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

Friday, 17 March 2017

A hymn to students

Although I never see the faces of those who read my stuff or hear their voices, I feel I am getting closer to them every time I add some new post here.

This time I would like to talk about another aspect of teaching: its human touch. And I don’t mean the interaction which is a given.

People always remember teachers who had a strong influence on their lives or future careers either in a positive or in a negative way. But you never hear of students who left their mark on their teachers, and I would like to do exactly that.

I have taught people of all ages but mostly children and teenagers. Students come to class with a whole mindset, which is fascinating to see at work while learning.

I got children who inspired me by being so totally trustful, who embarked on the adventure of knowledge with the same abandon as they would have set off on a voyage to a far-flung land.

There were the story lovers who typically happened to be the story tellers, too. I recall the expressions on their faces when I put on my narrator’s voice and read them from books – totally immersed in the imaginary world of the book, blissfully oblivious to the reality of the classroom.

There were the weak ones who challenged me to go beyond my comfort zone of the well-prepared teacher and try new ideas to customise my teaching, to extend it so as to make room for everyone.

There were those, though few, who would stretch the duration of an average test from half to one and a half hours because they couldn’t bear to get this little detail wrong. And amazingly they would ask me to stay at the end of the class in order to mull over this fine point they missed.

There were the mischievous ones whose faces lit up at the mention of a grammar or vocabulary game and who all of a sudden forgot all about being boisterous and focused on the game as if winning was a matter of life and death.

And finally – though I am sure many are left out – there were those who were adults in children’s clothing. They behaved as equals, they never complained about too much homework. They toiled at the choice of the right word, they agreed to play the game next time because today it was story time and enough fun for one day.

Students continue to enrich my life by force causing me to revise established views, to question authority, to sneak glances into their beautiful minds.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Reality and imagination in learning and teaching

My topic this time is reality and imagination in learning, teaching and testing. It is an ambitious goal but I will try my best.

Having taught people of all ages but mostly children and teenagers, I can say that all age groups, particularly children and teenagers, quite like the challenge of the “imaginary”.

Many course books focus on real-life dialogues and then the students are expected to “create” a dialogue of their own using the model to help them along. What the students typically end up doing is memorising the mould and making slight adjustments to their own reality. There is no doubt that there is some value in memorising whole chunks of language in the hope that they will be remembered and hopefully retrieved when the occasion arises.

However, this is not a product of creativity for various reasons. To begin with, structures and basic vocabulary are there ready to use. When you create, I feel that somehow you search in your mind for the raw material, which is ideas – whatever form these may take in the process. Ideas do not necessarily get conceived in the target language but often in the mother tongue. From then on there is a series of mechanisms engaged to render this raw material into a finished product – written or oral. That is when mother tongue interference mistakes are committed but that is also the stage where the learner will activate whatever appropriate structures or vocabulary items have been saved in their mind.

Often talking about real situations can be demotivating and pointless. I would liken it to real nature as opposed to nature as portrayed in paintings – at one or several removes from reality. Here is a painting which illustrates my point. The painter has recreated reality by fusing a range of hues in nature and enhancing the effect by having it reflected in water.

Corn Field by Samuel Mutzner

 In teaching we often ask children to tell us or write about their weekend or their house or their family. I normally get the response that suits the task: unimaginative and poor in descriptive detail.

We often feel as teachers that more abstract or “unrealistic” themes are not suitable for younger students. However, this is not necessarily so. Writing a story about a cloud has in fact yielded much more exciting projects than writing a story about a dog and provided great opportunities for vocabulary development (scud, hover, float etc). What is more, seemingly abstract themes can lead to questions about the science behind and therefore become the springboard for further discussion and language development. Here is a great website for popularised facts about clouds.

When testing students’ speaking skills, the same assumptions apply as in writing books or setting exam topics. However, what appears to be a facility  may well turn into a predicament. Language production is demarcated by images and questions which require the candidate, often a teenager, to answer an abstract question based on a specific image. Risking being regarded as naïve, I wonder what the point of this is.

The task is complex in a way it won’t be in real life. If you get asked about the advantages of travelling by train or bus, you won’t be given images of them simply because our knowledge of the world makes it redundant. On the other hand, if you are to describe some images, there are so many of them that would make the question worth answering. For example the scene of an accident would elicit descriptive language (crash, drive through the red light, being distracted, impact, severe injuries and so on) as well as speculative conjecture. (must have been speeding, couldn’t have been wearing their seatbelts, possibly, might have been intoxicated)

Are children’s letters to God realistic? The answer is irrelevant. The point is that children have produced some unique instances of humorous or scathing writing as a result. Can the sea speak? Of course it can; and it would be a much more realistic monologue than having to choose which image would be best to illustrate an article about the importance of sport in people’s lives.

What I am saying here is that gearing our teaching to exams or commitment to realistic tasks can be frustrating for both our students and ourselves when there are so many ways of firing students’ imagination and fostering creative writing and oral production.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017


One must speak of love if one is alive 
so I sometimes do in my poems.
 This is one of those:

Love and the Elements

A sneaking darkness folded
 Trees and buildings alike
A flight of birds
Ruffled the night sky

Some flickering stars
Played hide-and-seek
The sea lashed mercilessly
Flailed with a limitless freedom

Some snowflakes danced
The last dance of their life
The howling wind
In hot pursuit

And you stood there
Out of the gaping window
With a torrent of blackness
Down your back

I loved you then
Like never before
But the elements knew
How futile love was

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Lesson plans and The Life of Pi

I will venture a sweeping statement here which many (some?) teachers might object to. I don’t believe in ready-made lesson plans, and by that I mean lesson plans that a teacher has prepared and/or used and which are meant to be used by other teachers in different environments.

There are many reasons why ready-made lesson plans do not work.
The main one is that each one of us is a different person with a different attitude towards life and people, a different philosophy – I daresay. When we prepare a lesson, a part of us or the whole of us shines through it.

 Let me illustrate with an example. I am a strong believer in incremental knowledge, which means I don’t expect my students to memorise fifty words in one go and would not dream of assigning more than half an hour’s homework. Therefore, when I choose a text to prepare, I have different expectations of my students. If I want them to do intensive reading, the text cannot have too many unknown words as this interferes with comprehension and renders the task daunting. On the other hand, if the text is more demanding, I will think of a task that requires overall understanding of the text but also gives the students some sense of direction and purpose and warrants maintaining their attention.

I will provide an example of a simple exercise I prepared using the 56th chapter of Yann Martel’s book The Life of Pi. In this particular chapter the main theme is fear, and the actual word fear is repeated a record ten times. So I removed the word fear and asked my students to read the chapter and try to guess the missing word pointing out that it was the same word ten times over.

Here is the text

Once this is done and their interest has been sufficiently stimulated, the students could proceed to search, for instance, for the physical symptoms of fear and perhaps asked to find an image to match each one of them. They could then find all the words related to war (defeat, enemy, adversary, battle, soldier and so on). If the students are mature enough, they could engage in a discussion of reason and instinct and the part they play in decision making in our life.

The example serves to support the claim that different teachers would approach the text in different ways depending on how they stand on more fundamental issues and it is impossible to set goals for other teachers in a lesson plan simply because teaching is geared to the students’ needs and goals and it is a process which is constantly  being readjusted depending on circumstances.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Spring and poetry

It is not yet officially spring, but it is a matter of hours before
 it will be. The subtle smells from the garden, the way the sunrays
 fall on the windows, the world of bright colours taking over the 
greyness, every single nuance of nature feels different, promising
 and impregnated with life. And yet in this new life there is always
 a tint of stillness, a breath of those that were but will not be again.
 It is in this spirit that I post one of my Greek poems – 
dedicated to a sister who never quite grew to be my companion.

Η Χώρα του κάποτε

Τις Κυριακές τα πρωινά
Με τον ήλιο νωχελικά
Σκόρπιο στο πάτωμα
Και τον άνεμο απαλά
Να λικνίζει
Τα κλαδιά
Της δάφνης
Στο μικρό παράθυρο
Σε μακρινά ταξίδια

Χώρα του κάποτε
Τη λένε
Συναντώ τις αχνές μορφές
Αυτών που δεν είναι πια
Και τους δρόμους διασχίζω
Με βήμα αργό
Που ποτέ δεν οδήγησαν κάπου

Που και που
Τις φωνές που
Τρελά παιχνίδια συνόδευαν
Μα τις πιο πολλές φορές
Ευωδιές με πλημμυρίζουν
Γιασεμιού στην αυλή
Και βύσσινου μέσα

Στο κατώφλι
Περνάω  το χρόνο μου
Μην τολμώντας
Τα βήματα να σύρω
Στην κλίνη
Όπου εσύ τ’ ανθηρά σου
Χρόνια έσβησες