Developing Reading and Writing Skills - some classroom tasks

Did you know that the written word was invented three times in three different places?
5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, 3400 years ago in China and 2700 years ago in Mesoamerica. But for the same purpose - as an accounting system to record grain storage and for tax and legal matters.

To me the written word is truly magical as it requires a unique synthesis of reader and writer as messages are passed between them.

We need to consider not only accurate use of grammar but also choice of words e.g. connotation, register, music and jargon.

Unfortunately, too much focus gets stuck on representational language (John McRae) 
e.g. The house was near a river. 
This kind of text requires manipulation and understanding of the mechanical aspects of grammar and vocabulary.
But it’s not interesting or challenging or particularly authentic…or that useful for exams!!

The really interest area to focus on is referntial language, where meaning is quite often found (or lost) between the lines.

Here are some classroom tasks that you can try out with your learners.

1. Orientation to a text
Show each fragment of text one by one and ask students to suggest what kind of text this is. You can follow this up by asking them to work in pairs and write one or two more sentences to continue the text in the same style.

Once upon a time……….
I regret to inform you……………
She grabbed the gun and pointed it at Dillon.
All this can be yours for only 999 euros, if you call this number…………
Add two tablespoons of flour and an egg and mix

2. Slogans
Show a famous slogan e.g. Just do it – and ask students to work in groups and tell each other what these words suggest / mean to them. Share ideas as a class. Here they are interpreting the message.

Now suggest a product or brand and ask them to write a very short slogan for that brand.

3. In your own words

Show a famous, level-appropriate quote e.g.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. (Oscar Wilde)

And ask students in pairs to rephrase it in their own words. 

4. Extend the text

e.g. Ernest Hemingway was dared to write a 6 word short story and this is what he produced.
For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
Ask students to extend the story.
You can also ask them to write their own 6 word short story.

5. Just add one or two more questions to any reading activity which make students ‘engage’
¥ What would you do in that situation?
¥ Why do you think that happened?
¥ What do you think happened next?
Questions that have NO wrong answers.

5. Supply a frame
To help students focus on the ‘heart’ of a story, give them a frame like this and ask them to work in small groups filling the gaps to create a story that makes the reader think, laugh or sigh.

Once upon a time there was a ....................  girl who lived in a .................... village.  Her mother and father were very .................. She liked to play in the ................... with her ..................... friend, who was called .......................
One day they found a ........................... and they took it to the police station. The policeman was very ......................... and told them they could keep it. They were very ..................................

6. This idea is from: Challenge to Think,  Christine Frank, Mario Rinvolucri, Marge Berer
Oxford University Press

Explain to students that in each case the speaker says ‘I feel tired’. In what context iwould their intended message be:

It’s time you went home. (e.g. A host to dinner party guests)
Carry me.
I’m ready to die.
I’ve done enough work today.

7. Read and Respond

With a text like this:

The beach was long and wide caressed by the blazing sun suspended in the cloudless sky. The sea was calm, with gently lapping waves kissing the shoreline, which was scattered with brightly coloured shells. Palm trees swayed in the gentle breeze and coconuts lay around them where they had dropped. Tom’s yacht was sailing towards the fishing boats moored at the small marina to one side of the beach, where fishing nets lay on the quay drying in the hot sun.

Don’t give comprehension questions but as them to 

Draw what is described
Choose music to match the text
Talk about whether you’d like to be there and why
Compare to places you know
Imagine a story set in this location
Add the next line to start a story

Here are my top tips for Writing in class:

Do a little often in class
Pair and small group tasks
Celebrate creative ideas
Don’t obsess about grammar mistakes
Encourage extensive reading
Join in with the creative process 

And for Reading:

Ask students to respond to what they read in personalised ways and let them read a wide variety of different texts.


Motivation – simple strategies to add to our classrooms

Below is a summary of my recent plenary in Lisbon:


Teachers have clear aims for their lessons but these are not always shared and negotiated with or understood by students. Under the pressures of school work, often studying and being tested in more than 10 subjects, students’ motivation can flag and even disappear.


My contention is that in order to create and maintain motivation, students need:

·      a sense of direction and challenge

·      scaffolding versus teacher centredness

·      tunderstand and celebratesuccess in learning

·      ateacherwith the rightattitude  

·      motivating exam preparation

·      to have fun


1.   a sense of direction and challenge


It is vital for students to know what they are learning as well as why and how. They need to be part of the conversation and understand the learning journey.


Everyone can experience feelings of resolve and a commitment to think more and to dare more … and of being poised to learn and ready to take the next step.

Martin V. Covington, The Will to Learn, Cambridge University Press


Students need to understand WHY we do tasks, especially those that seem like a game, in class. They are under a lot of pressure preparing for exams and don’t want to think they are wasting time.

If we do a listening based on a pop song, we should ask students to think about how this task can help them develop their English skills, eliciting the following:


How is this helping you now?

To be able to understand song lyrics

To practise listening to authentic English

To watch English language TV / films

To learn new vocabulary

To practise particular grammar



To have successful conversations in English by decoding what is heard

To follow lectures in English

To build oracy and listening skills

To pass listening papers in Exams


It’s a great idea to get into the habit of asking ‘why did we just do that activity? How does it help develop your English skills / prepare for the exam?’ So that eventually students will understand our methodology / aims without being prompted.


Tasks / activities should have the right level of challenge – not too hard (demotivating) or too easy (boring)


we feel best in flow.. fully involved in meeting a challenge, solving a problem, discovering something new. Most activities that produce flow also have clear goals…

Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow, Basic Books, 1998



2.   scaffolding versus teacher centredness


Tasks should be scaffolded (see the earlier post below for details)


Jerome Bruner said:

The task may need to be simplified / broken down into manageable chunks

They made need to be shown how to do things

Their frustration needs to be managed

They need to see model of what they need to achieve 

And they need to be engaged and find solutions themselves!


For example, if we want our students to write a poem, we can introduce this poem to them and then get them to write their own version using the frame below.


I don’t like people

who can’t listen

who never read books

who smoke while I’m still eating

and who gossip about others.

I like people

who are energetic

who love children

who fight against stupidity

and who care about the fate of our planet.

Writing Simple Poems, Holmes & Moulton, CUP



I don’t like people

who can’t ........

who never .......

who ...........................

and ..................

I like people

who are ..............

who love ...................

who fight against ………

and who care about ..................


or a story writing task like this:


Once upon a time there was a ....................  girl who lived in a .................... village.  Her mother and father were very .................. She liked to play in the ................... with her ..................... friend, who was called .......................

One day they found a ........................... and they took it to the police station. The policeman was very ......................... and told them they could keep it. They were very ..................................


By filling in the gaps with their chosen vocabulary, students will have created a model of ‘good’ writing. There is no need initially to have the pressure of worrying about all the sub-skills needed to write texts.


Everyone can be successful if we


achieve ‘a realistic match between the individual’s present capacities and the demands of the achievement task’ 

Henry Widdowson


3.   tunderstand and celebratesuccess in learning


We should avoid making students feel that they are failing. No one likes to feel like a failure and it’s not a good starting point for making more effort in class.


All individuals can be characterised by two learned drives, a motive to approach success and a motive to avoid failure.

The Will to Learn, Martin V Covington, CUP



4.   ateacherwith the rightattitude  


Teacher attitudes are crucial – we are SO important sometimes in the tiniest almost imperceptible ways for maintaining and increasing our students’ motivation.


Carl Jung’s model of teacher / parentis a great 4 step approach to remember. Teaching is just as much about shaping the emotional development of students as about teaching the nuts and bolts of the English language.


Think – give information

Direct – give direction

Feel – care about well-being

Do – give confidence to carry out work


And this is also a very nice strategy to follow:


The Pygmalion Effect


High expectations lead to better performance: 

Rosenthal & Lenore, psychologists

said teachers should do the following to help students reach their potential


Expect the best

Be charitable when things go wrong

Be aware of how we give subliminal messages

Use positive reinforcement

Ignore students ‘bad’ moods


5.   motivating exam preparation


Don’t give students practice tests which they will do badly in and feel like failures. Consider how demotivating that can be.


       Allow students to collaborate on tasks

       Break tasks down and do small bits (together)

       Show models of good examples e.g. essays / videos of speaking tests (handbooks)

       Share marking criteria 

       Let students do practice tests for homework


Don’t forget to have FUN!!! 


Remember the philosophy of Winnie the Pooh


You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.