Mini-webquest: Brains of rats connected via internet

This one is a suggestion I made as tutor on our Technology for Language Learning course (hello, everyone in Hyderabad!), where we were looking at webquests.

I've never been a big fan of full-blown Bernie Dodge type webquests, much preferring mini-webquests in which you have learner-generated questions.

The recent headline in The Guardian "Brains of rats connected via internet" caught my eye as being something learners would be curious about (and never do a webquest unless you think that will be the case!)

How about this…?

  • Dictate the headline to the class
  • Have them in pairs talk about it for several minutes — what do they think? (Asking "is it a hoax?" sometimes works well!)
  • Ask "Any questions?"
  • Have a learner note the questions digitally (on an interactive whiteboard page, in a new class blog post, on Edmodo…)
  • Provide the link to the article
  • Possibly outside classtime, have the learners see how many of their questions they can answer either from the article or from elsewhere on the internet
  • Allow (encourage!) all other debate (is it ethical..? etc), which can be either oral or via written "comments" on the class blog or Edmodo group

Note also how the readers' comments on the article (as I write, 400+) can also be exploited (how are people reacting…? etc).

Some kind of mini-presentation afterwards, perhaps in pairs, each pair with 2 minutes max to present either the pros or the cons, can also be a good idea, especially if the topic has excited the interest of your learners.

What do you think…?

Good use of an IWB: a map of our internet

Unfinished example produced in class using the interactive whiteboard

Here's just an idea, rather than a complete lession plan, which originally came from Terry Freedman's excellent Educational Technology site. Terry suggested using a map of the internet for discussion but I thought it might be interesting to see if we could actually create our own maps.

A rough outline of the idea, which I tried out in a session with trainees currently taking their CELTA course at IH Barcelona:

  • Divide learners into groups of 3 or 4, each to include a doodler
  • In groups, brainstorm list of places they go on the Internet (inc. use of mobile devices); some (though not necessarily all) should be places they ALL go
  • Take a quick look at an example map (see link, above)
  • Turn the list into their "map of the internet" (a job for the doodler!)
  • Share the finished map with rest of the class (blog, Edmodo, wiki…)
  • Get "comments" from the rest of the class (is the map interesting…? exotic…? surprising…? artistic…?)
  • General discussion (online and/or face-to-face in class)

In the session, one group used the interactive whiteboard (IWB) to produce theirs (shown above), while the rest used pen and paper; and the IWB group then gave a brief presentation of what they'd (so far) produced.

Time allowing, we could have agreed on other "places" the other groups would want to incorporate into the IWB map, so that we'd finish up with a single map, rather than a separate one for each group.

What do you think…? Is it a good starting point for a lesson, and is it good use of an interactive whiteboard?

Things I take to class #4: Something non-technological

You could play Grammar Casino on your IWB… but is it necessary? And does it add anything…?

Sure, technology is important and it should be used in our 21st century classrooms but not everything has to be technology and if you limit the amount it is used, you'll ensure that the technology doesn't take over from the language learning, which is what you're really there for.

I like to ensure that in every class I plan and teach there's at least something which involves no technology at all.

Below, three activities I've always done a lot, all of which have been around a long time and pre-date most of the technology we use in classrooms today.

Grammar Casino
Grammar Casino essentially involves "betting" on which of a series of 4-6 sentences are right, and which are wrong — as in the example in the image, above — with the "winner" being the learner or pair of learners making the most "profit" on their initial €10 [full explanation]. The €10 are not real, obviously!

Here's a fun alternative to grammar casino, which works best if your class is not too huge!

Dictogloss has been around for at least as long as Ruth Wajnryb's Grammar Dictation (1990) and is my all-time favourite classroom activity. But because there's an interactive whiteboard (IWB) in most of the classrooms I teach in, I confess I sometimes do dictogloss on the IWB, but think the use of technology proposed is still commendably limited.

The word "Dictation" seems to have roughly the same effect on people that chalk screeching on a blackboard used to have. I don't actually use the word any longer but say "Can you just jot this down?" instead.

Here you have an example of activity which involves a "dictation" stage; it obviously isn't a formal dictation, or one done for the purposes true dictation might (still) be used for.

You could, instead, go to the trouble of typing up and photocopying a worksheet with the questions on, but isn't "dictation" (or "Just jot this down") a better way to keep your learners active, engaged and energised?

10 things I take to class
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Things I take to class #9: Photos for speaking activities

From my session at the APABAL Convention in Palma, September 10th…

I like to take good photos to class: ones that will produce  a lot of response and thus a lot of language. They invariably do not come from Google Images and never include boring things like watches (which could be drawn on the board), or mobile phones (which could be pulled out of a pocket) or people like David Beckham (who everyone knows anyway).

For the following activity, you need 6-8 photos; in my APABAL session I used photos of baby animals which I obtained from National Geographic's Photo of the Day, which I check every morning just in case there's something suitable for class, and save any that I might want to use.

I've not reproduced them here as I feel strongly that we shouldn't steal images to use on blogs; I don't have quite the same qualms about merely showing them to learners in class.

The activity, Stage 1

  • Show the pictures one by one quite quickly (5-10 seconds each) on the interactive whiteboard (IWB) or using PowerPoint
  • Turn the projector OFF
  • On a single piece of paper, pairs of learners jot down the names of the animals, in the correct order, with as much detail (colours, numbers…) as possible
  • Check how good their recall was (and, importantly, answer any vocab questions)

Stage 2
Now dictate the following, without making any reference to Stage 1:

  • What's your name?
  • Who's your best friend?
  • What did you have for breakfast?
  • What sports do you do?
  • What else do you like doing?
  • What's on your iPod?
  • Finish the sentence: "I once…"

Stage 3

  • Individually, learners answer the questions dictated as if they were one of the animals in the photos
  • Learners share their answers in groups of 4; their partners should try and guess which "animal" they are
  • In pairs, chose one of the "stories" and expand it as they wish into a finished piece of writing (with each pair thus producing a single piece of collaborative writing)
  • Learners post their work to the rest of the class via Edmodo or a shared class blog and (importantly, to maximize interaction) comment on each others' work

I like this activity as it makes minimum use of technology to get a maximum amount of interaction between the learners.

That's partly archived by having the learners work almost exclusively in pairs and/or groups, including at the collaborative writing stage.

Instead of using the word "Dictation", which causes teens (and others!) to moan, say "Can you just jot this down?". I like "dictation": it's a good exercise, especially if it's informal and interactive: if someone doesn't understand a word, they can ask for clarification. It also saves making a totally unnecessary photocopied "exercise". is another superb place for images for class.

See also

10 things I take to class
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Song clips as the starting point for digital storytelling

Everyone loves stories, don't they? Here's a song clip that tells a good one, which I've used as the basis for learners (Upper Intermediate+) then writing their own stories.

The procedure is basically this, with a couple of options that I in fact usually skip out for lack of time:

  • (Optionally) Import 5-6 stills from the first minute or so of the video on to an interactive whiteboard (IWB) page and have learners talk to a partner to see if they can guess what the story is going to be, which they will then confirm or refute at the next stage
  • Watch the first 60 seconds of the clip, with the sound off and learners talking each other through it as they watch
  • (Optionally) Replay with the sound on, to confirm or refute their ideas
  • Play the next two minutes of the clip (sound off!) and have the learners talk to each other about what is going through his mind
  • Stop the clip just as he reaches for the doorbell and have the learners predict how it's going to end
  • Watch the ending and have learners talk to each other about why what happens does happen
  • (Optionally) Exploit the song itself in a variety of ways
  • Have learners use the vocabulary that will come up as the basis of their own version of a similar story
  • The stories are then shared on a class blog, or via Edmodo, for enjoyment and comment from peers

Their version of the story can twist the video version in any way they wish: my only requirement is that they reuse at least some of whatever vocabulary has come up in class.