Describing windows around the world

Window Swap is a website where people from all around the world submit views from their windows in short 10-minute long videos, most of them including background sounds. What’s not to like about a site that helps you travel without moving? And how about all the language learning opportunities it has to offer?

windowswap

As of today, the window swap is completely random, and you cannot choose the place or window, pause, rewind or fast-forward. Ten minutes, however, should be enough for students to come up with a rather accurate oral description, a short written account, or jot down the main ideas they want to include in a more elaborate type of written description. As a comprehension activity, the students could read or listen to their partners’ descriptions and look for those windows on the website.

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You will find the name of the submitter in the upper left corner and their location in the upper right (could this be a good time to revise countries and nationalities, too?) Once these are identified, students can follow the four steps in this worksheet to come up with their own descriptions:

  1. What type of house do you think the window belongs to?
  2. What’s the weather like? How about the overall atmosphere?
  3. What can you see through the window?
  4. How does this window view make you feel? What type of person can you imagine living here?

windowswap

WindowSwapWorksheet.pdf

Descriptions will, therefore, move from the more general to the more specific, and end up with the student’s personal reaction and evaluation. For each question, students are provided with a series of adjectives they can use in their descriptions. Depending on the level, you may need to revise some of these first, and with higher levels, students may use the adjectives on the worksheet to come up with their own associations or use adjectives they’ve been working on recently.

“We welcome all kinds of windows, whatever the shape, whatever the view. Because what we usually take for granted is gold for someone else.”

Sonali Ranjit
Vaishnav Balasubramaniam
Window Swap creators

Enjoy the trip!

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Transforming everyday objects: two lesson examples

I’ve always found artistic pictures using everyday objects amusing, but I had never thought of using them in my lessons. A few weeks ago, however, after coming across several pictures of this kind on social media, I decided to give them a go and incorporate them in the speaking and writing lessons I was planning for the groups I was teaching online. It seemed like a simple, quick activity that all the students could do, with limitless possibilities and results. The students’ creations would also bring an element of imagination and unexpectedness that should add extra motivation to meet the specific objectives we were working on.

Using items they could find in their houses, students were asked to create a simple picture that showed that item in a different context and serving a different purpose. With my younger students, I wanted to do some collaborative writing and focus on linking words, so I simply showed them a few pictures, explained the idea to them, and told them what we would be using the pictures for. These were some of the pictures they sent:

I pasted all the pictures on our platform’s cloud editor (similar to Google Docs) with the instructions, revised narrative connectors they were familiar with, and then introduced a few new ones. The students took turns writing a part of the story by dragging or copying/pasting one of the pictures and using it for their short piece of writing. Each student wrote their name at the end of their paragraph, and they were asked to use at least one linking expression.

The activity was done asynchronously for a couple of days as I felt giving them plenty of time would allow them to think about the narrative more carefully and take the time to explore all the options they had. We finally proofread it together in a live session and made linguistic, stylistic and a few plot changes until we were all happy with the final result!

The pictures effectively invited students to think more carefully about what was already written and what they were going to write, they raised interest in checking what their partners would do with the rest of the pictures – and they also provided a good excuse for some awkward narrative moments!

E1

My older students were working on advanced speaking phrases, so I asked them to create one of these pictures but this time illustrating some topic of discussion. The students submitted their pictures with a brief explanation about the topic they were trying to illustrate. Some of them were simply amazing:

B1

“This drawing is not only about The Beatles on Abbey Road. It’s more than that. I’m talking about music. You could be sad, you could feel lonely, but music always helps. It’s… like a battery!”

B2

“This is a quote by Isabel Allende. When we write, we hold the weight of our past to transform it into words, so that we can make stories about everything. That is why we have a pen and then one of those pens that are like feathers, behind it.”

B3

“This picture shows two people talking to each other while sitting at a table. For me, dinner and lunch time are very important. They’re the only times when all my family sits down and talks, sharing our thoughts. I added some staples as the table because they are used to attach pieces of paper; well, in this case, it’s used as a metaphor since it’s uniting people instead.”

B4

“The current situation has taught us that we must work together in order to reach a common goal.”

B5

“This sweeper represents many of the workers who are risking their lives for us these days due to the coronavirus crisis. I think they deserve recognition since, thanks to them and to many others such as supermarket workers and doctors, we have our streets clean, food to feed ourselves and health.”

B6

“In this moment of our lives we have to start making up our minds about our future career. Howarts’s sorting hat would be soooo convenient!”


We discussed a few of them in small groups using the vocabulary we were working on, and then I shared the pictures with the whole class for students to get familiar with them and think about which topic they might be reflecting. On the following week, we used all of them in a graded exercise in which groups of three needed to keep a conversation going based on one of the pictures, using appropriate turn-taking expressions and specific vocabulary for agreeing/disagreeing, likes/dislikes, opinion, comparing/contrasting, and so on.

The activity revolved around topics the students had put forward based on their interests and concerns at that moment, and although some of them were repeated, we could always find a different focus. In addition, some pictures were easier to interpret than others but, as is usually the case, I found that the more difficult and mysterious the picture, the more interesting and dynamic the conversations were.

B8

Have you used this type of pictures before? How else would you use them?

Conditional sentences: “Count On Me”

Students in this activity identify words and then sentences in the sequence of letters using grammatical, lexical and contextual clues. Notice that a few distractors have been included, such as homophones, different prepositions, articles or verb forms. The lyrics from “Count On Me” (Bruno Mars, 2010) should result from this, and listening to the song at the end of the activity is in fact the best way for students to check their answers.

Apart from introducing an engaging conversation starter or writing prompt around the theme of friendship, the text also provides a great context to present or revise first conditional structures!

CountOnMeCountOnMe.Worksheet.pdf

CountOnMeKeyCountOnMeKey.pdf

On the bright side of quarantine

Lithuanian photographer Adas Vasiliauskas has been using a drone to capture pictures of people in their homes since the country went under quarantine on 16th March, 2020. Each portrait is an imaginative exercise in creativity by the dwellers, too. “I started this project to give people a chance to brighten their day in this negative corona information environment,” says Adas. “I believe that these funny photos remind everyone that sitting quarantined at home can be fun too. And, of course, to remind everybody that you need to keep your social distance during these times.”

I contacted Adas about the possibility of using some of his photographs for a lesson and he readily agreed to it. His work provides such an inspiring and vibrant context that it will be difficult for students not to come up with unique, memorable personal responses to it — and we all know how important this is for a good language learning task to become relevant and meaningful. Let’s just add some flexibility so that the students can work at their own performance level.

1. Have students brainstorm any words related to “quarantine” and share their connections with each other. Introduce Adas’ project.

2. The students examine the photographs with a series of questions in mind. This is the more objective part of the description, where they identify the main elements in each picture:

    • Who is in the picture?
    • Where are they? What can you see?
    • What are they doing?
    • If there’s more than one person in the photograph, what do you think their relationship is?

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CLICK HERE TO SEE THE SLIDESHOW

3. The students choose six pictures and illustrate their first reactions by writing a caption for each of them. Encourage them to use informal language and the appropriate tone, which should match that of the picture.

4. Have students choose their favourite photograph and ask them to analyse it:

    • What can you tell about the people in the picture?
    • What would you ask these people? Write one question.
    • How do you imagine the person or people in the photo in two hours’ time? What do you think happened right before taking the picture?
    • How does the picture make you feel?

OnTheBrightSideofQuarantine

You can download the worksheet in two formats: PDF and WORD .

5. Steps 1-4 are the planning stage for a writing task in which students write a description of their favourite picture that includes both objective and subjective elements. You may want to revise adjectives of physical appearance and character first, but you can also ask students to use this site and have them come up with adjectives for any noun they’re trying to describe, making their learning experience even more individual and enriching.DescribingWords

At this moment, I’m also going to give the students the option to record their description, and even interview a few members of their family and friends with their own reactions:

    • How do these snapshots connect with your own experience?
    • Share these pictures with your family and friends. What do they think about them? Do they agree with your choice? Which photographs do they like most? Why do you think so?

Of course, this will be a great writing and speaking task to do with the students in class in the near future! I am now just wondering how the students will react to this lesson in a few years’ time…


Special thanks to Adas Vasiliauskas for giving permission to use his inspiring portraits in this lesson and to publish them here. Please check his website at http://tasfotografas.lt/

Roll & Explain!

Here’s a quick post with a tweak to two popular speaking/writing activities. The game can be played in small groups or as a whole class (B1 and above.)

RE1

Roll&Explain.pdf

One student rolls two dice four times: one to choose the person in the situation, another one for the action, a third one to decide on the place, and finally a fourth one to determine the time. Focus on grammar first by having the student come up with a grammatically correct sentence that describes the situation. The variety of time references, for example, will demand different tenses and aspects (and situations can change drastically due to this!) Different prepositions will be needed, too, for the different places.

Once the situation is clear, the student comes up with a (more or less) plausible explanation for it. You may want to allow him/her some thinking time and set a time limit for the explanation. The rest of the students can then ask a few questions and decide whether the explanation is good enough or not. Alternatively, the board can be used to generate writing prompts for (short) writing assignments. However you use it, make sure you revise, pre-teach or introduce language related to giving strong opinions and persuasion — your students will badly need it!


UPDATE 16/10/20

I’ve written the worksheet into this randomiser for easier use in online sessions or for whole-group work in the classroom!

5 activities for the first days of school

I can’t say I’m a big fan of icebreakers myself, at least the get-to-know-you type. Students may be grouped in a different way from the previous year, and there are always new students to the school, but in my context most of them know each other relatively well (or at least as well as a typical icebreaker can get!) For some reason, I’ve always found students aren’t very fond of them either. Perhaps too predictable? Whatever the context, however, I know they can be an excellent tool in a language classroom to help us analyse the students’ needs at the beginning of the year, implement classroom rules, or set the tone and expectations for the next few months.

It is with these goals in mind that I’ve selected the following activities. Most of them can be adapted to different levels and, while a few do include an inevitable get-to-know-you component, the focus is on production and integrating them with other classroom routines at the beginning of the school year.

1. Communication strategies
I always teach some basic communication strategies explicitly which I expect my students to use for the rest of the year whenever they have problems communicating an idea or to make up for unknown words. This is an activity to practise paraphrasing that has always worked well with my students:

image2

2. Grid challenge
One way to get students testing their own strategic competence is to engage them in informal conversations. One of the reasons why I like the following grid is that it can be played in small groups rather than as a class: less intimidating, more authentic, easily observable. Students roll the dice twice to get vertical and horizontal numbers, and then complete the sentence about themselves. They could also be encouraged to ask at least one or two questions each turn to make the activity more interactive.

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3. “I can’t imagine life without…”
Students write the things in life that they can’t imagine living without, and then take turns asking questions about why they are important to them.

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4. No-prep writing activities
There’s nothing like a short piece of writing to check the performance level of students. Use one of these creative, no-prep activities designed for the first week of school, or include some of them (and perhaps some of your own) and create a choice board!

Composite of image of a hand drawing a light bulb on a board
5. “First Day at School”
Using the poem “First Day at School” by Roger McGough and an animated short video based on it, students practise reading comprehension, hypothesis making, and finally reflect on their first day at school. An intriguing lesson that integrates all four skills.

firs2

 

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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“On The Same Page”: a video-based lesson

In “On The Same Page” (Alli Norman and Carla Lutz, 2015), an introverted journalist for the local news section “has nothing to write about until he is whirled away into a colourful journey with his neighbour from the comic section.” Similarly, the students in this video-based lesson are asked to become active learners and have lots to say by making predictions at various stages in the story, raising questions about what they have have just watched, or sharing their personal reactions in the hope of enhancing their critical thinking skills while practising the language. The goal here is to set up a dialogue that is student-driven and through which the students will both demonstrate comprehension and engage in meaningful conversations with the visual text. What is more, this provides a flexible framework which allows for each student to work at their own performance level.

For each part of the film that they watch, the students are asked to complete one of three main tasks according to the symbol in each box:

  • Write a question. These can be based on facts, but they can also promote deeper thinking such as asking other students to analyse the plot or the characters, or express their own opinion. Questions charts like this one can help in making sure students come up with different kinds of questions.
  • Write a personal response or reaction. By making connections between what has happened in the film and the students’ own experiences, or other similar experiences, the students will reflect on the actions and express what they mean to them personally.
  • Write a prediction. This helps the students to keep focused on the story and to refine, revise and verify its plot and the key elements as they watch.

Such an approach demands that a variety of sharing strategies be used throughout the activity. While this is largely conditioned by class size, strategies should involve pairs of students (see Think-Pair-Share), groups (see Numbered Heads Together, Rountable, Roundrobin), and the whole class.

OTSPFI

OntheSamePage-Worksheet.pdf

1. Elicit the typical sections of a newspaper. Tell the students the story in the short film takes place at a newspaper and that one of the main characters is a journalist who works for the local news section.

2. 00:00-1:02 – LOCAL NEWS & COMICS. The students write a question about the main male character (e.g. Where does he work?, Why does he have nothing to write about?), a personal reaction to the main female character (How is the comics section different?, What is the girl like?, Why does she throw a ball at his window?), and a prediction of what they think will happen next. The students share each of these with their partners.

3. 1:02-1:20 – WEATHER. Question (e.g. What will the weather be like on Thursday?, What will the weather be like this week?)

4. 1:20-1:31 – ENTERTAINMENT. Personal response, perhaps based on the film titles, or a connection with the weather in the previous section or the plot so far.

5. 1:31-2:00 – FINANCE. Question.

6. 2:00-2:07 – SPORTS. Prediction.

7. 2:07-2:28 – OBITUARIES. Personal reaction.

8. The students are asked to think of two possible endings.

9. 2:28-END – Hold a whole-class discussion by using the final questions, personal responses and predictions as prompts.

 

Can the students now explain the meaning of “to be on the same page” and the reason why the filmmakers chose it for this story?

Online generators to practise speaking and writing

Randomness is an element that we’ve been using in learning tasks for a long time, especially those that involve productive skills. Rolling dice or shuffling cards are classic examples of activities in which students make choices based on unpredictable results. There is, of course, a sense of limit and control once the students know the goals and specific objectives of the task, but introducing surprise and letting fate decide for us often results in students trying their best at moving on with whatever they have at hand (which, incidentally, simulates real-life situations or even test-taking skills) and improves their motivation by making them get out of the comfort zone that teacher-led and teacher-controlled practice provides.

There’s a good number of online generators that offer interesting options for students to practise speaking and writing, and which revolve around the idea of randomness. They are web-based and very easy to set up to work with the whole group or in smaller teams. They are also flexible enough to be used together with specific strategies or a particular classroom structure — or better yet, to allow for student creativity.

 

Random Plot Generators

These two sites can help students get a random story line they can start working on, including the setting, the main characters, and a few details about the conflict. Other features such as “Random First Line”, “Random Dialogue”, “Story Title”, or “What if? Scenario” also provide intriguing starting points for writing or speaking tasks.

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plot-generator.org.uk goes one step further and allows you to discuss specific nouns, locations, adjectives related to feelings, or action verbs we want to see in our stories, poems, or even song lyrics. The generators take all these options into account to provide a final version or a first draft that the students need to work on.

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Conversation starters 

Both websites offer a wide variety of topics to start any discussion or debate:

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Discussion generator

 

The Story Shack and Writer Igniter

A suggested word count, the genre, the main character and a sentence uttered by him/her, or specific information to be included in the story, are some of the ideas provided by these generators every time to hit the “Generate” or “Shuffle” buttons!

TheStoryShack

 

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The Game Gal
This word generator gives you words to play games like pictionary, catchphrase, or charades. Just choose which game you’re playing and a category, and then tap for a new word.

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Writing Sparks

Click on “Create Spark” and then choose the age of your students, the type of writing and the amount of time. The site will provide a prompt for students and a planning stage, including timed whole-class discussion with key words, before the students start writing.

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