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?

Daily routines: writing a report

Inspired by this infographic on the daily routines of famous artists, the students in this lesson develop team-building skills as they create a graph about specific habits and routines of their classmates. After brainstorming possible categories as a whole group, each team chooses six habits and routines they want to know more about. The students in each team take turns interviewing other classmates on their categories, collecting data, and reporting back to the team for the data to be graphed. Inside-Outside Circles are a good structured way to have the students interview each other and collect information.

Daily routinesDaily routines.pdf

The students then use their team’s graph to write a report that will include its purpose as an introduction, an explanation of the kind of data that was collected and how this was accomplished, an objective analysis using figures and percentages (“5% per cent of the students…”; “17 out of 27 students in the class…”; “only 4 students…”; “half of the class…”; “the vast majority of…”; and so on), and a final conclusion in which each student will offer recommendations and suggestions concerning areas that may need improving or changing, and corroborate those which are deemed appropriate. The graphs and the reports can be shared at the end with the rest of the teams and the final conclusions discussed orally as a whole group.

Creating a good classroom atmosphere by having students get to know each other a little bit better, training the students to take on different roles in their teams and to be accountable for their contributions, engaging in student-generated short informal interviews which revolve around their very own lives, and writing an expository text with both objective and subjective information, are just some of the goals that will have been reached by the end of this lesson.

“All Summer in a Day”

The story of Margot – of (in)difference, (in)justice, hope – was not unfamiliar to me but was brought to my attention during a workshop a few years ago and have since used it in my classes. Perhaps one of the reasons why Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” (1954) works so well with teenage students is because they can easily relate to it from different perspectives. Despite the richness of vocabulary, it is also a text that is easy to read at language levels as low as B1, with the students being able to reconstruct the key elements of the story and a good amount of details without having to understand every single word. Most interestingly, the short story leaves so much unsaid that it provides a perfect flexible framework that encourages the sharing of different ideas and interpretations, resulting in all language skills flowing naturally as the students attempt to explain their rather complex ideas and feelings related to a conflict about which they have so much to say.

The ending is in fact a rather open one, and it is at this point of Bradbury’s story that I decided to start reading the last time I used it. Reading this story backwards and challenging chronological order provides just the right type of scaffolding to help with the reading itself and creates higher interest and motivation to keep on reading: both the added problem-solving element and the process of reconstruction that will help to identify the reasons and details leading to such a mysterious ending will certainly get the students involved in the text, help them to understand it better, and make further connections based on this as they put all four skills into practice.

To walk the students through the text, the four-page short story was here divided into four parts and a circular graphic organiser was designed with a variety of activities that mainly focus on comprehension but also on vocabulary building. This circular structure will encourage students to go back and forth in the text while revising previous questions as they read, completing the missing information, and confirming or rejecting previous predictions.

  • Part 1: from “A boom of thunder startled them…” to “… and let Margot out”
  • Part 2: from “’Ready, children?’ She glanced at her watch…” to “… their smiles vanishing away”
  • Part 3: from “’Get away!’ The boy gave her another push …” to “… just as the teacher arrived”
  • Part 4: from “’Ready?’…” to “… her waiting silence, her thinness, and her possible future”All Summer in a Day

1. Write “Summer” on the board and have the students come up with words related to it. Tell them they are going to read a story called “All Summer in a Day”. Elicit what it might be about.
Reading

2. Read the first part, which belongs to the end of the story. Give out the graphic organiser and discuss numbers 1, 2 and 3 together: what do we know about the setting, the characters and the problem? Any predictions?

3. Ask the students to read the second part. As they read, ask them to choose five words from the text that describe the scene and write them down in 4. In addition, students write a short sentence that describes the way they feel about it. Discuss any new information related to the setting, the characters and the problem.

4. After reading part 3, the students fill out number 5 and try to work out what the conflict might be about using both the information they have and their own predictions.

5. As the students read the last part belonging to the beginning of the story, the students underline any words or expressions related to the rain and circle any words related to the sun. They then write any words that are new to them in 6. Discuss 7 as a whole group.

6. Allow some time for students to put all the pieces together and write a short personal reaction to the text in 8: “I think…”, “I feel…”, “I wonder…” Have them share their thoughts with the rest of the students.
Writing

7. The students write a short text explaining what happened immediately after Margot was let out of the room: What was her reaction? What did she do? Did she say anything? How did her classmates feel? What did they do? Did they apologise? Did their relationship change? How? What do you think of William? Did he do or say anything?
Listening

8. Ask students to look for five similarities and five differences as they watch the short film based on Bradbury’s story. The students fill out a Venn diagram with their findings, which are later shared with the rest of the class.

All Summer in a Day 2
Speaking

9. What could have prevented Margot from being bullied? What could each of the characters involved have done differently?

The discussion will, in fact, largely depend on the group of students and has always taken on a different focus each time I’ve done it. In all cases, however, it became a time when error correction was not a priority, complex grammatical structures were uttered in a natural way, and a careful choice of vocabulary allowed the students to communicate their ideas, thoughts and feelings efficiently and to the best of their ability. It is in tasks like this that language seems to flow naturally, hypotheses restructured, words become the most relevant, and meaning – personal meaning, the student voice – becomes the ultimate driving force that pulls together that chaos we call “language”.

All Summer in a Day Worksheets.pdf

All Summer in a Day

World Refugee Day 

As part of an interdisciplinary school project on the Syrian refugee crisis a few weeks ago, teams of students in this B1 class read a number of personal stories taken from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees website (www.unhcr.org), summarised their background, rewrote the current situation in their own words, and analysed each story to create a realistic alternative for each of them. In this way, the readers of these posters on display were invited to choose one of the options and check the answer, encouraging powerful critical thinking that should hopefully contribute to solve this and other similar crises — those very same ones we unfortunately seem unable to cope with at present — in the very, very near future. 

Reported speech and creative writing: 50 ways 

After reading the reported conversation and discussing what it is about, the students practise simple reported speech structures by rewriting each line into direct speech while changing tenses, pronouns, possessive adjectives and time references when necessary. With the aid of a few extra words provided, the result will be the actual lyrics from “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon. The students listen to the song and check their answers at the end.

FiftyWays1

The class can then work together and write a few more “ways to leave your lover”, following the model in the chorus. The students first choose one of the one-syllable proper names in the circle and match it with any words that rhyme in the box on the right. They then write their own lines, such as “Go to the gym, Tim”, “Don’t pull my leg, Meg”, “Get on that van, Dan”, or “Let’s make a deal, Neil”. The types of sentences will vary depending on the level of the students, so the possibilities are endless! Can the group of students come up with the remaining forty-five pieces of advice to make the song title a reality?

FiftyWays2

FiftyWays.pdf

Double-entry journals: a flexible reading comprehension tool

Most of my students are required to read at least one unabridged book every year as part of the curriculum. These students are at least at a B1 level, but differences in language and comprehension skills within the same group of students are not uncommon. As a complement to small-group guided reading sessions or literature circles, I have found double-entry journals especially useful as a flexible tool that adapts to each student’s performance level in a very efficient way, working just as well with short stories or other types of text.

Double-entry journals are typically made up of two columns: students select a quote they find relevant from the text and write it down on the left column, and then they write their personal response to it on the right one. Students are given a number of options to guide their reactions and make them as varied as possible. For example:

  • Personal reaction (How do you feel?)
  • Personal connection (“This reminds me of…”)
  • Is there a good idea in it?
  • Any questions about one of the characters? Or the narrator? Perhaps the plot?
  • Make a prediction about what is going to happen later in the book.
  • Explain any previous reference to something that has already happened in the book. Does it clarify things?
  • Is there any word you have learnt in the passage that you particularly like? What about the style?

Double-Entry Journal

In all of these cases, students are encouraged to interact with the text at different levels, making reference to other passages in the text itself, or setting up connections between the text and the world or between the text and the students themselves. And perhaps most important for us here, students can complete the task successfully at their own language level. The following are examples of journals that students from the same group are currently working on as they read “King of Shadows” by Susan Cooper:

Flexibility is, therefore, what makes double-entry journals ideal for EFL students:

  1. Students are allowed to interact with the text in a way that is relevant to the reader.
  2. Several comprehension skills which are usually transferred from L1 can be demonstrated at various levels despite proficiency limitations. Even fairly complex ideas can be explained in a communicatively efficient way in fairly simple English.
  3. The fact that students can work at their own performance level encourages student motivation and a sense of accomplishment. It also promotes writing fluency.
  4. Apart from personalised feedback from the teacher, double-entry journals can be the starting point for reading circles and shared orally with other students.

I have also noticed that students writing a double-entry journal tend to be more careful with their reading, going back and forward more often or looking up certain words to clarify something that has particularly caught their attention. They also make use of context clues more often, which results in a reading experience that is far more precise and enriching. Finally, if you want to implement double-entry journals, I recommend starting with short texts first and modelling the process until students are familiar with the procedure.

Double-Entry Journal

“The Lost Thing”

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan is the story of a boy who finds a strange creature which no one seems to notice in a grey, alienated world. His quest to find the ideal place for the thing raises several questions about belonging and social awareness, with an ending that will bring about mixed feelings and a variety of different meanings.

Not only does the quirky story get the students working with the language while boosting their critical thinking skills, but it is also flexible enough to be used with different proficiency levels and at different levels of interpretation. I have been using it with B1/B1+ teenage students, and it has always effectively engaged them in ways that promote reflection and meaningful language learning.

Both the book and the 15-minute long Oscar award-winning animated film version have been used in the following lesson, although it can be easily adapted to be used with only one of them:

1. Show students the cover of the book and its title and ask: “Have you ever lost anything?”; “What was it?”; “How did you lose it?”; “Did you find it?” Ask them about the pictures on the cover and what they find special about them. Have them guess what the story might be about.

The_Lost_Thing_cover

2. Read the book aloud, stopping to show the pictures, ask questions, and clarify vocabulary as needed.

3. When the narrator and the lost thing are about to enter the place they are looking for, close the book and ask students what kind of place they think would be the best for the lost thing. Discuss and write down the main ideas.

Eventually we found what seemed to be the right place, in a dark little gap off some anonymous little street. The sort of place you’d never know existed unless you were actually looking for it.

I pressed a buzzer on the wall and this big door opened up.

4. Students are given several sentences from the book for them to put in the right order (see worksheet below.) Most are fairly clear, and a few could belong to different parts of the story. Tell them that they will be checking their answers as they watch the film version of the book.

5. Stop the film at the same point in the story (11:10), check the order of the sentences as a whole group, and remind students of the main ideas in the discussion held before. By now, they should be more than ready to watch the end of the story.

6. Discuss the ending and the students’ predictions:

  • What did the story make you think about?
  • Do you like the ending?
  • Is it a happy ending?
  • What does being “lost” mean?
  • What does belonging mean?
  • Why did no one seem to care about the lost thing?

7. Ask students to find things that are “lost” or “do not belong” in their houses or in the street. Students write a story from the point of view of the thing itself or using a third person narrator, describing how the thing made it to that place, its present, and its possible future.

The last time I taught this lesson I brought a lost, striped (and clean!) sock to model the process, but the lost things the students shared in class were far more interesting: a floppy disk, a seashell sitting in a garage, an old shoe buckle, a sticker from an old favourite band, or the pictures of a confusing street sign and a broken printer lying next to the wrong rubbish bin. The engaging, creative stories that the students wrote based on their “lost things” remain among the most memorable pieces of writing.

The Lost Thing.doc

Image credits: www.thelostthing.com and www.shauntan.net

Punctuation matters

Effective punctuation is sometimes a problem even at the secondary education level, but instead of working on the typical text with no marks, why not do it the other way round and expose students to the very meaning of punctuation itself?

1. Elicit the most common types of punctuation marks, their uses and a few examples. Write them down.

2. Display the text with punctuation marks and no words (click below for a pdf copy): “How many paragraphs does the text have?”, “What type of text do you think it is?”, “Why?”, “How many sentences does the first paragraph have?”, “What type of sentences?”, “What type of information should we expect?”, “What type of questions are included in the first paragraph?”, etc. Continue with the rest of the paragraphs, “reading” the type of information actually conveyed by the punctuation marks themselves (enumeration, clarification, surprise, excitement, addition, interest, and so on.)

3. Brainstorm what the text might be about. (I was indeed surprised by the amount of plausible ideas the students came up with!)


4. Have students write their own texts in pairs, interview with you, and edit them.


5. Because students will be so familiar with the structure and possible meanings at this point, sharing the stories will be the most meaningful and an excellent listening activity in itself.

Punctuation matters.pdf