Learners at Work: Let’s Go Treasure Hunting!



I work with two 11-year-old girls for one hour and half, and right after they leave I have another two adorable 11-year old boys coming in. They are in the 6th grade and they leave their regular school classes to have English classes with me. They are part of the 6th to 9th graders project we have in our school. Because they take the course in the language school in the morning, they have this special class in the afternoon. From 7th to 9th grade, they take their English course in the language center in the afternoon. In the morning, I work with the small groups of 9th graders.

Two weeks ago was our first week after the winter break and we worked with Spy Cat video/lesson from the Teaching Kids English Website BC. I’m usually more concerned with the possibility of them understanding the input using all the visual cues avaiable through the audiovisual media than presenting a grammar structure. They learn by using the language they need to accomplish a task or activity. I usually use the same texts but in different ways so they can have as much repetition as possible of the language they are producing/using. My focus with SpyCat video story was on the two characters, SpyCat and Ratty (who they are, what they are doing, and why they are doing this or that).

Activities suggested by Teaching Kids English which I worked pretty nicely.

Break the code to discover the clues!

Listen to the story and put the events in the right order.

And creating their own coded clues based on a similar situation.

“Ratty has come to your country! Help Spycat find him: write 3 clues telling
Spycat 3 different cities in your country to visit.”
Inspired by these activites, I thought of inviting them to go treasure hunting. Instead of me preparing everything for them, I decided to invite them to do it themselves and I just guided and supported them in the task while helping them to use L2.
1) On the board, I started presenting the task by drawing a treasure chest and eliciting the word from them. I had to use words like ‘pirate’, draw coins inside it or an island for them to come up with the word treasure box. And then a map to show that pirates hide their treasure and we need a map to find it.
2) They were very excited with the idea. Once they understood that they would do all that for the other students to find their treasure, they got even more excited.
3) They decided where to hide.
4) Making the map:
4a) Plan out the map in an A4 sheet of paper. It’s just a sketch to see the path and make decisions about what to include. This is the treasure path. They made all the decisions. I just helped them learn the words of places and how to pronounce them.
treasure14b) Collaboration: Working on the drawing of the map, adding the words in English and also distractions.

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5) Writing clues: They wrote for each place 3 clues according to their language level and during this stage questions were asked and teaching occured. They were encouraged to try out first by using a dictionary, and then, I’d check and help them write correctly also considering the level of language of the other students and theirs.

From step 1 to 5: 1h 30 mins

Our treasure hunting is tomorrow! The maps that they’ve produced will be used for follow-up activities focusing on language practice. I also noticed that they will practice again during the treasure hunting itself.  Because they chose similar places and therefore, there are similar clues and this will give them new encouters with the vocabulary they have used during the planning/writing stage. They will also practice reading/pronouncing them during the treasure hunting. The treasure is actually a bunch of delicious things to eat together during class break. We’ll be able to sit by a tree and enjoy each other’s company.

It’s never “just” about the language! Or is it?

Language learning can become really dull when it is just about the language. Concentrating only on the words prevents us to pay attention to other cues which are important to construct meaning. These cues include, our own knowledge of a topic and the non-verbal signals that accompanies the words. Verbal language is only one vehicle to carry messages. Although it seems to be the most important, it can’t exist without all the other ways of communicating meaning. In face to face communication, we also count on facial expressions and body language to help us make sense of what the other person is saying. More often than not, ignoring those non-verbal clues can cause miscommunication and misunderstanding between people. Hence why communicating through only writing can be really challenging. Because of that, it’s important to consider all elements present or not present in a message to be able to compensate for or avoid misunderstandings.

I was thinking couple of days ago also about how shallow our comprehension of things is when we just cover a message superficially. When we don’t get deeper and try to really understand something. Let’s take Rap for instance. People who are not into rap (listening, producing, talking about it!) usually see it as something bad, because rappers might sound agressive. Personal views shape the way we uncover a text and the non-verbal signals that come with them.

When Juan Uribes posted this on Facebook and asked us to share this message with more people, I remembered a question that Chuck had asked me earlier about Freire. He asked whether I thought that his ideas related to autonomy links to what I do in class. I mentioned that although I know my job is to teach English and do not impose my views of anything on my learners, I keep the principle that they should have a chance to reflect about themselves and about others. Raise their awareness of what is around them is also important as well as about their own lives. The fact that we construct our beings in contact with others is empowering because we realize that we do not exist outside the other and that my choices can affect what happens around me. Once we realize that striving to live a meaningful life instead of just being either selfish or alien to what happens elsewhere makes us comprehend that our life is important for those we’re in touch with.

“Live a life you will (BE) remember(ED) because you made the difference!”

That’s what the Indian Rapper Sofia Ashraf is doing. And this is how I’m sharing Sofia’s message with others. 

Using the Indian Rapper Sofia Ashraf song in class (and blogging about it).

1- Prepare the Lyrics in a way that learners can use a picture or word glossary to comprehend the text . I tried to predict some of the words that would be hard for them and added bubbles with definitions and clipart.

2- Ask them to read for about 5-10 minutes. Encourage them to read the whole text at least once without getting attached to something they don’t understand yet. Limiting the time will avoid their need to concentrate on translating each stanza and end up getting stuck in the first one. I’m very flexible with time though. We need to feel students need and respond to it but I keep this goal in mind. I just need them to get acquainted with the topic.

3- Show a picture from the campaign website and explore it with learners by concentrating on key points, like who it is featuring, the slogan, what is the problem, and other inference learners might come up with.

What does U stand for? Do you know what Unilever is?

Most teenagers have no idea, but one of my learners gave this response: an organization that helps people. Without questioning whether they are really helpful or not, I asked them to look around their kitchen cabinets when they get home and find products that it produces and distributes. My role is not to campaign against Unilever or defend it, my goal is to mediate this conversation in a way that they can use their own knowledge of the world or question what they don’t know to be able to understand the protest song. And definitely get them to ask more questions and explore this provocative campaign.

In another group the link between the Slogan and the social campaigns run by Unilever was not made. I can’t bring that into the discussion because I’d be leading them to think in a certain way. If a peer does that it would be okay. But I don’t think it is fair for me to do that. In the second group, the link was made and I was able to ask them why the protesting campaign was using this Slogan and what were they trying to say with that. There is no right or wrong answer. As much as I want to give learners a reason to learn or practice the language they need to talk about this topic, I want them also to be able to think for themselves.

Moving to the worker holding the sign. We worked on the word “shareholders” and discussed multinational companies briefly. We also discussed what these people were protesting against and how the community feels. The role of workers in the industry chain is usually taken for granted.  Consumers in more developed countries and in better situation than most people tend to think that they are the ones who sustain companies and usually don’t consider the role of low-paid wage workers get and their working conditions to name a few things that affect profit. Again, I can’t really lead students to see this and my focus is to unveil the text (verbal and non-verbal) by letting students make the connections by themselves. But at this point, everything is at the superficial and biased level and the protest song tells the side of a sad story – people dying and getting seriously ill because of toxic material.

4- As this song is a parody of Nicki Minaj song Anaconda. After the brief discussion on the poster where they drew information from the lyrics to answer their questions and the knowledge they have of the topic, I asked them only to listen and read the lyrics. Do not show the video as they will focus on the visual input. As soon as I started playing most learners recognized the song Anaconda straight away. This caused some distractions as they started chatting to each other about it. But soon after they started reading the lyrics. I asked them whose beat that was and they readily shouted: Nicki Minaj.

5- Personalizing, Connecting and Reflecting: Is this a rap song? Some of my students said it was mixed with POP. Do you like rap? How often do you listen to rap? How often do you listen to music? What kind of music do you like? Reasons for liking or disliking Rap songs.

6- Play the video clip.

7- Language focus: 

Identify the theme of the protest song: In this case is Environmental issues

Identify words in the song that relates to the theme using a mind map.

8- The first group listens to Rap, the other one don’t. In order to get learners to really produce something of their own and show their understanding of either protest songs which carries a message about a social issue and the value of Rap culture for our society, or understanding of environmental issues, they were asked to produce a poster presentation based on a rap song or concentrating on a environmental issue. They were free to choose from one of the possibilities.

The poster idea came from reading this article shared by Barbara Sakamoto in her Gplus page. Thanks Juan, Barbara, Chuck and Jason for the inspiration (each of you have something to do with this particular lesson plan) ;)

I’d love to hear your ideas on how you would work with this song and why. Or maybe why you would never bring this song to your class. 

Reflecting on Creativity and activities that can foster IT

The CGroup Image

I joined the Creative Group, a group that sees Creativity as a way of promoting change in language education. As soon as I read the group’s mission and aims, I felt the desire of being part of this movement which matches what I’ve been trying to do myself in class, which is trying to engage learners in the creative use of language as well as connecting to mine and their creative selves. But what is creativity? Is it possible to define it? The group offers a description that might get us thinking about it. Here it is:

While it is true that ‘creativity is an elusive creature that can’t be defined in a single feature’, we nevertheless offer a provisional description of creativity as: ‘thinking and activity in language education that is novel, valuable, and open-ended, and that helps to enrich learning in our students and ourselves’.

You can READ MORE about The CGroup, here.

About couple of weeks ago, I read a reflection on Creativity where the blogger Gianfranco Conti stresses the fact that the term might have been commonly used/misused (I highly recommend his blog!). He asked about creativity in language learning and use by raising the following questions:

Don’t want to sound overly cynic but…what about ‘real’ creativity? The kind that L2 learners really have to engage in order to effectively learn the target language?

I’m not going to go over how Gianfranco answers “that” question here. He has already done a great job at that in his own blog and I’d like to invite you to go there to read it. I hope it strucks a chord with you too.

I also hope that the set of activities I am using with my 14-year-old teens right now falls into the view of creativity that enhances L2 acquisition and promotes creativity with and through language as Gianfranco would expect to be really part of our job as language teachers.

Using Comics

Activity 1: I gave them a very straightforward worksheet for them to fill in 5 minutes. Each learner received one and they did it in pairs or threes. I could have given them the word cloud straight away, but I decided I wanted them to think of vocabulary explicitly questioning what they knew or not about those words. 5 minutes was enough for the learners in intermediate level+ to fill most of it. In fact, about 90% falls into the 2000 most frequent words.


Activity 2: Each pair or group of three learners received a wordcloud with the words forming a runner/racer/competitor or simply someone running which is central part of the story. Most of the content words are in the story or related to it.

canvasPredicting the story is a valuable activity because it encourages learners to use their imagination, but also to rely on the information they have available to them, in this case the image of a racer and the words, and also from the knowledge of the world. It’s also open-ended because learners choose which words to use promoting novelty as learners come up with new and different stories/predictions from each other. 

Searching for more ideas today on how to use WordClouds, I came across a post which I highly recommend from Nik Peachey from 2008 with lots of great ideas on how to use them including predicting the story.

Learners wrote their own versions using the language they had at their disposal and had also to negotiate with one another. Some pairs/threes carried out the activity most of the time in English, while others used Portuguese to discuss the possibilities and create the story. Here are the samples without any correction apart from one that had been corrected, rewritten and the words the learn were having trouble pronouncing, highlighted in green. If you want to read the stories, click here.

After predicting the story,

  • We worked with the comic and most of the lines of the characters were erased to promote visual literacy as well as giving learners the chance to understand the story by predicting what the characters might be saying through oral discussion.
  • The characters’ lines were printed out and cut in large slips of paper for them to match lines to blanked bubbles. These two activities promoted a lot of language discussions where they would help each other, check dictionary or ask me. Most of the time, they figure things out by just talking to each other.

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