“Think about Things”: referencing and comprehension

The vast majority of my students speak Spanish as their first language. Verbs in Spanish carry enough information for subject pronouns to be most of the times unnecessary, but this is sometimes a problem with learners of English who fail to include them when references are clear enough. Although this activity will certainly help my students work on this particular feature, it was mainly designed as a reading and listening comprehension task that will get them analysing this song-based text using cohesive devices such as referencing:

  1. Have students read the text in the box and ask them what they think the text is about, who is speaking and who they think this person is speaking to.

2. Listen to the beginning of the song until “you are yet to learn how to speak”. You may want to write it down, too: Though I know I love you / I find it hard to see how you feel about me / ‘Cause I don’t understand you / Oh you are yet to learn how to speak. Discuss the students’ choices again (the song is about a father talking to his newly-born child.)

3. Now that the context is clear, tell the students they will have to put the sentences in the spirals in the right order by writing the number in the centre. To do this, they will also need to fill in the gaps with one of four pronouns: I, you, me or we. References across the text will need to be clear to do this task successfully, and certain words will need clarifying before deciding on the right subject or object pronoun.

Notice that while most gaps have one clear answer, a few might be open to interpretation. This could lead to fruitful discussions about the text itself and its context, which is always a great opportunity to put specific comprehension strategies and skills to the test, isn’t it?

No agreement? Have the students listen to the song and check!

Mad Libs and Songs

Here’s a song-based Mad Libs activity using Flippity, a site that lets you create lots of different games, quizzes and flashcards using Google spreadsheets:

1.Students first select one of the stories (click on the picture below to get access to the main menu):

selectastory

2. Then they fill in the boxes with one word belonging to each category:

categories

3. They click on “Show me the story”:

aperfectstory

4. Students read the result and discuss it in pairs, small groups and finally with the whole class. Although they should be able to identify the main topic, they will immediately see some sharp dissonances! This information gap will be solved by listening for detail so they can reconstruct the actual meaning. (If they click on “Go back”, they will be able to edit the song, type in the actual words and share the final results!)

fatherandson

The other two “stories” are based on these two songs:

I’ve worked on this set of songs so far, but I’d appreciate any other suggestions! Apart from appropriate language and a topic you can play with, the songs should have enough content words that could be replaced to create a specific (most of the times hilarious!) effect.

If you like the activity and have any ideas, could you please write them in the comments section below, or on my Facebook and Twitter pages?

Thanks for your help with this!

School excuses: a creative writing lesson

When was the last time you got one of those hilarious excuses for being absent or failing to do some homework? This lesson (B1 and above) revolves around the theme of school excuses and gets students working on past tenses, reading and listening comprehension, and creative writing:

1. Have students match 10 sentences as they fill in the gaps with the verbs in the box in the right tense. Most of them are irregular past verbs.

School excuses 1

SchoolExcuses.pdf

1. Please excuse Jennifer for missing school yesterday. We forgot to get the Sunday paper off the porch, and when we found it on Monday, we thought it was Sunday.
2. Jerry was at his grandmother’s yesterday, and she did not bring him to school because Jerry couldn’t remember where the school was.
3. Scott didn’t practise last night because he lost his tooth in the mouthpiece of his trumpet.
4. It was my fault Mike did not do his maths homework last night. His pencil broke and we do not have a pencil sharpener at home. Yes, he was home all night!
5. Ronnie could not finish his work last night. He said his brain was tired of spelling.
6. Diane was late on Wednesday. She fell asleep on the bus and was taken back to the bus yard.
7. Eric hurt his knee in a karate tournament over the weekend. He won his age group, but was in too much pain to do his maths assignment.
8. Marty wasn’t in school yesterday because he thought it was Saturday.
9. I left my homework in the back of a pickup truck. It went through a carwash.
10. Sorry teacher, I’m a little, little bit late today. What happened is that in the morning on the way to school I got kidnapped.

2. “What are these sentences about?”, “What do you think of them?”, “Which one is your favourite?”, “Have you ever heard or read any really funny excuse from a classmate?”

3. Focus on the last sentence: “Sorry teacher, I’m a little, little bit late today. What happened is that in the morning on the way to school I got kidnapped.” Play the beginning of this short film by Sijia Luo until 0:48:

4. Students work together and write the missing parts of the story using the words provided. Have one student from each team read their versions to the rest of the class.

School excuses 2

SchoolExcuses.pdf

5. Watch the short film and discuss the differences.

6. In their teams, students write a creative excuse for being late or absent, or failing to do their homework. Students share their excuses and vote on the most inventive!

 

This could be one of the most productive writing lessons you’ve taught in a while. Just saying!

Developing learner autonomy: a homework choice board

Apart from traditional homework tasks based on lessons delivered in the classroom, there is still a myriad of activities students can do by themselves to practise their English, learn to work independently, and take responsibility for their own learning. Learner autonomy is in fact one of the most important things we can promote if we really want to get our students ready for the ongoing, life-long language learning endeavour.

The following homework choice board, intended for students at B1 level and above, suggests 16 tasks to practise all four skills as well as grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation:

  • Students can choose the tasks based on their personal interests, or areas they feel they need more work on, which should result in extra motivation.
  • In the process of choosing an activity, students will be taking into account the skills and language items that are being practised in class, but also what is relevant to them, especially when they can connect the task with their own life.
  • The activities in the board are also flexible as far as proficiency level is concerned, which means that students can work at their own performance level.
  • A few tasks have been designed so that they can be used later in class, resulting in excellent materials based on students’ interests which can be introduced in different lessons later in the year.

HomeworkChoiceBoard

HomeworkChoiceBoard.pdf

Although the tasks here have been selected so they are easy to keep track of, holding students accountable for their work, this should ideally be another step in helping students develop their learner independence skills. How would you use this board in your own student tracking system? How would you assess each of these tasks?


This post won the British Council’s TeachingEnglish Blog of the Month Award for October 2018.

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Puzzling it out: “Everybody’s Changing”

Everybody’s Changing is a song about something I think a lot of people will experience, which is when people’s lives start going different ways and you’re sitting there, thinking my friends are doing this, what am I doing? What do I do with my life? I think things like that are quite common to people and are probably more important than a lot of things that people write songs about.” (2004)

Change and finiteness are two of the main themes in “Everybody’s Changing” (Keane, 2003), topics which students should be able to relate to in different ways and around which a good reflective speaking lesson can revolve. Conversation questions such as these or these are good examples, although they may need to be adapted to the age group you’re teaching.

But why not introduce the topic by doing some language work using this song first? Here the lyrics have been broken down into 5 different grids corresponding to different parts of the song. Students write down the lyrics by using the letters on top in the columns directly below. There are a series of guidelines for them to follow:

  • Black squares represent spaces between words.
  • Each letter can only be used once, so students should be crossing out the letters as they use them.
  • Students should start by looking for the shorter words first, which typically belong to function words such as prepositions, articles, conjunctions or pronouns. This will then allow them to identify word categories and help them to think of the type of word they should be coming up with.
  • Other clues such as isolated letters, apostrophes, the position in the sentence and other context clues will help students solve the puzzle as the number of available letters falls.

Everybody'sChanging1Everybody'sChanging2

Everybody’sChanging-Worksheet.pdf

The activity can be adjusted to different levels by pre-teaching a few words we may think the students will find difficult, or by adding or deleting letters in each one of the grids. As with any other similar activities, it is also important that we model the procedure before having the students work independently or in their teams. By working out the first lines together and explaining the type of thinking behind each decision to be taken, the students will soon understand the type of language skills they should be practising and will accomplish the task more efficiently. Play the song at the end so that they can check their answers!

 

 

 

 

Everybody’sChanging-KEY

 

Writing a paragraph: “The Marvelous Toy”

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!

TheMarvelousToy-Lyrics.pdf

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.

Toy 1

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.)
concluding sentence

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.

Toy2

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.

9. Hold a gallery walk!

MT

This is your song: fine-tuning comprehension and language skills

The students first fill in the fifty gaps in the text by looking for a word in each hexagon with the same number:

  • The words are no more than six letters long (they can also be two, three, four or five letters long!)
  • The words read in a clockwise or anti-clockwise fashion starting at any point in the hexagon. For example, the first word is “little” (a six-letter word with no extra letters in the hexagon); the second one is “funny” (the students circle the extra “e” in the hexagon, which they will need in the next step.)
  • It’s important that the students cross out the letters that they use, or circle the letters they have not used and which they will need later. Model the procedure with the first few words.

Your Song

YourSong.pdf

Your Song Worksheet

YourSong-Worksheet.pdf

Apart from working on spelling, the students will sometimes need to choose between different possible combinations (e.g. 7 – “have” or “go”?; 9 – “ten”, “net” or “buy”?) by looking at the text and focusing on meaning and context clues. In other cases, they will be facing problems related to agreement, number or tenses as they put their comprehension skills to the test.

Once the students have completed the fifty gaps (or most of them), have them write the nine words that can be read across each row A to I formed by the letters that have not been used and which are in the right order. The students read the text again and decide which box each word belongs to.

A forgotten – B feeling – C sweetest – D travelling – E potions – F forgetting – G everybody – H sculptor – I wonderful

This exercise in reading comprehension, grammar, vocabulary and spelling is finally checked by listening to “Your Song” by Elton John (1970). The students correct any mistakes as they listen and identify any problems they’ve had.


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Don’t Get Me Wrong

Don'tGetMeWrongFeaturedImage

Don’t get me wrong!

Students use grammatical and lexical knowledge, context clues and comprehension skills to solve this puzzle and reconstruct the lyrics of “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (The Pretenders, 1986). The students first start in the centre of the circle at number 1, follow the arrows outwards and inwards, and move clockwise. The lines are numbered for easier reference. There are three rings:

  • The inner ring, in which the words cannot be changed or moved. These belong to the beginning of odd-numbered lines and the end of even-numbered lines.
  • The middle ring contains a series of words which must be put in the right order.
  • The outer ring, which the students use to end or start a line by looking for a suitable phrase somewhere in the ring. The students are also provided with a few prompts in the writing sheet to help them move on.

Finally, the students listen to the song, check their answers, and try to explain any mistakes or difficulties.

Don'tGetMeWrong

Don’tGetMeWrong.pdf

Don'tGetMeWrongWorksheet

Don’tGetMeWrong-WritingWorksheet.pdf

Lyrics.pdf

This positive, vibrant song about one’s feelings in somebody’s proximity can also be used as an introduction to this short film. After summarising what the song is about, have the students watch the short film and discuss whether the woman or the man in the film would be the singers of “Don’t Get me Wrong” and explain why. Perhaps both in different ways? The students can then watch it again and write a short review using these questions as a guide:

  • What is the title of the film?
  • What genre is it?
  • Where is it set?
  • What is the story about?
  • What is the main theme?
  • What do you think of the film?
  • Would you recommend it?

“If music be the food of love, play on”

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

 


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This is your song. 

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Film dubbing: a flexible integrated skills task

A context or topic that is relevant and interesting for the students is one of the main factors that helps to make language learning tasks successful and memorable. Flexibility is another ingredient: if tasks are flexible, the students will be able to work at their own performance level while working on the same goal. This is especially important in mixed-ability groups or teams within a group, but it also holds true for other more homogeneous settings where each student may need more work on different areas and skills at a given time. Finally, flexible tasks carried out in engaging contexts result in student ownership. When students manage to create something that is unique by making the necessary connections, linguistic and non-linguistic alike, learning naturally results.

There are probably many other elements that help to make tasks and lessons successful and meaningful, but over the years I’ve found these three elements to be decisive. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expose our students to topics they are not interested in or less flexible tasks such as having them practise a particular structure; however, trying to twist the dullest of content or routine practice to include at least some of these characteristics often pays off.

A flexible task that I like doing with my teenage students is film dubbing. At its very simplest, the students are shown a clip from a film again and again with no sound until they can write a script and read it as they synchronise with the actors in the scene. Clips from classical or popular films work best as the motivation to deconstruct the whole thing will be higher (I’ve used clips from “Casablanca”, “Gone with the Wind”, “The Goonies”, “Braveheart” or even “Rambo”!) MovieClips.com and its YouTube channel has tons of clips to choose from. The students first identify the number of people participating in the dialogue and the length of each contribution, then they brainstorm ideas in their teams or in pairs, and finally write the script down. Apart from language accuracy, the students will be manipulating the language so that it fits each contribution, they will be making decisions regarding register, and they will be practising pronunciation skills such as intonation.

As the students make the scene their own, in a flexible setting and with a topic of their choice, the students analyse the language by comparing how they thought something should be said and how it is actually said, or simply by becoming aware of language gaps and making up for them. Again, this is a highly personal process but in this case within a context that is engaging enough for language needs to become personally salient and, therefore, more likely to be acquired. And once the clips are shared with the rest of the class, a good amount of language will come into play and a great opportunity to focus on specific language items through mini-lessons based on the students’ production.

I’ve always kept it low-tech, but this activity can get as simple or technologically complex as you want, and you may even want to consider recording the dialogues and adding them to each clip using software such as Movie Maker — even special effects! Would you give it a go? Have you tried anything similar?


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