Monday, 19 November 2012

How to use information from websites in your academic writing

Most international students here in the UK were accepted at their universities and colleges because they worked very hard indeed to get good grades in the IELTS examination.  It can therefore be quite a shock to realise that the techniques used in IELTS essays are not enough to get them good grades in the academic essays they are required to write for their degree courses.  For a start, IELTS essays are short, and written by hand under exam conditions, with no access to dictionaries or grammar books.  The coursework on a degree programme is much longer, and because it needs to be typed can easily be edited and corrected many times over a number of days or even weeks.  A more important difference, however, lies in the type of content which is needed.  IELTS essays are on topics of general knowledge, and although candidates think up a number of arguments and examples to support their opinions, they do not have to provide any evidence for this.  Students producing coursework at degree level, must back up the arguments in their essays by using information from reliable academic sources, and acknowledge the source of this information.  This causes three main problems: how to get information which is reliable, how to reference this information correctly, and how to integrate it into your writing.

How to find reliable information

Books from the college library and academic journals accessed through the college website are both excellent sources of information, and it is unlikely that any information you found through these sources would be considered unreliable. Sometimes, however, you will need to find additional information.  My Business students recently needed to write an economics essay about government policies designed to discourage people from smoking, and were told to look for information on the internet.  Most of them knew that they should not be using Wikipedia, for the simple reason that absolutely anyone can contribute information, even if they are not qualified to do this.  This blog is another example of information which should be regarded with caution - I know that I have got the qualifications and experience I claim to have - but do you know that?  If you are reading this because you are one of my students, I hope that you will be trusting the information I am giving, because you know that I work at a reputable college (who checked my qualifications very carefully), as part of a well qualified team of teachers, but other readers cannot be sure of that.  Try to look for websites provided by the following bodies:
  • academic institutions - in the UK, web addresses often end in
  • government organisations (often .gov)
  • reputable newspapers such as the Times, Guardian, Observer, Telegraph, Financial Times or Independent
  • well-known news organisations such as the BBC
  • non-profit organisations - the websites often end in  For example provided lots of useful information about the dangers of smoking for my students' last essay.
The ASH website is interesting because it is an example of a reputable website which is still biased - it is very much an anti-smoking website.  This is not necessarily a problem.  In this case, my students were being asked to write about government actions against smoking, and ASH provided useful facts and figures.  If, however, the essay had been about the moral or philosophical arguments about people's right to smoke if this is what they want to do, then the arguments on the ASH website could be considered to represent only one side of the story - it would be a good idea to also look at the arguments presented by the tobacco companies, perhaps on this website.

How to provide correct references

When you have found some useful information, you need to use it in a way which does not get you accused of plagiarism, which could really be summed up as 'academic stealing'.  Most academic institutions use anti-plagiarism software like Turnitin (, and work containing information which you have not referenced correctly is in danger of getting a score of zero.  In some cases, you can even be removed from your university and college.  It's a serious matter.  

Although there are a number of different ways to present information about the sources you have used, students do not get to choose which system to use.  At most UK academic institutions, students must use the Harvard Referencing System (see, for example, the information provided by the University of Manchester here), and they must present their references in exactly the right way, both in the main text of their essay and in a list of references at the end of their work.  There are some slight variations in some small details about how the references are written (for example, some people put the date of publication in brackets, some don't) but you should exactly follow the system recommended by your own academic institution.  To create references for the reference list at the end of the essay, I've been recommending my students to use this referencing tool, available free online.  Once you have generated all the references for your essay, list them in alphabetical order, by the surname of the author or the name of the organisation if you are referring to something published by an organisation as a whole rather than an individual author - this is often the case with the BBC, or a government website. 

A list at the end of your work is, however, not enough.  You must also provide what is known as 'in-text referencing', which is basically the surname of the author (or organisation) and the year, plus the page number if you are providing a direct quotation from a book or journal - I'll talk more about this in the next section.

How to integrate this information into your writing

When you decide to use information from another (reliable) source in your essay, you have to find a way to include it in your essay in such a way that it supports the point you are trying to make.  I want to say that the UK government placed some very strong restrictions on cigarette advertising, and definitely  want to quote from this article on the ASH website.  Before I go any further, I create the full reference and put it at the end of my essay, so there is no chance I will forget to do that later:  

ASH. (2012). Advertising and promotion. Available: Last accessed 19th November 2012.

Let's say that I decide to use the information contained in this section of the webpage:

Virtually all tobacco advertising is now illegal in the UK and many other countries. The Tobacco Advertising & Promotion Act 2002 was enacted in November 2002 in the UK, with most advertising ending on 14th February 2003 (eg on billboards and in printed publications) and a gradual phase out for the rest (eg direct mail and sponsorship) by July 2005.

I have two basic choices about how to do this - I can either provide a direct quotation, using quotation marks, or I can paraphrase the words of the original text.  

To insert a direct quotation into my essay, I introduce the idea in my own words (you must always talk about your quotations - never just drop it in and say nothing), then write my quotation:

One of the ways in which the UK government has attempted to discourage the population from smoking is by making  tobacco advertising illegal: "The Tobacco Advertising & Promotion Act 2002 was enacted in November 2002 in the UK, with most advertising ending on 14th February 2003 (eg on billboards and in printed publications) and a gradual phase out for the rest (eg direct mail and sponsorship) by July 2005" (ASH, 2012).

Alternatively, and this is usually the better way, I can rewrite the information using my own words:

One of the ways in which the UK government has attempted to discourage the population from smoking is by making  tobacco advertising illegal, passing the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act in 2002, which banned all forms of tobacco advertising by the middle of 2005 (ASH, 2012).

Paraphrasing (and summarising, if the information you want to include is written with lots of examples which are not absolutely essential) is much better because it shows your teacher that you have understood what you are reading, and how it relates to your topic.  Make sure you don't just change a few words - read it carefully, think about it hard, then write out the main idea without looking at the text.  Check it again, and make sure it's accurate and sufficiently different from the original.  Don't forget to reference it even if you've paraphrased - it's still someone else's ideas or information, even if it's now your own words!

If I want to emphasise the source of my information, I can do it like this:

According to ASH (2012), the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act was passed in 2002 and banned all forms of tobacco advertising by the middle of 2005.

All you need is the author (or, as here, the name of the organisation as ASH does not give the name of the actual person who wrote those words) and the year - the reader gets all the rest of the information by looking at the reference list at the end.  

What happens if you use more than one page from the same website?

This is the only tricky part of the business.  Remember that the purpose of the reference list is to enable the reader to locate the information which you used, and if you call the webpage mentioned above "ASH, 2012" but then use a different webpage from the same website and call it "ASH, 2012" again, the reader will not know exactly where to find each bit of information.  The same problem arises if an author has published two books in the same year - if you call each one "Smith, 2008", the reader will not know which one to look at.  The answer is simple: the first one you mention, call it "a" - therefore "ASH, 2012a", or "Smith, 2008a", and the second one "b", so "ASH, 2012b" or "Smith, 2008b".  Do exactly the same in the reference list at the end of your work - put a little "a" or "b" after the year.  

Now it's time for you to practise your referencing skills yourself......

Look at these links and decide which one is probably not reliable enough to use in your academic essay.  Create a reference for each of the others, and write a reference list - don't forget to put it in alphabetical order.  Finally, say how you would refer to each one of them in the text.  

Webpage 1   

I will post the answers later.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Lesson planning: back to basics

One of my former Weekend TEFL students got in touch with me the other day, stuck on a lesson planning assignment in her online TEFL course.  Now that I've been teaching for so many years, lesson planning isn't something I ever really worry about - unless I'm being observed or assessed, in which case I still don't get worried about it, I just try to make my plan more explicit so that the observer can see where it's going as the lesson progresses.  

However, in giving a bit of advice to my former student, I started to think about my current lesson planning habits, and realised that I probably need to review my own strategies and make sure that I haven't fallen into any bad habits without realising...  
  • Decide what the end result should be.  What do you want the students to be able to do by the end of this lesson?  If the topic is big and will take more than one lesson, break the topic up into the right number of chunks and allocate the chunks to the different lessons.  Can some of the topic be dealt with as homework?  How will this be checked?  Will you need to review and revise each chunk at the beginning of the next lesson?  Make sure you allow time for this, especially if it's an important part of the curriculum.
  • Work backwards.  When you have the destination clearly in your mind, it's much easier to plan the route.  If you want the students to be able to 'talk about hobbies while revising adverbs of frequency', decide on the target language before planning any of the activities.  How many hobbies?  Which adverbs of frequency?  Then decide how will you know that they have met the objective - what sort of activity will you use to allow the students to demonstrate their new skills?  How will you monitor the activity?  Will you allow some time for feedback and consolidation at the very end? 
  • How will the students get to that final activity?  Plan the rest of the lesson with the end in mind.  Use different types of activity if possible, to meet the different preferences and learning styles of the different students in the class.  Some students love spontaneous role plays whereas others prefer having time to work alone before having to 'perform'.  Some students love gap-fill activities (yes, it's true!  I absolutely love doing them myself when I'm learning a language) whereas others find them both dull and ineffective as a way to learn. 
  • Think about the interaction patterns throughout the lesson.  Plan who will be talking to whom at each stage - this is also a good way to identify excessive teacher talking time, if this is something you are prone to.  If it's a discussion in pairs, will the students be working with the people they normally sit next to, or will you try to get them talking to different people?  What will happen if there is an odd number?  If you are going to make groups, how will you manage this from a practical point of view?
  • What materials do you need?  Don't spend two hours creating beautiful resources which will only be used for five minutes, unless you are really sure that the materials can be used over and over again.  Don't re-invent the wheel - there are so many fantastic free resources which teachers can use - I particularly like this website from the British Council.   Consider limiting the number of photocopies you use - not only will you save a few trees over your career, you will also help students to value the handouts you do give them.
  • Have a Plan B up your sleeve if possible.  I always like to have something in reserve in case things don't go according to plan - if the photocopier is broken and I can't do the copying I need, or I have a headache and don't feel up to the demanding lesson I've planned.  I like to have a range of different activities which the students can do in an emergency, from the essential but dull (mock writing exam) to the challenging (preparing group presentations or a photo project), depending on the type of emergency!

What tips and strategies could you pass on to other teachers?  I'd love to know!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Improving your reading and listening skills

I am a massive fan of keeping up to date with what is happening in the world, and I always try to convince my international students of the importance of reading and listening to the news.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the very best way of improving your English, as well as giving you lots of ideas and information for writing essays and doing various types of academic speaking.  

The problem, for many learners, is that it's just too difficult - the news articles they find are too long and complicated, and they can't see any improvement quickly enough.  They just give up.

Today, however, I've made a great discovery.  Some of my lovely INTO students have been asking me to help them do better in Listening and Reading tests, and I was delighted to stumble upon this fantastic website while I was looking for useful online resources.  You can decide which level you are at (but I think it's probably best to start the first time at Level 1) and each news story is given at all 3 levels, using more vocabulary as you move up the levels.  If there is a video clip, the words which are spoken are written down for you to see.

There's a great story here - and it's about something which happened in China, which will be interesting for my current class, most of whom are Chinese.  Have a look at the 3 different levels, and decide which one is right for you.  

If you're struggling with your reading and listening, or disappointed with your test scores, why not work through one of these stories every day?

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Still working on overcoming procrastination, or.... how to eat a frog

I'm  really, really busy at the moment.  I'm teaching IELTS and Academic Reading and Writing, and also preparing my lesson plans and materials for my first ever TEFL Weekend course.   

I'm really having trouble getting started on my stuff for the TEFL Weekend, because it seems overwhelming - I could have up to 20 students, and I need to prepare 20 hours of teaching materials.  I know what I need to teach, but it feels like I need 40 or even 60 hours to cover everything the trainees need to learn.  I'm going to have to be very focused and very creative to work out what to do and what to leave out.  The experienced teacher I observed during my training was amazing - I've got a lot to live up to!

I've written about my tendency to procrastinate before - here - and my method using a 15 minute timer to get myself started is certainly helping me to get focused on my work generally.  The problem is that while I've been doing fine focusing on my work in general, I wasn't really getting started on my biggest, scariest project - the TEFL Weekend.  I needed to learn to 'eat my frog'......

A writer called Brian Tracy has written some interesting stuff about procrastinating in general but also the difficulty of focusing on the really difficult - but really important - tasks, which he describes as being like live frogs which you are being forced to eat.  Although I'm sure there are cultures around the world where people eat cooked frogs (for example, in France frogs' legs are a great delicacy), I'm English and the thought of eating any frog, let alone a live one, is not appealing.  However, sometimes we have to do things we don't want to do, so here's how to eat that frog:

  • Eat it first. Some children, and probably some adults, when faced with a plate of food containing something they don't like but which they feel they must eat (out of politeness, or for health reasons), eat the horrible thing first, to get it out of the way.  Then they can enjoy the rest of the meal. It's the same with the horrible or difficult task - just do it, and do it now.  The rest of the day will be so much more pleasant because you won't be dreading having to deal with that frog.
  • Don't sit there looking at it for too long.  Looking at it makes it seem worse than it really is - you just need to get started.  As I mentioned in my previous blog post on this topic (see the link above), I just set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes, and really focus on getting started, even if all I do is read over what I did last time I worked on it.  Then I take a short break to do something more enjoyable.   After exactly 15 minutes, I go back to my 'frog' and give it 15 more minutes of undivided attention. After that, another break, followed by another 15 minutes of concentration on the task.  It sounds a lazy way to eat the frog, but it works for me.  If I know I have to spend a whole hour dealing with that frog, I never get started.  I'm a quick worker when I get going, and I can usually do an hour's work in 30 minutes if I really, really work hard.
  • If you have two frogs to eat, eat the ugliest one first.  Always start with the task you dread the most - after that, things can only get better! Your sense of achievement from completing the worst task will make the second frog look a whole lot more beautiful...

So, I'm off to eat my frog - in 15 minute chunks, with 15 minutes of reading my Ruth Rendell detective novel inbetween.  Later we're going out walking in the countryside, making the most of the sunshine, and I'll be able to do it with a clean conscience, knowing that I've eaten today's frog.  If you'd like to read more about procrastination and eating frog's here's the link to Brian Tracy's free e-book.

Have a great weekend!

Friday, 13 July 2012

Things I wish I'd known when I first went to study abroad

In my previous post here, I talked about my recent visit to St Johann im Pongau, the village in Austria where I spent my year abroad as part of my German degree.  It's not surprising that this visit has triggered a flood of memories not only about that time but also about other trips I made to German-speaking countries in an effort to learn German.

Although I had some wonderful experiences, and my time abroad most definitely did help me with my German, I do feel that I missed a few opportunities and that there are some things I wish I'd known, especially at the beginning of the year in St Johann.  Maybe some of these things will help you if you are studying a long way from home.
  1. Homesickness is awful, but it's a natural part of adapting to life in a new country.  It's one aspect of culture shock, and if I experienced terrible culture shock living in another European country, I can't imagine how hard it must be for people coming to the UK from China or other distant countries.  What I wish I'd know is that it would pass, and in my case it would have passed much more quickly if I had known that the cure for homesickness is to.... 
  2. Get out of your room and do things!  Even now, I still have a tendency to hide away at home if I'm feeling bad, although I know that mixing with people always makes me feel better.  When I first went to Austria several people at the school where I worked were nice and welcoming, but I was very shy and I didn't really show how much I wanted to make friends.  In those days we didn't have the Internet, and phone calls were really expensive, so I spent hours and hours and hours writing letters to friends and family at home.  It would have been a much better idea to get out and about. If you're part of a class of students, like my new group of students at INTO Manchester, make the most of any activities organised by the college.  If you're feeling great, try to notice anyone in your class who seems homesick or lonely,  and be friendly to them. Maybe you will feel homesick at some point, and a person who has already been through it and is feeling better will be happy to help you the way you helped them. 
  3. Make new friends who don't speak your language.  It's natural when you are homesick to want to spend time with people from your own culture, and I would never say that you should avoid them altogether.  However, don't spend all your time with them.  I spent nearly all my weekends visiting English people in other parts of Austria, and by doing that I missed out on opportunities to do things with Austrians, get to know them better - and practise my German. Before I went to Austria, I was one of the best students in my year at university, but when I got back I was nowhere near the top of my class, especially in Speaking.  The people who had made lots of German and Austrian friends were way, way ahead of me.  If possible, fall in love with a native speaker!  One of my Chinese classmates on my Master's degree course had a British boyfriend - her English really improved very quickly indeed.
  4. Even if you don't have much money, spend as much as you can on experiences you will never forget.  For me, I should have had skiing lessons the minute the first snow arrived.  A friend from my aerobics class tried to teach me to ski, but she wasn't a skiing teacher and she found it hard to understand why I couldn't do it!  I should have invested some money in proper lessons, and then I could have joined the other teachers at school who went skiing every weekend all through the winter. That doesn't really apply to my students in Manchester, but I would still say this: don't spend all your money on clothes and electronics - you can have all those things later in your life - spend your money on experiences - meals with friends, music concerts, films, sports and, most importantly of all, travel.  I did travel quite a lot when I lived in Austria, but not nearly enough - partly because I didn't always have someone to travel with.  I didn't realise that lots and lots of people have amazing journeys on their own - in fact, you are more likely to make new friends if you are travelling alone.  I was so happy when one of my new INTO students emailed me this week asking for advice about travelling while he is here - one of his friends had told him that he should take the opportunity to do this before he gets too busy with his studies, and this is absolutely right.  
One day you will wake up and find that you are 30, or 40, or 50 (yes, honestly, one day you will be this old...) and you will probably have so many responsibilities - a demanding job, a home to pay for and clean, children to bring up and provide for.  It would be terrible to have regrets about not having made the most of your freedom while you had it!

To my new class at INTO: you will never have a better chance to become really, really good at English.  Most of you are Chinese, and I understand how easy it is for you to stick together.  However, there are lots of people at INTO and other colleges in Manchester who are not from China, and they would love to make friends with you. Don't miss this chance to really broaden your horizons.

Have a great weekend :-)

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Back to where it all started...

The photo above is of St Johann im Pongau, the village in Austria where I spent the third year of my German degree as an English assistant working in two schools.  

Last week while I was in Munich the weather was unbearably hot for this poor Brit used to Manchester weather, so we hired a blissfully air-conditioned car and drove down into Austria (or up into the Alps) to revisit the place where my teaching career began.  I'd not been back for 28 years, so it was quite an emotional day.

Since my very first day at primary school, all I ever wanted to be was a teacher.  I couldn't imagine anything more wonderful than being able to spend all my time helping people to learn new things.  At secondary school I loved German best of all my school subjects, and I was extra ordinarily lucky to have two of the most amazing teachers for German - Mrs Burras somehow had me convinced that learning German grammar was the best fun it was possible to have, and Mrs Irving re-awoke my love for literature that had been killed off by having to read Shakespeare at the age of 11. It was a foregone conclusion that I would choose to study German at university, and my only plan was to go on to be a school teacher.

Teaching in Austria was a terrible shock.  My only training was a couple of days in Vienna with the entire group of English assistants for the whole of Austria that year, and all I can remember from that time is being in rather nice bars and restaurants being plied with food and drink at the expense of the Austrian government.  I certainly don't remember being given any idea at all how to teach English.  

English assistants are generally supposed to 'assist' the actual class teacher, but in one school I was expected to teach the whole class (with no course book to help me) while the teacher put her feet up in the staff room with a cup of coffee and a cigarette (yes, in those days the staff room was full of smoke...) and in the other school I sat in the corner of the classroom as bored as the pupils with the teacher throwing an occasional, usually very difficult, question at me.  For example, I was asked, without warning, to explain in detail the British parliamentary system of government.  I was 20 and more interested in boys than politics, and I still remember the red-faced humiliation I felt when I stumbled over my inadequate answer.  I also remember how much the students resented being made to learn English throughout their whole time at school, and how little attention they paid.

There were many wonderful things about that year in Austria, but school teaching was not one of them.  I came away absolutely certain in my conviction that I would never become a school teacher, and I never have.  I truly admire those people who are successful secondary school language teachers, but I knew it wasn't for me.

I wouldn't be sitting here writing this now had it not been for a friend I met at an aerobics class in St Johann, who taught an English evening class.  She invited me to attend her class to meet her adult students, and I fell in love.  Not with a student - but with the idea of teaching people who had chosen to be there, who were giving up their own time and money to come and study.  Some were learning English to help them in their jobs, others just for something fun and social to do, others for the sheer pleasure of learning.  The teacher had freedom in the classroom to teach in her own way, to meet the students' goals in the way that she felt most appropriate rather than being forced to follow a strict syllabus.  

So, to cut a long story short, I became a teacher of German in Further Education, quite often teaching retired people who had had a longstanding interest in Germany, Austria or Switzerland and who wanted to learn the language when they had the time.  It was a wonderful career - not well paid or secure (everything was dependent on student enrolment numbers) but incredibly enjoyable and satisfying.  I eventually moved over to teaching mainly English - alas, the British are not great lovers of language learning, and German is not so popular these days - and it all began with that one evening class in St Johann which I taught all those years ago.  

I discovered then that what I want is to teach students who want to learn, and what I need is to know what I am doing.  I admire people who can teach anyone, or who be thrown in at the deep end and begin teaching without any training or doing any lesson preparation, but I'm not like that.  Like most people I know, I needed some good teacher training - I did a one year Cert TESOL plus lots more training later on - and plenty of time for lesson preparation, particularly in the early years.  Maybe if I had been properly trained before I started teaching in St Johann, I would have gone on to become a secondary school teacher, but I can't imagine that I would have had as much pleasure in my teaching career as I have had up to now, and expect to go on having in the future.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Second language speaking out in the real world

I've just come back from a holiday in Munich.  As I've mentioned before, I'm a pretty competent speaker of German, and can express myself easily in all everyday situations.  Normally when I go on holiday to a German-speaking country I don't have to make much of an effort to make myself understood in every situation in which I find myself.  This time was a little bit different, as I was taken ill while I was there and needed to find and see a doctor.  Surprisingly, given that most educated Germans speak English to an extremely high standard, the doctor spoke no English and I felt very vulnerable having to provide some quite unusual but very important information in my second language.  I was dopey from having taken painkillers and, to be honest, a bit anxious about being so far from home and in pain.  I really struggled to describe exactly what I was experiencing, and discuss with her whether I should see a specialist in Munich or wait until I got home.  In the end we agreed on the latter, and luckily the pain subsided enough for me to enjoy the last couple of days of my holiday.  

I hope that my international students in Manchester find me sympathetic and understanding when they face illness or other difficulties during their time here, but my experience in Munich was a good reminder to me of the challenges of speaking a foreign language (not to mention dealing with a foreign health service) under pressure.  Of course all teachers know only too well how strong students sometimes perform poorly under stress in the IELTS exam, but it does us good to be reminded from time to time that students also have to live here, and negotiate all sorts of bureaucratic situations which we as native speakers might find irritating but they as second language learners find incredibly stressful.  It has definitely made me aware of the importance of a holistic attitude to teaching and learning - our students are first and foremost people rather than students, and while it is not my job to accompany them to the doctor, the town hall or the police station, it is my job to enable them to develop the linguistic strategies to cope under pressure.

More about Munich in due course!