By Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A free downloadable lesson, based on a video from StoryCorps, which tells the true story of Storm Reyes, who grew up poor in a migrant camp in Washington State. Students start by watching the video without sound, which encourages them to make predictions, which they then check on a second viewing. There is then some further comprehension and discussion, before an activity which helps students to develop their listening skills by focusing on the weak forms that are so difficult to hear.
Finally there is a focus on opinion or comment adverbs, before a speaking activity to round up the lesson, about the topic of books and reading.
A free downloadable lesson, based on a clip from a BBC programme about cats and their behaviour. This clip looks at how cats communicate with each other and with humans. Students start by looking at some of the ways that different languages describe the way that dogs speak, before looking at some common animal sounds in English. Students are then guided through the video, answering a variety of different question types, and learning some more vocabulary from the video. There is then a focus on infinitives of purpose, in order to as so as to, and the conjunctions so that and in order that.
The lesson would be suitable from B1+ upwards as the vocabulary is quite high level, though most of the video is very clear and not too fast.
A free downloadable lesson, about a new online service, CrowdWish, which invites people to post their wishes on their website. Every day people vote on the most popular wish, and CrowdWish will grant it! Students start by discussing some wishes taken from the site, then read a short text about what the site aims to do (so don’t tell them at the start of the lesson!) There is then a focus on some useful idioms, before going on to watch a video in which the founder of the site, ‘pitches’ his idea. Students then look at the grammar used with ‘wish’, particularly at the use of ‘would’ when you want someone else to change their behaviour. Finally the students come up with their own wishes and vote on them, like on the site. You could even try and grant the top wish if you’re feeling creative..
The lesson would be suitable from B2 upwards, as the video is quite challenging in places. A transcript is provided.
A free downloadable lesson, based around a Russian advertising video for shampoo. Despite what is aims to sell, the video is actually quite inspiring, with the story of a girl who succeeds against the odds through pure grit and determination. Students start by watching the video and trying to guess what it is trying to advertise (so don’t tell them!). They then try to reconstruct the story in pairs, watching the video again to check their ideas. The lesson then goes on to focus on a range of linkers used to give reasons or results, make contrasts and show when something happened. Students then work with some vocabulary to describe personality, and then put it all together by writing the story of the video, using the linkers and the vocabulary where appropriate. Finally, there are some quotes about success for them to discuss.
A free downloadable lesson, based around an authentic video produced by the Rainforest Action Network. Students start by discussing and learning some facts about orangutans, before going on to watch a video in which an orangutan appears to ‘talk’ to a 12 year old girl, using sign language. In fact, the video was staged, but it might have more impact if you don’t point this out to the students immediately. The message of the video, which we discover at the end, is that using unsustainable palm oil is destroying the orangutans’ habitats. The lesson then goes on to focus on vocabulary to talk about the environment, and ends with a discussion task where students can use the vocabulary.
One of the often used arguments against published coursebooks is that the texts, especially at lower levels, tend to have been specially written. When I first started writing coursebooks I was very keen to use authentic texts, and, indeed, the first edition of IELTS Foundation is full of them.
There are plenty of points in favour of using authentic texts. Firstly, the enormous sense of satisfaction to be gained from being able to read something designed for a native speaker. It’s no coincidence that the language learning app, Duolingo, encourages me in my learning by announcing, ‘You can now read 96.7% of all real Portuguese articles’ (though I doubt that very much!). Finding that they are able to read an authentic text may also encourage the learner to read more extensively outside of the classroom, which has to be a good thing.
It’s also important that students are exposed to different genres of texts, and, especially for the teacher creating materials for their own class, authentic texts provide a relatively easy way to bring something up to date and topical into the classroom. They can provide us with the opportunity to look at the same topic reported in different ways, or give students a starting point from which to follow the news topic as it unfolds, in their own time.
However, in recent years I have been moving away from using unadapted authentic texts. The most obvious problem is the level of the language. When I was first trained, we were taught, ‘grade the task not the text’, but, while this is usually possible, I’m no longer sure that it’s always in the students’ best interests.
Taking this kind of approach is intended to help students develop strategies to deal with texts where a lot of the language is unknown. There is certainly a value in this, but is it as valuable as giving them a text from which they can get so much more? Hu and Nation (2000) concluded that most learners needed to comprehend 98% of words in a text in order to gain ‘adequate comprehension’
Personally, I think there’s still a value in a text pitched slightly higher than that, especially if we give the learners support, but without a doubt, if the level is pitched too high, class time will just be taken up with explaining tens of words which, in all probability, the learners will not learn and may never need to use again.
But aren’t graded texts dull and decontextualized? Won’t they give students a false sense of security, and fail to prepare them for real world reading?
Or is there a middle way?
I think there is, and that it is based around a proper respect for genre. I now unashamedly write a lot of texts for my coursebooks. Unashamedly, because I think that, as a writer, my writing skills are often just as good as someone writing for the Daily Telegraph etc, and, therefore, my texts are, in their own way, just as authentic.
So before writing a text, I look for samples of the kind of genre I’d like to write (this often gives me ideas about the topic as well, but the genre is most important). Then I look to see how these texts are structured, how formal the language is, what kind of structures appear (making sure that these are the structures I’d like to pull out to work on in the grammar section of the lesson) and what kind of vocabulary is in there.
I might run the texts through something like the Oxford 3000 textchecker to see what level the vocabulary is at, and think about how I could replace some of it, or use something like https://readability-score.com/ to see how complex the syntax is, which I might be able to simplify without affecting the style too much. I then use all this information to write my own text, at a more appropriate level and length, using grammar structures and vocabulary which are true to the spirit of the original sources, but which will be of use productively to the students.
Regular readers will know how I love a middle way!
I’ll be speaking about this and other tips for teachers wanting to write their own materials for the British Council Seminar Series in the next couple of weeks.
Firstly in London on 4th March. Tickets available here (free)
And then in Belfast on the 11th March, which will also be live streamed (also both free). Sign up here.
A free downloadable lesson, based around an authentic video. Research shows that feeling grateful for what we have and the people in our lives is a key factor in feeling happy. The video shows a group of people carrying out a task designed to increase their happiness in this way. It’s quite moving.
Suitable from Intermediate/B1+, the lesson starts with a short text to introduce the topic and get the students thinking about how people recognise and celebrate gratitude in their cultures. It then moves onto the video, where students watch two people visiting a friend and reading aloud a letter they have written , thanking them for what they have done. There is some focus on vocabulary, and some useful phrases that students could use themselves to say thank you. Finally, the students are asked to write their own thank you letter, which they may or may not choose to actually deliver.
A free downloadable lesson, based around an authentic video. Selma and Kenny couldn’t be at their grandson’s wedding, so they recorded a toast- and some advice.
Suitable from PreIntermediate/A2+, the lesson starts with some discussion about marriage before students are asked to give their ‘top tips’ for a successful marriage. They then watch the video and compare Selma and Kenny’s advice with their ideas.
The video is quite easy to follow, though the couple do talk over each other at times (there is a transcript). It’s funny and quite touching.
There is then a focus on idioms connected with love and marriage, and then we look at some of the ways Selma and Kenny use imperatives to give advice. Students can then use this language to reformulate their original pieces of advice.
A free downloadable lesson, based around an authentic audio recording from Storycorps.com, where Virginia recalls a good deed her father did during the Great Depression in America.
Suitable from PreIntermediate/A2+, the lesson starts with a short text giving some background to the Depression of the 1930s, and invites students to think about parallels with the situation in some countries today and what can, or should be done by individuals and governments.
Students then listen to the audio, which is quite short and simple, listening both for gist and specific information.
There is then a focus on narrative tenses, specifically simple past and past perfect. This could work as part of an introduction to past perfect, or as a review at higher levels. Students then try to retell Virginia’s story, using tenses appropriately, before going on to tell their own ‘good deed’ stories.
Click on the photo here, or the photo of Virginia in the lesson plan, for the link to the audio.
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