As part of an interdisciplinary school project on the Syrian refugee crisis a few weeks ago, teams of students in this B1 class read a number of personal stories taken from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees website (www.unhcr.org), summarised their background, rewrote the current situation in their own words, and analysed each story to create a realistic alternative for each of them. In this way, the readers of these posters on display were invited to choose one of the options and check the answer, encouraging powerful critical thinking that should hopefully contribute to solve this and other similar crises — those very same ones we unfortunately seem unable to cope with at present — in the very, very near future.
Whether you’re teaching content in a CLIL setting, carrying out an inquiry or problem-based project or simply want to check understanding of an expository text such as an article or a news report, these are three of my favourite content-based teaching strategies both due to their simplicity and the effectiveness with which they help structure the learning process. The three strategies share a number of inbuilt characteristics that make them ideal for our purposes:
- They all tap into the students’ prior knowledge.
- They set a purpose for learning: by comparing what students know and what they don’t, interest will arise and challenges responded to.
- A final self-assessment of the task is included, contributing to an effective closure at the end of the lesson or project.
- They provide students and teachers with a clear framework: everyone knows where they have started and where they are heading at any stage in the lesson or project.
- They are easy to implement!
Writing ten statements about the content to be read and/or discussed and having students guess whether the information is true or false will not only introduce the topic to the students but also check their prior knowledge and create the need to fill an information gap. For it to work well, a few sentences should be about things we know our students will already know.
In its simplest form, anticipation guides can be used with short texts as in the following example:
Anticipation guides, however, work even better with longer units of study, adding both a starting point and a series of guidelines that should reflect key content that we want our students to focus on. In addition, because the statements offer a meaningful context where a need for clarification is created, anticipation guides are also a great tool to pre-teach key vocabulary that the students will need along the project.
Here’s the Answer. What’s the Question?
A more guided version of the above, in this strategy students choose the right answers about the text(s) they are going to work on. Students are first introduced to the topic by having them think of possible questions for each of the answers and use their own knowledge – and their own guesses – to get them involved in the task in a meaningful way. As with anticipation guides, both questions and answers are checked at the end of the reading or listening task for self-assessment purposes.
In the example below, students were introduced to a few extracts from “The Great Gatsby” using this activity:
A K-W-L is a simple three-column graphic organiser: students complete the first one with what they already KNOW about the topic, the second with what they WANT to know about it, and at the end of the task, the third column should reflect what the students have actually LEARNT about it.
The K-W-L chart is, therefore, a much more flexible alternative that will adapt to all kinds of tasks and will promote student-centred instruction. Indeed, even though teachers may guide the W step to focus on specific information, the K-W-L chart works best when it is used as a tool to answer the students’ specific needs related to the content being covered. Yes, it will require some extra planning as the project evolves (sometimes even on the spot!) but, after all, responding to the students’ real needs, interests and motivations is what true teaching is all about, isn’t it?
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.
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?
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?
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:
- Students are allowed to interact with the text in a way that is relevant to the reader.
- 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.
- The fact that students can work at their own performance level encourages student motivation and a sense of accomplishment. It also promotes writing fluency.
- 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.
“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan is the story of a boy who finds a strange creature which no one seems to notice in a grey, alienated world. His quest to find the ideal place for the thing raises several questions about belonging and social awareness, with an ending that will bring about mixed feelings and a variety of different meanings.
Not only does the quirky story get the students working with the language while boosting their critical thinking skills, but it is also flexible enough to be used with different proficiency levels and at different levels of interpretation. I have been using it with B1/B1+ teenage students, and it has always effectively engaged them in ways that promote reflection and meaningful language learning.
Both the book and the 15-minute long Oscar award-winning animated film version have been used in the following lesson, although it can be easily adapted to be used with only one of them:
1. Show students the cover of the book and its title and ask: “Have you ever lost anything?”; “What was it?”; “How did you lose it?”; “Did you find it?” Ask them about the pictures on the cover and what they find special about them. Have them guess what the story might be about.
2. Read the book aloud, stopping to show the pictures, ask questions, and clarify vocabulary as needed.
3. When the narrator and the lost thing are about to enter the place they are looking for, close the book and ask students what kind of place they think would be the best for the lost thing. Discuss and write down the main ideas.
Eventually we found what seemed to be the right place, in a dark little gap off some anonymous little street. The sort of place you’d never know existed unless you were actually looking for it.
I pressed a buzzer on the wall and this big door opened up.
4. Students are given several sentences from the book for them to put in the right order (see worksheet below.) Most are fairly clear, and a few could belong to different parts of the story. Tell them that they will be checking their answers as they watch the film version of the book.
5. Stop the film at the same point in the story (11:10), check the order of the sentences as a whole group, and remind students of the main ideas in the discussion held before. By now, they should be more than ready to watch the end of the story.
6. Discuss the ending and the students’ predictions:
- What did the story make you think about?
- Do you like the ending?
- Is it a happy ending?
- What does being “lost” mean?
- What does belonging mean?
- Why did no one seem to care about the lost thing?
7. Ask students to find things that are “lost” or “do not belong” in their houses or in the street. Students write a story from the point of view of the thing itself or using a third person narrator, describing how the thing made it to that place, its present, and its possible future.
The last time I taught this lesson I brought a lost, striped (and clean!) sock to model the process, but the lost things the students shared in class were far more interesting: a floppy disk, a seashell sitting in a garage, an old shoe buckle, a sticker from an old favourite band, or the pictures of a confusing street sign and a broken printer lying next to the wrong rubbish bin. The engaging, creative stories that the students wrote based on their “lost things” remain among the most memorable pieces of writing.