Being a TV News Anchor

In what ways could the latest radio news or news podcasts be preferrable to textbooks in the language classroom?

  • – authentic language by native speakers
  • – real topics happening in the world right then, broadening the students’ understanding of the world and their general knowledge
  • – fostering knowledgeable citizens of the world
  • – language studies support the students’ studies in other subjects like social studies, geography etc
  • – emphasizing and improving listening skills

Why BBC?

  • – excellent, clearly articulated language using rich vocabulary
  • – by and large, unbiassed reporting on a wide range of subjects
  • – short and to the point (5 minutes in all)


  • – as a regular listening comprehension with multiple choice questions or similar
  • – or, to be worked on in detail, using all language skills, listening, reading, writing, and speaking, which is the method I’m going to describe here

BBC-news – From Sound Podcasts to TV-news in Two Steps

Step one 

Student activity: Listening, Googleing, collaborating and writing.  Level: Advanced (senior year in high school) Tasks: The podcast (this one from 2012)  divided according to topic in game generator Didactor with a final, gamified, quiz on vocabulary from all topics. BBC NewsIn each news item the student tries to recreate what is being said word by word. Some help is given, but not too much: SihanoukIn the passage on King Sihanouk’s death, for instance, the following words need extra attention and re-appear in the final task: former, crucial, turbulent, unpredictable, autocratic, install, engulf, ill-fated, abdicate. Others to appear in the later items were: parachutist, leap, descent, head over heels, chord, sculpt, raise, constituent assembly, predecessor, defeat, offshoot, representative, serve as, transitional government, key player, uprising, mosque, clash, regain control, fierce, armoured vehicles, without major incidents, pollster, parliamentary election, rebuke, first-round vote, weary, recession, reduction, public sector, rebound, Lithuanians, assassination, impeachment etc., many of them extremely useful and much more frequent than most students would be prepared to admit. Working with them like this, in authentic, coherent contexts, raises the students’ linguistic awareness, which, in turn, makes it highly likely that the student will cognitively pay attention to them the next time they appear. 

Step two 

Student activity: The same as in Step 1: Listening, Googleing, collaborating and writing, expanded with these: finding corroborative images, practising intonation and pronunciation. Level: Advanced (senior year in high school) Task: To be a BBC TV-reporter who is assigned to make a TV-newscast on the basis of a radio news podcast. For news anchor he/she can either use an avatar or an actual photo of him-/herself. Material: A recent BBC podcast – preferrably as fresh as possible, because that would make it possible for the student to use recent newspaper for help (and generally boost newspaper reading habits). News reporter kompDividing the deadlines like this, into two smaller ones – one for the text manuscript and one for the sound files – and a final one for the finished end-product, makes it more perspicuous for the student and reduces the risk of him procrastinating too much, leaving the whole work until the very last moment. Also, this enables me to review the student’s work at various points in the process and to render him/her assistance with the technology or the language if required. One student, participating in this project last year, chose to do it like this:

England, Oh England (and a little bit of Wales) – From Authentic Video to Student Video

Part 1 of an amazing three-part film on England and Wales that Ella Grangärd and Amanda Niskanen made for their English class in grade 8. This creative duo had a vision and  went all out to make it real – even their unquestionably demanding teacher is still filled with awe at the result.

      •  “That is the English Channel, a small stretch of sea that separates England from the rest of the world, and it’s got to be partly responsible for what England and the English are all about. This tiny island nation gave birth to an empire that at one time ruled the world, and today almost a quarter of the world’s population speaks its language. How did this country come to exert so much influence? Small island – big history!
      • England is a densely populated country that sits at the edge of continental Europe where evidence of civilisation dates back to 7,000 BC. I begin my historic journey at the site of the Battle of Hastings, and then I travel along the coast to Brighton and make a quick stop in London, and then on to the Yorkshire moors, and then up to England’s northernmost border. In Liverpool I take a ride on the Magical Mystery Tour, and I end my journey in the West Country, at the mythical birthplace of King Arthur in Tintagel.

History of England2These are the first lines in a Pilot Guides 50-minute video on The History of England, giving a short outline of what the viewer can expect to find. Previously I have presented suggestions on how Pilot Guides videos could be used in the EFL classroom, on Ireland (here and here) and on the USA here. Consequently, this post on “The History of England and “England and Wales” would constitute a fourth approach to what one can do with authentic video and ICT. (Obviously, the same ideas can be implemented on any video on any subject really, provided you are permitted to do so – the ideas are not limited to the Pilot Guides videos. I use them because they appeal to the teenagers I teach, and because I have permission from the production company to use them in my classroom and in teacher training.)

When it comes to the topic of England, most textbooks that I have experienced limit themselves to London, whereas the rest of the country remains virtually neglected, yet there is no end to interesting places, traditions and phenomena taking place in “this tiny island nation” outside of London, a lot of which can be found in these afore-mentioned films. The route plans look as follows:

"History of England"

“History of England”

"England and Wales"

“England and Wales”

 Whereas one concentrates on understanding modern phenomena by consolidating them in historic facts and narratives, the other is taking a closer look at famous institutions, like Eton or the Cornish pasty, for example, establishing in them the essence, if you like, of iconic Britishness. At times they overlap – for instance, they both start off with the symbolic white cliffs of Dover and both make stopovers at Glastonbury, although for very different reasons – but that is no grounds for forgoing either of them. Both approaches complement each other in giving the viewer a deeper understanding – surely useful to a the young  mind constantly inundated with concepts and cultural references that he has no means or method of really grasping, especially so in popular culture. In this particular case I would be working with 8th-graders who very well might have encountered names like Glastonbury, Avalon or Strawberry Hill  before, but  they would more than likely be absolutely meaningless to them. The goal is that these and many more mentioned in the videos would elicit associations, both visual, auditive and factual, the next time the student was exposed to any of them.

So much then for some of the reasons for choosing the videos. But what are the students supposed to do with them?

Encouraged by recent positive experiences of having the students preparing or filming their own videos (described here and here), I tried to come up with ideas for transferring those to the area of using authentic video, as well. There were several alternatives, all ending in new videos expressing both comprehension of the topic at hand as well as the students’ own creative vision.  Ella Grangärd and Amanda Niskanen


Briefly, the assignment is to make a new video on the basis of two existing ones. Facts (and to a certain extent visuals) are to be transferred into the new one, even the language and choice of words can be identical, but they must be transmitted in the student’s own voice. This means that copying here is not necessarily a bad thing at all – the student still needs to make a manuscript for himself, and to copy exactly what is said from listening is no easy task at all and requires a lot of  concentration but also advanced language skills – I would argue that it is all but impossible to “translate” language from auditive perception into writing successfully without perfectly understanding what is being said. As soon as there is any gap in the comprehension, the resulting written text will inevitably be nonsensical.

The starting point would be the same for all:  to write a manuscript on a journey of their own through England (and Wales) based on passages in at least seven of the video clips (13 in all).

The possibilities from then on were:

  • 1) taking representational screen shots of crucial scenes in the video, compiling them in Movie Maker or iMovie and adding voice-over sound of their own making (in Audacity or similar), and, finally, to synchronize the screen shots with the sound file, making it into a coherent whole where visuals support the auditive medium. Images from other sources also possible.
  • 2) substituting the original soundtrack with one of the students’ own making (working on mute versions of the videos provided by the teacher). Synchronizing visuals with audio important.
  • 3) roleplay re-enactment of the video contents.
  • 4) a combination of two or all of the above

Ella and Amanda went for the fourth option, a combination of several. Here is Part 2 of their work (the climate here could not be more un-English if  we tried –  but you need to consider that the project deadline was in February and this is what Finland usually looks like in the middle of the winter):

Teacher work

It all sounds very easy-going on the teacher, doesn’t it – the students do all the work, whereas the teacher can lean back and enjoy the buzz of student activity …?

Actually, a scenario like that would in all probability result in disappointment for teacher and students alike. It’s a huge project just considering the source material. Two 50-minute videos need at last two lessons for viewing alone, not to mention choosing what to include and what to skip, and then there is the manuscript, which in itself requires a lot of time and effort. And that is just the beginning. This means that most students would lose both heart and interest in the project before they’ve even reached the middle of the initial stage. First of all, clear stepping stones are desperately needed in order to prevent that from happening. Also, clear deadlines for each stepping stone so that the project and each student’s individual progress are transparent and  clearly outlined from the very beginning.

In addition, you might want to  produce some scaffolding in order to ensure that the students at least have the possibility of learning to understand and possibly even to produce words hitherto unknown to him, or to give him hints at good search words in order to find more information on the subject. The alpabetical wordlist below is an example of such scaffolding. Words and names from “History of England” are listed, but I don’t want to make it too comfortable for the student by adding translations in L1. Nothing in real life is given with a two-way wordlist and the sooner students learn to find out for themselves the better. Now, if he hears a word which is crucial for his overall understanding, he has been given the means of finding out how it’s spelled and having done that it’s up to him to google it and find out the meaning and how to use it. He already has the pronunciation.

WORDS1Pre-project work

  • – Cutting the videos down into 5-9 minutes video-clips based on destinations along the route. Easily done in Movie Maker Live (free) or in Adobe Premiere (pay programme)  or any other video editing programme available.
  • – Making mute versions, which I do in Adobe Premiere but there probably are good and reasonably priced Apps for this, too. Alternatively, one could leave this option out altogether.
  • – Decide on project timeframe, deadlines, assessment etc.
  • – Putting together material online for student use – in Didactor a compendium with 13 tasks in all; each with a video clip for manuscript writing.

Didactor - kompendiumEngland and Wales: 6 video clips

Didactor - E&W

History of England: 7 separate video clips

Didactor - History


Assessment criteria have to be transparent and clear to all from the outset. These are what I decided on for this particular project:

Grade 10 (stands for Excellent)
• comprehensive as to content, attention to detail
• expressing creativity and ambition
• excellent ”authentic” pronunciation
• extensive vocabulary
• mostly correct and idiomatic English
• Visuals and audio synchronized (picture supports what is being said)

Grade 5 (stands for poor, barely OK)
• covering at least one fact from each of the seven requisite video clips
• tedious structure – monotonous, uninteresting
• vacillating or recurrent downright incorrect pronunciation
• poor or limited vocabulary
• abounding syntax errors
•  Visuals and audio synchronized (picture supports what is being said)

Grade 4 (stands for Fail)
• Odd or irrelevant information not to be found in any of the video clips
• showing no sign of new learning
• no submitted work

The criteria for grades between 10 and 5 weren’t explicitly put down in writing, but I explained to the students that those grades would be given in relation to the critera for 10 and 5. It was, in fact, quite easy to grade the films eventually when I had the parameters for 10 and 5 stated.

Ella and Amanda’s work were obviously a 10 – remember, I didn’t demand perfection – I was aiming for excellence in relation to their age and proficiency level. This is Part 3 of their film:

Warm-up or tuning in

In order to later choose what to work with and what to leave out, as well as get an overall picture of the whole material, it is advisable for the students to start by watching through all the clips. I chose to do one of the films, “History of England” in class and have the students look for answers t the following 18 questions:

QuestionsThe other film, “England and Wales”, they watched online as homework and answered a similar set of questions.

The project work itself

As previously mentioned, the students have to start with the manuscript once they’ve settled on which clips to focus on. The reasons why I decided on dividing the films into thirteen separate clips were threefold. First and foremost I needed to give the students a distinct understanding of the minimum requirements: the main contents of seven clips were to be included in their own video – exactly which seven was up to themselves. Secondly I wanted to be able to monitor their progress, and it was a great deal easier in this manner where they had to work clip by clip and upload their manuscripts one by one. It also facilitated a smoother reviewing phase as they could start working on their next clip while waiting for feedback on their first. Also, when there were several small deadlines instead of one big, I would know sooner that there was reason for worry and step in if there were students who missed their first deadlines altogether.

When the manuscript stage was passed it was time to collect images to go together with the manuscript and to start getting it into one whole.  The synchronizing seems to have been the most difficult thing to get right, and I need to re-write the instructions for that part of the project until the next time I have 8th-graders. I also find that most teachers tend to assume teenagers, “diginatives” as they are, have a lot more computer skills than they actually have, so even comparatively easy computer stuff like taking screen shots or using the Snipping tool (on Windows machines), not to mention making sound files, most probably is unfamiliar to most. A lot of teacher guidance and instruction are needed here, but don’t do everything at once or the students will be really confused. Guide them how to make screenshots when it’s time to start working on the visuals and do a studio recording software when it’s time to work on the soundtrack. Movie Maker, in turn, is pretty intuitive and students usually are relatively knowledgeable around it, except for two things. First we have the moving around with it, ie. first working at school and then wanting to continue at home or vice versa. I can’t say how many times I’ve known students be absolutely dumbfounded when they’ve opened a Movie maker-file at school after saving it at home – and all the visuals are gone, only broken-image-icons left where they were supposed to be. And they ‘re obiviously not particularly used to working with sound or video editing programmes when seem to think that pressing “Save” automatically will produce the finished audio or video file and not a project file. I won’t go into explaining or solving this here and now – that will be left for a separate blog post later on.

Learning process

What did the students in the end learn? For one thing, they learnt a lot about the geography, the history and the cultural traditions of the country of the target language. As to language they learnt a great deal more new vocabulary and about pronunciation than they could ever have done through reading texts from any of the available English textbooks for language learners. All language skills – listening, reading, writing, speaking – were involved, much more so, in fact, than if the research material had been in the form of text and not video. They probably worked harder on this project than if we had had a test at the end of it instead of video production, and they did so because most of them agreed it felt meaningful to them. Hard work, yes, but meaningful hard work. But had I said at the end of it all that now would be a good time to start a new video project like this one, they would in all probability have groaned and refused point blank, quite understandably. All language skills were involved, but so were many of the five senses, and as the visuals had played such a prominent role in each step of this multi-levelled learning process, I would argue that what they had learned here had a much higher memory retention factor than most other activities in the language classroom. And for active, functional listening activities, few activities could beat using authentic video in this manner.

Because content and language in projects like this one are so tightly knit together, they will also be closely embedded together in the student’s cognitive system, in their brain. And of course, all students did not invest as much time, effort and energy into the project as Amanda and Ella did, but many did and came up with completely different productions and yet, quality-wise, exactly as impressive. And then there were those, not many – two out of  40 – who just couldn’t be bothered and did not submit a thing, and they got an F, as promised in the Assessment criteria. The thing is that these individuals do no better when it comes to studying for traditional tests either, and then I just have to admit that these students are beyond me .

Alternative versions

One could argue, with good reason, that the scope and scale of the project, as outlined here, would be too extensive, too overwhelming for any normal class of normal students at the age of 14-15. Perhaps… But these two classes of 8th-graders I pulled the project with were completely normal teenagers. They were normal students some with concentration issues, some with dyslexia, and they pulled it through, sometimes even much to my surprise. But I agree that I might have gone overboard with two videos – one could have sufficed really. And the instructions could have been as follows:

words alternative instructions









Some Things Never Change, or Do They?

Irregular verbs logo 3However hard you try, there are some things one can’t get around in learning a language and in English (and German and Swedish…) one of those would be learning the irregular verbs by heart. You can group them in categories, play around with flashcards and you would still eventually face the fact that these things really are illogical (even though there may be good historic and etymological reasons for them being the way they are) and the most sensible decision you can make is simply to learn them verb by verb the old-fashioned way.

There are, however, things we teachers can do to ease the students’ pain of having the whole list to learn all at once. One pretty common method is to give students ten verbs to learn for every lesson and then to quiz them on those every time, which I think makes the whole thing less dramatic and not too strenuous for most students. The problem is that if a student for some reason fails to study for one or two lessons, he will probably never get the same incentive to learn those particular verbs again and they will constitute a white patch, a terra incognita, in that particular area of his language proficiency. Additionally, there’s another risk involved here  – failing once or twice through simply having forgotten to do his homework might reduce his motivation altogether for the next batches of verbs. He might very well consider having blown his chances already, so what’s the point? And you can’t really blame the teacher either, can you? Having and grading (!) tests or quizzes every lesson for some 25-30 students is quite enough without having to keep track of all those students who might want to re-take this or that test. That kind of permissiveness would result in burn-out for any teacher, and there would never really be an end to it all. It’s a dilemma, all right. Everybody deserves a second chance, but certain limits also need to be set.

Pretty early on in my teacher career, I realised that this particular piecemeal of system didn’t work for me. I’m not saying it doesn’t work for other teachers, only that I felt I failed miserably. The students, even those who did well on those mini-tests, didn’t really retain the knowledge for very long – it was a system of ten new verbs in and the previous ten verbs out. Plus the problem of all those “forgotten” homework assignments. I needed to come up with something else, something that would work for all of us, and still be feasible requirements on the students’ time and effort.

The parameters I had to proceed from were

  • 1) the whole list of irregular verbs would still need to be mastered, principle parts and all
  • 2) not enough that the students were given one principle part and required to fill in the remaining two – they needed to be able to provide all three in English when given the equivalent verb in L1.
  • 3) the piecemeal system still in place, but the batches – both scope and selection – would not to be dictated by me but up to the students themselves
  • 4) second chances – there might be completely legitimate reasons for students not to have done the required studying
  • 5) differentiated learning paths – not only a list on paper but games to work on in an autonomous manner
  • 6) desirable (for me): cutting down the grading to a minimum and to make the grading into a motivating carrot instead of a punishing stick if possible

I can’t say that I came up with the optimal solution at once, but the system I have by now, after many years of modification and revision, works well enough for most students and for me.

It goes as follows – and here I’m talking about 8th-graders who already know the basics about the use of the main tenses in English:

1st lesson: Small warm-up exercise with a few high frequency verbs, well known to the students from before, such as go/went/gone, put/put/put, etc.

When they have refreshed their memory, I’ll explain that this kind of words are what we’re going to work with for a small part of each of the following 20+ lessons or so (I would be quite precise with the end date, though), and that they can start by checking themselves on how much they already know, and that they have 10 minutes to fill in as many verb forms as possible on a 3-page quiz. I will also point out that it’s paramount that they use a pencil, because they might want to review and revise their answers at one time or another. No grading from me involved at all, the whole activity right now is strictly for purposes of self-evaluation. This is what the 3-page handout looks like – the red words are in L1 – 114 verbs in all:

Irregular verbs quizWhen the 10 minutes are up, most are still writing, but I still insist on their handing me the handouts back, but promise they’ll have plenty of opportunities to fill in more yet.

When I have all their handouts, I’ll explain that they will now get a handout with the exact same list of verbs but with all the missing English parts included and that they now go quietly through all the list from top to bottom individually, checking themselves by covering up the English part with their notebook or any piece of paper they have at hand, and ticking off those verbs they didn’t know, or where they failed to give the correct English forms.

Irregular verbsBy now there usually is an intense atmosphere of positive student engagement and task involvement in the classroom. When finished I tell them to work in pairs and take turns at quizzing each other on those verbs they themselves have ticked off as particularly difficult.

When 5-10 minutes remain of class (we have 75-minute lessons), I’ll tell them to put this paper carefully away in their book and take out that pencil again, because now will be their first opportunity to fill in more on that 3-page test/handout or correct previous faulty answers – anything that they may have learnt during the last thirty minutes or so.

And this is how we will spend the last 5-10 minutes of every class for the next 20+ lessons. For the first 1o I will do no grading at all; I won’t even glance at what they’ve written or rewritten, other than cursorily check that they’ve understood the system with the principle parts and that they’re making progress. 

I also tell them that their own complete list of irregular verbs is an extremely important document because they are going to need it for every one of those next 20+ lessons. They will, however, also have electronic access to it on our LMS, in case it, against all odds, gets lost. On the same LMS, which in our case is the combined LMS and game generator, they will find various games on the exact same verbs as on their paper.

For one batch of those optional autonomous exercises I’ve divided all the verbs alphabetically in groups of 20 each, but within the group the verbs appear in random order. This I feel is best described by a graphic representation of what actually happens in the game:


Click on the picture to get an enlarged view.

Click on the picture to get an enlarged view.


As the visuals here show, the feedback is immediate, and the game is not only a quiz but first and foremost a means toward learning in itself. The learning process is further reinforced by the final feedback when the student has finished the last item. Here he’ll find the key answers to all items as well as exact representations, letter by letter, of his own responses. (The additional comments here are inserted later by me, in the average student’s voice, to illustrate the actual cognitive processing taking place in an activity construed like this.)

Irregular verbs didactor result jpg

Another type of game within the same game generator focusses on  distinguishing regular verbs from irregular ones. Being able to recognize the irregular ones might assist the student in eliminating many of otherwise likely errors in his own future use of the L2, both in writing and speaking. A screen shot of a very simplified version of this activity clarifies how this kind of learning situation might pretty effortlessly come about.


Irregular verbs SORTER game

There is no immediate feedback – there would be little need for thinking if there were. The programme accepts without blinking everything the student decides on. But he can also undo – without losing points – any sorting he deems to have been incorrect. The time factor is not at play here either – he can take his time, consult his verb list, or dictionaries, or Google, or he can take his chances and rely completely on getting the correct answers in the final result feedback, which in itself provides food for additional revision and learning.

Irregular verbs SORTER result

In this particular case, five items were incorrectly categorised – no further comment needed.

These are only two instances of additional or alternative learning paths to the traditional irregular verb list on paper, and many more that work in a similar way might be added. I won’t, however, delve further into them here and now. None of them, I think, excludes another; on the contrary, they complete and reinforce each other by activating different parts of the brain, creating new thinking patterns and giving impulses for new brain synapses.

What then could motivate the students to do any of this; why spend time after school revising grammar stuff, when there are so many fun things a teenager could do in his sparetime? The gamification aspect is, of course, one motivating factor, but would it be enough? We certainly couldn’t spend all 20+ lessons on the verb list – there simply wouldn’t be time and there’s a lot more in the school curriculum that I, as a teacher, am obliged to have my students learn. So sparetime activity is where the verb work would be delegated to.

There is another highly motivating factor at play here – not for all students, but for many more than with any other method, 10-verb-batches or not, that I have tried. And surprisingly that would be the grading process, and the 3-page test paper that would appear over and over again in front of the student at the end of every lesson. Up to the student himself to decide on whether to do everything by piecemeal and on the sizes of thoses piecework portions. Does he want to slack now and save the whole lot until the day before the deadline, or does he want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible and be free to do whatever he wants for the rest of those-end-of-20+ lessons? (I’m talking about a “he” here for the sake of convenience, I do include the girls here, they are neither invisible nor insignificant but highly esteemed and respected in my classroom – I’m just saving up on letters here.) And there really is no easy road here, no shortcuts by doing sloppy work and say they’re finished. If they tried, I would immediately start grading their paper and unless there were aboslutely no mistakes or errors there, they would get it back, and go on working on it.

What about the grading or the marking here – in what way could that both reduce my workload and motivate the students?

It all depends on the way it’s done and the timing of it. The 3-column grid on the right hand side of the test paper comes into play after the 11th lesson, and the grid is there only to make my own life a little easier. Every correct verb form yields 1 point, and the column to the far left is reserved for a verb with one correct  and two incorrect verb forms – and it needs to be completely correct, spelling and all, in order to yield a point. The middle column stands for an answer with two correct and one faulty (or missing) verb form, and the column to the far right is, of course, for a full 3-point score. Now is when my grading starts, but I will focus exclusively on the 3-point column and mark all those answers that are perfect, leaving the rest blank. That will tell the student which ones he doesn’t need to bother with any more because they are perfect as they stand. The unmarked ones, however, need completing or correcting.

GridI will repeat this procedure for the remainder of the assigned classes until the very last lesson, ie. the day of the deadline, and then I’ll mark the 1- and 2-point columns as well, and subsequently sum up all points into a total score which will be divided by the maximum score 114*3/100 =3.42, yielding the final score in percentage. 50% is the required score for a Pass. The more marks in the 3-point column, the easier it is for me to get to the final score.

Let’s have a look at the parameters from the onset of the procedure:

  • 1) the whole list of irregular verbs would still need to be mastered, principle parts and all – Yes, definitely.
  • 2) not enough that the students were given one principle part and required to fill in the remaining two – they needed to be able to provide all three in English when given the equivalent verb in L1. – Yes, still valid.
  • 3) the piecemeal system still in place, but the batches – both scope and selection – would not to be dictated by me but up to the students themselves – Yes, they decide what, how much, and when (within the given time parameters)
  • 4) second chances – there might be completely legitimate reasons for students not to have done the required studying – Yes, they can skip studying a few times and make up for any omission at the next opportunity
  • 5) differentiated learning paths – not only a list on paper but games to work on in an autonomous manner – Yes, described in detail above
  • 6) desirable (for me): cutting down the grading to a minimum and to make the grading into a motivating carrot instead of a punishing stick if possible – Yes, this grading method is fast and efficient for me, and the 3-point column marking makes those 3-point scores highly desirable and completely feasible for the students, and it makes them concentrate on improving what they don’t know and not spend unnecessary time on what they already know.


Quod erat demonstrandum 😉




A Very Short Post on A Simple Chart for the Simple Verb Tenses

So, does she never teach any grammar, just play with fun stuff like videos and word games? you probably ask by now.

Yes, I do  teach grammar, but less and less the older and wiser (?) I get. But when I do I’m trying to concentrate on the really important stuff, and disregard minor aspects. Also, I find that a lot of grammar can be learnt through lexis and vocabulary, and using authentic material whenever possible, there really is no need for pure prepositional work, for instance.

Verbs are important, though, but here too I try to be as simplistic as I can, and avoid “grammar talk” if possible. Graphs and visuals, I think, work better than long verbal explanations. One thing I do require my students to recognize and to use correctly is the simple verb tenses. And this is my basic chart for those: Web

TV-reporters, Hobbies and Interviews

Ppt - hobbiesIn last week’s Cooking Show I described my first stumbling steps into the world of video production with my students. In spite of the shortcomings the experience did whet my appetite for more activities like that in my classroom., and I decided to do something similar with my older students in the German class.

In Finland we have a somewhat complicated language situation, something we have in common with several other European countries. First of all we have two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, both very “small” languages spoken by an extremely small portion of the world population. My students’ L1 is Swedish, and their L2 therefore Finnish. Their L3 is English, also mandatory for all students in the Finnish schools – both their L2 and their L3 are studied to the C1-level according to the European framework of references for languages. Additionally they have the option of an L4, which is either French or German. In recent years Spanish, Japanese and Chinese have been introduced into the language buffet for L4 or L5, but they have not reached a popularity to threaten the position of German and French, at least not yet, and definititely not at the school where I teach.

That year our full-time German teacher had taken a year’s sabbatical and I took over a lot of his classes. One of those was a large group of freshmen at our senior high school who had opted that year to start their German studies. They were not absolute beginners – they had about 40 lessons of German behind them – but they were definitely not fluent in the new language.

The text we would start working on that week was about hobbies, and I thought maybe we could do something with that. I would still work with the groups-of-three model but the roles and the situation would be different from the cooking show-scenario.

roles hobbiesThis time the students were supposed to be working as TV-reporters for an online youth magazine, and sent out to interview young people about their hobbies and leisure activities. The first stage in the process was to come up with questions to ask – they had just learnt how to use interrogative pronouns so this would be a good opportunity to practise for real. According to my guidelines they had to find out what the interviewee’s hobby was; how it was practised and what equipment was necessary; where this hobby of theirs took place; when, how often and with whom, as well as the reasons why they had chosen this particular hobby. As everbody had to interview somebody at some point they all had to work on these questions before they got down to the particulars of planning the video production and worked on the answers in their respective groups.

The group work was rather complicated because here they had to decide on the roles for each particular video, they had to decide on a hobby, discuss it with the others and refine their questions that hitherto had been construed on a pretty general level.   This time they were free to choose the locations themselves, and they did not have to remain in the classroom for  this pre-video stage – they could work in the school library where they had access to German dictionaries, or in the hallway or in the cafeteria. Or they could simply remain in the classroom. As it happened, nobody chose the last alternative – they scattered in all directions and I remained alone in the classroom, which surprised me somewhat. The curious thing was that I did not remain alone for long – as the teamwork took off there suddenly seemed to be high level of motivation and engagement for the task at hand, and there was a steady stream of students literally running back to the classroom to ask me for help with words or phrases in German, something I was more than willing to assist them with.

In the cooking show activity I did not really venture on anything more elaborate than plain shooting with their own cell phones or digital cameras. This time around I was more ambitious and “adventurous” as I opened the possibilities of editing of both sound and video clips, inserting stills or external video clips, still using their own mobile equipment with the software addition of Movie Maker Live or iMovie. They could also use voice-over or music and add captions or subtitles if necessary. The main thing was that they had to respond to the task: working as a real life TV-reporter and interviewing young people about their hobbies. Language errors or mistakes were of no consequence – the main thing was to make themselves understood and to communicate successfully.

The result was beyond my wildest expectations. There were as many different approaches to the task as there were groups in the class. In this eight-minute video, for example, Fanny Forsén, Ida Voutilainen and Lizette Krooks have made all three interviews into one coherent drama play with extra touches of humour and real life activities like making coffee and offering that to the visiting reporters.

Among the other contributions, I was also surprised to find we had a big rock star in class, one who wants to be anonymous at this point, but who made a great impression on me. Just a matter of time and we’ll see him among the other great stars on TV.

In the debriefing stage after the project the students got to evaluate the whole process and they were overwhelmingly positive about it. They had never done anything like it before, but they would definitely jump at the chance of doing something similar again – and in other subjects as well. As a teacher I was happy to write it all down as a success, too. The students had used all language skills – they had written, read, spoken and listened, and they had learnt a lot of new vocabulary and had demonstrably communicated successfully in their newly acquired L4-language. The students showed high-level engagement and motivation throughout the process, and it was a joy to observe them working together on each other’s texts and practising their lines.

Even though this idea was realised in German, it works fine in any language classroom, and I can’t think why it couldn’t take place in the ELT classes with younger (or older) students, as well.




The Cooking Show – the Next Generation Jamie Olivers

7AI was walking to school one autumn day four years ago, when all of a sudden I got this idea that would in fact later generate a whole range of other similar ideas for all ages and all levels. We had been working on a text about Jamie Oliver and subsequently on food vocabulary with my 7th-graders. The plan was to have a test on this later but for the lesson that particular day I had scheduled for us to work in the textbook with a new text on another subject. I was well prepared, as I usually is, but felt zero inspiration. Working with textbooks tends to be boring for the students – there are no surprises, nothing breaking the constant lull of the same activities over and over again. I’ve heard representative for publishing companies say that it is pedagogically important for the teaching material to be uniform, the same principle governing the whole series, but for the life of me I cannot imagine what that pedagogy could foster in terms of motivation or student engagement.  Even I, the teacher, finds it incredibly boring, and as hard as I try to come up with new ideas around the themes in the texts, at times I just can’t take any more worksheets or do a text in class the way the material writers had planned it to be  dealt with.

I thought, maybe I can postpone the new text until another day when I can muster up some enthusiasm for it, but what should I do right now then?  I love introducing authentic video into my classes, but I wouldn’t have any time to prepare it for this particular lesson. Anyway, the students needed more activation now than watching a film clip. But what if they could do their own films? It couldn’t all be done in this one lesson, but they could prepare for it today and then film it maybe next week?

Still walking, I went through what steps this scenario would include in terms of subject matter, time frame, props, technology etc. and I directly thought of  the text we had been working on, Jamie Oliver and his cooking shows. Yes, that’s what the students were going to do – their very own cooking shows. It could easily replace the written test I had planned and would be much more fun. Also, it would include oral skills which a written test hardly does. It would necessarily have to be zero-budget films, completely dependent on language and the students’ own imagination. The technology would involve their own cell phones – couldn’t use the school’s expensive video equipment, anyway, as I wanted everybody in class to make a film, not only a few protagonists. So I needed a lot of cameras not only one or two. We would use the school cafeteria and kind of play act all the ingredients in the show – couldn’t afford to buy all that food stuff anyway. And the students were free to come up with their own favourite dishes. What was important was that, like Jame Oliver, they would introduce all the ingredients while they were play-acting, and explain how these ingredients were prepared and put together – all in English of course. They would use the props available in the school cafeteria – actually nothing but trays, plates, glasses and cutlery. What remained was the problem of how to design the project so that everybody had the possibilities to come up with a film of their own. They wouldn’t be able to film and to play-act at the same time.

By now I had already reached the school building, and I was out of time. Then I got it, and this is how it turned out:

Language learning objective

1) Understanding what to do from reading a recipe in English

2) Orally explaining and physically showing how a dish is prepared

Previous learning activities

Studying a Jamie Oliver text in the textbook, learning the English names of vegetables & other food articles, watching a videoclip from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution in America with accompanying activities, learning cooking terminology

Time frame

Four lessons in all

Group management

The class consisted of 21 students, ie. they were divisible by three: they would work in groups of three, and the groups would be put together so that there would be at least one student with a cell phone with video recording possibility in every group. Each group would produce three video clips, and there would be three roles in the group, that of the head chef, the sous chef and the camera man, roles that would circulate for every cooking show video. In that way, every single student will have served in all capacities.rolesRecipes – pre-production activities

The first lesson would be dedicated to every student choosing their favourite recipe, something they had made in the home economics class or just something they knew how to cook. They would list all the necessary ingredients and start writing the instructions in English. There would be no computers, but they could use their cell phones for looking up words they didn’t know – I didn’t want them to get any shortcuts by looking up ready made recipes in English. The teacher would also help by building up a vocabulary list on the whiteboard. If they didn’t finish at school, this would be their homework for the next lesson.

During the second lesson the students would work in their home groups of three, collaborate on each other’s recipes and making corrections where necessary. They would also plan the actual video session – who would do what during each video.

The third lesson would be all about practising (dry runs without camera) and learning their lines by heart.

The fourth and final lesson would take place in the school cafeteria for the real action – the filming. There would be no editing, what got on camera would be the real thing. Re-takes were possible though.


 Tools and props

Cell phones or digital cameras, basic cooking utensils

Post-production activity

Watching with peer evaluation in class

Student assessment of the whole activity afterwards:

Fun and much better than oral presentation in front of the class, fun to watch what the other groups had done. The students also felt the assignment had been demanding, much more effort, engagement and hard work were required than a mere written test would have done.

Teacher’s evaluation:

– Cooperation absolutely central, everyone’s activities are intertwined making it a “whole” (group formation essential)

– Students support each other

– Differentiation natural – everyone can choose their own recipe according to level of difficulty

– Choice of location really awful – though lots of space the acoustics did not work, the individual performances were almost incomprehensible because of all the other action in the room –> students need more freedom to choose their own location which is perfectly possible as they are using their own equipment.

– Problems with what to do with students who were absent on the day of filming –> the teams incomplete (I solved it by leaving it to the teams to decide when and where to film on their own time, I merely gave them a deadline.)

– Oral proficiency:  meets the teacher’s requirements. The stronger students needed little support from keywords or manuscripts, the weaker or lessconfident ones more. On the other hand, the teacher had not really laid down any rules on the use of manuscripts, so…

– Expected file format circus actually never happened. The students all brought their videos to me on memory sticks, which was an enormous relief. I had prepared for emergency conversion scenarios but I never had to put them in action.

Nowadays I actually consider this particular experiment a failure, just because the final products were so bad soundwise. This had nothing to do with student performance or the cell phones that we used. I had thought the school cafeteria would be a good location because there would be plenty of space for each team to work undisturbed by the others. I didn’t realise how bad it was until the actual filming part and then it was too late to do anything about it. Good thing was that everyone could work simultaneously and were given free hands on how much time to spend on the production, which was only possible because they were using their own at-hand equipment.

There were, however, a couple of teams that had to do the shooting at home, and that proved to be a so much better solution, as you can see here, where Christian is demonstrating how to fry an egg:

But even if this project was to a certain extent a failure, there still were so many positive aspects to it that I was definitely going to reuse the concept, but with a few modifications. I’ll return to these in future blog posts.