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!

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:

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“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.

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

15 post-reading activities

The following board contains a series of activities that the students can choose to do after reading a novel or a short story. Students take on a number of roles, such as detective, journalist, designer or disc jockey, to work on a particular area. When used as a whole group, with the teacher assigning all the roles to different students in the group, the result will be a creative, in-depth study that analyses the narrative text from multiple perspectives.

post-reading activities

Post-ReadingActivities.pdf

The task board presents the main idea for each role, and details will be needed depending on the teaching context and the level of the students, including the amount of scaffolding that may be needed. The board does allow for differentiation, taking different interests and levels of difficulty into account. While some tasks can be carried out independently, others may require structured cooperative work in pairs or larger teams. In more homogeneous settings, roles could also be assigned numbers or colours according to their level of difficulty so that students can choose to focus on one task or engage in two or three to get the same points.

Combine these activities with this book report to check comprehension right after reading!


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A book report

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Developing learner autonomy: a homework choice board

HomeworkChoiceBoard

Narrative beginnings

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A book report

Here’s a simple report that students can complete after reading a novel, a short story, or any narrative excerpt. Apart from including basic elements such as the title and the author, the setting, the characters or a summary of the plot, the students are also asked to write a few personal responses to different excerpts from the text and a short review. This should allow them to demonstrate different ways in which they have interacted with the text. In the double-entry section, for instance, the students are asked to choose five excerpts that they liked and write them down in the left column, and then explain why they have chosen each of them on the right. A few prompts are provided, too, to help them with the selection.

BookReport

You can download the PDF file here or, if your students have a Google account, you can share this editable Google Slides version that they can complete (and then share with you with a link, as a PDF file or a picture!) Just click on the picture below and a copy of the file will be stored in your own Drive.

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Combine this book report with these 15 post-reading activities!

Narrative beginnings

My younger students worked on writing the beginning of narrative texts last week. Now that they’re familiar with the basic structures, we’re trying to improve narrative, descriptive and expository types of text by looking at different options, both linguistic and stylistic.

I first asked them to choose one out of four pictures for their story, which should help them get started in the first place, but they will also serve other purposes such as checking comprehension and keeping the students accountable for the follow-up task. Then they were introduced to different ways to start a story and they were encouraged to try something new. Here’s an extract from the video I recorded for them:

The students wrote their beginnings, I gave individual feedback on grammar and vocabulary, and then I cut and pasted each beginning into a Google Form with a multiple choice.

NarrativeB1

The students read the beginnings written by their partners, selected the picture each of them belonged to, and then chose two of them and explained their reasons focusing on narrative efficiency.

Do you believe in the magic of flying? You don’t? Let’s see if it’s real. One morning I was playing with my sister. She went to Burger King, she got a balloon there, and she came back with it. She kept on playing with it and I didn’t know what she was doing…

The activity worked so well that I decided to use it with a group of more advanced students, too. Can you guess which picture each of these paragraphs belongs to? Which story would you like to read more about?

“So… who’s going to do the laundry today?” Everyone stays silent and looks away. Since the house had started floating, picking up the vestments from the clothes line had become a laborious task. Who would risk their lives just for a pair of pants? Not me.

I was bathing in coffee. Unusual, isn’t it? I would have never imagined this as a Sunday morning routine either. Yesterday was a day like any other. I woke up, had breakfast, and sat on my bed to work from home, as I usually do. I turned on my ipad and opened Procreate to draw one of my daily comic strips. Then I got up to feed my cockatoo, Mikey. This is when things got weird. I’ve never had pets, and certainly not a cockatoo called Mikey, so why was I feeding one? And what made me think I had one?

“I need it, I need it right now! I’m sure it was here yesterday… Where is it?”, yelled Thomas. “Hey, calm down! What are you looking for?”, answered his wife Helen. “What am I looking for, seriously? Haven’t you realized it’s missing?”

Hey you! Yeah you, another one of those readers that just laughs and makes fun of us thinking that we biscuits don’t actually talk or have feelings. Anyway, can you believe this? I woke up with no icing on me, and now I have to go on a long, long journey to get it back. Follow me!

It was right about then when he knew that he was there. He had finally gotten to this amazing place he was searching. I mean… It’s not every day that you have your morning coffee in a cup that’s bigger than you, right? But then it occurred to him that he had not thought of his next step. What was he going to do then?

It happened suddenly. No one knew why, but the Earth itself turned upside down: the buildings, the people, the feelings of the people, the happy suddenly were sad, and the sad suddenly were happy, up was down and down was up. Everyone except me.

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/

Finish the picture

How would you finish these pictures? What if they were part of a story?

finishthepictureFinish the picture.pdf

This was one of those activities that surprise you every now and then: not only could the students working in pairs complete them in a short period of time, but the process involved questions and conversations about a wide variety of lexis as their creativity – and especially all the constraints – demanded more specific vocabulary. The students were also allowed to decide on the order of the pictures, which added some flexibility.

If nothing else, the task does help students to create and plan their stories in a meticulous way. Rather than a scaffold, the creative process here becomes a challenge, and basic narrative elements such as the setting, the characters, the plot or the ending need to be carefully thought out to complete the task successfully. A thorough planning stage which then paid off once the students got down to writing.

I also tried this activity with a higher group of students. This time, I gave them different writing tasks and asked them to draw their pictures based on them:

You’re writing the instructions on how to make something work.
You’re writing a recipe.
You’re writing a travel guide.
You’re writing a brochure advertising a hotel or resort.
You’re writing a story.
You’re writing an advertisement.
You’re writing a movie trailer.
You’re writing the description of a place.

Once the texts were written, I posted the pictures around the classroom for the students to examine and later on remember so that they could match them to the texts.

This is a flexible task which allows students to create meaning in so many inventive ways. Interestingly, it didn’t turn out to be as intimidating as I had thought it could be for some students. I think it also provides students with extra motivation to read or listen to their classmates’ texts: the starting point is the same for everyone, yet the results can often be really amusing.

Do you think the quality of writing could also be affected by all this?

 

 

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:

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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.

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