Tag Archives: babits

Adapting the ‘Flame Challenge’ to reading comprehension

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:

Taken from insight intermediate (OUP) p68


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:

Explaining ‘stealth marketing’ to an eleven year-old: playing the chocolate card!


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!

Explaining ‘stealth marketing’ to an eleven year-old: goin’ with the flowchart


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? 🙂

Another boring day in the staffroom

Who says that teachers are sour-faced, conservative killjoys? No-one at our school. Not any more. 🙂

This video features my colleagues and also someone bearing an unfortunate resemblance to me. Dancing. It was first shown in front of the whole school during the awesomely professional ‘Babits 5X’ talent show which was recently staged to coincide with the school’s 50th anniversary. This edited clip also captures the reactions of the students in the hall as they saw their teachers as they had never seen them before.

We should do this more often. There was such a good mood in the staffroom the day this was filmed. I think it kind of shows. Babits teachers (and secretaries, porters and cleaners) rock!

You can see more video clips from the Babits 5X event here

Left, Right, Left, Write

We’ve reached that time of year when everyone is tired. It’s been really hot outside the last few days, which just seems to make the students even more lethargic. Summer is close enough to believe in but too distant to get excited about. I see heads starting to droop. Earlier this week I set a homework task from the workbook: TWP, i.e. they had to do The Whole Page.

There was one particularly pained face, and I heard a stifled groan.

“What’s the matter?”

“The first one. I hate exercises like this.” The first exercise practised writing numbers and dates as words, admittedly not much of a crowd-pleaser.

What to do?

“OK, are you left-handed or right-handed?”


“Then do it with your left hand.” A wry smile of agreement.

Today we checked the homework. I wrote some of the answers on the board as we went through it. Yes, it’s “nineteen ninety-five” if you’re talking about the year, but “one thousand nine hundred and ninety-five” if it’s a quantity. Not so fast, teacher – a hand went up.

“Sir – why aren’t you using your left hand?”

Busted. I switched hands and continued to write, the words on the board immediately suffering an embarrassing downgrade to sprawling semi-legibility. I soldiered on, switching hands after every answer in a determined attempt at ambidexterity.

Then I checked the workbook of the student who had gamely accepted my challenge.

What a trooper. It looks like it was written by the frostbitten fingers of Captain Scott in the middle of an Antarctic blizzard! I certainly admire his tenacity – which of course itself was worthy of a ‘plus point’ 🙂

An interesting conversation followed. Do right-handers have it easier? Are scissors, door handles and the computer mouse all examples of subtle discrimination against left-handed people? There are three lefties in the group, none of whom thought it was a serious problem. They said they all have to use scissors with their right hand, though.

I’m not sure I’ll be asking students to write with ‘the other hand’ on a regular basis – mainly because it’s so difficult 🙂  – but it was an interesting way to relieve the tedium by doing things slightly differently. I also managed to squeeze the word ambidextrous into the lesson, which can only be a good thing.

Random Power Point Challenge

Every Thursday morning I have an extra before-school class that all interested students are welcome to attend. The class focuses on public speaking and the Thursday morning lesson begins at seven o’clock, which is why we have started referring to it as ‘public sleeping’.

Last week I thought about getting students to give 10-slide Power Point presentations, but wanted to make it both challenging and enjoyable.

The resulting idea is the Random Power Point Challenge: that awkward moment when you are giving a presentation but have no idea what is on any of the slides.


1. Put together several Power Point presentations.

Although each presentation should have a title and a theme, the content of each slide should be gloriously random and totally unpredictable.

The four presentations that I made were called

Noticing trees more effectively – a beginner’s guide

Surviving high school – probably

Am I racist?

No way, DJ! – thaaaaaat’s right, dawg

2. Get the students into pairs or groups. Then tell them the title of the talk they are going to give. They cannot see the slides, of course. Let them have a few minutes to discuss what the key message of their presentation is going to be.

Point out that good speakers can sometimes ‘bend’ input to make it reflect their own agenda, the same way that we have all seen politicians twist questions around before answering quite a different question altogether.

3. Load the Power Point presentation. Introduce the speakers as experts in their field, and explain that they are going to give a fascinating, thought-provoking and motivating talk.

The students can come out to the front of the class to begin their talk. It is ‘their’ presentation, of course, even though they have never seen it before, so the students get to decide what to say about each slide, how much to say and when to click on to the next slide.

4. At the end of the presentation, invite questions from the audience.

One of the slides from the ‘Am I racist?’ presentation

A deliberately bizarre slide from the ‘Am I racist?’ presentation


Let’s be honest: this is a desperately difficult task, perhaps even the kind of thing that would be difficult to do well in the native language.

So how did it go? Actually, it was a huge success. The students really enjoyed it, and – though I say it myself – did an excellent job.

Why does this activity work well with gifted students?

I think the fact that the content of each presentation is essentially nonsense takes the pressure off students. Of course they are going to be tongue-tied. Who wouldn’t be?

With practice, however, they find their feet, and sometimes come up with brilliant things to say. It would appear that the juxtaposition of incongruous elements on a slide can trigger a gestalt phenomenon – in other words, when suddenly asked to make a link between Yoda and dancing your brain works feverishly to complete the task, often with remarkable success.

A slide from the ‘Noticing trees more effectively’ presentation

Quick-witted speaker improvises a tree-themed tomato-soup ninja story…

After the lesson the students said that we should definitely have more Random Power Point lessons in the future. And I agree. Only next time, guess who’s going to be writing the Power Points before the lesson?

That’s right – the students.

Letters to the Magician

Lots of language teachers have second jobs. Many English teachers work in more than one school. I’ve even met English teachers who were also tourist guides, translators or musicians. Now I can add illusionists to that list.

I met Téo Elfo in São Paulo earlier this year, when he attended an OTA training course for English teachers. During the breaks I noticed that he always had a pack of cards in his hand and I duly asked him about it. He told me that as well as being an English teacher he was a keen illusionist, and that he always carried cards, balls or some other magician’s props in his pockets. At the end of the session he showed the group one of his tricks – something to do with magically appearing and disappearing red balls – and impressed us all. I remember thinking how much his young students must appreciate the fact that their English teacher was a magician. What a brilliant way to motivate students.

Not long ago Téo posted a terrific video of an illusion online. The trick involves the eyebrow-raising juxtaposition of Fruit Loops and dental floss  and as soon as I saw it  I knew it would be just the kind of thing that my own students would appreciate. Earlier today I showed a group of eleventh grade elementary students the video – and they loved it.

Students after watching the trick

Letters to the Magician

I then asked them to write down their reactions to the video in order to send them to the illusionist himself. The students were clearly motivated by the fact that the person they were writing to was a ‘real person’ known to the teacher. I told them that if we were lucky, we might even get a response – perhaps in the shape of another magic trick from our Brazilian maestro. I collected the responses together and sent them to Téo.

Letters to the Magician


Moments later – abracadabra! – I had a response. Téo was really pleased and promised to send a reply to the students. Even better, he’s going to dedicate a video trick to the group.

Magic words 🙂

It was great to be able to use this video with an elementary group. It’s short, there’s no talking, it’s very easy to follow and yet there is a wealth of things to discuss and describe. With this group, we reacted to the impact of the trick; equally we could have described the sequence of actions, using the present simple, linking adverbs and prepositions of place.

Here is another idea for using the video in class (intermediate level):

Before showing the video

– Pre-teach the words Fruit Loops and dental floss.

– Ask: how would fruit loops and dental floss usually be used together? (Eat the fruit loops, then floss.)

– Can you think of any other (creative) ways to use them? (as fishing bait, pendulum, decoration, etc.)


After watching the video

– How (on earth!) did he do it?

– Write sentences using must have, can’t have and might have

– Write to the magician 🙂


What do you think about using tricks in the English lesson? Have you got any good ideas?

Homework: a corridor of opportunity

Last week I was teaching one of my classes, an 11th grade group of intermediate-level students. It’s an enjoyable group to teach: they’re good at English, quick on the uptake, with a well-developed sense of humour, too.

It was just getting to the part of the lesson when I tell them about the homework for the next lesson. What happened next tickled me so much that I posted about it on Facebook:

Quite a few people liked the post. Most of them were students or former students, which is hardly surprising. It’s a funny quip, after all. A number of few fellow teachers also liked the post. They picked up on something else: my use of the phrase ‘corridor-work’. It seemed to strike a chord.

As long as my students finish their homework, I’m normally satisfied. I don’t mind when they do it or where. I have noticed, however, as I walk along the corridors at school on my way to a lesson, that there is a lot of last-minute scrawling and  fevered copying of homework going on. The students don’t seem to mind how good their work is or what it looks like, it’s just a question of getting it done. That can’t be right. But what can we do? How can you enforce homework as opposed to corridor-work?

One comment from fellow teacher Barbara Bujtás was particularly interesting:



What great ideas! I decided to try one of them out. We have an Edmodo group, so I sent the students a message, with a genuine challenge of my own: to post “photographic evidence” of them doing their homework at home over the weekend.



A few of the students replied to say that they would give it a go. One them stuck to his guns, though.




Fair enough, indeed! Our following lesson was on Tuesday. I was curious to see what would happen.The homework I had assigned was admittedly not particularly taxing or inspired – there was just more of it than usual. (There was a reading exercise from the student’s book, a couple of vocabulary-building tasks and a whole page in the workbook.)

And so to checking the homework. It turned out that all sixteen of the students had completed the work. I knew that at least one of them had done it as corridor-work. What about the others? My photo challenge was clearly not for everyone. Some teens actually enjoy the bell-beating adrenaline-rush of corridor-work – it’s part of the challenge accepted philosophy, according to which going through with your rash decisions in the cold light of day is practically a badge of honour. Others – the majority, in fact – just want a quiet life. They’ll do the homework, sure, but take a picture of it as well and send it to teacher? Nah.  On the other hand, three of the students had been inspired to send me pictures of their HOMEwork, which was great.

The three students were rewarded with plus points and – more importantly – kudos. “That’s Greek for awesomeness,” I explained.

The three photos have real potential as teaching materials, too. There  are all kinds of possibilities here for communication activities based on speculation, comparison and picture description. On seeing the pictures, what I really wanted to know was: why do you need two monitors?  The answer I got was, “Actually, it’s better to have three.”

It turns out my students are gamers.

And game for a challenge, too.


When students make you smile…

Recently I was teaching a lesson to a group of intermediate-level 10th graders. The students and I get on very well – they are bright and funny, which is a terrific combination – and they are good enough at English to have plenty of opinions about the way the language is used. We were checking the answers to some practice exercises on question tags. None of them had any problems with it – they had figured out how to use question tags correctly and could do it pretty well – they just thought that the question-tag mechanism in English was unnecessarily cumbersome.

“Why do you need all these different question tags? Couldn’t you think of a simpler way to do it?” one of them asked, as if I had personally been on the committee that had devised the question-tag rule.

As a group they’re pretty good about remembering to let me know whenever something annoys them about English grammar, and I do my best to commiserate with them on those occasions. There have been some low points (the units on the present perfect continuous and future continuous spring to mind) but we always manage to get through with a smile.

So, I conceded straight away that the Hungarian way of forming question tags is – ugye? – a whole lot simpler and more straightforward than the English way, but praised them for being able to handle English question tags so well. As an interesting aside, I pointed out that many young people in the UK have taken to using innit? as an all-purpose question tag themselves. Naturally, I stressed that this was incorrect and that they should use question tags the proper way.

Anyway, this afternoon I sat down to correct a pile of tests, including one lot done by my intermediate 10th graders. A huge smile spread across my face when I got to the section of the test on question tags. Here’s why:


I’m going to give the guy who wrote it bonus points, of course 🙂

As for innit, it will be interesting to see what happens over the next few decades. There’s no denying that some teenagers in the UK use it all the time, especially – but not exclusively – to antagonise teachers and parents, in a sense proving that even though innit itself may be gramatically incorrect, the circumstances of its use are nevertheless heroically authentic. Will it ever become an example of acceptable usage? Time will tell, innit?

Visit to the American Corner in Pécs

The Pécs branch of the American Corners in Hungary recently re opened following its move to the swanky new Zsolnay Cultural Quarter of the city.

I recently took a group of 9th grade students to see what it had to offer. Wewere knocked out by the reception we received and had a really interesting and enjoyable afternoon there.

The centre manager Zsuzsa Nagy had planned a special series of activities for the students to do in connection with studying in the US. They had to get into teams, research a college online, and then try and persuade a friend to go to ‘their’ college.
There were computers for them to use, and they could use an iPad to show pictures during their presentations. The one who played the part of the friend-in-two-minds got to lounge on a sofa reading a Kindle. The students really enjoyed it.
They also organised a quiz, gave the kids a present each, and not only showed them the library but also recommended certain titles and read out excerpts from them. I’m sure I’ll be back soon with other groups!