Category Archives: Interviews

Mini interview: Els Van Geyte, author of Academic Skills Series: Writing 

Els Van Geyte, author of Collins Academic Skills: Writing, spoke to Collins’ Eva Schmidt about her teaching career and the inspiration for her latest book. 

 

Eva: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Els: My name is Els (pronounced like ‘else’) and although I am Belgian-born I have now lived longer in the UK than I ever did in Belgium. I live in the middle of the country (Birmingham), which is ironic because despite living on an island and loving the seaside with a passion, I could not live further away from the sea. Luckily I also like what the city has to offer, and I am happily settled here with my husband and teenage daughter.

Eva: How did you first get involved in teaching?

Els: I have always wanted to be a teacher and when I found myself getting increasingly interested in languages in secondary school, it was an obvious choice to study Linguistics and Literature and train to be a language teacher. I did a Joint Honours course in English and Dutch, and went to French evening classes too. After completing my MA and my teacher training course I used my language skills in customer services jobs and started teaching foreign language evening classes in Further Education. It was a stroke of luck that they were looking for English teachers in the college where I was teaching French: not only did it mean I could start working as a teacher in the daytime, it also meant that I started working with international students. I really enjoyed being in a culturally diverse environment and exchanging information about different customs.

Eva: And what do you do now?

Els: After working in Further education I started teaching in Higher Education. Increasingly this meant not just teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) but also, and now exclusively, English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I have had different responsibilities in this area (e.g. materials development, assessment) but my main focus is always on working with students. I now work part-time because I am also studying: I am hoping to complete my PhD about grammar and argumentation in a few years’ time. As you know, I also write coursebooks, so far about Reading and Writing skills.

Eva: When and how did you come up with the idea for your latest book, Writing?

Els: I approached Collins because I felt that the published materials I was using in my teaching were not always looking at the ‘why’ of academic writing, and I wanted to try to bridge that gap. For example, rather than just telling a student not to use the word ‘thing’ in their writing, or that sayings are not appropriate, it is better to explain that clarity is the most important principle of writing. This means that expressions need to be specific and precise. If students know why certain uses of language are wrong, it is easier for them to check their own writing. I also wanted to write a book that helped build the students’ existing skills: after all, they have worked very hard to get the IELTS or TOEFL score they needed and don’t need to be told everything there is to know about essays. Instead, they need to know what is going to be different from IELTS when they are in an English medium university and have to write longer, more researched and more complex pieces of writing.

Eva: Why do international students struggle when writing essays at university?

Els: It’s not just international students who struggle. I have also worked with ‘home’ students and they face similar issues. One problem is that it is not always possible to see many examples of good essays in your field, and students need to find out what standards of writing are expected by doing it, rather than being told what to do. They have to learn through trial and error and by studying the feedback they received. Having said that, there are some extra challenges for international students: culturally, academic writing may be different. An example is that in some countries it is acceptable to use many rhetorical questions, whereas here we try to avoid them. The ‘why’ for this is that formality is an important academic principle, and addressing the reader is seen as too informal. Another challenge is the language: writing an essay is difficult in your first language, so having to write it in another language while maintaining clarity, formality, accuracy and other important principles is not going to be easy for anyone.

Eva: In your opinion, what’s the most difficult part about writing essays?

Els: From what my students tell me, a lot of it becomes easier (e.g. researching, following referencing guidelines) but the best students can still struggle with paraphrasing. This is probably because it is difficult to apply two academic principles at once: authority (i.e. having a clear point of view and stating your own opinion) and integrity (acknowledging the ideas of others). Students ask how it can be better to paraphrase words written by an excellent academic writer when you feel your own language ability is so much worse. Yet it is much better to paraphrase than to quote… In my book I have tried to explain why paraphrasing is better most of the time, and have included a step by step technique to help students do this.

Eva: How did you go about writing this book and what were the challenging bits?

Els: I had a lot of freedom when writing this book, which actually made it harder! When I wrote IELTS books (Get Ready for IELTS: Reading, Reading for IELTS)  before, I needed to make sure all the skills and techniques involved in the exam were covered, so that immediately provided a structure for the chapters. What I decided to do this time was to think about the general characteristics of academic writing, and then to break these down into smaller parts. For example, in chapter two I focus on the importance of thinking about your reader’s expectations, which I then divided up in smaller sections about what the reader expects in terms of general essay structure, paragraph structure and how paragraphs are connected. I also tried to remember what my students had asked for over the years so that I could make sure that this information was included. In the end, the hardest aspect of the writing was not to let my enthusiasm take over and write too much.

Eva: How does your book help international students write better essays?

Els: Well, I tried to include a number of tools to help students: e.g. self-evaluation quizzes, tips, glossaries and plenty of practical exercises in every chapter. I made sure I covered the different steps in the essay writing process, from receiving the title to receiving the feedback. I also emphasized how improving your reading skills can improve your writing skills. Throughout the book I used real examples from my own and my colleagues’ students to illustrate points and design exercises, and I included example essays of 250 and 2,500 words respectively, to show how students can take their writing up to the next level. There is a strong focus on language accuracy issues, because I know that this is something that international students tend to ask for. In short, I tried to cover all the students need to be aware of, but to keep it practical and manageable.

I really hope the book does help international students, as I have nothing but admiration for what they are trying to do. Education is key in life, but it can be a challenge, and to be brave enough to go and do so in a country with a different language is truly amazing. If I can help just a little bit, that would be great.


 

Academic Skills Series: Writing Get Ready for IELTS: Reading Reading for IELTS

 

Mini interview: Sheila Thorn about Real Lives, Real Listening 

Sheila Thorn is the author of  Real Lives, Real Listening. Read the interview below to find out how Real Lives, Real Listening helps students to boost their listening skills.

To find out more about the Real Lives, Real Listening series, and to download teaching notes, sample units and sample audio, please just click on the cover images below. 

  

Sheila Thorn is an experienced teacher and materials writer with a particular interest in authentic listening. She is the founder of The Listening Business.

What is Real Lives, Real Listening?

Real Lives, Real Listening is an innovative series of ELT books which helps students at all levels from Elementary to Advanced to get to grips with informal spoken English. The series also helps students learn the grammar, phonology and lexis of unscripted speech. 

Unlike the scripted and simplified recordings found in many ELT books which are ‘performed’ at an artificially slow pace by actors, the Real Lives, Real Listening books contain 100% unscripted recordings with native and non-native English speakers from all walks of life. 

In addition to pre-listening activities and intensive listening comprehension practice, each unit contains listening exercises which train students to listen more effectively to the varieties of spoken English they will encounter outside the ELT classroom.  These training exercises focus on those features of informal spoken English which students find most challenging, such as weak forms, elision and assimilation.

Another innovative feature is an Interesting Language Points section where I examine the grammar and phonology of each listening text.

Each unit also includes a section where the grammatical structures and lexis found in the text are recycled and extended, thus enabling students to learn new language. 

Finally, each unit contains a full transcript together with a glossary of key lexical items, making these books ideal for classroom use by both native and non-native English teachers, as well as self-access.

Most ELT students find listening the most challenging of the four skills. This series motivates students by using authentic recordings of real people. It also increases their confidence in their listening ability by providing achievable and worthwhile exercises.

What’s the difference between your approach to teaching listening skills and the traditional ELT approach?

The traditional ELT approach to listening is to provide students with listening comprehension exercises. Following some pre-listening activities, students typically listen to a passage twice and answer questions on it to check their understanding. They either get the answers right or wrong and, if they are lucky, the teacher explains to the students with the incorrect answers where they went wrong.

In this respect listening comprehension exercises are more like a test of a student’s ability to listen at a point in time. But testing doesn’t equate to teaching. The traditional listening comprehension approach does nothing to help students listen more effectively the next time round. Nor is it particularly motivating for students, interesting for teachers or easy to teach.

With my approach the focus is far more on listening training. In effect I concentrate more on how things were said (i.e. the listening process) rather than what was said (i.e. the product of listening). This is why each unit contains exercises which focus explicitly on how the speaker(s) said the things that they did.

I guarantee that teachers using these books rather than traditional listening comprehensions will see a huge improvement in the listening ability of their students in a very short space of time.

How does Real Lives, Real Listening help students?

The Real Lives, Real Listening series helps students by making them aware that they can understand authentic spoken English.  The exercises are carefully crafted to boost their confidence in their listening skills and to train them to listen more effectively to the informal spoken English they will encounter outside the ELT classroom. 

We all know from our own experience that when we are feeling anxious, for example when a consultant talks to us about an illness, our anxiety impedes our ability to take in the message. These books are designed to help students overcome their anxiety when listening to spoken English and therefore listen more effectively.

Why did you write the Real Lives, Real Listening series?

Back in 2003 I gave a conference session to ESOL teachers on how to write listening exercises to accompany authentic recordings. I ended by bemoaning the lack of published authentic listening practice materials available at the time.  At this point one of the teachers in my session said ‘Why don’t you write an authentic listening book?’ and all the other teachers in the audience applauded. This gave me the idea to create the best authentic listening books I could, based on the latest theories on L2 listening and language acquisition. Following a lengthy period of research and discussions with practising teachers, I began conducting a huge number of interviews and started to write the series in 2004.

What language level do students need to have to use Real Lives, Real Listening?

The series is aimed at students from Elementary to Advanced levels. The topics of the recordings (A Typical Day, My Family and A Place I Know Well) were deliberately chosen because they are topics which appear in all coursebooks and will be familiar to any student who has studied English.


Praise for the Real Lives, Real Listening series:

Unlike much so-called ‘listening’ material, it focuses systematically on the problems that really prevent learners from understanding natural speech, and does so through interesting and motivating activities. 

Michael Swan

 

An outstanding resource for teachers and students alike.

Professor Ron Carter, University of Nottingham

 

An innovative series that offers a fresh and practical approach to developing listening skills by means of authentic texts.

Dr John Field, Universities of Bedfordshire and Cambridge

Mini interview: Fiona Aish and Jo Tomlinson speak about their latest book 

Fiona Aish and Jo Tomlinson are the authors of Collins Academic Skills Series: Lectures. Read the mini interview below to find out why and how Lectures will help international students at English-medium universities. 

Jo and Fiona are directors of Target English Ltd, a company specialising in teaching English for Academic Purposes and English for exams. Apart from Lectures, they have co-authored three books in the Collins English for Exams series: Listening for IELTS, Grammar for IELTS and Get Ready for IELTS: Writing

  

Who did you write Lectures for and what is the book all about?

The book was written with the many international students we’ve taught in mind. There is a huge difference between listening to a conversation on the street and trying to make sense of a lecture, and we wanted to help students make the jump.

To do this, we looked at the many aspects of lectures students can find difficult and we outlined strategies so that students are ready when they are in the actual lecture room.

The book focuses on real-life lectures, which was especially important to us, as so many books on listening use pre-prepared lectures which aren’t always similar to what’s actually happening in the real-life lecture room. We also wanted to show how lectures fit into university life as a whole and relate to the assessments that students will have to do.

Why do international students struggle when attending lectures?

We often keep in touch with our international students who go on to university, and they generally comment that listening to lectures is really difficult to get used to. They struggle for many reasons; perhaps the lecturer is not used to speaking to people from other countries, perhaps the lecturer speaks in an unusual accent, perhaps the student is not used to listening for an hour while taking notes, or perhaps the student is not familiar with the quite distinctive features of ‘lecturing speech’.

In your opinion, whats the most difficult thing when attending a lecture?

It entirely depends on the student; for some it can be the very problem of understanding, while for others it‘s the identification of main points that should be noted down. The dual skill of being able to listen while writing is a difficult one to master in a first language, and in a second language needs a lot of practice. There are also quite a lot of cultural norms which students may not be familiar with, such as digressions, the use of humour and whether or not students are allowed to ask questions during a lecture. All lecturers have different styles and this in itself can be confusing for students. Fortunately, there is lots of material on the Internet for students to practise from – such as the additional, free online recordings and transcripts accompanying our book Lectures, and they’ll also get a lot of practice at university. Plus, of course, there’s also our new book itself!

How does your book Lectures help international students?

The most important thing about our book is that it focuses on authentic lectures. It includes explanations of why lectures are like they are and it provides scaffolded exercises in listening skills, language and pronunciation. Students may find some lectures in the book more difficult than others, and that is just like real-life.  Lectures highlights all of these real-life difficulties, as well as outlining the language and pronunciation features involved in listening. And it gives lots of practice in dealing with them.

How did you go about writing this book and why?

We wanted the book to reflect what actually happens inside the lecture theatre. To do this, we recorded a series of lectures at universities. We were lucky enough to record lectures at some really prestigious universities and are grateful to the lecturers involved. Then we analysed the features of speech and language being used. We also talked to many international students at university about their experiences with lectures, and the difficulties they face.

This gave us really useful real-life data to work from. We set about providing language analysis and study strategies for all these issues. Our main aim was to create a useful hands-on tool for students who are about to go and study at an English-medium university. 

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