Friday, 21 April 2017

If your students do not feel very creative or paintings 2

 I often wonder whether we are asking of our students too much when we throw images or texts at them on the basis of which they are expected to “create something”.

Even the most resourceful people would occasionally be hard put to produce anything of value. Therefore, we must be prepared to provide some input to help learners along when they are not at their most creative or  assign some other task related to the topic.

Here is an example using a painting. In fact the suggestions which follow are meant for advanced learners.

Peach Blossoms—Villiers-le-Bel by Childe Hassam

The feature of the image that is susceptible of different interpretations and open to discussion is the way the trunks and branches interlock. One may want to start by eliciting words that describe the shape (a triangle, almost a heart!) or the way the branches curve to the left as if the wind is weaving intricate patterns with them.

One could ask the students whether they could think of another caption for the painting. The actual one is Peach Blossoms.
If there are no ideas, here are some among which they would be invited to choose from:

·       The embrace of the branches (why do branches embrace each other? A product of luck, they have nothing else to embrace etc.)

·       Unwieldy branches (what makes branches unruly? The wind, the rain, the elements )

·       The blossoms that wanted to take over the land

·       The blossoms that could not resist the music of nature

·       Curling up to face the elements

They could now embark on expanding one of those ideas into a story or a poem.

The teacher could encourage them to base their stories or poems on facts, which means doing a bit of research online. I did a bit of reading in Wikipedia to write the following:
Here is the link for what inspired my story:

The blossoms that wanted to take over the land
Once upon a time blossom trees lived in ignorance of their power. Every spring their branches and twigs sprouted countless blossoms which attracted hundreds of buzzing guests.

 Blossom trees thought that the visitors were enchanted by their beauty until an innocent-looking bee trusted them with the big secret: they (blossom trees) supplied bees with all the protein they needed to survive through their pollen -- and all for nothing!

 Blossom trees refused to grow flowers the next spring if they were to get nothing in return for their offer of food and sustenance to bees. When summer came, horrified they realised that they bore no fruit, they were light and barren – not their solid productive selves. 

And then it occurred to them that giving was not unreciprocated. They started to pray and pray for the bees to come back next year. And the bees did come back, and the blossom trees danced and danced with wild exuberance till the cascades of their riotous petals covered the ground far and wide.

Blossom trees were satisfied that by shedding their blossoms they had conquered the world around them.

If the students do not feel like writing, here is some reading they could do and present the main ideas orally to the class:

A group of students could read this part:

In Japan cherry trees are grown not for their fruits, but only for their beautiful blossom. The trees seldom bear fruit: when they occasionally do, it is inedible. The days in which the cherry trees blossom mark a very auspicious event: festivals, parties and other important events are planned to coincide with it, so as to garner favour with their ancestors. Japanese call raw horsemeat sakura, or cherry blossom, after its pinkish colour.

Picnicking underneath a cherry tree in bloom, in Japan, is called hanami, literally “flower viewing”. What started as a ritual at the imperial court is now a national obsession, with more and more cherry blossom trees being planted throughout Japan. Each year, the sakura zensen or “cherry blossom forecast” is released by the Japanese metrological office, and is tracked as it moves northward up Japan along with the warm weather. The blossom starts in Okinawa in January, reaches Tokyo around March or April, and then heads north to Hokkaido. The blossoms have come to symbolise the transience of life and so pop up frequently in Japanese art, film and music, as well as on kimonos, tea cups, plates and other everyday objects.

Another group would be given this one:

The Queen gets a sprig of blossom from Glastonbury each year around Christmas time. The blossom comes from a tree on Wearyall Hill above the town, which is supposed to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, mourner of Christ and alleged bearer of the holy grail, more than 2,000 years ago. The tree is a variety of common hawthorn called Crataegus monogyna 'Biflora’ because it flowers twice – once in spring and again in winter, shortly after Christmas.
Many cuttings have been taken from it over the years: the most recent tree was planted in 1951, and badly damaged in 2010. The church of St John also has three sacred thorns, one of which is more than 80 years old, and which has produced grafts and cuttings that have been planted all over the world.

And the following for a third group:

The may tree or hawthorn is the only British plant to be named after the month in which it blooms. It is the origin of both the Maypole and the phrase “Ne’er cast a clout till may be out” – which refers not to the ending of the month, but to the opening of the flowers. Though the may is traditionally associated with May Day, it blossoms in the middle of the month (or even later, this year) not at the beginning. This is due to the changes made to the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Before this, May Day would have occurred 11 days later, exactly the time when the may tree breaks into flower.
It is considered extremely unlucky to bring hawthorn flowers inside the house, a superstition more widely believed than for any other species of plant in the British Isles. There are many possible reasons for this, but the most convincing is to do with its smell. Hawthorn flowers have a heavy, complicated scent, the distinctive element of which is triethylamine, which is also one of the first chemicals produced by a dead human body when it starts to decay.
On the other hand, triethylamine also smells like semen; hence its positive association with wild springtime romps in the fields.

All of the above have been removed from The Telegraph of 20 April 2017 (Some quite interesting facts about blossom)

You could even decorate your story to make it more alluring. I did mine:

I hope you have lots of fun with your students.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Short extracts: great resources

Extracts from books, especially modern novels and stories can provide teachers with a wealth of material for using in class in many imaginative ways. I have illustrated this in one of my previous posts by offering an example of how one could exploit Chapter 56 of the famous novel The Life of Pi .

This time I will use an extract from Penelope Lively’s Going Back.

And that night I dream of lions. They have escaped from their cage and they are coming for me, rushing down on me. … And there is no escape, they will have me. But somehow they do not. They pass me and beyond me there is this woman and they will have her instead. I see, but she is not afraid of them. She stands still and they stop and she is stroking them. They are not lions any more: they have got smaller. I wake up crying.

The language in the above is quite simple – suitable for intermediate students. One may start by asking whether the students can describe any of their recurring dreams/nightmares. It is one way of introducing the theme and normally it triggers a lot of discussion.

The extract lends itself to introducing narrative in the present and constitutes a good model for tense use, which the teacher can point out to their students and ask them to write a short text of their own using the extract as an organizing frame.

Sometimes when the students are required to create something, it is advisable for the teacher to do the same so that there is an exchange of ideas in all directions. The creative process should feel like a collective effort rather than dictated by the teacher to the students especially when it is free writing rather than an exam task.

In compliance with this principle I wrote the following to share with my students:

And that night I dream of soft toys. There are hundreds of them lying all over the room: on the bed, on the floor, on the chairs. I am surrounded by them and I feel on top of the world. But just as I am about to cry with joy, they come to life and they begin to smother me. I lie squashed in a corner of the room when suddenly the door is flung open and it is my father …

Sunday, 9 April 2017


April is here with its sunny spells and rainy spots – as susceptible to change as anyone in love to mood swings.
I wrote the following under the influence of mercurial April.


April is the month
Of poets and rain
Of sunny solitude
The length and breadth
Of one’s being

He comes
With a load
Of loud memories
Cramming into
The scarlet of a cherry

He is cruel and frolicsome
At a time
Like a white rose
In the moonlight
Of a puddle

And he leaves us
As gingerly
As he joins us
In a trail
Of scents
Tucked away

Antonio Lopez Garcia

Friday, 7 April 2017

Paintings in teaching 1

Teaching language means really teaching anything that can be put in words, and this comprises the whole range of arts and sciences. I have often mulled over the question of how a student’s general knowledge and sensitivity to their own language determines how much they can learn in a foreign language.

The answer is obvious: the more content there is the more words you will need to clothe it and the more sophisticated the structures.  Students who read books normally perform better in all four skills, notably in writing.

The ability of a language teacher to intervene in the overall scheme of things at schools is almost zero. However, I find that there are ways in which we can provide stimuli for our students to broaden their horizons and excite their curiosity for learning.

Paintings make great springboards for writing or discussion while at the same time they may serve to introduce students to art.

 Depending on what the painting depicts, you could approach it in different ways. You might want to focus on vocabulary development or on a particular grammatical pattern. The possibilities are endless exactly like the paintings.

I will begin with a painting by one of my favourite painters, Frederick Childe Hassam. It is called Moonlight on the Sound, and it has a calming, even mesmerising effect on me.

 After allowing some time for the students to have a close look at the image, you could do the following or any of the following depending on your group and aims:

Ask the students to think of other compound words with “light” (sunlight, twilight, candlelight, daylight, floodlight, spotlight etc)

Teach the phrasal verb “make out” and ask what they would be able to make out if they stood on the shore, if they made part of this seascape.

Could they see the hues of blue? Could they hear the lapping of the waves? Could they smell the salt of the sea?

Refer the students to the colour thesaurus for a first acquaintance with the wealth of words for hues of blue.

Give the students the following words and ask them to write a poem:
sail, float, lull,  effortless,  fade

Introduce a sea poem. There are plenty of them.
Here is one:

The sea is never still. 
It pounds on the shore 
Restless as a young heart, 

The sea speaks 
And only the stormy hearts 
Know what it says: 
It is the face 
of a rough mother speaking. 

The sea is young. 
One storm cleans all the hoar 
And loosens the age of it. 
I hear it laughing, reckless. 

They love the sea, 
Men who ride on it 
And know they will die 
Under the salt of it 

Let only the young come, 
Says the sea. 

Let them kiss my face 
And hear me. 
I am the last word 
And I tell 
Where storms and stars come from. 

By Carl Sandburg

Friday, 31 March 2017

Prepositions: the power of small

Prepositions are one of the most difficult aspects of the English language to teach for various reasons, the most important of which is the untranslatability or lack of equivalents of English prepositions in other languages.

Even categorizing prepositions is a huge challenge as there is so much overlap between them. “In”, “on”, “to” and “at”, to mention but a few, are used to indicate place/movement or time and in countless metaphorical expressions. And this is the tip of the iceberg.

One needs a certain methodology to explain the use of prepositions though admittedly the most effective way is exposure to the language. However, a large number of students tend to miss prepositions, to somehow overlook them when reading as they are not – at least not always – vehicles of lexical meaning though of course essential for accuracy (grammatical meaning).

I have a flexible attitude when it comes to prepositions, which depends on the age of the students, their level in English and their strong intelligence(s) as well as the representability of the given preposition.

One thing I make sure about even at a very basic level of English is that the students are “alerted” to the presence of prepositions. For instance, I remove some sentences from a lesson to which they have had broad exposure and create a gap filling exercise. The gaps are to be filled with prepositions though with young children I do not always make explicit use of the term “preposition”.
Interestingly, the result varies from those who get most of the gaps right to those who have totally missed their presence in the text.

In junior courses there is usually some visual representation of prepositions of place though not of movement. However, I do find that the preposition “to” is seriously under-represented in visual terms in most course books at any level despite the fact that phrases like go to school or go to the park are introduced in junior 1 books.  My painting skills are virtually none so I often use a horizontal arrow to indicate movement for the preposition “to”.

And from the above I can more easily move to “into”:

There is no doubt that as language input increases, patterns begin to arise, and what was merely a hazy understanding before becomes embedded knowledge. Even so questions do come up at more advanced levels, which somehow must be answered. An example is the use of “to” in phrases such as
He fell to his death.
The essay was pared down to a mere four paragraphs.
in which case I resort to abstractions such as “to” is followed by the result of the action of the verb. This may not clarify things for all learners, but it does help with quite a few.

Poems or children’s books are ideal for presenting and practising the use of prepositions. I will provide an example of a children’s poem which can be used for practicing or testing the prepositions “over”, “across” and “to”. I created a slideshow with an animated horse that performs the actions described in the poem. It is great fun to watch and read over and over. The poem is rhythmic even mesmerizing.
Here it is:

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Using images in teaching language

Despite the sophistication of the tools available to teachers today, sometimes the greatest lessons can materialise out of  meagre means such as an image from a newspaper.
Images can be used for oral production, for grammar or vocabulary development and, on occasion, for creative writing.

I will provide an example of an image I used in my class with intermediate-level students.

 By Sanak Roy Choudhury 

The image is entitled Flying dreams and it is too imaginative a caption to give away. It is preferable to try and elicit captions from the students though I chose to leave this for the end.

To begin with, the students can be invited to describe the picture. You could provide some words that would help the students along such as trail of smoke, formation, air acrobatics, white foam, crashing of waves.

The image has two levels: the sea with the children watching and the sky with the air acrobatics.
I see this as an opportunity to explain one of the principles of writing: do not mix the two in the description but after you have described both levels, search for a way to connect them. For example, the children are dreaming of being pilots and this is why they are there or the children just happened to be enjoying a day out and the air acrobatics inspired them to take to the air when they grow up.

One can focus on grammar points which are rarely raised in course books. In this particular case, one could practise noun/adjective + past participle compounds.
The formation is Y-shaped. In fact one of my students did point this out.
Similarly if you use your left hand, you are left-handed.
If you leave a story open, it is open-ended.
If you make something with your hands, it is hand-made.
If you have dinner lit by candles, it is a candlelit dinner.

I never miss the chance to throw in some vocabulary extension, and trail is my favourite here.
a trail of blood
a trail of robberies
a trail of destruction
a trail to follow

Finally you might want to ask the students to speculate about  the future of the two kids:
20 years on:  What happened to the two kids? Did they become pilots? Why (not)?

The actual information accompanying the image may be worth revealing as, in many cases, it confirms guesses or surprises students whose guesses were wide of the mark. It could even lead to extension work:
Where is this place?
Why do they have events like this?
How popular are events like this?
Do you have similar happenings in your country?

I cite the description of the event in the image I discussed here:

This event was photographed in Muscat, capital city of Oman during the celebration of the 46th national day. Red Arrows from UK made us witness some spectacular air acrobatics filling up the sky like a canvas flooded with vibrant colours. Kids were enjoying the moments as the aeroplanes were flying very low and close to the beach area.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Like in a Greek Tragedy

I am a lover of the light and the sun.

However, sometimes the powers of

the dark take hold of us and our 

writings. Here is the result: 


Like shadows in the mist
We go-- starved of life
Like wrinkled leaves
Sapless, off the tree
We drift in a cold merciless wind.

We quench our thirst
With starless darkness
We feed on night ghosts
At times we see death in the face
And wish we were in his clutches

Away, away
From us

Maria Danoussi