The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

An award for Global

As a freelancer sitting in your little freelance bubble at home, you don't often get much feedback on things you've worked on, except at the occasional conference. So it was quite exciting to find out that the Global eWorkbook that I worked on last year has won an award. It's won the English Speaking Union President's Award for "innovation and good design in the use of technology for the teaching, learning and advancement of English".

When I was plodding away helping to develop and write the language practice materials for the pre-intermediate eWorkbook last spring, it was certainly a lot of hard work and much of that effort went into trying to make it more than just a 'traditional' workbook. The e-format gives lots of room for innovation in terms of presentation - attractive graphics, lots of extra audio and video - plenty of interactive features when it comes to navigation and connections between features (linking language practice to a dictionary and grammar help) and of course, instant feedback on activities. There's even the facility to download audio and video material to listen to on the bus.

But for me, perhaps the most significant area of 'innovation' was in the actual content itself rather than just its presentation and funky format. The whole ethos behind the Global project, as plugged evangelically by its originator Lindsey Clandfield, was to be a 'grown-up' course, with information-rich, genuinely interesting and stimulating content. And this idea extended to the workbook too. Having written workbooks and CD-ROM practice materials before, I was well used to fitting in with a format and trying to find creative ways to practise a list of 8 pre-intermediate vocab items yet again, after they'd already been done to death in the coursebook! You try to make it interesting and come up with a vaguely feasible context where you can, but it's usually under pressure of tight deadlines (workbooks get squeezed in at the end of the writing process, yet need to be ready for the same publication dates), so it's generally off the top of your head.

The approach to the Global eWorkbook was quite different though. I found myself researching content for even very simple vocab and grammar activities - finding out about different types of calenders for an exercise on prepositions, or checking statistics for library lending for a vocab activity (on lend and borrow). I wrote reading texts about a Venezeulan music project and a UN population report and created listening activities about zero-carbon houses and Russian 'dachas'. Anything that interested me in the paper or on the radio or TV became a possible target topic.

We tried very hard to avoid the rather bland, contextless and frankly, distinctly unmemorable activities that all-too-often turn up in workbooks, which learners skim their way through rather automatically, taking in little more than the basic lists of items being "practised/tested". The idea of putting so much effort into making the workbook materials interesting and stimulating was not just to make them more attractive and motivating, but for learners to get more from the process in terms of language learning. The hope is that learners will actually take in more of the context rather than just skimming for the right answers, thereby absorbing more about the way the target items are used (collocations, grammatical patterns, register, etc.) and also something of the surrounding language too.

It's always difficult to know whether all the hopes, intentions and aspirations that go into developing and writing materials will manage to make their way out at the other end as you intend them to. I'm certainly aware that all the effort I've put into grammar codes and labels in dictionaries over the years are either ignored or viewed as meaningless by most of my students! But if this award and some of the other bits of feedback I've come across about Global are anything to go by, it seems that at least some of the effort that went into the writing (by the whole team who worked on it) is paying off.

Labels: ,

Monday, September 13, 2010

Beetroot update!

Back in June, I featured some beetroot seedlings that I was growing on my desk. I planted them out and waited in anticipation all summer, but sadly, they didn't ever really came to much. Not sure if was the weather or just my lack of green fingers, but when I finally pulled them over the weekend, they were truly titchy!!

Undeterred, I did boil up my mini beets and they made them into a dainty little salad. Small but delicious!

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Seeing Progress

Having just sat through two full days of student presentations (26 in all!), I've now come to the end of my summer teaching for this year. As ever, the five-week course has whizzed by amazingly quickly, but seems to have consumed a huge amount of energy. Even though I've only been teaching a few classes a week this year, it's amazing how much you can get caught up with your students in such a short period of time. So it was very satisfying to see that many of them had made real, tangible progress. The difference between their initial attempts at presentations and what they came up with in their final assessed presentations was really very impressive in lots of cases. And it was particularly pleasing when some of them had picked up on specific points that I'd made in class and really taken them on board. It was sometimes tempting to give them a high mark just for facing their audience or including an outline in their introduction!

Unfortunately, my teaching stint this year has clashed with the (delayed) end of a particularly busy publishing project and it's been a real juggling act. There have been so many times when I've wished that I could just stay at my desk and get on with work rather than to-ing and fro-ing between classes, photocopying, planning and sitting through staff meetings. But it's definitely been worth it. My time in the classroom is just so valuable for keeping in touch with students and remembering what teaching is all about. It's also the only time of the year when I have colleagues. After spending months alone at my desk communicating only via e-mail, it's so nice to have a moan over the photocopier or a giggle in the coffee break. And it's just long enough not to get involved in "office politics" or become bitter about "the system". Really the best of both worlds.

So now I'm feeling that odd mixture of emotions that I always experience at the start of September of being utterly exhausted, but strangely satisfied and reinspired to push through the rest of the year. First though, I need a break, so I'm really looking forward to a holiday next week :)

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Teaching to the test

Over the past four weeks, as well as teaching my usual pre-sessional, EAP classes, I've also been doing some extra IELTS preparation classes. Most of the pre-sessional students complete an assessment at the end of the course which their departments accept as the equivalent of an IELTS score. This assessment takes the form of an individual research writing project in their subject area, a timed writing task, an oral presentation (on the project) and an academic discussion task, all geared towards preparing them for their studies once they arrive in their departments, hopefully in a couple of weeks' time. So although these classes and assessment are roughly 'IELTS equivalent', they're quite different in style and format.

Some students though from certain departments are required not just to complete our course, but to retake the IELTS exam and achieve a specific score. So it's these students who I've been running extra exam preparation classes for. They've all taken the exam before, so know what it's all about, but just need extra practice honing their exam skills. And I have to say, it's been a bit of an eye-opener. Although I "coached" students on exam preparation courses back when I first started teaching, it's not something that I've done for ages, and I'd forgotten just how formulaic it can all be. I've also realised just how simplistic the IELTS writing tasks are compared with what we teach them in the pre-sessional classes. I seem to have spent a lot of my time telling the IELTS students to ignore what they've been learning for the past few weeks when it comes to the IELTS exam. It feels odd to be "un-teaching" things! A lot of that is just down to the length of essay they're required to write - you can't do anything terribly fancy within 250 words. But it has made me wonder how much a reasonable IELTS score really says about a student's readiness to cope on an English-medium university course.

Labels: , ,