Sunday, 28 October 2012

Digital literacy in English teaching - an #eltchat summary

Image from
This is a summary of the #eltchat which took place at 12 noon on 24th October, 2012.  The full title of the chat was:

How can we increase teacher knowledge and awareness of digital literacy in English teaching?  To what extent is it affecting/will DL affect how we teach English?

The chat was lively and thought-provoking, as usual, and was expertly moderated by @Shaunwilden and @theteacherjames.
What is digital literacy?

We began the chat with a definition of DL supplied by @theteacherjames courtesy of wikipedia!

DL is the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technology, and recognising your own contribution towards developing the knowledge base both socially and academically.

@esolcourses suggested that knowing how to apply DL is another important aspect, adding that it is as much about knowing when not to use technology as it is knowing how and when to use it.
What does DL bring to the classroom and why should we teach it?

This was a question raised by @efl101.  @teflgeek added the concern that the problem is often 'information overload' with not enough time to critically evaluate it.  We should, therefore, be teaching 'critical digital literacy' and helping students to determine which tools they should use out of the infinite number they could use.  It was generally agreed that it is better to use a limited range of tools effectively than lots of tools half-heartedly.  With this in mind, 'top ten lists' (e.g. 'The Top 10 Note-Taking Tools') are not very helpful - one tried and tested, highly recommended tool is far better!  As @BobK99 pointed out, 'Look at this great tool, now look at this one' gives us a situation where we have solutions without problems which is a complete waste of time!

@the teacherjames asked if we actually need to teach DL or is it enough to simply be aware of it?  @MrChrisJWilson wondered whether teaching DL can get in the way of the language focus.  @David_Boughton felt that we should equip our students with English and nothing more.  I think most contributors, however, felt, as I do, that teaching DL is necessary and that it can and should be taught alongside and integral to teaching EFL (as a type of CLIL, for example).  @teflgeek commented that if students are going to interact with the language in a primarily digital way, how is it not our responsibility to teach DL?  As teachers, @Shaunwilden also reminded us that we need to be aware of the issues raised by sending students online and telling them to google something.  It is our responsibility to teach them how to discern what is 'good' information and how to stay safe when using technology.  @esolcourses is of the opinion that DL ought to be embedded into EFL courses as we need to be equipping our learners with 21st century skills.  Being competent in DL is a means to an end, both for us as teachers and for our students.

Several #eltchatters felt that we need to start with our students and their aims and only use technology if it is relevant to the lesson, but others suggested that, in today's world, technology is ubiquitous and is, therefore, relevant in all circumstances.

@bcnpaul1 pointed out that if we don't teach DL, we end up with lots of copy-pasted work handed in, which is a waste of time for everyone!  @esolcourses agreed and added that we'd be setting our students up to fail, especially where plagiarism is concerned. 

How do teachers become digitally literate?
  • By joining online teacher communities, such as #eltchat.
  • By learning from their students!
  • By incorporating digital literacy into teacher training courses.
  • By appointing 'digital leaders' among students to promote technology use and DL.
  • By colleagues modelling technology use during seminars on non-technology subjects so that they can see how it can be used effectively.
How does DL affect the way we teach English?

@teflgeek asked the question, 'Have we got to the point where technology requires a different pedagogy, or can we continue to overlay the technology on top?'  @esolcourses answered that she felt that the core pedagogy is much the same, but that technology affords a lot more scope for learner autonomy.

@teacherphili alluded to the different types of DL that we could/should be teaching, but we ran out of time to discuss them - the subject of another #eltchat, perhaps?!


Thursday, 25 October 2012

Towards Developing Critical Thinking Skills in Young Learners

This is a summary of a webinar hosted by Cambridge English Teacher and presented by Herbert Puchta on October 10th, 2012.

The 'attention-grabbing' approach to teaching

Even very young children are able to think, attend and remember, but their thinking, attending and memory are very reactive.  Children growing up today are subjected to sensory overload constantly.  Television, for example, is fast-paced, loud, full of movement, and has colourful, constantly changing scenes.  As a result, today's youngsters have very short attention spans.

'Reactive learners' need fast-paced, sensory bombardment to learn even very simple information.  This leads to the teacher being an entertainer which is totally exhausting.

Learning as a 'self-directed activity'
  • Children increasingly learn to direct their attention, memory and problem-solving skills on their own.
  • Children gradually take more and more responsibility for their own learning.
  • Children acquire the mental tools to help them think better.
  • Tools of the mind (mental/cognitive tools) help to extend a child's cognitive capabilities.
  • Tools of the mind reduce the workload for the teacher.

Why teach thinking skills?
  • Children need to face the challenges of a changing and unpredictable world.
  • They need problem-solving and decision-making skills to meet unexpected problems and tackle them.
  • School curricula tend to promote systematic, error-free learning - correct answers, assimilation of facts, teacher's assessment.

The importance of divergent thinking

Divergent thinking (as opposed to convergent thinking) is extremely important - students need to learn that there is not necessarily one right answer.  You can teach this by asking questions like:

Write down as many different uses as you can think of for:
  • a button
  • a brick
  • a blanket
Here, you are encouraging children to think outside the box.

What does critical thinking involve?
  • Working out whether or not we believe what we see or hear.
  • Finding out whether something is true.
  • Arguing one's case.
  • Identifying when we need more information.
  • Selecting information for a specific purpose.
There is always a connection between critical thinking and creative thinking.  Both are higher order thinking skills.

Problem solving cycle
  1. Gather and organise information
  2. Define the problem
  3. Generate approaches to solve the problem
  4. Make an action plan
  5. Monitor, check, evaluate
  6. Communicate solutions
  7. Transfer the problem solving skills learned to other problems
What thinking skills can we teach at the same time as we are teaching language?

A typology of thinking skills areas to be taught with EFL for young learners
  • Making comparisons
  • Categorising
  • Sequencing
  • Focusing attention
  • Memorising
  • Exploring space
  • Exploring time
  • Exploring numbers
  • Creating associations
  • Cause and effect
  • Making decisions
  • Solving problems
  • Creative thinking
Practical examples

1.  Where's Tom?
This is an example from Herbert Puchta and Marion William's book 'Teaching Young Learners to Think'.

It focuses on the 'exploring space' skill.  To develop this skill, students need:
  • a reference system to understand and control the space they live in.
  • a sense of position, distance, direction, proximity and dimensions.
  • the ability to imagine a change in position.  This is necessary for hypothetical thinking - the ability to imagine another viewpoint.
2.  Cars and bicycles

Draw a Venn diagram and ask the question:

What is the same and what is different between this pair of objects?
Examples:    car and bicycle
                   tree and flower
                   chair and table
                   banana and pineapple

The focus here is obviously on the skill of making comparisons, the basic building block of decision making.  This kind of activity can be introduced at beginner level.  Simply asking the question, 'What colour's my jacket?', for example, activates language, but it doesn't require any thinking on the part of the respondent.  As teachers, we need to encourage thinking.

3.  Missing information

Give three texts - three party invitations, for example, - each one with a missing piece of information (time, place, date, etc.).  Students have to work out what is missing rather than the more usual task of answering questions on what is there.

4.  Listen and imagine

Tell students to close their eyes and then play them a piece of music.  Then ask them to draw a picture inspired by the music or write down a list of words they would associate with it.  They then have to explain their picture or choice of words to a partner or small group.

Here, we are encouraging creative thinking, which, as we have already heard, is an integral part of critical thinking.

5. Cause and effect

Give students a statement and ask them if there is a cause and effect relationship in it.  For example,

Jane doesn't play any musical instruments.  Therefore, she isn't a musician.

This kind of task is suitable for intermediate level students.  They have to question whether or not there is enough information to establish a cause and effect relationship.  If not, what other information is needed?  The attention to detail required here is a great exercise for students.

To conclude:

Quoting Vygotsky's model:

Learning moves away from the goal of getting the answer correct to getting the answer correct because a specific process was used to get the answer.

Further information:

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

IELTS Writing - a British Council, Saigon, Teachers' Workshop

This is a summary of a workshop I attended at the British Council in Ho Chi Minh City.  It was presented by Ian Kitching and the subject was the IELTS writing test.

Overview of IELTS writing

The test comprises of two parts:

Task 1    20 minutes     150 words
  • Academic - describe information from a chart, graph or diagram or describe a process.
  • General - write a letter based on a given situation.  The candidate needs to use his or her imagination and creativity.
Task 2    40 minutes      250 words
  • Academic and general - write an essay.  The form is usually 'advantages/disadvantages' or 'to what extent do you agree with this opinion?'
  • For an advantage/disadvantage essay, the candidate needs to present both sides whereas for an opinion essay, he or she can choose to agree, to disagree or to present a balanced view.
  • The most important thing with task two is to read the question properly and analyse it: sometimes it's a two-part question, in which case both parts must be answered.
  • The idea with task two is to present a written argument or case to an educated reader with no specialist knowledge of the topic.
  • The candidate should use his or her own ideas, knowledge and experience and all arguments should be supported with examples and relevant evidence.
What are the examiners looking for?

Scripts are given a band score from 1 to 9 under each of four criteria and the final mark is an average of the bands given.  The criteria:
  1. Task achievement/response - this looks at content and ideas.  How fully is the question answered?  In task one, how effectively does the candidate identify key features and give an overview or respond to all points in the task?  In task two, how effectively does he or she analyse the argument and present an opinion?  Is all the content relevant?  Did the candidate write the minimum number of words?
  2. Coherence and cohesion - Is the writing organised into paragraphs?  (It's a good idea to advise candidates to leave a line between paragraphs for clarity.)  Does it follow logical stages?  Are sentences fluently linked together?  Is there a range of cohesive devices?  Is there use of reference and substitution?
  3. Lexical resource - Is the vocabulary used accurately?  Is there a wide range or is there repetition of the same words?  Can the candidate use less common or idiomatic language appropriately?  (The latter is needed to achieve a score above band 6.)
  4. Grammar - Is the grammar accurate?  Is there a wide range of structures?  Are there complex sentences or mainly simple ones?  (Even if students make mistakes, it's better for them to try than not.)

Teachers can use the public version of the band descriptors to advise students what they need to do for the band they require.

Task One Sample Graph
Task One Academic IELTS

1  Hints and tips
  1. Underline key words in the question.
  2. Analyse the graph and plan an answer.
  3. Paraphrase the question - if candidates just copy the question word for word, then those words are deducted from the word count and they could lose marks for not having written enough.  For example, 'The table below shows consumer durables (telephones, refrigerators, etc.) owned in Britain from 1972-1983' could become 'The chart gives information on how the ownership of consumer goods changed in the UK between 1972 and 1983.'
  4. Practise paraphrasing the question many, many times!!!
  5. The answer should include an overview, either at the beginning or the end - if this is missing, the candidate can not score higher than a band 5.  The overview should describe the general trend and note any exception.
  6. Key features of the chart need to be commented on.  To do this, it is best to look for things that can be grouped together (e.g. things which are similar in terms of large increases, small increases, no differences, etc.).
  7. Decide on what to leave out - not everything needs to be described.
  8. Use comparatives and superlatives when describing the chart.
  9. Analyse model answers and look for common phrases (e.g. The most notable feature shown by the data is that......).
  10. Check the word count - an examiner will look at every piece of writing and judge whether the candidate has written the correct number of words (words per line multiplied by the number of lines).  If he or she thinks it is close, every word will be counted.  On the examiner banding guidelines, there are clear rules on what is a word and what is not.  Hyphenated words count as one word.
  11. Task one should be organised into three or four paragraphs.
  12. Write a short conclusion, but DO NOT give an opinion - e.g. Overall, the chart shows....
2  Problems for Vietnamese learners
  • No experience of analysing charts
  • Inability to structure sentences correctly
  • Problems using passive voice to describe processes
  • Errors with subject-verb agreement
  • Lack of lexical range
  • Missing connectors/linking words
  • No clear grouping of ideas which adversely affects the overall structure
3  Skills needed
  • Analysing quickly - overall trends; can the data be put into groups?; what are the extremes?; what are the exceptions?; what information is not worth mentioning?
  • Editing - judging how much to include, organising into paragraphs, giving an overview.
  • Proof reading - correcting mistakes, looking for repetition of language.
4  Language areas
  1. A range of tenses
  2. Paraphrasing
  3. Describing trends - the number rose, there was a slight fall, it levelled off.
  4. Comparatives, superlatives and other ways of contrasting - higher than, the most significant change, it did not change to the same extent as....
  5. Discourse markers - however, similarly, in contrast, turning now to the figures for the UK...., overall we can see that....., in conclusion.
  6. A range of lexis to avoid repetition - e.g. the data shows, this amount demonstrates, the total number represents.
5  Activities to use in the classroom
  1. Analyse model answers and use them as a basis for exercises.
  2. Practise paraphrasing the question.
  3. Practise identifying key points from charts, graphs, etc.
  4. Jumble the paragraphs of model answers and get students to put them in the correct order.
  5. Give students a list of statements about a graph or chart and get them to decide if they are major points, minor points or irrelevant.  Should they be included or not?
  6. Match a graph with the correct description.
  7. Match vocabulary with the same meaning - e.g. a significant increase, a sharp rise.
  8. Take the linkers out of a model answer and get students to complete it as a gap fill.
  9. Use bad texts to find and correct errors or to re-write.
  10. Give a continuous text to students and get them to separate it into appropriate paragraphs.
  11. Get students to highlight the linkers in a text and then write a new text using the same linkers.
Task Two Academic IELTS

1  Problems for Vietnamese learners
  • Inability to understand the question
  • No opinions or ideas to write about
  • A lack of experience and knowledge to support ideas
  • Mistakes when writing complex sentences - e.g. when using relative clauses
  • Incorrect (or no) referencing (pronouns)
  • Problems with paragraphing (no topic sentences or clear purpose)
2  Skills needed
  • Understanding the question to avoid irrelevant or tangential answers (candidates must stay on topic).
  • Brainstorming ideas and examples quickly.
  • Selecting and organising the main points.
  • Writing enough in the time - underlength answers are quite common in Vietnam.
  • Writing concise and relevant introductions and conclusions.
  • Proof reading - self correction.
3  Language areas
  1. Cohesive markers - firstly, secondly, however, another advantage is..., on the other hand, the main argument against x is.....
  2. Using relative clauses (and other clauses) to avoid predominantly simple sentences.
  3. A range of grammar and vocabulary to avoid repetition - a good knowledge of synonyms and antonyms can help here.
  4. Correct use of language for addition (also, in addition, furthermore), contrast (however, nevertheless, even though), and result/consequence (so, therefore, leading to....)
  5. Collocations - particularly prepositions (involved in -ing, prevent from -ing, responsible for/to)
  6. Agreement of singular/plural.
4  Activities to use in the classroom
  1. Use real questions to practise with.
  2. Practise highlighting keywords in the question.
  3. Rewrite questions.
  4. Match simple questions to IELTS questions.
  5. Give students a sample answer and get them to write the question.
  6. Group discussions to generate ideas.
  7. Practise brainstorming topics and selecting the best points.
  8. Cut up paragraphs and re-order a model answer.
  9. Deconstruct sample answers to analyse the language used.
  10. Read to widen content and vocabulary knowledge of unfamiliar topics.
  11. Write introductions as a group.
  12. Antonyms and synonyms matching activities.
  13. Prepositions and verb collocation activities.
  14. Self-correction and peer-correction activities.
  15. Work on cohesive devices - with gap fills, for example.
  16. Label the purpose of the paragraphs in model answers.
  17. Use running dictations.
  18. Replace linkers with another one with the same function.
Online resources to help you teach IELTS writing

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Olympic Pride

There have been many, many millions of words written about London 2012; the Olympics, the Paralympics and the all-encompassing 'feelgood' atmosphere which spread across the entire country in the wake of such a fantastic summer of sport.  I guess there isn't much to add, but yet I feel compelled to share my personal experience of being a part of this epic period in our history. 

Despite living abroad for many years, I still feel very proud of my British heritage.  Indeed, I wrote about it here.  My husband and I were thrilled when London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics and planned, all those years ago, to be there to witness the spectacle for ourselves.  Events, however, conspired against us and, when the time came, we found ourselves living and working in Vietnam, 6,000 miles away from the action.  We followed every moment, though, on TV and via the internet. 

We were in Jakarta, Java renewing Mark's visa when the opening ceremony was on.  We set the alarm for 1.30am and sat up all night in our hotel room watching the coverage on ESPN, bemoaning the frequent ad breaks.  We yearned for the BBC and uninterrupted viewing.  We wouldn't have missed it, though, and felt connected to the billions of people all over the world tuning in at the same time.  We felt incredibly proud of London for putting on such an amazing show.

Back at work after our Indonesian trip, we watched the Olympics at every opportunity, the sense of pride building as Team GB racked up the medals and the games progressed with apparently flawless organisation.  We again got up in the middle of the night to watch the closing ceremony and reflected on what a great job London had done.

But that wasn't the end, was it?  We still had the Paralympics to come and, this time, we would be there!!  We were so excited!  When we'd realised months earlier that our visit to the UK would coincide with the Paralympic Games, we immediately looked at when we could be in London and how we could secure tickets.  So it was that we had day passes for the Olympic Park on September 5th and stadium tickets for the morning session of athletics.

Before the day in question dawned, we were up and on our way to Ash station to begin our journey to East London.  It was very early, but we wanted to make the most of our day!  We arrived at East Ham tube station at around 7.15am and, from the moment we stepped off the train, our 'Olympic experience' began.  We were greeted by cheerful 'gamesmakers' who showed us the way to go and wished us a great day at the games.  These smiling faces were a constant as we made the twenty-minute walk to the park and really set the mood for the day!  Once at the park, security checks were also made very pleasant by the presence of these wonderful volunteers.

Inside the Olympic Park, we were struck by how beautiful it was.  The planting of wild flowers, as well as more formally laid out gardens, had softened the overall appearance of the entire complex.  The weather helped, too!!  It was a gloriously sunny day!  We quickly got our bearings - clear signage and helpful gamesmakers were everywhere - and decided to queue for Orbit tickets before entering the stadium for the athletics session.  Orbit is an eye-catching metal structure which dominates the park and affords those who venture to the top of it great views of the stadium and surrounding area. 

Having secured tickets for 2.30pm, we strolled past the massive queues for McDonalds, congratulating ourselves on our foresight at having brought our own food and water bottles which we could refill from any of the convenient water fountains, and entered the stadium.  Emerging from the 'tunnel', we caught our first glimpse of the interior in all its glory and, I have to say, we were blown away by the scale of the place.  We located our seats and sat back to take in the atmosphere.  Mark has visited countless stadia in his life and he concluded that this was the best he'd ever been in - not a bad seat in the entire venue!

Despite the early hour, the place quickly filled up and by the time the athletics got underway, there wasn't a spare seat to be had.  What a fantastic atmosphere!  80,000 people cheering on Paralympic athletes in the heats of the 200m, the 100m relay and the 800m, as well as the finals of the discus and shot putt competitions.  Who would have thought it?!  The commentators who were billing these as the greatest Paralympic Games ever were not overstating the case.  Never before have so many people turned out to watch events such as these!  The global TV viewing figures have broken all records.

The highlight of the morning for us had to be witnessing the medal ceremony for the 1500m wheelchair event.  We had watched the final on TV the evening before and cheered like mad as David Weir won gold for Team GB.  Now, in the stadium the following morning, we had just watched the same super athlete comfortably win his 800m heat and, an hour later, here he was again receiving his gold medal.  I can't begin to describe the sense of pride we felt as the flag was raised and 80,000 voices joined in singing the national anthem!

David Weir won four gold medals in total at London 2012 and his name, along with many other British Paralympians, is now as recognised as equally successful able-bodied athletes.  That is as it should be!  And that, for me, is one of the greatest triumphs of this fantastic summer of sport.

Our day passes gave us access to a whole range of events taking place in the Olympic Park, so after our morning of athletics we spent some time watching seven-a-side football.  It was really exciting, but, unfortunately, we only had time to watch the first half before we had to go to use our Orbit tickets.

The views from the top of Orbit were well worth the wait for the lift to get up there.  We spent quite a long time taking in every aspect of the park and beyond before making our way back down.  The descent down the spiral walkway was long and slow and we both agreed the designers had missed a trick by not installing a slide!!  Happy memories of childhood helter-skelter rides were evoked as we imagined what it could have been like!!

Time was marching on, but we were keen to see one more sporting event - the wheelchair tennis which was taking place at the far end of the park.  We were lucky enough to get in to see the last set of the men's doubles final and, although the British pair lost to the Americans, the match and the subsequent medal ceremony (where the medals were presented by the Duchess of Gloucester) were the crowning glory of an amazing day!!

As we made our way out of the park at around 7.0pm (our tickets entitled us to stay longer, but we still had a long journey back to where we were staying) crowds of people were flooding in for the evening's athletics session.  Everyone was smiling, the marvellous gamesmakers were still there enthusiastically welcoming the new arrivals and wishing those leaving a good journey home, and the sense of pride and joy was simply immense!!  We are so glad to have witnessed it first hand.

You can see more of my photos of the day here.