Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Posts tagged ‘proficiency’

Good Omens lesson plan

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is probably my favourite book, and one of very few I’ve read multiple times. This is how Wikipedia summarises it:

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990) is a World Fantasy Award-nominated novel, written as a collaboration between the English authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The book is a comedy about the birth of the son of Satan, and the coming of the End Times. There are attempts by the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley to sabotage the coming of the end times, having grown accustomed to their comfortable surroundings in England. One subplot features a mixup at the small country hospital on the day of birth and the growth of the Antichrist, Adam, who grows up with the wrong family, in the wrong country village. Another subplot concerns the summoning of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, each a big personality in their own right.

In preparation for the upcoming series, which I am incredibly excited about, I’ve been re-reading it for the fourth or fifth time. In the process came across a short excerpt which can stand alone and decided it would make a good lesson for my Proficiency/C2 students. I think it could work for C1 students too.

We used it over two 90-minute lessons, but it’s very flexible so you can make it longer or shorter as you choose – it depends on how into the tasks the students get!

If you teach a 121 student, you may choose not to read the extract yourself beforehand, and go through the lesson making predictions, producing your own version of the text and reading it for the first time at the same time as your student. I promise there’s nothing offensive there! 🙂 A couple of teachers from our school who had never read Good Omens themselves used this plan successfully with their 121 students in this way.

Lesson stages

  • Tell students they’re going to read a short excerpt from a book. Before they read, they’re going to predict what happens. Emphasise that there are no right answers to this.
  • Show the pictures from Slide 1 of the Newt meets aliens Good Omens p203-205 presentation. Students work in pairs to make predictions of general events that might happen in the excerpt. Switch pairs to compare predictions and/or elicit some ideas as a class.
  • Show the word cloud from Slide 2. Tell students that this is a word cloud showing all of the language from the original excerpt. A word that is larger appears more often in the original text. Newt is the name of one of the characters from the book, and Lower Tadfield is the village he is travelling towards.
  • Students work in groups of three to write a version of what they think happens in the excerpt. They can use any of the language they want to from the word cloud. Give them plenty of time to do this: 20-30 minutes would be ideal. This is a chance for them to be creative, and to check language they’re not sure about in the dictionary or with you. Again, emphasise that the aim is not to reproduce the original extract, but to play with the language and experiment with ideas.
  • Groups read all of the other stories. Have they come up with similar ideas?
  • Slide 3 shows two covers for the book. Tell students that the excerpt they’ve been working with is from a comedy written about the end of the world. This part is a small event that happens half-way through the book. “Would you like to read it?” Hopefully their interest has been piqued by now and the answer will be yes!
  • Give them the Word document (Newt meets aliens Good Omens p203-205). As they read, they should compare the events in their versions of the story to the original, and decide how similar they are. They shouldn’t worry about language they don’t understand. They’ll need about 4-5 minutes to read, then should discuss in their groups the similarities and differences between their versions and the excerpt.
  • Slide 4 has follow-up questions for students to discuss in small groups. This is a great chance to work with emergent language that students are producing.
  • This excerpt is incredibly rich linguistically, as is anything written by Gaiman or Pratchett. Slide 5 gives students the chance to mine the text for any language that might interest them (see ‘language to mine’ below). They should take the lead in deciding what they want to steal.
  • Students then return to their original writing and write a new version of it. They can insert phrases directly lifted from Good Omens, or simply be inspired by the variety and richness of the original excerpt to make their own text richer through the use of synonyms, similes, and highly descriptive language.
  • They then share their original and rewritten texts (side by side) with other groups and answer the question: ‘What difference does the writer’s choice of language make to the enjoyment of the reader?’
  • As an optional extension, students could role play the situation of Newt meeting the aliens, or of Newt/the aliens telling somebody else what happened a few hours later. This would give them the chance to reuse some of the language they stole from the text.
  • To finish the lesson, show students the trailer for the upcoming series and ask them if they want to watch it. Slide 6 has the video embedded; slide 7 has the link in case it doesn’t work.

What happened in my lesson?

I only had three students out of a possible six, so my pair and share activity didn’t work when they wrote their own texts. They were surprised that the text they produced had the same broad strokes as the excerpt.

Although we used two lessons, we didn’t have time to go back to the writing and upgrade it, which would have been valuable. I felt like adding a third lesson to do this would have been dragging it out too much though.

Students were engaged in mining the text, and said they would like to try this with other texts in the future. We looked at the language of officialdom and how it was used to create humour in this excerpt.

One student had already read Good Omens before I introduced it, and went back and re-read it in Polish between the two lessons 🙂 [Here’s an Amazon affiliate link if you want to get your own copy.]

Language to mine from the text

This is very much NOT an exhaustive list of examples of language that could be taken from the excerpt. Any of these could be used by students to create new texts as a follow-up (for example a description of a crazy car journey), or could be used as a language focus if you want something more targeted than the word cloud from slide 2.

  • Phrases and phrasal verbs:
    fall over
    wind (the window) down
    think of (sth) (as sth else)
    wander off
    run sth through a machine
    (let sth) build up
    let yourself go
    see to sth
    turn sth over in his mind
    turn around
    bawl sb out
  • Features of spoken grammar:
    an’ suchlike
    one of them phenomena
    Been…, haven’t we sir?
    Been…perhaps?
    Well, yes. I suppose so.
    I’ll see to it. Well, when I say I…
    We’d better be going.
    You do know…don’t you?
  • Ways of describing speaking:
    gabbled
    flailed
    rasped
  • Ways of describing movement:
    a door in the saucer slid aside
    skidded down it and fell over at the bottom
    walked over to the car quite slowly
  • Descriptive phrases for a spaceship and aliens:
    satisfying whoosh
    gleaming walkway
    It looked like every cartoon of a flying saucer Newt had ever seen.
    Brilliant blue light
    frantic beeping
  • Connected to cars:
    He had the map spread over the steering wheel.
    He had to brake hard.
    rapped on the window
    He wound it down.
    He drove up on the verge and around it.
    When he looked in his rearview mirror…
  • Connected to officialdom:
    in the worldwide approved manner of policemen already compiling the charge sheet in their heads
    Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you, sir…
    …are below regulation size for a [planet] of this category, sir.
    We’ll overlook it on this occasion, sir.

A little bit of theory

This is a task-based lesson, with the focus on meaning early in the lesson. For the initial task, students have to use their own linguistic resources to come up with an episode in a story, and they are free to go in whatever direction they choose. They have the scaffolding of the pictures and the word cloud, but are not required to use any particular language point. Sharing their texts is the report phase, and they then see a model which they can mine for language. This language can then be incorporated into their own work – it is student-led, with them choosing the language they focus on, rather than following the teacher’s agenda of what ‘should’ be learnt next. This task repetition and upgrade stage is where a lot of the learning will happen, as students experiment with the language. There is then another report phase, with reflection on language use in general (writer choices), not just the specific language used in this lesson.

The language I’ve pulled out above reflects principles of the lexical approach (I hope!), working with longer chunks of language rather than isolated words. Collocations can be explored, as well as areas like features of spoken language. This can help students to move away from a focus on single words and verb tenses plus other structures typically appearing as part of a course book syllabus, which they often still have even at proficiency level.

Teaching students how to mine a text in this way can also be useful for their own self-study, thus developing learner autonomy. Techniques like this can be challenging for students to incorporate into their own learning without being shown how to do it the first couple of times.

More of this kind of thing

I’ve previously shared materials connected to the first chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Disaster movies – a lesson plan (or two!)

This year I’m teaching a Proficiency group, with free choice of the materials I use and topics we cover. In the first lesson, we brainstormed a list of key words that could act as possible topics and each time I exhaust a topic I ask the students to choose the next thing they’d do from the list. This seemed like a really good idea at the time 😉 Then they chose…

Disaster!

I was completely stuck for inspiration, as the only thing in my head was Brexit and having only met them a couple of lessons before, this wasn’t a route I wanted to go down yet. Instead, I headed to the TD Lab Staffroom facebook group and asked them to help me out. If you’ve never come across the group before, Shaun Sweeney set it up as a way for teachers to ask for audio recordings on particular topics. And it was Shaun who rescued me, with a one-minute recording talking about what he thinks of disaster movies which he has agreed to me sharing here. That was the spark I needed, and it prompted two complete 90-minute lessons 🙂 Here they are…

Lesson 1: Intensive listening and spoken grammar

I started by displaying the collage of disaster movie posters from this website. Students discussed the following questions:

  • Do you like films like this?
  • Are there any you’ve seen? What did you think of them?
  • Are there any you’d like to watch? Why?

Next, I showed them a picture of Shaun. They had to predict whether he likes disaster movies or not, then listen and check. Here’s the recording (confusingly with a picture of me!):

Those were the easy stages!

The next part was the real challenge: listen what Shaun said and transcribe it word for word. Before the lesson I’d uploaded the recording to our Edmodo group, which all of the students had joined during our first lesson. Now they divided into groups based on how many people could easily access the recording via their smartphones, with one phone per group. They had as long as they needed to transcribe it, and could go back and forth as much as they wanted. To transcribe one minute of audio it took them around 30-40 minutes. If they didn’t know what something said, I encouraged them to play it repeatedly and make a guess. When one group finished, I skimmed what they had written and underlined sections for them to listen to again.

Once all of the groups had something, I switched on the projector and took dictation, replaying the audio section by section as we went along. Anything that they didn’t have exactly as it was in the recording was underlined in my transcript, and we went back and listened again. It took us 10-15 minutes to get the full transcript onto the board, and all of the students present were engaged throughout. As we did it, I explained possible reasons why they may have misheard things, for example words that sound similar, connected speech linking words together, or weak forms which almost disappeared. I made sure that every sound was transcribed, not just ‘grammatically correct’ utterances. The only thing that nobody in the class could hear was the ‘ll in Now I’ll generally… right at the start, which prompted a discussion of the difference between present simple and will to describe habits. Here’s the transcript we ended up with, including underlining to show areas which my students had trouble picking out:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript

In pairs, students had to identify all of the features of the text which are part of spoken grammar, not written grammar. They discussed it in pairs, then went to the board and circled everything they could find. We have a whiteboard and projector set-up, which makes activities like this much easier! Here’s the same transcript with all of the features of spoken grammar I could identify highlighted in yellow:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript with features of spoken grammar

We only had a few minutes of the lesson left, so we quickly listed these features, including:

  • repetition (it’s…it’s…; going to die, going to die, going to sit)
  • ‘simple’ linking words (and, but, or)
  • emphasis (you’re just going to sit…)
  • fillers (um…yeah…like)
  • unfinished utterances (one of the worst films)
  • approximation (probably around Christmastime)
  • lack of concrete ideas/listing information (something like Towering Inferno or something with a volcano, or people are stuck in a tunnel)
  • opinion phrases (I have to say; well I can’t get into it at all)
  • time phrases to structure speech (when I was a kid; more recently)

I’m sure that’s not exhaustive, and I know for a fact those aren’t the technical terms, but they’ll do! I emphasised that it’s not vital for students to speak like this, but that they still sometimes sound like they’re reciting from a piece of paper instead of speaking naturally, and that it’s OK to include any of these features in their speech 🙂

For homework, I asked them to read Mike Russell’s Make Your Own Disaster Movie cartoon and look up any of the vocabulary they didn’t know.

Lesson 2: How to create your own disaster movie (reading and speaking)

A slightly different combination of students in this lesson meant we started off by recapping what had happened in the previous lesson and giving everybody time to re-read the cartoon. We probably spent about 20-30 minutes clarifying various items of vocabulary with students trying to help each other to understand words, or me showing them how to find the information they needed in the OALD using the projector (they’re still pretty new to using monolingual dictionaries consistently, despite their level!) These are the words we decided to record on our word cards:

  • bicker
  • estranged family
  • wild conjecture
  • nature’s wrath/the wrath of God
  • lump things together, like it or lump it!
  • mankind’s hubris
  • a dormant volcano
  • mayhem
  • cat-burglar (this was their favourite, and has come up in pretty much every lesson since!)

I had cut up an article from The Guardian along similar lines to the cartoon, called How to write the perfect disaster movie. I gave each section to one student. They read it and wrote 3-5 key words or phrases on the back. The perfect disaster movie article to put in order

With their summaries (without looking at the original text), they then mingled to find out all of the ingredients that Paul Owen believes make the perfect disaster movie. As a class, they decided what order all of the sections should be in by sticking them to the board (with me out of the way). They read it all to check whether they were correct.

With two ‘menus’ for disaster movies to help them out, the students now worked in small groups to create their own storylines. We had about 10 minutes for this, with time for them to present their stories to the rest of us at the end. In the true spirit of disaster movies, these made very little sense but were very entertaining, with one featuring a volcano that stopped air traffic and a monk who decided that a sacrifice to the ancient gods was required to stop it, and the other starring a cop who was a single dad being fired from his job, a meteor shower set to destroy Earth, a magnet on the moon to stop it and a female scientist to coordinate the rescue attempt, who inevitably fell in love with the cop 🙂

Thanks Shaun!

Overall these were two very enjoyable lessons which the students got a lot of vocabulary and intensive listening practice out of, both things which they have told me they want. And all inspired by just one minute of audio!

The Proficiency Plateau (guest post)

At the beginning of my career, I was lucky enough to work with a whole range of dedicated teachers at International House Brno. One of them was Lily-Anne Young, who at that point had been teaching the same proficiency-level group for a couple of years. She worked with the same group for many years, and is therefore always the person I go to when I need help with teaching very high-level students. She has now agreed to write some guest posts for me, which I hope you will find useful. Over to Lily-Anne:

What do you do with students who already have, or don’t need, CAE/CPE but want to keep working on their English? The non-native speaker teachers, translators, business & tech people and many others? The ones who have hit the proficiency plateau?

Having taught a C2 class for 10 consecutive years, with many returning students, this is an area I have dealt with, struggled with and love. It’s demanding, challenging and potentially soul destroying, yet I, and some other people, thrive on this.

Expectations are incredibly high. It’s up to us and the learners to meet those expectations. To do this, it has to be a mutual experience: negotiated content, constant communication, reciprocal feedback, respect and the teacher as a facilitator.

In this introductory post I’m going to share some of the observations I have made over time and consider the implications for both teachers and learners.  In future posts I will share some activities which have proved successful with my students, and make further salient observations.

Who are these amazing people?

O’Maley (Advanced Learners, OUP) [affiliate link] points out that learners at this level are usually:

  • Highly educated
  • Teachers, educators, translators, academics
  • Middle or senior management

Based on my own students, past and present, they:

  • may be suffering from the Proficiency Plateau;
  • are highly motivated;
  • but may be wondering just how they can, usefully, improve their skills;
  • cannot be pigeonholed (as if we would ever consider such a thing);
  • love to challenge the teacher and to show off a bit;
  • all have different areas of language expertise, obsessions and gaps.

The Proficiency Plateau

I am coining this phrase as my own (I hope nobody else has used it). Teachers often talk about the Intermediate Plateau, yet the same situation can be hit at all stages of learning a language and once learners have achieved C1/C2 level it can seem almost impossible to measure progress and achievement.

What does it mean?

It means that you are going to work with students who, as with most learners, have a wide range of interests, from the mundane to the bizarre, but who also have much of the language needed to express complex ideas. This gives us a much wider range of available topics and scope to play with language than we have with lower levels and coursebooks.

It means that they are going to ask you questions you may not know the answer to off the top off your head or can answer but can’t explain. Hence, you need to be able to think on your feet and be willing to admit that you are not an encyclopedia, dictionary or Google.

It means that you have to adapt coursebooks, resource books, find suitable authentic materials and create lessons from them which meet the diverse needs of the learner(s). Which takes us on to:

Materials

There is a dearth of ready-made materials for advanced learners who don’t want to do CAE/CPE/IELTS  (or have it). This is mainly due to a lack of market demand and I believe/hope, based on the fact that my C1 students are getting younger every year, that this may change. (Yes, I am older but the C1 students are still in secondary school – that’s a big change from 10 years ago when my students were 30+).

In the meantime there are published resources which you can use and adapt – after all, we teachers are very skilled at that – and the CAE/CPE books can give you an idea of which language areas you may wish to target in the development of your course.

However the main resource for us has to be authentic materials.  Everybody has their favourites and I have mine, which I will reveal at a later date 🙂

Going beyond language

Push the boat out; above and beyond; the call of duty; hit the nail on the head. These are all wonderful phrases to know but you have to encourage your learners  to use them in appropriate situations, not just parrot them to show off knowledge. Likewise we have to motivate the learners to use their language effectively.  

To do this I work with authentic materials, some of which are provided by them and some by me, then use those materials to create classroom situations in which they can practise both language and skills.

So here is a, not exhaustive, list of some of the skills my learners and I work on together:

  • Humour
  • Sarcasm & irony
  • Criticism & compliments
  • Swearing (be careful with this)
  • Different accents
  • Different Englishes
  • Poetry, nursery rhymes, literature
  • Reading between the lines
  • Presentation skills
  • Marketing/negotiation/persuasive skills
  • Making appropriate choices between synonyms depending on contexts

Thus, I prefer to take the emphasis away from measuring progress and focus on encouraging my students to explore not only language, but also how English has so many variations and to develop skills which they may or may not have when using their own language.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and I have whetted your appetite for more.

Lily-Anne Young

Lily-Anne is a DipTesol qualified teacher with over 15 years experience in teaching in various locations and covering the whole gamut of teaching situations. Working as a freelance teacher trainer and senior teacher, based in Brno, CZ, she has recently decided to try to share some of her knowledge with other professionals via conferences and other peoples’ blogs.

In particular she has an interest on how to work with and help very advanced learners as this is an area she has been working in for a long time and many people find daunting.

In her spare time she plays in an amateur badminton league and tries to understand her Czech speaking boyfriend.

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