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Product Writing – A Report (Useful for student feedback!)

Who is this post for?

  • Students looking at writing skills – especially writing a report for FCE / CAE
  • Teachers looking at lesson structures
  • Teachers / Managers looking at effective ways to get honest feedback

Teachers

The thing I love the most about a product writing lesson is that it’s surprisingly multi-level. Because you structure the class around a model text and language from that model, (as long as you grade the model and the target language accurately) you can use this kind of lesson with classes from A1-C2. Students have the support they need because they can see a model, and when they finally produce their own work, they can rely on this model to different degrees depending on confidence and competence. Obviously, student output will vary wildly, but once you are at the written output stage of a product writing class, the pressure is off both the teacher and the student in that the traditional “teaching” part of the class is over, as is the stage at which students openly exhibit what they do and don’t know in front of the whole class.

Sample lesson / structure

Have a look at the material here (from New English File Advanced) Writing a Report (from New English File Advanced Pp. 80-81)

  1. Start students off with a discussion in small groups about the positives / negatives of their school, or things they would like to see in their perfect school. You could produce a form for them to make notes in.
  2. Get group feedback
  3. Students read the report on P.80 – ask some comprehension questions and get feedback on the structure / language used (How is it paragraphed? Is the language formal or informal?)
  4. Start looking at the controlled practice activities – P. 80 b, P. 81 c / d. Remember to get some of this language on the board – look sideways at the sentences (What comes after “advisable to” / “strongly recommend”?) – and go through meaning / form / pronunciation.
  5. Organisation stage – students look at how they will structure their report (ordering) – they can do this in a group
  6. Individual writing stage – the output stage. They’re trying to write their own report about the school, using some of the target language.

They can finish this for homework, and then you can either use some of their mistakes for another lesson, or provide feedback in a different way.

Adaptation

You could use this lesson with any level. I would even say that you wouldn’t need to adapt the model text for Intermediate / Upper-Intermediate students; grade the task, not the text. So, perhaps you would only focus on exercises c and d with an Int class (P.80 ex. b might be a bit tricky). For Elem / Pre-Int, you would need to simplify the text a bit, and perhaps your language focus would focus on something like “Ways to give opinions” (I believe / In my opinion / I think) or “Reporting using past simple”. You’d then need to prepare controlled practice activities around the model text, but this wouldn’t be too time-consuming, as a lot of the adaptation would be exactly that: adapting rather than rewriting.

Teachers / Managers

I watched a fairly inexperienced teacher do a great job with this product lesson from New English File the other week – they used P.80 and then c / d from P.81, missing out the brainstorm etc. stages after that, because they would be more applicable to a process writing task instead (see more on product /  process writing structures here http://wp.me/p2RmnE-sj ). The thing that makes this lesson interesting for students, teachers and managers, is that the output stage gives students a chance to reflect privately on what they believe the strengths / weaknesses of their school are. This is perhaps more revealing than focus groups, as students are often reluctant to voice their issues directly to a manager, or in front of other students. The timing of this class supported this theory; we had a focus group the week before and much of what was raised on the written reports from this lesson hadn’t been mentioned! I’ve since arranged for all classes to do this lesson at some point this term, so that we can get some really good feedback to work from.

Students

Have a look at the material in this file. Here are a few things to consider if you’re preparing for Cambridge Exams.

  1. The structure is based on a series of titles
  2. The introduction clearly states the aim of the report
  3. The conclusion is very generalised
  4. There are a lot of examples of the passive being used, as well as language for generalising – eg. “It is generally thought…”
  5. Precision is an important part of the test. Why say “making classes smaller” when you could say “reducing class size”? The words do  / make / get are often used because a student doesn’t know the exact verb that a native would use. When you start to write one of these verbs, think: is there a better word I could use?

Writing a Report (from New English File Advanced Pp. 80-81)

As always, if you want to send your attempts to me, I’d be happy to receive them! 🙂

 

Simon

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Multi-tasking in a foreign language

Note: Students, if you find this article difficult to understand, read the part about exams!

What is linguistic multi-tasking? When do we encounter it? And how is it tackled in the classroom? In this article, I’ll go through the idea of skills and skills teaching in a bit of detail, and look at the challenges involved as well as the areas in which teachers can aim to develop their students.

Skills

In language teaching, when we talk about “skills”, we are referring to four things: Reading, Speaking, Listening and Writing. We can divide these up in to two categories: receptive (from the word “receive”) and productive (from the word “produce”). These words refer to how we are interacting with language. The two receptive skills are reading and listening, because the language comes to our eyes or ears through text or audio, and the two productive skills are speaking and writing, because we produce the language ourselves, either orally or on paper. As language students, we ideally want to improve all four skills to achieve both receptive and productive fluency.

Challenges

When we try to improve a skill, we face a number of problems. The problems could be systematic – this means that with our productive skills, we might struggle with parts of the skill; pronunciation (speaking), spelling (writing) or vocabulary, grammar or discourse (both). These aren’t the only problems though. We might also find it hard to perform the skill itself. Here are some possible problems:

  • Fluency – it’s difficult to speak without stopping regularly.
  • Expression (circumlocution) – I don’t know a word and I can’t explain it
  • Comprehension – there might be too much text / audio, or it might be too fast or advanced in level.
  • Structure / Coherence – it might be difficult to write in paragraphs, or to organise spoken ideas.
  • Recall – It’s difficult to remember what was said / written about, because I’m not very good at taking notes
  • Inference – I find it difficult to use context to guess meanings of difficult words

There are, of course, many others, and teachers should work on helping students acquire the techniques to improve their skills. However, there is another level to this: if each individual skill is difficult, how on earth are we supposed to perform two skills at the same time?!

Multi-tasking

Here are a few examples of times when you need to multi-task.

  1. Conversation – listening (to the other person or people) and speaking (replying, conversing)
  2. Ordering – reading (a menu) and speaking (talking to the waiting staff)
  3. Lectures – listening (to the lecturer) and writing (taking notes)
  4. Research – reading (the material) and writing (again, taking notes)

It’s fair to say that number 1 is the most common, but what links these scenarios? Notice that they all require you to use one receptive and one productive skill at the same time. Generally, we are OK at this in our own language, and can pick this up in a second with correct training and practice. But what happens to our brains when we try to combine two receptive or two productive skills at the same time? Give it a try. Try writing an email while having a conversation. Try reading a book while listening to the radio.

Was that easy? I’m guessing your answer is “no”. It’s pretty simple – if we listen and read at the same time, there is too much information coming to our brains at the same time. Similarly, if we write and speak at the same time, we put pressure on ourselves to produce twice as much language as we usually would in a particular space of time. Granted, some people can do it, but it isn’t a majority, and the percentage of those who can drops significantly in a second or third language.

The Problem with Exams

So, where are these situations in which we are pushed in to combining two receptive or productive skills together? The answer is that, in general, they don’t exist. This is firstly because communication is about direction; we give and receive. If we need to give or receive twice, we just extend the interaction, rather than doing it all at the same time. It’s also about avoidance. We can usually avoid these situations by having a measure of control over our communicative environments (although this often requires classroom training in a second language). Unfortunately, exams take away this control and put us in strange situations, which aren’t always reproduced in real life. I personally think that those parts of exams are therefore not very useful, but whether I like it or not, they exist. Here’s an example which we come across in Cambridge Exams (FCE, CAE, IELTS):

A listening exam with a multiple choice section. The question and the choices account for a lot of text – too much to remember in a short time.

So, in this situation we are being trapped. We don’t have enough time to read and remember all the information in these questions, so we find ourselves reading while listening to the audio. Unsurprisingly, this is difficult!

An Exam Solution

I’ve had a lot of success with focussing students more on note-taking. Not only is this a real-life task (as mentioned before, lectures and meetings both require this), but it helps prevent this situation. Here’s how:

1) Student reads the questions and focusses on their meanings and keywords. They don’t really look at the multiple choice options for more than a couple of seconds (reading).

2) Student listens and takes notes (listening and writing).

3) After the listening, student matches their notes to the multiple choice options (just reading).

At no point is the student completely engaged in reading and listening at the same time. The student can make notes in English or their mother tongue (depending on preference), and they can use shorthand, abbreviations or spider diagrams – all of which can be taught and practised in class.

In the classroom

It is clear, then, that there is more to teaching skills than perhaps we acknowledge. Yes, it’s all well and good to teach a speaking or a listening lesson, but do we teach them in conjunction with each other as preparation for real-life experiences? I’m not suggesting that this would necessarily work with lower-level learners, but as students approach fluency and competency, they need to be challenged with real-life scenarios. Part of this is recognising and implementing strategies to avoid overload by extending conversations to avoid double-receptive or double-productive situations, or by learning to take notes in exams to minimise a clash of tasks. It is also accepting that receptive and productive skills often run parallel, and then receiving training on how to deal with this fact.

In light of this, I’m going to be publishing some ideas for real-life, “multi-skills” classes. If anyone out there has got any resources / ideas on this, I’d love to see them. In the meantime, watch this space.

 

Simon

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Cambridge Exams – Writing a Report / Proposal

A common question in Writing Part 2 is to write a report or proposal. This short article will give you two tips.

  • Structure

The accepted structure is headings and sub-headings. Have a look at this:

Introduction

Start with “The purpose of this proposal / report is to…” or a similar phrase. Then, outline what you are going to be writing about – you can basically paraphrase the question and signal what is going to come. Don’t make any of your points yet!

Findings / Positive Points / Specific Subject Heading

Remember to structure this using sequencers (firstly, furthermore, additionally…)

Another heading with another subject (if necessary)

Same as above

Recommendations / Problems / Solutions

Often, part of this kind of task is to suggest improvements or solutions, so here you are directly addressing the previous paragraph(s) and again, sequencing your ideas clearly.

Conclusion

Don’t forget this paragraph! A brief summary “Overall…” and a positive statement to finish.

Take a look here for some model answers: CAE-10-TESTS-Model Compositions

 

  • Language

Remember, the language you need here is neutral. I like to think of it as BORING. This means no colourful adjectives (amazing, superb, wonderful), no exaggeration or emotion (I really believe, it is absolutely / completely / totally…). Instead, use modals, passives and objective language. Think about the language used in terms and conditions of contracts. Not very interesting!

 

Remember to write between 220 and 260 words for CAE!

 

Simon

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CAE Speaking – Structures (Also for FCE / CPE)

I’ve been doing a lot of CAE exam preparation classes recently, and I’ve noticed that a lot of people are making three similar mistakes. This short article will hopefully help you avoid them. NB: These tips also apply to FCE and CPE, although the tasks I have chosen are CAE tasks.

1) Don’t feel you have to say too much in Part 1

It’s quite normal to learn the idea that “speaking more is better” at schools. This is only partly true. If you are asked a very simple question (Where do you live?), then it is unnatural to say something like this:

“I live in Barcelona, a city in the North of Spain. It’s a large, cosmopolitan city with a population of several million, and has a remarkable landscape including beaches, mountains and a fascinating mixture of architectural forms”

Does that answer the question? Really, you’ve answered the question “Can you tell me a bit about your city?”

Don’t feel the need to go too far in this part – just answer the question: “I live in Barcelona, a major city in the North of Spain”. Save the other information for when you’re actually asked about it!

2) Don’t spend too much time “describing” in Part 2

So, with Part 2, you are given three pictures and have to choose two to talk about / answer questions on. Have a look at the example below:

Compare the educational settings

Describe how they are feeling

caetask

 

A good start here is to make your choice first: “I’m gonna go for the first and second pictures…”

Remember, from here you have about 55 seconds to do three things:

  • Describe
  • Compare
  • Interpret

Of these, the easiest is describing, so this is the part that should take the least time. Have a look at the example below:

“In the first picture, the two students are engaged in some kind of practical experiment – groupwork in a science class, whereas the setting in picture 2 is a lecture, so the students are passive – listening, rather than active – doing.

That’s enough for describing! Now for interpreting:

“Well, I reckon that the students in picture 1 are feeling pretty motivated – learning by doing is supposed to be really effective, and being able to control a process and see its results can be quite exciting. Also, as a small group, they can interact with each other and are probably quite good friends as they’ve chosen each other, so they’re probably happy and quite comfortable too, whereas, in the second picture, obviously they’re not talking. It’s possible that they understand everything that is being said perfectly, and they’re interested and listening intently, but it could also be the case that they are confused by some things, and not in an environment in which they can ask questions, which can be a bit daunting. It’s a less relaxed environment and requires a lot of concentration and discipline, so I guess they probably aren’t feeling as good as the two students in the first picture.”

Much longer! You could signal that you are going to finish by including a brief comment on your own feelings:

“Personally, I would be happier in the situation of picture 1, because…”

Good! Now, if you’re the “second speaker…”

Don’t waste time describing what you see – speaker 1 already did this. Immediately try and interpret, using the question you are given. Remember, you only have thirty seconds!

3) The “making a decision together” part of part 3 is more important than the general overview of the pictures!

Take a look at the example below:

How do these pictures show the role of computers nowadays?

Which picture best reflects the difference computers have made to our lives?

cae9

 

  • You don’t need to describe every picture – just give a general picture (example below)

Well, these pictures show that computers have basically infiltrated every part of our lives – from work at home, to children’s games, education and even retail systems. Everything is now computerised!

That’s enough! The other speaker can agree / disagree / add a bit to what you’ve said, but after that it’s time to focus on the second task, in which you have the opportunity to get the most marks for “interactive communication” (20% of your mark for this exam).

Make sure you take the opportunity to speak, but also give the other speaker a chance. Here are a few strategies.

  • I want to speak: Say “mmm…”, “yeah” or “but” while the other speaker is talking. They will hear this and naturally give you a chance at the end of their sentence – you don’t need to start talking (this is interruption and will lose you marks)
  • I want to give the other person a chance: Ask a question: “What do you reckon?” “Don’t you think?” “So, do you think that….?”  Asking questions is an important part of acknowledging the other person.
  • I made my decision really early, but I want to consider other pictures: Phrases like “But then again…”, “Although…” and “Mind you…” allow you to reconsider, or move on to other pictures – make sure you use the 3 minutes and don’t finish early.
  • We have finished: A question, or a statement: “So, we’ve decided that this picture is…” or “So, have we come to the conclusion that…?”

I hope these help. As always, feel free to contact me with any questions.

Good luck!

 

Simon