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Monday, April 11, 2011

Flashing and Mapping: getting teens to speak

I've noticed that on this blog I spend half the time moaning about how nothing I ever do with my teenage group is very successful - well in this post that's all about to change as I actually enjoyed our last lesson and I think the students did too! I based the lesson around a very simple activity that appears in Language Activities for Teenagers by CUP, called Flash The Picture.

The first time I heard of this activity was during my first TEFL experience (not counting my time as a language assistant), during a TEFL taster course in my final year at university. I attended a weekend course, which actually included a kind of teaching practice, run by Jim Wingate. It was a fantastic course, based on humanistic teaching, and had lots of practical ideas, some of which I still dig out from time to time.

The idea is that you show a picture for only a few seconds before asking students to talk about it. This is great for mixed-ability classes, as learners can use more complex or simple language to describe what they say, according to their level.

Starting off with something very simple is, I think, ideal for this age group, who are self-conscious and not willing to take risks in front of their peers. They can start with basic sentences, and gradually try to use more language to express what they want to say.

I decided to do "Flash the Picture" with the whole class, before asking them to do something related in pairs. In this way, the lesser confident learners would be able to listen to some of the stronger students before speaking. For the picture I used one from an old giant flip chart of illustrated scenes. The particular scene I chose was in some kind of office with lots of customers waiting. Some of these customers were daydreaming or thinking about things in cloud bubbles above their heads. There was plenty to talk about, and speculation was also possible. Here is the procedure:

1) Flash the picture for 1 second. (Yes, only one second! It gives them time to see something, but not much.)

2) Ask the class what they saw in the picture. Allow everyone to say whatever comes into their heads and don't make any corrections, unless students ask for it (we want to encourage them to speak - we can leave accuracy for later).

3) Repeat stages 1 and 2.

4) Show the picture for 3 or 4 seconds (ooh, we're really going for a good look now!) and ask students what they saw.

5) Display the picture for everybody to see, for as long as they want. The students will now be able to look more closely and add details they had missed previously. I asked the students what they thought was going to happen next, and if they could see any problems in the situation.

6) Ask each student to choose a person from the scene and talk about them. (This worked for me because there were about ten people in the picture and eight students) I also had each student talk in front of the class, but you could do this stage in pairs or small groups if you prefer. I asked the strongest students to speak first, allowing the others to listen before they would speak.

I asked the following questions to prompt more information:

What is this person doing?
What does he/she look like?
What is he/she wearing?
How do you think he/she feels?
What is he/she going to do next?

These questions are useful for students who are preparing for the PET speaking paper (Part 3). This particular class is not yet studying a PET course, but will probably begin to do so next year.

There are plenty of follow up activities you could do, depending on what your lesson objectives are. In this case, I wanted the students to be able to describe a picture in detail. So, based on another idea from the book above, called "Mindmap the Text", I decided to do "Mindmap the Picture".

This is what I did:

1) I asked the class to choose another picture from the flipchart. They chose one where lots of sports were going on. I wrote the word "Sports" in the middle of the board, and then branched out from the centre with sub-topics such as PEOPLE, EQUIPMENT, PLACES, ACTIVITIES, FEELINGS. I asked the students to shout out a few things they could see in the picture and to write it in the correct place on the board.

2) Having shown them how to make a mindmap, I gave each pair a sheet of paper and asked them to copy the map. They then had to continue adding as much information as they could to it.

3) I then told them that they were going to speak about the picture for 1 minute, using the words on their map to help them. I chose a different picture and demonstrated the task. However, they wouldn't have to talk individually, but within their pair, taking over from the other student when he/she had nothing more to say.

4) In pairs, I gave them a minute to talk about the picture, all working at the same time. This way, nobody would get embarrassed and, as accuracy was not my objective, it didn't matter that I couldn't hear everything that everybody was saying. The students were actually quite good at taking turns to speak - from what I heard, one student would say a sentence or two and pause, and then the other would jump in with something else. Because they only had a minute for the two of them to say as much as they could, and the picture was very complete, they didn't run out of things to say.

They seemed to enjoy this activity, so I chose another picture and repeated stage 4, but this time they couldn't make a mindmap beforehand. This time they had to think more quickly, as they hadn't had time to prepare or organise their thoughts.

I was very pleased with the outcome of this lesson and these very simple activities that require no preparation. All the students had recycled, to some extent, some of the verb tenses we had looked at earlier in the year (present continuous, going to), physical description, clothes and sports vocabulary. They had all participated and had all had some speaking practice. They had practised turn-taking and speaking under the pressure of a time limit. And most importantly for me, they were all on task and fairly motivated.

Overall, a great success!


  1. Hi Michelle,
    A great lesson! I so agree with "starting off with something very simple is, I think, ideal for this age group" - I've seen this over and over this year with my mixed level teens group.
    Starting for the same point, a word, an image, a letter even, and then slowly opening it out and letting each student respond at their own level and speed, it's so important. It motivates the quieter/slower students and lets the stronger ones stretch their wings. And I love the way you move from brainstorming and ideas generation to the silent period for weaker students as the stronger students speak. Perfect :)

  2. Hi Michelle,

    Sounds like this lesson was a hit. I hope you don't mind, I've posted a link on the Facebook page for Interactive.!/interactive4teenagers

    All the best, Jo.

  3. Hi Ceri,

    To be honest, I find that the majority of teenage groups are mixed ability to some extent - students have different strengths and are wary of ther weaknesses and therefore tend to prefer to stick to what they know. I don't believe that providing different levels of task helps this either - it is basically reinforcing the student's idea that they are not very good at something. That's why I prefer an open approach where students can choose how far to go. There is a book in the Timesaver series called Mixed Ability Grammar Lessons, which is quite good for that too - students can choose the difficulty of task they wish to work on, and they usually end up giving the harder ones a go anyway!

  4. Hi Jo,
    You're very welcome to link to anything on here, if you think it's useful to your readers.

  5. Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you'd like to check for comments.

    Please feel free to post there when you have anything you'd like to share.



  6. AWESOME! I do something similar except at the end I have the student's write a journal entry from one of the people in the picture. I think I stole the idea from Karen


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