TESOL 2019 Highlights: Ludicrous Lawsuits That Engage Learners

TESOL is in full swing, and I’ve attended a number of informative sessions. I’ll do my best to share valuable take-away over the next few weeks. Let’s start with the well-thought-out approach to listening and speaking presented by Takako Smith of University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Takako teaches within PIESL (Programs in English as a Second Language). 

In her session Surprises Make Listening andSpeaking Fun and Engaging, Takako demonstrated how to use silly and almost unbelievable lawsuits to prompt interactive listening and speaking. The key element is surprise. Takako had us recall the famous 1992 McDonald’s case in which Stella Liebeck sued the restaurant chain after she spilled burning hot coffee on herself. Since then, other surprising and outrageous cases have earned a so-called Stella Award. Takako forewarned participants that an online search for Stella Award recipients would yield a mix of real and bogus cases, so a bit of additional research is necessary to identify actual cases we can share with our students. 

Cases are summarized online; however, Takako explained how she rewrites a text and modifies the level of difficulty according to her students’ proficiency. She not only replaces challenging words with higher frequency ones, but she also typically shortens a long last name to a simple initial, such as Mr. I. The first step then is to modify the case summary in order to reduce cognitive overload.

Takako has developed a two-day activity that makes use of two different lawsuits. She splits her students into two groups, A and B. 

– On Day 1, Group A listens to the description of the first lawsuit after Group A leaves the classroom to complete another activity. The teacher reads the summary more than once, but the students in Group A do not see the text. They only listen. Vocabulary is addressed as needed. 

– When Group B returns, Group A must retell the lawsuit. Takako encourages Q&A between the groups. My understanding is that the teacher can decide how best to organize the students depending on the numbers (pairs, trios, etc.) 

 – The teacher then checks Group B’s comprehension. Questions are asked to check for accuracy. If Group B lacks accurate understanding, communication is called into question.  Was something heard incorrectly or explained unclearly? 

– As a whole class, key words are reviewed.

– On Day 2, the roles reverse. But before that the teacher gives a short vocabulary quiz to test students’ understanding of the key words in the first text. 

– So what happens when half the class is asked to leave the room? Takako challenges each student to take a photo of something interesting or different from their own culture. Photos are emailed to the teacher. Photos are shown to the class in random order after each lawsuit is retold. As time allows, students are asked to address the class and explain their reason for taking the photo. Through this mini-task, speaking and listening increases. 

Takako has found this approach to be effective and engaging.  The activity targets listening and speaking, but it also develops cultural literacy. Students gain some understanding of the U.S. court system and particularly through the photos, they make cultural comparisons.

I would like to thank Takako for sharing her creative ideas and for allowing me to post them here for you.

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