Narrative beginnings

My younger students worked on writing the beginning of narrative texts last week. Now that they’re familiar with the basic structures, we’re trying to improve narrative, descriptive and expository types of text by looking at different options, both linguistic and stylistic.

I first asked them to choose one out of four pictures for their story, which should help them get started in the first place, but they will also serve other purposes such as checking comprehension and keeping the students accountable for the follow-up task. Then they were introduced to different ways to start a story and they were encouraged to try something new. Here’s an extract from the video I recorded for them:

The students wrote their beginnings, I gave individual feedback on grammar and vocabulary, and then I cut and pasted each beginning into a Google Form with a multiple choice.

NarrativeB1

The students read the beginnings written by their partners, selected the picture each of them belonged to, and then chose two of them and explained their reasons focusing on narrative efficiency.

Do you believe in the magic of flying? You don’t? Let’s see if it’s real. One morning I was playing with my sister. She went to Burger King, she got a balloon there, and she came back with it. She kept on playing with it and I didn’t know what she was doing…

The activity worked so well that I decided to use it with a group of more advanced students, too. Can you guess which picture each of these paragraphs belongs to? Which story would you like to read more about?

“So… who’s going to do the laundry today?” Everyone stays silent and looks away. Since the house had started floating, picking up the vestments from the clothes line had become a laborious task. Who would risk their lives just for a pair of pants? Not me.

I was bathing in coffee. Unusual, isn’t it? I would have never imagined this as a Sunday morning routine either. Yesterday was a day like any other. I woke up, had breakfast, and sat on my bed to work from home, as I usually do. I turned on my ipad and opened Procreate to draw one of my daily comic strips. Then I got up to feed my cockatoo, Mikey. This is when things got weird. I’ve never had pets, and certainly not a cockatoo called Mikey, so why was I feeding one? And what made me think I had one?

“I need it, I need it right now! I’m sure it was here yesterday… Where is it?”, yelled Thomas. “Hey, calm down! What are you looking for?”, answered his wife Helen. “What am I looking for, seriously? Haven’t you realized it’s missing?”

Hey you! Yeah you, another one of those readers that just laughs and makes fun of us thinking that we biscuits don’t actually talk or have feelings. Anyway, can you believe this? I woke up with no icing on me, and now I have to go on a long, long journey to get it back. Follow me!

It was right about then when he knew that he was there. He had finally gotten to this amazing place he was searching. I mean… It’s not every day that you have your morning coffee in a cup that’s bigger than you, right? But then it occurred to him that he had not thought of his next step. What was he going to do then?

It happened suddenly. No one knew why, but the Earth itself turned upside down: the buildings, the people, the feelings of the people, the happy suddenly were sad, and the sad suddenly were happy, up was down and down was up. Everyone except me.

On the Bright Side of Quarantine

Lithuanian photographer Adas Vasiliauskas has been using a drone to capture pictures of people in their homes since the country went under quarantine on 16th March, 2020. Each portrait is an imaginative exercise in creativity by the dwellers, too. “I started this project to give people a chance to brighten their day in this negative corona information environment,” says Adas. “I believe that these funny photos remind everyone that sitting quarantined at home can be fun too. And, of course, to remind everybody that you need to keep your social distance during these times.”

I contacted Adas about the possibility of using some of his photographs for a lesson and he readily agreed to it. His work provides such an inspiring and vibrant context that it will be difficult for students not to come up with unique, memorable personal responses to it — and we all know how important this is for a good language learning task to become relevant and meaningful. Let’s just add some flexibility so that the students can work at their own performance level.

1. Have students brainstorm any words related to “quarantine” and share their connections with each other. Introduce Adas’ project.

2. The students examine the photographs with a series of questions in mind. This is the more objective part of the description, where they identify the main elements in each picture:

    • Who is in the picture?
    • Where are they? What can you see?
    • What are they doing?
    • If there’s more than one person in the photograph, what do you think their relationship is?

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CLICK HERE TO SEE THE SLIDESHOW

3. The students choose six pictures and illustrate their first reactions by writing a caption for each of them. Encourage them to use informal language and the appropriate tone, which should match that of the picture.

4. Have students choose their favourite photograph and ask them to analyse it:

    • What can you tell about the people in the picture?
    • What would you ask these people? Write one question.
    • How do you imagine the person or people in the photo in two hours’ time? What do you think happened right before taking the picture?
    • How does the picture make you feel?

OnTheBrightSideofQuarantine

You can download the worksheet in two formats: PDF and WORD .

5. Steps 1-4 are the planning stage for a writing task in which students write a description of their favourite picture that includes both objective and subjective elements. You may want to revise adjectives of physical appearance and character first, but you can also ask students to use this site and have them come up with adjectives for any noun they’re trying to describe, making their learning experience even more individual and enriching.DescribingWords

At this moment, I’m also going to give the students the option to record their description, and even interview a few members of their family and friends with their own reactions:

    • How do these snapshots connect with your own experience?
    • Share these pictures with your family and friends. What do they think about them? Do they agree with your choice? Which photographs do they like most? Why do you think so?

Of course, this will be a great writing and speaking task to do with the students in class in the near future! I am now just wondering how the students will react to this lesson in a few years’ time…


Special thanks to Adas Vasiliauskas for giving permission to use his inspiring portraits in this lesson and to publish them here. Please check his website at http://tasfotografas.lt/

Extensive reading and learner autonomy: 10 websites

Are you looking for websites with material for extensive reading? Sharing some of these resources with students and encouraging them to engage in regular reading can help them to improve their language proficiency while developing learner autonomy. Indeed, extensive reading has multiple benefits:

  • Students develop a wide variety of reading strategies.
  • It improves reading fluency, which affects comprehension.
  • It’s a perfect way to learn new words in context and revise the vocabulary they are already familiar with.
  • Students can test their own grammar but also notice new constructions that help to convey different meanings.
  • It may affect the students’ motivation to learn the language!

The following websites offer free access to both graded and unabridged reading materials, and they cover a range of text types and genres to suit a variety of interests. Please click on the pictures to get access to each website!

1. Lit2Go is an online collection of stories and poems in MP3 format.

Lit2Go

 

2. https://english-e-reader.net/ offers online fictional readers with 8 different reading levels (A1 to C2).

EnglisheReader

 

3. CommonLit requires you to create an account and share a code with your students. In return, students get access to a massive library and well-designed interactive activities to help them with their reading.

commonlit

 

4. In TweenTribune you will find articles adapted from Smithsonian Magazine on a large variety of topics and in different reading levels.

TweenTribune

 

5. Each fictional and non-fictional graded text in DreamReader comes with an audio file version.

dreamreader

 

6. This site offers short 5-minute mysteries for students to read and solve. Students do need to sign in, though.

5minmystery

 

7. LearnWithNews shares news items in 3 levels, including a glossary and a series of comprehension activities for each of them.

learnwithnews

 

8. American Literature.

americanliterature

 

9. Here’s a nice compilation of very short stories from 100 up to 2,000 words long, including a brief summary for each of them.

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10. The Short Story Project curates short stories written by authors from all around the world.

shortstoryproject

 

Do you use any other websites? Which ones would you add to this list?

Finish the picture

How would you finish these pictures? What if they were part of a story?

finishthepictureFinish the picture.pdf

This was one of those activities that surprise you every now and then: not only could the students working in pairs complete them in a short period of time, but the process involved questions and conversations about a wide variety of lexis as their creativity – and especially all the constraints – demanded more specific vocabulary. The students were also allowed to decide on the order of the pictures, which added some flexibility.

If nothing else, the task does help students to create and plan their stories in a meticulous way. Rather than a scaffold, the creative process here becomes a challenge, and basic narrative elements such as the setting, the characters, the plot or the ending need to be carefully thought out to complete the task successfully. A thorough planning stage which then paid off once the students got down to writing.

I also tried this activity with a higher group of students. This time, I gave them different writing tasks and asked them to draw their pictures based on them:

You’re writing the instructions on how to make something work.
You’re writing a recipe.
You’re writing a travel guide.
You’re writing a brochure advertising a hotel or resort.
You’re writing a story.
You’re writing an advertisement.
You’re writing a movie trailer.
You’re writing the description of a place.

Once the texts were written, I posted the pictures around the classroom for the students to examine and later on remember so that they could match them to the texts.

This is a flexible task which allows students to create meaning in so many inventive ways. Interestingly, it didn’t turn out to be as intimidating as I had thought it could be for some students. I think it also provides students with extra motivation to read or listen to their classmates’ texts: the starting point is the same for everyone, yet the results can often be really amusing.

Do you think the quality of writing could also be affected by all this?

 

 

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.)

RE1

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!

Composite of image of a hand drawing a light bulb on a board
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.

firs2

 

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!