What is a flame? Why is the sky blue? Why is it hot in the summer and cold in the winter?
If you’ve ever been asked such a question by one of your young students – or indeed, one of your children – you will know how difficult it can be to give a satisfactory answer. Not only do you need to have a fairly solid understanding yourself of the phenomenon you are trying to explain (not always a given in my case!) you also need to be able to communicate that information clearly. Whenever I try to give an authoritative answer to a question like this I often just succeed in getting all tangled up myself.
There is an aphorism (usually attributed to Einstein, I think) which suggests that if you can’t explain something to a child, you don’t really understand it yourself. I’m inclined to agree. It’s great to see that there are some boffins out there who have accepted this challenge quite literally: the Flame Challenge is an interesting project in which scientists have to provide eleven year-olds with meaningful and comprehensible answers to questions such as “what is a flame?” This is a competition in which the jury is made up of smart eleven year-olds and the competitors are top scientists. I like it.
I’ve recently started applying the basic premise of the Flame Challenge to reading comprehension with intermediate and upper-intermediate students. Here’s how it works.
1. We tackle a text from the coursebook in the usual way, not only reading the text and discussing it, but also completing all the accompanying reading comprehension questions and language-awareness activities.
2. Then we focus on one particular section of the text, usually a paragraph. Here is an example:
3. I then tell the students to imagine that a smart eleven year-old has come up to them with this paragraph and said ‘I don’t understand this.’ Their job is to isolate what they consider to be the key information contained in this paragraph and explain it in terms that the imaginary eleven year-old could understand. They have to put their explanation in writing.
That’s it. In theory the task is very simple: prove you understand this paragraph by explaining it in language that a child could understand. In practice, however, it is much more difficult. My students’ initial strategy (not surprisingly, I might add) was to replace all the long words with short words and to turn each long sentence into two shorter ones. The imaginary eleven-year old was not impressed.
The secret to doing this task well is to be creative: students need to be encouraged to use their imagination as well as their English. That means taking the main ideas of the paragraph and reformulating them in a way that connects with the intended audience. Or if you prefer, it involves taking the nuts you’ve been given, cracking them, getting rid of the shells, adding some more ingredients and turning them into peanut butter. Eleven year-olds can relate to peanut butter 🙂
Here are two examples using this more imaginative strategy that were done by my students:
As you can tell from the next one, my students are now finding inventive ways to use flowcharts when I don’t even expect it!
Now I think I’ll get them to help me understand a few tricky concepts: What is a flame? Why is the sky blue? Why is it hot in the summer and cold in the winter? 🙂