Designing a Superhero Movie Unit

by Lora Yasen

“You’re despicable. Dishonorable. Faithless,” said Gamora to Peter Quill.

This short line from the sci-fi superhero movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, provides a lot of material for the ESL class.  First, this list of adjectives in the movie makes a good multiple-choice listening exercise. Next, students can learn new vocabulary words and talk about the tone, informality and intent of the speaker. This scene is a good discussion topic also. What are some characteristics of a hero?  Is Peter a hero at this point in the movie? Why or why not? At the end of the movie unit, this line from the movie may be cited with a reference in a student essay on the transformation of the hero character during the story.

In my university level reading, writing and discussion skills-based ESL courses, I often use a movie and reader in addition to the usual textbooks. Superhero movies are instantly engaging, and a favorite source of language and cultural content for my students. Here is the process I follow for designing a superhero movie unit.

Superhero Movie Toolkit

First collect the movie resources. Find a junior novelization or ESL reader on the movie (which includes movie photos) as a student textbook. Find teacher reference materials such as the movie script online, movie websites, movie trailers, soundtracks and lyrics, comic books, etc. Official movie websites may have games, quizzes, taglines, trailers, etc. that can be used in worksheets, scavenger hunts, or previewing activities. Most have character photos that can be references for students to learn about the heroes and the villains.

Pearson English Readers have a whole series based on the Marvel Super Heroes

Materials Creation

 For Guardians of the Galaxy, I created a PowerPoint with movie photos to help students learn the character names, and different groups and planets. Later we returned to the character photos to talk about special abilities, motives for wanting the orb, and tragic backstories.

I created a listening assignment called, “Who Said It?” for the movie. I used quotes from the movie or website taglines that are important to the comprehension of the film.

“You keep throwing that in my face!”

Who said It? Peter Quill said it when Yondu reminds him the crew wanted to eat him.

Since music is such an important theme in the movie, I developed lessons on several songs from the Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 soundtrack and discussed the lyrics, and we viewed the original singers in YouTube videos. Knowing the songs made the music more meaningful during the movie and helped students comprehend more of the movie.

I chose Scene 13 from the movie script for student role-plays. This scene, “12 % of a Plan”, is significant in the movie. It is a difficult, humorous, sad scene where the characters decide to set aside their selfish motives and unite to save the galaxy. Student read the scripts and then discussed the vocabulary and meaning of the scene before viewing this part of the film. Without this preparation, students would have missed this major change in the plot.

Lesson Plans, Course Outcomes & Assessments

Using a reader and movie offers plenty of opportunities to meet course outcomes and design interesting assessment options. I have students read 3-4 chapters of the reader each week. While reading, we discuss vocabulary in context, discuss parts of speech, work on reading comprehension skills, reading for details and do a lot of summarizing. We practice the concepts learned in our regular textbooks.  We begin with the paragraph and locate main ideas. Then we summarize the paragraph, then the page, and finally the chapter. We practice note-taking skills with the reader and make oral and written summaries. Unless the reader comes with reading exercises, I create my own worksheets that incorporate the skills and student learning outcomes that I normally teach in the course. To scaffold summarizing skills, students work in groups, pairs and then alone to summarize the chapters. Assessments include reading tests on the story and writing assignments on a character or a compare/contrast essay on the reader and movie.

Stop and Go Method

Every Friday after finishing the weekly reader chapters, we watch the portion of the movie we’ve read about. I turn on the closed captions and we watch the movie scene using a stop and go viewing method. I stop at confusing scenes to ask questions. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? At the end of the movie unit, we watch the movie through without stopping to prepare for the final writing assessment.

Superhero Themes

Superhero movies reflect American society and culture and include many interesting themes for discussions or writing assignments. My students decided that one of the themes in Guardians of the Galaxy is that diverse groups of people can work together successfully to help others. Superhero movies are not simply for entertainment, they can be rich sources for teaching language and culture.


Pearson ELT offers a large collection of graded readers at all levels of proficiency. Our new series of readers is based on Marvel’s Super Heroes series. To search the catalog of all Pearson English Readers, click here.

Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 4: Reflecting on the Play

This article is another installment in our Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms.

 
By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

In this series of blog posts, we’ve discussed a variety of language-learning exercises and activities for introducing the play preparing for the play and digging into the play . In fact, some of the most satisfying moments come when the play has been finished. Completion of the play allows for a deeper, more reflective response on the part of students. While they have focused on comprehension and interpretation of individual scenes, students now have the opportunity to respond to the work as a whole, to make connections with their own experiences, and to think critically about their views.

Play Performance
Whether students see a stage or a movie performance, when the reading is done, they can step back to observe and react to the director’s choices. The teacher can give them a choice of what to focus on and then pose such questions as: How do the casting, costumes, setting(s), lighting and sound fit your imagined version? How does the audience react (in a live performance)? If the director omitted or changed any lines or scenes, why and to what effect?

In our experience, few students have analyzed film; fewer still have ever experienced a play in the legitimate theater. By empowering students to get into the director’s shoes, rather than elicit a simple reaction, teachers create an intriguing platform for students to think critically about the techniques, strategies, and expressive power of drama.

Integration of Grammar and Vocabulary
Throughout the unit of materials for a play, students learn new language and practice using it. By the end, it is appropriate to expect more nuanced, varied, and accurate utterances. To both elicit and model such language, teachers can create a structured conversation between two readers who have just viewed a performance. Such an exercise could either be a quiz or a final practice. In either case, it is also effective as a prelude to a discussion.

Two readers of “To Kill a Mockingbird” have just seen the Academy-award-winning film. Use modal perfects, adjective clauses, and past unreal conditions.

A: Wow! That was no run-of-the-mill film. Gregory Peck was amazing as Atticus. I read that Harper Lee, [1] ___________wrote the original novel, said the director [2] _____________[choose/not] a better actor.

B: Uh, huh. One big difference from the novel is the point of view. Jean Louise, [3] __________ is Scout as a grown woman, is only there in the beginning of the film. If she [3]_____________________[continue], it __________________[be]

Essay Writing
When students write an essay in response to a play, they practice their writing skills in an organic way: the motivation should be intrinsic and much of the language should be at their fingertips.  In a variety of unedited quotes from student essays in response to August: Osage County, we can see some of the depth and breadth of their engagement with the work.

I really like this story and movie even though this is totally a tragedy, but this story gives me a lot of thoughts and made me reflect on what the family is…This story tells us an important thing: we are all part of our family and that is why we can talk to each other by heart and criticize them without offense, because we love them so much.

***

Every family has inevitable contradictions; everyone in this world has their own miserable problems.

While these students focus on the family, the following student delves into the emotional relationships themselves.

It’s an indisputable fact that some of plot is “fiercely funny”, but when I think rationally, I tend to think it’s “bitingly sad.” The emotions and implications of August: Osage County are complex….

Other students comment directly on how the reading of a play holds possibilities for understanding culture in greater depth.

Language and culture are the important factors that make the film or play have different national characteristics.

***

This play quintessentially displays the real American family who lives in the countryside.

***

As an international student, if I hadn’t learned this play so deeply, I would have never known those complicated aspects of real American life.

While excerpts from individual writings only give a narrow sense of the writing itself, we can see students responding to the piece of literature and to the culture out of which it emerges. We can also appreciate their search for connections to their own experience as well as explanations for the similarities and differences across cultures.

Concluding Remarks
“People’s need for theatre is as powerful as their desire for food or drink,” says Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theatre in New York in his TED Talk “Why Theatre is Essential to Democracy”. In the dialog on stage, he explains, we hear the drama of conflicting points of view, and we “lean forward” in empathy; moreover, we do this together, as part of an audience.

In an in-depth study of an American play, English Language learners can partake of this powerful, ancient, collective experience – guided by teacher-made exercises and activities that move from comprehension to interpretation to reflection and coached by teachers who set the stage for students to explore new contexts, new relationships, and new ways of using language.

Here is a list of plays we have successfully introduced in the ESL classroom. This list is by no means exhaustive; we would welcome hearing recommendations for other plays, particularly those that are contemporary.

Selected American Plays for English Language Learners

Advanced: CEFR B2 – C1
All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, An Enemy of the People – Arthur Miller
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
August: Osage County – Tracy Letts
Inherit the Wind – Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee
A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry
Six Degrees of Separation – John Guare
To Kill a Mockingbird  – Christopher Sergel/Harper Lee
Twelve Angry Men – Reginald Rose

Intermediate: CEFR B1
Lost in Yonkers, The Prisoner of Second Avenue – Neil Simon
Children of a Lesser God – Mark Medoff
Crossing Delancey – Susan Sandler
The Miracle Worker – William Gibson
Our Town – Thornton Wilder


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.

Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 3: Digging into the Play

This article is another installment in our Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms.

By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

In our last post, we described and illustrated –with examples based on the play version of To Kill a Mockingbird – four activities that work to introduce a play: purpose of studying a play, connection to themes, how to read a play, and Socio-Historical Context. One of the most important moments in teaching a play is the beginning. First, it is important to get “buy in” from the students. It is also imperative for students to have an understanding of the characters, contexts, and events they will encounter.

In this month’s post, we describe and illustrate an additional technique to introduce a play –in this case, a contemporary play: Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. We go on to describe the types of exercises and activities that guide students in comprehension, interpretation, and expressive speaking.

Introducing the Play 

August: Osage County tells the story of a family that comes together around the death of the father figure in rural Oklahoma one hot summer. This family has secrets, resentments, and lingering feuds; over the course of a few days, all of these themes converge into conflict, confrontation, and, in the end, mutual understanding.

In 2013, the play was made into a film that is very similar in content and dialogue to the original text. As the play is challenging, both linguistically and thematically, it is recommended for mature students at level CEFR B2 and above. In our experience, working with difficult themes, including drug addiction, painful family secrets, and the use of taboo language, presents worthwhile challenges to students and teachers alike. Ultimately, students tend to recognize the common humanity expressed in this story and make unexpectedly moving connections with the challenges facing families in their own societies.

To introduce August: Osage County, one effective way is to show the first few minutes of the film. The opening scenes introduce the primary characters, the dry and dusty landscape of rural Oklahoma, along with the decaying old home where the play takes place. These images provide context for the text, particularly for students who may come from far different environments, cultures, and societies. Not every student will obtain the full emotional impact of the story from the text, but seeing a film adaptation can support their imaginations and make the text more accessible.

Digging into the Play

Once they have entered the imaginative world of the play, students can be guided to explore the content and language through a variety of exercises and activities. As you write these materials, consider collaborating with colleagues and remember that, over time, the materials can be refined and reused. At our program, we have some units that began over 30 years ago!

Comprehension of Content and Language

The focus of this set of exercises is to clarify and review the main ideas and details of the story, as well as notice and practice new language. We suggest providing plentiful exercises, using the playwright’s divisions into acts and scenes whenever practical. As a practical matter, the reading comprehension and vocabulary exercises can often be completed as homework, while inference and grammar exercises tend to require interaction.

For reading comprehension, write items that help the students follow the narrative by finding answers literally stated in the text. For inference, in contrast, write items that require higher-order thinking, such as inferring motivation of characters, and inferring opinion or stance of characters or the playwright. For vocabulary, select a range of items: multiword units—lexical phrases, idioms, phrasal verbs, collocations—that are common in spoken English, as well as some academic words. For grammar for speaking/writing, create exercises based on the plot and characters that review and deepen understanding of the play. Plays offer an authentic context to practice, for example, description (adjective clauses), speculation (unreal conditions in past and present), past possibility/regret (modal perfects), as well as all major verb forms.

Integration of Content and Language

The focus of these activities is to go beyond comprehension and move toward interpretation and creation with new language. While we generally avoid asking students to do any acting per se, we do ask them to take imaginative leaps into the shoes of the characters. Certain activity designs fit the play genre particularly well.

For example, we’ve had lively classes with character description, an activity in which students (1) work in groups to describe a character, express opinions about the character, and explain the character’s relationships, and (2) present to the whole group.

In one class, a student, who unbeknownst to the others suffered from chronic arthritis pain, was able to explain the feelings and moods of a character in August, Osage County, who suffered from an addiction to prescription drugs, with uncommon compassion. By making an unexpectedly moving connection, the student transformed her own and her classmates’ understanding of and appreciation for the central character of August: Osage County.

In panel of characters, 6-7 students prepare monologues from the point of view of a character (“I”), making a special effort to use new vocabulary and grammar to summarize information about their personal history, personality, and behavior. The others prepare “provocative questions” aimed at particular characters. In class, panel members (1) present their monologues and then (2) respond to questions which require them to make on-the-spot connections and inferences. If the playwright appears on the panel, students can ask about inspiration, writer’s choices, and message of the work.

Expressive Speaking

If you want to focus on crucial but tricky-to-teach speaking skills—expressive intonation and thought groups—a play script is just the thing. How do you express emotion in English? Focusing on a manageable number of lines, students become aware of their voice as an instrument, an actor’s skill. This gives them both a new perspective on speaking and an incentive to experiment with the vocal range of English.

We recommend beginning with dramatic reading. In small groups, students practice reading 2-3 pages of lines aloud, with coaching on pronunciation, intonation, and thought groups from the teacher. Then, they meet together and read their lines to the class, with periodic pauses to identify the emotions emerging from the text.

Once aware of the tools of expressive speaking in English, students can choose a character and set of lines to practice. When ready, they can record a monolog on their smartphones, along with an explanation of its meaning and significance, and send it to the instructor for feedback. Stepping into an intensely emotional scene and speaking the lines as if you were the character can be a transformative experience. Some learners literally find their voice in English for the very first time. And it is a truly memorable moment.

In the next and final blog post in this series on American Plays, we will discuss activities for reflecting on the play and present some reactions from students and instructors in our American Language Program at Columbia University. We will also offer a list of recommended American plays for advanced and high-intermediate English Language students.


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.

The Power of a Good Story: Using Stories in the Classroom

This article is another installment in our new Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this new series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms. In our eyes, teachers are superheroes, and we recognize them for their commitment to improving students’ lives. We hope you find these tips and suggestions helpful. And if you have ideas you would like to share with other teachers, please let us know. We would love to publish your article on our platform. You can reach out to us at esl_marketing@pearson.com

 By Jeremy Schaar

In 2007, I saw first-hand how powerful stories are for getting students excited about learning English.

I was teaching at a language academy in Chicago. It wasn’t a great school. There were never enough working CD players, and we bled each board marker dry. The teachers and students all knew it was a temporary gig/school until they could figure out something better. Still, we had fun like you have fun at a train station or a summer camp. The impermanence of it all was freeing, and the diversity of people was exciting.

One of my favorite students was an environmental lawyer from Poland who was a bartender in Chicago. He was irate when I met him. He’d signed up for Business English only to find himself in my Short Stories class. (They were both in a rotation of “advanced” classes, but never at the same time.) Business English was something useful for him. Short Stories was a waste of his time.

He showed up late and said he would leave early. (He had to work.) Then something remarkable happened. We read Can-Can by Arturo Vivante. In it, a man regrets setting up a rendezvous with a lover. The story is just a page or two long, but it’s full of rich material. The class talked about the language, the literary devices, and the themes. Then we started debating things, and while I can’t remember the Polish lawyer’s points, I’ll never forget the image of him standing halfway out the door, his arm waving in the air, shouting one last point about infidelity and marriage before he left to go to work… and then reappearing a minute later to make his last last point. He was hooked.

Pearson’s A World of Fiction, features “Can-Can” by Arturo Vivante and 15 other great short stories

In the end, we had a great class. Every lesson was full of passionate debates built around powerful stories.

I learned how great stories are for motivating the unenthusiastic student.

Now, let’s look at four more uses of stories as well as some good activities to do with stories.

Stories are a great jumping off point for a mixed-level classroom

One of the great uses of stories is to solve the problem of a mixed-level classroom. You start with the story and then let everyone fly as high as they can. The hardest part is finding the right story. You’ll want something that’s full of interesting images and ideas but not too hard to explain. Take 20-30 minutes to help everyone understand the story. Then do activities that work across levels.

Consider using Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken. There’s some hard language in it, but it’s short, so you can explain the ideas to students within 30 minutes. If students really struggle, encourage them to read a translation online.

Once the students have a basic understanding, the sky is the limit. Here are some activities you can use to deepen their understanding. You can do one activity as a class or let each student choose one they’d like to try.

Comprehension Building Activities:

  • Read the story to each other out loud, compare/contrast intonation
  • Retell the story to each other in their own words
  • Illustrate or act out the story
  • Write what happened just before or just after the story
  • Cut up the story into pieces, then reassemble the pieces from memory
  • Circle any new words, then find two synonyms for each new word

After your students have a deeper understanding, consider going further with these critical thinking activities.

Critical Thinking Activities:

  • Debate the meaning of ambiguous language/ideas
  • Guess why the author made some choices (e.g. why a wood and not a river?)
  • Find a story with a similar theme (in any language), compare/contrast the stories

Stories help you address challenging issues

There are any number of important issues we might like to address in the classroom. Issues like racism, sexism, and native speaker bias are important, but we can think more broadly. Consider family issues like disciplining children or an overbearing in-law. Or how about issues around making a career change, dealing with an illness, or breaking bad news?

They’re all hard to bring up. They are also a big part of our students’ lives, and we do them a disservice when we ignore them altogether. Stories let us all live in the challenging area for a minute without being overbearing or too personal. Here are some activities you can try after reading a story featuring a challenging or sensitive subject.

Sensitive Subject Activities

  • Identify empowering language. Our students often lack the language they need to stand up for themselves, but they can find it in stories. Have them circle useful language and describe situations they might use it.
  • Role-play the issue. It’s not nice to push students to talk about their own challenging issues, but role plays let everyone explore the issues in a detached way.
  • Describe how friends and family would react to the story. What would your friends back home think? How about your grandma? Why?

Stories show off the interconnected nature of language

We often think of language in terms of isolated things like definitions, grammar rules, and sounds. Language, however, is as much about the connections between things as the things themselves. For example, a word isn’t just its definition, but also all the words and grammar and ideas we associate with it. From this perspective, stories are a goldmine of connections. They show how the isolated bits add up to something greater than the sum of the parts.

Activities for Seeing Connections in Language

  • Find the words that go with other words. Identify some words that are repeated several times in the story. Then have the students list the words that come before and after those keywords.
  • Learn the importance of verb tense. Choose a new primary verb tense for the story and have the students list all the things they’d have to change to make it work.
  • Tell similar stories. Choose the ten most important words from the story. Then ask the students to imagine other stories they could tell with those same words.

Stories let everyone have some fun!

Finally, sometimes a story is just plain fun. That’s reason enough to share it with your students. Here are a few more fun activities you can do with your students using stories.

Fun Story Activities

  • Watch the movie! Graded readers especially are often based on movies. Enjoy the story. Then enjoy the movie.
  • Create a talk show with the characters. Imagine the characters are on a talk show. One student can be the host. The other students can be characters from the story.
  • Make a soundtrack. Ask each student to find and present a song that matches the story. Then make a playlist the students can keep forever.

* * * * *
Finding good stories is a challenge. Consider using these resources.

Pearson Graded Readers
A World of Fiction
True Stories
Classic Short Stories
Poetry in Voice

From classic stories to blockbuster film titles, our huge range of graded Readers features some of the world’s best-loved authors and the greatest stories ever told.

Jeremy Schaar is an English teacher who has bounced around the globe teaching and learning. He has taught in Russia, the United States, and South Korea. He has also developed content for colleges, websites, and textbook publishers. He is passionate about education in general and especially Business English, writing skills, and online learning. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremyschaar

When things go wrong…

This article is the first one in our new Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this new series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms. In our eyes, teachers are superheroes, and we recognize them for their commitment to improving students’ lives. We hope you find these tips and suggestions helpful. And if you have ideas you would like to share with other teachers, please let us know. We would love to publish your article on our platform. You can reach out to us at esl_marketing@pearson.com.

 When things go wrong…

  By Jeremy Schaar

“OK, everybody, open your books to page 72. It’s Unit 3, Lesson 2 …”
“But Teacher, we did that already.”
“We what? Well, hmm …”

Sometimes things don’t go right for teachers. You prepare a lesson, but your students have already done it in a previous class. You forget the copies you made. The Wi-Fi is down. There are no markers (in the whole building!). Your lesson needs at least four students, but only one shows up. Now you need to think fast!

Things will go wrong, so it’s best to get ready. Here are seven activities you can do when your plans don’t work out.

Talking Time

This 30-minute activity has a 10-minute setup, a 15-minute discussion, and a 5-minute conclusion. Start by choosing a topic. It can be a theme you’d like to review or just something the students will enjoy discussing. In the setup, ask your students to suggest discussion questions for the topic. Write all their discussion questions on the board. (If you have a yes/no question, always make sure to add why? after it.) Then, in pairs, the students should ask each other the questions for 5 to 10 minutes. Switch pairs once or twice. Finally, discuss the questions as a whole class.

Find the Best Picture

Choose a vocab word you’ve studied recently. All the students should search for an image of that word on their phone or tablet. Some words will be easy, but the students will have to be creative for others. They each show the class the image they found and say something about why they chose it. Then the class votes on who found the best image of the word. Repeat as many times as you’d like, with the winner for one word choosing the next target word.

Simple Reading

Do you have a favorite reading you’ve done with students? A perfect news article or a poem that gets everyone talking? Whatever it is, if it worked well once, it’ll work well again. So, make a bunch of copies of it and always carry them around with you. If you want to beef it up, write ten pre-reading discussion questions, ten comprehension questions, and ten questions for a follow-up discussion. Doing a little preparation work now will ensure you’re ready to save the day later.

Tell Your Best Story

Everyone has a few stories they love to tell. (My favorite is the time a police officer stopped me for taking pictures in the Moscow subway …). We repeat these stories for new friends and new classes so many times that it’s almost like we’re performing. You can lean into this idea by developing an activity around your best anecdote.

Save your best story for the day you need it. Then tell your students that you’re going to tell them a story, and that they should listen carefully. After you tell your story, ask your students to: (1) ask you one follow-up question each, (2) retell the story to their partners, and (3) think of a good story to tell their partners.

Tell a Riddle

Learn a few riddles. Then tell your students the riddles and have them discuss in pairs. Here’s a good one:

There’s one light in the attic and three light switches in the basement. You’re in the basement. You can only go up to the attic one time. How can you know which switch turns the light on?

(See the end of this post for the answer.)

Write a Sentence, Change Something

Write a theme at the top of the board or on a piece of paper. Ask a student to write a sentence about that theme. Then ask another student to change something in the sentence. For example, if the theme is “work” and the first student writes I work every day., then the next student might write I work every day but Sunday. or He works every day. Students can change or add anything they like. Then ask another student to come to the board and change something.

Once the class gets the hang of the activity, each student can write a sentence on a piece of paper and pass it around the class.

Note: If you have just one student, take turns changing something in the sentence. First the student changes something, then you change something, and so on.

Take a Walk, Have a Talk

This works best when just one student shows up and you’re not sure what to do. It can be tough to fill the time, but there’s something about walking that makes conversations flow. Rather than trying to fight through a lesson that was meant for a class, suggest to your student that you stroll around the area. From a practical point of view, your student will get valuable practice with small talk in a memorable setting.

* * * * *

(Answer to the riddle: Turn on the first switch. Wait 5 minutes. Turn it off. Then turn on the second switch and go upstairs. If the light is off but hot to the touch, it’s the first switch. If the light is on, it’s the second switch. If the light is off and cool, it’s the third switch.)


Jeremy Schaar is an English teacher who has bounced around the globe teaching and learning. He has taught in Russia, the United States, and South Korea. He has also developed content for colleges, websites, and textbook publishers. He is passionate about education in general and especially Business English, writing skills, and online learning. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremyschaar