Short Lessons

Tips for short lessons on various literacy skills

Here we will provide a lot of quick examples of how individual “cognitive tools” can lead to engaging literacy lessons. We will organize them roughly in terms of their suitability for different age ranges, from early years to adults (though occasionally the same lesson might be shaped for different age groups, in which case it will be indicated twice, and in some cases even three times). Many of these are taken from the quick examples on the individual cognitive tools pages, but we will add more new ones as time goes on, so please come back for additional ideas. Also, maybe you can help others by sending in your suggestions of cognitive tools that have proven useful to you in your own literacy teaching, along with an example or two of short lessons using the tool. (No reward apart from our grateful acknowledgement and the further gratitude of your peers.)

For young children and pre-readers

Combining letters to make new phonemes by using stories

Another option is to make letters or phonemes become the characters in a simple story. Many first grade children experience difficulty with phonemic awareness, unable to remember that certain letters, when paired together, make a different sound. The teacher could create a story to explain such anomalies. One might tell a story like the following to explain the “th” sound:

The Letters T and H don’t get along very well. One day their teacher caught the letter T sticking its tongue out at the letter H. She tried to get them to talk out their problems, but whenever they were together, one or the other was sticking his tongue out. All she could hear T saying was /th/ (as in “this”). Even H, who was usually rather quiet, started sticking his tongue out at T and said /th/ (as in “thanks”). To this day, when ever T and H are together, they stick their tongues out at each other and behave very improperly––making sounds that sound nothing like the /t/ and /h/ sound they are supposed to make.

After the story the children could be asked to create an image in their mind (and possibly also on paper) of the two letters together sticking their tongues out between their teeth.

We are suggesting the children understand that “t” and “h” always misbehave when they are together. They are quite unable to solve their problems. They behave well only when they are alone. Mind you, we don’t want the children to think they need to stick their tongues right out of their mouth every time they see the letters “th”. They just put it between their teeth and lip – just enough to make sure that the other letter can see it.

Contributed by Tannis Calder

Using students’ own key-images

Some years ago, Sylvia Ashton-Warner developed educational ideas for children that built on the idea that each child had her or his own particular concerns at any one time, and one could find “key words” that would reflect these concerns (1972). She was very successful in encouraging learning, and particularly literacy-based activities, by building them around the students’ key words. Likewise, we can draw on images that are important for students—powerful images from their own experience, or of loved relations, or important events, or from stories they have heard about princesses and kings, magic lands, monsters, witches, or whatever.

Nearly always, vividly recalled images are connected with emotions. Throughout the first few weeks of school, teachers should find a few minutes to spend with each student, one-on-one, and discuss images that are particularly powerful for them. The teacher and student might identify key words that help capture the images to some degree. These words can then be written down for the student as their special words that evoke their special images.
Further work on literacy skills might be based on those key words as long as they remain powerful for the student, elaborating them by searching for synonyms, adding prefixes and suffixes that add to their flexibility in usage, ordering them alphabetically, and so on. Children’s own keywords, derived from their own powerful images, provide a motivational factor and meaning often absent in contextless exercises. Many of our teachers began the first writing exercises by drawing on these engaging images and their “keywords”.

Treasure hunting

While it takes a little while to prepare, a typical Treasure Hunt activity can both provide a lot of fun and teach various literacy skills. The fun and learning easily reward the relatively brief time preparing a hunt requires. It works best if the teacher can arrange beforehand to have access to parts of the school no-one else will be using at the time planned for the hunt, so the library and gym or wherever can be part of the territory in which the hunt is doosto take place, and also, in appropriate conditions, the outside. The hunt is for an unspecified treasure, but can be anything the teacher thinks is suitable—a book, candies, candies and book, sticker, or whatever the teacher knows will be prized by the students. The “treasure” need not be anything very substantial because most of the fun is in the hunt. The teacher needs to prepare a set of clues on slips of paper that will be hidden around the school. The clues need to be written in a form that will challenge but not be too advanced for the partaking students. For very young children a word and picture might be sufficient. The class might be broken into small groups of four and each group will be given the first clue that will lead them, when they decipher it towards the second, which will lead them to the third. It is often best to have the final clue that leads to the treasure bringing them back to the classroom they started from. Well done, a treasure hunt can keep the students busy deciphering text and clues for quite some time. Occasionally, one or other group might need a little help. The children can then be given the chance in their groups to devise their own treasure hunts that the other children in the class can go on.

For early readers

Teaching about suffixes using stories

Let’s say you are introducing the suffixes that indicate past tense. How can you fit this task into a story form? Here are two simple ways:

1. The teacher may compose a short story using verbs that, when in the past tense, take an “ed.”  She may then introduce Mr. Beentheredonethat – known to his friends as “Ed.”  Ed is a clingy fellow.  He is not a leader but a definite follower who really changes the lives of those he hooks onto.  Ed is very influential.  When Ed hangs out with his active buddies WALK, LAUGH, or PLAY, for example, he makes them old news.  Students could then identify more of Ed’s “buddies” that he can, and does, make “old news” (ski, jump, look…).  The lesson (and story) would be expanded to say Ed doesn’t like to be outdone by any other “e” and so if there is already an “e” at the end of the word he attaches onto he bumps it off and takes over (e.g. hike – hiked).

2. Words that change from “i” to “a” in the past tense such as sing/ring/swim may be put into a story in which the “i” can be seen as someone in action, on her feet and energetically doing something.  Her friends call her “i” but her full name is IN PROGRESS.   When “a” comes along (full name is AFTER), however, we see that the event is over and “i” is now exhausted and is slumped over and sitting down, changed into “a” (as in sang, rang, swam).

Distinguishing homophones using images from words

Distinguishing homophones using images from words

How can images help us teach students to distinguish homophones, like “to,” “two,” and “too,” and learn to spell each correctly? In this case we can invent three friends, whose names are To, Two, and Too. We can invent a game in which each of the friends’ personalities is somehow captured by their name. The children can be engaged in thinking about how the different forms of the words might capture their personalities.

INTRODUCING “TOO”
Too is clearly very big, because he eats “too” much, he is also “too” tall, is clearly hyperactive, and always going beyond what is sensible. Unlike everyone else in his group, even when he includes the letter “o” in his name, he has to include two “o”s. (Deriving a personality from a name may seem a little bizarre, but it is a task which relies on an energetic use of metaphor and children can usually do this more easily than adults. Try this task with young students; you’ll likely be surprised!)

INTRODUCING “TWO”

two o oo oTwo obviously does everything in pairs when she can—she has two cell-phones, two bikes, and is obviously over careful, in case she loses one thing she always has a backup. It is clear from the spelling of her name that she really wishes she were a twin, as she’s managed to put a “w” in her name, which is half way to “twin,” even though there is nothing in her name that the “w” sounds like.

INTRODUCING “TO”
To is constantly on her way elsewhere, or pointing to different things and places. She’s clearly never satisfied with where she is or what she’s got: a bit of a complainer. She’s in so much of a hurry that, unlike the other two, she’s dropped the third letter from her name, and is the slimmest from all her hurrying.

Students can be encouraged to imagine characters based on the meaning of the word, in such a way that they will likely remember them easily thereafter. They might makes sketches of Too, Two, and To that reflect their characteristics.

Once the class has developed three distinct characters who capture something about the differences between “To,” “Two,” and “Too,” the teacher can begin to explore these differences in composing, perhaps with the students, a story in which all three figure. The trick would be to try to build into the story the deeper understanding of language and literacy that can come from grasping how the same sound can perform three different linguistic roles, depending on context, and how literacy enables the eye to see immediately which of the three is intended. Part of the plot could involve the three characters’ irritation at constantly being confused, even though they think the differences among them are obvious if people only knew them.

Flexibility through humor

One can introduce simple reading tasks as puzzles whose interpretation reveals the humor.  Take this sign that was next to a rail to which one might hitch an animal:

TOTI
EMUL
ESTO

Even the most literate might have some difficulty with this, and it can be used in the story of the history of literacy.  It illustrates how writing commonly appeared soon after the invention of the alphabet and before the introduction of that basic item of punctuation—the space between words.  Once you see it as “To tie mules to,” you can appreciate the humor of how the simple meaning was so easily disguised.

Using humourous mystery messages

One common use of humour to increase language awareness involves writing a “mystery message” on the chalkboard each morning before children come to school. The task for the children is to fill in missing letters, words, or punctuation. The following sentence was a huge success with some classes:

“What’s green and yellow and goes in a bun? A hot _ _og.”
The teacher had to keep pointing out that two letters were missing, till someone came up with the ‘f’ and ‘r’.

One of the more successful mystery messages followed a discussion with an adult class of the “Matrix” movies. The message read:

“_no_, I am ___ the chosen one.”
It took some time for the students to recognize the need for a ‘K’ and ‘w’, and add the full word ‘not’.

Teaching about metaphors using metaphors

Try introducing a “metaphor of the week” competition. Begin by simply describing what a metaphor is, and give some examples. The rest is going to be easier than you imagine. Set up a blank sheet of paper on a wall, or use a white board with markers handy, and invite students to either write on the board, or have someone write on the board for them, a good metaphor they heard someone use, or one they invented themselves. Within a few weeks, you will likely have to begin using a larger sheet of paper, as the students’ examples quickly increase in number and cleverness. Every Friday afternoon take a vote on the best metaphor from the paper or the board. You will find quite quickly that the students all quickly understand what a metaphor is, and become enthusiastic in listening for unusual and surprising ones—the kinds that win the prize (and you can offer what you like, but the pleasure of winning will prove quite adequate.) You can have a special “Metaphor of the Month” competition also, in which each weeks top three are pitted against each other. Then, you may keep the winners on sticky notes, or pinned on printed strips, waiting for the concluding “Metaphor of the Year” event—for which an Oscar or something similar might be awarded. You will find hat all the children learn what a metaphor is; they all become conscious of other people’s uses of metaphor, and their own; they gain the benefits of increasing “metalinguistic awareness” and consequent increased flexibility in language use; they will also find it fun.

Treasure hunting

doosWhile it takes a little while to prepare, a typical Treasure Hunt activity can both provide a lot of fun and teach various literacy skills. The fun and learning easily reward the relatively brief time preparing a hunt requires. It works best if the teacher can arrange beforehand to have access to parts of the school no-one else will be using at the time planned for the hunt, so the library and gym or wherever can be part of the territory in which the hunt is to take place, and also, in appropriate conditions, the outside. The hunt is for an unspecified treasure, but can be anything the teacher thinks is suitable—a book, candies, candies and book, sticker, or whatever the teacher knows will be prized by the students. The “treasure” need not be anything very substantial because most of the fun is in the hunt. The teacher needs to prepare a set of clues on slips of paper that will be hidden around the school. The clues need to be written in a form that will challenge but not be too advanced for the partaking students. For very young children a word and picture might be sufficient. The class might be broken into small groups of four and each group will be given the first clue that will lead them, when they decipher it towards the second, which will lead them to the third. It is often best to have the final clue that leads to the treasure bringing them back to the classroom they started from. Well done, a treasure hunt can keep the students busy deciphering text and clues for quite some time. Occasionally, one or other group might need a little help. The children can then be given the chance in their groups to devise their own treasure hunts that the other children in the class can go on.

For developing readers

Words hiding within words, exposed by using stories

You want to draw students’ attention to detailed word forms, so you decide to design a class on recognizing words within words (e.g. “at” in “cat” or “ate” in “plate”). How can you fit this task into a story form? The teacher may draw students’ attention to detailed word forms containing the word “ear” by having a game of “hide and seek” first with the ear and then the eye.  He may read the students a short text orally and ask where “ear” is hiding.  Then the students may read the text and identify where “ear” is hiding.  Here is a possible text:  “Once upon a time there was a bear named Bob who was absolutely fearless.  No fear at all.  This dear bear participated in skate boarding competitions every year that were near his home and as well as clear across the country.  Did you hear what happened to him last year?  He took a fall that caused him to shed a tear. Thankfully he had on all his gear.  So now we know Bob has one fear:  Falling on his rear.”  Students could be encouraged to make up their own “hide and seek” stories with other detailed words (“ink” – stink/link/pink/rink/fink/wink…)

Exploring the simple structure of stories using binary opposites

The teacher might use the attraction of oppositions in exploring just about any fairy tale with children. Take Goldilocks and the Three Bears. After telling the story and talking about it relatively freely, following children’s interests and questions or comments, the teacher might ask the children what opposites can they think of in the story. The children might recall, with or without a bit of prompting, the porridge being “too hot” and “too cold”, and the chairs and beds being “too soft” or “too hard”. The porridge and chair and bed that are “just right” are baby bear’s each time, of course. The teacher might ask can the children see opposites in the characters. After some discussion, the boldness of the (human) child and the considerateness of the well-behaved (animal) child are set in contrast. Goldilocks’ disregard for others and the bear parents’ concern for their child are also contrasted. Those observations may be enough for an interesting discussion of what is going on in the story—though the teacher could push further by picking up on the oddity of the nature/culture division, in which the natural animals are seen to be innocent and the human child is guilty, though unpunished. (The Golilocks version we tell today comes from the later nineteenth-century. In earlier versions the human interloper is seen to be punished.)

Exploring opposites, using binary opposites

When students have familiarity with a number of binary opposites, teachers can call attention to them to help make sense of stories and concepts. Teachers commonly teach binary opposites by providing students with two lists of words, and asking them to draw a line linking the opposites.  So the lists might look like this:

good            in
big               poor
brave            bad
high             cowardly
out               little
rich              low

But we can then introduce more fundamental oppositions, such as the ten that Pythagoras considered fundamental to the structure of the world: limited/unlimited, odd/even, unity/multiplicity, right/left, masculine/feminine, still/motion, straight/curved, light/dark, good/bad, square/rectangle.  The teacher could write up the initial terms in each set of opposition and ask the students to guess the opposites.  Then the students might be asked to generate similar very basic oppositions that they have observed, like rich/poor, happy/sad, wet/dry.

Teaching about metaphors by mixing them

One of the funnier uses of language occurs when people mix metaphors in the one sentence. That is, they jump from one metaphor to another wholly inconsistent one.  For example: “He stepped up to the plate and grabbed the bull by the horns.” A metaphor derived from baseball becomes confused with something a cowboy might do. “That wet blanket is a loose cannon”; “Strike while the iron is in the fire”; or (said by a school administrator whose budget was slashed) “Now we can just kiss that program right down the drain.” What activity could you design so that students could consciously construct mixed metaphors, and have some fun in the process.

Well, try getting the students into small groups, in which they role-play different scenarios in which they would use language specific to the context (e.g. a baseball game (home run, striking out, sliding to base.), birthday party (blowing out candles, opening presents, playing games), watching a movie (exciting plot, frightening scene, magical worlds). They would select 3-5 expressions that are most “typical” of the context.  They would then combine their small groups to create skits in which the messages would be combined to create bizarre activities to be played out:  “In a frightening scene I blew out my candles and totally struck out!”  “My favorite present was a magical home run!”  Likely the children will do better than these examples!

Playing with rhyme and rhythm

Of universal appeal are nursery rhymes, such as the Mother Goose collections. They give delight, they introduce vocabulary, the make language “visible,” they introduce the pleasure of patterned speech, they introduce a sense of history and different times, places, and conventions, and they hint at deeper meanings below their surfaces, and so introduce children to poetry and prepare them for more sophisticated poems.

Ring a ring o’ roses,
A pocketful of posies.
Tisha! Tisha!
We all fall down.

There’s a simple rhyme, cheerfully played out by generations of children, that carries in it the folk memory of the Black Death of 700 years ago. And there is poignancy in those odd rhymes, like: “There was an old woman / Lived under the hill;/ And if she’s not gone, / She lives there still.” And what’s going on in “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, / Jack jump over the candlestick”? Or in: “Old Mother Goose, when she wanted to wander, / Would ride through the air on a very fine gander”? And “Here am I, little jumping Joan, / When nobody’s with me I’m always alone.” And what history is wrapped in: “Lucy Locket lost her pocket, / Kitty Fisher found it; / Nothing in it, nothing in it, / But the binding round it”? And who were Lucy and Kitty? Well, from some accounts, better not to ask. And what about “the little boy who lives down the lane,” or, in some versions, “who cries down the lane” who is not going to get Baa Baa Black Sheep’s wool? There he sits since our childhood, wool-less still, and for reasons we don’t know. Such questions are not explicit in the child’s mind, of course, but they are hidden echoes and stimuli to thought that come along with the rhymes, and may detonate only years later.

Children’s own abilities to generate rhymes and rhythms can be developed on the back of nursery rhymes they already have learned. A simple activity might involve the teacher changing the first line of a known nursery rhyme and asking the children to suggest a new second line, such as this one that Ms. Eaton’s class produced:

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a chair.
Humpty-Dumpty had a great scare.
All the king’s horses,
And all the king’s cows,
Couldn’t get Humpty to come out of the house.
(In this case she also switched the last word of the fourth line.)
She then had the children work in groups and gave each group a varied first line to work with, and one of the groups came up with:
Moo, moo, black cow,
Have you any milk,
Yes, sir, yes sir,
Carried home in silk.

Another group produced “One, Two, / Buckle my belt; / Three, four, / How tight it felt.” Another set had “One, two, / Buckle my lip;/ Three, four, / Can’t eat a chip.” Then there was: “Jack be nimble, Jack be strong, / Jack go hit the dinner gong.” Another: “Jack be nimble, Jack be bold, / Jack never did what he was told.” “Jack be nimble, Jack be clever, / Jack pull down the toilet lever.” Oh well—the children produced many more and had a good time doing it.

Enlivening plural recognition with jokes

Perhaps too often, basic word features are taught mechanically, but it requires only a little thought to recast those activities into humorous mini-stories.  Instead of simply giving the learners a list of singular words and asking them to write the plural forms, for example, you can make a list of singulars and wrote them into a brief story.  The stories you create do not need to be riveting, knuckle-whitening thrillers, but can be quite simple accounts of people engaged in everyday activities.  Obviously, the more entertaining you can make them the better, and it works better if you can form them into jokes.  The students can then be asked to rewrite a particular simple story using plurals.  In this case the list of singular words that are to be transformed into plurals included:

woman,   stone,   my,   he,   I,   boy,   pencil,   brother,   paper,   friend,   plant

Instead of putting the words in a column, with a blank space in which to write the plural, as is common, you can write a simple story in which you underline the words you want the students to write in the plural, asking them to write out the story again with plurals in place of the underlined singulars.

“A woman went down to the river to get some water for a plant that looked too dry.  A boy sat on a stone with a pencil and paperThe woman asked the boy what he was doing.  “I am writing to my brother,” the boy said.  “But you can’t write,” the woman replied.  “That’s all right,” said the boy.  “My brother can’t read.”

Fun with punctuation

When doing exercises on punctuation, the teacher might help students understand the effects of certain forms of punctuation by giving them examples of sentences whose meaning changes radically (and funnily) depending on the punctuation used.  “Private!  No swimming allowed!” means something quite different when punctuated as “Private?  No.  Swimming allowed.”  Similarly “I’m sorry you can’t come with us,” means something different from “I’m sorry.  You can’t come with us.”  Or “The butler stood at the door and called the guests’ names” is radically changed, by a tiny difference of punctuation, to “The butler stood at the door and called the guests names.”

Constructing jokes

And you can also institute a “joke of the week/joke of the month” on the model described on the Metaphor page.

Teaching about metaphors using metaphors

Try introducing a “metaphor of the week” competition. Begin by simply describing what a metaphor is, and give some examples. The rest is going to be easier than you imagine. Set up a blank sheet of paper on a wall, or use a white board with markers handy, and invite students to either write on the board, or have someone write on the board for them, a good metaphor they heard someone use, or one they invented themselves. Within a few weeks, you will likely have to begin using a larger sheet of paper, as the students’ examples quickly increase in number and cleverness. Every Friday afternoon take a vote on the best metaphor from the paper or the board. You will find quite quickly that the students all quickly understand what a metaphor is, and become enthusiastic in listening for unusual and surprising ones—the kinds that win the prize (and you can offer what you like, but the pleasure of winning will prove quite adequate.) You can have a special “Metaphor of the Month” competition also, in which each weeks top three are pitted against each other. Then, you may keep the winners on sticky notes, or pinned on printed strips, waiting for the concluding “Metaphor of the Year” event—for which an Oscar or something similar might be awarded. You will find hat all the children learn what a metaphor is; they all become conscious of other people’s uses of metaphor, and their own; they gain the benefits of increasing “metalinguistic awareness” and consequent increased flexibility in language use; they will also find it fun.

Treasure hunting

While it takes a little while to prepare, a typical Treasure Hunt activity can both provide a lot of fun and teach various literacy skills. The fun and learning easily reward the relatively brief time preparing a hunt requires. It works best if the teacher can arrange beforehand to have access to parts of the school no-one else will be using at the time planned for the hunt, so the library and gym or wherever can be part of the territory in which the hunt is to take place, and also, in appropriate conditions, the outside. The hunt is for an unspecified treasure, but can be anything the teacher thinks is suitable—a book, candies, candies and book, sticker, or whatever the teacher knows will be prized by the students. The “treasure” need not be anything very substantial because most of the fun is in the hunt. The teacher needs to prepare a set of clues on slips of paper that will be hidden around the school. The clues need to be written in a form that will challenge but not be too advanced for the partaking students. For very young children a word and picture might be sufficient. The class might be broken into small groups of four and each group will be given the first clue that will lead them, when they decipher it towards the second, which will lead them to the third. It is often best to have the final clue that leads to the treasure bringing them back to the classroom they started from. Well done, a treasure hunt can keep the students busy deciphering text and clues for quite some time. Occasionally, one or other group might need a little help. The children can then be given the chance in their groups to devise their own treasure hunts that the other children in the class can go on.

Dramatic play

Dramatic play is one of the commoner forms in which literacy activities can be used to engage students, and adults. Take a story all the students know—like Three Little Pigs, Golilocks, or Cinderella, or another story suitable in the class is of older students, and say you want to make a film of the story—which any teacher can easily do with an iPhone or a movie camera. But preparing the film is where most of the literacy skills are engaged. Parts will need to be allotted for the movie, and also roles in designing the set and the filming schedule and so on. It will be easily possible to find enough roles for all the students in the class. In groups, students can compose and write the dialogue, others can plan the shooting schedule, using a simple sequence of events set of boxes to block the action. One might in addition, or alternatively, plan and play a news report of the events of the story, as it might be presented on TV, including shots from the movie.

Playing at a version of reality

An engaging form of dramatic play is to design in a corner of the classroom a version of an institution the students will be familiar with. It could be a garage, a post-office, a restaurant, or whatever. The preparation by the teacher might include some very general items that indicate the function of the place. If we choose a restaurant, then maybe a small table or two with cloths or paper covering and some simple knives, forks and spoons laid out. The children can be engaged to be the waiters, cooks, servers, and customers. Each of them will be involved in some literacy activities—like writing menus, reading menus, reading orders for the food, writing the orders, and so on. For very young children these activities can take a very simple form, in which the menus might be composed of squiggles with an attempt as a sketch of the food. The composition of the menu might be done in public, so that the diners will know what the squiggles mean as they “read” them, and the waiters will take related squiggles down on their pads. Older students can, of course, manage something closer to the actual restaurant’s reliance of forms of literacy for many of its main activities.  Children expand their knowledge of the world outside by engaging in such play and learning the normal conventions of the institution, such as a restaurant, and also they learn about literacy, and its importance for all kinds of practical purposes at the same time.

Learning about codes

A simple game is to divide the class into groups and play spies and codes. This works best after the teacher will have given a lesson on various codes and their “keys.” The class can be broken into groups of three or four and the teacher tells them the secret they are to keep hidden. (Depending on the teacher’s wishes, this can be a simple message about the school, about a celebrity, or about an historical character, or the teacher might set up a scenario and the coded message will be a crucial piece of information in solving a dilemma or problem.) The job of each group then is to put their secret into a code so that even if a spy captures their coded message the “enemy” will not be able to work out its meaning. One of the students from another group then gets to “steal” the secret code of one of the other groups, till each group has someone else’s message. Each group then has the job of decoding the other group’s message. (You can even find a series of codes and their clues and solutions on many internet sites, and even the CIA website has a neat set.

For adult readers

Exploring odd compound terms using binary opposites

For a different kind of example, older students in a literacy class might enjoy exploring how many opposites they can find stuck together in common terms, and reflect on how they work.What do we mean by old news, civil war, inside out, voice mail, industrial park, half naked, loose tights and tight slacks, criminal justice? One might give them the task of keeping a list of such terms.This helps the students notice language in a new way, and they can be encouraged to consider the meanings behind terms they may hear, like non-working mothers, or military intelligence, or peace offensive and war games, or random order, etc.

Enlivening plural recognition with jokes

Perhaps too often, basic word features are taught mechanically, but it requires only a little thought to recast those activities into humorous mini-stories.  Instead of simply giving the learners a list of singular words and asking them to write the plural forms, for example, you can make a list of singulars and wrote them into a brief story.  The stories you create do not need to be riveting, knuckle-whitening thrillers, but can be quite simple accounts of people engaged in everyday activities.  Obviously, the more entertaining you can make them the better, and it works better if you can form them into jokes.  The students can then be asked to rewrite a particular simple story using plurals.  In this case the list of singular words that are to be transformed into plurals included:

woman,   stone,   my,   he,   I,   boy,   pencil,   brother,   paper,   friend,   plant

Instead of putting the words in a column, with a blank space in which to write the plural, as is common, you can write a simple story in which you underline the words you want the students to write in the plural, asking them to write out the story again with plurals in place of the underlined singulars.

“A woman went down to the river to get some water for a plant that looked too dry.  A boy sat on a stone with a pencil and paperThe woman asked the boy what he was doing.  “I am writing to my brother,” the boy said.  “But you can’t write,” the woman replied.  “That’s all right,” said the boy.  “My brother can’t read.”

Fun with punctuation

When doing exercises on punctuation, the teacher might help students understand the effects of certain forms of punctuation by giving them examples of sentences whose meaning changes radically (and funnily) depending on the punctuation used.  “Private!  No swimming allowed!” means something quite different when punctuated as “Private?  No.  Swimming allowed.”  Similarly “I’m sorry you can’t come with us,” means something different from “I’m sorry.  You can’t come with us.”  Or “The butler stood at the door and called the guests’ names” is radically changed, by a tiny difference of punctuation, to “The butler stood at the door and called the guests names.”

Teaching about metaphors by mixing them

One of the funnier uses of language occurs when people mix metaphors in the one sentence. That is, they jump from one metaphor to another wholly inconsistent one.  For example: “He stepped up to the plate and grabbed the bull by the horns.” A metaphor derived from baseball becomes confused with something a cowboy might do. “That wet blanket is a loose cannon”; “Strike while the iron is in the fire”; or (said by a school administrator whose budget was slashed) “Now we can just kiss that program right down the drain.” What activity could you design so that students could consciously construct mixed metaphors, and have some fun in the process.

Well, try getting the students into small groups, in which they role-play different scenarios in which they would use language specific to the context (e.g. a baseball game (home run, striking out, sliding to base.), birthday party (blowing out candles, opening presents, playing games), watching a movie (exciting plot, frightening scene, magical worlds). They would select 3-5 expressions that are most “typical” of the context.  They would then combine their small groups to create skits in which the messages would be combined to create bizarre activities to be played out:  “In a frightening scene I blew out my candles and totally struck out!”  “My favorite present was a magical home run!”  Likely the children will do better than these examples!

Flexibility through humor

One can introduce simple reading tasks as puzzles whose interpretation reveals the humor.  Take this sign that was next to a rail to which one might hitch an animal:

TOTI
EMUL
ESTO

Even the most literate might have some difficulty with this, and it can be used in the story of the history of literacy.  It illustrates how writing commonly appeared soon after the invention of the alphabet and before the introduction of that basic item of punctuation—the space between words.  Once you see it as “To tie mules to,” you can appreciate the humor of how the simple meaning was so easily disguised.

Constructing jokes

And you can also institute a “joke of the week/joke of the month” on the model described on the Metaphor page.

Using humourous mystery messages

One common use of humour to increase language awareness involves writing a “mystery message” on the chalkboard each morning before children come to school. The task for the children is to fill in missing letters, words, or punctuation. The following sentence was a huge success with some classes:
“What’s green and yellow and goes in a bun? A hot _ _og.”
The teacher had to keep pointing out that two letters were missing, till someone came up with the ‘f’ and ‘r’.
One of the more successful mystery messages followed a discussion with an adult class of the “Matrix” movies. The message read:
“_no_, I am ___ the chosen one.”
It took some time for the students to recognize the need for a ‘K’ and ‘w’, and add the full word ‘not’.

Teaching about metaphors using metaphors

Try introducing a “metaphor of the week” competition. Begin by simply describing what a metaphor is, and give some examples. The rest is going to be easier than you imagine. Set up a blank sheet of paper on a wall, or use a white board with markers handy, and invite students to either write on the board, or have someone write on the board for them, a good metaphor they heard someone use, or one they invented themselves. Within a few weeks, you will likely have to begin using a larger sheet of paper, as the students’ examples quickly increase in number and cleverness. Every Friday afternoon take a vote on the best metaphor from the paper or the board. You will find quite quickly that the students all quickly understand what a metaphor is, and become enthusiastic in listening for unusual and surprising ones—the kinds that win the prize (and you can offer what you like, but the pleasure of winning will prove quite adequate.) You can have a special “Metaphor of the Month” competition also, in which each weeks top three are pitted against each other. Then, you may keep the winners on sticky notes, or pinned on printed strips, waiting for the concluding “Metaphor of the Year” event—for which an Oscar or something similar might be awarded. You will find hat all the children learn what a metaphor is; they all become conscious of other people’s uses of metaphor, and their own; they gain the benefits of increasing “metalinguistic awareness” and consequent increased flexibility in language use; they will also find it fun.

Dramatic play

Dramatic play is one of the commoner forms in which literacy activities can be used to engage students, and adults. Take aplay-4 story all the students know—like Three Little Pigs, Golilocks, or Cinderella, or another story suitable in the class is of older students, and say you want to make a film of the story—which any teacher can easily do with an iPhone or a movie camera. But preparing the film is where most of the literacy skills are engaged. Parts will need to be allotted for the movie, and also roles in designing the set and the filming schedule and so on. It will be easily possible to find enough roles for all the students in the class. In groups, students can compose and write the dialogue, others can plan the shooting schedule, using a simple sequence of events set of boxes to block the action. One might in addition, or alternatively, plan and play a news report of the events of the story, as it might be presented on TV, including shots from the movie.

Playing at a version of reality

An engaging form of dramatic play is to design in a corner of the classroom a version of an institution the students will be familiar with. It could be a garage, a post-office, a restaurant, or whatever. The preparation by the teacher might include some very general items that indicate the function of the place. If we choose a restaurant, then maybe a small table or two with cloths or paper covering and some simple knives, forks and spoons laid out. The children can be engaged to be the waiters, cooks, servers, and customers. Each of them will be involved in some literacy activities—like writing menus, reading menus, reading orders for the food, writing the orders, and so on. For very young children these activities can take a very simple form, in which the menus might be composed of squiggles with an attempt as a sketch of the food. The composition of the menu might be done in public, so that the diners will know what the squiggles mean as they “read” them, and the waiters will take related squiggles down on their pads. Older students can, of course, manage something closer to the actual restaurant’s reliance of forms of literacy for many of its main activities. Children expand their knowledge of the world outside by engaging in such play and learning the normal conventions of the institution, such as a restaurant, and also they learn about literacy, and its importance for all kinds of practical purposes at the same time.

Learning about codes

A simple game is to divide the class into groups and play spies and codes. This works best after the teacher will have given a lesson on various codes and their “keys.” The class can be broken into groups of three or four and the teacher tells them the secret they are to keep hidden. (Depending on the teacher’s wishes, this can be a simple message about the school, about a celebrity, or about an historical character, or the teacher might set up a scenario and the coded message will be a crucial piece of information in solving a dilemma or problem.) The job of each group then is to put their secret into a code so that even if a spy captures their coded message the “enemy” will not be able to work out its meaning. One of the students from another group then gets to “steal” the secret code of one of the other groups, till each group has someone else’s message. Each group then has the job of decoding the other group’s message. (You can even find a series of codes and their clues and solutions on many internet sites, and even the CIA website has a neat set.