Ideas to make the teaching/learning of writing more enjoyable

Teach me_Writing (1)

Productive skills like writing can be hard to deal with not only for students but also for teachers. Learning how to write can become a nuisance for students unless we, teachers, make it a more interactive and entertaining activity. The odds are that if we get bored when teaching writing, so will our students when trying to learn it.  So why not working around that to make it an enjoyable experience for all?

There are a lot of alternative ways to teach writing rather than just making students read a sample model with some notes on what to do and what not to do before letting them venture on their own pieces. The idea is to provide some kind of scaffolding first until our students become more confident and are able to write on their own and within a fixed time limit – in the case of exam preparation. Having said this, let’s have a look at some fun but productive activities we can implement with our students when dealing with writing.

1. The first and most widespread approach is reading the task and brainstorming ideas as a whole-class activity before starting to write. Some students have difficulties coming up with ideas and this gets worse when they are under pressure due to time limit guidelines. They will have to get to used it, of course, but on the initial stages we can make them feel more at ease by pulling ideas together before making them write a piece from scratch by themselves. When brainstorming, content is important but so is layout which, needless to say, is different for each type of writing. We shouldn’t disregard this last aspect and we must, therefore, work together on the distribution of paragraphs and writing structure in general.

Once the skeleton is ready, we can provide students with a list of useful linkers and connectors, among others, so that they can join ideas and avoid a choppy style or, even worse, an kind of undesired “stream-of-consciousness” technique. And this, in turn, reminds me of the importance of punctuation, which we shouldn’t take for granted either. Only after we have dealt with this preliminary issues we can proceed to either divide students into pairs making them write a piece together or letting them write on their own, depending on how confident they feel about it.

2. Another useful and fun approach to the teaching of writing is whole-class correction of writing samples. There are many samples provided in books and online so we can then choose a sample and do two things:

  • Work with a printed copy of the writing sample so while they work together on trying to find the mistakes they make those corrections in their copies, too.
  • Project it on the interactive board – if you have one – and make students volunteer to stand up and make the corrections on the interactive board with the e-pen.

We can even turn any of the two ideas into a game which we can call “Mistake Hunters”. We can divide the class into different teams and assign each group a certain type of mistake to find; namely, spelling, grammar, choice of vocabulary, style, punctuation, etc. When they come to the board to make the corrections they can choose different colours to show each correction belongs to a different mistake category.  I am a strong supporter of this kind of activity because it has proved useful at least for the groups I’ve taught; they have great fun and they learn how to improve writing pieces at the same time. It’s worth the try.

3. Still another engaging activity to get the adrenaline going is working on group writing in innovative ways. For instance, we can divide the class into groups and make them work on the layout and brainstorming together and then do two things:

  • Either make each of the members of the groups work on a different paragraph of the piece during a certain amount of time
  • Or set an overall time limit for the writing task, let’s say, 20-25 minutes, and tell each group to start writing and go on doing so until a bell rings or an alarm goes off, in which case they will have to pass the piece of paper to the next member of the group and he/she will have to start writing to continue with the idea his/her partner has started and keep developing the topic even further

In both cases, since they have worked on the planning stage together, the writing process should be easier because they just have to develop the ideas they have brainstormed.

These ideas are intended to be done with pre intermediate groups and above. However, I am sure you can also adapt some of them for lower levels and make the most of them with your students.

The important thing here is to move away from more traditional approaches to the teaching of writing and start engaging our students in more innovative –  though not less productive –  ways of doing it. Trust me, it’s worth the try!

Picture 2.jpg

(Image 2 credits: “Why is a raven like a writing desk text” by Barbara, Flickr.com, Creative Commons)

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I was invited to make a contribution to ETpedia and here is the link to it

10 tips for starting your own teacher’s blog

https://www.myetpedia.com/tips-for-starting-your-own-teachers-blog/

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International English Exams Are Approaching: Time to Work on Motivation

The White Rabbit

The White Rabbit, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’

(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

No matter how self-confident our students are, whenever the countdown for international language exams begins many of them start getting worried about going through that experience. That’s the time when us, teachers, have to swing into action and start building our students’ confidence so that they can achieve their peace of mind for what comes next.

Although some students may have already sat for previous international exams, some others may have not so they might not be familiar with the experience. The best way of dealing with the unknown is making it familiar. Some points I would recommend covering to address this issue are the following:

Answer sheerts1. Go over each of the sections of the exam paper and spend time on the strategies for dealing with each of the exercises. There are usually tip boxes in the course books that are about exam preparation with useful pieces of advice on ways of approaching each of the tasks. In order to reduce anxiety, students need to know the exact format of the exam, the number of parts/sections and what it is expected from them in each part. Regardless of the level, if the students are not acquainted with the exam structure and the techniques about how to do each task, then they are at a disadvantage.

2. Timing: good time management in international language exams is a must. After having received precise information about the structure and sections of the exams, students have to be trained to perform the tasks within the estimated time. And this includes not only writing their answers on their exam papers – as they are doing the exam, but also copying the answers onto their answer sheets. Most mock exams also come with the answer sheets so we can provide our students with both, exam papers and answer sheets so they can time themselves on how long it takes them to do the whole thing, just as they will do on the exam date.

3. Many of the examinations institutions have lots of videos online showing, for instance, the speaking part of the exams. It’s not enough to explain the exam situation to the students; I mean, you can explain that they are going to work in pairs/individually, the number of examiners that they are going to find in the examination room, the time it takes to perform the task, among others. Nevertheless, a video can give them a clear picture of what to expect. Tips: a. you can recreate the exam situation as such with your students and some other colleagues, depending on the number of examiners that the exam may involve; b. you can video the whole situation so that then you can reflect with your students on their strengths and weaknesses.

4. Working on feedback together: give feedback but, most importantly, practice feedforward based on your students’ performance. Provide them with the tools and any language they may need to sort out their difficulties with the different tasks. If they have the “weapons” and a clear guidance of how to anticipate problems based on their frequent mistakes, they will probably feel more confident. Teach them to be “their own teacher” by resorting to self-correction the moment of submitting a final answer to their tasks.

Earlier this year on a teachers’ course on international English exams I was shown a very nice video about standardized tests in general but that can work well with our language learners. It’s called “This test does not define you”, by Kumar Sathy. I think it could be an excellent way to round off the exam preparation. I would play the video the very last week before our students actually sit for their exams.

So, are you ready to help your students get the motivation they need to take up the exam challenge?

(Image credits: The White Rabbit from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. Downloaded from the British Library)

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Off with their heads!

Downsizing: a Business English lesson using film extracts

Off with their heads!

How many times did it happen to you that you were dealing with a lesson on a specific topic and suddenly you had to change plans and digress for a class or two because the students’ needs required you to do so?

Well, the situation that I’m going to share with you right now is one of those cases. The important thing here is that far from being inconvenient or annoying, changing the course of the class every now and then to meet our students’ immediate needs is all that matters.

Context:  one-to-one, upper intermediate Business English lessons. My student had been absent for two classes but that class he could make it. He looked worried. I asked about the reason for his absences and we engaged in deep conversation: his multinational company needed to downsize. His position wasn’t at risk but he was involved in something he wasn’t feeling so comfortable with – he was part of the firing committee, and needed to choose who from his department had to be laid off and later have private meetings to tell them the bad news.

Food for thought: since our lesson for that day was not directly related to “firing and hiring” we went on with what was planned for that day. However, for the next class I did some research online to see what was available in terms of firing material that could be exploited in class. I wanted to take advantage of my student’s opinions and feelings since the content was already there for us to make use of it. That is how all of sudden I remembered this film I had seen called “Up in the Air” starring George Clooney. Does it ring a bell? It’s a comedy-drama film whose main character travels for his company in order to fire employees that working for other companies; that is to say, his company is hired by other companies to do the tough work – firing people. The thing is that now his own company needs to cut costs and they decide to implement a “virtual firing” approach instead of wasting money on “face-to-face firing meetings”. That’s why I thought it would be useful to deal with some extracts of this film at that exact time.

Next steps – speaking and listening tasks: when my student came the next class, as a lead-in task we started talking about his feelings about the situation his company was going through, the reasons that led his company to downsize, and how employees might react at the moment of receiving the news based on their personalities. Then I asked him if he thought that there was any way of firing people other than in face-to-face meetings. He said he didn’t. Later, I told him we were going to watch a scene of a film in which a new way of firing employees was introduced. I just told him to watch it and that later we would discuss it. We watched this extract: Up in the Air 1. As a post-video task we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of this new approach to firing employees and if this was feasible to be done in his working context. After he said that the whole idea seemed kind of crazy to him, he said he wouldn’t find it true to life for an employee to react in such an indifferent way the moment he is being fired. And so this led me to introduce the next video extract which was this one: Up in the Air 2. The aim of the second extract was intended to prove he was right, that it wouldn’t be so easy for an employee to accept the news that they are being fired and that they can, in fact, ask for reasons or explanations about their dismissal. And we finally ended the series of activities by watching a third extract to see what a “virtual firing” situation would be like by watching an employee reacting in the most expected way: Up in the Air 3.

Why using these extracts from “Up in the Air” for a Business English class? Well, simply because,

  • the topic of firing and hiring is a recurrent one in business English course books
  • it provides a great context to practice speaking and listening skills – students talk about their reactions, other employees’ attitudes, the reasons why a company may need to downsize, among others
  • these listening and speaking tasks that I’ve just described are also a perfect opportunity to introduce vocabulary and expressions in relation to hiring and firing: hire, employ, take on staff, recruit people, contract, dismiss, make sb redundant, fire, give sb the sack, among others.

Tip:

  • whenever you are planning to work with videos that are online, make sure that you download them onto your computer just in case the internet connection fails when you need to use it. And trust me, it happens, and quite often! So my suggestion is that you use video downloader software to be on the safe side. I use aTube Catcher, which you can download for free but there many more out there.
  • Make sure the extracts aren’t too long. The “less is more” proverb works perfectly for video activities. The emphasis here is on the discussion that arises from the topic dealt with in the video and the opportunity it gives us to present new vocabulary and expressions as well.

I hope this lesson proves useful 😉

(Image credits: “Off with their heads” by Heather Wizell, Flickr.com, Creative Commons)

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Winning the Headway Scholarship – could you be next?

Why not giving it a try?

Oxford University Press

Natalia with the other 2015 winners and Liz Soars, Headway author. From left to right: Inanc Karagoz (Turkey); Svetlana Kandybovich (Montenegro); Natalia Valentini (Argentina); Liz Soars (Headway author); Elena Ryabova (Russia); Erika Orban (Hungary); Xiaoyan Deng (China). Natalia with the other 2015 winners and Liz Soars, Headway author.
From left to right: Inanc Karagoz (Turkey); Svetlana Kandybovich (Montenegro); Natalia Valentini (Argentina); Liz Soars (Headway author); Elena Ryabova (Russia); Erika Orban (Hungary); Xiaoyan Deng (China).

Ever wanted to know what it’s like to win the Headway Scholarship, and spend two weeks on an all-inclusive teacher training course at Exeter College in Oxford?

Natalia Valentini, one of our 2015 winners, and Gloria Rossa, one of our 2014 winners, reveal how they found the experience.

This could be you next year – enter today!

Natalia Valentini – Headway Scholarship 2015 winner from Argentina

Every August just after the winter holidays, I’ve been experiencing this burning desire to explore what it is like to live, study or work in a foreign country. As a teacher and translator there came a point in my professional life when I started thinking that in…

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A “keep talking” activity

Jobs

I’m the teacher of this group of pre-FCE level students who are very enthusiastic about their English lessons. Once, we were dealing with a speaking activity about “jobs” and as a warm-up activity they had to match a set of questions with their answers. The questions were: “What do you do?”, “What’s a typical day in your job?” and “What do you like most about your job?”, among others. The focus was on using specific vocabulary for different professions/occupations and typical verbs to describe the duties and responsibilities related to those jobs.

To my surprise, they really enjoyed doing that activity so, on the spot, I assigned some other jobs for each of them to talk about based on their parents’. They had so much fun that I decided I had to take advantage of their interest and think of something else. And that is how I came up with the idea of preparing a PowerPoint presentation with images of different and unusual professions together with images about what those jobs involve so that they would keep on talking for as long as the presentation for that job lasted.

My intention was to recycle the vocabulary and expressions they already know (I’m in charge of, my job involves + “ing”, I’m responsible for + noun/-ing form, I’m involved in…) but to introduce new words as well, depending on the job shown on the presentation.

This is a language-generating activity that also aims at contributing to students’ fluency. As you change slides, they have to think of specific verbs to use with the nouns and phrases shown. The teacher should wait until they have finished describing each slide in order to move on to the next; the students are the ones that will set the pace of the activity as they describe the slides. To round off the activity there is a gag at the end that students can also describe.

As a teacher, you can plan ahead which jobs you want to deal with and make your own presentations with text and images of your choice. You will see how interest-grabbing this activity can be. Here’s an example of one of the jobs we’ve worked with: Speaking task_Pre FCE

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“I’m investigating things that begin with the letter M”

The Mad Hattter (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)

5

There are some things which always seem to happen in the same way. In the context of ELT we can clearly think of typical examples in terms of how some lessons are structured. That is, it’s common for a lesson on the topic of food to be related to the grammar point on imperatives. Can you guess the rest of the context? I’m sure you’ve done it already. Yes, a recipe with activities such as putting it in order, filling in the blanks with ingredients and completing with imperative verbs, among others. That’s quite predictable, right?

As a teacher, I’m not that much into predictable things and most probably you aren’t either. The chances are that if we get bored with some tasks so will our students. So, what if we find the way of giving those activities a twist so as to make them more engaging for them? While I was teaching my 3rd grade students they suggested bringing their own ingredients and following some of the recipes from the course book in class, which I thought was a very good opportunity to make use of the language in an authentic context and for a real purpose.

By now I guess you must be thinking: “where’s the new twist?” Well, here it comes: a kind of MasterChef Junior workshop but with a different aim which is not to compete but to work collaboratively to put the steps of a basic recipe in order and then follow them altogether, as participants of the show.

Children love watching the reality show so it would be a plus if we could recreate the setting so that they feel part of that TV cookery show. By that I mean: designing badges with the name of the show and their own names, making sure students bring their own aprons or toques (chef’s hat), sticking posters or signs on the walls with the name of the show, and also having all the ingredients and kitchen utensils at hand. Don’t forget to take the mobile phone or (video) cameras, too. That will allow you to take pictures or film the process so that they later watch what they have done altogether.

Since this activity was prepared for 3rd grade students and we don’t have an oven or a cooker at the academy, the recipes are of very basic food: a giant sandwich, a banana split dessert, a choco-cake that requires no baking -nothing too complicated.

So, how do we put these ideas into action? Here are some tips:

  • Decorate the classroom with MasterChef logos and stick a poster on the wall with the logo and the name of all the students. If you have a whiteboard and a projector, then you can prepare the sign on the computer and show it on the board during the workshop.
  • Give students their toques and participant badges.
  • Make sure you have a desk where all the ingredients are placed. On that table, there you should also put two envelopes: one with a recipe of how to prepare a snack and the other with a recipe of a dessert.
  • The students will have to read the title of the recipe and the ingredients they need. They will go to the desk where the ingredients are and take them another desk.
  • The envelopes also have the steps of the recipes on different pieces of paper which indicate which step it is. Each of the students has to pick one piece of paper and then they have to put them in order.
  • After that, they will start following the recipe by performing each of the tasks in the order the pieces of paper specify.
  • Once they have finished with the snack, they will do the same with the dessert envelope.
  • To set the atmosphere, use phrases taken from the show, such as: “Is everyone ready?” so that the students can answer: “Yes, teacher/chef!!”. They simply love this part. It gets their adrenaline going!

So, going back to the intertextuality in the title: I investigated a thing beginning with the letter “M” in class, namely MasterChef Junior, and it worked!  You are welcome to try this activity and then let me know how it goes. Good luck 😉

You can find the recipies and instructions and related MasterChef Junior Workshop materials for this lesson here.

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Designing my own material: Have I gone mad?

Designing materials

How good are you at designing your own teaching material? Are you always on the lookout for new ideas or resources that you can later modify and turn them into feasible lesson plans?

I am one of those, in fact. That is, every time I’m watching a movie or a TV series, reading authentic materials I got on my last holidays or even when someone posts a picture with a text in English I cannot help thinking about how to exploit them in my lessons with my students. To illustrate this at work, here’s my latest example.

I was just browsing through my facebook newsfeed when all of sudden I came across this video about two of the most important universities in the UK Oxford vs. Cambridge

The moment I started watching it, I realized I would be using it in my lessons since the content is educational and it is presented in a very innovative and catching way. As you may have seen if you watched the video, it is a point by point description of relevant facts to show which university has achieved the highest number of things or the most successful ones throughout their existence, only to arrive to the conclusion that both are equally important and there is no such thing as a winner.

I spent some time thinking of possible activities to be used with this video until I came up with one which was the following one:

Title: The War of the Titans

Possible objectives? Well, lots of them:

  • To introduce CLIL to my lessons
  • To make students work in pairs on a CLIL project
  • To combine learning English with fun activities
  • To make students work with technological resources (Power Point docs, video making programs, screen capture softwares, projectors)
  • To involve students with their own learning by engaging them in research to find relevant content (and of their own choice) to make their own videos.

Here’s a detailed student’s worksheet:The War of the Titans_Students’ worksheets

Note that this activity was intended to be done with intermediate and upper-intermediate students to give them more freedom about what to say. However, I bet you can adapt it to lower levels as well since the difficulty here lies on how well they manage to use the resources involved. The technological resources used are: mobile phones, tablets, laptops, search engines, PowerPoint, aTube Catcher (for screen capture) and a projector.

Other factors to consider

It’s worth mentioning that if your students are not tech-savvy or if they don’t have mobiles or any other of the resources mentioned before then you should consider using this activity in a more traditional way. One alternative would be to make them look for useful information and just distribute it as a pair so that each member of the pair reads his/her part. You would be working with content all the same and it would still be a game.

So, if while talking to other colleagues about materials design they seem to suggest that you are mad because you waste time creating your own material when there are so many ready-to-use resources, then you can come up with what I call a witticism,

Hatter, “Have I gone mad?”

Alice, “I’m afraid so; you’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret: all the best people are.”

Alice in Wonderland. Watch it, here.
Source: Film: Alice in Wonderland, 2010. Directed by Tim Burton and written by Linda Woolverton

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A stroke of luck?

down_the_rabbit_hole_by_tempestmaker-d30d21j

(Picture: “Down the rabbit hole”  by TempestMaker

Don’t you find it strange how the unconscious works?

Every August just after the winter holidays, I’ve been experiencing this burning desire to explore what it is like to live, study or work in a foreign country. As a teacher and translator there came a point in my professional life when I started thinking that in my local context there were no further opportunities for me to make progress in my career. I decided that it was high time I did something about it.

This annual August habit -which was beginning to make me feel uneasy- was in fact the trigger for my tireless search: all Erasmus scholarships in my field, some local Argentinian scholarships as well, and many more I had applied for.

Year after year the same thing happened to me, but the application process was as far as I was able to get. But wait, I’m missing something here. Once, after waiting for 4 months to get a reply from one of the scholarships I had applied for I got this email which almost gave me a heart attack when I read the first line: “You have been selected for a place on the Erasmus Mundus XXX”.  I almost faint the moment I read this on my phone but since I was so anxious I guess I put off the fainting event so as to keep on reading the rest of the message, which went on like this: “We are happy to make you an offer of admission to the XXX programme. Unfortunately, there are few EU scholarships available this year and you are not on the short-list. However, other funding possibilities may be found on the (XXX) website”.  In order not to suffer so much and to keep my self-esteem high
I thought of this event as a milestone which made me realize I had broken my own record. At least I had been admitted to those three European universities which made up the consortium of the programme I had chosen, which was not a minor thing (I kept repeating this to myself). Anyway, I decided to send a “mature” reply to that email stating that unfortunately I had to “decline” the offer due to “non-sufficient funds” (I don’t remember which euphemism I used so as not to be too rude… to myself, in fact!).

Anyway, it was not until this summer when I came across this post on the Oxford University Press Facebook site when my luck (?) began to change. The Headway series written by Liz and John Soars were opening a competition for teachers who used the series. I didn’t hesitate to take part in it and I worked for two weeks on my video and PowerPoint® presentation to submit them in due time. And after waiting for 3 months I got an email… again! This time, the subject line was: “Headway scholarship. Winner!.” The email went on like this: “Congratulations – you are a winner of this year’s Headway Scholarship competition! On behalf of Liz Soars and the Headway Scholarship Foundation, we are delighted to tell you that you have been awarded one of the Headway Scholarships for 2015 which means that you are entitled to a place on the 2-week English Language Teachers’ Summer Seminar at Exeter College in Oxford. Now I couldn’t believe my eyes. It actually said I was entitled to a place -a proper scholarship I would say! And I was one of the (lucky?) ones, together with 5 more teachers from Europe and Asia.

So there I went, off to Oxford for 2 weeks on a Teachers’ Summer Seminar where I would meet colleagues from over 30 countries to share our experiences and to learn from the best tutors, those whose names we’ve been reading on the covers of the coursebooks we use. I know, I know…Lucky (?) me!

So I wonder, when it comes to scholarships or even anything we want to happen to us: is it really luck what is at play? Or is it actually us going to their encounter and making things happen?

“There’s no use in trying,” Alice said, “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen.
“When I was your age, I always dit it for half an hour a day.
Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)

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