Using Pictures to Practice “What’s this?” and “What are these?”


It is the end of the third week of my Intro level ESL class, and we have been studying “be” verb for about two weeks now. We have done activities ranging from fill-in-the-blanks to describing videos using the correct forms of the “be” verb. Today we did something a little different.

The Activity: We started class by reviewing the “What’s this?” “It’s a ________.” construction together on the whiteboard. After briefly reviewing, I asked the students to raise their hand if they had a cell phone that could take pictures. All but one student did (my phone is quite old and doesn’t have email capabilities, so I was fine with that), so I asked the class to get into two groups. I then asked the two groups to leave the classroom for about 30 minutes and take pictures (at least 4) of things around campus. I explained the pictures had to be of things so we could talk about them using the “What’s this?” construction when they got back.

The students left the room excitedly and went around campus to take pictures. When they returned, each group had about 5 pictures they emailed to me via their smart phones. I then spent a couple minutes putting the pictures into a Power Point presentation. This part of the class could have been more well thought out as it took a few minutes to complete and it might not have been the best use of class time.

Once the pictures were all in the same place, I gave each group about 2 minutes to write one question and one answer for each picture (there were 10 pictures). I instructed the groups to write the questions according to the “What’s this?” construction, and the answers according to the “It’s a…” construction. We used the “What are these?” and “They’re….” constructions as well.

After we got through all the pictures, the group took turns giving their questions and answers for some of the pictures. The groups got to work together to fill in the vocabulary gaps that they might have had and they ended up creating some really great sentences.

Reflection:¬†I had planned on doing some kind of picture activity about a week ago, but I wasn’t quite sure what shape the activity would take. When I began planning, I just knew I wanted the students to take the pictures and engage with each other to create sentences using the “It’s a…” and “They’re…” constructions. I knew that time was a big consideration, and in retrospect I probably should have given less time to complete the picture-taking portion of the activity.

When the students returned from taking their pictures, they seemed energized and excited to share them with the class. I suppose there should always be a good balance between creating excitement and creating good opportunities for language production in the ESL classroom, but I can’t help but feel like the more excitement the students have for the activity, the more comfortable and willing to use English they will be. This, I’m sure, will not be the case for every activity, but isn’t there something awesome about engaging students in activities that they enjoy? I would bet it varies from class to class, but I have noticed that my students interact in English more (even though many of them speak the first L1) when they are excited about the activities we are doing in class.

While the two groups were writing their questions and answers about each picture, I noticed a lot of interaction that seemed to result in good, grammatical English sentences. I would be interested to hear the interactions that went on more closely and examine them for examples of uptake. There is something pretty great about low-level students being able to work in small groups and use their strengths to interact with other low-level students and create excellent English together. In the small groups, each student has the opportunity to be the teacher and the student.

Overall, I think the activity was fun for the whole class, and it gave the students an opportunity to create language around a digital artifact that they created together (the pictures of things around campus). The activity also allowed us to practice the “What’s this?” “It’s a…” construction in a context that the students chose themselves. Aside from the more formal language production I was trying to elicit, the students were also given the opportunity to communicate less formally to negotiate meaning as they decided which pictures to take and what questions and answers to write about each picture. Some new vocabulary words were looked at, and while time management could have been more thought out, the activity appears to have been a success.


Some Thoughts on MOOCs…


Independently of the collapse of the Coursera class earlier this week, I had been thinking about the efficacy of MOOCs. I am enrolled in my first MOOC (also a Coursera class), and I’m finding it to be somewhat less beneficial than I was anticipating. While the content is interesting, and I had hopes of engaging in meaningful discussions about the use of technology and the philosophies behind technology use, my expectations have fizzled out for a couple of reasons.

The first thing I find unattractive and very inefficient is the sheer number of participants in the class. Yes, “massive” is part of MOOC, but there is really something left wanting when each discussion forum has 2,000 posts about the same topic. How many times can the same thing be said? Is it really worth posting to the discussions if your thoughts have probably already been posted at least a dozen times? While the discussion forum allows a large number of people to discuss topics at length and break off and have smaller discussions (should you choose to do so), the whole thing reminds me a scene where rats are scrambling for the last piece of cheese in an inescapable hole in the ground. PERHAPS WRITING YOUR THOUGHTS ON TECHNOLOGICAL DETERMINISM IN ALL CAPS WILL MAKE IT STAND OUT ENOUGH FOR PEOPLE TO READ AND COMMENT.¬†Then again, it’s 1,500 posts in, so it will probably never be looked at, let alone commented on and engaged with.

There may be something to gain from simply observing the discussions that other people have on the forum, but the more I tried to interact with the subject and participants, the more irritated I became.

With regard to the failed Coursera class, I came across this interesting blog post by Debbie Morrison that addresses some other issues that face the MOOC community. The analysis is very thorough and thought-out, and there are some great resources for further reading on the topic of MOOCs and online education.


#EAPchat: Does gaming have a place in the EAP/university curriculum?


I have taken part in a couple Tweetchats since the advent of my Twitter obsession, and I have to admit that I’m quite taken with how easy it is to collaborate with so many people in such an easy medium. I’m so thankful for Tweetchats (like #edchat and #ellchat), but I’ve been disappointed at the lack of discussion within the adult ESL field. Where are the voices of teachers in universities and community centers?

Alas, I have found #eapchat! I have high hopes for the discussion today, and I hope to engage with some people interested in English for academic purposes via Twitter.

I will attempt to summarize the chat this afternoon, but further discussion and a summary can also be found at the #eapchat blog.


Wiki Update


Last week I implemented a wiki into my Intro Level adult ESL class. I pitched the idea to the students the previous week and tried to explain that we can interact on the wiki in a less formal way than we do during class time. I set up profile pages for each student to edit and make their own, and I set up discussion pages where we can post topics of interest and talk about them together. We spent our computer lab day last week exploring the wiki and editing our profiles. So far, only one student has added pictures and finished his sentences on his profile.

I know that some of the students have just arrived from their home countries and they have yet to get their own computers, but I’m sort of surprised at how slow the involvement has been so far.

We will spend our lab day next week working on posting and commenting, but I hope I can convince my students to engage with the wiki outside of class time.