The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, November 16, 2015

Simple video presentations using PowerPoint

Last week, I saw a really interesting short webinar by Jonathan Smith from the University of Reading about making presentational videos using PowerPoint (as part of the Learning Technology in EAP evening of webinars; recording available here). He was talking about making short videos about language points à la flipped classroom; so his students could watch them in their own time.

As the idea of the flipped classroom (either as a full-on approach or just as an occasional tool) has gathered momentum, I’ve become more convinced that it’s a useful addition to any teacher’s repertoire.  As ever with new technologies though, it always seems that you need a certain amount of time and techy know-how to start making your own video presentations. The idea of using an application that I’m already familiar with really appealed, so I thought I’d give it a go:


I’m not doing any teaching at the moment, but I’ll look forward to trying this out on the next unsuspecting group of students I do get my hands on. I’ve also been mulling over the idea of using this to make mini-summaries of presentations I do. That could be in the form of a short trailer before an event or it could be a brief overview to pass on afterwards.

Whenever I speak at an event or do some kind of workshop, someone always asks me if I can make my slides available. This can be problematic for a number of reasons. Because I use slides quite sparingly and can talk around a couple of bullet points for maybe 10 minutes, the slides on their own can be a bit meaningless. That’s fine if someone attended the session and just wants the slides as a reminder, but if they get passed on, it’s easy for them to be misinterpreted. Plus, if you plan to give a similar version of a talk at several events, you don’t always want the content shared around.

So I can envisage making a mini-summary of my session using a few key slides and just talking through the main ideas. That way there’s less chance of misinterpretation and also you’re not giving away all your best material!

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Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Making authentic academic texts manageable

Academic texts are dense and complex and can be tricky for native speakers to read, so for EAP students they present all kinds of challenges. This in turn poses a challenge for EAP materials writers. Do we use absolutely authentic texts because that’s what our students (will) need to deal with, or do we simplify them in some way to make them more manageable?

There are good arguments in favour of using authentic academic texts in EAP materials. As Alexander, Argent & Spencer put it:  “Teachers may be concerned that the content and vocabulary of [authentic] texts will present too many difficulties and should be left to a later stage, but the reality is that, for EAP students, there is no later stage.” (EAP Essentials, 2008). If students are already having to deal with academic texts as part of their studies (or will very soon have to) then it doesn’t make much sense not to tackle similar texts in an EAP class. Indeed, I’ve known former students complain that their EAP course didn’t prepare them for the reality of study in English because it was too easy, making for a shock when they got thrown into their subject courses.

However, using a complex academic text in EAP materials can have drawbacks too:
- students just get lost and confused and end up losing confidence and motivation
- decoding the text becomes a distraction; the teacher ends up spending most of the lesson ‘going through’ the text (whether they intended to or not) and the main focus of the lesson gets rather sidelined

Weighing up these two perspectives is tricky and depends in part on the aim of the materials and the target audience. If you’re working on wider reading skills, a long authentic text might be exactly what you need, whereas if you’re focusing on micro-skills (citation, hedging, vocabulary, or other language features), then it could become an unwanted distraction. Similarly, the level of text that in-sessional students on a discipline-specific (ESAP) course can cope with will be very different from what foundation level, pre-sessional and/or mixed-discipline students will be able to manage.

It’s an issue I came across again in some recent writing work and it prompted me to look back at what I’d said about choosing texts in How to Write EAP Materials. The tactics I suggested there for making authentic academic texts more manageable included:
- use short texts: sometimes a very short text (such as an abstract or a definition) or a short extract from a longer text provides just enough context to illustrate a particular language point
- lower the cognitive load: by choosing texts aimed at high school students (such as A level or IB texts) or very introductory undergraduate texts, you maintain the academic style, but the content is less daunting
- abridge texts: sometimes just taking out a complicated example can make a text easier to understand without losing too much in terms of authenticity

One additional tactic that I’ve been using a lot in the materials I’ve been working on recently is to do a lot of the decoding work for the student. By which I mean that you provide a heavily scaffolded task to get the basic decoding out of the way relatively quickly before moving onto the more specific focus of the lesson. Different options include:
- give students three or four single-sentence summaries of the text and they have to choose the best one (and explain their choice)
- give paraphrases of key points which students have to mark as either true or false, or give a set of paraphrases that students have to put in order to create a summary
- give ‘student’ citations (either written or spoken for variety) which paraphrase key points and students match them to the relevant sections of the original text

By providing simple paraphrases of key points in the first task, you’re doing a lot of the work for the student in getting to grips with the main ideas in the text. This means that you can get onto dealing with the specific focus of the lesson (analysing a particular language feature or working on a micro-skill) more quickly. It also provides useful examples of paraphrasing, introduces some key synonyms and is ‘authentic’ in the sense that it shows students what they might do themselves when citing from a text.

I guess it all comes back to keeping the aim of the lesson in mind. If the aim isn’t to work on understanding a long reading text, but you still need to show the language in context, then find ways to help students through that part so that you can get onto the real goal of the lesson with minimum distraction.

How To Write EAP Materials is available to download as an ebook via Amazon and Smashwords.

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Friday, September 04, 2015

And relax ...

Towards the end of last year, I was complaining that I was twiddling my thumbs after a whole series of things I was meant to be working on got delayed. Well, thankfully, most of them did finally get going at the start of this year ... perhaps inevitably, all at the same time! After some negotiation, I managed to stack them one after the other, but it gave me a really punishing schedule that started in January and is due to go through to mid-December with no respite.

I'm not complaining, it's good to be busy and they're all really interesting, challenging projects. But it's very difficult to sustain levels of energy and creative momentum over such a long period of time. I worked out just now that in around 110 working days since mid-Feb (taking out days away at conferences, teacher training, etc.) I've produced 156 pages of material - and it's all been at upper-int or advanced level, so that's quite a lot of text per page. (And of course, that doesn't account for planning, redrafting, etc.) My time is no longer measured in days or weeks, but in spreads and units!!

It's been a long slog with lots of long days, weekend working and no such thing as a Bank Holiday, but I have managed to grab a couple of breaks. Back in May, I had a proper week's holiday, escaping to a cliff-top cabin in the south of Spain to relax and recharge. The setting and the weather were beautiful, but I found I spent most of the holiday grouchy and unable to relax, at points finding myself in tears of frustration because my much-looked-forward-to break wasn't working out as I'd so desperately hoped. Of course, it was the built-up tension from the previous weeks at my desk coming out and it wasn't until the last couple of days that I started to properly wind down and enjoy myself.

My partner seemed to have no trouble at all relaxing!

Then at the start of August, I had an unexpected week 'off' when there was a delay to the project I was working on. I had visions of a week spent pottering in the garden and of sunny days out, but beyond one sunny morning wandering around Bristol with my camera, it rained pretty solidly all week! So instead I worked my way through a long to-do list of work (admin, book-keeping) and domestic chores. Not much fun, but definitely a much-needed catch-up.

Tomorrow, I head off for my second proper holiday of the year, a week in Malta. This time I'm determined not to fall into the 'desperate-to-relax' trap again and I'm going to try really hard just to go with the flow ... if that's not a contradiction in itself!

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Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Playing with Google Docs for student writing

I don’t get into the classroom as much as I’d like to nowadays, so whenever I get a chance to do some teaching or teacher training, I like to try out new ideas. Last year, I used a week of teacher training workshops in Oxford (as part of the ELT Summer Seminar) to try out using screencast software to give feedback on writing; see my post about it here. This year, I used two lovely groups of teachers on the same course as guinea pigs for using Google Docs for student writing.

I’ve used Google Docs myself as part of writing projects and I’ve heard various people talk about how it can be used with students, especially for collaborative writing. There’s a very good blog post about using Google Docs with EAP students by David Reid, for example.

Context and task: As the workshops I was leading were on the theme of teaching writing skills, giving the participants a writing task to complete themselves, and for me to give feedback on, was an ideal way to demonstrate some of the practical issues I wanted to discuss. Having learnt from my experience last year of trying to give screencast feedback to 27 individual trainees within the space of a couple of days (!!), this year I chose a group writing task. On the first day, we did an activity which involved a group discussion and as a follow-up I asked each group (of 4 to 5 people) to write a very brief summary (max 60 words) of the most interesting point to come out of the discussion. The summary was to be written using Google Docs.

Set-up: I did a quick demo in class just to show what Google Docs looks like and how it works. I had four groups altogether, across two classes, so I set up four documents and gave each one a heading plus a simple rubric. This meant that when the participants reached the document, they knew they were in the right place. 

I then collected their emails and set about sharing the document for each group with its members. As a newbie to setting up Google Docs, I wasn’t sure how simple this process was going to be, but actually it turned out fine. For those with Gmail accounts, it was super simple; I just added their email addresses to the document using the ‘share’ button and hey presto, everything connected up beautifully. For those without Gmail accounts, the process wasn’t quite as smooth, but still wasn’t problematic. In these cases, I sent them a link to the document which they could click on to access it. Apparently, they didn’t get an icon with their name and profile picture, but they still had no problem editing and commenting along with everyone else.

Giving feedback: One of the benefits of Google Docs, beyond students being able to work collaboratively, is that as the teacher you can go in and offer feedback at any point. For this task, I checked in to see how things were going before the deadline I’d set for completing the task. The first thing I noticed was that all the groups had got carried away and written way too much, so I was able to leave a comment just reminding them of the word limit and nudging them back on track. This seemed like a really nice way of working together with students to help them achieve the best result, rather than just waiting for them to get it wrong then failing them.

Once the deadline had passed, I went in again and gave more detailed feedback. On this occasion, I didn’t ask the participants to act on my feedback, but with a “real” group of students, it could have been the start of a series of interactive revisions. Again, it’s an opportunity for the teacher to act more like an editor that an examiner, helping students towards the best possible final piece of work. (See more of my thoughts on this relationship here.)

Shifting comments
Drawbacks: My initial concerns about whether everybody would get on okay with the technology and be able to access the documents turned out to be unfounded. One feature that we found a little bit frustrating though was the fact that the comments, which appear in the margin, don’t seem to link up quite so clearly and obviously with the sections of text they refer to, like they would in, say, a Word document. The comments seem to jump about, sometimes switching order when you click on them and just generally being a little bit confusing.

Participant reaction: The reaction to the technology was generally pretty positive and I think it opened up lots of potential ideas for teaching. What was more interesting, perhaps, was the teachers’ reactions to doing a group writing task. To be asked to work together with a group of people you’ve only just met is no easy task! All the groups reported feeling a bit unsure about how to organize themselves, how to get started and what the etiquette was for commenting on or editing others’ writing. I think it was a useful exercise for the teachers in putting themselves in their students’ shoes.  Some of the points that came up in the post-task discussion:
- Would it be easier for students who know each other better (so later in a course)?
- In terms of group dynamics, is it better to let students choose their groups or for the teacher to ‘engineer’ the groups?
- Would the interaction/dynamics vary depending on the cultural background of the students?
- Would it be better to give students more guidelines for carrying out the task; allocating roles and procedures maybe?
- Or alternatively, would setting too many ‘rules’ stifle students’ own critical thinking and creativity? Is working out how to work together part of the learning process?

Overall, the whole thing was a really interesting exercise and I think Google Docs will now definitely be added to my teaching toolbox.

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