30 June 2020

Skill Smart x 2, Step Ahead

Role: Senior editor/Chief editor
The Skill Smart series for the Hong Kong Certificate Examination in English (HKCEE) was the first set of products for the secondary ELT team at Educational Publishing House (EPH). When I arrived at EPH in May 2006, production was already under way. In my first couple of weeks, the director and project manager asked me to review the content. We made some minor adjustments, hit our deadline, and went on to take in 15% of the market in our first sales season.

We then went on to prepare an ELT course for senior secondary school, Step Ahead, for submission to the education bureau in 2008. It became the first secondary ELT course from EPH to be accepted by the Education Bureau, all this thanks to a passionate, dedicated team.

And along with Step Ahead, we produced a new Skill Smart series for a new examination, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE). 

25 June 2020

Progression of grammar items in primary ELT material

Years ago, when I was working in-house as a secondary ELT editor in Hong Kong, a woman from the primary ELT team came over to my desk to ask about grammar for a primary course. It had to do with teaching what and how many with the present simple first or yes/no questions in the present simple first. My first reaction was yes/no questions, but I quickly took that back, explaining that information questions are more common and should probably come first in a general English course.

I think most ELT content developers would agree with that, but if you feel differently, your thoughts are most welcome. The strange thing was what I learned next. In a reading passage, a writer had used a couple of yes/no questions before they had been taught. As that ‘wasn’t allowed’, she was wondering if she could move the teaching of yes/no questions closer to the beginning of the course.

‘Wasn’t allowed.’ That was odd to me so I asked what she meant and the answer was what I call the primary ELT contradiction rule: We can’t use a structure or grammar item in the course until the students have been taught that structure or grammar item. The same can apply with vocabulary. Before my brain could stop me, I blurted out, ‘How is it possible to do the first unit in Primary 1, then?’

And that was the beginning of my education with the planning of primary ELT materials. She explained that, for example, we can’t use the present continuous or past simple or contractions or prepositions in a reading passage or activity if that grammar hasn’t been taught yet. I couldn’t understand how it was possible to control language to such a degree. Would that make the materials terribly unnatural? I asked. And the discussion went on ...

Now I’ve planned enough courses to know that we need to consider the progression of grammar and vocabulary items as we design. This is also true of topics and outcomes. And I can understand that we have to start primary courses somewhere, which is almost always with classroom objects (countable nouns, articles, how many, numbers, are/can, often colors) and identifying oneself (what, is, possessive adjectives).

But to think that primary students would not see a single past simple verb in context until they were taught the past simple (which is often not until Primary 3) jarred with my teaching sense. I’m guessing that not all primary courses are so rigid and ELT-y, but the primary courses I’ve seen, worked on, and written have been. I guess the thinking is that we don’t want to overwhelm young learners, and I can understand that, but on the other hand, it seems clear that this way of thinking greatly limits the English language learning experience. 

Take the past simple, for example. Because past simple verbs have to be conjugated and many are irregular, we often do not teach the past simple unit Primary 3. In such a case, it means students will have had 20 to 24 units of material before they see an English simple past verb form. It strikes me as odd and I often joke with teachers and editors that there is no past time, no concept of the past for students till they’re in Primary 3. It might make for a good science fiction story.

Of course, we know that young learners do have a concept of the past because we can look at their first language. Anyone reading this can think about their native language and the simple past questions we might ask children that are two or three years old. What did you have for lunch to day? Did you sleep well? What did you learn at school? How was your day? What did you get for your birthday? So why don’t we introduce the past tense earlier in ELT courses? 

Well, because data show waiting to teach past simple ‘works’. (And I won’t get into the discussion about what ‘works’ today.) We parse the English language down into bits and pieces, into bitty building blocks that we need to be stack together so they won’t fall, and ... voila ... we have a scale of progression. While I understand learning a new language often works that way, part of me feels that we’ve come to accept that mindset almost as dogma. Our thinking about grammar progression is largely based on structural complexities, not conceptual frameworks or daily-life contexts.

And to this building-blocks method, we often add in text types and their features, vocabulary, listening and reading skills, etc. (Is all that not overwhelming?) In one course I helped write, I couldn’t use the word basketball in a passage because it hadn’t been taught. But here are some words I could use (and had to explain) in P1: identify key words, pronoun reference, recognize common abbreviations.

These were the reading skills and actual headings on the student book page. I queried it because it broke the primary ELT contradiction rule, and suggested putting these in the teacher’s book, especially for Key stage 1, so teachers could decide how to introduce it. My suggestion didn’t happen. All these additions and ticking off boxes of objectives and aims make me wonder whether we are sometimes impeding rather than facilitating language learning. 

Yeah, yeah, I can hear you. Courses have to start somewhere. We know that some structures are simpler than others (see the CEFr and all that) and so we start with the simple ones and move on from there. Even with adult learners we have to do this, even ELT readers have graded language, structures, and so on. I’ve had the discussion many times ... it’s how it’s done, it’s how the local market does it (and all markets seem to be similar), the local English teachers (LETs) are used to it, the Education Bureau knows what it’s doing ... and finally, how would change it?

Well, I’m not loaded with degrees and I’ve never studied data sets, but my feeling is something like a blend of language arts and ELT could be worth looking into, if you already haven’t. Young learners, Pre-Key stage and KS1 learners, love stories, visual content, movement, acting out, playing, singing. These early stages could focus largely on reading, spoken communication, fluency, getting along. Reading and listening skills could easily be taught without overtly identifying and explaining them on a student book page. The same can work for text types and so on. The materials could then link in grammar and further concepts in KS2. 

One reason I feel the language arts + ELT approach can work better is that the focus is on communication and fluency. And once students have learned to communicate, it’s much easier to talk about grammatical structures, listening skills, text types, and other things. As is, P1 students, students who may not speak a word of English, are being taught so many things at once that English must seem a garbled mess to them. Imagine trying to explain grammatical concepts and structures or reading skills to students who can’t understand what you’re saying. And yet, in my experience, this is what we do and somehow we make it ‘work’.

I’ll close with this additional comment, which may seem off-piste. As a an editor, I was taught from the get-go, always keep your audience in mind. A good rule, I thought, so I now ask: Are we keeping the audience in mind when we heap structures, skills, text types, tasks, etc. on KS1 learners? 

Would love to hear your thoughts on all this. :-)

24 June 2020

Collins Exploring English 6, 7, 8

Role: Content provider 
Exploring English was my first experience with Collins and it was positive one, on both sides, I hope. 😏 And it was a rare experience to work with authentic content from professionally published authors. As the blurb says: 

A multi-skill course that focuses on all aspects of language learning to help learners develop communicative competence. The series includes a wide range of high-quality reading texts, both classic and contemporary, by Indian and non-Indian authors, as well as original pieces written by children’s authors.

Some of the writers included Bertha Adams Backus (Then Laugh), Subhadra Sen Gupta (Dal Delight), Roald Dahl (Matilda), Ray Bradbury (All Summer in a Day), Paro Anand (Pepper), Robert Frost (Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening), Saki (The Open Window), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Vagabond), Ruskin Bond (The Eyes Have It, Harold: Our Hornbill), Denise Levertov (Celebration), H.G. Well (The Time Machine), Vikram Seth (The Louse and the Mosquito), Rabindranath Tagore, (The Flower School). 

It was fabulous working with rich, multi-level texts, rather then the ELT type texts that I often am asked to write. Yes, I think I can write pretty well for coursebook content, but let's just say I ain't no Bobby Frost.  

And you may be wondering, What exactly is a 'content provider'? Well, some projects already come with reading texts (as shown above), and when they do, they just need content written around them, e.g. reading comprehension, a focus on grammar or vocabulary, a writing task in response to the text. That was me in this case, and again, I consider myself fortunate to have been able to work with such wonderful texts. 

EF Culture File USA/USA+

Role: Editor
EF Culture File USA/USA+ is a course that EF developed for students studying in the US. It is an integral part of the Efekta Action Learning system, a system that helps students track their progress and experiences as well as acting as a stimulus to make the most of their EF course. Culture File USA/USA+ is used together with the EF Fast Track series. You can watch an EF student talk about her experience with the Efekta learning system here

Again, another great project with a fab team!

23 June 2020

EF go! A1 to B2

Role: Editor
EF does lots of summer/winter travel immersion programmes and EF go! is one of those courses. It's a complete English language course specially designed for students aged 14–19. My role was to pick up manuscript from Dropbox as it came in and prepare it for design. This involved: 

  • adhering to EF's manuscript template and style guides
  • checking reading and listening texts for level, length, sense, flow, appeal
  • making sure activities were error free, set out correctly, and achievable
  • checking allotted time for activities
  • making sure teacher's notes were clear, concise, and easy to follow
  • imposing consistency to rubrics, teaching language, and teacher's notes 
  • taking on any other ad hoc duties from the project editor or publishing manager
  • and of course a doing a final spell and grammar check. 

It's always great fun working with EF as management is super organized and the writers are experienced and engaging. If you'd like to learn more about EF Languages Abroad, just click.

22 June 2020

Primary 1 Phonics: Intro + T & D lesson

Role: Phonics teacher and entertainer
Since 2016, I've been teaching Primary 1 Phonics as part of after school programmes. That means 15 to 20 P1 students, who are already done with their day, get sent to Mr. Andy for an hour of phonics. I love working with KS1 students, but 20 P1 students, tired and/or wired, can be a challenge, especially if the material is lacking. The first time I taught the course, I was given two pages of material (8 minutes of work), some A4 flashcards, and a minimal PowerPoint to work with. After a couple of classes, I enhanced the PowerPoints by adding activities that involved Total Physical Response (TPR) and some simple board work. Luckily the classes had a whiteboard so I could project on that and have students mark or circle things. They liked it a lot, though it was sometimes hard to get them back in their seats!

Now I mostly teach Letterland phonics, which is a blast, and I've started to clean up the PowerPoints I made, added teacher's notes, and created worksheets for 16 sets of sounds. Here's the first lesson for T & D. They are yours for the taking. If you like/use them, or have any suggestions, please feel free to drop me a comment.

I will add other Phonics lessons in the coming weeks. 😎

EF Efekta English Vocabulary A1 to C2

Role: Project editor
One of my latest projects with EF was Efekta English Vocabulary, a communicative course specially designed for students who want to increase the breadth and depth of their vocabulary knowledge. The books covered CEFr levels A1 to C2, six book in total with 12 lessons each, covering different topic areas for each level. The goal was to present students with key vocabulary in realistic contexts to help them understand not just the meaning of the words but also how words work together.

I worked with EF's fab publishing manager, Stefanie Smith, to build the course from the ground up, e.g. choosing topics, selecting vocabulary, suggesting activities and input texts. I managed the budget, hiring of the team (8 writers and 5 editors), content production, the production schedule, and so on.

About me

I've been involved in English Language Teaching since 1991. I taught English as a second language for ten years, in Nepal, South Korea, and Boston. I then landed a job as an ELT editor in 2000 for the Secondary ELT team at Longman Hong Kong, now Pearson Hong Kong. In 2006, I moved across town to Educational Publishing House (EPH) to lead in the creation and development of a new ELT coursebook for the secondary school market in Hong Kong. It became the first secondary ELT course from EPH to be accepted by the Education Bureau, all this thanks to a passionate, dedicated team. I left EPH at the end of 2010 and began freelancing as a teacher, editor, content developer, project manager in January 2011.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working on coursebooks, workbooks, and examination material; grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation courses; teacher’s books and lesson plans; digital courses, companion websites, and online test centres; PowerPoint lessons and language learning apps. I’ve also become familiar with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), Cambridge English’s Grammar and Vocabulary profiles, and Pearson’s Global Scale of English (GSE).

During my time in ELT publishing, I've grown to love working with and leading teams. Working together to develop projects out of the ether and bring them to fruition has been one of my life's most gratifying experiences. 

Since 2011, I've also been happy to get back into teaching, both private tuition and classroom teaching. I've taught general conversation and phonics to primary school learners, and IELTS and the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education, English, to secondary school students. 

You can have a look at my CV, and if you think you I can help you with a project, feel free to contact me at apozzoni@gmail.com or via LinkedIn.

And lastly, here are some recommendations from people I've worked with.