I wonder how you say…

An activity that combines translation, drilling newly acquired vocabulary and engaging the students with the language to go beyond vocabulary input provided by textbooks and to present an extra challenge, yet still within the students’ grasp, in the spirit of what Jim Scrivener calls “doable demands”.  As Jim wisely puts it in Demand High, “communicative language teaching had painted itself into a corner, encouraging a lot of “fun” and familiar ritualised activity types, work groupings and materials but with limited apparent engagement with the “dirty” part of dealing with language and learning, and so on. ”

Picture yourself working with this textbook material.


taken from Jetstream Elementary, Helbling Languages, sample from the publishing house available here.

In exercise 4 students are asked to think about travel problems in connection with the visual aids. Some verbs are suggested and students most likely will be generating sentences with the modal verb “can” as in the example.

And here is the “doable demand”, even at the target language level.

Give each student a strip or paper and write “I wonder how you say x in English” on the board. You may need to explain what wonder means. Then they have two minutes to write an L1 word or expression that they do not know in English related to the task above on their piece of paper. For instance, they may write: “I wonder how you say marearse in English”. Marearse is the Spanish verb for “to get motion sick”.

Next, get your students into groups of 4 or 5. They show their papers and must agree on choosing one strip of paper from their group that they believe contains a word or expression worth knowing in English. Just one strip of paper per group. In a class of 30 students, you would be collecting about six expressions in total. An adequate number would be 5 to 8 items. If you want suggestions on how to group students, read my post on grouping students here.

Ask the groups to tell you their selected words or expressions and write them on the board. Does anyone know how to say them in English? Chances are that no one will at that language level.

Here is a possible list of words and expressions:

  • marearse=to get motion sick
  • olvidarse de imprimir la tarjeta de embarque= to forget to print your boarding pass
  • robar la maleta=to get your suitcase stolen
  • robar en la mochila=to have stuff from the backpack nicked
  • equivocarse de tren=to catch the wrong train
  • equivocarse de maleta=to pick the wrong suitcase

In principle these structures are beyond the language level but if we work with a limited number of them and we provide enough modelling and drilling and create a task attached to them, are they intrinsically harder to master than “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks. And you?” on anyone’s first English lesson ever?

And here is the task attached to it. Tell the students to think of a situation to trigger one of the above expressions as a response. This is best done in pairs for extra speaking practice. Here is an example:

  • “When I was a child I travelled with my parents in the car to go to the beach and then we drove through the mountains and the road wasn’t straight in the mountains….”
  • “You got motion sick!”

It’s worth pointing out that the textbook page where these activities are contained comes from unit 11 out of 12. At this stage students are familiar with regular and irregular past simple. There is nothing intrinsically difficult about concocting and telling a story to illustrate the expression or listening and understanding it in order to identify and say the expression.

It is also worth noting that by having created associations and connections with real or imaginary experiences this newly acquired vocabulary will be committed to memory and retrieved more successfully.


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