Tag Archives: insight


demo lesson

In Ukraine I had the chance to teach some demo lessons using OUP’s ‘insight’ as well as offering a seminar for teachers of English on the subject of Working with Mixed groups. I really enjoyed the demo lessons: the students in Kiev, Lviv, Ternopil and Kharkiv were all brilliant to work with. Thanks to them and their teachers 🙂

The slides from the seminar on Working with Mixed Groups are available here.

Swiss slides in pdf format

Thanks for your continuing interest in the talks I gave in Switzerland.

Take a look at the slides for Friday’s talk in Zürich in pdf format.

Same goes for Saturday’s talk in Bern.

The two talks were simmerent – which is a word that I have just invented. I guess it means pretty-similar-in-parts-without-being-exactly-the-same. Wonder if it will catch on? Maybe diffilar sounds better?

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? 🙂

Going with the flow – using flowcharts in the classroom

Flowcharts are traditionally used to represent an algorithm or process. You have a series of boxes which are organised sequentially and connected with arrows, allowing you to trace a path through a series of steps or questions, leading to a specific outcome or solution to a problem. The example on wikipedia looks like this:

Nerd heaven. Recently I’ve seen quite a few witty flowcharts online, the kind that can make you smile by applying the rigid formality of an algorithm to a facetious or pseudo-existential question. Like this, for example, which I found here:


There is even an algorithm designed especially for teachers confronted with the eternal dilemma of what to do when students ask to go to the bathroom, designed by Amanda Heyn:



I thought that it might be interesting to get students to create flowcharts of their own. As well as being an enjoyable and challenging activity, there are real language learning benefits as well.

Consider this: a lesson from OUP’s insight dealing with the easily confused verbs say, speak, talk and tell.

The coursebook encourages students to read the dictionary entries for the given words. Follow-up questions focus their attention on the tips on usage provided in the dictionary entries.


The students can comprehend this, but do they really understand it? I wanted to get students engaging with this information more actively, and decided to use flowcharts as a way of helping them to appreciate the nuances governing the correct usage of the four verbs.

So I used three of the questions in exercise 3 as the basis for a flowchart helping students to determine which verb to use:

Choose a verb. Follow the flowchart. Does it work? Great. Choose another verb and start again. It seems to me that the decision-making procedure inherent in the algorithmic approach engages students’ cognition in a challenging and appealing way.

The next step was to ask students to see if they could create a flowchart of their own – using the remaining questions from exercise 3 – to solve the same usage dilemma. Here is one of the results:


Not all students have minds  that work as systematically as this, but those who do enjoy thinking about language analytically will certainly enjoy the challenge of representing language usage rules algorithmically. Try it out!

Another great advantage of flowcharts is their visual appeal and interactivity. When students have completed a flowchart, it can be passed around for others to try out. When displayed on the classroom wall, you can be sure that other students will notice it and engage with it.

For a more light-hearted activity, ask students to think of a ‘big question’ or dilemma and to design a flowchart. The results are often hilarious. I will leave you with two from my own students:

Do I have cookies?

Do I have cookies?


Should I do this flowchart?

Should I do this flowchart?