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Category Archives: Fiction

Mystery Objects

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This is a really simple yet effective writing lesson. There is nothing like some unusual objects to spark your students’ imagination!

Aim: For students to write a short story inspired by an object (and to have the opportunity to review question forms).

Level: A2+

Preparation: Before class you need to prepare a bag of unusual or interesting objects. The picture above is of objects I found in a quick look around my house that would be suitable to use. Good objects are keys, jewellery, old coins, ornaments (non-breakable!), etc  – nothing too valuable or precious to you just in case they get damaged. You need at least one object per student, plus one to use as an example.

Task:

1. Ask a student to choose an object out of the bag (without looking!). Use this as the example object. Ask the student what the object is (depending on what it is this may be easy or may be a guessing game!) and for some words or phrases to describe it. Write up any interesting vocabulary that comes up.

2. Pass the bag around class and ask each student to choose an object (without looking in the bag).

3. Put the students into small groups and ask them to describe the objects. Note any interesting vocabulary on the board, and also any obvious words that aren’t mentioned. When they have finished discussing ask them which of the words on the board they think relate to which objects.

4. Write the following words on the board in a list going down: What, Who, Where, When, Why, How. Ask the students how they could complete questions about the objects that start with these words.  You could do this as a whole class activity, in their groups or individually. You might get slightly different answers, but you will probably end up with something like this:

– What is the object?

– Who does it belong to?/ Who owns it?

– Where did they get it?

– When did they get it?

– Why do they have it?/Why is it important to them?

– How do they feel about it?/How did they get it?

(If problems come up with question formation this would be a good opportunity to review the structure, and you might also want to discuss why some of the questions are in the past, some in the present)

5. Ask the students to discuss these questions in their groups, and to use their imaginations! If any of them are struggling with ideas for their object you can allow them to swap with another student, or choose a different object if you have enough.

6. Finally, ask them to write a short story that features their object. They could focus on one or all of the questions they have discussed before (eg. a story about how the person got the object), or the story could be more about the person they imagined owning the object with the object only having a small role. Alternatively, you could ask your class to write a story that features all of the objects in their group (more challenging but potentially more interesting!). Another idea would be a collaborative story where the first person writes the start of a story featuring their object, someone else writes the next part and has to include their object, etc. This is best set as a homework task using a wiki or blog. As a low tech option, one person could write it one night for homework, then pass to the next person the next day, etc and you could follow-up with editing all together in a future class (does mean you need reliable students though!)

7. When the stories are finished, as always, it is nice to display them in class, publish on a class blog or wiki, or simply get them to read them to their groups.

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Re-imagining Fairy Tales

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A recent thread on a parenting forum about whether or not we should be reading Cinderella to our children reminded me of this activity I used to enjoy doing with my students. I’ve always loved the dark side of fairy tales – the side that doesn’t get into Disney films! If you haven’t read it, you should really get a copy of Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’. With advanced students I have read and discussed her version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which she calls ‘The Werewolf’ before doing the second half of this writing task. It is a very short story (2 pages) but is very dense and quite difficult for all but good advanced learners. Even though this activity is about fairy tales it is not necessarily a task for young learners, although you could use it with them without the reading and rather than re-writing the stories for adults you could just re-write them set in modern times. As the lesson is described here though, it should be a writing activity that teenagers and adults enjoy. It is a good activity on editing and re-drafting, and would be a nice, interesting follow-up to my lesson plan on ‘Getting some flow’.

Aim: For students to write two versions of different fairy tales, one for children and one for adults.

Level: B2 + (although particularly successful with C1 if you use the reading too)

Task:

1. Ask students if they read fairy tales when they were growing up, or watched movies about them. Brainstorm some different names of fairy tales and write the names on the board (often the names translated differently into English so sometimes you need to do a bit of detective work to work out which story they mean!). Some of the stories might be from your students cultures and unfamiliar to you.

2. Ask your class if they know the phrases that we normally use to begin and end fairy tales in English and teach the phrases ‘Once upon a time….’ and ‘Everyone lived happily ever after…’

3. Put the students into pairs or small groups and ask them to brainstorm some different vocabulary that commonly comes up in fairy tales for a couple of minutes then write the vocab they think of on the board. You will probably have words such as: Prince, princess, step-mother, fairy godmother, dwarf, castle, etc… Again, you might need to help with some of the translations as they can sometimes be different in different languages.

4. Ask the students to each choose their favourite fairy tale, or at least one they remember well. It doesn’t matter if it is not a really famous one, it might be one from their own culture.

5. Tell the students to imagine they are going to tell this story to a young child. They should write the story as simply and clearly as they can using simple vocabulary and short sentences.

6. OPTIONAL: This is the point when I would do the reading activity if you wanted to. First, I would give them a traditional version of Little Red Riding Hood, written for children, to read, such as this one. Then I would ask them to read Angela Carter’s ‘The Werewolf’. Students can compare and contrast: Which aspects are the same in both stories? Which parts of the story are different? How is the language different? How is the atmosphere created different (and how is this done)?

7. Put the students into pairs. Try and pair them up with someone who has written about a different fairy tale if possible. Ask them to swap stories. It shouldn’t matter if they don’t know the story their partner has written about as there should hopefully be enough information in the story.

8. Tell them they are going to re-write their partner’s story, but write it for adults. Discuss what changes they could make, i.e changing the ending (i.e do people really live happily ever after?), changing the time setting (making it modern?), bringing out the darker elements of the story (the death, dark magic, etc).

9. Give students time to re-write the stories. You might want to set this for homework to give them time to think about it and write.

10. When the students have written their new stories they should swap back with their partner to read the new versions and then they can discuss which versions they like best, how they have changed it, etc. It’s a nice idea to publish the stories on a class blog or wiki if you have one.

This lesson is based on and inspired by ‘Writing: Creative Writing’ from One Stop English.

Very Short Stories

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“For sale: Baby shoes, Never worn.” Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway allegedly wrote the six-word story above in order to win a bet. Some say it is his best ever work.

After my last post on writing haikus I started to think about other short forms of creative writing to use in class. I haven’t written a lesson plan here, but rather some thoughts and ideas about some very short pieces of fiction that you could use for ELT.

Writing often gets pushed to one side as a class activity or set for homework but I believe by using short forms both teachers and students will enjoy writing in class without feeling like they have to sit in silence scribbling away for long stretches of time (collaborative writing is also a great way of avoiding this). Short forms also lend themselves to studying really carefully how words are used and are also good for students that find writing a bit daunting. I have listed a few different types with ideas here, from the shortest getting (a little!) longer. Despite them not requiring students to write a lot, most of them would be better for students that already have enough grasp of English and knowledge of vocabulary to be able to express themselves in different ways and control their writing.

6 Word Memoir

US online magazine Smith was inspired by Hemingway’s story and asked its readers to tell their life story in just six words. Here are some of my favourite examples:

‘Not quite what I was planning.’

‘Educated too little. Learned too much.’

‘Awkward moments make the best memories.’

‘I made everything up, except you.’

‘Got away with more than expected.’

You can find lots more on Smith’s six words site, and could even get your students to submit their own.

There are lots of circumstances where you could use these in the class. A great ‘getting to know you’ activity for more advanced students would be to get students to write a six-word memoir to introduce themselves and then ask them to mingle and discuss each other’s. I could also see it working well as a ‘getting to know you’ with business students, ask them to write a six-word memoir about their business philosophy, career, etc.

You could also use them as a Monday morning warmer, ask the students to write a six word story about their weekend, then write them all up on the board and see if they can guess who wrote which one.

Twitter Fiction

The ultimate modern short form must be twitter. The restraints of 140 characters or less doesn’t initially seem to lend itself to great works of fiction, however,  the Guardian newspaper in the UK has a series on ‘twitter fiction’ where they ask famous writers to come up with a story within the constraints of a tweet. Here are a couple of examples, you could even use them as a reading task:

‘Mother love is strong enough to lift a car. I’d heard that. But when my girl was hit by a Mercedes, I heaved, screaming. Nothing moved.’ – Esther Freud

‘Life is always flashing before your eyes. Look down. Children playing, trees and traffic, your shadow running over the ground to meet you.’ – Mark Haddon

‘Darkness. I woke, felt the familiar weight in the bed, the breathing, the hand on my skin. “Oh, Paul,” I said. “Who’s Paul?” said the voice.’ – Nicci French

I like the idea of giving students a story prompt (a picture, opening line, title, etc) and asking students to brainstorm some ideas for a story. Only after they had come up with some ideas would I tell them they needed to write the story in a tweet (140 characters or less). It is a great way to practice editing and reformulating ideas. You basically have to condense the idea of a story into one image or idea, which is easier said than done! Students can tweet their stories to @twitterfiction.

Classics as Tweets

Staying on the twitter theme, there is also a tongue in cheek movement of reducing great works of fiction to a single tweet. For example:

Woman meets man called Darcy who seems horrible. He turns out to be nice really. They get together. – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Upper-class woman gets it on with gamekeeper. – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence

Orphan given £££ by secret follower. He thinks it’s @misshavisham but it turns out to be @magwitch – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

You could ask the students to try this activity as a follow-up to reading a graded reader, or even write them about each other’s stories by swapping round longer stories that they have written and converting them to tweets. It feeds in nicely to the ideas of ‘getting the main idea’ that are so beloved of reading tests! If your students come up with any for famous books you could get them to tweet them with the hashtag #twitternovels.

Microfiction (100 word stories)

Microfiction (sometimes known as flash fiction, short short stories, sudden fiction, postcard stories, etc) comes in many guises and forms. There are story competitions for microfiction with word limits from 100 to 1000 words. In class I like to stick with the 100 word rule, and to enforce this as exactly 100 words (not 99 or 101!). I have used this task several times with EAP students because I think it is a really good way of getting them to focus on editing skills. At University there are often very strict word limits and I know, for me, I found writing within these limits meant I had to become really ruthless at cutting words or reformulating ideas to be more economical with the language. It is also useful for students who will be taking exams where there are word limits (IELTS for example). Often students have no real idea of what 100 words look like, so they find it hard to imagine 200 words, 300 words, etc. If you give them practice at writing exactly 100 words and they are familiar with this it is easy for them to imagine it doubled, etc. If you ask them to write it by hand (if the test is hand-written) then it is even better as they can see how much space 100 words takes up in their own handwriting.

There are several sites with examples of 100 word stories, and Reader’s Digest magazine even has a competition you could encourage your students to enter (there are also some great examples of 100 word stories on that site). Again, I would just use a story prompt such as a photo, object, first line, etc to give them the stimulus. You don’t have to use fiction either, you could get them to write exactly 100 words on any topic, and could choose a subject related to their area of study for EAP students (although fiction is more fun!)

 

I hope this post has inspired you to try writing some very short stories with your class. If you do, let me know how it goes, and if you have any other ideas about short form writing I would love to hear about them too.

This Is Your Life

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So this activity is all about getting your students to write obituaries for each other. OK, I know that sounds a little depressing but please bear with me and give it a go as it is a really nice, communicative, combined skills lesson and you can end up with some really interesting, and even touching stories. I have found it works really well with teenagers and young adults that still have their whole lives full of dreams and ambitions ahead of them. It is also a good way to practise the past simple tense (and for more advanced learners the other past narrative tenses).

(Please see the end of this post for a variation to avoid the ‘death’ part if you are worried about this!)

Aim: For the students to write imaginary obituaries for each other, and in the process read a real obituary and interview a classmate. They will also practise the use of the past simple (and possibly other past tenses).

Level: B1+ (particularly teenagers and young adults)

Task:

1. Ask the class what happens when a famous person dies (you may get suggestions of it is on the news, people take flowers to where they died, etc). Elicit what you might find in a newspaper, eg an article about the person’s life and death. You can introduce the word ‘obituary’ at this point if you like but it is not really necessary.

2. Ask for some ideas for the type of information you might find in an obituary. You might get something like the following: where they were born, their schooling, their family, when and how they became famous, their biggest achievements, how they died. Put any ideas on the board.

3. Give the students an obituary to read of a person that they will have heard of. The length and complexity will depend on the level of your class, and you could adapt a text if you like. Here are a couple of examples that would work well: Steve Jobs or Neil Armstrong. Ask them to identify the type of information included (is it the same as their ideas? Is there anything else?) add any other types of information to the list on the board. Also ask the class to identify the tenses used.

4. Ask the class to form pairs. Tell them it is many years in the future and they have all now become very famous. Unfortunately they have also just died! Explain that the need to interview their partner to find out information about their life until now (born, family, etc) and they should also find out something about their likes and talents so they can imagine what they will become famous for.

5. After they have found out the information they need from their partner they should make notes about the future under the categories you have on the board.

6. Set a word limit appropriate to your class and the level of the students and a time limit for writing and ask them to write their partners life story.

7. When they have finished they should swap and read what has been written about them and you can then discuss the things they liked about their imaginary life and the things they hope don’t come true.

Variation: If you are worried about the ‘death’ (!) part of the obituary (or if you wanted to do the lesson with younger learners and are worried about their parents’ view on them writing an obituary) you can easily adapt this. Instead of describing it as an obituary, just say they are all old and famous and are having an article written about their amazing life for a magazine. This way you can miss out any references to dying!! Just find a biography of a famous person who is still alive for the reading section and ask the students for ideas of things you might find in a biography of a person’s life.

(I’m sure I’ve adapted this idea from somewhere so if anyone knows where the original idea comes from please let me know so I can acknowledge it.)

Chain Story Activity

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(Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @sandymillin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)

This activity was inspired by a great blog post by Rachael Roberts on ELT Resourceful on Collaborative writing activities. In the post Rachael mentions circle writing (or chain writing) activities and states she is “not actually very keen on this activity. It can have some amusing outcomes, but I wonder what exactly the students are learning, as the process rarely produces a coherent or cohesive outcome.” I also had the same issue with chain stories, it was hard to see the point to them! However, the students did seem to enjoy them, and it got even the most reluctant writers getting something down on paper. So I decided to try and find a way to make them work for me, and this is what I came up with. It is a simple solution but it has always worked well for me.

Aim: The class will collaborate on several stories and then edit and redraft to come up with (hopefully) coherent (although probably at times bizarre) stories. I like to use a guided chain story with prompts which can be found in many photocopiable resource books (the Reward series have a couple), or you can make up your own with the class.

Level: A2+

Task:

1. Carry out the chain story (I always remind the students to write clearly because another student is going to have to read their sentences afterwards). Set a time limit for students to complete the question before saying change and asking the students to fold the paper over and pass it to the person on their right. Monitor as they do the activity to check they have understood the questions and their sentences are answering them.

2. Once the last question has been answered ask the students to pass the paper one more time to the right. Tell the class that the paper they are now holding is their story and they are responsible for it.

3. Ask them to unfold the paper and read the story. If there is anything they don’t understand encourage them to find the person who wrote it and ask them to explain.

4. Now explain that they are going to redraft this story into a text. The text must be connected and logical. They can add information but they have to keep the facts of the story the same as they have on their paper. Ask them to try and make the story flow. Set them a time limit to complete the task.

5. When they have finished the stories it is nice if everyone has an opportunity to read them since they have all contriuted to them. If you have a class webpage or wiki they could be uploaded there, or you could stick them up around the walls of the classroom and the students could go round and read them. You could even vote on which was the funniest, strangest, etc.

Getting some flow

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Aims: Often students (particularly EAP students) have a vague notion that they need to ‘improve their writing’. What does this mean? Well, for some students that might be working on grammatical accuracy, for others learning how to structure an essay, for others maybe expanding their vocabulary. For many though, what they really want to do is improve their writing ‘fluency’, that is to make their writing sound more natural, to ‘flow’. This isn’t an easy thing to teach though! However, apart from the (always good) advice to read, read, read, I have found this lesson to really help them to understand what you mean when you talk about writing fluency. As such it is a lesson I refer back to again and again.

Level: B2+ (and particularly good for EAP students)

Task:

1. Show the class the following text (or write one similar):

I woke up this morning. I was hungry. I didn’t have any food. It was raining. I walked to the shop with my umbrella. I bought milk and bread. I started to walk home. It was windy and there was heavy rain. My umbrella blew inside out and broke. I ran home. I got very wet. I made tea and toast. I went to bed.

Ask them: Is this a ‘good’ piece of writing? Why or why not? Is the meaning clear? How could we improve it?

What you should be able to elicit is that although the meaning is clear it is not very interesting. It has no ‘flow’. Suggestions to improve might include: varying sentence length, adding adjectives or adverbs, connecting sentences, giving more interesting details. Write any suggestions on the board.

2. Show them this text (or a similar one you have redrafted):

When I woke up this morning I was starving hungry because I hadn’t eaten any dinner the night before. I went to the kitchen to get breakfast, but my flatmates had finished all the food already and there was nothing to eat in the house. I looked out the window and saw it was raining. I was so hungry though! I decided I would just go to the corner shop to buy some food. I grabbed my umbrella and headed out.  At the shop I bought a loaf of bread and some milk. As I started walking home there was a sudden gust of wind, and my umbrella blew inside out. I heard a crack. It was completely broken! Just at that moment the rain started to pelt down really hard. I ran all the way home, but by the time I got there I was soaked through to the skin. I made some tea and toast and went back to bed.

Ask them if they think this text is better and why or why not (often they will suggest other improvements!) Ask if they can identify which of the things they had suggested before in the text and look through for examples.

3. Now it is their turn to try and improve a text. Show/give them a copy of this text.

I was tired. I was cleaning my teeth. I saw something in the mirror. I looked up it was a ghost. I screamed. My friend ran in. She said it was just the cat. I think it was a ghost.

You can give them different texts, or ask them to write simple texts and get them to swap around.

4. Ask them to swap around or read their stories out in groups and discuss what they changed, how different they are. You could even get them to collate their individual stories into one collaborative group effort.

5. Ask them what they think is meant by writing ‘flow’. You should be able to explain/elicit that it is connecting ideas together to make the writing interesting, easy to read and sound ‘natural’.

(This idea has been inspired and adapted from a lesson on Teachitworld called ‘Letting it Flow’.)

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