Many of us have experienced the building
of a shared context with our students over
the course of a semester or school year. Events,
funny moments, benchmarks become landmarks
which make the classroom and related activities
familiar ground for the teacher and his or her students.
We may also have noticed the powerful effect
which extended reading projects--particularly
the reading of fiction--have on the language
learning curve for our students, as they begin
to recognize the objects and characters in
a story. This familiarity, these series of
associated memories, provide a strong context
which supports faster and faster comprehension
with each new chapter.
I was speaking by phone the other day with
one of my professors from years ago when I
was working on my master's degree in TESL.
In that conversation, I found myself reminded
of another professor, who had shown our class
the following activity for teaching vocabulary,
pronunciation, grammar or all three through
poetry or song.
You write the full text, line by line, up on the
board. You go over the meaning of the text
together with the students. You then strategically
choose which few words or phrases to erase,
leaving most of the text intact, and have the
students repeat the song or poem, line by line,
Next, you strategically erase a few other portions,
and again go through the full song or poem, line
by line, as if those missing words were still there,
having the students repeat after you. This is all without
them referring to any written notes. They must depend
on their "working memories."
Finally, you reach a point where the entire text is
completely erased. You challenge the students to
chant or sing the piece as if it were still written right
there on the board in front of them. The rhythm, stress
and intonation which accompany music and poetry
can be very helpful to students in this sort of memory
If you are lucky, you'll notice some of them singing
or repeating, almost unconsciously, snatches of the
song or poem as they leave the class or a few hours
or even days later. The music of the language in their
minds can have a positive, motivating influence on other
Remembering this activity, which I have used on
numerous occasions, my mind was carried to another
related experience. In 1985, I taught junior high EFL
at the Colegio Experimental Alberto Einstein, in Quito,
Ecuador. One group of 8th graders at that school were
very highly motivated to learn, and their enthusiasm
encouraged me to challenge them as fully as possible.
We read Ray Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine," to learn about
American small town culture; we read Gardner's "Grendel,"
to learn about the origins of English-speaking culture; they
wrote 9-paragraph "Classical Essays," arguing about issues
important to each of them; most of the students signed
"no TV for a month" contracts with me and their parents for
extra credit; and I read stories to them nearly every day from
"Fairy Tales," by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame).
The most amazing thing these kids did was when each of
them memorized their favorite story from the Terry Jones
collection, and presented it completely from memory in front
of the class. I have never seen anything quite like this before
or since the time I spent with the students at Alberto Einstein.
I would like to think that those feats of memory served them
in some lasting way.
I am sure there are other teachers who have had similarly
profound experiences through the use of silent reading,
reading outloud and storytelling activities with ESL or EFL
Story by Robb Scott, Hays, KANSAS
2003 ESL MiniConference Online