EdTech for EdTech’s Sake?

‘EdTech’ has become a bit of a buzz word in recent years, with more and more emphasis being placed on the development of digital materials, online courses and blended learning.  It seems that everyone is keen to get on the technology bandwagon: publishers, materials designers, educational institutes, teachers and students alike.  But does this always facilitate learning?  Or do we sometimes we end up using technology for technology’s sake?  Just because it’s the latest craze, the thing to be seen doing, the thing that everybody is talking about.

I’ve read a few articles and blog posts on this topic lately and was particularly struck by ‘The Overselling of Ed Tech‘, which offers a thought-provoking critique of today’s ‘Tech is better’ attitude.  The overall message portrayed is that while people are willing to pour huge sums of money into technology in order to embrace new innovations and keep up with the times, in reality we are often simply presented with traditional, outdated pedagogy dressed up in new clothes.  In the author’s words: “shiny things that distract us from rethinking our approach to learning and reassure us that we’re already being innovative.”

I think this is the case with a lot of digital language learning materials; packed full of gap-fills, drills and decontextualised sentences which do not reflect current SLA theory.  Of course, technology can undoubtedly offer huge benefits to language learners and teachers, but I agree with the writer’s view that it does not automatically equate better learning, it depends how it is used and the kind of learning it embodies.

In thinking about this topic I was reminded of a fantastic blog post by Scott Thornbury about how SLA theory can inform EdTech, which contains a handy checklist of points to consider when critically analysing digital resources in terms of how learning is facilitated.  Personally I believe it’s a vital part of our role as teachers to pose these questions about any tools we, or our students are using, in order to ensure that use of technology is actually enhancing learning, and not becoming ‘technology for technology’s sake.’

This is especially important in contexts where use of EdTech is enforced by a higher power, it can become all too easy to simply tick the box otherwise.  I once spent hours preparing a PowerPoint lesson for an observation during a British Council inspection, only to find that on the day I couldn’t open the file due to a technical hitch! So I had to resort to writing on the whiteboard instead… did this have a negative impact on my students’ learning? I don’t think so! Did I still achieve my lesson aim? Absolutely.  I had completely missed the point here, all I was doing in fact was demonstrating my IT skills, and wasting a lot time in the process!

 

‘How can I improve my pronunciation?’

This frequently asked question is by no means an easy one to answer. For a start, it covers such a wide range of features from individual phonemes to rhythm and intonation, and then there’s the whole debate about which model students should be aiming for… Still, it cannot be denied that pronunciation is a vital element of language teaching and teachers are therefore obliged to give some kind of answer to the question.

There are two tools in particular that I’ve found to be extremely useful when it comes to helping students with individual sounds and word stress – arguably two of the easier aspects of pronunciation to focus on. A brief introduction from the teacher is required but they can then be easily integrated into lessons and accessed by learners outside of class time.

What?

  • Online dictionary with built in pronunciation – sound and phonemic transcription such as the Oxford or Cambridge Learner’s Dictionaries
  • The free ‘Sounds’ app from Macmillan

Why?

  • Easily accessible via smartphones or tablets
  • Easy to use
  • Encourage Learner Autonomy

How?

  • Search for word on the dictionary site and listen to pronunciation
  • Repeat word out loud to practise pronunciation
  • Focus on phonemic transcription for help with spelling/pronunciation disparity and syllable stress
  • Look up unknown symbols in ‘Sounds’ app – press on symbol to hear sound
  • Repeat to practise problem phonemes

Of course there are many other ways in which these tools can be exploited individually but this is one example of how they can be used effectively in conjunction to help students with one tricky area of language learning.

One word of caution… the success of using tools such as these depends on the ability of learners to distinguish between and replicate different sounds, a skill which does not come naturally to all. Teachers may well need to give additional guidance in how to produce certain sounds (e.g. using diagrams of the mouth, demonstrating where the tongue should be etc.) or draw attention to minimal pairs in class to help students with these issues.

 

 

 

Speaking with Mobile Phones: Making use of Voice Recorders

voice recorder

You know when you read or hear about a new idea and you think “That’s great, I’ll try that out with my students” but then somehow you never quite get round to it? Maybe because you’re not quite sure how they will respond, or simply because it’s easier to stay on familiar ground… Anyway, I finally took a leap out of my comfort zone and asked my students to record themselves on their mobile phones whilst doing a speaking task in class, an activity I’d been wanting to experiment with for a long time.

Initially I wasn’t sure if the students would feel comfortable doing this, or if they would see the benefit, or if indeed it would work practically – short battery life, no smart phone etc. And to start with some of them were squirming in their seats a little at the thought of having to talk into their phone and then listen back to their own voice, but overall I think they realised that the task was worthwhile, despite this minor discomfort.

They all noticed things about their own speech that they wouldn’t normally, whether that was pronunciation features, the amount of hesitation or constant repetition of certain words.  They were then able to self-assess their speaking skills and identify specific areas for future improvement.  As it was an IELTS class and they were doing an exam style speaking task, they were also able to see if they’d addressed all parts of the task.  It wasn’t all about being self-critical, however, one student was pleasantly surprised to find that she hadn’t made as many mistakes as she thought she had whilst making the recording!

Hopefully this is something they will continue to do in their own time so that they become more autonomous as learners.  And of course, if they want some reassurance from a teacher that they’re correctly identifying areas to work on, they can easily send the file via email to get some additional feedback.

 

 

 

On My Word! Vocabulary learning with Google Chrome

I recently discovered On My Word! – a great little vocabulary tool that could be utilised by students and teachers alike.  In a nutshell, this new Google Chrome extension enables you to create your own personalised dictionary by adding words from online text.  Whilst it’s not aimed specifically at EFL learners, it could certainly be exploited for language learning. Not only does it provide a quick way to check the meaning of unknown vocabulary, it also allows students to keep a record of new words they come across online.  It can therefore facilitate comprehension of written text, as well as help with the process of learning vocabulary.  For teachers, Oh My Word! is the perfect device for creating glossaries when using online news articles/texts in class, and the option of collaborating on dictionaries coming soon will open up the possibility of producing a class dictionary.

What I like about it:

  • It brings the vocabulary notebook into the digital age
  • It’s an easy way to log and review new vocabulary
  • It encourages learner autonomy as learners take responsibility for their learning

What I’m not sure about:

  • There’s no information about pronunciation or word class
  • Only individual words can be added – no phrasal verbs, no chunks, no collocations
  • Definitions are written for native speakers and could be difficult to understand

Of course, Oh My Word! can still be used as a vocabulary log with the missing information accessed via other online dictionaries such as the Oxford Learners Dictionary.  It’s still in its early days too, with the promise of new features coming soon, so who knows, maybe one day  we’ll see a much more comprehensive dictionary tool.

Blogging as a teaching tool

I’ve been exploring the idea of using blogs as a teaching resource recently, and have just come across this great introductory video.

The first part shows how easy it is to set up a blog (very useful for any teachers new to blogging) and then a few teaching tips are given. I was especially taken with the idea of setting homework via a blog – such an easy way to provide links to online videos or texts and to facilitate flipped teaching. Tying this in with the ideas in my previous post, the teacher could, for example, provide students with a link to a news article which they should read at home and be prepared to discuss in the next lesson.

 

BBC News online: an IELTS teacher’s best friend

Any teacher who has ever taught Academic IELTS preparation will know how challenging it can be to make lessons interesting, relevant and engaging – students may be highly motivated to obtain their required band score, but this does not necessarily mean they will maintain enthusiasm when faced with endless data analysis, essay writing and academic texts. What’s more, a student who is hoping to do a Master’s in let’s say, engineering, often has no particular desire to learn about topics as unrelated to their subject area as health or education. One resource I find myself coming back to time and time again to help bridge the motivation gap is BBC News online – a quick and simple way of injecting some life into classes based around published materials. Whatever the topic you have to cover, be it art, culture, climate change or technology, it is usually easy to find a topical article to bring the whole lesson much more up-to-date. These can then be accessed in class via PCs, tablets or smartphones – depending on the resources available.

0108416-news-icon

News articles are not just valuable in terms of motivation, however. The rich source of vocabulary input can also be used to teach new language or as consolidation, particularly when it comes to highlighting the use of chunks such as adjective + noun or verb + adverb. In addition, knowledge of current affairs can help with developing opinions and arguments in preparation for the speaking and writing papers, making it easier to answer questions under exam pressure. Articles which mention statistics or figures provide exposure to the type of language needed for Task 1 Writing, and on top of all of this, encouraging students to read the news in English on a regular basis is of course a great way to build the reading habit. The beauty of the BBC News App is that it allows for “little and often”, making reading a much less daunting task and meaning that students can easily fit it into their busy schedules.

Here’s one framework that could be incorporated into an IELTS lesson, with Language Learning as an example topic.

  • Students read article A or article B
  • In pairs (1 A, 1 B) summarise texts and find common themes
  • Make a list of reasons for and against learning a foreign language from the texts
  • Find 5 useful language chunks in the articles to teach to partner
  • Give students IELTS speaking questions on the topic of Language Learning
  • In pairs discuss how the vocabulary and ideas to in the articles could be used to answer the questions
  • Carry out mock speaking tests in pairs, with the “examiners” listening out for language/ideas from the articles

Of course, tasks need to be graded according to level to make sure that students do not feel overwhelmed by the amount of new language. The activities above work well with higher level students who have good reading skills and a good understanding of the IELTS exam. Lower level classes could be given more guidance about what information to include in the summary, and the teacher could prepare a vocabulary task instead of asking students to find the language chunks themselves.