Critical thinking and language skills: “There Was Once”

In “There Was Once”, 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.

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?

“There Was Once”

Description, down to a fine art

Improving the students’ organisational skills and getting them ready to write a well-rounded description of a painting are the main goals of this activity which was originally part of a longer unit around the topics of reading and literature. I first chose six classical paintings in which someone is reading a book.

The paintings are hidden behind black squares (see PowerPoint file below) and are progressively displayed square by square to draw the students’ attention to each part of the painting. The idea here is to encourage active conversations in which the students make predictions about the books, the people and the places, and the relationship between the main elements in each painting, as they are gradually revealed. Descriptive vocabulary such as “at the top” or “in the bottom left-hand corner” can also be introduced or revised at this point.

Paintings.ppt

The students use the oral discussion and their own ideas and personal impressions to complete a graphic organiser for each painting, first writing down a few words that describe the book, the person or people reading and the place, and then thinking of how each of these are related.

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This is a fairly flexible task which allows the students to use their own vocabulary based on their proficiency level, but it’s also a good time to introduce new words that the students may need that should not be missed. In addition, by having them make connections (book-person, person-place, place-book) and write down their ideas in the circles, the students are encouraged to think beyond the painting and use these critical thinking skills to enrich their descriptions:
– What type of book do you think it is?
– Are they reading for pleasure? To find information?
– Are they enjoying it? Why do you think so?
– Are they in a public or a private room? Do they look comfortable? What can the place tell us about the person?

Depending on the level of the students, you may need to model or go over the elements that make a descriptive text both coherent and cohesive, and which will help them to express all the ideas gathered to the best of their ability. The students can then be asked to write the description of the painting they like most or simply assign one to each student, and later hold an art exhibition in class where the students are given the opportunity to share and compare their own writings. Can the students now use these observational, organisational and critical thinking skills to choose a painting or photograph of their choice that can be added to the art exhibition and write a well-rounded description independently?


All images are Public Domain

I’m Going Back

I’m a big fan of All at C, probably the first blog with high quality teaching resources that I started following. Their superb lessons based on the John Lewis ad of the year are a classic in my classroom, so when I watched Heathrow’s Christmas advert a few days ago the first thing I did was to check their site. Call it premature seasonal impatience, but I also couldn’t help but start sketching my own activity as I look forward to further inspiration.

Heathrow’s ad is about an ageing teddy bear couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bair, who arrive at the airport and start their journey through it before reuniting with their family. The students work on the story line below in which the different situations they experience are explained with pictures. To guide them through the process, the students are also provided with a list of words that serves two purposes: to introduce difficult or unknown words (such as dangle, mistletoe or conveyor belt) and to help them to explain what is going on when using the picture prompts and establishing connections between them.

heathrow-ad-worksheet

I’m Going Back.pdf

Watch the beginning of the video first until 0:12 and do the first three scenes with the students in order to introduce the characters and the context, and for the students to get familiar with the procedure. The students then work together and write down what they think might be happening in each situation. When the students have finished, watch the video until 1:00 and have them check their answers, comment on any differences, and make any necessary changes.

Finally, the students make predictions about the end of the video orally and then watch it. In the large blank circle, they work independently and draw the picture or pictures that they think best depict that final scene. In addition, they may also add three words that can help to explain their personal reaction to it. Sharing and comparing their answers with the rest of the class at the end is bound to leave a memorable, lasting impression based on each student’s unique feelings and beliefs.

 

Images from openclipart.org, Public Domain.

6 simple web-based applications for short writing tasks

There are several free websites that allow you to write any type of text collaboratively, illustrate it, create a comic or a storyboard, or even to design other more sophisticated forms of writing such as interactive stories. Most of them, however, require student registration and therefore parental permission may be needed, and they tend to be time-consuming for short writing tasks. Even so, there are still a small number of web-based applications to publish different types of writing that are extremely easy to use, supported by all operating systems and web browsers, and which can be lots of fun! This last step in the writing process is often saved as a picture, which can be then shared on a flash drive or by email — and no registration is needed.

Star Wars Intro Creator

This application allows students to write their own opening crawl and play it later. Just enter your text in each of the spaces available, including the title and a sub-title, then copy the url at the end, and finally paste it for it to be shared.

star-wars-intro-creator

This crawl creator offers multiple publishing possibilities for creative writing. So far I have used it to have the students publish short writings based on their daily routines (waking up early in the morning can get the most epic and dramatic narrative effects from teenagers!) Introducing your lesson or project objectives, or even providing a summary of the work done at the end, are also attention-catching and memorable ways in which this tool can be used in the classroom.

Newspaper Clipping Generator and Newspaper Article Generator.

Both applications allow you to create newspaper-looking articles just by filling in the blank spaces with the newspaper name, the headline, the date, and the article itself. One of them even allows you to upload a picture to go with the article. Click on the “Generate” or “Make it” buttons and save as a picture.

newspaper-clipping-generator

These articles can be follow-up news to something the students have read, either fictional or factual, or perhaps a news item that they would like to see in the near future related to new discoveries and inventions — even some big change that will contribute to make our world a better place! The students could also use these newspaper generators to write and share what they did over their summer or spring holidays, or during a school trip, either on their own or after interviewing other classmates.

newspaper-generator

Mobile Phone Text Creator

Use ifaketext to have students write simple phone text conversations to exchange personal information or make arrangements with friends, introduce grammar or vocabulary in context (perhaps using some of your students’ names and the information you have about them to make it even more personal and meaningful), or to check comprehension of a story by having the students write a dialogue between two or three characters in it. Once again, all you need to do is enter the text, add as many lines as needed, and then save the conversation as a jpeg image.phone-text-creator

Speech Bubble Editor

Simply upload an image, add speech and thought bubbles to it, and save the whole thing as a picture. Create a story or a comic, show understanding of a text by writing key sentences on a picture that is relevant to the text, compare what the people in the pictures are saying and what they could be thinking — the sky’s the limit!speech-bubble-editor

Tweet Generator

We all know about the summarising power of tweets, limited to just 140 characters. Apart from summarising a text, this tweet generator could also be used to write your personal reaction to a text, your opinion about an issue that will be discussed in class, or to highlight what each student has learnt during the lesson and share their reflections with the rest of the class. I also use it as part of a interdisciplinary project after reading some extracts from Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”; the students then design their own trip around the world in 8 days using a variety of means of transport and writing one tweet a day in which the students provide clues about the place they are visiting that day but without mentioning the place name. At the end, the students work together to trace each others’ routes on world maps and even assess whether travel times and time zones are used correctly.tweet-creator

Building comprehension skills and summarising: “Annabel Lee”

In this illustrated version of Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “Annabel Lee”, the students get engaged in three main tasks as they complete the poem:
– filling in the blank circles with a word from the word bank,
– using lexical and grammatical knowledge to find a suitable word for any rectangle, and
– matching a few verses from the poem with the pictures with no words.
By doing this, the students work at different linguistic levels simultaneously, with every decision taken affecting each other as the students construct meaning while demonstrating comprehension.

annabel-lee-1annabel-lee-2annabel-lee-3

Annabel Lee.pdf

But this activity can also be part of a larger lesson that focuses on comprehension and helps the students to identify key words in a text and use them to write a summary. Before reading the poem, the students are asked to focus on the beginning of the story: describing the picture with the setting first, then reading the first two lines and writing the following two verses using one of the rhyming words provided, and finally making predictions about what they think their story could be about based on a number of key words. Apart from setting the scene and getting the students ready for the reading comprehension activity, this lead-in also introduces the students to summarising skills that will be practised later in the lesson

annabel-lee-lead-in

Annabel Lee Lead-In.pdf

After working on the poem and checking understanding by having the students look for words with a similar meaning in the text and complete a story map, the students select five words from the poem that help to explain how they feel about it. This personal reaction to the text and the selection of words that determine the mood of the story will be the basis for the summary that the students will be writing at the end of this lesson.

annabel-lee-follow-up

Annabel Lee Follow-Up.pdf


Special thanks to Kena Piña for giving permission to use her brilliant illustrations in this activity and to publish it here. Please check her blog at https://jointherector.com

Checking Understanding and the Power of Choice

My younger students have just created some simple flip books at home based on the poem “Oranges” by Gary Soto to summarise the work done so far and demonstrate comprehension, share them with the rest of the class, and use them for future reference.

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“Oranges” by Gary Soto

The students are now working on a sequel to the story, with some students describing the protagonists as a married couple in 20 years’ time, others writing from either the boy’s or girl’s point of view immediately after the narrative, and there’s even one student who has chosen to write a little bit more about the shop assistant and her relationship with her customers! I’m really looking forward to their writings and checking how well they are able to incorporate the narrative techniques and linking expressions we have been practising. But how did we end up here?

1. “Oranges” is a great poem for intensive guided reading in which questions are posed orally as the whole group reads the poem, engaging the students in conversations about the text. These will range from simple questions which will often require that the students provide evidence from the text to other higher-order comprehension skills such as reading between the lines, comparing two characters, analysing point of view, or explaining the meaning of words using the context. For instance, these are all questions that could be asked for the first few lines:

Line 1: Who is “I”?
Line 2: What do you think this story will be about?
Line 4: What season is it?
Line: 4 Why do you think he is carrying two oranges?
Line 7: What is “cracking”? (look at “cold”, “December”, “frost”, “my breath before me, then gone”)
Line 11: Is this his first time at the girl’s house? How do you know?

2. A lot of vocabulary was highly visual, so apart from context clues a few pictures were used to check understanding.

3. After reading and discussing the text as a whole group, the students worked on the worksheet below where the poem is divided into seven parts. For each part, the students thought of a title that summarised the scene and wrote down what the characters involved could be thinking or actually saying by filling in the thought and speech bubbles.

Oranges.pdf

4. Finally, the students edited their writing in class and took it home to be published in the form of flip books, which would be later shared in class for them to find similarities and differences and comment on them.

Indeed, demonstrating understanding does not only consist of recalling information or analysing parts of a text effectively; it also involves making it personal and being able to respond to it in a way that connects with your interests and your way of seeing the world. This year the students were asked to dive into the text and choose the words they could hear, and they are now producing a piece of writing from a point of view of their choice based on whatever made more sense to them at that moment. Combined with an appropriate use of the writing skills we have been practising in the last few weeks, these choices will surely result in some memorable pieces of writing that we will all enjoy.

Like that time a few years ago when a thirteen-year-old came up to me at the end of this lesson and asked if he could make a film out of the poem. He mentioned something about Lego, and I admit I only insisted on the comprehension skills I was looking for together with other task requirements and deadlines, and largely ignored the project details that he had come up with during the lesson. A few days later he brought this video to class:

The true impact that holding high expectations for every single student that we teach has on learning, and how maximising students’ strengths — including their interests and motivations — affects and boosts language learning , should probably belong to a blog post in its own right. For the time being, let’s just put it down to the power of choice.

Orange by fred_v, on Flickr
Orange” (CC BY 2.0) by fred_v

Rewriting Established Texts: The Day They Got Creative

The task is simple: get a newspaper article or a book page and create a new text that can be read from top to bottom using some of the words in it, be it in the form of a simple sentence, perhaps some sort of hidden message or poem, or even a snapshot from a story. And yet, there is something about manipulating established texts that makes it work so well with students, challenging meaning or tone and playing with the language at all levels.

Admittedly, erasure or blackout writing is a popular activity in L1 language arts classrooms, but there are several valuable language learning advantages it offers in the EFL classroom as well:

1. Flexibility: Students can write at their own level, from very simple sentences to more elaborate and sophisticated types of text.

2. Accuracy: No matter the level, the students engaged in this type of activity will need to draw from various language skills as they build their sentences, choosing their words carefully and discarding others when they can’t go together, or looking for that word category that should continue the sentence they are working on among the limited possibilities. In all cases, the students will be analysing the meaning and form of the language items they choose as they try to achieve a specific purpose or effect.

3. Creativity: Most of the times, when facing several options the students will usually go for the most unique, different, mysterious or entertaining due to the nature of the task itself. In general, the more different from the original text, the better.

After modelling the activity, I usually have teams of students work on a text in class so that they can get familiar with the procedure, and then assign another text for individual work. The samples below, for instance, were done last week by teenage students with certified B1 and B2 levels of English. The students worked on these at home for a few days, checked their final option with me before publishing, and then shared them with the rest of the class. Having teams of students read other classmates’ texts and come up with plausible interpretations, or discussing the type of story or context in which they would most likely expect to find each of them, are all ways that help the students analyse each other’s work and improve their reading comprehension skills.

This week we are voting for the ones we like most and will soon use a few as narrative writing prompts. Would you be able to choose from any of the samples below?