“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan is the story of a boy who finds a strange creature which no one seems to notice in a grey, alienated world. His quest to find the ideal place for the thing raises several questions about belonging and social awareness, with an ending that will bring about mixed feelings and a variety of different meanings.
Not only does the quirky story get the students working with the language while boosting their critical thinking skills, but it is also flexible enough to be used with different proficiency levels and at different levels of interpretation. I have been using it with teenage students from B1 and above, and it has always effectively engaged them in ways that promote reflection and meaningful language learning.
Both the book and the 15-minute long Oscar award-winning animated film version have been used in the following lesson, although it can be easily adapted to be used with only one of them:
1. Show students the cover of the book and its title and ask: “Have you ever lost anything?”, “What was it?”, “How did you lose it?”, “Did you find it?” Ask them about the pictures on the cover and what they find special about them. Have them guess what the story might be about.
2. Read the book aloud, stopping to show the pictures, ask questions, and clarify vocabulary as needed.
3. When the narrator and the lost thing are about to enter the place they are looking for, close the book and ask students what kind of place they think would be the best for the lost thing. Discuss and write down the main ideas.
Eventually we found what seemed to be the right place, in a dark little gap off some anonymous little street. The sort of place you’d never know existed unless you were actually looking for it.
I pressed a buzzer on the wall and this big door opened up.
4. Students are given several sentences from the book for them to put in the right order (see worksheet below.) Most are fairly clear, and a few could belong to different parts of the story. Tell them that they will be checking their answers as they watch the film version of the book.
5. Stop the film at the same point in the story (11:10), check the order of the sentences as a whole group, and remind students of the main ideas in the discussion held before. By now, they should be more than ready to watch the end of the story.
6. Discuss the ending and the students’ predictions:
- What did the story make you think about?
- Do you like the ending?
- Is it a happy ending?
- What does being “lost” mean?
- What does belonging mean?
- Why did no one seem to care about the lost thing?
7. Ask students to find things that are “lost” or “do not belong” in their houses or in the street. Students write a story from the point of view of the thing itself or using a third person narrator, describing how the thing made it to that place, its present, and its possible future.
The last time I taught this lesson I brought a lost, striped (and clean!) sock to model the process, but the lost things the students shared in class were far more interesting: a floppy disk, a seashell sitting in a garage, an old shoe buckle, a sticker from an old favourite band, or the pictures of a confusing street sign and a broken printer lying next to the wrong rubbish bin. The engaging, creative stories that the students wrote based on their “lost things” remain among the most memorable pieces of writing.