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 recitethis.com 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.

Wordle your graded reader

Welcome to my blog, especially if you're coming to my talk on Using Graded Readers with Technology at the Macmillan Teacher's Days in either León or Ponferrada this week.

Below an image for one of the tasks I'll be suggesting, which I created by pasting text from the Macmillan reader Room 13 and other stories into Wordle:

The task

  • With a partner, pick out the 15-20 most important words, phrases, dates, names etc. from the story
  • Put them into Wordle, making the most important words largest
  • Share it with us and describe it to us, justifying your choices

Commentary
I like the task for various reasons: it's collaborative (and therefore communicative); it requires the learners to go back to the text, to re-read it, and to select elements from it; and then make decisions about what they're going to pick out.

Sharing their work with the rest of the class (I suggest either a blog or Edmodo) is something you might once have done by hanging things on your classroom wall but posting it online means that other learners can not only see it but add comments to it: that's further interaction and further language practice.

To find out if your learners are doing their reading assignments, you could bore them with questions, but why not instead get them to prove they've read it by getting them to actually do something with the text, something they'll actually enjoy doing?

Notes on using Wordle
To get phrases to stay together, rather than splitting up into their component words, you need to replace the spaces between the words with tildes, thus:

Room~13 and the~sound~of~mad~laughter.

To increase their size, you simply need to repeat them: if you paste in Room~13 Room~13 Room~13 graveyard, for example, Room 13 will be approximately three times larger than the word graveyard.

In order to save your Wordle cloud, you will need to capture your screen (my favourite tool for that is Jing).

With Wordle you can also choose fonts and colours and so on (with a partner, also opportunity for language practice): in my example, above, I've chosen colors more or less in accord with Room 13 being a ghost story.

More on using Wordle
Even if you're not using readers, you might like Nik Peachey's guide on How to Wordle and these many More things you can do with Wordle.

You also have a number of Wordle clones, one of the best of which is Tagxedo. Many of these 101 ways to use Tagxedo could also be used with Wordle.

Also from the talk
Macmillan readers | A reading and creative writing task | All the tasks

Using graded readers with technology (2)

Creative writing with graded readers: one of the tasks from the session

Hi, and a particular welcome to my blog if you're coming to to my session at the Macmillan Teachers' Day in Valencia this Saturday (31st).

Above, you have one of the tasks I will be suggesting, with the example from The Princess Diaries 3 (Pre-Intermediate), though it's one you could adapt to many other readers.

I like tasks that force the learners to read (and re-read) carefully. Here, they have to pick out all the "texts" in the story (listed above, those in the first 30 pages). If you have an interactive whiteboard, slowly reveal your list as a checklist against their lists, using the coversheet, and force people back to the text if you've got something they've missed.

As a follow-up creative writing assignment, the learners then have to create a new story composed almost entirely of different texts. It works great in groups of 4-5, with each writer being responsible for 3-4 different texts, which (first) they've storyboarded into a coherent whole.

The texts could include fake Facebook entries and fake tweets, among other texts.

Thanks, questions, comments
Thanks for coming to the session (giving up your Saturday!); I hope that among the tasks suggested you found something that your learners will like and which will help make the book you are reading with them what it should be — fun!

If there are questions that you have after the session that didn't get answered, do ask them here, in the comments, and I'll be very happy to answer them.

What else do you do with graded readers?
If you do other things with graded readers, do tell us about them, even if they don't involve much (or any!) technology.

What works, what doesn't…?

From the workshop
Macmillan Readers | More links from the session

Related posts
More reading activities | More about blogging | More about Edmodo

How to design good 21st century language learning tasks

How to make your learners authors on a shared class blog

Using Google Docs forms to get feedback from your learners