UPDATE: This post was awarded the British Council’s Teaching English blog award for February, 2013. Thanks to all those who voted for my work, you’re awesome.
This post is a response to a question posed on the British Council’s Teaching English page on Facebook: ‘Have you got a favourite lesson plan or class activity that you come back to and use again and again? What does it consist of? What makes it work?’
Ok, let me dive straight into it. This is an activity that I’ve used probably with every class I’ve taught in the last twelve years.
First, I’ll describe the activity, and then I’ll tell you why it’s great.
1. Write the following questions on the board
- How long have you been on the planet?
- Why did you go there?
- Describe the two people who are with you.
- Why is your spaceship damaged?
- When you decided to leave your ship, how far did you walk?
- What were you looking for?
- When did you realise that someone was following you?
- Describe the creature.
- While you were running away, you tripped and fell. What happened?
- What was the big surprise at the end of your story?
2. Explain what the learners are going to do
- You are going to write a paragraph that tells a story.
- Your paragraph will be a response to these questions.
- Any sentence you write is OK, but you must follow the sequence of questions.
- You can ask me for help while you are writing.
3. Go through one or two questions with the group
What kind of language might we use to answer the first question?
- ‘We have been on the planet for two weeks / since last month’
- ‘We arrived here yesterday’
How would we describe the people who are with us?
4. Assign a period of time for learners to write
Twenty minutes is long enough for most to finish.
5. As learners finish, get them to swap their stories with each other and let them read.
This keeps the early finishers busy, while the slower writers aren’t disturbed and can get on with their writing.
Why does this work so well?
1. You can adapt this to the level of your class.
For instance, you can phrase the questions so that they are all in the simple past, if that’s what you wish to practice.
‘When did you arrive on the planet?’
‘Why did you leave your friends?’
You can equally make it more complex:
Parallel past continuous
‘While you were escaping, what was chasing you?’
‘Describe the creature you were being followed by.’
2. It is structured and yet very creative
The format, in which the progression of the paragraph follows the questions, creates a comfortable framework to work in. Nevertheless, there is a huge amount of freedom for each learner to express themselves when answering each individual question. You are guaranteed to be bombarded with questions about the adjectives they want to use for description and verbs they need for specific actions. The questions are designed so that they always lead on from the previous, regardless of how that question has been answered.
3. It’s adaptable
I use the above model with my teenage university students. I’ve changed the setting to a car that’s broken down near a scary haunted house for adult learners, and even a car breaking down on the way to a business meeting in a business English class.
This method can also be applied when teaching it to students with disabilities and learning impairments.
The series of questions doesn’t only help to get the concept of English grammar, but it also helps to see how students react when facing a specific situation. Similar techniques have been added to online programs that give future teachers the right tools to take care of special need students. If you wish to learn more about advance training in special education, you can visit this page. It will give you all the information needed to become a teacher and open the door to many career opportunities.
Have fun and let me know if you use this
As I said, this is an old favourite, not just of mine but of every learner I’ve used it with. I should mention that I can’t take credit for this; it’s an adaptation of a similar activity in an ancient – i.e. from the 1990s – resource book called ‘Recipes for Tired Teachers.’