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?

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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Building comprehension skills and summarising: “Annabel Lee”

In this illustrated version of Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “Annabel Lee”, the students get engaged in three main tasks as they complete the poem:
– filling in the blank circles with a word from the word bank,
– using lexical and grammatical knowledge to find a suitable word for any rectangle, and
– matching a few verses from the poem with the pictures with no words.
By doing this, the students work at different linguistic levels simultaneously, with every decision taken affecting each other as the students construct meaning while demonstrating comprehension.

annabel-lee-1annabel-lee-2annabel-lee-3

Annabel Lee.pdf

But this activity can also be part of a larger lesson that focuses on comprehension and helps the students to identify key words in a text and use them to write a summary. Before reading the poem, the students are asked to focus on the beginning of the story: describing the picture with the setting first, then reading the first two lines and writing the following two verses using one of the rhyming words provided, and finally making predictions about what they think their story could be about based on a number of key words. Apart from setting the scene and getting the students ready for the reading comprehension activity, this lead-in also introduces the students to summarising skills that will be practised later in the lesson

annabel-lee-lead-in

Annabel Lee Lead-In.pdf

After working on the poem and checking understanding by having the students look for words with a similar meaning in the text and complete a story map, the students select five words from the poem that help to explain how they feel about it. This personal reaction to the text and the selection of words that determine the mood of the story will be the basis for the summary that the students will be writing at the end of this lesson.

annabel-lee-follow-up

Annabel Lee Follow-Up.pdf


Special thanks to Kena Piña for giving permission to use her brilliant illustrations in this activity and to publish it here. Please check her blog at https://jointherector.com

There are places I remember

Adding and deleting words from texts allow students to use their grammatical knowledge to manipulate sentences, play with the language, and analyse the impact each of these changes have on meaning. In this activity, students add and delete words from two texts following certain rules. This close reading will also help students understand the texts better and compare them, contrast them, and finally be able to express personal opinions about them.

placesPlaces.pdf

After discussing the first line written on the board (“There are places I remember all my life”) and coming up with special places that they can remember and the reasons behind this, the students read the lyrics of “In My Life” by The Beatles and decide which words can be deleted as long as they don’t cross out two or more words together. Students justify their answers orally first and then listen to the song and check the lyrics. How does the singer feel about those places he remembers? Are they good memories? How do they compare to the present? Is it any better?

For the second text, students add the words provided in the box wherever they think it’s possible and/or appropriate. Unlike the first one, however, a few more options are available here and so more discussion will be needed before listening to the original lyrics of “Half the World Away” since the addition of words will have to conform to both grammatical and semantic rules. How does the singer feel about the place he is in? Why do you think so? What do you think he needs to do? What would YOU do?

Finally, the students compare both songs, analyse how these places are used in each one, and choose the one they can most relate to, perhaps writing their choice and their reasons on post-it notes that can both hold the students accountable and provide a visual component once they are stuck on either side of the board.

 

Reported speech and creative writing: Fifty ways 

After reading the reported conversation and discussing what it is about, the students practise simple reported speech structures by rewriting each line into direct speech while changing tenses, pronouns, possessive adjectives and time references when necessary. With the aid of a few extra words provided, the result will be the actual lyrics from “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon. The students listen to the song and check their answers at the end.

FiftyWays1

The class can then work together and write a few more “ways to leave your lover”, following the model in the chorus. The students first choose one of the one-syllable proper names in the circle and match it with any words that rhyme in the box on the right. They then write their own lines, such as “Go to the gym, Tim”, “Don’t pull my leg, Meg”, “Get on that van, Dan”, or “Let’s make a deal, Neil”. The types of sentences will vary depending on the level of the students, so the possibilities are endless! Can the group of students come up with the remaining forty-five pieces of advice to make the song title a reality?

FiftyWays2

FiftyWays.pdf

From “pakkeleg” to “ordleg” (or how a Danish tradition became an effective English language game)

The last time I was in Denmark as part of a school exchange programme we were introduced to “pakkeleg”, a fun gift exchange game that is usually played at Christmas. In the game, each player brings a small gift which is placed on the table. Players then roll a die and whenever they roll a 6 they can get one of the gifts available until there are no more gifts. Players open their gifts, show them, and start a second round following the same procedure for a set time limit — but this time you are allowed to steal other players’ gifts!

STEP 1

In the language version of the game I’ve been using, students are given a set of cards (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) which are placed face down after groups of students have been formed and two teams in each group set up. Students are first given 6 minutes to roll the dice; if they roll a 6, they can get a card from the pile and read it without showing it to the other team.

STEP 2

When the time is up, the players think of different combinations to make the longest grammatically correct sentence possible – and one that makes sense! Students are allowed to include:
– pronouns
– possessive adjectives
– articles
– prepositions
– conjunctions
Providing a few of these function words that the students can use, or at least limiting the number, will make the game more challenging and avoid awkward sentences. For example, students may be allowed to use only the following:

she, a/an, a/an, the, the, in, at, between, and, they, he, but, it, from, of

In addition, students can modify the verbs to choose the right tense and make countable nouns plural if needed.FullSizeRender

Move around the class checking the students’ sentences.

STEP 3

Ask students to show their cards to the rest of the group and start a second round. For the next 6 minutes, any player rolling a 6 will be able to get a card from the pile or, what is even more interesting, steal a card from their opponent team. At this time, students should focus on ways to improve their sentences with the cards available, but the “stealing process” will make them think of possible alternatives as they play and reassess their initial plan. In a way, it simulates a slow-motion version of the pressure speakers are often under when trying to get their message across in real time and the large amount of choices they need to make.
STEP 4

Finally, teams write their sentence and share it with the rest of the class. The winner in each group is the team with the longest sentence, but there will also be a class winner after all the sentences have been shared. Of course, sentences will have to make sense and be grammatically correct, so a lot of grammar and vocabulary will be analysed at this point.

 

SALE

 

The game is so flexible that it can be adapted to any level depending on the type of words on the cards and the number of function words they are allowed to use. It works best if the words include vocabulary that students need revising, making it an excellent vocabulary revision activity. I used the set of cards below to test this game with pre-intermediate students, but I’ve been adding new cards with new words for each group of students to be used along the year. What I still don’t have is a name for this game that we can use for easier reference. Any suggestions?

Sample cards.doc

Greg is grateful for those great green Greek grapes.

Tongue twisters are a great way to practise pronunciation, getting students familiar with the production of individual sounds (especially those that are different from their L1) and allowing them to analyse the stress pattern characteristic of the English language. And students like them! Prepositions used after adjectives, in contrast, are all too often problematic as learners lack clear guidelines or generalisations that can be drawn, and interferences with their mother tongue usually cause problems in the process of grasping these combinations. In the following activity, both tongue twisters and prepositions used after adjectives have been combined with the hope of helping students find those combinations meaningful through memorable tongue twisters created by the students themselves. Students are expected to have worked with adjectives followed by prepositions before.

The activity works best with alliterative tongue twisters, such as the following:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.

Betty Botter had some butter,“but,” she said, “this butter’s bitter.”

I thought I thought of thinking of thanking you.

After eliciting that these tongue twisters share the characteristic of starting with the same sound for most of the words, students are divided into teams and given a number of cards for them to write their own tongue twisters. The only words provided are, in fact, adjectives that start with the same sound, and it is with this sound that they will be writing the rest of the tongue twister to the extent possible.

Cards.pdf

Teams first try to write their tongue twisters including nouns, a verb, one of the adjectives followed by the appropriate preposition, and any other words focusing mainly on nouns at this stage. Teams then swap cards and try to make the tongue twisters even more elaborate by inserting adjectives starting with the same sound. You may even want to have a third team look at the cards for more ideas. The cards are then given back to the original team so that they can revise them and edit them.

Theodore Thatcher was thankful for throwing things through the thick thatched roof.

Greg is grateful for those great green Greek grapes.

Frederick Freud was frightened of flying with friendly friends and fast food fries.

Jackie and Jeremy were just jealous of Jamie for jumping like Johnny and Jenny on Jonas’ jacket.

Sue’s son seemed suspicious of suddenly stealing several silver scissors from Samuel’s surgeon.

Raul was responsible for rescuing Roberta from a really risky river.

The end result of this collaborative writing process is finally shared with the rest of the class, either orally, or writing the tongue twisters up on the board, or typing them to be projected. Notice that the preposition followed by the adjective will stand out in most cases as they do not usually start with the same sound. A perfect time to draw their attention to these combinations and practise their own tongue twisters outloud, modelling individual sounds and stress patterns as needed. I have found many students refer back to this activity when adjectives with prepositions are used in a lesson, so they should be on the right track!