BBC for critical thinking

Somewhere in my stash of useful links there was this old BBC pilot of the ‘Evidence Toolkit‘ – a piece of software for helping teens learn to spot fake news. The pilot has ended, but if you scroll down the page, you will find a rather useful set of materials: three ready-made lesson plans with activities about verifying sources, interpreting images and data (for example, Lesson 3 has a fun video about ‘Numbers and the tricks they play’) and other aspects of reading the news. There’s even an interactive game from Aardman (BBC iReporter) – I haven’t used it yet, but it looks very promising. As for the age and level, the text-based activities would probably work best for higher-level older teens: after all, they were not written with EFL learners in mind; the videos and games seem more universal. Just another resource that can really save teachers some time!

P.S. If you’re looking for more materials for critical thinking, you can find a useful test if you travel this way.

Very, very old picture books

Here’s a useful post from Open Culture featuring The Library of Congress collection of digitised children’s books. It gives a great taster of what you can find there: yellowed pages, unusual fonts, and rather quaint (for want of a better word) illustrations. How can we use them? Well, to start with, they are all in public domain (each page has a set of references and a credit line). Why not give a special flair to a lesson flipchart, or send the learners to that collection to find an interesting illustration, a story or a poem? These photos are incredibly atmospheric: as if you are remembering a past you never had, you know?


Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

The Peter effect


Here’s another biblically named effect in education that we also need to be aware of: the Peter effect. It was coined by Anthony and Mary Applegate in 2004 and you can read their article revisiting the original research here. The researchers write: ‘The label itself is drawn from a New Testament story of a beggar who approaches St. Peter and asks him for money. Peter responds that he “cannot give what he does not have” (Acts 3:5).” They surveyed pre-service teachers and found out that many of them were not enthusiastic about reading and concluded that they would not be able to instill the love of reading in their learners. Now, wouldn’t it be interesting if someone could research the teachers’ attitudes to online teaching and how it affects our learners?

The Periodic Table of books


If you’re into reading books rather than articles (or you suddenly have a bit more time on your hands), check out this amazing resource compiled by Mark Anderson: a topical collection of contemporary titles on different aspects of education, from general education to literacy to leadership to modern classics. There may be an interactive version in future, but even this list is very helpful. I was pleasantly surprised to see Simon Sinek’s ‘Find your why’ there – that’s a great idea for lesson planning, by the way!

Linguistics with laughter


It’s easy to fall into an Internet rabbit hole on holidays, isn’t it? But look what I’ve found: an absolute gem of a web zine for linguists and the linguistically-minded called Speculative Grammarian. Between their News Bites (/nuz baɪts/) to rather horrible puns in ‘reasons not to study linguistics’ (Juθt don’t θtudy liθpθ; theðe thingð are θyθtematically impoθible) or the exploits of the Great Predicato, I haven’t been able to stop laughing.

And of course I’m still reading the poems. What do you think about this one?

There once was a linguist from Mordor,
Whose vast minions obeyed every order,
So their lines never crossed
When their foes they’d accost,
And each spear held a hidden recorder.
—Morris Swadesh III

That said, I wouldn’t recommend taking any of it to the classroom unless you’re teaching at linguistic university!

Receptive strategies for language learning


Here is a very enjoyable read by Andreia Zakime from WhatisELT.  She writes about top-down and bottom-up processing in reading, and I love her take on the Ukrainian and Russian linguistic landscape (she is staying in Ukraine at the moment). She analyses her own experience as a beginner reader, combines it with her teaching and teacher training skills and gives an excellent overview of the two strategies and how they can be used in the classroom to develop both receptive skills. Really nice!

Constraints and choices for reading


Here is a very recent find: an illustration of how a simple collection of facts can become an engrossing adventure. Tom Kuhlmann writes about converting an electronic template to create a gamified activity, but for me the tech side of things is not as interesting as the whole approach. Imagine you have a series of short bios, or other texts about several characters. Normally, you would add a picture to each text, and that’s it. What you could do, however, is to add an interesting context and a challenge: the texts become interviews after an incident or crime, and you are a police detective who has to put the pieces of puzzle together. And then, very importantly, you introduce some constraints: each text is worth a number of points, and you can read only about several people before you are ‘ousted out of the building’.  So, from static passive reading you are moved into the realm of critical thinking: who do I choose, how do I continue my search and not fail? Interesting stuff, and seems easy enough on the surface (probably not so easy when you start building those activities, but at least now I know how they work!).

P.S. The principle of the activity reminds me of one of my favourite educational games – The Quandary. Has anyone ever tried it?

Blogging as taking notes

Note-taking for life

You may have noticed that this blog has limited itself to events and presentation slides. In truth, I felt that after a year I had reached a limit with paragraph blogging, and my collection of ELT ideas was now repeating itself. I was looking for a new format that would excite me: you can’t run a blog on willpower alone, it should be inherently motivating, do you agree?
I’ve finally found something else instead: this book by Sönke Ahrens (How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking) which has convinced me that I was doing the right thing all along. What is this blog if not a version of Zettelkasten (according to the method that Ahrens writes about, a slipbox of cards with thoughts formed by reading and reacting to what you have read)? If used properly, the system described in the book can become a great thinking tool which encourages learning, creativity and serendipity of ideas.
So, it’s actually good that similar ideas come up in the blogosphere and get me interested – I’ll just make sure I build more connections between them, and see what learning comes out of it. Consider it a public commitment of sorts 🙂
P.S. If you’d like to know more about the note-taking system, I’d rather not link to Amazon, but here’s a free video.

Reading Stevick 7 of 10: poetry


Stevick insists that oral communication should have the language and the reason to talk, otherwise it’s just an aeroplane without fuel (or with one wing). Discussing poems is not the first of the techniques he recommends, it’s one of the ‘other ways to oral activity’ – and yet it’s an intrinsically interesting and authentic way to encourage learners to speak. Students can discuss what happened in the poem, think about their own reaction, try to understand the writer in terms of language and ideas… It’s a nice reminder of how valuable those simple things are – and the benefit is that the students are really invested in the discussion.

My favourite teaching poem is, alas, not very romantic or mysterious. I use it to practise ‘th’ and ‘s’: I can think of six thin things… Well, you know how it goes 🙂 Anyone cares to share theirs?

Adventures of adventure book writers


Here is an inspiring post by Alastair Lane about writing ‘gamebooks’, or ‘choose your own adventure’ stories for language learners. Much as I love reading, I have never been a fan of those books: I just want to focus on one storyline and one world that the author has created for me. On the other hand, these books are a great opportunity for narrow input and revision, and they can be incredibly motivational provided they are written well and use elements of gamification. And, judging by the post, Alastair’s and his co-authors’ books are definitely worth checking out!

P.S. I’ve already linked to an article about QR codes to make adventure stories in the classroom; ‘A hero’s journey’ describes the power of narratives for learning. If you’re interested in the process of creating graded readers, check ‘Up a level, down a level’.