Archive for the ‘Reading’ category

Inquiring Minds: using headlines to practice embedded questions

May 3, 2011

Click here to listen to my introduction to the activity Inquiring Minds.

A while ago I suggested a writing activity to practice embedded questions. Questionable Qualities focuses on identifying sentence structure (embedded questions as subjects, objects, and complements) and limits self-expression to sentence generations based on fictitious characters. The activity allows for communicative practice, but remains somewhat controlled.

If students demonstrate comfort with “Questionable Questions”, I’d like to suggest a speaking activity using authentic headlines. See my Inquiring Minds_handout. Tabliods would suit this activity well, but you may choose the sources based on your knowledge of the students’ interests. Include current issues that they would likely be hearing about outside the classroom.

Happy teaching!

Puzzling Paraphrases: A whole language activity for upper level students

August 5, 2010

Much classroom activity can be based on a lengthy quote that has depth. We come across such thought-provoking quotes in various places –  in a magazine, during a political speech, on the radio, etc. The next time you encounter one, make note of it. Later find a copy to share with a group of upper level students, and consider using a combination of the ideas listed below to create a whole language activity.

  • Many attritbute the following quote to Socrates. (See Wikiquote article.) Apparently there is some debate over the source. Regardless, the statement is provocative and discussion-worthy.

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” (Retrieved from goodreads.)

  1. Discussion: Who do you think said this? What kind of person? Young, old, man, woman, parent, grandparent, politician…?
  2. Discussion: Summarize the thought in one sentence. Decide if you agree or disagree with the statement.
  3. Reading/ speaking: Create a puzzle of words. Break up the quote into phrases. Before students see the quote as a whole, ask them to assemble the pieces in the most logical order. Have them work in pairs and then compare their sequencing. Here’s how I’d break up the above quote before I mixed up the pieces: our youth now love// luxury //they have bad manners, contempt for// authority// they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of // exercise// they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their// parents// chatter before// company// gobble up their // food //and tyrannize their //teachers//
  4. Reading/ writing: Make the quote a gapped text. Have them work solo or with a partner to fill in the blanks. Let them compare their work before revealing the actual quote. Model with above quote: Our ________ now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for _________; they show disrespect for their _______ and love chatter in place of ________; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they _______ their parents, chatter before company; _______ up their food and ______ their teachers.
  5. Speaking or writing topics: Allow for students to make a personal connection to such a quote. For example, with the model quote above, I asked a group of students these questions: (1) How would you describe the differences between your generation and your parents’? And you grandparents’? (2) How do you think the generation after you will differ? (3) To what degree should parents influence their children? To what degree do you take after your parents?

Top 5 Uses of Top 10 Lists

July 23, 2010

I discovered a site that publishes top ten lists. That’s all they do. Well, there is some variation.  They have top 20 and top 25 lists as well. The List Universe. The site offers materials that are appropriate for upper level students. Lists contain brief explanations for each item. As an added bonus, the site has begun to make podcasts of existing lists. What does that mean for classroom use? It means you can find some lists presented as an audio file and the original publication serves as the transcript. If you really enjoy the content, you can subscribe to Listverse podcasts on iTunes. The podcasts use fast but very clear speech. (Click here for a sample.)

The archives on this site organize the lists into a dozen categories, giving you a broad selection of topics. You’ll probably want to bypass the categories of Bizarre and Controversial and browse more classroom appropriate ones, such as Art & Literature, Fact & Fiction, and Leisure & Travel. One example of a tame but still interesting topic is Top 20 Facts About Sleep.

What can you do with the lists? I think back to my early experiments with top ten lists to offer these suggestions. You may choose to focus on one or more skills within a single lesson.

  1. Detailed listening practice. Use a podcast. First listening: identify the items on the list. Second: use a gapped text to listen for details. Recommended list: 10 Most Annoying Time Wasters.
  2. Understanding a theme. Hide the list title and present the items of the list one by one on the board.  As you post each new item, it should be easier for the class to guess the theme. What would they title the list? You can either have students volunteer their guesses as the activity progresses, or you can ask them to wait until the last item is shown and then write down their ideas. After they submit their guesses, show the actual title. Recommended list: Top 10 Ways to Save Money on Food.
  3. Understanding a theme. Show the title and hide the items. This is the opposite of the previous activity. Have students work in pairs or small groups to generate their own items for a given list title. Then they can compare their lists to the original one. Recommended list: 10 Greatest Food Combinations.
  4. Self-expression through writing. Students can respond to a list in writing. Revised and approved texts can be posted on the site’s forum.
  5. Debates and presentations. Lists loaded with personal opinion make for interesting discussion. Discussion can center around the ranking. Assign each pair or small group an item on the list and ask them to prepare an argument for ranking their item number one. Recommended list: Top 10 Everyday Inventions.

Getting the Most Out of Authentic Texts

July 7, 2010

If you’ve decided to bring in an authentic text to share with your students, what do you plan to do with it? You can use a text to meet a number of objectives, which include but are not limited to:

  • Teaching text organization and comprehension of main ideas.
  1. Scramble the paragraphs of a short article and have students work in pairs or small groups to reassemble the text.
  2. Remove the title as well as any section headings. Challenge students to create a main title as well as suggestions for section headings. Compare their ideas to the original ones written by the author.
  3. Present a gapped text. On the board write the 3-4 missing sentences from the article. Be sure that the sentences are removed from different paragraphs so that the main ideas/ subtopics are clearly different. Have students work with a partner to insert the sentences in the most appropriate places.

These kinds of exercises facilitate thinking in English and not simply about English.


  • Teaching suprasegmentals.
  1. Practice intonation patterns. Select an excerpt from a dialogue (play, film script, novel, etc.) that contains a good mix of sentence types (yes-no questions, wh- questions, sentences with a series of items, etc.) which are ideally said by different characters. First reading: The teacher reads and the students identify the pattern (e.g., rising intonation). Second reading: Place students in small groups of three or four and assign each member a pattern (e.g., Student A – rising, Student B – falling, Student C – rise fall). The sentences will be read in the order they are written, but all the sentences of a given pattern must be read by the same student. Third reading: The students will assume character roles, including a narrator if necessary.
  2. Practice rhythm through thought groups. Select a short article or brief excerpt. As a class, mark appropriate places to pause. Read the text orally as a class and a second time in pairs, observing the noted thought groups.

These reading activities allow you to choose a highly appealing source, such as a popular film, a TV show, or a speech made by a celebrity. If the resources are available, you could compare a student reading to the original recording.

Related ideas can be found in my posts on paraphrasing and editing.

The Art of Creating Activities: Using Museum Websites for Language Teaching

May 24, 2010

As we all know, the Internet has opened up a wealth of learning opportunities. The trick is to find a resource and then figure out how to use it. While reading my favorite magazine, The Week, I discovered that the world’s museums have been busy making much of its contents available to people who cannot physically visit them. The Louvre, the Hermitage Museum, and the Smithsonian are three such institutions. 

Not every trip to Paris allows time for a day at the Louvre (at least, that’s been my experience). Now anyone can go online and take a virtual tour. If your students do so, remind them to select English on the home page before they begin the tour! Here another possibility.

  • Choose Kaleidoscope and select a visual theme, such as “Daily Life”. Click to enlarge or zoom in on the images in the order you wish the class to view them. Have students state a brief description of what they see using targeted grammar. Be sure students know the words painting, sculpture, work of art, and any other vocabulary relevant to the pieces you’ll be showing. Examples: (present progress) “Seated Man Writing” is a sculpture. The man is sitting, and he is writing. / (adjective clauses) “Reading” (by Fragonard) is a drawing in which two women are sitting. One is reading. The other, who is dressed in a beautiful gown, is in the front, and she is listening.


The Louvre

Virtual visits to the Hermitage are also possible. Here’s an idea to develop reading skills.

  • Attend the Virtual Academy. Challenge upper level students to read for details. For example, if they select the “course” on the history of the Winter Palace, they could be given this list of questions to answer as they move through the slide presentation.

Model: [Slides 1-6]

  1. Who lived at the Winter Palace?
  2. How did Russia’s relationship with Sweden influence the construction of the Winter Palace?
  3. Name at least two positive contributions Peter I made to Russia.
  4. How did Elizabeth choose to decorate the palace and why?
  5. Who was the first true owner of the palace?

The Hermitage

Of the three, I found the Smithsonian site to be the most attractive. Maybe the appeal had to do with the introductory video hosted by the popular American actor Ben Stiller. The video itself could be used for listening, speaking, and vocabulary practice.

  • Comprehension questions based on the video (first 3 minutes)
  1. Who founded the Smithsonian?
  2. How large is the Smithsonian?
  3. (1:40) What does Ben Stiller emphasize “the” when he says, “A lot of people think the castle…is the Smithsonian”?
  4. (2:09) Retell the story of the “The Peacock Room” designed by the artist Whistler.
  • Vocabulary. Listen to the video (first 3 minutes) and explain the meaning of these phrases:
  1. (1:05) hall of fame
  2. (1:37) (not) kidding around
  3. (2:21) went to town (on it)
  4. (2:57) crack a code


Got another suggestion for using one of these sites? Please share it.

The Power of Polls

April 9, 2010

I’ve suggested use of polls and surveys in the past. Those ideas included activities to target:

The above activities were designed with intermediate and advanced students in mind. What about beginners? How can polls assist those with a limited amount of language, especially in terms of reading and writing? I began to think about this as I dropped my son off today at kindergarten.  I was struck by the delight he takes in participating in the daily poll. It’s a simple sheet of paper posted on the wall next to the door. The teacher updates it every morning.  As students arrive, they read and take the daily poll. Sometimes they assist one another with the reading, but each child does his or her own writing. Imagine if during one week the questions were all similar in format. Then unfamiliar words would likely be recognizable words (sight words) by the end of the week. The questions could make use of target vocabulary: colors, emotions, numbers, etc.

Model A: You can create two columns YES and NO and have students write their names in the appropriate column. This tests their ability to read target words, in this case the names of colors, and write their first names.

                Monday: Are you wearing RED today?

                Tuesday: Are you wearing BLUE today?

                Wednesday: Are you wearing GREEN today?

                Thursday: Are you wearing BLACK today?

                Friday:  Are you wearing YELLOW today?

Model B: You can create a list of the students’ names. The students must write their answer next to their name. This tests their ability to recognize their names, read target words, and rewrite those words.

                Monday: Are you TIRED or NOT TIRED today?

                Tuesday: Are you HAPPY or SAD today?

                Wednesday: Are you HUNGRY or NOT HUNGRY now?

                Thursday: Are you COLD, HOT, or OKAY now?

                Friday:  Are you THIRSTY or NOT THIRSTY now?

Second-hand Writing: Maximizing the usefulness of a writing activity

October 28, 2009

I hope the title caught your attention, but perhaps it’s also caused some confusion. Let me explain. I’d like to consider the possibility of using student compositions as the basis for other activities. It’s similar to a craftsman building something from recycled materials. Compositions that have been thoroughly revised and already graded could be used among the same group of students or with other groups at similar levels (assuming you have the authors’ permission) in the context of a new lesson. Here are two possible “second-hand” activities:

1. Solo reading and speaking to the class

Student compositions written by one group can be shared with a second. Students receiving the essays can be assigned questions to answer:

  • For essays expressing a point of view (problem-solution, cause-effect, etc.): What is the topic? What is the author’s opinion? Do you agree with the author? Why or why not? Be prepared to share your answers with the class.
  • For essays presenting information (narrative, definition, etc.): What is the topic? Can you summarize the essay? Did you learn anything new from the author? Can you provide any additional information on the topic? Be prepared to share your answers with the class.

2. Paired reading and problem-solving discussion

Students at one level should be able to comprehend not only the writings of their classmates but also of those one level head. This means a teacher could share the compositions of a high intermediate class with the students at the intermediate or low intermediate level. The number of unfamiliar words or grammatical structures shouldn’t be high enough to hinder comprehension. That said, try the following activity with a narrative essay or short story.

  • Story Scramble: You’re likely familiar with this game. I put a spin on it for a LEA-inspired activity (Language Experience Approach) back in March 2009. Now we’re taking a story or a description of events as related on paper by a student and dividing it up into 10-12 segments. This needs to be done by the teacher in advance. I recommend keeping sets of the story in envelopes. You’ll need about 5-6 sets so that the class can work either in pairs or small groups. Each group will assemble the story to the best of their ability.  One group can volunteer to read the assembled story to the class. Alternative sequences can be discussed.

VARIATION: You can have each group work with a different story. After an assigned amount of time (e.g., 10 minutes), you can present a copy of the original story to the group so they can check their work. Groups can hand back the original “whole” copies to the teacher and exchange sets so the activity is repeated. Finally, after all the materials have been collected, have volunteers recall and orally summarize the 5-6 stories. The class can listen and assist as necessary.


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