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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Making the right choices: “Lean On Me”

Working on connected speech: The Fresh Prince

The theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is used here to help the students recognise and practise the various features of connected speech which make the stress pattern and rhythm of English so distinctive. Making the students aware of these differences and providing opportunities to work on them allows them to improve their listening and speaking skills and hopefully contribute to make their pronunciation even more intelligible to both native and non-native speakers.

In this activity, the students first watch the show’s introduction with no sound and take turns telling what they think the first-person story is about based on the images. Then they compare their predictions with the actual story once the lyrics are handed out. This is also a good time to play the video with sound once again and introduce new vocabulary.

Lyrics.pdf

Focus on sentence stress, read the first few lines and model the differences in prominence between stressed and unstressed syllables.

NOW THIS is the STOry ALL aBOUT HOW
My LIFE got FLIPPed TURNed UPside DOWN

The students practise the lines chorally and slowly at first, tapping the beat of the song as they sing and gradually reading and singing it faster and faster. As new lines are added to the choral reading/singing, introduce new features of connected speech as needed: elision (losing sounds), linking (adding or joining sounds between words) or assimilation (changing sounds). For instance, most students will struggle with the line “I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air” unless they have worked on linking and elision first.

The group follows the same procedure with the rest of the song, playing it every now and then while checking their progress and areas that may need improving. The following audio file belongs to one of those progress checks in the middle of the lesson:

At the end, the students may be asked to think of possible implications this activity might have on everyday speech, how it could help them improve their speaking and listening skills, and share their ideas with the rest of the class. And now that they are familiar with the lyrics, you can’t miss this video in which “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is run through Google Translate 64 times with the inevitable hilarious consequences (and a couple of subliminal lessons that any language teacher will relish!)

Fresh Prince by Rebirth Cycle, on Flickr

Fresh Prince” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Rebirth Cycle

10 Halloween songs

In this activity, the students first read a narrative ‘poem’ and complete a story map with as much information from the story as they can. After discussing the parts of the story that remain unclear or open to interpretation, the students think of a title for the story, write it down at the top, and share it with the rest of the group.

10-halloween-songs-1

Once the students are familiar with the ‘poem’, explain to them that each verse has been taken from ten songs considered to be the top ten Halloween songs in this publication by Billboard in 2014. Their task now is to find which song each of the verses in the poem belongs to. Depending on the level of the students, this can be done by having them read the lyrics, fill in the missing lines independently or in small groups, and then check by listening to the songs, but you can also provide extra help by playing a few lines or providing extra oral prompts as needed. In all cases, although the students will be mainly using context clues to decide which line best fits each gap, they should also be asked to focus on rhyme schemes as a valuable aid in completing the task. Model the procedure and the type of thinking behind with one or two songs before having the students start working by themselves.

The songs in the worksheet can be cut out and played at random so that the students can decide on their own top ten ranking list at the end, compare it with the official list, and discuss any differences. Alternatively, after playing a few of the songs for checking or correction purposes you can have the students start guessing which song will be the next one and create further interest. No matter how you approach it, this process of reconstruction will surely get the students working on a variety of complex language skills in an engaging and meaningful way!

10 Halloween Songs.pdf

10. “This Is Halloween” – Danny Elfman (2006)

9.“Highway to Hell” – AC/DC (1979)

8. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” – Blue Oyster Cult (1976)

7. “Creep” – Radiohead (1992)

6. “Superstition” – Stevie Wonder (1972)

5. “Werewolves of London” – Warren Zevon (1978)

4. “Deal With the Devil” – Pop Evil (2013)

3. “Ghostbusters” – Ray Parker, Jr.(1984)

2. “Monster Mash” – Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers (1962)

1. “Thriller” – Michael Jackson (1984)

Team building and collaboration: Up for a Challenge?

Perhaps one of the best team-building activities I know is the popular marshmallow challenge, perfect for a time when we are still setting up the ground rules that will define that learner-centred, interactive and cooperative learning environment we will be working in for the next few months. Although initially created as a design challenge for the corporate world, the task can easily be adapted to a language learning setting in which the students will practise all four skills while completing the challenge, and learn compelling lessons on collaboration that they will hopefully apply to their daily classroom practice for the rest of the year.

After asking the students to define “collaboration” and think about what it takes to collaborate effectively, draw their attention to the importance of appropriate language use in the process and how ideas should be exchanged within a cooperative setting. Go over the examples below and check understanding by having them classify the expressions into categories: making suggestions, agreeing, disagreeing, and so on. Tell them they will be using these expressions in the team-based task they are about to start working on.

working-togetherWorking Together.pdf

Each team of 4 gets 20 sticks of spaghetti, a metre of string, a metre of masking tape, and a marshmallow. In 18 minutes, the teams must build the highest standing structure that can hold a marshmallow at the very top using some or all of the materials provided. The task seems easy at first, and yet once the activity starts the students will soon face several challenges for which they will need to find quick solutions — and an appropriate use of collaborative language among team members will prove essential for them to get their ideas across both fast and efficiently.

In fact, when the challenge is over and a winning team declared, the students working on the reflective writing task below independently usually identify the type of language that was used during the activity, including turn-taking and listening skills, as one of the key factors that determined their success. The frequency and quality of each team member’s contributions, the team’s capacity to generate ideas and build rapport, or the ability to listen to other classmates’ ideas to be able to create something unique, have also immediate practical consequences for a language learning environment that emphasizes the communicative function of language and in which students actively interact and work together to negotiate meaning.

reflection

Reflection.pdf

So — are you up for the challenge?


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“All Summer in a Day”

The story of Margot – of (in)difference, (in)justice, hope – was not unfamiliar to me but was brought to my attention during a workshop a few years ago and have since used it in my classes. Perhaps one of the reasons why Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” (1954) works so well with teenage students is because they can easily relate to it from different perspectives. Despite the richness of vocabulary, it is also a text that is easy to read at language levels as low as B1, with the students being able to reconstruct the key elements of the story and a good amount of details without having to understand every single word. Most interestingly, the short story leaves so much unsaid that it provides a perfect flexible framework that encourages the sharing of different ideas and interpretations, resulting in all language skills flowing naturally as the students attempt to explain their rather complex ideas and feelings related to a conflict about which they have so much to say.

The ending is in fact a rather open one, and it is at this point of Bradbury’s story that I decided to start reading the last time I used it. Reading this story backwards and challenging chronological order provides just the right type of scaffolding to help with the reading itself and creates higher interest and motivation to keep on reading: both the added problem-solving element and the process of reconstruction that will help to identify the reasons and details leading to such a mysterious ending will certainly get the students involved in the text, help them to understand it better, and make further connections based on this as they put all four skills into practice.

To walk the students through the text, the four-page short story was here divided into four parts and a circular graphic organiser was designed with a variety of activities that mainly focus on comprehension but also on vocabulary building. This circular structure will encourage students to go back and forth in the text while revising previous questions as they read, completing the missing information, and confirming or rejecting previous predictions.

  • Part 1: from “A boom of thunder startled them…” to “… and let Margot out”
  • Part 2: from “’Ready, children?’ She glanced at her watch…” to “… their smiles vanishing away”
  • Part 3: from “’Get away!’ The boy gave her another push …” to “… just as the teacher arrived”
  • Part 4: from “’Ready?’…” to “… her waiting silence, her thinness, and her possible future”All Summer in a Day

1. Write “Summer” on the board and have the students come up with words related to it. Tell them they are going to read a story called “All Summer in a Day”. Elicit what it might be about.
Reading

2. Read the first part, which belongs to the end of the story. Give out the graphic organiser and discuss numbers 1, 2 and 3 together: what do we know about the setting, the characters and the problem? Any predictions?

3. Ask the students to read the second part. As they read, ask them to choose five words from the text that describe the scene and write them down in 4. In addition, students write a short sentence that describes the way they feel about it. Discuss any new information related to the setting, the characters and the problem.

4. After reading part 3, the students fill out number 5 and try to work out what the conflict might be about using both the information they have and their own predictions.

5. As the students read the last part belonging to the beginning of the story, the students underline any words or expressions related to the rain and circle any words related to the sun. They then write any words that are new to them in 6. Discuss 7 as a whole group.

6. Allow some time for students to put all the pieces together and write a short personal reaction to the text in 8: “I think…”, “I feel…”, “I wonder…” Have them share their thoughts with the rest of the students.
Writing

7. The students write a short text explaining what happened immediately after Margot was let out of the room: What was her reaction? What did she do? Did she say anything? How did her classmates feel? What did they do? Did they apologise? Did their relationship change? How? What do you think of William? Did he do or say anything?
Listening

8. Ask students to look for five similarities and five differences as they watch the short film based on Bradbury’s story. The students fill out a Venn diagram with their findings, which are later shared with the rest of the class.

All Summer in a Day 2
Speaking

9. What could have prevented Margot from being bullied? What could each of the characters involved have done differently?

The discussion will, in fact, largely depend on the group of students and has always taken on a different focus each time I’ve done it. In all cases, however, it became a time when error correction was not a priority, complex grammatical structures were uttered in a natural way, and a careful choice of vocabulary allowed the students to communicate their ideas, thoughts and feelings efficiently and to the best of their ability. It is in tasks like this that language seems to flow naturally, hypotheses restructured, words become the most relevant, and meaning – personal meaning, the student voice – becomes the ultimate driving force that pulls together that chaos we call “language”.

All Summer in a Day Worksheets.pdf

All Summer in a Day

Reported speech and creative writing: 50 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

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 

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/mIsnIt1p978


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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