Lessons From Nothing

Workshop given by Bonnie Tsai,
Pilgrims, Canterbury, England

I didn’t know you a year ago: making space for new knowledge or feelings; how the new fits or conflicts with the old.

  1. Ask students to sit or stand in a circle according to their age.
  2. Ask them if they remember what day of the week it was a year ago.
  3. Tell them something you didn’t know a year ago but know now.
  4. Ask students to think of something they didn’t know, hadn’t  experienced or felt a year ago.
  5. Each student finds their “age partner” and describes what it is that they learnt, experienced or felt.
  6. Ask them to think back to today’s date last month.  Ask them to think of something they didn’t know about English that they didn’t know then that they do now.

What seems to work best with learners are activities in which they can use their own knowledge, experience and resources.

Mood sharing dictation: Student-generated material is the best way to stimulate students.

  1. Ask students to tear a sheet of paper into three or four stripes.  The number will depend on the number of students in the class.
  2. Ask them to write a sentence on each stripe about the mood they are in and how they feel about themselves.  You might want to add your own.  After all you have feeling too.
  3. Collect the stripes.  Give students a dictation using their sentences.  You can correct any errors as you go along.
  4. Ask students to use two different colored pens during the dictation.  Ask them to write down everything they feel about themselves in one color and everything else in another.
  5. Ask them to read to each other the sentences they identified with.

Examples of sentences you might get are: I am very tired.  It’s almost time to go home and I am happy

Alternative: Ask students to make statements about what they understand about English.

Students set an exercise: This gives students practice in reading comprehension in a meaningful way.  At the same time it is excellent preparation for exams where multiple choice components are used.

  1. Explain to students that you are giving them a reading passage.  Their task is to read the passage and create 6 multiple choice questions on the content of the reading passage.
  2. Tell them that each question has 4 components; one is the correct answer and the other three are distracters.
  3. At the next class students do each others’ exercises.  Compare results.

Picture Stories: This is another activity based entirely on student-generated material.  It also works better in classes of at least 20 students.

  1. Ask each student to look through a magazine and bring in a picture they like or find interesting.  Working in groups of 4 to 6 they make a collage with their pictures.
  2. Groups exchange their collage with another group.  With their new collage they make a story linking all the parts of the collage.  When they have thought up the story, they practice narrating it so that each person can tell the story confidently.
  3. They form in pair with someone from the group they gave their collage to.  They tell each other the story.  They return to their group and reconstruct the story they heard.  They practice narrating it until they can tell it to the whole group.

Material and Clothes Pelminism: Students make their own game

  1. Ask students to make 10 identical slips of paper each.
  2. Students work in pairs.  One is A  and the other is B.  Dictate different items of clothes.  Student A writes each of these on a slip of paper.  Dictate different materials to Student B.  Alternate between dictating clothes and material.
  3. Pairs check each others’ slips for spelling mistakes.
  4. They make two piles; one with clothes and the other with material.
  5. They turn two slips of paper over and make an if sentence.

If my shoes were made from paper they wouldn’t last long.

If my socks were made from plastic they would be uncomfortable.


The Question Game: This activity leads students to work in cooperation as a team-a quality highly valued today.

  1. Think of a topic of interest to your students.  You could also use a story, new article or other text.
  2. Divide the class into small groups and ask each group to prepare 10 questions about the topic.  Ask them to write the questions individual on one side off a small pieces of paper and the answer on the other side.
  3. Groups put their pieces of paper together with the question side up.  They exchange questions with another group.
  4. Tell the class they are going to play a game and that the rules are:

The student with the longest hair begins.  He or she draws a card and reads the question out loud to the group.  Give 15 seconds to answer the question.

Each correct answer wins 1 point.  If the student doesn’t know the answer, he or she can ask some else in the group to answer it.  1 point is awarded to both students if the answer is correct.

Any answer can be challenged.  1 point is awarded for a correct challenge.

The Press Conference: This activity not only practices the 4 skills, more importantly it encourages students to listen to each other.

  1. Divide the class into teams.  Ask them to prepare a press conference on a topic/text/book.
  2. Each student should write 3 questions individually on slips of paper.
  3. Collect the questions and mix them up.
  4. Re-distribute them so that each student had 3 slips of paper.
  5. Assemble the press conference by asking each team to appoint one of its members to be a member of the press.
  6. Students take turns “firing” questions to the press.  Students should seek to ask questions in a sequence without being redundant.

All my names: This is a technique from Gestalt psychology

  1. Ask students to write all their names: first names, middle names, baptism name, nick names, last name and so on.
  2. Each student writes a letter from the core name to one of the others
  3. The other name replies.

Daydreams: Explore with students daydreaming versus thinking.

Write the word DAYDREAM up on the board and ask students to brainstorm their associations with the word.

Explain that there are two rules in brainstorming: Everything is acceptable and no one is contradicted.

  1. Using ideas from the brainstorm, ask students to write out 2 questions on daydreaming.
  2. Go around the room helping students with their questions as needed.
  3. Students dictate their questions to the group.  As they do so, you write them down on an OHP transparency or on the board making any corrections that are necessary.  At the end of the dictation, flash up the transparency so that students can correct their dictations.
  4. Group students together to ask and answer the questions about themselves.

Guess the Question:

Teacher dictates information about self which students take in turn to write up on the board.  Students guess the questions and as they get each question right the teacher rubs the answer off the board.

The teacher gives the students a choice of three activities:

write the questions

Write a profile for the teacher

Make a statement using each of the phrases

Alternative or extension: Students think of three factual questions to ask someone in the class.  They pass their questions to someone to get their answers.  Change partners and read only the answers.  Partner guesses the question.

[↑]

Draw an ideal school

Collective student drawing on the school or other installation on the board.  In pairs students are given different tasks related to the picture.

1.       e.g. Is there/are there questions

How many/how much questions

Where is/where are questions

True/False questions

Questions you don’t know the answer to (to have answers with modals of deductions)

Supply an adjective and a verb for each item on the drawing

Re-pair students to ask and answer their questions.

  1. Labeling: Students reproduce the picture by writing vocabulary items in the position they occupy in the picture.  Students dictate the picture to their teacher to reproduce.
  2. Student description of picture: each student contributes one word to a group sentence or description of the picture.  Secretary writes it up on the board word by word.  Group edits their text.
  3. Text development: Once the text has been written up on the board, students can do the following:
    • add an adjective to every noun
    • add two words to every sentence
    • reduce the text to 15 words
    • Change the tense
    • finish it off
    • write what happened before
    • add adverbs to the verbs
    • Replace/change verbs/Nouns
    • make the sentence disappear

Student-generated sentences

  1. Divide students into pairs.  Ask them to prepare 10 stripes of paper.
  2. Pairs decide on 5 sentence using the structure to be practiced.  eg. past progressive, present perfect progressive, conditionals
  3. They write each half of their sentence on separate stripes of paper.
  4. Teacher collects the stripes and redistributes them.
  5. Students work in small groups to reconstruct their sentences. (Don’t worry if some of the sentences are silly)

Circulating 3 sheets of Paper: This activity is good for recapping.  It can be used for revision, predicting, discussion: for, against, neutral, roles: developing what a person might say, listening: 3 different listening groups, problem solving/ 3 types of reactions: questions, advice, instructions, 3 headings on the same subject

  1. Set up 3 groups and give a sheet of paper to each group.  You might want to use larger sheets of paper.  Appoint a secretary for each group.  Each of the 3 secretaries has a different sheet of paper.
  2. The members of the group give their ideas under the heading.  The secretary writes these down.
  3. Pass the paper to a new group who find further ideas to write down under the heading.  Continue on so that each group has contributed to each of the 3 headings.

The Elephant:

  1. Students shout out words they remember from a previous lesson;
  2. They draw an elephant and place the words on the parts of the parts of the elephant they associate them with.
  3. Pair off and discuss each other’s versions

Questions, Comments, and Answers: The 3 question forms how, why, and what if have strong provoking properties.  The last phase provokes intensive listening on the part of the 2 people who have previously worked on the questions.  This exercise allows students to consider a topic they have chosen from a rich variety of angles, provided by other students.

  1. Chose a topic and then write 3 questions beginning with How, 3 beginning with why, and 3 beginning with what if
  2. Pair students and tell them to ask and answer each others’ questions.
  3. Form groups by putting 2 pairs together and asking them to exchange questions.  They then answer the other pair’s questions.

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