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Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Another activity that older children love is the traditional consequences game. It's very old game and there's nothing new about it, but I think it's worth reminding ourselves of some of the older activities that get put away and forgotten about. The only materials required are a piece of A4 paper and a pen for each student. The activity is carried out in lockstep and practises listening and writing. It is very simple and can be adapted in many ways to suit your purpose and the level of the students. As in Flash the picture, this activity allows each student to work at their own level - starting off very simply but allowing more detail from faster students. One of the best things about it is that the learners see it as a kind of game, but really they are doing a writing task!

The version that I did last week with my teenage group and with a group of ten-year-olds is one found in the same book as Flash the Picture:

It is called Fake Biographies and in it the students each write a piece of information about an anonymous member of the class. The procedure is as follows:

1) Give each student a piece of paper and tell them to write at the top "My name is ..." with their name. They should then fold the top of the paper back twice, so that the name is hidden. I also do the same - students love it when the teacher takes part in something a bit silly, too.

2) Take in all the papers and randomly give them out. They are not allowed to open the paper!

3) Say "I am ... years old" and the students complete it with ANY number. It is important that from now on, the students use their imaginations. Encourage them to be inventive and even slightly outrageous - this will make for funnier results.

4) Carry on doing the same, making up a new piece of information each time. This will, of course, depend on the age and level of the learners. Some of the "questions" I used were:

I was born in... (place)
I have ---- brothers and ... sisters.
My favourite TV programme is ....
My favourite singer is ...
In my free time I like to ....
Last year, I went on holiday to ....
I met ... and we ....

You can also ask actual questions if you think the students are capable of writing complete sentences by themselves: What's your name? How many brothers and sisters have you got? What's your favourite TV programme? etc

5) The students then opened their paper and read the description. I got them to copy out the information onto a piece of paper as a paragraph. They had to correct any spelling or grammar mistakes as they did so.

6) They then gave the biography to the person whose name was at the top and each student read theirs out to the class. They also had to say if anything was true.

We have also played the same type of game with a story (as in the orginal consequences game) - this is always good preparation for story telling and writing. You start with a main character, introduce another character, and go on to write about where they went, what they did and said and so on. I usually do this with introductory sentences such as:

His name was...     He was... years old.      He was from ...    He was .... (physically).
Her name was...    She was ... years old.    She was from ...   She was ... (physically).
They met in/at ....    He said "..."    She said "...."    They went to ....    In the end they ....

This kind of activity can be used with any age group and level from elementary upwards. For younger children or beginners, you could pre-print out the beginnings of the sentences for the students to complete.

Another version, good for higher levels,  is to mix sentences with drawings. Each person writes a sentence and passes the paper on. The next person reads the sentences and draws a picture illustrating it. They then fold the paper and pass it on. The following person can only see the drawing, and must write a sentence summarising the picture, and so on.

By evalottchen on flickr

One of the good things about it is that everybody wants to listen to each other (something very rare with teenage groups!) at the end, and everybody ends up laughing - it's a real feel good activity that's perfect to use at the end of term when something more relaxing is required but you don't want to just play games all lesson. Highly recommended!

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!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wiki Waste of Time?

This year I set up a wiki for one of my classes. The class in question is a group of six year old children, mostly in their second year of English, and with whom I have been imparting my own content-based syllabus instead of using a course book.

The purpose of wikis, generally, is to encourage the sharing of information, allowing members to edit and add to the entries. This was not my objective in this case, but I preferred the look and navegability of the wiki to a traditional blog, like this one. In a blog, entries are in chronological order, making it difficult to find older posts if those posts are not tagged adequately, or if the user is not aware of how blogs work. In the wiki, there would be a menu of all the pages I created, in the order that I wished to publish them, and a home page with links to every single page.

Home page of our class wiki

The other main reason why I chose an Edu Wikispace, free at the time, was that I could make it private. Personally, I would love to share with the world everything that we have been doing, but I wanted to have the possibility of posting photos and videos of the children for their parents to see, and therefore privacy was a big issue.

Wikispaces makes it really simple to embed almost any kind of multimedia content including Youtube videos, Glogs, documents which can be downloaded, RSS feeds, slideshows etc.

At the beginning of the year, I sent a letter out to all the parents explaining that we wouldn't be using a course book and for this reason, I had set up a website where they would be able to see all the topics we were covering in class. They would be able to look at the page with their child to practice the language we had been learning. On the wiki I include all the songs and videos we have seen in class, so that the children can see them again if they want to. I explained that the webpage would be completely private and that each child would receive a username and password that would be necessary to access the site. The parents seemed to think it was a good idea, and they all filled in the consent slip I added to the bottom of the letter. I proceeded to create bulk user accounts and gave each child a copy of their username and password.

I regularly update the wiki with new content, as you will see from the screenshot above. I assumed that most of the parents were visiting from time to time. On a couple of occasions, parents had asked me for another copy of their access details, which they had misplaced.

So it was to my surprise, this morning, when I looked at the wikis stas and saw that it had hardly been visited at all. Five different users (although this could include anonymous users from search engines that had tried to access the site) entered the wiki in the first month, but after that only an average of two or three users had visited per month. There are ten children in the class, so my impression is that only a small number of them have seen the wiki more than once or twice.

My priority now is to find out why there has been such little interest in the wiki. I actually thought parents would be interested in what their young children were doing in their lessons, and would take this opportunity to find out. I hoped that they would sit down with their children and go over what they had been learning in their two weekly lessons. How wrong I seem to have been!

I am thinking of sending out a questionnaire towards the end of the year, on how useful they found the wiki and what problems they had. They all seemed to find the idea attractive, but few of them seem to have done much more. I imagine that time is a huge issue here, but it would only take a few minutes every week to see what's new. I'd like to know if you have any experiences of using wikis/blogs with very young learners as a wasy of encouraging them to interact with English outside of the classroom. Has anybody come up against any lack of interest, as I seem to have? Any ideas for questions to include in my questionnaire to parents.

This just goes to show that, although everybody uses technology in their day to day life, this does not automatically mean that they want to use it related to their own or their children's learning, especially if this requires more effort on their part.

And, thinking of the time and effort I have spent on this project - is it really worth it?


Ok, before you all start accusing me of outrageous lies, this ISN'T the best activity in the world. Those of you who were in Britain in the nineties (and noughties) will recognise the title as a take on the countless pop music albums that appeared, named The Best ... Album in the World...Ever!

Some fantastic songs from some of the best "indie" artists of the 90s

The activity I'm going to share with you is certainly not the best in the world, and it's probably not very original either, but it is one of the easiest activities to set up as well as being suitable for a wide range of levels and age groups.

The main focus can be changed to suit level and needs - in this case (and the most obvious) I have used it to practise superlative adjectives. All you need are lots of small pieces of paper (Post It size is good), enough for each student to have one for each question. You can prepare the questions in advance or make them up as you go along.

Here is the procedure, as I carried it out with a group of ten to twelve year olds who had recently been looking at superlatives. It is carried out in "lockstep", but if you prefer you could write the questions on the board or on a handout and have everybody work at their own pace.

1) Hand out the pieces of paper.

2) Tell the students that you are going to ask some questions, and to write down their answer to each question on a separate piece of paper.

3) Have somewhere the students can place each paper as they complete it. Alternatively, have students number each paper, so that later it is easy to tell which question it answers.

4) Ask each question. The students should write down their OWN PERSONAL answer.

Sample questions:

Who is the best footballer?
What's the most interesting school subject?
Who is the most beautiful woman?
Who is the best singer?
What's the funniest TV programme?
Who is the fastest motorcyclist/F1 driver?
What's the most difficult school subject?
What's the nicest food?
What's the best book?
What are the coolest clothes?
What's the most dangerous animal?

There are plenty of alternative questions but these are some the ones I posed because we had been looking at these particular adjectives. With higher level groups you could use a wider variety of adjectives.

5) Everybody should now have answered all the questions. Collect in the anonymous answers. Younger students often like to fold up their papers, like in a secret ballot.

6) Announce each "nominee" and elicit the category. For example, "Maths, Science, English, History. The category is ..." (most difficult subject) and then announce the "winner". (The winner is the answer repeated the most times. If all the answers are different, or there is a draw you could have another vote.) My class wanted to take it in turns to come out to the front and read out the nominees. I would then say, in a grand voice, Oscars style "And the winner is..."

And that's it! My kids really enjoyed this activity and even asked to play it again the following day with different questions. With older students and adults you could use it as a basis for discussion, a way of practising expressing agreement and disagreement, language of persuasion etc.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Belated April Fool!

This post should have appeared earlier but I have only just got around to writing it... for some reason I've not had the energy to write anything this week - blame the clocks going forward/a cold (but hopefully not hayfever!)/ my beginning running (a funny mixture of jogging and walking at the moment but I'm getting there)/this long, long term or whatever, but the fact is that I haven't even felt like going on Twitter or reading my usual blog list, let alone writing on my own. I haven't even particpated in ELTchat for the past three weeks! I hope it is not some kind of social networking burn out. However, having just read, albeit quickly, all the posts that were waiting for me on Google Reader, I thought it was about time I jumped back in!

Friday, as you know, was April Fool's Day. In previous years I don't think I have even remembered to pay special attention to the date, but with all the hours I spend on the internet at the moment it would have been hard to miss. As with one class we had just finished a unit of work, I decided to spend Thursday's lesson talking about April Fool's Day. There was actually a page in their book about this unusual day, so we had a look at that to see what it was all about, and role played the two situations that were illustrated (1- swapping salt for sugar, 2 - a whoopee cushion). I was very surprised to hear that very few of the nine to eleven year old children had never played (or received) a practical joke on anybody. Although the 1st April is just a normal day here in Spain, they have their own Día de los santos inocentes on 28th December where people play pranks and jokes on each other. I then played my the trick "The Severed Finger" on them. Of course, these kids were to old to actually fall for the trick, but they found it fun and all wanted to make one for themselves. You can see the video of the trick here.

I also have a class who hate using their course book and so more often than not we do alternative activities. I have written about these students before recently here and here.  These teenagers like to see a personal side of their teacher - they never stop nagging me about going swimming after I told them that my new year's resolution was to go swimming two to three times per week! They like to have a laugh in class, so I thought it might be nice to try an April Fool on them too, but this time a more sophisticated one. For the most part, it went down well, but one of the students actually got quite angry when he discovered that it was all a joke! I'm sure he'll have forgotten all about it next week, but it just goes to show how sensitive this particular age group can be.

In the previous lesson the students had been discussing uniforms (it wasn't part of the lesson) and I told them that we could talk more about that on Thursday - very un-dogme" of me, I know, but we were talking about something completely different and I decided to draw on this sudden interest for a topic in another lesson.
In the lesson in question, I asked them about their uniforms, what they liked about them and which of the uniforms they thought were nicest (they go to two or three different schools). They asked me about uniforms in Britain. I then handed out the attached document and we read through it, together. The document explains how our English academy is introducing the concept of a "uniform" for the students and that we would be running a design competition where the best design would be chosen by the school's head. You can read it for yourself here:

Tshirt Competition

The students worked in groups to think up their designs for the t-shirt. Skills practised in the lesson included reading, speaking (although quite a bit in L1) and developing a sense of humour! They seemed quite impressed with my word processing skills "If it's not true, where did you get this handout?" and I think they see me as quite a serious person, which is why they never suspected a thing! I just hope that they can bring themselves to trust me again...

And just a quick link here to Richard Whiteside's treat for us all  and Teresa Bestwick's lovely joke, both of which I enjoyed immensely.

And copying Richard himself, here is  of classic comedy video:
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