Sunday, 15 April 2018

Forever stories: The River in the Pines

Forever stories: The River in the Pines

Stories are the pith of our existence: we tell stories to pass the time, we listen to or watch stories to entertain ourselves or to excite our imagination or even to test our limits (thrillers will do that for you). Books tell stories; poems can be narrative; films show stories just about anything. There is a very basic feature in stories: beginning, middle, end – though not all stories are told in this strict order.

Reading or watching stories has its unquestionable merits for language learners, but creating stories brings together all kinds of skills learned and can be entertaining and rewarding.
So this time I used a song to elicit story-telling from my students. The song happens to be one of my favourites though my criteria for choosing it were other than my personal preferences.

The song is The River in the Pines by Joan Baez. It tells the sad story of two star-crossed lovers who live in Wisconsin, him a river boy and her a maiden.

It is evocative swaying between spring and autumn, happiness and sorrow and engaging all our senses: birds singing, cedars whispering, rapids pounding, birds twittering, a riot of colour in spring and autumn, a cold gravestone where wild flowers are left and smells of budding trees and a blooming rose all in one mind-boggling go.

This time I thought I would tease my students’ brains by preparing a slide show and providing a key word or phrase on each slide and asking them to compose a story on the basis of the slide show. Working with the visual stimuli before the learners make up their stories helps clear up some lexical or cultural issues that might detract from the thorough enjoyment of the song while the key words facilitate production but also per force maintain a certain level of language.

Students’ stories can be read and shared in class or stuck on a noticeboard (traditional methods of presentation still have their value) and finally the song can be played so that the students can discuss how their tales relate to the one told by the song.  

Here is the link for the song.

And here is the slide show turned to video.


Sunday, 1 April 2018

Videos, co-operation and fun: how to linger on words and get the most out of them

It is often hard to find material that will suit your students’ level and interests. For me ideal in-class material is relatively brief and manageable, stimulates the average student’s interest and lends itself to repetition without getting tedious. (not asking for much!)

Another challenge in my teaching has always been how to get the learners to treat words like curiosities found on a deserted beach on one of their outings. They would then scrutinise them perhaps fumbling them clumsily to begin with but getting more and more dexterous as they spent more time taking them in, sizing them up.

It is a tall order expecting young people who are used to today’s fast pace of life and cursory manner of looking at things to slow down and linger on words. However, this is what I often seek to do mustering whatever method I can come up with to hold their attention.

Here is a video which lends itself to “deconstructing”. 

Bird of Paradise

I used it with teenage students preparing for their Proficiency exam.
You can divide your students into four groups and ask them to watch focusing on content the first time while the second time each group will be assigned to note down one specific group of words: verbs for group 1, nouns for group 2, adjectives for group 3 and adverbs for group 4. They might need to watch a third time.

You would need to pre-teach a couple of words that your students may not be familiar with.
I also showed a map of New Guinea so they could relate the facts to the place.

I provided images for “tutu” and “plume” and a mother tongue equivalent as well as an example in English for “ward off”, “rag”, “polish” and “meticulous”.

Once the students have watched the video, you can invite them to contribute the words they have written down to “reconstruct” the video. They may need a bit of spurring on, but it works well.

The most important thing is that they collectively recreate real language and mull over stringing together words to make meaningful and complete sentences in a playful and enjoyable way.

Indicative groups the students will come up with:
display ground
ward off
too late
snake skin

cleaning cloth

pass on


tempt in

flies off






dance steps




dance floor





The exercise might hold some theoretical interest in that I am not sure how easy it is to isolate different parts of the speech while listening. It didn’t seem to inhibit my students, but of course it is open to testing out!

Sunday, 18 March 2018

The politics and dilemmas of foreign language learning

We language teachers – or many of us anyhow -- deal with  students of all ages and backgrounds and with a different potential for learning and making progress.

One issue with which I have frequently grappled is whether students of a foreign language, especially children and teenagers, can overcome the obstacle of insufficient knowledge of the world and lack of familiarity with concepts which they are called upon to first grasp in the foreign language.  The problem is further exacerbated by unreasonable demands placed on learners in the form of formal examinations to be sat or proof of language production for grading purposes. It seems to me that those and similar constraints slow down real learning, which can only occur at different paces determined by the learner’s motivation, age, intelligence, maturity, general level of education, command of the mother tongue, support of their environment and other contributing factors.

There is a number of questions raised by the issue, which defy a definitive answer:
Can a child living in an environment poor in stimuli rise above the limitations imposed by their circumstances to grasp ideas and meanings in the foreign language? How much depends heavily on their education in general? Much, I would say.
How does a language teacher cope with such inequalities in a class? Assuming that the teacher is familiar with the student’s mother tongue, should the teacher attempt to illustrate the concept in the first language before proceeding to use it in the foreign language? How much time this involves is closely related to the nature and the difficulty level of the concept.
I will offer an example of a concept which my students often stumble upon. That is the idea of “consistency” on multiple levels: consistency in a system, in applying the law, in spelling, in laying down rules, in performance, in quality, in writing. My approach to the problem varies depending on the level, the age and the capacity of my students for understanding.

A simple technique I resort to is that of inconsistent spelling: “commercial”, “comercial”, “kommercial”, “commerciall”. I thus clarify the meaning of a positive word by providing instances of use of its negative.

If the concept is beyond their grasp for any reason or combination of reasons, I simply circumvent it by means of a short explanation and make a mental note of it so I can deal with it later. (My students spend a few years learning English with me, which gives me a certain degree of flexibility.)

However, poor language skills in the foreign language are often the direct result of poor language skills in the mother tongue. For instance, learners whose input (books, articles, stories) either in the first or second language is minimal can hardly be expected to appreciate –let alone, make use of – a variety of linguistic devices and registers in order to articulate their thoughts or emotions in either language.

My position is slow down learning for those who can’t catch up, redefine short – and long-term targets and harmonise the class so that different learners are enabled to achieve their full potential rather than using high-achievers as the yardstick of performance.

Of course, there is also the question of the teacher being willing to further enrich their own knowledge so as to keep up with a constantly changing world and familiarise themselves with new technology and theories of learning, which will be instrumental in creating a better-informed learning environment and capitalising on up-to-date resources.

In conclusion, it saddens me to think that politics, social inequalities or pure bigotry stand in the way of effective learning suited to the needs and ability of individual learners.


Sunday, 25 February 2018

Technology and language acquisition

Technology and language acquisition

I set out to write this after attending a webinar on games in language learning. The talk simply brought to the fore the issue of language learning assisted by technology.

I have been mulling over the implications of using “smart” devices in learning languages for some time now. The issue is, I feel, intricately linked with the question of whether technology affects, modifies, the way the brain works in acquiring language. I haven’t seen any research published on the topic, though there may well be some and it is simply drowned in the sea of online publications.

I am no expert at neurolinguistics – my knowledge amounts to what I was taught ages ago at university and my non-expert pursuit of the discipline throughout my teaching career. However, as an experienced teacher, I do know that there are as many approaches to language learning as learners. For the sake of illustration, I will mention an extreme (?)example of mother tongue interference. In my mother tongue the letter “a” is often a prefix which means “without”. I was once astounded to hear a student of mine interpreting an initial “a” in an English word as a negative prefix. And of course, there have been countless other individual instances of transferring mother tongue or second foreign language rules and generalisations to English(first foreign language most of the times). Add all these complications to the unique way our brains are wired, and you have enough challenges to last you many lifetimes!

At the core of my ramifications lies the overarching question: does or can technology bring about structural changes in the brain which could have a profound influence on how learners approach a foreign language?

Here is where games come into it. While attending the webinar about online games, it occurred to me for the umpteenth time that most of what is used online is a replication of good old conventional material in a digital form. At the risk of being called old-fashioned and technophobic, I would argue that when it comes to games, I mostly prefer the non-digital version. No digital alternative can rival the satisfaction drawn from using a real board with counters, dice and all in class. I am indeed urging a return to “traditional” games where we teachers can share with our students the joy or disappointment, as the case might be, of handling the dice and moving our counters forward or back.

But I am rambling on, and it is time I got back to the main issue: how does technology affect foreign language learning if, on the face of it, it doesn’t bring about structural changes in the brain?
Here, I am cautioning the reader that this is the conclusion of my teaching experience and careful observation of hundreds of learners rather than a theory I could back up with science.

The answer might be that many learners who were and possibly still are not favoured by the exclusive use of grammar rules and translation in order to learn a foreign language now have unlimited access to real language – spoken and written – thanks to the web. They can therefore follow the reverse process of gathering what is acceptable or not in the language through their exposure to it rather than sweating to apply rules to every single utterance they produce. Needless to say, the role of the teacher lies in guiding the students through by selecting and grading this enormous input at our and their fingertips so that they can get onto and stay on the fast track to language acquisition.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Flipped brainstorming

Brainstorming is great as far as it goes. However, I do feel there is a need for flipping it from time to time.

If by brainstorming we mean a quick succession of student responses on a certain topic, I will keep the tempo and the group participation in what I call flipped brainstorming though my goals will vary each time, and this will become clear further down, when I attempt to demonstrate my proposition.
How and why?

The answer to “how” is not so simple. Suffice to say, the students will extract the ideas from a given text.
As for “why,” briefly, there is a lot to be gained and no waste of time. 
1.  The students are sometimes hard put to reel off the ideas and dress them in words to boot.
2.  There is plenty of opportunity to tease the students’ brains by firing questions at them.
3.  The teacher can test the students’ assimilation of already taught vocabulary and/or activate the students’ minds by inviting them to extrapolate meaning from context.

However, to be able to totally engage the students in the process, the teacher must use the right content – it is a prerequisite.

Therefore, I will now illustrate, reinforcing the points I made above.
Level: advanced
I used it with my post-FCE students on the road to Proficiency.

Many of us, yielding to the pressure of imminent exams, compromise on enjoyment. We often find ourselves selecting material which will serve a dual purpose: teach new language and familiarise our students with issues and questions which are beyond their age and scope of interests but crop up in language qualification exams.
My instinct is to resist exam requirements though, to be honest, I usually engineer some kind of middle-of-the-road attitude to save the day.

Literature and poetry are great resources for killing two birds with one stone, and James Thurber is a writer whose works constitute ideal material for introducing serious issues in an amusing and challenging way.

I chose his story The Night the Bed Fell to illustrate my “flipped brainstorming”.
I divided the story in three parts for manageability and a touch of suspense.

I am well aware of my students’ knowledge and ability, so my use of this text and choice of activities suits my situation, but one could easily adapt them to their own reality – whether that is upgrading or downgrading the difficulty or the focus on the new vocabulary. I provide images when this will save me valuable time and will be a more appropriate way of explaining the meaning of lexical items.

First, I gave my students a copy of the first part of the story and asked them to read it. I deliberately kept the text free of activities so that they would concentrate on content.

Here is a copy of the first part of the story (arbitrarily divided) with the vocabulary exercise and the explanatory footnotes.

When they were ready, (I could already detect some faint smiles) I started asking questions which were meant to elicit all the detail I wanted and place emphasis on guessing meaning wherever possible.
Here is a copy of the questions:

My first question was a way of making my students guess the word “verisimilitude,” which they did as the context allowed them to do so.
Question 6 was meant to check whether they remembered the word “wobbly”, which I had recently revised and reinforced. I was pleased when I got the answer by one of them. Question 9 was designed to remind them of the meaning of “interval” as “break” and introduce its meaning in the phrase “at intervals”. And so on and so forth.

I am simply trying to explain how different teachers can take advantage of a resource depending on their aims and their students’ knowledge and needs.

Of course, I almost never forgo the opportunity to boost the students’ learning of vocabulary with a vocabulary exercise!

Parts 2 and 3 are structured in the same way. The story went down really well, and my reward was to see some students hardly able to contain themselves!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Moi, je rêve: Time against Memory

Time against memory

The scorching flesh
Under the merciless sun
The splash of waves
On the sea-chiselled pebbles
The lifeless shells
 Washed  ashore

The taste of salt
On the thirsty mouth
The time-dimmed memories
Of all bygone summers
The dazzling nothingness
Of the engulfing heat

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The tier approach with images or La Casa Abbandonata

This is my 100th post so I thought I would allow myself some frivolity by way of celebrating.

Images will yet again come in handy in this free-writing venture. This time we will look at the painting of a house in its surroundings. There is enormous potential for language production there for almost any level and age of learner.

I will not use standardised levels of knowledge as I am disinclined to label anything that defies categorisation. I will simply make some suggestions for exploiting the image in different ways in class moving from a lower to a higher level.

La Casa Abbandonata by Carlo Carra

Ø How many windows are there?
Ø How many windows can you see?

Ø Where is the house?
In a forest
On the edge of a forest
In the middle of nowhere

Ø Use some adjectives to describe it.
·       big, old
·       ruined
·       abandoned
·       solitary with big empty eyes of windows
·       decrepit
·       fallen into disrepair

Ø What is inside the house?
·       Nothing
·       I don’t know.
·       I have no clue.
·       I haven’t got the foggiest idea.
·       The remains of old furniture
·       Overgrown grass
·       Emptiness

Ø What happened to the residents of the house?
·       They moved to another place.
·       They emigrated to a more promising land.
·       They grew tired of isolation and loneliness.
·       They died off.

Ø Say something about the surroundings.
·       There are lots of trees and bushes.
·       There are tall trees and thick green-greyish foliage.

Ø Ask a question about the house.
·       When was it built?
·       Is it haunted?
·       Will it be inhabited again?

Ø You are allowed to add one item in this image. What would it be? Where would you place it?
·       A roof on top of the house.
·       A swing suspended from the bare tree in the left corner of the image.
·       A stony path leading to the house.

Ø What emotions do you experience when you look at this image?
·       sadness, discomfort, nostalgia, apprehension, fear

Ø This was the first or the last scene in a film. Write the first few lines of a character’s reminiscences of this house.
·       We left the city to live in the country for the rest of our lives.
·       When father passed away, mother could not face spending another day in the sprawling unfriendly city.
·       The house stood there with its arched windows boarded up – alluring and intimidating at the same time. How were we to rid it of its past and make it ours? How were we to efface all the remnants of its previous occupants’ lives still lingering inside and outside?

Ø You once lived in this house. What is your best or worst memory of it?
·       My brother and I raced to the top of the tree, and I always won.
·       Every morning, when I opened the window, the sunlight would stream into my room making everything bright and transparent, a minuscule wonderland.
·       The wolf was right there on the doorstep emaciated and in dire need of food and shelter, and mother’s hard-headed defence was in shreds. The wolf was taken in and nursed back to health, but when the day came to let him go, …