IATEFL Birmingham 2016: Post-talk reflections

 Conference, Teacher Development  Comments Off on IATEFL Birmingham 2016: Post-talk reflections
Apr 212016
 

‘Why write?’ was one of the questions I asked in my talk. This blog post could be titled ‘Why present?’ ‘It’s a very rewarding experience,’ I could say. But maybe we always say this when things have gone well… It’s not a very concrete or useful answer either, is it? So, here a bit more about what I think (or have heard) that went well, and what would make it (in my view) a more useful talk.

Nergiz Kern presenting

by Karen White, MaWSIG

But still, first: Why present?

It’s another way of sharing knowledge, sharing experience, it’s for teacher and career development, and all the other reasons which I listed when talking about ‘Why write’ (see the slides here). If you teach presentation skills, it also helps you appreciate what your students go through when they have to present (often in a language they are not proficient in yet).

So, it’s a good thing, which is probably why we (at least I) spent so much time preparing for it, and why we put ourselves in a situation that makes us feel nervous if we could simply be enjoying the conference…

The nerves

My talk was part of the MaWSIG Day (Materials Writing Special Interest Group) on the Friday of the conference. In fact, mine was the first talk. Fortunately, I had had the change to meet many of the attendees before, which helped immensely with being less nervous. Generally, all the attendees, when I looked at them, looked interested and nodded along, which again helped me to be relaxed throughout my talk.

The technology

There was also a person responsible for the technology, Richard, who connected my laptop to the projector and set my Keynote slides to presenter mode, who helped me with the microphone and the clicker they provided. He said he’d be ‘up there’ in the technical room (or whatever it is called) overseeing everything and I could call him if needed. I told Richard that his presence was very important to me (and the success of many other talks I’m sure) – one less thing to worry about!

The timing!

Last year at IATEFL, I attended many talks. In none of them, except maybe one, was there any or enough time for questions, which I believe are a very crucial part of a successful and rewarding presentation experience for both the presenter and the audience. Those presenters who had an exhibition stand could say – and they did – ‘If you have any (more) questions, I’ll be at the stand.’ But how about those that didn’t have this possibility?!

So, I said to myself, should I give a talk, I’ll make sure I’ll leave ten minutes for questions and comments. Twenty minutes should be long enough to get your point across. A successful talk was, in my view, not just one person who speaks to many, but should have space for interaction between the attendees and between them and the presenter.

Well, it didn’t quite work out as originally thought, and I knew it. I simply had too much to say and I agonised over where to cut the talk but couldn’t get myself doing it, except for one or two slides and minutes. I did finish exactly within the 30 minutes allocated to me and I did give the audience time to interact with each other, but there was no time for feedback and questions. And I did have to say in the end ‘You are welcome to come to the stand to ask questions or talk to me.’

I had planned four questions when I wanted the attendees to discuss them first before I presented my ideas, but I would have loved to give them more time to do this and also have time to get feedback, which I only managed ones. I know from being a participant myself that one minute for a discussion is not enough and one is asked to stop just when it gets interesting. Also, I would have loved to hear what they had to say and add to my own ideas. The one person whose feedback to the question ‘Why write?’ we managed to hear was ‘One important reason for writing is missing on your slide: for the LOVE of it!’ This to me was such a great addition to my ideas. And I’m sure, had we had time, we’d have heard more great contributions, particularly as my audience was about half experienced authors (some of whom had already published books) and half ‘inexperienced’, who were there because they wanted to start writing. There were also editors of magazines, as I would later find out.

Anticipating that there wouldn’t be sufficient time for interaction, feedback, and questions, I had prepared a Google document with the questions and shared it with the audience at the beginning, but nobody added anything to it. This could be because they couldn’t access it this quickly, they didn’t want to contribute in writing, there was simply no time to write anything there and follow the talk.

What’s the solution then? To cut the talk? Maybe often it is. With my talk, I think the solution would have been to have submitted it as a workshop rather than talk, which would have given us 15 more minutes for discussions, questions, and comments and would have made it a real learning experience for all sides.

The rewarding bits

I actually enjoyed standing there and presenting to my audience and felt much less nervous than I thought I might be.

After the talk, some people told  me they liked the talk and it motivated them, some did asked questions. Some even came to the stand to talk about my presentation.

Very unexpectedly, two editors, who were in the audience, said it was a lovely talk and whether I’d like to write it up for their publication! So, one suggestion I could add to my slide on ‘How to start writing’ is: give a presentation and then write it up for a blog post or an article!

IATEFL Birmingham 2016: Planning

 Conference, Teacher Development  Comments Off on IATEFL Birmingham 2016: Planning
Apr 012016
 

Soon it’s IATEFL Conference time again. This year will be my second time there, after following it online or a couple of years. It’s going to be a special one as it is the 50th anniversary of the IATEFL Conference.

Last year, I attended the conference in Manchester, where they ‘caught’ me and my colleague when saying hi to other attendees who we’d worked with previously.

Like last year, I’ll be there again in different roles: as a teacher, as a freelance editor and materials developer/writer, and as a team member of English360.

I don’t like big gatherings and find it very exhausting, but at the same time, I really enjoyed meeting some people face-to-face who I had known online for many years. It also is a very intensive week of professional development. I particular found the MaWSIG (Materials Writing Special Interest Group) PCE (Pre Conference Event) very useful and it’s the one I look most forward to this year.

This year, I’m also going to give a talk myself on ‘How to start writing for publication: a teacher’s personal journey’, which will take place on Friday, 15 April at 10.25 in Hall 9.

To make the most of the conference, I’ve been reading through the programme and trying to choose the talks and workshops on topics that I’m most interested in, but I’m finding this very difficult, because in my different roles, I’m interested in many different things from EAP/ESP to technology, to writing materials. And there is hardly a talk that I want to attend that doesn’t collide with another one that I’d also like to hear, as there are so many presentations that take place in parallel.

What helps a bit is that some sessions are recorded, so I can watch these at home after the conference. IATEFL Online is a fantastic resource for during the conference, particularly for those who cannot be at the conference, and after the conference to catch up on what one has missed. Online participants can also participate in online discussions and can even blog about the sessions they ‘attended’.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 17.14.20

 

 

 

Grammar in EAP pre-sessional courses: What to teach?

 EAP, Teacher Development  Comments Off on Grammar in EAP pre-sessional courses: What to teach?
Jun 152015
 

Introduction

EAP pre-sessional courses focus mostly on academic skills and culture. Their is no grammar-based syllabus. Grammar is taught where and when it is needed. But what is this grammar? What do students who will be studying at a UK university need to know? If you asked the students, they wouldn’t mind reviewing ALL “the grammar”. That is what many are familiar with and what is somehow “tangible”. But it’s neither possible nor useful to do that. It’s not possible because there is no time. And it’s not very useful, because grammar practice or knowledge in isolation is not going to get them very far when they have to write academic essays, participate in seminar discussions, or present research findings. And often it is not that students don’t “know” grammar (such as the modal verbs), but they need to learn to use these in an academic context (e.g. modals for hedging). So, how do we decide which grammar points to teach or review in the limited time we have in a pre-sessional course?
Alison Ramage, an online colleague and friend of mine, who also teaches pre-sessional EAP courses, did some research on this for her MA dissertation. She has kindly accepted my invitation to write a blog post about this, which follows:


Teaching on a university pre-sessional can be both challenging and fun, that´s why we´re all here, doing it!  However with so much demanded in such little time, it can also be massively frustrating. With so many students coming from cultures that have completely different academic styles to us in the West, more time has to be spent on skills other than just being able to write clear, precise academic English. Thus, what we think of as traditional English language skills, such as grammar, are often given very scant attention. In the first pre-sessional I taught on, only two hours a week were allocated for grammar instruction and the topic was at the teachers´ discretion. Given such little time, who was I, or even how was I, to decide what grammar would be the most useful for my students in their university careers? It was this question that lead me, a couple of years later, to my MA question and a final dissertation entitled “A Taxonomy of Grammar Items to Support the Academic Writing of Arabic and Chinese L1 Students”

It´s not a title we´re ever going to see on the bestseller lists, but my intention was to create a list of the most useful grammar items that we can teach our Chinese and Arabic students. Items which have a high surrender value and which the students can see are immediately useful for their writing. Something that I hoped would be practically useful rather than theoretically interesting. My decision to focus on Chinese and Arabic students was not difficult; these two language groups not only form a considerable number of our students, if not the majority, but also they have similarities which make academic writing in English difficult for them. Obviously there are the issues of orthography and grammar, but there are also differences in academic rhetorical style which impact on the way these L1 groups use the English language.

To reach the answers to my research question I had to find the answers to several other questions first:

Firstly, through the literature:

  1. What grammatical items are typical of, and identify, written academic English?
  2. Which of these identified grammatical features of written academic English are likely to be especially problematic for Arabic and Chinese L1 learners of English to assimilate?Once this group of grammar items had been identified I undertook discourse analysis on texts from each language group to answer the third research question:
  3. How well, if at all, do students from these language groups show competence in using these grammar items?

By working through this process in a scholarly and rigorous way I hoped to provide information that is both theoretically sound and practically useful.

So, briefly, the answers:

1. The grammatical items which are typical of, and identify, written academic can be considered as follows:

  • Articles:  In particular the zero article for generalizations, uncountable nouns and plural countable nouns.
  • Verb tenses:  Although there is no clear conclusion about which particular verb tenses are the most important, research suggests that clear use of past and present simple, together with the present perfect are the most useful
  • Passive voice:  While still not as prevalent as the active voice in academic writing, its use is significantly greater than in other genres. Being a competent user of the passive voice will enable students greater flexibility and thus precision in their writing.
  • Nouns (nominalization):  A higher proportion of nouns in relation to verbs is a clear identifier of academic writing, and again, being able to use nouns and create compound nouns flexibly will enable students to deal with the high density of information that is often required in written academic English.
  • Modals:  “Hedging” which is a common feature of written academic English genres of writing is created by appropriate use of the modals of certainty.
  • Subordinate clauses:  In particular ‘wh’ clauses are common in English academic writing, both in subject and object positions as their complexity allows for the handling of greater quantities of information which is often required in written academic English.
  • be+copula”:  While this verb form has been identified as being over-used in higher levels of academic writing, creating a too simplistic text,  it is a basic structure for giving information in English.  Thus, it needs to be considered as something to be learned and used appropriately.

2. Those of the above which are likely to be especially problematic for Chinese and Arabic speakers:

  • Articles:  Of all the identified features of written academic English, these appeared most frequently in the literature and seemed to produce the most problems, even for students at a higher level.  Particular difficulty was noted with the zero article for general use which is that aspect of article use most closely identified with written academic English.
  • Subordinate clauses: Because of the totally differing ways of constructing this type of clause in both Arabic and Chinese, combined with its importance in academic writing, subordinate clauses do need to feature on the list for analysis.
  • Passives: Although there is some debate about how useful these are in written academic English, there is general agreement that being able to use the passive when required is a valuable linguistic skill for academic prose.  Both Chinese and Arabic deal with this type of construction in a different way from English, so this voice should also feature on the list for analysis.
  • Verb tenses.  While there is no doubt that verb tenses generally cause a great many  problems for all learners of English as well as for Chinese and Arabic L1 users, accurate use of the present and past simple are the most useful for written academic English
  • Modals for hedging. Although there is very little mention of this structure as being difficult for either language group because it features strongly as typical of written academic English, it will feature on the list for analysis.
  • Be+copula:  At lower language levels for both Chinese and Arabic L1s, this grammar feature was seen as being particularly problematic.  While evidence suggests an overuse among higher level users, it is still a grammar feature that needs to be mastered in order to communicate clearly in written academic English.
  • Nouns:  While a higher frequency of nouns and the use of compound nouns does form one of the major features of written academic English it has not been given as being a grammar feature of particular difficulty to Chinese and Arabic L1s.  That said, compound nouns are considered to be one of the most difficult aspects of English grammar.  For these reasons, noun use was not analyzed.

3. The question which drove this research project was ‘what are the most useful grammar items that can be taught to Arabic and Chinese learners of English to support them in their written academic English?’. Through an extensive review of the literature and practical quantitative discourse analysis a taxonomy of these items has now been identified and is given below in order of interest. The first may surprise you, it certainly surprised me when it came out in the discourse analysis.

  • Modals for hedging were used very rarely by the students yet this language form is a key feature in English academic writing. The lack of precision in expressing degree of certainty can “affect the impact of the argument, and how the academic competence of the writer is evaluated.”
  • A limited variety of verbs were used by many students; this came out of looking at the use of nouns by the students. Being dependent on a narrow range of items, in this case, verbs, indicates a lack of flexibility and precision with the language which can also affect how the academic competence of the writer is evaluated.
  • Subordinate clauses and passive structures were used but only by students who felt confident about producing them and then only infrequently.
  • The use of the zero article for generalizations, uncountable and plural countable nouns was, overall, not very accurate.  While this may not impact too much on the overall communicative competence, a higher accuracy rate would undoubtedly improve the quality of the texts.
  • Verb tenses and be+copula structures were generally produced at an adequate level of accuracy although there was room for improvement in the student texts.

The aim of my research was to provide something of pedagogical value to pre-sessional courses at universities where there are often considerable time pressures. Thus the taxonomy needs to have a high surrender value for the students and be manageable for the course planners. Thus, my recommendations are as follows:

  • Introduce the concept of hedging very early on in the course.  Students at this level should have a basic familiarity of the uses of ‘may’ and ‘might’ but may not be familiar with the convention of hedging in academic written English.
  • Include regular vocabulary input sessions to expand the students’ range of verbs.  These verbs can either be taken from an ‘academic word list’ appropriate to the course or from disciplines that the students will be studying in their faculties.
  • Passive structures and subordinate clauses should both have special input sessions focusing on their use in an academic context.  These should also be timetabled for early in the course so that the forms can be practiced and acquired by the end of the course.
  • Verb tenses and be+copula structures do not merit specific input sessions unless there is either time available on the course or the teacher notices these as particular weaknesses in the students’ first written assignments.

I very much hope that these few simple ideas will help you with planning your pre-sessional, if you would like to read, or skim through, the full dissertation please feel free to send me an email.


The Author

After careers in Publishing, Politics and the City, Alison Ramage Patterson started her TEFL career rather late in life in 2001 with a CELTA at IH London. After working in countries as diverse as Russia, Spain, Malaysia and Kazakhstan she completed her DELTA in 2009 followed by some years working in Saudi Arabia. During her time in Saudi Arabia she developed a specialism in EAP, with particular emphasis on writing. She has designed and facilitated EAP courses for the British Council in Jeddah. During this time she also taught on pre-sessionals in the UK. Now based in Menorca, Spain, she divides her time between materials writing, online teaching and language support, and face to face lessons.

 

How to NOT set up a role-play if your students have smartphones

 EAP, ESP&EdTech, Teacher Development, Technology  Comments Off on How to NOT set up a role-play if your students have smartphones
May 082015
 

There’s is a very nice role-play activity which our coordinator shared with me in my first year teaching a pre-sessional summer EAP course and which I like to use with my students in the last speaking lesson of the course (unfortunately, I don’t remember the book it comes from).  It’s fun, but also very useful as the role-play situations are authentic: student and librarian, student and accommodation officer, student and head of department, etc. There are no scripts. For each role, there is a role description, which they have to read carefully. Then, the pairs can sit together and prepare their role-play deciding who says what.

However, I didn’t like how students wrote down the complete dialog and tried to memorise and act it out. The dialogues were hilarious and we all had a great time, students did use the language well and it was speaking practise. But it didn’t feel authentic and it didn’t really show how good students where when they had to reply spontaneously. So, I changed the preparation part a bit the following year: I didn’t tell the students who their partners would be! This way, they could prepare for their role, but they would have to listen carefully to what the other person was saying and they would have to react spontaneously. Ingenious! Or so I thought.

When I had given each student their role-play card making sure pairs were not sitting next to each other, I started monitoring and helping where necessary. But I noticed that something was going on; the students had all started using their smartphones. First, I thought they were looking up words in their dictionaries, but that wasn’t it. When I asked them what they were doing, they said they had found their partners and where preparing their role-plays! I felt like a fool! We all laughed about my failed attempt to set up the role-play with surprise partners 🙂 I asked them to switch off their phones, so a bit of the surprise element was there in the role-plays. It was a lot of fun, as usual, but they could also show their real speaking skills. So, I had saved the situation, but learned a lesson too.

This happened a couple of years ago. Although, I was aware of social media apps and was using some tools myself, and although I knew that students were sometimes messaging during class, it didn’t occur to me that they would use it as they did for this role-play task. For them, it was the most natural thing to do, though.

Why I wanted to share this story

– We often discuss which tools we use in class and which we don’t, or even whether we use technology in class at all or not, but there is also the students and the technology THEY use. We need to be at least aware of how they use their tools they bring to class, whether it’s their electronic dictionaries, or their smartphones and tablets.

– Even teachers who like to use technology and who train other teachers in using technology can make mistakes. But it’s hardly ever a disaster as long as one has good rapport with the students and talks about these things in class.

What I learned from this

Since then, I’ve always shown more interest in what kind of apps my students have on their phones and we talk about this at the beginning of the course. Since then, I also try to manage the use of smartphones in class better by, for example, telling them at different stages to put away their smartphones (even if they insists they need the dictionary!). Am I always successful? No! But I’ve come to terms with this. If I see how teachers or other professionals “multitask” or chat with others during conferences webinars, or meetings (including myself) and “claim” this helps them focus, I don’t think I need to manage my students’ use of technology one hundred percent.

 

Do you have a story to share about a “failed” attempt to manage your class due to technology? What happened? How did you react? How did your students react? What did you get out of it?

Apr 302015
 

Let’s say you have thought about your reasons to write, and you want to get started. But how do you start?

I guess the best scenario is that you already feel the urge to share something with a wider circle of people than your immediate environment (family, staffroom, local association), rather than “just” the wish to write without knowing what about.

But even if you know what you want to write about, it can feel like a daunting task if you’ve never written for the “public”. So, how do you start?

Writing for teacher development

In my case, I started by taking notes for myself in private. Writing needs practice and this is a “non-threatening” way of doing it as there is no public.

Then, I started taking notes on my lessons and sharing lessons plans publicly on my first professional blog about my experiences of teaching in the 3D virtual world Second Life. Blogging is a wonderful way of starting writing publicly. The posts can be short, they can be informal and personal. Some people like writing guest posts on other people’s blogs without committing themselves to their own; others might find it easier to write on their own as they can decide what the style will be, the length, the topics, etc. A third option is to write for blogs of publishing houses, online magazines, and similar.

The next, bigger step would be to write an article for submission to a magazine or journal. I would assume it’s easier to write for a professional magazine, as it doesn’t need to be academic, and they will accept shorter pieces as well. Many start by writing book reviews or submitting lesson plans and similar.
A great way of making this task easier is to write a series of blog posts on a topic and then combine these and rewrite for an article in a professional magazine. I did this with my blog posts about teaching in Second Life — my first published article in a print magazine!
I have also rewritten some of my MA assignments for publication, for example, my article on using podcasts in an English course for taxi drivers. Like with the blog post series, it makes the task easier because it’s already written. But it needs to be rewritten for a different audience, which can mean making it less academic or less formal, using fewer sources, shortening the text, adding new sections, removing others, etc.

For book chapters, you can do the same as for articles, but they might need to be more academic; therefore, it might be easier to rewrite dissertations rather than blog posts, because the former will already have references. In book chapters, they also often want some results, some kind of research with outcomes. In most cases, there will be a call for chapters to which you can submit your proposal and if they accept, you write the full chapter. For my first short book chapter, I have rewritten my MA assignment about the taxi driver course for a book on Blended Learning. You can compare it with the one for the magazine in the paragraph above to see how they are different (length, style, formality, images, etc.)
I have also written a longer book chapter completely from scratch based on an editorial brief about technology-integrated ESP lessons.  This has been the most challenging one for me so far.

The next step would be to write a complete (e)book, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon 😉 But I’ve edited quite a few written by others.

Although it might sound very daunting to write articles and book chapters, the great thing is that, in both cases, you will have editors who help you improve your draft, so you are not alone in the process.
Writing to share my experience has been a great experience for me. And when what you write is published in a magazine or book and people appreciate it, it feels like a great achievement and motivates me to do better work.

Writing course materials

Just like when writing for teacher development purposes, writing course materials was a gradual process for me and probably is more many. I can’t think of any example where a teacher who has never written anything would suddenly start writing a whole coursebook. Let me know if you know one 🙂

So, it usually goes something like this (which is how it has been for me):

  • write some extra exercises for your students
  • write extra activities to go with a coursebook unit
  • substitute some coursebook activities
  • write whole worksheets
  • substitute a whole coursebook unit with more relevant content and tasks
  • write a complete course or set of materials for your students with special needs (EAP, ESP, etc.)
  • share lesson plans, worksheets, or courses you have written publicly on your blog (SLexperiments), or a special course website (English for taxi drivers, English citiy planners)
  • write for someone else (a school, publisher, online lesson plan banks, etc.)

Writing course materials for others is still a very new experience for me  and so is the logical (?) next step: editing the work of other writers. But it’s exciting and I’m learning a lot in the process.

Where are you in your writing journey and where would you like to be?

Why I had stopped writing and why I started again

 Teacher Development  Comments Off on Why I had stopped writing and why I started again
Apr 302015
 

Like many others who have a blog, I have phases when I blog a lot and phases (months!) when I don’t. The last phase was quite long. One reason, as often, was that I’ve been working a lot. But to be honest, I could still have found time to write a blog post now and then. So, it was a bit lack of motivation, lack of inspiration, and having my focus elsewhere.

Now, I decided to get back to writing again — blog posts and articles —  for several reasons:

  • At the IATEFL conference in Manchester, a teacher from Russia said she had been reading my blog. I was chuffed and it made me want to write again.
  • At the same conference, Cleve Miller from english360.com and I were telling Gary Motteram from the University of Manchester about a project we’ve been working on, and Gary said that this sounded great, but that nobody was writing about their work. So, I thought it was time again to do this.
  • I’ve also been told by several teacher trainers and teachers (face to face, on Twitter, by email), that they like my article in the Blended Learning book or that it is popular with trainees. I was chuffed again and decided it was after all worth putting in these extra hours to write about the work I’ve been doing.
  • I’ve started thinking of the next pre-sessional EAP course and the things I might want to try out this year, or do better. So, I thought it would be good to first write down what I’ve done so far. Which leads to the next point…
  • Writing about my work also helps me reflect on my work, whether it’s a course I’ve written, technology I’ve used, or anything else I’ve done in the classroom. So, it’s good for teacher development.
  • And, of course, writing can be one way of developing one’s career.

So, as I have some downtime now and I feel that inspiration is coming back, I wanted to get started right away. My first steps:

  1. I made a list of topics that I’d like to blog about.
  2. I wrote my first blog post yesterday and am writing this one now 🙂
  3. I contacted the editor of a professional magazine and suggested an article, and she told me to go ahead and write it.

What are your reasons for writing (or not)?
How do you motivate yourself to write?

Read also: How to get started with writing

Apr 292015
 

I posted this on Facebook yesterday:

FB status update

I like the work I do and this is one reason why I tend to work a lot. As I also usually work on many different things, there’s always something to do, it never gets boring. For several years now, I’ve also been working during the summers, teaching on pre-sessional courses (which I love doing, but that’s another blog post). When I take off time to go on holiday with my family, it’s usually more a change of location/office for me, with reduced hours of work, but never without any. That’s how it’s been for some time now and it’s been good actually, as I can be in nice locations any time I want as long as there is internet access, and I don’t have to worry about work not being done, not earning an income, etc. A dream!
On the downside of it, I haven’t had any real time off for very long and I seem to have lost the ability to do nothing… or so I thought.

This year, we are in our lovely timeshare flat again, which has got thermal water in the bathroom and is situated in a lovely village where cows eat grass and wild flowers on the pasture and produce the fattest, tastiest milk, where the eggs and vegetables are organic, the cheese is made of the tastiest …, where you can walk in surrounding hills and collect tea leaves… You get the idea. AND, for once, this is at a time when I don’t have much to do as some projects have just finished and others are not urgent.

Sheep IMG_0188

So, I was sitting on the balcony yesterday and suddenly realised that I still am able to do nothing! Hence the Facebook update above 🙂 And I noticed how good it actually is not to be doing anything (work-related).

Then, when I wasn’t doing anything or thinking of anything particular again later (yes, I’m enjoying this now), I suddenly had lots of ideas pop into my mind — work-related ideas! Ideas for new projects, for new blog posts, etc. So, after all, it seems that doing nothing actually means doing a lot.

Now, back to counting the shades of green… or the sheep…

 

In the meantime, when and where do you have your moments of doing “nothing”?

You can leave a comment here or write on your own blog and share the link in a comment.

What are difficult circumstances in teaching?

 Learners, Teacher Development  Comments Off on What are difficult circumstances in teaching?
Apr 232015
 

1500x1500-abstract-dfg4001I attended two plenary sessions at IATEFL in Manchester. One was good; and my simple criteria for this is that it made me think. The other one was a complete disappointment… This is maybe why I didn’t go to the one by Harry Kuchah. But lying in bed with a cold and not able to do much work, I thought I could spare an hour and watch the recording. I’m glad I did. Kuchah’s talk or, as he calls it, story is definitely worth watching and listening to.

He starts out by giving definitions from the literature of what “difficult circumstances” generally means (30-50 students in one class, few resources, …). Then, he shows us images that show what his difficult circumstances were (200 or more students in one class, no materials, no facilities, …). Adapting to the difficult local teaching and learning circumstances, he managed to get what we, in more “privileged” circumstances (meaning smaller class sizes, lots of resources, technology in the classroom, etc.) hope to achieve in our classrooms: learner autonomy, real collaboration, student-teacher partnership, authentic materials, responsibility for one’s own learning, sharing, etc.

He also talks about how he took what he learned during his MA studies in the UK and applied it to the local circumstances and how he has helped other teachers make the best of their circumstances. His research and the research “community” of teachers and students he built is remarkable. It shows how when teachers (and students) are involved in research and when teacher development takes into consideration local circumstances, it all becomes more meaningful and real change takes place. I suggest you watch the recording for details on his research and the outcomes. Again, just like above with what he achieved in the classroom, the outcome of his training sessions and his research is just as relevant for us as for those teachers in the local context of Cameroon.

I am truly impressed and inspired by Kuchah’s achievements. However, one thought that also kept popping up in my head was this: I wonder sometimes whose circumstances are more difficult? Sometimes, I look at students such as those of Harry Kuchah and envy their teachers as the students seem so motivated. To me not having technology or coursebooks is not that challenging. I like working with the language (needs) that emerge in the classroom from the students. I’d find the large class sizes very challenging, I admit. But I think the main challenge we have in many “better off” countries is learner motivation. If learners are motivated (and teachers, obviously), I feel, other problems can be overcome more easily.

Anyway, take the time and watch the full story: I wanted to embed the video, but it doesn’t seem to be allowed. You can watch it here.
(At the same link, you can also download the slides and handouts.)

 

Turnitin as a formative feedback tool

 EAP, Teacher Development  Comments Off on Turnitin as a formative feedback tool
Sep 262013
 

Light-painting-kol

Light Painting — by Kolossos (Own Work)

When I was a Master’s student at the university, Turnitin® was used in one course as a plagiarism detection tool. We had to submit our assignment via Blackboard, and it was automatically checked by Turnitin. At the end of the process, I was provided with an “originality” report that showed me the percentage of potentially plagiarised text (0% … phew!).

How I used it with my students

Last year, I read an article on how some teachers had used Turnitin in a university EAP course. I was eager to try it out myself. So, I was very happy that we had access to Turnitin for the first time in our course this year.

When I introduced Turnitin to my students and told them we would be using it, they looked very apprehensive; and later, in the computer lab, some were very nervous about the result for their essay even if few would have serious plagiarism issues reported as I knew from looking at their previous drafts. This is possibly an indication that they are not always aware about issues of insufficient referencing and paraphrasing in their essays and think they might have plagiarised unintentionally.

In the teacher’s meeting, we had agreed that we would use Turnitin to give students formative feedback. So, in the tutorial session following the submission of the drafts to Turnitin, I sat down with each students individually and we examined the report together.

Initially, some students’ report showed a high percentage of plagiarised text, but this figure was not very indicative. We had to use the filter to exclude the bibliography and exclude a set number of words in a string that we wanted to exclude (4-5). The latter is useful when a student has used many typical set phrases such as “based on these results, it can be concluded that…” or “The results of this study show that…” Quotations that were placed correctly between quotation marks could also be excluded. Once the filter was applied, the percentage went down considerably.

However, even now, the result could not be taken as is and needed further inspection. So, together with the student, we scrolled through the text and stopped whenever Turnitin indicated a possible plagiarised or insufficiently paraphrased section and decided whether it was really problematic or not, and talked about how to remedy it.** I sent all reports to the students via email so that they could look at their analysed text again and try to improve their drafts before submitting the final versions.** Similar procedures were used by Barrett & Malcom (2006) and Davis and Carroll (2009).

After the course and my initial experience, I felt I needed to read up on this topic a bit more. Here’s a brief summary of my readings:

Why do students plagiarise?

There are many reasons why students plagiarise, some of which are that:

Many students now use the Internet to do research. There is so much information readily available and  technology makes it easy to copy and paste text into their essays (Sagave, 2004).

Some students, particularly international students, plagiarise unintentionally, due to lack of knowledge how to reference correctly, inadequate language to paraphrase or summarise, or cultural difference in attitudes to citing (Wette, 2010; Barrett and Malcom, 2006; Lake, 2004).

How to help students

Just telling students about plagiarism and showing them how to cite is not enough. Advice should be personalised. Students become more aware of the problem when it is applied to their own assessed writing (Barrett & Malcom, 2006). Telling students that their work will be submitted to a plagiarism detection software can be a deterrent  (Barrett & Malcom, 2006, Sagave, 2004) when it comes to intentional plagiarism, but it will not help students who have problems with referencing and paraphrasing. This is why

Using the tool on its own, without adopting a range of measures to ensure a holistic and supportive institutional framework, is not good practice and could threaten both students’ engagement with their learning and their relationship with the institution. (Carroll, 2005: 8)

Hyland (2001) suggests that oral feedback might be clearer and more helpful to students than written feedback when discussing plagiarism issues and Gardner (2004 in Davis and Carrol, 2009) argues that spoken feedback is better suited for formative purposes.

Davis and Carroll (2009) report that “tutorial feedback appeared to have a positive effect on students’ understanding of academic integrity reflected in improved drafts” in their study and so Turnitin could be used as one means to teach students about plagiarism, how to cite and paraphrase correctly, and also to highlight over-reliance on few sources.

So, the oral formative feedback approach we have taken in our course was the right way to go about using Turnitin with our international students.

How Turnitin can help teachers

As it is a serious offense, teachers are often reluctant to directly accuse students of plagiarising (Hyland, 2001). But when they are presented with the colour-coded originality report, they cannot deny it (Barrett & Malcom, 2006).

Previously, when I came across a sentence or paragraph in a student’s work that I thought could have been copied from a source, I would copy the passage into Google and search for it. This was often effective but time-consuming. Also, the moment when students substituted some of the words, this approach did not always work.

Turnitin is better at identifying copied text that has gaps or in which some words have been replaced by synonyms (Davis & Carroll, 2009). It is also much faster in checking a text than the “Google approach”.

Concerns

Automatic results of Turnitin (and I assume other such software) can only show possible plagiarism so teachers and students need to inspect the results, apply filters (as described above) and discuss problematic sections to make the tool really useful as a means to educate students (Barnett and Malcom, 2006). This can, however, become very time-consuming (Sagave, 2004).

There is also the danger that students who are allowed to see their reports and resubmit their drafts to Turnitin, can learn, with time, how to manipulate copied text so that Turnitin does not flag it as possible plagiarism anymore (Davis and Carroll, 2009).

Another issue is with copyright and privacy. Particularly postgrad students seem to be averse to submitting their work to Turnitin because the software adds each submitted work to their database (Savage, 2004).

One problem I had read about related to the previous point was that one can submit student work only once because when resubmitted it would all show up as plagiarised as the text was added to the Turnitin’s database. However, we found out that this was not the case automatically. When my students resubmitted their work, Turnitin showed the new result with a lower percentage of copied text.

A more serious problem is that Turnitin apparently only has access to websites but not to electronic or printed books (Sagave, 2004), which would limit its usability considerably.

Conclusion

Personally, I liked using Turnitin with my students as a formative feedback tool besides other ways of helping them learn about plagiarism  and referencing. As always there are limits to what a tool can do on its own. This is where the teacher’s experience and pedagogical knowledge comes into play. A pedagogical sound method of using Turnitin is to provide students with individual formative feedback using the originality report (Davis & Caroll, 2000) rather than using it for a ‘catch-and-punish’ approach (Carroll, 2005).

Other resources

Turnitin offers some information on how to best use the software on their website. There are also links to webinars and a link to this plagiarism website, which might be useful in class.

UPDATE (2015)

** This year (2015) we were informed that it is against the University’s Turnitin policy to actually show/send students their reports. I assume this is because they might learn how to change sentences with issues so that Turnitin doesn’t recognise them as plagiarised anymore.

 

References

Barrett, R., & Malcolm, J. (2006). Embedding plagiarism education in the assessment process. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 2(1), 38-45. Available at: http://www.ojs.unisa.edu.au/index.php/IJEI/article/view/23/18 [Accessed 1 September 2013]

Carroll, J. (2005). Available at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/plagFinal.pdf [Accessed 31 August 2013]

Davis, M. and Carroll, J. (2009) Formative feedback within plagiarism education: Is there a role for text-matching software? International Journal for Educational Integrity, 5(2), 58–70. Available at: http://www.ojs.unisa.edu.au/index.php/IJEI/article/view/614/471 [Accessed 17 Septermer 2013]

Hyland, F. (2001). Dealing with plagiarism when giving feedback. ELT Journal, 55(4)

October, 375–381.

Lake, J. (2004). EAP writing: the Chinese challenge; new Ideas on Plagiarism. Humanising Language Teaching, 6(1), online. Available at: http://www.hltmag.co.uk/jan04/mart4.htm [Accessed 20 September 2013]

Savage, Sh. (2004). Staff and Student Responses to a Trial of Turnitin Plagiarism Detection Software. Proceedings of the Australian Universities Quality Forum 2004, 150-155. Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.117.9504&rep=rep1&type=pdf [Accessed 20 September 2013]

Wette, R. (2010). Evaluating student learning in a university-level EAP unit on writing using sources. Journal of Second Language Writing, 19, 158–177.

Cut off from knowledge

 Teacher Development  Comments Off on Cut off from knowledge
Sep 252013
 
uplink down

Uplink Down — by Small_Realm (flickr)

Two weeks ago, towards the end of the summer EAP course I was teaching, I walked into the staff room and as usual logged on to the Internet from my iPad to check my email: Failed! …Hm, I must’ve mistyped my password; try again… Failed!… Typed very carefully… … Failed! … Now, this was getting annoying…. I tried logging on from a networked computer: This account has expired!

Suddenly it hit me. A week ago, I had applied for the graduate library card they gave to alumni. This triggered my “expulsion” from the system as a student. I had graduated a while back and was expecting this but not before finishing the summer course as I also had access to the system as a member of staff. I was so unprepared to be so suddenly cut off that I felt tears coming up … Yes, I know, I didn’t expect that either.

I had had access to all library resources including e-books and journals for more than three years. When I saw a reference mentioned somewhere, I could go and check it out, and download it if it was interesting. And now I was suddenly cut off from all of this knowledge!

Once I had recovered from the initial feelings of loss and sadness, I went to IT services, who kindly gave me emergency access for two weeks, which I used to make a list of topics I was interested in and search for and download related articles, chapters, and e-books. This made me feel much happier for the moment, but I knew it wouldn’t last for long. And although I got another extension until October, I will be cut off, in the end, from most electronic resources (As a graduate, I do retain some access to electronic articles via JSTOR  and to the physical library when I’m in Manchester).

Importance of Open-Access

This made me realise how important open-access journals are, and I started bookmarking those of interest to me in Diigo (my open-access tagged bookmarks. Here is what I have got so far:

There is also the Directory of Open Access Journals, which lists (as the name suggests) open access journals.

Journals suggested by colleagues:

 

Can you help me expand my list?