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Avoid Distractions And Make Progress

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Tam Connors-Sadek has been using the Cambridge English Empower course, and is pleased with the result.

Tam Connors-Sadek knows what summer school students are like. They have a penchant for memorising tables of tenses, and collecting – like lexical magpies – long lists of sophisticated vocabulary.

All this can make them feel like their English is progressing fast, but Tam – who was director of studies at the Sheffield University General English summer programme last year– knows this isn’t always the case. He says: ‘Students love to learn endless lists of words, but they become a sort of lexical graveyard because they don’t know what they mean or are unable to use them because they are above their level.’

But how to get students out of this habit of obsessing over distracting high-brow words and phrases, when they also should be working on learning to use, competently and fluently, the words and grammar they already know? It was in trying to figure this out that Tam discovered the new Cambridge English Empower course.

With 400 staff and students visiting the summer school over a 10 week period, he knew he had to get it right. This new course for adult and young adult learners, he says, takes a best practice approach to language learning, stripping out distractions and helping students to focus. At lower levels, authentic texts have been adapted so as not to overload the learner.

‘If you use authentic materials 100 per cent you can’t control them’ he says. ‘Some of the texts have been graded down, perhaps rather than saying ‘he uttered’ you might say ‘he said’. ‘If you use ‘utter’, suddenly the teacher is off at a tangent trying to explain a couple of lexical items which aren’t essential to the whole theme.

‘One of the biggest problems is that students tend to focus on both. The one thing they will take away is the word ‘utter’. This wastes a lot of time in the classroom and can distort what is important for them.’

Tam explains that part of the philosophy behind the Empower series is based on Krashen’s ‘comprehensible input plus one’. He says: ‘This means that much of what is in the books, they should understand, while a manageable amount should be beyond their level and challenging them. The idea is that they learn how to use the grammar and the vocabulary appropriately for their level rather than trying to run before they can walk.’ A big issue has been with students on Ielts courses. He says: ‘They tend to learn lots of academic vocabulary, academic phrases but they can’t really just basically communicate with anybody.

The course, he says, helps them to step back and build ‘strong foundations’. ‘I found this approach quite logical’, he says. When he first introduced the course, the reaction of some students was not entirely positive, but this soon changed. ‘For the first few days, quite a few students said ‘this is too easy, we don’t want this sort of stuff’.

‘I said wait until the end of the week and see how you feel. By the end of the first week they had all kind of changed their minds. They actually found they were learning practical competence and how to use things more accurately when they weren’t confronting so many unknown lexical items.’ The classroom material is accompanied by regular integrated assessment, validated by Cambridge English Language Assessment, which allows students to learn in class and test themselves and study online at home.

Tam says: ‘For the Asian students, tests are something they are quite used to, they quite like tests. Most English language teachers don’t like testing students – it could be a levelling process or it could be counter-productive.’ ‘But with the Empower course it is all based around learning-oriented assessment… depending on how students perform in the tests, they are directed either to additional practice or to extension activities. Also, teachers don’t have to mark the online tests and activities. Everything is marked online so students can instantly see how they’ve done.

‘During tutorials, it gives the teacher a starting point for feedback. It stops students going under the radar as it can all be monitored by the teacher.’ Students have access to the online materials for 18 months, so can continue working on them long after they leave the summer school. This, Tam says, went down well with visiting professors from Japan and South Korea. ‘The more we used the book and explored the online platform, the more we realised that this was far more than ‘just another new book’ and is potentially a game-changer’, he says.

Cambridge English Empower: www.cambridge.org/empower 
Cambridge English Empower is a finalist in the ELTons 2017 Excellence in Course Innovation category.