Lesson Jamming

Where do ideas for teaching come from? And where, indeed, do they go to? Increasingly I feel that they evolve organically out of classroom practice and out of collaborative dialogue between teachers, and between teachers and learners. The closed Facebook group which grew out of the course on Storytelling in Language Teaching that I ran in Ramallah in January for the British Council has become a community of practice like this, where this kind of dialogue is happening.  It is by far the most active and focussed Facebook group I belong to. Every day there is at least one post about something related to storytelling in Palestine, there are lots of videos of teachers and learners telling stories, and there is a lot of support and suggestions from members in the comments.  And who knows what kind of long term impact such dialogues may have?

More than twenty years ago, when I was working as a teacher in Brazil, a young man (let’s call him Mauro) came up to me after one of my classes and said something like this….

‘I’ve got a great idea for you. Why don’t you start by teaching us all the words that begin with A, and then do B in the next class and then C and so on until we get through the alphabet’

I must admit, I thought it was a crazy suggestion. I’d quite recently done a teacher training course (CTEFLA as it was then) and the idea that vocabulary should always be presented in context and that  words should be connected through meaning rather than form had been drummed into me. Mauro’s idea seemed to go against this completely. I probably smiled politely and thanked him for the suggestion, but inside I was fuming that a learner felt he could tell me how to do my job better!

In fact, however,  if I look back on my past 25 years of teaching I can think of numerous cases where I have learnt something about how to do my job better from listening to learners. One example is from the time I worked with adult beginners in Birmingham. Not being able to speak the first languages of the students, I’d sometimes try to set up unnecessarily complex pairwork activities through gestures and demonstrations. The students would misunderstand what I wanted and do something completely different, and then I’d think, ‘Actually what you are doing is a better idea!’ 🙂 Now some of these activities have become staple things that I fall back on in my teaching again and again.

Going back to Mauro’s idea, even though I thought it was an outlandish thing to do at the time, I never forgot what he said (perhaps because it seemed so outlandish) . Then when I came to read Guy Cook’s brilliantly controversial book, Language Play, Language Learning (OUP 2000), I discovered that were others who felt that linking words together through form (words that begin with the same letter for example) might be a useful thing to do. This book provides a huge challenge to the communicative approach, by suggesting that meaningful language use doesn’t necessarily equate with memorable language use. Could it be that Mauro’s idea is a good way of making language memorable?

A few weeks ago I was about to tell a story to a large group online in Rafah, Gaza, when the internet in the classroom suddenly cut out and we lost the connection. Luckily, the teachers on the ground, Sereen and Samir and me were still able to communicate through Facebook. We wanted to give the girls something to do while they were waiting, and I found myself suggesting a version of Mauro’s idea where each group could draw pictures of as many things as they could think of which began with a certain letter. Sereen and Samir improved the activity by asking them to each do this for the letter which started their names. We actually never got the connection back but the girls got busy and Samir took pictures of what some of them had drawn and then sent these to me, again using Facebook. In the next class with this group I was able to show the whole class the pictures they had drawn and to do some activities around their drawings.

That evening I posted about this experience on Facebook and another teacher, Sahar messaged me and suggested asking the learners to write a story using the words they’d drawn. I told her I thought that was a great idea and the next day she tried it out in class. Here are the pictures and a story that one student came up with.


I think that Sahar’s activity is a really nice way to produce a personalised and highly memorable piece of writing. So I tried it out with a boys group that I was working with the following week.


So thank you to Sereen, Samir, Sahar, Mauro and Guy for all having a hand in constructing this activity and thank you to all of you who are going to comment below and keep developing new teaching ideas.

12 thoughts on “Lesson Jamming

  1. Hi Nick
    great post : )
    i would comment that Mauro’s suggestion was about learning new words whereas your alphabet activity is recalling previously learned words, which are two different processes?


    1. Good point Mura. Thanks for making it. They are different and I’m not sure I’d want to go all the way in adopting Mauro’s approach to language teaching 🙂 In the messy nature of the classroom these two different processes can get pretty mixed up though, can’t they? What’s a new word for one learner might well be a previously learnt one for another?


  2. Actually, the point you brought up here is of great and vital importance. Where do ideas for teaching come from and where do they go to?
    I am quite sure that Mauro’s suggestion of teaching his class the language using the alphabet was really a brilliant idea.
    We’ve been doing this way since ages. For example, I would ask my students to think about all the words that come from the word Palestine..
    So, they start with words that start P then A, L and so on.
    I sometimes tend to ask them to form as many words as they can from a group of letters like ” Palestine ” so, they get the following words ” pal, in, tin, pale, sin and so on.
    I used also a smillair way, that is I drew a picture on the board and I asked the students to think over the words that can relevant to what I drew.
    As a matter of fact, there are lots of different ways of teaching that we can use inside classroom.
    As a teacher, I hold conversations with teachers inside my school and we exchange ideas on how to teach a specific area of language and what surprises me is that sometimes I find that learners come up with new ideas and I apply them for learners are closer to themselves than teachers and they sometimes are able to explain some points to their classmmates better than thier teachers do and that’s why we always ask them to work in groups.
    This stresses that idea that ideas of teaching spring from both teachers’ teachers cooperation and learners, too.


    1. Hi Samir, Thanks for your comment and thanks for sharing your activity of asking students to find as many words as they can within a single word (‘Palestine’ in the example you give). This is another nice way of encouraging learners to link words together through similarities in form rather than meaning. Of course, rhymes, poems and chants are another way and I’ve seen that learners in Palestine are very interested in practising and performing these. Coursebooks tend to present words together which are semantically linked. For example they teach all the colours together, or adjectives to describe people together etc. There is research (for example see Vocabulary Myths by Keith Folse 2004) that suggests that this is not the best way to help learners learn new words because they may end up mixing up words with similar meanings. But presenting words together which are similar in form may also have its problems. Think how often learners confuse words like ‘chicken’ and ‘kitchen’. According to Keith Folse words are best presented together when they are thematically linked rather than semantically. For me this is another powerful argument for the use of storytelling in teaching.


  3. Howdy Mr. Nick. Thanks for sharing our experience with you .In addition to the activities Samir mentioned in his comment on this post , our teachers make similar activities and other activities similar to the ones we practiced with you before in CiSELT course which help students learn remember English words easily. By the way, your sessions with our kids were really an unforgettable experience to our kids . And each session we learn something new from your wide experience . Any way ,regarding the activity you published we were supposed to ask the students to work in groups and each group should have drawn pictures of as many things as they could think of which began with a certain letter but what happened is this : we modified the activity by asking them to each do this for the letter which started their names.( I also suggested that they can set in groups according to their first letter) .By doing this we linked the words they knew with their names and students got to know the others better . Happily they were enthusiastic and they liked the activity .They dug deep in their minds to find as many words as they could . What pleased me more is their team work to share the previously learned vocabulary and helping each others in drawing. Some of them were artists .We discovered their hidden talents in drawing and their artistic sense , and I was happy when I heard them talking about the pictures they drew. The activity which is built on this one , I mean asking them to write a story using the words they drew ,reminded me with another important post you published before, which is, from emergence to resurgence . I liked it very much because it reminded me with my first days and years of learning English . I was eager to learn how we could say certain things or sentences in English and luckily I found the support from my family and my dear teachers .Scaffolding was another important thing which helped me during my first days of learning English . We learned something about this topic during our course in Ramallah with you , with Mrs. Salam and with Mr. Andrew . You also shared a helpful post here in this blog which is a clear model for this term . We really need this support to be done with our kids .
    In a nutshell ,memorizing vocabulary is very important in learning a new language and such activities make language memorable .


    1. Good point Sereen. I don’t do much group work when I’m teaching online because it’s impossible for me to monitor it, but I should do more really, because people like you at the other end can do the important work of monitoring and scaffolding group work instead of me. In fact in this activity it’s in the group work really where a lot of the learning is happening in my opinion, and my role is just to be an audience for what they have produced. I like the fact that they have to agree on a letter first of all. Which first letter would they be able to draw the most objects for? They also have to divide up the work between them and decide who will draw which object? That’s in an ideal world of course. 🙂 I’ve no idea what really happened and you will know much better than me because you were in the room with them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good evening Mr. Nick 🙂

    Well, regarding the idea of learning vocabulary according to letters, I think it’s very useful as students are about to make a kind of glossary for each letter which is very funny and interesting. Kids tend to remember words that are connected to them, for example; a word they learnt in the street, or they heard form a close person or even a word that starts with their names’ first letter. It’s a really attractive way to recall and use the previously or even the newly learnt ones.

    For me, I used this activity in my class and I were shocked when eighth graders used abstract words like freedom, joy, success, marriage, adventure, humanity and others…. only because they start with the same letter as their names.

    No doubt that this is a very beneficial activity. I’m really thankful for your naive student “Mauro” who didn’t know that this is a successful technique to follow, for “Guy” who developed such one, thanks a lot for my colleagues Sereen, Samir and Sahar for their efforts and of course a special thanks for you 🙂

    Thank you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sahar, Yes, that’s interesting what you say about learners remembering words with the context in which they learnt them, or because they can link the words to themselves. I guess we only remember anything if we can link it somehow to what it is already in long term memory. I think the more creative we are in the way that we make these links the more new language becomes memorable.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have many Mauros in my classes 🙂 I asked, once, one of my students a question. The student is a really good one. The kind that acts like prime ministers 🙂 she talks as if she knows everything. When I asked her the question, she didn’t answer, but instead she told me that I didn’t ask the right question :‑O She said that she prepared for the lesson well and she expected some other questions. Such learners make teachers re-think about their approaches in teaching. They don’t have the depth of knowledge we have but it’s always good to take their questions and attitudes seriously. They have a different point of view which is based on their interests and experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ha Ha Amal 🙂 I love your student’s strategy of saying the question isn’t right when she doesn’t want to answer it. I wish I’d thought of that when I was at school! It reminds me of an excellent activity that I learnt from one of Mario Rinvolucri’s books (I cant be sure but I think it was ‘Humanising your coursebook’ (Delta 2002)

    It goes something like this…

    1) Every student writes down a topic they they know something about. It could be a hobby they have, a person they know well, a place they have been to etc
    2) They all write some questions they would like to be asked about that topic.
    3) They swap papers with their partners and ask each other the questions they have been told to ask.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did something similar to that when I was a teacher . In reading or listening lessons…etc., I usually asked my students to read the paragraph well and try to suggest questions in groups after writing the best questions they have I have a quick look and swap papers with the neighboring group . Each group tries its best to write the best challenging questions to challenge others . By doing this I guarantee that all students are involved and at least most of them have the answers to the questions which means they read the text carefully . Happily I did it! and all students even the weaker ones were ready to prepare questions before hand and this is another achievement .


  7. Good one Sereen. I love the idea of getting students to write their own comprehension questions. As you say, this can promote a very close reading of the text.

    Liked by 1 person

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