Saturday, 27 May 2017

Using context to introduce and practise grammar

 Teaching is liberating if you keep an open mind and allow yourself some space to pore over your approach, your students and the results of your choices as we make hundreds of choices as we go along – from the books we will adopt to whether a student needs some special treatment on a particular occasion.

Surprisingly, experience leads us to what appears to be  very simple ideas but needed so much time to crystallize as they have. A simple example is related to presenting and practising new grammatical or lexical items.

It has taken me quite a long time to decide that there is a very basic pattern in presenting and practising grammatical phenomena and/or lexical items, and it is the following:

The point is that both the texts we select for presentation and the ones for practice must be the right level for the students and, if possible, correspond to their interests, which means that our exercises must be mostly customised. Of course one can create ad hoc examples to suit one’s needs.

Let us assume that we want to present or more probably revise modal verbs of deduction or possibility or ways of speculating in general. We can use extracts from books which would fire our students’ imagination. I quote a short extract from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon and following that another extract from The Stranger by Camilla Lackberg:

But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decide that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident.

“It’s not so much what I see but what I smell.” Hanna took a couple of deep sniffs. “She stinks of booze. She must have been dead drunk when she took off the road.”

Of course this is only a sample of material that one can use and it is meant for students who are revising rather than being introduced to those functions for the first time. At this level, as the students are more mature, they need to be coaxed into using the patterns by providing a meaningful context.

So let us assume that we have provided enough examples both from sources and of our own making, have clarified any unclear points and have answered the students’ questions. It is now time to invite our students to produce relevant structures again in a meaningful context. For the sake of convenience I will consider a news item published on BBC. Here is the photo that accompanied the news story and for those interested I provide the link further down.

We could show the photo to the students and ask questions that will elicit the structures taught with a little bit of help or nudging from the teacher. I am of the opinion that when teaching takes place in a controlled environment, there is no harm in the teacher mediating to assist learning and assimilation. The questions we could ask are:
Ø How was the distress signal formed?
Ø Who could have written it?
Ø How might they have found themselves in the middle of the desert?

I got a few responses on showing the picture. The situation proved to be intriguing enough to stimulate the students’ interest—not least because it was so current.

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Unicorn in the Garden: as many ways as teachers

I find the way(s) a teacher’s personality shapes the learning process intriguing, to say the least. Our entire philosophy of life shows through our instruction not only through the preparation for our lessons but mainly through the snap decisions we take at each moment in class either to compensate for inequalities of any kind or to deal with challenges – educational or managerial.  This means that any material provided either in the form of a course book or lesson plan will eventually undergo as many adjustments as teachers using the material.

It would be interesting, therefore, for teachers who set out to adopt some common material to share their experiences of actually using it in class and accounting for the choices made.

I will provide an example of material that can be used in various ways depending on who you are and what the goals you have set are.

James Thurber’s stories constitute excellent resources for teaching English for various reasons. For one thing, many of his stories can be appreciated by both children and adults. Besides, you can find simple ones that an intermediate student can follow (The Moth and the Star, The Little Girl and the Wolf) as well as stories for more advanced students (The Night the bed Fell, What do you Mean it was Brillig?)

I will use The Unicorn in the Garden here. (Please find the story at the end of this post.)
A traditional approach would be to give the text to the students and allow the time to read it. One could ask content questions afterwards and perhaps invite students to interpret the story, to think of what it could possibly mean. Is it to be taken at face value or should one delve into it to find the underlying message?

One might decide to engage the students in the story more actively, in which case one could show an animated version of it on You Tube (link provided at the end) and then hand out the printed version of it.

One might, however, want the students to produce some language and make predictions about the content of the story, which could be achieved by showing the video without sound and inviting the students to make up the story as they go along.

Alternatively one might decide to provide some key words before asking the students to invent the story so that the resulting stories would approximate the original one.

Rather than having a general discussion, the teacher could guide it by writing down some cues on the board (realism, imagination, society, limits, normal, eccentric etc).

A written task could be assigned asking the students to  give a different end to the story. The woman was right after all (unicorns are mythical beasts!): why should one be penalised for being down to earth – though I don’t really think this is what she was punished for!

Others might grab the opportunity to teach some more sophisticated vocabulary such as “reversal of roles” or “turn the tables on someone”.

The possibilities are endless. So it is over to you now.

Friday, 12 May 2017

A cloud chaser

Clouds hold a special fascination for me: their wanderings and changing shapes, their ponderance or lightness, their coloration. I follow their erratic course and keep marvelling at them. Here is another poem I wrote on the theme:

A cloud chaser

His eyes pinned
On the celestial sphere
Pursuing ever elusive

Be it lucid or be it leaden
They never tire
They stow away
Behind peaks
They leap onto
The glistening lakes

A hostage to their erratic ways
In bondage to a trivial pursuit
His days aimlessly flutter by
His path fusing with their flight

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Miming and poems: This morning my dad shouted

Different poems lend themselves to different approaches. Depending on the students’ age and personality some approaches work better than others. However, anything that addresses  the students’ kinesthetic intelligence seems to have a special appeal even among adults.

The following poem is ideal for miming. It can be used both for checking understanding and producing language. This is why, rather than miming the whole poem myself, I prefer to assign each verse to a different group of students. This means that they will all look up words they don’t understand so that they can mime their verse and they will watch the other group carefully so that they will translate their miming into words. An amount of competition is to be expected but also plenty of fun and conviviality.

One might need a combination of drawing and miming. For instance, some of my students drew the tap and mimed turning it on.  It would be useful to bring in some realia so that they can be used for miming. A card could be stuck on the board to indicate the time of the incident: “This morning”.

The poem is simple enough and provides good practice for Past Simple. As a follow-up activity the students can be invited to give a brief account of similar home disasters. At this level they are not expected to come up with anything complicated but most are very keen to share “calamities” they suffered.

This morning my dad shouted

This morning my dad shouted.
This morning my dad swore.
There was water through the ceiling.
There was water on the floor.
There was water on the carpets.
There was water down the stairs.
The kitchen stools were floating
So were the dining chairs.

This morning I’ve been crying.
Dad made me so upset.
He shouted and he swore at me
Just ‘cause things got so wet.
I only turned the tap on
To get myself a drink.
The trouble is I didn’t see
The plug was in the sink.

By John Foster


Saturday, 29 April 2017

What has happened to Lulu

 Poems are fantastic material for planning whole lessons around them. This time I will focus on a poem which touches on a serious social issue: teenagers escaping home. It is called What has happened to Lulu.

What has happened to Lulu?

What has happened to Lulu, mother?
What has happened to Lulu?
There’s nothing in her bed but an old rag-doll
And by its side a shoe.

Why is her window wide, mother,
The curtain flapping free,
And only a circle on the dusty shelf
Where her money-box used to be?

Why do you turn your head, mother,
And why do the tear-drops fall?
And why do you crumple that note on the fire
And say it is nothing at all?

I woke to voices late last night,
I heard an engine roar.
Why do you tell me the things I heard
Were a dream and nothing more?

I heard somebody cry, mother,
In anger or in pain,
But now I ask you why, mother,
You say it was a gust of rain?

Why do you wander about as though
You don’t know what to do?
What has happened to Lulu, mother?
What has happened to Lu?

By Charles Causley

A sibling fires questions at his/her mother in an effort to discover what has happened to his/her sister. The poem is a series of questions which go unanswered but which clearly suggest that the sister has run away from home.

There are so many ways one could approach this poem. For instance, one could immerse the students in the drama by asking them to provide the answers the mother would give to the questions asked by the child. One group could be working on straightforward answers while a second could attempt to supply more evasive ones. The dialogues could be acted out.

Alternatively, one could ask the students to write a story based on the facts stated in the poem and speculate on a possible end for the story.
Another idea is for the students to draw a sequence of pictures in the order that the events took place. If the students are reluctant to draw, they could search for images online and piece the story together. There is a slideshow I made at the end of this presentation.

In terms of tenses, the poem switches between the past (last night) and the present. One could ask the students to provide an account of last night’s events in the Simple Past and subsequently use the Simple Present to describe the current state of affairs.

If you have been struggling with the use of the Present Perfect Simple, this is an excellent opportunity to practise an aspect of it which is tricky for many foreign students regardless of mother tongue. I call this aspect “in the meantime aspect”: we know the past action, we are confronted with the present situation and we are invited to guess what has caused this change.

In terms of our poem, we know somebody cried last night and we know there was a car outside. We are faced with an empty bed -- apart from the rag doll -- so we assume that Lulu has gone. But what has happened to her? This would trigger a series of contributions on the part of the students.
Perhaps she has found a job in a big city.
Maybe she has eloped.
And so on and so forth.

The poem could be used with more advanced students, in which case one may want to practise modal verbs of deduction or possibility + Present Perfect Infinitive.
Lulu must have run away with a boyfriend. (clue: the engine roar)
She must have used the money in her moneybox to make a new start. (clue: the circle on the dusty shelf)
She might have stolen money from her parents.
She could have met her soulmate.
She might have been misguided by a much older person.

With more advanced students the poem could serve as a springboard for discussion:
·       Why do some young people leave home?
·       What happens to them after they go away?
·       Do they ever get in touch with their family?
·       How does the state deal with the problem?
·       Is the family to blame for this phenomenon? How widespread is it?

The students could be encouraged to do some research online and summarise the results of their research in a brief report.
They could even write a poem about another teenager who has run away.

The possibilities are endless.

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 …