Monday, November 19, 2012

Academic Series - Multiculturalism in the EFL class

We language teachers know that learning a foreign language involves many different aspects. Besides mastering the structure of the language and acquiring the necessary vocabulary to be able to communicate, learners have to be exposed to other features of the language in order to assimilate it in a more holistic manner.

Among the various issues a language program should deal with, the study of culture is a very important one. As Harmer points out,

By the end of the twentieth century, English was already well on its way to becoming a genuine lingua franca, that is a language used widely for communication between people who do not share the same first (or even second) language. (HARMER, 2007, p. 13)

Therefore, teachers should keep in mind that culture and language teaching are intertwined and should not be taught separately, for twenty-first century students need to develop their international communication skills.

Nevertheless, although most teachers know the importance of addressing this topic, they tend to overlook the cultural facets a lesson may bring, and many are the reasons they encounter to justify their choice for not doing so. The most common ones are the lack of time due to the complex school syllabus and their own lack of knowledge of the topic. 

Having identified that, we two, as teacher trainers, felt motivated to conduct research on this topic in order to help other teachers become aware of their tasks as purveyors of multiculturalism and also to motivate and encourage them to explore the various cultural aspects present in their lessons.
We then realized that an important question surrounds teachers as they plan their lessons – whose culture should we address? Snow ponders that

As you consider the issue of culture in English language courses, you may tend to think first and foremost of U.S. and British culture, but with a little reflection it is clear that neither of these terms is fully satisfactory as a label for the kind of culture most closely associated with English. (SNOW, 2007, p. 205)

In the globalized culture era, taking multiculturalism into account when planning lessons is imperative. Snow also highlights that

In today’s world, the growing global role of English means that students may need to use English not only for communicating with people from English-speaking countries but also for communicating with people from many other nations and cultures. (SNOW, 2007, p. 211)

With that in mind, the first step to be followed is to spot the cultural themes a lesson may bring. Some lessons present topics in a very overt way, making it easier for teachers to explore them. Moran states that:

… explicit forms of cultural expression, such as perceptions, beliefs, values, and attitudes can be explicitly stated in oral or written form. Therefore, being able to identify any of these themes within a lesson may be the gateway to incorporate cultural subjects into the learning environment. (MORAN, 2001, p. 75)

However, some lessons don’t present evident cultural spots to be explored. That’s when the teacher should analyze them more carefully in order to set a link between the core of the lesson and the globalized world, stressing the importance of addressing and respecting cultural diversity. For instance, any grammar topic can be worked on through examples that contain multicultural information; most listening and reading comprehension tasks can be linked to the students’ personal experiences, as well as to the students’ cultural background; speaking activities can be used as opportunities to demystify stereotypes.

The use of realia

As you can see, various activities can be developed for that purpose. The use of realia, for example, is a great option, for students truly enjoy novelty. A discussion about where such an object comes from, what it’s used for, and how people from different countries would take advantage of it can be a simple but involving activity. Also, as Snow (2007, p. 209) mentions, magazines, newspapers, travel guides, maps, souvenirs are valuable resources that can be used in a variety of ways as a vehicle for allowing students to learn about the cultures of other nations.

Research projects

Another form of tackling culture is through the encouragement of research projects. Having set a link between the lesson topic and culture, the teacher can inspire students to find out more about other countries and their cultures. Students should visit the library, surf the net, and even try to meet foreigners that could share ideas with them. After conducting some research, students should present the results to their classmates or write a report about it. This experience will undoubtedly raise students’ cultural awareness, broadening their understanding of diversity and polishing their international communication skills.

Authentic materials

The printed and visual media are also of a great help when it comes to incorporating culture into the EFL lesson. Besides helping build the reading and listening skills, books, films, and radio broadcasts provide a great deal of cultural knowledge input. Thus, teachers should make use of this rich material to explore both historical and contemporary cultural and social issues.  Pairwork and groupwork activities can be designed to generate discussion about the material studied, always emphasizing the need of respecting diversity.

Critical-incident exercises

The integration of cultural themes into the lesson also plays an important role in the development of intercultural competence. Some activities are proposed by Snow (2007, p. 213) to serve that purpose. He names one of them as critical-incident exercises, which are “useful for encouraging students to be more careful and think more broadly as they interpret the behavior of people from unfamiliar cultural backgrounds.”  Critical-incident exercises consist of two basic parts:

11)    a story in which people of different cultural backgrounds have a communication problem;
22)    a discussion question that invites students to analyze the incident and attempt to arrive at a better understanding of why the problem occurred.

Snow states that

these exercises are a good springboard for discussion of cultural differences, especially differences in beliefs and values. They also help students develop a number of very basic but important intercultural communication skills and habits:
-       They help students become more consciously aware of the processes by which they interpret the behavior of foreigners;
-       They encourage students to pause and think rather than jumping rapidly to conclusions;
-       They help students build the habit of considering a broad variety of possible explanations of behavior that seems strange or problematic rather than stopping with obvious, kneejerk interpretations. (SNOW, 2007, p.213)

These are only a few suggestions on how to make culture themes present in EFL classes. As Brown (2007, p. 133) states, “a language is part of a culture, and a culture is part of a language.”  Once teachers are aware of how much culture surrounds their day-to-day classroom routines, they will be able to come up with a number of ideas on how to culturally enrich their lessons through the use of practical and straightforward activities.


BROWN, H. D. Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2007.

HARMER, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching. 4th ed. Cambridge: Pearson Longman, 2007.

MORAN, P. R. Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice. Boston: Heinle Cengage Learning, 2001.

SNOW, D. From Language Learner to Language Teacher: An introduction to teaching English as a foreign language. 1st ed. Alexandria: TESOL, 2007.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Writing - From Dread to Love

Being a writer used to be one of my greatest passions when I was a child. I always looked forward to having writing classes at school and put great effort on the stories I wrote. Unfortunately, as I grew older, things changed. As pressure over writing became greater and greater, my willingness to write dwindled. Matters became worse when I was asked to write essays in English, for I had never really had a formal education on how to write an essay in that language. As a result, I gradually stopped practicing and, consequently, I found writing to be my weakest skill to the point of feeling really insecure. That was until I took the Teachers Development Course – Writing (TDCW). Taking that course brought my confidence back and taught me much more than I had expected. Reasons for that abound, but I will focus on the ones I consider to be the most important to me.
When people take up the TDCW, they expect to be writing a lot during the course, and that is precisely what happens. Part of the learning process is made through extensive writing, which makes people feel more comfortable and the process more natural. Much of my insecurity came from the fact that I had never really taken the time to practice my English writing. Once I started making that a routine, writing started to become a familiar process until I was accustomed to the methodologies. Moreover, I was taught the nuances and peculiarities of the different kinds of essays, which refined the various aspects of what is expected from a good writer. Therefore, through continuously writing, questioning my results and rewriting, I was able to polish and strengthen my skills.
Since the course is aimed to teachers, one of the most important aspects of the subject is peer correction, and I do believe it to be one of the most amazing facets of the TDCW. Peer correction in writing consists of students reviewing their classmates’ essays and giving suggestions and advices to the writer so he can improve his work. This is such a phenomenal way of learning, for you not only practice through your own essay, but have the chance of reading different styles and points of view on a similar subject. Also, you are able to check your peers’ content and structure, which allows you to work on your teaching skills. Hence, being able to analyze other essays is a superb manner of enhancing both your learning and teaching skills.
This course played a pivotal part in my personal development for so many other different reasons. Being in a blended course, I had to learn how to be more inquisitive and question the subjects I learned instead of being a passive learner who just received the information the teacher gave me. Self-study was essential for me to learn about independence and responsibility. I learned that writing is a personal process, there are different ways of generating ideas and I can find the best way for me to produce my work. A well-structured course and a present teacher who always showed commitment were essential for my development.
It is interesting to notice how my points of view changed in so little time. Two months in the TDCW were enough for me to realize how writing can be a very pleasing experience. I started the course feeling insecure and uncertain of how my development would unfold. I thought I would have so many overwhelming problems and difficulties. I am not saying that I have learned everything. I know that if I want to keep growing, I will have to continue practicing. For this reason, I have recently decided to start my own blog, where I can write about my work and other subjects that I find dear. That was the approach I found to do something that gives pleasure and, at the same time, learn and develop my capabilities. There is still a lot to learn, but there is no fear anymore, only enthusiasm.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Rethinking Test Reviews - A Digital Twist

Final tests are just around the corner. It is that time of the year that teachers, before starting thinking about their well-deserved vacation, have to focus on how to better review the content for the tests. Though we always feel compelled to try something new and exciting, we are in a period of intense tiredness, so we always go for the simple and easy. And, we, the CTJ Ed Tech Team, feel it is the best approach. However, we´d like to invite you to re-frame your review classes, to think of how you can actively engage students in reinforcing what they´ve been learning, but, mainly, how you can have an exciting grand finale for your students, a memorable time together of practice and interaction. 

Our general approach to reviewing is generally asking our students to do the review handout at home and correct it in class. Or just do the written activity in class. Here´s how you could re-purpose your review class, making students active producers of their own review for the test:

- Use your students´ cellphones:

  • Take advantage of notetaking apps. Ask your students to open their notetaking apps and give them an instruction card with what they should add to their note page. Invite them to flip through the lessons and add vocabulary notes, grammar points, writing their own examples to help them remember what they´ve been studying. 
  • Ask them to take photos with their cellphones of objects and situations and write sentences to highlight vocabulary or grammar. They can use an app to add the image and the sentences (and trust us, if they have a smartphone, they know how to do it!), or they can use the photos and write their sentences in their notebooks. 
  • If you have adult students with Smartphones, ask them to download the app Evernote ( ) before class. With Evernote, the students can open a page, add images, sentences and voice to make their own review. Then they can share a link to their final review page with peers. 
  • Students can go through the book and create a short quiz in their cellphone for their peers to answer.
- If you have a set of iPads available:
  • You can use the same ideas above we shared for the cellphones
  • Use simple book creators apps for students to create their own reviews. After students create it, they can share their review pages with peers and teacher by sending the ebook via email, dropobox, Evenote, as a PDF file.  Here´s an example with the app Book Creator (The Ed Tech Team like it because it is super simple to use it!)

  • In apps like Notability and Penultimate, students can make personalized review pages, recording their voices, adding photos and text to their pages. 
  • Students can also open the Pages app to create a page with the main review points
  • The Keynote app lets the students produce well-designed reviews that can be shared with peers. One idea is for teachers to give different tasks for different groups of students (some groups are responsible for the vocabulary review, others for the grammar). Once their review is ready, they can plug the iPad to to the projector and present to the whole group. 
  • Students can also create a listening quiz for peers. Then, they can exchange iPads, or the teacher can plug the ipad in the classroom loudspeakers and have students answer the audio quiz. (this activity can also be adapted for smartphones) 
  • For the younger ones, they can use very simple tools, like Skitch, to write sentences or practice vocabulary. 
- If you have an iPad and a projector in your classroom:
  • ask your students to prepare a quiz on a blank sheet of paper, then take a photo of the quiz and project on the board for their classmates to answer the quiz. 
  • Take photos around the class to practice certain vocabulary items/expressions/grammar points and do a photo dictation by projecting the images on the board. 

- If you have a computer and a projector in your classroom:
  • Here is a nice way to review vocabulary with intermediate and advanced groups using the laptop and the projector in the classroom. It requires no preparation, all you have to do is open a Word document to type in the vocabulary words that need to be reviewed
>> Divide class into 2 teams. Explain that the teams are going to play against each other.One member of the team (at a time) should sit at the front of the classroom with the back facing the board. This way, that student will not see what is going to appear on the projection on the board. The teacher then should type in a vocabulary word. The only student who doesn`t see it is the one sitting at the front. The group , then, should explain the vocabulary so that the student sitting on the chair can guess it. Explain that the group has 3 chances to give an explanation (in other words, up to 3 different students in the group can raise their hands and explain the vocabulary using their own words). The group gets the point if the vocabulary word is guessed correctly.  
Tip: the students can be given the power to choose the vocabulary words used in the game if you assign each team a unit in the book. This way they can pick the words they want to test the opponent team. If you decide to play the game this way, then have them choose the words beforehand.

Remember that the most important aspect of spicing up your review class with digital tools is to make your students active participants in the review activity, in which they are producers of content. By doing that, you are helping them to personalize learning, organize their strategies for learning, and truly understand how they can become autonomous, self-directed learners. 

Remember, however, to keep track of time for students' tasks so that all the main points are reviewed. Also, the paper review is always an important focused practice. Thus,  assign it previously as homework, and be sure to check the main points with students or  let them check their answers with the answer key. Students need a tangible learning object for extra practice to feel safer and more confident when taking the test. So make sure they have either a handout or a digital page, or even better, both!

You might also want to check what teacher Dani Lyra has done with her students to review for the test:

Any other tips or ideas that you´ve tried in your English classroom?

The Ed Tech Team

Vini Lemos, Sílvia Caldas, Carla Arena and Fábio Ferreira

Friday, November 09, 2012

An Alternative to Oral Tests?

Inspired by Isabela’s post on assessment and learning outcomes, I started looking for alternatives to oral assessment and came across this interesting idea on Mr. Negrete’s  EFL Blog. Mr Negrete’s students created videos in English, which were then put up for voting. The students whose video received the most votes would be exempt from the oral part of the midterm examination. If the aim of the oral assessment is indeed to verify whether students have attained the subject matter, then I believe this was a successful project.

computer workOne way this form of assessment could be adapted to our EFL teaching reality would be to have students produce either videos or audio podcasts, in which they would use the target language. Even though the product would serve for assessment, I believe one of the main benefits would be all the rehearsing students would go through before handing in a final project, versus the one-chance-only they would have in an oral exam setting, not to mention the reduction in students’ stress and anxiety that usually come with tests.
Some considerations for such a final project:

  • Students must know it is a graded exercise (the oral test grade!) and how they will be assessed; rubrics should be clear for students.
  • There must be defined tasks; that is, students must know what needs to be present in the final product;
  • Students must have the option of taking the oral test if they choose to;
  • The teacher must guide students throughout the project, offering orientation and guidance; there must be dates when subproducts are presented, so that any changes can be made before the final product is put up for grading.
A simple example, considering a teacher who wants to test students’ ability to describe people, would be to have them record a game of Guess who?, testing not only describing people but also asking questions. Another variety would be to have students have a telephone conversation, in which one of the students needs to write down a message and deliver it to a person he/she does not know, be it in a party or in a meeting room, with the description and directions given by the other student.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Aligning learning outcomes, instructional strategies and assessment – an example using mLearning and Digital Images by Vinícius Lemos

In the October 2012 special issue of the ELT Journal – The Janus Papers – Stephen Stoynoff looks back at the changes in language assessment and analyzes the transitions under way. With the emerging dominance of a sociocultural paradigm in which learning is seen as a developmental, socially-constructed, interactive, and reflective process, classroom-based assessment will (pp. 527-528):

- integrate the teacher fully into the assessment process including planning assessment, evaluating performance, and making decisions based on the results of assessment
 - be conducted by and under the direction of the learners' teacher (as opposed to an  external   assessor); 
- yield multiple samples of learner performance that are collected over time and by means of multiple assessment procedures and activities; 
- be applied and adapted to meet the teaching and learning objectives of different classes and students;
-  integrate learners into the assessment process and utilize self- and peer-assessment in addition to teacher-assessment of learning; 
- foster opportunities for learners to engage in self-initiated enquiry; 
- offer learners immediate and constructive feedback; 
- monitor, evaluate, and modify procedures to optimize teaching and learning.

Likewise, the National Capital Learning Resource Center (2004) enumerates the following distinguishing features of alternative assessment:

1) Are built around topics or issues of interest to the students;
2) replicate real-world communication contexts and situations;
3) involve multi-stage tasks and real problems that require creative use of language rather than simple repetition;
4) require learners to produce a quality product or performance;
5) include evaluation criteria and standards which are known to the student;
6) involve interaction between assessor (instructor, peers, self) and person assessed;
7) allow for self-evaluation and self-correction as they proceed.

Hence, there’s been a growing interest in integrating classroom teaching, learning, and assessment. According to the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, Carnegie Mellon University, assessments, learning objectives, and instructional strategies need to be aligned so that they reinforce one another, as the image below shows.

Jon Mueller has a frequently updated webiste entitled Authentic Assessment Toolbox  that not only provides solid theoretical background on authentic assessment, but also offers a variety of tools in which the assessments are perfectly aligned with the learning objectives and the instructional activities. Cecília Lemos has also written inspiring posts on alternative asssessment in her popular blog Box of Chocolates.

Burger (2008) proposes the use of Outcomes-Based Education (OBE), in which the first step in planning teaching is identifying the learning outcomes; these outcomes then determine the teaching and assessment that follow so that the learning can be easily assessed via performance. Aligning learning objectives and instructional activities is not hard at all. The difficult part of the triangle is the assessment part, especially when it comes to oral performance.

How can the teacher possibly assess every student’s performance on an oral task designed to assess the attainment of a learning outcome that was developed by way of perfectly aligned instructional activities? 

How can learners be integrated into the assessment process?

 I’m going to propose an example based on an earlier post on this blog by my colleague Vinicius Lemos – mLearning and Digital images. What he describes in his post is an instructional strategy resulting from previous strategies in which students were taught the clothing vocabulary and the present continuous to talk about what one is wearing. I will attempt here to close the triangle above by spelling out the learning objectives that are implicit in the task and suggest a way of assessing students’ resulting performance.

  Learning outcome 1: Given a specific event, students will select and photograph the appropriate pieces of clothing to wear and describe their picture to their classmates using the present continuous and the correct indefinite article before each piece of clothing.

  Learning outcome 2: Given a picture with pieces of clothing that suggest a specific event, students will be able to ask questions using “Are you going to…” and vocabulary to talk about specific events.

 I suggest having students work in pairs rather than in groups to perform the activity, according to the outcomes above: Student A shows and describes his picture using the required language; student B asks questions to guess the event. Then they switch roles.

 Students can practice this exchange with two or three different pairs, as the teacher walks around and monitors their performance. The third or fourth time around, they are asked to record their exchanges, using their smartphones or, if available, the computer lab or a set of iPads. After they finish, they listen to their performance and engage in self-assessment of their part of the recording, according to a can-do checklist that can contain items such as:

 - I can name all the pieces of clothing. 
 - I can use the correct article for pieces of clothing in the singular starting with a vowel or consonant sound and no article for plural. 
- I can describe what I’m wearing using the present continuous. 
- I can name events such as school, work, picnic, wedding, etc. 
- I can ask questions about where a person is going based on their outfit. 
 - I can produce the language described above in a natural way, without too much hesitation or many long pauses to think. 

They judge their performance and if they think it needs improvement, they can record the conversation again, making the necessary adjustments. Then they send the recording to the teacher, who will use rubrics to assess students’ attainment of the two outcomes above. The teacher’s rubrics need to be similar to the students’, but should contain at least three levels of performance with appropriate descriptions.

Suppose each unit in the language program’s assessment cycle consists of five learning outcomes. Then each outcome can be worth 20 points. If the teacher conducts these types of assessments right after the instructional strategy, in such a way that the strategy is the assessment and vice-versa, at the end the student will have a grade on a 0-100 scale for oral performance.

Who needs a midterm or end-of-term oral test after that?

 The proposed assessment system here is in keeping with Stoyoff's (2012) list of characteristics of contemporary classroom-based assessment: it integrates the teacher fully into the process; it is conducted by the teacher; it can be one of a variety of samples of learnt performance collected over time, using multiple procedures; it meets the learning objectives, it integrates learners into the assessment process; it offers immediate and constructive feedback; and it allows the teacher to monitor, evaluate, and modify procedures to optimize teaching and learning.


Burger, M. (2008). The alignment of teaching, learning and assessment in English home language grade 10 in District 9, Johannesburg (Dissertation). University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa.
National Capital Language Resource Center (NCLRC). (2004) Assessing learning: Alternative assessment. In The essentials of language teaching. Retrieved from

Stoynoff, S. (2012). Looking backward and forward at classroom-based language assessment. In ELT Journal, V. 66/4 – Special Issue: The Janurs Papers, pp. 523-532.

This post is cross-posted in my blog
If you want to read more about assessment and other TEFL issues, pay me a visit there.