Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The difference between written grammar and spoken grammar

This was the title of a webinar I attended back in June.  It was hosted by Cambridge English Teacher and the presenter was Mike McCarthy.  It seems strange to be writing a summary of it so long after the event, but I made detailed notes at the time and recently re-read them and was reminded of how useful a webinar it had been.  So, here goes!

Starting Points
  • anomalies in spoken and written frequencies.
  • consistency across users.
  • examples that seem to violate codified rules.
The Cambridge International Corpus
  • 1 billion words
  • texts from books, newspapers and magazines
  • spoken - informal, business and academic conversations
  • learner data taken from Cambridge ESOL exams (good for identifying common errors at all levels)
The  Cambridge International Corpus (CIC) is where we get the evidence of written and spoken grammar from.

Questions to ask
  • Are there differences between written and spoken grammar?
  • Are they important?
  • Are they important for us as EFL teachers?
  • What should we do about it?
First, we need to find evidence of differences.  When we look at corpora, there are anomalies (differences).  We can make frequency lists of these using specialist software. 

We can then use a corpus to develop a descriptive grammar - how the grammar is used in reality.  We are looking for consistent phenomena of usage across geographical regions, all social backgrounds, both genders, and all ages.  If we find something consistent across all users, it is grammar in common use.

Before we had corpora we had codified rules - grammar rules handed down through the generations; a set of rules that we are taught is the right way to use the language.  Now, with corpora, we also need to take into account cases where these rules are broken.  If enough people are breaking the rules, the rules are wrong.  Think about the city and map analogy.  We change the map to fit the city, not vice-versa, and this is what we should be doing with grammar.

An example

Though/Although - both of these are correct gramatically, but, in the spoken form, though is six times more frequent than although.  Why is this?  It's not enough to say 'it's shorter and easier to say' or 'it's only one syllable'.  We need to analyse it a little more.

Though is the 175th most commonly used word in British English and the 190th in American English.   (It should be noted that if a word is ranked 1 to 2000, it is very important - we can't do without it.)

There are two parts of spoken grammar:
  • form (syntax)
  • function (there will be functions of spoken grammar that aren't necessary in writing) 
Though has two meanings - therefore, it is used more.  It can be used at the very end of a sentence.  So, it's greater frequency may be due to its flexibility.  Using though at the end of a sentence is very rare in written English.  (Form)

Though is also much more commonly used to resume a conversation which has been interrupted.  (Function)

This is evidence of a difference between spoken and written grammar.

Spoken Grammar

We don't notice what we say in the same way as we do when we write.  By using corpora, we see how people really do speak and not how we think they should.

Spoken grammar is flexible in its word order.  This is good news for language learners.  Spoken grammar is much less strict than written.

The 100 most common words in written grammar are prepositions, pronouns and articles - the small words which give correct grammatical structure to sentences.  In spoken English, many of the top 100 words are verbs.

Let's look at the word know as an example.  Know is the 14th most commonly used word in spoken British English and the 22nd in American English.  Know is a transitive verb and most of its uses in writing have an object.  Conversely, most of its uses in speech have no object.  Its most common use is in the expression, 'You know'.

A similar situation arises with the verbs, 'see' and 'mean'.

In spoken language, we have common knowledge - gauging what the other person understands, sharing a common view.  Spoken grammar needs the function of constant checking which isn't necessary in writing.  If we don't check, we speak in monologue rather than dialogue.  So, we constantly use checking phrases like 'Do you see?' or 'You know what I mean'.

Another illustration is absolutely which appears four times more frequently in spoken than in written English.  In spoken English, absolutely is used as 'yes-plus' - as a stand alone sentence.  It is used as an engaged yes or an interested yes - it turns you into an active listener rather than a robotic one.  It can also be used in the negative - absolutely not - increasing its frequency considerably.

Spoken grammar also has 'response tokens' not used in written grammar - wonderful, certainly, great, definitely, etc.  These are very important to effective oral communication.

In conversation, people have no difficulty understanding such things as: 'His cousin in London, her boyfriend, his parents, bought him a car for his birthday.'  Such constructions with multiple subjects and lots of different noun phrases are not found in writing.  When we write them down, they look strange, but in speaking, they sound fine.

This is a native speaker example from the BBC:

'And my grandmother, I've never forgotten, when we were small, my sister and I, she used to take us down and we'd sing to the seals.'

This was said by an educated person and demonstrates that it's perfectly OK in spoken English for the subject to apparently be unclear.  In fact, this structure is deemed to make the speaker sound friendlier.  That's probably what Prince Charles had in mind when he said it!!

How to teach spoken grammar
  • Teacher training programmes should include language awareness elements for spoken English.
  • Get students to think about the differences between the two grammars in their own language.
  • Take out the most important words and phrases from corpora and teach them.
  • Listen to examples.
  • Notice how the words are used and find other examples.
  • Use controlled practice.  For example, give an appropriate answer to something you hear, such as a piece of good news or a piece of bad news.
  • Use freer practice.
In the real world, native/non-native interaction is often a problem.  This is largely due to badly taught English.  Most ELT worldwide is based on written grammar.  As teachers, we need to give students the awareness and the confidence to use spoken grammar.

Even educated native speakers say:

'There's four restaurants in this street.'

Everyone says it, so it's correct!

The problem is in knowing if it's a one-off or if it's accepted use.  This is our challenge as EFL/ESL teachers.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Why I love the 'Twitterverse'!

The Twitter Logo
I've been using Twitter for several years now.  I remember that one of the earliest proponents of this new social media was Stephen Fry and, being a big fan of his work, I thought that if he could see value in it, then I should check it out, too!!  Since I joined Twitter, there have been periods when I used it too much - times when it was almost taking over, to the detriment of other things I should have been doing.  Conversely, there have been other times when I haven't used it at all - not checking my Twitter account for months on end.  For the last year or two, however, I think I have found a happy medium when it comes to Twitter. 

Currently, I use Tweetdeck to manage my Twitter use.   I keep an eye on things by using hashtags - so much easier than trying to follow everything that's going on!  I'm not a slave to it.  I usually check my account in a morning before I go to work and then again a couple of times in an evening.

So, why use Twitter at all?  What do I get out of it?
Well, firstly, Twitter is usually the first place I see the news - via @BBCBreaking, @guardiannews,  or @TelegraphNews.  My news is delivered in bite-sized chunks together with links I can click on if I want to read more about a particular story.

It is also how I satisfy my curiosity about the world of celebrity!  I follow a few famous people who have interesting things to say.  As well as @stephenfry, I particularly enjoy the tweets of @eddieizzard, @prodnose (Danny Baker), @mjhucknall (Mick Hucknall of Simply Red who tweets about good food and great wine), @bobbyllew (Robert Llewellyn of Red Dwarf fame), and @simonmayo.

Courtesy of the BBC
Twitter is also how I follow my interests and hobbies.  For example, I am keen on genealogy, so I follow a number of groups and individuals who share that interest (@ancestrydotcom, @WDYTYA, @Archivescom, etc.).  My passion for film is kept alive by following @wittertainment, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's Twitter account which supports their excellent film review podcast from Radio 5 Live.  My interest in keeping up-to-date with sport, particularly tennis, is satisfied by following certain Twitter accounts, as are my hobbies of cooking, photography and, above all, travel.  There are too many great Twitter travel accounts to mention here, but amongst my favourites are @indietravel, @lonelyplanet, @wanderlustmag, and @TelegraphTravel.

Over the years, I have also become involved in several charities and campaigns to raise public awareness of certain issues through Twitter, not least @comicrelief, @ProjectPangolin and @charitywater.

At times of great global events, such as the recent London Olympics and Paralympics, I keep up with latest developments through their Twitter accounts.

Mark, myself, Tara & JC
Whenever I move to a new country (as I often do in my line of work!), one of the first things I do is look for relevant Twitter accounts to follow - people and organisations that will help me to adapt to my new surroundings with ease.  This has always been a successful ploy, especially here in Vietnam.  When I first arrived here, I started following several Saigon and Hanoi based bloggers, such as Steve Jackson (@ourman), @mekongmadness, @VietTravelGuy, and @MikeInVietnam.  My best follows, though, had to be Tara and JC Vargas (alias @HerDailyDigest and @kingceejay), a couple from the Phillippines who moved to Saigon several years ago and who both blog about and post pictures of Vietnam and give lots of advice to newbies like me.  Reading their accounts of trips to different places has saved us so much wasted time finding things out for ourselves and has led us to visit locations we might not have thought of.  After a few false starts, we were fortunate to meet up with them in person a few weeks ago.  We spent a very pleasant lunchtime with them in a Saigon restaurant and hope that it will be the first of many such meetings.

So, I have already listed several good reasons why I use Twitter and what I get out of it, but I've yet to mention the most important - for my professional development as an EFL teacher and manager.  Through Twitter, I am connected to a huge circle of dedicated professionals living and working in almost every country on earth.  We exchange ideas about all aspects of our jobs.  Whichever time zone we are in, there is invariably someone online to answer a query or to offer links and advice about something which is troubling us.  The PLN (personal learning network) I have developed through Twitter has grown gradually and organically over time and, although I have never met the majority of the teachers in person, I feel like they are friends and colleagues.

All of the articles I read, the webinars I attend, and the ideas I share with my 'real-life' colleagues at EIU, come from tweets and links posted by my PLN.  This invaluable information comes through throughout the week, but there are two hours every Wednesday when it comes thick and fast!  These are the times when a number of us get together to debate an issue in a forum we call #eltchat.  You can read about how it works here.   It is clear how much I value my #eltchat sessions when you see how many summaries I've written! 

I'm not going to list the teachers I follow on Twitter - they know who they are and there are too many of them to name individually.  I will, however, mention a couple, just to illustrate the power of this great tool.  The first is @teacherphili who I 'met' through Twitter and who, just last week, came to work with me at EIU in Vietnam.  The other is Lesley Cioccarelli (@cioccas), a teacher from Australia who I haven't met in person yet, but with whom I am presenting at CamTESOL 2013.  I'm really looking forward to collaborating with her on this project and to welcoming her to Vietnam before the conference so that I can show her EIU and share with her what we are trying to achieve here.

These reasons, and others too numerous to mention, are why I love the 'Twitterverse' and why I will continue to use it - for facts, fun and friendship!!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Communicative Learner-Centred Grammar

This was the title of a Cambridge English Teacher webinar presented by Peter Lucantoni and what follows is a summary of what he had to say.

What is 'grammar'?

Grammar is a set of rules for combining words to express meaning.  It is the system of a language.  Words are given 'labels' to help us to identify their grammatical roles.

In communicative language teaching:
  • There needs to be an active involvement in the learning process (both by teachers and learners).
  • Examples from texts need to be isolated and used as a basis for tasks.
  • Tasks should focus on both the concept (meaning, semantics) and the form of the target grammar.  As teachers, we are often guilty of focusing on the structure and mechanics rather than the meaning.
  • Students should be encouraged to find other examples and work out the rules for themselves.
Jack Richards:

'Communicative language teaching can be understood as a set of principles about the goals of language teaching, how learners learn a language, the kinds of classroom activities that best facilitate learning, and the roles of teachers and learners in the classroom.'
                                               (CLT Today - Cambridge University Press 2006)

Goals depend on context

Everyone learns in different ways; therefore, classroom activities will differ according to context, country, facilities available, class size, etc.

CLT is not a 'method'
  • CLT is best considered as an approach (Richards and Rogers).
  • Teachers are free to interpret the 'rules' of teaching.
  • A wide variety of classroom techniques are feasible.
  • It should move us away from learners who are 'structurally competent' but 'communicatively incompetent' - i.e. students who know the grammar, but can't apply it to communicate.
  • Grammar is important, but we need to find a balance.

''s clearly not possible to engage in purposeful communication in a language without being able to formulate the structures of that language as well.'
                                                                              (McDonagh & Shaw 2000)

As teachers....

''s essential for us to interpret the rules and strike a balance between consolidating structures and developing communicative competence in our English as a second language students.'
                                                                                           (Lucantoni 2002)

'Language without grammar would leave us seriously handicapped.'
                                                                      (Rob Batstone 'Grammar' 2000)

Why is this?

Batstone said that there are three stages in language learning:
  1. Noticing - an active process in which learners become aware of structure and notice connections between form and meaning.  (An appropriate activity here would be to give students a text and get them to highlight the grammar.)
  2. Structuring - when the new grammar pattern becomes internalised.  This is a cognitive process which requires controlled practice.
  3. Procedurising - making the grammar ready for instant and fluent use in communication.
Classroom Activities

1.  Who do you think could........?

This activity practises question forms and modals.  It uses the unit structure/s, but it also provides reading and writing skills development in a communicative and learner-centred manner.
  • You need two pictures of people - male/female, young/old.  Give these people names.
  • Hold up the first picture and ask students to tell you anything they like about the picture - age, hobbies, background, etc.  It doesn't matter what your students say - you are just activating the language they have.
  • Give students the 'true' information.  e.g.:
Name:         Amina
Age:            26
Home:         Casablanca
Hobbies:      Loves music, plays piano
Job:            Doctor
Speaks:       Arabic, English and a little Japanese
Other:         Dislikes pets
Dream:        To fly to the moon
  • You can reveal this information bit by bit to invite reaction, to raise interest and to engage the students.
  • Show the second picture.  Students now know exactly what they have to do.  They'll be interested and excited.
  • Give the real information:
Name:          Hasan
Age:             65
Home:          Fez
Hobbies:       Stamp collecting, weightlifting
Job:              Accountant  
Speaks:        Arabic, Greek
Other:          Vegetarian, can't drive
Dreams:       To go to China, to own a Ferrari

  • All the information is made up, but don't tell the students this - let them believe that it's true.
  • Display the two pictures and ask, 'Who do you think could.......?'  e.g.:
                  move heavy furniture?
                                      Because he likes weightlifting.

                          ..........advise you about your health?
                          Amina - because she's a doctor.

                 you to the airport?

                 you your favourite song?            etc.
  • Ask questions based on the biographies.
  • Students need to tell you why.
You could adapt and extend this activity in several ways:
  • Use other modal verbs, e.g. 'Who do you think might.....?'
  • Use other structures, e.g. 'Who do you think is going to.........?'
  • Use other tenses, e.g. 'Who do you think has..........?'
  • Make the reading element more challenging by putting it in a text (you could even combine the information about two people in one text).
  • A homework extension could be to find two pictures, write biographies about them, write questions based on the biographies and then exchange information with another student in the next class.
2.  The world

This activity provides a good opportunity for extra-curricula work - it is good for revising geographical lexis.
  • Listen to the words.
  • Think about in which country you can write them.  e.g. 'scuba diving' - Red Sea.  It doesn't matter where students decide to put the word, but they must be able to give reasons why.
  • Discuss with a partner.
You will need to give students the functional language:

                                 Where did you put 'scuba diving'?
                             I put scuba diving in the Red Sea.
                             I chose the Red Sea because....
                        I agree/ I disagree because....
  • Show the students a world map.
  • Students write the words you're giving them on the map (or, better still, use post-it notes).
  • If there is no map available, ask students to write the word you give them and write the place next to it.
The idea here is to link the lexis from a unit with a grammar structure.

3.  Mistakes maze

This activity gives learners an opportunity to focus on identifying grammar mistakes in order to get through a maze.

For example:

IN:  Have you ever eat fish?
      (This is an incorrect answer, so exit using the red arrow)
  1. Yes, I have eat.
  2. I've drunk never coffee.
  3. His been to China.
  4. They've never done that.
  5. I've lived here for 13 years.
  6. Said has lived in Kuwait for 2009.
  7. She have tried many times.
  8. No, they hasn't.
  9. Have they been to America?
If students answer correctly, they will pass through every number once only.

This maze can be used to test any grammar point - just make sure you replace correct answers with correct answers and incorrect ones with incorrect ones.

You can focus on a group of mistakes of a particular type or take them from your students' own writing.

    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

    Sunday, 23 September 2012

    Teaching vocabulary - an #eltchat summary

    This is a summary of the #eltchat held at 12noon BST on Wednesday 19th September, 2012. The full title of the chat was:
    'How should we approach vocabulary teaching and learning?  Is there a place for rote learning?  What is the current thinking about it?'
    I have to say that I didn't vote for this topic, mainly because it was up against my suggestion of 'first lesson ideas'.  As it turned out, my subject won the vote and was discussed at 3am my time here in Vietnam so I missed it!  Instead, I found myself involved in a very interesting chat session on teaching vocabulary and came away with lots of food for thought.  It was expertly moderated as usual, this week by @Shaunwilden and @theteacherjames. 
    Rote Learning Vocabulary - the Pros and Cons
    We began by discussing rote learning and it soon became clear that we had a difference of opinion as to the effectiveness of the method. 

    @teflerinha told us that she had had success with rote learning when she was learning Polish and Portuguese, particularly when using small 'crib' cards.  These cards can be created by using quizlet or other similar websites.  She also said that level is relevant - beginners need more rote learning because there is less context available.  @ElkySmith added that rote learning is easier at low levels because of the concrete nature of the vocabulary.  @louisealix68 reminded us that some students prefer rote learning ('musical intelligence') and told us that it had really helped her with German.  @rliberni suggested that rote learning can be made more fun by creating chants, songs and raps.

    Personally, I have never had much success with rote learning, either as a learner or a teacher.  This opinion was shared by @cioccas.  @michelleworgan also questioned its long-term effectiveness, especially with YLs.

    Several contributors, however, gave the link to an article by Paul Nation on why rote learning works, although it was pointed out that Nation himself admits that, once learned by rote, students have to use the new vocabulary in context in order for it to 'enter deep store'.
    Clearly, there is a place for rote learning with some students, but it is not ideal for all learning styles.
    Other Ways of Teaching Vocabulary
    Most #eltchat participants agreed that we need to keep students engaged in vocabulary learning by finding other teaching methods, rather than just asking them to learn word lists.  Some of what follows has a basis in rote learning, but is much more interesting and effective.

    • Giving students context is vital to help them remember new vocabulary.
    • @rliberni reminded us that translation has a part to play.
    • @LizziePinard advised us to use quizzes and games where possible, bingo and pelmanism, for example.  She suggested that, 'if you increase the depth of processing, the lexis becomes more memorable'.  This can be achieved by getting students to use more than one kind of processing - identifying, manipulating, classifying, etc.
    • Use pictures and diagrams: for example, put house vocabulary into an outline of a house.  Combining vocabulary with visuals is always a powerful way to present and, later, recall vocabulary.
    • Get students to use vocabulary in a personal way to make it more memorable.
    • Give regular vocabulary tests or weekly revision sessions.
    • Get students to create word search puzzles for other classmates to solve.
    • Use mnemonics to make rote learning more fun - all those of us who learned 'the colours of the rainbow' or 'the planets in the Solar System' this way will never forget them! 
    • Favourite games for teaching and revising vocabulary include 'Taboo', 'Outburst', 'Say my Word', 'Blockbusters' and 'Call my Bluff'.
    • Use all of the senses to help students remember new vocabulary - think about the sounds and smells associated with words.
    • Get students to create weekly vocabulary posters which are then displayed on the wall as a permanent visual reminder.  Later in the course, these posters can be used in memory games, sentence building, story telling, etc.
    • Encourage students to read as much as possible in order to increase their vocabulary.
    • Writing is one of the best ways to revise vocabulary.
    • Encourage the use of vocabulary notebooks and urge students to be creative with them - word trees, pictures, use of colour, etc.
    • Get students to prepare wiki pages on a specific topic at home - these can then be referred to both in and out of class.
    • Don't overload students with masses of new vocabulary at the same time - 'small amounts often' is the way forward for @ElkySmith, both when presenting new words and revising what has already been covered in class.
    • Synonym posters in the classroom, which students add to during the course, are a great way to expand vocabulary.  This works just as well with mind maps which can be built on.
    • Co-operative or half crosswords are great for teaching vocabulary.
    • Remember not to limit vocabulary to words - lexical chunks are particularly useful.
    • Make students think about how words behave and not just what they mean.
    • Teach vocabulary through reading texts, where students underline the words they don't know and then use them in their own sentences.
    • Use drama activities - for example, students make up a mime using narrative verbs learned and their classmates have to call them out.
    • Teach students to understand meaning from context when reading and listening.
    • Get students to watch films in English with English subtitles so they are getting the vocabulary through both visual and auditory channels.
    • Use TPR, particularly with YLs, to help memorise directions, body parts, emotions, requests, imperatives, adjectives, etc.
    • Teachers need to remember to reuse new words as much as possible in class - students pick up on this and try to do the same.
    • Use songs, as long as you explain what the lyrics mean!
    • Relate challenging vocabulary to songs or popular films or TV shows.  The example given by @Teachersilvert was using 'Friends' to illustrate 'freak out'.
    • Only teach relevant vocabulary - words and phrases students will need.  Good dictionaries will tell you how frequently a word is used - this online example from the OUP is particularly good:
    • Have a 'word of the day' for students to use correctly in class (or even a 'chunk of the day').
    • Revise as much as possible.  A good tip is to have a vocabulary bag and use it for constant recycling activities.  This was suggested by @jobethsteel.  I would endorse this - we use them in our department and if a teacher is a few minutes late for class, it's so easy for a colleague to go in and do a quick vocabulary revision exercise using the 'word bag of the week'!!


    As with all EFL teaching, there is no 'one size fits all'.  Rote learning has its place, but it doesn't work for all learners (or teachers!).  The key is to use a variety of approaches, tasks and activities in order to provide multiple experiences of, and exposures to, new vocabulary.  Whether you use rote learning or not, students need opportunities to notice new words and lexical chunks as well as situations where they need to use them.