The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Saturday, August 30, 2014


It's not every day that I go to work in an abaya and hijab, but last week I spent 4 days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia giving professional development workshops to English teachers on the female campus at King Saud University. I have to admit to a little trepidation before the trip and I didn't know quite what to expect, but in the end, apart from the heat, the early starts and the Riyadh traffic, it turned out to be a really rewarding experience.

Students at the university spend a year studying English as part of a preparatory programme, so it's a large department with more than 200 English teachers on the female campus alone; an amazing mix of nationalities, some from the region, others from further afield. Many of them are very well qualified and all are keen to develop their professional skills further. So the workshops were fun and lively with lots of great ideas coming from the teachers. I was there with a colleague (on behalf of OUP) as part of the start-of-year teacher induction, giving orientation sessions to the books they'd be using through the year (New Headway Plus, Headway Academic Skills and Q Skills).

As we chatted to the teachers and the PD team, it was really interesting to build up a picture of what English teaching at university level is like in Saudi Arabia. It soon became clear that whilst very well resourced in terms of staff, training opportunities and facilities, the teachers still face quite a challenge matching expectations to reality.

The intake of students seems to be very varied, from the high-achieving, highly-motivated girls with almost native-speaker levels of English who are going on to study Medicine, largely through the medium of English, to those who arrive with little or no English (despite supposedly 7 years of English at school) who are going onto courses where they are unlikely to use much English and who have, perhaps unsurprisingly, very low levels of motivation. Yet the expectation is that by the end of the year all students will have reached a good B2 level and be ready for academic study in English.

It's a situation that I've heard about in several countries - and one that is apparently becoming more common as institutions across the world switch to English-medium instruction - but this was the first time I'd come across it first hand. It's clearly a challenge not just for teachers, managers and curriculum development teams on the ground, but for the ELT industry as a whole, including materials writers like myself. So all in all, it was not just a fascinating experience, meeting lots of lovely people, but also provided plenty of food for thought as I head into the autumn back at my desk.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Time-consuming tech: Jing for student feedback

Last summer, I went to a talk by Russell Stannard about using screencast software, Jing, to give feedback on student writing. I loved the idea, but didn’t have time to download it and try it out at the time. Last week though, I led a week of teacher training workshops on teaching writing skills (part of the ELT summer seminar at Exeter College, Oxford) which seemed like the perfect opportunity to give it a go.

At the end of the first session on Monday, I asked all the trainees to email me a short piece of writing; a profile of themselves in 50-100 words. The plan was to give each of them feedback using Jing in time for the session on 'giving feedback on writing' scheduled for Thursday.

For those of you who haven’t come across screencasts before, it’s really very simple. You download a free piece of software. You can then open the student’s writing on screen and record a short (five minutes max.) video of what you’re doing on screen, i.e. correcting/highlighting issues in the student’s text, along with an audio commentary. When you finish, the software creates a link which you can send to the student and they just click on this to view the screen cast. Here’s an example, it’s a mock-up rather than a real student text, but you’ll get the idea:

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It’s a fantastic way of giving feedback because it gives the student the sense of really personal attention from the teacher and so will hopefully have much more impact than standard written feedback, which let’s face it, tends to get ignored. It also gives you more flexibility to chat and explain things that you just never including writing and to emphasize what are significant issues to focus on. So what’s not to love?

Well … although the actual recording doesn’t take long (in this case, I used an average of 2-3 minutes) and the process isn’t complicated, it did end up being much more time-consuming than I’d expected just going through all the steps needed:

  • open the student’s email and save the document to my computer
  •  open the document and read through the text to get an initial idea of the standard and what to give feedback on
  •  record the screencast
  • download the link and paste it at the end of the document
  •  add any extra brief text comments in the margin to remind students of the voice comments
  •  save the revised document
  •  compose an email to the student including the link and attaching the revised document - although I composed a standard message which I sent to all students, the emails had to be sent separately, checking carefully that each had the correct link and attachment!

With practice, I got the whole process down to around 15 minutes per student, but with 27 in all it took over five hours! Compared with probably 1-1½ if I'd done it old-school style with pen and paper. It ended up taking every spare minute I had over those few days and I absolutely cursed the whole stupid idea!

Having said that, the response I got from the trainees when we looked at it was really positive and did make it feel worthwhile. Lessons learned though … it’s definitely not a technique to use with large numbers of students. If I was going to use it again it would be:

  •  feedback on group writing tasks (with only say 4 or 5 texts to look at per class)
  •  individual feedback, but only for a small handful of students each week, so that everyone gets their turn over the duration of the course
  • for whole class feedback, with one recording for the whole class, or perhaps for something I didn’t have time to finish in class (à la flipped classroom)
Anyone else tried screencasts or other ways of giving voice feedback? How did you get on?

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