Thursday, May 19, 2011

Look at It. Listen to It. Talk about It.

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

There were lots of times during my years of ELT when I went nuts trying to think of clever ways to stimulate my students’ willingness to participate in conversations. What could I do to get them to use all the grammar and vocabulary and intonation that they were internalizing – I hoped – and make it all come together? Well, I found four gems to help me accomplish this goal and to inspire my own creativity. Three were visual; one was auditory. I wish I had created these terrific aids, but alas, I didn’t. What I did do, however, was use what I had found and then create more of the same on my own.

It was so long ago (back in the mid-1970’s, I believe) that I can’t even remember how I was introduced to this, but I started using a wonderful visual aid called Longman’s Progressive Picture Compositions, created by Donn Byrne, and published, of course, by Longman. There was a “pupil’s book” as they called it, which I didn’t use, but there were four large wall charts that could be placed on the chalk board sill, each chart showing one of four pictures that would tell a complete story together, as you can see here. I discovered that I could use these progressive pictures starting with lower intermediate students (in a more rudimentary way) and go all the way to the most advanced students in our program.

First and foremost, I wanted my students to be able to describe everything they saw in each picture, so, for example, we’d talk about the nouns, adjectives, and verbs in the first picture. We’d also discuss the right prepositions and adverbs for the scene. Then we’d piece together a narrative to make the opening part of the story that the four pictures conveyed. We’d move on to the second picture, work on that, and so it would go until we covered all the language needed in the four pictures to make a complete narrative, all practiced orally. This gave my students a tremendous boost in their self-confidence and lessened fears they had about trying to communicate something more complex than simple question-and-answer dialogs. I would also lead them in follow-up conversations. For example, in the story you see here, we’d discuss what they thought might have driven the man to steal the lady’s purse and what kind of person the man with the cane must have been to get involved by tripping up the thief. Another kind of follow-up conversation could deal with whether or not any of the students had ever witnessed a crime such as this one or how much crime there was where they came from.

When I ran out of the pictures in Longman’s Progressive Picture Compositions, I used comic strips that were visually easy to follow from one frame to the next in making a story. I would delete the dialog balloons and keep the narrative style going that my students were used to practicing.

I also used single pictures that could have various interpretations. I wanted to spark some controversy in class among the students as to what they were looking at. Here are two examples of the kinds of pictures I’d use for this purpose:






A                                                                      B

“What’s going on in Picture A? What do you think the man is reacting to? How do you think he’s feeling?” / “Look at the couple in Picture B. How would you describe them? What might be happening? What or who do you imagine these people could be?” I guarantee you that the students will not all agree on how they interpret such pictures – which is what makes an activity like this so much fun. Of course, the more imaginative your students are, the more fun everybody will have. How you proceed, as a whole-class activity or placing students into groups or whatever is entirely up to you.

I also made use of pictures that I just found interesting, different, or controversial, like this one. The message on the T-shirt is so unusual for people from some other cultures that I knew my students would have quite a lot to say about it if given half the chance, especially with some creative prompting from me if necessary.

And what did I find in the realm of hearing? During that same period in which I started using pictures to stimulate conversation, I came across an audio cassette tape that I considered a bit of genius. It was called Sounds Intriguing, created by Alan Maley and Alan Duff of the UK. The tape and small accompanying book were published by Cambridge University Press in 1979.

What made this tape so wonderful was that Messrs. Maley and Duff had put together groupings of sounds in which each individual sound might seem easy to identify, yet together in a cluster would come across as being quite ambiguous, thereby leaving lots of room for interpretation on the part of the listeners, who I would place in small teams before the activity began. Of course there were no right or wrong interpretations, but the students would really go to town interpreting what they had heard in each cluster of sounds, insisting that their team’s interpretation was the right one. Using that audio cassette always proved to stimulate conversation in my classes, so it was just what the doctor ordered.

After a while, when I felt I wanted some more sound clusters, I took up the challenge on my own and came up with some nicely ambiguous, intriguing sound clusters that drove my students slightly nuts. I loved it, and so did they! All I did was write down five, six, or seven different things that create sounds and I’d then walk around with my tape recorder on as I produced one sound after another or recorded one naturally occurring sound after another. I might even repeat certain sounds if I felt like it. In this way, I ended up making some very nice sound clusters just as you’d hear on Sounds Intriguing. And I’m happy to say that my students were indeed intrigued!

So, my fellow teachers, use pictures and create ambiguous sound clusters, and try them out on your students. I think you’ll get a lot of mileage from such aids to stimulate student participation in practicing their conversation skills.


Comment from abdul rozak
June 14, 2011 at 12:07 pm

soo good

Comment from bita talebi
August 3, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Thank you very much. That was great

Comment from Jule
April 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm

I own copies of those four wall charts and LOVE the pictures. I got the charts from a school where they weren’t used any more.
Now I framed two of the pictures.

Comment from Richard Firsten
April 28, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I’m with you, Jule. I loved using those charts, too, as you can tell. Try my idea of creating your own if you need more “four-picture stories.” Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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