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 (http://www.teachingnews.co.uk/2006/07/blank-top-trump-cards/) 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.