“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!

15 post-reading activities

The following board contains a series of activities that the students can choose to do after reading a novel or a short story. Students take on a number of roles, such as detective, journalist, designer or disc jockey, to work on a particular area. When used as a whole group, with the teacher assigning all the roles to different students in the group, the result will be a creative, in-depth study that analyses the narrative text from multiple perspectives.

post-reading activities

Post-ReadingActivities.pdf

The task board presents the main idea for each role, and details will be needed depending on the teaching context and the level of the students, including the amount of scaffolding that may be needed. The board does allow for differentiation, taking different interests and levels of difficulty into account. While some tasks can be carried out independently, others may require structured cooperative work in pairs or larger teams. In more homogeneous settings, roles could also be assigned numbers or colours according to their level of difficulty so that students can choose to focus on one task or engage in two or three to get the same points.

Combine these activities with this book report to check comprehension right after reading!


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A book report

editablebk

Developing learner autonomy: a homework choice board

HomeworkChoiceBoard

Narrative beginnings

NarrativeB1

A book report

Here’s a simple report that students can complete after reading a novel, a short story, or any narrative excerpt. Apart from including basic elements such as the title and the author, the setting, the characters or a summary of the plot, the students are also asked to write a few personal responses to different excerpts from the text and a short review. This should allow them to demonstrate different ways in which they have interacted with the text. In the double-entry section, for instance, the students are asked to choose five excerpts that they liked and write them down in the left column, and then explain why they have chosen each of them on the right. A few prompts are provided, too, to help them with the selection.

BookReport

You can download the PDF file here or, if your students have a Google account, you can share this editable Google Slides version that they can complete (and then share with you with a link, as a PDF file or a picture!) Just click on the picture below and a copy of the file will be stored in your own Drive.

editablebk

Combine this book report with these 15 post-reading activities!

Extensive reading and learner autonomy: 10 websites

Are you looking for websites with material for extensive reading? Sharing some of these resources with students and encouraging them to engage in regular reading can help them to improve their language proficiency while developing learner autonomy. Indeed, extensive reading has multiple benefits:

  • Students develop a wide variety of reading strategies.
  • It improves reading fluency, which affects comprehension.
  • It’s a perfect way to learn new words in context and revise the vocabulary they are already familiar with.
  • Students can test their own grammar but also notice new constructions that help to convey different meanings.
  • It may affect the students’ motivation to learn the language!

The following websites offer free access to both graded and unabridged reading materials, and they cover a range of text types and genres to suit a variety of interests. Please click on the pictures to get access to each website!

1. Lit2Go is an online collection of stories and poems in MP3 format.

Lit2Go

 

2. https://english-e-reader.net/ offers online fictional readers with 8 different reading levels (A1 to C2).

EnglisheReader

 

3. CommonLit requires you to create an account and share a code with your students. In return, students get access to a massive library and well-designed interactive activities to help them with their reading.

commonlit

 

4. In TweenTribune you will find articles adapted from Smithsonian Magazine on a large variety of topics and in different reading levels.

TweenTribune

 

5. Each fictional and non-fictional graded text in DreamReader comes with an audio file version.

dreamreader

 

6. This site offers short 5-minute mysteries for students to read and solve. Students do need to sign in, though.

5minmystery

 

7. LearnWithNews shares news items in 3 levels, including a glossary and a series of comprehension activities for each of them.

learnwithnews

 

8. American Literature.

americanliterature

 

9. Here’s a nice compilation of very short stories from 100 up to 2,000 words long, including a brief summary for each of them.

books-683901_960_720

 

10. The Short Story Project curates short stories written by authors from all around the world.

shortstoryproject

 

Do you use any other websites? Which ones would you add to this list?

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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Anagrams and meaning: “The Longest Time”

Anagrams are words formed by rearranging the letters of a different word, as in “elbow”-“below”, “act”-“cat”, “save”-“vase”, or “stressed-dessert”. In this activity (B1/B1+) based on Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” (1983), the students read the lyrics and try to find the forty-five anagrams that have been included. The students write their answers on the right-hand column, which also indicates the number of anagrams they are expected to find in each line.TheLongestTime

The Longest Time.pdf


SOLUTION:

1 said  2 me  3 tonight  4 still   5 left  6 write  7 what  8 could   9 time  10 once  11 was  12 now   13 goes  14 where  15 arms  16 there  17 miracle  18 how   19 need  20 how 21 me   22 maybe  23 last  24 feel   25 right  26 could   27 wrong  28 maybe  29 this  30 for   31 much  32 when   33 take   34 start  35 said   36 on   37 heart  38 now   39 are 40 wonderful   41 and   42 care  43 things  44 bad  45 intend


The students will be using their knowledge about grammar and vocabulary to rearrange the letters of the words whenever communication is interrupted as they read. Word categories and collocations will prove useful in some cases, spelling will be decisive in a few others, yet a good number of anagrams will be solved by focusing on meaning and thinking of words with similar letters (and which belong to the right category and with the right spelling) that might be the most appropriate for that context.

The activity is checked by having the students listen to the song at the end. Did they solve most of the anagrams? How did they solve them? Which anagram did they find the easiest? And the most difficult? Why? After checking the meaning of some of the anagrams in the song, can they now write a sentence using some of them?

 

Question charts

Question charts are excellent tools to help both teachers and students to generate a wide range of questions. You first choose one of the question words on the left column, then a word from the top row, and finally finish the question with a phrase related to the passage you’re reading or the discussion being held.

Question chart 1

Most interestingly, the types of questions will be more and more complex the farther down and to the right you move. The blue colour in the chart below, for instance, would belong to questions that ask students to remember factual information from a text; questions in the yellow boxes demand that students analyse the information, draw their own conclusions, or use their prior knowledge; the green boxes invite students to apply the information from the text to new situations and make predictions; and the brown ones, the most demanding, get them to compare and contrast, classify, express an opinion or create something new based on the information provided.

Question chart 2

For teachers, a question chart like this can help us to make sure we are asking all types of questions, but starting at B1/B1+ levels students can also use it to generate their own questions when working on reading and listening comprehension, or to plan an oral discussion in class by writing a variety of questions related to the topic beforehand or as the speaking task progresses. We would, of course, be selecting just a few combinations out of the ones available. Once it has been modelled by the teacher and the differences between the questions have been pointed out and practised, students can simply be asked to write at least one question for each area in the grid.

One way to make students aware of the differences between the questions in terms of difficulty is to use a point system and gamify the activity at the same time. The students writing the questions , and even the students answering them, would get those points if they get them right (although we really want them to write all sorts of questions and so certain rules need to be established if we don’t want them to be writing the same types of questions just to get the most points!):

Question chart 3

What I really like about charts like this, however, is that it is the students themselves that get to generate the questions, demonstrating comprehension of the written or oral text as they write them, interacting with the text at different levels, or planning a speaking task with all sorts of questions to make it the most engaging. Not only does this improve their comprehension skills and proficiency in English but it develops learner autonomy and it helps to boost their critical thinking skills.

Question Chart.pdf


UPDATE 30/05/21

Svetlana Kandybovich from ELT-CATION has turned this question chart into a really useful digital tool in which students play to earn the most points by writing a wide variety of higher-order questions.

Click the picture below to read the full description!

Two-sentence stories

Ten popular two-sentence horror stories have been divided into three columns for students to match the beginning, middle and end. The goal here is for students to use contextual and cohesive clues that will allow them to rewrite these stories, starting with the beginning of each story under column A, then choosing the next part under column B, and finally thinking of a suitable ending under C. In addition, the students are asked to decide where the missing full stop between the first and the second sentence in each story should be.

Two-Sentence Stories

Two-Sentence Stories.pdf


ANSWERS:
1. I never go to sleep. I keep waking up.
2. The grinning face stared at me from the darkness beyond my bedroom window. I live on the 14th floor.
3. Lying in bed that night she asked why I was breathing so heavily. I wasn’t.
4. I woke up to hear knocking on glass. At first, I thought it was the window until I heard it come from the mirror again.
5. There was a picture in my phone of me sleeping. I live alone.
6. Working the night shift alone tonight. There is a face in the cellar staring at the security camera.
7. They delivered the mannequins in bubble wrap. From the main room I begin to hear popping.
8. You get home, tired after a long day’s work and ready for a relaxing night alone. You reach for the light switch, but another hand is already there.
9. A girl heard her mom yell her name from downstairs, and started to head down. As she got to the stairs, her mom pulled her into her room and said “I heard that too.”
10. I walked into the bathroom one night and looked at myself in the mirror. Only one of us walked out.


The students choose the three stories they find the creepiest, write a brief explanation for each of them, and share their thoughts with the rest of the class.

Now display the following:

FullSizeRender

FullSizeRender

What is scary about this? Why? Think about the tiny little things and everyday struggles of life in the 21st century. What “scares” you the most?

After brainstorming a few ideas as a whole group, ask the students to come up with a two-sentence story featuring one of those everyday life “struggles”, edit it, publish it, and then share it. My students are teenagers in Spain, so most stories were about technological issues, social media, school (especially exams and deadlines) or getting around the city.

Your alarm goes off and you hit the snooze button for 5 more minutes. When you wake up, you realise your final exam was an hour ago.

You have been stalking a friend on Instagram. Suddenly, you accidentally like an old picture.

That was a long queue to get on the bus. My travel card had expired and I had no money on me.

9:00 a.m.. 7% battery life and no charger.

The final discussion based on these stories allowed the students to share experiences and make personal connections with each other in an active, student-centred learning environment that also encouraged critical thinking as the students analysed and assessed these attitudes and behaviours.

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