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Making connections: through sharing ideas

May 27, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

When we thought about the past year, both on this blog and in our daily lives, one thing stood out as being especially important - the connections we forge and keep. So this year, we have decided to delve deeper into the theme of CONNECTIONS, looking at it from twelve different perspectives. Each month, we will explore the connections in stories, learning, relationships, and many other aspects of our lives, and we will show you how to develop them with your students. We will do this through language-based activities and stories so that you find plenty of opportunities to develop your students’ English language skills while guiding them in establishing connections and supporting their own learning. 

When we think of connections, E.M. Forster’s famous line ‘Only connect…’ comes to mind. What exactly does this line from the 1910 novel, Howards End, mean? The full quote goes like this: ‘Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’ Reading these words in the context of the novel, we realize that the real value, and often difficulty in life, is making healthy personal relationships. This basic human need to feel connected gains special significance today. The more time we spend in digital environments, the more we need to make connections, and the more we realize that they come in many shapes. 

In January, we focused on connections in stories and the literary concept of intertextuality. In February, we looked at connectedness in reading, thinking, and wellbeing. In March, we focused on connections between different types of knowledge: abstract ideas/concepts and experiences. In April, we have a special interview about environmental education with ELT materials writer and trainer Harry Waters. This month, we focus on CONNECTING PEOPLE through sharing ideas.

In this post, we’ll talk about getting students to share ideas, both in class and online. From lower to higher-level classes, one of the main aims of language learning is to help students express themselves and share ideas with each other. This is usually done through writing and speaking, and it is important that our students learn to express themselves clearly and engage in dialogue with others. We can also show students how they can acknowledge and respect other people’s opinions and ideas. Let’s see how you can create activities built around stories to help students share ideas with each other.

1 Support in-class dialogues

  • Choose a story to read in class. It can be a short tale or a chapter from a graded reader. First, prepare students for reading. In the case of a tale, you can introduce the students to the setting, context and main characters, or simply ask if anyone has read the tale in their first language. You can also pre-teach key words you need to understand the story. If you choose a chapter from a graded reader, use the Before Reading activities in the book. 
  • Then, let students read the story, or a section of it, on their own. Dedicate about 15 minutes to reading. You can also practise shared reading-aloud if you prefer.
  • Finally, choose a theme, a character or a scene, and ask one question the students can talk about. For example, if you read Little Red Riding Hood, you can ask: Why did Little Red trust the wolf? If you read Doctor Dolittle, you can start by asking students to talk about how many languages they can and would like to speak. The reflection boxes in the Helbling Readers will help you with questions to ask.

Tip: Encourage students to work in pairs or groups and monitor their dialogues. This way, shy or quiet students can also express themselves. Tell students that code-switching (switching to their first language when they really feel stuck or don’t know what to say) can help them to get started. Students can feel blocked just because they are not used to thinking in another language. If they use an L1 word, ask the others how they would say it in English. This can lead to interesting discussions about meanings of words and helps heighten the students’ language awareness. They can also take some time and write down some notes for themselves before they speak. 

Language use: Collect expressions the students can use to appreciate each other’s ideas and put them on the whiteboard for reference.

2 Organize open discusssions

This activity can work with higher-level students. After you have read a story (e.g. graded reader, a short story, a news story), choose a topic that lends itself for discussion. For example, if you read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, you can ask if they think it is ethical to create a living creature. If you read Emma by Jane Austen, ask students to talk about match-making and whether it is a positive or negative thing to do.

Tip: Ask students to talk in pairs to collect ideas, then get them to organise their ideas in a mind map.

Language tip: Teach students the language of agreement/disagreement. Put some expressions such as ‘I see your point…’, ‘I haven’t thought of this idea before…’, ‘I appreciate/like your explanation…’ and so on.

3 Online collaboration

You can also create discussion threads on a student-learning platform or social-media platform you use with the group.  Post one or more questions inviting students to share their ideas. It is important that students learn to express their ideas clearly and most importantly without offending others on online platforms. Giving them the opportunity to practise this in a safe school environment can be helpful.

Another way of encouraging students to share their ideas is through a collaborative writing project. In such projects, students can keep a reading diary together. The simplest way of doing this is creating a document for writing collaboration for small groups. For example, you can do this in Teams or Google Documents. Each student can choose a colour which they use for writing in the document. If they are reading a story at home, you can assign weekly writing tasks based on each chapter. Here are some ideas:

  • As they read each chapter, ask students to write about the plot, what certain characters do, and summarize major events.
  • Assign one debate question for each chapter, and students can write their thoughts in the document.
  • Ask simple research questions about historical, scientific or cultural references and get students to answer them.
  • Get the students to write a diary entry for one of the characters, based on the events of the chapter.

Whether you ask your students to collaborate online or in class, we think it is important to reward students for their contribution in collaborative writing projects in the final grade they receive. It is also a good idea to have regular collaborative projects because they help students work in pairs and groups, and this way you can make sure that the students interact with each other and texts during lessons.

For more on collaborative projects, check out these two posts: