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

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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.

“SEVEN IN…”

As they practise present and past tenses using descriptive vocabulary, the students get engaged in thoughtful discussions on ageing 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!)

 


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Don’t Get Me Wrong!

Students use grammatical and lexical knowledge, context clues and comprehension skills to solve this puzzle and reconstruct the lyrics of “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (The Pretenders, 1986). The students first start in the centre of the circle at number 1, follow the arrows outwards and inwards, and move clockwise. The lines are numbered for easier reference. There are three rings:

  • The inner ring, in which the words cannot be changed or moved. These belong to the beginning of odd-numbered lines and the end of even-numbered lines.
  • The middle ring contains a series of words which must be put in the right order.
  • The outer ring, which the students use to end or start a line by looking for a suitable phrase somewhere in the ring. The students are also provided with a few prompts in the writing sheet to help them move on.

Finally, the students listen to the song, check their answers, and try to explain any mistakes or difficulties.

Don'tGetMeWrong

Don’tGetMeWrong.pdf

Don'tGetMeWrongWorksheet

Don’tGetMeWrong-WritingWorksheet.pdf

Lyrics.pdf

This positive, vibrant song about one’s feelings in somebody’s proximity can also be used as an introduction to this short film. After summarising what the song is about, have the students watch the short film and discuss whether the woman or the man in the film would be the singers of “Don’t Get me Wrong” and explain why. Perhaps both in different ways? The students can then watch it again and write a short review using these questions as a guide:

  • What is the title of the film?
  • What genre is it?
  • Where is it set?
  • What is the story about?
  • What is the main theme?
  • What do you think of the film?
  • Would you recommend it?

“If music be the food of love, play on”

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

 


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This is your song. 

YourSongFI

Film Dubbing: a Flexible Integrated Skills Task

A context or topic that is relevant and interesting for the students is one of the main factors that helps to make language learning tasks successful and memorable. Flexibility is another ingredient: if tasks are flexible, the students will be able to work at their own performance level while working on the same goal. This is especially important in mixed-ability groups or teams within a group, but it also holds true for other more homogeneous settings where each student may need more work on different areas and skills at a given time. Finally, flexible tasks carried out in engaging contexts result in student ownership. When students manage to create something that is unique by making the necessary connections, linguistic and non-linguistic alike, learning naturally results.

There are probably many other elements that help to make tasks and lessons successful and meaningful, but over the years I’ve found these three elements to be decisive. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expose our students to topics they are not interested in or less flexible tasks such as having them practise a particular structure; however, trying to twist the dullest of content or routine practice to include at least some of these characteristics often pays off.

A flexible task that I like doing with my teenage students is film dubbing. At its very simplest, the students are shown a clip from a film again and again with no sound until they can write a script and read it as they synchronise with the actors in the scene. Clips from classical or popular films work best as the motivation to deconstruct the whole thing will be higher (I’ve used clips from “Casablanca”, “Gone with the Wind”, “The Goonies”, “Braveheart” or even “Rambo”!) MovieClips.com and its YouTube channel has tons of clips to choose from. The students first identify the number of people participating in the dialogue and the length of each contribution, then they brainstorm ideas in their teams or in pairs, and finally write the script down. Apart from language accuracy, the students will be manipulating the language so that it fits each contribution, they will be making decisions regarding register, and they will be practising pronunciation skills such as intonation.

As the students make the scene their own, in a flexible setting and with a topic of their choice, the students analyse the language by comparing how they thought something should be said and how it is actually said, or simply by becoming aware of language gaps and making up for them. Again, this is a highly personal process but in this case within a context that is engaging enough for language needs to become personally salient and, therefore, more likely to be acquired. And once the clips are shared with the rest of the class, a good amount of language will come into play and a great opportunity to focus on specific language items through mini-lessons based on the students’ production.

I’ve always kept it low-tech, but this activity can get as simple or technologically complex as you want, and you may even want to consider recording the dialogues and adding them to each clip using software such as Movie Maker — even special effects! Would you give it a go? Have you tried anything similar?


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Listening for detail: “Kilkelly, Ireland”

American songwriter Peter Jones discovered a collection of letters in his parents’ attic written by his great-great-great grandfather, Byran Hunt, to his son, John Hunt, who had emigrated from Kilkelly in Ireland to the United States in 1855. The Great Famine in Ireland had forced large numbers of people to emigrate in search of a better life. The five-stanza ballad he wrote based on these letters cover the time period from 1860 to 1892.

“Kilkelly, Ireland” is a breathtaking, thought-provoking song in which family news, including births and deaths, are shared for a period of thirty-two years. In the activity, the students listen for specific information by writing an explanation for each of the words, names or pictures in the timeline. Pat McNamara, for instance, is the teacher who writes the letters for John’s father. At the end of each letter, go over the answers and have the students read the lyrics if necessary before moving on to the next. If needed, you may want to pre-teach a few words such as “dampness”, “turf”, “pass on”, “bury” or “feisty”, although both the slow rhythm pattern of the song and the type of words used in the lyrics make it a challenging yet attainable listening task for students with a B1+ level and above.

Kilkelly

Kilkelly.pdf

 

The song could be an excellent starting point to get the students talking about why people migrate and cultivate empathy in the classroom. Alternatively, the students could write their own personal responses at the end of the song and focus on the universal theme of the sadness and longing by people who have been separated for a long time. In my experience, though, the song is so powerful that you can often tell what the students want to talk about after listening to it and thinking about it for a short while. Perhaps now it’s our turn to listen.

 


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Critical thinking and language skills: “There Was Once”

In “There Was Once” (Good Bones, 1992), 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

StoryMap.pdf

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.

—There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest.

—Forest? Forest is passé, I mean, I’ve had it with all this wilderness stuff. It’s not a right image of our society, today. Let’s have some urban for a change. 

—There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the suburbs.

—That’s better. But I have to seriously query this word poor

—But she was poor!

—Poor is relative. She lived in a house, didn’t she? 

—Yes.

—Then socio-economically speaking, she was not poor.

—But none of the money was hers! The whole point of the story is that the wicked stepmother makes her wear old clothes and sleep in the fireplace—

—Aha! They had a fireplace! With poor, let me tell you, there’s no fireplace. Come down to the park, come to the subway stations after dark, come down to where they sleep in cardboard boxes, and I’ll show you poor!

—There was once a middle-class girl, as beautiful as she was good— 

—Stop right there. I think we can cut the beautiful, don’t you? Women these days have to deal with too many intimidating physical role models as it is, what with those bimbos in the ads. Can’t you make her, well, more average?

—There was once a girl who was a little overweight and whose front teeth stuck out, who— 

—I don’t think it’s nice to make fun of people’s appearances. Plus, you’re encouraging anorexia.

—I wasn’t making fun! I was just describing— 

—Skip the description. Description oppresses. But you can say what colour she was.

—What colour?

—You know. Black, white, red, brown, yellow. Those are the choices. And I’m telling you right now, I’ve had enough of white. Dominant culture this, dominant culture that—

—I don’t know what colour.

—Well, it would probably be your colour, wouldn’t it?

—But this isn’t about me! It’s about this girl—

—Everything is about you. 

—Sounds to me like you don’t want to hear this story at all.

—Oh well, go on. You could make her ethnic. That might help.

—There was once a girl of indeterminate descent, as average-looking as she was good, who lived with her wicked—

—Another thing. Good and wicked. Don’t you think you should transcend those puritanical judgemental moralistic epithets? I mean, so much of that is conditioning, isn’t it? 

—There was once a girl, as average-looking as she was well-adjusted, who lived with her stepmother, who was not a very open and loving person because she herself had been abused in childhood.

—Better. But I am so tired of negative female images! And stepmothers—they always get it in the neck! Change it to stepfather, why don’t you? That would make more sense anyway, considering the bad behaviour you’re about to describe. And throw in some whips and chains. We all know what those twisted, repressed, middle-aged men are like—

—Hey, just a minute! I’m a middle-aged— 

—Stuff it, Mister Nosy Parker. Nobody asked you to stick in your oar, or whatever you want to call that thing. This is between the two of us. Go on.

—There was once a girl—

—How old was she?

—I don’t know. She was young.

—This ends with a marriage, right?

—Well, not to blow the plot, but—yes.

—Then you can scratch the condescending paternalistic terminology. It’s woman, pal. Woman.

—There was once—

—What’s this was, once? Enough of the dead past. Tell me about now.

—There— 

—So? 

—So what?

—So, why not here?

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