Roll & Explain!

Here’s a quick post with a tweak to two popular speaking/writing activities. The game can be played in small groups or as a whole class (B1 and above.)

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Roll&Explain.pdf

One student rolls two dice four times: one to choose the person in the situation, another one for the action, a third one to decide on the place, and finally a fourth one to determine the time. Focus on grammar first by having the student come up with a grammatically correct sentence that describes the situation. The variety of time references, for example, will demand different tenses and aspects (and situations can change drastically due to this!) Different prepositions will be needed, too, for the different places.

Once the situation is clear, the student comes up with a (more or less) plausible explanation for it. You may want to allow him/her some thinking time and set a time limit for the explanation. The rest of the students can then ask a few questions and decide whether the explanation is good enough or not. Alternatively, the board can be used to generate writing prompts for (short) writing assignments. However you use it, make sure you revise, pre-teach or introduce language related to giving strong opinions and persuasion — your students will badly need it!

5 activities for the first days of school

I can’t say I’m a big fan of icebreakers myself, at least the get-to-know-you type. Students may be grouped in a different way from the previous year, and there are always new students to the school, but in my context most of them know each other relatively well (or at least as well as a typical icebreaker can get!) For some reason, I’ve always found students aren’t very fond of them either. Perhaps too predictable? Whatever the context, however, I know they can be an excellent tool in a language classroom to help us analyse the students’ needs at the beginning of the year, implement classroom rules, or set the tone and expectations for the next few months.

It is with these goals in mind that I’ve selected the following activities. Most of them can be adapted to different levels and, while a few do include an inevitable get-to-know-you component, the focus is on production and integrating them with other classroom routines at the beginning of the school year.

1. Communication strategies
I always teach some basic communication strategies explicitly which I expect my students to use for the rest of the year whenever they have problems communicating an idea or to make up for unknown words. This is an activity to practise paraphrasing that has always worked well with my students:

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2. Grid challenge
One way to get students testing their own strategic competence is to engage them in informal conversations. One of the reasons why I like the following grid is that it can be played in small groups rather than as a class: less intimidating, more authentic, easily observable. Students roll the dice twice to get vertical and horizontal numbers, and then complete the sentence about themselves. They could also be encouraged to ask at least one or two questions each turn to make the activity more interactive.

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3. “I can’t imagine life without…”
Students write the things in life that they can’t imagine living without, and then take turns asking questions about why they are important to them.

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4. No-prep writing activities
There’s nothing like a short piece of writing to check the performance level of students. Use one of these creative, no-prep activities designed for the first week of school, or include some of them (and perhaps some of your own) and create a choice board!

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5. “First Day at School”
Using the poem “First Day at School” by Roger McGough and an animated short video based on it, students practise reading comprehension, hypothesis making, and finally reflect on their first day at school. An intriguing lesson that integrates all four skills.

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School excuses: a creative writing lesson

When was the last time you got one of those hilarious excuses for being absent or failing to do some homework? This lesson (B1 and above) revolves around the theme of school excuses and gets students working on past tenses, reading and listening comprehension, and creative writing:

1. Have students match 10 sentences as they fill in the gaps with the verbs in the box in the right tense. Most of them are irregular past verbs.

School excuses 1

SchoolExcuses.pdf

1. Please excuse Jennifer for missing school yesterday. We forgot to get the Sunday paper off the porch, and when we found it on Monday, we thought it was Sunday.
2. Jerry was at his grandmother’s yesterday, and she did not bring him to school because Jerry couldn’t remember where the school was.
3. Scott didn’t practise last night because he lost his tooth in the mouthpiece of his trumpet.
4. It was my fault Mike did not do his maths homework last night. His pencil broke and we do not have a pencil sharpener at home. Yes, he was home all night!
5. Ronnie could not finish his work last night. He said his brain was tired of spelling.
6. Diane was late on Wednesday. She fell asleep on the bus and was taken back to the bus yard.
7. Eric hurt his knee in a karate tournament over the weekend. He won his age group, but was in too much pain to do his maths assignment.
8. Marty wasn’t in school yesterday because he thought it was Saturday.
9. I left my homework in the back of a pickup truck. It went through a carwash.
10. Sorry teacher, I’m a little, little bit late today. What happened is that in the morning on the way to school I got kidnapped.

2. “What are these sentences about?”, “What do you think of them?”, “Which one is your favourite?”, “Have you ever heard or read any really funny excuse from a classmate?”

3. Focus on the last sentence: “Sorry teacher, I’m a little, little bit late today. What happened is that in the morning on the way to school I got kidnapped.” Play the beginning of this short film by Sijia Luo until 0:48:

4. Students work together and write the missing parts of the story using the words provided. Have one student from each team read their versions to the rest of the class.

School excuses 2

SchoolExcuses.pdf

5. Watch the short film and discuss the differences.

6. In their teams, students write a creative excuse for being late or absent, or failing to do their homework. Students share their excuses and vote on the most inventive!

 

This could be one of the most productive writing lessons you’ve taught in a while. Just saying!

Simultaneous writing and peer correction

Self and peer correction help students to revise and check their own learning as they focus on writing as a process. Apart from creating confidence and dialogue among students, when we analyse another person’s writing to the best of our ability, we are often able to notice those types of formal or communicative gaps that allow us to confirm or reject any hypotheses we may have about the language at that point, and therefore improve our learning.

Simultaneous roundtable writing is an activity I like doing with my students. It does have self and peer correction as one of the main goals, but it integrates many other specific objectives and skills as well. At its very simplest, the procedure would be as follows:

1. Students sit in groups of 4 with a blank paper, they number themselves off, and write their numbers on their piece of paper.

2. Ask a few students for any word they can think of at that moment and write them down on the board (8 or 10 words.) Alternatively, you may prefer to provide the words (for instance, words from a unit you’re working on.)

3. Explain that the goal is to write a series of narrative stories collaboratively. Go over the main elements of a narrative text (setting, characters, plot, solution, most common tenses, typical connectors, and so on.) Also, state that they’ll be reading each other’s writing during the activity, so their handwriting, grammar and word choice should be as clear as possible to avoid communicative problems.

4. During the first 5 minutes, students work on the beginning of their own story independently, which typically consists of describing the setting and perhaps introducing one of the characters. I usually allow them to use 2 or 3 words from the list, which helps them with ideas and makes the whole process less intimidating for some students.

5. When the time is up, the students in each team rotate the papers: number 1s give out their papers to number 2s, number 2s to 3s, 3s to 4s, and 4s to 1s. During the next 5-6 minutes, students read the beginning of the story their classmate has just written and continue the story, describing a character that has been introduced or starting with the plot.
6. Students rotate the papers and repeat the same procedure. Brand new story to read and a new challenge to continue writing! Students should still focus on the main plot at this point, incorporating 2-3 words that haven’t been used yet in that particular story.

7. Rotate the papers once again. Explain that the student who started the story will be writing the ending, so this is their last chance to work on the plot (or even introduce a memorable plot twist!)

8. In this final rotation, the student who started each story reads what has become of it — very often to their amazement! Students ask any team members for clarification if needed.

9. Finally, students write an ending to the story they started at the beginning of the activity.

Writing

There are several good things about this task so far:

  • In 25-30 minutes, students get to actively participate in reading and writing four different narrative stories at different stages.
  • Although there is pressure to write, students can write at their own performance level and any length they can. In fact, I’ve always found the weaker or more reluctant students do write in this type of setting.
  • Students also have an immediate audience who will read what they write in a few minutes. This demands that handwriting, grammar or word choice need to be as clear as possible so as not to cause confusion.
  • Funnily enough, the activity generates a vast number of connectors — very often more than needed. I guess the type of thinking behind this is: “Fine. Now, what should I do with this?! Let’s see…”, and this sort of creates the need to start with a linking expression that helps to confirm there’s a new writer on board.

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The students who started and finished the story are finally responsible for correcting (and sometimes rewriting) their papers. This depends on the level of the students and your specific objectives: you can simply have students correct the paper with a rubric or allow them to edit it and work on style as well. A basic checklist would include items related to organisation, grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, spelling, cohesion and coherence. In both cases, students are required to hand in both the original and the revised papers at the end. Students can also point out the strengths and weaknesses of the final product and how they would improve that piece of writing — especially after all those crazy ideas and impossible plot twists!

Indeed, that’s what these written stories often end up being all about (especially if you work with teenagers!) And that’s what makes sharing them with the rest of the class, either before or after editing, the most meaningful and entertaining. After all, it’s no individual’s responsibility but the whole group’s, and the students enjoy sharing their unique ideas and listening to what others have come up with. After some whole-group discussion, can they now choose their favourite story and explain why?

10 Ways to Encourage Learner Autonomy

Language learning is a life-long process. Developing learner autonomy and responsibility for their own learning seems to be one of the best things we can do to get our students ready for that journey. Learner autonomy, however, needs to be understood as a process rather than a state. It is often confused with encouraging self-instruction, and this could certainly be one of the consequences, but the idea goes far beyond that: by taking control of their learning, we want students to become more actively and deeply involved, try more difficult tasks, have a higher achievement, and know how to learn so that they can learn more efficiently. What’s more, it should help to boost their intrinsic motivation as they gain their own voice.

So how can we encourage learner autonomy in our classrooms?

1. Build upon the students’ prior knowledge

If students understand that new learning is built on prior knowledge, and that their attitudes, beliefs, knowledge or connections do have an impact on new learning, then the content or material will become the most relevant — and learning will become easier and more efficient. In K-W-L, for instance, students complete the first column of the graphic organiser with what they already KNOW about the topic, the second one with what they WANT TO KNOW about it, and the third column with what they LEARNT about it after the lesson or unit. The two first columns, therefore, reflect the first steps in any new learning context both inside and outside the classroom.

2. Choose engaging contexts and topics

Students’ prior knowledge can also help us to choose contexts and topics that they may find meaningful. Designing classroom tasks that are authentic and which appeal to the students’ interests will help to boost meaningful interaction. What if students are not interested in a particular topic or context? Then use their prior knowledge and curiosity to introduce it through what they already know.

3. Create flexible tasks 

Ask open-ended questions while accepting all sorts of answers equally. Encourage students to make connections, think critically, explore different possibilities. In writing and speaking tasks, it is very often possible to design tasks that ask students to write or speak at their own performance level using the same context or topic. Other tools such as classroom blogs can be a good way to allow for individualisation.

4. Keep it active! 

Flexible tasks in engaging contexts built upon their interests and knowledge are the first steps in making students active members in the learning process. Indeed, learner-centred interactive strategies provide extra motivation as they give students some control over the learning process.

5. Go cooperative

One of the best ways to set up an interactive classroom that is learner-centred while including individualisation is cooperative learning. Implement learning strategies that promote structured simultaneous interaction, equal participation and positive interdependence. Most importantly, in these settings students also learn to be accountable for their contributions and their own learning gains.

6. Encourage students to take risks

Active language learners need to have a good repertoire of communication strategies at their disposal so that they can negotiate meaning. Encourage students to become risk-takers and help them understand that mistakes are an integral part of the learning process.

7. Allow choice

Allowing choice in tasks is another way in which students can take control over their own learning. A homework choice board like this one, tic-tac-toe style task menus, or simply suggesting a variety of writing prompts or reading passages related to the same context or topic, can be good places to start.

8. Get students to reflect on their learning…

Get students to realise what areas they may need more work on so as to help them set up their own goals and try new strategies. This worksheet, for example, can help students to reflect on different aspects of a lesson while allowing choice.

9. …so that they can assess themselves

Reflection is one step towards self-assessment. Peer-assessment is another one: students often need to be exposed to other types of feedback before they can assess themselves in an effective manner. Allow students to write a few test questions, quiz each other, grade themselves with pre-established rubrics.

10. Explain why you do what you do 

Reflection and self-assessment need to be modelled, making the thinking process explicit so that the students can identify the importance of doing it. And this actually holds true for the whole learning experience. Explain the reasons behind doing a particular task or practising a specific skill, why you are suggesting a given text, or the benefits of planning your writing so it can suit different communicative purposes. Understanding the rationale of the tasks will ultimately help students understand how learning happens and make their future learning experiences more and more efficient — even help them become autonomous learners in charge of their own learning.

Developing Learner Autonomy: A Homework Choice Board

Apart from traditional homework tasks based on lessons delivered in the classroom, there is still a myriad of activities students can do by themselves to practise their English, learn to work independently, and take responsibility for their own learning. Learner autonomy is in fact one of the most important things we can promote if we really want to get our students ready for the ongoing, life-long language learning endeavour.

The following homework choice board, intended for students at B1 level and above, suggests 16 tasks to practise all four skills as well as grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation:

  • Students can choose the tasks based on their personal interests, or areas they feel they need more work on, which should result in extra motivation.
  • In the process of choosing an activity, students will be taking into account the skills and language items that are being practised in class, but also what is relevant to them, especially when they can connect the task with their own life.
  • The activities in the board are also flexible as far as proficiency level is concerned, which means that students can work at their own performance level.
  • A few tasks have been designed so that they can be used later in class, resulting in excellent materials based on students’ interests which can be introduced in different lessons later in the year.

HomeworkChoiceBoard

HomeworkChoiceBoard.pdf

Although the tasks here have been selected so they are easy to keep track of, holding students accountable for their work, this should ideally be another step in helping students develop their learner independence skills. How would you use this board in your own student tracking system? How would you assess each of these tasks?


This post won the British Council’s TeachingEnglish Blog of the Month Award for October 2018.

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Inside the Mind of a Successful Language Learner: 5 Tips

A few months ago I travelled to Finland with a group of students as part of an exchange programme my school organises every other year. English is usually the language of communication among students in this type of programme. They may practise some Spanish when they visit us, and proficiency levels will vary, but at the end of the day the language most of them feel most comfortable with for communicative purposes is English. This time, however, my students soon drew my attention to one of the Finnish students who spoke mainly in Spanish, impressed both by his language skills and the speed with which he had reached that proficiency level: barely over a year and his Spanish already at a B1+/B2 level.

Admittedly, Joona Andersson is an 18-year-old secondary school student with a special gift for learning in general, and languages in particular, but after speaking to him and some of his teachers I couldn’t but wonder if there was something we could learn from his otherwise exceptional experience — and ability — that could still be applicable to other language learners. While it’s true that the learning process for him has been extraordinarily fast and efficient for a number of reasons, are there any specific motivations, activities or experiences that could be used by other students and which could help them boost their language learning skills?

1. Motivation

Joona not only agreed to be interviewed but was enthusiastic about the idea of being able to reflect on his own learning. And being a conscious learner comes, to a large extent, as a result of one’s motivation to learn:

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“If someone asked me for advice on learning languages, I’d tell them to find something that motivates them to learn, something that gives them a reason to study the language. If you are not motivated to learn, it will be a lot more difficult to make yourself study often enough. You’ll also be less likely to really learn and understand anything if you don’t think it’s important in any way. If you are motivated, however, getting yourself to study won’t be a problem and you may even enjoy the process.”

He added:

“My schooling provided me with books I could use to learn more but I studied a lot more than was necessary. I believe that the work I did at home made all the difference since there are people my age who have studied the same amount of courses and passed them with great grades but still aren’t able to speak the language very well.”

This has worked for him with English and Spanish, and although he has studied Swedish as well, it “never really interested me.”

2. Immersion

So how did Joona use that extra motivation?

“I realized that immersion was the key to learning a language quickly […] I noticed that

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with the help of the internet it was possible and very easy. So I started watching videos and reading texts about different topics in Spanish. Watching videos was hard at first and I only recognized basic words and expressions, but after a while I got used to it and started to understand more and more. This combined with all the vocabulary from the texts I was reading and the grammar I learned from various books and websites helped me get fluent in Spanish faster than I would’ve believed. Every time I would come across an unfamiliar word or expression I would translate it and then memorize it.”

Hobbies and personal interests also seem to play a major role:

“Music is also a big part of my everyday life. I spend at least two hours a day listening to music, usually at the gym while I work out. I think that has also helped me to learn languages, especially Spanish because I love Latin music and that’s almost everything I listen to nowadays.”

3. Seeking opportunities to interact with speakers of the language

In today’s high-tech world, it shouldn’t be that difficult to build connections and keep up relationships no matter the distance, provided you are offered the right opportunities. But this, again, requires a high degree of personal commitment. Joona says one of the things that has helped him with the foreign languages he speaks has a lot to do with “the foreign exchange students who I became very good friends with. I talk to them daily, and most of them never learned Finnish, which means I get a lot of practice in other languages.” An immediate implication is the need for schools and teachers to foster this type of relationships through exchange or e-pal projects, for instance.

4. Pronunciation

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Interestingly, for Joona pronunciation is key in learning a language: “Pronunciation not only makes you sound better when you use the language but also helps with listening comprehension. If you only think about words as they are written and don’t know how to pronounce them, it’s likely that you won’t recognize the words when used by native speakers.”

Even in English, a language he feels very comfortable with, “there are times when I mess up the pronunciation of a word or speak incorrectly. I know that it’s not a big deal and you shouldn’t worry about those things too much but it is something that really bothers me personally. So I need more practice with pronunciation.

5. Thinking out loud and assessing your needs

“There’s one more thing I do that has definitely helped me to get faster at responding in other languages and improved my pronunciation. I like to think out loud and I do this (or at least try to) in the language I’m trying to learn. I can’t recommend this enough. It’s a really useful way to know what you can say in your target language and what you need more practice with. Let’s say you’re going to cook something, for example, and you’re thinking about what you need to buy and what you need to do in order to prepare something to eat. Why not think about those things in the language you’re studying? If you can’t do it, you know what you need to work on.”