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.
A free downloadable lesson based around the recent Dove advertisement, showing the huge difference between women’s views of their looks and how other see them. The lesson starts by focusing on collocations to describe facial features, such as thick hair, full lips and so on. Students then watch the video and discuss some of the issues raised, including self -esteem, the role of the media,and differences between men and women. More language to describe physical appearance is ‘pulled out’ of the video, and the lesson ends with students writing detailed descriptions of themselves.
An optional extra that might work well to lighten the class a little is a very funny spoof video, where some men find out that they are actually much uglier than they think they are! The link is in the accompanying notes.
Recently there has been a focus on dealing with ‘emergent language’, rather than following a syllabus. But does this mean that coursebooks are irrelevant? Surely coursebooks are ultimately a collection of topics, texts and tasks- the bedrock of any course.
In this 20 minute presentation, I look at some ideas for using coursebooks (or any other off the shelf material) while still allowing the teacher to facilitate and engage with emergent language.
A free downloadable lesson using another wonderful animated authentic recording from www.storycorps.com. Joshua, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, interviews his mother, giving us insights into what it’s like for him to be different from others, and the loving relationship between the two of them. Great for raising awareness of Asperger’s and of bullying, and very touching.
The lesson involves listening and inferring meaning, plenty of discussion, and also has a focus on ellipsis, where words are omitted because the meaning is clear.
Probably most suitable from B2/Upper Intermediate+, but a good intermediate class could probably cope, as the way the lesson is structured and the animation provide support.
In a previous post I took a look at some ideas for using a genre approach to help students with IELTS writing, Task 1. In this post, I’d like to look at some ideas for Task 2, the essay. This is obviously equally applicable to anyone with students who need to write semi-academic opinion essays.
Taking a genre approach means looking at the key features of a particular genre, and helping to raise students’ awareness of these features, and thus their ability to reproduce them.
Useful headings to consider are:
Content or communicative purpose- Layout- Organisation- Grammatical structures- Lexis/formulae
Broadly speaking, all the tasks in IELTS Part 2 have the same communicative purpose- to express your opinions on a topic of general interest. The layout will also be the same, with an introduction, paragraphs for each key idea and a conclusion.
However, the organisation will vary depending on the specific type of question. It’s really worth familiarising your students with the different types of question and how to approach them.
There are essentially three different types of questions in IELTS
1 Presenting your argument: Often phrased ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree.’
2 Balanced argument: Often phrased ‘Some people think…Others think…Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.’ Or ‘Discuss the advantages and disadvantages….and give your own opinion’
3 Problem/cause and solution: Phrasing varies, but could be ‘What do you think are the causes of these problems and what measure could be taken to solve them?’
Each of these should probably be organised slightly differently. In the first type, I’d suggest a good way of organising it could be:
State your opinion
A paragraph for each main point you want to make.
For the second type, you need to be less upfront about your opinion, so:
Arguments in favour
Arguments against (or vice versa)
And for problem/solution:
Conclusion: summary of the situation and your opinion.
Students need to be very confident about these different types and how to organise them so, rather than writing lots of essays, at least to start with, I’d suggest looking at lots of questions (and model answers).
Some possible activities once students are familiar with the three main types:
1. Look at IELTS questions (there are lots of past questions, or close facsimiles, online) and decide if they are type 1,2 or 3.
2. Take an IELTS question that is a particular type and ask students to rewrite it to make it another type.
3. Give students a model answer, and ask them to guess what the original question was.
4. Give out a model answer and get students to identify the different sections.
5. Cut up a model answer and get students to put the paragraphs in the right order (obviously this works on discourse skills as well)
6. Rewrite a model answer so that there is no paragraphing and ask them to divide it into paragraphs.
7. Rewrite a model answer so that the organisation doesn’t flow anymore, and ask students to identify the problem with it.
8. Ask students to pick out the key idea in each paragraph of a model answer.
In some of these activities we started to look at the internal organisation of the paragraphs by getting students to pick out the key idea. One way of helping students to organise a paragraph is by looking at topic sentences. These are a bit of a blunt tool, because in reality, it isn’t always as simple as any rules we can give them. However, while it may be oversimplified, the recipe of topic sentence, supporting ideas and examples isn’t a bad start for many students.
You can practice this by:
Getting students to identify the topic sentence, sporting ideas and examples in a model answer.
Giving them the topic sentences for each paragraph and asking them to add supporting ideas and examples.
Removing the topic sentences from a model answer, and asking them to write what they think they were from looking at the further ideas and examples.
As with the post on IELTS Task 1, it’s worth putting in some specific practice on writing a good introduction. Careful analysis of the question will help, as we’ve seen, with organising the essay, but it should also help students to know how to start their essay.
Let’s take an example from IELTS Foundation. A good place to start is always by getting students to underline the key words:
‘People will never be willing to make the dramatic lifestyle changes needed to control climate change. For this reason, governments must force people to do so.’
To what extent do you agree or disagree?
A good introduction should explain what they understand by the question, and might give a little background information. So identifying the key words will help with pulling out what the main idea is.
Then you could ask students to choose the best introduction from a selection. Here are the choices from IELTS Foundation:
1 I think that it is very important that we should all look after our planet. After all, it is the only one we have. There are lots of small actions that we can all take such as switching off computers and televisions, rather than leaving them on standby or walking short distances rather than going in the car.
2 Nowadays, most people are aware of the threat of climate change and are willing to make small changes to the way they live. However, for the majority of people this does not include such things as giving up their car or giving up flying abroad.
3 Governments must force people to make changes or the problem of climate change will never be solved. If necessary, people who continue to pollute the planet should be sent to prison.
[The answer is 2, because it simply summarises the background situation, and students could then go on to discuss if and whether people should be forced to do these things]
Variations on this activity could include:
1 Giving a question and asking students to just write an introduction as a warmer or change of pace activity.
2 Asking students to compare these introductions in small groups and choose the best one, or make changes together to improve what they have written.
Most students seem to feel that the best way to prepare for IELTS writing is to write lots and lots of essays. However, very often there is no significant improvement from one essay to the next. Students also get very caught up in the accuracy of the language being used, when there are still some serious structural defects. Language is very important as well, and I think there’s another post in that, but getting the structure right can also make a huge difference.
A free downloadable lesson based around another wonderful animated true story from www.storycorps.com. The conversation between a mother and daughter looks back on the family’s struggles as poor immigrants to the US, and how the daughter was inspired by her mother’s determination.
The lesson is suitable from Pre-Intermediate +/A2+, particularly because the animation helps with comprehension. After watching and listening, there is a focus on impersonal pronouns/adverbs (something, anything, everyone.nowhere etc) and a discussion task which brings in more vocabulary to describe qualities we’d like to pass onto our children. Again, this could be adapted to lower and higher levels through the choice of vocabulary.
A free downloadable lesson based around a video of British chef, Jamie Oliver, demonstrating exactly what does go into cheap chicken nuggets to a group of American children. It’s pretty revolting, but the children reckon it’s ‘awesome’..and there’s a surprise at the end.
The lesson is at two levels, Lower Intermediate (A2+) and Upper Intermediate (B2+). Both versions introduce a set of vocabulary for talking about junk food, and both have a variety of discussion tasks and questions. The lower level version also introduces some functional language for giving opinions and agreeing and disagreeing, while the higher level version looks at how to use contrast markers, although, even though, despite etc.
As the name suggests, process writing is an approach to writing which focuses on the process rather than the end product. The argument goes that, just as writers in the ‘real’ world go through a process of editing and revising what they write, so should our students.
The typical structure for a process writing lesson might be:
1 Brainstorming ideas.
2 Plan the structure of the writing
3 Write first draft
4 Get feedback on first draft from teacher or peers (or self-evaluation)
5 Write second draft (and third if appropriate after feedback)
I think there is a lot to be said for taking a process approach to writing:
Generally speaking, whatever colour ink we use and whatever correction code we use, we often might as well have not bothered marking written work. No-one reads what we’ve written on their essays. At best, they look to see how much we’ve written, and they might glance at any final comment.
For most students, once something has been written and handed in, it’s over: out of sight, out of mind. One of the great things about taking a process approach is that feedback doesn’t come at the end. It’s an intrinsic part of the writing process, and as such, there is a much better chance of some of it actually being taken on board.
Peer feedback is often used in a process approach, and that can be great both for developing students’ ability to criticise constructively and for giving a genuine sense that the learner is writing for an audience.
Students also develop their ability to self-evaluate, which is something they can go on to use independently. It chimes with that crucial part of being a good teacher- making yourself redundant.
Just as in speaking, repeating a task gives more opportunities to notice and appropriate new language. Through a process of drafting and redrafting, it is that much more likely that language will be acquired.
However, there are also some issues with process writing (at least if done in the traditional way outlined above):
Not all students (indeed not many at all in my experience) are very keen on brainstorming, planning, drafting and redrafting their work. An awful lot seem to want to chuck something down on paper and hand it over for you to sort out. Now, of course, part of our job is to encourage them to take more responsibility for learning, but it is nonetheless a downside that it’s such an uphill struggle (is that a mixed metaphor?)
Even if your students are enthusiastic, going through the process cycle is necessarily very time-consuming. There is also the question of how you manage to give detailed feedback on several drafts and actually get anything else done. It may work well in a pre-sessional context, with small groups and 5 hours of tuition a day, but maybe not so well in 2 x 90m a week or less.
Peer feedback can help with the time issue, but research shows that students tend to concentrate almost exclusively on lower order feedback, or focusing on surface errors like spelling and grammar. It’s hard to get students to be able to give feedback on content or organisation or discourse level stuff.
And last, but not least, traditional process writing doesn’t take account of the fact that the actual process of writing has changed dramatically since the advent of technology. People simply don’t write drafts in the same way anymore. See this interesting article from the Guardian, ‘Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?’
Equally, tools such as spell check and grammar check have completely changed how writers deal with surface errors.
So, given the positives and the drawbacks of the process approach, what can we take from it, and how might we mix it up?
Keep it small scale
Process writing doesn’t have to be carried out on 250 word plus essays. You could focus on just a paragraph. This will make the stages move along more quickly, allows you to really drill down into the details, such as using a an effective topic sentence and giving reasons and examples, and the perfect paragraph produced can then be used as a model for further writing.
Change the staging
You don’t have to start with brainstorming ideas and planning. You could incorporate a feedback and redrafting stage into a lesson which takes a genre approach, or you could just get students writing straightaway (more ideas on this next post), and then get them to look again at what they’ve written and make changes.
More imaginative brainstorming and planning
Getting ideas and planning is a key part of successful writing, but how can we make it seem less of a chore?
Brainstorming an essay using a mindmap on the board is not a new idea, but try blu-tacking a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour to each bubble of the map. Then give groups a set of rods in the same colours and ask them to use the rods to make a visual plan of the essay. Somehow adding a visual and physical element to structuring the essay seems to engage many students more.
Or try moving from speaking to writing to get ideas. For example, if you want students to write a letter of complaint, try roleplaying a complaint first, or if it’s an informal letter, try it as a phonecall first. This should help learners to anticipate what their audience will want to know or how they might react, which should help with making the writing as effective as possible.
Change who gives feedback and how they give it
As well as the teacher or a partner, experiment with some different models. For example, a recent twitter discussion with @cerirhiannon started me thinking about using ‘carousels’. Put the students into small groups and pass round a piece of written work done by someone in the group (anonymous if preferred). Each group has to give a comment on an aspect which has not been covered by a previous group before passing the work onto the next group. This could be a good way of encouraging students to look beyond surface errors as discussed earlier.
Emphasize the audience
Learners are more likely to want to plan and draft if there is a real reason for writing the best possible text that they can. So using a real life context, such as those discussed in this recent post , can provide some genuine motivation.
Use technology more
Students may not have access to computers in class, but they probably will at home, so you can ask them to consciously use the correction features to make changes, and underline spelling or syntax that the computer has highlighted that they aren’t sure how to correct. You can then focus on these areas in class or individually.
Online corpora, or even google, can also be useful tools for students to check their intuitions about collocations. See this article for more indepth discussion of this.
And, using a screen capture tool, such as Jing, you could give verbal feedback on their writing rather than writing comments. There is a useful presentation from Russell Stannard on this here.
Add a sense of humour
The notion of process writing can be terribly earnest. You could work on the skills of correcting and redrafting by giving learners, for example, the worst job application letter in the world and asking them to rewrite it so that the person has at least SOME chance of being invited for interview.
While the traditional staging of a process writing lesson may be something you don’t want to do all the time, the principles behind it are something which could be used effectively in any lesson with a writing focus. You just need to mix it up a little.
As we saw in the last post, all ‘real life’ writing is embedded in a social situation: we write for a specific purpose and audience. We can, of course, also do this in the classroom, but often we are engaged more in rehearsing skills that can later be applied outside the class.
However, the genre approach to writing still places a lot of emphasis on the context and purpose for which the writing is produced. By genre we mean different types of writing such as narrative, report, informal letter and so on. Each of these has quite specific features in terms of organisation and language, and the genre approach usually takes a model and gets the students to analyse these features, before producing something similar.
This approach undoubtedly has its roots in the product approach. A typical product writing lesson might involve:
1 Reading and analysing a model
2 Controlled writing, such as writing individual sentences using a substitution table
3 Freer or guided writing (such as using notes given to construct one or two of the paragraphs in a letter -the rest being already given)
4 Free writing of a parallel text.
In the same way, however, that there is a big difference between PPP (presentation, practice, production) and more modern paradigms, such as Scott Thornbury’s awareness, appropriation and autonomy , there is actually the same kind of difference between product writing and genre-based approaches.
Thornbury’s ‘awareness’ is about giving students the opportunity to notice features of language, rather than having language presented to them on a plate. In writing, as in speaking, this is about exposing learners to features of written language and setting tasks which will help them to notice the salient features.
‘Appropriation’ is about making something your own; not just repeating patterns but actually assimilating the new language into your personal store. Thornbury makes a memorable contrast between controlled practice and ‘practised control’. The difference he says is that in the latter, the students are working on controlling the language, rather than the teacher trying to control what language the students can use. This can obviously apply just as well to writing as to speaking.
‘Autonomy’ is about using the language ‘under real operating conditions.’ When looking at writing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing has to have a ‘real’ audience (though it can), but that the learners have complete control over the message they want to convey. They aren’t just reproducing a model.
At the top of the post is an example from Real Life Advanced (an upper secondary coursebook) of how I have tried to take a genre approach to writing. It’s is very easily generalizable to any genre of writing or level.
1 Through a lead-in discussion and a few questions, students first deal with the meaning of the text. It’s a travel anecdote or narrative.
2 Next the learners look at how the text is structured. This follows Labov’s Standard Western Narrative, and is a useful little structure to learn as a lot of different kinds of narratives (such as excuses, examples of past experience you might give at a job interview and so on will follow the same basic stages)
There are also some questions about the tenses used. This is something which students focused on earlier in the unit, so, as well as fleshing out the narrative structure, it acts as a review.
3 Then we start to ‘unpack’ some of the language in the text. ( Incidentally, I would highly recommend Scott Thornbury’s video on ‘unpacking a text’) Here we’re focusing on adverbs. Students compare the examples of adverbs they can find in the text with the rules and examples in the box.
4 The next exercise is intended to give students the opportunity to get some control over the language, putting the rules into action. They aren’t just drilling correct sentences; they’re having to think about how to use the language correctly and appropriately.
5 The learners then prepare to write their own story. They are encouraged to use the same structure, but the content is personal to them and their experiences or knowledge. You may notice that there are prompt questions referring to colours and adjectives used to describe the background, and to what the characters say. These points again refer back to previous activities in the unit (on adjectives and verbs of speaking – mumbled, whispered), providing the opportunity, or ‘nudge’, for students to use this language again in a different context.
Clearly this kind of approach can be used for any kind of text. The key stages are:
1 Read the ‘model’ for meaning first, don’t just see it as a model, but as a piece of communication.
2 Focus on the organisation. Different genres of texts have different organising principles. Research or think about how this genre of writing usually starts and finishes. Is the content in any particular order? For example, an IELTS Part 1 Writing Task, describing a graph, usually begins by stating what the graph shows, then may provide an overview before detailing the key pieces of information (or the overview may come at the end). You could get students to look at examples and draw flow charts of how they perceive the organisation.
3 ‘Unpack’ the language. You can choose some language which seems particularly relevant to the task or you might use corpora to identify language on which to focus. Putting several texts of the genre you want your students to learn to write into a text based concordance, such as that at www.lextutor.ca should give you some useful information about the kind of language students could usefully be encouraged to notice.
4 Provide practice to help students gain more control of the language
5 Help students to put together what they have noticed to help them write their own text. Make sure that the text is more than just reproducing a model, ideally that it has some personal meaning. For example, in the IELTS text type mentioned above, perhaps they could write up the results of their own surveys?
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