I decided to go with the topic of wild animals as there is an existing project assignment to research and write about their favourites wild beasts. However, it’s all done on paper and the kids have the tendency to just stick with the animals and the model paragraphs in the coursebook. As ever, there is also the issue of them being reluctant to review and redraft their writing, especially as many of them go straight to poster mode. The intention is to use the website to introduce a wider range of vocabulary and exploit the ease with which work typed on a computer can be revised.
The home page features a general introduction to the topic with a video from ZSL (Zoological Society of London) showcasing animals from their Africa exhibit. This is all designed to activate their background knowledge of the topic (they have done animals several times before) and see how much they know. Throughout the website, choices are offered as to what activity is done next as some students may need to revise basic vocabulary while others may be comfortable with tackling other tasks straightaway.
I considered a few different ways of presenting vocabulary - during the course module, we looked at glossing words, providing links to online dictionaries, use of imagery and video but ultimately, I decided to go with the most straightforward and child-friendly way and used slideshows. I just made a PowerPoint as I would for any vocabulary presentation, uploaded it to Slideshare and embedded it in the site. However, I still needed to find a way to provide a pronunciation model. We had looked at embedding audio sound bytes together with images but it all seemed a bit complicated for kids to handle so I went with the simplest option again and screencasted my presentations, uploaded the videos to YouTube and embedded them on the page. That way, the kids get a visual reminder of animal and body vocab if they want to refresh their memories and a narrated video slideshow for pronunciation practice.
Elsewhere on the site, vocabulary support is provided with captioned images and I also added a search box widget from Zargan.com, an English-Turkish dictionary site, for the kids to use when needed.
It seems that even with all the latest web 2.0 developments, the easiest and most straightforward program to use for generating activities in Hot Potatoes. I explored some other options but decided HP was still the best as the kids are familiar with it and the quiz and gap-fill options were just what I was after.
After the vocabulary presentations, the students can navigate to a quiz about animals and a matching activity for body parts. I also made use of an HP-derived program called WebSequitur to make some jumbled text activities (see this post by Sean Banville for more examples of how it works) to get the students analysing some texts about animals more closely.
One of the great features of HP is the feedback but it has to be set up in the right way. Just as in the classroom, a “no, that’s wrong” can be off-putting but an explanation of the wrong answer can help so I tried to include more information about the animals in the feedback. Give it a try - type in an incorrect answer on the animals quiz and see what it tells you!
Use of video
As well as plenty of real animal images, I decided to incorporate some video for a change of pace. The video on the home page has no narration so the kids can focus purely on the visuals and try to identify the animals they see. However, later on I include narrated authentic videos about the okapi and warthogs. Obviously, authentic videos can be a bit daunting for young elementary level learners but the rich input of video holds their attention well and they find it motivating.
Supporting the task is key as well. I was careful to make sure there were some cues and questions to remind the children about these animals. I also pose some speculative questions to get them thinking before they watch (together with a little text box for them to type notes into). This gives them a purpose for watching and I made sure most of the questions could be answered from the visuals as well as by listening.
The students are directed to write up a project about 3 animals of their choice in Word. Obviously, they could be directed to write on a class blog or a wiki but the main body of preparing them for the project was the focus of the assignment so I kept it simple for now.
There are also links to other places around the web where the kids can learn and write about animals. Giving such links is important to make these projects more ‘connected’ to the rest of the web rather than being an isolated school page.
So, if you get time, have a look at the site and work through the activities. I haven’t had the chance to use it with my students yet (not sure if I will) but this is something I would like to return to in the future so your feedback is appreciated.