Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Getting Students to do the Work

In my classes I believe in getting my students to do the majority of the work. I think that the more they actively participate in a lesson, the more motivating that lesson will be and the more they will retain of its content. I ask them to predict content, to prepare questions for other students to answer, to guess the meaning of vocabulary from the context and to prepare homework questions for their classmates.

Below is an outline of the lesson I have taught over the last couple of days, which will give an idea of what I mean. The topic was stories in the news.

Stage 1

I asked the students to discuss in pairs any stories that were currently making headlines, either at home, in the UK or the wider world. A natural discussion evolved from this task, with students asking questions about Scottish independence, the Pistorius trial, the Royal pregnancy and, loosely connected, the Princess Diana conspiracy theories. In most instances, the students were able to discuss these topics without intervention. In other cases, they asked for my view. In yet other cases, we looked online for information.

This discussion also threw up a range of collocations such as a shifty man or woman, to be neck and neck, too close to call, to have a field day, to lose face, and pompand ceremony. Once again, this vocabulary arose naturally from the discussion and from the students’ questions – it wasn’t vocabulary I had prepared earlier.

Stage 2

I showed the students the 11 pictures below which I had taken from the BBC In pictures site. I asked them, in pairs, to write a sentence to describe each picture. If they knew what story the picture referred to, they could use this information. If they didn’t, I simply asked them to describe what they could see. Some of the sentences they came up with were:
A man holds onto a rope to avoid dirty water
A volcano is erupting
A man is repairing cables
A man wins or loses?

The language wasn't complicated but, again, the students had done all the work themselves and had also discussed what they thought the pictures were showing.

Stage 3

I gave the students a photocopy of the captions that went with each picture (also taken from the BBC In Pictures site). One of the captions was a red herring and, as there were only 7 captions, two other pictures didn’t have a matching caption.
I asked the students, again in pairs, to match the captions to the pictures. However, I did give them a fairly strict time limit so they didn’t have chance to read all the words and start asking complicated vocabulary questions at this stage! At the end of the activity, students checked their ideas with each other and I only intervened if there were any problems.

Stage 4

I focussed students on the caption that matched the Joan Rivers star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The caption was:

Flowers surround Joan Rivers’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles following the announcement that she had died. Rivers, 81, had been on life support in Mount Sinai hospital since having a cardiac arrest in New York last week


I asked the students how they would transform this caption into an appropriate headline for the picture. They could only use the words in the caption itself (and I stressed that they couldn’t change the form of the words in any way). They also had to use words in the same order as they appeared in the caption and their headline obviously had to make linguistic and grammatical sense! Valid examples would be:
Joan Rivers’ star
Flowers surround star
Rivers died last week

In pairs, the students then did the same with the remaining pictures, leading to headlines such as:
40 explosions on Monday & volcano activity
Shasta lake near 30% capacity & Shasta hit by drought
Man repairs cables on pylon
Cameron greets Merkel

The students seemed motivated by the fact that there wasn’t a definitive ‘correct answer’. There was also a lot of discussion about whether they could leave out certain words and whether what was left made sense and/or was grammatically correct. And, once again, the students were doing all of the work!

Stage 5
From the students, I elicited the wh questions (who, where, when, why, what, how). I then asked them to choose one of the headlines they had written and pass it onto another group. This group then had to write wh- questions relating to the headline and the picture. They came up with the following suggestions:

Electricity in China
What is the man doing?
Who told him to do it?
When did he start doing this?
Why is he doing this job?
Where is the electricity pylon?
How long has he been doing the job?

Alpine sheep in Switzerland
Who do the sheep belong to?
Where are they going?
When did they leave?
Why are they grazing up a mountain?
What are they doing?
How will they get home?

The students then swapped both headlines and questions. Their homework was to write a short paragraph about the picture making sure that they answered all the questions. So the students had prepared their own homework!
Follow-up: tomorrow’s class
I will ask the students to compare stories. They will have a minute or two to read over what they have written. I will then ask them to tell a partner (who has written a story based on the same headline) their story and find the main differences between their stories.

As I said right at the beginning of this blog, I believe that my students should do most of the work in class. If I look back at this particular class, I had simply taken pictures and captions from the BBC website. During the class, my students participated in discussions, used dictionaries, explained the meaning of new language to each other, wrote sentences, made headlines, and wrote questions. For homework they would write a story. They had also touched on all 4 skills as well as working on grammar and vocabulary. All with very little input from me!

I’d be very interested to hear what other teachers think about this approach to teaching and whether it would work in your classroom. Please comment!

BBC Day in Pictures page 1

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