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?

“There Was Once”

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

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.pdf


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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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

Checking Understanding and the Power of Choice

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

Using Context Clues: Ten 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, they 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 the beginning of 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 verse 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)

There are places I remember

Adding and deleting words from texts allow students to use their grammatical knowledge to manipulate sentences, play with the language, and analyse the impact each of these changes have on meaning. In this activity, students add and delete words from two texts following certain rules. This close reading will also help students understand the texts better and compare them, contrast them, and finally be able to express personal opinions about them.


After discussing the first line written on the board (“There are places I remember all my life”) and coming up with special places that they can remember and the reasons behind this, the students read the lyrics of “In My Life” by The Beatles and decide which words can be deleted as long as they don’t cross out two or more words together. Students justify their answers orally first and then listen to the song and check the lyrics. How does the singer feel about those places he remembers? Are they good memories? How do they compare to the present? Is it any better?

For the second text, students add the words provided in the box wherever they think it’s possible and/or appropriate. Unlike the first one, however, a few more options are available here and so more discussion will be needed before listening to the original lyrics of “Half the World Away” since the addition of words will have to conform to both grammatical and semantic rules. How does the singer feel about the place he is in? Why do you think so? What do you think he needs to do? What would YOU do?

Finally, the students compare both songs, analyse how these places are used in each one, and choose the one they can most relate to, perhaps writing their choice and their reasons on post-it notes that can both hold the students accountable and provide a visual component once they are stuck on either side of the board.