Suzanne Vega’s classic “Tom’s Diner” (1981) is used in this activity to practise comprehension skills by looking for specific information, reading between the lines, making predictions, and establishing connections both within the text and with the world outside — including the students themselves!
Students first read the questions and try to answer as many as they can. Some of the answers will be in the following questions, others will be close guesses using the information available and their own predictions, and yet a few questions will allow for multiple interpretations. When students are asked to listen to the song, they should already have a fairly clear idea of what this personal narrative is about or, at least, enough details to make the listening comprehension activity both purposeful and meaningful. Students listen, confirm their guesses, make any necessary changes, and evaluate their own predictions by comparing the information they had at the beginning of the activity and the new details after listening to the story.
Have groups of students discuss the last two questions and share their ideas. How are they connected to the rest of the story? As an extension activity, you may want to try and have students write a stanza about the typical daily routines that take place in your classroom to the tune of the song, record them, and then join the different files together into one final song. Would you give it a try?
Tongue twisters are a great way to practise pronunciation, getting students familiar with the production of individual sounds (especially those that are different from their L1) and allowing them to analyse the stress pattern characteristic of the English language. And students like them! Prepositions used after adjectives, in contrast, are all too often problematic as learners lack clear guidelines or generalisations that can be drawn, and interferences with their mother tongue usually cause problems in the process of grasping these combinations. In the following activity, both tongue twisters and prepositions used after adjectives have been combined with the hope of helping students find those combinations meaningful through memorable tongue twisters created by the students themselves. Students are expected to have worked with adjectives followed by prepositions before.
The activity works best with alliterative tongue twisters, such as the following:
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
Betty Botter had some butter,“but,” she said, “this butter’s bitter.”
I thought I thought of thinking of thanking you.
After eliciting that these tongue twisters share the characteristic of starting with the same sound for most of the words, students are divided into teams and given a number of cards for them to write their own tongue twisters. The only words provided are, in fact, adjectives that start with the same sound, and it is with this sound that they will be writing the rest of the tongue twister to the extent possible.
Teams first try to write their tongue twisters including nouns, a verb, one of the adjectives followed by the appropriate preposition, and any other words focusing mainly on nouns at this stage. Teams then swap cards and try to make the tongue twisters even more elaborate by inserting adjectives starting with the same sound. You may even want to have a third team look at the cards for more ideas. The cards are then given back to the original team so that they can revise them and edit them.
Theodore Thatcher was thankful for throwing things through the thick thatched roof.
Greg is grateful for those great green Greek grapes.
Frederick Freud was frightened of flying with friendly friends and fast food fries.
Jackie and Jeremy were just jealous of Jamie for jumping like Johnny and Jenny on Jonas’ jacket.
Sue’s son seemed suspicious of suddenly stealing several silver scissors from Samuel’s surgeon.
Raul was responsible for rescuing Roberta from a really risky river.
The end result of this collaborative writing process is finally shared with the rest of the class, either orally, or writing the tongue twisters up on the board, or typing them to be projected. Notice that the preposition followed by the adjective will stand out in most cases as they do not usually start with the same sound. A perfect time to draw their attention to these combinations and practise their own tongue twisters outloud, modelling individual sounds and stress patterns as needed. I have found many students refer back to this activity when adjectives with prepositions are used in a lesson, so they should be on the right track!
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?
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:
Students are allowed to interact with the text in a way that is relevant to the reader.
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.
The fact that students can work at their own performance level encourages student motivation and a sense of accomplishment. It also promotes writing fluency.
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.
“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.
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.
Using Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” and its sequel, “Judy’s Turn to Cry”, students work on comprehension skills, identifying and analysing story elements, making predictions and discussing the events in the story. Most of the oral discussion will get students talking about hypothetical situations, so this is also a good activity to practise all types of conditional structures.
Tell the students they are going to listen to a song called “It’s My Party” and that two of the main lines in the song are “and I’ll cry if I want to” and “you would cry too if it happened to you”. Ask them to think of possible situations or conflicts that might be going on at this party and the reason why the narrator seems to be so upset. Write them down.
Students listen to the song and complete the first part of the story line (see below), identifying the setting (Where?), the main characters in the story (Who?), the plot (What? How? Why?) and the solution (So what?) Give out a copy of the lyrics to help them check their answers.
Tell the students there is a sequel to this song they are going to listen to. Ask them to work in pairs or groups and fill in the blank circles in the worksheet with five predictions about what might happen next. Share and discuss their ideas.
Students listen to “Judy’s Turn to Cry” and look for two causes and their consequences, which will in turn explain the final solution to the conflict. Does it match any of the students’ predictions?
Discuss the story: “What do you think of each of the characters in the story?”, “Do you think there is any important information missing?”, “What do you think of this relationship?”, “How could they have solved the problem in a different way?”
Every word in the song “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers has been written into a grid with some distractors. Starting in the upper left corner, students complete the lyrics choosing one of the words available right next to the last word in any direction and using each square only once. To guide them through the process, the writing worksheet provides students with a few words in each line, including the first ones, which are also capitalised in the grid for easier reference. You may want to model and play the first two lines of the song so that the students can understand the procedure.
Students will be practising a number of skills as they make their choices. Sometimes they will have to make decisions concerning subject-verb agreement, sentence structure, word order, or selecting the right preposition. In other cases, they will need to focus on meaning to make the right choice, using context clues to figure out the meaning of a particular word with which they may not be familiar. Even rhyming words will prove helpful once they realise what the main rhyming scheme is as they write.
Before listening to the song and checking the lyrics, students are asked to write down and share what they think the last line of the song is, adding an extra purpose to the listening task.
Kim Henrie from Canada has sent her ideas on how to use this activity and a few changes she made. Kim colour-coded the verses and the key words in bold, provided an example for the first verse, and didn’t include the title to make it a mystery song. Please find below the files which Kim has been so kind to share. Thank you so much for such great ideas!
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.
I always start the school year introducing or revising communication strategies that students can use to overcome the problems they may face in communicating a message:
Communication strategies are potentially conscious plans for solving what to an individual presents itself as a problem in reaching a particular communicative goal.
— Færch & Kasper (1983)
Asking for help, explaining the word or idea and using similar words are just a few of the strategies the students can identify, and putting them into practice is what the following activitiy is all about:
1. Tell the students they have five minutes to finish the picture (see below). They should not be able to see each other’s pictures or write their names.
2. Collect the pictures, shuffle them, and show one of them to the rest of the class.
3. Explain that they are going to take turns describing each picture which may allow for multiple interpretations and for which we may lack vocabulary. Compare it with everyday communication and the problems we usually face both as native and non-native speakers. Emphasise that if students give up or use their first language, they are missing an important opportunity to acquire new language.
4. Elicit paraphrasing structures: “It’s a kind/type of…”, “It’s like…”, “It’s used for…”, “It looks….”, “It seems…”, “It’s the shape of…”, “It’s made of…”, “It’s the size of…”, “It’s similar to…”, and so on.
5. Students take turns describing the pictures orally. Notice that some pictures will be abstract or contain elements for which we lack vocabulary in any language.
6. Reshuffle the pictures, give a few to each team, and have them create a story based on them.
By having students draw a hint next to each day of the week, this weekly routine flip book can effectively become the basis for a speaking activity in which students make guesses about their classmates’ routines and then check them by reading the sentences inside. A good way to practise the present simple in the affirmative, negative and interrogative, adverbs of frequency and everyday life actions.
1. The students make their own flip book first:
2. For each day of the week, the students write two or three sentences using adverbs of frequency or time expressions. A few of them could be false. On each flap they also draw a picture that represents each of the actions.
3. In pairs or teams, the students take turns guessing other classmates’ routines by looking at the pictures and then checking their answers inside. They may also be encouraged to ask a few questions to get more specific information (“How often…?”, “Where do you usually…?”, “What time do you…?”, and so on), which will help them find the routines that are not true.
Today, developed countries are consuming more than ever before. This culture of consumption is often fueled by people’s desire to define themselves by the possessions they amass. The Burning House: What Would You Take? takes a different approach to personal definition. By removing easily replaceable objects and instead focusing on things unique to them, people are able to capture their personalities in a photograph.
— Foster Huntington
I read about this collaborative online project just a few months ago and knew it would make an engaging class activity. Students practise speaking and listening skills while focusing on language used to talk about hypotheses (If my house wereon fire, I would…; I could/might…; I wish…; Suppose…; in case…) and develop a wide array of vocabulary related to personal belongings and personality traits. What’s more, this conflict between rationality (what is pratical) and intuition (unveiling our most sentimental side) will reflect the students’ interests and priorities and help to build a positive classroom atmosphere that is conducive to learning.
BEFORE THE LESSON
1. Have the students take a picture of ten objects they would take if their house were on fire. You may want to have them e-mail it to you so that you can have the photos ready for the lesson.
2. At home, the students prepare a short oral presentation explaining their choices:
What would you take if your house were on fire? Choose 10 things, put them together, and take a photo. Get ready to explain your picture to the rest of the class:
Can you name all the objects you have chosen in English?
Why would you take these objects? Make sure you can provide a brief explanation for each of them.
3. Display each picture and have the group guess who it belongs to. The students then take turns explaining their choices. A lot of new vocabulary will be generated at this point, with each presenter introducing the new words in a natural and meaningful way. Allow for questions at the end of each presentation.
4. Visit the original online project: http://theburninghouse.com/ The students choose one of the pictures and write a paragraph about what they think this person may be like. You may want to brainstorm and/or introduce common adjectives used to describe personality first. Have the students share their work and predictions, and compare each other’s opinions.
5. Discuss: “How much can we tell about a person by looking at these objects?”