Three content-based teaching strategies

Whether you’re teaching content in a CLIL setting, carrying out an inquiry or problem-based project or simply want to check understanding of an expository text such as an article or a news report, these are three of my favourite content-based teaching strategies both due to their simplicity and the effectiveness with which they help structure the learning process. The three strategies share a number of inbuilt characteristics that make them ideal for our purposes:

  • They all tap into the students’ prior knowledge.
  • They set a purpose for learning: by comparing what students know and what they don’t, interest will arise and challenges responded to.
  • A final self-assessment of the task is included, contributing to an effective closure at the end of the lesson or project.
  • They provide students and teachers with a clear framework: everyone knows where they have started and where they are heading at any stage in the lesson or project.
  • They are easy to implement!

 

Anticipation guide

Writing ten statements about the content to be read and/or discussed and having students guess whether the information is true or false will not only introduce the topic to the students but also check their prior knowledge and create the need to fill an information gap. For it to work well, a few sentences should be about things we know our students will already know.

In its simplest form, anticipation guides can be used with short texts as in the following example:

AnticipationGuide

Anticipation Guide.doc

Anticipation guides, however, work even better with longer units of study, adding both a starting point and a series of guidelines that should reflect key content that we want our students to focus on. In addition, because the statements offer a meaningful context where a need for clarification is created, anticipation guides are also a great tool to pre-teach key vocabulary that the students will need along the project.

 

Here’s the Answer. What’s the Question?

A more guided version of the above, in this strategy students choose the right answers about the text(s) they are going to work on. Students are first introduced to the topic by having them think of possible questions for each of the answers and use their own knowledge – and their own guesses – to get them involved in the task in a meaningful way. As with anticipation guides, both questions and answers are checked at the end of the reading or listening task for self-assessment purposes.

In the example below, students were introduced to a few extracts from “The Great Gatsby” using this activity:

Here'stheAnswer.What'stheQuestion.

Here’s the Answer. What’s the Question?.pdf

 

K-W-L

A K-W-L is a simple three-column graphic organiser: students complete the first one with what they already KNOW about the topic, the second with what they WANT to know about it, and at the end of the task, the third column should reflect what the students have actually LEARNT about it.

KWL

KWL.pdf

The K-W-L chart is, therefore, a much more flexible alternative that will adapt to all kinds of tasks and will promote student-centred instruction. Indeed, even though teachers may guide the W step to focus on specific information, the K-W-L chart works best when it is used as a tool to answer the students’ specific needs related to the content being covered. Yes, it will require some extra planning as the project evolves (sometimes even on the spot!) but, after all, responding to the students’ real needs, interests and motivations is what true teaching is all about, isn’t it?

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

Reconstructing a story from questions: “Tom’s Diner”

Suzanne Vega’s classic “Tom’s Diner” (1981) is used in this activity to practise comprehension skills by looking for specific information, reading between the lines, making predictions, and establishing connections both within the text and with the world outside — including the students themselves!

Students first read the questions and try to answer as many as they can. Some of the answers will be in the following questions, others will be close guesses using the information available and their own predictions, and yet a few questions will allow for multiple interpretations. When students are asked to listen to the song, they should already have a fairly clear idea of what this personal narrative is about or, at least, enough details to make the listening comprehension activity both purposeful and meaningful. Students listen, confirm their guesses, make any necessary changes, and evaluate their own predictions by comparing the information they had at the beginning of the activity and the new details after listening to the story.

TomsDinerImage

TomsDinerWorksheet.pdf

Tom’s Diner Lyrics

Have groups of students discuss the last two questions and share their ideas. How are they connected to the rest of the story? As an extension activity, you may want to try and have students write a stanza about the typical daily routines that take place in your classroom to the tune of the song, record them, and then join the different files together into one final song. Would you give it a try?

Diner by #96, on Flickr
Diner” (CC BY 2.0) by  #96 

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!

“The Lost Thing”

“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 B1/B1+ teenage students, 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.

The_Lost_Thing_cover

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.

The Lost Thing.doc

Image credits: www.thelostthing.com and www.shauntan.net

Parties, story maps, and all that jazz

Using Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” and its sequel, “Judy’s Turn to Cry”, students work on comprehension skills, identifying and analysing story elements, making predictions and discussing the events in the story. Most of the oral discussion will get students talking about hypothetical situations, so this is also a good activity to practise all types of conditional structures.

  1. Tell the students they are going to listen to a song called “It’s My Party” and that two of the main lines in the song are “and I’ll cry if I want to” and “you would cry too if it happened to you”. Ask them to think of possible situations or conflicts that might be going on at this party and the reason why the narrator seems to be so upset. Write them down.
  2. Students listen to the song and complete the first part of the story line (see below), identifying the setting (Where?), the main characters in the story (Who?), the plot (What? How? Why?) and the solution (So what?) Give out a copy of the lyrics to help them check their answers.
  3. Tell the students there is a sequel to this song they are going to listen to. Ask them to work in pairs or groups and fill in the blank circles in the worksheet with five predictions about what might happen next. Share and discuss their ideas.
  4. Students listen to “Judy’s Turn to Cry” and look for two causes and their consequences, which will in turn explain the final solution to the conflict. Does it match any of the students’ predictions?
  5. Discuss the story: “What do you think of each of the characters in the story?”, “Do you think there is any important information missing?”, “What do you think of this relationship?”, “How could they have solved the problem in a different way?”

    Song lyrics

    Story Line

    Story Line

    https://youtu.be/V6Uo1nNt6LU


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Making the right choices: ‘Lean On Me’

Every word in the song “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers has been written into a grid with some distractors. Starting in the upper left corner, students complete the lyrics choosing one of the words available right next to the last word in any direction and using each square only once. To guide them through the process, the writing worksheet provides students with a few words in each line, including the first ones, which are also capitalised in the grid for easier reference. You may want to model and play the first two lines of the song so that the students can understand the procedure.

Students will be practising a number of skills as they make their choices. Sometimes they will have to make decisions concerning subject-verb agreement, sentence structure, word order, or selecting the right preposition. In other cases, they will need to focus on meaning to make the right choice, using context clues to figure out the meaning of a particular word with which they may not be familiar. Even rhyming words will prove helpful once they realise what the main rhyming scheme is as they write.

Before listening to the song and checking the lyrics, students are asked to write down and share what they think the last line of the song is, adding an extra purpose to the listening task.

Lean on me.pdf


UPDATE 22/5/16

Kim Henrie from Canada has sent her ideas on how to use this activity and a few changes she made. Kim colour-coded the verses and the key words in bold, provided an example for the first verse, and didn’t include the title to make it a mystery song. Please find below the files which Kim has been so kind to share. Thank you so much for such great ideas!

LeanOnMeMystery Song_Lean On Me.doc

Mystery Song_Lean On Me.pdf

LeanOnMeAnswerKey

Mystery Song_Lean On Me_Key.doc

Mystery Song_Lean On Me_Key.pdf

Punctuation matters

Effective punctuation is sometimes a problem even at the secondary education level, but instead of working on the typical text with no marks, why not do it the other way round and expose students to the very meaning of punctuation itself?

1. Elicit the most common types of punctuation marks, their uses and a few examples. Write them down.

2. Display the text with punctuation marks and no words (click below for a pdf copy): “How many paragraphs does the text have?”, “What type of text do you think it is?”, “Why?”, “How many sentences does the first paragraph have?”, “What type of sentences?”, “What type of information should we expect?”, “What type of questions are included in the first paragraph?”, etc. Continue with the rest of the paragraphs, “reading” the type of information actually conveyed by the punctuation marks themselves (enumeration, clarification, surprise, excitement, addition, interest, and so on.)

3. Brainstorm what the text might be about. (I was indeed surprised by the amount of plausible ideas the students came up with!)


4. Have students write their own texts in pairs, interview with you, and edit them.


5. Because students will be so familiar with the structure and possible meanings at this point, sharing the stories will be the most meaningful and an excellent listening activity in itself.

Punctuation matters.pdf

Communication strategies

I always start the school year introducing or revising communication strategies that students can use to overcome the problems they may face in communicating a message:

Communication strategies are potentially conscious plans for solving what to an individual presents itself as a problem in reaching a particular communicative goal.
— Færch & Kasper (1983)

Asking for help, explaining the word or idea and using similar words are just a few of the strategies the students can identify, and putting them into practice is what the following activitiy is all about:

1. Tell the students they have five minutes to finish the picture (see below). They should not be able to see each other’s pictures or write their names.

2. Collect the pictures, shuffle them, and show one of them to the rest of the class.

3. Explain that they are going to take turns describing each picture which may allow for multiple interpretations and for which we may lack vocabulary. Compare it with everyday communication and the problems we usually face both as native and non-native speakers. Emphasise that if students give up or use their first language, they are missing an important opportunity to acquire new language.

4. Elicit paraphrasing structures: “It’s a kind/type of…”, “It’s like…”, “It’s used for…”, “It looks….”, “It seems…”, “It’s the shape of…”, “It’s made of…”, “It’s the size of…”, “It’s similar to…”, and so on.

5. Students take turns describing the pictures orally. Notice that some pictures will be abstract or contain elements for which we lack vocabulary in any language.

6. Reshuffle the pictures, give a few to each team, and have them create a story based on them.

 

Communication by DailyPic, on Flickr

Communication” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by  DailyPic 

The Burning House

Today, developed countries are consuming more than ever before. This culture of consumption is often fueled by people’s desire to define themselves by the possessions they amass. The Burning House: What Would You Take? takes a different approach to personal definition. By removing easily replaceable objects and instead focusing on things unique to them, people are able to capture their personalities in a photograph.

— Foster Huntington

I read about this collaborative online project just a few months ago and knew it would make an engaging class activity. Students practise speaking and listening skills while focusing on language used to talk about hypotheses (If my house were on fire, I would…; I could/might…; I wish…; Suppose…; in case…) and develop a wide array of vocabulary related to personal belongings and personality traits. What’s more, this conflict between rationality (what is pratical) and intuition (unveiling our most sentimental side) will reflect the students’ interests and priorities and help to build a positive classroom atmosphere that is conducive to learning.

BEFORE THE LESSON

1. Have the students take a picture of ten objects they would take if their house were on fire. You may want to have them e-mail it to you so that you can have the photos ready for the lesson.

2. At home, the students prepare a short oral presentation explaining their choices:


What would you take if your house were on fire? Choose 10 things, put them together, and take a photo. Get ready to explain your picture to the rest of the class:

  • Can you name all the objects you have chosen in English?
  • Why would you take these objects? Make sure you can provide a brief explanation for each of them.


IN CLASS

3. Display each picture and have the group guess who it belongs to. The students then take turns explaining their choices. A lot of new vocabulary will be generated at this point, with each presenter introducing the new words in a natural and meaningful way. Allow for questions at the end of each presentation.

4. Visit the original online project: http://theburninghouse.com/ The students choose one of the pictures and write a paragraph about what they think this person may be like. You may want to brainstorm and/or introduce common adjectives used to describe personality first. Have the students share their work and predictions, and compare each other’s opinions.

5. Discuss: “How much can we tell about a person by looking at these objects?”