Friday, 17 November 2017

How to build an active vocabulary: Part 1

What I often mull over is how to invent new ways of practising vocabulary and motivating students to go beyond the basics, which is a challenge for teachers themselves.

Understanding and explaining new words is fine, but safely storing words in the long-term memory or coming up with the right word in the right context is a different kettle of fish.

Personally, I am constantly reviewing my methods of anchoring words and eliciting them from my students and therefore eternally struggling to devise more effective activities in order to achieve my goal.

In the present and the next few posts, I will provide a hodgepodge of ideas about how to render words more memorable and in effect build an active vocabulary.

The guiding principle is flipping the multiple-choice questions typically used in EFL exams and consequently in most course books across the spectrum.

By way of illustration, I will quote a paragraph from Eduardo Mendoza’s novel An Englishman in Madrid:

Still stunned, and with an anguished look on his face not dissimilar to that of the Christ that gave the church its name, Anthony Whitelands stumbled out into the street, pushing his way through the endless flow of the faithful. Beyond the entrance to the church the snow was coming down hard, and he was soon lost in a whirling mass of heavy snowflakes so thick and white they seemed to leave the rest of the world in impenetrable darkness. This phenomenon seemed to him to reflect his state of mind, now the scene of a desperate battle. No sooner did he decide to surrender his will to Paquita’s disconcerting entreaty than part of him rebelled against such cruel imposition. There was no doubt that the daring if tacit way she had offered herself to him aroused his desire, but he thought it might be too high a price to pay. Did he have to give up on worldwide recognition just when it was within his grasp? And she had not even offered him an explanation, simply appealing to his weakness for her. It was outrageous!

I have picked the nouns which I intend to explore with my students, (highlighted in the extract) and those are:
·       flow
·       darkness
·       battle
Here are the sets of collocating adjectives or participles used as adjectives:
·       steady, continuous, constant, smooth
·       thick, total, partial, gathering
·       difficult, losing, legal, constant

The students are given the groups of adjectives and asked to find the nouns in the text which can collocate with all the items of each group. They could then be asked to make their own examples using the different adjectives with the same noun.
The lights suddenly went off leaving us in total darkness.
The gathering darkness began to envelop the forest making it eerie and frightening.

I find this approach much easier and more meaningful for my students. Rather than having to explain the context for each of the four different items of the multiple-choice question, you focus on one and explore the denotative and connotative potential of each noun by looking at the collocating adjectives.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Context shifting and Sunflakes!

Activating the mind is an issue that constantly preoccupies me as a teacher in general and, evidently, as a language teacher.
It is understood that we can’t make a brainteaser out of everything we intend to teach to our students, but we can definitely capitalise on anything that helps us get the students to think, compare, contrast and tease out meaning rather than spoon-feeding them incessantly.

I find it hard to keep replenishing the stock of activities borrowed or of my own invention which will stimulate and compel the students to engage in any given task.
As I have often claimed before, poetry and literature   -- in the right balance and carefully chosen for the right level of students -- possess this power to get them to puzzle out meaning from context and spend this extra time over lexis that we would rather they saved in their memory.

While trying to think of a way of presenting a poem called Sunflakes to my students, I coined a term for the task which I devised for it to refer to the thinking process involved: context-shifting. It might work for a limited number of texts, but with a modicum of resourcefulness and imagination one could find other texts – literary or not -- in which to use a similar technique.

Before I suggest my way of presenting the poem, let me just point out that it would work fine with intermediate-level groups –both children and adult.

Here is the task and the poem in PDF form:
Read the following poem and try to find the missing item in the compound nouns in the poem. Some, but not all, of the blank spaces are to be filled with the same item.  
I have highlighted in red the items to be left blank for the students to supply the answers:

A further suggestion is that depending on the students’ mastery of relevant vocabulary, one could create fewer or more gaps to be filled. For instance, I knew my students were not acquainted with compound words such as “snowdrifts” or “snowbanks” so I just left them intact. They would make the task to gather the missing word too difficult when it was already quite a bit of a challenge.    

I hope you have fun!

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Arts and science in teaching language or The Story of Grass

One of the challenges in teaching, at least as far as I am concerned, is the difficulty in conveying my enthusiasm, as an adult with more experience of the world, for ideas which are perhaps not within my students’ grasp. But then again, as with everything in this world, that’s what is worth fighting for: whatever eludes us.

My attitude could be described as having my feet on the ground while my head is in the clouds! Most of my students are children and teenagers who are obviously learning general English in order to use it later in life as the situation may arise: graduate studies in English, job requirement, travel, moving abroad.

I therefore feel that there should be a strong practical core to the course which prepares students for everyday encounters in English as well as understanding a range of texts from different disciplines while at the same time they get a taste of literature and poetry. The latter will allow them to develop their imagination and creativity – essential tools in learning anything really.

As I have pointed out in a previous post, I quite like working on themes whenever this is possible. So, this time it was the theme of “lowly” grass. It all started with the Great Dust Storm (Woodie Guthrie) which led to a discussion of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and the erosion of the soil in many states across America.

I then thought that I needed some scientific back-up for what was introduced as a creative activity which would elicit descriptive language by asking the students to explain what is happening in the muted video of the song frame by frame.  
This particular group of students are well on their way to the Cambridge Proficiency exam so I picked out a gapped text in the Cambridge Advanced English test book (volume 1) published by Cambridge University Press. The text is entitled The Story of Grass and it is a review of Graham Harvey’s The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass by John Carey. The students get a rough idea about the importance of grass and its gradual but irreversible destruction by intensive farming and the use of chemical fertilisers to maintain yields in cereal monocultures. At the same time, they improve their understanding of coherence and cohesion, which constitute  a big stumbling block as their understanding of these issues in their mother tongue is poor.
For those interested, the gapped text can be found here:

But where would grass be without Emily Dickinson’s exaltation of it in her poem The Grass Has so Little to Do. After my students had been filled in on the science of grass and its benefits for the environment, they were entitled to some fun. Therefore, I gave them the poem with a glossary in the form of example sentences and asked them to answer some questions I prepared. This was set as homework so that the students could have more time to brood over the poem. The questions ensure a more accurate understanding than a cursory reading and sensitise the students to the figurative use of language. Here is the poem and the questions:

Finally, I encouraged my students to listen to the poem being recited online. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were several readings of the poem. Here is a link directing to one of them:

I do hope I have made the case for arts and science working together in perfect harmony to hone linguistic ability.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

How to sharpen up observation and use of detail in writing

Difficulties in using detail
One of the challenges in teaching a foreign language is how to motivate and guide the students especially at a higher level in using descriptive/narrative detail.
Details are not add-ons; they are rather the manifestation of an inquisitive mind and a watchful eye. In other words, asking one to flesh out one’s ideas with all the relevant details presupposes that one is already being encouraged at school by science and first language teachers to use one’s senses in order to allow all kinds of information to reach one’s mind through the sensory organs.

How Can one define detail?
An equally important consideration is how we define detail: certainly, it is not adjectives preceding or following nouns or adverbs before adjectives or adverbials. It is so much more than that and certainly closely bound up with coordination or subordination and sentence complexity.
However, to the extent that a language teacher can interfere, there are ways of sensitising students to the significance of zooming in on detail.

Examples of how to engage students’ attention in detail
I make a point of first exposing students to a basic (devoid of detail) short extract and subsequently overlaying the extract with all the details in place. It is a passive way of indicating the huge difference detail can make to our writing, but a necessary step before engaging students in more demanding tasks where they have to “fill in” the details.
Let me cite a couple of examples though they are by no means exhaustive or thorough since detail is difficult to disentangle from the structure of the text. They will only poorly serve the purpose.
Ø Here is an extract from Graham Swift’s novel Last Orders with its detail missing:
The road went on, [                                                            ], like [                                                                                            ], the one sure thing in the world.
This is the extract in full detail:
The road went on,[black and curving and cat’s-eyed,] like [the one sure thing in the wet and the dark and the spray,] the one sure thing in the world.
Ø And another from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:
Snow was falling [                       ] upon the castle and its grounds now. The [                                    ]Beauxbatons carriage looked like a [                                        ] pumpkin next to the [                                ] house that was Hagrid’s cabin, while the Durmstrang ship’s portholes were glazed with ice, [                                                         ].
Snow was falling [thickly] upon the castle and its grounds now. The [pale blue] Beauxbatons carriage looked like a [large, chilly, frosted] pumpkin next to the [iced gingerbread] house that was Hagrid’s cabin, while the Durmstrang ship’s portholes were glazed with ice, [the rigging white with frost].
I will now cite an extract in which it is impossible to tease out the details. It is also a good example of how the specifics can displace the whole since it is the parts that figure prominent and capture the reader’s imagination. The last sentence of the paragraph best illustrates this precedence of the part(s) over the whole.  
Ø The extract is from Christopher Paolini’s The Eldest:
As Eragon listened, his gaze wandered and alighted upon a small girl prowling behind the queen. When he looked again, he saw that her shaggy hair was not silver, like many of the elves, but bleached white with age, and that her face was creased and lined, like a dry withered apple. She was no elf, nor dwarf, nor – Eragon felt – even human. She smiled at him, and he glimpsed rows of sharp teeth.

A more active engagement
After showing the detail missing in the first version, students could be asked to “reverse” one aspect of the description: for example, they could focus on the face but instead of old and creased, it should be firm and fresh like a rose in bud or whatever they think appropriate for a young face.

Something to look forward to
In a future post, I will suggest further ways of enhancing  students’ power of observation to notice subtle detail and try their hand at achieving a similar result.


Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Autumn is here: Η Παράτολμη Ηλιαχτίδα

Autumn is here, which means we have put summer behind though its joys are still trailing us – the warm sun, the calm sea with only the slightest ripple, the distant cries of the children frolicking in the street.

But soon this will be a dim memory: the sun will be laid low by the victorious clouds; the sea waves will swell and lash the obliging sand mercilessly and a strange silence will reign in the streets like life has gone to sleep worn with the boisterous pleasures of the summer.

This is a poem I wrote to celebrate the hope still nestling in our hearts before the last glimmer is obliterated by the ruthless advance of winter.

It is for my Grecophone readers, and I hope it will help us through the darkness of the imminent winter.

Η παράτολμη ηλιαχτίδα

Μια αχτίδα πλανερή και παράτολμη
Ένα σύννεφο περνοδιάβαινε μολυβένιο
Και κρουνούς πολλαπλώς υποσχόμενο

Με ρωγμές και χρυσίζουσες ανταύγειες
Μιαν ανέλπιδη και άνιση έδινε μάχη
Δίχως δείγματα για ένα αίσιο τέλος

Μα μεσούντος θριάμβου προδεδικασμένου
Εχθρός προαιώνιος και σύμμαχος άστατος
Ένας άνεμος μ’ ακατάσχετη ορμή έπνευσε

Διασκορπίζοντας με μιας τις υγρές αντιστάσεις
Η ηλιαχτίδα, σαλεμένη από νίκη περίτρανη
με τόξα φωτός το ασπρομπλέ της πεδίο κεντούσε

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Paintings enrich teaching and can inspire students

Teachers use all kinds of material in class: from course books which are a safe guide through grammar and gradually built vocabulary to images, magazines, books, videos and websites.
The same type of material can serve different purposes in a language classroom depending on the teacher’s imagination and goals but also on the students’ response, level and ability.

I will illustrate how we can exploit the same material or source at different levels and with different groups of students in mind. To do this, I will use a painting called La Strada di Casa by the Italian artist Carlo Carra.

La Strada di Casa by Carlo Carra, 1900

The image can be used as a visual stimulus for prompting descriptive language at any level. It has, I find, a haunting air about it which makes it appealing to any age.

Therefore, at an elementary level one would limit oneself to such descriptive language as:
Ø It is night time.
Ø The street is empty.
Ø The windows are shut.
and so on.

At a more advanced level, however, one would try to elicit
Ø A cloak of darkness spreads over the town.
Ø The stump of a tree is too conspicuous to ignore.
Ø The bright moon sheds an eerie glow over the dwellings at the end of the street.

The next question could be about the atmosphere, and again depending on the students’ level, one would expect a range of vocabulary and structures:
Ø The place looks spooky.
Ø The street is deserted.
Ø Not a soul to be seen in the street.
Ø A ghostly light illuminates the last houses in the row.
Ø The place is steeped in mystery while the ominous sky foreshadows an imminent catastrophe.
Ø The tree forms a stark silhouette against the sky providing no safe refuge for any stragglers.

Description apart, there is a dramatic quality in the image on which the teacher could capitalise.

My suggestion for further language development is inviting the students to populate the place in the image with any creatures – human or non-human – that they find appropriate justifying perhaps their choices and proceed to ask them to write a conversation or a story including all the creatures they have added or an extract of an imaginary book.

Again, the projects would vary depending on the level and age of the students but would fire their imagination, nevertheless.
I have created an animation to help anyone who might be short of ideas or needs a little bit of impetus to get started and I have written a sample extract to use with my advanced students.

Here you can see the animation.

And here is the sample extract:

With adults one could ask whether they can think of a film or more that they associate with the image, which would lead to further discussion and exchange of ideas. It could even develop into a class debate about which film bears the most striking similarity with the picture and the atmosphere it evokes.
Just a clue at this point: it strongly reminded me of a film made in 2004 entitled The Village.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Extensive reading

Like everything in life, too much of a good thing can turn out to be a bad thing. The same principle applies to reading for learning a language or honing your skills in your first language.
My point is that there is too much of intensive reading in course books but not enough extensive reading.

Intensive reading can help focus on grammar issues and is useful when the teacher needs to assign a number of words which will be learnt and tested and hopefully added to the learner’s active or passive vocabulary. It is also useful when the teacher tries to introduce the learner to the subtleties of different styles of writing.

However, if intensive reading is not complemented by extensive reading – to the extent that the level of the students allows – it makes teaching and learning dry, unimaginative and, what is more to the point, slows down progress in and appreciation of the language taught.

A structure or a word that has been presented in a short text must occur in different contexts and registers before it is safely stored in the learner’s long-term memory. The teacher can achieve this by exposing the students to different kinds of reading material.

The choice of the material and the goals that will be set at the end of the reading activity depends on the students’ level and interests but also on the teacher’s expectations each time s/he engages the students in reading.

Personally, I use all kinds of reading material – songs, poems, readers, extracts from novels and newspaper and magazine articles on a multitude of topics.

I know my students quite well so I choose books or topics that will stimulate and maintain their interest. I sometimes stretch the students by giving them a text that is challenging for their level of English but my expectations are lowered accordingly.
I will illustrate with an example. 

One of my favourite novels is School for Love by Olivia Manning. There is a part at the beginning of the book where the orphan boy Felix first meets the only relative left after his parents’ loss, Miss Bohun, who evidently tries to take advantage of him though he is too young to realise, but the reader does. The boy seems to instantly forge a link with the cat left there by an army officer and his wife before they left for England.

I gave this extract                  to B1- level students asking them general questions which elicit their understanding of the atmosphere and the relationships between the people.

Some of the questions I ask are:
·       Who is the boy? (someone who has lost his parents)
·       Who is the woman? (a relative who is offering accommodation but not for nothing)
·       Whose cat is it? (Miss Bohun’s – left behind by an English couple)
·       Do you think Miss Bohun buys the cat food in the Old City? (too mean for that kind of thing)
·       Is it fair for Felix to share expenses with Miss Bohun?
·       How do we know she is trying to exploit him? (She put down Telephone and Kerosene twice)

You could add questions to this list depending on your students and their response to literature.
After I had explained a few words I picked out as more important for my students and for understanding the extract, I asked them to imagine they were Felix and write a letter to a friend so as to explain how their circumstances have changed after the loss of the parents and how they feel about Miss Bohun and the cat.
Each student demonstrated a different approach to the task, which made the activity all the more rewarding.

Now for more advanced students I created a word-formation exercise and kept the number of questions down as you can see in the document below: