working with listening transcripts 1

Today I would like to share a couple of ideas on one of the most overlooked -and useful- things we can do in the classroom: working with listening transcripts. They tend to be considered as reference material for the students to check -if anything- at home to, perhaps, look up words they may not know from it.

However, they are very useful not just as reference material. There are quite a few things that we can do as language teachers with them in the classroom setting. In this first blog post I will be focusing on exploiting them in a generic way in relation to what the students understand from the listening passage. In the next blog post to come I will be referring to the work on listening from the inspiring figure of John Field and I will be blogging about the things that the students don’t understand and how transcripts can be used for students self-assessment and for teachers to establish intervention strategies.

Idea number one. Knock on wood. After the students have listened to a listening passage from their textbook and regardless of the kind of comprehension questions they may be faced with, find the transcript and start rephrasing it by saying things that are accurate according to what they students heard but also by changing others that are not true to the story. Every time the students hear something that is not true, they should knock on their desks and correct you. Here is a sample from Empower A2, Cambridge University Press. Free sample from the publisher here.

And this is how things could unfold:

Both of them went on a Road Silk trip and both of them enjoyed it. Both of them went by train and by bike [knock knock “he went by train and she travelled by train, bike and coach”]. He caught the train from Turkey [knock knock “he caught the train from Russia”] and travelled through central Asia. He sometimes changed trains [knock knock “the same train all the way”]. The trains were very comfortable. She was surprised to hear he paid 35,000 dollars [knock knock “25,000 dollars”] for the trip but he said it included everything, the train, the food, everything.

This adds an element of fun but the most important things transpiring from this exploitation is that it supplies important information that the students might have missed which will help understanding, if you decide to play the extract one more time, and also gets the students really engaged in the activity. Once the students are used to this, you can let them work in pairs and one student will take the role of teacher.

Idea number two. Syntactic priming. Syntactic priming is the process that takes place when we make predictions upon hearing certain grammatical patterns which guide us to guess the string of words that are more likely to be uttered next based on our previous encounters with those patterns. Basically we are constantly building sentences based on what we hear, which are next confirmed or then reformulated. We hypothesise. We fill gaps. This is one of the reasons why listening -far from being a receptive process- is very much an active skill. Check my blog post on syntactic priming here. Get your students into pairs and have one student in each pair look at the transcript. This student will start reading the transcript but every time there is a noun, she will have to stop and say “err” instead for the partner to elicit the missing noun. If the partner doesn’t know or guesses the wrong word, a hint can be given or just simply the word in question and the student with the transcript in sight will keep on reading until the next noun is encountered.

For instance, and with the same listening sample:

  • My .err… [mum] said you went on a Silk err… [Road] err… [trip].
  • Yes, it was a wonderful err… [trip]. Really fantastic.
  • How did you travel?
  • By err… [train], of err… [course]. The only err… [way] to do it.
  • Well, not the only err… [way]. I went there last err… [year] and I travelled by err… [train] and by err… [coach] and by err… [bike].

This also works well with verbs. For instance:

  • Very. Just like a hotel on wheels. It err… [had] anything I err… [needed.
  • Great. And how much did it err… [cost]?
  • I don’t err… [remember] exactly. Not too much for a trip like that. About 25,000 dollars?

Zero prep.

past simple for beginners ( a matter of common sense)

At which point in a Beginner or even Elementary course do you introduce and teach the past simple? Here’s a guide.

It has always bugged me that Beginner textbooks do not introduce the past simple until half way through the book. So it sadly transpires that students will not start using the past simple tense until a few months into their English course.

This is utter nonsense. Corpus data reveal to us that the use of present and past simple accounts for 80% of all verb use. Teaching by the textbook will not reflect this reality in the classroom setting, at least when it comes to teaching beginners.

After all, why should “I had a great time this weekend” be intrinsically more cognitively challenging than “I have one brother and a sister”? Or than “How are you”? or “Where are you from?” for that matter?

By skipping working with the past simple until the students are ready to move to it, weaving through the contents in a linear way, we are neglecting a lot opportunities for language practice and repetition. No conversations (and useful vocabulary and grammar) around things we did at the weekend, our last holiday, how life was when we were younger and the kinds of things we did and experienced, etc.

Enough ranting. This is my proposal to “teach” the past simple from week 2.

Ask the students to buy a pack of index cards. These cards usually come in a pack of a 100 at the cost of around a euro where I live in Spain. One hundred cards are more than enough for at least 100 common English verbs at the language level, both regular and irregular.

Tell the students to write a sentence on a side of a card using the past simple. They must make sure that there are no mistakes. You could suggest a sentence for them to write or they can copy an example from a learner’s dictionary or they can write their own sentence for you to check. A dotted line will be replacing the past simple form of the verb. For instance:

On the back they will be writing a translation into their L1 language.

They may highlight the verb forms, if they want. Here I highlighed “fui de compras”, as it will be useful to learn it as a chunk (“to go shopping” or “to go home” or “to go crazy”).

They may number the card and on a separate piece of paper write down a numbered list of the missing verb forms (“went” and “bought” under number one in this case). My experience is that this is not really needed. They will be able to recall the missing verbs without the list.

Now it’s time to study. They can have a look at the L1 side and try to say this in English. Then they turn over the card and check. The simple past forms will be missing but that’s the idea. The greater the effort, the greater memorability (assuming the challenge is feasible, of course). If they don’t know, they can refer to the numbered list, if they have it. Otherwise, they can look these forms up in a dictionary or in their textbook.

Or they can look at the side in English and try to recall the missing verbs. If they don’t know these forms or they are not sure what the missing verbs might be, they can always turn over the card to check.

These cards can be used for self-study but they are also an invaluable source of practice materials for the language classroom. Ask the students to bring some cards to class, set up groups and let them challenge each other. I can think of a few games to go with these cards but I may leave this for another blog post soon. At any rate, any teacher with a minimum of creative spark in them can think of a group game or two to engage their students in, I am sure.

Ok… here is one. Write this on the board:

  • …did you…?
  • … didn’t…

A student shows her card English side up. The other students will have to generate sentences with the prompts about the card, as in:

  • When did you go shopping?
  • What did you buy?
  • You didn’t buy a pair of jeans, you bought some shoes.

Zero preparation for the teacher, great teaching and learning outcomes, sheer common sense.

songs: fill-in-gaps with a twist

This is one of my favourite song activities ever. It focuses on having a look at relevant vocabulary from a song by means of a dictation (again, with a twist), on having the students mingle and help each other with meaning and then doing your typical fill-in-gaps. Finally you may decide to allow time for some speaking interaction with the target vocabulary.

Select 10-15 key words from the song. Choose words you expect all students to know and also some difficult words for the language level. I have chosen to play Stitches by Shawn Mendes for an Intermediate/Upper-Intermediate level.

Ask the students to get a piece of paper and draw three columns on it headed “I know”, “I’m not sure”, “I don’t know”. Tell them you are going to dictate a number of words or language chunks from a song they are about to listen to. First they must take those words down and write them under the corresponding column according to whether they know them, they are not too sure about it or they don’t know at all.

For the song that I have chosen I would dictate:

  • sore
  • knife
  • to breathe
  • (to) go under
  • to bleed
  • to shake
  • stitches
  • to trip over
  • to ache
  • to wind up
  • moth
  • to lure someone in
  • to reap what you sow

Then have the students mill around and help each other to come up with the full list and meaning. Do not help them with meaning at this stage.

Give them a copy of the gapped lyrics and have them write down the missing words and expressions. Play the song for them to check. Then help them with the vocabulary they don’t understand.

Finally you can ask them to spend some time reading the lyrics and discuss what the song is about and share their different interpretations of it.

Or alternatively you can think of conversation questions with some of the target words and expressions for vocabulary consolidation and some speaking practice. For instance:

  • How would someone get a sore head/throat/legs?
  • Have you ever got stitches in your skin? What happened?
  • Have you ever wound up in hospital?
  • Can you think of a situation where someone could say “Well, you reap what you sow”?
  • Which are some of the most common aches and pains?

This type of song exploitation also works really well with these songs: Earth Song by Michael Jackson, Try by Pink, Big Yellow Taxi by Counting Crows and Firework by Kate Perry. Which words would you dictate?

one-minute videos 2

About a year ago I discovered a nice collection of one minute videos recorded by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley. Each video recording features an English expression which is clearly explained and presented with examples from real life conversations. You can find this collection housed in their Youtube Channel Lexical Lab. I shared a generic way of exploiting these videos for all language levels in the language classroom followed by an optional follow-up speaking interaction to practice the target expressions. You can read about it here.

Today I am going to focus on a writing task attached to the videos. Writing in the classroom seems to me a neglected area mostly because it is something that, after all, can always be done at home and also because teachers do not really have the time or means to check and give feedback on what is being generated, if this takes place in the classroom setting.

However, we can try to devise micro-writing tasks that can take up just ten minutes of class time. You may decide to have your students work in pairs or small groups and try to provide help as the texts are being generated. These micro-writing tasks should, in principle, be aimed at consolidating newly learned vocabulary in order for the students to do things with the language in different ways (including writing).

However, this time this activity centers on activating vocabulary that the students are familiar with and also on paving the ground for new expressions.

Tell the students that they are going to learn a new expression today (some may already know it and it’s fine). Select key vocabulary from the video and ask your students to write a story with what they can from the selected key vocabulary that you have annotated on the board. They are not allowed to use their dictionaries. They simply have to write a four line story using as many lexical items from the board as they want or can. Give them about ten minutes to work in pairs or in small groups of threes or fours. Do not help them with the vocabulary on the board; just with their writing.

Students read out their texts outloud. With classes with a large number of students, pick five or six groups and collect the rest of the samples. If your students are allowed to use internet connecting devices, you can set up a Google Doc for everyone to see in the front. Another interesting tip: get the students to write their four-line texts on strips of paper. Open the camera tool on your computer and have them hold their papers in front of the camera for everyone to see on the board. Then give feedback and ask your class for possible error corrections, reformulations, etc.

Finally play the video for them to compare their stories with the video. Clarify meaning of the target vocabulary. Check understanding. Play the video another couple of times.

So this one-minute English video is trying to explaing the meaning of “(don’t) rest on your laurels” by means of a real-life situation. This is the vocabulary that I would write on the board:

  • school assembly
  • to be awarded a prize
  • to feel proud of (something)
  • to relate (to something)
  • a head teacher
  • to hand (someone) a prize
  • to push yourself on
  • (not to/never) rest on your laurels

Before you play the video, which four-line story would you write? (in your head). Then play the video and compare.

summer series: three reading activities

Wrapping up the summer, this is the last post for the summer series before I start blogging again with new content. This time the focus is on reading activities. Once again, click on the links for the full posts.

In from reading passage to interview, students turn a reading passage into an interview. They read -and understand- a text and then get into pairs and play the roles of television presenter and guest on the TV show. They need to come up with an interview based on the content of the text with questions and answers. Different strategies are provided and also an example of how this activity might unfold with a sample reading passage from a textbook is also presented.

In now in theatres, students turn a reading passage into a movie trailer. A brilliant and engaging activity that your students would love. Again, an example with a sample text is presented to show how the activity might unfold.

In reading frenzy 1, students try to retrieve focal vocabulary from reading passages. The teacher writes this vocabulary on the board for the students to try to formulate full sentences ( also check reading frenzy 2. Here students will be writing questions whose answers will be found in the text).

Back in a couple of weeks. Auf wiedersehen, summer!

summer series: three vocabulary activities

Time to highlight three blog posts focusing on vocabulary revision, recycling and practice. Linguist David Wilkins (1972) wrote: “without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed”. Let’s have a look at some of my favourite vocabulary activities. Once again, click on the links for the full posts.

In dictation 1 students review words and expressions from previous days by means of a delayed dictation. Then they need to help peers and be helped to come up with the full list of dictated items. They are also given prompts to drill functional language in the process (“Excuse me, can I just ask you something?”/”Sure, go ahead”/ “Cheers”/”No bother”…). More alternative and communicative types of dictation in dictation 2 and dictation 3.

In vocabulary lists I devise a way to keep vocabulary lists for study and revision. Students can do so digitally by using a word processor or Google Docs or simply use pen and paper. Students are instructed to find examples of the focal lexical items and type them or write them and leave gaps. Words may be retrieved by looking at the gapped example or by looking at the translated lexical item. Doing this digitally also allows the creation of hyperlinks to examples on social media or online dictionaries. A really effective way to self manage vocabulary acquisition and, most importantly, use.

In Padlet: practical use #295 I choose a set listening for the students to listen to at home and I ask them to identify useful words and expressions and place them on a Padlet (an online noticeboard, you may also use an online collaborative document like a Google Doc as an alternative, if you want). Then, in class, the students can listen to the recording or watch the video and the words and expressions placed on the Padlet can be explored with guidance from the teacher.

Meet you in a couple of weeks with the last summer series with a selection of reading activities.