As they practise present and past tenses using descriptive vocabulary, the students get engaged in thoughtful discussions on aging and emotional evolution in this reading and speaking task based on two literary texts. The students are first asked to focus on an extract from the poem “Seven in the woods” by Jim Harrison. After discussing the meanings of words like “bedroll” and “chickadee” (“What is it?”, “What kind of animal?”, “How do you know?”), the students draw a quick sketch of the scene on the left-hand side of a paper that has been folded in half:

[…] I was seven in the woods,
a bandage covering my blind eye,
in a bedroll Mother made me
so I could sleep out in the woods
far from people. A garter snake glided by
without noticing me. A chickadee
landed on my bare toe, so light
she wasn’t believable. The night
had been long and the treetops
thick with a trillion stars.

The students swap pictures with a partner, check that everything has been included, discuss any missing elements, and answer the following questions in their teams and/or as a whole group:
“Who do you think the narrator is?”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“What can we tell about his/her personality?”

Finally, the students read the whole poem:

Am I as old as I am?
Maybe not. Time is a mystery
that can tip us upside down.
Yesterday I was seven in the woods,
a bandage covering my blind eye,
in a bedroll Mother made me
so I could sleep out in the woods
far from people. A garter snake glided by
without noticing me. A chickadee
landed on my bare toe, so light
she wasn’t believable. The night
had been long and the treetops
thick with a trillion stars. Who
was I, half-blind on the forest floor
who was I at age seven? Sixty-eight
years later I can still inhabit that boy’s
body without thinking of the time between.
It is the burden of life to be many ages
without seeing the end of time.

Jim Harrison 

“Who is the writer?”
“How old is he?”
“What is the main idea of this poem?”
“What do you think of it?”

Now read the beginning of Sandra Cisneros’ short story “Eleven”:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are –underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three. Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.

You don’t feel eleven. Not right away. It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you don’t feel smart eleven, not until you’re almost twelve. That’s the way it is. Only today I wish I didn’t have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box. Today I wish I was one hundred and two instead of eleven because if I was one hundred and two I’d have known what to say when Mrs. Price put the red sweater on my desk. I would’ve known how to tell her it wasn’t min instead of just sitting there with that look on my face and nothing coming out of my mouth.

Have the students write their personal reaction to the text first independently for a few minutes, then share it with a partner, and finally with the rest of the class. Discuss:
“Do you sometimes feel the same way?”
“Which metaphor about aging do you like most (the onion, the rings inside a tree, the wooden dolls)?”
“How much of a seven-year-old are you? ”
“Do you sometimes find yourself reacting or behaving as if you were seven?”

The students use the other half of the paper to draw a memory from when they were seven. Tell them that someone else in the classroom will be describing it later, including the mood, and coming up with a title starting “SEVEN IN…” The pictures are swapped and the students take turns describing each picture while the authors confirm or correct any details in their partner’s description.

A fantastic trip down memory lane about which the students had so much to say. (They enjoyed it, too!)





Critical thinking and language skills: “There Was Once”

In “There Was Once”, Margaret Atwood plays with Western culture stereotypes by questioning them to such extremes that the narrator is finally unable to tell her story. You may have worked with fractured tales before, but this ingenious exercise in deconstruction will get the students talking and analysing, revising — or perhaps confirming — their own viewpoints, and it will ultimately promote the development of critical thinking skills while working with the language.

1. In groups, students read the words in the box taken from the story they are about to read and make predictions by filling out a possible story map using those words. Groups share their story maps with the rest of the class. Discuss similarities and differences.captura-de-pantalla-2017-02-09-a-las-20-39-37


2. Although the text is a dialogue, it also works very well if either the teacher or one student reads one role and the rest of the students take turns reading the rest of the lines, resulting in a much more interactive reading experience. There are 24 lines for the second speaker in the text; assign each line to different students and allow them to practise reading their lines aloud for a few minutes. Read the dialogue as a whole class.

3. The students write down their personal reaction to the story independently for a few minutes. Their reactions should be just a few sentences long: “What do you think of the story?”, “How do you feel?”, “Do you like it?”, “Why?/Why not?” All the students in the class stand up and are asked to share their reactions randomly; if someone else has something similar, the student can sit down.

4. Once everyone is sitting down, the students discuss all the main ideas that have been shared as a whole group. Students often enjoy this clip from Monty Python on a rather different version of “Little Red Riding Hood”, which should help with the debate.

5. Refer students back to the story map they worked on at the beginning of the lesson and tell them that they will be writing a five-paragraph story using the same words in the box. In groups of four, students are numbered out for collaborative writing purposes:
– Students start writing their first paragraph introducing the setting and the characters. When the time is up, students hand out their papers to the person with the following number: number 1s to number 2s, 2s to 3s, 3s to 4s, and number 4s to number 1s.
– Students read the introduction and write a second paragraph with the first event in the story. Rotate papers again.
– Third paragraph: second event in the story. Rotate papers.
– Fourth paragraph: third event and rotate.
– The student that started writing the narrative reads the story and writes an ending.

Each of these stages should be timed, although the amount of time needed will depend on the level of the students and the type of support they need. This is also a great opportunity to have students proofread each other’s writings, have them edit their stories and hand in a final version to be shared with the rest of the class. How do their stories differ from the story maps at the beginning of the lesson?

Little Red Riding Hood illustration from by H is for Home, on Flickr

Little Red Riding Hood illustration from” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by H is for Home

Mariners Ahoy! — “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

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


All other images by Gustave Doré, Public Domain

Building comprehension skills and summarising: “Annabel Lee”

In this illustrated version of Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “Annabel Lee”, the students get engaged in three main tasks as they complete the poem:
– filling in the blank circles with a word from the word bank,
– using lexical and grammatical knowledge to find a suitable word for any rectangle, and
– matching a few verses from the poem with the pictures with no words.
By doing this, the students work at different linguistic levels simultaneously, with every decision taken affecting each other as the students construct meaning while demonstrating comprehension.


Annabel Lee.pdf

But this activity can also be part of a larger lesson that focuses on comprehension and helps the students to identify key words in a text and use them to write a summary. Before reading the poem, the students are asked to focus on the beginning of the story: describing the picture with the setting first, then reading the first two lines and writing the following two verses using one of the rhyming words provided, and finally making predictions about what they think their story could be about based on a number of key words. Apart from setting the scene and getting the students ready for the reading comprehension activity, this lead-in also introduces the students to summarising skills that will be practised later in the lesson


Annabel Lee Lead-In.pdf

After working on the poem and checking understanding by having the students look for words with a similar meaning in the text and complete a story map, the students select five words from the poem that help to explain how they feel about it. This personal reaction to the text and the selection of words that determine the mood of the story will be the basis for the summary that the students will be writing at the end of this lesson.


Annabel Lee Follow-Up.pdf

Special thanks to Kena Piña for giving permission to use her brilliant illustrations in this activity and to publish it here. Please check her blog at https://jointherector.com

Checking Understanding: “Oranges” by Gary Soto

My younger students have just created some simple flip books at home based on the poem “Oranges” by Gary Soto to summarise the work done so far and demonstrate comprehension, share them with the rest of the class, and use them for future reference.


“Oranges” by Gary Soto

The students are now working on a sequel to the story, with some students describing the protagonists as a married couple in 20 years’ time, others writing from either the boy’s or girl’s point of view immediately after the narrative, and there’s even one student who has chosen to write a little bit more about the shop assistant and her relationship with her customers! I’m really looking forward to their writings and checking how well they are able to incorporate the narrative techniques and linking expressions we have been practising. But how did we end up here?

1. “Oranges” is a great poem for intensive guided reading in which questions are posed orally as the whole group reads the poem, engaging the students in conversations about the text. These will range from simple questions which will often require that the students provide evidence from the text to other higher-order comprehension skills such as reading between the lines, comparing two characters, analysing point of view, or explaining the meaning of words using the context. For instance, these are all questions that could be asked for the first few lines:

Line 1: Who is “I”?
Line 2: What do you think this story will be about?
Line 4: What season is it?
Line: 4 Why do you think he is carrying two oranges?
Line 7: What is “cracking”? (look at “cold”, “December”, “frost”, “my breath before me, then gone”)
Line 11: Is this his first time at the girl’s house? How do you know?

2. A lot of vocabulary was highly visual, so apart from context clues a few pictures were used to check understanding.

3. After reading and discussing the text as a whole group, the students worked on the worksheet below where the poem is divided into seven parts. For each part, the students thought of a title that summarised the scene and wrote down what the characters involved could be thinking or actually saying by filling in the thought and speech bubbles.


4. Finally, the students edited their writing in class and took it home to be published in the form of flip books, which would be later shared in class for them to find similarities and differences and comment on them.

Indeed, demonstrating understanding does not only consist of recalling information or analysing parts of a text effectively; it also involves making it personal and being able to respond to it in a way that connects with your interests and your way of seeing the world. This year the students were asked to dive into the text and choose the words they could hear, and they are now producing a piece of writing from a point of view of their choice based on whatever made more sense to them at that moment. Combined with an appropriate use of the writing skills we have been practising in the last few weeks, these choices will surely result in some memorable pieces of writing that we will all enjoy.

Like that time a few years ago when a thirteen-year-old came up to me at the end of this lesson and asked if he could make a film out of the poem. He mentioned something about Lego, and I admit I only insisted on the comprehension skills I was looking for together with other task requirements and deadlines, and largely ignored the project details that he had come up with during the lesson. A few days later he brought this video to class:

The true impact that holding high expectations for every single student that we teach has on learning, and how maximising students’ strengths — including their interests and motivations — affects and boosts language learning , should probably belong to a blog post in its own right. For the time being, let’s just put it down to the power of choice.

Orange by fred_v, on Flickr

Orange” (CC BY 2.0) by fred_v

Nickel by Accretion Disc, on Flickr

Nickel” (CC BY 2.0) by Accretion Disc

macro dime 410d by safoocat, on Flickr

macro dime 410d” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by safoocat

Bleachers by Jimmy Mallinson, on Flickr

Bleachers” (CC BY 2.0) by Jimmy Mallinson

lunch at Miss Woo by Muffet, on Flickr

lunch at Miss Woo” (CC BY 2.0) by Muffet

Red Apple Candy Aisle by Random Retail, on Flickr

Red Apple Candy Aisle” (CC BY 2.0) by Random Retail

Orange Peels by eFlate, on Flickr

Orange Peels” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by eFlate

Integrated Skills Through Literature: “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.


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.


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?


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


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

Double-Entry Journals: a flexible reading comprehension tool

Most of my students are required to read at least one unabridged book every year as part of the curriculum. These students are at least at a B1 level, but differences in language and comprehension skills within the same group of students are not uncommon. As a complement to small-group guided reading sessions or literature circles, I have found double-entry journals especially useful as a flexible tool that adapts to each student’s performance level in a very efficient way, working just as well with short stories or other types of text.

Double-entry journals are typically made up of two columns: students select a quote they find relevant from the text and write it down on the left column, and then they write their personal response to it on the right one. Students are given a number of options to guide their reactions and make them as varied as possible. For example:

  • Personal reaction (How do you feel?)
  • Personal connection (“This reminds me of…”)
  • Is there a good idea in it?
  • Any questions about one of the characters? Or the narrator? Perhaps the plot?
  • Make a prediction about what is going to happen later in the book.
  • Explain any previous reference to something that has already happened in the book. Does it clarify things?
  • Is there any word you have learnt in the passage that you particularly like? What about the style?

Double-Entry Journal

In all of these cases, students are encouraged to interact with the text at different levels, making reference to other passages in the text itself, or setting up connections between the text and the world or between the text and the students themselves. And perhaps most important for us here, students can complete the task successfully at their own language level. The following are examples of journals that students from the same group are currently working on as they read “King of Shadows” by Susan Cooper:

Flexibility is, therefore, what makes double-entry journals ideal for EFL students:

  1. Students are allowed to interact with the text in a way that is relevant to the reader.
  2. Several comprehension skills which are usually transferred from L1 can be demonstrated at various levels despite proficiency limitations. Even fairly complex ideas can be explained in a communicatively efficient way in fairly simple English.
  3. The fact that students can work at their own performance level encourages student motivation and a sense of accomplishment. It also promotes writing fluency.
  4. Apart from personalised feedback from the teacher, double-entry journals can be the starting point for reading circles and shared orally with other students.

I have also noticed that students writing a double-entry journal tend to be more careful with their reading, going back and forward more often or looking up certain words to clarify something that has particularly caught their attention. They also make use of context clues more often, which results in a reading experience that is far more precise and enriching. Finally, if you want to implement double-entry journals, I recommend starting with short texts first and modelling the process until students are familiar with the procedure.

Double-Entry Journal