Tuesday, December 15, 2009
By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville
Have you ever caught yourself involuntarily remembering lines from a song that you’ve heard many times? Or a movie? Most people have, I suppose. But what about lines from an ESL listening exercise?
About ten years ago, I was using the “New Cambridge English Course” textbooks with most of my students. The series was written by Michael Swan and Catherine Walter, and it was very popular at the time. One of the textbooks contained a unit on First Conditional which included a listening exercise featuring a story about John and Olga. Quite a few lines from that exercise are still embedded in my memory. I always looked forward to playing the exercise recording even though I’d heard the story countless times and should have been bored silly by the tale.
What made that listening task memorable was not only the plot, but the response that the exercise evoked in students. For me, that listening activity, however simple in design, is one model of an effective exercise in First Conditional.
The teacher plays a recording of John and Olga’s story in the usual way, except that occasionally the story is interrupted and a question on the pattern “What will happen if…?” is posed. Students then attempt to predict a consequence of some action or event that has occurred, writing down their ideas using the First Conditional. Afterward, students read their sentences aloud and discuss their ideas. The teacher then presses the play button again and reveals “the truth” as the activity progresses.
Plot: The Key Ingredients
The key to the success of this exercise is the plot, and the significant ingredients of the plot are suspense and unpredictability. This plot comprises startling events, and a mix of people, places, and objects that we might not expect to see together in a relatively simple story. We experience a spur-of-the-moment date at the zoo and the loss of a purse in a snake pit; we meet a pretty girl and an angry boss; we encounter champagne, a revolver, and a wad of money. The mysterious Olga and the opportunistic John are caught in a web of dynamic circumstances. Oh my!
By the second or third round of “What will happen if…?” students are laughing out loud. But they are also beginning to realize that the story is so unpredictable that even the craziest or silliest prediction may actually be correct. The humorous atmosphere eases apprehensions about the demands of the new grammar structure. The lesson becomes a matter of fun, and the learning finds a place in students’ memories.
Bonus Learning Opportunities
This exercise, like any modeled on it, can easily be used as a springboard for various post-exercise activities. One that I have used allows students to prepare sketches during which they pose the “What will happen if…?” question at key points.
Also, this exercise, because of its unpredictable content and its openness to creative input, encourages students to use (and often look up) original or precise vocabulary.
Creating a Similar Story
In my experience, it is often possible to take a fairly ordinary story and add a few elements of danger or mystery to create a suspenseful and fairly unpredictable tale. Including characters who have uncanny problems and who are normally associated with other social contexts usually adds color in a hurry.