Tuesday, 2 October 2012

5 Minute Activities: using digital tools

As language teachers or teachers in general, I'm sure you all have your favourite five-minute activities. They might be so automated that you don't even consider them as being a vital  part of your lesson routine and yet they are a useful means of encouraging creativity in the classroom, whether it's a virtual environment like mine or not.
    I'm speaking about the type of activities that you use to open or close a lesson; to give some light relief; to make a change from one topic to the next; to assist in building vocabulary or improving pronunciation and improving literacy skills in general. The list is endless. It all depends on what the purpose of the five-minute activity is and that of course will vary with every teaching and learning environment.

What these activities do have in common is that they serve a purpose and if used effectively are a wonderful means of encouraging creativity and stimulating active learning. Additionally they can be used as a means of assessing students' comprehension and progress without it being obvious to them.

As a virtual teacher, I use the activities mentioned below on a one-to-one basis or in small groups of up to four, but they can certainly be used in larger classes. With larger groups some of the activities can be used as a means of creating healthy competition between students. How you use the tools and suggestions given, will depend on what devices you and your students have available in your teaching context.

Tools and suggestions

oneword is fun (see figure 1). It provides you with one word and you have sixty seconds to write. A bell rings when your time is up. Students can submit their work for others to read if they wish. The idea here is to let your students be creative and write freely so don't worry about spelling or grammatical errors. Let students peer assess. Additionally they can build up on some of the submissions as a follow up exercise for writing practice.
            As an option students can record themselves speaking freely for one minute. I use AudioNote and Voice Memos both on my iPad and iPhone for this exercise. Put students in pairs and let them listen to and evaluate each others recordings. This is good speaking, listening and pronunciation practice.

    Figure 1 http://oneword.com

toasted-cheese is another writing prompt website (see figure 2). There is a calendar with a daily prompt. As with one word, you can use this for practising writing or speaking skills but  limit the time if you're using it as a five-minute activity.

linoit is a web-based tool (see figure 3) and reminds me of the app, Corkulous Pro. With linoit you can stick notes, images or embed videos into a corkboard or canvas online and make these public or private. So be as creative as you like. Use it with words and images as a stimulus for writing or speaking. Embed a video and let students watch one to three minutes of it and test their comprehension e.g. they can write a short post about it and pin it on the canvas themselves, or share their ideas in class in spoken or written form.

   Figure 3  http://en.linoit.com

piclits has a photogallery (see figure 4). Select an image and ask students to write about it for one minute or ask them to create a mind map to stimulate vocabulary building. Once again, they can record themselves speaking about the image and compare ideas. You may want to select a specific image as a lead-in or round-up to a lesson or let students select their own. This can be for individuals, pair or group work. 
       Piclits also has images with subtitles which have been created by members of the site. Therefore you can choose from these pictures or use images without captions. Another site that I like to use with my students to improve their speaking and writing skills is Flickr. I ask students to click on a tag e.g. 'nature' and then let them select one of the images that shows up in the gallery so that we can work with it.

Five Card Stories is a wonderful resource (see figure 5). The idea is to use five images to tell a story. When using it for a five-minute activity e.g. as a prompt for story telling, then choose from the gallery or just click on 'Play a Round' and wait for your five random photos to appear. This site can be used for numerous extended activities e.g. writing practice using different genres or speaking practice using comparative adjectives etc. 

Voxopop is a web-based audio recording tool, so the listening material here is authentic English (see figure 6). Open up the site, explore a talk-group and listen to different speakers. Depending on the age and level of your students, you as the practitioner, might want to filter through and select some suitable material first. However, this a fantastic way of exposing your students to various accents. Students can either contribute to ongoing discussions, or the conversations can be utilized as a prompt for short debates in class where each speaker has only one minute to contribute a point. It can also be utilized as a comprehension exercise i.e. students are to write down the gist of the conversation. These discussions can be a good lead-in to a similar topic or theme that you are planning to introduce during the lesson.

    Figure 6  http://www.voxopop.com

Podcasts are another great means of providing language students with authentic listening material in English and are  in abundance. Thus, this will require filtering through sites to find suitable material for your purposes. You can also make your own, but in order to improve students' listening skills they should be exposed to other accents and genres. I use amongst others, BBC podcasts such as The English We Speak (see figure 7) which explores idioms and colloquialisms.  I type an idiom into the chat box when I'm teaching my students via Skype and ask them what they think it means or I get them to try and place it in context before listening to the appropriate podcast with them. 
   For extended tasks the podcasts can be used in numerous ways to improve extensive and intensive listening skills such as, summarizing the general gist of a conversation or listening for specific information. I prefer using short sequences so as not to bore the students and also to make the sessions as active as possible to enhance their retention of the covered content. Another suggestion is 6 minute English which covers a broad range of topics and I often use many podcasts that are authentic extracts from radio sessions. These are naturally aimed at native speakers, therefore care is required when choosing listening material for language students. Additionally Listen to English learn English has a variety of podcasts and extra resources for both five-minute and extended activities and is certainly worth exploring.

Figure 7  http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/tae

Scoop it is a social media tool (see figure 8). Browse through the categories and choose something appropriate for your needs. I sometimes use the titles as prompts for quick speaking or writing activities or I might choose an article because it's a suitable lead-in to the lesson I'm about to give.
I also find it useful for my exam students. I ask them to look at a specific title and the first line of every paragraph and they then have to tell me or another student what they think the article is about, so useful skimming practise. As an extended activity, curating topics of interest as a class project can be an interesting way of having your students search for articles that interest them. You can then use these ideas for language classes.

 Figure 8      http://www.scoop.it

Wordle is a site where you can create word clouds (see figure 9). It's very simple and user-friendly. Copy and paste a text into the box, click go and the most frequent words used in the text will appear as the largest.You can play with font size and design as desired. I find this useful for vocabulary building; changing the form of words; sentence building; suggesting synonyms or antonyms etc. I often create a few clouds and ask my students what they think the text is about, which genre and why they think it belongs to this genre. Once again, a simple idea but for us as language teachers its uses are extremely versatile.

This list of tools and suggestions is by no means exhaustive,  but I hope I have given you a few ideas about how you can implement various tools to stimulate creativity in the classroom. You don't need a library of applications or web-based resources. Whether you're using digital tools and resources for five-minute activities or for extended tasks, find what you feel comfortable with and let your creativity take over. This will assist in making your lessons more engaging and encourage your students to become active in the learning process.  

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