Innovate ELT 2021 – day one

These are summaries of the talks I attended during day one of the OxfordTEFL Innovate ELT online conference on 1st and 2nd October 2021. Day two is here.

Note: when I’ve included links, sometimes they’re the ones the presenter included, sometimes they’re others which I’ve found. If you’re one of the presenters and would like me to change any of the links, please let me know!

Plenary – Facing forward, looking back – Duncan Foord

What can we learn from looking at the history of ELT? I will be sharing my personal take on how I think we have done over the last 60 years, “Things that went well and points to consider…”

Duncan started by asking us whether we think that ELT is better now than it was 60 years ago, for English teachers or students. 92% think yes, nobody said no, 8% said don’t know (of 37 responses). Some of the reasons people gave:

  • More communicative
  • More research
  • Easier to access support from around the world
  • More student-centred
  • English more accepted as a lingua franca

Duncan’s reason for picking 60 years was that the pre-cursor to CELTA started in 1962, giving ELT a practical, hands-on qualification you could do to become a teacher: ‘ELT as craft’. ELT became a professional activity. We become teachers by actually teaching, not just studying it.

Another reason Duncan thinks ELT has improved is ‘the human touch’. We’re bringing humans together by enabling them to communicate with each other internationally. We see teachers and students working together across cultural boundaries that politics may not normally allow (e.g. US and Iranian teachers working together). An awareness of classroom dynamics and increased personalisation encourage learner-centredness, recognising learners as individuals, and making things more democratic through activities like pair- and groupwork.

The third reason is that there is there is a clear framework through the CEFR to make learners of where they are and where they’re going. This framework isn’t a list of grammar points, but a list of ‘can do’ statements.

A counterpoint is (was? around 2010?) a kind of ‘tech fetish’, pushing the craft of teaching to one side. He thinks that has calmed down now and that there is more of a balance between technology and craft, rather than technology taking over.

This gives us 3 C’s. We should aim to keep the dynamic of improving what we do (Craft), keep our strong sense of community (Community), and Coach learners in how to use materials and resources – we don’t have to bring all of the materials in ourselves.

Am I asking the right questions? – Teresa Bestwick

Why talk about questions? I could simply answer ‘Why not?’ but there are so many other reasons which we’ll explore in this talk. We’ll have a critical think about the types of questions we ask our learners, colleagues and the teachers we train, as well as those we ask ourselves.

When we start a session/lesson, we can have some questions on display to give attendees/learners something to think about. Questions can be:

  • Closed – yes/no
  • Open
  • Display – we know the answer, but we want the learners to demonstrate particular language they know.
  • Referential – I don’t know the answer to it, and I’m interested to find out more.
  • Convergent – limited number of answers.
  • Divergent – encourages the use of creativity, critical thinking skills etc.

Closed questions aren’t always bad. Sometimes they can be useful for checking understanding or language. Teresa shared three links to help people improve their ICQs and CCQs:

When we ask students a question, wait time is important. We need to make sure students have thinking time. We also need to give students the language to be specific about ‘I don’t know’:

  • I understand the question, but I don’t know the answer.
  • I know the answer, but I don’t know how to say it in English.
  • Language of speculation: Could it be…? Might it be…? Is it possibly…? allows students space to not have to be correct, and can be empowering.

Questions we ask students:

Questions encourage an answer.

Think about how you respond to content – don’t be insensitive by only focussing on language.

Never underestimate the power of follow-up questions.

Would you rather…? or If you were a… questions can be really motivating for students and prompt a lot of discussion.

Questions can be used as a behaviour management tool – pose a question to help learners notice their behaviour.

Use exit tickets [I’ve done this in the teen face-to-face classroom for the last two years, and it works really well – individual feedback for each learner, and a great way for you to check each person’s understanding.] Here are some more examples of EFL exit tickets:

  • One question I have about what we did today is…
  • Write three MCQs about today’s lesson.
  • Write two questions to ask me/your partner using the grammar or vocab from today.

Questions we ask ourselves:

When you have a problem, if you can turn it into a question, you can start looking for solutions.

Teresa mentioned Heron’s six categories of intervention, which she first came across in Duncan Foord’s The Developing Teacher [Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link]. She also recommend Rachel Tsateri’s blogpost. These are different ways of framing questions when helping yourself or others to reflect. Here are some of the questions stems you might want to use:

It’s important to ask ourselves questions to help ourselves to develop. These are some of the examples Teresa mentioned:

  • What do I love about what I do?
  • What am I looking forward to in my career?
  • What do I want to do?
  • What’s working for me?
  • What’s one area I’d like to improve in?
  • How am I developing this month?
  • How will this help me?

Teresa recommended two books:

The TEFL Development Hub

This is the community which Teresa is a co-founder of, with Simon Pearlman. They have a website and are on facebook. They post a question every Wednesday to get teachers thinking. Whenever anybody posts anything in the Hub, it has to be a question. Their weekly meetings are also based around questions.

A thought we were left with:

How to tell a story – Jamie Keddie

Good storytellers make it look easy. They might lead you to believe that it’s all about spontaneous, improvised performances. But don’t be fooled. Successful storytelling requires planning, reflection and attention to detail. In this workshop, I would like to share some basic principles that will allow you to develop your classroom storytelling skills. 

We’re not born being able to tell stories. It’s a skill we can get better at.

Jamie is talking about short stories from the teacher as a way to engage the students and get them doing things. He started off with a list:

  • Madame Tussauds
  • The Tower of London
  • Superman 2
  • The Egyptian mummies at the British Museum

We had to guess what the list was about, and then Jamie told us the story. Guessing first was a great way to get us engaged. He asked us what we thought he was most excited about – these questions kept us involved all the way through.

One of Jamie’s favourite themes is misunderstandings and miscommunications. He asked us if any of us had a story we wanted to tell about this. I got some useful feedback on my story 🙂 and enjoyed listening to others’ stories too.

He asked us about ingredients for successful storytelling. Often he gets answers related to performance techniques or teacher talk techniques, for example eye contact, pauses, body language. We suggested ideas like framing the story, personalisation, being concise, involving the audience. Jamie thinks we see storytelling wrong: we focus on the performance, rather than the preparation and process that goes into it beforehand to give the structure.

Sometimes we can ask too many questions in our stories as teachers. If we’ve got a good story, it’s naturally involving. Don’t just ask ‘Can you guess what it’s about?’ – give them some fuel to help them guess, like Jamie’s list at the start. Questions like ‘What do you think happened?’ ‘Why do you think he did that?’ – these are much stronger questions. After a good story, the listener might have unanswered questions – this isn’t a problem, it shows they’re engaged.

It’s useful to look for a ‘way in’ to the story, a ‘hook’. We don’t have to go in through the door of the story – we can break in through the window, go down the chimney, steal an elephant from the zoo and crash through the walls 🙂 These hooks can be useful for comprehension and to give the learners some help in understanding the story. It doesn’t have to be something super clever – it can draw attention to some of the content in the story, like giving them a title, key words, asking questions about a concept in the story (mine was about code-switching for example, so asking about this could work), lists…they can all help the students to make connections.

Set up can be very important – don’t neglect it, because this gives the context people need to understand the story. When preparing, think about how to draw attention to the details, and what order to mention them in. This can help to make the story more impactful. How descriptive can you get? Should you add more details? Or remove details? We can draw attention to certain information in the story, for example by pauses or by the order we mention things in.

To manage the time, students can record a ‘talking head’ video of their story, rather than telling their story live during the lesson.

If you’d like to find out more about storytelling and see examples, Jamie’s website is LessonStream. He also runs a storytelling course for teachers.

Teaching, Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Presences in Action – Tyson Seburn

The Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001) identified four aspects of enriching online educational spaces: teaching, cognitive, social, and (most recently) emotional presences. Twenty years later, these were thrust into action for everyone to varying degrees of success. But what are they? We’ll explore them here.

[I missed the start of this session]

Tyson is talking about asynchronous and blended courses.

To increase his teaching presence, Tyson uses:

  • Colours to show the students to guide them in what they need to do in online tasks. For example, highlighted in blue if they’re working in groups, highlighted in pink if they’re working alone.
  • Teaching tips to help the students use the medium better.
  • Emojis to show what is a handout, a recorded lesson, a task to complete etc.
  • Layout of the tasks – week one is a top-level heading, tasks that are part of week one are indented.
  • Have a forum where they can ask questions specifically.

Teaching presence can also come from students, not just the teacher.

  • Have roles for students within an activity / task.
  • They can answer each other’s questions about concepts / instructions.
  • Give peer feedback and evaluation.

Cognitive presence is about exploration. How are the students exploring the materials?

  • Vary engagement type, for example through different interaction patterns or different types of website/tool.
  • Encourage learners to contribute information.
  • Create spaces where the students need to make connections between different parts of the materials, and ask questions of the materials rather than just accepting what’s there.
  • Allow students to come to conclusions themselves, rather than supplying the conclusions to them. A reflective journal could be a good way to do this.

Social presence is about interaction and community. How can we can create spaces where students have to interact and give them opportunities to do so? How can we create a community where students feel bonded together and with the teacher?

  • Conversation and dialogue: how and where can we create these opportunities? Not just top-down, but students speaking to each other.
  • How can we humanise the experience of learning? For example, one teacher added a forum that they clicked through to where they were sharing pictures of their pets – this was a reward for those who were actually reading and checking the forums 🙂
  • Creating bonds and togetherness.
  • Encourage students to express (dis)agreements.

Tyson mentioned some different tools he’s played with, like Reface for some amusement (though I find this a bit disturbing!), or Padlet. Padlet has a map function to add pins to a map – not one I’d seen before.

Social presence could include giving the students conversational gambits which they can use in forums, for example for agreeing and disagreeing. This helps them to connect with each other.

Majeski, Stover and Valais (2018) added emotional presence to the list. This includes:

  • Emotional perception – can they recognise emotions?
  • Understanding – can they understand the emotions of others?
  • Faciliation – can they use emotions in a constructive way?
  • Management – can they recognise when emotions are causing disruption in their learning and think about strategies to deal with this?

The final presence is to some extent embedded in the other three presences which were proposed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000). These presences can help you in a range of ways:

These are Tyson’s references:

Demo Lesson – How to approach a text from an eco-linguistic perspective – Daniel Barber

The ecological issues we face call into question the stories we live by. Eco-linguistics offers teachers tools to examine the stories behind classroom texts. Do they teach compassion for the living planet? In this lesson, students will read and discuss a text through eco-linguistic filters to discover the underlying message.

One of the interesting features of Innovate ELT conferences is the live lessons with real students followed by guided discussion, but this is the first time I’ve made it to one. I thought it would be nice to go to something different something when attending this conference. I’ve also never really been sure about how to bring the environment into lessons where it’s not already present in the materials. There were students from all over the world: the Netherlands, Myanmar, Switzerland (but in Russia), Peru and Belarus. It was interesting to see somebody else teaching on Zoom, apart from anything else!

Daniel set up the lesson by showing students a picture of Christmas puddings in the shops in September in the UK. This was a prompt for a discussion about celebrations and the importance of celebrations in different countries.

The next stage was introducing the title of the article: 2021 Holiday Shopping Predictions: 3 Trends to Watch. This prompted a discussion about changes in students’ shopping habits over the last couple of years.

Throughout both of these stages, Daniel had a box on each slide called ‘Vocab notes’ where he added phrases that came up during the dicscussions.

There was a link to the text and a list of questions for the students to answer. I liked the layout of the slide (shown as a thumbnail below), with the text on the left and the questions on the right. Each paragraph of the text had a different coloured background, making it easier to read than if it was purely black on white (or at least, I think it was!)

After the comprehension stage, Daniel asked students to match hidden messages to specific parts of the text which he’d highlighted. For example, the line ‘The store shopping experience adds to the magic’ in the text could be match to the hidden message ‘Shopping is an exciting adventure’. There was also the idea that people were called ‘consumers’ throughout the whole text – we are only seen as people spending money.

At the end of the lesson, we had 10 minutes to chat to the students and ask them some questions about the lesson based around the idea of hidden messages in texts, questioning messages and assumptions we make individually and collectively, and the overall themes of the lesson. This idea of hidden messages in texts was interesting for me, as it’s not something I’ve really thought about working on with students before.

When we came back together as a whole group afterwards, the discussion was interesting with both students and teachers sharing ideas about the lesson. Daniel presented this as one way of encouraging students to think about messages in texts without falling into lecturing them on what they should think.

If you’d like to find out more about ecolinguistics, the Wikipedia article provides a useful starting point. There is a free online course called The Stories We Live By from The University of Gloucestershire and The International Ecolinguistics Association if you’d like to find out more.

This was definitely an interesting format, and well done to Daniel for putting himself out there by teaching a lesson with 11 teachers observing him!

The quiz

Day one ended with a quiz in the ‘Zoom garden’, which is a lovely idea. I’m off to join in now 🙂

There’s always a story

The personal stuff

I’m aiming to be more conscious in how I use words right now, as I’m more and more aware of how much impact tiny changes in wording can have (social distancing/physical distancing anyone?) As Terry Pratchett says in A Hatful of Sky:

“There's always a story. It's all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything's got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.”  ― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

Things I’ve stopped saying/writing:

  • In these difficult/challenging times
    They’re as difficult/challenging as you feel they are, this differs for everyone, and nobody needs to be reminded.
  • The new normal 
    Yes, I know I wrote a post called that a few weeks ago. Normal is what you decide it is.
  • As soon as this is over, I’m going to… / I wish I could…
    These phrases frustrates more than help. There is no end date on this thing, but one day we’ll look back and it’ll be in the past. It’s like growing up: there’s no fixed point when you become an adult, but you definitely look back and you’re not a child any more. Why not say ‘Next week, I’m going to…’ and give yourself things that are manageable now to look forward to? And create a jar of post-lockdown plans.

Things that frustrate me when I see/hear them:

  • Now that you have all of this time on your hands…
    An assumption that is not universal. My workload has stayed pretty similar, and I know others who are busier than ever and are not necessarily taking breaks as they would have before. I know we are lucky to still have work and things to do that are similar to pre-coronavirus times, but you are lucky to have a different range of stressors than previously (I’m not going to say to have nothing to stress you out, because I know that’s not true either). Yes, we might not be able to do all the things we would like, but there are so so so many things we can choose to do. 
  • We/I don’t know what’s going to happen.
    We never do. Now is no different. We need to change what we can and accept what we can’t.

I entirely realise you may not agree with this, but that’s why it’s the personal stuff…it’s how I feel, and you’re allowed to feel different. We’re all allowed to deal with this in our own way. 

However, one thing is always true: if you’re finding it difficult to deal with, please don’t do it alone: ask people for help. You are absolutely not alone, and this is more true than ever before. COVID-19 affects the entire human race and, quite literally, none of us are immune to it or the side-effects of restrictions that it brings along with it. Look after yourselves, and don’t bottle up the frustration.

Here’s some fantastic advice from Stephen Fry on dealing with anxiety and stress whilst self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s 2 minutes and 39 seconds of time well-spent to listen to him talking. And here’s Phil Longwell’s post on Covid-19 Mental Health and Wellbeing for teachers. 

My Zoom lessons

This week our lessons with elementary teens introduced a story, the longest text they’ve read so far, and worked on adjectives and adverbs.

Are you sitting comfortably?

I decided it was finally time to teach my students how to use annotation themselves – previously only I had used it. We had 10 minutes at the start of the lesson where they could write or draw whatever they wanted on a blank slide. I turned on ‘Show names of annotators‘ so I could check who was doing what. We were going to play a game, but it took so long to figure out the annotation that we didn’t bother!

They’d finished 8 sentences for homework where they wrote about things they and their family were (not) going to do. In breakout rooms, the students compared their plans and helped each other improve the grammar if needed. As a mini writing assessment, they copied the sentences in the chat box. I told them I was testing their writing and I wanted to check their work, and only one student complained slightly 😉 

By this time, it was break time – a prime example of how everything takes so much longer in Zoom!

The story we were using came with pictures to put in order. Before listening, students wrote sentences starting ‘I see…’ (e.g. I see a boat. I see a boy. I see a computer.) then ‘I think…’ (e.g. I think he’s good. I think the computer is important.) in the chat box to engage them with the story.

The first time they just read and listened to it, then showed thumbs up/down/in the middle on their cameras to indicate whether they liked it or not – the first time I’ve included a pure enjoyment reading/listening task in my lessons!

In breakout rooms, students put the pictures in order. They underlined the part of the text which went with each picture. I had to go to the rooms a few times to clarify how to do this as we’d never done this before (the readings we used were never really long/challenging enough in the rest of the book, or were far too hard and we skipped them!)

The final part of the lesson was a reading assessment which we did using a Google Form. There were seven three-option multiple choice questions, with images to support their understanding of the options.

With the first group, we had just enough time to manage this. With the second, we had a few extra minutes but not enough time to do anything else, so I told them their scores and encouraged them to keep resubmitting. This was very quick and easy because the form was self-marking (yay, multiple choice!) and they all submitted it at least three times in the time we had available, some more, focussing on the questions they had problems with. The image below shows only the resubmissions, not the original ones – there are 8 students in the group!

I used conditional formatting to show problem questions (thanks Ruth!) so I could tell the students which ones to retry quickly.

As you can see, question 5 was a particular problem. By the way, this is a rare example of some coursebook reading which provided a good level of challenge – most of the ones I come across are either far too easy or far too hard! 

Making things interesting

The homework from the previous lesson was to write a very short story, around 3-4 sentences. Whenever I’ve set non-workbook homework before, only one or two students have done it. This time, only one or two didn’t in each group 🙂 One girl wrote two 1.5 page stories – I know she used Google Translate to help her, but I don’t really care – I’m so impressed at her motivation!

The lesson started with them in breakout rooms reading their stories to each other. The ones who hadn’t written one were in a separate room and had to write something very short: who went where to do what. The aim was to use the stories at the end of this lesson, but realistically I knew that probably wouldn’t happen, so they’ll be used on Monday instead.

To set the context, students looked at the pictures from Monday’s lesson and retold the story. In both this activity and the one where they told their own stories, I only heard a couple of adjectives and no adverbs, so I knew the lesson would be useful 🙂

We looked at four sentences from the story with and without adjectives. I asked if 1 or 2 is better in a story and why (2, because it’s longer and more interesting. I get a better picture in my head.)

I was pretty sure the students wouldn’t know the names for parts of speech in English, but would in Polish, so I had a list of the translations on my plan. I showed them the ‘2’ sentences with adjectives and nouns highlighted, elicited the parts of speech, told them the English word, then asked them to write down ‘Adjectives talk about nouns.’ and colour it in as on the following slide.

(Adjectives are yellow. The nouns they describe are blue.) Justin Time was in a strange room.   What’s that horrible noise?   Chelsea was there too. She was very sad.   ‘Well done! The world is safe again now,’ said Justin. (The next part is in a box) adjectives   nouns   Adjectives talk about nouns.

This was the beginning of a very staged process to give them a really clear written record. In a physical classroom or with older students, I would probably give them a worksheet to go through and fill in the gaps working at their own speed alone or in pairs, but this was the only way I could think of to keep everyone with me in a Zoom lesson.

We worked through four different adjective sentence structures and they wrote then read out their own versions of the sentence, and colour-coded it. This gave them the chance to personalise the grammar point. Fast finishers could write extra sentences. 					   (in/on/at)   (a/an)   ADJECTIVE     NOUN  Justin Time was   in       a    strange   room.  Justin Time was   __      _   ______   ____.

After break, I showed them three different things from my flat. They had to ask me questions using an adjective and a noun e.g. What’s that brown bear? Who’s that cute baby? I answered with an adjective and a noun too: That brown bear is my favourite teddy bear. That cute baby is my friend’s daughter, Megan.

They then got three things of their own and played the same game in breakout rooms.

We repeated the grammar introduction process with adverbs and different colour-coding, but didn’t have time to practise them in this lesson.

(Adverbs are purple, verbs are orange) She laughed horribly.   I think we can escape easily.   Chelsea took the boat safely back to the harbour. (in a box:) adverbs   verbs   Adverbs talk about verbs.

The students were generally engaged in the grammar introduction process because it was broken down so much. I probably got them personalising the language a lot more than I would have done in a lesson I’d taught in a physical classroom previously. This is definitely something to remember later!

Zoom thoughts and tips

When using the annotate tool, students on phones and tablets only have the ‘pen’ option. They can’t type, stamp, draw boxes, or any of the other fun things those on computers can do.

On Thursday I did a Zoom training session which I’ll be sharing later. Dan, one of the participants, suggested assigning each student a question number from an exercise. They type the answer to only that question in the chat box. Can’t believe I hadn’t thought of this before 😉

My colleague Connor has been playing with the free VoiceMod software with his young learners. This allows you to change how you sound with a huge range of effects. He used it to add some fun to pronunciation drilling, with the kids trying to copy the way his voice sounded. It’s Windows only at the moment, with Mac and Linux versions in development.

I’ve been trying to get my second teenage group to consistently have their cameras on because it makes a huge difference to how the lesson feels. This recent Twitter thread made me frame my thoughts differently (click this tweet to see the whole thread):

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

It might be worth showing reluctant students that they can use speaker view and pin the teacher’s video. When using full screen they can hide the rest of the students, including their own video. It may just be that they don’t want to see themselves – I get it, I tend to try to minimise my video when I’m just chatting to one or two people on Skype or similar. 

Useful links

Scott Donald has a thought-provoking post about why you shouldn’t necessarily ‘hover’ in breakout rooms when students are doing activities, but instead give them some space to get on with it. 

Jane Maria Harding da Rosa’s blog is back 🙂 In her most recent post, she shares personal anecdotes about chanting and how it helps students remember new language. I’d highly recommend her articles called Creating Chants and Don’t Drawl the Drill if you’re looking for ways to improve your drilling and help students remember new language for longer, both in the online and offline classroom. If you’re teaching asynchronously, you could do this through recordings.

The Virtual Round Table conference happened on 8th and 9th May. I attended Graham Stanley’s session demonstrating how to set up an escape room in your online classroom. The recording is here:

There’s lots of useful information on escape rooms in ELT on this blog, including the definition of an escape room if you’re new to them: https://escaperoomelt.wordpress.com/

Hana Ticha is teaching asynchronously (i.e. not via a video conferencing tool like Zoom). She talks about the pros and cons of synchronous and asynchronous teaching, and how she aims to overcome the cons of asynchronous teaching in this post.

Kate Martinkevich shares a post from the Learning Scientists blog on six strategies for effective distance learning and notes how it could be applied to ELT.

Jim at Sponge ELT describes how he includes experimental lessons in the teacher development programme at his school, and some things teachers have been experimenting with when teching online.

THE REST OF THE SERIES

Each week I’ve summarised what our teachers and I have learnt during the transition to online teaching. Every post includes some tips about using Zoom, activities we’ve tried out (many adapted from the face-to-face classroom), and reflections on how my teaching and management have been affected by working from home. Here are all of the posts so far:

You may also find some other posts on my blog/which I’ve written useful:

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.

A story wot I wrote

A couple of days ago I came across a notebook I used to practise my handwriting when I was about 7 or 8. One double-page contains the beginnings of a short story, and disappointingly I didn’t finish it. In the tradition of good stories, the beginning raises more questions than it answers 😉

——

Jim Bolley was a boy of 8. He had curly red hair and liked walking and jogging.

Jim was walking home from school one day, when he spotted a flight of stairs. He climbed up the stairs. When he got to the top he came to a door which had a keyring with four keys on. He held the one that had been in the door.

As Jim opened the door, he saw three doors behind it. Jim tryed all the keys and then the door opened. He looked down and saw a cloak, a pair of boots, and a hat. So he put them on.

Then Jim tryed two of the keys in the next door, but it would’nt open.

‘If I’ve tried the other two keys, then the door must need all three.’ thought Jim.

So Jim used all three and the door opened. Behind that door was a ring, a pen and an inkwell full of ink.

He moved on to the last door and used all three keys. The lock clicked and he opened the door. Behind the door was a desk, a car and a watch.

Jim got the things out of the cupboards and put them at the top of the stairs. Jim opened the desk to put the pen and inkwell into it. As soon as they touched the desk, they turned into a manuel which said on the front:-

How to use the objects By Myst.Rey

On the first page it said:

Invisibility cloak     2

Silence boots           3

Flying hat                 4

Magic ring               5

Pen and inkwell     7

Size desk                 8

Car                           9

Watch                      10

——

I’d love to know what I was reading to prompt 8-year-old me to write this story. This was in the early 1990s, so well before Harry Potter, who is probably the owner of the most famous invisibility cloak now. I definitely remember having a joke book with puns like the one on the cover of the manual – there’s were probably a little more skilled though!

I also find it interesting that I spelt ‘tried’ incorrectly twice, then correctly the third time, but didn’t go back and correct myself. I also had trouble with ‘manual’, and there’s a lot of repetition in there. I’d got rid of some of it at the beginning of the story, but doors and keys feature frequently. There’s also a bit of punctuation which I don’t think I’ve seen for years:-

A picture of my notebook

And the story leaves lots of questions unanswered:

Where are the stairs? Just out in the room? Or was Jim walking down a long corridor to get home? For some reason I’m picturing the doors and the lock in a castle – some kind of big heavy key ring with old iron keys, but then, how on earth did he not notice it before?!

How did the car get into the third room? Why a pen and an inkwell, not just a pen? Why on earth did I decide that he needed a manual? Who wrote it?

Finally, why does the magic ring need two pages of the manual, but everything else just gets one?

Maybe you or your students have the answers 🙂

Reading a short story

This week, my colleague Lesley and I decided to work on a short story with our (two classes of) pre-intermediate students. We chose the Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia. We have four hours a day with them, divided into two two-hour lessons, so we dedicated the afternoon lessons to the story.

This post is intended as a list of ideas for using a short story, rather than a series of lessons you could necessarily follow yourself. If you want to follow it exactly, you need to find an abridged version of the story – I can’t find a suitable one to link to, unfortunately.

Monday

We showed the students pictures of Irene Adler (x3), Dr. Watson (x4) and Sherlock Holmes (x4), in that order, taken from various TV and film adaptations of the story. The students had to describe the people and decide what they had in common. Until they got to the final group of pictures, they didn’t know it was connected to Sherlock Holmes. After each group, we wrote a set of sentences on the board about the characters (the names were added later).

Character sentences

We then brainstormed everything the students already knew about Sherlock Holmes. Of my seven students, one had read a short story and two had seen the film. This is what we came up with:

Sherlock Holmes mind mapAfter this preparation, it was time to start reading the story. I read aloud while the students followed. I stopped on the second page of our abridged copy, so that the students had seen the description of Adler, Holmes and Watson, giving them enough information to add attach the names to the pictures.

To stop the students from trying to understand every last word of the story, I asked them to highlight every word they understood in their copies. This idea was inspired by Kevin Stein and really motivated the students. I put % on the board, and asked them to estimate how much they had understood so far, getting answers from 70-99%. They then worked together to fill in some of the gaps, highlighting any extra words they understood. Estimating the percentage again after this exercise, all of the students raised it. I pointed out that they didn’t need to understand every word to understand the story, but that it’s a good idea to focus on a couple of new words, and this is where we left lesson one.

Turn into and outsmart

Lesley had decided to start from the title, discussing what a scandal was. I never ended up doing this explicitly, but should have done at some point.

Tuesday

On day two we started by recapping what the students remembered from the first two pages of the story. I showed them the Watson/Holmes pictures again, and asked them to decide which Watson assisted which Holmes, based purely on the images. For example, Jude Law with Robert Downey Jr. and Martin Freeman with Benedict Cumberbatch. We talked about how they decided, using clues like the age of the photo and the kind of clothes they were wearing, as well as prior knowledge of the film. This introduced the idea of observation, and linked to a quote I had on the board: “You see, but you do not observe.”

In the next page of the story, Holmes lists four things about Watson which he has observed:

  • Watson is enjoying married life.
  • He has put on weight.
  • He was caught in the rain recently.
  • He has returned to his career as a doctor.

The students had to identify the paragraph where Watson confirmed each observation by writing a key word next to it, which the students decided would be married, fat, rain, job. They were very motivated when they realised this was easy to do, as they had initially said they couldn’t understand.

For the next sections of the story, Lesley and I had prepared pictures taken from screenshots of a YouTube video. I haven’t uploaded these, as I think they are probably covered by copyright. The students had to read the part of the story where the King describes his problem, and match what he said to the pictures. They then worked together to complete a gapped summary of his problem:

Sherlock Holmes gapfillSherlock Holmes completed gapfillFor the last ten minutes, they divided a piece of paper into four and wrote sentences describing everything they knew about the four main characters. For example:

  • Sherlock Holmes: He is observant. He lives at 221B Baker Street.
  • Doctor Watson: He is married. He works with Sherlock Holmes.
  • Irene Adler: She is very clever. She has a photo of the King and her.
  • The King: He wants to get married. He needs Sherlock’s help.

Wednesday

We started by recapping the summary from the end of Tuesday’s lesson. The students were amazed at how much they could remember! They also added to their sentences as we’d run out of time on Tuesday.

The next part was picture-based again, this time with the students predicting what they were about to read about. They  had pictures of Sherlock Holmes in disguise as a tramp, Godfrey Norton arriving at Irene Adler’s house, then leaving, and Adler leaving. There was another summarising gapfill for them to complete at this point.

Once they had checked their answers, they had to guess what would happen next. They were right in suspecting that Norton and Adler would get married, but were surprised when they read and discovered that Sherlock Holmes was the witness!

To finish the lesson, we read about Holmes’ plan to get the King’s photo back from Adler.

By this point, the students were flagging a little, but I told them we would finish the story the next day and they perked up a bit!

Thursday

The students read about how Holmes and Watson put the plan into action. They then watched three short clips from the TV episode, showing:

To finish the story, the students had to say what they thought would happen in the final four pages, then read to check whether they were right or not.

They then started to work on an 8-10 sentence summary of the main events of the whole story, which they had to finish for homework.

Friday

All of the students did their homework 🙂 They worked together to decide which sentences were necessary in the summaries, as some students had written a lot more than eight to ten.

I divided the class into two groups of three/four students each. Each group had to choose any scene from the story and reenact it. They had about 25 minutes to plan what they would say and do (luckily there was a spare classroom next door). They then performed their scene, to much raucous laughter – one student played the King visiting Sherlock Holmes. In the story he is wearing a mask, but she made do with her sunglasses and headscarf, which none of us expected! It was probably much funnier being in the room, but affective filters were definitely lowered! While watching the scenes, the other group had to decide who was playing who, and which part of the story it was. The task wasn’t very difficult, but they had used a lot of English to prepare for it, and they really enjoyed it, as they told me afterwards.

For the final half hour of the week, we played Hot Seat/Backs to the Board, using words taken from the story. We hadn’t really focussed on anything in particular, but words and phrases the students had picked up and started using during the week included: witness, framed photograph, panel (which Adler hid the photo behind), tube (which the smoke bomb was made of), false alarm, observe, Your Majesty…

When I asked them to think back to the first lesson and how they felt when they first looked at the story, the students all said it looked hard, but that now they could understand. There was a great sense of achievement on looking around the room.

Doing it again

I definitely would! And I wouldn’t change much at all – the students were engaged, motivated, and picked up a lot of new language along the way. Hopefully it will inspire them to read a little more in English, and remind them that it’s not necessary to understand every word of something to get the main points. One student did go home and look up all of the unknown words on Monday evening, but that was the only time she did it.

The final lesson was one of the most entertaining I’ve had for a long time. The students were very motivated by the role play, and put a lot more energy into it than I expected. (The role play was included as part of my Delta Professional Development Assignment.)

What other ideas do you have for using short stories in class?

Spanish Train by Chris de Burgh (linking words for fluent speech)

Alright, I admit it. I love Chris de Burgh. And while this is very unfashionable, I’m not ashamed in the slightest!

This week I was doubly grateful to him for providing me with an interesting story for my students to listen to (following on from ‘Story Prompts with #eltpics‘ last week) and a way to revise linking words when speaking quickly.

I showed the class the first slide of the presentation and asked them to decide what the story of the song is. They had to include something about all of the pictures in their story.

Once they had shared the stories, they listened to the song to find out who had the closest version. (The link in the presentation should take you to the video below)

I then showed them the pronunciation slides and elicited the rules.

Finally they practised saying lines from their own copies of the lyrics.

As their homework, they should find a poem or song of their own and record it, paying particular attention to the linking sounds.

Other ‘story songs’ by Chris de Burgh that you might find interesting include:

Enjoy!

Story Prompts with #eltpics

In April 2010 I attended a talk by Laura Patsko at the IH Prague Conference about storytelling in an adult classroom. This week I finally got round to adapting it to make use of some #eltpics (pictures for teachers by teachers which can be used under a Creative Commons licence) and thought I would share the presentation and the lesson plan with you. Feel free to use it however you like. (My context was an Advanced group, but it could be used with other levels)

I showed them the first slide of the presentation and told them we were going to look at six pictures and talk about the ideas in the word cloud. I copied the cloud onto each picture so that they would have some ideas.

Once they had talked about each picture and I had given them any extra vocabulary they needed, they voted on the most interesting picture. I copied and pasted it onto the final slide, right-clicked on it and chose ‘send to back’. We were revising narrative tenses, used to and would, hence the orange box, but you could change it or delete it entirely.

I told the class to imagine that this picture was an image taken from the midpoint of a film. They were going to create the story of the film. Half of the class worked on the story leading up to the picture, the rest worked on the story after the picture. They were allowed to take a few notes, but could not write out the whole story.

After about fifteen minutes I then reorganised the groups. Each new group had one ‘beginning’ student and one ‘ending’ student. They then had to put their halves together to create one logical complete story.

The final step in the process was for each pair to tell their story to the group. I recorded it using Audacity and emailed it to the students after class. Next week we will focus on their use of narrative tenses, used to and would based on the recordings.

One-to-one variation

I also (unintentionally) taught the same lesson 1-2-1 when only one student turned up from a class of five! We followed the same process, but got through it much faster, finishing all of these steps in about 30 minutes. Once we’d recorded the story, the student then typed out what she had said. We then went through a series of drafts, each time focussing on one or two changes, for example tenses, punctuation and choice of vocabulary. This is the document we produced based on the picture of the two girls at the castle door:

What worked

  • The students found the pictures interesting and were motivated to discuss them.

  • They enjoyed being able to create their own stories.
  • They used their English in a natural way, so it recording their stories really showed the areas which they need to focus on.
  • In the 1-2-1 lesson, the student was given an intensive personalised focus on her errors. She also learned about punctuation in a relevant way, particularly the punctuation of speech (which I personally find can be difficult to teach/learn)
What I should change
  • At the beginning of the lesson I should have introduced the idea of storytelling in more detail. We could have talked about why we like stories and what a good story requires.
  • With more time we could have created more detailed stories, adding in information about the characters, using more adverbs etc.

If you choose to use this lesson (and even if you don’t!) please let me know what you think and if you have any suggestions to improve it.
Enjoy!