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.


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?)


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.



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.)



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!




The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.pdf


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:



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



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.


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.


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

Paper, scissors, new words

One of several ways in which we teach vocabulary is by using graphic organisers, providing students with a visual and organisational tool which helps them make connections between new words and those already available in their repertoire. Paper foldables are an example of this, especially when they are simple, not time-consuming and used to focus on the learning process in which, ideally, students also take decisions to make the new language items relevant to their current needs.

The three examples below were carried out by students in their early teens with an elementary (A2/A2+) level of English. In all of them, the foldables are used to organise both prior vocabulary knowledge and the new words, and then for communicative purposes through speaking or writing and for future reference. Indeed, the students are encouraged to include words they are already familiar with and those which are new to them, and to establish connections between them. This is a highly learner-centred process and might be one of the reasons why they find it both interesting and motivating.

1. The city. 
Use this street diorama as the basis for a descriptive writing activity, or to discuss similarities and differences between them orally and come up with a final whole-class ideal city.

2. A clothes dictionary.
First used to check the words they already know and to write them down, in this dictionary the students make a selection of new words related to clothing that they would like to learn (including definitions, simple pictures or even translations inside where needed) and then share their reasons in their teams and with the whole class, use them to describe what different people are wearing in several pictures, or even work together and design a unique and innovative item of clothing and present it to the rest of the class.


3. The house.
I read about this here a few years ago, although I recommend using A3 size paper for this one. How could we make this house more eco-friendly? What would your ideal house look like? Shall we check an online estate agency in English and, with the bugdet you’ve been allocated, explain why you would buy one of the houses on sale?


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!


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.


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.


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.

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.




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

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


Mystery Song_Lean On Me_Key.doc

Mystery Song_Lean On Me_Key.pdf