. Not having a blog of her own, Katherine enjoys gatecrashing other people’s blogs and was recently named ‘the interloping blogger’ – a title she approves of.

Katherine Bilsborough

If you want to find out more about materials writing, why not get a copy of Katherine’s new e-book How to write primary materials, written for the ELT Teacher2Writer site. (If you decide to buy it through Smashwords with this link, I’ll get a few pennies!)

A few tips for mature entrants to the EFL profession (guest post)

At IATEFL 2015 Manchester I was disappointed to miss a workshop by Helen Dennis-Smith with tips for more mature CELTA trainees on how to enter the profession once they’d finished their course. I contacted her and she very kindly agreed to write this post for me. She’s now a teacher at Wimbledon School of English, London, UK. Helen Dennis-Smith headshotWimbledon School of English logo

My experience

I entered the EFL profession at the age of 56 in 2010, taking my CELTA in London and needing to sell myself into an overcrowded market place. My recommendation is to tailor the way you market yourself to carefully reflect the experience you have and the subsequent impact that this will have on your teaching.

My own experience looks like this:

Mind map showing Helen's experience, divided into previous experience: love of languages, Chinese primary school, business career, raising a family, primary and secondary schools, school governor; and impact on teaching: sympathetic to the difficulty of learning a new language, celebrate different types of education and value different expectation, not afraid to teach business of legal English etc, appreciate some of the difficulties of management and be supportive, not scared of failure, can attempt to understand what makes younger learners tick and empathise, appreciate the legal implications of health and safety, employment law, safeguarding etc

I recommend taking the time to complete this kind of exercise for yourself before applying for jobs. The market place is tough, and your application needs to make it as clear as possible that the school you want to work for is going to benefit hugely by employing a more mature teacher than a very young one.

The challenges and how we can rise to them

Having obtained my first job, my initial thinking was to work as many hours as possible in as short a space of time as I could. This was based on my research into the market place in London, where it had become clear that permanent jobs in good quality schools were given largely to DELTA qualified teachers rather than CELTA teachers. The result of that was that I was eligible to start my DELTA just two years after initially qualifying. This also potentially opens up pathways into management for anyone considering this.

It also seemed essential to consider the need to squash the lifecycle of a teacher into a much shorter time than most teachers.

I recommend watching a presentation given by Tessa Woodward, a former president of IATEFL, about the various phases of teaching: The Professional Life Cycles of Teachers.

In this video she suggests that we need to start tinkering with our teaching as soon as we have got through the initial survival phase. This implies that we will experiment with different teaching styles, approaches and activities and never be afraid to try something out. Younger teachers may take some years in the survival phase. We do not have such luxury!

By doing this, we also make ourselves more marketable, as we can talk from direct experience both in applications and at interview and indicate clearly that we are not going to get stuck in a conservative approach to methodology.

The final area I would like to highlight is technology. It seems to me very important to keep up-to-date with what is available in terms of technology wherever you are teaching, but it is also important not to attempt to be seen as “cool” by the students. For me, the best approach has been to let, to some extent, the students teach me! Enquire what they use and what they would like to be able to use in class and let them show you where to find it and then adapt it for teaching purposes. The students will love to be the teacher for a while.

Last of all, we need to remember why we started teaching English. We need to enjoy ourselves, so when you get that first, albeit seemingly elusive job, make sure you have fun!

If you have any questions, you are welcome to contact me at hdennissmith@gmail.com or via the Wimbledon School of English website. You can also tweet me.

With thanks to Sandy Millin for allowing me to be a guest writer on her blog.

Update

I’m very pleased to announce that Helen has been awarded the Teaching English British Council Featured Blog of the Month award for September 2015 for this post. You can find links to all of the nominated blogs by clicking on the image below. Well done Helen!

Featured blog of th emonth

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