Critical thinking and language skills: “There Was Once”

In “There Was Once”, Margaret Atwood plays with Western culture stereotypes by questioning them to such extremes that the narrator is finally unable to tell her story. You may have worked with fractured tales before, but this ingenious exercise in deconstruction will get the students talking and analysing, revising — or perhaps confirming — their own viewpoints, and it will ultimately promote the development of critical thinking skills while working with the language.

1. In groups, students read the words in the box taken from the story they are about to read and make predictions by filling out a possible story map using those words. Groups share their story maps with the rest of the class. Discuss similarities and differences.captura-de-pantalla-2017-02-09-a-las-20-39-37

StoryMap.pdf

2. Although the text is a dialogue, it also works very well if either the teacher or one student reads one role and the rest of the students take turns reading the rest of the lines, resulting in a much more interactive reading experience. There are 24 lines for the second speaker in the text; assign each line to different students and allow them to practise reading their lines aloud for a few minutes. Read the dialogue as a whole class.

3. The students write down their personal reaction to the story independently for a few minutes. Their reactions should be just a few sentences long: “What do you think of the story?”, “How do you feel?”, “Do you like it?”, “Why?/Why not?” All the students in the class stand up and are asked to share their reactions randomly; if someone else has something similar, the student can sit down.

4. Once everyone is sitting down, the students discuss all the main ideas that have been shared as a whole group. Students often enjoy this clip from Monty Python on a rather different version of “Little Red Riding Hood”, which should help with the debate.

5. Refer students back to the story map they worked on at the beginning of the lesson and tell them that they will be writing a five-paragraph story using the same words in the box. In groups of four, students are numbered out for collaborative writing purposes:
– Students start writing their first paragraph introducing the setting and the characters. When the time is up, students hand out their papers to the person with the following number: number 1s to number 2s, 2s to 3s, 3s to 4s, and number 4s to number 1s.
– Students read the introduction and write a second paragraph with the first event in the story. Rotate papers again.
– Third paragraph: second event in the story. Rotate papers.
– Fourth paragraph: third event and rotate.
– The student that started writing the narrative reads the story and writes an ending.

Each of these stages should be timed, although the amount of time needed will depend on the level of the students and the type of support they need. This is also a great opportunity to have students proofread each other’s writings, have them edit their stories and hand in a final version to be shared with the rest of the class. How do their stories differ from the story maps at the beginning of the lesson?

“There Was Once”

Mariners Ahoy!

Last week I worked on an extract from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge with two B2-C1 groups of students. These students are required to work with authentic literary texts as part of the official curriculum.

Listening

I first wanted them to get an idea of what the whole poem is about, so I decided to use Iron Maiden’s version of the song with lyrics and the following pictures from Gustave Doré to have the students become familiar with the plot and put the pictures in the right order to check understanding. The song is rather long, and I used the intervals to write the main ideas on the board with the students, but it certainly served its purpose and raised the students’ interest as well! (Iron Maiden? Poetry? Romanticism? Heavy metal? The supernatural?)

Vocabulary

Once we checked the order of the pictures and were able to summarise the plot, I told them we’d be focusing on some of the most famous lines of the poem, the moment when the albatross is killed by the mariner. To get the students ready for the text, we worked on a number of sea-related words, all of which will appear later in the text. The students made connections between the words they were already familiar with and others that were new to them, and used the picture to help them to explain the meaning of some of them.

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Pronunciation

We then worked on pronunciation: the students classified several words from the poem according to their last vowel sounds. I wanted the students to be able to work out the meaning of some of the more literary words after reading, so we didn’t work on meaning at this point (although it’d be a good option with other groups so they can deal with the text more easily.)

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Reading

What I did do was to provide these words and a few TRUE/FALSE sentences before reading so as to set a purpose for reading and have them make predictions. The students were also asked to complete the gaps with the rhyming words they had classified in the previous activity as they read. We worked on the first three stanzas together, and then they worked in their teams. We even practised connected speech after checking the rhyming words and the comprehension activities by reading the poem as a whole group!

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.pdf

Writing

Finally, each team wrote three short “Rimes of the Modern Mariner” using three lines from the extract. We first brainstormed a few ideas that each of the lines could suggest:

“Day after day, day after day…”
Your experience at school.
You are fed up with having to wait for the bus for too long.
You are a viewer sick of football matches.

“Water, water, everywhere”
You are on a cruise in the Caribbean/Mediterranean.
It is the first time you see the sea.
You are at a water park enjoying a summer day.

“All in a hot and copper sky”
You are on a trip in the desert.
You are lying on the beach in a holiday resort.
You are trying to get some ice cream, but you can’t find any shop.

And after that, the students wrote some amusing poems that we shared and proofread as a whole group:

Day after day, day after day,
We have to wake up at eight.
School we must attend,
if we want good food on our plate.

All in a hot and copper sky,
I’m going to have fun.
I’m on the beach, eating a peach,
and very relaxed in the sun.

No matter how many times you’ve read it, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner still retains its hypnotic power.

Carol Rumens, The Guardian 2009

 


Sea by CharlesEi1, on Flickr
Sea” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by CharlesEi1

 

All other images by Gustave Doré, Public Domain

Talking about the environment: “Big Yellow Taxi”

“I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.”

Joni Mitchell. Los Angeles Times, 1996

Next week I’m using this activity as an introduction to a unit on environmental issues. The task is based on a song by Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970), and it asks the students to find two words in each sentence which should change places with each other in order to make sense. The students then explain their answers and listen to the song to check if they are right.

I’m including two versions for different levels here, from easier to more difficult:


big-yellow-taxi-1

BigYellowTaxi1.pdf

ANSWERS: parking – paradise, and – hotel, know – go, parking – paradise, put – took, half – dollar, that – put, birds – spots, last – late, old – yellow


big-yellow-taxi

BigYellowTaxi2.pdf

ANSWERS: put up – paved, hotel – boutique, till – that, put – took, half – dollar, now – away, birds – apples, slam – door, old – yellow

(Extra support can be provided if needed by having the students circle a few of the target words at the beginning.)


Apart from Joni Mitchell’s original song, there are several cover versions out there with different styles, so I’m also including a few I like to choose from based on what I know about a particular group of students.  Notice, however, that the Counting Crows’ cover version changes “slam” for “sway” and “man” for “girl” at the end, and that in Amy Grant’s version the people are charged “twenty-five bucks” instead of “a dollar and a half! Just another great opportunity to provide an extra purpose for listening!

I’m planning to have the students write a one-sentence personal response to the song and the topic in general, read a few and discuss them, and then use them again at the end of the unit in a plenary discussion. The students will be asked to make any changes they want and to write a few more lines with the new information and personal thoughts which will hopefully demonstrate their critical thinking skills and help them to take a stance on the issue.

We need this more than ever, don’t we?

Description, down to a fine art

Improving the students’ organisational skills and getting them ready to write a well-rounded description of a painting are the main goals of this activity which was originally part of a longer unit around the topics of reading and literature. I first chose six classical paintings in which someone is reading a book.

The paintings are hidden behind black squares (see PowerPoint file below) and are progressively displayed square by square to draw the students’ attention to each part of the painting. The idea here is to encourage active conversations in which the students make predictions about the books, the people and the places, and the relationship between the main elements in each painting, as they are gradually revealed. Descriptive vocabulary such as “at the top” or “in the bottom left-hand corner” can also be introduced or revised at this point.

Paintings.ppt

The students use the oral discussion and their own ideas and personal impressions to complete a graphic organiser for each painting, first writing down a few words that describe the book, the person or people reading and the place, and then thinking of how each of these are related.

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This is a fairly flexible task which allows the students to use their own vocabulary based on their proficiency level, but it’s also a good time to introduce new words that the students may need that should not be missed. In addition, by having them make connections (book-person, person-place, place-book) and write down their ideas in the circles, the students are encouraged to think beyond the painting and use these critical thinking skills to enrich their descriptions:
– What type of book do you think it is?
– Are they reading for pleasure? To find information?
– Are they enjoying it? Why do you think so?
– Are they in a public or a private room? Do they look comfortable? What can the place tell us about the person?

Depending on the level of the students, you may need to model or go over the elements that make a descriptive text both coherent and cohesive, and which will help them to express all the ideas gathered to the best of their ability. The students can then be asked to write the description of the painting they like most or simply assign one to each student, and later hold an art exhibition in class where the students are given the opportunity to share and compare their own writings. Can the students now use these observational, organisational and critical thinking skills to choose a painting or photograph of their choice that can be added to the art exhibition and write a well-rounded description independently?


All images are Public Domain

Pathways to Accuracy: “Somewhere Only We Know”

At the beginning of “Somewhere Only We Know” (Keane, 2004), the singer walks “across an empty land” and knows “the pathway like the back of my hand.” In this activity, the students find their way through the maze to read and understand the lyrics of the song while facing a series of challenges related to grammar and sentence structure along the way. The use of articles and possessive adjectives, or differences such as “been”/”gone” or “say”/”tell”, are some of the questions that the students will need to solve as they connect the words with a pencil or a highlighter. The students are also asked to fill in the circles with a suitable preposition. Depending on the level of the students, the prepositions that they are allowed to use can be provided beforehand (although here I’d have them think of an answer first or leave it blank if they don’t know it, check it later when they listen to the song, and then discuss any other possibilities.)

somewhere-only-we-know

Somewhere Only We Know.pdf

Lyrics

There are plenty of opportunities for language analysis and further practice after the students have listened to the song and checked their answers, but you may also want to work on comprehension and discuss what the song means to each student, get them to share their ideas, and finally compare them with these words by the band’s drummer:

We’ve been asked whether “Somewhere Only We Know” is about a specific place, and Tim has been saying that, for him, or us as individuals, it might be about a geographical space, or a feeling; it can mean something individual to each person, and they can interpret it to a memory of theirs… It’s perhaps more of a theme rather than a specific message… Feelings that may be universal, without necessarily being totally specific to us, or a place, or a time…

Richard Hughes

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Working On Connected Speech: The Fresh Prince

The theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” is used here to help the students recognise and practise the various features of connected speech which make the stress pattern and rhythm of English so distinctive. Making the students aware of these differences and providing opportunities to work on them allows them to improve their listening and speaking skills and hopefully contribute to make their pronunciation even more intelligible to both native and non-native speakers.

In this activity, the students first watch the show’s introduction with no sound and take turns telling what they think the first-person story is about based on the images. Then they compare their predictions with the actual story once the lyrics are handed out. This is also a good time to play the video with sound once again and introduce new vocabulary.

Lyrics.pdf

Focus on sentence stress, read the first few lines and model the differences in prominence between stressed and unstressed syllables.

NOW THIS is the STOry ALL aBOUT HOW
My LIFE got FLIPPed TURNed UPside DOWN

The students practise the lines chorally and slowly at first, tapping the beat of the song as they sing and gradually reading and singing it faster and faster. As new lines are added to the choral reading/singing, introduce new features of connected speech as needed: elision (losing sounds), linking (adding or joining sounds between words) or assimilation (changing sounds). For instance, most students will struggle with the line “I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air” unless they have worked on linking and elision first.

The group follows the same procedure with the rest of the song, playing it every now and then while checking their progress and areas that may need improving. The following audio file belongs to one of those progress checks in the middle of the lesson:

At the end, the students may be asked to think of possible implications this activity might have on everyday speech, how it could help them improve their speaking and listening skills, and share their ideas with the rest of the class. And now that they are familiar with the lyrics, you can’t miss this video in which “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” is run through Google Translate 64 times with the inevitable hilarious consequences (and a couple of subliminal lessons that any language teacher will relish!)

Fresh Prince by Rebirth Cycle, on Flickr

Fresh Prince” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Rebirth Cycle

Cooperative Learning and the Language Classroom

I admit I sometimes feel jealous when I read other language teaching blogs I follow (most of them, actually): one-to-one settings, diligent adult students who choose to be in the classroom, or small groups at language schools where grouping students for a variety of tasks does not seem to be a problem and language appears to flow naturally and simultaneously. Yes, I know – those teachers have many years of teaching under their belt and with a good repertoire of classroom management strategies! I don’t even know if I could succeed in any of those settings, to be honest.

I belong to the large mixed-ability classroom, where a group of 26 students is considered a luxury one gets to see once in a blue moon and 30 is the norm. I belong to compulsory education and the teenage years, motivating the all too often unmotivated, transforming the infectious energy into meaningful learning, teaching after a tough Maths exam or a long passive lecture. And when it comes to language teaching, beyond basic classroom management, it is the type and quality of interactions and contributions in my classes that I’m most concerned about.

One of the challenges in mixed-ability and/or multi-level groups, for example, is that some students sometimes become over-dominant at the expense of quieter or weaker students who are only occasionally given the chance to participate equally and at their own performance level. Adopting a cooperative learning framework can help to respond to some of these problems by structuring the teaching-learning process through flexible groupings with the aim of boosting language learning through well-defined dynamic classroom interactions.

The first step consists of designing effective cooperative teams. Based on the students’ proficiency level, heterogeneous groups of four are formed at the beginning of the school year including, to the extent possible, high, middle and low achievers, both sexes, and students with different interests and motivations. Once the teams are set up, both the cooperative setting and the specific strategies we use will be characterised by all or most of the following:

1. Everybody working at the same time!

When working cooperatively, every single student in the class is working at the same time, which means more on-task time for them and more interaction going on. There is no one student doing most of the talking, or no quieter student struggling with participation. Take, for instance, a popular cooperative learning strategy such as Numbered Heads Together:


Numbered Heads Together

  • Students count off 4s (or they may be assigned a number for the whole term or year.)
  • Teams discuss a teacher-generated question or work on an activity until all members can answer it.
  • The teacher calls a number 1-4: only those students with the number called can answer.

Because the students do not know who is going to be called, they all need to make sure they can all answer the question or activity, and that they have listened to each other.

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2. Less teacher talk, more student talk.

Who has not struggled to some extent with limiting teacher talk or allowing for sufficient thinking time at some point in their career? Cooperative learning strategies put the students at the very centre of the learning process and provide opportunities for quality thinking time while practising the target language.

3. Individual accountability.

Unlike informally assigned groups, where very often some students do all the work while others do little or even none for various reasons, the strategies used in the cooperative classroom are structured so that no student can coast on the efforts of others. Every student in a cooperative team is responsible for his/her own contributions to the group and learning gains. The students engaged in Think-Pair-Share, for example, need to rely on each other to carry out the task:


Think-Pair-Share

  • The students work individually on a question or activity before pairing up.
  • Pair shares responses and reaches a consensus.
  • Pairs share with the class.
    (Think-Pair-Square is an alternative strategy in which pairs check with the group of 4 before reporting back to the rest of the class.)

4. Equal participation.

All the students become involved in the learning process no matter their language level. Indeed, each student is encouraged to make unique contributions based on their interests and motivations, which will at the same time assist in developing interpersonal skills that can benefit communication with others. In Roundtable, it is the addition of the students’ contributions that will be reported to the whole class:


Roundtable

  • The teacher poses a question/activity.
  • The students take turns to write answers down.
  • It may be sequential, with one paper being passed over, or simultaneous, with four papers going around at the same time.
  • Teacher calls a number 1-4.

 

5. Sink or swim!

In cooperative teams the success of each member of the group depends on the success of the whole team. Apart from making sure each student does well, this positive interdependence also requires that the students make sure they can understand each other during the task, so communication strategies that allow them to speak and listen for understanding become the most relevant.

 

Of course, our ultimate goal is to improve the linguistic competence of each and every one of our students, who should be able to read, write, listen and speak independently in a variety of contexts and for multiple purposes. Devoting classroom time to cooperative work, though, will certainly help to promote a rich, communicative and interactive environment based on differentiation and equal participation, an environment in which the students are assessed both individually and as a team as they work together towards the same goal.

 

It takes time to set up a cooperative classroom that works, and strategies should be introduced little by little, but in my experience it’s not only worth it but a much better way to respond to so many of the challenges we face in the language classroom on a daily basis.

 


JOHNSON, D.W., JOHNSON, R.T. & HOLUBEC, E.J. (1994): Cooperative Learning in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

KAGAN, S. & KAGAN, M. (1994): The Structural Approach: Six keys to cooperative. In S. Sashran (Ed.) Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods, pp. 115-133. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

SLAVIN, R.E. (1992): When and why does Cooperative Learning increase achievement? Theoretical and empirical perspective. In R. Hertz-Lazarowitz and N. Miller (Eds.). Interaction in cooperative groups. The theoretical anatomy of group learning, pp. 145-173. New York: Cambridge University Press

individual -v- group by Sean MacEntee, on Flickr

individual -v- group” (CC BY 2.0) by Sean MacEntee