Story follow up activities

If you go to this playlist on youtube you’ll find lots of ideas for things that can be done in online sessions with the young people that we serve. But there aren’t so many examples there of whole 45 minute or one hour sessions (apart from this brilliant example by Alex and Sahar)

Our new volunteers understandably have lots of questions about what a whole session might look like?

-What kinds of activities might happen during a 45 minute period?
-How can we link activities together in a session?
-How can we involve everyone in the class in activities?
-How does an online session fit with what has happened before in previous sessions, or with their regular classes?
-What is the role of the classroom teacher in the process?
-How do the students generally respond to what we do?

In the video below you can see a sequence of activities that I did a few days ago with a small group of around 15 girls from Beach Elementary Co-Ed UNRWA school in Gaza. In the previous week’s session I’d told them the story of Juha and the Meat. It’s certainly not a model lesson by any means but I think it does provide some possible answers to the questions above. Above all I think it shows how nice the kids are to work with!

Please feel free to ask questions or post comments below..


Picture Dictations

Last week I was looking at how talking with children about the pictures they’ve drawn can be a useful thing to do in a classroom. This week I want to explore a slightly more structured activity which works with this idea.

The picture dictation has become a classic language teaching activity. I can’t remember where I first heard about but I’ve been using it ever since I first started teaching more than 25 years ago. It’s a great way to develop listening skills, and to practice lots of areas of language that students find in their coursebooks, and it works well with large classes and low level learners.

In a standard picture dictation, the teacher looks at a picture but doesn’t show it to the class. She describes it and the students try to draw their own picture which is as close as possible to the original. Some teachers insist on silence during this activity but I prefer it if the students can talk to their partners while they’re doing it and look at each others’ drawings. They can also ask questions to the teacher. This way we encourage more interaction, and hopefully more learning. When they have finished, everyone gets to see the original picture, and differences can be discussed, either as a whole class, or in groups. This is a nice way to bring in a focus on language for comparing things (‘My man is older than yours’ ‘Your tree has leaves on it’ etc)

One way that I use this activity with stories is to choose an image which is central to the story and to do a picture dictation with it before I tell the story. This is a good way to create interest among the learners in what the story is going to be about. For instance with the story of The Jackal and the Crow I have used the picture below.


Learners can also do picture dictations in pairs or groups, with one learner looking at a picture and the other(s) drawing. In fact this is a good way of following up a teacher led picture dictation (with different pictures of course!) A very interesting variation on this, which I learnt from a trainee teacher from Malaysia, is where sometimes the picture that is being described is completely blank, and the describer has to invent a picture in their mind’s eye. Those who are drawing have the extra task of deciding whether the picture is real, or being imagined.

Of course this also something that can be done with pictures that students draw themselves. With the group in the video excerpt below, I asked everyone to draw a picture. It could be a picture of whatever they wanted to draw. Then some of them came up to the webcam and dictated their pictures to me. There’s quite a lot of scaffolding going on in the interaction that followed. I think that this version of picture dictation can serve as a useful lead in to pair or group work,  as there’s a lot of modelling of the kinds of question that learners can ask themselves (What kind of tree is it? Is it on the left or the right? How many windows are there? etc)

So over to you! Can you use picture dictations in your classes? If so, in what ways and for which purposes?




The inners and outers of classroom language

Here’s a simple activity that we did with a group of kids from the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza. They were divided into a girls’ team and a boys’ team. I showed each team a series of 10 flashcards and asked one person at the front to try to remember as many of the words as possible. The rest of the team could help. When I’d finished with the girls’ team I did the same with the boys (the extract below) so it was a competition to see who could remember the most. In fact both teams remembered all of the objects! While I was going through the cards, I tried to engage in conversation with the person at the front as much as possible by asking questions. This was a useful bit of exposure to English at a sentence level for them and, by personalising it in this way, it may also have helped them to remember the words. Of course it was great that Haneen was there at the other end to clarify and translate where necessary.

When I was watching the video I was reminded of Jane Willis’s (1992) way of categorizing classroom language into what she termed inner language and outer language. Inner language is the target structure or vocabulary of the lesson; the things that we might drill, or write on the board, or use in some kind of controlled practice. It’s the language that is in the coursebook, English for Palestine, and the language that they will inevitably be tested on at some point. In the extract above the inner language is the vocabulary on the flashcards.

Outer language, on the other hand, is language that we use to “socialize, organize, explain and check, and generally to enable the pedagogic activities to take place” (Willis 1992 p. 162) There’s quite a lot of outer language happening in this short extract. For example…

Socialising: ‘Hi! I don’t know your name…?’ , ‘You’ve got very short hair..’ etc

Organising: ‘The next one is…’ ‘Are you ready?’ etc

Explaining and checking: ‘How do you say lettuce in Arabic?’ , ‘You have to beat 10’ etc.

Of course outer language doesn’t immediately become part of the learners repertoire in the same way that inner language might, but we know as teachers that if we use English for this purpose then learners do quickly get used to it, and start picking things up. It strikes me that activities like the one in the video that encourage processing of both inner and outer language can be useful ones to have in a language classroom. But getting the balance right is the key. Too much inner language and learners don’t develop an awareness of language as a tool for communication; too little and they end up wondering if they’re actually learning anything.

But it’s easy for me to say all this. I’m a native speaker of English so it comes naturally for me to do all of the outer stuff in English (and I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it in Arabic anyway!). I’m also very lucky to have Haneen at the other end to help me out and translate what I’m saying if the kids don’t follow. To what extent is the way of working in the video feasible in your classes? What sort of balance between inner and outer classroom language do you want to have when you teach?


Willis, J. (1992) Inner and Outer: spoken discourse in the language classroom in Coulthard, M. Advances in Spoken discourse analysis; Routledge p 162 -183