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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Halloween Spell Hunt

The Halloween Spell Hunt is an activity for children of elementary level upwards and requires relatively little preparation. Similar to a treasure hunt, the children must solve clues in order find each ingredient of a spell. I actually got the idea from the British Council's LearnEnglish Kids website  where you will find a game in which the children have to find each ingredient in a haunted house. Having no internet connection in the classroom, I wondered how I could adapt the game for my class of nine and ten year olds.

What you need to do before the lesson is prepare a set of clues. Choose five spell ingredients such as a lizard's tongue or a frog's eye and write descriptions of these creatures such as:

I am a reptile. I have got four legs and a long tongue. I live in hot places. What am I?

You also need to write a list of hiding places around the classroom or school, e.g. You can find me under the table. All the clues and hiding places should be photocopied and cut up into slips of paper (one for each team).

Divide the class into pairs or threes and give each team the first clue. When they have decided on the answer, they should come and tell you, and you give them the hiding place. For example, the answer to the clue above is LIZARD. When a team comes to you and says "lizard", give them the clue for where to find it. In this case, there should be a picture of a lizard or a lizard's tongue under the table. Make sure there are enough pictures as teams.

They then come to you for the following clue. The first team to find all the parts of the spell will then perform the spell for the rest of the class, choosing victims on whom to cast the spell from their classmates.

As well as being fun, the learners are also practising reading skills and language points such as prepositions of place and verbs in the present simple.

You can follow or preced this activity with spells from Boggles World's Spellbook or Potion Book

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Unplugged Moments #2

Having asked my FCE class what skill they wanted to practise in the following lesson, we were going to do some reading yesterday. However, I had had a very busy morning and didn't have a whole lot of time to find a suitable text and create a task for them to do. I then remembered that somewhere, hidden among all the folders, papers, toys and props that fill my classroom shelves, I had a bag full of sets of leaflets acquired from my local library/tourist information centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme several years ago! Great! I would just have to root them out and then try to think of a suitable task for FCE level - What? Think up a challenging task or set of questions for Upper-Int students on the spot? Hmm, not as easy as you may think, however many years experience of teaching FCE you may have.

The solution? Have the students help create the task themselves! What could be more unplugged that using student-created content? Of course the texts themselves were not created by the students, but they were real, authentic texts that are ideal to practise micro-skills such as skimming for gist and scanning for specific information.

I placed sets of leaflets, which all advertised tourist attractions, on tables around the classroom. I then wrote on the board "A day out" and asked the students to write on the board (a kind of wandrous whiteboard but on a specific topic). We then discussed what they had written and what kind of days out they preferred and why. Thanks to Cecilia Coelho for the idea of staying at the board for the discussion.

I then asked them to think of groups of people who may go together on an excursion. I started them off with the first two and they came up with the rest:

  1. A family of four with two children aged between 5 and 10
  2. A playschool trip of children aged 2 to 5
  3. A group of foreign tourists, adults and children
  4. A group of senior citizens
  5. A group of teenage friends
  6. A group of patients with psychological and emotional problems (!)
  7. Schoolchildren on a trip, aged 12 to 14
  8. A group of physically disabled children
They the had to look at all the different leaflets and decide which day out would be the best for each group of people. They would later have to explain their reasons.

The lessons was very successful, and much more interesting than a typical FCE reading task. It got the students skimming and scanning, reading lots of short texts (probably in total longer than an individual exam text) and they had to explain their reasons orally. We almost ran out of time, but I would have encouraged them to persuade each other to change their mind, had we had more time.

Call My Bluff

A fun way of revising vocabulary that gets students thinking about the meaning of the words AND using lots of English is the game Call My Bluff, which comes from a British TV show from the 80s where teams of celebrity contestants had to provide definitions of an obscure word and guess which was the correct definition.

This game must surely appear in some teacher's resource books, and many of you will have played it at some point. I think it is a good idea, however, to recap on some of the games and activities we have used in the past, as they may be new to some teachers, and often we try out so many new activities that we forget some of the older ones.

I decided to play this game with my elementary/Pre-Int adult class last night. I gave them all a copy of the unit one wordlist which appears in the teacher's book. In pairs, the students had to choose three words and write three definitions for each one, including the real definition. The wordlist includes definitions for each item of vocabulary, but I asked the students to use their own words so as not to give the game away. (The definitions were not of the language production level of the students). They could use dictionaries to check meanings and to look up words they would need for their definitions.

We then played the game. One student from each pair read out their word and the three definitions. Each pair chose A, B or C and was the given the correct answer. You can build up the atmosphere here if you wish by slapping the desk to create a drumroll.

I think the activity was very useful for this level, since they were using structures such as "This is used to ..." without being overtly presented with it. I was pleasantly surprised that some of the students tried to trick their classmates by providing a definition to a similar sounding word. One group defined the word "guess" as "a person who is invited", trying to confuse the class with the word "guest"! Another said that "contain" was "to say 1, 2, 3..." because it sounds similar to "counting". Clever students!

In all, the game gets students thinking about the meaning of words they have come across, in a fun way. It is also suitable for any level, except perhaps beginners.

Unplugged Moments #1

After all the recent discussions about Dogme in ELT, but not being brave enough to be an outright dogmeist, I have however become more relaxed over what goes on in my lessons and therefore have had a few "dogme moments" recently. My reasons for not being overly supportive of the whole unplugged approach (if that is the same as dogme, something I'm not entirely sure about), are many and I'm not going to go into those reasons here, at least not for the time being. Nonetheless, I would like to outline a some of these moments which have, in my opinion, made the lessons in question "better", or at least more student-centred.

The first of these moments is a case of emergent language. Not exactly language emerging from the students themselves but from the situation. I walked into the classroom last night after my coffee break, and noticed that one of the students had had a haircut. So after the usual "How are you today? Fine/Very well, thanks" (I must get round to providing them with some alternatives to this exchange!), I asked Rafa if he had had his hair cut, miming the action of hair cutting. As I had already imagined, the phrase was a new one for everybody, and I wrote "I have my hair cut" on the board, along with the words hairdresser and barber. I also wrote it in the past simple, with the sentence "Rafa had his hair cut at the weekend". One of the students asked what the difference was between "have my hair cut" and "cut my hair", to whom I gave a pair of scissors and said "Cut your hair!". Luckily he didn't actually do as I said, but explained that he used clippers to cut his own hair. We compared the different meanings of the two sentences before going on to think of some more examples where we would use the structure HAVE SOMETHING DONE such as "have your car repaired" or "have your house painted".

So we ended up looking at a grammatical structure that I hadn't planned on teaching. It just kind of emerged from the conversation. I pointed out to the students that this wasn't part of the lesson I had planned, but that it can be very useful to look at parts of language as they come up. I think that explaining this helps them accept a more relaxed approach, since many students in my teaching context are generally quite inflexible, and expect everything to be a certain way. Hopefully, they will be open to lots more dogme moments, as I believe that presenting students with new language that they actually need to talk about something at that moment, for a genuine reason, is more likely to be remembered and then used than language that appears in an artificial situation in a course book.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Babbling Blackboard

This post is in response to Jason Renshaw's Wandrous Whiteboard Challenge where the students create the content for part or all of the lesson. This is a great idea if you prefer a more unplugged approach, but also works well as a stimulus for discussion if you want your students to practise their speaking skills, or for encouraging students to look for and correct their own mistakes or to use peer correction.

I am not using an unplugged approach with any of the three classes with whom I tried out the wandrous whiteboard activity. In fact, all three are "exam classes" and are or will be either using a course book or a folder full of photocopied materials. The reason for using the activity was not the same with all three groups.

The first group of students I tried it out with are a teenage CAE class. There were only three students that day, and our course book has not yet arrived. I wanted to try something that would get them speaking, since they are not exactly the most talkative bunch of students I have ever met. They usually only give fairly short answers to questions, despite having the ability to express themselves perfectly in English. They are teenagers though, and are still shy or embarrassed to spend large amounts of time airing their opinions.  So I gave each student a piece of chalk at the beginning of the lesson, told them to write anything they wanted on the board, and left the room for five minutes.

This is what they came up with:

Advanced teenagers' babbling blackboard
We went on to discuss what they had written. José told us what he had learnt about the Illuminati and how he was going to buy a strategic board game of the same name, where the players have to try to control the world (scary!), and made a great effort to explain the technical drawing problem that he had drawn in order to help revise for an exam the following day (of which I understood very little, not due to a lack of communication skills on his part, but on a lack of knowledge of maths on mine!). We discussed the subject of technical drawing and a project-based subject they have at school, and later on we talked about drug use. We ended up having a 45 minute conversation in which all three students and myself contributed interesting points. It was a nice way to have everyone talk in a relaxed situation, with nobody feeling put on the spot.

(By the way, the sentence about moles digging holes was written by a colleague of mine! It did spark off some discussion as to what he had meant though, and one of the students ended up going to ask him what it was about.)

I wanted to use the activity in a similar way with my FCE teens towards the end of the lesson, but we didn't really have enough time to talk about many of the things they had written. In any case, the activity turned out to be more of a vocabulary recycling exercise, as the girls wrote down all the new words they had come across in that lesson, and previous classes. Here is a diagram of their babbling blackboard:

The last class of the evening is a new adult group who want to prepare for the PET exam. However, their level is generally a high elementary, with a couple of exceptions. Many of them haven't studied English since they finished school, and find it difficult to express themselves. We are currently looking at lots of vocabulary, in the hope that this will reach those areas of the brain in which they stored the language from their schooldays! In any case, right at the start of last night's lesson I gave each student a piece of chalk and asked them to write anything they wanted on the board. This is what they wrote:

Plenty of error correction to work on there! I read out each sentence and asked the class if they thought it was grammatically correct. If not, what should we change? They recognised all the errors apart from one, and were able to correct them. I then started asking questions about each sentence to generate a bit of a class discussion, although they are very shy still and it ended up being a question and answer session! The only grammar point they did not know was the use of the present continuous for future plans. Without wanting to explain too much, I went on to ask questions about what the students were doing later that night, at the weekend and so on, encouraging the use of "I'm".

In each case then, and depending on the level, the babbling blackboard was used in a different way. For higher levels as a base for conversation, but with lower levels to focus on grammar or vocabulary.

How would you use this activity?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Trapped Underground! - a creative writing task

I have a small group of teenage FCE students who like to do a piece of writing for homework once a week. I usually set them an exam type task since they need practice in writing reports, articles, essays and formal letters. However, sometimes I set them something freer - there is nothing that dampens the imagination more than a FCE task to write yet another story that must begin or end the story with the sentence "it was the worst day of my life".

So after reading some fantastic stories they had written with the only instructions "write a story about whatever you want with no maximum word limit", I decided to give them another creative piece to do.

The piece they are going to write this weekend is this:

Imagine you are one of the Chilean miners trapped underground. Write a diary entry explaining your feelings, hopes and fears.

First we discussed the situation - what the students knew (very little since they don't seem to read newspapers or watch the news very often) and I explained basically what had happened and what was ocurring at the moment (the rescue operation). We then brainstormed vocabulary that we might need to talk about the topic. This involved words to talk about mining, escape and rescue, and started a discussion on how one might feel when trapped 700m below the surface.

I hinted that the students might like to look on the internet to find out what the freed miners have said about their experince to help them.

I am really looking forward to reading their accounts of being in the mine. I will post the best pieces here next week.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Queuing in the Supermarket!

Which queue do you choose when you only have a few items in your basket? The "Ten items or fewer" or the standard checkout? In the former there are at least eight people each with their basket of nine or ten items, each of whom has to put all their shopping onto the conveyor belt, pay (probably by card) and put it all away. In the latter there are three customers with their trolleys brimming with goods. Which queue is the quickest? What a dilemma!

This is a blog about teaching and it may be useful to explain that yesterday, whilst deciding which queue to join, I realised that I could make an analogy between this situation and a learning situation. You are probably wondering what on earth I am going on about and I may seem a bit mad (especially since I was thinking about ELT in the supermarket!). Well, here goes:

The two queues in question represent two different types of language course. The "ten items or fewer" is the typical intensive course where learners spend time every day in the classroom. The "normal" queue is the traditional 3 hour per week course imparted in most private language institutions in Europe.

The former means that learners have more exposure to the language in a shorter amount of time. They are focused, motivated and can easily see their progression. The latter does not have the advantages of the short intensive course, but it has something else that I think is important: time to reflect and internalise the language.
As I often tell my teenage students, last minute studying is not the best way to go about your exams. Information studied over a short period of time is quickly forgotten. Could the same be true of intensive learning? Will a student who has spent two months having English lessons for fifteen hours a week have learnt more than one who has had three hours a week for nine months? Or will this student have forgotten what they have learnt within a few months? I have not read any research on this (of which I am sure there is plenty) but it is something that I would like to hear your views on.

So which queue would you choose?

Monday, October 4, 2010

To cheat or not to cheat?

Photo borrowed from

Last week my tween students were asking me if they would have to do exams. Now our school does not enforce any kind of formal assessment. The students (under 18) get a report card every term with a mark for each area of learning and behaviour. For this reason, with some classes teachers may set a progress test once per term, which helps with grading, especially with grammar.I am not a great fan of testing, personally, and if I do set a test I take the marks into account when writing reports, but don't use them if they are very different from how the student performs in class.

Anyway, when they asked me about exams, I decided to say yes, we would have tests from time to time, to see how everyone was improving their English. I then heard some of the kids talking about cheating, sneaking in notes (which in Spanish are called chuletas - yes, chops as in pork chops!), to which I responded loudly that in these tests they would be able to bring in 'chuletas'. There was a lot of mumbled discussion then of whether I was telling the truth or not, so I explained that in their tests they would be able to take in notes, however the test would be slightly more difficult than usual and they would not be allowed to speak. I read this somewhere in the blogosphere recently, sorry can't remember where and I can't find it now!

Anyway, to whoever it was who came up with the idea of allowing students to look at their notes in exams, thank you!

The reason for allowing students to "cheat" is that if they are allowed to take in notes, but not their books, they will need to prepare these notes beforehand. This means that they will be revising for the test without even realising it. They will be revisiting new vocabulary and structures that they have come across earlier in the term, without having the feeling that they are studying for a test. They will also be more relaxed before and during the test, hopefully with better results!

What do you think of this idea?
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