As they practise present and past tenses using descriptive vocabulary, the students get engaged in thoughtful discussions on ageing and emotional evolution in this reading and speaking task based on two literary texts. The students are first asked to focus on an extract from the poem “Seven in the woods” by Jim Harrison. After discussing the meanings of words like “bedroll” and “chickadee” (“What is it?”, “What kind of animal?”, “How do you know?”), the students draw a quick sketch of the scene on the left-hand side of a paper that has been folded in half:

[…] I was seven in the woods,
a bandage covering my blind eye,
in a bedroll Mother made me
so I could sleep out in the woods
far from people. A garter snake glided by
without noticing me. A chickadee
landed on my bare toe, so light
she wasn’t believable. The night
had been long and the treetops
thick with a trillion stars.

The students swap pictures with a partner, check that everything has been included, discuss any missing elements, and answer the following questions in their teams and/or as a whole group:
“Who do you think the narrator is?”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“What can we tell about his/her personality?”

Finally, the students read the whole poem:

Am I as old as I am?
Maybe not. Time is a mystery
that can tip us upside down.
Yesterday I was seven in the woods,
a bandage covering my blind eye,
in a bedroll Mother made me
so I could sleep out in the woods
far from people. A garter snake glided by
without noticing me. A chickadee
landed on my bare toe, so light
she wasn’t believable. The night
had been long and the treetops
thick with a trillion stars. Who
was I, half-blind on the forest floor
who was I at age seven? Sixty-eight
years later I can still inhabit that boy’s
body without thinking of the time between.
It is the burden of life to be many ages
without seeing the end of time.

Jim Harrison 

“Who is the writer?”
“How old is he?”
“What is the main idea of this poem?”
“What do you think of it?”

Now read the beginning of Sandra Cisneros’ short story “Eleven”:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are –underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three. Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.

You don’t feel eleven. Not right away. It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you don’t feel smart eleven, not until you’re almost twelve. That’s the way it is. Only today I wish I didn’t have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box. Today I wish I was one hundred and two instead of eleven because if I was one hundred and two I’d have known what to say when Mrs. Price put the red sweater on my desk. I would’ve known how to tell her it wasn’t min instead of just sitting there with that look on my face and nothing coming out of my mouth.

Have the students write their personal reaction to the text first independently for a few minutes, then share it with a partner, and finally with the rest of the class. Discuss:
“Do you sometimes feel the same way?”
“Which metaphor about aging do you like most (the onion, the rings inside a tree, the wooden dolls)?”
“How much of a seven-year-old are you? ”
“Do you sometimes find yourself reacting or behaving as if you were seven?”

The students use the other half of the paper to draw a memory from when they were seven. Tell them that someone else in the classroom will be describing it later, including the mood, and coming up with a title starting “SEVEN IN…” The pictures are swapped and the students take turns describing each picture while the authors confirm or correct any details in their partner’s description.

A fantastic trip down memory lane about which the students had so much to say. (They enjoyed it, too!)



Integrated Skills Through Literature: “All Summer in a Day”

All Summer in a Day

Mariners Ahoy! – “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” 


“Annabel Lee”


Critical thinking and language skills: “There Was Once”



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.






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



Pathways to Accuracy: “Somewhere Only We Know”


Making the right choices: “Lean on Me”


This is your song. 


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?


Rewriting Established Texts: The Day They Got Creative


Integrated Skills through Literature: “All Summer in a Day”

All Summer in a Day

Working On Connected Speech: The Fresh Prince


Listening for detail: “Kilkelly, Ireland”

American songwriter Peter Jones discovered a collection of letters in his parents’ attic written by his great-great-great grandfather, Byran Hunt, to his son, John Hunt, who had emigrated from Kilkelly in Ireland to the United States in 1855. The Great Famine in Ireland had forced large numbers of people to emigrate in search of a better life. The five-stanza ballad he wrote based on these letters cover the time period from 1860 to 1892.

“Kilkelly, Ireland” is a breathtaking, thought-provoking song in which family news, including births and deaths, are shared for a period of thirty-two years. In the activity, the students listen for specific information by writing an explanation for each of the words, names or pictures in the timeline. Pat McNamara, for instance, is the teacher who writes the letters for John’s father. At the end of each letter, go over the answers and have the students read the lyrics if necessary before moving on to the next. If needed, you may want to pre-teach a few words such as “dampness”, “turf”, “pass on”, “bury” or “feisty”, although both the slow rhythm pattern of the song and the type of words used in the lyrics make it a challenging yet attainable listening task for students with a B1+ level and above.




The song could be an excellent starting point to get the students talking about why people migrate and cultivate empathy in the classroom. Alternatively, the students could write their own personal responses at the end of the song and focus on the universal theme of the sadness and longing by people who have been separated for a long time. In my experience, though, the song is so powerful that you can often tell what the students want to talk about after listening to it and thinking about it for a short while. Perhaps now it’s our turn to listen.



Reconstructing a story from questions: “Tom’s Diner”


Parties, Story Maps, and All That Jazz

Parties Story Maps and All that Jazz

Pathways to Accuracy: “Somewhere Only We Know”


Avoid Randomness: Three Other Ways of Grouping Students.

A few weeks ago I wrote this summary about what an ideal cooperative language classroom would look like and the strengths of adopting such a model. Even if you’re already working within a cooperative learning framework, however, there are times when we may want to change the types of interactions for specific tasks and offer the students more opportunities to communicate with other peers. This applies to other settings, too, where we often need to group students yet randomness does not just seem to be the most effective way to go about it if we want to make sure the students will be working in a rich, diverse environment that enhances learning. Besides, it is tasks like these that help to build rapport among students — and we all know how important this is to create a unique, positive classroom culture.

The following are three grouping strategies that work well and are mainly based on the students’ interests and motivations, but also on their level of proficiency. They can all be used at any point in the lesson to brainstorm ideas or encourage discussion about a topic, work on specific concepts that will be practised later independently, as a response to a reading passage, or even for assessment purposes at the end of a lesson or project.

1. Value Line

After presenting an issue or topic to the whole class, each student decides how they feel about it and stand up to form a rank-ordered line. You can make a scale from 0 to 10, or from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree”. As they form the line, the students explain their choices and talk to their partners about their decision so that they know what the best place in the line is for them. Groups are then formed by pulling one student from each side of the line and two students from the middle of the group, who will work together on that specific taskcaptura-de-pantalla-2017-02-21-a-las-19-53-15

There are several types of issues or topics that can be used to form these groups through a value line:

  • A topic for debate: “School uniforms should be compulsory in public schools.”
  • To complete the KNOW step of a K-W-L chart and have the students share background information.
  • A reaction to some text you’ve read or a video you’ve watched. In the short story “All Summer in a Day”, for example, the students made a value line expressing their opinion about whether the main character should become friends with the rest of her schoolmates or not. The members of each of the groups formed with a value line had different opinions about the problem, which maximised the learning opportunities with highly relevant interactions.
  • If you’re revising for an exam, a more personal prompt such as “I am concerned about the exam next…” is also a good option. Groups will then be made up of students with different attitudes and feelings towards it.
  • Even if you want to revise the difference between, say, the present perfect and the past simple, the students can form a value line based on statements such as “I know the difference between the present perfect and the past simple and I can use these tenses with few errors.” And after revising, you may even want to use this to present some new content and practise it in the same groups.

2. Corners

The same types of topics, statements and activities can be used in Corners. Here the teacher plans four different corners in the classroom which could typically belong to “Strongly Agree” – “Agree” – “Disagree” – “Strongly Disagree”, but they could also be content-specific: “Which is your favourite film genre?” (thriller, comedy, drama, action), or “Which sport do you like most?” (baseball, basketball, tennis, cycling). The students go to the corner they feel most comfortable with after the teacher presents the problem, they take some time to discuss the reasons why they are there with the rest of the students that chose the same corner, and finally provide some feedback to the rest of the class as a starting point. Groups are then formed by pulling one student from each corner.captura-de-pantalla-2017-02-21-a-las-19-53-12

3. Inside-Outside Circles

In Inside-Outside Circles the class is split in two halves: one group makes a circle that faces outwards towards the other students, and the other group stands outside in a wider circle so that the students end up facing each other. Once a topic or issue is presented, the students are given a set amount of time to discuss it with the student facing them; when the time is up, the students rotate clockwise and continue the discussion with the rest of the classmates.


This is a much more flexible grouping strategy and can be used for short exchanges of ideas or more guided interviews or questionnaires. For instance, the students working on this project on habits and routines first gathered information using this technique before reporting the data collected back to their teams and finally writing a report based on this.

I like using Inside-Outside Circles for students to discuss ideas before writing an expository or persuasive essay so that they can collect different ideas and perspectives about a particular topic and have them ready when they get down to writing. By lowering the pressure and providing the students with sufficient tools and information to get started, both the writing process and the final product are bound to result in a far more engaging and meaningful experience!


Cooperative Learning and the Language Classroom


Three Content-Based Teaching Strategies

Content-based strategies

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


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? 


—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.



—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

Mariners Ahoy! — “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Last week I worked on an extract from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge with two B2-C1 groups of students. These students are required to work with authentic literary texts as part of the official curriculum.


I first wanted them to get an idea of what the whole poem is about, so I decided to use Iron Maiden’s version of the song with lyrics and the following pictures from Gustave Doré to have the students become familiar with the plot and put the pictures in the right order to check understanding. The song is rather long, and I used the intervals to write the main ideas on the board with the students, but it certainly served its purpose and raised the students’ interest as well! (Iron Maiden? Poetry? Romanticism? Heavy metal? The supernatural?)


Once we checked the order of the pictures and were able to summarise the plot, I told them we’d be focusing on some of the most famous lines of the poem, the moment when the albatross is killed by the mariner. To get the students ready for the text, we worked on a number of sea-related words, all of which will appear later in the text. The students made connections between the words they were already familiar with and others that were new to them, and used the picture to help them to explain the meaning of some of them.



We then worked on pronunciation: the students classified several words from the poem according to their last vowel sounds. I wanted the students to be able to work out the meaning of some of the more literary words after reading, so we didn’t work on meaning at this point (although it’d be a good option with other groups so they can deal with the text more easily.)



What I did do was to provide these words and a few TRUE/FALSE sentences before reading so as to set a purpose for reading and have them make predictions. The students were also asked to complete the gaps with the rhyming words they had classified in the previous activity as they read. We worked on the first three stanzas together, and then they worked in their teams. We even practised connected speech after checking the rhyming words and the comprehension activities by reading the poem as a whole group!




The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.pdf


Finally, each team wrote three short “Rimes of the Modern Mariner” using three lines from the extract. We first brainstormed a few ideas that each of the lines could suggest:

“Day after day, day after day…”
Your experience at school.
You are fed up with having to wait for the bus for too long.
You are a viewer sick of football matches.

“Water, water, everywhere”
You are on a cruise in the Caribbean/Mediterranean.
It is the first time you see the sea.
You are at a water park enjoying a summer day.

“All in a hot and copper sky”
You are on a trip in the desert.
You are lying on the beach in a holiday resort.
You are trying to get some ice cream, but you can’t find any shop.

And after that, the students wrote some amusing poems that we shared and proofread as a whole group:

Day after day, day after day,
We have to wake up at eight.
School we must attend,
if we want good food on our plate.

All in a hot and copper sky,
I’m going to have fun.
I’m on the beach, eating a peach,
and very relaxed in the sun.

No matter how many times you’ve read it, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner still retains its hypnotic power.

Carol Rumens, The Guardian 2009


All other images by Gustave Doré, Public Domain