An ESL lesson plan from « History of the Internet »

One of the obscure but interesting things I came across this week was PICOL – Pictorial Communication Language.  You probably haven’t heard of it yet – it’s a fascinating project by some German graphic designers developing  » a standard and reduced sign system for electronic communication. »

So what’s a language teacher doing writing about graphic design?  Well, using these PICOL icons they’ve made an interesting short documentary entitled History of the Internet – very engaging.  I thought it would make a good English lesson for Upper Intermediate to Advanced students (that’s level B2 for CEF fans), or an ESP class related to computer science.  Here’s the online video.  There is also a YouTube version.

History of the Internet from PICOL on Vimeo.

Here are a few ideas I might use to craft an esl lesson plan out of this video.  You can download a transcript of the video here: pdf-iconhistory-of-the-internet-transcript

Lead-in (10 minutes).  What do your learners know about the history of the Internet?  Brainstorm and mindmap a few elements of Internet history.  Depending on how geeky your group is you may wish to set them homework the night before to do some very basic research (using Wikipedia, for example) so they have something to bring to the discussion.

Pre-teaching vocabulary (10-15 minutes).  Assuming this is an ESP class you could focus on the general theme of language to talk about NETWORKS.  Here’s a brief summary of useful material that comes up in the video:

remote connection, time-sharing, large-scale computer network, knowledge transfer, mainframe, interface, interconnected, TCP – Transmission Control Protocol, file transfer, packet switching, centralised/decentralised network architecture, node, compatibility

In ESP classes I love the way that students are usually the experts, and one of the most valuable language-learning experiences you can create is to have them explain their field to you using the language you are focusing on.  Being a complete dummy in this area I will have a great time asking my B2 IT expert to explain to me what ‘TCP’ is, the difference between a mainframe and an interface, how ‘packet switching’ works for example.

You could also design a matching activity with a jumbled list of the words to be matched to definitions.  A good online dictionary for computer and Internet technology terms is Webopedia.

Viewing (30 minutes). The clip is about 9 minutes long, the speech is very clear but quite fast, and the language quite challenging so even for higher-level students it should probably be viewed in three chunks.  Why not design a different viewing activity for each chunk?

  • Gap fill.  Very easy to prepare by cutting and pasting the text from the transcript into a Word document and creating gaps at meaningful points for learners to fill in.
  • Transcription.  Practising similar skills to gap fill but a lot more challenging.  It can be a very rewarding activity too.  Set a limited number of sentences to be transcribed depending on the level.
  • Viewing without sound.  View a brief section with the audio switched off and have learners discuss in pairs what they think the section is talking about.
  • Comprehension questions.   Best for the teacher to invent his own questions, particularly if you’re not familiar with the subject matter.  Your learners don’t need to know you’re a dummy!  There are two ways I like to attack comprehension questions: the traditional way (question + multi-choice or short answer) OR the back-to-front way.  In other words, I give the learners the answer, and then they have to produce the question.  In view of the difficulty even advanced students have formulating questions, this is always a meaningful activity (see Can you answer questions correctly?).

Follow-up.  Lots of scope here.  The documentary finishes with the real launch of the Internet in 1990.  What I would probably do is to set a research activity where pairs have to imagine the script for a follow-on documentary concerning the main events in Internet development say from 1990-2000.  This could either be structured for an oral presentation, or a piece of writing.  I think this kind of activity is more meaningful when learners can do the preparation between class sessions, and can email their work for comment and correction before actually giving the presentation.

So those are some of the ingredients I would probably throw together.  How would you use a video clip like this in a lesson?  Share some ideas in a comment.

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