Accessible, engaging textbooks could improve children’s learning

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It’s not enough for textbooks just to be present in a classroom. They must support learning.
Global Partnership for Education/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Lizzi O. Milligan, University of Bath

Textbooks are a crucial part of any child’s learning. A large body of research has proved this many times and in many very different contexts. Textbooks are a physical representation of the curriculum in a classroom setting. They are powerful in shaping the minds of children and young people. The Conversation

UNESCO has recognised this power and called for every child to have a textbook for every subject. The organisation argues that

next to an engaged and prepared teacher, well-designed textbooks in sufficient quantities are the most effective way to improve instruction and learning.

But there’s an elephant in the room when it comes to textbooks in African countries’ classrooms: language.

Rwanda is one of many African countries that’s adopted a language instruction policy which sees children learning in local or mother tongue languages for the first three years of primary school. They then transition in upper primary and secondary school into a dominant, so-called “international” language. This might be French or Portuguese. In Rwanda, it has been English since 2008.

Evidence from across the continent suggests that at this transition point, many learners have not developed basic literacy and numeracy skills. And, significantly, they have not acquired anywhere near enough of the language they are about to learn in to be able to engage in learning effectively.

I do not wish to advocate for English medium instruction, and the arguments for mother-tongue based education are compelling. But it’s important to consider strategies for supporting learners within existing policy priorities. Using appropriate learning and teaching materials – such as textbooks – could be one such strategy.

A different approach

It’s not enough to just hand out textbooks in every classroom. The books need to tick two boxes: learners must be able to read them and teachers must feel enabled to teach with them.

Existing textbooks tend not to take these concerns into consideration. The language is too difficult and the sentence structures too complex. The paragraphs too long and there are no glossaries to define unfamiliar words. And while textbooks are widely available to those in the basic education system, they are rarely used systematically. Teachers cite the books’ inaccessibility as one of the main reasons for not using them.

A recent initiative in Rwanda has sought to address this through the development of “language supportive” textbooks for primary 4 learners who are around 11 years old. These were specifically designed in collaboration with local publishers, editors and writers.

Language supportive textbooks have been shown to make a difference in some Rwandan classrooms.

There are two key elements to a “language supportive” textbook.

Firstly, they are written at a language level which is appropriate for the learner. As can be seen in Figure 1, the new concept is introduced in as simple English as possible. The sentence structure and paragraph length are also shortened and made as simple as possible. The key word (here, “soil”) is also repeated numerous times so that the learner becomes accustomed to this word.

University of Bristol and the British Council

Secondly, they include features – activities, visuals, clear signposting and vocabulary support – that enable learners to practice and develop their language proficiency while learning the key elements of the curriculum.

The books are full of relevant activities that encourage learners to regularly practice their listening, speaking, reading and writing of English in every lesson. This enables language development.

Crucially, all of these activities are made accessible to learners – and teachers – by offering support in the learners’ first language. In this case, the language used was Kinyarwanda, which is the first language for the vast majority of Rwandan people. However, it’s important to note that initially many teachers were hesitant about incorporating Kinyarwanda into their classroom practice because of the government’s English-only policy.

Improved test scores

The initiative was introduced with 1075 students at eight schools across four Rwandan districts. The evidence from our initiative suggests that learners in classrooms where these books were systematically used learnt more across the curriculum.

When these learners sat tests before using the books, they scored similar results to those in other comparable schools. After using the materials for four months, their test scores were significantly higher. Crucially, both learners and teachers pointed out how important it was that the books sanctioned the use of Kinyarwanda. The classrooms became bilingual spaces and this increased teachers’ and learners’ confidence and competence.

All of this supports the importance of textbooks as effective learning and teaching materials in the classroom and shows that they can help all learners. But authorities mustn’t assume that textbooks are being used or that the existing books are empowering teachers and learners.

Textbooks can matter – but it’s only when consideration is made for the ways they can help all learners that we can say that they can contribute to quality education for all.

Lizzi O. Milligan, Lecturer in International Education, University of Bath

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Younger is not always better when it comes to learning a second language

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Learning a language in a classroom is best for early teenagers.

Warren Midgley, University of Southern Queensland

It’s often thought that it is better to start learning a second language at a young age. But research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, the best age to start learning a second language can vary significantly, depending on how the language is being learned. The Conversation

The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that children learn to speak their first language with remarkable skill at a very early age.

Before they can add two small numbers or tie their own shoelaces, most children develop a fluency in their first language that is the envy of adult language learners.

Why younger may not always be better

Two theories from the 1960s continue to have a significant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.

The theory of “universal grammar” proposes that children are born with an instinctive knowledge of the language rules common to all humans. Upon exposure to a specific language, such as English or Arabic, children simply fill in the details around those rules, making the process of learning a language fast and effective.

The other theory, known as the “critical period hypothesis”, posits that at around the age of puberty most of us lose access to the mechanism that made us such effective language learners as children. These theories have been contested, but nevertheless they continue to be influential.

Despite what these theories would suggest, however, research into language learning outcomes demonstrates that younger may not always be better.

In some language learning and teaching contexts, older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being learned.

Language immersion environment best for young children

Living, learning and playing in a second language environment on a regular basis is an ideal learning context for young children. Research clearly shows that young children are able to become fluent in more than one language at the same time, provided there is sufficient engagement with rich input in each language. In this context, it is better to start as young as possible.

Learning in classroom best for early teens

Learning in language classes at school is an entirely different context. The normal pattern of these classes is to have one or more hourly lessons per week.

To succeed at learning with such little exposure to rich language input requires meta-cognitive skills that do not usually develop until early adolescence.

For this style of language learning, the later years of primary school is an ideal time to start, to maximise the balance between meta-cognitive skill development and the number of consecutive years of study available before the end of school.

Self-guided learning best for adults

There are, of course, some adults who decide to start to learn a second language on their own. They may buy a study book, sign up for an online course, purchase an app or join face-to-face or virtual conversation classes.

To succeed in this learning context requires a range of skills that are not usually developed until reaching adulthood, including the ability to remain self-motivated. Therefore, self-directed second language learning is more likely to be effective for adults than younger learners.

How we can apply this to education

What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? In terms of the development of language proficiency, the message is fairly clear.

If we are able to provide lots of exposure to rich language use, early childhood is better. If the only opportunity for second language learning is through more traditional language classes, then late primary school is likely to be just as good as early childhood.

However, if language learning relies on being self-directed, it is more likely to be successful after the learner has reached adulthood.

Warren Midgley, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The shelf-life of slang – what will happen to those ‘democracy sausages’?


Kate Burridge, Monash University

Every year around this time, dictionaries across the English-speaking world announce their “Word of the Year”. These are expressions (some newly minted and some golden oldies too) that for some reason have shot into prominence during the year.

Earlier this month The Australian National Dictionary Centre declared its winner “democracy sausage” – the barbecued snag that on election day makes compulsory voting so much easier to swallow.

Dictionaries make their selections in different ways, but usually it involves a combination of suggestions from the public and the editorial team (who have been meticulously tracking these words throughout the year). The Macquarie Dictionary has two selections – the Committee’s Choice made by the Word of the Year Committee, and the People’s Choice made by the public (so make sure you have your say on January 24 for the People’s Choice winner 2016).

It’s probably not surprising that these words of note draw overwhelmingly from slang language, or “slanguage” – a fall-out of the increasing colloquialisation of English usage worldwide. In Australia this love affair with the vernacular goes back to the earliest settlements of English speakers.

And now there’s the internet, especially social networking – a particularly fertile breeding ground for slang.

People enjoy playing with language, and when communicating electronically they have free rein. “Twitterholic”, “twaddiction”, “celebritweet/twit”, “twitterati” are just some of the “tweologisms” that Twitter has spawned of late. And with a reported average of 500 million tweets each day, Twitter has considerable capacity not only to create new expressions, but to spread them (as do Facebook, Instagram and other social networking platforms).

But what happens when slang terms like these make it into the dictionary? Early dictionaries give us a clue, particularly the entries that are stamped unfit for general use. Branded entries were certainly plentiful in Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century work, and many are now wholly respectable: abominably “a word of low or familiar language”, nowadays “barbarous usage”, fun “a low cant word” (what would Johnson have thought of very fun and funner?).

Since the point of slang is to mark an in-group, to amuse and perhaps even to shock outsiders with novelty, most slang expressions are short-lived. Those that survive become part of the mainstream and mundane. Quite simply, time drains them of their vibrancy and energy. J.M. Wattie put it more poetically back in 1930:

Slang terms are the mayflies of language; by the time they get themselves recorded in a dictionary, they are already museum specimens.

But, then again, expressions occasionally do sneak through the net. Not only do they survive, they stay slangy – and sometimes over centuries. Judge for yourselves. Here are some entries from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language. Written by British convict James Hardy Vaux in 1812, this is the first dictionary compiled in Australia.

croak “to die”

grub “food”

kid “deceive”

mug “face”

nuts on “to have a strong inclination towards something or someone”

on the sly “secretly”

racket “particular kind of fraud”

snitch “to betray”

stink “an uproar”

spin a yarn “tell a tale of great adventure”

These were originally terms of flash – or, as Vaux put it, “the cant language used by the family”. In other words, they belonged to underworld slang. The term slang itself meant something similar at this time; it broadened to highly colloquial language in the 1800s.

Vaux went on to point out that “to speak good flash is to be well versed in cant terms” — and, having been transported to New South Wales on three separate occasions during his “checkered and eventful life” (his words), Vaux himself was clearly well versed in the world of villainy and cant.

True, the majority of the slang terms here have dropped by the wayside (barnacles “spectacles”; lush “to drink”), and the handful that survives are now quite standard (grab “to seize”; dollop “large quantity”). But there are a few that have not only lasted, they’ve remained remarkably contemporary-sounding – some still even a little “disgraceful” (as Vaux described them).

The shelf-life of slang is a bit of mystery. Certainly some areas fray faster than others. Vaux’s prime, plummy and rum (meaning “excellent”) have well and truly bitten the dust. Cool might have made a comeback (also from the 1800s), but intensifiers generally wear out.

Far out and ace have been replaced by awesome, and there are plenty of new “awesome” words lurking in the wings. Some of these are already appearing on lists for “Most Irritating Word of the Year” – it’s almost as if their success does them in. Amazeballs, awesomesauce and phat are among the walking dead.

But as long as sausage sizzles continue to support Australian voters on election day, democracy sausages will have a place – and if adopted elsewhere, might even entice the politically uninterested into polling booths.

The Conversation

Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What is Business English?

Author Paul Emmerson reflects on in-work and pre-experience Business English.

What is Business English? A naïve question to be sure, but a good one to step back and ask from time to time.

Below, in blue, is a nine-point answer to that question that I wrote along with my colleague Nick Hamilton back in 2000. It was going to be the Introduction to Five Minute Activities for Business English (CUP) but never made it into the book.

  1. You start with a Needs Analysis.
  2. The Needs Analysis leads on to a negotiated syllabus. There is no ‘main’ coursebook, although a selection of coursebook and other material may be used. The classroom tasks and texts are personalized, based around the interests and needs of those particular students.
  3. The syllabus is designed around communication skills (telephoning, meetings, presentations etc.) and business topics (management, marketing, finance etc.), not the English verb tense system.
  4. Language work is more lexical, including collocation and functional language, and less grammatical than General English. Pronunciation is another important area, especially the ability to break up speech into appropriate phrases (phonological chunking) and to use stress to highlight key information.
  5. Teaching methodology includes much use of tasks, role-plays, discussions, presentations, case studies and simulated real-life business situations. Approaches and materials are mixed and matched, but there is unlikely to be a high proportion of conventional Present-Practice lessons where one grammar point provides the main thread of a lesson.
  6. Much language work is done diagnostically following speaking activities. Feedback slots are used for checking, correcting and developing language (Output->Reformulate rather than Input->Practice).
  7. There is use of a range of authentic and business material (magazine articles, off-air video, company documents).
  8. Delivery of the course is different: the students are ‘clients’ with high expectations, the teachers are professional ‘trainers’ (or perhaps even Language Consultants). Teachers and students sit together round a table like in a meeting rather than in the classic GE ‘U’ shape with the teacher at the front. Conversation across the table may develop its own dynamic far removed from the teacher’s lesson plan.
  9. While teachers are expected to be competent as Language Consultants, classroom managers etc. they are usually not expected to be business experts. This is a language course after all, not an MBA. However teachers are expected to have an interest in business, ask intelligent questions, and slowly develop their knowledge of the business world.

And we continued:

The above principles represent a ‘strong’ version of BE, and we realize that there are some common situations where it is less appropriate:

  • Students studying BE in large groups in higher education – often called ‘pre-experience’ students because they have not yet started working.
  • Students studying for a BE qualification (often pre-experience as well).

Such students will almost certainly be following a coursebook, with tasks, texts and language focus already included. Students will be less interested in or unable to personalize activities. They might want to be taught about business itself as well as business English.

Looking back eleven years later it still looks like a good definition. But the final paragraph – about pre-experience BE – needs a little more development. Back in those days I didn’t realize the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of BE students are indeed pre-experience. Publishers have certainly realized this: all major multi-level coursebooks that I know (except InCompany) are aimed squarely at pre-experience students. When was the last time you read a coursebook instruction that invited the student to talk about their own company/job? Were an author to include it in a first draft, the editor would quickly ask them to change it – seeing the largest market disappear before their eyes.

Differences between Pre-Experience and In-Work BE students

So what can I add now about the pre-experience context?

My own teaching these days is in-work students coming to the UK for short, intensive courses. In the past I did the classic freelance ‘in-company’ thing (from 1991 to 1996 – in Lisbon, Portugal). In Lisbon I did also do a little pre-experience teaching in the evenings, so it’s not unknown to me. Nowadays, I have contact with the pre-experience BE world not through teaching but through teacher training (TT) – the majority of my trainees teach in higher education establishments of various kinds. On the TT courses we spend a lot of time discussing how BE ideas can be applied to the pre-experience classroom. The table below is a short summary of the ideas that trainees most often contribute in discussion.


Large classes are the norm. Small classes, or 1:1, are the norm.
Mixed language levels is the norm. Language levels likely to be slightly more equal between students in the group.
Students follow a coursebook most of the time. Students use a variety of input material from a variety of sources, perhaps collected together in a file. In many lessons the students draw ideas for discussion from their own world and there is no material (i.e. a dogme approach).
Exam involved – course has to be designed around this. No exam involved – course designed around student’s needs (ongoing/changing).
Lesson structure clear, coming directly from the coursebook. Lesson structure flexible and liable to change at any moment according to where the Ss take the lesson or how much they have to say.
Ss want more of a GE style course with lively/fun topics for discussion. Ss want a strong business/work focus. They are often happy with dry, information-dense texts that a Pre-Exp student might find boring.
T needs to think creatively about how to encourage pairwork, group work etc.Tip Pre-Exp Ss love case-studies, which they can do in small groups followed by your language feedback. Small class size allows more options for classroom management. For example, whole class activities are possible (discussions, RPs, presentations) and Ss will do them without being self-conscious.
All previous points taken together mean that the T needs skills that are quite similar to a GE teacher, with a focus on classroom management of large, mixed-level groups. All previous points taken together mean that the T needs to be able to respond to the changing needs of the Ss in real time and act as a group facilitator and language consultant.
Focus is often more on business topics than on business communication skills. Focus is often more on business communication skills (at least in most pre-course Needs Analyses I have seen, and in InCompany).
Ss need models before they can do a communication activity: an example email, an example presentation, an example meeting etc. Less need for models – Ss have experience of emails, meetings etc. in their everyday lives.
Few opportunities for personalization (Ss don’t have their own company), but they can draw on a) summer and part-time jobs, and b) work experience/internships. Personalization easy, necessary and important.
T has to teach some business content (although remember that Ss are studying business in other classes). Ss already know about business – in fact they teach you about business.
Ss accept what you say/teach. They don’t ask many questions and don’t challenge T or each other. They are young and T knows best. Ss question what you say/teach. They freely ask questions and challenge T and each other.
Innovative approaches are tried and adopted more slowly, and usually only as they filter through to the classroom via coursebooks. Innovative approaches are tried and adopted more quickly (lexical approach, task-based learning, intercultural awareness, soft management skills, use of internet in the classroom, etc).
Motivation:√ Ss have an exam to do√ Ss need English to get a good job× Ss can be immature, make silly jokes in class, keep checking Facebook on their smartphones, etc. Motivation:√ Ss have high expectations√ Ss have paid a lot√ Ss have voluntarily given up part of a busy work schedule× Ss can be tired at the end of the day× Ss are sometimes ‘sent’ by their company and don’t really want to be there
Ss are adolescents/young adults and bring into class personal issues, parents’ expectations etc. Ss are more mature and tend to keep their personal lives out of class.Exception: one-to-one classes, where Ss often bring very personal things and you have to be a sympathetic listener/counsellor etc.


I think this raises some interesting questions. We think of ourselves as one big BE community, but are we really separate tribes? Think of these:

  • the teacher who stands up in front of thirty mixed-level, same-nationality 18 year olds in a provincial university in Poland, Mexico or China
  • the teacher working in a busy, cosmopolitan capital city who jumps into taxis as s/he goes from office to office teaching in-company to small groups or 1:1
  • the teacher who stands up in front of a small group of similar-level, mixed-nationality business people on an intensive course in a language school in the UK, the US, Australia or Ireland
  • the teacher who works in a private language school in the evenings – anywhere in the world – where the students are a group of young adults (some working, some not) who are studying to pass a BEC exam

How much do these teachers have in common? What unites them? What separates them? How much does it depend on the individual lesson? How important is the teaching context as given in the bullet points compared to the personality of the individual teacher and their own particular approach?

Perhaps the four teachers in the bullet points are different tribes. Perhaps not: it might be that most BE teachers in the world are in a grey area somewhere between the pre-experience and in-work poles. So many pre-experience teachers are inclined towards one pole, but at the same time are trying valiantly to incorporate more in-work techniques. And many in-work teachers are inclined towards the other pole, but sometimes rely a little too heavily on published material (especially at the start of their teaching careers) without offering the students the chance for personalization.

And of course every lesson is different.

It’s also possible that there is a ‘silent majority’ tribe. At conferences and teacher training courses we only come into contact with the best, most motivated, and most open-minded teachers. They did decide to come after all, while their colleagues stayed at home. Perhaps those who stayed at home are just working through a coursebook, page by page and week by week, in difficult teaching situations, poorly paid and demotivated. Do they make a separate tribe in their own right?

Paul Emmerson is a well-known figure in the Business English world. He is a writer, teacher and teacher-trainer based in Worthing on the south coast of England. To find out more visit or his new site and view all of Paul’s recent ELT material. Use promotional code: BEHERE10 to receive 10% off his material.