How to use Twitter to improve your English, 5 mins a day

Here's one that we posted on our Spanish Teacher Training blog last week, with other ideas in the same post for learning vocabulary independently [content in Spanish], outside class.

I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter but recommend it as a useful tool both to language teachers and to language learners.

As shown in the video, above, I suggest to my learners that they "follow" people of personal interest to them (celebrities, singers, footballers, street artists, whoever…) and see how much language they can learn from them.

Instead of following celebrities, following particular issues or interests like the environment or news stories is an alternative.

The language a learner should look for on Twitter
What I'm looking for in the tweets I read (5 minutes a day, waiting for the bus or wherever…):

  • words or phrases (especially the latter!) that I recognise and vaguely remember (for learners perhaps language we've seen in class)
  • new language that I can work out from context
  • link to articles that interest me to give myself some reading comprehension practise (and improve my vocabulary further, see previous two items)
  • videos so as to get some listening practice
  • words or phrases — or entire tweets — I don't understand at all

Yes, there's lots of French that is going to puzzle me on Twitter and lots of English that will puzzle my learners. They need a certain level (I'd suggest B1 or above) but being puzzled by language is a good thing — especially if they favourite* what they're interested in but don't understand, and then go back to their favourites and work out meaning, perhaps with the aid of an online dictionary.

Wanting to know what words and phrases mean, and wanting to understand someone — isn't that one of the keys to language learning?

And yes, it's true: people don't write gram. (?!) correct, perfect model sentences on Twitter, and abbrev. (?!) whatever they can.

No, it doesn't bother me.

Not if my learners are actually motivated and learning.

See also How to keep your account private on Twitter

Footnote ||| *On Twitter, "favourites" are now, ridiculously, called "likes", aren't they? For language learners, calling them "Puzzles" would be so much better 😉 !

One idea, one list, so many classes

Here's an idea that I tweeted earlier this week, which I picked up from MakeUseOf (either on their Twitter feed (@makeuseof) or by following their RSS feed using TheOldReader*).

MakeUseOf is one of those many, many places churning out "lists". Having your learners, in small groups, (1) brainstorm what they think should be on such a list; then (2) reading; then (3) comparing; then (4) debating which is the best list (theirs, or that of another group, or that posted somewhere on the internet) and (5) commenting on and discussing other lists, generates so much language and interaction, which is what we want, after all.

It's a generic idea for lessons that will provide you with so many fun classes, for so little effort — just a few minutes a day "following" such sites (try also BuzzFeed or Mashable) — and requiring so little material… and NO photocopies!

Note that BuzzFeed has some content you might consider NSFC — not safe for class!

Your learners might also like, as a place to create and share and comment on their lists. Commenting on what their peers produce is something you should always include in your task design if your learners are using technology and you want to get the most out of it!

*Footnote If you're not fond of Twitter, either (a) stop following so many people or (b) use TheOldReader instead. For grumpy old men like myself, The OldReader is so much more organised 😉 !

On Twitter (@Tom_IHBCN), I post no more than one thing a day, always and exclusively things that I think will interest language teachers and/or their learners.

Great things found in 60 seconds on The Guardian

When I turn on my computer every morning, I spend about a minute scanning the front page of The Guardian. I am interested in the news but I really do it to see what I can spot that might be interesting for class.

For 60 seconds of my time, I get far more stuff than I could ever use, but from those 60 seconds I get hours and hours of interesting topics and materials for class. As a teacher, for any time you spend on preparing materials, a key question is what's your return on your investment? How many hours of language use and practice are you getting from how many minutes preparation time?

Things I spotted this week:

    • Friday These 10 true or false science facts might be fun as a team game, with 10 minutes to discuss and submit answers for 2 points each, and then a further 10 minutes to submit corrected answers — with the use of the internet for fact checking, for a further 1 point each.
    • This story about a bloke who tried to be 100% French ("only foods produced in France, eliminate contact with foreign-made goods…") might make for a way more interesting report for your learners to write than your average CAE writing paper report: can they report on what percentage are they whatever nationality they are?
    • Thursday Discussion topic: What's so great about this video that it went viral — in Germany. Would it work in your country?
    • The photo highlights of the day is always an interesting section, either for creative writing prompts or to view the photos without their captions (think interactive whiteboard for ease and speed of capture!) and see which pair or three can get closest to "explaining" the photos
    • Wednesday With a class of learners interested in cookery, the user-submitted photos of Your favourite comfort food is a great starting point for discussion and/or on-going project work: can they take and share (think Edmodo!) photos of their own comfort foods?
    • From the reports and user comments on the sports pages, Man Utd having lost 2-0 in the first leg of their Champions tie, with keen sports fans, you could get a lot of mileage from the question "What's wrong with Man Utd?"
    • Tuesday With adults, perhaps particularly anyone doing business English, the five questions Google asks job applicants might be interesting. Discussing and predicting the likely content prior to reading, from only the headline, is a format that works well with lots of articles.
    • Another one for lovers of cookery, possibly only in Spain, for discussion, research, reading and writing: What is the right way to make paella?
    • Monday Discussion topic: Is it OK to swear at football matches?
    • And finally, one for classes of teenagers: 10 things Australian teenagers really want. What do your teens really, really want?. Great as a discussion and writing project, brilliant as a video project, recorded on mobile phones!

I've been an English teacher for nearly 35 years now and I've always detested being saddled with a coursebook. Before I retire, I'd like — among other things — to teach (1) a class of teens using only the board game Catan or, alternatively, the now way too old videogame Age of Empires and (2) a class of adults using content only from the front page of The Guardian.

The course content would be so much easier to tailor to their interests and thus so much more interesting and motivating than any coursebook I've ever used.

PS I loved the photos of the model trains, and the story on Lego, too…! Oh, and the Lego infographic!

Book (or film) reviews on post-it notes

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness reviewed on a post-it

The idea for books reviews on a post-it note I came across here, on The Perpetual Page-Turner, Jamie's book blog. It would work great if you have a class library; if not, film reviews on post-it notes are an alternative.

Things like writing on post-it notes (and super short stories, 100-word sagas and Twitter stories) work especially well if you get the writers to collaborate and work on the writing and rewriting to squeeze as much information as possible in. They're also a lot of fun to share and award prizes to.

My example there isn't actually a post-it: I used and just happened to like that design more. You could use real post-its, but a digital tool is also fun, especially if that means you can share somewhere else, like on a blog or Edmodo.

You have similar digital post-it tools here and here.

The invisible threads hanging out of books

Hanging out of a book: pull me, please!

"What do you do with readers?" I asked in my talk on using graded readers the other day (and Hi! if you're coming to the session in Cordoba this Thursday). "I get the learners to read it and then ask questions about it," someone said. That's ok, as far as it goes, but I think you really need to do a lot more than that to interest teenagers (or adults for that matter) in books (ugh!) nowadays.

I fell in love with Spanish as a language when I was still a teen myself, thanks to reading the novels and short stories of Julio Cortázar. In Rayuela, his most famous novel, he talks about "un hilo tendido más allá, saliéndose del volumen", a thread hanging out of the book in other words.

Books have got threads that hang out of them: they are often invisible but if you look for them and pull, you can get so much more out of any book. If your reader is The Princess Diaries, for example, you can merely ask "What's the name of Mia's boyfriend?"; and anyone who knows the answer has read the book (or else just had the answer whispered to them!).

But "Why doesn't she break up with him" or "Should she break up with him?" is a thread you can pull on and get so much more out of.

And if you get your learners to do some of the creative tasks I suggested (such as the one with Wordle), ones that work around and start out from the text, your learners are not just pulling on the threads that hang out of the book, they're actually tying their own things to the ends, and are thus participating and engaged.

See also
All of the tasks for graded readers that I suggested.