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Finding the Unusual in the Usual
There are a number of simple exercises aimed at expanding and solidifying your students’ vocabulary which I found very useful. Most of them work well with any age and level; you just have to trust your own ability for trial and error, and for distinguishing between the “right” and “wrong” activities for your class.
FOOD is an ever-interesting topic for any age. Visual aids of any kind are always good. Start by showing your students some pictures. It can be either one large picture of a table laden with dishes, or a succession of pictures with different edible products. Check that there are enough cups, plates and cutlery on the table; alternately be sure to include pictures of empty cups etc. into your gallery. You may continue in several directions afterwards, depending on your lesson plan, your students’ age and level.
Ask them to jot down as many names as possible to make a list, e.g. BREAD, MEAT, FRUIT, VEGETABLES, MILK. A group effort always helps write down quite a long list, both with collective nouns and with individual food names. Suggest that they make a separate row of words which refer to utensils, crockery and cutlery.
If you are showing a succession of pictures, tell your students to pay attention only to foods, or only to things used during meal times, like the table itself, crockery, napkins, and whatever else they may notice.
If necessary, remind them about the three main meals of the day, or if you are sure they can already do it, let them enumerate the meals. Show the pictures again if necessary and ask them which meal, in their opinion, is shown. NB: teen boys will probably tell you that the dishes they see on a dinner table are good for breakfast and lunch too!
Suggest that they work in pairs or groups, and separate all the foods into ones that need cooking (meats, breads) and those which can be eaten raw (fruits, vegetables, berries). You may further extend their vocabulary by asking which drinks are better when cold, and which should be warm or hot.
Compiling a healthy menu for each meal is a good exercise which can be used both in class and as home task.
As a revision exercise, you may ask your students to calculate how much or how many products are needed for any meal, depending on the number of people. I actually asked my school cafeteria staff how many buns they had to bake during any school day. The answer, a round thousand of various buns and rolls, always impressed my students. Absolutely each one of them would grab a bun daily, yet most of them never thought of how many were needed – and how much work it involved on a continuous basis. By the way that number did not include slices of plain bread or sweet cakes.
Following the students’ interests always pays. Younger children would enthusiastically discuss games, pets and friends, in that order. Their favorite cartoons would probably come next. The fact that EVERYTHING has a name in English is often enough to help them remember it. With teenagers, we talked about professions, occupations and hobbies, and about their future education. Boys and girls would discuss different sports, ball games and gymnastics, figure skating and swimming, running and jogging. A glossary which helps them remember the difference between game, period, set, time et cetera is always useful.
Any season gives us plenty of opportunities to develop and consolidate the vocabulary. Simple questions during a warm-up help activate a sort of seasonal vocabulary. Is it raining, snowing, is it sunny, windy today? From a discussion of weather and seasons it is a smooth slide into clothes and shoes. We probably do not need any special visual aids, since it is enough to look outside to see whether everything is covered with snow or if it is now green with leaves and grass. We can help students build simple and complicated sentences by letting them look at their own and their classmates clothing, and then describe it. “Everybody has to wear warm sweaters and cardigans in winter; T-shirts and jeans or shorts are fine in spring”.
Pay attention to the one student who often keeps silent and does not seem to remember much of any current topic. Try to learn what they are interested in. Time and again, such a student may surprise you with their extensive knowledge of, say, car terms, or pet care, or surfing and browsing the internet for some very specific information. I confess I only know a lot about bees, for instance, because I had a student in my adult group who enthusiastically talked about the swarm habits. For him, bees were the most fascinating creatures on Earth, and he chose working with them as his future profession. I just had to persuade him that English might come in useful in his future.
Last but not least: be sure to regularly praise ALL your students, no matter how small or big their achievements are. “Look, Anna/John made a list of 12 items for this topic, isn’t it great?” And, “He/She pronounced the whole hundred words correctly!” It is clear that we praise both the weak and the strong students for their success. They will remember your praise, and the words that you praised them for.
When we need to recycle any layer of lexis, any topic, we may first suggest that the students open their own notes and refresh their memory. We use some notes every lesson, our own preparatory work as a matter of course. If you know that your students are diligent enough to have some material they can refer to, like their own notes, allow them the same courtesy you allow yourself.