Friday, 30 March 2012

Lessons on the Fly - Back to the Drawing Board

Apart from a few slowly melting piles, the snow in this part of the world has finally gone…


Grass! Sunshine! Quite a contrast to weeks gone past.

…and the time for using our snow pictures has melted away too. We had a good run of activities with them but I think we had gone as far as we could so the time had come for a new injection of creativity.

One good sign was that the students were keen to draw again (rather than the groans of ‘not again, teacher!’ that I had feared) so we decided to go with a different activity. I asked the students to turn their notebooks to the side (landscape format) and divide the page into two. They then drew a line across the bottom of the page but (as I also told my students at the time) I’ll tell you what that was for later.

On one half of the page, I instructed the students to draw a face. The details (male/female, young/old, hairstyle, eyes, facial features etc.) were all up to them and the only other instruction was to make sure their class mates did not see it. As usual, I monitored while they were drawing, asking questions, making suggestions and helping them out with vocabulary like freckles, spots and moles were needed.

Once the drawings were done, the first task was to pair up and do a ‘pictogloss’ activity. They described the face they had drawn (again, there was no specific instruction on what language to use - I just waited to see what they would come out with) and their partner listened, ask questions for clarification and then started to draw. After they had exchanged roles, they compared their pictures to see how similar they were (good practice for the listen, colour and draw section of the listening test with some speaking and describing pictures thrown in as well).

What about the space at the bottom of the page? Well, here we created a profile for the person in the picture. Name was the obvious place to start but after that, I encouraged the class to decide what other information should be on the profile. Predictable topics such as hobbies, nationality, date of birth etc. came up but each class had something different as well. In one class, they included future ambitions, in another it was last holiday destination and one class for some reason came up with ‘celebrity crush’!

Having made their notes, they then returned to their partners and asked questions to complete the profile for the face they had drawn in the pictogloss phase earlier. Following the activity, we went over some of the question forms they had struggled with and I then asked the students to circulate and ask about the faces drawn by other students in the class as reinforcement.

And that was the lesson. Again, we could have done a sample listening activity and we could have done a practice information exchange activity for the speaking section of the tests. However, we instead did something creative with lots of student input and a mix of different communicative and language focus skills. Much more engaging and productive. Smile

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Taking the Pics out of Coursebooks

The poor old coursebook. For such a long time it was the centre of my teaching world, but nowadays it has lost its prominence. Whereas it was once the glue that held my lessons together, it is now neglected and only used occasionally and begrudgingly.

But it does have to be used once in a while. Much like a couple trapped in a relationship that has long since lost its spark, we still have to make the odd appearance together. They say it’s for the sake of the kids even though they would probably be better off in the long run if we made a clean break and I carried on alone.

In such cases, cynicism and ridicule often come to the fore. However, this does not necessarily have to be detrimental to learning. I have found poking a little fun at the material we have to use, especially the pictures, can actually bring out a high level of creativity in my students.

Let me give you an example with the following picture:


Nothing too special here you might think - a standard picture of people in a hospital with various ailments. We could elicit vocab, speculate about the illnesses and injuries, listen to the accompanying recording and match names to the people.

OR we could speculate that the boy with the green face might be an alien and that plant next to him is actually a rather outlandish hat. We could also say that his mother is not particularly caring as she quietly reads her book and ignores her distressed half-alien son.

What about the girl in the tennis outfit who is crying? Did she fall and bump her knee? Or did she go into a fit of rage having lost the match during which she broke her mixed-doubles partner’s arm and is now in tears fearing the consequences?

What about the slightly dizzy girl who needs a nurse to help her put a lollipop in her mouth the right way round? Or the other nurse who is chatting on Skype instead of doing her job?

With some gentle encouragement from me, I have found that my students can really get their imaginations going and come out with some very interesting language. They are then keen to go on to the listening activity to see just how far off the mark their guesses were (in this case, we were not far wrong with one as it turned out the alien/boy with stomach ache had in fact been made ill by the cooking of his neglectful mother!)

And then they start taking the pics all by themselves as happened when this image came up:

Flyers Beach scene

Without any prompting from me, I had kids deciding the man with the beard sprawled on the sand was not in fact playing volleyball but was instead a castaway who had just collapsed on the shore after a marathon swim from his desert island. The small girl just behind the boy playing volleyball was not his team mate but rather she was helping the other girl by sneaking up to push him. The other interpretation they had was that the woman with the bandaged hand had been bitten by the dog the day before and was therefore throwing a stick at the mutt in an act of revenge! All stuff the students came up with using language and vocabulary far exceeding the targets of the book itself.

Some may say we’re not taking it seriously but I just say we’re taking the pics…. Smile with tongue out and getting creative at the same time. Smile

In one of my classes tomorrow, we are likely to come onto this picture:

Clean up

What do you think? How can we have fun with this one? What weird and wonderful interpretations might they come up with this time?

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Lessons on the Fly - Working with Texts (Post-Workshop Round-up, Part 2)

Amongst the more difficult parts of the Cambridge YLE tests to prepare students for without the use of pre-prepared materials are the reading texts. Going into to class with a blank piece of paper and generating a picture is fairly simple as is developing a speaking activity, sentence writing activity or short story to go with it. However, going into class with a blank piece of paper and getting your young learners to generate a text is not so simple, especially not when the test features cloze tests and sentence summary activities…

I have a couple of ideas that I have used in class to address this but I deliberately waited until after my recent workshop to blog about this. Why? Because there’s always something to learn and I wanted to see what ideas the participants would come up with.


Space… waiting to be filled with words - Image by shawncampbell

First of all, my idea used in class last week…

  • Dictogloss

I have already posted about how I got my students to write short stories to go with their snow pictures and how we adapted them to match the style of one of the exam questions. Well, why stop there? Just as we brought the original pictures back for another round of lessons, I also decided to bring the stories back the following week with a dictogloss activity.

In case you are unfamiliar with the idea, dictogloss is like a dictation but instead of the students writing as the teacher reads out the text, the students just listen or take brief notes. After two or three readings, they then collaborate to try to reconstruct the text from their memory and their notes (you can also see my previous post on using dictogloss, this belter of a post from Jason Renshaw, this neat summary with a video example from Willy Cardoso and or this ‘close up’ view of a lesson by Ceri Jones).

Dictogloss can be done with short texts (or extracts from longer ones) previously read in class or it can be done with the students’ own stories - a sure fire way to get their attention! In each of my classes, I chose a text that had been written the previous week and read it out to the students, first asking if they remembered who wrote it and which picture it went with. I then read it again and asked them to take notes before getting them to reconstruct the whole thing.

How does dictogloss help? Well, it gets the students to really focus on the parts of the language that pull a text together. The cloze tests in the Flyers tests (one with a choice of three words for each gap and one with no words given) often ask the students to insert conjunctions, time markers, prepositions and articles into the text. While some of these can be easily explained to a 10 year-old (such as the difference between go to… and come from…) but others are more abstract concepts such as why we say at home and in the house. These are things they just have to know through repeated exposure to the language. Dictogloss is a great way to do that because, as Willy stated in the post I referenced above, in addition to the listening and writing aspects of the lesson, the students have to activate their knowledge of lexis and grammar to complete the task, which will stand then in good stead for any gap-fill.


And now for some of the stand-out ideas from the workshop…

  • Make your own gap-fills

One pair of ladies in my session (apologies but I never got the chance to find out their names!) liked my idea of looking outside and brainstorming vocabulary as the basis of a drawing activity but they thought that with their slightly older learners, they might instead use this as the lead-in to a writing activity. They suggested asking students to collaborate in small groups on stories before exchanging them with other groups for peer feedback and correction. Once their stories were returned and edited to their satisfaction, they could remove a number of words and create their own cloze test (with options either given or not given). These texts could then be used in class to test other groups and beyond the class in the form of online cloze tests generated with Hot Potatoes or something similar.

  • Write, re-write, question and answer

One of my colleagues from Ankara who was in attendance seemed to like my idea of viewing the classroom as a space to be utilised and explored and had this great idea to get the whole class involved in each other’s texts. Each group drafts a story before passing it on to another group for peer feedback (at which point the teacher can make a suggestion or two as well). The text is then re-written with the suggestions and edits taken into account before being passed on to a different group. Their task is to read through the story and write questions based on it (these could be in the form of incomplete summary sentences as featured in the Movers and Flyers tests). The text and questions are then passed onto another group who attempt to answer them.

Thanks to Lale İçli for this idea.

  • Summarising a class text

Some of the texts in the Cambridge YLE tests are factual rather than story based. One suggested way of producing such a text in class was to choose an animal that had recently been featured in class (a bat was the example in the session) and brainstorm/ look up information about it. These notes would then form the basis of a text which would be produced by whole class guided by the teacher and written up on the board. The options would then be to remove words before asking the students to copy the whole thing into their notebooks (adding in the erased words from memory) or ask the students to write 4 or 5 sentences as a summary of the main points in the text.

Again apologies but I never asked this teacher’s name despite her active contribution to the session and the chat we had afterwards…

  • Blind gap-fill

Just because we are not bringing new texts into the classroom, it doesn’t mean we can’t make use of the texts that are already there, does it? One suggestion was that we could choose a text from the book used in the regular, non-exam prep English lessons and choose a few words to remove. Without showing the text to the students, we tell them what kind of words are needed to fill the gaps (colour, item of clothing, action, etc. or, in a slightly different way adjective, plural noun, verb, etc.) We then read the text to the class with their suggested words inserted, likely resulting in a bit of a crazy text! After hearing the whole text, they can suggest what the original words might have been or what words would make more sense.

Thanks to my colleague Kaleen Nora for this idea.


I will be trying out some of these ideas in class soon. In the meantime, if you have any other ideas about getting students to generate texts and possible follow-up activities to do post-writing, please share via the comments box. Smile

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Making Exam Prep Child’s Play (Post-Workshop Round-up, Part 1)

Last weekend, I was in Istanbul for the 5th TED International ELT Conference hosted by the Istanbul branch of the school I work for (typical that we finally have a conference there at a time when most of my Istanbul-based PLN were still on their way back from IATEFL!) I did a workshop based on the lessons I’ve been doing to prepare my students for the Cambridge Starters, Movers and Flyers tests, also featured on this blog in the Lessons on the Fly series.

For those of you who were there and would like a re-cap (and also for those of you who were not there but would maybe like to have a look), here are my slides from the session:

The slides themselves include a (quite deliberate) low amount of text and may not mean much alone so here is a short video summary:

And these are links to some online articles and blog posts I mentioned during the talk in case you’d like a little further reading. Smile

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Projected Learnings

A couple of weeks ago, I had my classes working on projects as a follow-up activity to a reader we had just finished called Miami Police File: The O’Nell Case. It was an enjoyable read about a group of high school students investigating the mysterious disappearance of one of their teachers. What made this story particularly interesting (for a graded reader aimed at young learners at least) was the macabre twist that the teacher was not only found dead at the end but he also had been embalmed in wax and placed on display in the town Wax Museum (sorry if I’ve ruined the ending for you)!

Miami Police File

As my students had really enjoyed the story, I wanted them to do something fun and engaging once the story was finished (i.e. NOT a comprehension quiz, a vocabulary word search or an additional non-fiction reading text only loosely connected to the story itself). A big theme for me in my teaching right now is getting the students involved in activities that are productive rather than receptive so I decided on some project work.

That was about as far as the decision making on my end went. From there on, I wanted the students to be not only involved but also leading the way. I asked them what kind of projects they would like to do and how they would like to do them. Several great ideas came up including:

  • extending the story with the same characters;
  • writing a new story with new characters but still with a murder-mystery theme;
  • making a movie of the story;
  • role-playing TV interviews with the main characters;
  • posters about the people in the story or the key events;
  • serialising the story as a comic strip
  • and several other ideas much better than anything I could have thought of!

As for how to do the project, that was up to the students as well. Some preferred to work in large groups of 5 or more while others preferred smaller groups or working alone. Some wanted to write stories, others wanted to record them and others wanted to make videos. Some produced huge posters and others produced smaller ones. Some asked if I could help them with the production stages while some asked if they could put it all together at home. Whatever they decided to do, I was happy to go along with and offer help when needed/asked for.

Personally, I’m a big fan of collaborative projects. When working together, I find that the students produce results that are greater than the sum of their parts. They get really creative and imaginative and that is great to see. Just as important is allowing them full control and ownership of the project. My role was very much one of facilitator - I just gave them the opportunity and helped with things they couldn’t do like editing (both language and videos).

However, I noted that I was the only one who seemed to be doing this. Other classes had read the same book but they had just done a comprehension quiz and then moved on. When enquiring why this was the case, the following answers were common:

  • not enough time
  • how can I keep track of several different groups?
  • the students don’t have the necessary language skills to make it worthwhile
  • they will waste most of their class time chatting in Turkish to produce something very short in English.

The first one is understandable - with an overloaded syllabus, units to cover and exams to prepare for, time is precious. However, I believe that making time for projects will ultimately benefit the students more than merely moving onto the next topic, unit or worksheet. In fact, I would rather see elements of our syllabus removed to make space for more project work but that’s another post for another day.

The second point comes down to classroom management. Of course, keeping track of different groups doing different things is not easy but that does not mean it is impossible. I think the teacher’s self-perception is important here too. If you want to be in control and direct every detail, then you are making you job harder than it needs to be. If you let go, hand control and responsibility over to the kids, you may well find yourself surprised at what they can do.

As for the third reason, we need to reconsider our aims here. I do not expect my students to produce fantastic pieces of prose or error-free work. They may not possess the language to produce the desired project when taking the first steps but part of the aim of doing has to be acquiring the skills and language during the task. That’s where I see one of my key roles - helping out with language when and where needed, seeing what the students want to say and them helping them say it. Also, if the students get to set the agenda,  they are more likely to aim for a reachable goal (with a little assistance on the way).

Finally, the classic question of “where’s the language learning?” Here, we need to look at the whole picture instead of the immediate aspect. Yes, they may use L1 while brainstorming and discussing ideas but ultimately, they will start to put something together and focus on the target language. With a little suggestion here and there, they can produce something very much worthwhile and with a little modern technology such as a camera, voice recorder or flipcam, their project can be turned into something far-reaching, long-lasting, and easily shared with family, friends in other classes and other students around the world.

My students were so thrilled to see their projects on the school website and the videos in particular were a big hit. One of the best things of all was the fact that certain students who are usually shy or reluctant to do work in class ended up writing their own scripts and then getting together at the weekends or after school to make their own films in English! That’s the kind of thing that makes it worthwhile and the goal we should keep in mind rather than worrying about time or language use in class.

(If you’d like to see some of their cinematic productions, you can check out the video playlist. Winking smile)

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Lessons on the Fly - Snow Stories

One great thing about my recent lessons based on snow is that the snow has kept on falling. To see just how much, please compare the photo from the first post in this series with this one taken yesterday:


Where have the benches gone?

That has made it easy to keep the theme running over a period of three weeks without the students losing their interest. Having done various picture-based activities modelled on the Flyers test in the previous lessons, I decided to tackle something a little more difficult this time. The Reading and Writing paper contains four text-based parts. Each one requires some form of gap-filling, either placing words into the text itself or completing summary sentences. One of these parts features a picture with an accompanying story. Five words are missing from the text and the students complete it by choosing from a list of words at the end of the story before picking out the best title from three options.

As we had started to explore information about the characters in my students’ drawings in the previous lesson, we extended that this time by writing short stories about them. The students had the option to work individually or with a partner (I always like to give such choices to them) while I monitored, making suggestions here and there and helping out when needed. They were really into the activity, partly due to the continuing wintery weather outside and partly due to the level of personal involvement and engagement they felt. Quite often, I have to help a lot of students get started when we do a story writing activity but in this case all I needed to do was write the prompt One snowy day on the board.  Efforts included this one from a boy who is usually reluctant to write:


One snowy day, four friends (Mark; Fredrick, Kurt and Tim) went to the park because there was snow everywhere. While they were in the park, Mark and Fredrick had a snowball fight and Kurt was sledging. Later, they made a snowman together. They had a lot of fun. Then, they went home and drank hot chocolate.

Once the stories were finished and checked (self-editing with a little input from me), I instructed them to write three titles, one of which should be correct and two of which should be misleading. The students/groups then took turns to read the stories before asking their classmates “What’s the best name for the story?” and presenting the three options. Usually, when we read out things we have written in class, half of the students switch off and don’t really listen. With this activity, they were all eager to answer the question at the end - a classic case of creating a purpose for listening I guess!

I then asked the authors to choose four or five words from their story, write them in a box at the foot of the page and then erase them from the original text. Stories were then exchanged with classmates and the tried to put the words back in the right place. Of course, it helped a little that they had heard the stories earlier in the lesson but it was a good way to get them to analyse each other’s texts more closely.

I collected the stories in at the end of the lesson with the aim of creating more web-based homework. Using Hot Potatoes, I typed up some of the texts and created a gap-fill text together with the original artwork. This was then uploaded to the class page on the school wiki to give them some further practice at home.

Again, I could have given them photocopied sample questions and gone through them in detail but I feel this way, the students were much more engaged and got a much more thorough insight into this particular section of the exam (Reading and Writing Part 4) than they would have otherwise. Plus, they got to do some story writing, error correction and listening on the way as well as providing the raw materials for a personalised homework task! What more do we need?


blog-of-monthThese lessons have been going well so far and I have enjoyed doing them and writing them up here on the blog. I was therefore delighted to be contacted by the seemingly omnipresent Ann Foreman at the end of last week, who informed me the first post in this Lessons on the Fly series Let It Snow had been chosen as the Teaching English Featured Blog of the Month for February. Thank you Ann, Rob and the rest of the Teaching English team for this award - it’s a real honour and fantastic way to get confirmation that I’m on the right path!