Thinking: Working towards learners writing instructions for themselves on ’How to describe a country’, through looking at parameters and building an ENV model.
Subject matter: Practising reading comprehension in English, learning and practising vocabulary necessary for describing a country in English and building up own English text about a country

I’m using the English coursebook ‘WOW 5’ with this class and there’s a section on Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I’m trying to integrate the thinking approach into using the book.
Overall task: I decided to approach the text by first getting the pupils to think about a country familiar to themselves. I wanted to get them to try to write information in English about Finland to see how they got on with the task, both in terms of content and oganization, and linguistically. They have never done anything like this before. I then plan to help them to build the ENV model and to get them to apply it to their descriptions of Finland and to the descriptions in the book of Ireland. After that I will ask them to try to write instructions for themselves as to how they could write a description of Finland. They will follow their own instructions to write a proper text and will reflect on how well it worked and how it could be improved. Later, we will return to this task, writing about another country and refining their instructions.


I asked if they think people in other countries know much about Finland – this was difficult for them to answer, but there’s one English girl in the class who was able to tell a few anecdotes about people’s misconceptions and I told them about a man I met in Scotland who thought Finland was a part of Holland. Having established that many people, even in Europe, don’t know much about Finland, we decided it would be a good thing to be able to talk about the country in English.

Step 1. Task to assess present knowledge and skills. I didn’t know what to expect – what they might think is special or important about Finland, nor how well they could do it in English. Aim to provide the building blocks for the ENV model and future text.  I told them to imagine they were going to meet someone who knows nothing at all about Finland, not even where it is. I gave them lots of slips of paper and they had about ten minutes to write out as many sentences as they could, each on a separate slip, about Finland. If they asked for words I helped them, and they used their books and dictionaries. They did this for about fifteen minutes, some alone, some in pairs. They didn’t actually get stuck, but for many it wasn’t easy. After ten minutes they had written between four and ten sentences. I asked them to organise the sentences they had written keeping in mind that we’re working towards being able to write a proper text about Finland, to put the sentences into groups or into some logical order. This they found extremely difficult, not really understanding what I meant.

Step 2.  To help them to organise their information and thoughts and to begin to build a text by making an ENV model. As they were finding grouping the sentences too difficult ( some of them didn’t have enough sentences to work on ), I helped by writing out headings on large sheets of paper. I wrote FACTS, GEOGRAPHY, TRADITIONS, OPINIONS and left one paper blank for them to put any that didn’t fit under these headings. They all had blue tac and attached their sentences where they belonged. They enjoyed doing this and a lot of conversation ensued. Does ‘Finland is in northern Europe’ belong under facts or geography? I didn’t give answers, but left them to think about it. It took them a while to do this and they remained on task the whole time, interested to see also what other people had written.
I then attached the ‘FACT’ sheet to the blackboard and just read through what sentences they had put there. They had to raise their hand if they thought a sentence didn’t belong. The sheet was absolutely full and there were many different facts. They seemed very pleased that as a class they had managed to put together so much information. They agreed that the majority of sentences were facts, but disagreed on one or two, from which interesting discussions ensued. ‘Santa Claus lives in Finland.’ Some said it wasn’t a fact as Santa doesn’t exist. One sentence was ‘ Many people live in Finland.’ Most of them agreed that was too vague and one pupil suggested that someone from Russia or China wouldn’t think a lot of people live in Finland; most of them hadn’t thought of this and it was a new idea that ‘many’ is relative to the situation. Another sentence which was relegated to OPINIONS was ‘ Finland is a sporty country.’ We tried to decide what a fact is, and someone suggested you could prove it, so that’s our definition for the moment. We read through the other large sheets in the same way, though there were far fewer sentences on them.
The lesson ended here and their homework was to read through the short text about Northern Ireland in their coursebooks, check unknown words, see what facts and opinions they could find, and do a crossword from their workbooks.

My reflections after the lesson.
My thinking aims were partially achieved, as they began to look at the parameters of the topic and were forced to think about exactly what some of the parameters mean – for example, what the differences are between facts and opinions. In a further lesson the learners will have to decide which would be the important parameters to pursue to describe a country in a particular situation. I should have given them a clearer, more particular context already for why they were writing the sentences, although this did work for my purposes.(I guess it could have been for writing a text similar to the one about Ireland.) My subject aims were fairly well met as the learners were able to write sentences and learned and practised new words as we went along. Some of the weaker pupils were also very interested and wanted to be able to express themselves in English. However, the content of what they wrote was very limited, partly because of their age, lack of experience and the fact that most of them haven’t travelled much. They are not particularly aware of what things are different about Finland from other countries – this could be a very fruitful topic with plenty of scope for doing more work, but we’ll probably keep returning to their descriptions later to add more. Next lesson we’ll reflect on the parameters and begin to build up the ENV model and relate it to the text on Ireland.
I’m trying hard not to feel stressed by the time factor and to go with the flow here. I guess I have to stick to my original aims, but be flexible as things come up and not try to go off in too many directions at once. I’m also realising how hard it is to make suitable challenges to get them to think for themselves and am probably still spoon-feeding them too much. This is also forcing me to think how to organise their work. When they write their own description of ‘How to write about a country’ it should be in a separate folder so  that we can refer to it next year too. I’ll have to think about this.


# Alexander Sokol 2011-03-08 12:52
Susan, am always fascinated by your detailed descriptions - it feels as if I am present at the lesson. It's good that the pupils seem to be enjoying and you feel that the subject aims are achieved. Speaking of thinking, I'd have probably tried to introduce the ENV when they got stuck trying to group the description. It feels like it was a good context for this as they couldn't do something for which the ENV is generally useful. What do you think?

Another thing that might have made the task easier for them is starting from less abstract parameters. For example, people, climate, language, etc. In fact, they can find the parameters when reading a text about another country, eg Northern Ireland.

I agree with you that organisation of their notes / materials is always an issue. This is the reason why I always asked my pupils to have a portfolio rather than a notebook. It's more dynamic and you can always ask them to re-arrange things. Are you actually free to work with portfolios rather than notebooks?
# Susan Granlund 2011-03-08 18:04
Thanks for your comment! I agree about introducing the ENV when they're stuck. I actually did this differently with another group and I'll maybe just write what I did as a separate post.I'm working up to the parameters you suggested, but I think I'm maybe making it too difficult (and time-consuming) for them. In parallel with this we're looking at how to write dates in English, so I thought they could write their own instructions for doing that first, so that they've written fairly simple instructions for themselves once already.
At the moment they have notebooks, but I was thinking of ordering folders of some kind for next year.
# Larisa Sardiko 2011-03-10 22:03
Susan, I found your detailed description very interesting and helpful for me in terms of procedures. Thanks a lot!
And I also have to think about getting my students to organise their notes into portfolio.
# Kirsi Urmson 2011-03-13 15:39
Good task Susan. The issue about time is always there when we try to use a book. There are far too many chapters in a book!
# Susan Granlund 2011-03-13 20:53
Thanks for your comments, Larisa and Kirsi! I hope I can make a bit more progress this coming week. This kind of work is definitely good, but I'm slow at it. You're right, Kirsi, no matter what method we use, the books are over-ambitious.
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