Call it unimaginative or uncreative, but dominoes is one of those activities that always seem to work in the language classroom no matter the level or specific group of students. From simple vocabulary matching to more advanced grammatical collocations and sentence structure, dominoes is, in essence, a collaborative game in which students work together to solve a puzzle providing each other with valuable feedback along the way, and in which students are allowed to demonstrate uncertainty and check their knowledge of the particular language area being practised. Take, for instance, this set of dominoes to practise negative prefixes attached to adjectives that I’ve been using for years:
Apart from the activity itself and all the skills involved, what I really like about the game is that, once it’s over, it is often possible for students to identify patterns and write rules that may have gone previously unnoticed.
This other set of dominoes is more discovery-driven and based on rhyming words. Students pay attention to the last sound(s) and match them accordingly during the game: the final vocalic sound or, if the word ends in a consonant, the final vocalic sound + consonant. During the game, the students can ask each other in case of doubt or have the teacher model the pronunciation of individual words. And when they’ve finished, they will have hopefully noticed different spellings for the same sound and will now also be able to write down several pairs of common homophones, as in the following:
Anagrams are words formed by rearranging the letters of a different word, as in “elbow”-“below”, “act”-“cat”, “save”-“vase”, or “stressed-dessert”. In this activity (B1/B1+) based on Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” (1983), the students read the lyrics and try to find the forty-five anagrams that have been included. The students write their answers on the right-hand column, which also indicates the number of anagrams they are expected to find in each line.
1 said 2 me 3 tonight 4 still 5 left 6 write 7 what 8 could 9 time 10 once 11 was 12 now 13 goes 14 where 15 arms 16 there 17 miracle 18 how 19 need 20 how 21 me 22 maybe 23 last 24 feel 25 right 26 could 27 wrong 28 maybe 29 this 30 for 31 much 32 when 33 take 34 start 35 said 36 on 37 heart 38 now 39 are 40 wonderful 41 and 42 care 43 things 44 bad 45 intend
The students will be using their knowledge about grammar and vocabulary to rearrange the letters of the words whenever communication is interrupted as they read. Word categories and collocations will prove useful in some cases, spelling will be decisive in a few others, yet a good number of anagrams will be solved by focusing on meaning and thinking of words with similar letters (and which belong to the right category and with the right spelling) that might be the most appropriate for that context.
The activity is checked by having the students listen to the song at the end. Did they solve most of the anagrams? How did they solve them? Which anagram did they find the easiest? And the most difficult? Why? After checking the meaning of some of the anagrams in the song, can they now write a sentence using some of them?
Randomness is an element that we’ve been using in learning tasks for a long time, especially those that involve productive skills. Rolling dice or shuffling cards are classic examples of activities in which students make choices based on unpredictable results. There is, of course, a sense of limit and control once the students know the goals and specific objectives of the task, but introducing surprise and letting fate decide for us often results in students trying their best at moving on with whatever they have at hand (which, incidentally, simulates real-life situations or even test-taking skills) and improves their motivation by making them get out of the comfort zone that teacher-led and teacher-controlled practice provides.
There’s a good number of online generators that offer interesting options for students to practise speaking and writing, and which revolve around the idea of randomness. They are web-based and very easy to set up to work with the whole group or in smaller teams. They are also flexible enough to be used together with specific strategies or a particular classroom structure — or better yet, to allow for student creativity.
Random Plot Generators
These two sites can help students get a random story line they can start working on, including the setting, the main characters, and a few details about the conflict. Other features such as “Random First Line”, “Random Dialogue”, “Story Title”, or “What if? Scenario” also provide intriguing starting points for writing or speaking tasks.
plot-generator.org.uk goes one step further and allows you to discuss specific nouns, locations, adjectives related to feelings, or action verbs we want to see in our stories, poems, or even song lyrics. The generators take all these options into account to provide a final version or a first draft that the students need to work on.
Both websites offer a wide variety of topics to start any discussion or debate:
The Story Shack and Writer Igniter
A suggested word count, the genre, the main character and a sentence uttered by him/her, or specific information to be included in the story, are some of the ideas provided by these generators every time to hit the “Generate” or “Shuffle” buttons!
The Game Gal
This word generator gives you words to play games like pictionary, catchphrase, or charades. Just choose which game you’re playing and a category, and then tap for a new word.
Click on “Create Spark” and then choose the age of your students, the type of writing and the amount of time. The site will provide a prompt for students and a planning stage, including timed whole-class discussion with key words, before the students start writing.
Based on “Where I’m From” (1993) by George Ella Lyon, this activity takes students through a journey of self-reflection by identifying memories and traditions that have marked their lives as they work on comprehension skills and vocabulary. The students first read the poem and match the underlined words with the pictures. Apart from clarifying or providing the meaning of new words, this first approach will allow them to get a general idea of what the poem is about. An mp3 audio file with the author reading the poem is available here.
The students then delve into the text by completing the table with one example from the poem for each of the categories: a family name, the place of birth, something learnt as a child, and so on. Under the second column, the students write examples about themselves for each category with a two-fold purpose: demonstrate comprehension of the text by making connections with their own world, and brainstorm ideas for the writing task to follow.
Following the prompts provided, most of which they should be familiar with by now, the students fill in the blanks to write their own versions of the poem.
This task can be a fantastic ice-breaker or team-building activity at the beginning of the year once the students edit their poems and are ready to share them. Creating short videos or recording the poems (and use them later for work on pronunciation) are two other ways in which students can share their poems:
Although I know I like using music in my teaching, I never thought there would be so much of it on this blog when I started it over a year ago. Songs are fun, authentic sources with multiple possibilities in the classroom, but the main reason for having published 14 lesson plans and activities based on songs here is to a large extent due to copyright issues: while lyrics and songs are easily available for everyone online, access to other types of authentic texts is more limited because of copyright constraints. I also think the key to a successful song-based lesson is to deal with the text as you would with any other type of short text, whether written or oral, to practise a variety of comprehension skills, work on specific grammar and vocabulary, or introduce a topic for discussion.
Choosing a song that meets the students’ needs is not always easy, though. Apart from lyrics in standard English that are not too difficult to follow, the students shouldn’t be too familiar with them if you’re planning to do some language work with them. I think songs that focus on universal themes such as love, friendship or personal feelings, or songs that tell a story, are bound to work better no matter the music style. Most importantly, they are also more likely to adapt to our specific learning objectives.
The school year will be over for me in a few weeks, and I thought a post compiling these song-based lessons would be a good idea for future reference — but also to end the blogging season on a musical note!
Listening for specific information
1. The students listen for specific information by writing an explanation for each of the words, names or pictures in this timeline based on “Kilkelly, Ireland”, a song in which family news, including births and deaths, are shared for a period of thirty-two years.
3. Before working on an extract from Coleridge’s poem, the students become familiar with the plot of the story by listening to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as they put several pictures in the right order.
5. By making predictions, reading between the lines or establishing connections both within the text and with the world outside, the students practise a wide variety of reading comprehension skills in this lesson based on “Tom’s Diner”.
8. 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 songs following certain rules.
Spelling, word order, context clues, inferences or sentence structure, including agreement, number or different tenses, are just some of the language skills the students will be practising in the last four lessons and activities:
Ten popular two-sentence horror stories have been divided into three columns for students to match the beginning, middle and end. The goal here is for students to use contextual and cohesive clues that will allow them to rewrite these stories, starting with the beginning of each story under column A, then choosing the next part under column B, and finally thinking of a suitable ending under C. In addition, the students are asked to decide where the missing full stop between the first and the second sentence in each story should be.
ANSWERS: 1. I never go to sleep. I keep waking up. 2. The grinning face stared at me from the darkness beyond my bedroom window. I live on the 14th floor. 3. Lying in bed that night she asked why I was breathing so heavily. I wasn’t. 4. I woke up to hear knocking on glass. At first, I thought it was the window until I heard it come from the mirror again. 5. There was a picture in my phone of me sleeping. I live alone. 6. Working the night shift alone tonight. There is a face in the cellar staring at the security camera. 7. They delivered the mannequins in bubble wrap. From the main room I begin to hear popping. 8. You get home, tired after a long day’s work and ready for a relaxing night alone. You reach for the light switch, but another hand is already there. 9. A girl heard her mom yell her name from downstairs, and started to head down. As she got to the stairs, her mom pulled her into her room and said “I heard that too.” 10. I walked into the bathroom one night and looked at myself in the mirror. Only one of us walked out.
The students choose the three stories they find the creepiest, write a brief explanation for each of them, and share their thoughts with the rest of the class.
Now display the following:
What is scary about this? Why? Think about the tiny little things and everyday struggles of life in the 21st century. What “scares” you the most?
After brainstorming a few ideas as a whole group, ask the students to come up with a two-sentence story featuring one of those everyday life “struggles”, edit it, publish it, and then share it. My students are teenagers in Spain, so most stories were about technological issues, social media, school (especially exams and deadlines) or getting around the city.
Your alarm goes off and you hit the snooze button for 5 more minutes. When you wake up, you realise your final exam was an hour ago.
You have been stalking a friend on Instagram. Suddenly, you accidentally like an old picture.
That was a long queue to get on the bus. My travel card had expired and I had no money on me.
9:00 a.m.. 7% battery life and no charger.
The final discussion based on these stories allowed the students to share experiences and make personal connections with each other in an active, student-centred learning environment that also encouraged critical thinking as the students analysed and assessed these attitudes and behaviours.
Here is a lesson I’ve been using to teach the younger learners how to write a simple paragraph. Extracting the main idea and relevant information from a text, making inferences, using basic connectors to link ideas, or creating a picture with information from the text and personal experience, are also some of the main skills that will have been worked on by the end of the lesson.
1. Have students listen to the song “The Marvelous Toy” by Tom Paxton. Elicit the main idea.
2. In groups, students read the lyrics of the song and underline the different characteristics of the toy. For example:
– many bright colours – “zip” when it moves, “bop” when it stops, “whirr”when still – two big green buttons on the bottom – lid – no name – unique – everyone loves it – nobody knows what it is!
3. Teams report back to the rest of the class. Write a web with all the ideas and ask questions such as “Does it have wheels?”, “How do you start it?”, “Is it remote controlled?”, “What do you think the lid is for?”, etc. in order for students to infer other features not explicitly shown in the text.
4. Tell the students they are going to write a paragraph about the toy with the information they have. Explain what makes a good formal paragraph:
• topic sentence
• supporting details (revise basic connectors used to link ideas, e.g. “first”, “then”, “next”, “in addition”, etc.)
5. Write with the students the topic sentence and one or two more sentences, asking them for ideas and discussing them. Model through the process, reminding them of the different features.
6. Have the students finish the paragraphs by themselves. Discuss the type of information the final sentence should include.
7. The students share their paragraphs with the rest of the class and discuss any differences.
8. Finally, the students draw a picture of the toy according to the song. You may want to discuss what other features are left open for them to be creative (shape, pattern, size, material). But remind them we can’t have a name for it in any of the languages we speak! (“I never knew just what it was, and I guess I never will”.) Students then write a second paragraph independently including some of the new features and their personal opinion about the toy.