To teachers and students who are new to live online language learning, I often say that anything you can imagine doing in a real classroom, you can also do in a Virtual Learning Environment, or virtual classroom – except better! Well, perhaps a slight exaggeration, but it is quite true that there is no shortage of ideas for adapting language teaching material to the online environment.
When it comes to ideas for language teaching, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Most language teaching activities and methods are just adaptations of old favourites that have been circulated in various incarnations for years, and are easily personalised with a tweak here and there. However, teaching live online does require a little originality to adapt activities to the virtual environment.
So over a few blog posts we’re going to look at some of the classic favourites for first classes, and see how we might adapt them to a virtual learning environment.
I think I am indebted to Karenne Sylvester for this idea, and I have used it for many first classes.
Object: introducing the teacher
Language input: practicing various question forms
Skills input: oral fluency
Think of about 15 words or short phrases that illustrate an aspect of your life. For example, you may choose “peanuts”, “14″ and “Somerset Maugham”, if you happen to be allergic to peanuts, you have been in your present job for 14 years, and Somerset Maugham is your favourite short story writer.
For best visual effect in a virtual classroom, make a Wordle of your list of words/phrases. Remember that to ensure that words belonging to the same phrase don’t get separated, you need to connect them with a tilde (~). Once the wordle has been created you can modify it to your liking using the font, layout and colour menus. Although it is possible to save a wordle to a public gallery with a link, I generally find it easier to create a .pdf using the print menu, or simply to make a screenshot. Once you have your image saved somewhere convenient for easy access, you can easily upload it to whatever virtual classroom you are using, or share it over Skype or by E-mail. A recent example of my own is at the top of this post.
With visuals I know I am going to use again, I generally insert them into a powerpoint that I can add other materials to for a ready made class. It’s great to be able to upload all the materials you need in one go, rather than having to create individual slides each time you prepare for a class.
Once you have introduced the task, your student needs to begin asking you questions until they manage to elicit from you the exact answer. Take “peanuts”, for example:
Student: Do you like peanuts?
Teacher: No. (It generally takes a few tries before they realise that of course closed questions are not going to get them anywhere)
Student: Hmmm. What is your favourite food?
Student: OK, what did you have for breakfast?
Teacher: Cereal. (At this point you might offer a clue – “Actually, I really don’t like peanuts).
Student: Oh, OK. What food don’t you like.
Teacher: Brussels sprouts
Student: Or, what food are you allergic to?
The above example conversation would be for Intermediate level students and above, but the exercise can be adapted to any level, and you can decide as the teacher what level of accuracy you are shooting for.
The exercise easily leads into work on the grammar of question forms, so if your wordle is already in a powerpoint you can just add slides with your question forms exercises and you have a reusable class all ready to go.
It can also be extended into an oral fluency exercise by asking the students to create their own list of words or phrases, and having their partner question them in the same way.
Anyone who has had to learn English as a second language knows how irregular and complex English spelling can be. Unlike other languages English has never had any kind of regulating authority and attempts to reform spelling have usually met with failure. Even amongst native speakers it is not uncommon for well-educated native speakers to have poor spelling.
One of the amusing side-effects of the chaos of English orthography is the number of poems that have been written to illustrate the many alternative spellings of different sounds. The following poem has made the rounds of school English text-books since the 1960s:
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead -
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose -
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!
Quoted by Vivian Cook and Melvin Bragg 2004,
by Richard Krogh, in D Bolinger & D A Sears, Aspects of Language, 1981,
and in Spelling Progress Bulletin March 1961, Brush up on your English.
What do you think – should English spelling be simplified? Would it ever work? The Spelling Society thinks so, and you can find several more poems like the one above on their site.
I rather like the irregularity of English spelling. Strange spelling often has something to say about the history of a word, where it came from, under what circumstances it was borrowed into the language. Memorising irregular spelling is good mental training for children, and helps with learning other languages. Without it there would be no Spelling Bees and no poems like the one above.
Using these poems for language learning: as a teacher
Create a gap fill dication where you blank out the words containing the particular irregular spellings that you want to focus on. Read the poem aloud and have learners fill in the blanks. Check the answers together.
OR make a recording of your own voice reading the poem (I would use Audacity). Then have learners make their own recording, and have them compare the two. They should highlight those words that they got wrong. This can be done using a language lab or as an asynchronous online activity.
…or as a learner
Read the poems aloud, and each time you see a word you are not sure of, underline it. Then use an audio dictionary to check the pronunciation. For this you could try WordReference or The Free Dictionary.
For more resources to help with English spelling:
Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (4th Edition) (Words Their Way Series)
How to Spell Like a Champ