Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A Christmas Story: Part One

Earlier this week, I had a moment of panic.  Four lessons to go before our annual ESOL achievement ceremony/Christmas party, and my class and I were woefully under prepared!  In previous years we have made and shown films and read international poetry but this year we hadn't been quite so organised. Time was running out!

There were also a few issues to consider:

  • I have not been teaching my current pre-intermediate intensive class for all that long (just a couple of months now). I've played it relatively safe so far (I didn't want to risk scaring anyone away!) and I wasn't sure how they would react to being involved in a creative project.
  • Two of my learners have difficulties reading and writing (although their spoken English is very good - they even speak with Shetland accents!)
  • One of my learners had requested that we write and perform a modern day nativity story. Now, that sounded fine to me, but some of the suggestions this learner proceeded to put forward would not have gone down at all well with the devoutly religious members of the class and the community!

Time, then, to bite the bullet and momentarily become a wee bit more of a teacher autocrat.  I decided that we would, indeed, write a Christmas play, but that the writing of this play would be very much managed by me.

I went home and outlined a short and simple, contemporary Christmas story that would hopefully not offend any audience members. Here it is:

A Christmas Story

It was a cold, dark day in December  and the wind was blowing very hard.  Marie and Joe were walking the streets of Lerwick.  Marie was nine months pregnant and very tired. Joe was sad because Marie was furious with him. Again.

Joe and Marie had left their home land and travelled many miles to Shetland. Joe was unemployed, but he had some friends in Shetland who had told him that there was a lot of work there. But when Marie and Joe had got off the boat that morning, the friends were not there. Joe had tried to call them on their mobile phone but there was no answer.

They looked for somewhere to stay the night. But it was difficult. They didn’t have very much money with them.  Finally, Marie got very angry with Joe. Joe told her not to worry. He would go to a hotel and ask if they could stay the night there.

The receptionist of the Shetland Hotel was not happy when Marie and Joe told him they had no money.  But Joe begged him to let them stay, and finally he said they could have a room for the night because it was Christmas.  Joe and Marie promised to be very quiet, and Joe said he would wash the dishes the next day. The receptionist showed them their room (a tiny store room) and told them to be quiet. He didn’t want the boss to find out what he had done.

A minute after Marie and Joe got into their room, Marie felt that the baby was coming. She started to give birth, and Joe had to do what he could to help her.

Meanwhile, Joe’s three friends were looking for him. They had been at a party and forgot the time. They felt really guilty for not meeting their friend at the boat. They walked the streets, looking for their friend. They met a girl dressed in white standing outside Posers. Because she was dressed in white they thought she was an angel. The angel told the three friends that she worked at the Shetland Hotel and that she had seen a man and a pregnant woman asking for a room there. When she described the couple Joe’s three friends were very happy. They quickly went on their way to the Shetland Hotel.

Meanwhile, Joe had to go and ask the receptionist for some hot water. The receptionist was very angry, but got him the hot water. Two minutes later, Joe had to come back and ask for some towels.

The three friends and the “angel” arrived at the Shetland Hotel.  The receptionist was angrier and angrier, but let the three friends go to the room.

Suddenly, there was a chorus of angela singing. The receptionist went to the room and started shouting…but then he saw the baby and his heart melted. It was Christmas Day.

This story was printed out on a piece of paper and I had made a copy for everyone in the class. At the last minute, though, I realised that handing out an A4 piece of paper covered in print would instantly demotivate many in the class: particularly those with reading difficulties. So I quickly cut the story into strips: and gave every learner the first paragraph of the story.

We read the first paragraph and we spoke about how Marie and Joe might be feeling at this point. The learners then worked in pairs improvising what the couple might say to each other at this point in the narrative. Nobody needed to write anything at this point. I monitored the class, jotting down examples of good language and amusing phrases.

As a class we wrote up the first scene on the whiteboard.  Here it is:

Marie and Joe. Very cold, walking the streets. Marie is heavily pregnant. 

M: What are we doing? Where are your friends? You told me your friends were coming to meet us to help you get a job. Where are they?

J: My friends couldn’t come today because they were working and they were busy. Don’t worry, everything will be fine. 

M: Well, you have to get a room for me right now. I need some dinner, some food, and a hot cup of tea!  GGrrr!

We continued in this way until we had written the whole play. I would give the learners the next installment of the play, we would briefly discuss it, they would act it out and after we would write the next scene. I was delighted at how smoothly this went: their was very little disagreement and a lot of good humour. Although I usually prefer story ideas to come from the learners, I did find this a time effective way of teaching writing, which had the added bonus of providing support to those who need additional help in reading and writing.

Ten minutes before the end of the class, we read through the whole play, discussed casting and parts of the play which needed tweaking. The learners seemed really proud of what they had produced: now we have to crack on with the rehearsals!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

An experiment with Humane Dictation

I am a great fan of using dictations in class. Over the last year I have enjoyed experimenting with on-line, paired, pictorial and running dictations, not to mention dicto-glosses.  So, I was quite delighted when, on reading Adrian Underhill's fantastic book on pronunciation Sound Foundations I came across a completely new style of dication to add to my repertoire: the "humane dictation". (Underhill: 1994: Macmillan)

The basic premise of the humane dictation is that learners have the chance to choose the text which they would like to have dictated to them.  They then have the chance to look at the text prior to listening to it being read, rather than having to wait in suspense, then endure the stress of having to scribble down some totally unknown text (I guess that's where the humane bit comes in).

What I really like about this type of dictation is its focus on listening and pronunciation and the link between the two. In their initial reading of the text, I encouraged the learners to "hear" the text inside their heads and predict any words they might find difficult. This added an extra dimension to the process, and really got the learners engaged in thinking about the features of connected speech.

Anyway, here's what we did:

  • I told the class that they were about to try a dictation with a difference, and that they were going to choose the text they wanted to work on. The cheerful smiles on the faces of the learners suggested that they saw this as a bit of a soft option! Learners worked in pairs to flick through their course book and choose a text which interested them. We ended up with four different suggestions on the board: I chose the one I thought would be best suited to the learners' abilities, and noted down the other suggestions for use in future lessons.

  • We ended up with the following text: 
"Everyone thinks Hollywood is so glamorous, but I have news for you. It is really dangerous growing up in L.A. People have guns.  Sometimes I think I'm going crazy. I'm going to get out of here just as soon as I can."
(From New Headway English Course (Pre-Intermediate) by Liz and John Soars (OUP: 2000)

  • I gave learners a few minutes to read the text over, asking them to think about what aspects of the text they might find difficult to decode in natural speech and to predict how many mistakes they might make. Learners then came up to the board, wrote their names and the number of mistakes they thought they might make. One of them confidently predicted zero!

  • I read the text: once fairly rapidly, then twice a little more slowly, with gaps between the sentences. 

  • Learners checked their work against the original and wrote up how many mistakes they had made. True to the spirit of Underhill's procedure this was carried out in "an atmosphere of supportive interest!" I found that the resulting feedback was extremely useful. We discussed the pronunciation of "I'm going to" at length, and we drilled the more natural: /əm gʌnə/ and also spoke about the way that weak/unstressed syllables in English are often quieter (this was after one learner complained that he had had difficulty hearing some of the words in the text.) Some of the learners had made spelling mistakes (glamorous had predictably  presented problems) but we mainly focused on comprehension.

This was altogether an extremely rewarding activity, and one which I look forward to experimenting with more in the future. It was interesting to note how engaged learners were throughout the process, and that the majority did not just "switch off" after checking their answers.

On an altogether different note: we have started preparing our Christmas show (to be performed at the ESOL learners' Christmas party at the beginning of December.) The learners have decided to write and perform a modern day nativity story set in Shetland, and over the coming weeks I will be recording this project here.

Underhill, A. Sound Foundations Macmillan: 1994

Friday, 2 November 2012

Group work that works.

Want to make your group work extra productive? Here are a few tips I gleaned from a training event on Co-operative Learning and have subsequently adapted for use in the ELT classroom. These activities are easy to set up, resource-lite and guaranteed to inject a little "oomph" and movement into your classroom - why not try one (or two) today?

 Talking Chips

Possible Uses

  • Revising topic lexis, e.g.: What items can I find in the bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, living room?
  • Revising social English, e.g. How can I greet people, apologise, bid farewell, politely disagree with someone?
  • Promoting learner autonomy through getting learners to discuss questions such as: How can I improve my reading, listening, speaking and writing? 

  Resources (based on a class of sixteen)
Twelve pieces of card (4 red, 4 blue, 4 green, 4 yellow)
Four questions on the whiteboard corresponding to the four colours above.

  • Give each learner a coloured card
  • Learners take a few moments to prepare their answer with someone from the same colour group.
  •  Learners walk around the room (play some music here if you can...)
  • The teacher calls out "red cards with blue cards" and "green cards with yellow cards" and on hearing this, the learners must quickly stand beside the appropriate person.
  • The learners then share their question and information until the teacher calls time. The teacher will then call out the next colour combination until everyone in the class has had the chance to listen all four questions and answers.
  • Finally, learners sit in mixed colour groups to share and note down what they have learned.


Possible Uses

Everyone will be familiar with this old favourite as a warmer or first day icebreaker. But have you ever considered using it differently? Instead of a "getting to know you" activity this can also be used as a way of:

  • exchanging information about your country
  • lexis/grammar points
  • spelling 


Ask learners to write down two true statements about their country and one lie. Or, if you wish to review a grammatical point you might wish them to write down two correct sentences (using the present simple) and one false. You'll want to monitor and check before proceeding to the next stage!

Learners work in four, and take it in turn to read out their sentences, while the rest of the group listens and spots the fib. It is important that you encourage learners to justify their answers. 

Numbered Heads Together

Have  you ever had the feeling that the same few people volunteer the answers in class most of the time, while a mute majority sit back and say very little indeed? It takes a lot of confidence to volunteer answers in class, and I say this as someone who slumbered quietly throughout my time at school.

Numbered heads ensures that quieter learners do not sit back and switch off, and also avoids putting learners on the spot.

  • Learners work in small groups (3 or 4)
  • Each learner is allocated a number (1,2,3 or 4)
  • Teacher asks a question
  • Learners have a few minutes to discuss
  • Teacher calls a number at random, and the learner with that number responds.

Three Step Interview
While the above activities lend themselves well to reviewing language items, the three step interview makes more room for learners to personalise language and express themselves.  It is particularly good for encouraging learners to listen carefully to what each other has to say and really maximises learner talking time.


A pre-prepared list of interview questions. These can be on any topic you feel your learners might like to discuss: their most recent holiday, their childhood, their language learning methods.


Learners work in groups of four
They are given five minutes to interview their shoulder partner, while noting down their answers
Learners then work in their group of four. They are given two minutes to tell the rest of the group what they learned about their partner.

Further Reading

Cohen, Elizabeth J. Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom, New York: Teachers College Press, 1986
Featherstone, Helen (ed.) "Co-operative Learning " Harvard Education Letter (Sept 1986): 4-6
Slavin Robert, "Co-operative Learning: Can Students Help Students Learn?" Instructor (March 1987): 74-78

photo credit: <a href="">The U.S. Army</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>