March 2016

Who Would Have Thought?

Another one for you Americans.


The Scarecrow: Lesson on Relative Clauses

On Wednesdays, I (often) share a worksheet or lesson that I’ve used in my ESL classes. You are always free to use and modify these as you like. If you do, please include attribution to me and don’t even think about selling it. This week, the worksheet was designed for intermediate (B2+/C1) students.

scarecrowOne of the objectives slated for this week was a review of relative clauses ahead of teaching reduced relative clauses. This seemed like a great opportunity to put some of my ICELT training to the test, and to incorporate material from a great workshop on using speechless video in class given by my colleague Kendra last year. The video I chose for this lesson was a very well-made piece called The Scarecrow from, of all things, Chipolte. But don’t worry, there’s no advertising in the video. It features great visuals and a lot to discuss.

organic-sticker-19324676This lesson can be used to review relative clauses, if you follow my worksheet. But, it can also work for any number of other skills and language. The lesson starts with a vocabulary elicitation exercise; students generate some useful words based on several pictures. Then they discuss a few questions to warm them up and activate schemata. Then they predict what the video might be about. While they watch the video, they are encouraged to take notes, using a prepared note-taking box with space for characters, settings, things, events, and notes. After watching, they check their predictions (we learned in our ICELT class that most teachers cultivateforget or just skip this step, so don’t do that!). Then they are asked to write a brief summary using their notes, which I had them do with their partners. From that, we move into a few comprehension questions, but the questions are actually nudging them into the real objective: relative clauses. Each of the questions is written as a relative clause, which many of my students didn’t notice until I asked them what the sentences had in common.

crowThen there is an exercise centered around identifying the relative clause and its components. That’s followed by an error-correction exercise and then a return to the summary they wrote earlier, which they will rewrite using relative clauses.

That was all the time I had for my lesson, but if I had more, I would have included a speaking activity, where the students would write their own questions and quiz each other, all the while using relative clauses. With even more time, I would have loved to have used this for a group discussion activity, since we just set the group discussion assessment criteria and tasks in my class. C’est la vie.

As I said, you could easily re-work this lesson to cover many other grammar topics or receptive/productive skills. The video could easily lead into a group discussion lesson, debate, essay writing, surveys and presentations, and much more.

Download the worksheet:  the scarecrow – relative clauses

Have fun!


Creative Commons License
The Scarecrow: Relative Clauses by Chris Sanders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Criminal Geniuses

My American teacher friends get this, I’m sure.

Found on Facebook.

Bookmark This! #2

Here are a few more useful links for teachers. Get those bookmarking fingers ready.

  1. Triptico
    This site features a bunch of cool tools and games that work well in the classroom. A lot of them are ‘Premium’ now, which sucks, because many of them are great. Still, there are useful freebies. My personal favorite in the hourglass timer.
  2.  Teaching with Songs
    Songs are great; they liven up class and students really enjoy them. There’s a lot you can do with them, from vocabulary to grammar to a variety of skills. Thanks to the YouTube and lyrics sites, it’s easier than ever to use songs in your lessons. This site can help you find the right song and some exercises to go with them. And there are tons of recent pop songs.
  3. Movie Segments to Assess Grammar Goals
    This site is an excellent site. There are dozens of video from popular movies associated with different grammar topics. The activities aren’t always perfect, but they’re often a good place to start.
  4. TV Subtitles
    Songs aren’t the only way to make class more fun. TV shows can be another great resource of authentic language, and they’re inherently more interesting than the average coursebook. The trouble is, for ESL students whose listening skills aren’t developed enough, understanding the dialogue can be challenging. With this site, you can find subtitles for most recent TV shows.
  5. Padlet
    padletThis site is great. You create a new padlet page and share the url with your students. They can then add comments, questions, links, or the like and everyone will see them on the page. They can do it anonymously if they want. This can be a very useful way for students to ask questions or offer comments without having to raise their hands or speak in front of their classmates.

The ICELT Diaries: Out of Context

Oh god, more grammar. – Every student ever.

“Hello, how are you? It’s so typical of me to talk about myself. I’m sorry.”

It would be fair to say that I was, until recently, a ‘context’ skeptic. It’s not that I didn’t see the value of establishing an overarching narrative or theme when teaching grammar or vocabulary or what-have-you. It’s just that I didn’t feel it was necessary. My worry has been that doing so will tend to encourage students to focus on that story or song or video clip or cluster of realia, perhaps at the expense of the target grammar or vocabulary. Or, if the learners do grok the objectives, then they may associate with the context of that lesson rather than seeing how it applies universally. Moreover, the way they will be expected to use it come assessment time will generally be devoid of context, even if there is some contextualization on the test – our listening assessment and writing assessment are complimentary topics, for instance – that context will almost never be the same one in which they studied the material.

What I’ve learned in ICELT, however, challenges my preconception about context. According to our instructors, establishing and staying within a context anchors the learners in a (hopefully) familiar frame of reference, allowing for the all-important activation of background schemata. Without such a framework, it can be difficult for the learners to understand the utility of the target language. As our tutor said, absent context, it’s all just random words and sentences. This is why coursebooks always have themes around which their vocabulary and grammar are centered. It is also why, perhaps, so many students buy texts like English Grammar in Use and never get more than a few pages into it. All those cloze exercises and transformations are devoid of any familiar meaning.

I still believe that there should be activities that provide more test-prep and universalized practice, but I am now more amenable to using context for my grammar and vocabulary lessons in the future. If only I’d come to that realization before I had my assessed observation.

A couple of weeks ago, I had 2nd teaching observation, the first one that would actually be assessed. The objective of the lesson was a notoriously difficult one, in my experience: infinitives of purpose, such that, so that, such…that, and so…that; an annoying cluster of grammar and functional language that only sort of go together. In the run up to the lesson, I spent a crazy amount of time on the lesson plan. Hours and hours. I wrote up stages, made materials, scraped the stages, and archived the materials. Why? I don’t know. It was not a pleasant experience, but it was an educational one, though mostly in hindsight.

Structurally, I opted for a PPP framework: presentation, practice, production. A solid choice, I felt; going for a task-based learning approach would have worked too, but it’s a style that I’m not as comfortable with, so not what I wanted to do for an assessed lesson. One of the things we’d studied in our ICELT course is the value of elicitation. Instead of just having the teacher show the learners the target grammar or vocabulary, it’s better to get the students to produce as much of it as possible and then nudge them in the right direction. Thus, I included a stage for elicitation of the target grammar.

But first, I wanted to do something a little fun and interesting. You know, lower those pesky affective filters. For the lead-in to the lesson, we listened to Adele’s Hello while students filled in the missing words in the lyrics on a worksheet I prepared. That stage of the lesson worked well, though there was a little technical glitch at the beginning of the lesson. I then used the lyrics to move into the first main grammar point, the infinitive of purpose.

Where I think I screwed up is in the next stage. The Adele song was a good, fun way to ease into the topic; unfortunately, I didn’t continue to use the song as we moved on to the next stages. Instead, I used a series of interesting but random pictures for elicitation of the other grammar structures – such that, so that, such…that, so…that – and unconnected sentences for a series of rewrite activities. The song should have been the context of the entire lesson. Had I started the hour off with some predictive activities and/or lead-in questions, then played the song and done the gap fill, then the target language presentation, and elicitation using elements from the song and the story the song presents, it would have been a far more cohesive, grounded lesson. Context, man.

The rewrite activities were another thing that was not as effective as they could have been, mainly because there were too many of them, and too frequent throughout the assessed part of the 2-block lesson. My thinking was that the students often do poorly on rewrites during the mid-term and final test, so the more practice the better, since the final was just a week away. My intentions were the best, but the lesson was not the better for them.

Does he ever stop talking?!

Another unfortunate part of my lesson was the amount of TTT: teacher talk time. When I was designing and redesigning my lesson plan, I thought I had minimized TTT. In practice, though, I found that the class was actually much more teacher-centric than I realized. In retrospect, some of the activities that I scraped, such as a running dictation, would have centered the class much more on student-student interaction. The main culprit was the PowerPoint I used. I know some teachers are totally against PPTs. I think that they are useful, it used correctly. In this case, I used it for highlighting text from the Adele song, for paper-reduction, for showing photos, and similar things. The PPT itself wasn’t bad; there was just too many stages that utilized it. Have a variety of different kinds of activities would have mitigated this issue.

In the end, the lesson was fine; I passed the assessment. Though the students learned the grammar points pretty well, I felt disappointed that the lesson didn’t live up to my expectations. Thankfully, though, I was able to recognize the mistakes I made in it and will be better able to avoid them in the future. “At least I can say that I’ve tried.”

Citation Needed

Found on Facebook.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Found on Resources for ESL/EFL Teachers

Eye Before Flea

Found on Pinterest.

You Need to Study Your Grammar, Son

Quick. What’s the third conditional? Mixed conditional? Is there even something called zero conditional? What’s the difference between present perfect and present perfect progressive, and why can’t you use the progressive in this case but you can in the other one?

zoidberggrammarbadIf you’re a native speaker, you likely haven’t studied grammar from an academic point of view since 8th grade. And unless you majored in linguistics, you might not even know what nominative, dative, and subjunctive mean, let alone how they might relate to English language instruction.

Before I began teaching ESL, I thought of myself as a knowledgeable, highly-literate person. I had impeccable grammar and my the sophistication of vocabulary made men nod in respect and ladies swoon with desire. Yet, within the first week of teaching 1st and 2nd graders, I realized that my intuitive ability to use English well did not translate into a technical understanding of how English works. If we ever talked about the different conditionals in school, I have no memory of it.

I remember once, very early on, a Korean 3rd grader asked me when we should say “the” with a short ‘e’ sound and when was should say it with a long ‘e’. I was like, “LOL WUT?” I desperately needed to bone up on my technical knowledge, and quick.

Somewhat indirectly, I learned a great deal about the foundational components of language and important notions of grammar from the collected works of Stephen Pinker, the famed MIT linguist. His classic The Language Instinct is highly worth reading, as is his most recent tome, The Sense of Style, which bills itself as a writer’s guide, but it much more than that. Another great author in this context is Bill Bryson whose The Mother Tongue and Dictionary of Troublesome Words are fantastic and useful reads for English teachers. Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves is another fun, enlightening read.

Podcast’s were crucial in my late-game grammar education. Early on, I discovered Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s podcast. Her show’s range from simplistic questions like a student might have to more in-depth discussions of esoteric topics. Other great linguistic podcasts that I recommend are Lexicon Valley and the History of English.

There are, of course, a vast sea of websites for reviewing grammar. The ones I used years ago have mostly been lost to the fogs of time, and the ones you can google today are as good or better than what has come before. Purdue’s OWL, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is fantastic. Here are a few others to consider:

If you have any resources that you find particularly helpful, please share!

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