Improving English Speaking Ability with a Coursebook, Can-Do Statements and Student Presentations

At our high school, we’ve been able to roughly match the national average scores for reading, listening and writing, in the national aptitude research run by MEXT. For speaking, however, where the national average is 5.7 (out of 14) we achieved a score of 11.7. We’re very pleased with that. But how did we do it?
Coursebook Many teachers are unsure of the value of a coursebook, but we have found that a good coursebook can provide structure to a course and can streamline the teacher’s preparation. In addition, if the course takes into account Can-Do statements (as popularized in the CEFR and GSE) then teachers and students can focus on clear goals. At our high school, we are currently using English Firsthand. This coursebook provides a variety of relevant, high-quality, ready-made activities for students, which made our life easier. In addition, the audio contained many different English accents, and the goals of the lessons were clearly spelled out and logically sequenced. The online component MyMobileWorld allowed digitally-minded students to study pronunciation and more out of the classroom. Student Presentations One of the things that we found particularly interesting was the Presentation Model in English Firsthand. Here students are given video models of how to make presentations on a variety of topics and are provided support to make their own presentations. It seems easy for our students to learn and copy the examples, since the performance of the model is not too perfect. In our case, we have a rehearsal where 10 students would form a group, with the students taking turns being presenters, advisors, evaluators and timers. In order to plan the presentations, we set up rotation schedules and evaluation sheets. After students collect all of the advice and evaluations, they use the peer evaluations to improve any problem areas in their presentations. They can then show their refinement at the presentation.
Role Rolling Model
Role Rolling Model
The CAN-DO List and Student Presentations In our use of student presentations, we directly link the Can-Do List to speeches so that presentations embody the ability of a student to act in English. Importantly, we share the choice of Can-Do goals and have students advise and evaluate those presenting on this basis. In our classes, students would first be given clear models of good presentations before preparing their own presentation with other students. They would then make their presentation, obtain advice from other students and be evaluated by other students. Once their presentations are completed, the students continue to take on the roles of advisor or evaluator, before becoming a presenter once more. Presentation skills such as body language, eye contact, confidence, clarity of speech, organization of thoughts, use of visual aids etc. are learned more thoroughly by students taking on the roles of advisor and evaluator, as well as presenter.
Evaluation Sheet Example
Evaluation Sheet Example
Conclusion Intensive, repeated practice of presentations with peers who also are involved as advisors and evaluators, combined with a communicative coursebook with a Can-Do List at its core vastly improve our students speaking ability and confidence.



Our Experience: Fast and Flexible Curriculum Design Using the GSE

Teachers are usually busy – and even in large institutions it is rare for there to be a full-time staff member dedicated to curriculum development. It’s not uncommon for teachers to be asked by their organizations to develop a curriculum for large numbers of classes in only a few months. There is severe time pressure on teachers to come up with a quality program. This has been our experience and so we were very happy to find out how the GSE, with its Can-Do descriptors pinpointed at various levels, allows us to quickly create relevant, quality curricula.
Our Context Our students were first- and second-year students of the English department at our university. The overall program objectives were to:
Foster the communicative and academic skills and abilities, as well as the content knowledge, necessary to engage in meaningful discussion and research on issues relevant to university students in Japan and as members of the global community.
These goals had been previously addressed via our four-skills-based Integrated English Program with, of course, an emphasis on communication / speaking. We had had a functional situation syllabus for quite a long time when the administration decided they wanted to institute a Pre-1 Eiken test goal. We looked at our program and we said, Students have to achieve this goal to move to their third year. Is our existing program going to give them what they need to do that? And we realized the answer was no. We had maybe six months to develop an alternative for 60 classes over two years, to get students from an A-2 level to an Eiken Pre-1 which is around a B-1 plus. That’s quite a leap. Analyzing What We Need Now, for Eiken Pre-1 the language ability required includes:
  • general academic skills
  • narrative and descriptive skills
  • opinion stating and discussion skills
(The above was adapted from Oberg, 2009) However, we did not want to create a curriculum that was aimed at a specific test – or teach to that test. So, we looked at the skills required to pass the test – and a lot of these skills are useful skills –and we added additional skills such as presentation skills. Skills that would be useful when our students go out in the world. And we would still meet the university’s test requirements. In addition, we really wanted students to come away being able to talk about subjects like the environment, gender, human migration and other global topics. That was our starting point. Matching Skills and Can-Do Descriptors Having defined the necessary skills, we now needed to develop the curriculum. Luckily, we had been involved with evaluating GSE Can-Do descriptors – understanding where a particular descriptor lies in terms of difficulty or level. We had also looked at case studies where the GSE had been used to help develop curricula. We realized that the set of skills we wanted students to learn could be matched up with a relevant set of Can-Do descriptors. Given the level of our students and their goals, this meant descriptors ranging from A2 to B1+. If you’re not familiar with Can-Do descriptors, typical ones would be as follows:
  • Can tell a story or describe something in a simple list of points.
  • Can get information from a tourist office of a straight-forward non-specialized nature
  • Can initiate, maintain and close simple, restricted face-to-face discussions
  • Can give simple instructions to complete a basic task, given a model
  • Can leave simple phone messages using fixed expressions
There are a lot of descriptors. It’s impossible to do them all. So it requires a teacher’s sensitivity, knowledge and experience to choose the appropriate descriptors for their curriculum and their students. You can download GSE CAN-DO descriptor lists from here. It’s pick and mix – but it’s this process of adapting the GSE which is really empowering for teachers and which shows its usefulness and flexibility. Below is a list of some of the descriptors for our Integrated English Program. Map of IE Language Learning Objectives

Key General Academic (Functional Language) Skills

  1. Can show understanding using a limited range of fixed expressions (1AU1)
  2. Can give compliments using fixed expressions (1BU9)
  3. Can ask for clarification about key words not understood, using fixed expressions (1AU1) (1AU2)
  4. Can paraphrase a simple factual statement related to a familiar topic (1AU2)
  5. Can use basic discourse markers to structure a short presentation (1BU8)
  6. Can explain key information in graphs and charts, using simple language (1AU4) (1AU2) (1BU6)
  7. Can answer basic questions about information presented in graphs and charts (1AU4) (1AU2) (1BU6)
  8. Can discuss illustrations in an academic text, using simple language (1BU9)
  9. Can give a simple presentation on an academic topic in their field (1BU8)
  10. Can ask for more information by interrupting politely during or after a simple lecture or presentation aimed at a general audience, using basic follow-up questions (1AU3) (1BU8)
  11. Can ask questions about the content of a presentation or lecture aimed at a general audience, using simple language (1BU8)

Additional Important General Academic (Functional Language) Skills

  1. Can explain meaning of a word or phrase using simple language (1AU2)
  2. Can answer questions about the content of a presentation or lecture (1AU4)
  3. Can give an effective presentation about a familiar topic (1AU4)
  4. Can summarize information from a simple academic text (16U9)

Key Narrative and Descriptive Skills

  1. Can tell a story or describe something in a simple list of points (1BU8)
  2. Can make a short rehearsed announcement on a familiar topic (1BU10)
  3. Can give a short basic description of events and activities (1AU3)
  4. Can narrate a story (1BU10) (1AU3)
  5. Can give detailed accounts of experiences, describing feelings and reactions (1AU1)
  6. Can reasonably fluently relate a straightforward narrative or description as a linear sequence of points (1AU3) (1610) (1AU3)

Additional Important Narrative and Descriptive Skills

  1. Can give a short talk about a familiar topic, with visual support (1BU8)
  2. Can describe dreams, hopes and ambitions (1BU10) (1AU3)
  3. Can discuss the main points of news stories about familiar topics (1AU3)
  4. Can give a short, rehearsed talk or presentation on a familiar topic (1BU9)
  5. Can re-tell a familiar story using their own words (1AU1)

Key Opinion Stating and Discussion Skills

  1. Can give simple opinions using basic fixed expressions and simple language when asked directly (1AU1)
  2. Can initiate, maintain and close simple, restricted face-to-face conversations (1BU6)
  3. Can show interest in conversation using fixed expressions (1AU1/U2) (1AU5)
  4. Can use some basic interjections to express understanding, surprise, disappointment, and excitement
  5. Can convey simple information of immediate relevance and emphasize the main point (1AU4)
  6. Can express belief, opinion, agreement and disagreement politely and can express support or
  7. Can initiate, maintain and close simple face-to-face conversations on a familiar topic (1BU6)
  8. Can give or seek personal views and opinions in discussing topics of interest (1BU7) (1AU2) (1AU4)
  9. Can invite others to give their views on what to do next (113U6) Additional Learning Objectives (Advanced Level Only)
  10. Can ask and answer basic questions in simple academic discussions (1AU1)
  11. Can contribute to a group discussion if the discussion is conducted slowly and clearly (1AU3)
  12. Can ask someone to clarify or elaborate what they have just said and can give clarification (1AU3)
  13. Can give simple reasons to justify a viewpoint on a familiar topic (1BU8) (1AU1) (1AU2)

Additional Opinion Stating Discussion Skills

  1. Can respond in a simple way to a verbal challenge (18U9)
  2. Can express opinions and react to practical suggestions of where to go, what to do (1AU2)
  3. Can signal that they wish to bring a conversation to an end (1BU9) (1BU6)
  4. Can ask someone to paraphrase a specific point or idea (1AU2) (1AU4)
  5. Can explain the main points in an idea or problem with reasonable precision (1AU4)
  6. Can express their thoughts in some detail on cultural topics (e.g. music, films) (1AU3)
  7. Can ask a question in a different way if misunderstood (1AU1) disagreement in a way that shows they were actively listening to the other person (1AU2/1BU7) (1BU9)
  8. Can report the opinions of others (1AU4)

Additional Learning Objectives (Advanced Level Only)

  1. Can ask others for reasons and explanations (1AU3)
  2. Can ask a personal or sensitive questions politely (1AU3)
  3. Can use indirect questions in a polite manner (1AU5) (1AU2)
For the content part of the program (environment, gender, human migration etc.) we used authentic L1 materials following the Understanding by Design principles developed by Wiggins and McTighe. Skills, Descriptors and the Textbook Having defined the skills and matched them to our descriptors, we needed to see how that affected the textbook we used. But it is important that the choice of textbook comes last. Hopefully, the textbook you have been using maps to the skills and descriptors required but if not, then you’ve got the wrong textbook and need to select another one. Pearson have started mapping their course books to GSE levels and Can-Do descriptors. Assessment Our students really want to know how they’re being assessed – and when we used our previous syllabus without the learning objectives from the GSE, we had a lot of complaints. Students understood their scores but now why they were getting them. There was no clear match between there scores and things they could or couldn’t do. Now, before we do an assessment we are able to describe exactly what kind of performance, and what kind of assessment criteria they’ll have, and what kind of outcome we’re looking for. Here’s an example: in a second-year class they were having a discussion on endangered species. They formed groups and each researched an endangered animal, coming up with the reasons why this animal should be saved. Their task then was for people from different groups to come together and discuss what they had researched. They were evaluated on their discussion skills as wells the quality of the research they had done and the coherence of the arguments they put. These evaluations can be based on the students’ performance of identifiable Can-Do statements and so students can be clear about what they’re getting scored on and understand what they can and can’t do well. Below is the assessment form we used:
How you will be graded: (1 point for each criteria; Total = 10 points)
Criteria Outcome Assessment
Materials Fill out the worksheet List of pros and cons with reasons/examples
CAN-DO… Can give simple reasons The first reason is… Another reason is…
Can show interest I see / Really? / That’s interesting. / Wow!
Can show agreement and disagreement I agree / I disagree / That’s right / That’s true / I don’t / I see your point, but…
Talking about endangered animals Can suggest pros and cons for saving or not saving an endangered animal I agree / I disagree / That’s right / That’s true / I don’t / I see your point, but…
Can use specialized vocabulary from topic Vocabulary
Fluency/Accuracy Can talk in fluent English
Can talk with reasonable accuracy
Conclusion We have found the GSE, underpinned as it is by its Can-Do descriptors, a very useful resource to:
  1. help develop English-learning curricula based on what skills we want students to have
  2. match the curricula with relevant textbooks
  3. provide assessment that is relevant and comprehensible to students.
And it helps us get our job done much more quickly!

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Why Reference Standards Matter in Japan

We’re all familiar with terms such as “beginner”, “intermediate” and “advanced” when discussing the classes and textbooks that we assign to students. Less clear is how these terms describe, specifically, the current capabilities of our students or how they help us understand what we need to teach to equip our students with a more advanced set of capabilities. In Japan, the government has decided to change the university entrance exam to include productive skills and to bring the mandatory teaching of English down to Grade 5 – both effective from 2020. The goal is for 50% of students to be at A2+ ~ B1 in all 4 skills by the time they leave high school. These are more realistic expectations than some other countries but are nonetheless a challenge given the current teaching context and awareness of what such standards mean. We sat down with Jacqueline Martin to discuss standards and scores, the Global Scale of English, and how that fits with local standards such as Eiken and CEFR-J.
Why do we need reference standards to measure student progress?
Jacqueline Martin:
Without them it’s very difficult to understand what students should be expected to do at a certain level or what we should be teaching to help them reach a higher level. It may be the case that teachers in a particular school have a sense of level amongst their students but that sense of level may not travel well. For textbook authors and teachers who create learning materials they need a clear, granular, guide to what to needs to be learnt at any particular stage for a specified type of student.
Why are global standards important?
Jacqueline Martin:
As global mobility for work and study increases employers and educational institutions are asking for clear, reliable standards to help them with recruitment and admissions. And applicants want to be sure that the credentials they’ve worked so hard to get are recognized globally.
So surely the CEFR is what we need to look at?
Jacqueline Martin:
The CEFR was a huge step forward and a great achievement – but it was limited in that it applied to general English for adults and was framed in a European context. It was also rather imbalanced, in terms of the spread of objectives across levels and skills, especially at the top and bottom ends of the scale, and not easy to break down and use for teaching purposes. Its authors expected it to be built upon and improved.
Which, I assume, is where the Global Scale of English comes in?
Jacqueline Martin:
Yes, the GSE provides an extended set of CEFR descriptors that are more granular, that is, they give a much better insight into what students can do, and the GSE better addresses the imbalance that existed in the number of descriptors across skills and levels. It also takes into account how competence needs may differ across contexts – the differences in what you need to know if you’re a young learner, academic student or business person.
How does this fit with local standards such as EIKEN?
Jacqueline Martin:
We know that for optimal learning students need to link learning objectives to their personal context and experience — it has to be relevant and meaningful to them. Needs and cultural experiences are different globally and learners will find it easier to learn when learning experiences are adjusted and contextualised for their situation. Local standards do this.
But do local and global standards align?
Jacqueline Martin:
They do. Our studies have shown that there is a high degree of alignment in terms of what students need to know and be able to do in a language. This means that, in Japan for example, the huge EIKEN test can be usefully aligned to GSE. Our studies have shown that GSE descriptors can inform planning, teaching and assessment activities when used with local descriptors and core materials as they are aligned to the same scale.
That’s convenient.
Jacqueline Martin:
There is some work required to make sure this alignment works. The core learning objective should remain similar but the context in which they’re presented and the opportunities for practice should be personalised to the experiences of students in that country. Making sure that the core learning objectives are not lost is hugely important and so we follow consistent guidelines as to how objectives should be localized. O’Sullivan and Dunlea have made a table of the degree to which tests can be localized without losing the original level, which we believe to be useful. In Japan Professor Tono has provided a great model for how localisation can (and should) be standardised when translated so that meaning isn’t lost.
So in the case of Japan, what’s the state of play in terms of aligning GSE with local standards?
Jacqueline Martin:
We’re continuing to share and evaluate descriptors to ensure both GSE and local standards are globally relevant and comparable — not only for speaking listening, reading and writing but also for vocabulary and grammar. We’re also working with teachers and researchers locally to confirm best practices around creating learning and assessment tasks aligned to the GSE descriptors. Finally we’re aligning materials and assessments to both local standards and CEFR/GSE.

About Jaqueline Martin

Jacqueline Martin has a BA in Psychology and Education, a PGCE in Primary Teaching and a CELTA qualification. After university she was a UK primary teacher and Adult English teacher. She has worked in Primary ELT publishing for 17 years, firstly at Oxford University Press and then at Pearson, initially in editorial and then in strategic roles including Publishing Director for Primary. In January 2017 she joined the Global Scale of English team at Pearson and has been leading on the development of standards and tools for Teachers of Young Learners and advising on curriculum development. She has visited, researched, commissioned and published courses for more than 20 markets globally including Japan.

Related links

There’s more information about the GSE’s Learning Objectives (Can-Do Statements) for Japan here: