Task of the Month: What’s on the menu?

16 07 2011

This blogpost originally appeared on the ihteachers.com blog for IHWO teachers.

By Neil McMahon Thursday January 20, 2011

Task of the Month: What’s on the menu?

Living in Buenos Aires, there’s nothing I enjoy more at the end of a long week of teaching than going out at the weekend for a meal.  Eating out is one of the favourite pastimes of all Porteños and you’ll often see restaurant after restaurant choc-full of people even on week nights, let alone weekends.  While it’s easy enough to find somewhere to eat, the local tendency towards quantity over quality can mean it’s difficult to find that special place which lures you back again and again.

The same can also be said for that long week of teaching too.  It’s easy enough to find tasks and activities to fill up time in the classroom, but it can often be difficult to hit upon those classic activities that we happily return to over and over.  And, funnily enough, the ingredients that make a restaurant successful are very similar to those that make successful learning activities in the classroom.

One such activity that I’ve been using a lot recently in class is The Art of Anecdoting, which was written by Kate French for the IHWO CEF Activity Pack at the C1 level.  The basic success of a restaurant, and what gets you through the door, is what type of food is served up.  Here in Buenos Aires, there aren’t many Indian restaurants and many of my colleagues and I are big fans of curries, so the simple offer of Indian food will have us eagerly crossing town to check out a new Vindaloo venue.  In the same way, decent speaking tasks that focus on students producing long turns while using natural conversational English are few and far between, and so it’s not surprising The Art of Anecdoting has been put through its paces quite often in our staffroom.  The staple diet of the activity is a focus on linking devices used in spoken English to introduce and frame a longer turn, and specifically in the task itself, an anecdote about a pop concert the speaker has been to recently.  The activity is successful on many levels, like a top restaurant has to be.

Just as the ambience of a restaurant sets the tone and makes customers feel like they are in an appropriate setting to eat what’s about to be served up, it’s vital students understand the usefulness of having some anecdotes available to them to allow them to participate fully in a conversation and share their experiences, in a variety of contexts.  That this anecdote is about a topic most people are interested in one way or another (most people have attended some kind of live music event at some time in their lives, be it an opera or Britney or their brother’s band at the local pub) also means most students are very motivated to share their experiences while learning some new, useful and completely natural English discourse devices at the same time.

Of course the most important aspect of a restaurant is the food and our favourite places will always have our dream dish that we are happy to return to repeatedly, but also a variety of creative and original alternatives that can tempt us when we’re in the mood.  In the same way, The Art of Anecdoting provides the opportunity of a staple activity cycle – gist reading, noticing language use in context, productive speaking / language practice – or a menu of variations and adaptations to suit your students in your context (e.g. use the sample text as a model anecdote and get your students to explore their structure through guided discovery).  The theme can also be changed for other experiences your students may wish to discuss while the structure and language used remains the same.  The task also complements other tasks from the CEF activity pack at the C1 level – Keep Talking 2 is the perfect starter and you can choose between Dear XYZ or Rave Reviews for a dessert worth writing about.

However good the food is, I won’t be returning quickly to any restaurant where the staff don’t make me feel welcome and help me enjoy their offerings to the full.  Thankfully, The Art of Anecdoting is accompanied by detailed, step-by-step instructions meticulously prepared by our maître-de, Kate French, the Teacher Training Coordinator at IH Buenos Aires Teacher Training, so that even those of us still unsure which fork to use at each stage of the meal can confidently tuck into this motivating serving of extended speaking practice using real English.

Of course, in these financially challenging times, the price / value ratio is ever more important, so you’ll be pleased to hear that along with the rest of the CEF activity packs at each of the CEF levels from A1 through to C2, The Art of Anecdoting is available to freely download from both the IHWO English resource centre and the teachers’ tab of the IHWO affiliate website.   And before we reach the end of our meal, there’s just time to discuss décor and opening times – the activity is fully IH-branded and ready to photocopy, so preparation time is minimal and while the activity is designed to be used with Advanced classes at the C1 level, it can be used with any class post-First Certificate, be it General or Business English, Conversation or 1-2-1.  In all, a stimulating activity full of useful language that you and your students will want to visit time and time again.  Buen provecho!

Neil McMahon

IHWO Academic Coordinator Resources & Dos Support


Long and thoughtful

16 07 2011

Long by mcneilmahon at Garmin Connect – Details.

Went for a long run today since didn’t get out last night in the end – was exhausted after a long and difficult Celta week.  But after a morning of following tweets from #LABCI and following the Tour de France and The Open while Tottenham kicked off their pre-season rather ignominiously I was feeling invigorated and up for a long but well-paced run, aiming to try and stay around the 6.30 mark for 10K.  It was going well as I ran around the big lake in the Palermo forests, but then after 8k felt my left calf tightening up so had to stop and walk the last 2K home.  Something I was actually quite proud of since previously I would have just kept running and hurt it even more, especially on top of the fab thoughts I was having:

Don’t overdo it, stay within yourself (I ignored this one unfortunately)

Don’t forget to look at the lake – Que lindo el lago!

Do people listen to so much music because they don’t want to listen to their own thoughts?

I need to sort out my twitter scheduling – maybe it needs to be on for them to go out?

Did I overdo the tweeting this morning?  I don’t think so, I was always adding something to the conversation, otherwise speakers are just accepted without too much critical thought.

Why’s everyone so nauseatingly polite to each other on Twitter (at least in the ELT sphere)? Where’s the critical thinking?  Everything is great, fantastic, briliant, even before it’s been tried and tested or thought through.  Not helpful to evolution.

Some and any activity to add to the blog post – students choose whether contexts are definite or indefinite and then add in some, or any, or the, or a/an, to differentiate the differences.  And then to make it critical thinking – SS decide which of the sentences are most helpful to them and why.  And then they change the others to make them more them.

A Real Missed Opportunity…IH Journal Book Review

16 07 2011

This was a book review I wrote in 2007 for the IH Journal.  It was a review of the Graham Workman book ‘Concept Questions and Timelines’, a worthy effort at trying to help novice (and not so novice) teachers improve their skills at conveying and checking meaning when clarifying language.

Unfortunately, Graham didn’t quite do what he wanted to…

Concept Questions & Time Lines – reviewed by Neil McMahon, IH Buenos Aires Belgrano, IH Journal Issue 23 2007 click on link to see review