Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Tired Lesson Topics, and what you can do to revitalise them

It's no accident that so many textbooks cover the same old topics.  Family, hobbies, education, work and all the rest of them are exam and textbook staples precisely because they are real-life conversational staples as well.  The problem starts when teacher, students or both are bored by the topic because they've covered it so many times before: when Unit 1 is predictably going to be family and talking about yourself, when food is inevitably the topic for teaching countable and uncountable nouns (yawn), and when you realise that you could actually teach that lesson on the environment (using future forms or conditionals) in your sleep, because you've done the same thing so many times before.

This is for those times.  Here are some techniques for adapting typical ELT activities, and a few less obvious ways of approaching traditional topics.

(This post was inspired by the book 52: a year of subversive activity for the ELT classroom, by Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings.  I thoroughly recommend this book to any teacher who wants to try something different and isn't afraid to take risks.)

First of all, here's a set of three Rs to use in adapting textbook activities:

1. Role Play
Any discussion can be made into a role play.  Instead of giving their own opinions on the textbook topic, students are assigned a character who has some professional or personal link to the topic, and have to give their opinions as that person.  This works particularly well in situations where the majority of students are likely to share the same opinion.

I used this technique in a small group discussion on the topic 'Society puts too much pressure on young people to be thin', and the possible characters were 1) a teenager who desperately wants to be a model, 2) the parent of a pre-teen child, 3) a doctor who specialises in treating people with eating disorders, 4) the publisher of a fashion magazine that only uses ultra-thin models, 5) the manager of a company that makes diet pills, and 6) a former supermodel who has struggled with an eating disorder for many years.  The students were in groups of 4, and characters were randomly assigned using an online random number generator, accessed via a smartphone (or you could just roll a dice!).

 Most of the class thought that the original statement was too obviously true to be worth discussing, but in character they had an animated discussion which provided much more opportunity to use the target language.

2. Randomiser
As in the previous point, where random numbers were used to assign role play characters, but this is only the beginning.  For any creative activity, from business meeting role plays to ghost stories, using dice or random numbers to create characters, motivations and plot events can provide scaffolding for students to be more creative, as well as challenging them when a more off-the-wall element suddenly has to be included.

When my students had the task of creating a ghost story, I asked them for suggestions for the type of ghost, the ghost's motivation, the location of the story, and the time period that the ghost came from.  When there were 6 entries in each category, we threw dice for every category to decide story details for each pair of students.  One pair had a story about a medieval ghost of a young woman in her wedding dress, looking for revenge, while another had a 19th century toddler ghost in an abandoned house, searching for someone they'd lost.  You get the idea.

In another scenario you could throw dice to generate overt and secret agendas for characters in a business meeting: the boss has called the meeting to discuss sales targets but secretly he wants to find an excuse to fire the sales director, the sales director wants the boss to give a promotion to the best salesperson on the team, while the star salesperson is actually an undercover journalist, about to report the company for malpractice.

(This idea was inspired by the role-playing game Fiasco, by Bully Pulpit Games, as played by Wil Wheaton and guests on Tabletop.)

3. Realia
Turn it over to the students.  Get them to think about the topic before the lesson and bring in articles, objects, or photos to use in class, or if you have internet access, they can show what they've found online.  Use their knowledge and interests to take the topic in unexpected directions.  Bring unusual props to lessons yourself, and challenge the students to connect them somehow to the topic.  In this way an empty tin can elicits a story about the first time a student tried to cook for themselves, an old school photo sets off a discussion about school uniforms and introduces adjectives for clothing and appearance, or a piece of hand-knitting could kick-start a contest on who in the class would have the necessary skills for surviving a post-technological post-apocalyptic world.  (This last one hasn't happened yet in my class but I can always hope!)

And now, our first three Typical Tired Textbook Topics, and suggestions for how to subvert, extend or otherwise enliven them:

1. Education

  • Students research new developments in education, then plan a school of the future.
  • Hold a debate on whether robots could replace human teachers.
  • Role play a lesson with a robot teacher (you or a student could play this role).
  • Following a glorious revolution, the teaching of history is banned.  Students write a persuasive letter to the new Department of Truth asking for the subject to be reinstated.
  • A school takes a radical decision: only female students will be permitted to study science.  Why have they done this and what might the consequences be?

2. Sport
  • Invent an extreme sport and produce a poster or video promoting it.
  • Get students to create a collaborative or individual story that starts with recognising a face in the crowd while watching TV coverage of a major sporting event.
  • Propose a new sport to be included in the next Olympics; alternatively, propose that a sport be excluded from the Olympics in the future.

  • Show a picture of a marathon fun-runner in a wacky costume, and ask students to role play an in-race interview with them.  (Check out this video for examples of post-marathon interviews.)
  • Presentations on the history, use and abuse of the vuvuzela at sporting events.
3. Daily Routines
  • First of all check out activity 8 from the book 52, as mentioned at the start of this post.  You can view it in the free sample of the book here - on page 12.
  • For further ideas, look for photos showing different lifestyles around the world to use as a starting point.  The pictures on this page have a lot of potential.
  • Get the students to imagine their daily routine if they were the opposite sex - what choices would they make about clothing and appearance?  Would their behaviour at home, college or work be different?
  • Students take turns to tell their daily routine backwards, trying not to leave anything out.  The other students listen to try to catch them out.  "You didn't say you changed your clothes before going to bed.  So you're still wearing your jeans and T Shirt?"
  • A student mimes their daily routine, while others write down what they think they saw.  The most accurate is the winner, and the next to mime.

That's all for now, but there's plenty more to follow - watch this space for more teaching ideas and tips!

Images taken from by  @mkofab, @purple_steph, @dianatremayne, @CliveSir, @sandymillin, @aClilToClimb used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,

No comments:

Post a Comment