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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Where I’m From

Based on “Where I’m From” (1993) by George Ella Lyon, this activity takes students through a journey of self-reflection by identifying memories and traditions that have marked their lives as they work on comprehension skills and vocabulary. The students first read the poem and match the underlined words with the pictures. Apart from clarifying or providing the meaning of new words, this first approach will allow them to get a general idea of what the poem is about. An mp3 audio file with the author reading the poem is available here.

Where I'm From 1WhereI’mFrom.pdf

The students then delve into the text by completing the table with one example from the poem for each of the categories: a family name, the place of birth, something learnt as a child, and so on. Under the second column, the students write examples about themselves for each category with a two-fold purpose: demonstrate comprehension of the text by making connections with their own world, and brainstorm ideas for the writing task to follow.

Where I'm From 2

Following the prompts provided, most of which they should be familiar with by now, the students fill in the blanks to write their own versions of the poem.

Where I'm From 3

WhereI’mFrom-Worksheet.pdf

This task can be a fantastic ice-breaker or team-building activity at the beginning of the year once the students edit their poems and are ready to share them. Creating short videos or recording the poems (and use them later for work on pronunciation) are two other ways in which students can share their poems:

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:

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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.)
conclusion

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!

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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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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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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