Monday, 16 May 2011

I've Moved

If you're interested in my more recent work, I'm now maintaining a fairly regular presence at I hope to see you there.


Thursday, 13 January 2011

Winter camp: A Christmas Carol

So, I'm done teaching for my first year in Korea. Just a week and a half at my desk planning for next year to go, then it's back to the UK for four weeks of drinking ale and eating cheese. And curry. And, on at least one occasion, cheese curry. Anyway, time I thought, to write a quick post about the camp I've just finished.

I worked this lesson plan twice, one with elementary school students, once with middle school students. It went fairly well with both. It brings together a lot of the things I have been reading about recently: an unplugged approach, some live reading and allowing the students to have more control over the direction of their learning. For both camps, the lessons were carried out over three mornings. The overall aim was to review three tenses, understand the story of a Christmas Carol, and write a play based on a similar story.

Day 1

I enjoy teaching tenses, probably because Headway was my introduction to ESL teaching. I also feel like my confidence with languages increases when I have a grasp of at least one past, present and future aspect. With this in mind, I thought I would make the camp a tense review. I wanted to move away from too much grammar instruction though, and see if we could simply form some patterns and link them to time adverbials, without overtly stressing the concept of past, present and future, at least not at the start of the lesson.

Clearly the ESL fashion for 2010 was for Dogme teaching, and while I don't subscribe so readily to this methodology (it's difficult to have a conversation driven lesson with kids who don't really talk) I have been influenced by some of the ideas that drive it, particularly students creating their own materials. The main exercise in this lesson was to create a gap fill for another group, based on true statements about what they were/are/will be doing at each time. I encouraged them to try to use new words, either from the dictionary or by asking one or other of us teachers to translate, in the hope of producing some interesting new language. Interestingly, I found that they had trouble removing the entire verb phrase, and would leave the auxillaries in place. I hope correcting these errors helped them to understand a little more how the language structure worked.
The lesson plan for today is below, along with the video mentioned in the clip. The photo can be found here.

Day 2

One of the most interesting things I've seen on a blog recently is Jason Renshaw's (at least I assume it's his) live reading concept. I think this is something that works particularly well for young learners, as they can create an understandable text for themselves, while learning a little bit of new language. It can also help them to understand the story of a more complex text  - in this case A Christmas Carol (Richard Williams' animated version). We watched the video together, and I encouraged listening, with the proviso that it was extremely difficult, and the students not be disheartened. We also did some very specific listening during the video, picking out the names of the ghosts.
I came up with the questions below for a slightly edited version of the film. The middle school students produced the story to the right of the questions. I didn't do too much with the story. Just the act of creating it, and dicovering new words like fiance (the concept of which doesn't really exist in Korea) was enough. I then printed it to serve as an aide memoire for the next stage of the lesson, and had students read it out loud. The act of writing the story in simple terms was not only a lot of fun, and revised some of the grammar points from day 1, but also helped the students to work effectively with a very complex text.

Reading Questions and Story

Working out Scrooge's characteristics at the start and end was fun. One middle-schooler suggested "dirty little b*st*rd". I told her that that kind of language had no place in my classroom, but "dirty old b*st*rd" was just fine. We then talked about what the ghosts showed him, how it explained his character, and how it changed his character. Then it was time to work on our own versions. We made a list of bad characteristics, once again with lots of dictionary work encouraged. My favourite egative characteristic was "dirty", so I worked through an example on the board of a boy who is punished by his parents by being made to clean out the pig sty (shown by the ghost of the past). The ghost of the present showed his worried parents, and the ghost of the future showed him turned into a pig. Finally, I set the students up to plan their own play based on a similar progression of character caused by the visits of past, present and future ghosts. The aim was by the start of day 3, to have a plan completed.

Day 3

One surprise on day 3 was that one group, unprompted, had drawn a plan for their play. I thought this was a great idea, and if I did this lesson again I would probably insist on it, as it made translating a lot easier. The day was half writing, a quarter directing and a quarter acting and reviewing. The plays were a nice way of generating some new language, particularly where relationships with parents were concerned. "You'd better not..." made an appearance, along with "I wish you weren't my mother". Sometimes I wonder whether I'm an entirely responsible teacher.
The only thing left to say was the plays were a great success. I wish I could post the videos but it's against the rules. Afterwards we talked about what we liked and didn't like, and then held a mini Oscars ceremony, in which we voted for best Actor, Director, Set design, costumes etc.
All in all, a very enjoyable camp. If you want to use the idea, please feel free, but let me know how it goes, and any improvements you'd make.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Just A Minute

One of the things I miss most about living away from England (alongside good curries and flat beer) is BBC Radio 4. As far as I'm concerned the BBC does two things so well that they're worth the license fee on their own - it's website and Radio 4. Even when I was young enough to be bored by the political and current affairs content, I was still very much a fan of the comedy shows. My favourite of all of these was Just A Minute, a game in which four contestants attempt to speak for one minute on a given subject without hesitation, deviation or repetition. I fell in love with the wit and linguistic endeavour of the contestants then, and have been a fan ever since.

One of my first ideas as an ESL teacher was to take it into the classroom. I tried a listening exercise with some advanced students, which failed miserably due to the playful nature of the language being used. I don't remember the game being a roaring success either. Anyway, it stayed in the back of my mind and popped up again when I was looking for an activity that would encourage my high school students to practice speaking extemporaneously.

Obviously some changes were needed from the original format. I dropped the repetition challenge, as my students vocabulary certainly isn't big enough to not repeat words in one minute. I also wanted to reward speaking for any time, so I gave them a point for every ten seconds that they spoke. I also incentivised listening and analysing by giving extra points for spotting linguistic errors. This led to an entirely different and more complex scoring system from the original game.

My lesson plan, evaluation and introductory powerpoint, are posted below. I've also posted the letter cards I use for sorting students into groups, and the numbers for selecting them.

The game worked really well this time. As I mention in my evaluation, I suddenly hit on the idea of using it to practice grammar points or conversational themes that we had covered previously. I like the idea that this is a semi-"real" use of the language learnt, and places the listener under a little (fun) pressure that they would experience in the real world.

In a high school environment, I think that the dice adds a nice air of chance to the game, as students do not feel that they are being picked on. It also encourages students to make challenges, with the knowledge that it's unlikely that they will have to do the speaking. The more challenges there are, the more fun the game is.

You can adapt this to almost any level or classroom setting. For lower level learners it can be a review of what you have done. For higher level learners it's a chance to use everything that they know creatively in a real speaking challenge.

As a discussion point, what do you think would make good topics for a round of Just A Minute? Leave me a comment.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Top Trumps in the Classroom

As a primary school student, I spent a great deal of time in the playground playing Top Trumps. I had sets featuring rally cars, formula one cars and tanks, but my favourites were the Marvel super heroes and super villians. I remember (vainly) hoping that my Doctor Doom (Weapons 95) would coincide with the opponents Galactacus (Weapons 90) and I could steal the card and power my way to victory. All this makes me sound like a huge nerd I know; not an entirely unfouded allegation.

Remembering how much fun I'd had as a child, I'd been looking for a way to incorporate Top Trumps into one of my elementary school lessons. Finally I got the chance with the 6th grade elementary textbook lesson "I'm stronger than you". This introduces comparatives, and comparing is the very idea behind Top Trumps. My idea was to get my class of 10 students to make Top Trumps of themselves, and then play the game using some of the phrases we learn in the unit.

I chose 4 adjectives (3 from the book): Tall, Strong, Fast and Heavy and found a blank Top Trumps template online. I used this one ( though the editable template cuts the bottoms off some letters so I ended up writing them by hand. There are plenty of templates out there though, it seems I'm not the first teacher to have this idea. I then found a set of bathroom scales and a tape measure. I set up stations around the room where students could weigh themselves, be measured for height by the co-teacher, arm-wrestle with me to get a strength score out of 10 (Korean grade 6 girls are terrifyingly strong!) and look up their 50m running time (which had been previously measured, but if you want to add some fun you can do this as part of the lesson). They also had to draw themselves in the picture box and write their name.

Once we'd made and mounted our Top Trumps on card, we then set about playing the game. You can find the rules on the Wikipedia site. I divided the class into two teams, each with their own cards. The deck was passed around students for each turn. It may actually be better to have all of the students say the language model together though, otherwise there's a lot of students doing nothing. It's at this point my chronic lack of planning was exposed, as I hadn't worked out beforehand exactly what the language model should be. A bit of post-lesson reflection has sorted this though, and I think something like this would work well:

Student 1 (Choosing a category): "How [adjective] are you?"
Student 2: "I am x cm tall" / "I weigh x kg" / "I can run 50m in x s" / "My strength score is 9"
Student 1: "I am [comparative] than you" / "You are [comparative] than me."

Although the student 2 responses are a little clumsy I can't think of any better ways to put them, or how to include the adjectives. If you come up with anything better please leave a comment.

We played two rounds of the game, then I paired the students off to wrote four sentences of comparison based on each other's Top Trumps. Overall I'd say we had a lot of fun with this lesson, and learnt a bit about comparatives. However, if I do it again I'll include more adjectives (age would have been an easy one) and make sure the language is modelled and practised before the game. I think also this would be better with a much bigger class, where you can have 30 or 40 Top Trumps.

That's it for this post, but please leave me a comment if you use Top Trumps in your lesson, and tell me how you get on.